I looked at my course evaluations again this week. Week six of the semester is a strange time to check evaluations, but I had to compile summary evaluations as part of my annual review. Now, the utility of evaluations are deeply mixed in that they often reflect a combination of what the students believed that they should have earned and how much work they believe that they should have put in to earn whatever grade they did receive. I also find that any course policy that deviates from whatever normative practice the students are familiar with is liable to be met with polarizing opinions, which results in some combination of angry and enthusiastic comments.
My favorite ever comment was from a student who said that they should give me a raise.
Polarizing is how I’d characterize the response to Specifications Grading. A lot of students reported that it was challenging, but in a way that was both fair allowed them to do their best work in learning the material, which is exactly the intent. Others found it grossly unfair, either because they had to put in more work to earn the high grade they wanted or because it “prevented” them from receiving their high grade (presumably because they didn’t want to complete optional revisions).
This has led me to mull over whether Specifications Grading is the best match for any class with papers. I am committed to the system at least for this semester and it undoubtedly results in the students honing their skills. But it also requires me to give copious feedback if I want the students to be able to meet the higher standards in their revisions, and this is hard to do at scale. However, I also don’t want to give back either the expectations for what students should be able to achieve by the end of the course or the flexibility that students unused to my teaching style sometimes find disorienting (yes, the extension is free, there is no trick involved). At the same time, even while acknowledging that no one professor can resolve the deep structural issues that lie behind the student mental health crisis, I hate to feel like I’m contributing to making the problem worse.
Then again, I had a handful of comments that explicitly commented about how I made things better in this respect so I must have done something right.
This week in Pasts Imperfect, Matthew Canepa writes about the god Mithra, who will be the subject of an upcoming conference on the deity, along with the usual roundup of projects (including a very exciting mapping project on Cahokia). This conference looks excellent, particularly in its focus on undoing the damage done to our understanding of the god through obsession with identifying a “pure” tradition or conviction about unchanging religions. This was also the focus of Canepa’s excellent monograph, The Iranian Expanse (2018).
Arie Amaya-Akkermans writes a letter about the devastation at Antakya. He reports a particularly powerful opinion that the Turkish government will likely rebuild some of the antiquities to demonstrate its diversity and sophistication even while allowing the people to suffer.
Florida is considering a “Classical” Christian alternative to the SAT, in the latest of DeSantis’ aggressive attacks on education. My worry about this sort of thing isn’t so much that it will work—as long as parents are looking to send their kids to top schools elsewhere in the country, they’ll continue to take whatever tests those schools require, and whether the tests are worthwhile is a separate question—but that the actions of DeSantis and the people around him are rapidly pushing the Overton Window about education in a way that empowers people not just in Florida, but around the country, to indoctrinate and bully students.
Roald Dahl’s publisher is aiming to release revised editions of classic books that sand away the rough, insensitive edges to the man’s writing. The move is an entirely absurd reaction to the so-called culture wars, in my view, and disingenuous. Give context to the text as was if you want to account for changes in culture, but moderating everything to obscure an author’s politics and make a cash grab at making a sanitized version for use in school does a service to exactly nobody.
The office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College used ChatGPT to produce an email sent to students about the Michigan State shooting last week. The message was predictably cold and lacking in any specific guidance on resources to help the students who, unsurprisingly, are not amused. I’m not at all surprised that university departments are using AI this way, given the widespread misconception that AI text generation can replace actual writing even as many of these same schools are considering draconian consequences for students who submit AI-generated work. We’re way past irony on this topic already.
NPR is the latest journalism platform to announce layoffs, noting a 20 million dollar drop-off in sponsorship revenue and pessimistic outlooks for a bounce-back in funding levels. I have my issues with some of how NPR chooses to cover politics in particular, but it is an absolutely essential part of the journalism apparatus given its mandate to cover events in every state. The erosion of journalism in this country is a disturbing (and accelerating) trend that is already showing consequences in the likes of George Santos.
