Speaking Bones

“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”

“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”

“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.

Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.

(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)

The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.

The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.

Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.

The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.

Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.

But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.

Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.

Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.

What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.

The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.

Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:

“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”

“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.

“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”

In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.

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The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

The Immortal King Rao

Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.

The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.

The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.

This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.

The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.

The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.

It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.

And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.

King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.

Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.

The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.

The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.

Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.

If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.

There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.

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I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The Dinner

One of my favorite things to do when I meet people from foreign countries is to ask them what they think the best novel is from their country. This works almost as well to start a conversation as asking them about their country’s food and is an easy way for me to add interesting volumes to my reading list. A few years ago at a virtual gathering during an online conference I happened to be chatting with someone from the Netherlands who mentioned Herman Koch’s The Dinner as not necessarily the best novel, but as one that was particularly well-received.

A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants.

The Dinner is a tidy novel that ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening, the titular dinner at a fancy restaurant. Serge Lohman, the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, arranged this dinner so that he and his wife Babette can discuss some family business with his younger brother Paul and his wife Claire.

Paul narrates the story and is fond of recounting the truism from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Lohman’s achievement in The Dinner is found in interrogating the blurred line between those two categories.

Paul can barely stand his brother, who he characterizes as a fraudulent boor. Serge, he thinks, represents much of what is wrong with society. He lacks imagination about food, while also being a wine snob who puts on airs about being an every-man. Similarly, he makes a big deal about how he adopted a son from Burkina Faso, but is entirely oblivious to how his behavior oppresses the citizens in the small French town where he owns a vacation home.

Like all younger brothers, he likes to make his older brother squirm. (Not spoken as an older brother, or anything.)

When the story opens, Paul seems to have a happy family. He and his wife Claire are a loving couple—even if they like to egg on Serge from time to time—and if their son Michel is having a hard go of it lately, well, he’s a teenager. It isn’t as though he’s into drugs. Paul has some sharp, jaded observations about the restaurant and his brother, but he does not, for the most part, vocalize them. Further, he seems genuinely concerned when Babette arrives at the restaurant and seems to have been crying in the car and frustrated with his brother’s superior attitude with the restaurant staff. In short, he seems like a nice enough.

Slowly, these initial impressions are disabused.

It turns out that this family has a nasty secret. Some months ago, video emerged of a brutal attack on a homeless person sleeping at ATM. Two teenagers walking into the ATM first threw objects at the woman, followed by a can of gasoline that erupted into flame and killed her. Nobody was apprehended for the crime, but Paul recognized the two boys: his son Michel and his nephew Rick.

As it happens, this is the family business that Serge wants to discuss—after all, he has a political career to consider. Paul’s instinct is to protect his son, and the only question left is how far he will have to go.

(There is more to the plot, but I’m ending the synopsis here so as to not give away some of the twists in this nasty family drama.)

The strength of the novel is found in the gradual reveal of Paul’s personality and how that shapes the reader’s understanding of the Lohman family. Koch starts Paul as the mild brother of a politician of some renown and slowly peels back that exterior to reveal a monster with vicious ideas and a history of assault. Actions speak for themselves even if he maintains his own moral superiority.

When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.

The Dinner can be read in some ways as a metaphor about getting to know someone. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story and many are convinced of their own rectitude. When we meet new people, we only know the face they present to the world and only later learn what type of person we are interacting with. Most of us don’t have nearly such odious skeletons in our closet, but neither are we literary creations.

I ultimately found The Dinner a little bit on the nose in how it revels in this family drama, but it is a tightly-crafted and compelling story that reads very quickly—even if I emerged from it wanting to wash my hands of the entire Lohman clan.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which seemed to draw parallel’s between a miscarriage and being an adjunct professor. While the novel had some uncomfortable observations about being an adjunct, I found the story weighted more toward the miscarriage side. Still, the implications of the comparison are uncomfortable. I also finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I ultimately found disappointing. It was cute and had some nice anecdotes, but I kept hoping for a stronger argument and kept bumping against implications about, for instance, Western Civilization. By contrast, the first volume of the Saga graphic novel was truly great.

Learning to Run Again

This morning I woke up before my alarm. I grabbed my phone to turn that alarm off and checked a few things before getting out of bed. Then I puttered around the house, reading a novel and stretching by turns for a little more than an hour, just long enough to steep and drink a big mug of tea.

