Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

I did some traveling this month and that always gives me time to sit still and read without being distracted by a million other things. On my last flight, I read David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). It was a pretty fun read and despite the book’s ostensible audience of higher ed administrators and leaders, it offers some intriguing and imaginative proposals that could be of use for anyone working at a university today.

The most appealing thing about the book is that the Staley allowed himself to imagine 10 different forms of post-secondary education. These ranged from a industry focused liberal arts college to free form “platform college” where faculty and students are combine and disperse on the basis of interest and demand, to decentralized microcolleges that operate with loose coordination to offer almost individual instruction and radical colleges based on play, advanced cybernetic interfaces, and the body. The willingness to speculate and to imagine a future to higher education with only the barest number of institutional constraints and appeals to tradition is refreshing. More than that, it demonstrates that there is a place for “solutions in search of problems” in higher education, although Staley does conclude by saying that he hopes his experiment in imagination will demonstrate that alternatives exist to the increasingly commodified character of contemporary higher education.

At the same time, Staley’s alternative universities do have certain similarities that suggest a particular understanding of the higher education landscape that goes beyond his rather cursory diagnosis of the contemporary “crisis.” For example, nearly all the alternative universities managed to exist with a minimum of administration who tended to serve as coordinators and facilitators rather than leaders. Conversely faculty took center stage and while their work was often subject to the whims of the market (and students), the mentor-student relationship remained fundamental most fo the alternative universities proposed.

Likewise absent from his alternative universities were the onerous burden of assessing learning. In fact, Staley largely accepted that both students and faculty operated in good faith. Students committed to learning and faculty committed to teaching. In some of his scenarios, faculty will be on an island with students either instructing small groups as part of single-teacher micro universities, leading students in immersive experiences abroad in the “Nomad University,” or connecting and dispersing with demand and interest in the “Platform University.” Such free form experimental spaces as the Institute for Advance Play and Future University have outcomes that seem to almost resist formal assessment. A university based on play or the producing models of future society may have rules and expectations (i.e. humans won’t suddenly develop the ability to fly), but these do little to narrow the wide range of potential student outcomes.  

At times, I felt like Staley’s book was a bit naive about the ability of the market to self-regulate both within academia and the relationship between academic institutions and industry. The idea of a “Humanities Think Tank” and “Nomad University” rely on the idea that the private (and public sector) would consistently reach out to scholars in the humanities or in various applied sciences for collaboration. On the one hand, it’s Staley’s fantasy which always involves a certain suspension of disbelief and maybe that’s enough to sanction his exercises. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his more naive approaches to the functioning of the market offer a useful way forward. The idea that students will gravitate toward majors and funding will flow from industry toward innovative institutions ignores the complicated roles that ideology, politics, and tradition plays in shaping the economic and educational landscape. Of course, Staley acknowledges that his exercises in imagining operate at the margins of the possible, but how he defines these limits remains unclear. For example, he does not propose “Mars University” where students study Mars and the role of space on the terrestrial economy over the course of the multiyear curriculum taught during a trip to, from, and on the Red Planet. His selective reading of existing experiments in higher education – with example such as Deep Springs College – rarely explores less successful (or at least sustained) experiments (e.g. Black Mountain College) to understand the real limits to what is possible. This isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading and thinking about. Perhaps, he designed the fuzzy limits to his imagined solutions to push us to think about the constraints that currently exist within higher education or to encourage us to engage in a kind of “design thinking” that recognizes the interplay between ideas and constraints as the key environment for producing real change.

Lest my review seem too critical, I should emphasize that the book is inspiring. In the spring semester, I’m teaching a class that will focus not so much on a problem or a series of educational outcomes, but on a building on our campus that is scheduled for demolition. I was fretting a good bit about the point of the class, but Staley’s book put me more at ease. I was particularly drawn to the idea of an “Institute for Advanced Play” that Staley based on the idea that “play and the imagination define higher learning.” 

