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Theatre of War

The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must…

A familiar line, but context and performance are everything. How do you picture the speaker? A calm, rational, ruthless dictator? A super-villain with a death ray? This is the sort of thing such figures tend to claim – which doesn’t mean that we necessarily accept it at face value. What about a fallen tyrant, a Lear or a Nero, still asserting such arrogance as their world falls apart around them? What if a super-hero was the speaker? (Echoes of Miller’s Batman or Alex Ross’s far superior Kingdom Come). What if it was a woman – whether downtrodden or triumphant? The line becomes less of a statement about the world, and more of a statement about the person speaking… Continue Reading »

There’s been a lot of discussion on the Twitter this week about an advertised vacancy for a fixed-term teaching position that expects the successful candidate to devise an MA module related to their own research. I’m going to out myself as an Old Person, and possibly bring a shower of condemnation on my head, by confessing that my feelings about this are more mixed than the prevalent judgement that this is obviously and unacceptably exploitative. In my day, when I was applying for such positions, I was far more attracted to positions that offered such freedom rather than defining the job in terms of which pre-existing courses should be taught – and, yes, it’s entirely revealing that I think of this in terms of ‘freedom’.

I am not for a moment suggesting that this is how today’s young scholars ought to be thinking about jobs; rather, it emphasises the difference between then and now, and perhaps explains some of the unexamined assumptions of those devising job descriptions today, which were formed by their experiences then. That is to say, I’m not sure how far such positions are deliberately exploitative, rather than reflecting a certain thoughtlessness, or even the negative consequences of good intentions.

What’s changed in thirty years? One obvious thing is the level of demands on early career scholars to give themselves any hope of a career. I spent the whole of the summer after submitting my PhD (in the fourth year, to touch on another recent debate…) living with my parents and preparing teaching; partly because I had somehow landed a position in Greek History and had to catch up with literature in various areas, and partly just because I could, postponing any thought of further writing or research until after the viva, whereas today’s young scholars have to submit their theses and then get straight on with other potential publications. Having to devise entirely new courses is an additional demand on time and energy that are already depleted and over-committed – let alone having to devise them in advance of actually knowing that you’ve got the job, or even just to get a shot at being shortlisted. At the very least, the idea of demanding a course design as part of the initial application process is simply insane.

But there is another thing that’s changed: the amount of material available for a pre-existing course, in terms of structure, reading lists, compilations of sources, PowerPoint slides etc., such that it is today possible to take over a course with a much smaller amount of preparation than it once was. Thirty years ago, taking over an existing course meant having to accept a theme and structure which wouldn’t necessarily be how you’d want to do it (and this can be really quite difficult, as I’ve found over the last two years in teaching a course in Exeter devised by one of my colleagues), but not necessarily a lot more – if I’d got a position with a more specified teaching load, I’d still have had to do the months of preparation, creation of material for students etc., just with much less freedom to organise things to play to my own strengths. Freedom’s just another word for nothing there to use…

Today, for any existing module/unit there is generally a load of stuff on Blackboard and the like that can simply be adapted and adopted by anyone assigned to teach it, rather than having to be created from scratch. So, getting a teaching fellow to create a new course is a task that is not actually necessary for the delivery of their part of the programme (or, not a way of making the TF’s job easier by allowing them to draw on their own expertise and material). It also results in the creation of material that could be reused by the department as well as the teacher; I’m honestly not sure how far this is a deliberate outcome (what’s the value in having a course that’s closely linked to the specific interests and expertise of someone you’re not planning to employ for more than a year?), but given that these fixed-term positions are increasingly exploitative anyway, this adds insult to injury.

Over the last twenty-odd years I have mourned, and regularly cursed, the enormous increase in gratuitous bureaucracy surrounding the creation of new units/modules, such that it can take a year or more to get a new one approved (while facing down a general air of disapproval). I persist in the view that this is driven partly by the science model, when the creation of a new module implies the emergence of an entirely new field of study and so requires lots of careful prepation and scrutiny that simply doesn’t apply to humanities courses – and partly by the usual ‘quality’ dilemma, whereby the only means of demonstrating proper quality assurance is to have elaborate, extensively documented processes for everything.

I’ve mourned this not least because of the sense that the freedom I enjoyed as a new lecturer and even as a temporary teaching fellow to create new courses, make use of my expertise etc. has been denied to younger generations. But it starts to look like a blessing in disguise, that already overburdened young scholars cannot be compelled to do more preparation than they need to (given that they aren’t being paid for it) – and so shouldn’t be asked to. The struggle goes on to ensure that such positions are properly funded and not exploitative (this isn’t new; my first job was a six-month one, neatly covering the teaching period, with pro rata payment for exam marking having to be chiselled out of the university by the department), and this is just one element – but it’s one that I must admit I hadn’t fully thought through until now.

