Teaching in a Pandemic 3: Grades Mean Nothing

(Read previous entries here and here.)

So far, it’s going okay. I have started posting introductions and discussion questions for the blocks of content that my students will be covering for the rest of the spring. Across all my classes, there will be a total of twelve blocks for students to read and respond to. Prepping one block takes me about two solid days of work. I have posted five so far, with seven left to go. Allowing time for housework, fresh air, cooking, and other essential things, I’m probably looking at between two and three weeks more of work to get everything online. Then I’ll be spending the rest of April grading assignments as they come in and keeping an eye of the discussion forums.

Students have started engaging in discussion already. Only a few so far, but that’s understandable. I know everyone is busy right now and it’s going to take people time to get used to new ways of doing things. Responses have been productive. Students are engaging with the ideas I want them to engage with and showing that they have done the new readings and can relate them to ideas we discussed earlier in the semester. That’s as much as I feel I can ask of them right now.

I’m holding virtual meetings with my classes this week via Zoom (videoconferencing service). Not to teach anything new, just to check in with them, go over the procedure for the rest of the semester, and answer their questions. I’ve let everyone know that these meetings are entirely optional, and there will be no negative consequences if they don’t join in. I hope a lot of them will show anyway. I miss seeing them, and I’d like to know that they’re okay.

The big question hanging over all of this is: what will happen to this semester’s grades? As I mentioned last time, the university administration is considering the possibility of shifting to a pass/fail system for this semester, or of giving students the option to individually take courses as pass/fail. Nothing is certain yet, but clarity will hopefully come soon. I’m divided on whether I think it’s a good idea or not. On one hand, there is no way to treat this semester like an ordinary spring or to imagine that the grades students get at the end of it are really comparable to their grades form other semesters. A lot of my students are in difficult situations right now, and going pass/fail might take a burden off their shoulders. On the other hand, implementing such a big change on the fly is going to be a mess, and I worry about people falling through the cracks in a system that none of us have had time to think through and shake the bugs out of.

You see, the secret truth about teaching is: grades mean nothing. Or at least nothing much. A grade is never anything more than your professor’s best attempt to convey to you how well they think you have understood what they were trying to get you to see, and there is no objective way of measuring that. Even in disciplines that have clear right and wrong answers, the decision about what questions to ask is still fraught with human subjectivity. Good and conscientious professors will try to use their grades as a way of communicating honestly with you about what you have accomplished during your time in their class, but the whole thing is an eggshell balanced on top of a rickety shack built on quicksand. You don’t have to stir the sand much before everything breaks.

Let’s hope we don’t break things too badly and we can find a way of doing right by our students.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 2: Students Are Stressed Enough Already

(Read my last entry here.)

Just a day after my last post, the university administration announced that all classes are going online for the rest of the semester, so I have spent much of the past week figuring out how that’s going to work. I started with a few basic principles and worked my way on from there. Here’s what I started from:

  1. Everything sucks right now, and it probably sucks worse for my students than it does for me. I want them to have a meaningful educational experience, but I don’t want to add to the burden of what they’re already dealing with.
  2. Different students are dealing with very different situations right now. Some of them are relatively safe and calm; their lives have not changed much. Others are back in the midst of bad or stressful home lives from which college was an escape. Some of them have plenty of time and technology on their hands; others are lucky to get a few hours to themselves and have a dodgy cellphone connection to the outside world at best. My course needs to work for all of these students.
  3. My students are good students. They want to put in the work that I am asking of them and do well. If they are struggling right now, it is a reflection of their circumstances and the failures of the larger governmental, social, and educational infrastructure they live within, not of their willingness or ability to learn.

Putting these basics together, I have made the following decisions about my courses:

  1. I will not require anyone to be available at any particular time. I will miss our face-to-face interactions in the classroom, but trying to recreate that experience online is doomed to fail and will only put unnecessary stress on my already stressed students.
  2. I will not require any work that depends on having a stable internet connection and plenty of bandwidth. As long as people can get online occasionally, that should be enough.
  3. I will not hold anyone to more stringent due dates than are absolutely necessary for me to be able to fully and thoughtfully review their work before giving grades.

From these fundamentals, I have decided how my online courses will work.

Instead of the rest of the semester being divided into class days with their own readings and assignments, I have divided the remaining content into large blocks organized around a common theme. Each block represents a week or so of what we would have done in class. Students can now do the readings on their own time, and I am writing short introductions (covering the ideas I would have been introducing in class discussion) with broad, open-ended discussion questions attached. These discussion questions are posted online as discussion threads on Canvas (our course management website). Between now and the end of the semester, I am asking every student to make at least two comments in the discussions for each block. Participating in the discussion threads is counted as part of the attendance and participation grade for the course.

In addition to the discussions in the blocks, students have most of the same writing assignments that were scheduled before we moved online, but I am shifting their due dates to the end of the semester, so that everyone can get their work done at their own pace. I have dropped a few assignments that seemed overly burdensome: those that involved library research (because, even though there’s a lot you can do online these days, it seemed like too much pressure), or visiting museums (because, I mean, duh).

