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Posts Tagged ‘coronavirus’

Wicked Game

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over the last week or so in conversations with colleagues about how we’re going to manage teaching next year. One takeaway from this is a reminder of how dedicated, imaginative and insightful the aforementioned colleagues are. It’s fair to say that we’ve got a spectrum from those who see this as an exciting opportunity to try out new approaches and radically change some of our traditional teaching styles, and those who are focused on ways to maintain more conventional teaching approaches in dramatically new and uncertain circumstances. But there’s nobody who is insisting on privileging their convenience over flexibility, or unwilling to countenance radical change if that’s what best suits student needs. (more…)

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As Buffy wisely (but perhaps unhelpfully, given the result) remarked in the very first episode of the series, life is short. A key theme in Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens is its psychological effects precisely in relation to a sense of time and the future: the abandonment of any concern for the longer term, on the assumption that one is more likely than not to die, and hence loss of respect for the law (you’re not going to live long enough to be tried and punished, so who cares?), neglect of traditional virtues like thrift and caution (why save for tomorrow when you might not be there to enjoy it?), and above all disregard for what other people think of you. Honour is something that has to be accumulated slowly, for uncertain benefits beyond the feeling that you don’t want to be despised or jeered by your fellow citizens; in the short term it’s just a restraint on what you want to do NOW. (more…)

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Shock Tactics

Every crisis is an opportunity, and the idea of creative disruption – shaking up the system to create space for innovation and profit – is so much easier if something else has already done the shaking up for you. This is as true for universities as for everything else at the moment. The immediate and understandable response of most has been to wonder how to restore the pre-plague status quo as quickly as possible, or to worry about how far some things may already be broken beyond repair (a business model based on ever-increasing numbers of overseas students, and devil take the disciplines that can’t recruit them, for example). Some – like me – have quietly welcomed the sudden acceptance that take-home papers and other ‘alternative’ forms of assessment are actually fine and dandy. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the hand-rubbing and gleeful cackling of people whom we should generally prefer to be subdued and miserable; just think of the most cynical approach to higher education you can, and almost certainly someone is already planning it… (more…)

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Being Boring

I am not, whatever my wife thinks, a workaholic. Punctiliously conscientious, maybe; if I fall ill and am likely to be out of commission for a while (yes, as feared at the beginning of the week, I do seem to have come down with the plague, thankfully so far in a pretty mild form) then I am going to take the time to inform the people who might otherwise be expecting to hear from me over the next week or so – Head of Department, people in charge of teaching, assessment and exams, students on my various modules especially those with an exam coming up, postgrads, colleagues involved in impact project, co-editor of book, a couple of contributors, niece who won’t be getting a Skype history lesson this week. That’s not workaholism, that’s common courtesy. Workaholism would be getting worried about the fact that the university webpage sends me on an endless loop from the ‘guidance on COVID-19 sickness reporting’ page to the ‘this form no longer exists, please see the sickness reporting guidance’ page. Which to be quite honest I am really not. (more…)

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It’s the first day of the new term! Interesting to see how far the countryside along the line from Castle Cary to Exeter has changed in just a month, especially with all the warm weather we’ve had in recent weeks. An excuse to drop into The Exploding Bakery next to Exeter Central station, as it’s over a month since I last indulged in one of their cakes. Lovely to meet up with colleagues again. Above all, however, it’s the culmination of my final-year Thucydides module, the student conference on Thucydides’ Contemporary Relevance, in which they all offer their different perspectives on the text that they’ve been slogging through all year, culminating in a guest lecture and general debate. Well, that was the plan… (more…)

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Fear Itself

The Thucydides Bot (@Thucydiocy) is not monolingual, but I remember only occasionally to check variant spellings like Thukydides and Thucydide, and to be honest I very rarely remember Tucidide. It’s therefore taken me a while to realise that there is a new iffy quotation in town, that is circulating almost exclusively in Italian media and social media (with one slightly surprising reference from an Albanian language school in Kosovo), so that even the couple of citations of the line in English use Tucidide rather than Thucydides. (more…)

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Toxic!

#HowCoronavirusDemonstratesTheEternalRelevanceOfThucydides Part 752… There are still few signs that the infection curve is flattening out; no sooner had I finished a snarky Eidolon piece on the proliferation of ‘Thucydides and the plague’ hot takes then a couple more appeared – thankfully, without doing anything to undermine my general claims about the pointlessness of most of these discussions. I did quite enjoy Jennifer Roberts’ ventriloquism, perhaps a distant cousin of my occasional donning of a fake beard to make Thucydides videos.

The positive aspect of all these different evocations of the Athenian plague has been the fact that they’re mostly accurate summaries (the repeated assumption that democracy came to a permanent end after the Peloponnesian War aside); the problem is what this summary is supposed to signify. But this morning brought an exception, which seemed worthy of remark; not an entire article on Thucydides and plague, but one of those ‘Ever since the days of Thucydides…’ openings, familiar from international relations pieces, in a bizarre Washington Times article on coronavirus as bio-terrorism.

The idea of biological warfare has been with us over the centuries. You can start with bits of Thucydides’ vividly ugly description the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E…. Mycotoxins, biological agents that can occur in nature from rotting or spoiled food or grain, would produce that sort of horrible death. Thucydides briefly considered the possibility that the enemies of Athens mixed toxin-laden grain in shipments to Athens. 

Yeah, but no. What we have here is a confusion of something that Thucydides did mention – the rumour, at the beginning of the outbreak in Piraeus, that the Spartans had poisoned the wells – and one of the innumerable modern theories about the nature of the plague, given the bewildering range of symptoms Thucydides recorded, namely ergot from spoiled grain. As far as I can recall, there is no suggestion in the latter discussion that this was deliberate – after all, if Athens’ enemies had known enough about the dangers of toxic grain to concoct such a plan, the Athenians would have known enough to recognise the problem – but the idea of accidental poisoning, like the idea of an epidemic as a devastating natural occurrence, doesn’t fit with an article whose basic aim is to present Covid-19 as a deliberate Chinese plot, abetted by the World Health Organisation.

It’s an interesting example of the garbled transmission of second- or third-hand information (writes and then deletes ‘Chinese whispers’…) and inadequate fact-checking. As a reception of Thucydides, however, it’s rather dull; he’s the ever-reliable reporter and authority figure, and if he noted the possibility of enemy action (and not as “this is what some foolish people believed”, which would be more accurate but less convenient) then we all ought to be on our guard…

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The Show Must Go On

Well, that happened quickly. On Friday, the latest coronavirus update from the university offered the first indication that they were considering switching teaching delivery from face-to-face to online, from 23rd March, with a decision to be made on Monday. On Sunday afternoon, the decision was confirmed. On Sunday evening, the 23rd March switchover was a minimum, with colleagues in humanities encouraged to change their approach as soon as practicable; I’d been thinking about how to do this for a while, seeing other universities in the UK and US making the change, so was all set to record short audio files, set up discussion boards, contact students etc. Then Monday evening all classes for this week were cancelled so students can, where practical, make arrangements to go home. (more…)

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