Practically speaking, week five of the semester passed in the same blur as week four. There were substantive differences, but to the same end point, which has left me without the time or energy for posts between the weekly varia entries. It also left me grasping at straws for something to introduce this post. Out of desperation comes inspiration.
At the one-third mark of the semester, I am loving my course on ancient Persia. I structured the course around two interlocking themes, orientalism in our interpretations of Persia and continuity and change in the imperial structures of West Asia, including the development of religion and ideology. This course has also given me an excuse to dive into the rich recent bibliography on Persian history.
My most recent read was Matthew Canepa’s The Iranian Expanse: Transforming Royal Identity through Architecture, Landscape, and the Built Environment, 550 BCE–642 CE (California 2018). Canepa traces the evolution of royal ideology and conception of where they sat in the world through their palaces, sacred spaces, funerary practices, and gardens, with a particular emphasis on points of disjuncture. That is, Canepa was more interested in change than in continuity, and in how subsequent dynasties competed with the ones that came before in establishing their own legitimacy. I particularly like that Canepa did not skip the Seleucids, but instead acknowledged their indelible place in the royal lineage of the region. I assigned several chapters to my students, many of whom are more familiar with modern history and thus found the discussion of ritual, cosmology, and monumentality disconcertingly anthropological. I will concede that this focus on royal architecture offers a top-down vision of the world, but placing them within a landscape over such a long continuous span I thought gave life to otherwise static monuments. The Iranian Expanse is a densely-packed, but immensely rewarding read.
This week’s varia:
Brett Devereaux has a long piece on ChatGPT and history classrooms, echoing a lot of the refrains given by a lot of us AI-skeptics about the purpose of essays and what the AI does poorly, which is a lot. I particularly like how Brett articulates the essay as a form and as a pedagogical tool. He offers a nice metaphor about an Amazon box for how the AI can mimic the essay container (sort of), but it can’t comprehend that what brings joy about the delivery is what is in the box, not the box itself.
Education researchers conducted a meta-analysis of flipped classrooms and found that the results were far less positive than its proponents often claim. Their findings dovetail with my anecdotal experience that many “flipped” models include more “passive” learning than most traditional lectures, but push that process outside of class where students will watch it at double speed or skip it altogether, leaving them unprepared for the “active” component in the classroom. They also note that “flipped” can mean any number of different things. This is also my problem with education discourse on Twitter: nothing is going to work in every class or for every teacher. Active learning leads to better results than passive learning, but there are a myriad of ways to reach active learning.
BBC Travel has a piece about a lost city under the sands…of California. Investigators have been uncovering the set of Cecille B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, which he buried because the film set was supposed to leave no trace.
Shortly before last weekend’s Super Bowl, researchers at BU released findings that their study of 376 former NFL players detected CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in 345 (92%), which points again to the game’s brutality.
One of the balloons shot down by the US Air Force last week might have been launched by a hobby group in Illinois. This makes me think of how much we don’t know about these balloons, which is then both the cause of and then a reaction to the hysteria.
The Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News has revealed documentary evidence for the obvious, that Fox News continued to push election fraud stories because to do otherwise risked their bottom line if viewers switched to the even more shameless Newsmax.
Packers Sanitation Service has been fined after an inquiry revealed that more than 100 13–17-year olds were working overnights. Last week I had a story about an Iowa bill that would legalize this sort of work. I’m generally in support of people being able to take up economic opportunity of any sort, but nobody should be put in a situation where they are forced by circumstance to work in dangerous and exploitative jobs and these are the latest examples of a concerted effort to undo progressive reforms that curbed the worst excesses of capitalism in this country. Child labor is particularly concerning in that it also undermines the promise of an education that, at least in theory, would offer a pathway out of those circumstances.
A Mars Wrigley factory in Pennsylvania has been fined $14,500 by OSHA after two men fell into a vat used for mixing the ingredients for Dove bars. One wonders how active Willy Wonka has been in efforts to defund the agencies that regulate workplace safety.
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.