These changes have meant rearranging the grading standards for some courses, which is tricky, but I’ve tried to make sure everyone still has plenty of opportunities of getting good grades. The university administration has made some vague noises about shifting courses to pass/fail grading for this semester, but no decision has been made yet. On the one hand, going to pass/fail would make my job a lot easier—I could give most of my students their course grades right now. On the other hand, some of my students have been putting in a lot of time and effort, and it would be sad not to be able to reward them with the grades they’ve earned. Well, we’ll see what comes of it.

I can’t say with any honesty that I know how the rest of this spring is going to go. We’re all making it up as we go along. I have confidence in my students. They are strong, smart, and hard-working, and I want to see every one of them come out of this experience okay.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 1: Nobody Knows Anything

I’ve decided to use this space to chronicle my experience teaching college classes during the covid-19 pandemic. I can’t promise how interesting this will be to anyone else, but here’s a glimpse inside the process.

We’re still in the first few days of the officially-declared pandemic, and nobody knows anything right now. The federal response in the US has been just about useless. Actions at the state and local level have been more coherent, but we still don’t really know what the next few weeks or months are going to look like. Will we be stuck at home? Limiting our social contacts? Returning to business as usual? Lining up for tests? Hunkering down under quarantine?

The university has not been much help either. Classes have been canceled for a week, in addition to spring break, but no one knows what comes next. We’ve been told to prepare for possibly teaching our classes online. Or not. Or only for a few weeks. Maybe. They’ll tell us later. Maybe.

Now, I don’t envy the administrators who have to make the call about whether to massively disrupt thousands of people’s plans for the next two months or to put those same thousands of people at risk of contracting and spreading a deadly virus. I understand why they’re hesitant to make a decision at this point, but it really isn’t possible to make any plans when I have no idea what I should actually be planning for.

In the absence of any clear direction from the top, I’m thinking of making a decision on my own. I’m thinking that I will plan for all my courses to run online for the rest of the semester. Then, if in-person classes do resume, I’ll make them optional, because I know some of my students have personal or family health concerns, and I don’t ever want to put anyone in a position of choosing between their grades and their or their relatives’ health.

The big problem is: how, exactly, do I do that? I have some colleagues who have taught online and done it very well, but their experiences don’t exactly translate: those were planned online courses that they had months to prepare for, and every student knew what they were signing up for. That’s a long way from cobbling together half a course on two weeks’ notice for students who weren’t planning on taking an online course. I have no idea what kind of technology my students have available to them or what their own living situations right now allow in terms of time and resources, and I have never even thought about teaching online until a few days ago.

The one good thing to emerge so far from this confusion is that I have had to spend some time thinking very seriously about what I want students to get out of my classes, so that I can focus any online teaching on those elements. It’s been a useful exercise. Of course, I have spent plenty of time already thinking about what students should take away from my classes (I’m an ancient historian—having to explain to other people why my field is worth studying is an occupational hazard), but I’ve never tried to distill half a course to its fundamental essence before.

I’m teaching three different courses this spring: Classical Tradition (a broad history of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome), History of Rome (from the foundation of the city to the end of the western empire), and Roman Law (an intensive course on legal reasoning—mostly using Frier’s casebook on delict, for those of you who know what that means). Classical Tradition is an introductory-level course mostly for non-majors, History of Rome is a mid-level course with a mix of majors and non-majors, and Roman Law is an advanced course mostly for majors, especially those in the pre-legal track.

We’ve already covered more than half the material for each course. From what’s left, I’ve tried to extract the most important questions I want my students to grapple with:

Classical Tradition: Why did new religious movements, like Christianity, the cult of Isis, Mithraism, and Islam, emerge out of the context of the Roman imperial frontier? Why did some of these movements thrive while others foundered? How did the followers of these movements engage with, repurpose, challenge, or reject the artistic and literary legacy of Greece and Rome?

History of Rome: How did the Roman Empire reach some level of stability in the second century CE? Why did that stability fail in the third century, and why couldn’t it be recovered afterward? What choices did people living in, at the edge of, and outside the empire make in response to these changes?

Roman Law: What’s the most effective way of getting away with murder if your weapon of choice is a live bear?

Okay, I’m kidding about that last one, but not by much—that is exactly the kind of bizarre hypothetical that we often argue over in class. Hard cases, as they say, make bad law, but weird cases are the ones that really show you how the logic of the law works and where its limits lie.

A little more prosaically,

Roman Law: How did the Roman jurists try to construct a logically consistent set of rules that could cope with the vagaries and inconsistencies of Roman society?

Now all I have to do is figure out how to give my students some meaningful way of engaging with these questions online instead of in guided classroom discussions.

