This was a big week for me because my first book was officially released. I will have an update on what comes next for my writing soon enough, but, first, I have to get through this semester. This week marked the end of the first half of the spring semester. Flowers are starting to pop up around Kirksville, but I mostly didn’t get to enjoy them because I was busy trying to finish a round of grading so that I had one less thing to do over the next week. I didn’t quite meet my goals because my week filled up with meeting after meeting as everyone tried to squeeze in one more thing before break. Still, I got close enough that I should be able to take a much needed few days off over the next week.
This week’s varia:
Pasts Imperfect this week came early to align with Purim. The lead story is Jordan Rosenbaum unpacking the history of Hamantaschen, concluding that the traditional cookie is indeed symbolic, but comes from a different part of the figure of Esther and represents neither Haman nor a hat.
Javal Coleman writes in the SCS Blog about being the only Black person in a Classics Department. This is a great piece about belonging and the modern propensity to define black people as outside rather than the ancient tendency for inclusion. I read this when it first came out two weeks ago and meant to include it in a previous wrap-up but failed to do so.
Matt Gabriele brings an old blog post to Modern Medieval, in which he critiques the idea of a meaningful distinction between “public” and “academic” scholarship in terms of what we are actually doing (rather than genre conventions and tone). He notes that this is a blog post. from 2015, but is again timely in light of a recent New Yorker story dredging up last year’s controversy about “public history,” which had the former president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, airing his grievances against trained historians who engage the public online. The piece is not worth linking to, but, like his jeremiads last year in his presidential column in Perspectives, Sweet’s willingness to air his grievances against younger, tenuously-employed generations is a dispiriting omen about the future of the profession given that a) he is hardly the only senior scholar to feel this way, and b) far from confronting the fact that the field is under attack—thus foreclosing an academic home for those people he lamented were simply Tweeting away—it gives more fuel to those people doing the attacking.
Bill Caraher weighs in on ChatGPT. I appreciate his willingness to express what he does not know, and see some sense in his suggestion that ChatGPT and similar products might be able to replace remediation for students who understand the material in every way except the writing. I’m not sure I agree in whole, but he’s right that there is a cost for both the student and the teacher when you need to take time doing what is effectively remedial work, and I have often found that campus writing centers are only so helpful when students need this sort of foundational help. He followed it up with a thoughtful post on paywalls, publishing, and AI aggregation.
Paul Thomas has a discussion of ChatGPT, but through the lens of citation in the sense that it (and the new I.B. guidelines) has added another layer to the cognitive load that comes with citation. His position here is also rooted in the chaos of trying to teach and unteach nitpicky citation style (rather than hyperlinks, which would only work for some fields, even at a future date), which prompt students to get distracted from the process and meaning of citation in the name of accurate formatting. I’m certainly sympathetic to that frustration.
A new study is claiming that there was no exacerbation of mental health crises during the pandemic, which they concluded by excluding from the study lower-income countries or study the effects on younger groups or anyone who was already prone to mental illness. This might be correct within the bounds of the study, but only by generalizing so much that it masks a more accurate representation of what happened. This also might speak to the human capacity for resilience and forgetting. For my part, I’m still waiting for the period of lockdown boredom I was promised.
Elon Musk is reportedly planning his own town in Texas. I don’t like giving the man air time, but something about the Wall Street Journal headline (I can’t read the whole part because I’m not a subscriber) touched a nerve. Company towns are not utopias, and we should be very wary of the latest return to a Gilded Age labor environment, alongside…
From NPR, a story about a Medicaid requirement that if a person receiving treatment under the program dies, the state government is supposed to recoup the amount spent from the estate. Some states do this in a pro-forma way and collect almost nothing or set relatively high income thresholds, while states like Iowa contract the task out and aggressively recoup the costs—including by seizing the home. Even with carve-outs for spouses and disabled children that can defer collection, this seems to be an exercise of cruelty in the name of fiscal responsibility.
