I never know quite what to do as a professor in the last week of the semester. When I was a teaching assistant in survey courses I dedicated this week to exam preparation, but my deep skepticism of that mode of assessment means that I almost requires students to sit final exams. I have students write papers instead, and, increasingly, I have moved key pieces of the assessment earlier in the semester so that the students are able to revise their work before the end of term. This change gives me more flexibility about what we cover later in the semester, but I go back and forth on what we should focus on given that the “new” content is not going to be assessed on a test. But neither do I want to leave a semester unfinished, so I have recently been doing two things to round out the semester.
First, I use the last couple of weeks of class to complete whatever thematic arcs we have followed from the start of the semester. I started thinking about my courses in these terms four or five years ago when I realized that doing so helped both me and my students approach the material as a discrete unit that layers and builds depth as the semester goes on. The last couple of weeks let us tie these themes together.
Second, I lean into reflection. For instance, in two of my classes this semester I showed the students their opening day Jamboard where I asked them to reflect on what they knew coming into the course. My Persian history class got a kick out of seeing how little they knew, while the Roman history course talked about how they had a lot of key terms or ideas, but as buzzwords absent context. In both classes, we then talked about what they learned and reinforced the themes for the semester. Predictably, my Persian history class ended up in a passionate discussion about the challenges of writing ancient history.
But when I step out of the classroom for the last time for the semester, whether tinged with sadness or relief that a particular class has concluded, I also feel like I’m stepping into an unsettling limbo. As much as I am often ready for a break at the end of a long semester, my work is not over. I will be meeting with students throughout the finals week and screening films for a couple of classes, and the “final” grading push has only just begun.
By next week, though, I might be ready to start looking ahead to the summer.
This week’s varia:
- Paul Thomas has a good reflection on one of the core challenges of a good writing-intensive class: changing student perceptions about whose responsibility learning actually is. In his estimation, as it is mine, these challenges are systemic to American education, and COVID policies only exacerbated the issues where students often don’t avail themselves of the resources at their disposal and limit their revisions to the things specifically pointed out in the comments, even when those comments are representative of other issues. My hope is that because I’m doing this from my seat in a history department and frequently have the students in our major more than once I can help them break these habits even if it takes more than one iteration.
- NAEP Civics and US History scores for eighth graders dropped last week, showing a modest drop from 2018 and 2014, but only back to the baseline for earlier years. There is some performative rending of clothes and tearing of hair about these scores (including on my campus), but these scores are deeply misleading. These are not good tests, to start with, and I could easily see how questions about “the rule of law” on a civics test might be shaped by the discourse filled with mass shootings, police violence, and attempts to overthrow the government. But even more damning is the data about social studies instruction that, even disregarding the frequently-true stereotype of the coach-teacher, the suggests that social studies education has lagged behind other disciplines in terms of time and resources. Unfortunately, this new data is being used to manufacture a crisis that can only have negative outcomes.
- Stephen Chappell writes about his approach to digitally restoring the polychrome painting on the Apollo Belvedere for a French exhibition.
- Pasts Imperfect highlights a history of philosophy podcast this week.
- Modern Medieval features an article about a Carolingian coin bearing the name Fastrada, one of the wives of Charlemagne.
- Baker Maurizio Leo, the author of The Perfect Loaf, asked ChatGPT to provide him a sourdough bread recipe. His assessment is that the AI produced a reasonable generic loaf, albeit with a particularly high baking temperature, but that the recipe lacked creativity. AI is a powerful tool and the pace of its development is truly impressive, but I also believe that even some of the “basic” tasks people are racing to offload onto the AI require more care, attention, and creativity to do well. In many ways, bread baking is a metaphor for life and “Great sourdough bread isn’t simply a pattern that can be detected and replicated; it requires a human touch to guide it in the right direction.”
- AI machine learning translation tools that swapped singular for plural pronouns (and other little errors) put Afghan asylum claims at risk. I find these tools incredibly useful, but this sort of error underscores my primary concern with AI, namely that putting all your trust in the tools without any way to check or verify the accuracy will cause innumerable problems that will only be caught when it is too late if they’re caught at all.
- The “Godfather” of AI left his job at Google and raised warnings about the future of the technology. His concerns are about ethics and bad actors, while mine lie more in the likelihood that most people are going to assume that AI can do more than it can in a way that is going to cause enormous disruption while eroding the imperative to learn the underlying skills and putting significantly more noise and misinformation out into the world.
- Missouri’s Senate passed a proposal to raise the threshold for statewide constitutional amendments to 57% of voters (from the 50%+1 that in recent years rejected right to work, legalized marijuana, and approved medicare expansion, among others) or a simple majority in five out of eight heavily gerrymandered districts. The combination seems designed to curtail the power of voters unless they’re likely to vote the way that the Republicans want. His concerns seem rooted in
- New reporting at ProPublica has revealed still more financial ties between Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, including more than $6,000 a month(!) in boarding school tuition for a grandnephew over whom Thomas had legal custody. Thomas did not report this financial relationship. At the same time, the Washington Post has a report about money that Leonard Leo funneled to Ginni Thomas the same year that the court was hearing Shelby County v. Holder, all the while directing her name be left off the receipts. There is not much more to say about this deep level of corruption in the Supreme Court, but it seems bad when ProPublica has a section dedicated to this series of stories. Sheldon Whitehouse is spearheading efforts to create accountability, so, naturally, Senators like Josh Hawley claim they are designed to intimidate justices.
- Herschel Walker’s campaign appears to have violated campaign finance laws by acquiring hundreds of thousands of dollars for his private business.
- This week in “there are too many guns,” a baseball player for Texas A&M-Texarkana was hit in the chest by a stray bullet while he was in a game.
- Greg Abbott described five victims of a shooting last week as “illegal immigrants” alongside a reward for the shooter in a bit of casual cruelty. At least one of the victims appears to have been a legal resident, as though the residency status matters.
- A passenger on a New York City subway killed Jeremy Neely after putting him in a choke hold. I almost didn’t include this story in this list I had a hard time bringing myself to read about it and, especially, the discourse around whether killing someone was somehow justified. These posts are a curated rundown of things I read about during the week, usually that I have some sort editorial comment about. When one topic seems to have captured a particular zeitgeist I have nothing of particular substance to add, except to note that the grotesque discourse about under what circumstances it is acceptable to murder people in public absolutely terrifies me.
- The story that made me think about the gun violence epidemic in the United States was when I heard the BBC World Service do a feature on two mass shootings in Serbia this week, with the rarity of the violence making international news. The level of gun violence in the United States is not normal.
- Belgian customs officials zealously enforced the complaint from the Comité Champagne by destroying a shipment of Miller High Life after the trade group objected to the slogan “the champagne of beers” on the grounds that it infringed on the designated place of origin label.
- Astronomers observed a gas giant being eaten by a star for the first time, doing it in one big gulp. Pretty cool.
- Tucker Carlson has thoughts about how white men fight (McSweeney’s).
- McSweeney’s has an imagined short monologue: “If elected president, I promise to slaughter Mickey Mouse.”
Album of the week: Justin Townes Earl, The Saint of Lost Causes (2019)
Currently Reading: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time; Martin Hallmannsecker, Roman Ionia: Constructions of Cultural Identity in Western Asia Minor