Facing an Avalanche: Weekly Varia, 12/3/22

The fall semester is rapidly drawing to a close and, despite some effort this semester to change the schedule on which students submit their assignments, I am finding myself staring down an avalanche of grading. Under the best of conditions I am deeply ambivalent about this time of year because it generally does not allow students to do their best work, and, this year, I already feel worn down from a semester that has been nothing but an endless cycle of grading.

There will be time for a semester debrief once it has ended. Not for the first time I have been reflecting this week on how much time it takes to grade the way I think grading ought to be done. There are, of course, grading systems that take little or no time on the part of the professor, but these are generally a concession to volume in large classes for what I am teaching rather than an ideal substitute for more labor intensive pedagogies. However, this also means that I have had less time to write, to say nothing to the knock-on effects of this grading like the reading and types of writing I do to find my writing voice again after reading student writing and the time it takes to switch modes. Some days recently I just haven’t had the brain space to make that transition and only one of these activities pays my bills.

This also means that I have a backlog of things I want to write about. Setting aside my academic writing, to which this also applies, I started writing a post about phantom time conspiracies this week, have been compiling my thoughts about both Andor and Rings of Power, and intend to write about at least three books I finished this semester and the one I am currently reading. Then there is a recap of #AcWriMo and a semester reflection. By a quick count, that is nine posts without including weekly varia, my annual end of year series, or any topics that might move me to write before the end of the year. Now, I wouldn’t expect to publish all of these posts before the end of the year even without the avalanche of grading, but simply having these things on the docket means that I feel the lack of time all the more acutely.

This week’s varia:

  • In September James Sweet, the president of AHA, published “Is History History?,” in the professional organization’s Perspectives magazine. The essay prompted an enormous amount of push-back online, leading David Frum to write favorably about Sweet’s position in The Atlantic. This week, Jonathan Wilson published a sensitive rebuttal to both in Clio and the Contemporary.
  • The Bryn Mawr Classical Review is the preeminent book review outfit for Classics, both for good and for ill. It is open-access and prestigious, but the place it holds in these systems also leads to controversy over its impact, what styles it allows (and who gets to write in what register), and editorial choices. I have volunteered to review books a half dozen or so times over the years and been turned down every time, but I nevertheless found of interest Clifford Ando’s reflection on process.
  • There is apparently a deal in the works to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece (BBC). These are friezes taken from Greece in the 19th century and Britain has refused to return them for decades on a variety of excuses and their return would be a welcome development.
  • Paul Campos at LGM Blog responds to the president of the United States asserting on Twitter that the Holocaust happened, as though this were legitimately in question. One critical point he makes: the problem with Hitler is not that he was possessed by demonic powers, which simultaneously makes him remarkable and takes him off the hook for his crimes. The Holocaust is what happens when the worst impulses and desires of people are heightened, enabled, and then realized.
  • A Florida school district tried to block a parent from doing a presentation to her child’s class about Channukah on the basis of the new Parent’s Bill of Rights, but they relented when the parent threatened to make an issue out of the school claiming that Christmas decorations were generically “holiday-themed” rather than an endorsement of Christmas.
  • Related, Paul Bowers writes in “Notes from a School Board Takeover” about how national rhetoric plays out in local communities when conservatives seize control of a school board and warp policy to reflect their political agenda. One of his most important observations: the people enacting these policies are immune to shame and don’t care about lost teachers. This is about the exercise of power.
  • San Francisco’s board of supervisors gave permission for police to arm potentially-lethal robots. Police assure the public that they have no plans to put guns on the robots, just explosives, as though that is much better.
  • A Qatari official put the body count of workers killed in stadium construction (ESPN) between 400 and 500, which is significantly higher than the official line of three dead in work related incidents and 37 others outside of the job.
  • College football is a deeply corrupt sport. All aspects of this corruption is currently on display at Auburn University, which just hired Hugh Freeze as its head coach. Freeze was fired from his job at Mississippi amid scandal and hasn’t done much better at Liberty. He also has a history of harassing critics and worse, while hiding behind bible verses, as Jason Kirk details in his latest newsletter. The latest Split Zone Duo podcast (with host Steven Godfrey who created the Foul Play docuseries about Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss) had, I thought, a compelling discussion of how sports media is allowing Auburn to rehabilitate Freeze’s image.

