Archive for category Education Generally

Talking to Students

It happened again on Monday. We were talking in class about the importance of the body in Christian theology — not in any rigorous way, but I was pointing out that many Christians think that when you die you go to heaven and stay there forever. But then what about the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? If the body is the principle of individuation, then you will need a body (perhaps a “glorified” body) in order to be you. According to Christian tradition, dying and going to heaven is not the end of the story.

Anyway, prior to this discussion students were giving their opinions as to what happens after you die. Some said that you will come back in another body, perhaps even as an animal. Some thought you would come back, but only as some other human being. But, as usual, most thought when you die (if you’re good) you go to heaven forever. By the way, only a few thought some other people (bad people) would go to hell forever.

Then a couple of students asked me what I thought about it. As usual, I punted. I said, “Who cares what I think? I’m just some guy.” They insisted. I replied that I have a certain power relation to them, and that if I were to give my views either (a.) students would believe it was true because it was my view; (b.) students would not believe it, but would regurgitate it on the test in the hopes of getting a better grade by appearing to believe what I believe; (c.) students would just fixate on my beliefs to the detriment of our learning the views of some really important thinkers. One student, however, asked, “Well how about (d.), simple curiosity?”

All this brought to mind a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by my good friend, Paul Sracic, entitled, “Teach Only What You Know,” (10/11/2007). Sracic, a professor and Chair of the department of political science at Youngstown State University, was asked during one of his government classes whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election. Sracic refused to answer. Indeed, he took the fact that his students did not have any idea who he supported to be a sign that he was doing his job well. He said the college catalogue description of the course didn’t say anything about his sharing his political views, and, besides, he was no more qualified to answer that question (as an academic matter) than anyone else in any other department. He argued that in cases where knowledge (as opposed to opinion) was available, then we ought to consult the person(s) holding that expertise. But in cases where such knowledge is lacking, let everyone decide for himself. No one is an expert.

When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.

His piece elicited a great deal of commentary and criticism. While many applauded his professionalism, many others took him to task for cheating his students of something they came to college particularly to get: the informed views of teachers and scholars who’ve done some real legwork in the questions that we all face. Students, the critics argued, are not sheep, and they will not mindlessly ape their teachers. Why not tell them your views? They asked.

The more intense criticism tried to make analogies: What if they asked you your view of torture? Would you simply coyly demure? Is there not a moral imperative attached to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom? And would it not be a moral failure to refrain from making moral judgments (no matter how unpopular).?

I may have mentioned that I am no fan of the comments section of websites. However, back in the day I felt compelled to toss in my two-cents’ worth on the matter. I have reproduced those comments here, but the gist is that, while I am sympathetic to Sracic’s concerns, the university – especially in the humanities – has lost its way in exploring the great questions of existential and spiritual concern in its obsession with “professionalism.” Being a professional is important, of course, but can we professors not put ourselves as well as our learning into our work?

So today, I had to decide what to say – if anything – to my students who I put off on Monday. I was not sure what I was going to do even up to the point I opened my mouth to begin the class. But I told them about Paul, about my response, and how I did not think I was consistent with my otherwise deeply held views. I then asked them if they would like me to share my opinions about such things as life after death and other questions about which no one has any expertise – certainly not I.

For the most part, they said yes they would. One student preferred that I did not because he had had an experience with another prof who always gave his (or her?) personal view, and then students who got bad scores on papers chalked it up to their disagreement with the prof. Another student pointed out that, in effect, they trust me not to be like that. I think I can say that they really can trust me on that point.

So I told them what I think. And now, with the same trepidation, I will tell you, dear reader: What I think is both (a.) that when you die, you’re dead and (b.) that Kellie (my wife) and I will be together somehow forever and ever, that we are far more connected than physics can explain or comprehend. I have no reason to think people come back. I believe that each and every human that has ever lived is unique, a singularity as Caputo would say, and when we die the world – the cosmos – loses something. I don’t keep a scorecard for beliefs vs. knowledge. I know I don’t know what happens after death. The question for me is whether the answer to that question matters now, in this life, and if so, how? But, for what it’s worth (and it’s not much), I told them (and now you) what I think.

They asked me my religion. I told them: “Heinz 57 Varieties.” They asked me if I go to church. I told them I go to brunch or go birding. They asked my why I had trouble with the RC church. I told them I felt abandoned when I went through a crisis. They asked me if I am an atheist. I told them that I am definitely not, but that I usually act like one. They asked me a bunch of questions. I do not mean to say that anyone was truly prying, and I did not in any way “over-share,” as they say. But for a few minutes I did feel unusually vulnerable.

