Weekly varia no. 8, 01/07/23

I conceive of these introductions as a mini-essay covering something that happened in the week or some issue that I have been mulling over for the previous few days. For this week, I think a peek behind the curtain is in order.

These posts, which I started about two months ago, serve several functions. They force me to read a little more widely than I otherwise would do, while supplying a recommended reading list, allowing me to editorialize a little bit, and providing the flair of what I’m reading and listening to in a given week. I start compiling potential articles for the following week almost as soon as the previous one goes up on Saturday, putting them in a new draft. My goal is to find one thing to include each day, but, in reality, these posts reflect what I read that week. Sometimes that means more blog posts, sometimes more articles. Sometimes I get busy. I also don’t like just including the story du jour, especially when it is still unfolding.

And, sometimes, all of these things happen at once.

I am writing this introduction on Friday evening from a hotel room in New Orleans where several things are happening at once:

  1. Members of the House of Representatives are voting for the fourteenth time on who will be Speaker of the House, making this the fifth or sixth longest process in US History, and the longest since before the US Civil War (he did not win on this ballot, either).
  2. The contestants of the Miss Universe Pageant are wandering around the hotel in gowns and sashes, filming various things.
  3. The AIA-SCS annual meeting is taking place (I’m unwinding in my room rather than attending receptions).

To say that this week has been distracting is an understatement. I have written about this conference in the past, and will do so again next week as part of getting back to business as usual if I find that I have something worth saying once I’ve had a chance to collect my thoughts.

This week’s varia:

  • Pro Publica has a new report on professors muzzling their courses or scrambling to change the class descriptions (which often are designed with the intention of attracting students) in the wake of DeSantis’ new rules in Florida. These laws are designed to curtail academic speech and impede education. In an entirely unsurprising detail, tenured faculty in some schools are pushing the risky classes off on contingent faculty. I get that this is a risky political climate, but I have a hard time fighting for the position of tenured faculty who treat contingent folks as expendable.
  • Jonathan Wilson has a post that asks whether higher education administrators actually understand education. He closes with a relatable sentiment: “I’m just tired of suspecting that U.S. higher education’s overall future is in the care of people who don’t even know what a college education is, let alone have any inclination to make the case for it before the American public.”
  • Ellie Mackin-Roberts has an excellent piece on pedagogical uses for ChatGPT that I’m just now getting to. I’m more likely to use the “correct an AI-generated essay” as an in-class exercise than as an assignment, but it is the one in which I see the brightest potential.
  • Vox has a good breakdown of why the extreme rainfall in California will not alleviate the water crisis after years of megadrought. The article notes that this rain will also disrupt flood-control infrastructure and points out that if this is a new normal, California will need to retool systems to capture this water rather than relying on the decreased snowpack.
  • From December in the Washington Post, a profile about the chaos in Somalia caused by President Trump pulling US troops from the country. I’m a little cautious of these stories given the reporting on similar operations from Afghanistan, but a line about comments from Danab (Somali special forces) that, on top of expertise, a US presence insulates them from political leaders who might turn them against civilian protesters and political opponents points to the complexity of the issue.
  • The military build-up and buffer zone between India and China in the Himalayas is disrupting traditional herding grounds and interfering with the trade in Cashmere (Washington Post).
  • NPR has an examination of Guru Jagat, a popular yoga instructor who her followers described as “real” and “grounded.” Then she became a believer in Q-Anon during the pandemic. The article connects the spiritual teachings of yoga to the way in which “truth” becomes revealed in these conspiracies.
  • Matt Gaetz apparently despises Kevin McCarthy, in no small part because he feels that McCarthy did not adequately stand up for him amid the sex-trafficking probe, even though McCarthy did not strip him of his committee appointments.
  • Dylan Scott at Vox reflects on the obsession with American football in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s injury on Monday. His obvious conclusion is that the football industrial complex works hard to downplay the undeniable violence in the game and that more catastrophic injuries and even deaths will occur so long as people keep watching. You could take the story back even further. In my US history survey, we spend a little time talking about how they changed the game in response to growing public outcry about players being killed on the field.

