#AcWriMo 2021

Through some dark magic that I don’t understand November begins on Monday, which means that it is once again time for #AcWriMo. Looking at my archives, I first came across the idea in 2012 (don’t read the post, it is awful) and have used it as a way to think about my writing every year since 2018.

Inspired by #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which authors aim to write a short novel in a single month, #AcWriMo aims to fulfill similar objectives of setting goals, establishing writing habits, and building writing community for academic writers.

All of these are very appealing to me, but, even when I set goals like I did last year, I have not yet successfully participated. In truth, November just falls at a bad time in the academic calendar for establishing writing habits.

It starts at a point in the fall semester when my grading load has peaked, my pre-prep has been exhausted, and my energy has reached a critical low.

It ends with a holiday week when I either need to travel or just want to curl up and sleep.

Although I had hoped that the stability of a full-time job would give me more space to write, that has not yet been true. Last year my part-time schedule was particular conducive to my writing habits. I only taught in the afternoon, which meant that I could almost always afford to spend part of the morning at my computer even when I had course prep or grading. The several years before that were more hit-and-miss, but I could make time more often than not, particularly at the start of the pandemic.

I have found this semester harder.

One of the questions I ask the committee when I interview for academic jobs is whether there is a tradition of reading each other’s work in the department. This question is designed to further signal that I an active scholar, but it also allows me to gauge what sorts of support the department has for research and whether there is a healthy department culture.

When I interviewed for this position the chair of the committee, now my faculty mentor, laughed and asked who has time to write. The department members have research profiles and some publish a substantial amount, but his cynicism reflects how much time it takes to invest in teaching, mentorship, and meetings. Given that the sheer number of courses I am teaching is lower than in the past few years, I think I underestimated the time commitment the transition would take, particularly when considering that I am adjusting to the classes as they are taught here, planning for future semesters (a welcome change, if I’m being honest), and participating in programs for new faculty.

Even when I can leave my work in the office, I rarely have energy to write when I get home in the evening. Granted, this is not unusual for me. I discovered years ago that my best writing happens in the morning and I rarely try to write anything more substantial than a blog post at night because any investment won’t be worth the return. Better to spend that time with my partner.

(For similar reasons I try to monitor my exhaustion levels: I do a lot more doom-scrolling social media when I’m tired. I have been doing a lot of scrolling recently. The current state of the world isn’t helping, either.)

The truth is, I actually feel reasonably good about what I have managed to accomplish this semester, I have just also accumulated a not-insignificant number of writing commitments. I am in good shape for most them, provided that I can recover a writing routine soon, but I regret to say that for one of these commitments I have become the sort of academic I told myself I never would be. The order management monitor is blinking a furious red on that one. I think of the pieces I owe in terms of the monitors at McDonalds that track how long it takes to assemble outstanding orders, maybe because I spent several years after college working in the quick-service industry.

However, there is a simple, selfish reason why I want to use the coming weeks to re-establish regular writing habits. There are certain things I need to make sure that I feel balanced. Reading fiction is one, alongside exercising and baking bread. Writing has joined this list. As recently as three years ago, I hemmed and hawed about whether I enjoyed writing, but the answer at this point is clearly yes. Writing is the mental exercise that accompanies my daily physical workouts, so getting these exercises in only intermittently has take a toll on my emotional state.

I did such a poor job of meeting the ones I set last year that I am hesitant to set goals this year. Even by my low standards, it was a poor showing. I want to write a lot of pieces this month, but I also know that I have little sense of what is attainable and a bad habit of working on whatever catches my attention at a given moment. In other words, saying here that I am going to write a certain number of things this month will have little effect on whether or not I write them. As a result, I am trying something different this year.

My goal this month is to be more attentive to how I am spending my time so that I can use more of it to write. That’s it: a month-long meta-cognitive exercise. The only accountability I am assigning myself is a single post each weekend on writing. These posts might be anything on that topic, but I expect that they will be variations on a theme rather than simple recaps—if only because I would need to explain what I am working on for such a recap to be at all meaningful and I am often hesitant talk about works-in-progress in this space.

