Three Things Thursday: Making Life Harder, Publishing, and Lineal Champions

It’s almost mid-semester and that always puts me in a bit of a reflective mood. The lovely fall weather and some thoughtful colleagues doesn’t hurt either. So this week, I’m offering a little trio of three things Thursday meditation.

Thing the First

One of the things that I tell my students consistently is not to make their lives any harder than they need to be. Many of my students are carrying heavy course loads, working jobs, and have other family and personal responsibilities on top of the every day pressures of taking classes during a pandemic. In response to this, I’ve really focused on managing student workloads, particularly in lower division classes, and encouraging students to consider how best to use their time to get out of a class what they want to get out of it. In other words, do not do things the hard way because they seems like the best way.

Of course, in my professional life, I consistently do things the hard way. In fact, I seem to consistently and knowingly make my life harder than it needs to be by filling up my time with projects that reflect my interests rather than my priorities. More than that, I seem to get some kind of weird pleasure or at least excitement about navigating the hardest path and pushing myself to endure the frustrations and challenges that come not from the work itself but the arrangement of the work. This has me wondering whether my advice to students to stay on the easy path is good. Maybe more of my students are like me than I know?

Thing the Second

I’ve been working on a little Op-Ed piece for Near Eastern Archaeology with my fellow ASOR book series editor Jennie Ebeling. It’s still a work in progress, but we basically advocate for an increased emphasis on digital publishing in ASOR while acknowledging that there are certain challenges to this. 

This got me thinking about how the publishing ecosystem is a bit perverse. On the one hand, there seems to be consistent pressure on faculty to publish. Over the past few years this pressure might even be increasing at least among my colleagues in Europe. As a result, there seems to be a constant stream of publications in a growing number of journals and book series. These, in turn, require universities to constantly increase their library budgets to capture a productive share of the academic output. At the same time, there appears to be persistent barriers to supporting open access publishing at scale. These aren’t just economic barriers (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but also professional ones which discourage scholars from publishing in open access journals and book series. Anther colleague pointed out that in many fields in the humanities, there are even biases against finding subventions for publication to make them open access or more widely available. The result is that universities have created a system where they are scrambling to provide support for the publications that they push their faculty to produce. A significant slice of the revenue that this cycle creates is siphoned off to private investors further depleting public resources that could go for research, teaching, and in-house publishing.

Thing the Third

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that this weekend is the Wilder-Fury III. This is the third heavyweight fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. The ramp up to the fight has been pretty heated and, like any major heavy-weight fight, the world feels like it stops when these two massive men step into the ring. 

In the fragmented world of heavyweight boxing, only one belt is on the line: the WBC belt. The fight will also be for The Ring heavyweight championship. More importantly (for me at least) is that the belt will be for the Lineal Heavyweight championship. I think the lineal championship, in particular, is what makes boxing – particularly in the so-called standard divisions – so appealing to me. The idea of the lineal championship is that only ONE guy is champion and the only way to be champion is the beat the guy who was the previous champion. If a champion retires, then the championship goes to the highest ranked contender ideally after the 2 and 3 ranked contenders fight. At times, then, the lineal championship can lay open or be contested. Obviously, in this era with multiple ranking systems, sanctioning bodies, and championships, it is often hard to confirm the real lineal champion but with heavyweights there’s a sense that Tyson Fury, after his victory over Wladimir Klitschko (who, in turn, won the lineal championship with his victory over Ruslan Chagaev, who was the third ranked heavyweight in the world at a time when Klitschko was ranked second; there was no lineal champion at that moment because Lennox Lewis had retired).

In any event, I like the concept of a lineal champion. It reminds me of Papal Succession and other formal lineages. I also like that in boxing – at least in theory – requires a fighter to defeat the champion in order to be the champion. In other sports, every season starts with a level playing field and while I get that this generates some excitement, in the world of free agency, there’s a lack of continuity that boxing at least seeks to rectify with its somewhat arcane system of succession. 

