Writing as Process and the 7th Century on Cyprus

March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Spring break is one of my favorite times in my busy semester because for the last few years, I’ve been able to dedicate this time to a sustained writing project. In a normal semester, my writing has tended to get broken into tiny fragments of time – a morning here or an afternoon there – between teaching responsibilities, service, and other faculty duties. The result of this situation is that anything I write tends to be highly granular and composed of tiny 300 word snippets cobbled together and smoothed over in editing.

This is fine in some circumstances, but is hardly conducive to producing sustained and careful arguments. Spring break writing (and this goes for winter break and late, post-field season, summer writing too) holds forth the elusive opportunity to write in a series of 1000 word chunks over the course of five consecutive days (until a wife-mandated “rest day/date night”!). 

What this sustained writing has helped me to see are the little strands that make intuitive connections communicable. For my paper on Cyprus in the 7th century, for example, I’ve been able to notice the arguments for the appearance of handmade pottery in 7th century contexts on Cyprus and the disappearance of large issue coins are  interrelated in my argument. Handmade pottery appears in assemblages alongside both imported fine wares and locally produced cooking wares indicating that it was not a response to the abrupt end of regional or local trade and production. Instead, it would appear that handmade table and utilities wares appeared on Cyprus in a gradual way as a local response to slowly changing pattern of access. As for coins, the disappearance of large issues on Cyprus has sometimes been seen as evidence for abrupt economic decline, and there is little doubt that the disappearance of large issues after the reign of Constans II indicates some kind of economic change on the island. At the same time, Guy Sanders has noted that we are likely missing many of the small issues (nummi or minimi) that circulated throughout Late Antiquity because they were so small that they slipped through the excavator’s sieves. Like handmade pottery, these tiny coins served to shape Late Antique life on Cyprus in a way not entirely visible to the 20th century excavator. 

Nummi and handmade pottery have parallels with the ephemeral character of short term settlement to the careful eye of the contemporary survey archaeologist. We know that local communities throughout history adopted flexible strategies to manage agricultural risk even during times of apparent economic, political, and social stability. During times of unrest or rapid change, like the middle decades of the 7th century, there would be a tendency to adopt more flexible approaches to survival and to shy away from longterm investments that would be more visible to the archaeologist 1500 years later. Like handmade pottery and nummi, ordinary features of everyday life would have persisted as low risk strategies and objects like imported pottery or large issue coins would decline as communities and individuals became less inclined toward significant investments or more substantial economic transactions warranting the use of larger coins.

The fragments of my writing over the course of a normal semester reflect the day-to-day strategies adopted to survive 21st century academic as a moderately productive scholar. The long, lazy writing days of spring break allow higher risk strategies to unfold, and these included interrogating intuitive connections and making obvious their relationships.

Gender at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting

March 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week Dimitri Nakassis wrote an insightful post documenting the percentages of men and women at member organized panels at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting last year. This post was a response to a short study on Doug’s Archaeology blog which highlighted the disparities between men and women in  NSF archaeology grants. As a member of the program committee at ASOR, I thought I should run the numbers from our annual conference and the good folks (especially LeeAnn Barnes Gordon!) obligingly sent along the participants, panels, and papers in table form for the 2013 annual meeting. You can check my numbers against those in the 2013 annual meeting program here.

My findings from ASOR more or less parallel Dimitri’s from the AIA. First, I looked at Member Organized Panels. These are panels where the organizers of the panel participate directly in inviting, evaluating, and organizing sessions. 44% (N=12) of these panels were organized by men, 30% (N=8) by women, and 26% (N=7) by both men and women. These numbers are similar to the numbers from the ASOR sponsored panels. These are essentially standing sessions at the annual meeting and the chairs are selected from among the willing: 49% (N=17) were chaired by men, 40 (N=14) by women, and 11% (N=4) by both.

At member organized panels chaired by men, 66% of the papers were given by men and 34 % were given by women. This is identical to the numbers Dimitri produced for the AIA annual meeting. At panels chaired by women, 46% of the papers were given by men and 54% were given by women. In panels organized by both men and women, 82% of the papers were given by men.   

