Teaching Thursday: NDQ Editor’s Note

In general, I try to keep what I do in the classroom and what I do as a researcher (and as a member of the university community more broadly) loosely divided. It ensures that teaching, service, and research retain an element of freshness and my days don’t get too bogged down in doing the same kind of thing over and over. For example, I don’t teach archaeology or do much with Late Roman Cyprus in the classroom. And I rarely allow my work at NDQ or The Digital Press to cross pollinate too fully with what I do as a researcher or in the classroom. I like to think of it as keeping a healthy set of boundaries and diversifying my portfolio.

This semester, though, I let this division slip a bit and I’m teaching a class in editing and publishing which focuses mainly on working with various aspects of North Dakota Quarterly. As part of that, I asked my students to help me craft an “editor’s note” that celebrated their contribution to NDQ. Here it is:

This semester I’ve had the good fortune of being joined by five undergraduates from the University of North Dakota’s English Department’s program in a practicum in editing and publishing. Nicholas Ramos, Aubrey Roemmich, Emily Shank, Elena Uhlenkamp, and Karissa Wehri have talked with me about the content in the issue, put the articles in order, and have happily helped me organize NDQ‘s new office on campus.

As they organized the issue they discussed the themes in the poetry, stories, and essays. They observed how much of work embodied the power of everyday experiences where commonplace settings of offices, shops, schools, and homes give rise to religious, spiritual and even magical encounters. Parenthood, relationships, chance encounters, a book store, and even a cup of coffee create occasions for something special to occur. 

In some ways, the work in this volume reflects the character of North Dakota. As Aubrey Roemmich noted: “Growing up a North Dakota native, I always thought that it was a boring place. It was not until I was much older that I started to appreciate its beauty and intrigue. Many of the poems in this issue perfectly capture the beauty that is inherent in these places.”

Three Things Thursday: Data, Books, Teaching

This semester feels very odd to me. Not only did I start the semester a bit more tired than I expected to be, but I also didn’t have a clear set of goals and deadline ahead of me. After I submitted my revised book manuscript at the end of August, my fall semester seemed oddly under scheduled. It’s taken me a while to recognize that this is probably a good thing and more of a feature than a bug at this point in my career. 

This sense of being under-committed this fall has given me the space to work on a number of other projects in a less frantic way than I have in the past and today’s Three Things Thursday is about that.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, I posted about my work with the Isthmia data and my effort to corral and clean up various datasets produced by the Isthmia excavations over the past 50 odd years. My primary goal has been to work on Roman and Post-Roman material from the excavation and to focus particularly on Byzantine and Roman pottery. Earlier in the week I finished recoding the inventoried Roman and the Byzantine pottery so that it can be integrated with the stratigraphic data and context material from the site.

Then I moved on the the lamps from the site, figuring that most of the lamps found in the Ohio State and Michigan State excavations at Isthmia were Roman and later. Fortunately, Birgitta Wohl has just published a volume analyzing the lamps from these excavations, but her substantial catalogue identifies the lamps according to the inventory number and the area where they were found, but not their stratigraphic context or even trench. This is annoying, but perhaps not too unusual. 

More vexing is that I don’t have a table that includes all the lamps in Wohl’s catalogue. Instead, I have a partial table that I excavated from an Access database whose creator and purpose is unknown and I’ve spent about four or five hours now transforming Birgitta’s catalogue into data. This, of course, is both absurd and a completely normal part of archaeology as early-20th century practices and late-20th century digital tools continue to find opportunities for incompatibility. 

Thing the Second

This summer, I spent a good bit of time fretting about the number of projects I had wending their way through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In particular, I was worried about a collaboration that I had hatched with our sister project, North Dakota Quarterly. This project involved the publication of a translation of Jurij Koch’s novella, The Cherry Tree, which would be the second book in our emerging NDQ supplement series.

Cherry Tree Cover FINAL

Our current plan is to release this title on October 11th. In fact, we don’t even have a landin page for the book yet, but the translator convinced us to accelerate the timeline so he could take some copies with him to Croatia next week. Because my fall is under scheduled, we were able to make this happen and while the book has not officially dropped yet, you can, if you know where to look, find a copy from a major online retailer

Thing the Third

Finally, I continue to think about whether being under scheduled is a privilege or something that university faculty should aspire to, and this has started to impact how I teach. In some ways, the current “syllabus as contract” driven environment creates an expectation that the schedule on the syllabus represents an accurate summary of student work during a semester. Because faculty (and students) recognize that under representing the quantity of material creates problems with student expectations, we tend to over represent the amount of material (or at least represent the maximum amount of material) that we hope to cover in a semester. This tends to compound a sense among students (and even among faculty) of being over extended or scheduled “to the max.” 