Then I laced up my running shoes and set out.

My current bout of running came on about a month and a half ago. I have never been as serious or successful a runner as my father and brothers who for a number of years now have run marathons together, but this is not my first time running. In high school, I would go for runs with my father and ran a few local 5k races. Early in graduate school I tried running again. It was during this period that I reached my longest distances, running about five miles at least once a week and topping out at about eight miles before running into a leg injury. I tried a “run the year” challenge a few years ago and contributed 173 miles to my team’s total, including a few miles when I couldn’t sleep early in the morning while on a job interview. Then injuries. I tried again after the pandemic closed the gym where I exercised. My last attempt, shortly after moving last summer (and, in retrospect, after holding my foot on the accelerator of a moving truck for many hours), ended abruptly with sharp pain in my lower calf less than a quarter mile into a run.

I am a slow runner, particularly these days. I am also not running very far—just a little under two miles today. But this is okay. My focus right now is on form. On my gait, and trying to keep it in line with how I imagine I run barefoot since I have suffered far more injuries while running in shoes than I ever did playing ultimate barefoot, which I did into my 30s. Correlation need not be causation, but so far, so good. I am running slow and careful, and celebrating ending each run for ending uninjured rather than for reaching a particular distance or speed. Those will come, but only if I can stay healthy.

I like the idea of running more than I actually like running. Rather, I would like to like to be someone who likes running, who achieves that runner’s high, who runs an annual marathon. But I spend my runs thinking about how everything hurts and, recently, fretting about whether this footfall will be the the one when something gives out and I have to start over. I can also only compete against myself while running, and pushing myself this way is exactly what I’m trying not to do.

By contrast, I used to play basketball for hours every week. My slowness didn’t matter as much in a confined playing surface where I could change speeds and understand the space. And since I didn’t like to lose, even in a silly pick-up game, I could just lose myself in the game and not think about what hurt.

And yet, running is what I have right now, so running is what I’m doing alongside a daily yoga routine.

My return to running also prompted me to finally pull Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run off my to-read shelf. McDougall describes himself as a frequently-injured runner, so I thought it might unlock the secret to running pain-free. In a way, it might have.

The centerpiece of Born to Run is a 2006 race in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Mountains between a motley crew of American ultramarathon runners, including Scott Jurek, one of the best in the world at the time, and some of the best Rarámuri (Tarahumara) arranged by a mysterious figure called Caballo Blanco (Micah True).

(The race went on to become an annual event, though its founder died in 2012.)

It is an incredible story. Rarámuri runners had made their appearance in ultra-marathon circles at the Leadville 100, a high-altitude ultramarathon in Colorado, in 1993 and 1994. A guide and race director named Rick Fisher rolled up to the race with a team of Rarámuri for whom he was the self-appointed team manager. The Rarámuri runners won both years, setting a new course record in the second race, before deciding that putting up with Fisher’s actions wasn’t worth their participation.

(An article from 1996 in Ultrarunning about a race in Copper Canyon in which True also participated acknowledges Fisher’s “antics,” but points suggests that they didn’t end his relationship with the tribe.)

However, this story is the hook. Born to Run is an extended argument for a minimalist running style that exploded in popularity following its publication. McDougall’s thesis is that modern running shoes, and the industry that is predicated on selling those shoes, causes us to run in ways that cause injuries. This argument is somewhat anecdotal, relying on personal experience and stories of incredible endurance from athletes before the advent of running shoes.

The Rarámuri, whose name means “The Running People,” are exhibit A. The Rarámuri are a tribe that lives in isolated villages deep in the Sierra Madre Occidentals, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The terrain makes long-distance travel a challenge, so they Rarámuri run. But they also run for ceremony and sport in a ceremonial ball-game called rarajipara where teams work to kick a ball an agreed upon distance, chasing it down after each kick. All the while, runners wear just a traditional sandal called huaraches.

My own experience with running makes me sympathetic to McDougall’s argument, and I am seriously considering getting a pair of zero-drop shoes and transitioning in this direction for my footwear. However, the more I read about running injuries, the more it seems that the answers might be more idiosyncratic. That is, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. While some studies suggest physiological advantages to barefoot running, others point out that not all barefoot runners run with the same gait. A number of studies suggest that barefoot running has shifted the types of injuries (aided perhaps by people transitioning too quickly) rather than reducing them. I think that barefoot running could be good for me, but all of this makes me think that I shouldn’t ditch the running shoes for every run just yet.