I turned 37 earlier this week. 37 is a curious age. I’m older than Alexander the Great was when he died, but not yet at the acme of my life (~40); no longer young, but also not old. I’m just an indeterminate middling age. Old enough for my beard to be starting to turn white, but young enough that a student mistook me for being a decade younger than I am. In his defense, I am the youngest person in my department. Nor was 37 an age that I imagined when I was younger. There were things I more or less expected by the ages of 25, 30, 32, 35, 50, but I skipped right past 37. Not that I correctly foretold much past the graduation of college, anyway. I could complain about plenty at this age and I both have made plenty of mistakes along the way and have plenty of developing left to do, but I also largely like the person I have become this decade. Now if only I can persuade him to get more sleep.
This week’s varia:
Rachel Elliot Rigolino says that AI tools mean that writing instruction should focus on students as editors. I agree in principle with the argument, though I could say the same thing about teaching them to edit their own writing. Likewise, you can only be a good editor if you have a good working knowledge of the skill.
A good piece in Slate about the college is going to respond to ChatGPT, even as the company that produces it is not thinking about college at all. I particularly like this line: “This assertion, that A.I. might “free up human workers to focus on more thoughtful—and ideally profitable—work,” is wrongheaded at the outset. When it comes to writing (and everything that can be done with it), it’s all grunt work. Having an idea, composing it into language, and checking to see whether that language matches our original idea is a metacognitive process that changes us. It puts us in dialogue with ourselves and often with others as well. To outsource idea generation to an A.I. machine is to miss the constant revision that reflection causes in our thinking.”
Ron DeSantis’ political appointees to the board of The New College in Florida fired the president Patricia Okker, replacing her with a DeSantis ally. Among other changes that they are aiming for, they want to place all hiring decisions in the hands of the President, alongside firing all faculty and subjecting them to selective rehiring. Setting aside the nebulous concept of academic freedom that applies on a sliding scale to professors, this is a ruthless assault on the fabric of higher education as an institution designed to impose a narrow definition of acceptable education, and a vision that DeSantis’ allies aim to expand to all public schools in Florida. John Warner has a good piece about the consequences of these changes, with an emphasis on how this is a political attack that will be a material detriment for students in small, meaningful ways like having someone to serve as a reference, despite DeSantis’ rhetoric.
At Vice, Roshan Abraham reports on allegations that Avian flu was used as cover by major egg producers to raise prices dramatically beyond what was necessary. Eggs are one of a number of items I have noticed in the grocery store that have been going up in prince well beyond the rate of inflation, which makes this argument of particular note.
Colossal Biosciences, a start-up company trying to revive extinct species, has completed its Series B funding that injected another $150 million dollars. This story reminds me of the time that I explained to my closest friends (whose wedding I was officiating) on the RSVP that my doctor had me on an “extinct birds” diet, so all of my meals had to be acquired from a specific purveyor who had cloned extinct birds specifically so that people on this diet could eat them. It was not a short explanation. (I did, in fact, choose one of their options at the end, I’m not entirely without manners.)
The Pentagon announced that there is a Chinese surveillance balloon over Montana. I have no particular insight into what this means in terms of the slow-boiling conflict between the United States and China, but I wanted to include it in this list because it reminds me of the fascinating story from World War 2 about Fu Go, a Japanese program that dropped bombs on the continental United States.
One of my persistent complaints about public discourse in the United States is that it is entirely lacking in nuance or an awareness of context. This is how you get the story about the diner in Connecticut that the proprietor, a Mexican woman, named “Woke,” because it serves breakfast and coffee, you see, that has become a target of outrage and support because people assumed she was making a political statement. At least this misunderstanding runs both directions and Woke is receiving good business from people pushing back against that outrage.
The Netflix reality show Squidgame, a less fatal version of the hit show, stands accused of creating conditions that were much more challenging than contestants signed up for. On the one hand, most of these people were not paid for appearing on the show unless they won, which I do think is a problem, but, on the other hand, there is a deep irony that people eagerly signed up without considering this at least a possible outcome.