This doesn’t feel very healthy to me.

Three Teaching Things Thursday

My first week of classes is nearly done (well, technically, I still have 40% of my week to go, but let’s not quibble). Over the last few years, I’ve been convinced that part of what has left my teaching a bit flat lately isn’t my course preparation or even big picture pedagogical issues, but classroom management. 

Last semester, I worked a bit on how I facilitated discussion, how I modeled historical thinking, and how I provided feedback at various times of the semester, and I like to think that I discerned some real benefit both in student learning and the general “vibe” of the classroom. In fact, I felt that working on my classroom style had the potential to garner greater benefits that far more time consuming tweaks to content or broader pedagogy.

Along those lines, I have three goals this semester for my teaching.

1. Activating the Classroom in History 240: The Historians Craft. At some point over the last couple of years I figured out how to run classroom discussions. I just wish I knew what I did exactly. 

That said, the key to making this class work is to “activate the classroom.” This involves making students feel comfortable discussing often challenging texts during the first part of the semester, students will feel far more comfortable discussing the challenges that they face doing their own research later in the semester. One of the easiest ways to encourage students to speak, from what I can tell, is work to communicate a certain enthusiasm for the challenges associated with reading and interpretation difficult texts. 

That’s it mostly. I mean, I could refine my Socratic techniques, I could be more patient, and I could even incentivize participation, but it seems to me that just being excited in the classroom about a text stimulates students to take more risks and engage more fully.  

2. Professional Processes in English 334: Practicum in Editing and Publishing. This is a new class for me and I tried a new approach to my first day of class. Instead of a general warm up or going over the syllabus, I tried a “cold open” and dumped a bunch of information on the working of UND’s long-standing literary journal North Dakota Quarterly, on the students.This clearly overwhelmed them, but, on the other hand, it also seemed to energize them for a class that would give them real world experience and give them a chance to do some hands-on work that extends well beyond the classroom.

3. Modeling Thinking in History 105: World Civilizations I. Finally, my brother (who has had a career in K-12 education) stressed to me last spring the importance of modeling the kind of thinking that I would like to see in my students. This is something that I think that I understood tacitly, but probably didn’t put into use very effectively in my classes.

So this semester, instead of expecting students to figure out how to solve problems on their own (or collaboratively in groups), I’m going do some more modeling of how I’d go about solving a problem or approaching an assignment. I suspect this will help my students.

Teaching Thursday: A Practicum in Editing and Publishing

Next semester, I’m teaching a course once again in the English Department. This course is a practicum in editing and publishing and it will be taught in collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly.

Since I have nearly two weeks before classes start, I don’t have a very clear idea how I’m going to go about teaching this class, but I do know that I want it to be as much of a practicum as possible. This means to me that the course should be hands-on and give students as much real world experience as possible with actual projects. As a result, I’m laying out a series of editing and publishing related projects that intersect with NDQ. These range from the immediate and necessary to the rather more long term and ideal.

First, the most proximate concern is getting NDQ 88.3/4 out. This means not only handling author correspondence, but also, and more importantly, putting the manuscript in order for delivery to University of Nebraska Press.

Second, NDQ will publish a novella this fall which will require production checks and carefully reviewed page proofs. We will also need to produce a press packet: press release, marketing material, and so on.

Third, NDQ will contribute to a panel at the Northern Great Plains History Conference on “the state of the state’s journals” in September. It would be great to get the students involved in preparing this paper. 

These are three pressing and proximate responsibilities that I have as editor of the Quarterly this semester. 

The next three tasks are less pressing but represent the kind of work that publishers often take on.

First, we have archived MOST of the issues from volume 1 (1910) to volume 74.2 (2007). But we have not digitized the issues from volume 74.3-84. This is a thankless task, but one that is necessary to make sure that the digital archive of the journal is complete. We will need to digitize 24.1 (1954) and 57.2 (1989).

Second, there is the somewhat larger issue of creating a local archive of back issues of NDQ. Right now most of the archive exists at the HathiTrust and we have released these issues under a CC-ND license. What we’d like to do is download these volumes, extract each issue from the volume, and upload them to our local institutional repository. This is tedious, but important work.