While I was reading Born to Run, a friend suggested that I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which connects my current focus on running with my ongoing obsession with writing.

In addition to being a novelist, Murakami is a marathoner and triathlete who describes how his goal is to run one marathon a year. This memoir is a collection of essays on the theme of running and training, and, unlike Born to Run, is not meant to be an argument for a particular type of training.

I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy.

Nevertheless, I found What I Talk about When I Talk About Running to be particularly inspiring. Murakami is a more successful runner than I ever expect to be, even though I’m only three years older now than he was when he started running. And yet, I found something admirable about his approach. Running, like writing, is just something Murakami does, and he doesn’t think about a whole lot when he is on the road. His goal in running is to run to the end of the course. That’s it. He gets frustrated when he can’t run as fast as he used to, but he is not running to beat the other people, and uses the experience to turn inward.

And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.

But it should perhaps not come as a surprise that I highlighted more passages about writing than I did about running, though Murakami makes a case that the is broad overlap in a both a running temperament and a writing one. Both activities require long periods of isolation and where success is not synonymous with “winning.” Doing them is more important than being the best at them.

I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.

A useful reminder.

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I have had a hard time writing about books recently. Before these two books, I got bogged down in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I am still trying to process, and then read Ondjaki’s The Transparent City, which is a very sad story about an impoverished community in Luanda, Angola. I would like to write about these, but I’m not sure that I have anything coherent to say and June has turned much busier than I had hoped—last week I was at AP Rating in Kansas City, then I wrote a conference paper that I delivered yesterday, and now I’m staring down a book deadline and other writing obligations. By the time I have time, I might be too far removed to come back to those books. I am now reading Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which is a novel about adjunct labor and miscarriage in a way that highlights the lack of control in both situations.

The End of Burnout

Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.

I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.

By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…

I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.

At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.

At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”

Seriously.

I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.

According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.

I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.

  • The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
  • I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
  • I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
  • Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
  • The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
  • I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.

Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.

However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.

Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.

The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”

  1. People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
  2. There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.

That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?

The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.

I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.

Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.

(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)

Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.

The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.

At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.

Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.

(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)

However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.

I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.

The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.

The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).

To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.

Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.

The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had mixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

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I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Lost & Found

Memoir is a genre that I mostly avoid. If one were to ask why I only read one or two memoirs a year, I would wave generally at the idea that the intimate details of someone’s life are not really of interest to me, but the reality is that I almost always enjoy the handful that I do read. The truth is that I enjoy process stories, so memoirs like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Chang’s Eat a Peach, and Dessa’s My Own Devices are very much my thing, and I can appreciate a good writing about heritage or society, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Maybe I just don’t like the idea of the genre. Clearly, the aversion isn’t borne out in practice.

When I first came across Kathryn Schulz’ Lost & Found through Keith Law’s podcast I initially hesitated. I knew Schulz could write—she has a Pulitzer for her feature on the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest—but the subject of her memoir, losing her father and falling in love, seemed to follow all of the stereotypes of the genre that leave me cold when I look at lists of memoirs that critics deem “the best.”

Then Shulz started talking about her father. Before the podcast had finished, I had acquired Lost & Found as an ebook from the library.

Lost & Found is divided into three thematic sections that unfold in loose chronological order: Lost, Found, and, as one might expect from the title, &.

We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.

Lost is, predictably, a story of loss. But it is also a story imbued with the deep love of family. This opening section is about her father, a Jewish immigrant who moved from Łodź to Tel Aviv and then to the United States. Schulz describes her father as an erudite, intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. He was also someone who habitually lost his wallet and other simple objects. Her love for him radiates from the page as she weaves his story with the heartbreak of losing him and meditations on the existential imperative of loss.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

Found, a natural complement to Lost, is a story about falling in love, written as though it is a meet-cute.

The first meeting took place in the Hudson River Valley where Schulz was living, alone, when friends introduced them. C lived hours to the south and stopped by when she passed through on a separate trip. The first date stretched into hours. The second lasted even longer. Schulz says that she had already decided to marry C, despite their differences.

