My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation on Twitter about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

An impromptu hiatus

Over the last month I have taken an impromptu hiatus from writing in this blog. This is not entirely unprecedented—earlier this year I went nearly three weeks between posts, in 2020 I went almost a month, and in 2019 there was an entire calendar month in which I did not post—but certainly it is an outlier. For context, I have averaged roughly six posts of roughly seven hundred words each month since 2012.

My writing in the first half of the year continued in the trajectory I had been on for the last years, with sometimes fewer total posts but substantially more words in each post.

On the one hand, taking a hiatus isn’t an actual problem. I aim to post at least once a week because I like writing regularly and writing here creates a positive feedback loop for my other writing, but this is also a personal blog. I am neither writing here as part of my scholarly oeuvre nor a columnist with an editorial schedule to meet. There is also a reasonable argument that taking a summer hiatus more often, perhaps with a sprinkling of flower and pet pictures, would be a healthy addition to my routines, given how worn out I felt most of this summer.

On the other hand, this particular hiatus has weighed on me because it was brought on by how I felt about writing overall rather than a byproduct of being particularly busy or a deliberate choice to recharge. In fact, the last post to go up here explored these issues in an attempt to escape this funk. At the same time, I ended up teaching a summer class on short notice, which took up a lot of time and gave me cover to avoid writing.

I wish I could say that I am coming back from this hiatus refreshed and recharged, but the truth is that the looming start of the new semester has allowed me to fall back into old routines like rusted and cobwebbed gears slowly grinding into motion once more. In any case, the machinery creaking back to life should result in somewhat more activity here over the next few months and I expect that just getting back to the regular practice of writing will help me break free from what has been plaguing me over the past two months.

Now, enjoy some flowers.

White wildflowers from our garden.

Production and Consumption

I have a friend from graduate school who lived in terror of one of our professors. I’m only exaggerating a little bit for effect. This professor had a reputation for being particular about grammar and style, and he regularly made graduate students go through each other’s reviews with, as he might say, a fine-tooth red pen. When you didn’t catch enough mistakes in each other’s work, it was an indication that you weren’t reading carefully enough. Sitting through these exercises could be deeply uncomfortable, but the pressure also forced you to become a better writer.

My friend dreaded these sessions, so you can imagine his terror when it came time to submit his thesis. He spent hour after hour combing through his work to root out every grammatical and stylistic misstep he could think of, fretting about what this professor might say. After my friend had passed on the day of his oral defense, that professor came up to him to point out an error on the cover page.

He had misspelled his name.

Not to minimize the stress my friend felt leading up to that moment, typos like these are functionally inconsequential. Even in published work, typographical errors say more about the process of production than they do about the author, and I am generally loathe to bring them up in book reviews unless there are an egregious number or they substantially affect the experience of reading the piece. Obviously, the goal is to have an error-free manuscript, but to typo is to be human.

I also have been thinking about these anxieties again with respect to a writing funk I have been in these past few weeks.

What happened, basically, is that as soon as I returned my copy-edited book manuscript I started to stumble across references to recent scholarship that I ought to have included. These are obviously more serious concerns than typos, but none of these pieces would fundamentally change the argument I make in the book so much as they would have added a bit more nuance to roughly five paragraphs and/or footnotes in a manuscript that eclipsed 100,000 words. And yet, coming across these citations triggered all of my anxieties about where I received my degree and working as an extremely contingent scholar for the last few years. As much as I stand by my work, I have recently been more concerned about how it’ll be received than excited that my first book has a preliminary release date.

(My partner has informed me that I’m not allowed to fret about how the book will be received until after it is released, at which time if the anxiety returns she will direct me to sleep on the porch.)

What I am wrestling with is the difference between consuming things and producing things. Consuming even the densest scholarship is relatively easy, given adequate time and determination. By contrast, producing things is hard. A short article could have taken the author months of reading or excavation, weeks of writing and rewriting, and several rounds of feedback from people at scholars, early readers, and referees. In other words, something that took half an hour to read very likely took the author weeks, and could have literally taken years, for the author to produce. Writing a book, I have found, only magnifies the asymmetry between these two processes.

