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Review of Eric H. Cline, '1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed'

Intellectual Affairs

Brian Cranston’s recitation of “Ozymandias” in last year’s memorable video clip for the final season of Breaking Bad may have elided some of the finer points of Shelley's poem. But it did the job it was meant to do -- evoking the swagger of a grandiose ego, as well as time’s shattering disregard for even the most awe-inspiring claim to fame, whether by an ancient emperor or meth kingpin of the American Southwest.

But time has, in a way, been generous to the figure Shelley calls Ozymandias, who was not a purely fictional character, like Walter White, but rather the pharaoh Ramses II, also called User-maat-re Setep-en-re. (The poet knew of him through a less exact, albeit more euphonious, transcription of the name.) He ruled about one generation before the period that Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and archeology at George Washington University, recounts in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press).

Today the average person is reasonably likely to know that Ramses was the name of an Egyptian ruler. But very few people will have the faintest idea that anything of interest happened in 1177 B.C. It wasn't one of the 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts” constituting the “shared knowledge of literate American culture” that E.D Hirsch identified in his best-seller Cultural Literacy (1988), nor did it make it onto the revised edition Hirsch issued in 2002. Just over 3,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic events demolished whole cities, destroying the commercial and diplomatic connections among distinct societies that had linked up to form an emerging world order. It seems like this would come up in conversation from time to time. I suspect it may do so more often in the future.

So what happened in 1177 B.C.? Well, if the account attributed to Ramses III is reliable, that was the date of a final, juggernaut-like offensive by what he called the Sea Peoples. By then, skirmishes between Egypt and the seafaring barbarians had been under way, off and on, for some 30 years. But 1177 was the climactic year when, in the pharaoh’s words, “They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident…. ” The six tribes of Sea Peoples came from what Ramses vaguely calls “the islands.” Cline indicates that one group, the Peleset, are "generally accepted” by contemporary scholars "as the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.” The origins of the other five remain in question. Their rampage did not literally take the Sea Peoples around “the circuit of the earth,” but it was an ambitious military campaign by any standard.

They attacked cities throughout the Mediterranean, in places now called Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others. About one metropolis Ramses says the Sea Peoples “desolated” the population, Ramses says, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”

Cline reproduces an inscription that shows the Sea Peoples invading Egypt by boat. You need a magnifying glass to see the details, but the battle scene is astounding even without one. Imagine D-Day depicted exclusively with two-dimensional figures. The images are flat, but they swarm with such density that the effect is claustrophobic. It evokes a sense of terrifying chaos, of mayhem pressing in on all sides, so thick that nobody can push through it. Some interpretations of the battle scene, Cline notes, contend that it shows an Egyptian ambush of the would-be occupiers.

Given that the Egyptians ultimately prevailed over the Sea Peoples, it seems plausible: they would have had reason to record and celebrate such a maneuver. Ramses himself boasts of leading combat so effectively that the Sea Peoples who weren't killed or enslaved went home wishing they’d never even heard of Egypt: “When they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.”

Other societies were not so fortunate. One of them, the Hittite empire, at its peak covered much of Turkey and Syria. (If the name seems mildly familiar, that may be because the Hittites, like the Philistines, make a number of appearances in the Bible.) One zone under Hittite control was the harbor city of Ugariot, a mercantile center for the entire region. You name it, Ugarit had it, or at least someone there could order it for you: linen garments, alabaster jars, wine, wheat, olive oil, anything in metal…. In exchange for paying tribute, a vassal city like Ugarit enjoyed the protection of the Hittite armed forces. Four hundred years before the Sea Peoples came on the scene, the king of the Hittites could march troops into Mesopotamia, burn down the city, then march them back home — a thousand miles each way — without bothering to occupy the country, “thus,” writes Cline, “effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”

But by the early 12th century, Ugarit had fallen. Archeologists have found, in Cline’s words, "that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places.” Buried in the ruins are “a number of hoards … [that] contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons and tools, some of them inscribed.” They "appear to have been hidden just before the destruction took place,” but "their owners never returned to retrieve them.” Nor was Ugarit ever rebuilt, which raises the distinct possibility that there were no survivors.

