Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hasta, 2008

This is a last minute quick post to round out 2008. I'm presently waiting for party guests to arrive, all of whom will be accompanying me to Wild Bill's Juke Joint later tonight to ring in the new year. I can't say that I'm sad to see this year go... 2008 was a bit of a bear for me. As you know from an earlier post on this blog, I totalled my car a few months ago which, unbeknownst to me, was only the beginning of several hard months of trials and tribulations. In just the last week or so, I've been robbed, I've spent a night in the ER, I've had to travel through airport security in three different cities with absolutely NO form of identification, and I've been through 3 grueling days of the APA interviewing candidates (3 of whom were friends of mine) for a job in my department. Whew.

Ah well, only a few more hours and we all get a clean slate, right? Bring on 2009, I say. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to return to regular posting on this blog, which I have let languish too much in the past few months. Thanks to all of you who are sticking with this site and reading regularly... I'll do my best to repay your kindness in the coming year.

Signing out for the last time in 2008... this is Dr. J saying:
Read more. Write more. Think more. Be more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Brother v. Brother

I went to my first Memphis Grizzlies game last night. Although it was, at the final buzzer, still a 105-96 loss to the l.A. Lakers, it was one of those games in which the final score only tells half of the story. The Grizzlies led for all but about the last 2 minutes of the game. The FedEx Forum was packed. My friend and I had seats only 10 rows off the floor. (Seriously, we were so close I could hear every word of Kobe's whining to the refs.) And, for about a hot second, I really believed the game might go into OT.

But the real story of the game last night was the epic matchup between a couple of Giant Spaniard Brothers, Pau and Marc Gasol (pictured above). Pau Gasol played for the Grizzlies last year and won the NBA Rookie of the Year award before being traded to the Lakers. Now, the Grizzlies have his younger (and only slightly less formidable) brother Marc, who actually played high school basketball here in Memphis when his older brother was still a Grizzlie. There were a couple of nice one-on-one matchups between the Gasol brothers during the game, which were fun to watch. I suppose nobody ever gets too big to overcome the pure pleasure of schooling his brother on the court... not even these very big guys.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sovereign Exception

As President George W. Bush's time draws to a close, he will be spending some of his time (while he's not dodging size 10's, that is) deciding how to exercise his right to extend pardons and commutations. Just this past Friday, Bush awarded federal forgiveness to 17 "minor" criminals, 16 of which were pardons and 1 of which was a commutation of sentence. Although President Bush is, reportedly, one of the stingiest U.S. Presidents in history with regard to these awards, he nevertheless falls sqaurely within our country's long tradition of Presidents exercising the right granted to them by Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constition, which states that the President:

shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

As many of you already know, part of my dissertation work dealt with forgiveness, amnesty, pardons, clemency and other examples of personal and political exceptionalism. My research was primarily concerned with these phenomena in the context of Truth Commissions, which historically have taken place amidst extraordinary political circumstances. Of course, suspensions of the law should always be in some way "extraordinary" (from the Latin, extra ordinem, "outside the order"), so I find even the more mundane occurances of these phenomenon very fascinating. As my research work has turned more toward issues of human rights, political torture and terror, and their philosophical justifications, I find myself constantly confronted with this issue of legitimizing exceptions to the law.

But back to President Bush for a moment. As noted above, Bush is reported to be one of the "stingiest" Presidents in U.S. history with regard to his awards of pardon, clemency and commutation. If that evaluation were true (or simply true), it would suggest that, under the Bush Administration, we have enjoyed a time in which the "rule of law" was the least interrupted. If cases of pardon, clemency and commutation were the only measure of a sovereign's determination of "exceptions" to the law, then we could say that President Bush has been the one of the most lawful sovereigns in U.S. history by virtue of his reported "stinginess." But, of course, we know that is hardly the case.

What is the case, and what is both interesting and frightening about Bush's time in office, is that his reluctance to exercise his Consitutional right to suspend the law in cases of pardon, clemency and communtation has been been accompanied by an over-zealous enthusiasm for exercising all sorts of non-Constitutional rights to suspend the law, that is, to determine extra-judicial "exceptions" to the law. In Judith Butler's essay "Indefinite Detention" (from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence), she argues that the practice of "extraordinary renditions" and "indefinite detentions" are evidence of the emergence of a "new" kind of sovereignty, which is primarily justified by and arises as such only in the context of the suspesion of law and the corresponding declaration of a "state of emergency." (As an aside, I highly recommend the film Fall of Fujimori, about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, for its frightening similarity to the Bush story as well as its treatment of just the sort of "new sovereignty" that Butler analyzes.) What Buter identifies as the new sovereignty is found exactly in the sovereign declaration of "exceptions," the power of establishing a domain in which the rules no longer apply. In the suspension of their application, the power of the sovereign is both constructed and reinforced at the same time that it is exercised.

In Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben addresses just this strange relationship between the law and exceptions to the law in his analysis of sovereignty. There, Agamben writes:

"... what is excluded in the exception maintains itself in relation to the rule in the form of the rule's suspension. The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying to it, in withdrawing from it." (Homo Sacer, 18)

The point that both Agamben and Butler are making, of course, is that sovereign exceptions do not "negate" the law/rule so much as they establish the meaning and power of the law/rule as such... as something that can be excepted. The "new" sovereign power, such that it is, is the power to establish domains or determine actions/persons/spaces that can be "taken out" of the domain in which the law/rule applies. ("Excepted," from the Latin excipere, ex- "out" + capere "to take") So, what is particularly curious about Bush's "stinginess" with pardons-- which are, curiously, lawful exceptions to the law-- is that he has been anything but stingy in his determination of other exceptions, particularly ones not established by the law. He has, in effect, reversed the relationship between the rule and its exception in his exercise of non-Consitutional exceptions and, what's more, he has done so so often as to make his kind of exceptionalism the new order, the new "rule."

In sum, don't be so impressed by Bush's stinginess with pardons. Those are the least objectionable exceptions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited

As promised in my earlier post on this topic (which you can read at Blogging in the Classroom, originally posted in September), I'm back to report on my pedagogical experiment with blogging this semester. You can go back and read the earlier post if you want to know my justifications for trying this, so I won't recount them all here. However, if you're interested in seeing what the actual blogs looked like at the end of the semester, here are the links to my 3 courses: Existentialism (mostly upperclassmen and mostly majors, though I had several sophomores), Power (an topic-oriented Intro to Philosophy Seminar restricted to first- and second-year students, so mostly non-majors), and Search (this is the third semester of my college's three-semester "core humanities" course sequence, the full title of which is "The Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion"; the third semester spans from the Renaissance to the present and students are able to choose a "track" for their final Search course, so this class was the "philosophy" track of Search). Although there are a few things that I would do differently, I have to say that the experiment as a whole was a success, and I intend to implement it again in my courses next semester.

I handed out a narrative evaluation form in each of my classes at the end of the semester that was mainly designed to measure the students' experience with blogging in the classroom. One of the questions asked: "If you had it to do all over again, would you rather blog or write traditional (short or long) papers?" Out of a total 58 students, only 3 reported that they would not want to blog again. About 8 or 9 of them reported that they might prefer to write papers in addition to blogging, but those students unanimously spoke in positive terms about their blogging experience. Of the remaining students, the overwhelming majority of them were major fans of their class blogs.