Here is Donald. Here is Vladimir.

Donald is scared. Donald is greedy. Donald wants everyone to admire his big red balloon.

Vladimir has a ruthless, clear-sighted sense of his personal interests.

What do you think is going to happen, children?

Pat the dog is hiding under the duvet.

Here is America. Here is China.

America is an established power. China is a rising power.

Are they going to fight?

Donald is strong.

Donald thinks the strong can do what they want.

Is he going to launch an expedition against Syracuse?

This is Sebastian.

Sebastian doesn’t really know anything about Thucydides either.

Holiday Snaps

In clinching proof that I am incapable of switching off the academic brain even when surrounded by beautiful countryside, unfeasible numbers of storks, fine food and excellent beer, I have been getting cross with an innocuous History of Croatia. The first 80% of the first chapter is more or less okay – the account of the Romans is unnecessarily confused by the fact that the author knows Octavian and Augustus are the same person but clearly isn’t sure why and certainly doesn’t see any need to explain it to the reader – but then we come to the arrival of the Croats. They came with other Slavs. Or not. Their language is Slavic, but other characteristics point to a different origin, according to some theories. They were a distinct group. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they actually came from Iran. But we don’t actually have any evidence. It’s all a mystery. Continue Reading »

Apparently, pointing out to Trump fans or rabid Brexiteers that they’re being taken for a ride by corrupt, loathsome bastards may make them double down on their commitment to said bastards. Clearly this precautionary principle has been adopted wholesale by Goodreads, to judge from their policy on correcting fake Thucydides quotes; anything that has lots of ‘likes’ from users of the site is not to be deleted, regardless of its proven falsehood. Yes, my occasional mission to give F.B. Jevons and William F. Butler their proper due for ‘Of all manifestations of power…’ and ‘The nation that divides its soldiers from its warriors…’ respectively has a new target. Those two have been sorted out – Jevons gets credit now rather than Thucydides, while somehow the Butler has been deleted as insufficiently worthy, but apparently nothing can be done about ‘peace is an armistice in an endless war’, ‘justice will not come to Athens’ and even, dear gods, ‘a collision at sea can ruin your whole day’.

”We are,” Goodreads tell me, “book review and recommendations site.” Well, yes. So what’s with the quotes?

While we do have quotes on the site, we consider them to be community-owned content and therefore we have strict rules regarding removing.

So, the people of Goodreads have had enough of experts, and resent being talked down to by people who think they know better and want to delete their favourite quotes. I find myself thinking so much more positively of Wikipedia and its editors than I did a few months ago…

Black Box

It’s widely recognised – at least among education professionals – that national debates around are unhelpfully shaped by anecdata, the extrapolation of personal experience into broader principles and the legitimation of such principles through lived experience. It’s the “I was beaten regularly and it made me the man I am today” approach to discipline, the “grammar school allowed me to escape my deprived upbringing so it must be best for everyone” policy, the “I learnt my times table and lots of dates so obviously it’s the lack of those that explains The Problem With Youth Today” school of curriculum reform. It’s a major source, if not the major source, of the nostalgia for the days when university was a minority privilege that pervades discussions such as this morning’s fuss about too many Undeserving People getting Inflated Grades, spoon-fed snowflakes and lax standards, nothing wrong with a Desmond ha ha in my day. Continue Reading »

A very minor footnote to current debates about the treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border… The emotive phrase ‘concentration camps’ has been used a fair amount, and whenever that happens you can guarantee that someone on the Twitter will come up with the “well actually they were invented by the British in South Africa” line – not, I think, with the aim of relativising the Holocaust or playing down the outrage, but perhaps to side-step invocations of Godwin’s Law and emphasise that respectable Anglo-Saxon democracies can do this sort of this as well.

This week brought a new variant: well actually it wasn’t the British but the ancient Greeks, see Thucydides’ account of the Athenian prisoners kept in terrible conditions in quarries after the Syracuse disaster (7.87). Hmm. The obvious objection is that, however inhuman their treatment, these were prisoners of war, whereas the hallmark of the modern concentration camp is the internment of civilians. The obvious question is: What function does such a claim serve? In the actual Twitter exchange it comes across less as an attempt to exculpate the British than simply as the provision of yet more historical information. But it still feels like a distraction, a missing of the point, or at least a dissolving of the point into a general ‘humans have always done this to each other’ sigh of despair rather than a focused attack on the choices of a particular state.