Two Abstract Thursday: pilgrimCHAT and Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era

As my race to finish up lingering summer projects before so-called “vacation” and the start of the semester, this includes writing two abstracts with August 1 deadlines. The first abstract is for the November pilgrimCHAT conference and the second is for a book on “Teaching and Learning the Archaeology of the Contemporary Era” edited by Gabriel Moshenska

I generally suck at writing abstracts and usually struggle to produce papers that make good on what the abstract promises. That said, it is abstract time, so here goes.

Abstract the First: pilgrimCHAT [291]

In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

This static presentation, supplemented with video, photographs, and possibly audio, seeks to explore the Grand Forks Greenway as a corridor for movement of water, animals, and humans that is defined by a series of walls. The text will consider the tension between walls and movement and the way in which the two co-create the experience, environment, and history of this distinctive landscape.

Abstract the Second: Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (502)

From the early 1980s, campus archaeology has represented a key element in the training of archaeologists. Controlled excavations and surveys have introduced students not only to the basics of archaeological methods and recording practices, but also the history of their campuses. A number of publications have also demonstrated the pedagogical potential associated with the systematic documentation of material culture associated with contemporary campus life. 

This contribution will document my experiences teaching a two month class focused on two abandoned buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota prior to their destruction. Students in the class were given very basic instructions on how to document the buildings and the any post-abandonment contents. When they encountered the complexity of the buildings and the assemblages, however, our system of documentation broke down and in its place emerged a more organic and dynamic form of engagement with the content and architecture of these buildings. Rather than trying to impose structure this moment of anarchic adaptation, I let the experiment run its course. The results were a remarkable degree of student engagement, valuable instances of discovery, expressions of creativity, and successful outreach.

Open, Free, and Student Friendly Books

Yesterday I was in a great meeting where the topic of open educational resources came up. This past year, I transitioned my two introductory level courses to completely open textbooks. This was not a very challenging task, in part, because intro level courses tend to have the greatest range of open teaching materials available for them. 

My mid-level class, a required course for history majors and minors, has one non-open access, non-free book required: Kate Turabian’s famous A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This book is now in its 9th edition, but I’m willing to allow students to use earlier additions provided that they have access to the most recent one (at the library, online, or from a friend). Since our department leans a bit on this book in subsequent classes, we like to students to have a copy of their own. It is sufficiently ubiquitous that it is possible to get a copy of the most recent addition of the book for $5-$7 (new copies are only $15) and this seems like a fair price for a book used across multiple classes.

One of the challenges that I’m facing as a publisher, a scholar, and a teacher is the need balance the existence of a sustainable system that produces high quality academic material, on the one hand, and to control costs for students, libraries, and my fellow scholars, on the other. As an open access publisher inching toward sustainability, for example, I rely on a certain percentage of people choosing to buy physical copies of my books even though they can download them for free. The various professional societies with which I’m affiliated likewise rely on the sales of books and journal subscriptions (as well as membership dues and other revenue streams) to support their efforts to publish high-quality, specialized scholarship. It is clear that the pressure to produce open access scholarship runs the risk of eroding these revenue streams and cutting into their ability to support the kind of low margin, high cost professional scholarship that fields need to continue to grow and thrive. All of this is compounded by declining or stagnant library budgets, unscrupulous behavior by commercial publishers, growing costs of maintaining research collections, and reluctance to support publishing and university presses as part of an institution’s mission.   

This should not be read as a critique of open access scholarship, but as a reminder that academic and scholarly publishing exist within a complex ecosystem of pressures, resources, and opportunities.

To return, then, to open access, free, and student friendly books, I’ve started to think a bit more critically how the push for open educational resources fits into this larger ecosystem. Should we consider student book purchases as a way to support scholarly publishing in general? 

On the one hand, we have to recognize that the cost of going to college has increased and this has created a significant burden on college students. On the other hand, it feels like there is a continuum that already exists between open educational resources that are no costs to students or institutions and expensive textbooks. For example, most universities have libraries with subscriptions that provide students with access to content at no additional costs to students. This content, of course, is generally not free or open, but provided as part of a student’s tuition. Free, but not open content, can be wonderful, but it is limited by the stipulations of subscriptions and access permissions.

In this context, such free content is not radically different from assigning low cost books for a class inasmuch as they form part of an uneven landscape in higher education where certain students, typically from more affluent universities, have greater access to high-quality educational and research material than others. Conversely, the uneven quality of open access material, especially designed for specialized, upper level classes, limits the opportunities for less affluent students at less affluent institutions.