Album of the Week: Trampled by Turtles, “Alpenglow”

Currently Reading: Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World

The Game: Weekly Varia 11/26/22

The Game kicks off in Columbus in about an hour. For those who don’t follow college football, The Game is the annual showdown between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan leads the all-time series 59-51-6, but the rivalry has been lopsided in the other direction for the better part of two decades. Going into The Game last year, Ohio State had only lost twice since 2001 when Jim Tressel took over as coach. Ohio State was rarely ranked outside of the top ten in the sport when the teams met during that period. Michigan put up a fight in a lot of years, but, outside of an excellent Michigan team in 2003 and an anomalous Ohio State year in 2011 between the end of Tressel and the start of Urban Meyer’s tenure, Michigan could not seem to win and often lost in heartbreaking fashion. Last year I left the TV off and played Civilization VI until a friend texted me in the fourth quarter telling me that I probably needed to tune in.

Sports fandom, and sports hatred in particular, are strange, tribal phenomena. I have hated many teams in my life, sometimes as specific iterations of a team and sometimes simply for the laundry. Sometimes I hate how a team or player plays their sport. Other times it is because my team can’t seem to ever win. However, I increasingly find myself without the emotional energy for hatred. I still don’t like teams and root for the teams that I’m a fan of, but full-on hatred both takes more energy and is best curated in groups. When it comes to a game like this one, where my fandom collides with the deep, simmering dislike of the other team, though, all bets are off.

I went back and forth a half dozen times this week on whether to tape The Game or watch it live this year. Ohio State is ranked #2 in college football, while Michigan is #3. Both teams are undefeated and the winner will likely end up with a bid to the college football playoff while the loser will “only” play in the Rose Bowl. The lure of live sports is proving too strong to resist, so I’ll be tuning in while also preparing myself for what I think will be a likely Michigan defeat. Go Blue.

This week’s varia:

  • A new study claims to have authenticated a coin found in 1713 long considered a possible forgery because it names an otherwise unknown Emperor Sponsian (the research is available on PlosOne). The researchers suggest it dates to c.260 CE when Dacia might have been cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire and thus minted coins under the name of a local military commander. There are, of course, skeptics. Numismatists, specialists in ancient coins, are suggesting that this study fails to account for numerous tenets of the discipline in their haste to scientifically authenticate the coin. To my mind, this study is a useful reminder about the fragmentary nature of evidence from the ancient world.
  • Graham Hancock’s show Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix is a “documentary” that offers “evidence” of a an advanced ice-age civilization was wiped out by a flood sometime in the dim past. This is pseudoarchaeology with racist bones (it denies the achievements of indigenous communities), so, of course, it is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The Guardian calls it “the most dangerous show on Netflix,” while Bill Caraher has a more nuanced piece about the impossibility of debunk ing this sort of conspiracy theory and some suggesting for how to productively counteract their influence.
  • Corey Booker is introducing the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act (Vox), which proposes to reform how the meat industry handles disaster. The bill includes requiring the industry to pay annual fees that would work as insurance in cases of disaster, mandating disaster preparedness plans, and putting companies on the hook for costs like cleaning up the after disasters and paying workers severance afterward. It also would ban the most inhumane culling methods and close some loopholes in American slaughter rules. I have disagreed with a number of Booker’s positions over the past few years, but his consistency in attempting to change one of the American industries most in need of reform is admirable.
  • Investigators are leveling accusations that some Russian military commanders encouraged their soldiers to commit sexual violence in Ukraine (Reuters). This investigation is part of the broader inquiry into Russian war crimes and, while it is too early to say how widespread the practice was, the implication that this violence was in some instances coordinated makes it all the more harrowing.
  • In the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column, Lauren Lassabe Shepherd explores how Ron DeSantis is the latest in a lineage of conservative political actors to make schools their chosen battleground to instill their vision of “America.” The hook here is that Florida recently became the fifth state to make students recognize a federal holiday that I missed when President Trump established it in 2017: Victims of Communism Memorial Day. Lassabe Shepherd is the author of a forthcoming book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars.
  • John Warner, the author of Why They Can’t Write, remains my favorite commentator about the state of higher education. In his column at Inside Higher Education this week, he writes about why nostalgia is such a dangerous sentiment for colleges.
  • Rebecca Jennings at Vox argues that we should stop taking billionaires at their word when they say that they are “doing good” in the world. This argument is hardly new (cf. Winners Take All) and matches what I already believe, but American society remains easily seduced by a class of people who confidently assert vague platitudes while proudly refusing to engage with history or the humanities. But they’re rich, so they must know what they’re talking about, right?
  • In the realm of the silly, the New York Times Pitchbot is consistently the best satirist on Twitter: “This morning while we were listening to The Daily, my four year-old turned to me gravely and asked “Daddy, why are there no pictures of Naomi Biden’s wedding in the Times?” When I told him “because Vogue got an exclusive”, he started crying.”

Album of the week: Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience (Deluxe Edition).

Currently reading: Susanna Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies; Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.