The Twilight of the Blogs

A few months ago Bill Caraher declared that this is a “golden age” of blogging about the ancient world, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with despite the popular idea of a blogpocaplyse. And yet when Neville Morley posted last week about a decline in blog traffic, that, too rang true.

Caraher subsequently posted a reflection on the changing rhythm of blogs, suggesting: “Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields.

I am perhaps a little too aware of my blog traffic. Since switching to the WordPress platform I have had slow, but steady year over year growth. Although much of this growth is attributable to the WordPress reader, the single largest referrer, particularly when a post blows up, is Twitter.

(The exception to this statement is an intermittent flurry of activity from India any time there is an election because I once wrote about Intizar Husain’s Basti.)

Ultimately, though, I am small potatoes. “Growth” here is relative in that I started virtually from scratch and do very little promotion outside linking to each post in a tweet.

Nor do I really engage with scholarship or sources like most substantial classics-related blogs. I’ve written about this before, but, in short, my writing has passed through several iterations before settling into what it is now: a catchall where I can write about things for which I do not have another outlet. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, and, for instance, I don’t write about books for any other outlet (at the moment––I would love to start), so those posts go here.

At the same time, blog posts are as resource where I can direct people should I not have space to give a substantial answer. To give just one example, a Twitter-friend asked about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book I wrote about last year and so in addition to a short answer on Twitter, I was able to point to the longer thoughts here. Similarly, I wrote reflections about the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Diego and in defense of graduate programs at non-elite schools, as well as posting a reading list for teaching at the college level. Like the examples Caraher gives, the most trafficked posts are those grappling with the social or structural issues in academia and rely on viral (at least by my standards) transmission.

Other platforms serve other purposes. Podcasts give the sense of being a silent participant in the conversation. Instagram allows me to post pictures of things I bake and places I go. Twitter tends toward the ephemeral, albeit with a long public record, as it flies by in quick drips that fit both hot-take culture and the large number of demands on our attention.

Does this mean that the current blog landscape is populated not by survivors living in a new Eden, but are already dead and just don’t know it?

Yes and no. A few years ago I noticed that a blurring between reportage and analysis or opinion on news sites. The suggested “articles” were increasingly from the latter category, on blogs hosted by the site. This says to me that the problem of declining traffic isn’t a matter of “blogs,” but of unaffiliated blogs. Based on the comments on Morley’s post, I am hardly alone in struggling to see value in writing substantial posts for a personal blog since the odds of it being picked up are significantly lower.

But, as Caraher notes, blogging has matured in a somewhat different direction, and each blog will reflect the individual author(s). Traffic is a sort of validation, but reasons to blog exist beyond that alone. So long as I see value in using this space to organize my thoughts I will continue to blog. At the moment I am confident enough that I plan to use student-run blogs in two of my classes for the upcoming semester.

Summer Academic Plans

About this time last year I wrote a post setting some summer reading goals that, ultimately, proved too ambitious. One of my resolutions for 2019 was to take better care of my physical and mental health, and I need to continue that through this summer while also making some headway on various projects.

Projects

I have three article-length projects at various stages of completion, and a fourth shorter piece.

I spent most of the spring semester working on a chapter for an edited collection on the use of history in the Attic Orators. This chapter offers a new interpretation of the Athenian conquest of Samos in 366 through the lens of cultural memory. When I started writing I thought one thing before writing myself into the weeds with the realization that the traditional narrative for this conquest is itself a historical memory and thus that I had to weave the two together. I’m not going to hit my initial target of June 1 for a complete draft of my contribution because there are too many knots left to unravel.

The second article-length manuscript I hope to finish this summer is a revision and expansion of a conference paper I gave reconciling Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s reception at Ephesus with the longer trajectory of 4th century Ephesian history. I have been ruminating on this paper for about a year now and need to decide whether it is stronger to frame this as a historiographical contribution about Arrian or a revision of 4th-century Ephesian history.

If all goes well with the first two writing projects or I need to put one of them down for the time being, I also have a third article-length project simmering on the back burner. This project is a revisionary analysis of the Athenian imposition of empire on fifth-century Ionia. I submitted a version of the manuscript, receiving reader reports that suggested that my definition of Ionia was too narrow for the argument and that the inquiry needed to be expanded to look at the entirety of the Ionian-Carian district. I started on this last November, but didn’t have the energy to finish the new research.

The final shorter project is a public-facing article based on a suggestion made by one of my fellow panelists at the CAMWS annual meeting. I have been meaning to pitch a piece of this sort for a few years, but draw a blank when I try to decide what I to write. With this one I am about 75% of the way there and just need to develop this skill.

Of course the elephant in this drafting room are the book projects, present and future. The advice from senior scholars that this is the most important thing for securing a permanent job in the field is particularly comforting in that this is at least somewhat out of my hands.