Teaching Thursday: Ungrading

On Thursday night, I teach a 2 hour+ section of World Civilizations I to about 50 students. For the last five or six years, I’ve been teaching this course as a “flipped classroom” where the students work together as a group to write a series of essays that draw on material from both an open access textbook and some online primary source readers.

About four years ago, I realized that most of the students in this class were typically non-majors, often non-traditional, and, in many cases, almost always over-extended had very little time to invest in this class outside of class time. Undaunted at first, I decided to do what I could to encourage students to do more work on the course material outside of class time. This had predictable results. Students with more time – often traditional college age students who had fewer competing priorities – did better and students who were over extended in general struggled. At some point, I came to recognize the most of what I was doing to get the students to do more work outside of class was not really designed to promote student learning and certainly did not promote student success as students who were over extended in various ways simply wracked up poor grades forcing me to either curve the class or give the students lower grades. Students did have time often just completed the work in the desultory fashion that the assignments were designed. In other words, my effort to get students to do more work outside of class didn’t really move the needle much. 

At around the same time, the dean (or some such person) noted that my intro-level classes (at the time Western Civilization I) had higher than average D/F/W rates. This refers to the number of students who receive Ds or Fs or withdraw from the class and there are apparently correlations between these grades (particularly in lower division classes) and retention rates. This coincided with my efforts to increase the “rigor” in the course by requiring more work outside of the classroom. What’s worse, many of the students who received Ds or Fs or simply withdrew were students who were likely at risk anyway. And, no, I don’t know this for sure, but anecdotally the number of non-traditional and working students in the class seems proportionally higher than in my other courses. 

In short, I had designed a system that probably did very little for student learning and penalized the most vulnerable. Sweet.

So, two or three years ago, I decided to adopt a minimal homework approach. Instead of insisting that students come to class prepared, I set aside time in the classroom for students to work together to get up to speed. I capped the amount of outside of class reading and writing (less than 30 pages and <1000 words per month) that I expected and switched most of my short, weekly assignments to “check in type work.” This is my lingo for assignments that draw heavily on work already accomplished during class time and that serves as a chance to check in on student engagement rather than as a cudgel to get students to do more work. 

Predictably grades improved, but more importantly for me, so did student engagement. Last night, for example, I sat there bored while the entire class of 50 some students worked on their projects. Floating aimlessly around the room, I heard groups discussing not only the organization of their papers, but also the scope of their arguments and conclusions, the nature of historical evidence, and the best way to approach certain problems in the past. Groups wrote on politics, energy, collapse, trade, and gender and dug deeply into both sources and the textbook. 

While this is a very boring way (for me) to teach, it clearly does something to activate student engagement. My current theory is that by eliminating homework, I effectively leveled the playing field in the classroom. I removed from students the dread of coming into the classroom unprepared from students who might already be juggling multiple obligations and prioritized classroom time as a space for students to be engaged and learn.  

For a long time, though, I worried that despite all this engagement something was missing. Maybe I worried that students weren’t learning enough about the past or they didn’t achieve specific quantifiable (or at least qualifiable) learning goals. Or maybe the class was merely exchanged engagement for learning. 

Over the weekend I read Susan D. Blum’s edited volume Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) which was published by University of West Virginia Press (I mention this because it’s clear the WVU Press is taking a serious interest in college level teaching issues and I’d much rather buy their books than stuff from Jossey-Bass, a subdivision of the for-profit publisher Wiley.

One thing that I learned from this book is that my preoccupation with outcomes is probably not useful. In fact, our preoccupation with specific learning outcomes in classes might represent the long-tail of grade oriented teaching. In this context, the goal of the classroom was to create a process that allowed us to measure student achievement rather than to activate student learning.

What if, instead of some defined, assessable, rankable, learning outcome, the goal of college education is to promote and encourage student engagement?  In other words, what if my concern that my students were engaged, butt perhaps not learning (enough?) reflects exactly the kind of tyranny that graded outcomes has allowed to develop. Looking at my engaged, active, and largely successful groups of students wrestling with historical analysis, argument, and writing, it was hard to imagine what additional (graded and individual) work would do to make these student more engaged.