To be honest, I don’t know how this experiment will go. Possible outcomes range from tapping into a well of discipline that results in significant progress on academic projects and a flurry of posts here, to only being able to focus writing on more frivolous projects like the paper I shelved a while back uses Britney Spears songs as subheadings, to discovering that I simply can’t muster the energy to write despite my best intentions. The answer will likely change by the day, so the question will be whether I can stay on schedule with modest gains more days than not. Tune in next week to find out!

Why I Can’t Write: A Collection (of Excuses)

A few evenings ago my partner wandered into my office and saw that I was sitting at my computer writing a blog post. I have been writing less than I would like lately, but I had found myself starting to pace after dinner and figured that getting words out of my head might help put me at ease. I have written before that I find writing meditative, after all. But writing is also an anti-social behavior that means not spending time with her, so I asked if she minded if I ignored her for the next hour or so.

“Writing seems to be good for you,” she responded.

I spent that night writing, but also wanted to reflect on the reasons why I don’t write.


I have no strong feelings on an issue. This was always my issue when writing to a prompt in high school writing contests. This is different from not knowing how I feel about a topic: when I am interested in a topic I just need to start writing to find my voice (and my thesis). When I am not invested in a topic, writing feels like an exercise in pushing mushy peas around a plate until I’m dismissed. If I am not invested in what I’m writing, then why should I expect anyone to read it? And thus begins a circle.


On the other end of the spectrum, I struggle to write when I have too much to say. Sometimes this means that I am too invested in a particular topic, sometimes it means that I just have too many thoughts all jumbled together. The solution here is often either writing more as thought to card my thoughts like a jumble of wool or trimming the topic into manageable chunks, but sometimes I just have to let the topic go.


I haven’t read enough. In my academic writing, this is perhaps the biggest sticking point. Writing without having done enough reading is a futile exercise in my experience. This is not to say that I need to have read everything before starting to write, but I can’t write cold. I can vomit words on the page as a way of articulating my initial thoughts, but that writing is functionally meaningless. More often, I find myself staring at that accursed blinking cursor at a loss for where to begin.


The most common reason I haven’t done enough reading is that there are times, particularly during the semester, when I am busy. There is always something else that needs to be done, so I jealously defend my writing time. However, that is easier (if not easy) to do for long-term writing projects than for writing whimsical blog posts on the writing process or keeping a regular journaling habit.


When I get tired I get distractible, and when I get distracted I can’t write. I have developed numerous strategies to help me focus over the years—logging off social media, setting concrete blocks of writing time, writing in the morning, music and headphones, etc. —but they don’t always work. For instance, I have had a harder time convincing myself to get up early to write during the pandemic, but I also struggle to string together sentences in the evening after I finish teaching and have recently resolved to more seriously protect my weekends for rest with the idea that I will be able to better write (and teach) if I’m not exhausted.


I am worried someone else said it better. At basically all times, no matter what I am working on. One of the (not)joys of experiencing depression and anxiety is the perpetual fear that whatever I am writing is going to turn out to be a steaming pile of shit. (Pardon the language.) The specific fear changes—that my ideas are stupid, that my writing is bad, that someone else already said whatever I’m trying to say and did so much more brilliantly and insightfully.


Sometimes I don’t feel well. Among non-debilitating ailments, headaches are the worst because that is the body-part I am using—usually—when I write, but all manner of physical ailments interfere with the process. Hunger is another one. I can write on an empty stomach if it is first thing in the morning, but if my stomach starts to rumble I need to address that before I can focus enough to write.


Listing reasons why I can’t write has always struck me as though I’m aping Goldilocks or assuming an “artistic” temperament where I can only work when the conditions are just right. But I also believe that anyone who declares that they are able to write most of the time is showing their privilege. That is, the statement announces that their financial, emotional, and physical conditions are almost always in the right place to be able to write. They still have to address distraction and writing still takes discipline, but it is worth acknowledging that there are a myriad of reasons why someone isn’t able to write at a particular moment.