Progress on my dissertation book manuscript (a new history of Classical and Early Hellenistic Ionia) slowed significantly after I submitted my book proposal. The sense of direction slowly, and then quickly, evaporated while waiting for feedback, and through several stressful and exhausting semesters that included teaching, applying for jobs, and managing a few interconnected health issues I allowed my focus to lapse. That is not to say that work entirely stopped, but I need to redouble my attention this summer even while I wait for feedback.

At the same time, I intend to spend time working on a book proposal for the second book project (a history of the city of Ephesus), because the press accepts and evaluates proposals for the series I have in mind without any completed chapters. The challenge on this one is that I still have a fair amount of reading to do in order to write the proposal.

These are ambitious summer writing plans, but I am not expecting to finish them all. Instead, I would like to finish a few of these projects while laying the groundwork for some of my future research.

Reading Plans

Last summer I set an ambitious reading goal, intending to branch out from a narrow focus on the Greek world. I read a handful of very good articles, but predictably fell short. I hope to return to some of these articles this summer, but mostly I want to get to the stack of recent scholarship on Greece and Rome that have piled up up from various conference purchases. My target for this is one per week, set low in hopes of exceeding the mark rather than falling short.

I started on this yesterday with Matt Simonton’s Classical Greek Oligarchy (Princeton 2017). Other books on this list include Emily Mackil’s Creating a Common Polity (University of California Press 2016), Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome (Princeton 2017), and Evanglelos Venetis’ The Persian Alexander (I.B. Tauris 2017). There are also a handful of books not on my shelves, most notably Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (Harvard 2018), that I would like to finally crack open.

Teaching

This is the category that is most in flux. The summer class I was scheduled to teach fell through, which gives more time for research and prep for future classes, but in my precariously-employed situation things could change.

And yet I also hope to hone my craft this summer, particularly by continuing to read up on best practices. My summer reading list for this includes John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice and Norman Eng’s Teaching College.

As of writing this post, I am looking to prepare three classes for the fall semester. One is a World History (pre-1500) survey that I need to update and adapt from a three-week summer course where I want to think through the course design from the top down. The other two are topics courses for first-year honors students. I am doing two different topics here, one titled “Monsters, Humans, and Monstrous Humans” and the other “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” These courses are reading-intensive, and the latter requires some selection of what readings we will focus on from the disparate Alexander traditions, but I am looking forward to diving into the preparation for both.

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I may check in on these points from time to time throughout the summer, but, other than writing about the pedagogy books, I have no particular plans to do so until the start of the new semester. In the meantime, expect business as usual around here––mostly posts about books I read for fun and a smattering of other topics as I feel moved to write.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

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I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

A CAMWS teaser: “Tell Me About the Bakeshops”

I have hemmed here before about how I consider this space adjacent to, but not properly part of my academic persona, so while a number of posts butt up against my teaching and research about the ancient world, I don’t often dedicate entire posts to my scholarship.

I want to change that a little bit, so, taking a page from a blogger of ancient history I respect, Bill Caraher, I’ve decided to share the introduction to an upcoming conference presentation. Later this week I will attend the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) in Lincoln, NE, and presenting on what I hope will become a future research project that combines scholarly interests with my bread-baking hobby. This paper, “Tell Me About the Bake Shops: Toward a Social History of Public Bread Baking in Ancient Greece,” examines the evidence for bakers in the public foodscape of the Greek city.

I. The Pate Fermteé

Bread was the dietary staple in ancient Greece. In turn, this meant that grain was the lifeblood of the ancient city. Its ubiquity manifests in a number of ways. There is mundane evidence for bread’s importance––Clazomenae’s government requisitioned its oil production to import grain in times of sitodeia ([Arist.] Oec. 1348B 17–23), honors for ship captains delivering grain, and Athenian regulations regarding its import and sale, including making it a capital crime to interfere with the trade––and there are outlandish sayings, such as when Herodotus includes a story about how “Periander threw his loaves in a cold oven” (ἐπὶ ψυχρὸν τὸν ἰπνὸν Περίανδρος τοὺς ἄρτους ἐπέβαλε, 5.92) as a euphemism for necrophilia.

It is of little surprise that scholars have written extensively on the mechanisms of the grain trade. And yet, despite the general acknowledgement that bread was important, contemporary scholarship includes an interpretive lacuna between the resilience of the Greek domestic ideal and the public face of bread baking. While there has been brilliant work on public feasting in the Greek city, including a paper at this conference in Williamsburg on the Bomolochos–– a fool who crashes parties for a bit of BBQ––and Flint Dibble’s recent Twitter thread describing Homeric feasts as ancient Food Porn, and unlike studies of bread in the Roman world where institutions like the Cura Annonnae and bake shops at Pompeii and Ostia are accepted features of the public sphere, little of the same can be said for bread in ancient Greece.

