Weekly Varia no. 10, 01/21/23

The first week of the semester is in the books. All three of my classes have gotten off to pretty good starts, but I always forget how exhausting the first week of the semester can be. My to-do list has bloomed (more algae than roses, though) heading into this weekend, so this weekend will be spent slowly working through tasks that range from some administrative upkeep to shorting up soft spots in my reading lists to the first round of grading, lest the semester snowball out of control.

This week’s varia:

  • Daniel Bessner has a good opinion piece in the Times about the perilous state of history. He points out that “deprofessionalization” of the field creates the breeding grounds for ” the ahistoric ignorance upon which reaction relies” because so much “history” is placed in the hands of social media influencers and influential partisan actors like Bill O’Reilly.
  • ChatGPT roundups are just a thing, I guess.
  • The Missouri legislature is currently debating a bunch of CRT-in-education bills. One proposed bill ensures that nobody will be offering kindergartners classes in CRT, a field of study usually reserved for law schools and advanced sociology degrees. I say, why are parents trying to stop their kids from being pushed ahead? More seriously, this is a continuation of last year’s cultural war du jour that treats any sort of training on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as nefarious CRT and legislates feelings in a way that puts teachers in an impossible position, which is why one proponent of the bill simply refused to define what he meant by it. These sorts of debates only hurt education, but what bothers me most about the committee meeting is the hostility toward education and educators. When a poll revealed that only one school district claimed they taught a class on these issues, the committee chair’s response was “at least one school district was honest.”
  • The Washington Post has a profile of Matt Yglesias, looking at his career as a disrupter, contrarian, and public thinker. Personally, I find Yglesias to be a problematic figure whose primary claim as someone who can spin a plausible argument out of minimal evidence is as symptomatic of where we are as a society as is Donald Trump. Every once in a while he makes a worthwhile point, but, most of the time, he’s functionally firing hot takes that get treated as something more substantial.
  • The re-election campaign for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appoints the Chicago school superintendent, sent email to schoolteachers asking that they encourage students to work for the campaign in exchange for school credit. This very likely violates ethics rules—especially since there credible (it’s Chicago) accusations of retaliation from the mayor. Students volunteering for campaigns for credit is nothing new, but teachers are not supposed to encourage participation in specific campaigns.
  • The Oversight Board at Meta, which oversees content decisions for both Facebook and Instagram, has told the company that it should “free the nipple” (so to speak). What this will look like is yet to be determined since the company is still likely to want to keep pornography off the platforms, which was the genesis of the policy.
  • A Republican candidate for office in New Mexico has been arrested as the mastermind of a string of shootings that targeted Democratic politicians in the state. The man had to overcome a legal challenge to even stay in the election given his prior felony conviction and, unsurprisingly, he claims that the election was stolen from him.
  • An Indiana woman repeatedly stabbed an 18-year-old student in Indiana University of Asian heritage. The suspect told police that it “would be one less person to blow up our country.”
  • The Kansas City Defender, a black news outlet, reported on the abduction of black women in Kansas City, but the KC police department dismissed the allegations. Then, in December, a woman escaped captivity. Capital B News has an interview with Ryan Sorrell, the founder of the KC Defender, about the story and his efforts to create a crowd-sourced Black missing persons database.
  • Ohio officially declared natural gas “green energy.” The Washington Post has an article on how the campaign ran on Dark Money. Because, of course it did.
  • Americans might be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with us. Also from the Washington Post, winter COVID surges are a new normal, adding to the typical surges in other respiratory illnesses.
  • Jacinda Ardern is stepping down as Prime Minister of New Zealand, saying that she doesn’t have “enough in the tank” to do the job any longer. While this decision coincides with an uptick in threats against her, I am struck by a politician having the unusual level of self-awareness to know when enough is enough and the combination of humility and privilege to be able to act on that knowledge.
  • Vulture has a good piece on the labor conditions in Hollywood’s VFX studios where the industry standards were developed before the current age of enormous amounts of work after filming, which is leading to systemic understaffing and underpaying made worse by Marvel being a Goliath in the industry.
  • “Marge vs the Monorail” aired thirty years ago this month. Alan Siegel at The Ringer got Conan O’Brien to talk about his idea for the episode as a cross between The Music Man and an Irwin Allen disaster film.

