Course Planning: “Historicizing Speculative Fiction”

I have had an abiding love of speculative fiction for about as long as I can remember. I have a memory of my father reading the stories of Tolkien and Lewis to me and my younger brothers, and, at some point, I started reading ahead on my own to complete my first of many read-throughs of The Lord of the Rings. I started reading The Wheel of Time in elementary school and was deeply disturbed by descriptions of the blight. I picked up A Song of Ice and Fire sometime in middle school, mostly because I was drawn to the cover art. I also read a lot of bad speculative fiction in those days and am retroactively pleased with my youthful dissatisfaction with certain books.

I say all of this by way of prologue.

First year students at Brandeis (my undergraduate institution) took a “University Seminar in Humanistic Inquiries” course. These courses are designed as seminars on a coherent topic that begins establishing transferable skills and lays a foundation for further progression in college. If I’m being honest, I don’t recall my section of this course being particularly successful (I got into my third choice, after my top choice taught by my future adviser filled up before I enrolled), but I like the idea of the course.

Truman State offers “Self and Society” seminars that work toward the same end while also promoting multi- and inter-disciplinary thinking. One of the myriad of things that has been consuming my time this semester is that I was offered an opportunity to design and offer a course. The remit of these courses have to meet a certain level of disciplinary background, they are also a space that can allow for professors to create courses based on their areas of interest, outside the usual disciplinary constraints. The course I pitched, and that I am now designing to be taught next semester is “Historicizing Speculative Fiction.”

I read speculative fiction as a historian, which makes sense given my professional training and areas of expertise. One of my pet peeves about speculative fiction is when the world itself is undeveloped, while, by contrast, I will often overlook narrative or character issues if I have fallen in love with a creative world. When I proposed the course, I explained that while these genres of literature have their roots in myths and legends, these invented worlds are reflections of real world issues. Thus, the course description:

In this section, we will use speculative fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy stories—to approach the issues of Self and Society. Once framed as niche interests, these stories make up some of the biggest pieces of intellectual property in the world today. Such stories might seem like simple entertainments featuring wizards and elves and dragons, but these worlds and the ideas we bring with us to talk about them reflect very present concerns about society and our place in them. So step through the wardrobe with me and let’s see how we can use these stories to better understand ourselves.

My idea for the course is to build a series of thematic units each built around one novel, or a primary and a back-up that could be substituted in future iterations. These novels are supplemented with short stories, essays about popular culture, and selections from other authors. These units are interchangeable by design, such that each time the course is offered I can swap units in and out. For the first iteration, I have chosen four units: World-building and historicism (P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn), Power, Language and Authority (Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan), The Environment (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower), Self, Society, and the Worlds we Create (Susanna Clarke, Piranesi). You can see the core reading list at the end of this post.

The core reading list is intentionally diverse, with the intent being to break students away from the expected canon for a course like this and to introduce them to the range of creative stories that exist. I won’t say that it was easy to craft this reading list. My personal tastes in fantasy stories run to very long books and extended series, and I can’t reasonably set the four books of The Dandelion Dynasty and expect the students to actually read them all, even though it might be the most perfect series for this course. However, I have also been greatly enjoying the excuse to read short stories in preparation for the course—more than once this semester you might have found me weeping in my office because of something I had just read. But I also have more to do still, since I would like at least one short story to fill out the unit on the environment.

The other work-in-progress for this course is the list of assignments. Some of these are going to be straightforward (e.g. book reviews and a course journal), but I am also concocting some creative assignments designed to get students to make students engage with the course themes in different ways. For instance, one assignment is going to be an “Inventing Utopia” group project where the students will work in groups to design their own utopias and present them as a poster presentation.

One thing I want to be particularly careful about with this course is striking a balance between sharing with the students all of these things that I think are particularly great without overloading the students who are in their first or second semester of college. I am beyond excited to be teaching this course, but if my enthusiasm leads to a course that is packed to the gills with amazing books and stories, then it won’t allow any space for the analysis and reflection where the actual learning happens.

Core Reading List

Introduction

  • Excerpts from Arthur stories and Beowulf
  • Nibedita Sen, “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

Unit 1: World-building and historicism

  • P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn
  • Selections of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin
  • Adam Serwer, “Fear of a Black Hobbit” (the Atlantic)
  • Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Unit 2: Power, Language, and Authority

  • Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
  • Ken Liu, “Paper Menagerie”
  • Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”

Unit 3: The Environment

  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Appendices to Dune

Unit 4: Self, Society, and the Worlds We Create

  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  • Rebecca Roanhorse, “My Authentic Indian Experiencetm
  • N.K. Jemisin, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”

Alternate Units

  • Orientalism: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • Colonialism: undecided
  • Epic Journeys: Neil Gaimon, Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Gender: Ursula le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

Reading Lolita in Tehran

the cover of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.

Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.

There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:

We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.

Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.

But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.

The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.

(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)

The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.

Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:

In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.

My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolita in Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.

ΔΔΔ

Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.

First Day Fragments: Fall 2022

Each of the past four years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2021, 202020192018.

I spent most of this summer diligently making myself go out running several times a week. Like many of my summer goals this practice ended up being a mixed bag, and I ended up not hitting my arbitrarily-set target. Despite the aches and pains that have accompanied these runs, I have been pleased by my progress and consider this one of my best recent decisions. There is always another mile to run, just as there is always more that could be done. After a summer during which I neither got the rest I had hoped nor accomplished as much as I intended, it has been useful to just focus on the next step.

ΔΔΔ

The latest buzz about workplace culture is Quiet Quitting, aka working to contract. This is a radical concept that I have seen some of my friends who work in the UK talk about when they, *checks notes*, clock out for the weekend and take annual leave. In a general sense, this “trend” is a reminder that it often takes enormous amounts of uncompensated labor to make the current labor systems function.

This is no less true in higher education than anywhere else, and something that hits basically everyone involved. The diminishing portion of the overall faculty being tenure or tenure track means that the service burdens fall that much heavier on those who remain, while the low pay for adjuncts is sometimes justified by pretending that the hours spent working outside of the classroom don’t exist. At least in the former case there is a reasonable expectation that their job will remain semester after semester.

However, quiet quitting is especially disruptive in teaching. In some fields it means reclaiming one’s time from their employer, but in this one the consequences disproportionately affect the students. They might not exactly be customers, but they are paying for their education in some capacity, which is a difficult circle to square.

My situation is not nearly as bad as many people, and I have a department chair who is excellent about keeping most duties not in my contract off my plate. And yet, this trend of quiet quitting has been on my mind this last week of working (uncompensated) overtime to make sure that my courses were ready to go. Ultimately this is yet another reminder that the entire system needs to be reformed to make it more humane for everyone involved.

ΔΔΔ

One summer during college (summer 2007), I worked on the team that moved the college to a new learning management system. At one point we had a conversation about the functionality that allowed professors to track the time students spent on the website. As a student, I was stridently against making this function available to professors, or at least against highlighting it for them–I don’t actually recall the specific details of the discussion. My point at the time was that these tracking features were, but delicately, bullshit, and I didn’t want there to be any chance that such data would play a role in my grade when it provided, at best, a shoddy reflection of my engagement with the course.

I have modified my stance somewhat as a professor. I still strongly dislike the emphasis on time-on-task, even if I begrudgingly acknowledge that it can play a role in setting expectations. As for the LMS data, I never use it as a form of assessment but have found that I like having it as a diagnostic tool–one of several in my arsenal that can help me best help my students.

It was with this background that I read John Warner’s piece last week on the madness of productivity trackers. He excoriates these trackers as not only a bad way of assessing productivity, but also actively harmful to knowledge work that requires hours of work that can’t be tracked by these tools without rigging an artificial mechanism to keep the system occupied while you actually get the work done. As Warner puts it, ” we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.” He also rightly points out how LMS policies in college can serve as a training ground to normalize this sort of surveillance. This makes me wonder whether the marginal benefit I gain in helping my students is worth contributing to our present dystopia.

ΔΔΔ

I found this semester to be particularly difficult to prepare for. In part my struggle was the growing pain of designing and preparing a new course that is unlike anything I have taught before while, simultaneously, having events conspire to keep me from get the amount of rest I had intended. Put simply, I was tired. But a substantial portion of my exhaustion was not so much physical as feeling emotionally drained from the fire hose of devastation that seems to be going on in the world, from historic drought to continuing pandemic, to vaccine denial bringing about the return of awful disease thought eliminated by modern technology, to the fever pitch of nasty politics, to the crisis of climate change. All systemic problems where the proposed solutions range from personal responsibility to nothing whatsoever. Not good.

In his book Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon writes about the importance of hope as a pedagogical obligation because this is not a job that one should do if they don’t have at least a glimmer of optimism about the future.