In fact, almost every conventional metric that I could think of would be just as likely to measure aspects of the students current social or economic status as well as their past preparation for post-secondary education as anything that they learn in the classroom. This seems less than ideal to me.

I don’t think that my current approach has successfully cut the Gordian’s knot of privilege and preparation, but I do feel like I’ve created a more level playing field for all my students and that level playing field is part of why my students have been so willing (and eager!) to engage. And if engagement is our goal (and I increasingly think that it should be), then perhaps the outcome of this course is exactly what it should be.  

Teaching Thursday: 10,000 Years

To be honest, I spend some time over the last two days thinking about writing something on an amazing dissertation that I just finished reading and a interesting forum on posthumanism in the CAJ and maybe some half-baked musings on the character and agency of archaeological publishing. I’ll probably still write about that, but not today.

Instead, I think I’ll share a little assignment that I used in my History 105: World Civilizations I class last night. It was inspired by my reading of Rosemary Joyce’s latest book, The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material (2020). As I’ve blogged about, she looks at the efforts of two expert committees to create markers designed to prevent intrusions into nuclear waste storage facilities. The federal government tasked these committees with creating markers that would last 10,000 years. This stimulated these committees to consider various ancient monuments and objects that have lasted for thousands of years and considered their materiality, how they communicated, and how their age created value and significance to the contemporary world.

Here’s the prompt for the first day assignment. The students considered these questions as groups and wrote their responses as groups:

One of the challenges facing historians is that how people understood themselves in the past is very different from how people understand themselves in the present. Our concepts of time, space, and causality, for example, have changed as the rate of technological change has accelerated, our world has globalized, and the complexities of climate change, pandemics, and politics has made it difficult to understand why things happened and who or what is responsible.

We then introduced a little exercise to think about different time scales and change, let’s compose a series of 50-word descriptions that inform future generations of what we are doing here in this time and place.

Compose four messages for the future that describes what was happening in this room. Message one is to a group 10 years in the future. Message two is to a group 100 years in the future. Message three is a group 1000 years in the future. Message four is to a group 10,000 years in the future.

Think about how you locate what you’re doing in a way that will be understood in the future. What kind of context do you need to include? How will you locate this place geographically, chronologically, and functionally?

In a brief essay (<300 words) describe the challenges that your group faced when composing these messages and explain the decisions that you made about how to communicate over time.

~

Without sounding too self-congratulatory (I mean, it is my blog after all), the results of this exercise far exceeded my expectations. In fact, my expectations were that the various groups would mostly get acquainted with one another and brainstorm.

Instead, the groups really thought about this project in ways remarkably close to how Joyce’s explored the work of these committees in her book. For example, one group grappled with what material could last 10,000 years? Another group discussed intensely what languages any monument or marker should use that would be understood 1000 or 10,000 years in the future. Other groups explored the limits of human memory and commemorative practices at 10 and at 100 years. 

Perhaps the most innovative approach the problem came from a group that imagined the development of a religious cult around the site of our classroom and this cult and relics from the building persisted even after life on earth ended 10,000 years in the future.

Teaching Tuesday: Space and Place

Time seems the slow down in the week before classes start. It feels like the cooling, muggy air of late August effectively bogs down the steady clip of summertime making minutes feel like hours and hours feel like days. This slowing of time serves as a good reminder that our experience of time is indeed relative even if our increasingly precise time-keeping instruments continue to tick along at a steady pace.

The slowing down of time leading into the new school year complements a changing sense of space as we return to campus. This year, in particular, campus will feel different. Spatially the campus is largely the same as it was two years ago when it was filled with students and the pandemic was an odd news story from China. Now, there are a few new buildings crowding the historic quad, a few of the older buildings look a bit different, and the familiar campus quest for parking involves trawling through newly paved and configured lots. The changes in campus are not enough to confuse someone who has made their way onto campus for 10 or 20 years, but they do offer new vantage points for seeing the same familiar spaces and buildings. The remind me that space, like time, is also relative.