My hurdles are mild compared to those faced by a lot of people, but they are still hurdles. Acknowledging that is the first step toward overcoming them.

Summer Reset

I feel like the spring semester just ended, so when did it get to be mid-July?

(I submitted the grades nearly two months ago.)

Since then I have:

  1. submitted a book manuscript
  2. presented at two conferences
  3. worked revised/re-formatted an article
  4. moved
  5. read some (okay, ~20) books

I think I managed to get some rest in there, too, but it is hard to tell sometimes.

July is often a hard month for me and I am finding this one particularly difficult. I thrive on routines, but this time of year is basically the doldrums. I have almost no immediate external deadlines, and it is still too far from the start of the semester to trigger any sense of urgency about preparing for classes but also too far from the previous semester to coast on those rhythms. I usually like to take a week or two post semester to decompress before settling into a summer routine. This year I spent the first month of the summer staring down writing deadlines and then the second month moving, so I am just now settling in to think about how I want this summer to look.

The irony here is that I have actually had a productive summer already and the best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am rested for the start of the semester.

Rest is certainly on the docket for the next couple of months, but I also know from past experience that doing nothing usually feeds back into my anxiety and undermines that recovery. It is better for me to find a balance that includes some work, some exercise, some hobbies, and some downtime nearly every day.

To that end, a few goals for the remainder of the semester, by category:

Research and Writing

  1. Spend at least an hour every workday writing. What I am working toward:
    • Submit the revised article mentioned above. I put this one on the back-burner last year in order to work on my book manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader report, but it is on the cusp of being sent off again.
    • Convert the longer of the two conference papers into an article for an e-book the organizers want to publish of the proceedings.
    • Re-write the second conference paper to sharpen my argument.
    • Looking for a book to review this year
    • Slosh around in a playground I have been invited to participate in to see if I have anything to say.
    • Dust off some of the projects I put to the side when I thought I would be leaving this profession to see what still runs, setting in motion a more fully-developed research pipeline.
  2. Read at least a chapter every day from an academic book not strictly for research
    • My goal is to finish three (3) books by the start of the semester

Teaching Prep

  1. Obviously I need to prepare my syllabuses, but, also:
    • run each course through a backward course design process that I haven’t had the time to do properly in while adjuncting.
    • pre-design a number of the course activities I want to implement, particularly in my World History courses where I was inspired by a numismatics activity Lee Brice and Theo Kopestonsky presented about at this year’s Association of Ancient Historians meeting. The goal of these assignments would be to introduce students to a range of evidentiary material from the ancient world that give them the tools to think historically about the world around them (see backward course design).
  2. Usually I read a book on teaching each summer, but I suspect that will not happen this year, so:
    • Find 2-3 articles on teaching to read this summer
    • Update my pedagogy reading list
    • Identify a pedagogy book to read by the end of the year
  3. Work through the Athenaze textbook. Book 1 has 15 chapters, so if I do roughly a chapter each workday I should be able to finish before start of the semester. This project is not for immediate use, but I was taught using a different textbook and I want to be more familiar with the other options in case I am ever given the opportunity to teach Greek.

Exercise

  1. I am currently nursing a calf-strain, but I would like to get to where I can run 2 miles at a time by the end of August. My actual goal is a good deal further, but I have found that running is a humbling experience for me and I need to set ambitious, but reachable goals. Before this strain I could run between 1 and 1.5 miles at a time.
  2. Gradually expand my weight routine past what I am currently doing — i.e. past a lot of pushups, which is effective, but also pretty repetitive.

Hobbies

  1. Read six (6) more books before the start of the fall semester.
  2. Finish the main storyline in Ghosts of Tsushima and decide whether to pick up a new game or return to the mythic quests in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
  3. Maybe finally write about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and/or other hobbies
  4. Definitely write more here. However, my guiding principle for this space will remain whatever I feel like writing about that I don’t have an outlet for.
  5. Spend a little bit of time overhauling this site. I have a few overdue changes I want to make, including archiving an article that is no longer embargoed by the journal, updating my Commonplace Book, and making headway on the forever-incomplete teaching section.
  6. Make a point of sketching in my sketchbook once a week, perhaps looking online for lessons.

