Writing Clearly

One of my favorite twitter dust ups in recent memory has centered on a strange book review by John Henderson in the BMCR. Apparently all of his reviews are similarly awkward in style, formatting, and language (and perhaps content, although, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the Augustan age to judge his analysis), but this one seems to have a touched a nerve in the social media. Without trivializing the response in any way, I suspect our collective rawness from the COVID, American politics, and the dreadful state of the NFC East, contributed to the reaction to this review. 

Folks on twitter fumed that the review was too opaque to be useful and amounted to little more than an author flaunting his elitism and privilege. As a casual reader of this review, I suspect this is the case. The oddly placed footnotes, the strange parenthetical, use of italics, and strangely personal style suggested an author both confident in his idiosyncratic form of expression and the tolerance of the BMCR’s editors. 

I also recognize that a book review, particularly one in the BMCR, has a particular place in the academic ecosystem. The BMCR represents the discipline’s crib sheet. It’s often the first place to review a book, it doesn’t require a subscription, and despite the occasional controversy, generally produces no-nonsense reviews that are long on description and short on critique. At its best, the BMCR is a democratizing force in Classics and Ancient History as it allows even the most forlorn, overworked, and library-deprived member of the Classics diaspora to keep abreast of the publications in the field, their content, and on a superficial level their significance. The no-nonsense reviews featured in the BMCR, then, coincide with its accessibility of this publication (which is all the more important as library budgets are being cut). Henderson’s review, in contrast, clearly falls outside of what one would expect to appear in the BMCR and, this, invariably, contributed to a share of the criticism on social media. The review is opaque and idiosyncratic, and it seemed appropriate to note that the BMCR may not have been the appropriate venue for such a review.

What interested me more, however, was that many of the critiques were not narrowly contextualized as to what is appropriate for a publication like the BMCR. Instead, academics asked the question whether opaque, complex, and even awkward prose is appropriate for academic writing in general. This is a complicated matter and I’m confident that many who fumed about the Henderson review has thought more carefully about this than I have.

At the same time, I got a bit worried that the call for clarity in academic writing isn’t just a simple matter of making sure that we’re understood. After all, most of us accept that being understood can be overvalued, specialist language and knowledge is important, and in the probably apocryphal words of Einstein “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” We also recognize that what we regard as simple and clear language is not politically, racially, or socially neutral. Criticism of opaque language is most frequently leveled against authors writing from rather more radical or marginal political positions. It has been a charge directed in particular at scholars working in gender theory, critical race theory, and post-colonial studies. These scholars are more likely to be women and BIPOC (or particularly invested in issues related to the situation of woman and BIPOC communities) and the critiques tend to emanate from white men. At their most disturbing there is a vague echo for calls for a kind of normative “standard English” that has often been used to suppress the distinctive voices and identities of diverse communities both in the US and globally.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Henderson’s rather strange review deserves some kind of protected status or that he is simply writing in the style of his community. I also understand that the BMCR is a bit like a baseball boxscore. It’s meant to be legible at a glance and this function encourages a familiar and standard appearance and discourages creativity or innovation. Instead, I’m trying to understand how and whether we should cultivate and develop clarity in scholarly writing. 

I remember last year at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, I attended a roundtable of scholars talking about writing for the general public. The roundtable was sponsored, I think, by the NEH Public Humanities Project. The speakers were all scholars who had enjoyed some success writing for wider audiences and were in their scholarly primes. As I noted at the time, it was clear that these scholars imagined the general public not as a particular type of person, but as a market for their works. In other words, the public scholar is the scholar who caters to an existing market for ideas, books, and writing.

In many ways, this panel reminded me of how music labels often encouraged artists to produce more commercially viable music and how this trend became more and more stifling as a more homogeneous consumer culture for music (and, I’d contend, literature) emerged in the post-war period. The burgeoning purchasing power of the post-war suburban, largely-white, middle class swept all culture before it and produced a more and more limited range of commercially viable forms. This homogenization of culture not only made it difficult to record more experimental work (or music of interest to narrower audiences), but also made us less tolerant of work that refused to conform to commercial expectations. 

I got the feeling that certain advocated of public scholarship saw it not as work that connected with group who are underserved, marginalized, or ignored by academic writers, but with the largest possible audience. Or, as I regularly hear, our (white, middle class) grandmother or mother who is really interested in “archaeology.”

It goes without saying that writing designed to appeal to the widest possible audience is also writing that conforms to certain social and cultural expectations. This isn’t to say that the writing can’t be politically and personally challenging — as recent scholarship on race has shown — but it has to do it in familiar and recognizable ways. This is why so much of the most moving and significant popular literature on race over the last few years (Ibram X. Kendi,  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon, for example) ground their calls for racial justice in deeply personal stories. This is effective, affective, and familiar to mainstream audiences. It’s part of what makes these books accessible even if they make arguments that should make their white audiences uncomfortable. 

Part of the reason that I’m thinking about this is that I often find myself pushing students to write in more formal ways. I’m regularly telling my students to obey the rules of grammar, to write more simply, and to embrace a traditional style. I’ve even found myself mouthing the desiccated platitude that you need first to understand the rules before you can violate them.

At the same time, I frequently scold my students when they complain that a book or an article is hard to understand. I encourage them to think about the difference between poor and challenging writing and to recognize that new ideas and specialist literature will often demand more of our attention.  

What I rarely do is encourage them to write and to use language in ways that are comfortable and familiar to them. Like most folks, when I feel inconvenienced by the way that a student writes, I push them back toward the comfortable pabulum of convention. I  worry a good bit that I’m doing more reinforce the status quo than I am to encourage the emergence of distinct voices and valuing a narrow view of clarity more than a more expansive view of writing as art.