Album of the Week: Jukebox the Ghost, “Cheers”

Currently Reading: P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn (reread, this time in preparation for class)

The Game: Weekly Varia 11/26/22

The Game kicks off in Columbus in about an hour. For those who don’t follow college football, The Game is the annual showdown between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan leads the all-time series 59-51-6, but the rivalry has been lopsided in the other direction for the better part of two decades. Going into The Game last year, Ohio State had only lost twice since 2001 when Jim Tressel took over as coach. Ohio State was rarely ranked outside of the top ten in the sport when the teams met during that period. Michigan put up a fight in a lot of years, but, outside of an excellent Michigan team in 2003 and an anomalous Ohio State year in 2011 between the end of Tressel and the start of Urban Meyer’s tenure, Michigan could not seem to win and often lost in heartbreaking fashion. Last year I left the TV off and played Civilization VI until a friend texted me in the fourth quarter telling me that I probably needed to tune in.

Sports fandom, and sports hatred in particular, are strange, tribal phenomena. I have hated many teams in my life, sometimes as specific iterations of a team and sometimes simply for the laundry. Sometimes I hate how a team or player plays their sport. Other times it is because my team can’t seem to ever win. However, I increasingly find myself without the emotional energy for hatred. I still don’t like teams and root for the teams that I’m a fan of, but full-on hatred both takes more energy and is best curated in groups. When it comes to a game like this one, where my fandom collides with the deep, simmering dislike of the other team, though, all bets are off.

I went back and forth a half dozen times this week on whether to tape The Game or watch it live this year. Ohio State is ranked #2 in college football, while Michigan is #3. Both teams are undefeated and the winner will likely end up with a bid to the college football playoff while the loser will “only” play in the Rose Bowl. The lure of live sports is proving too strong to resist, so I’ll be tuning in while also preparing myself for what I think will be a likely Michigan defeat. Go Blue.

This week’s varia:

  • A new study claims to have authenticated a coin found in 1713 long considered a possible forgery because it names an otherwise unknown Emperor Sponsian (the research is available on PlosOne). The researchers suggest it dates to c.260 CE when Dacia might have been cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire and thus minted coins under the name of a local military commander. There are, of course, skeptics. Numismatists, specialists in ancient coins, are suggesting that this study fails to account for numerous tenets of the discipline in their haste to scientifically authenticate the coin. To my mind, this study is a useful reminder about the fragmentary nature of evidence from the ancient world.
  • Graham Hancock’s show Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix is a “documentary” that offers “evidence” of a an advanced ice-age civilization was wiped out by a flood sometime in the dim past. This is pseudoarchaeology with racist bones (it denies the achievements of indigenous communities), so, of course, it is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The Guardian calls it “the most dangerous show on Netflix,” while Bill Caraher has a more nuanced piece about the impossibility of debunk ing this sort of conspiracy theory and some suggesting for how to productively counteract their influence.
  • Corey Booker is introducing the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act (Vox), which proposes to reform how the meat industry handles disaster. The bill includes requiring the industry to pay annual fees that would work as insurance in cases of disaster, mandating disaster preparedness plans, and putting companies on the hook for costs like cleaning up the after disasters and paying workers severance afterward. It also would ban the most inhumane culling methods and close some loopholes in American slaughter rules. I have disagreed with a number of Booker’s positions over the past few years, but his consistency in attempting to change one of the American industries most in need of reform is admirable.
  • Investigators are leveling accusations that some Russian military commanders encouraged their soldiers to commit sexual violence in Ukraine (Reuters). This investigation is part of the broader inquiry into Russian war crimes and, while it is too early to say how widespread the practice was, the implication that this violence was in some instances coordinated makes it all the more harrowing.
  • In the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column, Lauren Lassabe Shepherd explores how Ron DeSantis is the latest in a lineage of conservative political actors to make schools their chosen battleground to instill their vision of “America.” The hook here is that Florida recently became the fifth state to make students recognize a federal holiday that I missed when President Trump established it in 2017: Victims of Communism Memorial Day. Lassabe Shepherd is the author of a forthcoming book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars.
  • John Warner, the author of Why They Can’t Write, remains my favorite commentator about the state of higher education. In his column at Inside Higher Education this week, he writes about why nostalgia is such a dangerous sentiment for colleges.
  • Rebecca Jennings at Vox argues that we should stop taking billionaires at their word when they say that they are “doing good” in the world. This argument is hardly new (cf. Winners Take All) and matches what I already believe, but American society remains easily seduced by a class of people who confidently assert vague platitudes while proudly refusing to engage with history or the humanities. But they’re rich, so they must know what they’re talking about, right?
  • In the realm of the silly, the New York Times Pitchbot is consistently the best satirist on Twitter: “This morning while we were listening to The Daily, my four year-old turned to me gravely and asked “Daddy, why are there no pictures of Naomi Biden’s wedding in the Times?” When I told him “because Vogue got an exclusive”, he started crying.”