But, I know that you're probably wondering about specifics. So, let's start with the negatives:
First, there were a lot of students who had quite a bit of anxiety early on in the semester about exposing their writing to the entire class. So, getting the blog activity going was a bit of a challenge at the start. I had anticipated this phenomenon and I wasn't that worried about it for a couple of reasons: (1) students were required to blog as a (significant) part of their grade, so I knew they would get over their anxieties soon enough if they didn't want to fail the class, and (2) one of the advantages of the blogs, in my mind, was that it forced students to overcome exactly this anxiety. That is, I wanted them to experience both the anxiety and the gratifications of the peer-review process, since I know that this is one particularly effective way of improving both one's writing and one's thinking. LESSON LEARNED: Sometimes negatives are positive.

Second negative: each of the class blogs had stretches of time during the semester when the activity was minimal. There was a mad flurry of activity just before the midterm and the final, mostly by the students who were trying to make sure that their "required" number of posts/comments were satisfied in time to count towards their grade. On the other hand, there were also mad flurries of activity when someone posted a particularly interesting/insightful/provocative entry, so I feel confident that even when the activity was slim, the students were still regularly checking in on their blogs. The problem here was that I gave students very loose and non-specific requirements for their blog participation (1 post and 4 comments before the midterm, 1 post and 4 comments after the midterm). My reason for this was that I wanted them to post/comment when they were interested and had something interesting to say, not just when they were "required" to complete an assignment. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I think we professors read so many bad papers-- students write much better when they have some internal motivation for writing about whatever they're writing about. That's what I wanted them to do on the blog.) LESSON LEARNED: Next time, I think I'm going to have to concede the reality that some students just need assignments. When I do this again, I'll make sure that each week at least one student is required to post.

Third negative: It's much more difficult to evaluate/grade blog-writing than it is to evaluate/grade traditional papers. Although the overwhelming majority of the blog posts/comments were quite good, in my view, I still found myself struggling between grading the students on the content of their participation and just grading them on whether or not they comepleted the required participation. Then, there was also the problem of students who did extra posts/comments... I mean, in a regular class, I wouldn't generally give out extra credits to students who independently wrote and handed in unassigned papers. (Though, to be honest, that would never happen, of course!) Students-- especially students at my college-- really crave feedback, and on the end-of-the-semester blog evaluation form, many of them remarked that they wished I had participated more on the blogs. (Incidentally, I made every effort to not do this... my reason being that one of the things I wanted them to learn was how to have critical and engaging intellectual conversations without my saying who was right and who was wrong.) Finally, even though they were repeatedly warned about this, some of the students reverted to very non-formal writing on the blogs. Of course, blogs are set up to be conversational and I was okay with that as long as the "conversational" writing was relegated to the comments section... but, alas, it sometimes creeped in more than I would have liked. So, LESSON LEARNED #1: Next time, I will probably "grade" at least the first "post" by each student in the same way that I would grade a short paper. And I will definitely reinforce (more forcefully) what I expect in terms of the formality of their blog-writing. (The good thing is that next time I will have my former class blogs to refer to in order to make these things clear.) And, LESSON LEARNED #2: I will participate on the blogs next time, at least in the first half of the semester. This won't be a hard adjustment to make, since it was often very difficult for me to refrain from jumping into some of their more interesting conversations.

Of course, there were lots of postives about blogging in the classroom as well. So, let's move on.

First positive: On the whole, my experience is that the quality of students' writing (and what they were writing about) was heads-and-shoulders above what I've gotten in the past. I attribute this largely to the fact that they got to write about things that interested them, and not only things that I assigned them to be interested in. But I also think that their writing was better because of peer pressure. I notified each of my classes that their blogs would be viewable to anyone in the world (though only members of the class were authorized to post or comment). So, not only did they have to worry about embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates, but also in front of any-old-body who happened across their little corner of the blogosphere. LESSON LEARNED: Raise the stakes for students and they rise to the challenge.

Second positive: One of my hopes for the blogs was that they would extend our conversations with each other outside of the class, so that my courses were more organically integrated into the students' lives. In that way, the blogs were a total success. On the end-of-the-semester evaluations, several of the students remarked that they were going to miss the class blogs, and a couple of the blogs have even seen activity after the official end of the semester. Also, the in-class conversations in my courses this semster were of a much higher quality, since they spent so much time outside of class talking with each other. Students emerged as real personalities with identifiable commitments and ideological persuasions, and they were able to anticipate each other's possible objections in our seminar discussions. They also raised the bar for each other-- it was a disadvantage for any one of them to come to class without having stayed abreast of the conversation outside of class. In short, they took on the "life" of real intellectuals. LESSON LEARNED: Philosophy can happen in our students' lives more than 3 hours a week.

Third positive: I really feel like my students came to understand philosophy as something applicable to the "real world." One of the advantages of blog-writing is that one can insert links, videos, images, etc. with relative ease. Imagine if your student handed in "papers" with hot-links and images! Well, that's what I got! I think it's really important for us philosophy professors to bring our discipline into the same century that the students live... which, incidentally, is the 21st (not the 20th). For whatever reason, blogging prompted students to think about philosophy in combination with the virtual and real world in which they are most comfortable (and invested), and the result of this fortunate combination was that students were able to see connections and applications of philosophical ideas in ways that often escape them. LESSON LEARNED: We're not dead yet!

Let me say, by way of conclusion to this too-long report, that I also benefited immensely from this experience. I don't think that, in general, my students view me as a stodgy, out-of-touch, dated professor... but there was something about the integration of blogging into the classroom that I think made me more accessible and human to them. They came by my office more often, they stopped me on campus to chat more often, they genuinely wanted to talk philosophy with me much, much more often. (And, not insignificantly, more of them declared themselves philosophy majors!) But, perhaps most importantly, I feel like I knew them better this semester. I mean, I came to know them as young people with real and identifiable ideas, commitments, struggles, questions, and hopes. For what was originally a half-baked experiment in pedagogy, that's one very fine pay-off.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When It's Not Funny Anymore

A mere 37 days before leaving office, our Lame-Duck-in-Chief President Bush was all the news yesterday. During a press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shiite Iraqi journalist (Muntadar al-Zeidi) stood up and threw one of his shoes-- and then the other-- at President Bush's head, missing Bush by a hair both times. Al-Zeidi is reported to have shouted in Arabic: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." He was quickly wrestled to the ground by a hoard of Secret Servicemen and Iraqi journalists before President Bush composed himself and quipped: "All I can report is it is a size 10."

Strangely enough, I do not find this story funny at all. I find it embarrassing, and sad, and frustrating... a depressingly acute reminder of how far our country has fallen in the esteem of the world. The Leader of the Free World is a laughing stock and, what's worse, an oblivious laughing stock. I have no particular nostalgia for the "Founding Father" type, but seriously, whatever happened to statesmanship? Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office?