This is a long list of projects and goals given that the summer is already 2/3 over, but there is a lot of overlap between categories and only a few of these points actually have measurable targets. The rest are (a) things I have to complete anyway where working on them sooner will relieve stress later; (b) things I’m likely to be doing anyway; or (c) building or reinforcing habits that can continue after the start of the semester.

Now I think I’m ready for summer to begin.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.

Lucky: A Reflection on the Academic Job Market

I signed a contract this week. In August 2021 I will be taking up the position of Assistant Professor of History (non-tenure line) at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO.

In many ways this has been an improbable turn.

I entered graduate school without a real sense of the academic job market, despite oblique but well-intentioned comments from my professors. All of that had changed by the time I finished my PhD, but I decided that I wanted to give it a go anyway. With the blessing of my partner, I resolved that I would give it my all for three full cycles past graduation before pivoting to other employment. That space of time, I reasoned, would give me time to put out some publications, expand my teaching portfolio, and polish my job documents and, if it didn’t happen by then, then I would be okay throwing myself into another field.

The three cycles worked out about how I anticipated. I published some. I taught a lot. Things were harder than I anticipated, but I started getting interviews. I was a finalist. But I could say the same of dozens or or sometimes hundreds of other people who applied for most or all of the same jobs that I did. The structural factors that have gradually squeezed the humanities even above and beyond higher education generally simply create too few jobs, leading to a battle royale for the few that remain. The scars created by this cycle are not quite as bloody as those in the Kingji Fukasaku movie of the same name, but they are every bit as real.

Then everything exploded last spring. The remaining jobs I had applied for cancelled their searches, which was a microcosm of what happened across the employment market.

I watched as the third anniversary of my graduation came and went and since my partner was still employed there was no reason not to apply for academic jobs again even as I started revising a resume that I hadn’t touched in a decade. Eventually I scrapped that document and wrote a resume from scratch. While I never got to the point of actually applying for non-academic jobs, that was at the front of my mind for most of the past year. Simply put, there weren’t many academic jobs on offer this year. I applied to two, with just a handful more that passed on or where the dates hadn’t come due yet. This after applying to more than a dozen in each of the past four years, which is low when compared to many of the job seekers I know.

Job hunting is draining under any circumstances. For an academic job, the application usually requires anywhere from four to seven discrete documents, several of them bespoke, as well as often reaching out to professional references for letters, all for a first-round interview. There does seem to be bit of movement to reduce requirements for initial applications, but these are still the norm. A drain in normal times, these applications were exhausting while teaching five classes at three different institutions during a pandemic, on top of keeping up a research profile and trying to weigh other career options. I was continuing to apply for as many of these as I could, but I was also ready to walk away. I want this job, but it is important to remember that it is a job.

This is not to say that thinking about that transition was easy. It often led to existential dread. I can keep writing history, I told myself, since I already treat as a second job given my contract(s), but how would I make enough money to eat? I feared that any employer would see my interest in their position as feigned, even if I was fully resolved to branch away from academia.

Of course, I didn’t get that far. I was just starting the process of doing informational interviews to build my network when I landed this opportunity, but I plan on following through with them anyway, should they prove useful sometime down the line.

Rejection is a normal part of academic life, but when you have trained for so long and written so much of your academic person into an application, it is hard not to take the news personally. To then also celebrate someone else landing a position you applied to can be bittersweet.

I used to reframe the question away from why them? to why not me, too?, but even this fed into the sense of isolation and exclusion, particularly when the answer comes back to seemingly inexorable austerity. Sitting in the corner (or at my computer) watching other people announce successes—whether a job, a PhD at your dream program, a fellowship, or be part of a great panel that you weren’t invited to be part of—can feel like being an outcast watching the “cool kids” do things. Trust me, I’ve been there. I am there. I will be there again. But it is important to engage and redirect these thoughts, not because of some influencer mantra about vibes, but because they are dangerous to your mental health.