This is neither a novel observation nor even the first time I have reflected on it. However, the stakes feel higher this time, both because carrying an extended argument across a book-length project requires wrangling many more threads than does making an argument in an article and simply because this is my first book project.

My book will not be perfect. Then again, neither are any of the books I have reviewed, and I have never reviewed a book I truly disliked—while some other books that I think are awful have received broadly positive reviews. All of this is to say that fixating on those handful of pages where I might have done a little more is distracting me from recalling the things that I think I did very well and the places where I think I am making important contributions.

But this anxiety has also had the insidious effect of pulling me away from doing other writing, even in this space. This is a problem because I have a variety of projects I need to finish, but, really, I’d just like to be able to focus on the process again. Perhaps reminding myself of the difference between producing and consuming will do the trick.

The Do-Less Summer

A month or two ago I was having dinner with my partner and my department chair. For a whole variety of reasons, everyone in my department had been having a grueling semester and my chair has repeatedly encouraged me to set reasonable boundaries. At some point the conversation turned to summer plans.

When I declared that my intention was to do as little as possible this summer, my chair turned to my partner and asked, “do you believe him?”

My partner laughed.

Of course, they were right to be skeptical.

One consequence of blending my hobbies with my employment is that there are fewer clear boundaries between work and rest. I can read a book on the history of eating in the United States like I did this weekend because I’m interested in the topic and one part of my brain will be mining the pages for anecdotes or chapters that I can use in a class next semester. The fact that I continue to treat my research as a second job because of the nature of my employment also means that these “off” months are prime research periods and the breathing space of summer is ideal for class prep.

This happens almost every summer. Class lets out and the weekly rhythm that carried me through the semester vanishes, leaving me feeling adrift and struggling to create a new routine. The nature of my contingent employment the past few years contributed a healthy dose of anxiety that cut into my rest as well.

Despite my ambitious goal of doing nothing this summer I am finding that my schedule is rapidly filling up. For instance, in the next month or so I am expecting to:

  1. Complete some horribly overdue work that I am deeply ashamed to still have outstanding.
  2. Read Erik Jensen’s The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents and write a book review of the same.
  3. Spend a week as a reader for AP World History.
  4. Write and deliver a conference paper on Ionians on the Sicilian Expedition.
  5. Receive copy-edits on my book manuscript.
  6. Complete the two-week digital pedagogy training that I started last Thursday.

And these tasks don’t include several article and chapter proofs that I am expecting, probably a bit later in the summer, or various goals I have with respect to preparing my courses for the fall semester. Maybe this is why a little voice spent the entire weekend insisting that the summer was already over.

The languid pace of summer provides a stark contrast to the work I need to do. The trick will be finding a balance that embraces the rest encouraged by languidity with the discipline of routines and the flexibility provided by having few scheduling commitments.

Toward this end, here are my goals for the next few months beyond what I listed above.

First, I am hoping to recharge my mental batteries by spending more time reading this summer, both because I have found that reading is the part of writing that gets most squeezed during the year and because I am teaching several classes next spring that will require me to brush up on the topic. Toward the second end, I compiled a list of Roman history books to work through this summer. I am making good progress on this list, having already finished Jared Benton’s The Breadmakers and nearly finished Kathryn Lomas’ The Rise of Rome. The length of that list and one on of volumes on Persian history that I am going to compile this week is going to cut into my academic reading time, but I am also looking forward to digging into James Romm’s The Sacred Band and Jennifer Finn’s Contested Pasts, as well as Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. We’ll see what I get to after that.

On the non-academic front, I am less structured about my reading roadmap and will invariably read more than these, but I am particularly looking forward to reading Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, and Ken Liu’s Speaking Bones. My current read is also worth mentioning with these, Agélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, translated by Ursula Le Guin.

Second, in the realm of teaching, I am aiming to convert several of my classes to Specs Grading. I have a rough outline for what each class will look like with this, but part of the system requires clearly connecting grades as determined by detailed rubrics to specific learning outcomes. This means spending time drafting each of those syllabus components so that when the calendar flips to August I am not caught with nothing ready. For a secondary goal, I should also draft a rough syllabuses for the spring to save myself some headaches later.