I found it was a bit difficult for me at times. Maybe that’s because I hide behind my persona too much. Maybe it is because I know that as today’s discussion was oriented, it was not the purpose of our class meeting. Maybe I was uncomfortable not knowing (and exhibiting that non-knowing). Maybe I didn’t like my own views, or didn’t like that I couldn’t articulate them well or explain them satisfactorily.

These kinds of questions, as you can easily see, are either personal questions (and not really part of the curriculum at all) or broadly philosophical questions that cannot be managed in soundbites. One student – one of my very good ones (in a whole class-full of very good ones) – noted that the questions raised today were “too big” and would be better discussed “over coffee.” She is right, of course. Good philosophical method dictates one should try to analyze the big questions into more manageable bites and certainly to give arguments for those views. I freely admitted I had no good arguments (although, maybe I have “arguments” of some sort…).

I will never be the guy who comes into class and wastes a lot of time talking about sports or my hobbies or spouting off my political views (I have a blog for that!). But I suppose if in the future I am asked for my opinions about such things as I usually refrain from addressing, I should consider answering if there is some way to tie it into what we’re doing (as I tried to do a couple of times even in today’s session). I think it might help deepen the trust relation that I am fortunate to have with my students. I had to trust them, or I would not have had that kind of conversation with them today.

Every class I collected a notecard from the students which includes their understanding of the key points of the day’s class and a question or two that arose for them. I read today’s notecards with particular attention. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students who offered their opinion of the day’s session as a whole indicated that it was a positive experience.

I am grateful to them, and I would not want to cheat them in any way.

Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.

[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann]

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Reply to Sracic (2007)

[The following is a comment I made in October of 2007 in response to a piece written by my friend Paul Sracic (Youngstown State University). See this post for the context.]

Like most of us most of the time, Professor Sracic is partly right. He is certainly right in attending to an underlying scruple to teach his students with prudence and fairness. Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Sracic, I’ve observed his teaching, and Respondent “dah” [one of the commenters to his post] is wrong: Sracic is a very fine teacher, indeed, and I believe popular and well-respected by his students. If I understand Sracic’s position correctly, his intentions are noble. He wants to be careful to teach his subject to students in such a way as to inform them of the relevant information about his subject but also (and especially) to help hone his students’ critical thinking skills. He hopes to teach his students in such a way as to respect their autonomy and freedom in crafting their own lives. He does not want to cheat them.

Part of his commentary here is a response to reports that surface from time to time of professors rambling on about political views instead of teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. For instance, if my kid is trying to take a course in intermediate calculus, the instructor should not spend three-quarters of the time talking about, say, the merits or a Kucinich or Keyes administration. I’ll want my money back. That non-intermediate-calculus discussion could (and even should) be held over coffee after class–extracurricular discussions between faculty and students being a not insignificant element in a rich educational experience.

So Sracic is trying to do what he’s paid to do: teach a subject in which he has developed an expertise. Any hint that he might be violating his code of ethics strikes him as unacceptable.

But would he really be violating his code of ethics by answering his student’s question about his personal political views? I think the answer in the context of a course on American politics is: not necessarily. If he were to fail to teach about the structures and processes involved in American polity, and instead tried (emphasis on try..students aren’t sheep, and Sracic does not think they are, by the way) merely to sway his students to cast their vote in a certain way, then I would think that he did not perform his job well. If, on the other hand, he were to answer his student and provide his student with his reasons for supporting Kucinich or Keyes (or whomever), this could easily constitute a teachable moment–especially if he were to encourage his students to do the same. It would then be a manifestation of an element of the democratic process: debate and deliberation.

However, there might be good pedagogical reasons for not sharing a personal view. When I taught the history of philosophy, students would often ask me which philosopher we studied I thought was “right.” I would frequently (and flippantly) answer: “We’re not here to talk about me.” It is not that I do not have views on the question. It is not that I was (merely) being coy. For pedagogical reasons, I was trying not to make things too easy for my students, trying not to let them let their guard down concerning the rhetorical force of authority and expertise. Don’t misunderstand: both I and my students knew I knew more about the various philosophers than they did. They knew I was the expert and their hard-earned money was going to pay for my expertise. But, asking “which philosopher was right” is, in itself, especially at that stage of the learning process, the wrong question to take up. And I should mention that a refusal can often incite further curiosity, which of course is pedagogically very valuable.