This is a rambling meditation, but my larger point is that, first, we do need to recognize that open educational resources do work to level the playing field between institutions and students, but only if they are at least as high a quality as free or low cost options. Free or low cost options tend to cover less even ground with more affluent institutions have a greater access to free content (via subscriptions or other arrangements with presses) than less affluent ones.

The potential of low cost options is less clear. It would be interesting to know what students who have already invested in the costs of higher education, which are burdensome to be sure, are willing to spend to get high(er) quality material for a class. This assumes, of course, that a low cost option exists for material that is higher quality than an open alternative, and this suggests that the material is more specialized and would be likely to appear in an upper level course. Developing offerings that are low cost, template driven, and appealing (and low risk) enough to see widespread adoptions would also generate a revenue stream that, say, an academic society could use to produce more similar low cost content.

(As an aside, I love models that set a clear financial goal for a publication which once reached makes the book open access.)

Such models are not without problems, of course, and it is completely appropriate to look askance at a funding scheme that looks to student costs as a revenue stream. At the same time, there is always a balance between the reality that high quality scholarship costs money and the need to find fair and equitable ways to preserve student opportunities. 

Wreading Wednesday

I am pretty sure that Wreading Wednesday isn’t really a thing, but this week, I’m going to make it one. I’ve just heard that I was invited to teach a graduate reading class in the English department here at UND next spring.

My class will be tentative titled “Readings on Things.”

The class will be partly based on a couple of chapters from my book manuscript that explore the growing interest in things in the humanities and social sciences more broadly. I obviously don’t need to put together a syllabus yet, but I thought it would be fun to put together a bit of “back of a napkin” thought about the class.

My initial thoughts are to divide the class by disciplinary approaches. For example, we would read some Bill Brown and Tim Jelfs when considering the role of things in literature (and maybe Jameson and I’d love to bring in some queer theory and am currently reading Kara Keeling and liking it and feel like Maia Kotrosits’s recent book would fit here as well.) I would then spend some time with Danny Miller, Bruno Latour (any excuse to read Aramis again!), and Tim Ingold to get the sense for thing studies in sociology and anthropology. For history and archaeology, I could imagine reading Bjørnar OlsenTimothy LeCainDan Hicks, and González-Ruibal (plus some Rathje!). Then I could look at some of the great work being done in the area of heritage studies on decay, by Caitlin DeSilvey, for example. I might also add some works on media archaeology such as KittlerErnst, and Parikka. Discard studies is becoming a thing as well.

This would offer a pretty conventional survey of thing studies across multiple disciplines. I could supplement it, of course, with some reading maybe Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, some Philip K. Dick, some DeLillo, some Pynchon, and perhaps some Raymond Carver. I wonder how I might interweave some fiction with my much (much!) firmer grounding in material culture studies without overstepping my expertise. After all, I haven’t even taken a college level class in English language literature. 

I also wonder what I might do to make this class less of the traditional, read-report-discuss style seminar, and more of a dynamic space where we can learn from each other (and our authors!). It seems like the asymmetries in our expertise—with the students knowing more about literature and the ability to read and analyze texts in a sophisticated way and me knowing more about objects and contexts—might open doors to new ways for both the students and myself to think about our worlds. The question then becomes how do we negotiate this? 

Do I create a class that’s a series of exercises where I offer some text and they present some evidence?Do I do some things to draw the students out of their academic and intellectual comfort zone (for example, transmedia comparisons, dancing about architecture?). Do I lean on my colleagues across campus to inject some “real” interdisciplinarity into the class? For example, what if one of our material science faculty came and talked about his or her favorite material, an artist on how metals or clay shape their craft, a historian who has focused on sculptures, and a biologist who focuses on a particular species?

Needless to say I have a good bit of work to do to figure out not only what this class will look like in terms of the reading, but also in terms of the class itself. Stay tuned!

Three Things Thursday: Riding, Reading, and Teaching

The semester is winding down and I’m contemplating my summer blogging schedule. I’d like to keep it going at least four days a week, but perhaps ramping down my quick hits and varia posts on Friday? Or making them a “photography Phriday” post?

Just a thought.

For the final Thursday of the semester, here are three little things that are simmering around in my head. 

Thing the First

Over the last decade, I’ve rediscovered the joy of walking. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t walk at least 20-30 miles usually in 6 or 7 mile chunks and usually accompanied by the dogs. Because I’m a creature of habit, I tend to walk the same paths day after day and this has given me a chance to observe the subtle changes that take place both with the changing of seasons and  year after year.