Album of the week: Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience (Deluxe Edition).

Currently reading: Susanna Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies; Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

The Real All Americans

Carlisle simply wasn’t a school like other schools. It was first and last a social experiment.

The Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, is a complicated part of US history in the late 19th century. It predated the infamous Dawes Act of 1889, which broke up the collectively held tribal lands, but it was part of the general theory: that the end goal of US policy toward Native Americans was to assimilate them into White Society. Pratt worked tirelessly on behalf of his students within this broad purpose, defending natives against critics who believed them incapable of being civilized.

At the same time, the boarding school in Pennsylvania took children away from their families often for close to a decade, during which time they were subject to harsh discipline and encouraged to forget their traditional ways––much to the chagrin of their parents.

Americanization at Carlisle meant a number of things: a haircut, new clothes, learning to read, write, and speak English and learning a trade. But in the late 19th century it also meant learning the game of football.

In The Real All Americans Sally Jenkins tells the story of this football team, building to its victory on the football field over Army in 1912, symbolically avenging a century’s worth of injustices.

The Carlisle football team is a fascinating subject. In the early years of football there were no set schedules, so while Carlisle was a preparatory academy where students ages six to twenty-five received an education that topped out at high-school level, their opponents were usually the colleges of the North East, including the then-powers Penn, Yale and Harvard. The Indians (as they were called) were younger and lighter, both disadvantages in a sport that, even more than today, rewarded brute size and strength.

(President Teddy Roosevelt famously forced football stakeholders to meet, installing rule changes to a game that routinely killed players. The reforms eliminated the most violent aspects of football, but in a bid to make the game survive rather than out of a concern for player safety.)

Under their most famous coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, who arrived in 1899, the Indians hit a wave of success, pioneering an array of misdirection plays that gave the fleet-footed Indians open running lanes––plays football watchers today might be familiar with, like the forward pass and end-arounds.

Ultimately, though, it was when Warner’s coaching was matched with the athletic talents of a player like Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, that the Carlisle team reached its apex.

At times I thought that Jenkins got too cute with her narrative. The book begins before the foundation of the school, with Pratt’s military service fighting against Native American tribes, but ends her main narrative with its victory in 1912 over Army. After that season the team took a downward turn, driven in large part by Thorpe’s impending eligibility issues. (Thorpe, like many other players, had played semi-pro baseball during the summers, but unlike the others he had done so under his real name even though, as an Olympic gold medalist, was among the most famous athletes in the country.) The result is an unbalanced narrative designed to highlight the headlines after the game: that the Indians had finally beaten Army. The final chapter continues from that game through the end of the program, but Jenkins seems to imply that it was over after that game as Thorpe, a complicated figure, turns into almost a tragic hero.

Still, The Real All Americans is demanding of consideration. This story, as Jenkins points out, is part and parcel of the larger arc of US history in this period, both in terms of policy toward Native Americans and in terms of the rapid modernization of the country after the Civil War. The unbalanced narrative allows Jenkins to explore the prejudices of the day, making the point that while Pratt could be brutal to his charges and destructive to native customs, his racism was distinctly progressive compared to his contemporaries.

The most remarkable feature of early football that comes out in The Real All Americans is how its concerns hover over the game still. Without making the connection explicit, Jenkins weaves concerns over safety, amateurism, and the relationship between money and collegiate athletics. Carlisle’s unique position of receiving students from reservations and budget directly from the federal government sets it apart from other schools, but with football it serves as a microcosm for one concern of the modern university.

Δ Δ Δ

I just started reading Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, an epic fantasy saga inspired by African mythology. I heard James give an interview about this novel and was intrigued, but it is also part of my plan to diversify my reading this year with more books by authors from Africa and of African descent, as well as more post-colonial books generally. So far the story is equal parts riveting and dizzying.

The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, the NFL Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.