Third, part of the challenge of the NDQ archive is its size. It is almost 90 volumes, hundreds of issues, and thousands of pages and contributions. Aside from an NDQ reader prepared a couple decades ago there is really no way to engage with this archive. A medium-term goal of the Quarterly is to produce some kind of guide to the archive that allows a reader to engage with the century of content that the Quarterly has published.  

Finally, there are those intermediate term projects that either need to happen regularly or should happen sooner rather than later.

First, there is the blog. Right now, myself or someone from my editorial board posts weekly on the NDQ blog. Mostly post a combination of announcements, new content, and archival gems with the occasional “new content” thrown in. What can the class do to add to the impact of the blog?

Second, there is promoting the Quarterly on campus and in the community. I continue to suspect that there are “low hanging fruit” subscriptions on our campus and that people simply don’t realize that the Quarterly still exists. How do we go about raising the profile of the Quarterly on campus and in the community? Are there fun ways to make it more visible?

Third, there is the issue of moving offices. We have at least two file cabinets filled with material relating to the recent history of NDQ that needs to either migrate to the UND archives or be discarded. Publishing, whether we like it or not, produces massive amounts of paper and figuring out how the manage this paper is part of our responsibility as a publisher and editor.

Finally, there is the challenge of “market research.” Whether we like it or not, publishing and editing is a competitive industry and understanding how NDQ fits into the “market” is part of helping us articulate a vision for the magazine going forward.

Teaching Thursday

Today is the last day of classes for the spring semester. As is so often the case, my eyes were somewhat bigger than my stomach and I taught too many classes and let my enthusiasm for various topics exceed reasonable expectations for student attention spans, workloads, and energy levels.

I also had fun despite the long tail of the pandemic, my typical lack of confidence in my knowledge, preparation, and pedagogy, and endless winter weather. And I developed some ideas on how to make my classes better, at vary least different, in the future. 

Here are those thoughts: 

1. Model Thinking. It took me almost 20 years of teaching to understand that even the best explanations on how to do something are likely to be inadequate if not combined with some demonstrations on how to implement these explanations. In the past, I’ve tried to do this by integrating examples into my classes, but this tended to generate a series of cookie cutter projects and papers that cleaved too closely to the exemplar. 

In a conversation with my brother — who is a K-12 educator — he suggested that instead of giving a student a fish or even telling them how to fish, that I walk them through the process of fishing and discuss with them the decisions that I make when selecting a rod, bait, and a location to cast my line (obviously, I have no idea how to fish so this metaphor is breaking down). In other words, instead of telling students how to produce a product or showing students examples of the final product, walk them through the myriad little decisions involved in production. This not only gives students insights into how to accomplish an often complex task at a very practical level, but also humanizes the process by showing them that most academic work is not intuitive, but the product of a series of little and often confusing steps.

[I am aware of the irony that I struggled to implement this kind of thing in my classes despite running this blog for over a decade. After all, part of the point of this blog is to make my research, teaching, and professional processes more transparent.]     

2. Focus on 12 Weeks. One of the good things that happened during this semester is that we had snow days. I think I lost about 2 weeks of class time in my Tuesday-Thursday afternoon classes and this gave both students and me an unexpected (if not entirely unanticipated) break. 

It reinforced in my mind the need to build more flexibility into my classes and consider whether the standard practice of 14 weeks of content spread over a 16 week semester might be a good bit too optimistic. Losing two weeks to snow this semester essentially forced me to reduce my 14 weeks of material to 12 and I’m feeling that this might be the right amount for the average semester. Of course, my sense for this is largely impressionistic, but my Greek History class remains active and interested and my Historical Methods students continue to show up for class even on “optional” days. This suggests to me that my students have sufficient energy, enthusiasm, and time to manage 12 weeks worth of work and as I design two new classes for next year, this might become the model.  

3. The Death of the Lecture. My Greek history course is a bit of a dinosaur in my rotation. It harkens back to a day when the “lecture/discussion” format was a kind of cutting edge pedagogy. In other words, this class continues to feature a good be of “sage-on-the-stage” time despite my commitment to more “guide-on-the-side” methods of teaching in my other classes. Some of this has to do with the inadequacy of available textbooks and the like, but most of this has to do with this class dating to the early years of the 21st century and drawing on late 20th century precedents.

The results haven’t been particularly disappointing in large part because students simply ignore my efforts to lecture. Instead, they interrupt me, ask questions, pursue tangents, and engage in discussions. I regularly find myself stranded behind the awkwardly designed “teaching station” trying to get the class back “on track.” 