This spring, I’ve started to ride my bike a bit more. I bought a gravel bike that’s a hybrid between a road bike and a mountain bike suited for light trail riding and, more importantly, sojourns on the gravel section-line roads that surround Grand Forks. This has allowed me to explore a bit more widely. At the same time, I’m finding that gravel riding takes a significant amount of concentration. The distribution of gravel on the section-line roads is uneven meaning gravel appears in pools and eddies, ridges and troughs which make it like riding in deep snow or sand. The road surfaces have washboard patches that give way to smooth, almost polished, hard-packed stretches which ride like pavement. 

What’s interesting about riding the gravel roads around my town is that they give me a greater appreciation for the local landscape much the same way as walking does, but the texture of the gravel roads always is vying for my attention with the landscape for my attention. I can’t really tell whether riding my bike, then, has expanded my view of my world or narrowed it to the smoothest paths between the ridges of gravel on the roads.

Thing the Second

Somewhere on the web, I was reminded that the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos died on May 12, 1992. It’s not a special anniversary of his death or anything (I guess next year we can recognize that it’s been 30 years). His most famous poem is Amorogos. I remember buying my copy of the Sally Purcell translation in Athens when I was working at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. You can read a bit of an earlier translation by Kimon Friar here and there on the web.

The poem was written during the Nazi occupation of Greece and combines traditional Greek poetic forms with surrealist images. For Gatsos, Amorgos (an island, according to the story, Gatsos never even visited) becomes the object for his brilliant tracing of the pain and beauty of the complicated world in which he lived.

Thing the Third

It’s the start of the summer and I’m teaching an undergraduate Roman History class to two students. Traditionally, these summer courses are taught as independent reading and usually focus on three to five books and involve a series of reviews or reflection essays.

This summer, however, I was considering focusing on maybe one or two books. I’m curious about Ed Watts’ recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (Basic Books 2018) and Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton 2019). I’d like to add a third book to the list, but considering that Scheidel clocks in at over 700 pages and Mortal Republic at 350. That’s 1000 pages for students to read and digest, and probably enough for one semester.

That said, I’m open to a third book, if you have something in mind. These students have no background in ancient history or Roman History.

Three Things Thursday: New Book, Teaching, and

It’s a Thursday at the end of the semester and I’m thinking about a new book that is neck deep in production, another book that is getting some good attention, some teaching situations that are amusing me, and …

Thing the First

This weekend, I’m wrapping up final edits on a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. The book is due out in “early May” and is published in collaboration with the Rural Women’s Studies Association and will be featured at their meeting next month.

Here’s the blurb:

Sharing recipes is a form of intimate conversation that nourishes body and soul, family and community. Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook integrates formal scholarship with informal reflections, analyses of recipe books with heirloom recipes, and text with images to emphasize the ways that economics, politics, and personal meaning come together to shape our changing relationships with food. By embracing elements of history, rural studies, and women’s studies, this volume offers a unique perspective by relating food history with social dynamics. It is sure to inspire eclectic dining and conversations.  

Stay tuned for a landing page!

Thing the Second

The National Hellenic Research Foundation (Το Εθνικό Ίδρυμα Ερευνών) is hosting a digital conference next week on Mapping settlement desertion in Southeastern Europe from Antiquity to the Modern Era (the program is here and you can register here). The conference starts next Thursday and in the afternoon (8 pm EEST/12 pm CDT), there’ll be a presentation by Rebecca M. Seifried on the most recent title from The Digital Press: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart.

This will be a great chance for Seifried to bring the amazing work in this volume to a larger audience. I can’t stress enough both how impressed I am by the work in this volume and satisfied with my own contributions. If you haven’t downloaded a copy, you should here! Or, better still, grab a paper copy here.  

Thing the Third

As the semester has wound down, I’ve taken to thinking a bit about end of the semester work in my classes. In my introductory level history class, I use a few assignments to close the loop and to try to get students to reflect critically on the skills that they’ve learned in the class.

The class revolves around a series of group exercises which bring together individual work into more synthetic essays and projects. The best groups have a system in place “to workflow” this process and are now producing consistently high quality work.

My favorite late semester assignment involves asking students to rank the other groups’ work. These rankings are kept private, and there’s an essay required from each student that explains their rankings. The goal of the assignment isn’t so much to rank other students’ work, but to demonstrate that they can read each others’ work critically. 

The upside of this is that the best students who have really understood what I’ve been prattling on about all semester tend to do a nice job.

