Fireside Friday: November 26, 2021

Fireside this week! I had hoped to have the next part of the fortification series done by now (its coming along), but between the ends of semester crunch, a few unexpected time-sensitive projects and it being the week of Thanksgiving, that will have to wait.

Home Librarian Oliver helping me organize my books.

For this week’s musing, Thanksgiving seemed an appropriate time to look back at the last couple of years o on ACOUP and express how thankful I am for this platform and all of you reading it. I started this project back in May, 2019 as an outlet for some of my thoughts. Of course I didn’t know then that at the end of that first summer of ACOUP we’d be starting the last ‘normal’ semester for quite a while, or that we were heading into the last normal academic job market until…well, the academic job market is still not back to normal.1 Like many early career academics, I am currently what we call an ‘adjunct’ which is to say that I don’t have a permanent academic position (is a post on ‘what the heck do academic job titles mean?’ something worth writing?), but rather am stringing together short-term (single semester, single year) teaching jobs to stay ‘in the game’ while applying for more permanent positions. When COVID hit, academic hiring essentially froze solid and has only barely thawed so far; even lining up a normal teaching load was touch and go for a bit.

That of course meant there was suddenly a lot more uncertainty, both in getting enough semester-to-semester teaching to pay the bills and also to keep an active academic affiliation (the job market gets even harder if you have to do it as an ‘independent researcher’) and also in the long-term prospects of finding a permanent academic position (which remains an ongoing effort). Alongside that, in Spring 2020, of course, all teaching went remote and so I was stuck at home, lecturing into a laptop and a keyboard, isolated from students and colleagues both. The long, slow work of academic writing can be thankless and isolating even in the best of times, but COVID stole away some of the few positive feedback systems that do exist as our conferences went online and we all retreated from our offices to our hastily cobbled together home-zoom-offices.

Obviously this is not to say that I had the last two years particularly hard, compared to other folks. I didn’t end up unemployed, or in financial difficulties, or – most importantly – seriously ill. Many, many people have not been so fortunate. At the same time, even much smaller difficulties can be terribly demotivating and anxiety inducing.

In all of that, I cannot express how thankful I am that I had this space and all of you readers to help break that feeling of professional isolation and pointlessness. Having an outlet where I could see you all reading my writing, discussing it (both in the comments and off the site on social media) recommending it and so on always helped remind me that I wasn’t just shouting into the void, that the work I was producing had value and purpose. It provided a valuable backup supply of motivation to power through the setbacks and uncertainty. So thank you all for reading and thanks to my patrons especially for continuing to support this effort.

The world certainly seems a lot brighter this year than it did back in the spring of 2020 when the world shut down. We’re winding down the first semester taught in-person; I cannot tell you how glad I am to be teaching in person again and how much I missed it. In-person conferences are also slowly returning. And of course ACOUP continues to surprise me with its growing reach. If you will pardon my indulgence in some data: in 2020, ACOUP saw about 1.9m views2; as I write this, ACOUP is at 2.5m views for 2021 with a month left to go. Academic hiring remains deeply uncertain, but thanks to your support, I have the resources to keep pushing at it and to keep writing, researching and teaching.

So thanks to you all and my good fortune (for the internet’s eyeball-economy is truly quite random) that brought you here.

On to Recommendations:

Over at Sententiae Antiquae – which, by the by, if you are even a little bit interested in Greek or Roman culture, you should be reading Sententiae Antiquae – I was struck by this short post by Lawrence Benn on two fragments by the Greek poets Archilochus and Hybrias both remarking on what they owed to their spears. With language that wouldn’t sound out of place in the verses of ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad, I think the fragments underscore the central place that military participation had in how the Greeks understood the status of the free citizen landholder. Of course at the same time, they should also underscore how precarious that existence was, how wrapped up in regular violence. After all, the Greek hoplite himself was only ever one bad day – a lost battle, an encounter with bandits on the road – away from losing that spear and all of the other privileges it came with.

Meanwhile, I thought since I mentioned above how my current academic position is temporary, it might be a good time to draw attention to other contingent (another word for various kinds of fixed-term or adjunct positions) scholars working in the Classics. Over at the blog of the Society for Classical Studies, they’ve been running a series of interviews with contingent faculty members in the Classics (they’re up to six such interviews); check them out.