In the end, I do think that our world would be better, more interesting, and even more inclusive if we valued clarity a bit less and diversity a bit more.  

Teaching Thursday

This post is probably a bit too ranty for a lovely fall Thursday, but the pandemic has pushed me to think a good bit about my teaching. As a mentor once told me, years ago, it’s really not about what we teach, but how we teach, because the goal in the end is to prepare students to learn things, not to prepare students to know things.

Last week, I attended a workshop on hybrid and something called “hi-flex” teaching hosted by our hard working crew at our teaching and development “academy.” It was among the more bizarre experiences in my time at my university. The session started with our (zoom) host excitedly informing us that we had “a lot of material to cover today so we gotta get started!” This made it clear that this workshop would not be a relaxed session dedicated to the sharing of practices and approaches across disciplines.

The leader of the workshop then proceeded to spend the first 20 minutes of the session reading from powerpoint slides dutifully shared over The Zooms. This was a bit awkward, but I full expected our host to stop the session and ask those of us in the workshop how this approach made us feel. We could then start to unpack what most educators in the US (and in the world) know as the “banking model of education” (h/t to Paulo Freire!). To leaven this otherwise rather flat presentation, we had brief commercial breaks from a mid-level administrator who excited told us about an “opportunity” which involved signing our classes up for a platform that pairs classes with companies who have problems that need solving. This allowed our students to get real time experience in the world of uncompensated labor and for companies to crowd source their way to increased profitability! E’rybody wins! 

This most striking moment in the workshop was when one of the workshop’s leaders started to read from a powerpoint slide a list of applications that might help us with hybrid teaching. Most of these were plug-ins for our LMS (the much maligned by ubiquitous Blackboard) and probably were useful enough.    

Despite the strange emphasis on the delivery of “content,” the session was fine. The faculty participants did eventually find a way to share their experiences and approaches between powerpoint slides and litanies of potential technological “solutions.”

A few days ago, a colleague sent me blog post by Audrey Watters titled “Cheating, Policing, and School Surveillance” that developed Jeffery Moro’s much celebrated “Against Cop Shit” blog post from this summer. For folks concerned about the increasingly use of technology to track and surveil students, Watters’s post won’t say anything particularly new or shocking (which isn’t to say that it’s not worth reading). Moreover, most of us accept that higher education (in fact, most formal education) is at least partly designed to create compliant workers by introducing them to the expectations fo the workplace. Students, who generally retain more of their human still than faculty, resist through a wide range of practices – from simple lack of compliance to forms of academic dishonesty, and faculty try to co-opt, curtain, and contain their resistance. 

Watters argues that ed-tech particularly anti-plagiarism software, which is quintessential “cop shit,” has worked hard to make surveillance technology the solution to many forms student resistance. This is very much in keeping with the increasing use of surveillance technology in the workplace and the culture of suspicion in the classroom prepares students for a world where they’re constantly being tracked and monitored.

Companies that produce anti-plagiarism software, for example, that checks student work against a growing database of papers (archived, in part, from previously submitted student work, of course), have an interest in promoting the idea that students will plagiarize if left unsupervised. Plagiarism is a particular nefarious sin in a world that celebrates originality and creativity and devotes a tremendous amount of resources to the protection of intellectual property. University faculty, whose careers in some ways, are built on their claims to distinct intellectual contributions, have long seen plagiarism as the height of intellectual dishonesty because it allows an individual to get ahead on the basis of someone else’s originality and hard work.

Anti-plagiarism software, then, plays on our general anxieties regarding the theft of intellectual property and our specific professional anxiety over someone getting credit without the hard work that original scholarship entails.

More than that, this software offers a kind of technological solutionism that both removes plagiarism enforcement from our growing list of things to do and conforms to institutional expectations that instructional technology will allow it to advance its educational mission more efficiently and effectively.

All this is to say that plagiarism detection software, is not just “cop shit” but also “capitalist shit.” Our war against plagiarism (fueled by the academic arms industry) hinges, then, on our fetishization of the original and our desire for efficiency.  

This returns us to my disappointing faculty teaching seminar. In many ways, the goal of the seminar was not to make us better teachers or to make our teaching better, but to reinforce the role of technology in making us more efficient and making our students more compliant. 

Three Things Thursday: Poetry, Cities, and Teaching

For some reason, this week has an end of the semester vibe. Maybe it’s the midterm exams and the due date for the first major projects. Maybe it’s the convergence of a couple deadlines that has left me breathing a bit easier. Maybe it’s the onset of chilly weather. 

In any event, here’s a mid-semester three things Thursday

Thing the First

North Dakota Quarterly issue 87.3/4 went to our publishing partners at the University of Nebraska Press this morning. I’m as excited about this issue as any that I’ve had the pleasure of editing. First, it offers a particularly diverse range of poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews as well as a series of prints by artist Marco Hernandez. The issue also includes a piece of acoustic fiction from 80-year-old Richard Kostelanetz alongside work by some authors who are publishing for the very first time. Anyway, there are contributions from 103 writers in the issue and if you have the time and interest, I’d urge you to subscribe.

I will admit that this week, I felt a pang of anxiety when I got my paperback copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. At comfortably over 1000 pages, I couldn’t help but wonder who had the time to read such a book. In fact, I decided that reading such a book would be an almost violently bourgeois act as it would simply flaunt the luxury of leisure time in a capitalist world where more and more people are struggling simply to get buy (much less have the time to read a book of 1000 pages!) . More than that, reading a book of this length is undemocratic in that its very length and density excludes other books, other voices, and other encounters. It is explicitly monopolistic in its immersive narrative and ponderous length.