I spent most of this summer not feeling a whole lot of hope. I’m still not, in a lot of ways. But this is also not a job that one can do without hope and I often find that I can see that hope most clearly when I’m working with my students. This is very likely going to be a challenging semester, but one day into the semester and I can already start to see the glimmer of that hope rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The world might be burning, but that doesn’t mean we can just let it burn. Only by working together can we start to heal.

Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

Three Things of Spring 2022

Grades are submitted, another semester is in the books—along with my first year at Truman State.

Frankly, that end couldn’t come soon enough. A bunch of factors colluded to make the first two months of the semester one of the busiest stretches of my life. Most of that busy was good, but it also meant that I spent the back half of the semester—a period during which I organized a speaker coming to campus and prepared an hour-long talk for a student group, on top of teaching and meetings—triaging my commitments and trying to avoid burning out. I don’t recommend letting things get this busy.

With the semester just several days in the rear-view mirror and aided by an early heat wave that sent the temperatures into the 90s, I am starting to settle into a summer routine. I will have a post in the coming days that lays out some goals, but, first, I want to take a moment to survey the semester that just ended.

As you might guess from the title, I have three major thoughts.

First, I once again find myself considering burnout.

More than once in the past few months I asked myself how much of my exhaustion was particular to this semester, how much of it was residual anxiety from years spent as a part-time adjunct, and how it was the accretion of stress from teaching for two years during a global pandemic.

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”

In my muddled thoughts from last semester, I framed this question in light of compassionate pedagogy and idly wondered whether flexible policies inadvertently prompts students to devalue a course. Despite those questions, my “flex” late policy that asked students to either submit their work by the time a checkpoint came due or fill out a form that would record their extension was easily one of the most popular course policies I have ever come up with so I naturally rolled it over to similar effect this semester. Despite my misgivings, my students reported exactly what I hoped, that this policy allowed them the flexibility to manage their schedules and do their best work. Transitioning to a specs grading system this fall will require some slight tweaks because there will no longer be points to deduct for late assignments, but the framework of this policy will be fixture of my courses going forward.

The popularity of this policy speaks to the stress that the students are facing and I came out of this semester more convinced than ever that the problems with burnout are structural. No amount of self care will resolve these issues and reminders to be mindful like the one I received last week from a textbook publisher border on the farcical.

In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues time management gurus have been focusing on exactly the wrong message. Basically, he says, we have a finite amount of time, which necessarily means that we will not be able to do everything in a single lifetime. Trying to do more by working more efficiently or cutting into time for rest will detract from the experience of all of the activities rather than lead feelings of accomplishment. His argument, then, is that we should do less so that the activities that we do do become more meaningful.

Burkeman was not writing about higher education specifically, but there is a useful lesson here. Bill Caraher on his blog has written a good bit about “slow” as an ideal and mentioned his concerns with the workload expected of both graduate and undergraduate students. I fear that I contributed a little bit to the heightened expectations such that I am going to scale back a little bit in the fall. At the same time, this is not a problem that I can solve on my own.

Second, this semester I optimistically incorporated peer review into several of my courses. My students had to bring paper drafts to class and submit a copy to Blackboard. We talked about papers and revision before the first peer review day, and I had hoped that the course material would give the reviewers the content background to critique the papers, while seeing different approaches to similar material, repeated practice at reviewing, and my feedback would make them better writers and reviewers over the course of the semester.

In short, this part of the course was a spectacular failure.

I should qualify that statement. Some of the students became pretty good reviewers and saw dramatic improvement in their work, but, for every one of those, there were at least two for whom it didn’t work. The causes varied. Some routinely brought such scant “drafts” that their peers had almost nothing to critique. Others reported only receiving grammar and spelling comments. Still others reported deep-seated anxiety over giving sharp feedback and being unwilling or unable to look at the comments. And those were substantive problems before considering that peer-review day saw by far the lowest attendance rates.

The requirement that drafts be submitted to Blackboard also allowed me to give some feedback at an early stage, but even minimal guidance magnified my workload to an unmanageable extent.

I think that peer review can work, but I need to come up with a new approach because what I did this semester ain’t it. I suspect that it would require significantly more time training students to give good feedback and reiterating the purpose of the exercise to make them more receptive to the comments. Guiding students to become better readers would also help, but there were enough different problems that I doubt this is the sole or even primary cause. I don’t want to abandon the peer-review entirely, but the question is how to make it useful.

Third, something of a PSA: when you have two assignments due close together, the one that needs timely feedback should be due first.