Meanwhile, over at Peopling the Past, they interviewed the folks over at Rhea Classical Reviews about their project, which is an open access review journal which reviews work by non-tenured scholars (pre-tenure, non-tenure, contingent, grad students, alt-ac, independent researchers, etc.), with reviews also written by non-tenured scholars. As tenure sadly continues to break down, I think efforts like Rhea are becoming more important in highlighting that, in fact, important scholarship is being done by scholars not necessarily on the tenure-track. That’s especially urgent because as more and more interesting intellectual output moves outside of the traditional academic status-hierarchy, it is more and more important for scholars at all levels to be able to think and read outside of that hierarchy and to recognize and appreciate the contributions of emerging and non-traditional scholars. You can check out Rhea itself here.

For this week’s book recommendation, since our fortifications series is about to move into the European Middle Ages, I am going to recommend Clifford Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007). The book is pricey, to be sure (so perhaps see if your local library has a copy), but it is a really valuable work as a foundation for understanding medieval European warfare. The book is well organized, broken down into the various elements of a medieval army and the various tasks they might perform. Importantly, compared to the other oft-recommended (and also very useful) text, J.F. Verbruggen’s The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1997), Rogers treats a much wider range of military activity (Verbruggen, in particular, is very focused on battles at the expense of both sieges and raiding warfare, which can give the wrong impression if one is not already aware that raids and sieges were much more common than battles for most of the Middle Ages). Rogers has explicit sections on private wars, raids, military extortion, and agricultural devastation, activities that didn’t necessarily result in large-scale battles but where nevertheless crucial in the warfare of the period.

The other great virtue of Rogers’ book for the relative beginner looking to get their feet firmly planted before moving on to reading about specific campaigns or delving into the specialist literature on particular aspects is that Rogers foregrounds the actual primary evidence through the book, with long quotations of accounts illustrating the principles he’s describing and frequent use of period artwork (particularly manuscript illustrations; one assumes the abundance of illustrations, even in black-and-white, is part of why the book is so darned expensive) to show how people at the time represented their forms of warfare.

  1. And by ‘normal’ I mean the ‘normal’ baseline post-2008 where every single year, had it occurred before 2008, would have been one of the worst years ever
  2. That is views as WordPress counts them, because I don’t have Google Analytics data back to the start of 2020. Generally Google Analytics is more thorough in ignoring bots and the like and so tends to produce view-counts about 10% or so lower than WordPress.

29 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: November 26, 2021

  1. I have a number of these books on our shelves, too! And we have a black cat, but sadly, she is currently fading, just diagnosed with untreatable sarcoma. We don’t have very much longer with her.

    This is related to the recent series on the Spartans, who you were very hard on, esp. the rearing of children and the training of Spartan boys. I wonder if you’d be so rough on similar, more modern societies that cultivated a warrior ethos? I think in particular on the Zulus of the mid to late 19th century or the Plains Indians of a similar time period. The American Plains Indian tribes ran the original schools of hard knocks, when you read up on it. Would you also liken those boys to abused children or twisted “child soldiers” in the modern sense as you do the ancient Spartans?

    I’m always interested in your posts, even when I might want to argue a slightly contrary position or smile at modern cultural references working their way into the narratives. It’s not academic-ese, but it’s educational and informative!

    1. Did the plains Indians send out children to murder slaves? Sending them out to steal horses seems tame by comparison.

    2. While it’s generally not at all hard to argue that a randomly-selected historical child-rearing practice was abusive, because most of them were, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Spartan agoge wasn’t abusive in the abstract, but abusive in specific ways that traumatized and ossified its victims in similarly specific ways.

      Among other things, the Plains tribes and Zulu didn’t fight the same way the Spartans did, and so had wholly different martial virtues that didn’t center around the exceptionally-straightforward phalanx battle. Crows and Zulus had to be more martially flexible to suit their ways of warfare; if they produced bloody-minded, hammer-headed warriors, they wouldn’t do so in great quantities or for very long, because then their more martially-competent neighbors would stab them and take all their stuff.