Other Hittite populations survived the ordeal but declined in power, wealth, and security. One of the maps in The Year Civilization Collapsed marks the cities around the Mediterranean that were destroyed during the early decades of the 12th century B.C. — about 40 of them in all.

The overview of what happened in 1177 B.C. that we’ve just taken is streamlined and dramatic — and way too much so not to merit skepticism. It’s monocausal. The Sea Peoples storm the beaches, one city after another collapses, but Ramses III survives to tell the tale…. One value of making a serious study of history, as somebody once said, is that you learn how things don’t happen.

Exactly what did becomes a serious challenge to determine, after a millennium or three. Cline’s book is a detailed but accessible synthesis of the findings and hypotheses of researchers concerned with the societies that developed around the Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C., with a special focus on the late Bronze Age, which came to an end in the decades just before and after the high drama of 1177. The last 20 years or so have been an especially productive and exciting time in scholarship concerning that region and era, with important work being done in fields such as archeoseismology and Ugaritic studies. A number of landmark conferences have fostered exchanges across micro-specialist boundaries, and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed offers students and the interested lay antiquarian a sense of the rich picture that is emerging from debates among the ruins.

Cline devotes more than half of the book to surveying the world that was lost in or around the year in his title — with particular emphasis on the exchanges of goods that brought the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Mycenean civilization over in what we now call Greece, into closer contact. Whole libraries of official documents show the kings exchanging goods and pleasantries, calling each “brother,” and marrying off their children to one another in the interest of diplomatic comity. When a ship conveying luxury items and correspondence from one sovereign to another pulled in to dock, it would also carry products for sale to people lower on the social scale. It then returned with whatever tokens of good will the second king was sending back to the first — and also, chances are, commercial goods from that king’s empire, for sale back home.

The author refers to this process as “globalization,” which seems a bit misleading given that the circuits of communication and exchange were regional, not worldwide. In any case, it had effects that can be traced in the layers of scattered archeological digs: commodities and artwork characteristic of one society catch on in another, and by the start of the 12th century a real cosmopolitanism is in effect. At the same time, the economic networks encouraged a market in foodstuffs as well as tin — the major precious resource of the day, something like petroleum became in the 20th century.

But evidence from the digs also shows two other developments during this period: a number of devastating earthquakes and droughts. Some of the cities that collapsed circa 1177 may have been destroyed by natural disaster, or so weakened that they succumbed far more quickly to the marauding Sea Peoples than they would have otherwise. For that matter, it is entirely possible that the Sea Peoples themselves were fleeing from such catastrophes. “In my opinion,” writes Cline, “… none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘multiplier effect.’ … The ensuing ‘systems collapse’ could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent."

Referring to 1177 B.C. will, at present, only get you blank looks, most of the time. But given how the 21st century is shaping up, it may yet become a common reference point -- and one of more than antiquarian relevance.

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Notre Dame adds study skills course and drops phys ed and swim test

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Notre Dame will require two one-credit courses for all freshmen on studying, wellness and spirituality, but will no longer demand phys ed or the ability to swim.

Essay on the way faculty members view research and teaching

When I began my career as a faculty member many decades ago, I had the good fortune to find myself in an especially distinguished department at an especially eminent research university. It was the custom of this department to gather for a faculty luncheon once a week and then to proceed to a departmental seminar in which we heard either from a visiting colleague or one of our own members. In the discussion period following the talk, questions generally had more to do with the ongoing research of the interlocutor than with the research of the speaker. Since all members of the department tended to be engaged in consequential research, the overall quality of the discussion was high -- although proceedings tended to take on a somewhat predictable, ritualized character

To be sure, department members were sincerely interested not only in their own research, but also in the research of their colleagues, and would often engage in conversation on these matters. This was known as discussing one’s “work.” Teaching was not considered a part of such “work,” even though many members of the department were dedicated, effective teachers. Teaching was basically a private matter between a faculty member and his or her students. I had the distinct sense that it would not be to my professional advantage to engage in discussion about my teaching; indeed, I sensed that it might be the conversational equivalent of a burp.

