Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Doubling Down

If Thucydides was so bloody clever and full of real insight into human nature, the opening of Book 8 – set in the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Sicilian Expedition, ignominious retreat and surrender of the expeditionary force, execution of its commanders etc. – would have read more like this:

When the news reached Athens, for a long time they refused to believe that their forces had been so utterly destroyed, and would not accept even the unambiguous reports brought back by those who had actually witnessed the events. When these become too numerous to ignore, they declared that these were signs of a period of transition that would lay the foundations for a still more glorious victory in due course, while others insisted that the expedition had now been completed and so it was time to discuss other things. They did not blame their leaders or the others who had persuaded them to the original course of action, because the provocative behaviour of the Syracusans in defeating their army simply reinforced the case for having attacked them in the first place. And when they could not see an adequate number of ships in the docks, adequate funds job the treasury or an adequate supply of grain in the markets, they denounced as the consequence of Spartan overreach when Athens’ hands had been tied by the treaty it had been compelled to sign of its own volition…

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This week I shall mostly be suffering from a filthy cold just when I wanted to be finishing my teaching prep for next week and getting various other things out of the way before term starts. Just after I’d returned from a refreshing break, too… But if I was going to have to come down with something, I suppose it’s better this week than next. And I’m taking the optimistic view that underlying the current floods of snot and phlegm I am actually in a better place, mentally speaking, than I have been for a while, because despite the thickness of my head I have actually come up with an Idea this morning, or if not an idea then a pithy phrase that encapsulates a particular kind of contemporary political discourse. Googling suggests that no one has previously proposed this characterisation, so I might at some point develop it further, but for the moment I just wanted to scribble it down for the record… (more…)

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The abuse of so-called ‘history’ for political purposes is as old as Herodotus’ invention of it a couple of years ago. Recently we have seen concerted campaigns to rewrite the history of Athenian democracy so as to undermine communal solidarity, our sense of achievement and total superiority over all other Greek states, and even our basic legitimacy. The foundational story of Athenian autocthony that expresses the deep connection between the pure indigenous inhabitants and their land is rationalised and rewritten in order to promote a multicultural, pro-migrant agenda that threatens to undermine our collective identity. Figures central to our history like the heroic Tyrannicides are stigmatised as self-interested and incompetent, and our noble leaders in the present are mocked and caricatured. Athens’ civilising mission is cast in negative terms as a mere exercise in power and self-interest. (more…)

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It Wasn’t Me

One of the weirder experiences this summer – another minor symptom of the whole lingering plague thing – has been an intermittent feeling of total dissociation from my own publications: looking at books and thinking, well, I know I wrote this, and I can recall the circumstances and motive and so forth, I just don’t feel as if it’s mine. This is probably not unconnected to struggles with getting any new writing done; besides persistent fatigue and brain fog, apparently I need to feel like the sort of person who writes academic sentences for more than the odd hour at a time in order to actually write any – and actually writing some, as I have managed to do occasionally, unfortunately doesn’t seem to do much to convince my psyche that, yes, this really is what I do for a living. I do feel extremely sorry for the various editors who have had to put up with delayed submissions and requests for extensions because of chronic existential crisis. (more…)

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We’re back in the season of lecture fetishism. ‘Workshy’ lecturers are being ‘ordered’ back into the classroom to provide ‘proper’ value-for-money education rather than cut-price online stuff, while apparently the university life of a Times‘ columnist’s offspring would be ruined by having too much online learning. What’s striking is how far their conception of what should be restored is the sort of lecture that went out of fashion, at least outside basic introductory courses in the hard sciences, decades ago: to quote the old joke, the lecture as a means of transferring information from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through the brains of either. And, as I commented last week, some of the defences of the shift to online learning are equally ignorant of what actually happens in lecture rooms these days. It really feels like a debate about the current state of popular music between adherents of 7″ flexidiscs and proponents of cassette singles; not just total indifference to the content (hey, maybe someone should suggest to the Times that it’s easier to promote decolonisation and cultural Marxism in in-person classes where there are no recordings…) but utter ignorance of how technology and techniques have changed, and what the real issues are. (more…)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently preparing next term’s teaching – it’s been one of those weeks when the lingering effects of the plague make me incapable of stringing coherent thoughts together for more than five minutes at a time, and the better prepared I am for the new academic year then the bigger the chance I may be able to get writing done then, if the brain finds its way out of the doldrums. Bibliographies, guidance on assessment tasks, seminar texts, thumbnail pictures for the VLE. And then we come to the description of teaching and learning methods, and summary of how students will be expected to engage with the modules… Hmm. Can I get back to you on that? (more…)