I had always assumed that the lecture would die because students would simply check out and stare blankly at me as I babbled on ineffectively about this or that topic. Instead, students are taking the lead in killing the lecture by making it impossible in the classroom. 

4. Balancing Production and Consumption. One of my buddies observed this semester that students like to produce things and balancing between production (writing, making, crafting) and consumption (reading, listening, viewing) was a challenge in the humanities. I have started to think about in my own professional life where I frequently find myself out writing my reading.

As I look ahead to my teaching in the fall, I have three classes that all ask students to produce things: a prospectus in my methods class, a textbook in my World History I class, and an anthology of sorts in my editing and publishing practicum. But all these efforts to produce something rely on the students patiently and critically consuming content and this presents a real challenge as students’ eagerness to go “hands-on” and start to craft on their own challenges their ability to slow down, to read, and to think.

It seems ironic that in an era where consumption has almost become the equivalent of culture that teaching has to nudge students to drag the brake on their eagerness to produce.  

5. Accommodating Resistance. Finally, I want to continue to recognize and validate student resistance, even when its inconvenient and awkward. Like many faculty, I have a tendency to see things like poor attendance, disregard for deadlines and class policies, and poor performance as laziness or defiance. I have to keep reminding myself that very, very few students don’t want to learn in college and when students resist learning, they usually do it to send a message (even if they’re not entire sure what that message is or should be).

I need to keep trying to listen and work with my students to figure out why something isn’t work.  

Semi-Final Draft of Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter

This past week, I’ve made some revisions on a paper that I wrote about a class that I taught exploring the two Wesley College buildings that formerly stood on the University of North Dakota campus. It’s for an edited volume that will survey teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The paper is titled: Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teaching Encounter.

You can download a copy of it here.

I basically committed almost every mid-career, guy-scholar, sin in this paper. First, it overshot the word limit and then I included too many images. Today, I’m going to submit my revised version of the manuscript (which is still a bit long and includes too many images) in an effort to avoid the cardinal sin, which is turning the paper in late.

The paper considers the “mildly anarchist” approach that I used teaching the Wesley College class which not only eschewed formal grading and course design but focused on experiences and encounters rather than outcomes and objectives. The results were good even if the model that I present here was not readily adaptable to other, more formal, teaching environments.

That said, I’ve adapted some of what I did in this class to what I’m doing this semester in my “Thinking with Things” graduate seminar in the English Department. I hope to also take some of what I did in this class to my editing and publishing course next fall. So… stay tuned (or not… it’s really up to you!).

Three (Teaching) Things Thursday: Modeling, Comparing, and Consuming

Going to visit my family is great for many reasons, but among them is the chance to pick my brother’s brain about teaching things. This always reveals the yawing gap between how I think about teaching and how he, a professional K-12 educator, thinks and talks about teaching. He loaded me up with some new bibliography and, more importantly, some new ideas to chew on. 

Thing the First

One of the most compelling ideas that I discussed with my brother is the role of modeling thinking in the classroom. Over the past few years, I’ve found it pretty challenging to teach research writing despite offering more and more examples of solid professional writing in the classroom. My frustrations tend to stem from watching students struggle to imitate what I tended to see as easy to recognize forms supported by fairly basic rhetorical moves (e.g. “they say, I say). 

An observation that my brother made suggested that perhaps I needed to shift my attention from offering model forms to modeling the thinking behind these forms. Fortunately, this week, I have to talk about citation practices and this is one of the hardest areas for students to grasp. So instead of my typical, dry-as-dust, talk about how to footnote, I think I’ll model a bit how I decide to footnote something and how I tend to do it. While one example of modeling thinking is unlikely to transform the class, I’m excited to build more of this into my pedagogy in the future particularly in my methods class.

Thing the Second

I’m thinking about the final paper in my Greek history course this semester. The students read Nicholas Doumanis’s A History of Greece this semester and I think the final exam is going to be a critical examination of this book against the backdrop of my rather different class and ask the students to compare key themes in both. I’ve come to really enjoy projects that ask students to engage their course material even when this simply means critiquing their textbooks.

Despite the current climate that has looked regularly to challenge expertise, students still seem to cling to authority whenever they can. As a result, textbooks and surveys, like Doumanis’s book, take on an exaggerated place in how students engage a topic. There’s also the matter of the book being permanent and stable and not necessarily requiring classroom attendance or immersive reading of challenging and difficult texts. I’m looking forward to seeing how students read Doumanis’s book against the backdrop of my lectures. It’s not that I’ve said anything that directly challenges his arguments, but my class certainly has had a different point of emphasis. Producing two arguments that are equally authoritative nudges the students to have to offer a position.

Thing the Third

I had an intriguing conversation with a colleague last week about the place of consumption and production in academia. He declared himself more of a consumer than a producer. I think that sometimes I prefer the work of production and feel guilty if I consume too freely without giving anything back in return. In fact, somewhere along the way, I developed a somewhat dim view of individuals who consume widely and deeply but are content to remain local sages. I know this is unfair, but it is what it is.

Our students have increasingly shown a preference toward production and my editing and publishing class next fall will focus on producing a digital anthology of North Dakota Quarterly. This will involve the students having to consume 90 issues of the Quarterly, but more importantly to produce 100 key articles in NDQ history and justify this list. I’m thinking a bit about how to balance consumption and production in that class.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of text to navigate, consider, and characterize. The students will have talk about the changing life of the Quarterly and think about how they can bring together the various contributions in its pages against the backdrop of the journal’s history and larger trends. They’ll also have to think about an audience. So the production of this anthology will invariably involve a fair degree of consumption and processing.

At the same time, I do like to imagine that reading for the sake of reading and consuming for the sake of consuming still has a place in higher education. My fear is that our outcome driven educational practices have tended to privilege outcomes to such an extent that everything becomes process. 

Three Things for Teaching Thursday

We’ve just entered the homestretch of the semester and students (and faculty) have one eye on the summer and one eye on the matters at hand. This always presents a challenging situation for everyone involved, but it also offers an opportunity to think about how to make future classes better and makes it a good time for a teaching Thursday.

Thing the First

One of the first signs in my classes that the semester is no longer working for the students is my attendance drops off. Over the last few years, this has tended to happen pretty rapidly at the week 10 or 11 point and this semester was no exception. The University of North Dakota has long semesters: 16 weeks. And even when I really like a class and the work it is doing, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s plenty of time to reinforce key ideas and methods. On the other hand, the fun of learning something new has a chance to wear pretty thin. We’re definitely at the “wearing thin” part of the semester right now.

A few years ago, I recognized that students tended to lose interest in my classes by week 10 or so. To combat this, I broke my historical methods class into three five-week “courses.” Each course has a different feel to it, a different rhythm, and different goals. While I think this worked to keep my class fresh over the long semester, it also revealed that the problem wasn’t just my class, but the larger rhythm of learning at the institution. Students get ground down by our larger approach to curriculum.

There is a kind of conventional wisdom to this approach. If we assume that part of what college does is to break down student resistance to the paralyzing boredom of life as a cog in the capitalist machine, then our 16-week semester certainly serves its purpose. Even if we assume that the 16-week semester is designed to impart stamina (rather than, necessarily, break down resistance), the duration of the learning experience has less to do with the effective delivery of content and more to do with the goal of college to socialize students and prepare them for the unrelenting grind of adult life. 

That students resist these lessons by absenting themselves from class is not only predictable, but perhaps even laudable. 

Thing the Second

For the last two years, I’ve been a reader for a student creative writing contest. This experience has given me the change to read a remarkable gaggle of work that ranges from the incredibly polished to the spontaneous and surprising (and sometimes cringe-worthy).

One of the main takeaways I get from reading this work is how much contemporary students struggle with grief, loss, pain, and the incredible sadness that suffuses everyday life. The poetry, in particular, often becomes so raw and painful to read that I need to take little breaks and catch my emotional breath. As a college students, I can vividly remember the stress that I felt trying to get work done and navigate personal relationships during the college, but I also remember my college years as generally fun and at times exciting. I see precious little of that fun and excitement in the creative works that I read from this contest. 

Instead, I read about pain and loss and violence (even if a good bit of the violence is comic-book style escapist fantasy). It may be, of course, that students regard anxiety and sadness to be a hallmark of serious writing and a willingness to come to terms and confront adulthood. But that is even more depressing, in some ways, because it suggests that their experiences as students are unworthy of serious consideration. 

I’m thinking more and more about the value of an anthology of student writing not only as an opportunity for both students to share their worlds, but also for faculty to confront the inner life of students.

Thing the Third

I’m very, very close to announcing that I’ll be teaching a class on editing and publishing in the English department next semester. This as yet-unconfirmed class would focus on three things. First, I’d like to invite some “industry folks” to come and talk to the class about the editing and publishing business. Since most of my colleagues are from academic publishing, the course will have a decidedly academic slant.