Found is both saccharine and overflowing with joy. Schulz fills these pages with the exhilaration of falling in love—the long dates, the thrill of discovering an unexpected shared love (country music, in this case), the dawning realization that you don’t want to spend your life with anyone else. And, of course, learning how to communicate in a relationship with another person who is, by the nature of existence, different from yourself.

All of this is also made all the more profound given that it happens concurrently with the loss of her father.

The astonishment is all in the being here.

& is the story of being, about joining lives and the choices that get made along the way. It starts with a discussion about the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula where C grew up, in a life that could hardly be more different from Schulz’s own upbringing suburban Ohio. It reaches its climax at a wedding in the same region.

Some published reviews of Lost & Found remark that Schulz’ proclivity for wonderment borders on the tedious, but it worked for me. Schulz is not impervious to the crushing weight of contemporary events—she describes the concern that C’s extended family might raise objections to their marriage at their wedding, for instance—but she fills page after page of Lost & Found with reminders to seek joy in being because loss is a certainty.

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I am expecting that I will write more of these posts (along with a number of other posts) now that the semester is coming to an end. Most recently, I finished Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, an Icelandic thriller. I am now reading Babylon’s Ashes—the sixth book in the series—which means that I am likely going to finish the last three books this summer.

Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time

I don’t like grades.

As a student, I oscillated between taking anything but superlative grades as a sign of my own failure and being utterly indifferent to grades as a secondary consideration to learning the material. Either way, grades were an imperfect motivator.

As a teacher, I am even more ambivalent about grades, which I see as something I am required to do in order to rank my students. I am always prouder of a student who struggles and reaches a breakthrough than the genius who coasts through the course, even though the latter receives the higher grade. My own experience as a student informs how I structure my courses, leading to policies that encourage regular engagement, choice in how to complete assignments, emphasis on the process over product, and often opportunities for revision. Each of these course policies marked an improvement, but they all retained the thing that I was in many ways least satisfied with: grades.

A few weeks ago a faculty development seminar introduced me to the broad strokes of Specifications Grading and since it seemed like the direction I have been moving my courses, I spent nearly an hour after the event jotting down preliminary notes for what that might look like in my course. At the end of that day I was intrigued, but needed more information. Over my spring break, therefore, I read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus 2014).

Broadly speaking, Specifications (Specs) Grading is a variation on a pass-fail, contract grading, and competency-based outcomes that ties course assignments to specific course objectives. This model, Nilson argues, has three major benefits. First, setting a high bar for “acceptable” work but giving opportunities for revision imposes rigor without making the professor into a jerk. Second, demystifying the grading process and offering flexibility reduces stress on the students. Third, eliminating partial credit saves time. Some model systems presented a fourth potential benefit of allowing teachers to give more of their limited attention to those students aiming for the higher grades.

In addition to an argument for its benefits, Specifications Grading serves as a guide to adapt traditional grading models to a specs system across two broad categories: outcomes and assignments/rubrics.

If you’re anything like me, you course outcomes won’t work for specs grading. Nobody ever really taught me how to write objectives so what I have in my syllabuses focus on what the students will receive. The conceit of an objective might be well-intentioned, but if the students can’t demonstrate what they are learning through the assessments, then it won’t work. Often this just means a subtle, but significant shift:

  • Students will gain a broad understanding of US history since 1877.
  • Students will be able to identify the major events of American history since 1877

Each of these objectives would then be demonstrated specifically by one or more course assessments. In Nilson’s model, some of these course objectives would correspond to basic, minimal standards like the one listed above. Students who achieve proficiency at those lower-level objectives would be able to pass the course with a C, while students at aiming for a B or A would have to also demonstrate proficiency at objectives that involve more complex skills.

The second part step involves developing detailed one level rubrics that explain everything that the assignment must have to be accounted “proficient.” Now there will be some variability in what that standard should be, but Nilson recommends building the rubric from everything you would expect to see in a roughly B+ assignment. When it comes time to grade the assignments, then, the assessment becomes a binary yes/no, along with some comments that might be used if, as Nilson recommends, the students get the chance for revision.

