First day fragments

My fall semester begins in earnest today, with the first session for both of my classes. I don’t have a single back-to-school post idea, but rather a bunch of loosely connected ones, so decided to go with a fragmentary format.

“I didn’t get everything done” is a standard lament for academics come late August, bemoaning some combination of the cult of productivity, human limitations, and the difficulties of researching during the school year. I am no exception. I set an ambitious schedule for reading scholarship beyond my immediate research, but only managed to read a handful of books and articles, and a couple of books on teaching.

There are a couple of explanations for this failure. One is that the summer quickly became very busy, with multiple family trips that had less down-time than anticipated, meaning that there was neither opportunity for reading nor for a deep recharge of my batteries. Another was that I taught an intensive summer World History course in June, so much of my spare reading went toward preparing for class. A third was that seemingly every spare moment around these time commitments was sucked up by working on revising my dissertation as a book. My goal for that was to have it under review by the start of class, but I missed that deadline, too. At least I am in a position to meet my revised goal of August 31 for that one…

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There has been a movement in recent years to normalize failure, particularly in academia, leading to people sharing their failures on Twitter over the last week. I mentioned there that I respect the movement, and appreciate the baseball analogy where if you’re a batter and only “fail” (make an out) at the plate six out of every ten times, you belong in the hall of fame. (There are obviously other statistics from baseball that could make that more or less extreme. If you’re a pitcher and batters swing and miss just 20% of the time, you’re incredible, but if that is the percentage of the time you throw strikes, then you probably quit playing in little league.) I respect the impulse to normalize failure because it is inevitably going to happen, regardless of how generous and kind the academy becomes. Everyone is going to experience article/grant/abstract/job/proposal rejections for a host of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are good (the project needs more work), sometimes they are petty, and a lot of the time is a simple numbers game that has almost nothing to do with what was proposed.

My shadow CV includes all of these things, including four article rejections, two more revise and resubmits that were later accepted, at least seven paper abstracts rejected that I can think of off hand, too many funding applications for fellowships and travel grants to count them all. And I am only a little more than a year removed from graduating with my PhD.

At the same time, I found the push to normalize, share, and celebrate failure on social media hard to handle. The main reason is that while failure is normal in the academy, and rejections can be handled deftly with an eye toward improving the project for the next time around, it is also a sign of privilege to be able to reflect on this Shadow CV. It is coming from someone still “in the game”, as it were, and I heard with every round of shares “this is what you *should* have been applying for.” As in, your failures themselves are inadequate because the “stars” fail bigger and better.

Then pair this with the part I left out of my Shadow CV that are the all jobs I’ve applied to without making the long list. The Shadow CV is meant to normalize failure so that people can better overcome the natural fear of it and thereby reduce anxiety, but when mixed with too few academic jobs to go around and the sheer amount of time that applying for them takes, it just exacerbated mine.

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I’m looking forward to teaching both of my classes this semester. One I am teaching my own syllabus for the second time, the other I am teaching as the sole instructor for the first time. I had the chance to teach on my own a little bit during graduate school, but this is my second year of continuously teaching my own courses and reading up on pedagogy, so I am now to synthesize some principles for my classroom.

First Principle: Learning, not grades. I do not care about grades beyond making sure that I have created a reasonable and achievable grade scale for the class. My goal as a teacher is to help students develop practical skills such as writing and the ability to understand the world through critical analysis and synthesizing information. Toward that end, I believe that many common assessment tools that are built for scale are next to useless in actually assessing learning. I design my classes around assignments that require students to develop arguments through writing and that build on each other so that students can show improvement in tasks that are not easy.

Second Principle: Empathy. Students are adults who have a larger number of demands on them than even I did when entering school fifteen years ago. I aspire to treat them like adults with responsibilities, just one of which is my class. College is “the real world” where students are on their own for the first time, and I want to be a mentor/coach/guide. This means having empathy, and encouraging them to take ownership of their education by talking with me when they have a conflict or need help.

Third Principle: Engagement. “Meaningful learning experiences” is a hot topic, though my mother assures me that this has been the key phrase for many decades now. Every class is going to be selective in the material it covers, so I see my job being to give students the tools to learn more and to pique their curiosity to want to do so. This means developing activities and assignments that require engagement, through games, debates, and projects where students take ownership of the material. This has not been the easiest task for me as someone who found history books thrilling in high school, but something that I am committed to improving in my own teaching.

There are others, but these are my first three.

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Without further ado, let the semester begin!