If long novels represent the most undemocratic and bourgeois aspects of literature, then short stories, literary magazines, poetry, and novellas are the antidote. A single issue of even the most loosely edited literary magazine reveals, if nothing else, an outpouring of human diversity and creativity. The length of the works alone fits our distracted, overextended, and often-frantic world and reminds us that works that demand our attention for hours or days also require us to have that much attention to spare.

Do read novels, and even long ones, if you have the time, but also remember that quality fiction comes in all shapes, sizes, voices, and political commitments.

Thing the Second 

I’m getting excited about writing the next chapter in my start-stop book manuscript. Over the last few days I’ve been reading and thinking about the archaeology of contemporary American cities. I’ve been re-reading Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski edited volume, Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action (2017) and have noted their observation that despite the city representing the confluence of many elements of interest to archaeologists of the contemporary world, the city itself has yet to attract sustained attention. Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work Patina with it’s emphasis on post-Katrina New Orleans, appeared just a few months before McAtackney and Ryzewski’s book but it remains, as far as I know, the only book length treatment of the archaeology of the contemporary situation in any particular American city. Ryzewski’s work on Detroit is great, but so far limited to articles. An article or two by Laura Wilkie and Dan Hicks and April M. Beisaw’s piece in the McAtackney and Ryzewski volume deal with New York, and that appears to be about it. I suppose I’m excluding works like those by Larry Zimmerman and his collaborators on homelessness in Indianapolis and Paul Mullins work on urbanization and suburbanization in the same town, but Zimmerman’s work doesn’t foreground urbanism, per se, and Mullins’ work tends to have a bit more of a mid-20th century focus, which doesn’t take away from its significance, but puts it on the edge of what we might imagine to be the contemporary, post-industrial city. I suppose we could include more popular work: Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001) and the awareness of the contemporary situation expressed in Adrian Praetzellis’s (and collaborators) work in Oakland, but it is not the emphasis of this work.

What’s enticing to me in particular is the overlap between work by environmental historians on particular cities (also here) and archaeologists of the contemporary world. This includes William Cronon’s masterful Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Race, Class, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945–1980 (1996), Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (2006), Greg Hise, Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2005), and Matthew Kringle’s Emerald City : an Environmental History of Seattle (2008). My reading list overfloweth!

Thing the Third

This semester I’ve enjoy a tale of two classes. One of my classes is going great with an engaged and even enthusiastic gaggles of history majors and minors. While it is easy enough to credit this to the self-selected students enrolled, it hasn’t always been a great class. In fact, last semester, prior to The COVIDs, it was rough enough sledding that I was considering an emergency redesign after only one semester with my new plan. (You can read about it here).

My History 105 class, on the other hand, has been a bit of a shit-show. Not only has my approach to hybrid learning – where I meet with class in 3 40-minute chunks each week – shown somewhat wanting, but I need to consider the pace and flow of work each week to  make the course easier for students to manage in their week away from the classroom.

That’s right, I’m taking about workflow. WORKFLOW. We’re talking about workflow. 

I underestimated how much regularly class meetings shaped the flow of work in the course and how regular meetings structure due dates, work to set priorities and to reinforce expectations. 

Teaching Tuesday: Teaching and The COVIDs

This has been a weird semester. I am teaching a new introductory level class (World Civilization I), we’re dealing with room capacity rules that have significantly changed how I planned to teach that class, and I’m teaching a couple of overloads that are being run exclusively via email. The threat of a shortened semester or all classes moving online hangs like a sword of Damocles over all of our heads as well making almost all planing feel provisional (at best) and a waste of time (on a bad day). This realization hasn’t stopped me from spending time looking ahead to the spring semester which likely be every bit as chaotic, unsettled, and unpredictable as this fall.

That all being said, I have encountered three or four things that feel worth sharing on this teaching Tuesday:

1. Engagement. University of North Dakota students run hot and cold. Some classes are almost overwhelming in their engagement while others are stone cold silent. In some cases, no amount of my antics or the latest pedagogical tricks of the trade rouse students from their hardened resistance. In other cases, I have to drag the students back on topic every 10 minutes as they chase butterflies and dance in the aisles.  

There’s something about this semester that has pushed students to engage not only more consistently, but also in a more rigorous way. Episodes of butterfly chasing and spontaneous dancing have been minimized and for reasons that I don’t quite understand, students have done more of the reading and are more interested and willing to discuss it in critical ways.

I do, of course, have theories about this. I think the COVIDs have limited certain kinds of social distractions typical of campus life. I also suspect that students do feel the weight of both this summer’s protests and the upcoming election. While our students are not prone to the kind of high-profile activism that exists on some campuses, they are thoughtful, reflective, and serious about their role in shaping the future of their communities.

2. Grading. For the first time ever, I told my students that if they do the work and take my class seriously, they’ll get “As”. In fact, I told them that, if I could, I would eliminate grades in all their classes. This is simply a reaction to the unsettled situation surrounding COVID or even the growing public awareness of structural biases inherent in our education system (although those things have been in my mind for the last few years). It is also not a response to growing pressure to retain students and to use “D,F,W” counts as a way to evaluate teaching (i.e. the number of students who receive a “D,” “F,” or “W” (for withdraw after the drop period ends) in a class), although that has simmered in the back of my head.

What prompted me to re-evaluate grading in my classes has much more to do with the success of several classes that I’ve taught where grading has been significantly de-emphasized. I also have started to worry that grading in my classes has been more about penalizing students who do not do the work or do not appear to take the class seriously. I also worry about the message that the grade is the reward especially at the college level. These two poles often push me to be either a classroom cop or a benevolent ruler dispensing largess for a job well done. Neither role suits me very well and I dislike that they put students into a position of begging for mercy or pandering for a reward.