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Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner did some interesting work about the culture of faculty members and academic administrators at a liberal arts college. He was following up on Robert Merton’s general idea about the social significance of “latent,” as opposed to “manifest” roles – that is, how roles not recognized explicitly, and not carrying official titles, might be of central importance in social life.  In the academic context, manifest roles would include those of “dean,” “faculty member,” “student,” etc. The latent roles that Gouldner found especially important were those of “cosmopolitan” and “local”: roles that were not consciously recognized by overt labels, but which were consequential to the actual culture and social organization of the institution.

Cosmopolitans were those whose primary focus was their profession, as opposed to the institution where they were employed. Thus, a faculty member in this category would, for example, take a job at a more prestigious university that was stronger in his or her own field, even if it meant a lower salary. (Gouldner’s research was carried out at a time when it was apparently conceivable for a liberal arts college to offer a larger salary than a research university). Locals, on the other hand, were loyal first and foremost to the institution; they were usually not productive as scholars. At the time of Gouldner’s study, administrators generally fell into the category of locals.

Much has changed since that time. There has been, with a general move toward cosmopolitanism on the part of administrators, who have developed professional associations of their own and are more likely to go from one institution to another. As for faculty, their world has seen a widening gap between elite cosmopolitans and indentured locals -- adjuncts tied to low-paying jobs only relatively close to home, not the kind of locals who have been given any reason to develop institutional loyalty.

A question, then, for faculty members today is how best to balance concern for their profession with concern for their institution. A likely way is to care seriously and deeply for one’s students – since they are, after all, a major part of one’s vocation, in addition to paying most of the bills. And this means taking a more intentional, sophisticated approach to teaching.

To be sure, different institutions have different missions. Research universities, in particular, are crucial to the advancement of knowledge and must thus concern themselves with leading-edge science and scholarship. Even here, however, not all graduate students are themselves headed for major research universities -- far from it. Thus, graduate faculties in research universities are coming to feel responsible for preparing students for the future careers they will actually have.  In part, this will mean exploring possibilities beyond the academy. It will also mean creating effective programs for preparing graduate students as teachers for a wide range of students.

The development of such programs has been a focus for the Teagle Foundation in recent years. This has involved supporting universities in their efforts to expose graduate students to what cognitive psychology has taught us about learning; to the pedagogical approaches and styles that have proven most effective; and to which forms of assessment are most relevant to the improvement of teaching. More generally, it means leading faculty to feel that they are not only a community of scholars, but also a community of teachers.

It has been suggested that the preparation of graduate students for teaching would be well-served if there were different faculty “tracks,” with some department members being primarily responsible for preparing researchers while others are primarily responsible for preparing teachers. While it is certainly true that not all members of a department have to make the same kind of contribution to the overall success of the program, formalizing such a separation between research and teaching would simply reinforce the caste system already in place -- not to mention the fact that many distinguished researchers are also exceptional teachers and that student engagement in research is an important teaching strategy.  So, while there might be some value in having a pedagogical specialist (or more) on the roster, it is not desirable to have a tracking system that segregates teaching from research.

Here, then, is the general goal: just as faculty members would never think of being unaware of what peers are doing in the same field of research, so they should feel a comparable impulse to be aware of what their colleagues are doing in their areas of teaching. And thus, the world of higher education can become even more a true community.
 

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.

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U. Minnesota proposes plan to offer students access to course evaluations

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Students at University of Minnesota might be getting access to official student evaluation data starting this fall, potentially ending dependence on the very popular, unofficial sites that professors deride.

Essay on what hiring of Paul Krugman says about the values of public higher education

Earlier this year the City University of New York Graduate Center’s interim president, Chase Robinson, pulled off what amounts to an academic coup by snatching world-renowned economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman from the ivy clutches of Princeton University, where he had been employed for the last 14 years. Krugman’s appointment as Distinguished Professor of Economics was a huge boon for the Luxembourg Inequality Study, which is housed at the Graduate Center, as well as the general reputation of the university at large. Though most members of the CUNY community were thrilled to hear of his employment, the recent release of Krugman’s appointment letter has caused controversy both within and outside CUNY, and raises some serious questions about academic competition and the role of the public university.