For reasons that defy understanding I reversed that order this semester and spent several weeks in grading purgatory as a result. I hadn’t finished grading the first set when the second arrived and required immediate attention, causing the first batch to languish for far longer than I intended. Simply changing the order in which these arrived would have made for a more satisfactory experience for everyone involved.

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?

ΔΔΔ

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

Planning ahead: a Roman history reading list (updated)

A few months ago I posted a reading list for a hypothetical summer grad class designed to introduce teachers or aspiring teachers to recent scholarship in Greek history. The list (archived and updated here) included eight selections for an eight-week class, as well as a few other books that I considered. I am currently scheduled to teach a Roman History course for the first time next year. My comprehensive exams list is a bit dated at this point and while I have not been wholly neglectful of Rome, I should still probably brush up.

My goal for the list is to have recent 8–10 works that provide a cross-section of approaches to Roman (republic and imperial) History that a) catches me up on key approaches; b) does not just offer a narrative history; c) some of which might offer secondary readings that complement the primary sources the students will read.

So far this is the list I have come up with:

  • Guy Maclean Rogers, For the Freedom of Zion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021)
  • Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Jared T. Benton,The Bread Makers (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2020)
  • Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
  • Rabun Taylor, Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003)
  • Lindsey A. Mazurek, Isis in a Global Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)
  • Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)
  • Martijn Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)
  • Steven Ellis, The Roman Retail Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Others considered:

  • Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Meghan DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)
  • Christopher Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Barbara M. Levick, Faustina I and II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Anthony Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Empire (New York: Routledge, 1999)

The problem right now for both this list and for thinking about how I want to teach this course is that there is an awful lot of Roman History. I don’t have much on the second or third centuries, and there are a bunch of other imbalances or omissions I will want to address—but I also don’t know what I don’t know. What did I miss?

To this point, I have received the following additional suggestions:

  • Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
  • Michael Kulikowski, The Tragedy of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)
  • Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • Valentina Arena, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Harriet Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  • Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Tenure, contingency, and academic speech, a maunder

A collection of thoughts from my friend Ellie Mackin Roberts caught my attention this morning scrolling through Twitter (not linked because she mentioned she might delete the thread). The higher ed union in the UK is currently on strike over pensions and EMR was reflecting on why she was having a hard time engaging with this strike despite being pro-union. The thrust of the thread was that her position as an hourly employee meant a) that she couldn’t afford to strike; b) that this employment and caring responsibilities largely cuts her off from full time positions, despite being an accomplished and published researcher; and c) that the full time faculty who benefit most from an improved pension scheme have, historically, not shown the same enthusiasm in fighting for pay equity for contingent faculty.

There is a vast gulf between the United Kingdom and United States on issues of organized labor, but the thread nevertheless struck a chord in terms of my evolving attitude toward tenure.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a tenured professor.

In fact, this year, my fifth out from receiving my PhD is the first that I had a full-year, full-time contract at one institution. I like my current job and would like to keep it as long as possible, but, frankly, I have all-but given up on hoping that I will ever win a tenure-track position based simply on how few of these positions come open each year. I will apply when I see good opportunities, of course, I’m just not holding my breath.

Perhaps because of this background, I am of two minds when it comes to the discourse around tenure. On the one hand, I have friends and colleagues who are tenured or tenure-track professors and attacks on tenure in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere materially affect their jobs. On the other, the tenure system perpetuates a bifurcated system of compensation even though people at different ranks are largely doing the same job, particularly in the humanities.

(This is not just a matter of research expectations, either. People are different ranks will receive different per-course rates.)

The standard line about tenure is that it is an essential protection for free academic discourse. There is a kernel of truth here: tenure makes it more difficult to fire someone for teaching or publishing on potentially controversial issues. But I also find that defense rings hollow in a world where an ever-increasing percentage of the teaching is being done by people on annual, or even semester-by-semester, contracts. In a perfect world the solution would be to dramatically increase the number of tenured and tenure-track positions, but I have been hearing the same thing since I entered graduate school more than a decade ago and those positions only continued to disappear, even before Scott Walker kicked off the current wave of attacks on public institutions in 2015.

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and contingent contracts impose challenges to sustaining departments and disciplines, for all sorts of reasons. Students can’t expect to develop relationships with their teachers, contingent faculty spend more time applying for jobs which cuts into the available time for teaching and research, and the looming threat of non-renewal shapes how faculty teach in all sorts of ways, from how to tackle controversial issues to what risks they take in offering creative and innovative pedagogy.