The downside is that by the end of the semester, so many students are struggling with workloads in other classes, burn out after the full school year, and the temptation of warming weather, summer break, and even graduation. As a result, just when my students are at a stage where they could start to reinforce (or at least demonstrate) how well they’ve understood the methods and approaches that I teach in class, they are also at the point where it’s hard for them to find the time and energy to do it.

The result is unsatisfactory, with the best and the worst students (who often reappear at the end of the semester with heroic promises and struggle mightily) performing to expectation, but the broad middle ground of students presenting a muddled mass which doesn’t really tell me much (and probably does even less to accomplish my pedagogical goals). It’s always frustrating when the best made plans crash against the reality of a complicated classroom.   

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Sevareid, and Rolex

It’s been a long semester and a long (academic) year, but I’m still here, slogging and blogging toward its conclusion. I have the amazing good fortune to have my plate full of exciting, interesting, and stimulating  things to think about this morning and this weekend. Some of these things are probably formative, some of these things are curious, and some are just plain frivolous. In that spirit, I offer this modest Three Things Thursday. 

Thing the First

One of the big things that I’ve been trying to do in my classes this semester is to be more transparent in my pedagogy. In other words, I’m trying to explain why I made choices of material, organization, and assignments in each class. At the same time, I’m trying to give the class a clearer sense of when they achieve certain learning benchmarks. For my intro-level history class this includes things like marshaling specific evidence for their arguments rather than relying on broad generalities or reading primary sources with a kind of sensitivity to authorial voice and perspective.

So far, this approach, which seeks to reveal some of the “mystery” of teaching and learning, seems to be working for the students in my intro-level class. While the hybrid method of teaching, where some students are online and some are in the classroom, presents certain challenges, it is clear that students are developing key historical skills in a more orderly way than in the past when I relied on less transparent approaches to teaching. 

That said, I still worry that making my limited pedagogical goals so clear, leads to students focusing too much on the next step in the learning process rather than a more wholistic view of education. Am I creating an environment where students expect learning to be a series of rote steps rather than the chaotic diversity of encountering new knowledge?

Thing the Second

Right now, North Dakota Quarterly is caught in a liminal state. The next double-issue is at the publisher for typesetting, but we have yet to receive page proofs. This is both an exciting time, in that much of the hard work is done, but it’s also frustrating because I like to synchronize publicizing the new issue with its imminent publication. So what should I be doing to keep NDQ in the public eye?

At the same time, my colleagues and I have been clearing out our offices and stacks of North Dakota Quarterlies have periodically appeared in the hallways. This has led me to leaf through past issues and to sample some of the articles. This week, I read a piece published in 1970, that was the text of a speech given by famed journalist Eric Sevareid at UND’s spring commencement. 

The article is titled “The National Crisis” and reminded me that the current sense of crisis is not new and that there were always voices calling for moderation and order which, intentionally or not, have tended to dampen the spirits of those calling for urgent reform. At my weakest moments, I find myself among those who have decried violence at the expense of understanding its causes. In this regard, Sevareid’s view made me distinctly uncomfortable especially as he counseled caution surrounding some of the very issues—race, economic inequality, and political representation—that have been flashpoints in contemporary society. 

You can read Sevareid’s piece here (with some of my additional commentary).      

Thing the Third

From the deeply social to the entirely frivolous! The watch world is agog at the new version of the iconic Rolex Explorer. To be clear, I’ve never really seen myself as a Rolex guy. Of course, I have admired their design language, their history, and their commitment to producing durable and accurate mechanical watches. At the same time, I’ve often found them to be a kind of “tweener” brand: their cases are not as tech-forward as, say, (LVMH’s) Zenith, (Swatch Group’s) Omega, or Grand Seiko; they do not dabble in the exotic complications of Vacheron, Patek, or Lange; and their designs are not not as flashy or sophisticated as any number of Swiss high end brands. Instead, they’ve tended to trade on their iconic forms and solid mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great watches, but I’ve never managed to muster quite as much excitement about them as I do other brands (such as Richmont’s Jaeger-LeCoultre or Grand Seiko). 

This week’s release of a new version of Rolex’s iconic Explorer (the watch famously worn by Sir Edmund Hillary on his ascent of Mt. Everest) actually got me excited. While I’ve not seen one in the metal (and it seems unlikely that I ever will considering the idiosyncratic nature of the Rolex distribution practices and the generally middle class character of most of my friends and colleagues), I’m honestly smitten by the single press photograph released by The Crown. The deep black lacquer dial, the 36 mm size, the very solid (if unexceptional) movement, and the slight reduction in price make it something that I’m sure I’ll covet for many years to come. For the record, I’m ambivalent about the tone-town variant. I like that it exists, but I have no need to see it.

Check it out here.

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

Teaching Thursday: Hybrid, HyFlex, Blues

This is my second semester teaching under a hybrid-hyflex model. For those not up on the latest lingo in higher education this involves teaching some students face-to-face and some students attending class on Zoom. The model’s intent was to give students a chance to attend class even if they can’t because of the COVID-19 situation while preserving as much of the in-person experience as possible.

To be clear, I understand the situation and I recognize my own privilege to be teaching face-to-face this semester (not to mention having a job at all!), and I get that the hybrid/hyflex model is being developed on the fly as a response to a pandemic that appears to introduce new challenges daily. I also understand that students are navigating real world challenges associated with the pandemic as much as faculty (if not more so). Finally, I realize that my efforts to retrofit two existing classes to this hyflex model is the equivalent of attaching an electric motor to my diesel truck and calling it a “hybrid.” 

That all being said, this model sucks.

First, I can’t get my zoom students to engage regularly. About 50% of my students attend my class via zoom and they’re mostly a shadowy presence at the margins of the classroom encounter. Some of this is technological. The zoom students struggle to hear students in the face-to-face classroom because the microphones are still designed to pick up my voice. More than that the camera is turned to me rather than their classmates. These two decisions in how our hybrid/hyflex classrooms are set up make it a particular challenge to get the zoom students involved in classroom discussions. In fact, the need to repeat anything that a student says in the classroom so that zoom students can hear it disrupts the flow of the classroom conversation even more. As a result, I have a tendency to either further marginalize the zoom students by being more engaged with the students in the classroom or marginalizing everyone by becoming the “sage on the stage” and essentially lecturing to both groups alike. This has a tendency to drive face-to-face students to attend via zoom (especially as winter weather descends on us) because if I’m just going to lecture at the class, they might as well endure that from the comfort of their own couch. 

[This is saying nothing of my fear that some of the students who are attending my class are bots. In an effort to discourage bots from taking my class, I show a clip from the documentary “Blade Runner” and insist that all my zoom students take the Voight-Kampff Test]

Further complicating this is my honest desire not to penalize students who choose to attend class via zoom. I would love to construct some assignments designed to get zoom students more engaged in the classroom experience. For example, I have been tempted to make the zoom students write discussion questions that frame the classroom conversation or alternating between the zoom students and the in class students leading discussion. (I have this idea of a “Zoom Student Thursday” where students on Zoom lead discussion on Thursday!)

The problem with this is that many of my zoom students are attending class in less than idea situations. They might be in loud or busy environments. Some might not be able to participate in class with their microphones turned on. Others still might struggle with social anxiety and dislike speaking into the void as much I dislike lecturing into the void.

I realize, of course, that there are solutions to this problem, but I can’t escape the feeling that these are all work-arounds for deeply flawed approach to teaching. The zoom technology, at least as it is implemented, on my campus still assumes that the instructor is the source of knowledge, authority, and structure. The unevenness of access to the classroom environment also forces the instructor to act as mediator between the different groups. While most instructors do act as classroom mediators anyway (and not all students feel equally at ease in the classroom and have equal access to the classroom as learning space), navigating the difficulties associated with both zoom and its implementation has me very frustrated.

[I also fear that when this is all over, we’ll discover a small number of students who have died in their apartment or dorm rooms and no one realized it because they continued dutifully to appear for each of their zoom classes and quietly endure the regular sessions long after they departed from this world. It is deeply disconcerting to teach to even one or two students who might be dead. 

This article from Slate offers the opposite scenario which demonstrates just how real the possibility of having a deceased student attending zoom classes is.]

Teaching Thursday: Preparing a Portfolio

One of the odd little tasks that I had over the holidays is producing a syllabus for a revised class in our revamped M.A. program in History. This is not a syllabus that we’ll necessarily use, but a kind of bureaucratic step in getting a class revised for inclusion in the new program. 

The class will be a kind of capstone for our new streamlined MA. Instead of requiring a thesis, as we have in the past, the culmination of the MA program will be a portfolio that brings together an article length paper, a review or conference paper, and a reflective essay. Students will prepare this portfolio as part of an “advanced research practices” class run either by the History department or by our colleagues in English.