I have actively resisted thinking about the people I am up against when I apply for these jobs. In part this is a matter of imposter syndrome and I would absolutely freak myself out, but it is also a matter of personal philosophy. I only have control over my performance, for one, but, even more, they’re only my competition in the most technical sense where we are up for the same scarce resources. I want to be part of a community of scholars online and more broadly that starts from a position of generosity and reciprocity (within reason: there’s no room for sexual predators here, for instance). For me, this means celebrating other people’s successes even when I am also envious.

People on Twitter have summed up the academic job market better and more colorfully than I have here: there is almost no profanity that it doesn’t warrant. I am still in disbelief that I have accepted a job after going through this cycle year over year. Sure, the position is not the gold-standard that is a tenure-track position, but a full-time and renewable position is pretty good in a world where academic employment is becoming increasingly adjunctified—to say nothing of the group of people I will get to work with or the students I’ll get to teach. Higher education is changing and there is a long way to go to ensure a more stable future, but, for now, I am just excited for the chance to be part of it.

What Would I Write

I am in no way a poet, but a year or two back I jotted down a few lines on my phone. I have toyed with publishing this a few times since, pulling back because the words came from a place of frustration.

What would I write
If I didn’t care what they thought
What would I say
If I weren’t trying to stay in a game

Would it be unhinged poetry
Fiery rhetoric or
Tender prose

Public consumption
Private catharsis or
Shouts and whimpers left unheard

Would I grow
Fizzle or
Explode

Or just fade away

I have been thinking about these lines again as the spring 2020 semester drew to a close.

When I started going on the job market during graduate school, I had resolved that I would give the academic job market at least three cycles post-graduation. Without going into too many details, I knew that the odds of landing an ancient history were not good for anyone, regardless of where they received their degree, but figured that three years was enough time to build a bit of a publishing track record, teaching portfolio, and to polish my documents. My hope was that I would be able to secure something full-time and, preferably, multi-year that I could use as a springboard to a permanent job.

In a way I was not wrong. I published a couple of articles in 2018 and have several more pieces of scholarship finished for edited collections or ready to submit to journals, and am working on selling my first book, all while scraping together teaching jobs in four departments at two universities on a semester-by-semester basis. In the 2018/2019 cycle, I had four job interviews and was chosen for a campus visit. In 2019/2020, I had another four interviews and a campus visit before COVID-19 effectively cancelled the academic job market. Further, the same forces that caused the academic job market to crash have dramatically diminished my chances of teaching in the fall semester. At the end of the three job market cycles I gave myself, not only am I staring at a career transition during a global economic crisis for the second time in my adult life (I graduated from college in 2008), but also the short-term employment that I had been using as a bridge is unavailable.

However, this is not a post about employment. My partner has a contract for next year and I have savings that I can rely on while I figure out what comes next. I will line up in the lists against the windmills once more next year, but I am one of many people expecting a particularly spare cycle even by recent standards.

This past spring semester was exhausting even before the transition to distance-learning redoubled my workload. I was teaching five classes on topics that ranged from all of world history to the Vietnam war, so, while I have had larger numbers of students in a number of semesters, this was the largest range of courses I have ever taught. Usually I emerge from the semester exhausted and ready to rest for a week or two before I can turn my attention to my writing projects.

What I discovered this semester was a geyser of words bubbling just below the surface such that the past several weeks have marked one of my most productive writing stretches in almost a year. I am entering into a period of academic uncertainty with more writing projects on my plate than ever, more ideas for future projects than ever, and more enthusiasm for writing than ever. So much, in fact, that I opened a new document on whim last week and started free writing something that is half-forward, half-proposal about a topic I’ve been thinking about for maybe a decade and a half.

All of which brings me back to the lines I jotted down and quoted above. With the exceptions of this site, a private journal, and an intermittent epistolary habit with friends and family, everything I have written over quite a few years has been geared toward securing an academic job. That means peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews of the latest scholarly books, and working to publish my dissertation.