Third, no summer to-do list without be complete without at least a nod to hobbies. I have taken up running again and hope to make this a thing. Beyond that, I have two concrete plans: to finally crack open the Arkham Horror card game Edge of the Earth campaign and to fulfill my resolution for this year of spending more time with my burgeoning photography hobby, probably with editing software and a storage and sharing platform (either Google photos or Flickr—I am currently doing research to choose which).

That’s it. Easy-peasy. Actually, when I list everything out like this it seems like a lot—and not for the first time; I have a long history of setting entirely unreasonable expectations for what can be done in a given period of time. Then again, except for the tasks in the enumerated list above there will be little consequence if I don’t accomplish all of these goals, and that should be the spirit of the do-less summer.

Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

Publishing While Contingent

Earlier this month at the annual SCS meeting I attended a roundtable on the future of academic publishing. The conversation ranged widely, from the relative lack of opportunities to receive comments on written work before it is published to discipline-specific series adjusting to meet interdisciplinary work to the need both to teach reviewers how to give useful reviews and teach young academics how to receive feedback productively.

I found the discussion stimulating. But I also kept coming back to what I thought was an elephant in the room.

The panelists had brought contingent faculty up in passing, talking about the systems for compensating the unpaid labor of reviewing that goes into academic publishing. Most journals simply don’t have the money to pay reviewers and one of the challenges facing the field at the moment is the diminishing pool of people who can provide feedback. The panelists were (rightly) wary of exploiting junior colleagues with limited resources by asking them to commit large amounts of time for which they cannot be paid. I appreciated this sentiment, but I was also thinking about how simply excluding this potential pool of reviewers also creates a two-tiered system that requires more and more out of a smaller and smaller set of people while leaving other people outside of potential opportunities that could be found by this sort of networking.

Now, reviewing is not a silver bullet. To this point in my career, I have had one opportunity to review a manuscript (I was paid a small sum to review a book manuscript for a book being rereleased and is due out this summer) and it did not magically open any doors for me. Rather, in this context, reviewing seemed to me to be a microcosm of a larger issue where if people in editorial positions (here I was particularly thinking of scholars who edit journals) routinely don’t incorporate people in contingent positions into these processes and networks of academic publishing even out of reasonable concerns over unpaid labor, will this in time lead to a comparable shrinkage of people who are offered opportunities to participate in edited volumes, curated collections, and the like?

I don’t have an answer. Asking for labor from people who receive no tangible benefit for doing it isn’t the answer, but neither is simply cutting them out of the process.

In truth, very few scholars intend to stay contingent. There are scholars who publish brilliant work while working outside of academia and there are those in secure positions. Being between those two poles is a temporary limbo with few of the opportunities of either—except that the current state of higher education has turned it into the new normal, and you can’t publish your way out of that. To my mind, this makes it even more imperative to at least invite contingent faculty members into these systems of academic publishing. Many might decline the invitation, but choosing not even to extend it simply reifies the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Part of the solution, I think, has to be advocating for improved working conditions for all faculty. Not only would this add to the pool of people who would be able to contribute to these forms of academic labor, but it could also help open space for different types of academic writing since there is some truth to the idea that contingency offers a perverse freedom to one’s writing since you are not judged on the same standards and schedules as tenure-line faculty.

(I have maundered a bit on this topic in the past, most notably when considering what I would write if I stopped pursuing academic employment.)

I have been thinking about this panel again recently while working on the preface for my first book. A preface is supposed to tell the story of the book and offer some reflection on those people and institutions who helped you create the finished product. I have always had a strange affection for prefaces and usually at least skim them because this is where the formal academic tone drops and the person comes through, at least to an extent. I had fun with the acknowledgements and bio for my dissertation, mostly because nobody told me that I couldn’t, but I am finding this part of the book harder to write.

Many first books follow a common template in their acknowledgements:

This is a revised version of my dissertation. Revisions began at X post-doctoral fellowship [or visiting assistant professorship] and completed with the generous support of Y current, full time job that awarded me a research leave and paid for travel, etc, etc.

