Gap Week: June 18, 2021

Hey folks, no post this week. Last weekend being my anniversary, my better half and I had ourselves a little vacation and this has left me a bit behind. Unfortunately, I have a bit of scholarly writing which requires my attention and rather than defeat the entire purpose of my vacation by pulling a long week so that nothing slips, I’ve opted to make this a gap week. I also don’t have any very interesting, well-formed Fireside thoughts right now that aren’t Classics Discourse, and frankly I think I’ve done enough Classics Discourse for a while. So gap week it is! On the upside, next week’s post (Part II of The Queen’s Latin) is shaping up to be pretty substantial (we’ll be talking about how the legal reality of citizenship status shapes Roman notions of identity).

But while you wait, I didn’t want to leave you all out in the cold, so here are a collection of things you could be reading or listening to in the meantime:

First, for those of you not on Twitter – one, congratulations for making good life choices – but two, I talked briefly on twitter about the pre-modern logistics ‘playbook’ which might be of interest to those who enjoy ACOUP‘s laser-like focus on logistics. While we’ve done some logistics studies here on ACOUP, I think a more complete list at all of the things that were in the (agrarian) pre-modern logistics playbook and how they worked is something we’ll end up doing before too long. In particular, I suspect a look at the playbook as a whole, rather than logistics studies of particular (real or fictional) campaigns may be of some interest to the worldbuilders among you.

(Patrons will already know why my thoughts have bent towards logistics, and particularly food logistics over the past few months, though the backlog of blog topics has meant that ACOUP has been slow to catch up. A reminder that Patrons get monthly updates on my research activities!)

Also of interest to the world-building types, a discussion on on “How Large were Medieval Peasant Families which gets into some of the interesting factors that shape population, mortality and family size in a way that is rather more accessible than the often very specialist oriented pre-modern demography literature.

Over at War on the Rock and the Texas National Security Review, the Horns of a Dilemma podcast featured a talk by Thomas Ricks on the ways in which the late 18th and early 19th century understanding of Greece and Rome shaped the foundation of the United States. For students in the United States in particular, this is one of the clearest reasons to study the Greek and Roman Classics. It is a long observed notion that one should first learn why things are the way they are before seeking to change them (the principle known as ‘Chesterton’s Fence‘); understanding just what was praised and feared in the examples of Greece and Rome provides a useful set of tools to begin examining the structure of the government that was set up on the basis of those examples. That isn’t merely a defense of the framers either; a radically different understanding of that ancient past, perhaps informed by sources they didn’t have access too (like epigraphy or archaeology) or values they did not have, can serve to reframe debates. Some fences might be, after all, put up to rotten purposes.

Finally, this article, “The Historian and the Murderer” by Dominique K. Reill is, I think, required reading if you want to understand why academics seem so morose all of the time. It packages a discussion of just how broken the current economics of academia currently are inside of the narrative of a crime that was in turn made possible by that very broken system. The fact of slow career cycles (most academics now retiring got their jobs in the late 80s or early 90s, a large number of senior academics were hired pre-2008 when the job market was much healthier) and the rapidity of changes within the structures of academic hiring (I discuss some of the financial problems creating those bad changes here) has meant that even tenured faculty in academia often have at best a weak conception of what is happening to their more junior colleagues and graduate students, especially in the humanities. Even more so the public, which often imagines that the professors that teach at colleges and universities to be relatively leisured and privileged and have posh offices – assumptions which collapse once the legions of adjunct instructors on whom universities depend to do much of the teaching are considered.

Most folks in the public know ‘publish or perish’ and assume that still holds – but in fact it is now very possible to publish and still perish and that is what is happening to quite a lot of early career scholars. I’ve discussed the changes I think need to happen, particularly at public universities (where I think the public needs to put its foot down to stop the steady transfer of university resources away from instruction and towards administration and demand its tax dollars go to professors who teach classes in the form of more tenure-track hiring).

39 thoughts on “Gap Week: June 18, 2021

  1. As a student (just finished my final year) I can definitely tell Uni resources ain’t going to my lecturers. Every year lecture sizes seem a bit bigger and the number of lecturers goes down overall.

