Three Things Thursday: Squatters, Syllabi, and the Split Seminar

This semester is going to be an adventure. Not only are we having some pretty cold weather, but COVID and teaching four different classes is keeping my on my toes. On top of this, I’m trying to develop a bit more personal discipline and read and write regularly even if it’s not directed toward any particular outcome. Maybe juggling these things accounts for 

Thing the First

Over the last couple of days, I read and enjoyed Rebecca Worsham’s recent article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, “Squatters’ Rights: Questioning Narratives of Decline in Archaeological WritingJMA 34.2 (2021). The article considers the use of the term “squatter” in Mediterranean archaeology with two case studies: one from Knossos in LMIIIB and one from Late Roman Cyrene. Worsham sets these in the broader context of the notion of squatting in both modern political life and in archaeological writing.

Conventionally, squatting refers to the illegal occupation of property. Thus, the concept of squatting assumes not only the legal ownership of the land, but also that the activity undertaken by the squatters constituted activities that were out of place somehow. In modern systems defined practices enclosure, squatting is effectively a kind of theft and it suggests the breakdown of political and social order. Of course, we know next to nothing about property ownership and legal rights in Late Minoan Crete and the in the Late Roman world where practices of adaptation, reuse, and urban change appear to be the norm rather than an exception. In these contexts, then, associating modest ceramic assemblages with squatter activities may well speak more to our own conceptions of property rights than past activities.

As a sometime scholar of Late Antiquity, the appearance of “squatters” tends to contribute to larger narratives of decline when the orderly use of Roman public space becomes repurposed, subdivided, and otherwise transformed. By questioning the use of term squatter Worsham pushes us to question our normative assumption about the use of space in antiquity and perhaps even rehabilitate practices of “late reuse” as signs of resilience, creativity, and even adaptation not simply during times of crisis, but with changing attitudes toward urbanism and the political and social regimes that necessary to support certain forms of space.

As an aside, I want to offer a very appreciative hat tip to the JMA who granted me access to the entire issue as a contributor (to the volume) rather than just my article. This is a great gesture and one that I wish more journals would pursue. Nothing is more frustrating than contributing to a journal and getting the obligatory offprint and not having access to rest of the volume (or even issue).

Thing the Second   

Over on the social media there’s been a bit of buzz about the story of a faculty member who put clues to the location of a $50 in his syllabus and discovered at the end of the semester that no student had gone to retrieve the prize. While most faculty have become frustrated that students don’t read the syllabus, this ploy seemed less likely to generate compliance and more likely to reinforce the smug assumption that students don’t care.

A number of other folks have piped up to argue that students have increasingly come to ignore the syllabus because it has become so laced with required administrative fine print that students view it as the equivalent of an EULA when installing software. Some on social media have pointed out that most syllabi represent “cop shit” and operate under the assumption that students will try to game the system unless outsmarted by a savvy faculty member. 

I suspect that in our COVID-inflected age, students are also finding the syllabus less and less relevant as courses have to constantly pivot and adapt to the challenges that COVID creates for learning. I know that my syllabi have taken on an increasingly provisional character as they attempt both to articulate clear learning goals as well as reassure stressed and overworked students that I will do all I can to keep the class humane and flexible. 

In my graduate seminar this semester, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to thinking explicitly about the syllabus. In this context, the syllabus becomes the goal of the class rather than its formative document and since many of the best classes are open ended exercises, I anticipate that the syllabus will never be complete even when the semester ends. 

Thing the Third

My graduate seminar’s schedule is a bit odd this semester. Rather than being one, 150-minute block, it is two 75-minute meetings per week. For as long as I’ve had or led seminar style classes, they have met once per week. They tend to follow a pretty standard trajectory of vigorous discussion for the first hour or 90 minutes followed by a protracted period of fragmentation and dissipation. We can attribute most of this to simple fatigue and the challenge of staying focused for over 2 hours. In some cases, finding course material that can sustain a 2 hour+ discussion is challenging. In other cases, such as when critiquing the work of seminar participants, the unevenness of the seminar meeting reflects the uneven quality of the work under review and the uneven knowledge of the participants. All in all, most meetings of a seminar experience entropy over their 2 hours duration.

To be clear, it was not my decision to split my seminar meeting into two parts. It was a scheduling quirk most likely associated with my packed teaching schedule and my status as an outsider in teaching in the English department. 

That said, it has been revelatory. First, the knowledge that we only have 90 minutes to discuss a text has given the class a certain amount of urgency. Second, because we meet twice a week, we have time to reflect on a discussion and return to certain points in the second session. In fact, the way that I’m scheduling the class is that we discuss new texts on Thursday and Tuesdays are time for both reflective discussion as well as other practical matters. 

While it is still early days in the class, so far, this organization feels like a revelation. Not only has our Thursday discussion been solid, but the the opportunity to sleep on the discussion and come back to it on Tuesday has so far been remarkably “productive” (by which I mean interesting and engaging instead of resolving). 

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