I’ll check in later and let you know how it goes.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Deleted Scenes: Greeks and Romans

In the spirit of deleted scenes from movies, here are a few more snippets from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World that didn’t make it to the final draft. Today’s selections concern the relationship between Greek culture and Roman culture, and the formation of the cultural fusion we know as Greco-Roman.

On the Etruscans as early mediators between Greece and Rome:

The fact that Greek culture first came to the Romans second-hand through the Etruscans explains some oddities in things like the spelling of names. It is easier to see how the name of the Greek hero Heracles became Hercules in Roman mouths, for instance, when we know that in between he was the the Etruscans’ Herkle. In the same way, Greek Persephone became Etruscan Persipnei, who in turn became Roman Proserpina.

 

On the dynamics of power and culture:

While Rome’s military supremacy only grew over time, the power to confer cultural legitimacy within the larger Mediterranean political and diplomatic sphere remained for a long time the property of the Greeks. The narrative that power lay in Rome but culture in Greece could be tuned to either side’s advantage: it flattered Roman vanity while giving Greeks a claim to special status under Roman rule.

 

On the similarities between Greece and Rome:

Greek and Roman cultures were compatible in many ways. Both were grounded in the geography of the Mediterranean, tied to its networks of trade and travel, and dependent on the “Mediterranean triad” of wheat, olives, and grapes. The climate and the demands of agriculture imposed regular annual rhythms that structured much of economic and social life. Both were, at least in their formative centuries, city-state societies whose politics revolved around balancing the ambitions of the rich and powerful against agitation from the less well-off. In their early years, their military power depended on unpaid citizen armies. Their economies depended on large slave populations. These fundamental similarities helped bridge the many differences between the two cultures.

 

On the uses of Greco-Roman culture:

There was no denying the imbalance of power between Greeks and Romans. Greco-Roman culture was not a collaboration of equal partners but a common ground on which relations of political power and cultural authority could be negotiated.

All of these passages got cut for various reasons—because the sections they were in got reworked, because I found a better way to express the same idea, or just for space, but it is nice to bring them out into the light again.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Some “Deleted Scenes” from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World

They say good writing is good rewriting. They also say to kill your darlings. Both are good pieces of advice. The process of writing involves a lot of false starts, changes, and reworkings. Sometimes it means having to let go of something you worked hard on, that you like, but that just doesn’t serve the needs of your project.

In writing my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, I had to kill a lot of darlings. A lot of text just got deleted and rewritten, but sometimes I had to cut out things I liked and was happy with, but that just didn’t belong in the book as written or that I had found better ways to express. In those cases, rather than delete the the text entirely, I cut and pasted it into a separate file to save just in case I decided to put it back in future revisions, or maybe to some day develop into its own project. That file ended up being longer than any of the actual chapters in the book.

In the spirit of DVDs with deleted scenes from movies, I present to you a few choice bits that didn’t make it into Barbarians, but that I still think are worthwhile on their own.

On the significance of the Greco-Persian Wars in later Greek culture:

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus was a giant of classical literature. He was the first author to put multiple characters on the stage at once, thus introducing conflict and inventing Greek drama as we know it. He won the Athenian dramatic competition thirteen times and was praised for his compositions by both contemporaries and later generations. But when he died his epitaph celebrated only one achievement: he fought at Marathon. Such was the importance of the wars against Persia in the later history of Greece.

On the connections between Persia and Macedonia:

Alexander trod the path that had been laid down by Cyrus the Younger generations before. He had grown up in a Macedonian court that hosted Greek intellectuals and Persian exiles. The similarities between Cyrus and Alexander’s campaigns are hardly accidental. Both were efforts from the edge of the Persian world to capture the center. Alexander may have started his campaign farther away from that center than Cyrus did, but the ties of politics, diplomacy, and personal relationships that connected Macedonia to Persia were just as strong as those to ran through Anatolia and Greece.

On the shifting definitions of Greekness:

In other words, although both ideas always had some currency, in earlier times it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they were descended from Greeks, while by the later fourth century it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they acted like Greeks.

On the political ramifications of culture in the Hellenistic world:

Behind all of these complicated relationships was a fundamental political fact: Macedonian kings now ruled most of the territory of the old Persian empire. These kings and their supporters in the ruling class had chosen to identify themselves with Greek culture. In the past, some Greeks had exercised power over non-Greek populations—particularly in major colonial cities like Syracuse and Massilia—but never on this scale. Now vast new populations had to come to terms with the linking of political power and Greek culture. Their responses ranged from resistance to collaboration to indifference. The Greeks in these kingdoms also had to come to terms with new ways of being Greek.

None of these cultural innovations could erase the boundaries of status and privilege that the Greco-Macedonian ruling class had erected between itself and the peoples over whom it ruled. As in many more recent colonial contexts, the rigid enforcement of cultural lines may itself have given impetus to the reinvention of the cultures of both the rulers and the ruled. When being “Greek” was the key to social and political advancement, it is no surprise that some people looked for novel ways of being Greek while others strove to reassert the value of not being Greek.