    The Uni is fine hiring more HR or building a brand new building, but many of the lecturers are essentially contractors and so go to another Uni once they got an opportunity.

    Personally I feel that this stems from two much money and treating Uni’s as a business, this had led to micky mouse diplomas and cramming students in like economy class passengers. I think really our society puts far too much emphasis on going to Uni when really we should have a look back at apprenticeships for skilled labour. Hell even lab adjuncts could be taught that style.

  2. Something from awhile ago that I didn’t get to comment on:

    The ancient sources blog post was very, very familiar after writing up this (I’m the one who wrote up most of the stuff in it, though being a wiki most people edit it.) A lot of potential human sacrifices are something like “body in a weird position for anything else that could make sense as a ritual”, reading the various academic stuff, internet articles, news, etc. about discoveries was over and over a description of assumptions, trying to fill out archaeology, etc. (My favorite in source terms is probably the Moche one, the skeletons were discovered with clear injuries, paintings where it took place show what look like rituals…but with no writing, it’s hard to figure out anything beyond “bunch of war prisoners were killed probably for some ritual reason.” Video is here.)

    As for the academic job market, economics is generally in pretty good shape, since a lot of people naturally slide into non-academic jobs, though the competition is still pretty obvious if you do try to go academic. I’ve had my own issues, though, due to personal reasons. I have heard about the problems in fields like history, though, for awhile, also with universities in general, costs, going up, etc. It does sound like the structure of how universities are run is messed up, with some screwed up incentives, though like a lot of organizational issues (making transportation cheaper to build and maintain, costs of health care, etc.) I can’t say much beyond this about how they’d be made to work more efficiently. (In the sense of honestly providing more good stuff for less cost, not in the “if we just pay people less” or “squeeze more people through” sense.

  3. As a grad student close (oh so very close) to submitting, I attended a talk a few months ago about the prospects of tertiary-degree holders where a very interesting plot was shown: it plotted, over the past ~60 years, the number of academic jobs and the number of people graduating with PhDs (in Australia where I’m studying), where the latter exceeded the former back in about 1994 and has only continued to rise since. I’m in astronomy, and I’d have to take probably something like *at least* 3−5 short-term post-doc positions before I could even begin to dream of getting something more permanent if I wanted to stay in academia.

    (Luckily, I’ve realized that I don’t really enjoy research anyway and would be very happy to transition to industry, but for the genuine seeker of knowledge who wants to stay in academia it’d be a bit dispiriting.)

      1. Not so much within astronomy itself unfortunately (other than, perhaps, working for a public or private space agency), but the practical skills you develop are in high demand among quite a lot of varied industries (including ones I’ve never have guessed, like banking). Data scientist is a pretty natural fit for a lot of people leaving the field; I know people who’ve made the jump to working in health science or for geophysics companies, for example. Observatories offer a sort of academia-adjacent place and having had the fortune of working in one before my PhD I wouldn’t mind doing so again, though after last year I’ve also thought about putting my skills to work in health science somehow for a few years…we’ll see what comes up.

        1. If you have your eye on the job market, don’t go for astronomer, in other words.

          It does have the “I got a degree!” benefit.

          1. At Caltech at least, the Astronomy major was almost identical to the Physics major with less free choice in classes, and physics majors have been reputedly in demand e.g. on Wall Street for their practical higher math skills.

      2. Insurance? My brother, whose degree is in Art History , went into insurance of all things! According to him the companies like college graduates and don’t much care what the major was because graduates are less likely to be intimidated by the MDs and lawyers they have to deal with and have the education to recognize double talk.

        1. I know a drama major who went into insurance, and talked shop with the retired civil engineer who had a second career as expert witness at a party.

  4. First Happy Anniversary and good decision to no overwork yourself

    In regards to logistics, do you have any opinion on how additive manufacturing will effect it? We are constantly putting forward programs based around forward deployment and printing “at the tactical point of need.”

    1. If you need 10,000 tons of material, you need still need to ship the 10,000 tons of additive polymers since you can’t print from the dirt “at the tactical point of need” although it would simplify matters if you didn’t have to worry having twice as many of item X as needed, but are missing item Y.