The following syllabus is a model for the portfolio class. The class will emphasize the practice of writing in the humanities and not simply focus on matters of style, but also include a discussion of the emotional challenges associated with academic work. It is my experience that the emotional aspects of academic writing often have as much to do with the success of a writer as their skills.

The readings for the course were partly crowd sources from a Twitter conversation and some of the class is designed to mimic the existing portfolio class offered by the English Department and taught by Eric Wolf who generously shared his syllabus. More than anything, this reflects the kind of course that I wish existed in my graduate education and exposes gaps that in my own skills that I’m still trying to fill.

 

History 503: Advanced Historical Methods and Portfolio Preparation

The goal of this class is to refine the advanced research, presentation, and publication central to a career in history and related fields.  

This course is the required capstone to the master’s program in history. It will deliberately examine major trends in research writing in the field and seek to align student’s work with broader disciplinary expectations for the various genres of research writing and presentation. The scholarly article, book review, and conference paper represent key forms of academic communication in the discipline of history and historians must acquire a range of skills, methods, and strategies necessary to contribute effectively to these forms of scholarship. More than that, they need to understand the collaborative aspects of academic knowledge making as manifest in thoughtful engagement with the work of peers, the careful articulation of critique in peer reviews, and the ongoing contributions to the seminar.

The class will be a hybrid course partly directed by the course instructor and partly by the student’s portfolio committee. The course directed by the instructor will emphasize general skills associated with producing polished, professional research outcomes and the student’s portfolio committee will emphasize sophisticated content knowledge. 

The outcome of this class will be a portfolio that demonstrates the acquisition of both the conventions of academic writing and research and the sophisticated methods and content knowledge across three forms of academic writing. 

Course Objectives

1. Demonstrate advanced skills in written academic communication.

2. Demonstrate sophisticated methodological and content knowledge in a subfield in history.

3. Contribute to the collective effort to refine and improve academic research and writing.

4. Reflect critically on the research and writing process.

Requirements

For the successful completion of this class, participants must submit the following
three papers: 

1. Article length work of historical analysis (8000-10000 words). This paper should be modeled on a publishable academic article in quality, form, and length.

2. Concise work of historical analysis or critique (2000-3000 words). This paper can be a  scholarly critical book or literature review, a conference paper, or a long-form academic encyclopedia entry.

3. Reflective Essay (2000-3000 words). This paper is a reflective essay on some aspect of the academic knowledge making. 

Required Books

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page. Punctum Books 2015. https://punctumbooks.com/titles/how-we-write/

Cvetkovich, Anne. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke 2012.

Clark, Irene L. “Entering the Conversation: Graduate Thesis Proposals as Genre.” Profession, 2005, 141-52. Accessed January 10, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595807.

Dreyer, Benjamin, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Random House 2019.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Johns Hopkins 2019.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History. Faber and Faber Ltd. 1997.

Graham, Shawn, Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota 2019.

Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style. Columbia University Press. 2014.

MacDonald, Peck. Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Southern Illinois University Press. 1994.

Swales John M. and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Third Edition. University of Michigan Press 2012.

Other Guides (optional)

Barry, Linda, What it is. Drawn & Quarterly 2008.

Belcher, Wendy L. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. SAGE Publications 2009.

Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. New Forums Press 1990.

Booth, Wayne C., et al., The Craft of Research. 4th  Edition. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

Germano, William. From Dissertation to Book. 2nd Edition. University of Chicago Press 2013.

Greene, Anne E. Writing Science in Plain English. University of Chicago Press 2013.

Ilyn, Natalia. Writing for the Design Mind. Bloomsbury 2019.

Kane, Thomas, New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press 1988.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn, Several Short Sentences About Writing. Random House 2013. 

Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor 1995.

McPhee, John, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017.

Moran, J., First You Write a Sentence. Random House 2019.

Murray, Rowena and Sarah Moore, The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. McGraw Hill 2006.

Thomas, Francis-Noël and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Second Edition. Princeton 2011.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press 2012.

Williams, Joseph, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press 1990.

Zinsser, W. On Writing Well. HarperCollins 2016.

Schedule

Week 1: The History of Academic Writing
Grafton
Novick

Week 2: Contemporary Perspectives
McDonald
Clark

Week 3: Writing with Style
Hayot
Dreyer

Week 4: Writer’s Block and Affective Writing
Cvetkovich

Week 5: Writing and Reviewing Generously
Fitzpatrick

Week 6: Failure
Graham

Week 7: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 8: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 9: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 10: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 11: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 12: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 13: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 14: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 15: Workshop
Paper 3