My class on Wednesday night is World Civilizations I which runs, depending on the instructor to 1500 or 1000. My class stresses the concepts of spatial and temporal scale and how it shapes the way in which we see the past on a global scale. For a first assignment, then, I ask my students to describe their situation – their location, their time, and their cultural, political, and historical contexts – to an audience 100, 1000, and 10,000 years in the future. The assignment was partly inspired by the project recently documented by Rosemary Joyce that sought to come up with ways to mark out nuclear waste disposal sites in Nevada and New Mexico. This exercise challenged engineers, anthropologists, linguists, and other specialists in the past and materiality to think about the limits of how our we represent ourselves will be understood by others. This imaginative act of radical “othering” forced these thinkers to consider critically not only how we communicate over time, but how time shapes what we say. This feels like a good way to start to get the class to start working together as groups while introducing a key theme that I return to throughout the class: scale matters.

The first time that I taught this class was pretty rough. It was a hybrid course in a room that was too small to accommodate the social distancing mandates put in place on campus. As a result, I had to break the class into six groups who met, two groups at a time, for 50 minute classes with the rest of the work and content being delivered online. This semester, the class will meet in our large scale-up classroom. This will allow me to maintain a certain amount of social distancing (albeit unofficially, since that mandate is no longer in place) and the classroom is better suited to group work than our standard active learning rooms. The large round tables support collaboration, each table has dedicated white boards, TV monitors, and laptops, and allows the class to spread out and create their own space to work. In my experiences teaching in this classroom, the organization of the space encourages engagement. In fact, I’ve written about it here and this article offers some interesting recent observations.  

At the same time that I’m excited to get back to teaching in a familiar collaborative learning space, I’m also worried that the COVID pandemic and ongoing construction work on campus will make it harder for my department to feel like a cohesive program. If I understand it correctly, this coming year our department will be spread over four buildings and only teach in one of those four buildings. This divorce of our teaching from our office spaces is, on the one hand, not a bad thing. It facilitates, for example, the maintaining of boundaries between our research, service, and teaching obligations. At the same time, it puts us out and about on campus rather than sneaking almost invisibly between our classrooms and our offices on a single floor of a single building. Finally, it gives us an opportunity to build casual relationships with colleagues in other programs and in other departments. Moving offices is a pain, but it also has its advantages.

On the other hand, I do worry that the boundaries reinforced by the separation of our offices from our classrooms can be barriers to students. Many of our students, for example, are first generation college students and find faculty distant and sometimes intimidating. By hiding our offices away from our classrooms it might contribute to the idea that offices are “off limits” to students or that faculty are too busy to care. At my institutions, I’ve found this to be nothing further from the truth. I also worry that it’ll cause a sense of isolation or even alienation among faculty in my department. We tend to be fairly collegial and even friendly, but not a particularly collaborative group. I suspect the change in our spaces will do little to encourage us to work more closely together.

That all said, the changes to campus, new classes in familiar spaces, and even thinking actively about how we place ourselves on campus, in the region, and in the world gives the start of the semester a sense of excitement and potential about it. After last years disruptions and this summer’s tentative steps toward establishing a new normal, going back into the classroom and being on campus will feel good, despite all the anxieties and challenges. 

Teaching Structural Violence in the Time of COVID

Teaching about structural violence is always a bit difficult. After all, structures are elusive things that often operated below the level of conscious action and agency, but nevertheless shape our daily lives. At their most visible, structures are manifest in institutions and, at their least, they are known through movements and attitudes that aren’t structures themselves but suggest forms of relationships that mark out divisions in society. Structural violence refers to the kind of painful, damaging, and harmful actions that occur at the level of structures in society. In fact, many scholars see violence itself is often as a kind of structuring structure that defines certain social relationships that constitute what we see as society. For example, animosity and violence often mark the divisions of classes in society. Scholars have become increasingly interested in the role of violence in marking racial divisions as well. 