All of these selections got cut for good reasons, but it’s a pleasure to be able to share them with you now.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Reconstructing an Ancient Andean Structure Block by Block

The basin of Lake Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru, is one of the few places in the world where large-scale, complex societies have developed independently, out of contact with other, earlier large-scale societies. Between about 500 and 1000 CE, the people who lived at the site of Tiwanaku, on the modern-day Bolivian shore, built a number of megalithic structures using highly accurate stonecutting to fit together enormous blocks of intricately carved stone.

Remains at Pumapunku, a site associated with Tiwanaku. Photograph by Brattarb via Wikimedia

 

In the past millennium and a half, these structures have been the victims of neglect, colonial looting, and reconstruction efforts driven more by the impetus to create suitably impressive national monuments than by archaeological evidence. As a result of these pressures, the various Tiwanaku structures are now in a very poor state and it is difficult to know how they were originally put together, what they looked like, or how they were used.

Now a team of archaeologists has brought a new approach to the problem. Working with the site known as Pumapunku, or the Gate of the Puma, they used data from earlier efforts to measure and reconstruct the surviving stones at the site to create small 3D printed blocks with a high degree of precision. These small blocks could be quickly and easily reassembled to test various ways of reconstructing the site and find a reconstruction that fit the original pieces together. Theories that are impossible to test on the ground, given the enormous size of the stone blocks and the fragile condition of the site, were easy to try out with the scale model blocks.

Working with printed blocks to reconstruct Pumapunku. Photograph from Alexei Vranich “Reconstructing Ancient Architecture at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: The Potential and Promise of 3D Printing,” Heritage Science 6 (2018), accessible here under Creative Commons

 

This experiment yielded some important new results. Where earlier archaeologists had reconstructed sections of what they believed to be a single long wall, the team discovered that those sections actually fit together better to create a rectangular enclosure, similar to some other, earlier sites in the region which can now be looked to as a basis for better understanding Pumapunku.

As a historian, I’m excited by the potential this new approach offers to archaeologists for reconstructing damaged or poorly preserved structures. As someone who used to spend hours playing with Legos, I’m thrilled to see such interesting applications for plastic bricks!

Updated for proofreading errors

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

A Pumpkin Primer

I grew up with pumpkins. As a child I picked them myself from our neighborhood farm or from my mother’s garden. We carved jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween and had pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dessert. While pumpkins are native to North America and are widely grown here, the popularity of “pumpkin spice” products (which typically contain no actual pumpkin) and the spread of Halloween traditions from the United States have led to pumpkins becoming more available elsewhere in the world. So, for those of you who may have encountered pumpkins for the first time in recent years and been somewhat at loss for what to do with them, here’s a short introduction from someone who grew up with them.

About pumpkins

Pumpkins are a variety of winter squash. In American English, “pumpkin” typically refers to large, orange or yellow squashes with vertical ribs. In other regions, the word applies to winter squashes more widely. Pumpkins tend to be sweeter than other varieties of winter squash, but for most cooking purposes, you can substitute one kind of winter squash for any other.

Pumpkins grow on sprawling vines on the ground. Some varieties are bred to grow larger than others, but you will usually find pumpkins sold in four sizes for three different purposes: decorative (large), carving, sugar, and decorative (small).

Decorative

Either small enough to fit in your palm or gigantic monsters, these pumpkins are just meant for autumnal decoration around the house or on your front steps. The small ones are too small to carve, while the big ones are often irregularly shaped, having slumped under their own weight while growing. Neither is particularly good for cooking, but you’re welcome to try and see what you come up with.

Carving

Early migrants from the British Isles brought their traditions of carving lanterns out of various root vegetables to their colonies on the coast of North America, where they learned to grow the native squashes from the indigenous peoples. Pumpkins soon became the favored vegetable for the fall custom.

The classic jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are about the size of your head or larger. Their flesh tends to be stringy, watery, and not very good for cooking.

To carve a jack-o’-lantern, start by setting the pumpkin on a flat surface and deciding which side will make the best face. (Pumpkins are often a little lopsided with one half larger or more rounded the other, because of how they lie on the ground while growing.) Next sketch out a face you like with a pencil, marker, or just by making shallow cuts with the tip of a knife.

When you are satisfied with the face, cut the top off in a circle large enough to get your hand in comfortably. It’s a good idea to cut a small diamond-shaped notch half into the top and half into the body of the pumpkin to help you line up the top correctly when putting it back on. Scoop out the seeds and strings from the interior with a large spoon. (Save the seeds if you want to roast them; there’s not much use for the stringy bits.) Scrape away a bit of the flesh on the bottom to make a stable base for the candle.