In this paper I ask a simple question: in the physical and imaginary foodscapes of the Greek city alongside fresh-pressed oil, crackling fat of cooking meat, and potentially homicidal fishmongers (if Lynceus of Samos an be believed), where do bread and bread baking fit? Far from being just a boring domestic staple, I believe it was a fundamental part of the public foodscape, as well as a point of interaction between citizens and non-citizens.

Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

Why They Can’t Write

I just wrapped up my second read for the #PhDSkills project, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write. Much like I did for The Writer’s Diet, I want to provide some summary thoughts here to supplement the lengthy Twitter thread.

In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has written a two-pronged manifesto. On one level his target is a system starved of funds, weighed down by folklore, wracked by misguided fads, and ruined by rounds of reformers without experience. It is a bleak picture, and Warner does not shy away from it. Teachers are expected to work miracles, while being expected to take a vow of poverty and to work with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, student performance has remained roughly constant. There are no easy solutions outside a large-scale re-commitment to education, but Warner articulates how these failures undermine his ability to teach writing at the college level.

In other words, it isn’t their fault.

I found this argument compelling, but, as I tweeted at one point in the thread, I am the choir for Warner’s preaching.

In this post I want to reflect on the second prong, lessons from years in the classroom. At its heart, Warner’s advice consists of key ways to reconsider assignments and assessments to bring them closer in line with what we claim to be teaching.

  1. Avoid teaching writing through a list of rules of dos and donts. Rules only work if the students understand why the rules exist.Deprogram students from thinking about writing as mere word-generation designed to pass superficial examination, encouraging them to think about writings as thinking.
  2. Give students agency over what they write.
  3. Find ways to make writing meaningful. For instance, encourage students to write for an audience that is greater than the professor.
  4. Give students the agency to fail, to learn from failure, and to try again.
  5. Don’t require students to write about topics they do not know about.
  6. Approach assignments as activities and unpack the process students need to go through.
  7. Frame assessment in terms of improvement and the next opportunity, not simply justifying a grade.
  8. Remember: writing is hard and students need opportunities to develop expertise

This advice emerges from the comp classroom and some of the specific tips such as to teach “writing experiences” struck me as most useful in that context. Yet, these underlying lessons are broadly applicable across disciplines and Warner includes an oblique indictment of professors in other fields who lament their students’ inability to write, namely that they, too, bear some of the responsibility.

I teach history at a college level and since entering graduate school I have heard history professors bluntly declare that they don’t teach writing. They explain this position by falling back on the claim that history is too big (true) and that students learn those skills in English classes (stretching the truth, particularly since lit professors could similarly pass the baton). The silo approach to academic disciplines is backward on a number of levels; in this case it sets overworked composition teachers up to take the blame for failing an impossible task.

Since I want to put my words into action, I have my students write as much as I can feasibly give feedback on. The methods I use, however, have changed over time and will continue to change.

I particularly have an issue with the pedagogy of the “bluebook” in-class exam, which I see as a concession to scale. As a TA I probably graded a couple thousand of these exams, which usually consisted of an essay (sometimes with the prompt given in advance) and short answer questions from an ID bank. The students came to class stressed and sleep deprived (few people ever took my advice to get a full night’s sleep before an exam) and then dumped anything and everything they knew onto the page as quickly as possible.

On occasion students wrote brilliant essays in this format. These essays received all the validation of a dozen check marks, a high grade and a “Great job!.” More frequently these exams were objectively a mess as the students tried to prove that they had learned, at least for those fifty minutes, the content of the class.

The truth is that I am not interested in what a student can memorize and write down under those conditions. When I got my own classes I resolved that I would not give bluebook exams unless absolutely necessary and I have kept that resolution.

(I also have a few ideas how to modify bluebook exams when the logistics of a large class overwhelm my principles, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.)

What I do instead is assign a variety of writing assignments. Some have not worked: a book review proved too challenging because students didn’t have adequate context and I am still tweaking how to best have students write source analyses.

Others have been smashing successes in my opinion. I assign take-home exams where my students write essays on big questions in the field. The assignment guide the students receive gives them several sets of prompts (it changes, but usually a set of two and a set of three prompts) and they are expected to use at least one primary and one secondary source to answer the question. I also add some additional advice: these are big questions of the sort that you could write a comprehensive exam answer in graduate school or a book; you ARE NOT expected to address the entirety of the topic, but need to narrow the focus and make an argument on the topic.

When I return the assignments covered in marks about a week later, I summarize the common problems. Students tried to do too much; there wasn’t a clear argument; that sort of thing. I tell them that the notes focus on how to improve on future assignments because the final is the same format. Then I say that if they are not satisfied with the grade, they have an opportunity to revise the assignment, on the condition that they meet with me.