At the same time, we’d work to shepherd a volume of North Dakota Quarterlythe literary journal that I edit, into production. This would include involving the students in managing the copy edits, putting the contributions in order, reviewing page proofs, and deciding on a cover.

Finally, the class would take on an additional project. I have two in mind. A big project would be preparing an online anthology of NDQ content from the last 90 volumes. This would involve reading through back issues and identifying contributions that stand out. Alternately, it would be very useful to get the last volumes 75-85 digitized and added to the NDQ digital archive. I’ll have to give these two projects a bit of thought over the next few months. 

Three Teaching Things Thursday

It’s just about the middle of the semester, and like most teachers, I’m reflecting on my classes so far this semester. Like always, I try to keep tabs on what works and what doesn’t, but this semester in particular it feels like taking time to reflect on teaching is more significant. Some of this has to do with the ongoing challenges of the COVID era, a bit has to do with teaching four classes, and it mostly has to do with a sense that I’m finally getting a handle on what I do well in the classroom and what makes a different to my students.

Thing the First

One of the most striking aspects of the “Late COVID” era is how energetic students have become in the classroom. Last semester, when the pandemic seemed a bit endless, Zoom participation was still fairly standard, and students seemed to be genuinely struggle with not only classwork but with their mental (and physical) health.

This semester has been a complete reversal. In three of my classes, students are so consistently enthusiastic that they interrupt my lectures not just with the kind of mundane “when is this due again?” kind of questions, but with challenging, probing, and really difficult questions! Not only that, they also engage one another even in my rather old fashioned “lecture+discussion” style classes. It is almost as if the light at the end of the tunnel is finally bright enough for students to come back to life. 

Thing the Second

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading about resistance and survivance in Native American boarding and residential schools. This has got me thinking more seriously about how our students resist in the classroom and across campus. For example, it has been interesting to observe how we’ve moved from a conversation about “no cop shit” to a conversation about how to enforce the university’s mask policies in the class. While I get that the “no cop shit” post was mostly directed toward enforcing petty rules at the risk of big picture classroom goals, I can’t help but wonder how various COVID related policies will change student attitudes toward the university, administrators, and the classroom.

It goes without saying that university life, like school in general, is as much about enforcing bodily discipline as mental habits. While state institutions like mine do not require chapel attendance or military drill or anything like that, the very structure of our classrooms, buildings, and campus encourage students (and faculty) to move and behave in certain ways. Recent large-scale updates to the campus plan include changes to classroom and office spaces, a new student union, and a renovated library. The recent construction of a new buildings that closes off one corner of the central quad and the placement of a raised median strip on a major campus road, will work to channel student movement across campus in new ways. The more open student study and work spaces of the renovated library and new student union have replaced the post-war warrens of individual study carrels in ways that both encourage collaboration and interaction, but also leave students more exposed to view. Recent building renovations have increasing sought to sequester faculty offices from classrooms and to standardize office spaces in ways that establish more rigid divisions between student learning and faculty research, preparation, and academic life. Ideally this might serve as another impetus toward faculty professionalization, but a more cynical reading of this practice would argue that it discourages student-faculty interaction outside of the managed and controlled environment of the classroom. 

Of course, all these changes are occurring at the time when campus is unusually quiet because of the COVID pandemic. The regular turn over of students will normalize these changes to each incoming class. It’s valuable to remember that at the start of next year, the majority of undergraduate students on campus will not remember a time when COVID didn’t shape student life and the new buildings will have always been part of their experience on campus.

A good archaeologist would consider initiating a longitudinal project that documents the material traces of student engagement in their new (and changing) environments. This would examine ways in which students accommodate themselves to these new spaces and ways in which students bend, modify, and adapt these new spaces to their needs. In other words, how will students resist the efforts of campus planners, faculty, and their peers to enforce certain forms of bodily discipline.

Thing the Third

I’m just about done with deadlines and required assignments. This might seem like a standard faculty lament, but I’m starting to seriously reconsider how I plan my classes each semester to minimize my reliance on deadlines to structure the learning environment. I’ve never been a huge fan of deadlines for student work and have moved increasingly toward an “everything is due at the end of the semester” approach with a few internal recommended due dates designed to give students just a bit of structure.  

I’m starting to think seriously about adjusting my classes so that they allow for a greater degree of flexibility for students especially since deadlines seem to be a leading cause of student anxiety.

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

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

Thing the Second   

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

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

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