Not all of these steps are equal, of course. Most post-doctoral positions offer more support than most VAPs, but it is easy to thank either of them when they were a stepping-stone to a tenure-line position.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues at my current job, but an unvarnished recounting of the conditions that birthed this book would be quite a bit different. Revisions started during two years of a half-time position (no benefits) that provided a standard amount of research funding for the department that was enough to go to a conference each year, but too little for a major research trip and with too little pay to do much more than survive. Plenty of time to write and access to a library, but not much else. They continued during a year of cobbling together employment from different sources, teaching five or six courses at a time (no benefits, no research funds, little time to write). Then during the pandemic, which left me temporarily unemployed, followed by a semester where I taught five classes (four entirely new preps) at three institutions and another semester of four classes at two institutions (no research funds, limited library access, benefits from my partner’s job).

I also found a lot of this employment isolating in the sense that I was often teaching far outside my field and without colleagues in any meaningful sense. The internet helps bridge some of the geographic distance, of course, but it cannot replace physical contact, particularly when you are starting from the outside. Of course, I am hardly the first person to face this challenge. In the preface to his Conquest and Empire (1988), the historian Brian Bosworth wrote:

My obligations are few and many…I have been forced to work in geographical isolation, and my physical contacts with other scholars have been confined to brief periods of leave. That means that my writing is perhaps more personally oriented than it might have been, and I cannot make acknowledgements of direct assistance.

He then goes on to name a series of eminent historians who influenced his thinking and thanks his institution for their support.

I don’t want to put any of my past employers on blast. I took the one course from a local community college, for instance, because I thought that it might help land a full-time job teaching at a community college down the line, not because I expected that it would help me finish my book. At the same time, it has not been an easy road to get to this place. I did it because I wanted to write this book and I am proud of the work I have done, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been easier with more time and resources.

I am finding this a difficult thing to balance. I have people I want and need to thank, but I also don’t want to white-wash the experience of writing this book with some trite pablum about my tenuous academic employment. A discussion like this might lack for social grace, but at least it would be honest.

The Bright Ages, or I’d love to write one of these for Ancient Greece

This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.

But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.

Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.

Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:

Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths. 

That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”

The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.

When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.

It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle

I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.

Writing Wrap 2021

Every year around this time I kick off a year-end series that starts with a wrap-up of everything that I published that year and sundry project updates. I never really know what to call this post, though, since I am not nearly prolific enough to focus just on publications that came out that year, as I have in past years (2020; 2018).

Once again this year I published very little, but I did take major steps toward a few different pieces:

  1. The manuscript for my first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE, received positive feedback from reviewers at University of Michigan Press. I am now working to deliver the revised manuscript early next year. Gulp.
  2. I had an article on Ephesus in the fourth century BCE accepted for publication in Classical Quarterly, pending revisions that I submitted last week.
  3. A chapter I wrote for an edited collection on Athenian orators and the historical memory about the conquest of Samos in 366 BCE passed peer review and the volume The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past is moving toward publication with De Gruyter.

I like reviewing books, so I am disappointed that I did not do any this year—the few books I inquired about were already claimed—but I did publish or have a hand in publishing a few other things.

  1. Back in February, I published a piece in The Conversation on assessing and mitigating risk through the lens of ancient Greece. The thrust is that while the Greeks put great stock in divination, prophecy, and making appropriate sacrifices to the gods, none of those ritual actions should let people off the hook for taking adequate precaution. Rather, after taking both types of precaution you just have to accept that risk still exists.
  2. I also interviewed two people, Aven McMaster and Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, for the Contingent Faculty series of blog posts on the SCS blog. Aven, in particular, highlighted how precarious a career in higher education can be, and I believe that the working conditions for contingent faculty are essential if fields like ancient history and classics are going to continue to exist except as elite antiquarian exercises. I was interviewed for the series in 2020 and wanted to carry the spirit of having difficult conversations forward into these posts. Both interviewees (as well as the two interviewed by my colleagues) spoke candidly about the myriad of challenges facing contingent faculty, and I am really proud of the work that we did to bring these conversations public this year.

Most of my academic work went toward my teaching this year, but I presented two papers at academic conferences. The first applied of post-colonial theory and specifically Third Space Theory to community identity in and around Ionia; the second offered a new interpretation of the so-called proskynesis affair during the reign of Alexander the Great, looking a synthesis between two recent approaches. I don’t have imminent publication plans for either, mostly because there are other things I need to finish first, but hope to come back to one or both next year.

Other projects are moving forward more slowly, but I hope to have big updates next year.

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, contact me for a pdf or off-print.