My one-credit course will focus on play and the idea that our bureaucratic, outcome driven education system leaves rather little time for engaging the world thoughtfully, critically, and carefully without a particular goal. To my mind, this might be the best thing about Staley’s book. Even if the problems that it seeks to solve and the limits to Staley’s imaging are fuzzy, the book encourages all of us to think about higher education in radically different ways and to enjoy the silliness of unwarranted provocation and the freedom from consistency, well-defined goals, and tidy outcomes. 

Wide-Ranging Wednesday: ASOR, Alcatraz, and Failing Gloriously

I’m heading out west today to the annual meeting of ASOR in San Diego. As per usual, I’m pulling together a gaggle of books to keep me company on the flights and during down times at the conference.

For the flight, I’m going to read Joyce Carol Oates On Boxing as I prepare myself for a winter of rather remarkable fights starting on Saturday with the Wilder vs. Ortiz heavy weight tilt, December 7th with Joshua vs. Ruiz, and on December 14th with Bud Crawford, Mick Conlan, and Teofimo Lopez in action. I’m pretty excited.

I’ve also packed along a copy of François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015) as I think about the practical, methodological, and ethical time of legacy data. Along similar lines, I’m carrying with me the intimidating works of Reinhard Kosselleck, but I’ll probably start with Niklas Olsen’s History in the plural an introduction to the work of Reinhart Koselleck (2012) before dipping my toes into Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time (2004) or Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories (2018). This was mostly prompted by Laurent Olivier and Marek Tamm’s Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (2019).

As per usual, at the 11th hour I added David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education (2019) to my Kindle on the recommendation of Richard Rothaus.

The flight to San Diego will also be a great chance to think through some strategies to promote the newest book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that is set to be published on December 1. Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays is a series of reflective pieces on his life as a digital archaeologist and a digital humanist in the first decades of the 21st century. The book is part archaeological autobiography and part commentary on ways to make academia a safer place for failure.

Advanced copies of the book are in the wind and the feedback has been really positive (which I’m sure is as much a relief to Shawn as it is to me!). We were both really excited to read Quinn Dombrowski’s thoughtful review of the book on the Stanford DH blog. Check it out! 

And stay tuned to this page for a sneak peek of the introduction next week.   

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t nudge folks to read Gayatri Devi’s short essay on the North Dakota Quarterly blog on the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz. For many reasons, this event has not garnered the same public awareness as other episodes of protest in the late 1960s. That it occurred at the same time as protests by African Americans, anti-war protestors, and other movements that exposed the hypocrisy in late-20th century American political, economic, and cultural life, offers a clear reminder that the story of Native Americans remains deeply entangled in the complex critiques of contemporary America. It is hardly surprising then, that Tommy Orange’s There, There (2018) which is set in the Native American community of contemporary Oakland, looks back to the occupation of Alcatraz as a key moment in both the novel and that community’s story. Reading Tommy Orange or Dean Rader’s Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI (2011) over the Thanksgiving is a nice way to ignore the white-washed portrayal of Native Americans so closely associated with that holiday.  

Travel Day Reading

The older I get, the more I dislike travel. The only really good thing about it (other than the destination) is a chance to get some quiet and relatively uninterrupted reading time.

As I head east today to a conference in Washington, DC, I’m taking with me the most recent issue of Ploughshares, Juliet Lapidos’s newish book Talent, Eric Olin Wright’s How to be Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty-First Century (2019) and Laurent Olivier and Marek Tamm’s Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (2019).

If you want to read the paper that I’m giving in DC go here

You should also check out some of the content from the latest issue of NDQ that went to the printers on Monday. We’re trying to get 1000 followers on The Twitters, so if you like quality poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews, follow us here. We’re also hoping to get 1 million followers on Facebook, like our page here.