After the bizarre saga that is Twitter Blue, Zuckerberg has decided to one-up Elon Musk with a paid subscription plan for Meta platforms for the low, low price of $11.99 a month. Unless you are using Facebook on an iPhone, in which case it’ll be $14.99. This is under the guise of ID-verification systems to help people build their brands. This latest move makes me glad that I deleted my Facebook account more than a decade ago. I still use Instagram, probably more than I should and would miss some interactions if I were forced away but let’s be real: the Instagram timeline is practically useless already. I assume this decision counts on Facebook being indispensable for millions of people, and a go-to platform for many types of interactions—as I have been annoyed by on more than one occasion. At least Meta is actually going to verify identifications.
Week four of the semester passed in a blur this week. At the risk of projecting my mental state onto my students, I think many of my students felt similarly, as evidenced by some struggles by the end of the week.
I started paying attention to the ebbs and flows of energy levels of the semester years ago as a TA at Mizzou where we routinely went from Labor Day to Thanksgiving Break (sometimes twelve weeks of a fifteen or sixteen week semester) without a break, followed by just one week and then finals. There are ways to make this schedule manageable, but I found that I and my students were so worn down from the breakneck pace of the semester that the week or so before Thanksgiving was a struggle.
The semester schedule at my current job is not as much of a structural challenge, but I still try to be attentive to fluctuating energy levels. The issues I am facing in my Roman History course are myriad and varied, and those issues go far beyond this issue of energy levels. However, the place where I am mulling over these bigger-picture issues is in the first-year seminar that I’m teaching for the first time. The course ticks a number of boxes of things that the students are supposed to have done, but I’m treating it as primarily an introduction to college that can talk to the students about building community and developing resilience that will carry them through the rest of their career. The content will help promote critical thinking, but it is a vehicle for these much more important skills. At this point in the semester, though, they’re hitting a wall in the adjustment to the college semester.
This week’s varia:
An earthquake with a magnitude 7.8 hit Türkiye and Syria on the morning of February 6, with at least 55 aftershocks. As of writing this on Saturday, the estimated death toll has risen to more than 23,000, with the ongoing civil war in northern Syria complicating relief efforts and probably understating the casualties. The pictures from the disaster are devastating, but it is important in this instance not to fixate on the lost antiquities in the face of such a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that struck a region already straining under a refugee crisis. The latest reports are saying that the people left homeless have been unable to get food for days.
Patrice Rankine takes the help of Pasts Imperfects this week for a discussion of Classics during Reconstruction.
Joel Christensen asks whether ChatGPT dreams of electric heroes, engaging with the question of AI art and narrative. I particularly like this line, which eloquently states one of the reasons I want to treat AI as an information literacy problem: “The meaning is not intrinsic to the words themselves and the reader/viewer creates a meaning based on their own experience. When we read a ChatGPT composition, it has been created by human beings to predict human-like articulations, but we create the meaning through our own interpretation. Our embodied experience provides nuance to what we do with texts and what they do to us in turn.”
According to the Vermont Digger, when Vermont State University launches in July (Johnson and Lyndon merged into Northern Vermont University in 2018 and the new change merges NVU with Castleton and Vermont Technical College) it will do so with an “all-digital academic library,” with a plan to transform the spaces into community commons and student services. If you look at this from a purely logistical perspective, centralizing all resources in a single digital repository for five campuses makes some degree of sense. But I also hate the decision. Transitioning to digital makes the services that much more impersonal and library websites are not the most user-friendly unless you already know what you’re looking for. Moreover, there are resources that are virtually impossible to get online (or whose UI is likewise so off-putting that they might as well be), to say nothing about the serendipity of what you can find in a library. Above all, though, you can brand those buildings as community centers and study space, but libraries already provide those services and I strongly suspect that study spaces in libraries receive more use than designated study spaces elsewhere. Sometimes, a little bit of inefficiency in the system can actually be productive.
Graduate students at Temple University are striking, which follows in the wake of other graduate student labor activism over the past few years. What makes this strike notable is that the university has acted on its threats to withhold tuition waivers and health benefits to force the students to capitulate. In at least one instance (seen on Twitter) the University also simply took the tuition money paid by an outside grant.