Album of the Week: Counting Crows, This Desert Life

Currently Reading: Marissa R. Moss, Her Country; Rabun M. Taylor, Roman Builders

Weekly Varia no. 7, 12/31/22

I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.

Happy New Year.

This week’s varia:

  • Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
    • Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written several additional blog posts that address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
  • A great piece about Sudanese archaeologists doing work that has traditionally been done by Western expeditions that used local labor and expertise, but erased them from the process of interpreting the past and receiving credit for the work.
  • Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
  • A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
  • George Santos has admitted to “embellishing” key parts of his biography, but insists that he is neither a fraud nor a criminal (CNN). I’m not comfortable about how people are questioning his sexuality given that he was previously married to a woman, but the rest of these are serious issues.
  • Stefan Passantino, the lawyer representing Cassidy Hutchinson during the January 6 probe encouraged her to lie about the events of that day and obfuscated when she inquired who was paying his fees, probably because the funding appears to have passed through a Trump-connected PAC, creating a conflict of interest that he did not disclose.
  • There are currently five transgender athletes competing according to their gender identity in Missouri high school sports, but ten bills to limit their participation in high school athletics pre-filed with the Missouri legislature. Because, of course there are (Missouri Independent).
  • Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
  • Andrew Tate has been detained in Romania on charges of human trafficking…because the video he recorded responding to Greta Thunberg online retort displayed a pizza box that allowed authorities to confirm his whereabouts. Romanian officials are claiming that the timing is coincidental, but it makes for a better story.
  • Dinosaur skeletons rarely preserve their last meal, but a researcher named Hans Larsson recently identified such a find and discovered that the microraptor (a 3-foot tall dinosaur) had eaten a small mammal. Dinosaurs remain very cool.

Album of the week: Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”

Currently reading: Reeves Wiedeman, Billion Dollar Loser, Mary Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World

The Calm: Weekly Varia, 12/10/22

The first day after the end of classes is always a little bit surreal. After however many weeks of steady churn driven forward by the structure of regularly-scheduled classes, all of that drops away. At the same time, that day can’t kick off a period of rest and planning for the next semester in full. Rather, it is a deceptive calm. This day inaugurates a period of limbo where both I and my students have a significant amount of work to do without the same structure for our time. I am looking forward to powering down for a few days soon, by which I mean spending more time reading and writing some of the posts I talked about last week, but first I need to grade all the papers.

This week’s varia:

  • A follow-up about the “new” Roman Emperor from a few weeks ago, on the American Numismatic Society blog, Alice Sharpless evaluates some the issues with considering these coins genuine and concludes that they should still be considered forgeries.
  • This week saw discussion of ChatGPT-3, an AI that can produce text-based on answers. Earlier this year, Mike Sharples produced a “graduate level” essay using this algorithm (though it only has one citation, to a non-existent article) as part of a call to rethink assessment, which prompted Stephen Marche to declare in the Atlantic that this technology threatens to be yet another example of humanists committing soft suicide, though the evidence he offers for this speak more to social pressures and costs of educations than to the interest of students, at least in my experience. This might be the topic for a longer post, but I am closer to Daniel Lametti in Slate on the issue: Sharples’ essay isn’t satisfactory for a graduate course or even Marche’s assessment of it as a B+ undergrad paper. Without factoring in the mistaken citation it might warrant a B-, in some class. With that factored in, it should be an F. Lametti argues that this could be a tool, but it won’t kill the college essay. John Warner used this to repeat his call for overhauling assessment without accepting Sharples’ claim that the AI had produced graduate level work. By contrast, the tool seems to do a pretty good job of summarizing nonfiction text, which does have value so long as it is a starting point for engagement rather than the end.
  • Mark Joseph Stern explains in Slate how the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments on a non-case wherein a website designer wants to discriminate against LGBTQ couples who come to purchase a website template that she has never even designed. The gambit by the plaintiff is that this sort of case will be easier to side with their arguments since there is no customer trying to buy the product. Elie Mystal in The Nation particularly takes aim at the nonsense argument about what counts as speech. Since the conservative justices attempted to make the race analogy, Mystal, a black man, goes there, saying of the difference between speech and accommodations: “To put it plainly, a diner owner can absolutely tell me “I don’t like n******” when serving me lunch, but he still has to serve me lunch. He doesn’t have a free-speech objection to providing me a service that I am willing to pay for, no matter how deeply he hates me. He can be a jerk about it. He can name his business “Raisins In Potato Salad”; he can dedicate all of the sandwiches on his menu to Confederate generals and serve me on a plate emblazoned with a swastika. But he has to serve me.”
  • Of course, at least four justices are fully prepared to endorse the historically-nonsensical and extremely dangerous Independent State Legislature Theory in Moore v. Harper, as Mark Joseph Stern explains (Slate, again).
  • Missouri, like many other states, is taking steps to censor material that goes into public libraries. Aisha Sultan, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, points out the sad irony that right-wing politicians are bypassing serious concerns about misinformation online (you know, where children and every one else get most of their information), to brand libraries “as the biggest informational threat to children.”
  • A certain former president of the United States called for terminating the constitution of the United States just as, he says, the founders would have wanted. Several Republican lawmakers have criticized the language, but Republican leadership declined to comment (Washington Post). Just another day in the Republic.
  • Brevard County in Florida has a new superintendent of schools, and a new sheriff in town. This week he gave a press conference in front of the county jail in which he explained that “They know they’re not going to be given after-school detention, they’re not going to be suspended, they’re not going to be expelled, or like in the old days, they’re not going to have the cheeks of their a– torn off for not doing right in class.” This appears to be a reaction to allegations of severe disciplinary problems in the district that is causing teachers to quit. No mention of any of the other reasons a Florida schoolteacher might want to quit their job or the social issues in the community that are playing out in the schools.
  • I have been avoiding the World Cup this year in protest of Qatar’s hosting. Now one of the journalists covering the event has died under unclear circumstances (NPR). Grant Wahl was briefly detained for wearing a rainbow shirt and has talked both about death threats he received this year and the illness that came on before his death. I have not seen any evidence of foul play yet, but the circumstances are suspicious.
  • Age is just a number, but there are multiple ways to calculate it. South Korea’s parliament voted to tally age by birthday starting at zero when you’re born (NPR) rather than starting with one and adding a year each New Year (which would mean someone born one day before the New Year would turn two on their second day of life. I see all of the reasons to fall in line with the rest of the world, but part of me is sad when this sort of cultural idiosyncrasy goes away.

Album of the week: The Chicks, Fly

Currently reading: Peng Shepherd, The Cartographers; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

Stars

I had an opportunity to go to France and Italy on a high school trip nearly a decade ago and, as usually happens on tours of those two countries, we went to a number of monumental cathedrals. The most overwhelming of those, in my opinion, was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where I was appropriately overwhelmed by the majesty of the sculpture, the floors, the mosaics, the size. About six years later I was in the Agia Sophia in Istanbul, another religious building that had been constructed on a similar scale, but a millennium before St. Peter’s. Sure, St. Peter’s was in better repair and was more open, but I the relative date between the two structures meant that the Agia Sophia moved me somewhat more. Similarly, the Blue Mosque and the Pantheon were awesome and it is easy to understand why other massive structures including, but hardly limited to the Artemision at Ephesus, Herod’s temple, the ancient mesopotamian temples succeeded in inspiring religious fervor in their believers and a sense of awe in everyone who witnessed them.

But the fact remains that each of those structures is, ultimately, a human construction.

I am on my fifth year living in the midwest, having come from the mountains and hills of Vermont by way of Boston and there are times that I am still struck by how far you can see (and I am aware that there are places that can much, much further). One such moment was on my drive home tonight where there was first a fiery bar on the horizon where the last bit of the sunset sank down and then, after coming around a corner to see the sea of fluorescent lights that is Columbia spring up and surround me. I like the first of those sights (even though the open space makes me vaguely uneasy); the second image is striking because it is easy to forget how completely one is surrounded by lights when living in or around an urban area.