I’m not sure how I’ll implement a gradeless class, and my instinct suggests that it would be better in my History 240: The Historians Craft class, populated by majors and minors,  than my 100 level introductory class. I need to think more about this, though.  

3. Making my classes work. This semester got me thinking a good bit about what makes a good university level class in the age of hybrid, hyflex, online, and various other digitally mediated methods of instruction. I’ve also been amazed by my colleagues’ enthusiasm and commitment to producing dynamic, immersive, and often multi-media experiences for their students. 

As I contemplated how I might make my own class more contemporary and exciting for students, I also started to wonder whether such dynamic, multi-media approaches would really suit my teaching style. To be clear, I rarely even use powerpoint in my classrooms and still sometimes resort to drawing maps on the white board to show the location of places or the movement of groups. My classes tend to focus instead on texts and ideas (not to say that my colleagues’ classes do not focus on such things!), and despite my professional preference for things, places, and spaces, I’ve managed to keep my own biases at bey.

All this is to wonder whether I could create a hybrid/hyflex/digital class devoid of bells and whistles and immersive multi-modal, multi-media experiences and instead return to a pre-digital mode of distance learning and teaching. I wonder whether adopting some methods developed in correspondence classes – clearly articulated assignments designed to move students through a series of skills at their own pace – would offer a welcome respite from the media-saturated environment of higher education? 

Like my interest in minimizing the impact of grading on how I teach, I don’t have a fully formed idea as of yet, but I’m hoping to explore these ideas a bit more over the next month or so and experiment with them a bit in the spring semester.

Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Classes 2020

These are weird and unsettled times and this semester will be a weird and unsettled semester. As of this morning over 230 members of the UND community (including 223 students) have tested positive for The COVIDs and 130+ of them are in hotels in quarantine or isolation. 

I start teaching this afternoon and despite the unsettled times, I feel my usual early semester excitement. At the same time, The COVIDs have pushed me to think more about my own approach to teaching and things I can do this semester that will have knock-on effects even after we achieve a “new normal.” 

My little list here is not meant as another contribution to the endless stream of advice appearing on teaching and edutech blogs and on social media. Instead, this is a list designed to keep me focused on the first day of classes. If it helps someone else, that’s great, but I don’t feel qualified these days to give anyone advice.  

1. Be Patient. One of my worst features as a teacher is that I am impatient. I expect students (and at time colleagues) to make connections quickly and to follow my train of thought and model my actions as efficiently as possible. I tend to see stumbles or hesitation as opportunities to interject and to nudge the process along. In some cases, this works well as my students come to understand where I’m going more quickly than if left to their own devices. In most cases, though, it short circuits the learning process and teaches the students that if they get stumped, I’ll provide the answer. At worst, it makes a student who is thinking critically about some leap in my thinking feel like their own perspective on a problem is less valuable than following my lead. It can discourage a student from thinking.

This semester, I need to remember that everything is unsettled and to be patient with myself and my students.

2. Communicate. One of the things that I’m trying to emphasize in my syllabi this semester is communication. Unlike my past efforts to encourage my students to communicate regularly with me, I avoided preemptive scoldings, condescending reminders, and ominous warnings about what happens when students go “radio silent.”

Having thought a good bit about Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor  and Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, I changed my approach and instead promised in my syllabus that I would do all I can to communicate regularly and consistently with my classes. My hope is that by putting the onus on myself to communicate, I will make it clear that communication isn’t just another thing that I expect of my students, but a mutual obligation.

3. Trust my Students. Along these same lines, I continue to work toward trusting my students more. As our lives are likely to be completely upset by The COVIDs, I’ve really tried to focus on flexibility in my syllabus. This semester, this means more than just my own willingness to adjust the class to whatever challenges come our way and includes a willingness to allow students to adjust my classes to better suit their needs.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this will play out. While I’m far from a control freak in my classes, I do tend to see changes to the class as a kind of negotiation between my priorities and those of my students. As with any negotiation, I tend to expect that my students’ interests are not consistent with my own and expect them to compromise in exchange for some compromise on my part. This approach, of course, assumes that we’re not on the same page. 

This semester, I’m going to work harder to assume that we are on the same page.

4. Keep it Simple. I like technology as much as the next person, and I’m always tempted to embrace the ideal technical solution no matter how complicated. Most of the time, I can avoid this temptation and recognize that simple processes, even if they produce less than ideal results, are more valuable than complicated processes.

I need to keep my classroom technologies simple. For one research focused class, I’m using only email to communicate instructions and expectations. For another, I’m focusing on short, weekly, flexible face-to-face meetings (supplemented, invariably, by Zoom) that can shift quickly to text-based instructions delivered asynchronously.

My historical methods class is the only one that I’m not entirely sure how to make accessible outside of the face-to-face classroom, but right now, I’m leaning toward a podcast supplemented by show notes and a threaded discussion board.

5. Teach One Day at a Time. Finally, I constantly have to resist my instinct to plan for every contingency (and invariably find myself unprepared for any of them). I need to just teach one day at a time and pivot to whatever challenge presents itself. 

I’ve long thought that just-in-time teaching was an appealing approach to the modern university classroom. It required faculty to know what they wanted to do in a “big picture” way and left the details to the moment of interaction in the classroom. The “Type A” part of my personality, however, had always resisted such a fluid situation and I developed a strange dread that some pearl of wisdom or dollop of content would go astray. In fact, my classes became oddly linear and proscriptive in design which required me to move, step-by-step, though a process in order to achieve whatever course goals I had set. While there remains a time and a place for such an approach, this semester seems uniquely unsuited to any kind of linear approach to teaching.