There are a lot of things to complain about in the last 8 years: the rolling back of civil (and human) rights, the pandering to corporate and capitalist interests that have decimated our economy, the unchecked hubris of American neoimperialism, the assault on science and good sense in the name of "values," the legitimated disdain for diplomacy, the wars. As Hugh Laurie said in his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live this weekend: "What an amazing year it's been. On the plus side, you've had the most exciting election in the history of American politics. And, I suppose, on the minus side... everything else."

One of the things that I look forward to most about Obama's presidency (and, to be honest, this would have been true of McCain too, I think) is the return of some modicum of decorum and stateliness to the Office of the President. Frankly, I just don't have it in me to laugh at episodes like Bush's shoe incident anymore. As cynical and sardonic as I may wish to be, as much delight as I may want to take in that circus show, it's just too old and too tired and too disappointing now. I'm ready for a change I can believe in.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The M**ket

While just about everyone else is full of yuletide joy, this is a dreaded time of year for philosophers. It's Job M**ket time. (The very word conveys so much Sturm und Drang that it feels like a profanity.) I imagine that this year is even more ulcer-inducing than years past because of the depressed economy and numerous "canceled" searches, but it's bad every year. The next week or so is particularly bad, because philosophy job candidates are waiting for the phone to ring with APA interview invitations, which are the first measure of one's chances of being employed next year. Two years ago, when I was on the m**ket, I was spending this time pathologically checking the Philosophy Job Wiki and reacquainting myself with my Magic 8-Ball. Fortunately, I landed on my feet (and employed) after it was all over, but I remember well the misery.

This year is my first time on the other side of the process, and I can report that it's not much better from this vantage point. We received over 300 applications for our position. That means, if everything else were equal, each applicant would have only a 0.oo3% chance of getting the job. That's 3 thousandths of a chance. But everything else isn't equal, of course. Many of the applicants don't fit the job description; many of them don't look like they'll finish their PhDs in time; many of them aren't the "liberal arts" type. Even still, after all of those obvious cuts are made, the chances of any one of them getting the job are still depressingly slim.

In fact, when I first saw the complete array of boxes that held the applications, my first thought was: How does anyone ever get a job??!! (Followed closely, of course, by: How in the world did I get a job??!!) The truth is, most of the applicants are qualified. They're PhDs or very close to it. They have interesting research projects and evidence of good teaching. They've published. They are reported to be good colleagues. So, in the end, it seems to come down to finding the right "fit" for our department.

And there's the rub.

I was on the m**ket recently enough to remember how much is riding on what I am doing now, so I'm probably a more sympathetic reader of files than your average search committee member. Even still, no matter how much I try, I know that the odds are that I will somehow miss a "gem" amidst the 300+ files. So, I want to extend my sympathies and encouragement to my many friends who are on the m**ket this year. Here's hoping your file rises to the top, and survives to the end.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The "Public" Intellectual

Many of you probably read Daniel Drezner's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about the decline of public intellectuals ("Public Intellectual 2.0"), in which Drezner wants to contest the presumed Götterdämmerung that many--like Francis Fukuyama, Russell Jacoby and Daniel Bell--- believe began in the 1950's and has yet to abate. Specifically, Drezner takes to task what Jacoby called the "professionalization and academization" of public intellectuals, which Jacoby contends has erected a wall between intellectuals and the hoi polloi.

What is Drezner's evidence to the contrary? Why, blogs, of course.

Drezner writes:
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

I think Drezner's onto something here. Thanks to the almost ubiquitous internet-access these days, blogs have certainly torn down many of the walls that the Academy has traditionally erected. Drawing an equivalence between "blogging intellectuals" and "public intellectuals" may require some serious massaging of our traditional sense of the "public" realm... but perhaps less massaging than we think. In fact, I would contend that the blogosphere--because it allows contact and exchange with individuals one would not otherwise encounter--greatly expands the "public" realm of ideas. What's more, the blogosphere has become the new garden of critique, in which sometimes-vitriolic-but-often-astute criticism can reach across disciplinary (and sometimes language) barriers. Drezner continues:

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

For all the moaning and gnashing of teeth we hear about the declining quality of published material, one wonders whether or not the no-holds-barred "quality control" enacted in the blogosphere serves as a harsher, but possibly more effective, model of "peer reviewing" these days. I've employed blogging in each of my classes this semester, and I've been tremendously impressed with the way that students "check" each other's ideas and the presentation of those ideas, which is one particularly effective way to hone critical thinking skills. Sometimes bad ideas are like porn-- hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Memphis! We Got It!

A friend of a friend who is a student at MCA (Memphis College of Art) made this "promotional" video for our fair city. I love it.

What I'm Listening To

One of the things that I miss in this insanely-busy-semester of mine is my regular Sunday night gig as the hostess of "Americana the Beautiful" on Rhodes Radio. When I was in grad school, I had a lot of music-loving friends with whom I could endlessly talk about and trade tunes. (Miss you, Kyle!) Now those friends are spread far and wide, so the conversations are fewer and further between, though I can thankfully check in with Christophresh on a pretty regular basis through his website, which always has good stuff on it. So, I thought I'd share what I'm listening to these days (and a little bit of why).

First, Ryan Adams & The Cardinal's Jacksonville City Nights. I actually came to Ryan Adams a little late, which is weird since he is for all intents and purposes the Avatar of Americana Music. I had pretty much stuck to his solo albums and some of the Whiskeytown stuff, but I recently decided to give the Cardinals a try. I tried first with the album Cold Roses, which I did NOT love. That was a disappointment... but I'm a girl who believes in second (and third, and fourth, etc.) chances, so I asked around and learned that I should've been listening to Jacksonville City Nights. Much better. JCN has just the right amount of pedal-steel (the instrument that I've always said most closely approximates the human cry), just the right amount of sadness, just the right amount of foot-tapping honky-tonk. I particularly like "My Heart Is Broken," which showcases the kind of simple-and-true songwriting at which Ryan Adams excels. All the tracks are tight, compact gems-- none of the indulgent stuff that's on Cold Roses. So, this one has been on regular rotation lately.

At night, and when I need non-lyrics-driven music to read by, I've been listening to Ennio Morricone's briiliantly composed soundtrack to the film The Mission.
The film The Mission is one of my most favorite of all time. But the soundtrack is, quite simply, some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. It's hard for me to judge whether or not the music is that beautiful all by itself or whether I subconsciously associate it with the film's story... but, either way, I must have listened to this album about a thousand times and it still gives me goosebumps. Before hearing this album for the first time, I don't think I could have picked the sound of an oboe out of a horn section, but now I understand the haunting lonesomeness of that little wind instrument. And the track "Vita Nostra" is a tour de force.

Getting the most play on my iPod these days is The Very Best of Solomon Burke. Solomon Burke is one of the cornerstones of the old "Philly soul" sound, which I love because it reminds of all the ways that Philly reminded me of Memphis when I was living there. You probably know Burke best for the song "Cry To Me", featured in one of the sexy scenes of the film Dirty Dancing. Well, imagine that song times 15 and you've got The Very Best of Solomon Burke. This album's got it all-- love songs, breakup songs, cheating songs, missing-you songs, momma-told-me-better songs-- ALL OF IT. There's a horn section, there's a Hammond B3 organ or two, there's doo-wop girls and boys in the background... and then there's Mr. Burke. Classic. I seriously can't get enough of this.