Thanks to the intrepid reporters at Gawker — which, shamefully, seems to be one of the only new media outlets that still knows how to successfully write a FOIA request — we now have the full timeline and details of Krugman’s negotiation and acceptance letter. The most controversial bit of information by far is the amount Krugman was offered. CUNY’s initial and final overture was a whopping $225,000 per year, to which Krugman responded with incredulity, declaring that the terms of the offer were “remarkably generous.” Krugman even said he had to read the letter “several times to be clear.” Indeed, the amount offered to Krugman was quite generous as it exceeds that of any other distinguished professor at the Graduate Center by at least $5,000, and in many cases upwards of $75,000.

Whether or not Krugman’s scholarship and teaching ability warrant such a superior salary is certainly worthy of debate, but the real issue for most commentators is not how much CUNY will pay Krugman, but how little they are asking him to do. CUNY is essentially offering him what used to be called a sinecure. Like ecclesiastical appointments “without the care of souls,” the terms of Krugman’s contract require him to do almost nothing his first year and then teach just one graduate seminar each year for as long as he would like to stay at CUNY. This required teaching in the second year is less than half of the usual course load for most distinguished professors at the Graduate Center, some of whom teach three classes per year and advise several dissertations at a time. Whether Krugman will advise or sit on any dissertation committees remains to be seen.

It is clear from his acceptance email however, that he is interested in doing as little work as possible: “My biggest concern is time, not money — and your description of the time commitment, one seminar per year plus public events and commitments to LIS [Luxembourg Inequality Study] (which I would want to do in any case) sounds as if it’s within the parameters I had in mind.”

So, in essence, for the first two years CUNY is paying Krugman $450,000 (plus $10,000 in travel and research costs each year, and a one-time relocations cost of $10,000) to teach one seminar and to participate in public events.

On the surface this seems like an outrageous expenditure, but there is an obvious market logic at work here. It is clear that CUNY and the Graduate Center are banking on the brand recognition that a figure like Krugman bestows upon a university. As a Facebook friend of mine succinctly put it, Krugman is essentially “stuntcasting for cash,” and one has to wonder how long before his name is plastered on subway ads promoting CUNY’s “best and brightest.”

Of course, such anger is only partially well-placed, since appointments like this are not unusual and there is a strong case to be made for the intellectual and social value of such positions. After all, the public should support scholars and research. Krugman’s presence will no doubt be of great benefit to the Luxembourg Inequality Study, and his talks are a valuable tool for educating the general public on questions of economic inequality, precarity, and privatization. But Krugman is not a young unaffiliated researcher and his work requires no special laboratories or equipment to perform. In other words, Krugman does not need a university affiliation to do the work he is already doing. In fact, Krugman, who has a current net worth of $2.5 million, whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands, and who is paid quite well by The New York Times, has no need for money to fund his continued research and public advocacy.

And herein lies the contradiction through which the problem is revealed. A longtime champion of public institutions as drivers of economic equality, Krugman is now essentially colluding with administrators to take on private academic institutions in what has become a vicious cycle of competition for academic prestige and the elusive donor dollars that may or may not come with it. The more that public institutions like CUNY try to keep up with the likes of Princeton and Harvard, the more they become victims of their own ambitions, forced as they are to keep throwing money away on projects that are designed almost exclusively to draw in more donors and tuition-paying students and that provide little in the way of value to university stakeholders.

Such wasteful and ill-conceived competition is a clear abandonment of CUNY’s founding mission to educate the children of the poor and working classes of New York City and represents a serious misapplication of priorities. At a time when tuition costs are skyrocketing and public higher education relies increasingly on underpaid adjuncts — teaching full course loads for near minimum wages without health insurance or job security — spending such huge amounts for celebrity appointments is not only fiscally unsound, but morally untenable.