I have traditionally had an antagonistic relationship with most rubrics because most of the rubrics I have been required to use were a particularly poor match for how I wanted to grade such that someone who received 9/12 on the rubric was solidly in the B+ range according to how I grade. However, I found myself coming around to this model of rubric because it removes the splitting hairs and partial credits in favor of either showing that the students achieved proficiency or did not. The grade translation, in turn, does not come from an individual rubric but from how many assignments in which the student achieved proficiency.

and have been jotting down notes on how I can transform my existing courses with minimal disruption to anything but how I grade.

For my general education classes the assignments might look like (based on a syllabus for this semester):

To receive a “C” in this course (linked to the lowest tier of objectives)

  • Participation [in various forms] of 75%
  • Objective quiz score of 75% [I allow retakes and drop a quiz score, so I have exactly 2 students who are not clearing this bar right now]
  • Journals 10/15
  • Papers 5/5 completed, but not to “proficiency” with historical essay writing

To receive an “A”:

  • Participation of 95%
  • Objective quiz score of 90%
  • Journals 13/15
  • Papers 5/5 to proficiency
  • Completing a final project

The “B” range would obviously fall somewhere in between these two levels, with a “D” a little below “C.” The numbers might be off a little bit, but I would calibrate them based on what my final grade sheet looks like.

For my upper-level classes that are writing intensive and where the students complete three longer essays, a “C” may require revising one of the three essays to proficiency, “B” requires two, and “A” all three. For all of these classes, I am also toying with the idea of creating a list of “recommended” books for the course and allowing any student the opportunity to choose and review one of these books in place of one “proficient” paper—with guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable review, of course.

Specifications Grading also introduced me to a different paradigm to the student-teacher relationship. Students are not customers, Nilson argues, but clients. Specifications grading takes into account that different clients are going to aim at different outcomes. It makes the expectations clear for each tier and lets the client choose which package to pursue. In Nilson’s telling, this allows the teacher to dedicate the most energy to the students most invested in the course by dint of aiming at the top tiers.

This model is tempting given how frustrating it can be to expend disproportionate amounts of energy on reticent students, but it was also the point that left me most uncomfortable with specs grading. One common proposal in the sample syllabuses Nilson provides is setting not only different levels of proficiency, but also different assignments for the different tiers. I incorporated that into one of my sketches above for the final projects, but even there I have been wondering whether the non-project option ought to require an objective test passed at a certain proficiency since under specs grading—something I’m not wild about given that 1) I am skeptical about the value of such objective tests, period; 2) writing such a test would hand back some of the savings in time; 3) keeping track of who is doing what sounds like a lot of bookkeeping.

However, my discomfort with the different assignments for different levels stems is also philosophical. That is, it feels to me like saving time and becoming a better teacher for the invested students involves allowing students aiming at a “C” to fall behind. The counter, I think, is that this is in fact the point. The way I imagine this grading scheme working in my classes, those students would still be expected to attend and complete assignments for the whole semester and gives anyone who wants it the opportunity to achieve every objective. But if students are not interested, then it empowers them to put their energies elsewhere (courses, hobbies, work, whatever). In other words, the client model simple acknowledges the reality that teachers cannot force people to learn anything they don’t want to learn, particularly at the busiest time of the semester.

I have been thinking about the process as setting two different benchmarks: the “C” level for minimum objectives and the level of proficiency for complex objectives where “A” reaches it in every category and “B” reaches it in some. Specs grading dispenses with the murky ambiguity of partial credit where the “C” student allegedly achieved 75% of a given course objective. Thus, it isn’t the “C” student doing less work so much as they hit one set of objectives, while I am vouching that the “A” student has completed more and more complex work that allows me to certify that they have reached proficiency in the others—I can hope the “C” student developed in these other categories, but the grade makes no claim that they did so.

At this point I am ready to dive into specs grading head first, but I’m also sure that whatever system I come up with in the abstract will require adjustment once I get into a semester. So here’s the question for those of you who have used specs grading: what should I be on the lookout for? Is there anything I’m missing?

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I keep a list of pedagogy resources along with links to write-ups I have done on this blog.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

Sourdough Culture

I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.

Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.

The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.

The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.

Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.

Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:

In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.

Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.

I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.

Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.

(This feature of Sourdough Culture inspired my first post of the year.)

The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.

This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.

In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.

Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.

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At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.