      And then there’s the fact that, for the Plains tribes, there wasn’t really a distinct warrior class. Every able-bodied male was a warrior, it wasn’t a hierarchy thing like it was for the Spartans. I’m less well-read on Zulu social organization, but if you told me they were roughly as unspecialized as the Plains tribes, I wouldn’t have much trouble believing that.

      And *then,* if we take a step back and consider things more broadly, we can see that Plains tribes and the Zulu still produced art and stories and other important yet martially-useless things. They valued beautiful things and produced them, which the Spartan elites did not, because the Spartan elites were raised in the cult of the badass and honestly believed that anyone who worked for a living was little more than vermin. Whereas the peoples you cite… weren’t.

      1. I’m actually wondering whether Bret’s analysis of the spartans was entirely accurate, it feels similar to how some people viewed horse nomads. As cultureless savages who viewed all non warriors as vermin.

      2. I’d say the crux of the issue concerning Spartans is that the average Western male (in particular the average Western male in active military service) isn’t fawning over the Plains Indians or the Zulu.

        1. Both Zulu and Plains Indians have a definite mystique. The Spartans may be dominate at the moment because of the movies.

      3. “While it’s generally not at all hard to argue that a randomly-selected historical child-rearing practice was abusive, because most of them were”

        If your definition of abusive child raising includes most of the societies in which humans have raised children, I feel your definition of abusive may be a little broad.

        Having said that, I seem to recall that the Spartans ritually declared war on most or all of their own subjects every year. That always struck me as being a bad sign. It really does not sound normal at all.

        1. Our sources – by which I mean other ancient Greek writers – are abundantly unanimous that Sparta was not a normal place. They merely differ as to if it was abnormal in negative or positive ways.

          1. I feel that any government that routinely declares war on its own subjects is abnormal in at least one negative way. It’s bad enough to have to do it to some of them occasionally, let alone most of them every year…

        2. By the standards of modern society child rearing even in the 50’s would be considered abusive.
          Most cultures have at one point adhered to ‘spare the rod spoil the child’.

    3. I think that the classical book on the tipic would be Ferenc Molnar’s “The Paul Street Boys”. It describes, with intense sympathy, the life a group of school boys in Budapest. The ideas of nationalism and conscription give rise to a warrior ideal that is the main feature of the self-identity of the boys. This is, of course, about the Imperial Austria-Hungary, where militarism reached truly absurd levels, but the pathology is inherent in any system of universal conscription: when boys play war, they play with knowledge that they may be personally called to fight for real, and that later, even allowing for a permanent peace, they will train for a real war.

      In a system of universal conscription, like the one we have in Finland, you grow up knowing that after high school, you will serve, and for example, reaching the necessary level of physical condition is an important part of your life, and becoming a serviceman later is part of your identity. For example, when you attend the junior high school medical exam, you will be given a provisional service capability classification, and in physical education, you take the military PE tests regularly so as to know how well you can cope with the military service later.

      After service, you will hold a military rank for the rest of your life, and that rank has some impact on how your peers view you. And of course, you have a military position for some years or decades in the wartime mobilised force, and the nature of that position also affects your thinking and sense of personal dignity. Naturally, it is nothing as important as being a Hoplite was for a citizen of an Ancient Greek polis, but it does shape a culture in a not quite insignificant way.

      1. You just brought up some memories. The US has a vestigial form of that; every male must sign up for Selected Service (emergency conscription/the draft) in order to have federal financial aid (all males are supposed to, but if one doesn’t, no school money). I cannot remember what brought it up (perhaps talking about our friend group) but conscription came up in a conversation with my wife (girlfriend then), and she was under the impression that we no longer have selective service. I told her: “Sure we do. I’m already in the pool. I had to for financial aid.” Her shocked face was endearing.

        I spent some time in a poorer country that practiced conscription of young men, and had some Swiss friends while there. A thought (perhaps melodramatic) went through my mind that if the US, for whatever cataclysmic reason, went to war with either nation and started conscription, I could end up fighting against friends.

        (Further clarification: one can get an exemption to the draft due to being a conscientious objector. Also, due to growing obesity in the US, some military leaders are worried about the shrinking pool of quality candidates in the event of a draft.)