Generous Thinking

This weekend, I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Johns Hopkins 2019). The book calls for scholars to think more generously as individuals, as a community, with the public, and through our institutions. The first pages of the book spoke immediately to me (and some of my growing concerns about how I act as a scholar in the 21st century). Fitzpatrick describes a seminar where a group of graduate students were asked what they thought about a text. The class responded by a period of boisterous critique and criticism. Alarmed, perhaps, at the class’s eagerness to tear the text apart, she stopped the conversation by asking the students, instead, to articulate the author’s argument. There was silence.

Anyone who has taught graduate seminars (or, indeed, participated in them) recognizes these moments and this mildly Socratic process. The assumption that almost any article or book that we read in seminar is flawed, outdated, or problematic encourages a kind of hair trigger response to any perceived shortcoming in a publication. This behavior allows us to show off our critical chops and finding weakness in even the most carefully argued texts, indulges the modern love of irony (this article may see brilliant and perfect, but BEHOLD!), and conditions the kind of hyper-critical attitudes that have created such beloved characters as “Reviewer #2” and infused scholarly conversations with a kind of pugilistic (or perhaps more charitably “agonistic”) approach to knowledge making.

To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of this tendency. In fact, my graduate seminars often centered more around tearing each other’s work down to the foundational assumptions than offering constructive critique. I’m still working on finding a more constructive, collaborative, and collegial professional voice particularly as a peer reviewer

Part of the issue, as Fitzpatrick notes, is the idea that competition provides a key way in the establishing of professional truth and academic expertise. The connections between having the ability to discern or establish truth and professional status as an expert starts in graduate school, continues on the job market, is central to winning competitive grants, gaining advancement and attaining recognition. In other words, the academic world encourages a view of truth and status that is dependent — to a very real extent— on other people being wrong as much as someone being right. 

This way of thinking has often created barriers between our professional discourse and the general public. The technical character of academic language which so often appears as jargon to the uninitiated has served as a way to distinguish the precision and accuracy of truth claims, to limit our audience, and to fend off challenges from less proficient scholars. More than that, it has encouraged academics to see public outreach not as creative work, knowledge making, or truth building, but as a lesser form of intellectual labor. While I do feel that the burden of outreach falls unevenly on scholars in the humanities (and some of this is tied to a deep skepticism that the truths produced in the humanities establish real expertise), Fitzpatrick does demonstrate the clear link between how we work as scholars and our ability (and willingness and attitudes toward) engaging with a wider public.

I was particularly taken by Fitzpatrick’s careful consideration of the role of empathy and, more broadly, care, in our work as scholars, readers, and writers. Avoiding the seemingly ubiquitous calls for a kind of banal (and frankly unproductive, mostly condescending, and often colonialist) empathy, Fitzpatrick encouraged scholars to recognize that empathy is a process, a struggle, and always necessarily incomplete. The slow, painful, and always incomplete work of empathizing forms the basis for new forms of compassion and scholarly care. This undermines Ricoeur’s famous “hermeneutics of suspicion” both in how we read texts, but also in how we engage with our larger community. We suspend our overdeveloped sense of modern irony and attempt to understand others for who they are rather than to suss out what they’re hiding.    

As importantly, she demonstrates that this does not involve a kind of facile naïveté or the an overdetermined sense of the authenticity of “the other.” Nor does it require us to suspend our critical skills or rationalize injustice. It does, however, require us to listen rather than just to hear. By listening, we demonstrate that we care and instead of rushing to undermine or counter views that we assume to be different from our own, we create a space for genuine communication, reflection, and dialogue. This seems like good advice to me.

But this isn’t just a book telling us how to use our academic training to create dialogue, expand understanding, and make room for other voices. Fitzpatrick also urges us to turn this kind of collaborative, caring, and generous spirit on ourselves and academic institutions. The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “the university and the public good,” and she argues that by embracing more generous thinking as individuals we can push our institutions to return to their mission of providing the public good. If the historical practices of academic competition have merged with capitalist and market ideologies that see truth and knowledge making as a zero sum game with winners and loser both on the epistemological and professional level, a more generous and empathetic approach might shift the center of scholarly work from the individual to the collective and the community. As a result, attention to the health of the larger community both within and outside the academy, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of care creates new spaces for new and good.     