Finally, I'm sad to report, I think I'm almost ready to conclude that Lucinda Williams' Little Honey is a pretty major disappointment. Now, it really, really hurts me to say that... but I've been a Lucinda fan for as long as I can remember and I gotta keep it real. There's a lot of rough-and-raunchy "rockers" on this album, like "Honey Bee," which sound like Lucinda was secretly working out some contest between herself and some of the younger alt-country phenoms (see: Ryan Adams). The rockers are at the same time too loose and too forced, which makes for a sound that sounds like it's trying too hard to sound like it's not trying too hard. (Get that? Good.) Then, there are songs like "Tears of Joy" that sound like previous Lucinda tunes ("Long For Your Kiss" to be specific) that have been thrown on a paper plate, warmed in the microwave, and re-served. (For the record, the song "Knowing" is definitely one of these re-heat and re-serve songs, only I can't quite place which previous song of hers that it sounds like.) And I wonder what she was thinking when writing songs like "If Wishes Were Horses" (next line:"...I'd have a ranch"). Really, Lucinda? REALLY? There's a very fine line between eccentric songwriting and bad poetry. A Very. Fine. Line. Finally, the song "Rarity"-- hilariously misnamed, since it runs a whopping 9 minutes long-- is just plain indulgent overkill. There are a couple of good tracks on Little Honey ("Plan to Marry" and "Well, Well, Well"), but on the whole, it's a bit of a haul to get through. I might give Little Honey a couple of more listens just to be fair, but I am very soon heading back to Lucinda's Live @ the Filmore double-album, which is her at her best.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Church, Memphis Style

I'm back.

I'm also clearly making regular payments on some karmic debt these days. I can't exactly pinpoint what I did to merit the utter mayhem of this year, but I suspect it has something to do with my remarking one too many times last year about how happy I was with my life back in Memphis. A lot of people in our line of work comment on how difficult the first year is for new faculty-- new location, new people, transition from grad school life, etc., etc.-- and I was happy to report that I was blessedly spared many, if not most, of those standard first-year obstacles. I was back in a city that I knew and loved, I didn't have to find my way around or make new friends, I wasn't teaching some god-awful 4/5 load, I had great students and colleagues... in sum, things were pretty good.

And then the other shoe dropped.

So, I'm here to report that the sophomore year is also a tough one. In my case, there are a lot of contingencies that have come into play this year that have made things much more difficult than my first year. I had a wreck and totaled my car. Our department is hiring. I got my first batch of advisees this semester. I've been introduced to the myriad delights of "committee" work. I managed to catch every single illness that my little Typhoid-Mary-students have been passing around. I've somehow lost my voice about once every other week this semester. Oh yeah, and I'm still trying to write this damn book.

But, enough of the whining... here's a "good" story.

As many of you know, Wild Bill's is about my single favorite place on the planet. It's one of the last surviving juke joints in the Delta, named after Willie Storey, who died last summer. I've been going to Wild Bill's for [mumble, mumble] years, and since I've been back in Memphis, I've resumed my regular attendance. I regularly sit in with the band and sing at Bill's, as I've done for many, many years, and I realized recently that I've been friends with some of the band members (they're called the Soul Survivors) longer than just about anyone else I know. [Funny aside: I was away from Memphis, and away from Bill's, for 6 years while I was in grad school. Two summers ago, the first time I walked back into Bill's, the bass player turned to me and said, "Hey, haven't seen you in a while. Where you been?"] Here's a picture of Bill's with Bill in the doorway:

And here's a better picture of Wild Bill/Willie. The bass player to the right is my good friend Melvin.

There really aren't words for what this place means to me. It's like my "church." It doesn't matter how tired or stressed or anti-social I'm feeling, I need to go to Bill's to get restored. A couple of weeks ago, after singing a set with the band, Bill's wife came up and asked me if I had a job. I said I did, of course, not really knowing where she was going with this. Then she said, "well, honey, if you ever decide that you want to take over the Friday night set here as the singer, it's yours." That might be the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. No kidding. And then, the next week, I was sitting at my regular table in the back with some friends, and we were looking at all the pictures on the wall. (Wild Bill's walls are covered in pictures of people who have been going there since it opened.) Out of the blue, one of my friends says, "hey, Leigh, the girl in this picture looks like you with long hair." So, I looked, and as I'm sure you've guessed, it WAS me. It was me about 15 YEARS AGO!!!

Once I got over the embarrassment of the picture, I realized that Wild Bill's has been about the most consistent element in my life for almost half of the years I've been alive. It's the one place in the world that I can go and know that I will see people I know and love, and it's the one place that I know I will leave happy. Wild Bill's has changed a lot over the years that I've been going there, and some of those changes haven't been good. Bill died, of course, which was awfully sad. And the place is overrun by a lot more tourists than it used to be back in the day. Also, I occasionally see my students there these days, who almost always are fronting and say something like "Dr. J! I didn't know you came to Wild Bill's!" (like they go there all the time). What I want to say to them is, "If you came here at all in the last 15 years you would know that, so don't make me embarrass you in front of your friends." But I don't say that.

Anyway, Bill's has been my saving grace this semester. God Bless Wild Bill's.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama's Victory Speech (November 4, 2008)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Who Is The Decider?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Still here...

Several of you have written to me recently inquiring after my absence here on the blog. So, I wanted to let you all know that I am, in fact, still alive.

I was in a fairly nasty auto accident about a week ago. (See my poor, beloved, now "totaled" car to the left.) Short story: a woman ran a red light and placed her SUV in my lap. I was pretty banged- and bruised-up, but no broken bones, so I've just chalked this little adventure up to the inevitability of encountering disaster in the company of Memphis drivers. (The cop at the scene offered this sage reflection: "Well, honey, I guess it was just your turn.") The only "good" thing to come out of this was that there was a policeman sitting at the red light THAT THE OTHER DRIVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN STOPPED AT, so there's no dispute about liability. Even still, I have to find a new car-- preferably, one without an accompanying car note-- and I have to spend way more time than I have to spare dealing with this mess.

I will return to the blog shortly. Thanks for your concern. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Blogging in the Classroom

I'm trying out a new pedagogical technique in all of my courses this semester. I've set up a blog for each course and have required students, as a part of their grade, to contribute regularly to those sites. In one of my courses, blog posts and comments are the only writing students are required to do, though the total amount of writing (in word-count) is equal to what I would have them write anyway. In the other two courses the blog contributions are supplements to more traditional writing assignments (like a seminar paper). I will admit that at least part of my motivation for experimenting in this way was to try to bring philosophy coursework into the 21st century... but that wasn't my chief reason.