The numbers produced above refer to only the presenter as listed in the ASOR program, but because I had the program in a tabular form, I was also able to look at coauthors of papers. I didn’t break these down according to session type because I wasn’t sure that it was relevant. It is interesting that of the 56 papers listing a man as the primary authors, 45 had male coauthors (80%) and 19 had female coauthors (33%) with 9 (16%) having both. (These numbers do not add up to 100% because it is possible to have both a man and a woman as a coauthor!) Overall numbers are a bit more charitable with the 54 papers had 82 male coauthors and 27 female (75% versus 25%).

For 51 papers authored by women with coauthors, 57% (N=29) had female coauthors, 53% (N=27) had male coauthors, and  14% (N=7) had both. 56% of the total coauthors on women authored papers were men and 44% were women.

Finally, I can offer some overall numbers. 58% of the named authors on papers are men and 42% are women. 55% of papers list men as the primary author and 45% list women. 

Some final thoughts. Since I’ve been on the program committee there has been a consistent interest in using the annual meeting to influence the shape of the profession. For example, we have implemented an appearance policy designed to ensure spots are available in the conference for a wide range of perspectives and to prevent the conference from becoming dominated by a small group of ambitious and aggressive presenters. I wonder whether we need to think a bit about how to use the annual meeting to promote a more gender balance in the profession.  


Giving Oral Exams in an Undergraduate History Class

March 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

This past week I decided to try our oral exams in my history 240 class. This class is required for all majors, and the first half of class is basically a survey of historical thought from Herodotus to the digital age. I explain my rationale for trying oral exams here, and I promised to report back with the results.

The exam was 20 minutes with two 10 minute questions. Many students took about a minute to think through the question and to compose their answer with many using a notecard to organize their thoughts. Then they general declaimed for 3-5 minutes before running out of steam. At that point, I prodded them to clarify points, to expand on particular ideas, or, most frequently, 

Here are my observations.

1. Different format, same issues. My greatest fear with an essay exam is that the question itself worked to obscure the best possible responses. In a traditional written exam, I knew that the student’s solitary struggle with an essay made it impossible for me to intervene and correct a possible misunderstanding, set them gently on the right path, or encourage them to dig just a bit deeper. My idea was that an oral exam would allow me to intervene to fix potential problems, probe the limits of what students understood, and gently guide them through a historical problem.

After sitting through 4 hours of oral exams, I feel much better that my written exams work. The same issues arose. The best students were able to explore the connections between primary sources, individuals, and events. The less good students struggled with the most basic recall of names, dates, and evidence. Even with my gentle nudges and prompts, some students struggled to support even the broadest generalizations with specific details. If anything, the oral exam environment was more frustrating than mediocre exams because the students lost a bit of autonomy in how they could obfuscate what they didn’t know. In the oral exam environment, I tried to nudge them to disclose information that I considered basic and vital rather than allowing them to craft an exam that papered over or simply avoided challenges.  

2. Nerves.  I was shocked by how nervous the students were and how much the nerves inhibited their performance. This is a small class – 10 students – and the classroom is comfortably relaxed. In the one-on-one environment of an oral exam, however, the relaxed classroom environment turned to darting eyes and nervous fidgets. I held the exam in a student lounge which I hoped to be a neutral venue. The sun was out and the weather warm enough for me to open a window. I tried to chat a bit with the students to break the intensity of the mood. I thought I did everything I could to defuse test anxiety.

Despite my efforts, even the best students struggled to relax for the first half of the 20 minute test. I was heartening, however, to see some students get into a groove by about the 10 minute mark and answer their second question better than their first. If I do this in the future, I have to find a method for getting the students to relax (at least some) prior to the most rigorously evaluated part of the oral exam.

3. Facing the Students. Perhaps the most valuable part of the oral exam is facing the students as they struggle to articulate answers, look for evidence, and respond to my prompts and challenges. There was something deeply humanizing about the oral exam experience. 