While these two visions tonight serve as the immediate inspiration for this post, another was a Twitter exchange yesterday where we discussed the power of forests to inspire both idyllic poetry and dark fairy tales. It may be the product of where I grew up, but I have an intense nostalgia for mountains and forests, and I completely understand where societies and cultures look toward mountains for religious inspiration. For this reason, the two most awesome spots I visited on that trip on which I visited the Agia Sophia were the peaks of Meteora and the sanctuary at Delphi. Both sites have buildings, but unlike many of the other religious sites noted above where the primary reason that I was awe-struck was the construction of the buildings, these sites drew the buildings for their locations. It is easy to see why these sites evoke a particular feeling.

One of the other spots where I have seen something similar was in the desert in Israel, where there was no sea of lights to obscure the stars. It was a bigger version of clear nights in Vermont where the stars form a blanket. I think this is one reason why I have a fondness for the dark of night and for the light of candles. It isn’t just the darkness for the absence of light or the candles for the presence, but some slight way to move away from the constructions of human society. The primal power of the natural world can be terrifying, but it can also be comforting.

There is an irony in writing these words at a computer, but that is a common medium of communication in the modern world. Both the natural world and human constructions can be awesome, but I prefer the natural. I have no particular desire to become a hermit, but that shouldn’t be necessary to appreciate the stars.

Looking out from Delphi
Looking out from Delphi

Looking into the rock spires at Meteora
Looking into the rock spires at Meteora

Assorted Links

  1. What’s the Matter with Missouri-An essay in the Atlantic about the demographic and political shifts that have radicalized Missouri into a bastion of the Republican party.
  2. Boys on the side-An article in the Atlantic about the hookup culture among young people, arguing that it is largely perpetuated by women who have more choice and control than they ever have had before, rather than the traditional narrative about women being forced to submit to the passing fancy of men. Truth to tell, I have never participated in this culture and both at the liberal “east coast” universities and at more conservative locations there are a large number of people who are capable of having progressive relationships without resorting to flings or getting married; without pointing out legislators who seek to limit the control women have over their bodies or conservative groups who demand abstinence only or no sex before marriage, this article is polemical in that it presents an vision of relationships without stability…at least not until women are financially secure and find a good partner. I am not saying this is a bad thing, per se, and the author does a good job of showing some of the ways that having control over their actions and behavior empowers women (while not ignoring the fact that women enjoy sex, too) and that women are as a general rule more educated (though the article posits that women are more successful than men, which is not really the case), but fails to acknowledge the many people who (for a wide range of reasons) do not like or pursue a hookup culture–or end it prematurely for that antiquated notion of love.
  3. Adjuncts’ Working Conditions Affect Student Learning-An article in the Chronicle that covers a report that says that ways in which universities employ adjunct faculty members inhibits student learning because the instructors are almost necessarily unprepared to teach adequately unless they spend the period before they are actually employed preparing for courses they may never teach. This is particularly true (and hardly surprising) for instructors hired mere days before the start of semester.
  4. Former Israeli soldiers disclose routine mistreatment of Palestinian Children-An organization of former Israeli soldiers called Breaking the Silence published a booklet of testimonials that recount physical, verbal and psychological abuse of Palestinian children as a routine occurance. The IDF statement is that the testimonials were not given to them before publication to be investigated for accuracy.
  5. A Pachyderm’s Ditty Prompts an Elephantine Debate-An elephant in a zoo in Washington DC is obsessed with noise making objects, including her harmonica. This is raising a debate about what music is and whether or not it is a human construct.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Why the fight to save the UM press will fail

Earlier this summer the University of Missouri decided to close the university Press, stating that it was not sustainable, even after a financial overhaul. The university gives the press a 400,000 dollar annual subsidy, fund that it indicated would be better spent elsewhere. Despite later offers from some donors, other schools, and a variety of plans to replace that amount of money, the university did not change course. Then it came out that the university was not intending eliminate the press altogether, but to move away from traditional publishing and putting a newly proposed digital press under the auspices of The Missouri Review, run by Speer Morgan. (In the current FAQ for the plan, they state: “The purpose is to provide appropriate scholarly communication, not to make money.”) Instead of the press being closed for financial reasons, the story became that the University of Missouri wanted to be a leader in the digital humanities, while the Luddites at the press were determined to cling to bound books with ink-stained fingers.