My real justification for this experiment is two-fold. First, I think one of the chief advantages of a "class blog" is that it provides a space for maintaining a consistent and uninterrupted conversation about the subject matter outside of the regularly scheduled "class time." I'm sure all of us hope that our students carry their reflections on the course material with them when they leave the classroom and, if we're really hopeful, we probably imagine them talking about these sorts of things in their dorm rooms, over lunch or beers, at parties. I suspect that some, maybe many, of them do this... but the truth is that students today are overburdened with extra-curricular activities and commitments (at my institution, they're called "co-curricular" activities and commitments), so there are numerous artificially-imposed limits to the attention students can direct at any one particular subject. So, my requirement that students participate in and keep up with their class blog is a bit of a ham-handed way of forcing them to see their work in my class as extending beyond the 3 hours that they spend with me every week. Also, and not unrelatedly, I have learned over the years that students often spend their time in class absorbing and attempting to process new material, which means that they often can't formulate something reflective to say until after class is over. How many times have we all had that experience where a student comes and speaks with us during office hours and says something particularly astute and relevant, prompting us to ask why didn't you make this comment in class??!! The blog allows for just this sort of lag-time, giving students a chance to come back and make that comment that didn't occur to them until class was over. Philosophy is best done in conversation, and no "natural" conversation has a 50- or 75-minute time limit. The blog also allows for semi-tangential or moderately-relevant contributions, which we often need to squash in class but which make for a deeper and more comprehensive consideration of the material.

Second, the more you write, the more you write. Because blog-writing requires not only "posting" (equivalent to "essay" writing) but also "commenting," students end up writing more often... and just plain more. I'd like to say something like "the more you write, the better you write," but of course that is not always the case. Nevertheless, developing the habit of writing regularly is one particularly effective way, in my view, to improve one's writing. An added advantage of blogging is that everything that students write for the course is subject to the scrutiny of the entire class (rather than just me, as the "grader"). My experience so far this semester is that students' writing is of a higher quality because they know that everyone will be reading it. There is less misspelling, less sloppy grammar, less weak argumentation. And, in a sense, everyone must "edit" his or her ideas in response to the comments of his or her classmates, which is another invaluable writing skill. Although I was initially worried that blog-writing, because of it's shorter length, would result in incomplete or merely pithy essays, I find that this limitation in fact forces students to distill and focus their thoughts into the fewer words they are allowed. So, gone is all of the "fluff" material that we often find in student papers (biographical information, long quotations, irrelevant opining, repetitive argumentation). And finally, students at last are allowed to view their writing as a manner of engaging ideas and other people, as another way to have a conversation, rather than some purely utilitarian tool in the service of a grade.

For those who are wondering about the "nuts and bolts" of this practice, here's how my class blogs work: Each course has a blog (here, here and here, on Blogger) that is "public" in the sense that anyone in the world can view it, but "private" in the sense that only members of the class are authorized to post or comment. Students have a set number of posts and a set number of comments that they are required to complete before the mid-term, and another number of posts and comments that must be completed after the mid-term. Participation above and beyond the minimum requirement is rewarded. There is a minimum word-count for posts. Post authors are responsible for responding to any direct question or challenge that appears in the comments to their posts. And, finally, I don't grade each post individually, but rather I give a "blog participation" grade at the midterm and again at the end of the semester based on the quality and quantity of the student's writing.

So far, I'm happy with the results of this experiment, though I intend to evaluate its effectiveness again at the end of the semester, as well as distribute a "student survey" to gauge students' experience with the blogs. Even if this fails, we at least will have saved some trees this semster!

UPDATE: Read the post-semester follow-up post: Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The "Handwriting" of College Radio

Yesterday, in my capacity as the faculty advisor for Rhodes Radio, I was a part of the committee charged with interviewing and selecting the next General Manager for the radio station. Because our little Rhodes Radio is still in its infancy stage, in a town with an abundance of colleges/universities yet a paucity of independent/college radio stations, the selection of our next (read: "second") General Manager was an important one. I was relieved to find that the two student finalists were both excellent candidates for the position, and they both gave impressive and mature interviews, which made the decision extremely difficult.

One (of many) reasons that it was so difficult to pick a General Manager for Rhodes Radio is that we needed someone not only with discipline, leadershp, time-management skills, and the ability to navigate a tremendous amount of stress, but we also needed someone with a "vision." As we all know, independent/college radio is an endangered species-- but it's a quirky, strange, and beautiful little animal that I, for one, don't want to see die. The students who are in college now are probably one of the last generations that will remember what it was like to listen to the radio... and that memory is fading fast, even for them. This is too bad, really, because the current college-age generation is also extremely savvy about their musical tastes. They listen to a broader and more diverse range of tunes, partly as a result of being able to surf-and-compile their own "playlists" rather than listening to the repetitive cycles of commercial hits by corporate radio stations (almost all of which are beholden to contracts with record labels and long ago lost anything resembling a "love" of music). But the problem, of course, with this current generation's music-listening habits is that they have become more and more solipsistic, more and more isolated, more and more individualized and, consequently, less and less communal.

College radio is the last bastion of that old, paradoxical approach to broadcasting, which is both "independent" and "communal." That is, college radio is the last place where "communal" doesn't mean "commercial," and "independent" doesn't mean "idiosyncratic." In my view, it requires a fairly sophisticated sensibility to get this, even more to implement and sustain it, and I do not envy the job of the General Managers whose charge it is to do that.

You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to find that our new General Manager at Rhodes Radio "gets" it. Not only does he get it, but he can articulate it, and he seems to have some pretty good ideas about how to achieve it. It's always a risk to go with the "big idea" candidate, because he or she is invariably untested and, hence, unproven. But let me tell you what won me over in this case: In his application, which included an essay describing the candidates' "vision" for the radio station over the next two years, he listed all of the requisite "pragmatic" plans that need to be implemented (fundraising, standardization, promotion, etc.)... but he spent most of his essay explaining why college radio matters and what it should be. He noted the "sense of smart independence" that mainstrem radio cannot and does not offer, and "the DIY vibe that only non-commercial, volunteer radio provides." He described college radio as "the box in the middle of town that gives anyone with something to say a place to stand up and have their voice heard." And then there was this:

Few people on campus get hand-written letters anymore, and yet e-mailboxes are bursting at the seams. Let’s remember what handwriting looks like. Let’s humanize music again Let’s get back to our mix-tape days, where music told you something about the person and the way they worked. Let’s provide students an alternative to their computer-screen-headphone-personal-playlist mentality by making the musical experience more communal than individual.

Yeah, that's something I can believe in. What's more, I think that sort of vision is about the only way to keep college radio alive and flourishing. Because, the truth is, college radio doesn't run on money (which we don't have) or technological innovation (which we can't afford) or mass appeal (which would require a bigger antenna, which we don't have and can't afford), but rather college radio runs on the passionate investment of people who believe in it, who work hard for it, who don't want to see it die, and who care that it still bears the mark of their community's handwriting.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Trouble with Rapture

With Hurrican Ike, Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, and the sale of Merril Lynch to Bank of America, it was pretty rough last weekend in the news. So, you may be interested to learn that according to The Rapture Index, which is a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity," we're sitting at a very uncomfortable level of 162. (Anything above 160 is practically apocalyptic.) The rapture, of course, is a central component of Christian eschatology, and it refers to a future event in which it is believed that Jesus Christ will descend from heaven and judge the quick and the dead in advance of his establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. According to Paul's first epistle to the Thesssalonians, believers will literally be swept up into the clouds to join Jesus... and the rest of us will be left, damned, wondering where they went.