      However I question how much can be printed. Food, water, fuel, batteries can’t be printed. In the civilian world there is worry about untraceable ghost guns being printed, but I doubt they would be up to military usage. Additive manufacturing may be up to printing a bicycle that a teenager can’t ride in suburban street, but not an infantry fighting vehicle..

      1. You are missing an important point. That 10,000 tons of material is made up of thousands of different parts. If I can ship the raw material instead of the finished parts I might only need to ship 5000 tons of material.

        AM isn’t going to print an infantry fighting vehicle today. However I did have a muzzle brake for a howitzer made via Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing and am looking at doing one via selective laser sintering soon. These aren’t the type of parts I was talking about though.

        I probably won’t be printing a gun barrel anytime soon due to material requirements but pretty much any other part of a small or medium cal gun is within reach. Powder based machines have to many health and safety issues to go further forward than a base but bound metal can go as far forward as any weld shop.

        Bound metal allows for metal injection molding type properties and parts roughly softball sized. Currently steel, bronze and copper can be printed this way. Titanium, inconel, and aluminum are being worked on. Think of the number of parts that are roughly that size. Instead of shipping five of each forward I can ship spools of material that can print any of a dozen different parts

    2. To add to the other response: You’d need to set up and operate 3-D printers somewhat close to where combat was happening, instead of making things in (I assume) relative safety back at home (or in whatever other country supplies are bought from(. So again, possibly useful for very specific goods, but doesn’t look like something widespread that people would want to do, unless s military was very good at setting up and defending those areas.

      (Ships and airbases, though, may be a better situation, since they already have complex machinery running, some 3-D printers for some specialized parts might slot in just fine.)

      1. Also add that 3d printing is far slower than any mass manufacturing process. If you want a new part (and it’s not particularly robust, or subject to great stress or similar) then it’s fine. For a thousand or more of one thing, not so much. It has its niche, but it’s not yet a really big one.

        1. Very much this. Friend of mine works for a gaming company, designing miniatures. Prototypes are printed, but once the design is okayed, the file goes to a company that uses old-style injection moulding to make thousands of the thing.
          It does reduce design turnaround time, since previously, you sent the design to the manufacturer, got prototypes, sent them back with change requests, got more prototypes . . .

          Oh, and also, 3D printed metal things are less resilient than properly cast/welded/forged things. Non-issue for bicycle parts, usually, but a problem for, say, tank sprockets.

          1. The idea is not to print thousands of spares but a few to maybe a dozen. Currently there are 3D printers in containers that are forward deployed. They generally print things like door handles and lock mechanisms for trailers. Mainly because they have plastic only capability. Powder based printers can’t go further forward then a base for safety reasons. However the newer bound metal printers can go further forward. They will be able to print small metal parts – say trigger assembly.

  5. I was just wondering if you could, at some point, give an overview of consumer drug shipping and trade in your preferred moment of Antiquity. Halfway through reading Horkos (thanks for the recommendation) I saw a brief video on youtube about the movement of European tea sourcing from China to India and it set my mind ablaze.

  6. Replying to your Twitter thread on logistics, I suggest that the 4Fs be “food, fodder, firewood, and fluids” instead of “food, fodder, firewood, and f-water”.

    1. Fluids is a good choice.. since in addition to water you’d also have beer and wine, cooking oils, and so on.

  7. Tangent: article on why US college costs so much more now.

    public subsidies up; faculty compensation down; pay for degreeholders has barely increased since 1979 and most of that was before 2000, college pay premium is because non-degreed declined in income. lot more money spent on admin: more of them and paid more (at upper levels, million dollar presidents)

    So we can’t have more tenured positions because administrators and “amenities” like nice dorms and sports teams are sucking off the money.

    Though it seems like one professor -> multiple PhD students is a recipe for overpopulation even with good funding.

    1. Not every professor has graduate students. Most colleges and universities do not have PhD programs at all. So the old assumption, which in history at least largely kept up until 2008 or so, was that the fresh PhDs of the lower-tier public universities would fill out the ranks of professors at smaller liberal arts colleges and non-flagship state schools. I do think the number of graduate students admitted needs to be trimmed, but if you look at the swelling ranks of adjuncts, it isn’t that universities do not need teachers, its that they have directed money away from paying them.