About 20% of my students take me up on the chance to revise. When they come to my office, I usually skim their papers briefly, hand the exam back, and open with the question “how would you improve this essay?” What follows is a 15-20 minute conference where the students and I reflect on their essays and talk about how to improve the next draft.

Some students come back to conference more than once, but students write significantly improved essays after revision across the board. Even more encouraging is that these experiences carry through to the final so while most students improve from the midterm, the ones who revised their midterms improve more.

I also work in additional ways to help students think, write, and reflect throughout the semester, but this exam format is my favorite. Thinking about the points enumerated from Why They Can’t Write, this assignment fits in the genre of historical essay, but in a class where students are developing the necessary subject knowledge. Further, my emphasis is on writing as thinking, not word-generation. Students receive the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reflect on their process, and my feedback is on how to improve on their writing for next time.

This is by no means a perfect assignment; I particularly want to find ways to give students more agency, other assignments could scaffold to this one better, and, ultimately, students are still only writing for me. But it is a start.

Why They Can’t Write has given me a lot to chew on as I design my syllabuses for the coming semester. I am particularly giving closer thought to unpacking the assignments as activities where “writing the paper” comes only at the end of the process.

And so this choirboy sings, teaching students to students to write is a project that professors across disciplines need to own (see also: the writing across the curriculum movement) and whether this sentiment appeals to you or you remain a skeptic, you should read Why They Can’t Write.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Why They Can’t Write is my second contribution and I am happy to talk about the book further here or on Twitter. I will be back with another review in early February when I tackle Steven and Victor Cahn’s Polishing Your Prose.

Best* Posts of 2018

It is time again for my annual series of reflections. First up, I want to highlight some of my favorite posts to this point in the year. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting. This year these fall into three categories.

See also Best* of 2017 and 2016.

Posts about teaching, education, and higher education, topics I spent more time writing about this year than I have in the past.

Personal posts that also reflect somewhat on society at large, including a letter I wrote to my representatives.

Just one post directly connected to scholarship, talking about the reception of Ancient Greece

The Writer’s Diet

Over on Twitter I signed up to participate in a Teaching and Writing project where members sign up to read and tweet about books using #PhDSkills. I completed my first book, Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, with a lengthy thread. Here I want to jot down some thoughts, most of which is reflected in the linked thread.

Sword pitches The Writer’s Diet as a fitness routine for writing, meant to inspire long-term change through straight-forward advice and exercises. She divides the book into five chapters that tackle five common flaws in (academic) writing: “zombie nouns” (nouns made from adjectives or verbs), “be” verbs, excessive preposition use, excessive adjectives and adverbs, and using “it,” “this,” “there,” and “that” indiscriminately without attention to referents or precision. Each chapter comes with a series of exercises to draw the reader’s attention to these mistakes, to expand his or her vocabulary, and to otherwise improve writing. Similarly, each chapter comes with both positive and negative examples, making it clear that while these are pitched as rules there are exceptions when an author breaks the rules with a specific effect in mind. Shakespeare comes up a lot in these examples.

Reading The Writer’s Diet gave me flashbacks to high school English, but also improved my writing. The advice is not complicated, but it is hard to execute. It works here, though, because you read the book because you want to improve your writing and reading the book forces you to write more mindfully. Certainly as I tweeted about the book I noticed that I paid more attention to my syntax and word choice than usual.

The accompanying test is a useful diagnostic tool that I had some fun with over the past week. I ran a portion of my own writing through the test each day, including two articles published in 2018, my book proposal, a conference paper, and the chapter I’m revising right now. The test is a blunt instrument and every day I found some words that the algorithm swept up that I would have forgiven for one reason or another, but on the whole it provides a snapshot of the words you are using in a given piece of writing.

The elephant in the room about The Writer’s Diet is the overarching metaphor. Sword has fun with her writing and like in Air & Light & Time & Space, she creates an overarching metaphor for the book. In the other book it was a house. Here it is fitness and the body. The fitness part of the metaphor is fine, as is the diet, but when it comes to the test in particular there is a sense of body-shaming your writing. The best writing is lean, the second best is fit and trim, then needs toning, flabby, and heart-attack. Fits the theme, yes. Unnecessary, also probably yes.

The Writer’s Diet is a short, cheap, and effective writing guide, but my lingering sense upon completion is that there are others, including her Stylish Academic Writing, which I have not yet read, that provide as much or more without this glaring flaw.

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The Writer’s Diet is the first book I tweeted about for this Teaching and Writing Group, but is not the last. I signed up for at least one more book, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, in mid-January.

I must admit that I have only intermittently been following along with the hashtag, but the founders of the group Naomi Rendina and Gregg Wiker have done yeoman’s work putting the thing together. The main cause of my inattention (other than Twitter and being busy) is that a number of the books have been about dissertation writing—an experience behind me and not to the point where I am advising anyone on the process.