All of these publications function on a system where the academic employer, rather than the publisher, provides the bulk of both research funds and financial compensation. Publishers do incur costs, but journals function on prestige system for both authors and reviewers and the low print runs of academic books mean that authors don’t make much profit, even though both books and journal articles require significant time and energy investment.

If this marks the end of my run in higher education, which isn’t a certainty but does seem increasingly likely, then publishing research in academic outlets is little more than an exercise in nostalgia. I like research, but research takes time, and I am having a hard time envisioning doing that work without hope of compensation when I could—and should— be looking to write for a wider audience.

I have long approached academic publishing as a second job much as many commercial authors work two or more jobs. Other people might approach them as two parts of a single whole, but the nature of my academic contracts after graduate school have never included a research component. My primary employment was teaching. My second job was research and writing. My hope was that I could someday combine the two into a single paycheck, which, in turn, meant prioritizing a certain type of writing. This latest turn in my relationship to academia means changing these priorities.

I am going to finish the academic work already well-underway as a matter of pride. I can see publishing pieces other than book reviews in academic journals again someday in the future, but that prospect is contingent on secure employment in whatever form that ends up taking. In the meantime, the words are coming and it is just a matter of directing them in a productive direction.

The Twilight of the Blogs

A few months ago Bill Caraher declared that this is a “golden age” of blogging about the ancient world, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with despite the popular idea of a blogpocaplyse. And yet when Neville Morley posted last week about a decline in blog traffic, that, too rang true.

Caraher subsequently posted a reflection on the changing rhythm of blogs, suggesting: “Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields.

I am perhaps a little too aware of my blog traffic. Since switching to the WordPress platform I have had slow, but steady year over year growth. Although much of this growth is attributable to the WordPress reader, the single largest referrer, particularly when a post blows up, is Twitter.

(The exception to this statement is an intermittent flurry of activity from India any time there is an election because I once wrote about Intizar Husain’s Basti.)

Ultimately, though, I am small potatoes. “Growth” here is relative in that I started virtually from scratch and do very little promotion outside linking to each post in a tweet.

Nor do I really engage with scholarship or sources like most substantial classics-related blogs. I’ve written about this before, but, in short, my writing has passed through several iterations before settling into what it is now: a catchall where I can write about things for which I do not have another outlet. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, and, for instance, I don’t write about books for any other outlet (at the moment––I would love to start), so those posts go here.

At the same time, blog posts are as resource where I can direct people should I not have space to give a substantial answer. To give just one example, a Twitter-friend asked about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book I wrote about last year and so in addition to a short answer on Twitter, I was able to point to the longer thoughts here. Similarly, I wrote reflections about the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Diego and in defense of graduate programs at non-elite schools, as well as posting a reading list for teaching at the college level. Like the examples Caraher gives, the most trafficked posts are those grappling with the social or structural issues in academia and rely on viral (at least by my standards) transmission.

Other platforms serve other purposes. Podcasts give the sense of being a silent participant in the conversation. Instagram allows me to post pictures of things I bake and places I go. Twitter tends toward the ephemeral, albeit with a long public record, as it flies by in quick drips that fit both hot-take culture and the large number of demands on our attention.

Does this mean that the current blog landscape is populated not by survivors living in a new Eden, but those who are already dead and just don’t know it?

Yes and no. A few years ago I noticed that a blurring between reportage and analysis or opinion on news sites. The suggested “articles” were increasingly from the latter category, on blogs hosted by the site. This says to me that the problem of declining traffic isn’t a matter of “blogs,” but of unaffiliated blogs. Based on the comments on Morley’s post, I am hardly alone in struggling to see value in writing substantial posts for a personal blog since the odds of it being picked up are significantly lower.

But, as Caraher notes, blogging has matured in a somewhat different direction, and each blog will reflect the individual author(s). Traffic is a sort of validation, but reasons to blog exist beyond that alone. So long as I see value in using this space to organize my thoughts I will continue to blog. At the moment I am confident enough that I plan to use student-run blogs in two of my classes for the upcoming semester.