Carve out the face with a small, sharp knife. In accordance with the principle of “measure twice, cut once,” it’s a good idea to start cutting out the holes a little smaller than you marked them, since you can make them bigger as you go, but not smaller. Once you have all your holes cut through the wall of the pumpkin, cut back the flesh from the inside to widen the holes and allow more light through. It can also help to scrape away at the flesh on the inner surface to make it thinner. (Basically, wherever you have cut through the pumpkin should be wider on the inside than on the outside.)

Take the carved jack-o’-lantern into a darkened room and shine flashlight down through the open top to see how the light comes through and whether there are any places where you need to cut away more of the flesh to get the effect you want. When ready to display, light a tea light or other small candle and put it inside the pumpkin (on a small dish, if you want easier cleanup or worry about the candle burning down), put the top back on, and enjoy!

Once carved, a jack-o’-lantern will only be at its best for a few days, a week at most. Then, as the flesh dries, it will start to shrivel and crumple in on itself. If you want yours to look its best, carve no more than a week before Halloween (or whenever you want to display it).

Sugar

Sugar pumpkins are roughly the size of your head or a little smaller. They are grown to have the best flavor and consistency.

You can peel a raw pumpkin with a sturdy paring knife and cut the flesh into chunks to boil or steam, but I find the best way to prepare pumpkin for cooking is to roast it in halves.

Snap or cut off the stem and split a pumpkin vertically with a small sharp knife. Scoop out the seeds and strings. Save the seeds if you want to roast them. Lay the pumpkin halves cut side up in a shallow baking pan lined with foil or baking parchment. Roast at 400 F / 200 C for 30-45 minutes or until the flesh is soft and the halves no longer hold their shape. (You can also steam pumpkin by setting the halves cut side down in a baking dish with a little water in the bottom.) Let the pumpkin cool until safe to handle. The skin will peel easily away from the flesh, though you may need to cut around the split edges with the tip of a knife. Puree the flesh.

Roasting pumpkin seeds is easy. Separate the seeds from the strings, toss the seeds with a little vegetable oil and salt, spread them out in a pan, and roast them at 400 F / 200 C for about 15 minutes or until they are a nice golden brown. They make a good crunchy snack.

Once you have your roasted pumpkin, here are a couple of my favorite recipes for using it.

New England pumpkin pie

One pumpkin will yield about two pies with this recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 unbaked pie shell
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup / 1 dl brown sugar
  • 1 cup / 2 dl milk (soy and almond substitutes work fine)
  • 1 ½ cups / 3 ½ dl roasted pumpkin
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 475 F / 250 C.
  2. Prepare the pie shell.
  3. Beat the eggs lightly.
  4. Add the salt, brown sugar and milk and mix well.
  5. Add the pumpkin and spices and mix well.
  6. Pour the mixture into the pie shell.
  7. Bake at 475 F / 250 C for 15 minutes.
  8. Reduce heat to 325 F / 150 C and continue to bake for another 45 minutes or until the filling is well set.
  9. Let cool and serve with whipped cream, or serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Pumpkin apple beef stew

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • A pinch of pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 pound / ½ kilo stew beef
  • 1 onion
  • 2 potatoes
  • 4 carrots
  • 2 large apples
  • Pureed flesh of one pumpkin
  • 2 cups / 5 dl beef stock
  • 1 cup / 2 dl dark beer

Directions

  1. Blend the flour, salt and pepper in a bowl.
  2. Cut the beef into cubes and roll them in the flour mixture.
  3. Melt the butter in the bottom of a large, heavy pot and brown the beef cubes.
  4. Roughly chop the onion. Peel and roughly chop the carrots and potatoes. Core, peel, and roughly chop the apples. Add them all to the pot.
  5. Add the pumpkin, stock, and beer to the pot.
  6. Let simmer over low heat for two hours or until the beef is soft and the root vegetables thoroughly cooked through.

Happy fall!

Images: Pumpkins, photography by Infrogmation via Wikimedia. Winking Halloween pumpkin inside – 2014-10-31, photograph by Tim Evans via Flickr. Pumpkin pie, photograph by distopiandreamgirl via Flickr.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Gleaned from Bodleian Libraries Workshop on Ultramarine Blue

Did you know that the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have a Tumblr micro blog? I didn’t until just recently. And oh my, it’s a treasure trove!

Bodleian Libraries Ultramarine Young Man Blue Rock Bodl MS Elliott 287 fol34a

A short post gives a few tantalising details on lapis lazuli, the mineral that was ground down to get bright blue pigment for example for illuminating Medieval manuscripts:

“In his travels Marco Polo vividly described the cold province of Badakhshan, a prosperous land where horses that descended from Alexander’s horse Bucephalus were once bred and where priceless rubies and the finest lapis lazuli were found.

“Since ancient times lapis lazuli has been sourced in this remote region, north-east of modern Afghanistan, and exported over vast distances. Its mines on the steep Hindu Kush Mountains, above the Valley of the Kokcha River, can only be reached through a tortuous and dangerous route.

“Lapis lazuli consists of a large number of minerals, including the blue mineral lazurite, the white mineral calcite and golden specks of iron pyrites.