Like many people who grew up in the church, I suspect, the rapture was a mysterious, frightening, and practically ubiquitous imaginative possibility in my youth. I remember watching a movie about the rapture in church camp one summer, in which the film's protagonist (a young girl about my age at the time) wakes up to find everyone in her family missing from her home. (As predicted in Scripture, the rapture had come "like a thief in the night.") It was creepy and utterly terrifying to me, and I'm sure it inspired my taking serious inventory of my pre-teen soul. I suppose there are a range of intensities with which one can believe in the rapture, but for "true believers" (who must be seriously distrbed by our current "162" ranking on the Index) this always-anticipated but never-precisely-anticipatable event adds a level of urgency and magnitude to all of our otherwise mundane actions and experiences.

There's been a lot of harping on Sarah Palin recently for her belief in creationism. Last December on this blog, I offered a criticism of then-Presidential-candidate Mitt Romney's creationism in a post titled "The Trouble with Fossils." I was particularly disturbed by Romney's (ultimately untenable) claim that "to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn't part of the process which we should be using to select presidents." Of course, the "specific book of the Bible" to which Romney was referring is Genesis, and the "specific belief" that he felt should not be an element in our selection process is creationism. I argued that Romney had missed the Good Judgment Boat on two counts with that remark: first, by believing in a literalist rendering of the Biblical creation account and, second, by believing that such beliefs are irrelevant criteria in the process of selecting a President.

As I hope was obvious in that earlier post, my criticism of Romney was directed less at his particular beliefs about the origin of the world, but rather primarily at his beliefs about (1) what constitutes "good judgment" and (2) the role that our evaluations of candidates' powers of judgment should play in the election process. To believe that the world and all that is in it was created in a span of six days and nights, all scientific evidence to the contrary, is a manifest demonstration of bad judgment. But I can imagine ways in which this sort of judgment-- IF we consider it as a judgment of meaning and not a judgment of fact-- may serve other, quasi-justifiable ends in one's life. So, even though I would seriously question the judgment of any candidate who regularly disregards the legitimacy of scientific truth, my skepticism might be somewhat assuaged by the realization that s/he at least judges the world in which we live to be a meaningful and purposive place.

Belief in the rapture, on the other hand, bothers me both as a judgment of fact and as a judgment of meaning. I do not want the Leader of the Free World, with his or her finger on whatever "button" might destroy said world, to believe (1) that this world is a fallen and temporary place, (2) that the "end" of this world is an event to be welcomed and possibly facilitated, and (3) that his or her eternal happiness is being postponed by the perpetuation of this world. In short, I don't want a "Rapture-Ready" President. In fact, I want a President who is absolutely terrified by the prospect of the rapture, and who instead focuses his or her energies on bringing about justice in this world. I want a President who sees the troubles of our times as problems to be solved, not signs of the apocalypse.

And, pace Romney, I think this process of judging candidates' powers of judgment is exactly the process we should be using to select a President.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

R.I.P. David Foster Wallace

Novelist, MacArthur "genius" and postmodern wunderkind, David Foster Wallace, was found dead in his home on Friday night after hanging himself. He was only 46.

I know that just a week ago I was poking fun at the cult-status of Wallace's Infinite Jest. I feel bad about that now. So, let me say for the record that one of the things that I most admired about Wallace was that he somehow managed to find and maintain that delicate balance between a skeptical, disillusioned and exceedingly-academic nihilism on the one hand, and a probative, resilient and thoroughly genuine belief in the inherent meaning and meaning-making genius of humanity on the other hand. Wallace was exactly the sort of "postmodern" with whom I am the most sympathetic, and about whom the right-wing critics of postmodernism understand nothing-- that is, the sort of guy who believes wholeheartedly that "the Emporer wears no clothes" and yet still recognizes that Emperors are people, too, and it must really suck to be caught out there in front of everybody all naked and vulnerable like that.

From a commencement address that he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Friday, September 12, 2008

In Praise of "Very Short Introductions"

This semester, I've decided to use a few of the texts from the Very Short Introductions Series published by Oxford University Press in my courses. These very small, very cute, and very inexpensive little books, according to OUP, offer "concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects." There are almost 200 titles in the series now, ranging from very broad topics like "Ideology," "Globalization" and "Sexuality," to more specific topics like "Medical Ethics" and "Chance Theory," to topics that focus on a single figure like "Mandela" or "Foucault" or "Darwin." My experience with this series so far has been that the "very short introductions" (hereafter, VSI's) that address topics about which I am already familiar seem like fair, even if cursory, treatments of their subject matter. And the VSI's that address topics about which I am not familiar have, in fact, fulfilled the promise of their title, providing very useful bibliographies as well as a broad conceptual map to help in navigating the new material.

One of the challenges of teaching "intro to philosophy" courses, which tend to be organized as historical "survey" courses, is that they can often feel self-defeating. That is, many students come to intro courses without much (or any) experience with what it means to read or write or think "philosophy," and they are then bombarded with the details of Descartes' Meditations, or Kant's Groundwork, or Plato's Republic without any sort of meta-structure in which to situate these figures and arguments and assign them real importance. For many students, in my experience, intro "survey" courses end up requiring them to memorize material-- what are the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative? What is the ontological proof for the existence of God?-- that doesn't have any meaningful "uptake" (to use Austen's term). So, predictably, they forget the details of philosophy as soon as the course is over and, what's worse, they don't get much sense of what "philosophy" is apart from those details.

The VSI's are helpful in getting students to the thinkers by way of the ideas, instead of the other way around. So, I'm peppering them in with the regular, orthodox tomes as an experiment this year. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Is he still around?

There are plenty of nut-jobs out there who dominate the news for a brief time, then sort of fade away. While they're laying low, it's easy to forget about them-- until they raise their ugly heads again and show up on something like VH1's The Surreal Life. Such is the case with David Duke (pictured left, in all his glory), who is a former Lousiana State Representative, a former Presidential candidate and, oh yeah, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke is not going to star on The Surreal Life-- which is perhaps unfortunate, because I wouldn't mind seeing him go mono y mono with someone like Pepa or Janice Dickinson-- but he is crawling out of his hole again.

In one of the most brilliantly titled articles I've read in a while-- "Racist A-Holes to Gather in Memphis for Convention"-- I learned that, just 4 days after the Presidential election, Duke and his cronies will be coming to Memphis "to say clearly that neither Black Radical, Barrack Obama [sic], nor Mr. Amnesty, John McCain truly represent the will of the American people." On Duke's website (which I am not linking to on purpose), I learned that their conference is called the "European American Conference" and also that "college students will tell you that a university education today is a guilt-trip for whites."


Monday, September 08, 2008

2 years and 10K people

Sometime last night, this blog received its 10,000th visitor. Crossing the 10K mark seems like a big deal, though I know that there are plenty of blogs out there that get that many visitors in a day. Even still, the event arrived at a serendipitous time, as this week also marks the 2-year anniversary of my blog.

I wanted to extend my sincere gratitude to those who have stuck with this blog over the last couple of years. As Prof. Grady once said, the life of a blog really happens in its "comments"-- and that has definitely been the case here. In the true spirit of this site, you visitors (and lurkers) have motivated me to read more, write more, think more and be more. Thank you.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Wake Up!