Instead, I’m going into my classes with some big picture goals centered as much on exposure to ideas, processes, methods, and approaches as any expectation that students will understand them in their particulars. My hope is that this will help me adapt to changing circumstances, be more willing to follow my students’ lead, and more patient with myself and my students. 

Teaching Tuesday: Writing my Syllabus in the Time of COVID

We’re supposed to have some kind of syllabus available for students enrolled in our fall semester classes. I’ve been fussing over how to articulate the unsettled state of the fall semester and the inevitable anxiety that this will create in our students (as well, of course, as faculty).

I’ve also thought a good bit about Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (2020), which I wrote about earlier in the summer. He reminds us that learning is hard and this simple point is a call to be both more compassionate with how we engage our students and more understanding in how we create space for learning in our classroom. He proposes syllabi that aren’t a long list of requirements, but part of a frank conversation that we have with our students that opens the door to establishing shared expectations and aspirations and marking these out as reciprocal. 

Along similar lines, I’ve been inspired a bit by Jeffery Moro’s call for us to “Abolish Cop Shit” in our classrooms. This has obvious implications in syllabus writing (and it really summarizes a bunch of problems at the intersection of learning, ed-tech, and the role of education in disciplining bodies and minds for compliance culture). 

Here’s what I have so far as the opening to my History 105: World History to 1500 syllabus:

Hello, class and welcome to History 105: World History to 1500.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the syllabus, I want to discuss my view of the coming semester.

The last six months have been a period of crazy uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration. From endless Zoom meetings to an interrupted spring semester, social distancing, and mask, we’ve all had to figure out the “new normal.” It seems almost inevitable that this semester will be unsettled in some way.

Because we know that things will be unsettled and that we’re all in this together, I’ll do all I can to communicate with you regularly. This means I’ll respond promptly to your emails, I’ll post regular updates to Blackboard, and I’ll be available to meet with you via Zoom or face-to-face as the situation allows.

It also means that I hope you’ll communicate regularly with me and your fellow classmates throughout the semester. Good communication will not only help us all stay on the same page, but also make it possible for us to adapt quickly and flexibly to any changes in the situation over the course of the semester. We’ll talk about the various ways to communicate in this class.

The unsettled nature of the fall semester also means that you have to trust that I’m going to be fair and reasonable with this class. I’ll do all I can to maintain a consistent  workload and grading expectations over the course of the semester, and if we have to change assignments, I’ll try to offer different options to accommodate different situations and goals for the class. 

In exchange, I hope that you will all do the best that you can to keep you eyes on this class over the next 16 weeks. We’re all in this together.

 

Teaching Tuesday: Introducing World History

Over the last week or so, I’ve started to think more seriously about how I’m going to introduce my World History I class and since our syllabi are due in a few weeks, now seems to be a good time to get things down on paper.

The challenge that I’m facing when it comes to teaching World History is getting students to think globally without becoming too dependent on certain longstanding metaphors, approaches, and structures that shape how we understand the past. The goal of this class and of World History is not just to stretch the history of Europe or “The West” onto the rest of world and extend its fixation on causality, progress, universal time and space to Africa or Asia. Instead, the goal of this course is to challenge us to understand what the complexities of a World History actually means for how we view our own past and present. Hopefully, the class will produce students who are more attentive and critical to the prevailing views of history as a discipline and as a way to make sense of the present.  

As I’ve discussed in another blog post, this class will use an open access textbook and primary source reader, but will require students to read against the grain of these books and to identify and fill in gaps through drawing on other open access resources available on the web.

Each class will be about an hour interactive lecture followed by an hour or so of independent group work. This rhythm will introduce students to both the structure of the class moving forward (although he amount of time that I spend lecturing will decrease) and allow them to become familiar with their groups and start to find ways to work together while social distancing and the like.

1. Space.

The first week, we’ll consider the ways in which historians have divided the world. We’ll consider concepts like “The West” and the “Orient”; the “Global North” and the “Global South”; Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America; the nation state; and even longitude and latitude and UTM coordinates. Without delving too deeply into the history of these designations, we’ll consider how these work today in shaping our expectations of the past cultures and societies and the role that history plays in studying and understanding these cultures and societies.

The first assignment of the semester will be to use the textbook to identify 5 places from around the world. Describe the location of these sites in at least 5 ways each (e.g. by continent, modern nation, region, map coordinates, et c.) and in a brief <100 word essay define their significance.  

2. Time.

The second week of class will focus on time, chronology, and periodization. As with week 1, we’ll start with a discussion of various dating schemes from the naming of rulers and dynasties to the use of solar and lunar calendars. We’ll also start to discuss various periodization schemes from the use of terms like “Ancient” and “Medieval” to broader categories of “pre-industrial” and “pre-modern.” The goal of this is to consider how the way in which we measure time and periodize the past shapes the way in which we understand it. 

The project associated with this class will be to assign at least four different periods to each of the places established in the first week and to write at least a sentence on the significance of these various periodization schemes.

3. Causality.

The third week of class will consider causality in history. We’ll start with a general discussion of what causes events to happen and then we’ll explore how this intersects with notions of time and space. The plan is to start with very broad notions of causality – like environmental determinism – and then slowly narrow our view to more specific understandings of causes for events.

The assignment here will be to identify 5 events distributed around the work and to describe their location (in at least 4 ways), their date (in 4 ways), and their cause.

~

The goal of these assignments is to complicate the notions of space, time, and causality and to prepare students for understanding how the complexities of defining these aspects of the past create the basis of a non-linear history.