Applying these perspectives on the public good requires that we work to change our institutions as well as our disciplinary and individual practices. By recognizing the university and our scholarly work as part of a larger public and its myriad and variously define communities, we push back against the prevailing view of higher education as an individual good and begin to construct arguments and establish practices that demonstrate how higher education is public work that leads to public good. This is particularly important in an era where funding to higher education is increasingly articulated by unsympathetic legislatures as a luxury or as a subsidy directed to support the personal advancement of a small percentage of the population (i.e. faculty and students).

Fitzpatrick notes that it is difficult to map out in concrete terms the changes necessarily to transform institutions, particularly at the scale of higher education in the U.S. This doesn’t really detract from the impact of the book, however. It’s clear enough that change has to happen at the level of the individual who, if we buy Fitzpatrick’s argument, can make a difference by modeling generosity in their personal practices and encouraging others to think generously as well. 

Teaching Thursday: Revisiting Clark’s History, Theory, Text

This semester, I’m teaching a small graduate seminar that is a combination historical methods, theory, and historiography. The syllabus is uncomplicated and involves only 10 or 11 books, a couple of short paper, and a draft of a prospectus.

The third book on the syllabus of Elizabeth Clark’s 2004 classic, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Reading the book this weekend and it evoked a serious case of nostalgia. I remember how excited I was to read this book in 2004 when I was just a year out from my dissertation and still waking from over two years of focused research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I largely spent my time in Greece finishing my dissertation, trying to understand how to publish Hellenistic fortifications, and getting my first archaeological project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, started. It was great fun, but it also saw a real narrowing of my perspectives on how to study the ancient world. My years in Athens helped me become more technically and methodologically proficient. 

At the same time, I grew increasingly distant from the conversations taking place in the larger field of history. This probably started long before I decamped from Ohio State’s history department to the American School in Athens, but my time in Athens exaggerated this feeling. When I read Elizabeth Clark’s book some 6 months after returning to the U.S., I felt like I had some catching up to do.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it stands as a survey of the “linguistic turn” in the humanities with particular attention the study of Late Roman Christian literature. The book remains as fresh as ever, in part, because the potential of critical theory is still being unpacked, negotiated, and debated in the humanities and because so many of the key works were already decades old by the time that Clark’s book arrived. The books is not casual. It’s dense, articulate, careful in its intention to open the linguist turn to scholars who were steeped in other traditions or downright skeptical of its applicability to Christian texts of Late Antiquity. 

Today, the main reason that the book feels dated is that so much of the linguistic turn has been internalized over the last 15 years. Clark, along with Averil Cameron, Virginia Burrus, and others whose work introduced critical theory to the study of Late Roman Christianity have produced students, inspired the peers, and led to a sea change in our field. 

At the same time, the book also feels oddly apolitical. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a refection both on our own politically age and the increased intermingling of the critical theory with its concern for language with social theory and its concern for institutions, communities, individuals, and agency. While these bodies of theory are, by no means, mutually exclusive (and tend to intersect in the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, Althusser and others), they tended occupy different places in our critical tool kit. As an archaeologist, I think its safe to say that we’ve tended to be drawn more closely to social theory and its direct applicability the kinds of problems that our work explores: development and change in states, social organization, identity formation, etc. 

It seems to me that this integration of the critical  theory with social theory has provided the most effective foundation for the most recent generation of powerful and overtly political scholarship on the ancient world. I’m staring at a copy of Dayna S. Kalleres City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity (2015) for example, sitting on my “to read” list. And was incredible impressed with Kristina Sessa’s The formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (2012) (blogged about here.) These are but two books in a massive stack of impressive work over the past decade that considers authority, poverty, ethnicity, and social order at the end of the ancient world. 

I’m looking forward to walking through this book with my little seminar this afternoon and thinking about the linguistic turn and its impact on how we think about texts from the past. It’ll bring back good memories too and remind me how little I’ve done to keep my fingers on the recent trends in my field.  

Teaching Thursday: Teaching by the Book

When I first started teaching, I was convinced that I didn’t need no stinkin’ textbook. I dutifully created my own primary source reader and pulled together a motley gaggle of secondary reading to use in my survey level class and upper level classes.

As the years have passed and I’ve acquired a dose of humility, I’ve come to realize that many textbooks offer a far more substantial and, generally speaking, informed foundation for the classroom. There remain reasons not to use textbooks, of course, that range from their cost to issues of compatibility, length, and presentation. But for most of my classes, there’s a book that does the job better than I could and at a reasonable cost.

Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History (Chicago 2017) is one of those books. 

This fall, I’m re-writing my History 240: The Historians’ Craft class. It’s a mid-level course that is required for all of our majors and minors. In the past, I’ve split the class between a 7 week course on historiography culminating in a mid-term and a 7 week course on research methods, culminating in a prospectus. Next semester, I’m dividing the class into thirds, with 5 weeks on historiography, 5 weeks in special collections, and 5 weeks on writing a prospectus.

Maza’s book is divided into 6 chapters each of which poses a simple question that is nevertheless fundamental to historical research. The first chapter is titled “The History of Whom?”; the second “The History of Where?”; the third, “The History of What?”, and so on. She grounds her consideration of each question in post-war historical work with the occasional dalliances in the first part of the 20th century. She supports her arguments with just enough footnotes to be effective and not so many as to intimidate the undergraduate. The prose is engaging and chapters are short enough to be digested efficiently. The most important thing, however, is that Maza frames historical methods in the development of past practices. In other words, history itself is not ahistorical and our methods are inscribed with the challenges and developments facing scholars in the past and present. In short, the book would be an almost ideal companion to my revised History 240 class (or any undergraduate historical methods course)!

It does have a few drawbacks, though, which is less with the book and more with its compatibility with my class.

First, Maza does not really engage with ancient or medieval historians in a serious way. Thucydides and Tacitus make cameo appearances, but Medieval practices and scholars do not. Renaissance and Enlightenment historians and philosophers do appear but mainly as historical context rather than points of attention in their own right. This pains my ancient historian heart a bit, but also reflects the reality of students who are pretty uncomfortable with ancient texts, their conventions, the names, and their approach to understanding the past. It may be that the omitting ancient and Medieval history from the book makes the entire project more approachable for students. 

Second, the final section of the the book is titled “Fact or Fiction?” In it, Maza explores the influence of postmodernism on historical thinking and writing with particular attention to the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Hayden White. She considers the debt of historical writing to fiction and the role of literary tropes as well as the potential and limits of the historical imagination. She also addresses the issue of fraudulent historical work and details a few instances in recent memory when historians fabricated or misrepresented sources. The juxtaposition of rigorous postmodern scholarship with fraudulent historical analysis is meant to challenge the student to consider the limits to historical thinking. It also, however, suggests that somehow postmodern scholarship is less credible that other forms of historical work not because its dependence on jargon, reluctance to unpack traditional causality, or even genre defying approaches to understanding the past, but because it somehow flirts with misrepresenting the past or deception. 

If I were writing the book, I’d be far more tempted to consider the continuum that ranges from postmodern works to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of history in popular media. It seems that both are informed by a desire to tell new and different stories about the past and in many cases embraces – explicitly – the ironic turn which challenges our expectations for how history works. 

That being said, the book is very good and will almost certainly appear on my History 240 syllabus this spring. In fact, it’s so good that I’ll probably follow Maza’s lead and reduce (or maybe even eliminate) my treatment of ancient and Medieval texts. The real trick will finding the right primary sources to lead students beyond the book and allow them to encounter first hand the major contributors to our modern discipline.

Taco Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Finished Review

In my effort to clear my plate before the semester gets under way next week, I finished my short review of Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean for the Ancient History Bulletin. The book was pretty good and engaged ancient trade in a thoughtful and sophisticated way. 

Terpstra argued, in a nutshell, that the parallel rise of ancient states and ancient trade represents the complex interplay between trade and community in the ancient world. States do not so much protect the property rights of merchants and property owners, but create social and political conditions where groups and individuals could create ways to protect their economic interests. He looks at diaspora communities in the Classical Greek world, the messy overlap between political and economic interests among royal administrators in the Hellenistic Egypt, and witness lists on private contracts in the Roman Empire. As I note in my review, Terpstra’s argument gets a bit shaky when he attempts to extend it to the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th to 7th centuries AD. The transformation of the Ancient Mediterranean creates new forms of social and political relationships that both adapt and disrupt long-standing economic relationships. For many parts of the Mediterranean, the emergence of new social and religious groups as well as new states changed the context for economic relationships, but as archaeological evidence from the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly shows, many economic ties between communities persisted even after their political ties dissolved. 

If you’d like to read my entire review, go here.   

Despite these quibbles, this book represented another really impressive volume from Princeton University Press. Last week, I read Kyle Harper’s 2017 book The Fate of Rome (more on that here) which is another well-produced book from Princeton. When you add to their catalogue, Josh Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015) and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2015) Princeton has set the standard for well-produced, broadly accessible, and affordable books on the ancient world. The publisher in me admires their catalogue and the scholar in me wishes he had more time to read. 

Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating. 

The Ancient Economy

This summer, I read Taco Terpstra’s little book on the ancient economy for a short review. I’ve not had the most productive summer, but I did get a draft of this review done. Here it is: 

Taco Terpstra’s book, Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Private Order and Public Institutions, seeks to transform and complicate our understanding of the ancient economy. Writing in the tradition of Moses Finley’s Ancient Economy, Terpstra returns to the idea that Ancient Mediterranean economies shared certain common elements that derive primarily from their relationship to the state. In this way, Terpstra challenges the prevailing view that the basic structure of economies in the antiquity were regionally and chronologically diverse. He employs a Neo-institutionalist perspective on the relationship between the Ancient state and economy to argue the emergence of the state created the environment promoting economic growth starting in the 7th century BCE. Parallels between the trend lines produced from graphs showing the number of shipwrecks and quantity of lead pollution in Greenland ice cores offers a surrogate from economic growth and traces the emergence and collapse of ancient states in the Mediterranean. The significant contribution of this book, however, is to add nuance to this parallel between economic growth and the growth of states. Terpstra argues with varying degrees of effectiveness, that the development of the ancient economy did not rely on the state’s enforcement of private property.

Chapters two to four of the book offer argue for the complicated interaction between state and non-state groups and relationships in the ancient economy. Chapter two considers the trade diaspora in the ancient Mediterranean and demonstrates that ancient cities maintained relationships and supported diaspora communities. The epigraphic record and textual sources document the ongoing relationship between the Phoenician city of Tyre and various cities in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. Terpstra indicates that while the city councils at Tyre and in host cities recognized the diaspora communities, these groups largely acted independent of state control. In chapter three, Terpstra drew upon papyrological evidence from the Hellenistic Zenon Archive. This archive preserved the correspondence of Zenon, an employee of Apollonios who was a high official in the Ptolemaic kingdom, and documented the easy combination of official and private affairs for government officials. For Terpstra, the use of official status for private gain, as is evident in these letters, shows how the state functioned as a “stationary bandit” and state officials leveraged their access to resources for personal gain. Even in this situation, however, the state did not provide enforcement or protection of private property; in fact, private actions and terms almost always resolved incidences of unethical, illegal, or uncooperative behavior in the archive. Chapter four considers the role of witnesses in the Roman world drawing upon a number of preserved witness lists from Italy and the provinces. The arrangement of these lists by social rank suggested that status within Roman society provided a meaningful check on private contracts and transactions. While status within the Roman world depended upon and paralleled the organization of the state, it was not strictly speaking a state function nor did it mark state involvement in the enforcement of private dealings. In these chapters, Terpstra paints a compelling picture of the limits of the state’s involvement in the ancient economy and the way in which private relationships structured economic activity. That these private relationships often depend upon the authority of the state to thrive and grow explains parallel rise of the Mediterranean’s economic fortunes between the 7th c. BCE and the 2nd c. CE.

