Three Things Thursday: New Book, Teaching, and

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

Thing the First

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

Here’s the blurb:

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

Stay tuned for a landing page!

Thing the Second

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Sevareid, and Rolex

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

Thing the Second

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

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

Check it out here.

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

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

Thing the Second 

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

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

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

Thing the Third   

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

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

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

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

Thing the First 

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

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

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

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

Thing the Second  

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

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

Teaching Thursday: Hybrid, HyFlex, Blues

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

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

That all being said, this model sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Thursday: Preparing a Portfolio

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

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

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

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

 

History 503: Advanced Historical Methods and Portfolio Preparation

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

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

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

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

Course Objectives

1. Demonstrate advanced skills in written academic communication.

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

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

4. Reflect critically on the research and writing process.

Requirements

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

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

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

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

Required Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Guides (optional)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zinsser, W. On Writing Well. HarperCollins 2016.

Schedule

Week 1: The History of Academic Writing
Grafton
Novick

Week 2: Contemporary Perspectives
McDonald
Clark

Week 3: Writing with Style
Hayot
Dreyer

Week 4: Writer’s Block and Affective Writing
Cvetkovich

Week 5: Writing and Reviewing Generously
Fitzpatrick

Week 6: Failure
Graham

Week 7: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 8: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 9: Workshop
Paper 1

Week 10: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 11: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 12: Workshop
Paper 2

Week 13: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 14: Workshop
Paper 3

Week 15: Workshop
Paper 3

 

 

Writing Clearly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things Thursday: Poetry, Cities, and Teaching

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

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

Thing the Second 

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: Teaching and The COVIDs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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