I'm teaching a course on "Existentialism" this semester, which is not only one of my favorite philosophical movements, but also one of my favorite things to teach. As I've said to my colleagues many times before, existentialism is the one philosophy that seems to have been created for 18- to 25-year-olds. The list of existentialist themes and tropes read like a "Greatest Hits" of philosophy. Freedom. Death. Angst. Identity. Alienation. Authenticity. Teaching existentialism to undergraduates is like handing out candy to babies. It's probably not that good for their (mental) health, but it's so, so very tasty and delicious.

For a lot of us, there came a point in our educational journey when we learned that existentialism was passé, and we were encouraged to quickly dispatch with it if we intended to do "serious" philosophical work. It's difficult for me to explain exactly why or how this happens... even in my own case. I suspect that it has something to do with the reductive and cartoon-y version of existentialism that is hocked in a lot of philosophy classrooms (and conferences), which tends to (mis)represent existentialism as a school of naive beliefs in "the subject" and his or her "absolute freedom." Or it may be a result of existentialism's undeniable "popular" appeal, which is always a black spot in the opinion of The Academy. Or maybe it's because existentialism, strictly speaking, was one of the most short-lived philosophical "movements" in history. (If you mark existentialism's beginning with Jaspers and Heidegger in the 30's and it's end with the "death of the subject" in the late 60's... well, that's only about 3 decades, if you're being generous!) Whatever the real reasons for its dismissal are, I find myself seriously questioning them whenever I teach existentialism again.

Last week, we were covering Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in my class, a text which almost always reveals something new to me whenever I re-read it. This time around, I was struck by Kierkegaard's account of the churchgoer who, upon hearing his or her preacher's sermon on Abraham's binding of Isaac, falls asleep. Kierkegaard lambasts any version of watered-down Christianity that transforms the horrible and horrifying story of Abraham and Isaac, in which the "father of faith" can only be "understood" as a murderer or a madman, into some easily digestible morality tale. Kierkagaard asks what should be the obvious questions: how can Abraham serve as the Christian model of faith? And, if he is the model of faith, how can we (Christians) not be shocked and horrified by that implied imperative? And, more importantly, why in the world does this story not keep us up at night?!!

I suppose there's a sense in which I want to ask the same questions about existentialism that Kierkegaard asks about Christianity. When did those texts and thinkers get so "watered-down" and hackneyed that we practically fall asleep when reading them (or induce sleep when teaching them)? This query is not unrelated to my last post, in which I suggested that we should not give up on the possibility that college courses can be life-changing. But nobody's life gets changed if they're asleep, or bored, or so busy with skills-aquisition that they can't muster the energy for serious self-reflection. Kierkegaard is right, I think, to argue that the only catalyst for "being more" (or, at the very least, "being differently") is to be shocked out of complacency. For some students, the texts themselves will bring about that transformation... but for the rest, we teachers must wake them up and keep them awake.

And that means that we have to be awake first.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Drinking the "Liberal Arts" Kool-Aid

I know, I know. I should be writing about Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I'm still shocked and dismayed that I didn't see one single non-white face in the Convention audience on television last night. And I'm also still amused that, at one point, the television cameras were panning the Convention floor, and one of the signs that read "Country First" was partially blocked so that it looked like it read "...try First." That cracked me up.

Instead, I want to weigh in on "the first-year college experience," which is the topic of a couple of interesting posts at Perverse Egalitarianism ("Welcome to College. May I Take Your Order Teach You Something?") and Dead Voles ("The Wonders of College"). Both Mikhail and Carl make short work of dispatching with whatever romantic notion we might have of the "first-year college experience," which most of us believe to be eye-opening, mind-expanding, and life-changing for our young charges. According to a study conducted by sociologist Tim Clydesdale, discussed in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, very few fresh college students experience any change in their identities, values, religious or political views during their first year. Rather, according to Clydesdale:

Most of the mainstream American teens I spoke with neither liberated themselves intellectually nor broadened themselves socially during their first year out... What teens actually focus on during the first year out is this: daily life management.

So, Clydesdale warns, don't expect your first-year students to climb atop their desks and yawp "O Captain, my Captain!" They're too busy trying to figure out how to balance the demands of life without parental control: studying, partying, working, making friends, managing finances, waking up on time. And while they're doing that, they're keeping the characteristics that have defined them so far in what Clydesdale calls an "identity lockbox."

Of course, this can't be true of all first-year students, and Clydesdale acknowledges that a (very) few of them do in fact have the deep and profound experience that college brochures promise. But the sorts of students who are inclined towards peripeteia and anagnorisis are basically just little versions of us and, according to Clydesdale, most of them grow up to be professors just like us. This is how we keep the dream alive.

In the end, Clydesdale advises that we basically give up on that dream. Stop telling first-years that your course is going to expand their world-view, because it probably won't. Instead, he advises that we focus on skills-development, which is not only more attuned to what new college students want, but what they need. At least in part, I agree with Clydesdale that teaching critical skills to new students-- how to read well, how to write well, how to think well-- is time and energy well-spent. But, having drunk the liberal-arts Kool-Aid a long time ago, I still believe that those skills are partly useless, and mostly meaningless, if they are not contextualized within some "for the sake of which."

For the time being, I'll keep my Rule #1 as it is... including the "Be More" part. Maybe I'm just preaching to the Future Professors and Purveyors of the Dream Choir, but maybe not. At any rate, despite the nay-sayers, I'm going to keep practicing a lesson I learned from the Republicans last night: "...try First."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's not you. It's your library...

A few months ago, on the New York Times book-blog Paper Cuts, over 400 people reported what they believed to be their own personal "literary dealbreakers." In a followup article ("Love Me, Love My Books"), Molly Flatt described the "dealbreaker book" as follows: "This book so deeply resonates with your soul that if a potential partner finds it risible, any meeting of minds (or body) is all but impossible. "

For bibliophiles, books are profoundly significant, and terribly under-acknowledged, factors in the making or breaking of relationships. I'm guessing that many of us are somewhat clandestine about our scoping-out of others on the basis of their literary tastes, but I can always spot a fellow bibliophile when, upon entering my apartment, s/he slowly gravitates toward my bookshelves and tries to appear indifferent while perusing the titles. I know, of course, that what this stealth creature is doing, in fact, is slowly and carefully cataloguing my tastes, measuring my educational level and cultural sophistication, piecing-togather a preliminary psychological profile and, of course, searching for evidence of his or her "literary dealbreakers" somwehere on the shelf. I know this is what the bibliophile is doing because, well, that's what I do.

It's much easier, I think, to identify the books that instantly indicate compatibility between yourself and someone else than it is to identify the ones that are prophets of relationship doom. For me, the deal-sealers are many and varied: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, most existentialists, and non-fiction that is quirky, political, and timely. On the other side, though, I think that I mostly identify deal-breakers by genre rather than individual titles. Any form of "beat generation" literature is out (bye-bye to Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Borroughs). Also out is sci-fi, magical realism and fantasy (no Anne Rice, no Harry Potter, no Hitchhiker's Guide). Anything that has any number of "steps," "principles," or "secrets" as a part of the title, especially if those are directed at "self-improvement," "financial security" or "management success," is definitely a bad sign. And too much medieval stuff is a red flag (sorry Boethius, Dante and Chaucer).