“A laborious process transforms this composite mineral into the pigment ultramarine; various grades of ultramarine can be obtained, from the purest extremely expensive deep blue, composed mostly of lazurite particles to the pale grey so-called ultramarine ash.”

 

Tumblr Bodleian Libraries Ultramarine Workshop Screencap

The conservators at Bodleian (Anita Chowdry, David Margulies and Marinita Stiglitz) learned how to make pigment from scratch in a two-day workshop, and shared their notes in a longer post.

Bodleian Libraries Ultramarine Detail Bodl MS Arab d98 fol1b

Both the historical process and conservators’ efforts are fascinating! Did you know, for instance, that before explosives were developed, lapis lazuli was mined with the help of large fires and cold water?

Visit the Tumblr post for more photos, and read more in the Bodleian blog post “Exploring Ultramarine”.

Found via MedievalPOC on Tumblr.

Images via Bodleian Libraries: Young man picks a blue rock, Bodleian Library, MS. Elliott 287, fol. 34a. Workshop image collage screencapped from Tumblr. Detail of Bodleian Library, MS. Arab. d. 98, fol. 1B.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Eppu’s Worldcon 75 Highlights

A random assortment of memorable moments, thoughts, views, and quotes from our time at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

From the panel: Always Connected, It’s Mandatory with Effie Seiberg, Fred C. Moulton, Jo Lindsay Walton, Kristina K., and Tommi Helenius

  • I missed who said it and whether there were further details, but one panelist mentioned a study with the finding that merely having a cell phone on your desk, even if it’s off, lowers your ability to concentrate by about 20 percent.

The tidbit certainly gives food for thought. If true, it gives an added bonus my decision to keep my phone out the way on a small side table. Phone out of direct line of sight: +2 to concentration roll!

From the panel: Pronouns, Who Needs Gender Pronouns with Cenk Gokce, Johanna Sinisalo, Catherine Lundoff, Kelvin Jackson, and John Chu

  • Johanna Sinisalo shared a story from producing the freebie anthology given to congoers, Giants at the End of the World. The translator for a story she was editing asked the gender of a very minor character that passes by in the background in order to use the correct pronoun, so she passed the question on to the author. Their reply was: “Who knows?”
  • John Chu continued on the effect that grammatical details like that have on thinking: in English you have to specify, whereas in languages that have different pronoun systems, speakers may specify the gender of their characters.
  • There was an audience comment on the 3rd person singular pronoun it used of people (in reference to a panelist who remarked that that’s possible in some dialectal uses in some languages). In the commenter’s view, people want to contain multitudes, and using it of people would be taking something away.

Clearly, defining characters’ gender matters greatly to some people and not so much to others (like the “Who knows?” Finnish author). Of course, not all writing nor all works of fiction are or should be the same, or created for the same purpose. For example, when the mood takes me, I’m delighted to read fluffy comfort lit that at other times would drive me to distraction. I think the variety that exists is fantastic, and limiting our expressions—especially in speculative fiction—is, well, limiting. We as a species do indeed contain multitudes.

Instagram Lada ladule_b W75 Fandom Is Family

Autographs: I got my copy of Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff signed.

Maresi w Author Autograph

From the panel: Editor’s Dream with Thoraiya Dyer, Masumi Washington, Katrina Archer, and Robert S. Malan

  • Katrina Archer, a Canadian copyeditor who works with both Canadian and American writers, mentioned that she creates a style sheet for each individual story. She includes, among others, notes on word selections (in consultation with the authors) and the dictionary and spellings used.

Self-evident, when you think about the pragmatics of editing. I’m going to steal that idea to apply for my various projects.

From the panel: Reviewing 101 with Juan Sanmiguel, Markku Soikkeli, John Clute, and Fred Lerner

  • Fred Lerner, by his own description “a recovering librarian” (yay librarians!), quoted Sturgeon’s Law (to the effect of: 90% of everything is crap) and noted that it therefore follows 10% is of use, so if a reviewer cannot find that 10% maybe they should do something different.

I’ll have to try and remember this. Not that I review things that often, but to vet other reviewers. (Also, note to self, a related critique panel mentioned Mary Robinette’s method which I believe is the one she tweets about here.)

In the exhibits hall: On guest of honor Nalo Hopkinson’s table, a puzzle featuring her book covers had been set out for passersby to work on. Irresistible! And a really inventive, unintrusive promo method.

Patreon Nalo Hopkinson W75 Book Cover Puzzle

Made it: There’s photographic proof I was at Worldcon!

From the panel: Jack of All Trades, Master of Several with Carl, Roseanne Rabinowitz, and Jani Saxell

  • Carl remarked that “external brains” (=tech) can help us branch out because looking up information is very easy.
  • Jani Saxell noted that as SF operates at the edges of the new and strange, you cannot prepare for everything; there should be a place for generalists in SFnal stories.