Krugman is a remarkable intellect and an important voice for economic equality — and most of us at CUNY are glad to have him on board — but to take from a public institution on its knees when you already have so much is ungenerous and unkind. As he wrote about his appointment to CUNY in his New York Times blog, “[I] like the idea of being associated with a great public university.” If this is true, I’d urge Krugman to quantify that esteem for CUNY by donating a significant portion of his earnings, say $100,000 a year, to a scholarship fund for students or the Professional Staff Congress welfare fund, which provides much-needed health care benefits and emergency assistance for CUNY adjuncts.

 

James Hoff teaches writing and literature in New York City. He received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2012.

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Paul Krugman

Essay on the importance of academics learning how to delegate

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Tyro Tracts

Faculty members with long to-do lists need to think about when and how to trust others with key tasks, writes Nate Kreuter.

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UConn Grad Students Get Go-Ahead on Union

Graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut, who have organized in affiliation with the United Auto Workers, won union recognition last week from the State Board of Labor Relations. The board verified that a super majority of graduate employees signed cards authorizing the Graduate Employee Union, or GEU-UAW, to represent them in collective bargaining. The unit is made up of 2,135 students, and bargaining will focus on work place issues, not academic ones. Stephanie Reitz, a university spokeswoman, said via email: “The university has been, and will continue to be, neutral with regard to this effort. Individual graduate students are free to make their own decisions.”

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Report accuses U. Colorado at Boulder administration of violating academic freedom in reaction to sexism probe

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New AAUP report accuses U. of Colorado-Boulder administrators of violating academic freedom in their reaction to a sexism investigation of philosophy department this year.

Fired Professor Accuses Wayne State of Fraud

A former assistant professor of medicine and anatomy and cell biology at Wayne State University is accusing the university of fraudulently obtaining more than $169 million in federal grant dollars in a whistleblower lawsuit, the Detroit Free Press reported. Christian Kreipke says the university falsely reported research costs, such as grossly exaggerating the cost of lab rats ($235,000 for 300) or lab technicians' salaries. Kreipke says he reported the alleged fraud, and was later fired in retaliation for being a whistleblower. He filed the complaint in 2012 and it only recently was unsealed in a U.S. District Court.

Wayne State has not been charged with any crime, although federal investigators are familiar with the case and in court documents have expressed an interest in following the lawsuit, according to the report. In a statement, Wayne State officials said: "“The author of the litigation — an individual who was terminated from his employment for research-related misconduct — has attempted to challenge his termination multiple times using several approaches. Without exception, every such attempt has failed decisively. Should Wayne State be served with this latest claim, we will defend aggressively, and we are confident that it will result in dismissal, as have all of his earlier attempts.”

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Incumbents Win AAUP Elections

Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State University, will remain  president of the American Association of University Professors for a second term, the organization announced Thursday, along with the other winners of its recent election. Fichtenbaum defeated Jane Buck, a past president of the AAUP, 2,114 to 1,964. The other top three officers also are incumbents. Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at the University of California at East Bay, will stay on as first vice president, while Susan Michalczyk, professor in the Honors Program at Boston College, remains second vice-president. Michele Ganon, professor of accounting at Western Connecticut State University, is treasurer.

All four candidates ran on a platform called “Organizing for Change,” advocating for collective bargaining for faculty where possible and building strong advocacy chapters elsewhere. A full list of vote tallies, opponents and other elections results is available here.

Via email, Fichtenbaum said that today the need for a “bigger and stronger AAUP is greater than at any time since the founding of the AAUP nearly 100 years ago. The corporate attack on public higher education has led to dramatic declines in state support for higher education and ballooning student debt, particularly for working class students and students of color. The values and principles of academic freedom, shared governance and economic security for all of the members of our profession are foundational, because they enable us to fight back against the corporate agenda and ensure that higher education serves the common good.”

Fichtenbaum added: “It is gratifying that our entire slate was reelected and I think it shows our members believe the changes we are making will help strengthen the AAUP.”

Officers serve two-year terms.

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