If I absolutely had to identify specific deal-breakers, though, there are a few candidates that would definitely make the cut. I don't think I could bear someone telling me that his or her favorite book is Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind . Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet would probably be taken as a bad sign by me as well. And, as a rule, I usually question the sincerity of anyone who says his or her favorite book is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time-- not because I don't love Wallace and Proust, but just because I would seriously doubt that the person actually finished them. In almost every case, I think, the people who cite those as their favorite books are pretenders, not real readers.

Another deal-breaker for me is the presence of too many "show" books-- the ones with still-pristine, unbroken spines that are obviously unread. The more a person's books show signs of being "handled," the better. Extra points for books filled with scribbled marginalia or with dog-eared pages. And extra, extra points if there is some organization to the bookshelves, alphabetical or otherwise.

Ahhhhh, the mysterious ways of nerds in love.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain's Epic Fail

John McCain announced his running-mate (in this case, his running-matron) yesterday, barely before the Democratic Convention euphoria could even begin to wane. When I first learned of his choice, Alaska Governor and former "Miss Alaska" Sarah Palin, I was a little embarrassed that I had no idea who she was. No worries, though. Apparently, neither did anyone else.

It shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, I suppose, that McCain chose a woman for his vice-president. And, before I go on, let me just note again, for the record, the historical significance of having both an African-American Presidential candidate and a female Vice-Presidential candidate in the same year. (Not to mention TWO candidates under 50!) We might be finally catching up with the rest of the world here...

Unfortunately for Palin, though, I'm afraid that she will come to represent "progress" for women along the same lines as Geraldine Ferraro and Harriet Meiers did-- what I like to call progress of the "close-but-give-him-back-his-cigar" sort. Hillary Clinton may have indeed put a "thousand cracks" in the glass ceiling of patriarchy with her astounding run this season, but McCain's attempt to force Palin through those narrow, jagged openings likely will involve much blood-letting.

The truth is that Palin simply cannot be what McCain and the men-behind-the-Republican-election-curtain want, and need, her to be. They need her to be the "honey" that draws all of the disgruntled female HRC-flies over to the other side. The problem is, Palin is an anti-abortion, creationist, self-described "hockey mom" who just a month ago was under investigation for abuse of power. And she's young-- younger than Obama-- which not only casts a pall over McCain's recent lambasting of Obama's "inexperience," but will probably make her (instead of McCain) the new target of any return volley that Democrats make in the campaign "age wars." McCain's decision to choose Palin is so curious, in fact, that it makes me very suspicious... and not suspicious in a good way.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sidney Lumet's Perfect Tragedy

I finally got around to watching Sidney Lumet's critically-acclaimed 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Of course, Lumet really is one of the best of American directors, especially adept at manufacturing and sustaining cinematic tension, as is obvious from many of his previous films like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Network. (He also directed one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Wiz.) Lumet is a Philaldelphian by birth-- his name is pronounced "loo-MET" not "loo-MAY"--and I've often said that his films seem to ooze a kind of "Philadelphia" sensibility, much in the same way that Spike Lee's films ooze "Brooklyn." Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is part heist film, part dysfunctional family drama, part bildungsroman, part mystery. It stars one of my favorite actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and one of my least favorite actors, Ethan Hawke, with supporting performances by veteran thespian Albert Finney and the vulnerable-in-a-smoking-hot-way Marisa Tomei.

It's a little hard to write about this film without revealing "spoilers" because the story is intricate, non-linear, and chock-full of plot twists... so I'll try to proceed carefully. What really impressed me about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though, was that it is almost a perfectly composed "tragedy" in the Aristotelian sense. Now, to a certain extent, I don't think one would have to know much about Aristotle to recognize the similarities between Lumet's film and Greek tragedies. The film centers around brother/brother and father/son conflicts (which are both sexually-charged and potentially murderous). The familial crises depicted in the film are catalyzed by individuals' unreflective and unchecked desire for money, power, and recognition. The protagonists are all basically sympathetic, even if flawed, and eminently resilient, even if weak. Like Oedipus, they do not know themselves, and they are crushed under the weight of self-knowledge when it comes to them. Like Antigone, they do not rule their worlds, and they suffer for their efforts at trying to impose an alternative Law on the world around them. As in Greek tragedies, the "physical" violence upon which the story turns is only accidental. What the audience comes to understand, really, is that the true motor of the plot and all of its players is psychic violence, for which the only truly adequate salve is exile or death.

I won't bore you with all of the ways in which Before the Devil Knows You're Dead dramatically elaborates the core themes of Aristotle's Poetics (mimesis, catharsis, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia), but I do want to recommend it as an excellent teaching tool for illustrating the technical terms in that text. In the past, I showed the film V for Vendetta when I taught Aristotle's Poetics because it was so easy to identify Aristotle's elements of tragedy in that film, but now I'm convinced that Lumet does it better. (Fair warning, though: the film begins with an extremely graphic sex scene-- between Hoffman and Tomei no less!-- so there may be potential problems with showing it in the classroom.) Lumet has always been a connoisseur of family dysfunction-- the classic mise en scene for tragedy-- but he is arguably unrivalled in his skill for portraying, with equal measures of honesty and compassion, all of the mean and petty things we do to one another.

As I've suggested on this blog many times before (much to the chagrin of Booga Face and Chet), I think contemporary films are about the closest art form we have to ancient Greek tragedy in the following sense: part of the function of Greek tragedies was to serve as a mirror to the community's collective values, as well as a vehicle by which moral instruction could be imparted to the community. This is why Aristotle insisted that "good" tragedies must reflect the plight of a human being in such a way that, no matter how pitiful or fearful the protagonists' station in life, the audience can see their own humanity, their own finitude and weakness, in the actions and reactions of an other. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead excels in just this sort of representation.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sad Song Celebrity

About a week ago, I noticed that the "hits" on my blog almost doubled overnight, and they have only continued to increase after that. Since I haven't been speed-dating or indiscriminately publicizing my blog site, this really didn't make any sense to me. So, after a little further investigation, I discovered that somehow, I really don't know how, my blog is the first thing that comes up when one Googles "sad songs." (Go ahead and try it, you'll see.)

It's really weird. I don't know how that happened. For those of you who ended up on this site because you were seeking the deep and hidden truth of sad songs, I'm sorry I can't help you. (I've basically had two "sad songs" related posts on this blog: the first was "Sad Songs Say So Much" in November 2007, and the second was "Sad Songs (Still) Say So Much," which was in June of this year.) But, since you're here, I do recommend you download my most recent all-sad-songs radio show to your iPod, which should serve as some kind of consolation.

I also want to say, for the record, that if this is my 15 seconds of fame-- because, surely, in the age of the Internet, Andy Warhol's caluclation must be truncated-- then being associated with "sad songs" is about all the fame I could've ever hoped for.

Since you're here anyway looking for sad songs, here's one that you'll probably never hear on my radio show, but it's a bona fide sad song nonetheless: