Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”

The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak

At the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign a curious pair arrive in Istanbul. One is a young white elephant named Chota, the other a twelve year old boy named Jahan, both allegedly from India. The elephant and mahout join the Sultan’s menagerie, a position adjacent to the opulence of court, but fraught with risk. Safety lies in Chota’s ability to win the favor of the Sultan, through tricks and through utility in war and peace—and certainly not in Jahan becoming smitten with the Princess Mihrimah, who desires to know where this pair came from. Nor does Jahan’s life become easier once he catches the attention of the royal architect, Sinan, who takes him on as apprentice. Instead, Jahan finds himself caught up in his master’s feuds that swirled and eddied around the construction of some of the crown jewels of Ottoman architecture.

At some level, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel without a plot—or one with several light plots connected by Jahan. One follows Jahan’s infatuation with Mihrimah, others follow Jahan’s other relationships, including with Captain Gareth who saw him installed in the palace for nefarious purposes and with the the Roma, who adopt him as family. Another is the titular plot, following Jahan’s relationship with Sinan and the other apprentices, first during the master’s life and then in the wake of his death. Beyond resistance from Sinan’s enemies at court, the projects do not progress without complication, for reasons that become apparent.

The virtue of this approach is to follow Jahan as he grows up, surrounding him with an eccentric cast of characters and getting lost among the rising mountains of mosques on the streets of Istanbul. In this, Shafak is partially successful. Some of the characters are funny or insightful or interesting, but too often I found them flat and acting from motivations that were opaque until telling Jahan a story about it after the fact. The narrow narrative focus on Jahan thus is an inherent limitation, particularly because I was generally uninterested in him as a character. On the one hand, hidden motivations can provide a story depth, but this combined with the flat characters gave the sense that there were two distinct stories, one being told by or to Jahan that is superficial, and another more interesting one lurking beneath the surface.

The saving grace for me was the ulterior message of this hidden story. At its best, The Architect’s Apprentice is a story that interrogates the fissures between the face we show to the world, the image the world projects on us, the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and relationships that inform these stories, and the lives we lead. Beneath the surface of every person or object is a story and each story contains a secret.

The Architect’s Apprentice was not totally satisfying for me, but Shafak showed me enough that I am going to give her books another shot.

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I have since finished Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful Exit West and begun Inventing Ethan Allen, by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III.

Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

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Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

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I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

Note: this book did double duty, since I applied a tried and true technique of assigning for class a book I have been meaning to read for years. It was on my list first, though, so I’m going to count it toward my non-academic reading anyway. The opinions expressed in this post are my own, but developed through class discussion with my students.

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps–the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life–is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives –and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.

What if Theseus lied? What if, instead of killing the dread Minotaur in the Labyrinth and returning a hero, Theseus was struck dumb with fear and perhaps defeated and in the darkness struck a deal with the Minotaur in return for his life? What if the immortal Minotaur has been existing on the margins of human societies for the last five thousand years?

This is the basic premise of Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. After millenia of wandering, M. finds himself in rural North Carolina, where he lives in a trailer park and works in the kitchen of Grub’s Rib where Grub, the proprietor, pays him in cash so that he doesn’t have to deal with a bank. Despite issues with his horns in the cramped kitchen, M. likes the work; cooking, like sewing, and working on the mechanical engines such as are found in cars, makes sense to him, consisting of simple, repeatable patterns that tend not persist through the years. Certainly, these are easier to assay than the intricacies of conversation that is dependent on ever-changing contours of society, even before considering the limitation of a bull’s tongue in forming human words.

The kitchen staff accept M. as a member of the team. Cecie even flirts with him. The wait staff is generally not hostile to M., but neither are they willing to include him in their social interactions outside of the restaurant. Mike and Shane are exceptional in their mockery, something that M. chalks up to the malice of young men that lashes out at whatever is different and incomprehensible to them.

But then there is Kelly, a new waitress who suffers from epileptic fits. Her difference draws M.’s attention and forces him to face questions about what he wants in life. Their budding romance gives M. hope that, at least for a while, he will not be alone, but also exposes prejudices hidden beneath a facade of civility.

This novel about a classical monster is at its core a story about interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. M. is moderate and careful, aware of his bovine instincts, but communicates through lows and single words. His rich and sensitive thoughts are known only to the reader. Most people do a double-take upon seeing M., but generally mask their reactions with civility, while kids are both less judgmental and less circumspect. M.’s difference (along with the difference of the other mythological creatures who are living on the margins of American society) is simultaneously all-encompassing and totally irrelevant.