Course Reflection: Spring 2019

Grades are in for the semester, so I am taking a moment to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

I taught two courses on two different academic calendars this semester. First to start and first to finish was a section of World History Since 1500, a general ed course with 27 students and few history majors; the second was an upper-level survey course, The Hellenistic World, with 34 students, about half of these were history majors and a third had previously taken classes with me.

My World History course got off to a rough start, with a number of interruptions in January so that three weeks into a thrice-a-week class, we had only met five times. Once I went home to record a lecture that students could listen to as a make-up because I worried we were falling behind. These first weeks are critical for building routine, so this was an inauspicious start to the semester.

My goal in these big survey courses is to help students see the big picture of world history, emphasizing two big points: 1) global connections and exchange, and 2) artifice and propaganda in historical presentation (including, among other things, scientific racism). For World History Since 1500, I added a third theme, social organization and centralization.

I designed this course roughly in two halves. The first half set up and paid off the first wave of European colonialism, looking at the underlying factors that underpinned “the age of exploration” and how the Europeans interacted with the places they visited, usually from the perspective of the other people. The second half of the course looked at how European colonialism changed, particularly in the late-18th and 19th centuries, with an emphasis on how the industrial revolution and new scientific notions shaped the world, whether in terms of genocide or establishing a line between the developed world and the global south.

I liked this course arc, and it worked hand in hand with my chosen textbook, von Sivers, et al. Patterns of World History 3e (Oxford), but it also led me straight into the survey trap: trying to cover too much #content. World history since 1500 is an enormous topic. I said this the first day of class, but for as much as I left out, I still tried to cover too much.

Partly because in a bid for coverage and partly because I didn’t have a deep repository of sources and activities for this course, I ended up lecturing more than I would have liked. Usually I intersperse lectures with pictures or written accounts and have students talk about what they see, but was continually thwarted. In frustration I went away from this too much as the semester wore on. I did my best to model good habits for the students by, for instance, presenting a thesis at the outset of every class that I would proceed to offer evidence for, but this was a small consolation compared to backing off and giving my students the agency and tools to learn.

Obviously, this will be a point of emphasis next time I teach this class. The question is whether I would be better off scaling back the amount of content overall in favor of student directed exploration or converting a number of the “lectures” to audio or video presentations. The latter would effectively flip the classroom and dedicate the time to discussion and other activities. There is a lot of virtue in this, but I worry about asking for too much time outside of the classroom for content delivery and thereby either leaving students behind or making class seem superfluous. In class, at least, I can both ask and field questions.

Despite having more students, I was on firmer footing with The Hellenistic World. It was my first time teaching this course, too, using Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium (California) and Michael Austin’s The Hellenistic World (Cambridge) sourcebook.

I subtitled this course “Hellenism from the Mediterranean to the Margins” and let our guiding questions be “what exactly is the Hellenistic period?” and “what makes something Hellenistic?” The first half of the course was fairly traditional, focusing on the funeral games for Alexander the Great and the political development of the big three Hellenistic dynasties, the Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Antigonids, as well as Pergamum and the hellenistic polis. The second half of the course opened up questions about hellenism and hellenistic cultures, with a broad exploration of issues ranging from philosophical schools, Hellenism in central Asia, the supposed rejection of hellenism by the Maccabees, and finally how the appearance of Rome changed the Hellenistic period.

The two courses shared a basic structure, with weekly quizzes, source analyses, and two take-home exams, with an opportunity to revise the first one.

The quizzes serve as a way to touch base once a week, giving students a chance to practice recall (they are allowed to retake the quizzes up until the due date) and to practice thesis-writing skills with one or more written answers, each of which is three to four sentences long. I introduced this system for my survey classes last fall and I’m pleased with the results, except that I will move the due date from Sunday to Friday, based on popular demand. (I wrote about this system here.)

I am on the record loathing bluebook-style exams because I think that they are comically poor tools for assessing what students have learned in a course, and so offer take-home exams instead, adjusting the structure based on course level. In my intro surveys, this meant one essay from a choice of three, one short source analysis, and a prompted reflection.