The Washington Post has a piece on the rise of school voucher systems that allow parents to send their children to private religious school. These programs are part of two concurrent feedback loops: the one defunding public school so that parents want alternatives that further defund schools; the other heightened partisanship that prompts parents to insulate their children from the rest of society by sending them to private schools that shapes their education around narrow religious and ideological values that further heightens partisanship.
Chick-fil-A is debuting a cauliflower sandwich with no chicken in response to customer demand for more vegetables. Critics are blasting the company for “going woke.” It is hard to tell whether the outrage is sincere, feigned, or parodied, but does it even matter? We’re increasingly living in a media environment where each of the three feeds and strengthens the other two.
Iowa is considering a bill that would change child labor laws to extend the list of permissible jobs for teenagers and to extend the hours that they are allowed to work later in the evening, while also shielding the companies from liability and giving special licenses to allow 14 years-olds to drive themselves to work. The bill is designed to address worker shortages and to give teens on-the-job training, but it is also a depressing reflection of the backsliding of labor protections in this country.
The latest attempts to scuttle Twitter include limits on the number of accounts one can follow and the number of messages that people can send, likely in a two-pronged attempt to reduce strain on the servers and encourage people to sign up for Blue. This is at the same time that Twitter is rolling out 4,000 character Tweets, which I have already said are the surest way to cause me to disengage with the platform.
Speaking of Musk, he seems to have fired one of the two remaining top engineers after he dared tell Musk that his engagement was down because people are choosing not to engage with either Musk or his site, rather than because the algorithm was suppressing engagement. When the emperor has no clothes, do you dare tell him that he’s naked?
This was one of those weeks when it felt as though I got nothing done. Everything takes too much time, and then I am pulled in too many directions at once. This is the story of most semesters, if I’m being honest. So I didn’t manage to finish either my academic book for the week or any of the four draft posts in various stages of completion for this site, and I am trying to resist adding anything else to my plate. At this point I would like to focus on making more time for the things that I’m already doing. After all, as Oliver Burkemann argued in Six Thousand Weeks and the late Randy Pausch talks about in his time management lecture, our time is finite so we should pay more attention to how we spend it. Squeezing every last ounce of efficiency or sacrificing sleep (as I have done in the past) on the altar of rat race culture is both not sustainable and means enjoying life less in the meantime.
Admittedly, I am very bad at this. I have too many interests and a bad habit of saying yes to things before considering how much time they will take, but I now recognize this as an issue. I have more thoughts on these issues and their intersection with academic hobbies and living to work, but I’ll save them for a subsequent post. For now, just a range of links from the week.
This week’s varia:
An excellent blog post from Alexandra Sills that addresses both the academics who are demanding to debate people on the Joe Rogan Experience and the ones who are condescending about even the idea of engaging the public. Her post reminds me that I really ought to get back to answering posts on Ask Historians Reddit, but I don’t use Reddit for anything else and there are only so many hours in the day.
Pasts Imperfects this week profiles a new book on ancient art, and public writing on global antiquity, including the genetic dispersal of cats.
Jacob Browning and Yann Lecun at Noema had a fascinating essay last August about AI, language, and learning, pointing out that the algorithms can mimic language, but it cannot discern between the words and the actual objects that the words describe. But there is also this: “Outside the humanities especially, being able to talk about something is often less useful or important than the nitty-gritty skills needed to get things to work right.”
A new lawsuit alleges that ServSafe, a training platform for restaurant workers, directs money that workers (sometimes reimbursed, often not) pay for certification to the National Restaurant Association, a trade lobby group that pushes legislation that often hurts workers.
NPR profiles The Mindful Drinking Festival, which is dedicated to alcohol free cocktails. The founders don’t advocate for a return to prohibition, but expanding the range of what is considered normal for a night out.
In absolutely grotesque dereliction of responsibility by the British government, unaccompanied children are being abducted and trafficked from the hotels the British government has been putting them up. One hotel saw 136 of the 600 children who passed through it get abducted.