Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

Teaching Tuesday: Introducing World History

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

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

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

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

1. Space.

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

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

2. Time.

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

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

3. Causality.

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

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

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

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

More on this soon!

Teaching Tuesday: Non-Linear World History

I’ll admit from the start that this is not a very well considered idea. In the fall, I’m teaching a new class, which is probably ill-advised during the Time of COVIDs. Also, I’m teaching a class that I’m manifestly unqualified to teach: the first half of World History, which I believe is World History until 1500. 

Finally, I think I really want to do something unorthodox with the class.

I want to teach the course in such a way that de-emphasizes the standard narrative and interpretative practices that tend to frame how we approach the past. As many scholars have shown, our interest in linear history, causality, and chronology tend to privilege European and Mediterranean approaches to the past (e.g. narratives that are often regarded as “Western”). These, naturally, tend to privilege European and Mediterranean perspectives on the “World” and support problematic approaches to the past that emphasize colonialism, progress, and culminate in modern, democratic, capitalism.

Instead, I’d like to emphasize things, experiences, flows, and critical views of temporality and chronology.

This is all just back of the napkin stuff at present, but I’ll keep writing because, you know, it’s what I do.

The first step is that I want to pull together as many open educational resources as possible for World History prior to 1500.

Introduction: Time

The first module will be a critique of linear time and the notion of progress and ask students to think critically about how they understand time (both on a micro and macro level) and to explore how other people think about time. This is partly inspired by Braudel’s view of multiple temporalities.

The learning goal is to get a bit of separation between their idea of history, the past, and time. 

The Environment

This module will start by asking students to think a bit about Lake Agassiz and its role in global climate. We can just as easily talk of thinks like El Niño or the Holocene Climate Optimum. Students will look for evidence of climate, resources, and other environmental situations (from the land bridge to volcanic eruptions, the Early Byzantine or 12th Century Seismic Paroxysm, or seasonal flooding). 

The learning goal will be to understand a range of environmental situations as co-constitutive of historical events, institutions, and relationships. 

Energy

This section owes itself to Manual De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History with its emphasis on flows and energy. Getting students to think critically about what constitutes energy in a society and to find examples of energy in the resources provided. 

The learning goal is for students to understand more broadly resource extraction regimes on a global scale and to reflect on this diversity.

Love

This is where things will get a bit more challenging. My hope is that students feel comfortable enough with exploring the abstract idea of energy across different societies that they can take this method and apply it to the equally abstract concept of love.

The learning goals for this chapter to push students to realize that concepts like love offer avenues for legitimate historical analysis. 

Violence 

The final module in the course is perhaps the most tradition. It will focus on incidents of violence in the past and consider how violence shaped the organization of society in ways that are not limited to the emergence of  state. By taking the notion that abstract concepts like energy and love can provide lenses to understand the past, the hope is students can find new ways to think about violence. 

After some conversations on social media, there were some other concepts that I could easily imagine including in the course. Below are just a few on my scratch pad:

Place
The Other
Belief
Gender
Sex
Death
Fun

The course will have weekly quizzes which mostly ensure students engage with material between classes and begin to think about the subject of each module before they come into class on a given week. 

The course will also require two individual papers that reflect on the way in which nonlinear approaches to the past open new ways of thinking about human society. One will be due at the midterm and the other at the final. We will set aside time in class for groups to prepare outlines for the paper, but individuals will have to write their own papers.

The main graded work will be group oriented and focus on four group assignments. At the start of the class, the students will be given four ways to approach reporting on their topics:

1. Texts. This will involve a 1000 word essay that presents a particular text that is significant for a particular topic. This will involve offering some historical context for the text and demonstrating clearly how it relates to the module.

2. Objects. This will involve identifying 5 objects from a museum and writing a 200 word analysis of each object that relates it to the module.

3. Events. This involves identifying 5 events from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of each event that relates it to the module.

4. Individuals. This involves identifying 5 individuals from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of how these individuals related to the module.

Most of the work for each module will take place over three days in the classroom where students will prepare their group reports, outline individual essays, and prepare brief presentations to share with their fellow students.