Terpstra’s work finds itself on shakier grounds when he reaches Late Antiquity. Rather than continuing to trace the role of non-state relations in the changing economy of the 4th-5th centuries, Terpstra turns his attention to how changes in the reach of the state may have led to the constriction of the ancient economy. He acknowledged a wide range of probable causes for the decline of the Roman economy including environmental, political, and military challenges. At the same time, he suggested that the rise of Christianity and the suppression of polytheism undermined one of the main ways in which non-state diaspora communities created “honest signaling” across the Mediterranean. The suppression of paganism compromised diaspora communities organized around the devotion to regional deities and the interregional relationships that these communities maintained. To support this point, however, Terpstra looks at the destruction of the Marneion in Gaza and the Sarapeion in Alexandria by Christian groups. Absent is any clear connection between these events and the diaspora communities among who identified with these cults. An epilogue explores the decline of the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean economy in the 6th century. Terpstra suggests the loss of Egypt to Roman rule in the early 7th century marked the end of the ancient world and its economy. We are left to assume that the non-state relationships and practices so carefully outlined in the first three chapters expired with the decline of the state structures in which they incubated. Absent is any discussion of the growing body of archaeological evidence for the persistence of economic ties in the century or so after the collapse of Roman rule in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Terpstra’s book concludes on a more speculative note. He suggests that the political and social stability enjoyed by the Roman Empire may have served to suppress innovation by carefully managing competition between groups and for access to commodities. In contrast, the dynamism of the Late Medieval and Early Modern economy benefited from the highly fragmented political landscape of that period. The adventurous expansiveness of the book’s final pages does little to undermine the compelling arguments in the first four chapters which could have easily stood alone as a much shorter and tidier volume. Terpstra acknowledges that much more work is necessary to produce a definitive perspective on the ancient economy. In this context, perhaps readers will excuse the unevenness of this short book and share the author’s optimism.

Academia as the Universal Baseball Association

Anyone who likes sports and baseball, in particular, should read (or re-read) Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book describes a fantasy baseball league designed by Henry Waugh and played with roles of dice and a series of charts that allowed Henry to simulate the complexities of the game. Henry played the game for years creating seasons, statistics, dynasties, and storylines that introduced personalities, character, and politics to the Association.

The game preoccupied Henry especially after a young, start pitcher was killed when he was struck in the head by a pitch during a game. This caused Henry to spiral into a deep depression and the border between the world that he built up around the game and reality began to blur. Soon, he started missing work and drinking heavily and becoming more erratic around his friends. This began to impact the game and the Association culminating in his efforts to include a friend in the playing of the game. Henry then manipulated a roll of the dice to kill the pitcher who though the lethal pitch. This effort to restore balance in the league made clear the enormity of Henry’s responsibility as proprietor of the league and keeper of both its statistics and narratives. The players in the league depended on Henry for their existence, but also for their autonomy through his honest rolls of the dice. 

As I spend more time in academia, I start to wonder how much of what we do exists in a kind of fantasy world where the players, narratives, and situations that inspire our work depend on our own imagination to have agency. This isn’t to suggest that our scholarship doesn’t have real consequences. As the death of a star player in Henry’s Association demonstrated, the worlds that we create spill over into our realities and shape our lives and the lives of other people. While many critics have seen in Coover’s work a commentary on free will and the divine (observing that J. Henry Waugh is very close to Yahweh, one of the names for God in the Old Testament). I wonder whether it might also be a commentary on academia, where so many of our arguments exist in this self-referential world that only sometimes spills over into the rest of our realities. Our expertise, our claims to knowledge, and our positions of social, political, or cultural authority all depend on the relationship between what we do and the existence of a meaningful reality outside of the limits of our game.