So for at least one (and probably both) of these reasons–some version of a professional code of conduct and pedagogical strategy–Sracic may have been right to not answer the question. But then again, he could have easily answered it for the same reasons. Either way, a teacher senstive to both the ethics of his or her profession and the techniques and strategies for success can hardly be called “not a very good teacher.”

But there is a much larger question that haunts this discussion: What is the role of the humanities in the contemporary university?

I commend to readers Anthony T. Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. His analysis can shed light on Professor Sracic’s dilemma, along with that of his critics: Does the humanities professor have the authority to teach about profound questions that do not admit of “objective” answers? Sracic might feel that he does not. Those who do often face as much (or more) criticism as some of Sracic’s respondents have leveled at him. Why is this?

Kronman, in a Boston Globe piece, writes,

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency – abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment – move to the center of debate in our society, America’s colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.

What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”

The question of who should be president is important. The answer will involve people’s understanding of the nature of government and politics, which in turn involves an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The issues raised by Sracic’s editorial and the discussion it has spurred are critically important for both the university and society.

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Why Academics’ Writing Stinks – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

via Why Academics’ Writing Stinks – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Speaking plainly is a political act

the political usefulness of a method of analysis is inversely proportional to the time it takes to explain.
wisdom from McKenzie Wark  

Once you’ve been over-educated in our academic system, it is very hard to be plain spoken. I was just discussing this problem with my sister-in-law Joan as she was getting ready to head to the People’s Climate march. She mentioned that from time to time people have shared some books and articles with her, the meanings of which she just could not grasp. Now, Joan is smarter than you are, so the fault is not hers. She is (among many other wonderful things) an activist. We intellectuals are to blame here, I think. I tried to explain the habits of mind and expression that are inculcated during graduate education (especially in the humanities), and that they are very hard to un-learn.  

Further, we — at least I — don’t want to un-learn them completely. I believe that I have learned some things, some real things, in the process of struggling with difficult books and ideas. No doubt, many of the books and ideas I had to deal with were needlessly over-complicated by the vices of academia (one of which is willful desire to be hard to understand, as a mark of “seriousness”). But sometimes, especially when you are working at the boundaries of things, where things are profound but not so clear, it is difficult to put into words what it is that you are seeing, experiencing, discovering. The boundary from prose to poetry gets crossed sometimes before we even know we’ve moved to another country. And trying to speak from that other country, trying to call back over the gulf that opened up between what you used to know and what you can now see, is hard.  

I’d like to think that, as I think philosopher John Searle (himself a plain speaker) put it, if you can’t explain it to someone else you don’t understand it yourself. But I wonder sometimes if there is no other way you can get someone to come over to where you are except to have that person walk the whole way that you did. Must there have been a shortcut? Why didn’t you find it?  

Wark’s wisdom here refers to the political value of theory. A theory — literally, a way of seeing things — may need to be as complex as the reality it is attempting to see. However, to be politically useful — for that theory to have an impact or to serve as a catalyst — it simply has to be accessible in some way to an appropriate number of political actors. Otherwise, the theory falls stillborn.  It could be accessible in the sense of readily comprehensible, or it could be accessible in the sense of serving as a slogan or rallying cry (without its being fully understood). To me, the former is to be preferred, but I admit that the latter might be more immediately effective. I would take Sartre’s existentialism as a good example of the latter, and I suspect examples could be easily multiplied.   

But if the theory is simply murk it is useless politically (if not completely).  

One effective murk generator is literary allusion. Contemporary continental philosophy (a distinctly American thing, actually) is an infamous offender. If the people you want to reach haven’t read what you’ve read, it serves no purpose to assume that they have with your writing. It does no good to rely heavily on proper names in lieu of full explanations (however much that can be a timesaver with the cognoscenti).  

A friend of mine, an august personage in the sphere of continental philosophy, once suggested that the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) ban the use of proper names at its conferences — at least for a year. There were no takers.  

And this friend of mine (I won’t embarrass him by associating his good name with mine) is a fine example of what I am driving at. I have learned a great deal from his books, and he has tried on occasion to write books for a more “popular” (read: non-academic) audience — books that I think are wonderful, really. But when I try to pass them on to others, they get little response. It is very frustrating to me. He has always made it a great point to try to make the difficult European thinkers “speak English,” as he puts it. And that has worked wonders for us graduate students and fellow academics. We owe him a debt. But his own writing — even his “popular” writing — is still too murky with allusion for the “non-academic” (read: the very, very small number of people who have read the same small set of books).  