Some of my colleagues have taken to providing oral feedback on papers and exams using our course management system software. They feel that this helps them to connect with their students in ways that written responses do not. While I haven’t experimented with this particular technique, I think the oral exam shares some obvious similarities. It reminded me how foreign the concepts that I am trying to teach are to the students. The idea of evidence, specifics, and argument are so fundamental to how historians approach the world. It was revealing to see students struggle to articulate arguments, marshall evidence, and piece together causality.

This experience has reminded me to slow down and to model more explicitly and clearly the process of using evidence to support arguments, being specific, and finding connections. 

Coins, Raids, and Dates in 7th Century Cyprus

March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I plan to dedicate most of this week to putting words on the page for an article on settlement on Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries. The article will start with a brief treatment of the difficulties associated understanding settlement in this period. These difficulties which range from problems with the ceramic chronology to the dependence on poorly understood historical events to date archaeological evidence make the second half of the 7th century a particularly opaque period in the history of Cyprus.

The first issue that I’m working to tackle is what I’ve termed “the Heraclius problem”.   The emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) yas always had a special place in the history of Cyprus. One of the first moves in the future emperor’s revolt was securing the island of Cyprus in 608 at which time he began to mint coins in his own name on the island. His efforts to secure Cyprus revealed an understanding of the island’s strategic significance for controlling the eastern Mediterranean. Heraclius’s appreciation of the island’s strategical value continued in his conduct of the Persian Wars. The island represented an important staging area for Roman forces cycling in and out of the east. The importance of the island as a base for campaigns in Syria, Egypt, and southern Asia Minor likely accounted for the interest shown by Arab forces in the middle decades of the 7th century and their eventual stationing of a garrison on Cyprus, probably on Paphos.

One result of the island’s special relationship with Heraclius and the key role that it played as a staging area for 7th century campaigns in the Levant is the ubiquity of coins minted during the reign of Heraclius. In fact, coins minted under Heraclius are the most common issues from the 5th-7th century on the island. This likely reflects the issuing of coins to pay troops moving back and forth through the island and the coins minted by Heraclius on the island from 608-610. Coins from Heraclius’s successor Constans II (r. 641-668) are almost as common. The number of coins drops precipitously after the reign of Constans II largely owing to the decline of regional mints and the political and economic ambiguity of the island as it passed into the strange condominium period during which both Arabs and Byzantines had some authority on the island. 

The abrupt drop in coins after the reign of Heraclius and Constans II poses an interesting problem for archaeology on the island. Because the number of coins declined so dramatically, we can probably assume that coins of Heraclius stayed in circulation for at least a generation, if not more. As a result, the use of coins of Heraclius to date archaeological features is a particular challenge. In the archaeology of Cyprus, however, this is a common occurrence. For example, coins of Heraclius date at least a dozen of the 70-odd Early Christian basilicas on the island. In most cases on Cyprus, the evidence from ceramics or other datable artifacts from stratigraphic contexts does not accompany the evidence from coins. Coins alone appear to date the structures. 

The use of coins to date buildings, destruction levels, and stratigraphy is problematic on archaeological grounds. Despite the appeal of coins as firmly dated artifacts, they are only useful if they are the latest object in a level. Moreover, the absence of coins from the 8th century on the island means that any dating by coins alone becomes problematic because of the uneven supply of currency to the island.

The use of coins to date these basilicas to the middle decades of the 7th century reinforces arguments for the collapse of Cypriot settlement and society at this time. In particular, the coins of Heraclius tend to support arguments from the destruction of these buildings as a result of the Arab raids on the island around 650. Of the 70-odd basilicas on the island, excavators have argued that a third of them were damaged or fell out of use over the second half of the 7th century and attributed this trend to the Arab raids. 

I sometimes joke with my ceramicist friends that our continued efforts to trace the use and production of traditional Late Roman red-slipped wares and storage amphora into the 8th century will eventual force us to change the dates on some well-known emperors. The “funny” is that I assume we can use ceramics to date coins and then to date political events just as coins have often been used to date ceramics. The ongoing revision of ceramic chronologies and a more critical treatment how coins work in an archaeological context are important steps in understanding 7th century settlement on the island.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

With yesterday’s springlike weather, I’ve started to count down the days to the end of the semester (and my sabbatical beyond). My students aren’t helping by noting that “after spring break, the semester is basically over.” There are six weeks left!