N.B. For some background for this post, you can read this earlier post where I explored a similar approach to understanding the social context for the COVID pandemic.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen COVID cut a swath through our communities and reveal new and deeper rifts in our social fabric. It is clear that divisions in race, class, education, and even gender shape attitudes toward COVID vaccinations, masks, and public health policies. In many cases, groups in our society who are historically the most vulnerable have adopted attitudes that make them more susceptible to COVID infection and illness. There are any number of reasons why these communities have resisted efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID and many of these stem ultimately from a long history of state violence which has created deep ambivalence and even animosity toward the public institutions (especially those that claim to want to help). This has combined with the efforts by groups and individuals eager to stoke this ambivalence and animosity toward the state in an effort to advance their own positions economically, politically, and socially. Over the last 50 years, neoliberal policies, for example, have represented the state as a damper on the market and argued that by suppressing or controlling competition,the state make individuals less able to advance their social and economic positions in society. The resources absorbed and distributed by the state tend to limit opportunities and disincentivize social advancement by rewarding individuals who are less successful in the market economy (through, say, the social safety net) and penalizing (through taxes, for example) those who are more successful. Of course, many of the groups who champion individual freedom and remain ambivalent toward the state, have not benefited from this, largely because these policies tend to reward groups who have significant competitive advantages in the economy (e.g. generational wealth, access to education, social networks, et c.) and normalize these advantages as the result of market competition. 

Framing attitudes toward COVID in this way might helps us avoid the current tendency toward blaming the victim. Many of those resistant to vaccinations, mask mandates, and other public policies have long viewed the state with deep skepticism because they see it as a barrier to their own advancement and there is a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric and media that reinforce these attitudes. 

More than that, there are real efforts to make the state appear less efficient and capable and in these efforts, and this allows us to get a sense for how structural violence relies upon the complicity of many individuals who might not necessarily advocate for its goals. For example, our institution has a policy that allows us as individual instructors to require masks in our classes, but it also leave us with the burden of enforcement. Realistically, most faculty who I know don’t feel comfortable determining (much less enforcing) public health policies for their classrooms. We’ll do it, though, in part, because we have to and not because we believe the devolution of public health policies is the most efficient or effective way to protect ourselves and students. 

The reason for this devolution of responsibilities is undoubtedly that the institution feels like they can’t make campus wide mandates because of real (or least perceived) pressure from outside stakeholders. In this situation, they implement work arounds that invariably are less successful than a policy and this demonstrates (for some) the ineffectiveness of public institutions. More than that, it demonstrates how certain forms of structural violence operate on the institutional level and make complicit even individuals who don’t share or would rather resist the forms of violence visible in particular policies or attitudes.

Recently, a group of politicians (a small one to be fair) circulated a petition that would withhold state funds — even those appropriated by the legislature — from institutions that implemented mask or vaccine requirements. While this is unlikely to gain much traction, especially on the desk of our pragmatic, realist governor, it is another useful example of how certain groups seek to make state institutions less viable and reinforce the notion that they are ineffective and inefficient. Moreover, these policies would expose unvaccinated and mask-skeptical individuals to greater risk of infection with COVID and serious consequences. This is all the more harmful as universities are one of the places that, for their many flaws, seek (at least ostensibly) to produce a more level playing field in society and give individuals the tools necessary to create a more fair and equal world. The policies that make it more difficult for universities to protect vulnerable individuals, even those who are skeptical of vaccinations and masks, directly hamper their ability to serve groups that we hope to benefit the most. If good public policies are informed by science, by understanding of human behavior, and by deep compassion for the human condition, then higher education plays a crucial role in creating conditions that make good policies and ideally creating a better world.