In fact, I’m tempted to start all this on week 2 and to introduce more broadly he concept of non-linear history on week 1 with a series of exercises designed to challenge students’ ideas of progress. This would leave me with roughly 12 weeks (or four, 3 week modules) for the students to pursue their own efforts that non-linear approaches to the past.

More on this soon!

Some Publishing Notes from a Small Press

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about open access and scholar led publishing. None of my thoughts are developed or even really interesting enough for a full fledged blog post, but I decided that I should write some of them down as a little list.

1. Agility and the Small Press. I have been working on one of those “sudden projects” over the last week that dropped into my lap almost completely formed, but needing a publisher. Because I have a very crowded fall schedule that involves not only my own research and teaching, but at least two other books that are deep into production.

It’s been really fun working quickly on this book project, which I’ve blogged about here, partly because with a sense of urgency comes a kind of collegiality that I’ve missed because I’m not doing fieldwork this summer, and partly because the project is really cool (and I promise more on this over the next week or so!). It has also reminded me that very small presses can be particularly agile because we don’t have the same complex production workflows that larger presses depend upon to keep multiple books moving forward simultaneously. In effect, my workflow is always just-in-time, even for projects that have a predictable publishing trajectory.

Of course, this agility has its own social costs and reflects the rather contingent character of labor that supports the smallest presses. My access to surplus time, both in my own life, among my collaborators, and from elsewhere in the publishing infrastructure (e.g. copy editors, printers, et c.) has its own social consequences and reflects, in part, the precarious nature of academic and creative work.

Despite these affordances (or perhaps because of them), books developed quickly can be quite successful. The most popular book in The Digital Press catalogue remains Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which came together in less than six weeks.  

2. Publishing and Race. Over the last few years, the “syllabus” has emerged as one of the standard responses of academics to a crisis. I jokingly call this almost knee jerk reaction to everything from hurricanes to the recent pandemic, removal of monuments, immigration reform, health care, and BLM as “I’ve got a reading list for that.” 

At their best, these often crowd-sourced (or at least academic, crowd-sourced) reading lists are thoughtful and expansive. Recent popular reading lists on race circulating on social media, however, nudged me to think a bit about how they reflect certain aspects of structural racism. Google 

This most striking thing to me is that most of the books on these reading lists are published by large presses whose catalogues consist largely of books by white authors. Moreover, publishing as an industry is largely white with only about 5% of those working in publishing identifying as black. In academic publishing, it’s worth noting that none of the presses currently members of the American Association of University Presses are based at a HBCU.  Since AAUP member presses represent most of the major academic publishers in the Anglophone world, a black academic requiring a book to receive tenure would almost inevitably have to publish with a university press based at a majority white institution likely run by a largely white staff with a catalogue of white authors. 

What’s interesting, though, is that black publishers do exist. Until 2011, for example, Howard University Press published works focused largely on black and African American culture, history, and society. When it closed, some of its catalogue was to be acquired by Paul Coates’s Black Classic Press (it’s unclear whether this played out). A quick Google search will reveal quite a few other black and minority run presses in the US alone, but very few books by these presses have appeared on various academic BLM focused reading lists.

One wonders as the structure of academic publishing is changing rapidly whether this situation will change over the next few decades. The emerging role of the open access movement, new forms of scholar-led publishing, and print-on-demand and digital technology creates opportunities for historically underrepresented groups to create publishers, practices, and series that reflect their communities and communicate their contributions to a wider audience.    

3. OA Journals. Last week, a colleague asked me whether I had any thoughts about how to fund an open access journal that had reached the end of its initial grant. It got me thinking about sustainable models in OA journal publishing and the shift from journals supported by subscriptions to those funded through article processing charges and fees (APCs). 

In the sciences, this shift follows the logic that researchers often with large grants and at larger, research oriented schools have the resources to fund the publication of their results and to make them available for free to scholars at less well-resourced institutions. For the humanities and social sciences, of course, this doesn’t really work as well. High quality research regularly comes from institutions that lack the resources of major research universities or that privilege teaching over research. Open access journals with high APCs will likely struggle to attract publications from researchers in the humanities and social sciences that do not have high levels of institutional support to say nothing of scholars working outside the academy or graduate students. The potential impact of this model on open access publishing, of course, known and troubling. 

What I was wondering lately is whether any open access journals have pursued approaches to open access publishing that seek to combine subscriptions with open access publishing? A number of presses have started to release open access books in paper first and then digitally later allowing the press to earn some income from book sales, which tend to largely occur within a year of a book’s release, while still making the book available open access for classroom use, for example. 

Would it be possible for a journal to have a trigger, for example, that releases a volume’s open access content when it reaches, say, 100 or 200 subscribers? This would ensure that the journal would have an adequate income to publish (let’s say that each subscription cost $80-$100). Moreover, since many journal subscriptions are bundled into larger packages which are sold to institutions, one could imagine an open access journal being combined with more traditional journal subscription packages to generate some additional sustainable income. Finally, an OA journal could implement variable or even voluntary APCs which would create another revenue stream. When certain funding or subscriber levels are reached, the journal content would become open. 

Maybe journals already employ this kind of hybrid approach, but I’m not aware of them. 

4. OA and OER. Finally, I’m going to apply for a small stipend to develop two new classes that use Open Educational Resources at the introductory level (Western Civilization I and World History I). Both classes will do more than just use an open access textbook, but will bake the ideas of open access publishing into the work of the class.

In particular, the classes will encourage students to understand critically their role as “prosumers” in 21st century society. I’ve written about this recently in Sebastian Heath’s edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. The goal of the class is to have students dissect, reorganized, and expand the two open access textbooks with an eye toward making them more useful, sophisticated, and responsive to the needs of their particular class and their particular interests. 