Sherrill makes M. occupy the intersection two two masculine stereotypes in modern America. On the one hand, he is the African American man, gawked at and assumed to possess overwhelming, subhuman sexual appetites that threaten to be unleashed, particularly against white women. On the other hand, he is the hispanic illegal immigrant, handy and silent, working on the margins of society. In neither is he totally accepted by the white establishment except by the handful of benevolent patrons and a smattering of outcasts who sympathize with his otherness.

But lest one get the impression that The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a serious interrogation of issues of race, I should say that it alternates between an emotionally powerful look at loneliness, isolation, acceptance, and the search for connection in modern America and an absurdist comedy. Much of the humor comes from putting M. in absurd situations unique to him such as a brief stint as a rib-cutter operating a mobile cart, but others, such as a first date playing miniature golf at a course next to a drive-in XXX theater, are simply absurd situations.

I really liked The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, both as a novel and because it gave my students ample material to talk about in the context of monsters and monstrosity in modern America. The writing struck me as overly dramatic at points, self-conscious in a performative way, but neither should that small critique detract from an excellent novel, which works both in the sense of inventive reception of classical myth and in that it offers a thoughtful look at issues that have only grown more important in the years since its original publication.

There is a sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Time, published in 2016 that I have not read yet. As a final note, this is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover on Kindle. I didn’t love the experience, but did like the highlighting and annotating features that allowed me to skip directly to the spot, particularly for the purposes of teaching.

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Life has been busy of late, what with the fast-approaching end of the semester and some academic conferences, as well as some unexpected and time consuming developments. Nevertheless, I am now reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which interprets US history through the lens of class, with a particular focus on the down and outs among people who are theoretically still represented by those in power. I am also working on several posts that will probably go up in the near future.

American War – Omar El Akkad

“So? Wouldn’t you, if you had no stake in it?”
“Nobody has no stake it in,” said Sarat.

They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

The Second American Civil War broke out in the year 2074, months after the Daniel Ki, president of United States and driving force behind the fossil fuel ban of 2069, was assassinated by the secessionist suicide bomber Julia Templestowe in Jackson, Mississippi. Rebellion in South Carolina came to an abrupt end after the introduction of a contaminant that forced the entire state to be quarantined by both sides, but Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi formally declared themselves the Free Southern States with its capital in Atlanta on October 1 2074, surrounded by a ring of purple states and blockaded by the Blue.

The southern cause is barely held together by regional identity, foreign aid, and a defiant loyalty to the now-banned fossil fuels. Northern “Birds” (drones) rain fire from the sky, displacing southerners to refugee camps such as Patience, while the south is reduced to striking back with suicide attacks, after the conclusion of the bloody battles in the oil fields of Texas (now a Mexican protectorate). That is, until the reunification ceremony after the war in which a suicide attack unleashes a deadly plague that kills millions of people across the country.

American War tells the story of the second American Civil War through the experiences of the Chestnut family, interspersed with reports, articles, and government documents.

Sarat Chestnut is about five when the war breaks out, living near the broad Mississippi river in southern Louisiana with her parents, brother Simon, and twin sister Dana. She loves her home, but her life changes one day when her father goes to a government office seeking a work permit to move the family further north. He never returns, killed in a suicide attack, and when it looks like the war is going to become active by the family home, Sarat’s mother accepts the offer of the Free Southern States to relocate her family to the Patience Refugee Camp in Mississippi.

Sarat is radicalized at Camp Patience by a recruiter named Albert Gaines, and her righteous rage comes fully into bloom when northern troops appear in the camp and massacre many of its residents for harboring southern fighters. As survivors of the massacre, Sarat, her twin sister, and brother (who miraculously survived being shot) are given a house in Georgia where she lives until rounded up by a Blue raid and imprisoned in Sugarloaf detention facility in the Florida Sea for the duration of the war.

American War is an allegory for our time. The future conjured by American War is evident from the opening pages when a map indicates that rising sea levels have erased Florida and sheared off much of the east coast, leading to the new US Capital in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the southwest, including Florida has been ceded as a protectorate to Mexico and, of course, there is the secessionist territory. And yet, this is all setting.

Omar El Akkad’s strongest point is setting a familiar Middle Eastern story of circling drones, refugee camps, suicide attacks, and radicalization in America. There is no reason why Sarat ought to become a fanatic for the southern cause, and yet she does. Thus, we see, this is not something unique to Muslims, but consequences of the circumstances that are exacerbated my US military action and an inability to, as they say, win hearts and minds. To drive home this point, we are introduced to “Joe” (Yousef), a friend of Albert Gaines and minister in the ascendant Bouazizi Empire that has been providing most of the humanitarian aid publicly and weapons privately to the Free South. He explains their motivations to Sarat:

“It doesn’t really matter to you, does it,” she asked, “who wins this war?”

“No. It does not.”

“Then why? Why be a part of it?”

“I came from a new place, Sarat.” Yousef said. “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail. I think by now you understand that, if it were the other way around—if the south was on the verge of winning—perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus. I don’t want to lie to you, Sarat: this is a matter of self-interest, nothing more.”

Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”

“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”

For as much as I loved American War, I had one major issue with its insight into America: race. Sarat and her siblings are half-Mexican and half-African American operating in a south that in my mind was still dominated by a white aristocracy, and yet there is more clucking over the possibility of the latent Catholicism from their father than there is about race. In fact, there was just one scene, where a Mormon man balks at entering a predominantly African American neighborhood on the grounds that he would not be welcome where the issue of race came to the forefront. By and large sexuality and ethnicity are the two categories that, in as far as they work in the story, there is broad acceptance. The former I believe because it is performed in private, the latter is not. The lack of discussion in this regard might be explained by the story through Sarat’s perspective wherein she becomes a celebrated agent for those in the know, but this was not always the case. The cotton fields of the south might be gone, but it took a suspension of disbelief to accept that the scars of the US history with race were so easily healed through collective intransigence over fossil fuels.

Despite the singular ray of hope for a post-racial America in this grim dystopian future, American War is a brilliant debut novel that ought to be read and internalized by everyone making US foreign policy decisions.

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I couldn’t decide which novel to read next, so I ended up starting a collection of essays by Albert Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus instead.

Discussion in the College Classroom – Jay Howard

A couple weeks ago I crowd-sourced a reading list on teaching with the aim of getting better at my job. As much as I trust the people who contributed to the list, it wouldn’t be worth much if I didn’t then start reading; I have decided to write up some of my notes and observations, posting them here and on Twitter.

First up is Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom.

The short recap is that I found this book useful:

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Howard starts by making the case for the value of discussion in the classroom, with the caveat that not all conversation is created equally and that the job of the instructor is to lead students past superficial observation toward deeper meaning. His advice is divided between two interconnected categories: best practices for communication in the classroom and structuring courses to encourage and reward active participation.

Both categories are designed to overcome the prevailing social norm in the college classroom, “Civil Attention”—defined as the appearance of attention regardless of how tuned in the student actually is—a norm that is reinforced by over-reliance on lecture and a reluctance to ask direct questions (which Howard notes may be mistaken for hostility by the professor).

In order to change these norms, Howard calls for instructors to start on the first day of class by communicating and expectation of communication and what participation entails. The latter part will vary based on class, but it is important to convey what counts and how to avoid misunderstanding between a professor who wants students to talk all the time and students who believe they “participated” by doing the reading and showing up.

Howard addresses a number of issues, from how to avoid the trap where one or two students take on the responsibility for participation, grading discussion, and how to run an online discussion board, but some general principles stand out:

  • Large class size inhibits conversation, and it is often useful to subdivide a class down to groups of six or eight, even in large lectures, and encouraging students to exchange information and ideas.
  • It is easy to forget that students are not subject matter experts who have been thinking about issues for year. Give students time to formulate answers to difficult questions.
  • Ask good questions. Avoid factual questions or questions with yes or no answers, but ask opinion questions that can be supported through the text
  • Positively reinforce behavior your want to see by acknowledging student contributions, questions, and risks.
  • Give students peer to peer obligations that prepare them to engage in discussion.
  • Engage with students before and/or beyond the classroom, such as requiring a two minute visit to office hours to say hi. This gets the students comfortable with engaging with the instructor.
  • Above all: be aware of what is going on with the class. This includes body language and what the syllabus says, the physical distance between instructor and student, and whether the course structure is facilitating or erecting barriers to student participation.

Howard’s advice is based on a combination of extensive personal experience and research studies on student participation, but he is careful to note that not only will these suggestions not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but also that what works with one set of students won’t necessarily work with a different set of students the next time the same course is offered, let alone with a different instructor. Nor does he dismiss the utility of a content-based lecture format, all the while offering ways to blend the two formats to maximize student engagement.

There are too many specific suggestions even to begin listing them, but they make this book worth reading. There may be a point of diminishing returns in reading books on pedagogy (unless that is your field of study specifically), but Discussion in the College Classroom is a useful place to start.

1493 – Charles Mann

I have a mixed relationship with reading non-fiction, and particularly with reading history books. On the one hand, I enjoy it and there are lots of interesting stories that I want to read about; on the other hand, it is work-adjacent and I have a little voice nagging me that if I have time to read this history, why don’t I have time to read the latest scholarship. This and other issues explain why 1493, a book recommended to me by a friend who teaches high school history, sat on my to-read shelf for so many months. But here in 2018 I am trying to read more non-fiction and I decided that it was work-adjacent enough that I finally picked it up.

Mann’s thesis in 1493 is fairly simple: although it is fashionable to forget, condemn, or otherwise disregard European explorers such as Christopher Columbus (Colón, as Mann calls him), they collectively initiated a process that resulted in the development of the “homogenocene”—a sub-epoch of the holocene that unified the global ecosystem. In other words, we are living in a world that is linked to an unprecedented degree. What makes 1493 worth reading is the evidence he marshals to support this thesis.

1493 starts and ends in Mann’s garden, contemplating the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that found their way from all over the world into this patch of ground. Between weeding his tomatoes, Mann treks all over the world, looking at in turn tobacco, malaria, silk and silver, rice, potatoes, rubber, human trafficking, and all of the other organisms that went along with these goods back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Woven in are elements of environmental determinism and the ways people have tried to change their fates, how the global Columbian Exchange resulted in millions of people dying from illness, but saved millions more by introducing crops like the potato that can thrive in otherwise marginal land.

Mann is an engaging writer and while he is more comfortable entertaining speculation where there is at best circumstantial evidence than I like, he builds his argument by bringing academic research to life. This strength comes to light, for instance, when Mann talks immigration to the Americas. There is discussion of the slave trade, but he also discusses the rise and fall of Maroon (fugitive slave and native) communities and the influx of Asian populations in Central and South America. Mann embraces the complexity, explaining in lucid terms the push-pull factors that lay behind the population movements, how the demographic changes led to changes in the economic structures and goods, and, above all, how the cultures constructed their social hierarchies. Memory and its opposite, which are central to cultural memory, serve as a recurrent through-line as the tomato and sweet potato became embedded in cultural self-fashioning and many of the people who introduced these crops were, for better or worse, forgotten.

This is not a deep dive, but that is the tradeoff for its truly global scope. In the end, I appreciated 1493 and can envision using some chapters for a World History course. Mann’s basic thesis about the Columbian Exchange is shown beyond question, and it is hard not to be caught up in Mann’s sense of wonder at the immense changes. There are moments when that enthusiasm seems to walk the line with admiration for the human agents of the changes, irrespective of their outcomes. Of course the irony here is that despite Mann’s stated aim of restoring Columbus to this global narrative, these men were in the long run forgotten by the world they played an incidental role in helping to create.

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I am currently reading Omer El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is a story set during the bleak future of the second American Civil War.

The Rise of Io – Wesley Chu

Twenty five years have passed since the events of the Tao trilogy, but that is only a moment in the centuries-long alien civil war raging on earth between the Prophus (Betrayers) and the Genjix. What has changed is that human beings now know that Quasing exist and live symbiotic relationships with their hosts. The situation remains precarious for the Prophus, particularly with the Genjix moving in on India, one of the few remaining unaligned countries. One of the zones of activity is a curious piece of construction that the Genjix are working hard to hide, a facility in a slum called Crate Town in Gujarat near the border with Pakistan.

Investigation of the facility and personal vengeance lead Io’s host, Emily, to Crate Town where she is killed. Released from the dead body, Io rejects occupying the designated second and instead joins with Ella, a con-artist resident of Crate Town who had leaped to defend Emily. What unfolds is a small story contained to the goings on with this particular facility, but with deadly consequences for everyone involved.

As usual with Chu’s work, The Rise of Io, features intrigue and plenty of martial art’s action, but it was the mix of character conflicts that made it excellent. The surface level conflict is the ongoing investigation and infiltration of the Genjix facility, but it was the additional conflicts that made it special.

First, there is the tension between Ella and Io. Unlike the relationship between Roen and Tao in the original series, Ella is adamantly opposed to Io, considering the Quasing an unwelcome intruder–and the Prophus a possible source of revenue, at best. This is not because Ella is bad. In fact, she is well liked and willing to put herself at risk to do the right thing. Ella is simply unused to partnership since her father left and her mother was killed by the Genjix in the war, and she is therefore slow to trust. Despite the potential advantages of human-Quasing partnerships that have been revealed elsewhere in this series, Ella never comes to trust Io.

Second, on the other side of the equation, is Shura, a Genjix assassin deprived of her family’s inheritance. Shura is ruthless, but entirely at the whims of Genjix hierarchy, and dispatched to India to oversee this vital construction project under the supervision of her mortal enemy Rurik.

Finally, there is the conflict between Io and the rest of the Quasing. In the current conflict, Io is low-ranking, unskilled at manipulating humans, and most notable for catastrophic failures. But that was not always the case. Once, Io ranked among the most influential of all Quasing, and this change has made Io bitter and dissatisfied with the current arrangement. The problem, however, is that Quasing cannot live without humans, leaving Ella in the middle.

The Rise of Io is an excellent self-contained story that begins and ends in media res, more or less. Nothing is really resolved in the book, and while it can be read as a standalone novel, it builds on expectations and assumptions for the world that are created in the Tao trilogy. In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but the character conflicts, particularly those involving Io, will be more meaningful with that background.

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I am now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the world created by the Columbian exchange. So far it is an interesting read about the emergence of what he calls the “homogenocene” era of the globalized world.

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood

Note: this discussion includes the second and third books of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. I already wrote about Oryx And Crake, the first book in the series.

I cannot think of another trilogy where the contemporary timeline covers as little space as it does in this series. The Year of the Flood covers the same period as Oryx and Crake, introducing the perspectives of Toby and Ren, two women who live in the Pleeblands outside the compounds and find themselves caught up with the God’s Gardeners, a pacifistic nature cult that rejects the course society has taken.

Ren, born of the compounds, accompanies her mother into the Pleeblands where she spends many of her formative years, before returning to a life on the margins of the compound school. Toby’s life is harder, hiding from the authorities by working at a SecretBurger (real meat, a rarity!) joint for Blanco, a manager with a temper and a penchant for choosing female employees, compelling them to perform sexual acts on him, and in time raping them to death—if he doesn’t kill them some other way first. Toby joins the Gardeners the moment she quits because they hide her from Blanco. She doesn’t really believe the doctrines that say there is a Waterless Flood on the horizon, but is tough and resourceful, and the God’s Gardeners are willing to protect her.

Much as Jimmy/Snowman from Oryx and Crake, both women survive the flood, Toby through clean living in her job at AnooYoo Spa, Ren while in quarantine at “Scales and Tails,” the upscale strip club where she works. The Year of the Flood is thus a re-visitation of OaC, bringing the stories up to the present. MaddAddam adds a fourth core character, the enigmatic Zeb, Ren’s adoptive father among the Gardeners and Toby’s secret love, while Toby continues the work that Snowman began, teaching the Crakers about the world.

Most of the strengths of OaC carry through the rest of the series. The world remains disturbingly plausible, and its monstrosity is heightened by the Gardener point of view. We are introduced to their saints, such as Rachel Carson, their veneration of the natural world, and all of the cracks in the Utopian ideal of the Compounds. The Year of the Flood introduces Painball, a death-match between teams of convicts. The victors receive pardon, but leave something of their humanity behind. (By the contemporary timeline, Blanco is a three-time Painball victor.) MaddAddam explores the world of the PetroBaptists and the rise of CorpSeCorps security services through Zeb and his brother Adam, the original founder of the Gods Gardeners.

My main complaint with these two books was that everything fit together too well. That is to say, the world is large enough that people can vanish for years at a time, but small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else—and Jimmy in particular. The result is that the book feels like it is written around Oryx and Crake and reliant on that book, or at least Jimmy to give it meaning. These characters are more interesting than Jimmy (his dullness being one of my issues with the first book), but the whole process came off as reductive. MaddAddam deals less with the earlier time period outside of nested stories and thus mostly circumvents this issue.

The Year of the Flood was my favorite of the three, despite it suffering the most from the issue I described above. I liked the characters of Toby and, to a lesser extent Ren, and the God’s Gardeners are a fascinating set. I still believe that the strongest part of this series is the worldbuilding, at once fascinating, disturbing, and plausible. The storytelling is expertly done in all three books, but I found the characterization and plot lacking when held up to Atwood’s best.

I called Oryx and Crake an origin story, and this comment needs to be amended. The entire MaddAddam trilogy functions as a multi-faceted origin story wherein the ambitions of humankind climbed too high, leaving only a select few Adams and Eves and Crakers left to rebuild after a flood.

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I finished Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io over the weekend and will post some thoughts about it soon. I’m now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the Columbian Exchange and the development of the “Homogenocene” Epoch.