    2. One problem that I have with studies like this one that ascribe the increasing cost of higher education to bloating administrative salaries is that they seem to compare the average salary of tenure track professors with the salary of the highest paid administrator (the president). This obscures the fact that salaries at the top have generally been increasing across the board, whether you work in the faculty or in the administration, while salaries further down have generally stagnated.

      The article cited above, does at least throw out a reference to the salary of one professor at UC-Berkeley to say that, yes, some faculty do make a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to present this as a lonely exception. Picking on Berkeley for no reason other than that it was cited in the original article, if you look at publicly reported salaries for that institution from 2019 (which I believe is the last year available) you’ll see that the three most highly paid non-athletic staff at the institution are the Dean of the Business School, followed by a Professor of Economics, followed by the Chancellor.

      Faculty are even better represented the more you expand the definition of highly-paid staff. UC-Berkeley appear to have reported paying some 35,000 individuals that year. So, if you look at the top 0.1% of employees (or 35 people) it looks like there are 8 in athletics (accounting for 37% of the pay), 5 in administrative roles (about 12% of the pay), and 22 professors (about 51% of the pay). Furthermore, based on what I’ve seen in other institutions of higher education, I would doubt that story gets better for faculty if you expand the analysis to those who make the top 1% or the top 10% of earners.

      Furthermore, faulting the expanding numbers of administrative staff for higher costs actually obscures a lot of people who sweep floors, fix buildings, and maintain computers who generally don’t make that much money, but who are nevertheless counted among the ranks of the bloating administration.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that, I feel that institutions of higher ed do expend significant amounts of money on tenured faculty, it’s just that I suspect more of it is going to a small number of very highly paid faculty at the top. As a result, I think separating higher ed into the administration vs. faculty actually obscures where the inequalities are actually happening, in that the difference is simply between those who make a lot of money and those who don’t. Those who make a lot of money in this industry are making a lot more money than they used to relative to everyone else and it doesn’t really matter whether their jobs are “instructional” or “administrative.”

  8. i’d love to see a look at the Playbook of logistics.. can it include the subsections for say, how a medieval army would be different from armies with stronger logistical network traditions (like the Romans, etc?)
    I know some novel writers for a fantasy wargame setting that might be able to make good use of such things, and having a contrast between the more and less organized approaches to logistics would help there. (after all, a Byzantine expy is going to do logistics a lot different from an orc horde)

  9. I’ve recently come across the Baumol effect as an explanation for cost disease in academia. Essentially, costs tend to rise in service sectors that rely on labour, because they’re competing against sectors with strong productivity growth who can now pay those workers more. Even though it takes the same number of players to play orchestral music in exactly the same amount of time, for example, it was far cheaper to pay them 100 years ago than it is now because their wages are now much higher.

    I’m not qualified to say whether it’s correct, but it seemed fairly convincing to me. There’s more detail at if you were interested.

    1. The article I linked mentions Baumol:

      “It’s a neat-sounding and intuitive little theory, whose only flaw is that it — at least in the context of the cost of college — remains completely unsupported by actual evidence… the average teacher at an American institution of higher education is paid far less than than the average teacher was paid a half century ago, when the American economy was 60% smaller on a per capita basis than it is today!”

      Cost disease can be real, but it tries to explain rising compensation, which isn’t even what’s happening for instructors.

  10. The desperate plight of young Ph.D.’s in traditional humanities such as history or classics (or older Ph.D.’s who have neither procured academic employment nor moved on to something else) doesn’t seem very hard to explain:
    1. The increased bureaucratization and professionalization of American life ensure that a higher and higher proportion of spending in the higher education industry goes to administrators and non-academic support staff, such as counselors, diversity coordinators, etc. Those people have graduate degrees too, just not in traditional humanities.
    2. The countercultural political beliefs of almost all humanities professors ensure that most donors, state legislators, and employers, and a substantial number of students, find the humanities unappealing and unworthy of funding or support. Less money in, plus more money for non-academic staff, means less money for professors.
    3. The sanctimony and hypocrisy of liberal Democrats (i.e., essentially, all college professors) ensure that the handful who have won the struggle for secure tenured positions agglomerate as much as possible to themselves. It’s not different from the way that the Cooks, Pichais, and other tech lords (liberal Democrats all) engage in illegal conspiracies to depress the wages of mid-level tech professionals.

    1. Those dastardly Liberal democrats!
      This is hardly a partisan issue. Its not like the right wing billionaires got where they are by being generous and egalitarian towards their own employees.
      The issue is around what we want education to do and how to fund it to do that. Education, like most of western society, and America in the extreme, since the Reagan/Thatcher era, has largely been hands off with regulation and allowed market forces to dominate everything. So we have a situation where events have evolved organically into a position that isn’t working for anyone outside of a very very small number. Its not best serving students (undergrad or post), its not serving younger staff, and its not serving the public that surround them.
      This isn’t how you’d design a system to deliver higher education if you sat down and drew out a system from scratch.
      Because of the way that the system has evolved organically, its going to be very hard to come back from the current state with a few tweaks. Systemic reform is required.
      At the very least some basic principles should be established to guide this. As a rough start, how about:
      1. Staff should have jobs that give them some security and ability to plan ahead, rather than annual recontracting.
      2. People should be paid for work they do. Journals get paid off the back of free labour, both from authors and from reviewers, this is unethical. They are parasites. We need a better system of publication.
      3. Students need to be taught by qualified teachers who understand their field, especially at undergrad level, where teaching can be many students to one teacher.
      4. There should be clear and understood career progression for staff, to encourage them to stay in the industry and keep developing.

      I mean at a basic level I don’t see how these can be controversial but they are the antithesis of higher education at the moment

        1. The phrase “since the Reagan/Thatcher era” presumably also encompasses Democrat/Labour leaders like Clinton and Blair, who in terms of the neoliberal policy agenda gribblethemunchkin is talking about, are far more similar to Reagan and Thatcher than different.

          I get that you’re fully dialed in to the electoral-partisanship frame and don’t want to dial out, but it just isn’t a particularly useful approach to the problems being discussed here.

          1. Umm, one throwaway phrase intended mostly to twit our host and many of the other commenters is not refusing to discuss the problem, which I have analyzed quite clearly. Do you have a substantive response, or are you incapable of ignoring any distraction when it triggers your partisan instincts?

    2. ey81, you are frightfully critical of our current culture, more so than it deserves.

      Your stated position is that “essentially all humanities professors,” that is to say virtually everyone who as a profession makes systematic study of human art, culture, history, and society, holds political beliefs “counter” to our culture.

      I think that’s a very harsh and at least partly unfair criticism. What does it say about a system if those who make professional studies about it “essentially all” oppose and dislike it? Nothing good.

      Imagine saying “essentially all actual aerospace engineers think this airplane is unsafe and poorly suited for its nominal purpose.” You’re insulting the airplane, not the engineers.

      Of course, there’s an underlying issue here, if I might speculate. There is a certain frame of mind within which only one half of the American (or Anglosphere, sometimes) cultural landscape is ‘real,’ is valid, is authentically American. This half, for reasons of its own, has found its way into a cul de sac where many of academia’s conclusions (both in science and the humanities) are simply unacceptable. They cannot be believed or listened to, lest that subculture’s core beliefs be taken under threat.

      This leads to conspiracy theories about academia. And to a belief that the academics are “counter-cultural,” as if American (or Anglosphere, or ‘Western’) culture consisted entirely of the set of idols that the academics like to melt down or smash.

      But there is plenty of American culture, and Western culture, that is not ‘counter’ to what modern academics have to say. That has no problem with what they say. That is not threatened or undermined by it.

      American culture does not force “essentially all” educated scholars of culture into a position of “countering” it. And a good thing too; that would say pretty bad things about the culture.

      1. OK, give us your explanation of why donors, legislators, and students are increasingly hostile to the humanities, if you don’t like mine.

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