Using open access books gives students an opportunity to understand how the next generation of open educational resources is more than just swapping out an expensive textbook for a free version, but a framework both fully parallel with recent moves toward active learning and consistent with larger crowd-sources projects such as Wikipedia, which when realized in their best forms, create dynamic and democratic spaces for sharing of resources and analysis. As our students increasingly contribute to and consumer content from commercial ventures from Facebook and Twitter to Tiktok and Instagram, presenting an opportunity to engage with “prosumer” practices in a more traditional and critical environment will allow them to recognize the limits and potential of open, social, and crowd based knowledge making.   

Teaching Tuesday: Radical Hope

Like many people I’m pretty worried and anxious about teaching this fall. Not only am I teaching a new class, but it looks like I’ll be doing it in a pretty unprecedented teaching environment with social distancing, much reduced classroom capacities, and a much greater reliance on online teaching. 

In an effort not to feel overwhelmed, I’m reading a bit on teaching and trying to think very deliberately about how I frame my classes. This weekend, I read Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (University of West Virginia Press 2020). While the book didn’t necessarily tell me anything new (and it didn’t necessarily feel particularly radical to me), it did reinforce a few ideas in my head and it was short. There’s always something to be said for a useful short book.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Learning is Hard. At the beginning of every semester, I remind myself that learning is hard. Our brains do not want or enjoy being rewired. It takes time and concentration. And it usually involves failure and frustration. Whenever I try to learn something new, I find myself regularly pushing square pegs into round holes, almost uncontrollably making the same mistakes over and over, and deliberately looking for shortcuts and workaround to avoid understanding a new idea fully before trying it out. 

In college, we often do little to make learning easier. Each semester students encounter a mishmash of different expectations, methods, and topics. Even when courses have similar goals they’re often expressed in different — discipline specific — ways. Moreover, we ask students to make connections across diverse courses encountered over four or five years to reinforce key concepts which are often relatively ill-defined. Consider “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” and “the ability to read and write.”    

Because learning is hard, students do what they can to resist it. In some cases, this resistance is subtle, and amounts to little more than avoiding challenging concepts or issues. In other cases, it can be bold and disruptive: missing deadlines, confrontational classroom behavior, or simply checking out during class. 

This is all complicated by the fact that college costs have continued to rise, the promised (and often economy) value of a college education is frequently pushed into an uncertain future, and students themselves endure a barrage of criticism from “the kids these days” to questions about the politics of campus life, work ethic, and emotional durability. In short, college life in the 21st century is stressful, frustrating, and uncertain. 

Gannon’s book reminds us that teaching and learning can, and, in fact, should be a hopeful enterprise. As faculty, we need to find a way to approach our classes that embodies a hope not only for a successful outcome (whether manifest in some kind of assessment or in practice), but also for an encounter with students that communicates this hopefulness. 

Second, this book isn’t just an expression of optimism or an aspirational manifesto. Throughout Gannon offers practical examples of how sharing a commitment to hope can create significant change in our classrooms.

My biggest take away was that hope provided the basis for a shared sense of agency. By treating students as collaborators in the learning venture and ceding some of the authority that our institutional position gives us, we make ourself visibly willing to learn from our students. By subjecting ourselves to the humbling experience of learning (in public no less!), we acknowledge that learning is hard and this offers a compelling invitation to our students to join in a shared struggle.

In this context, the flipped classroom represents more than asking students to do encounter content at home and then come to class to discuss it (that is flipping the context for learning content). It also involves flipping the locus of authority in the classroom and giving students the authority to act as teachers. 

Finally, this involves more than just a willingness to demonstrate our own learning in the classroom (and with it making the pain of learning new things visible), but also doing our part as teachers to mitigate some of the more frustrating elements of the learning process. 

Of particular interest to me was ways to making a syllabus more legible to students. Some of the suggestions offered by Gannon were minor. For example, he noted the tendency of traditional syllabi to be impersonal documents full of institutional language and formal and legalistic statements. As anyone who has rapidly clicked through end users licensing agreements that use this same language, it’s easy to understand why syllabi are frequently ignored or read in only the most cursory fashion. In the place of institutional language, Gannon suggests that we adopt a more conversational and personal tone. Not only does this present learning as a shared, personal experience, but it also softens the barrier between the faculty member and the students. By changing the character of the syllabus from one of compliance to one of aspiration, we open the door to creating a hopeful middle ground of shared expectations. While this may sound like touchy-feely eduspeak, I actually buy this. I think that creating a middle ground between instructor and students is vital to for any teaching and this involves distancing ourselves from the institutional trappings of power.

Along these lines, I offer two little concluding thoughts.

First, it almost goes without saying that this fall semester will be clusterfuck on most university campuses. My institution struggles to maintain a consistent institutional framework for teaching and research in the best of circumstances with administrative turn over, ambiguous policies, and unclear and unenforceable mandates.

While this might feel like a disaster waiting to happen, I’d suggest that this situation actually makes it easier for us to build rapport with our students. The absence of a strong and consistent institutional backdrop to our classes means that both we and our students are in this together. We have to figure out a way forward to ensure that some meaningful learning happens. The university will not guarantee that.

Secondly, I do wonder how much of Gannon’s book presents a distinctly male perspective on building a classroom based on radical hope. His willingness to share authority with students and his ability both to enforce standards and communicate expectations almost certainly relies on his outward appearance as a conventional figure of authority. I found myself thinking at various points whether I would have embraced some of the techniques he explores my first few years teaching. I also wondered whether they’d be appropriate for colleagues who often have their own vulnerabilities that invite certain kinds of student resistance in the classroom. 

