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.

A Note to Future Historians

I’ve just been going through my expenses for the past month, comparing receipts and my notes with my bank statements and that sort of thing. Among my other expenses are a number of cases where I have lumped together a few separate expenses in my notes, or I’ve added tips left in cash to the figures I record having paid with a card, or subtracted rebates, or other inconsistencies like that. The experience has made me think of all the furious academic debates that have been sparked because of small inconsistencies in our written sources, and I feel bad for any future historian who comes across my financial records and tries to make sense of them.

Future historians, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. I know my spreadsheets are incomprehensible, but I wrote them for myself, not for you, and they make sense to me. Anyway, I’m sure you have more important and interesting sources to read for 2020, like Twitter and British tabloids.

Good luck!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Top Five Posts for 2019

That’s 2019 done and dusted. Here are this year’s posts that got the most views:

  1. Behind the Name: Erebor Erik’s post about the possible linguistic roots behind Erebor, the Lonely Mountain of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
  2. Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC Eppu’s post on the exhibit in early 2019 including letters, photographs, and other documents related to Tolkien’s life and work.
  3. Disney Princess Cosplayers Wearing Mandalorian Armor Eppu’s post sharing some creative cosplay blending Disney princesses with Star Wars bounty hunters.
  4. An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe Eppu’s post on a writing system inspired by the look of bricks in a wall.
  5. The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse Eppu’s post sharing an image of a beautiful prehistoric carving of a horse.

Some of our old posts remain perennial favorites, too. Here are the overall top five Co-Geeking posts that people viewed in 2019:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator Erik’s name-generating technique from back in 2015 still gets a lot of attention. Apparently a lot of you out there are still making up names for things!
  2. Custom is King Erik’s translation of a favorite passage from Herodotus’ Histories, posted in 2017.
  3. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging Eppu’s post about a home-made version of the moon-phase dueling cloth from Harry Potter, posted in 2016.
  4. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian Eppu’s 2015 post on Finland’s Yle News interview with the delightful Sean Bean on the Lord of the Rings joke in The Martian. Such a treat, and still well worth watching today.
  5. Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb Erik’s post from 2017 about the multicultural connections of a wall painting from ancient Etruria.

Thanks, all, for coming by this year. We hope you’ll drop in again in 2020.

Messing with numbers is messy.

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.

Four Years of Co-Geeking

We’ve been keeping Co-Geeking going for four years now, and it’s still as much fun as when we started back in 2015. Here’s a quick look back at the past year.

 

Our favorite posts

Eppu:

My favorite post from the past year is not a major one, but it was delightful to write: the comparison of Dalaran cupola library in World of Warcraft to real-world libraries. I’m so used to libraries with regular ranks of shelves and perpendicular walkways that doing a search on rounded shapes made for a very nice departure.

Erik:

It may be self-serving of me, but my favorite post from the past year is still the preview of my book, Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World. That project was a big part of my life for several years. It took a lot of work and I can’t help being proud of the result.

 

Our favorite geeky thing that happened in the past year

Erik:

Battle for Azeroth. The latest expansion to World of Warcraft has had its ups and downs, but on the whole I’ve found it very enjoyable. Gorgeous landscape design, new and different gear for transmogging, and chatty turtle people have all enlivened my gaming time this past year.

Eppu:

Of the things I’ve talked about here, my favorite thing is the release of two Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movies with women up and front: Ant-Man and the Wasp plus Captain Marvel. Mind you, both movies do have their problems, but they nevertheless have the most successful treatment of female characters Marvel has put out to date. (Outside of Black Panther, of course.)

Pandemic Breaking Out New Boardgame

Also, we were introduced to the cooperative board game Pandemic. If you haven’t tried it, it’s about a team of various scientists and experts (2 to 4 players, with 5 possible specialist roles) racing to find a cure to 4 virulent diseases that have broken out throughout the world. It’s challenging but fun. (And apprently there’s a computer version of Pandemic on Steam!)

 

We hope you’ll be with us for another year of Co-Geeking.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Quotes: Cribbage Boards Are as Common as Wooden Spoons

Cribbage boards are as common as wooden spoons in the kitchens of this island. Children raised in this part of Maine often learn to play cribbage before the can tie their own shoes.

Linda Greenlaw writes about Isle Au Haut, Maine, not far from where one part of my family has its roots in the rocky coastal soil. This was one of many parts of the book that had me nodding in recognition. I can’t honestly say whether I learned to play cribbage (a curious card game for which you keep score on a wooden board) or tie my shoes first, but I can say that I don’t clearly remember a time in my life when I couldn’t do both.

Greenlaw, Linda. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island. New York: Hyperion, 2002, p. 111.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

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.

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!

I’m the kind of geek you can (within reason) egg on to doing something by saying most people don’t act in a particular way or do whatever it is you’re describing.

Case in point: our high school math teacher told us that most people won’t ever learn the approximation for pi further than 2 or 4 decimals places. So, I had to go and memorise it to 8 decimal places. I can still remember it: 3.14159265.

Dinner3 Dessert

Don’t ask me why it was so important to me—I can’t remember anymore. I am, however, surprised that I can still produce it without any hesitation whatsoever even though I haven’t used it in decades. (It only works in Finnish, though; clearly there’s some connection with the rhythm and sounds that made it easy for me to memorize.) I wish I was as speedy with my U.S. social security number, for instance. 🙂

P.S. For a full appreciation of my dorkiness, look at the tags for this post. :p

Messing with numbers is messy.