In The Hellenistic World, an upper level survey, students had to write two essays for each exam, one mandatory about what defines the Hellenistic world, and one from a choice of three. For this course, I repeated a variation of the mandatory question on the final, allowing them to approach it again having gone through the entire course.

My essay questions on these exams are big topics of the sort that a graduate student might see on a comprehensive exam. Obviously I don’t expect comprehensiveness on the exams, but I am looking to see how they craft an argument based on the tools and resources at their disposal. Despite some dud prompts, these questions do a pretty good job of showing what the students have learned, particularly when coupled with an opportunity to rewrite.

Not for the first time, though, I am less satisfied with the results on the source analysis, and, based on the comments on my evaluations this semester, the students are equally frustrated. I would simply drop the assignment, except that, ultimately, this is the thing that matters for historians of any level––and for the time that the students are in the course, this is what they are.

A good source analysis takes an object or text, puts it in its historical context, and analyzes the reciprocal relationship between what it reveals about that context and what the context reveals about it. Almost every object, text, or picture can be historicized this way. Some students take to this project like a fish to water, writing really thoughtful and incisive critiques, but, more often, their responses are all over the map, from so broad as to lack significance to being unable to place the source in a historical context, and everything in between. The broader the topic of the course, the more difficulty students have with this because the more familiar they are with the historical backdrop. Part of the solution will be to dedicate more class time to source analysis tutorials, but I don’t know yet exactly what this will look like.

Finally, I create* [read: adapted from the internet] an assignment for my World History students where they had to read a historical fiction novel set during the period of our course and write about how the author presents and adapts issues of global history in the book. This assignment had mixed success, with some really, really good responses to books like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, while other students got caught up writing literary, as opposed to historical, analyses. I’m not sure I will keep this assignment the next time around until I also restructure the course around primary sources that more closely map onto the topics of the novels, but I stand by the assignment as a way to help students think about historical and historicizing memory.

This was a grueling semester for me, mostly above and beyond the fact that I was teaching two courses for the first time, and the fact that I had two very good groups of students helped immensely because I almost always looked forward to going to class. And yet, now that I have taught both courses all the way through I finally feel about ready to teach them. Here’s hoping for a next time.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

Luck

Thomas Jefferson once said “I often find that the harder I work the luckier I am.” Actually, probably not. He is attributed with having said or written something of the sort, but the accuracy of internet quotations is such that I didn’t bother looking up the exact phrasing.

This aphorism fits neatly into a motivation, can-do ethos that suggests anything is possible if you just work hard enough. It fits nicely on a poster, too, but so do a lot of statements.

The problem is that this ethos is also a recipe for burnout when taken to its logical extreme. Graduate school particularly suffers from this sort of progression, but a series of articles have recently look at burnout as a social problem crushing some combination of millennials, young people, and/or everyone suffering from precarity.

As a junior scholar trying to make my way in the world of academia, I came to hate the word “if” in 2018. “If” is dangerous. If I just do X, Y, or Z, ad infinitum.

Without perspective, “if” paves the road to burnout. The problem is that “if” brims with potential, with hope. Hard work and hope are both good, but sometimes they can come to naught. Sometimes the most important “if” is “if I get a lucky break.”

Not the luck of hard work, but pure, simple, ineffable luck of forces beyond your control breaking the right way.

I wrote this post in hotels and airports while returning to Columbia from a campus interview where I was a finalist for a tenure track job. As I sit in an airport in Dallas I just keep coming back to the question, “Do I feel lucky?”

Addendum: My father pointed out that the original quote about luck is attributed to L. Anneaus Seneca. A cursory Google search says this attribution dates to at least 1912 in a collection of quotations, but is thought to be a corruption of De Beneficiis 7.1.4, on the best wrestler being not the one who prepares all the tricks, but the one who masters one or two and looks for the opportunity to use them.

I embargoed this post until the  job search ended. I found out this morning that the job went to someone else.