This is why I get frustrated when I see outlets like Lawyers, Guns, and Money respond to a speech where Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proposes ending tenure in public universities by commenting that tenure will cease to exist in Red States in the coming years. This observation is clearly true and has been for a while, but Patrick’s proposal is a means to an end, part of a sustained attack on education and academic discourse divorced from the reality of what happens in a classroom and designed to teach a carefully curated vision of the world. While tenured faculty have long been a target of these efforts, they also represent a declining percentage of the overall faculty population.

My point is not to that we should strip anyone of tenure or the protections it affords, but that treating tenure as synonymous with free academic discourse seems to be asking a lot of people doing this work to defend a system that does not afford them the same protections. Should this not be reason fight for improved conditions of employment for contingent faculty and to insulate them the pressures of this current culture war? If nothing else, it might cushion the landing when politicians like Patrick succeed in destroying the current system.

Hypothetically Speaking: a Greek History class reading list

This post has been updated and archived here.

One of my favorite things about my current job is that, despite being a contingent position, it has given me license to start thinking about the types of courses I might want to teach and provided a framework in which to conceive of them. As last semester wore down I started to mull over what I would assign for an 8-week summer graduate course on Greek history.

(An actual course would probably have to be “ancient history” or somesuch, more broadly construed, but indulge me here.)

The imagined audience for this course is aspiring history teachers with little or no background in the classical languages. My goal was to construct a reading list that a) gives a glimpse at some of what I see as core issues to Greek history as they emerge in recent scholarship, b) challenges traditional narratives about Greek history, and c) avoids leaning too hard on literary or linguistic analysis.

This is the reading list I came up with:

  • Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt (Harvard: 2017)
  • Naoise Mac Sweeny, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: 2013)
  • Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth: 2000)
  • David Yates, States of Memory (Oxford: 2019)
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens (Routledge: 2014)
  • Kostas Vlassopoulos, Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge: 2013)
  • John Hyland, Persian Interventions (Johns Hopkins: 2017)
  • Paul Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings (Harvard: 2014)

I particularly wanted to avoid any book that used as its focus one of the big wars in Greek history because those books abound, though I did consider Jenny Robert’s The Plague of War (Oxford: 2017), and, I was likewise leery of any book that too completely centered Athens, though Joan Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma (Penguin: 2014). Rather, I wanted to steer into persistent misunderstandings about Ancient Greece, giving the (imagined) students material that they were likely going to be unfamiliar with and that they might be able to use in how they teach the subject. This meant books that situated events they might see elsewhere in a broader context or inverted what they might have learned elsewhere.

Two issues with this list as currently constructed:

First. Kosmin’s volume feels to me like a token Hellenistic book that might be better to given over to something like Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures (University of California Press: 2020) or another book on historiography. I ultimately excluded Other Natures just because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Second. Slavery appears in these volumes as a secondary consideration rather than as the primary focus. Given the prominence of slavery in Greek society this might be a grave oversight.

Finally, a request. Tell me why any of my choices won’t work and, in the sense that I am always looking for bibliography, tell me what I missed.

Fall 2021: The Uncanny Valley of Normalcy

As I read a flood of headlines about schools going online in response to the latest COVID-19 spikes, I am finding it hard to imagine what it was like back in August when we returned for a fall semester masked, but back at full capacity and in person and all of the talk on campus was when, not if, the mask mandate would get dropped.

Now it is late December and I am sitting in my office trying to plan for a new semester that starts in less than three weeks without any sense of what it will look like and without having had a chance yet to process the semester that just ended.

Perhaps a nap would be a more productive use of my time.

More than any semester I can remember, I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to coach, support, and otherwise help struggling students through a very difficult term. Some of this can be traced to my new position at a new school that allowed me to invest in this sort work and a campus climate that made it more necessary. Yet, anecdotally, I also saw sentiments that this semester was harder than the ones that were more explicitly pandemic semesters. There are a variety of possible explanations—those other semesters came with more explicit planning and everyone’s mental and emotional reserves are empty after two years of a pandemic—but one that I particularly like came from Kevin Gannon on Twitter who speculated that this semester was the Uncanny Valley of Normalcy. That is, we were close to normal in a way that only highlighted that something was off.

After a lot of debate, I set up my courses so that students could use Zoom to attend remotely if they asked me for the link. I suggested they use chat to contribute to the class conversation, but also warned them that I might not be able to bring them fully into the course discussion. I am not happy with this solution, but after trying to teach language classes in a hybrid format last year I decided that this was just a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. I still want to imagine something better but keep drawing a blank.