As a Jill of Many Trades myself, I found the topic fascinating. I’d note that finding information may have gotten much easier, but a lot still depends on an individual’s ability to sift the useful from useless and absorbing the appropriate bits.

Seen in person: We’ve streamed it a few times before, so we knew the routine, but it was surprisingly exciting to be able to attend the Hugo Awards ceremony.

Instagram writer_aki Aki Parhamaa W75 Hugo Awards

Seen in person: I also had several nice random meetings with both old friends (some of whom I haven’t seen in over 15 years) and new-to-me people. For example, on Friday we saw a Finnish journalist and fan Jussi Ahlroth on morning tv talking about the con and later that day actually met him. Cool. 🙂

Speaking of cool: Did you know that John Howe (yes, THAT John Howe!) was at Worldcon?!?

Instagram writer_aki Aki Parhamaa W75 John Howe

From the panel: Older Women in Genre Fiction with Catherine Lundoff, Delia Sherman, Liisa Rantalaiho, and Helena McCallum

  • The panel noted among other things that women’s bodily needs aren’t usually present in stories. Older women don’t have to deal with e.g. menstruation, but they do have physical ailments due to age. Elizabeth Moon was mentioned as someone who is great at describing the difficulty of getting going in the morning, for example. The panelists also talked about how, just like in real life, older women in stories are often hiding in plain sight (i.e., ignored).
  • Liisa Rantalaiho noted: Older women have sex.

Another fascinating panel through and through. Elizabeth Moon’s name came up in other panels, too; clearly I need to look her up.

Seen in person: Speaking of looking people up, I found a few other new-to-me authors and artists to try. I often do that if I like what someone’s said at a panel or program item.

The end is nigh: At some point during the con, signs for marking the end of the line (when queueing into program rooms) appeared for people to hold up and pass on. Of course it would’ve been nicer if long lines hadn’t happened at all, but it was a practical and humorous solution to an annoying facilities problem.

Instragram Tiina Vastamaa tiinatupuna W75 End of Line Please Queue Here

From the panel: Gender and “Realistic History” with Cheryl Morgan, Thomas Årnfelt, Gillian Pollack, Jo Walton, and Scott Lynch

  • Jo Walton said that women are left out when canons get formed; if you go looking for women in extant documents, they are there.
  • Thomas Årnfelt mentioned a few examples of women’s occupations gleaned from 12th c. Parisian tax documents: various positions in food and textile industries, barber, goldsmith, locksmith, and night guard, among others.
  • Cheryl Morgan talked about how people have been constructing gender(s) in many various ways in history / around the world. E.g. beer brewing and tavern keeping are now seen as male professions, when in fact they were purely women’s work at one point. Another example she gave is that a man couldn’t work in Nelson’s army (or Napoleon’s?? can’t make out my handwriting) if he didn’t know how to sew.

Lively discussion and many, many examples. I kept missing references writing down others. I wish this panel had been videotaped!

Seen in person: A live astronaut. All three presentations / panels with Kjell Lindgren were fascinating! Here’s the video of The Kjell & Jenny Show: A NASA Astronaut and his PAO where Kjell talks about the astronaut selection and preparation process.

The Kjell & Jenny Show: A NASA Astronaut and his PAO by Worldcon 75

Once upon a time on a lunch break: I ate at the Messukeskus Hesburger fast food joint (also fondly known as Hese) purely out of nostalgia. And was proud of myself, both as a Finn and an introvert, for sharing a table and a conversation with a total stranger. I don’t typically do that. At the same place my top half was also, memorably but unfortunately, splattered with hot chocolate. Oh well. Accidents happen, and I wasn’t scalded.

From the panel: Pullantuoksuinen – Writing While Multilingual with Nina Niskanen, Aliette de Bodard, Emmi Itäranta, Ken Liu, and Jakob Drud

  • Emmi Itäranta commented that juggling two languages simultaneously is sometimes a hindrance (if you find a fantastic phrase in one language but not the other), but it also makes you a better writer because it forces you to be more specific in your meaning.
  • Ken Liu noted that it’s perhaps more important to explain a cultural concept for yourself than the audience.

I have a bad habit of code-switching out of pure sloth with Erik since he knows Finnish so well. Perhaps I ought to try and stick to one language at a time. Apart from making puns; that I won’t give up. 😀

From the panel: On the Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters with Fiona Moore, Carrie Patel, Mur Lafferty, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and Diana ben-Aaron

  • “Knowing why characters exist tends to make them flat. Try not to know that.”

Really great quote. If you know who said it, please let me know! (Jo Walton???)

Another choice quote:

“I liked the way everyone was pleasant and polite. Panelists seemed to get along well with each other, even when they disagreed. Audiences seemed appreciative. The whole thing was good, low-tension fun. I sometimes think the discussions on the Internet leave people with a really wrong idea of what the experience of attending a convention is like. Problems are few, attitudes are positive, and people laugh and smile a lot.”