And in times like these, when there is such a demand for philosophy to be “relevant” (and people really ought to be careful what they wish for…), all of us academic writers need to pay heed to MacKenzie Wark.


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Hello Kitty Studies

Yes, there is now the discipline of Hello Kitty Studies!

So maybe I was too hasty (see post below).

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The University is too liberal. Whaa, whaa….

There is so much glaringly wrong with this one does not know where to begin. But I will try here: the complainers call themselves “conservatives” which tends to mean, for this bunch, “libertarian,” which tends to mean unquestioning capitalist shills. Now why oh why would such persons complain that “universities have gotten less intellectual and more consumer-oriented,” and “Nowadays it’s the consumer who’s king. The consumer will tell the administration what it wants to learn”? Isn’t that a good thing – indeed, the only good thing – (to such people)? Why oh why would such people complain that “What parents seem to want is to have their kids’ credentials so they can get a job, but they don’t notice or refuse to notice that they’re paying a fortune for a really inferior product which does not educate their kids at all.”? Isn’t it the economy, stupid? (Yes, I quoted the neoliberal Clinton mantra.) Why oh why would such people fret that “the university is on the brink of self-destruction.” Isn’t creative destruction the engine of the economy? Why should it not apply to the university? Isn’t a “hacked” education a good thing?

It is the capitalist corporatization of the university that has caused that about which such people complain, not left-wing ideology (if there really were any such thing anymore). They, themselves, are responsible.

Okay, I won’t paint with the broad brushstrokes as such people do (no one is well-read, no one thinks about this matter), but I will speak to my teaching experience in the past number of years: students don’t care about “identity politics” and “gender studies” for the most part. They care about getting a job. That’s what it is all about. There is much less intellectual curiosity these days, it seems – at least in that kind of direction. The essay in question here calls race, gender, and class “arbitrary categories.” I think it seems so to my students.

If a good neoliberal education is what these authors want for our students, then I think they have little to worry about.

But I don’t think that’s all they want. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want a capitalist corporatist economy and the institutions to support it, but then complain when it turns education into another consumer-oriented commodity. They want students to read the classics, but their cherished system teaches students that the classics don’t pay. The want students to pursue history and philosophy, but don’t want students to actually ask questions (philosophy) about how the world has come to be as it is (history).

And speaking of history, there once was a kind of conservatism that worried a lot about capitalism, that it would ruin the diversity and integrity of communal life. Of course, that worry also led to reaction – and none of us wants to see that again. You can start to see the intricacy of the problem (ignored by those profiled in this piece).

They want to mock “fat studies” (a research project that has not come to any of the campuses I am familiar with). But fat costs money. Fat contributes to self-image and ideas of what matters, which has economic consequences. But God-forbid anyone studies it.

Okay, should we study fat instead of U.S. history and the Great Conversation of world philosophy? Well, if we had learned a bit more history in primary and secondary education…. Look, it is easy to tease arcane research projects (I just saw one in the paper the other day that proved – once and for all, I guess – that men will look over a woman’s body when they first engage in conversation. I would never have guessed). I probably want 1/2 of what these whiners want…but I’m willing to upend the other half that actually results in our not getting the first half we both want (or think we want – bet they didn’t waste time on trivial, bourgeois questions in Soviet universities). But I don’t think you can have it both ways.

John Leo says, “We think that there’s a lot wrong with colleges, and it goes across the board.” Who doesn’t think that? I don’t think you could find a single person in any way connected with higher education who would disagree. The trouble is finding a way to determine the root cause or causes of the troubles without lapsing into raw ideology and propaganda or reaction. As the author of this piece notes, “it’s easy to make fun of the American university or dismiss it as no longer necessary. Engaging with its problems, on the other hand, takes tenacity, conviction, and a resistance to cynicism. Most importantly, you have to believe the university offers something worth saving.” That will take some thought and questioning, not just bandwagon sloganeering.


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Recent discussion on the state of the humanities (and science)

There has been a more high profile than usual discussion about the humanities in the general press. Some links:

NYTimes: As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

New Yorker: Adam Gopnik, Why Teach English?

Wall Street Journal: Lee Siegel, Who Ruined the Humanities?

New Republic: Stephen Pinker, Science is Not Your Enemy

New Republic: Leon Wieseltier, Crimes Against Humanities

Chronicle of Higher Education: David A. Hollinger, The Wedge Driving Academe’s Two Families Apart


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