Other challenges I faced this semester come back to it being my first year in a new department. For instance, I came in with certain assumptions about the demographics of my upper-level course and then had to adjust on the fly to meet my students where they were. Going into next semester, I can have these adjustments built into the course from the start. Similarly, I came into the semester thinking that the my World Civ course (world history for non-majors) would be an iteration of a world history course I had taught before, but then found myself adjusting mid-stream when I saw the virtues of some of what the World History course did, before adjusting again when it became clear to me how many of my students were wearing down at a frightening rate. I suspect having a more regular assignment schedule will help this class immensely, and this is something that will be easier to accomplish now that I have a better sense of the students, campus community, and resources at my disposal.

This semester has also been causing me to reflect on three aspects of my teaching.

First, I like most of my class sessions, and, by extension, the course as a whole to have a big idea and an arc that allows each idea to reinforce what the students are learning. When I taught my monsters class, for instance, we go from primordial monsters, the interaction between monsters and humans, and finally asking whether human beings are the “real monsters.” In other classes, I often use a sort of ring composition that has the course return to the ideas we established at the outset of the semester at the very end. This method, along with a strong emphasis on reflection in the courses, allows the students to see what they have learned that semester and I have no intention of fully abandoning that model, but I am wondering if I wouldn’t be better to build in more compartmentalization.

Take this analogy. I often often have students go through drafting processes and peer review by way of scaffolding writing assignments. This semester when I tried a peer-review exercise in one of my classes, only half of the class had a draft for their peers to review. Now, I am going to change how I do these peer reviews in the future by requiring students to submit the drafts as a “graded” (complete/incomplete) assignment, but I also saw this as symptomatic of how many students were simply overwhelmed this semester. I had multiple students miss long stretches of class time where they seemed even more lost when they return, so I wonder if there might be virtue in finding ways to build in water-tight compartments so that if one ruptures the whole boat doesn’t sink, so to speak. Not that compartmentalization helps with any given writing assignment, though.

Sorry, mixed metaphor is where my head is at right now.

Second, I am once again questioning the value of tests. Not assessment, mind you, but tests. When I finished working as a TA for big US history surveys, I vowed I would never again offer a blue-book test. Basically, I think they are of negligible pedagogical value for what I hope to teach my students and I find in-class exams mind-numbing to grade. I have exclusively used open-book take-home tests in my classes where part of the assignment is learning how to synthesize and cite information from the various sources that we have used.

Some of these tests have worked better than others, and I am starting to think that a take-home test needs to do more than replicate the in-class test at home. That is, if you are doing a take-home test, it shouldn’t be a series of short answer terms followed by several essays. Some students do exceptionally well at these assignments, but others replicate many of the same issues I have with the in-class exams while the large number of individual components to the test often leads to divided focus. I have had more success with exams that ask fewer questions, expect more from each answer, and allow revision.

However, if I am going to take this approach, what is the virtue in doing one midterm and one final with two questions each rather than, say asking those same questions over three or four papers that go through a peer-review process? In this model, much learning ostensibly tested by the short answer portion of those exams would be done through weekly quizzes over factual materials and readings. Not every course needs to be writing-intensive, but this can be accounted for in the length of the assignments, while doing more frequent but shorter assignments that go through this process would likely result in deeper, more sustained engagement with the course material than the alternative.

Finally, the end of this semester has me again reflecting on compassionate pedagogy. I want to be the sort of professor who my students trust to support them. Right now this means finding ways to make my course policies flexible and respecting the demands put on their time. I don’t have access to my course evals for the semester yet, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing what they thought of my late policy that treated all major assignments as checkpoints and allowed them to get an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before that checkpoint. In particular, I wonder what messaging a policy like this gives. A lot of students wrote that they were taking my extension because they had other work due the same day. That in and of itself isn’t a problem—I understand students have other classes and this extension is on offer—but when I scaled back a number of assignments late in the semester because I saw my students becoming utterly overwhelmed, the break I gave them was immediately swallowed by work for other classes. Put the two together, and I can’t help but wonder if building flexibility and compassion into my course as a baseline gets taken for granted and sends the message that what I’m teaching them is not important.

I don’t intend to go away from a compassionate pedagogy because I don’t see rigor and rigidity as synonymous, but it does underscore for me that individual instructors cannot solve problems like the mental health crises on college campuses. We need structural solutions.