This is not meant to undermine Gannon’s central point, but to simply observe that this book, like most manifestos, is a point of departure not a destination.

Teaching Tuesday: Thinking about My Fall Classes

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some news on our fall semester classes. The moving target has discouraged me from getting down to brass tacks and specific course planning, but the overall trajectory seems clear: limits on the number of students in face-to-face meetings will require us to develop more hybrid instruction methods. 

This has gotten me to think a good bit about how to make my two classes work in the fall. My musings here are prompted in part by an email which informed me that my 40 person World History I class will meet in a room limited to 8 students. The class, fortunately, meets once a week from 2.5 hours in the evening. As a result, it’ll be possible to meet with small groups for about 20-25 minutes each week to communicate important instructions and to provide a chance for students to ask questions. 

The course itself — at last as far as I have it planned — is already a “flipped classroom” which means that student led learning is the order of the day. It also centers on group work which will make it easier to divide the class into groups who can fit into the limits on the classroom. The single block of time set aside for the class — 2.5 hours no less — also makes it easier to organize the face-to-face meetings. This is just the mechanics of teaching the class, however. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about the intersection of how I teach and what I teach. I suppose some of this is prompted by my having to prepare a new class — World History I — in which the vast majority of the material is outside my area of training. Some of this is also prompted by the most recent wave of protests against police brutality, the failures of our political system to cope adequately with the COVID virus and the changing social and economic landscape, and the intense feeling that higher education shackled by conventions that in some ways prevent us from thinking about our world in different ways. As someone who teaches history and ancient (Mediterranean, Classical, Christian) history at that, my own privilege, authority, and claims to “expertise” are very much part of what we teach and how we teach it. As the COVID situation has pushed higher education en masse to rethink how we teach, I wonder whether it’ll also encourage us to rethink WHAT we teach.

Here are three things, then, that I’m thinking over the past week or so about how and what I teach against the backdrop of COVIDs and the most recent wave of protests.

First, my students never tire of telling me that the goal of history to remind people of past mistakes so that they can avoid them in the future. Anyone who believes that is a fool, of course (but ironically, would have to know about the past to come to this conclusion).

The goal of history to make new futures possible and to disrupt any feeling of inevitability by creating a critical tension between the past and the present. This means that as historians our primary responsibility is to teach students to question any kind of conventional narrative and authority and read texts (of all kinds) as new ways to understand how our encounters with the past experiences of others give us both collective and individuals responsibilities in the present. This doesn’t mean we can somehow fix the past in the present or that careful reading of the past offers a tidy template for future actions, but that by making the effort to understand the past we become aware of our own responsibilities to ourselves and our communities .

Or something like that. 

All this is to say that we need to cultivate students’ willingness and ability to question authority. Whether this means rejecting textbooks and lectures or recognizing and celebrating their unwillingness to complete assignments to specification and on time. The big-picture goal of my classes is to create room for students to find, refine, and practice their voice.

This leads me to my second point.

Second, in a class shaped by the confusion and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic and our current political, economic, and social climate, I am taking a certain amont of encouragement in remembering that less is more when teaching. 

Part of me still clings to the idea that we have to make sure that students learn certain things. These things are often, but not always, “facts” and the hope is that if students understand certain facts that they will see the world in a different way. In other words, the facts prompt students to change how they think. This evokes what educational theorists from Paola Freire to almost ever contemporary SOTL thinker has called “the banking model of education” that insists that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking.

This way of thinking has also informed so much of what we do in the public humanities. We offer a beautiful gaggle of “facts” backed by our expertise and hope that they cause the world to come around to our way of thinking. In short, it’s lame. More than that, this “information deficient model” of teaching probably doesn’t work as 30 years of research on science communication have shown.  

What we need to do is to encourage our students to think differently first and that provides the foundation for the production of new forms of “factual” knowledge. The issue is, of course, that this is hard to do. It involves patience especially as students feel their way forward because as folks like Donna Zuckerberg have pointed out, the difference between being “woke” and taking the “red pill” is not one of method, both involve reading against the grain of a text and challenging traditional authority. The social context for these ways of thinking, however, are quite different with the “red pill” movement dominated my misogyny, racism, and conspiracy theories and individuals advocating for a more “woke” view of the present challenging narrative grounded in institutional racism, classism, and white, male elitism. 

At the same time, without encouraging students to develop critical tools in the relative safe-space of the classroom, the world becomes a place of competing facts rather than competing ideas for the future and the present. History with its abundance of narratives and authority offers a perfect training ground for students who want to tear down the institutions, experts, sources of authority, and — indeed facts — that create a world sadly lacking justice. If my class encourages students to see the past in this way, then I feel like I’ve done my job. 

Finally, I spent some time yesterday mulling over my COVID-inflected teaching reviews. In my introductory-level Western Civilization Class, several students appreciated the repetitive nature of the classroom routine. They commented on how it allowed them to plan for the class and it helped refine and reinforce key practices and ways of thinking.

As a student, I remember being frustrated by repetition in the classroom as a kind of step toward rote memorization. As a teacher, however, I’ve come to recognize repetition not as a step toward memorization, but as a way to encourage students to internalize certain critical practices. More than that, during the uncertain times of protest and pandemic, the rhythm of a routine because less oppressive and more an island of predictability in a world that is increasingly disrupted, abrupt, and seemingly random.

By stripping down my class to its barest essentials and then reinforcing these things through repetition, it may be that my class can give students a chance to develop skills that allow them to reimagine the past and the future, while at the same time giving the a chance to endure the present.