Anyone who falls behind is expendable.

The problem is that the University of Missouri Press had not fallen behind. The press was already producing digital books and moving toward publishing in even more formats.

The gist of the newly proposed press is as follows: the press will be joined with The Missouri Review, a quarterly journal run by a professor in the English Department. The press will hire four new employees (encouraging the ten laid off employees to reapply for the new positions once they become available), and will put much of the editorial duties on five graduate students, possibly by increasing the workload of the graduate students who work with the press already. This will both save the university money since it is a widely acknowledged fact that in the academic system, graduate students are exploited laborers, and enable the press to claim to be a “teaching press” (or some other catchy moniker) without actually providing much more than it is already doing. “For the foreseeable future” the press will continue to publish books in a variety of formats. A board of faculty members will review submitted manuscripts to choose which books will be published, as well as providing an internal advisory board. The press will have an emphasis on “English, creative writing, communications, journalism, and library and information science,” according to Brady Deaton.

There are some minor additions to what the prior press offered, but conspicuous in this new format are the absences. Most immediately are the jobs stripped away in order to streamline the finances, though the reports are that the new employees will be paid at a significantly higher rate than the old ones. But more critically are the disciplines. The history department at MU, for better or for worse, has been excluded from the process, despite the press being a leader in publishing books on Missouri history, western history, some excellent books about sports, and was (once upon a time, at least) a premier location to publish books on African American history. Perhaps history, too, is obsolete.

Despite opposition, the changes have proceeded. What is more, the fact that now the university is receiving press as though it is renewing a commitment to scholarship through the “resuscitated” press, when the existence of the press in this format is cosmetic only. At least there is a press, they can say, even if no self-respecting scholarly author would publish with it (if they could even get a manuscript approved, in the case of history).

Most recently, a large number of authors have requested the rights to the books back from the press in protest of the changes, while the university has spent much of the last week trying to persuade the authors to keep the books with the UM press. As such, the Kansas City Star published an article under the title:

“MU tries to persuade university press authors not to reclaim book rights: Digital transition is planned, but scholars want university press to release publishing rights on their works.”

And therein is the reason that the opposition to the university press changes is failing. There have been many impassioned and eloquent letters written, meetings and votes held, and articles published, even nationally, but the university has still managed to dictate the message about the press. The opponents of the press closing have, for the most part, come across as hysterical and unreasonable (though, again for the most part, have been nothing of the sort), while the university appears rational, calm, and responsible. According to the news media, the debate is about the future of digital humanities, so the authors asking for the rights back appear reactionary, while the university is merely asking for them to hold off on their requests while the transition takes place. And, according to the piece, “After talking with Dr. Noble-Triplett, few authors have demanded immediate release.”

At the bottom of the article the author includes some of the objections to the changes, but the top section (and the section with more than just quotes) is dedicated to the case that the changes are about digital humanities. The university has done a great deal of damage control and has been able to portray a consistent, rational explanation for its changes, while the opponents are often reduced to apoplectic rage (I witnessed one meeting where the rebuttal to one person who wanted information was “I don’t agree with you”), and, at best, present an uncoordinated, piecemeal defense that comes and goes, while often include ill-fitting and ill-informed arguments about the football coach’s salary. There are legitimate things being said and legitimate concerns about the new press, but the message that has won out is the one that suits the university, namely that this is an issue of progress and of digitization (after the first argument that it was about money failed), when it is actually about scholarly standards, processes, and emphasis of the press. The changes in the press constitute a power play by a few individuals from within the university, but, evidently, that isn’t news. The future of digital humanities is.