This is not to blame institutions, in particular, for their failure to stand up to the pressures from those deeply (and in most cases uncritically) ambivalent about the authority of the state. Our institutions response to COVID does, however, offer a particularly vivid example of how certain forms of structural violence serve to undermine even thoughtful and sustained efforts at resolution. It also shows how easy it is for individuals to be complicit in perpetuating systemic violence and failing to protect some of the most vulnerable groups.

The individual calculus in such situations is grim. As individuals, we sometimes blame the victims: they refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. More damagingly, we sometimes appeal to some vague greater good that often rests on the bodies of the most vulnerable: some people will get COVID, get very sick, and maybe even die, but at least we are continuing to advance the mission of our institution. In these situations, we’re admitting that the lives of the vulnerable are somehow acceptable collateral damage for the survival of an institution and its ideals (even if these ideals are not reflected in the policies that it must pursue in order to survive).

If these kinds of decisions are not teachable moments, I’m not sure what would be. I only hope that the lessons that we as a society have learned from the unfolding tragedy of the COVID pandemic do not require regular reinforcement.  

Talking to Teachers about Teaching History

Later today, I’m going to talk to a group of history teachers in North Carolina about teaching history in college. This year, these teachers are focusing on both building and evaluating good historical arguments and using writing to support learning history and the historical method. I’m very excited to learn more about how these teachers work, but the goal of my talk is to communicate what we do in the college classroom, the kinds of students we tend to encounter, and how we want to see our students develop over the course of our program.

In advance of the meeting today, I got a series of questions from the moderator of the event. They begin with some general questions about the historical method including how do I define it, what constitutes an effective historical argument, and how these produce historical knowledge. These are difficult questions in large part because history is, comparatively, a methodologically weak discipline. Many of us are satisfied with the old adage that we know a good historical argument when we see it. That said, most of us do recognize that there is a reciprocal relationship between good arguments and good evidence. Good evidence supports good arguments and the best arguments tend to naturalize what we know about the past.

When historians step back as far as they can from our field and our arguments, we tend to realize that there are kinds of questions that interest us (or are relevant to our 21st century lives and conversations among 21st century historians) and these kinds of questions tend to anticipate certain kinds of arguments which in turn naturalize certain kinds of evidence. The relationship between evidence and argument remains one the trickiest for history students to grasp. There’s a tendency to want FACTS to exist somewhere in the ether (or in the ARCHIVE) waiting for eager historians to harvest them and arguments to exist as forensic exercises that are good or bad based on how neatly the facts support this or that point.

There’s a related question about the future of history that I think is particularly useful. For history to matter in the future, it has to remain relevant and while students are often eager to recite to me George Santayana’s chestnut: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is probably too optimistic a reading of the power of history, but I do think there’s a growing sense of urgency among historians to create a past that somehow informs the present in a meaningful way.  

The second group of questions involve what college faculty like to see in students entering university. In my experience, our students tend to have decent factual knowledge about the past especially students considering the history major or minor or who have had some AP classes. Students seem particularly comfortable with facts that support narratives, which are a kind of arguments that typically has an implicit rather than explicit goal. In other words, narratives are a particularly obscure way of naturalizing historical evidence. 

The best students have started to recognize that historians construct historical narratives more or less like any other historical argument. Ironically, the media’s fascination with a kind of “post-truth” world often encourages students to view conventional historical narratives (and especially anything that they consider “revisionist”) with intense critical suspicion. They know, for example, to question the heroic narratives of the founders even if they’re not entirely sure when and why that narrative has come into existence. At the same time, they can be preoccupied with what they zealously call “BIAS” in historical sources and arguments. Bias appears to mean any source that is not “objective” (or better impartial). In general, I discourage them from using the term bias (and usually make a joke about bias being largely discontinued in the 1970s and being replaced with radials) largely because it seems to prevent them from taking a source for what it is. Over the course of the semester, I try to get students to recognize “bias” as another source of historical information. When Augustus composed his Res Gestae, it was obviously biased, but that bias itself is an important source of information about political representations and rhetoric in the Roman period. If anything, a sense of bias should encourage us to read more closely and critically.