On Revision

Most drafts contain wonderful things, and most drafts don’t show off those wonders effectively. Some drafts are dull. Some are poorly organized. Some aren’t sure who they’re written for. Some seem unclear about the distinction between dutiful summary and original insight. Some hope that writing pyrotechnics might dazzle or sheer bulk equate to authority.

An open secret: it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes. Many ideas fizzle, either because the writer can’t concentrate on them long enough to blow a spark into a flame, or because the idea itself doesn’t have the strength to become more than a hunch. So let’s work with the anxiety.

I started getting serious about writing in the course of writing my dissertation. This is not to say I paid no attention to the craft of writing before that point. I have been an avid reader most of my life, which has given me a decent ear for good prose, and I always aimed to produce good work, but I also generally distinguished between the history on the one side and the writing on the other. I spent hours in coffee shops polishing my MA thesis—I even got a compliment on the writing from one of my committee members for my trouble—but I was nevertheless committed to the idea that I was not a good writer. 

Sometime during the process of producing my dissertation, an unwieldy monstrosity that received no plaudits for style, I came to appreciate a closer connection between the historical research and the process of articulating the arguments. I started to read books on academic writing and started to integrate writing into how I teach history.

And yet, I never picked up a book by William Germano, one of the doyens in the field of academic writing whose From Dissertation to Book is a standard text for grad students looking to publish their first book. After reading his latest book, On Revision, I might have to return to that text even if I am nearly finished with the eponymous process.

On Revision is, in one sense, an entirely redundant book on writing. Any book in the genre worth its price will repeatedly point out to the reader that writing a bad first draft means that you now have a piece of text to improve. And yet, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. For this reason, Germano’s book represents an attempt at shifting the entire mindset: revision not as a necessary part of a larger process, but revision as the only part of writing that really matters. 

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

Correction is not revising. There’s no bigger misunderstanding about how writing gets to be better. Correcting is small, local, instant….It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of the text.

In the sense that I also aim to teach writing to my students, this was a welcome disambiguation. I often idly correct grammar and punctuation while grading papers because I do think these are important things for students to become aware of (and because I have this recurring fear that someone will review a book I write by just listing the myriad of typos), but I also point out that not all of my comments are created equal. Mechanical corrections are fine, but I am much more interested in how they revise their ideas and arguments. The question I keep coming back to is how to convey this necessary process to my students within the strictures of an academic calendar. On Revision can’t help me with the structural parts of my courses, but has given me food for thought in terms of how I articulate revision to my students.

On Revision opens with a short introduction and a chapter (“Good to Better”) that makes a case for revision generally and offers nine principles to get started. From there, Germano investigates four essential rules for revision that put those principles into action.

Germano’s first rule is simply to “know what you’ve got.” This might sound tediously banal, but in order to revise a piece of writing, you need to know what you are writing toward. This means carefully reading what you have written and taking stock of what it is you are trying to do with the piece.

In one of my classes this semester, I ran an activity where the students reviewed something I have been working on for a while now. I like the argument, but it has a fatal flaw as it is currently constructed: I don’t know what it is. This was a piece that started as a draft blog post before becoming a possible conference paper, and then an article that might work for a video game journal or a classical reception journal, before finally becoming a public-facing article. This circuitous route is in part because I don’t know what I have other than perhaps a point that missed its period of relevance. As I explained to my students, this means that I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

The second rule is looking for and highlighting your argument—or, as I tell my students, making it clear what you are trying to prove. I couldn’t help but laugh when Germano declared “A lot of academics…stop at simply indicating aboutness. “My book is about economic inequality.” That’s not an argument.”

I laughed because this is very similar to a mini-lesson on thesis statements that I gave to each of my classes this year after my first round of papers came back with a very five-paragraph type of non-thesis that restates the prompt with three sub-topics loosely related to the topic.

Stating the topic of an essay is easy. Articulating your argument compellingly and concisely is hard, if for no other reason than that it requires you to take ownership of what you are saying. Trust me, it took me forever to find a way to explain the argument of my dissertation (now book) project without rambling incoherently. Even now I only do so with any amount of success about 75% of the time and have only done it perfectly two or three times. I hope one of those is in the manuscript itself.

Germano’s third rule is about revising with an eye toward the architecture of a piece. That is, thinking about the order of the information and the internal coherence of the argument. Thinking in these terms, I have discovered that I have a particular affection ring structure within my work, often opening with some anecdote that illustrates the argument I am trying to make and that I can call back to in the conclusion.

Finally, Germano calls on his readers to attend to their audience. If you are asking readers to give you their time (and often money!), then they are going to expect your attention in return.

In each rule, Germano offers illustrative examples and, usually, helpful exercises to perform on your writing. My favorite, from the architecture of the piece, echoes a piece of advice I have been giving my students for years. He calls it “The Writing W” based on the constellation Casseiopeia or “The Wain.” The constellation has five stars that look loosely like a W. Following this path, the writer has something to do at each stop. First, write your opening move, then write the conclusion. Then you fill in the gaps between the two with everything you might need to support the argument and lead to the conclusion. Then you write the conclusion again, adjusting based on the evidence. Finally, re-write the opening paragraph.

I don’t teach comp, so my exercise is less formulaic, but it follows a similar principle: the introduction should be the last thing you write. It can also be the first, and I am certainly the sort of writer who likes working through an idea from the beginning to end except on exceptionally long pieces, but I preach to my students that the process of writing a paper will often change your ideas about your topic, so you should be prepared to adjust what you wrote accordingly.

On Revision is a hard book to write about succinctly. It is filled with principles, techniques, and encouragement and while I am hard-pressed to come up with anything that I didn’t already know or do, its virtue is in how it articulates this essential process. After one read-through, my copy is filled with post-it notes drawing my attention back to individual passages or ideas. and that alone speaks to its value. But, beyond that, Germano’s authorial voice is that of a compassionate mentor who wants to see your work become the best it can be. I might hate reading my own writing, but he is here to say:

It’s OK not to reread one’s work when it’s done done, but revision is the crucially important process by which you get your work to that point.

ΔΔΔ

I am way behind on my intended posts right now, but I have continued reading apace. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is as beautiful and traumatic as her A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, but maybe just a little bit behind in my personal estimation. I also recently finished Ayse Kulin’s The Last Train to Istanbul, which is based on real accounts of Turkish diplomats trying to save Jewish Turks (and non-Turks) from the Holocaust. I didn’t think it worked perfectly as a novel, but I want to know more about the history. I also read Brief Lives, the seventh installment in Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, and am now reading the second volume in The Expanse series, Caliban’s War.

The best of intentions

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Dave Barry, The Salmon of Doubt

I love setting goals.

Over the years I have come to realize that I work best when I have clear and articulated goals I can work toward. This doesn’t mean that I have to know what I am doing. Quite the contrary—I like situations where I need to work out my thoughts on paper or come up with a work around or react and adjust. I just like those situations with clearly defined parameters.

Goals set those guardrails.

My problem is that I tend to set too many goals, fail to achieve them, and then feel bad. In the SMART acronym, “achievable” has always been my issue and I have not managed to brush missed deadlines off with the breeziness of Dave Barry.

This is the long way of saying that after setting the modest #AcWriMo goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise, I promptly managed to miss two consecutive weekend reflections.

On the one hand, I have spent most of this month reflecting on why this time of academic calendar is so hard, mostly while buried under an avalanche of grading. I touched on this in my first #AcWriMo post, and it remains true. There is a finite amount of time and both writing and teaching take as much as you are willing to give. Anything I write here is extra; some months are easier than others.

On the other hand, my missed reflections also speak to modest success. I averaged nearly an hour of writing a day during the first week of November. In truth, I would have liked to write more, but an hour is my usual target: long enough to write or edit a chunk, but short enough that it doesn’t consume my entire day. And yet, that one hour also meant that I fell behind on grading such that I spent following week playing catch-up. Here I sit on the first day of the third week and I wrote for nearly an hour and was able to dedicate some time to moving other parts projects forward.

Several of my students told me today that their goal is simply to make it to break next week. I am sympathetic to this position. In the words of Giuseppe from The Great British Baking Show, “my objective for this week is to survive.”

Giuseppe: “My objective for this week is to survive.”

At the same time, I can’t help but hope I’ll find a little spark, something that will plant a burning thought that just has to get onto paper.