      2. Spoiler alert on the “Saint-Paul Street Boys” : it ends with not a very endearing situation to the poorest of them.
        As child reading it, I got enthralled by all the heroism and very well written drama, but it’s basically collective murder of the weakest that the book describes and indulges.

        1. The finale of the book is, indeed, touching. The point is, in my opinion, not the mobbing. It is exactly the futility of the sacrifice that the little Nemecsek makes. After all, the whole quarrel and fighting over the playground is senseless: the empty lot is built over at the end of the book. The small boy, and all the boys on both sides the quarrel, fully buy into the militaristic spirit of the time, and feel compelled by their honour to do completely irrational things. Nemecsek leaves bed sick with pneumonia, fights and dies of his illness because of his loyalty to the warrior ideal, and all his friends.

          The book is not quite clear, in my mind, if this is admirable or horrible. In any case, it shows very well that you don’t need to go into exotic locales to find a population raised to a warrior ideal. Late 19th century Europe fits the picture.

          (Further clarification. In Finland, too, it is possible to be a conscientious objector, like in any democratic country. However, it carries a certain stigma. A good friend of mine decided to become a conscientious objector during the draft board, due to very serious moral concerns about the legitimacy of violence, and lost a lot of face in our high school due to it: “I am a conscientious objector, not a gay!” He started dating a girl steadily within a week to prove his heterosexuality.)

          1. “The book is not quite clear, in my mind, if this is admirable or horrible.”

            Why can’t it be both? Loyalty may be a virtue, but it doesn’t follow that everything that stems from it is good.

    1. Yeah, the only other blog I read with similar anticipation is astralcodexten. He seems to have a good financial deal with substack (I don’t know the details, but it’s been alluded to). Has the pedant considered something similar?

  2. After reading your last spill about the conditions in academia, I was like, “yeah, I feel for ya man, know what you mean”. I’ve been through that too, I work in the academia as well. (Different discipline, different place, but still.) But then, I looked at your bio, read the post again, and then I added to myself, “well, except I ain’t a popular blogger like this guy [meaning you], and I sure am not as competent in my area as he is in his”. I dunno if this will cheer you up, mate, but keep up the good job.

  3. is a post on ‘what the heck do academic job titles mean?’ something worth writing?

    No. We couldn’t rely on it across space and time.

    1. All the more reason to write it, preferably in a form that will survive. That way our future historians trying to make sense of our culture have something to compare with what they do. A lot of words have changed meanings over the years, which makes it hard to read historical sources (or even communicate across any distance in English) at times.

      One of the big problems with history is the sources we are most interested in today were often things so mundane nobody bothered to write them down because they were obvious. The Women’s works series Bret did is a perfect example: half the population was doing things that mostly were not recorded. (war and things the rich men did tends to be fairly well recorded, but the majority of things men did weren’t well recorded either – but still vastly better than what women did)

  4. I’m a PhD student, and while I’m not on the job market quite yet, I definitely had the experience of teaching alone in my hastily-assembled home office. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on academia and adjuncting. Best of luck to you in finding a home for your work, and on the job market!

  5. Many of your readers block google analytics as part of ad blocking. Consider a few dozen views across most of your posts from me.

  6. I am really glad your blog here continues to grow and generally work out. Working through your archive was very satisfying in 2020, and this year reading your new posts became a Friday fixture. Even got some friends interested despite the language barrier. Your posts are just very informative and entertaining at the same time. At least from the perspective of an amateur history enthusiasist in Germany, who says: Please keep at it!

  7. As a side note, after some reflection, when reading the article about whether or not to go into academia I was struck by some very uncomfortable parallels between Sparta and the agoge and graduate programs/academia.

    A. Nearly sadistic training programs
    B. Utter reliance on the goodwill of the people in charge of you in order to gain entry, and very few objective standards for either admission or dismissal
    C. A very limited overclass that seems bent on limiting itself even further, supported by scads of poorly-paid and mistreated peons
    D. An insistence on ideological conformity
    E. An utter unwillingness to accept that the world is changing, and that the practices of yesteryear will not serve now

    Of course, this comparison cannot be carried too far–entry to tenure-track, for example, does not require you to go out and kill an adjunct, and no one will go out and track down adjuncts who decide to leave academia–but the parallels are there.

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