More to the point, I have three substantial projects that are due by the end of the semester, so I can’t afford to relax yet.

I can, however, allow myself a little distraction with some quick hits and varia.

Pyla-Kokkokinokremos and the Political Geography of Cyprus in the Second Millennium BC

March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dimitri Nakassis brought to my attention that Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project Alumnus, Michael Brown, had published an article in Annual of the British School at Athens on the political geography of southeast Cyprus in the Late Cypriot period. The article derives from his dissertation which focused on the settlement landscape of southeast Cyprus in the Late Bronze Age and has already informed our analysis of the Pyla littoral.

Brown beings with a discussion of the Gialias River valley that flows from the Troodos foothills north of Larnaka to the east coast at Enkomi. His article become more interesting for readers of this blog when he takes on the fraught task of undermining the political orthodoxy that the prominent, Late Bronze Age site of atop the Kokkinokremos plateau was somehow associated with the arrival of Aegean settlers.

Kokkinokremos 2007

Vassos Karageorghis, Pyla-Kokkinokremos’s most recent excavator, has tirelessly advanced this interpretation of the site and while scholars have generally met this analysis with skepticism, the impressive location of Kokkinokremos, its casemate style architecture, and seemingly abrupt appearance in the Late Cypriot IIC period (and equally abrupt disappearance around 1200 BC) has underscored the unusual nature of this site. From the perspective of political geography, its location is curious as it represents one of three large settlement sites on Larnaka bay alongside Hala Sultan Tekke and Bronze Age Kition. It remains difficult to understand the political or economic circumstances that allowed two contemporary settlement to develop very close to each other (Hala Sultan Tekke and Kition) and a third some 10 km to the east.  

Brown focused some significant attention on the area around Pyla-Kokkinokremos and followed our general arguments from various PKAP publications: the main asset available for the development of Pyla littoral and Pyla-Kokkinokremos was likely the presence of a now-infilled embayment that formed a natural harbor at the site. Moreover, for the Bronze Age Brown has pointed out that there is evidence for earlier settlement in vicinity of Pyla-Kokkinokremos at the sites of Steno, Pyla-Stavro, and Verghies. Each of these smaller, less monumental sites, demonstrated a population who may have already availed themselves to some of the environmental assets of the region. 

For Brown, the catalyst for the development of the monumental site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos was the maritime connections available through the natural embayment at the base of the plateau. Without entirely dismissing site’s fortified character, he gently suggests that the casemate wall was more architecturally imposing than militarily robust. There is evidence – albeit unpublished and only obliquely mentioned in this article (“although possibly not an uninterrupted ‘fortification’”) – that the casemate walls had openings to the exterior of the settlement. Brown noted that this would not have detracted from the appearance of the walls at the site, but would have reduced their quality as fortification. Perhaps, then, the wall around Kokkinokremos was more of a mark of civic identity in the region and its orientation toward the sea.

The maritime orientation of the site perhaps indicated strong connections with the Levant. Brown concludes his article with a discussion of Alashiya, a word that might refer to part of Cyprus in Syrian and Babylonian texts. While not all scholars agree that Alashiya refers to Cyprus, Alashiya was noted as a source of copper. Brown offers the interesting observation that the site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos is only 10 km from the copper mining area around Troulli which was exploited at least as late as the Roman period and maybe as early as the Bronze Age. Perhaps, then, the location of Kokkinokremos allowed the community to engage productively with metallurgical resources, avoid the concentration of economic and political power at Kition and Hala Sultan Tekke.

Brown’s article summarizes a raft of interpretations of the Pyla littoral that both developed during and informed the interpretation of this region that will appear in the monograph describing our work in the wider Pyla microregion. It is good to see some of Michael’s work in print and I hope we can incorporate citations to this article in our volume. 

Scale-Up Midterm Report

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

This past week I finished grading the midterms for my History 101 class in a Scale-Up classroom. I also submitted a revised draft of the article that I co-authored with my T.A. last spring reflecting on our teaching in this room. So it seemed like a good time to stop and take stock of how my semester has gone and some thoughts on my future work in this room.

1. Midterm Evaluation. The students worked over 4 weeks on midterm exams. Each table produced, one 3000 word essay with sections on the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. The most striking thing about the midterm exams came not from the exams themselves which were of slightly higher than average quality, but from a brief quiz that I gave hours before the midterm was due. The quiz asked them to reflect on their midterm exams and to identify one thing that they would change if they could.

I naively expected most of the answers to this quiz to focus on stronger theses, better use of primary and secondary source evidence, or even one more round of proofreading, and, indeed, students mentioned these issues. More surprisingly, however, were the number of students who commented on some aspect of process. Whether it was the way the group organized their workflow to produce the chapter, the time allowed between various drafts and revisions, or the distribution of work among members of the group. In fact, a number of students admitted to not working hard enough or contributing enough to the group’s efforts.

The frankness of the students’ self evaluation was shocking and refreshing. These were not anonymous. The students clearly recognized that how they worked as a group to write the chapter had a directly relationship to the quality of their work, and the changes that they offered were process oriented rather than simply outcome oriented. As this class has emphasized the close relationship of methods and processes in the production of knowledge, it was heartening to see that students have internalized this approach to learning.

2. Repetition and Learning. One the shortcomings of my previous class in the Scale-Up room was that we spent all semester writing a single chapter of a history textbook. This allowed us to spend a good bit of time managing research, structuring the chapter and revising the prose, but we only engaged this process one time through. There was no repetition to reinforce or refine the processes developed over the course of the semester, but the end result of our careful work was fairly refined.

The midterm quality was not nearly as good as the work from the final project last semester, but I’m hoping that the opportunity to reflect and revise their process will improve the final product at the end of the semester. It has taken a bit of discipline on my part to allow groups to find their own work rhythms and to turn in products that I know could be better with more time and revisions. At the same time, I think bringing a part of the class to an end and presenting a final evaluation has a kind of impact that revisions and other provision assessments do not have. In short, the students need the grade to establish their own sense of progress and performance in the class. 

3. Peer Review and Consequences. My students are terrible peer reviewers. In the most recent round of peer critiques I provided them with a template that asked them to award a grade to the paper that they peer reviewed. No matter how bad the paper was, how incomplete the ideas, and how poorly proofread the prose, my students found ways to give it a high-B or A. This astounding act of generosity promised to leave their fellow students buoyed with confidence at their progress in the class and free to spend spring break taking some well-deserved down time.

Of course, this kind of uncritical engagement with their fellow students’ work is not at all helpful to anyone. While the concerned pedagogue in me worries that the my criteria for grading are not clear or that the students have not internalized the key components of a good paper, the practical teacher sees these overly optimistic grades as a result of a reluctance to engage critically their fellow students’ work and a tendency to put a superficial loyalty to classmates over a longterm commitment to collective learning. The pedagogue’s concerns are fixed by articulating once again, and maybe with different words, the expectations for these papers; the teacher’s concerns are best resolved by some mildly apocalyptic penalties meted out to students who offer uncritically inflated provisional grades to their fellow students. Middle ground is probably best in this case.


With my first short article submitted on my experiences teaching in the Scale-Up room, I’ve begun to think about a follow up article or two. While I’m slated for sabbatical next year, I’m sorely tempted to ask to teach in the room next spring as part of a three year research cycle that focuses on three iterations of my class in this kind of learning-centered environment. That would be the topic of a second article of a trilogy. The third article would look at the relationship between learning-centered spaces and the changing architecture of higher education with references to online teaching, MOOCs, Scale-Up rooms, and traditional lecture bowls. This paper will take some research and more careful consideration, but as this blog has suggested, our growing interest in process and making “invisible learning” visible has clear echoes with 20th century modes of industrial educations that run counter to disciplinary tendencies to history (or the larger humanities project) as craft.

For more of my reflections on teaching in the Scale-Up go here.


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