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I have, so far, quite mixed feelings about The Hundred. On the one hand, it’s been great to see some more cricket on television, the level of skill and excitement involved has been pretty impressive (and I remain delighted – cf. T20 – that the advent of shorter forms of the game has brought about a dramatic revival in the art and importance of slow bowling, rather than, as I feared when the bush-bash style first appeared, destroying it). On the other hand, so much of it seems to be gratuitously gimmicky, revealing total lack of belief in the inherent attractions of the game itself so it’s necessary to switch to decimal, add a pointless DJ and adopt fluorescent colours that were the cutting edge of modernity back in 1986. And the franchise names. Oh dear gods, the names. The only explanation is that the marketing people were given a brief to exclude anything that gave the slightest hint of place or tradition, as that might accidentally remind people of the county game. So instead we get things that sound like cheap aftershave or rapacious hedge fund operations.

What I really like is the degree to which the women’s game is being put, if not front and centre, then at least in a much more visible position, with matches being played in parallel with the men’s as part of a day’s entertainment. After the hugely entertaining series between England and India earlier in the summer, which must also have persuaded some people that there’s just as much skill and excitement on offer here as in the regular men’s competition, this is all for the good. The one thing that’s missing is a combined table – why not treat the whole thing as a single competition? This has been noted by a few people (I owe it to Paul Cotterill, @Bickerrecord), but for some reason no one yet seems to have actually constructed said table. So, here it is – and, no, I am not planning to go down the rabbit-hole of calculating strike rates as well, unless I get seriously bored, but I will keep this updated over the course of the season…

Update: belated thought that what would be really good is if, once it becomes obvious that some franchises’ women’s teams are much better than their men, they switch round the double-header order occasionally, so the men’s match is the curtain-raiser…

[Note on the table: should be self-explanatory, but MW = Men Won, WL = Women Lost, NR = No Result, and teams on the same points total are listed in alphabetical order pending me deciding that, yes, I am going to waste time calculating their run rates…]

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Crown of Creation

Final jazz composition class of the year, and, no, to be honest I didn’t really want to spend the first part of it discussing creative processes and the things that get in the way of writing. In musical terms, it’s a very interesting question, and I’ve made enormous progress this year; I had not realised quite how much I like being given homework on a weekly basis, but this is not just about having a structured task to complete but also learning the importance of setting parameters – rather than “go away and write something”, it’s a matter of e.g. “go away and write something featuring fourths”, immediately giving a focus for one’s efforts, and that then reinforces the need to set some other parameters for oneself, at least as a starting point. It works both as a learning experience (getting a really good understanding of fourths by exploring the different things you can do with them in the process of trying to produce something that sounds half decent) and as a structure for the process, and I’m going to see how to replicate this in some of next year’s teaching – tricky, since this is about developing skills more than learning content, whereas ancient history courses tend to be more the other way round, or at least the skills are developed in parallel over the course of the year rather than explored one by one, but not impossible… (more…)

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Roots and Culture

It’s an interesting coincidence that this week I happen to be re-reading Marshall Sahlins’ Apologies to Thucydides. Sahlins explores the contrast between the idea of a monolithic, predictable and universal ‘human nature’, such that behaviour is assumed to be determined by a limited number of normative principles (an idea he associates, slightly unfairly, with Thucydides; it’s rather a feature of one tradition of the modern reception of Thucydides), and the idea of ‘culture’ as innately human but also endlessly various, highlighting the many different ways in which one might understand and relate to the world, society, other people etc.

What is striking about UK government pronouncements about the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, echoing most of their rhetoric throughout the pandemic, is their combination of these two positions: a rigidly absolutist concept of national culture. (more…)

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The Pubic Untellectual

Perhaps it was A.J.P. Taylor’s fault. Certainly, if he imagined a ‘public intellectual’, it was Taylor who came to mind – not because he’d ever actually experienced Taylor in that role, but an impressionable age he had read an obituary or tribute that stressed Taylor’s activities in taking academic history to a wider audience, and their consequences for his career. He had drawn from this two things, one more obviously erroneous than the other: firstly, that in any conflict between history as the exclusive preserve of an elite and history as something for everyone, the latter position was clearly noble and correct; secondly, that, having established one’s academic credentials, it was enough then to be willing to take these to a wider audience for the opportunities to do so to materialise. The possibilities that Taylor had energetically sought out such opportunities, and benefited from being enormously well connected and having the prestige of an Oxford position if never the Regius chair, or simply that times had changed and there was now no shortage of historians willing to take their work to a wider audience and pronounce on the issues of the day, genuinely had not occurred to him until much later. (more…)

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