– Greg Hullender commenting at File 770

There were problems, and I witnessed some true clueless behavior first hand, but on the whole I agree with Greg. I saw so many examples of people greeting each other, sharing small moments of connection, helping each other out in general, troubleshooting tech issues, sharing tips and smiles, and giving up their seats to those who needed it or who might enjoy a panel more. Fandom definitely is my family. ❤

From the panel: Book Blogs with Cora Buhlert, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Shaun Duke, and Thomas Wagner

  • Shaun Duke of The Skiffy and Fanty Show (I think—please correct me if I’m attributing this to the wrong person) said some authors don’t seem to understand how the Internet works. Apparently he’s chosen not to review some people because he’s seen how they’ve treated other fans and reviewers online.

Yup. Rep gets around.

160204dingy

Images: Fandom Is Family by Lada (ladule_b) via Instagram. Maresi by Eppu Jensen. Nalo Hopkinson puzzle by Nalo Hopkinson via Patreon. Art of the Snapshot panel audience by Baron Dave Romm (david_e_romm) via Instagram. Hugo Awards ceremony collage by Aki Parhamaa (writer_aki) via Instagram. John Howe by Aki Parhamaa (writer_aki) via Instagram. End of Line by Tiina Vastamaa (tiinatupuna) via Instragram. Dingy bird via MTV.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Erik’s Worldcon 75 Highlights

A random assortment of memorable moments, thoughts, and quotes from our time at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

From the presentation: Crackpot Archaeology in Scandinavia by Martin Rundkvist

  • One of the distinguishing traits of the crackpot is the insistence on finding meaning in every discernible pattern. To the crackpot, randomness is never acceptable.

(This is a particularly useful observation for me as a historian who works on areas and periods where we have extremely limited evidence. When evidence is so scarce, it is tempting to squeeze as much meaning as we can out of every text or artifact. Sometimes we just have to accept the randomness.)

From the workshop: Beyond the Great Wall of Europe: Worldbuilding for Non-European Settings by Jenn Lyons

  • In this workshop, we were divided up into small groups and assigned to come up with various aspects of worldbuilding for a hypothetical fantasy world. The group assigned to government (which I was not part of) described a society of small scattered bands without permanent leadership who pull together in times of crisis and select a temporary leader. Their ideas were based on certain Native American societies of the northeastern woodlands and gave a fairly accurate description of how societies at that scale historically tended to operate. Some other folks in the room—including the workshop leaders—critiqued them based on a European colonial misunderstanding of native North American cultures.

(It was a good reminder of how difficult it can be, even with the best of intentions, to think ourselves out of Eurocentric traditions—and why it might have been a good idea to spend a little more time working through what we mean by “European.”)

From the panel: Non-Binary Representation with Nick Hubble, D Franklin, and Nino Cipri

  • Non-binary characters in fiction written by binary authors have a tendency to feel like thought experiments rather than people.

From the panel: Editor’s Dream with Thoraiya Dyer, Masumi Washington, Katrina Archer, and Robert S. Malan

  • Always follow the submission guidelines!

(As someone who has coordinated academic conferences, I cannot agree with this strongly enough!)

From the panel: Asexuality in SF with Todd Allis, Kat Kourbeti, and Jo Walton

  • The portrayal of asexuality in fiction tends to be gendered. Female asexual characters are often portrayed as inexperienced, with the assumption that she will blossom into sexuality once she finds the right person, while male asexual characters are often portrayed as quirky, damaged, or focused on obsessions that leave no room for romantic love.

From the presentation: Logic of Empire: Economics of Colonialism in Fantastic Fiction by Jesper Stage

  • North America in the age of European colonialism was a real post-apocalyptic setting, once European diseases had wiped out over 90% of the native population.

(I’ve never thought of it in those terms, but it’s one of the most apt descriptions I’ve ever heard.)

From a panel presenter whose name I didn’t catch, when the audience let him know they couldn’t hear him:

  • “You’re different to English audiences; they just sit quietly and complain at the end.”

From the panel Loses Something in the Translation: Conveying Humor, Idioms, and Cultural Concepts across Languages with Gili Bar-Hilel, Shaoyan Hu, Elena Pavlova, Dirk van den Boom, and Mirka Sillanpää

A few choice quotes:

  • “Writing something funny is actually very serious and hard work.”
  • “Toilet jokes work in most languages”
  • “As you know, Germans are not funny.”

From the panel: Fantasy Worldbuilding without Ableism with Fran Wilde, Marieke Nijkamp, Likhain, Nalo Hopkinson, and Leon Adams

  • Disability can be a too-easy go-to for authors who want to make a hero “unlikely” without engaging with the reality of living with disability.
  • What counts as a disability depends on context. Issues that are trivial to us, such as eyesight problems that are easily corrected with glasses, could be serious disabilities in a world without that technology. On the other hand, dyslexia, which is a challenge in the highly literate modern world, would be trivial in a world without writing.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.