Taking a moment on a holiday

I like food a lot, and today is one of, if not the premier food event across the United States. Standard, not metric, tons of Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potato, and pumpkin pie will be made and consumed today, to go with cider and adult beverages. I like all of these things, and even have a soft spot for the traditional fare, which is sometimes derided as boring. After that preface, however, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of Thanksgiving, and not because of its historical connotations. In part, I don’t have the facilities to host and while there are some friends in town, family and other friends are scattered from coast to coast, so my interest in the day is somewhat muted. Yet have a more philosophical opposition to specific gluttonous days: rather than a single day to eat well and eat too much, would it not be better to eat well and to satiety every day? Time is precious, but good food is worth it, and my ideal is to host gatherings [see the above limitations] with more frequency.

On this Thanksgiving day, I have the added limitation of having just gotten back from a trip to Minneapolis, and am therefore laying low–cleaning, baking, and generally putting things back together. More than that, I didn’t get to spend enough time writing on this particular trip, and (in so doing) realized that what I really want to do is to spend time working on my dissertation. I also fully intend to spend Black Friday the same thing.

There is a risk that publicly acknowledging thanks on a dedicated day implies that one need not do so any other day, but I think it is still worth doing so. In the macro level, I am thankful for my health, my loved ones, including friends and family. More specifically, though, I am thankful that I still really enjoy my research and am still getting an opportunity to read and write for my job (as much as I am looking forward to getting back to teaching).

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I hope to write more here, but between job applications, dissertation, teaching, and the various protests that have taken place at the University of Missouri, it has been a busy several months.

Advancing Macedonian Historiography

According to Collingwood the mark of the historian and the purpose therein is to relive past events in order to spin out the why of stories. History inevitably ends with the present, not the future, but for history to have value, it must discover why past events happened the way they did, be it from socio-economic trends or from reliving military campaigns from the point of view of the general.

The next advancement in Macedonian history will come in one of two places. The first being the fore bearers of Philip and Alexander, bringing to life the institutions so poorly understood in the time of Philip and Alexander. The second, and more probable,* place will be in the study of the Macedonian hierarchy under Philip and Alexander.

Each new work on Alexander brings in a new perspective because each is by a historian** with a different set of experiences, but most are not really saying anything new. Many of these books simply rehash other arguments and arrange the information in new ways. When they do say something new, it is often touching upon absurd, such as investigatory evaluation of suspects for Alexander’s murder.

In short, what has been brought to life about Alexander has reached the limit of usefulness. Of course this will not stop people from writing about Alexander, but new works are less useful than one might think.

Each of the two topics for advancement round out the study of Alexander and Macedonia the way a new book about Alexander does not. For this field to advance, one or both needs to be seriously studied. Careful and convincing answers are needed.

*More probable simply because the focus of so much work in on Alexander. For some reason people find him interesting. Go figure.

**Though labeling some of the authors as historians would be generous at best.

Footnotes versus Endnotes

As both a reader and a researcher I love footnotes. I love the ability to digress slightly, relate related, even if not especially pertinent information, to explain minutiae of an argument without detracting from the narrative. They are also extremely useful for noting where certain information, especially primary information and obscure facts, come from. For scholars, especially respected ones, to simply state a fact as true without acknowledging or explaining where this information comes from is simply unacceptable to me.1

The same information may be expressed in an endnote, but I find them to be unwieldy. In a footnote you may explain tangents, but they must be narrower in scope simply because there should be more text on a given page than footnotes. In theory the same could apply to end-notes, but there is more freedom to ramble on.

As a reader, I hate end-notes because they interrupt the flow of my reading.2 Reading footnotes I can pause at a paragraph break, skim through the footnote and pick up again with little time lost. End-notes I can stop at a paragraph, but then have to find where in the notes at the end of the book my particular note is located. This is even more true when the author renumbers their end-notes by chapter, because then if I reach the right number, I may not be on the right page.

There it is. End-notes are better than no notes, but inferior to footnotes because of reading flow and their lack of checks on their length or deviation.


1 Most recently I saw this in Paul Cartledge’s book Alexander the Great, where he chose a starting point for much of the action with the claim that Parmenion was from Upper Macedonia. My research does not support this, if for no other reason than that Parmenion was a major player in Lower Macedonia for years prior to unification and that there are no sources attributing to his birth location. My suspicion is that he was a middling aristocrat from Lower Macedonia. Further, Upper Macedonia is the modern term for several different principalities, not one unified area. I could go on into much more detail, but that is another footnote.

2 That is if I care enough to follow through.