I do sometimes wonder where students develop this aversion to bias and whether we can do more to normalize the presence of bias in sources and make it yet another opportunity for critical engagement rather than some kind of miasma to be avoided.

Students who tend to struggle the most in my classes are those who come from rather more ideologically limited backgrounds: international students, for example, or students who come from very small communities, certain religious backgrounds, or certain kinds of home schooling. It is not so much that they have particular perspectives on the past, but more that they have less experience unpacking the assumptions that structure historical arguments. There’s a tendency to see historical arguments are “right” (and therefore “good”) or “wrong” and therefore “bad” or even “destructive.” These students also tend to have a somewhat greater commitment to certain abstract ideas, and questions and arguments involving these ideas are often pretty difficult to develop at the scale of the classroom. Determining whether a historical figure was “greedy” for example requires a vast body of comparative, social, political, and even economic knowledge to asses what “greed” meant at a particular time and place. 

The final group of questions focus on how I develop historical thinking and arguments in my classes. I suspect that I’ll introduce my courses on three levels. 

First, by introductory level course tends to be a kind of walled garden. I regard the textbook as less a narrative and more a collection of facts that can, if used in an argument, become evidence. I also introduce students to a garden of primary sources which they can likewise deploy in various ways to support arguments. Because these classes have a wide range of students at a wide range of levels and with a wide range of learning goals (most of whom are not history majors or minors or even humanities majors or mines), we tend to concentrate on constructing written arguments. In this regard, the class is pretty remedial and designed less to impart a particular body of historical knowledge and more to reinforce a method of argumentation (e.g. thesis statements, primary sources, evidence, et c.). There’s a basic level of information literacy involved in this as well (finding and using evidence and moving from general knowledge to specifics) and this is consistent with learning goals in the modern university. 

In my mid-level, historical methods class taken by history majors and minors, I continue to focus on making good arguments, but shift the context from primary sources to secondary sources. The goal is to have students not only develop more robust basic research and writing skills, but also to use those skills to venture beyond the garden walls. To do this successfully, we tend to focus on making academic arguments and this involves both dissecting academic works (through article and book reviews) as well as developing our own arguments with particular attention to the “who cares?” question. The culminating exercise is a prospectus or a proposal assignment. This short paper includes both a thesis and a literature review which demonstrate how a particular historical argument both is possible on the basis of existing archival resources (broadly defined) and contributes to an existing body of academic knowledge.

Our upper level courses, which ideally build on both the walled garden and the “who cares?” question introduced in the lower level classes. It introduces students to narrower range of sources and scholarship which provides the foundation for deeper engagement and more subtle arguments. 

Finally there are a number of questions that relate to how we motivate and inspire students at the college level. I’ve found that group work and various approaches associated with “flipped classroom” pedagogy has improved student engagement and attendance. In lower level classes, engagement has always struck me as the biggest hurdle, and group writing which generally disliked by students, allows more advanced students to guide less advanced students, discourages students from checking out (as they might during lectures), and creates a kind of boisterous and relaxed classroom that makes a 2.5 hour night class less painful. Much of the group work is digitally mediate and uses wikis, Google maps, and a relatively well-equipped “active learning” classrooms to make group work easier and less complicated.

In my methods class, I now include a 5 week session in a local archive which gives students hands-on experiences with professional archivists who work with them on small, but real projects associated with their collections. This not only allows students to get a sense for what a professional career in a historical-adjacent field might be (that is as an archivist), but also get their hands dirty (so to speak) in real collections of documents. 

Ironically my upper level classes, which tend to be mostly occupied by history majors, tend to be the least pedagogically sophisticated. I stick to a more standard lecture/discussion format with reading in primary and secondary sources serving as a scaffolding for both lectures and discussions. Since I don’t teach upper level courses often or very regularly, I tend to keep things pretty simple.

~

That’s what I’m thinking about this morning as I prepare for this conversation with secondary school history teachers! I’ll report back next week on what I learned which I think will be useful in the run up into the fall semester! 

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.