Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I couldn't make this up...

Last night, just before going to bed, I logged in to my computer to check my email. Imagine my surprise when one of the headlines on the msn.com homepage read:

"Liberia's Gen Butt Naked admits killing thousands"

First, this is not a practical joke. The news sites did not get hacked. There really is a General Butt Naked, né Joshua Milton Blahyi, a rebel commander in Liberia's longstanding conflict who has been in exile in Ghana. He recently returned to Liberia to testify in the hearings of that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began in 2006 and are continuing today.

Since most of my dissertation involved just such commissions in Africa and Latin America, this ought to provide me an excellent opportunity to comment on that phenomenon here. The thing is, though, I just can't get over the fact that the news outlets chose to use Blahyi's nickname in all of their headlines. Here are some other winners:

"Butt Naked Battallion Commander apologizes for killing 20K Liberians" (from USA Today)

"General Butt Naked Admits to Eating Children's Hearts" (from ShortNews.com)

"General Butt Naked Confesses to Nude Killings" (from the UK Telegraph)

I guess it's pretty much axiomatic that "if it bleeds, it leads".... but it's hard for me to believe that it really did not occur to editors that the supperaddition of Blahyi's nickname in the headlines was a bit over-the-top.

Incidentally, if you are interested in learning more about Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you can check out their website here. More about Joshua Blahyi here. More about Liberia here and here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Fishing" and The Art of Misdirection

My oh my! I am seriously impressed with the flurry of activity on my friends' blogs in the week that I've been away from this one. (Especially nice posts by Ideas Man on what's really wrong with Mormonism, and by chet on the death of the author/artist.) As chet rightly pointed out to me, I should extend a general apology to readers of this blog for my absence and for leaving you to stare, day after day, at that pathetic puppy face in the last post. Sorry about that. I don't have any particularly good excuses for my absence... just busy with the beginning of the semester. And, chet, I don't have an animal calendar at home.

I want to post about a probably not-so-uncommon experience I've been having this semester in my classes. (I mean "not-so-uncommon" among people who teach, that is.) At least, I hope it's not uncommon.

I always find it particularly challenging to deal with what I can only describe as students' "fishing." What I mean by "fishing" is this: a student is fishing when he or she asks a question that is ostensibly about the material at hand, only s/he isn't as interested in how your answer may illuminate something about the material as s/he is interested in how your answer may illuminate something about you personally. So, for example, I may be teaching a class on the difference between gender oppression and racial oppression and I get a question from a student about the merits and demerits of affirmative action. Sometimes this is a legitimate question... but sometimes, I can tell, it's meant to "peg" my own personal/political opinion on the matter of affirmative action. Or, to use another example, a student may bring up a contemporary moral or political problem--I don't know, just to randomly pick one out of the hat... let's say "gay marriage"--and it is is only tangentially related to the material (but still related, even if only tangentially). My suspicion is that sometimes students are fishing for information that is not related (even tangentially) to the course material. Sometimes they are fishing for information about their professor.

It isn't hard to figure out why students do this. I know I did it when I was a student. Some of the motivation is just your average run-of-the-mill curiosity about the professor (is she "cool"? can she take a joke? does she know anything about pop culture?). Some of it is more strategic, aimed at figuring out what one needs to do to gain the professor's favor (is she "liberal"? is she "conservative"? what will a person like her consider a "right" answer?). But some of it is just damn nosy (is she married? is she gay? does she have kids? is she religious?). I actually think that students "fish" like this a lot, though I don't think they always do it consciously.

This is particularly challenging, I think, for professors of philosophy. I make it a point in my classes to exert every effort at providing the strongest possible representation of the material we are reading, even (and especially) when it is a position that I don't personally hold. So, if we're reading Rawls--again, just to randomly pick one out of the hat--and it seems to me like the general vibe of the class is to be critical of the material, I think it is my responsibility as a good philosophy teacher to take the position of Rawls and present it as a bona fide Rawlsian would. Ditto on affirmative action and gay marriage. The ability to read an argument generously and reproduce it in its best form is a talent that I should have acquired in my many long years of philosophical training, and it's at least one very significant thing that separates me from my students without-a-PhD-in-philosophy.

Now, I tend to teach most things in the first person. So, when I am teaching Rawls or Aristotle or whomever, I tend to speak as a Rawlsian or Aristotelian or whomever-ian. Of course, since it is logically impossible that I could hold all of these positions as my own, that means that I am often engaged in the art of misdirection. I am, in effect, saying: "Look here at this pretty argument that I am waving in front of you as if it's the end-all-be-all of philosophy! Isn't it just fantastic?! Don't you think you could think this, too?!" When, in fact, I am usually hiding up my sleeve or behind my back the argument that is actually the really pretty and fantastic argument, to be deployed at some later date. This seems to me the only fair way to teach what it is my charge to teach. I'm not an apostle or a proselyte. My job is to teach them how to think, not what to think. But I digress....

The point, I guess, is that I still struggle with the morality of this practice. I mean, why not just make it evident what it is that I think and what it is that I think sucks? Why do I feel compelled to hide as much as possible about "me personally" from my students? (And let me tell you, it ain't always easy. I sometimes want to barf a little bit in my mouth when taking on some of the positions that I take on with such enthusiastic, though feigned, conviction.) Of course, I tell myself it is because I don't want to impede their own philosophical discovery in any way, that I know they are under certain institutional pressures to get good grades and hence please the people who grade them, and that, again, I'm a professor and not a proselyte. But the art of misdirection is a complicated and often exhuasting one. Especially when students "fish."

Sometimes I just want to say things like: "I think the only legitimate explanation for any advocacy of capital punishment is that someone wants his pound of flesh." But I know, of course, that if I were to say that, the discussion would most certainly stop there. Other times, I want to call students out on their fishing. When I answer their questions about abortion or gay marriage or afirmative action or whetever, and I see the obvious look of disappointment on their faces when they haven't gotten the salacious "secret" for which they were fishing, I want to say: "Did you mean to ask if I was gay?" I expect that would be the moment that many of them cut bait.

Anyway, the point here is that it's a struggle to decide what is dishonest or inauthentic or self-indulgently misdirectional, and what is just a part of doing my job in the best way I know how.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Do you have an iPod?

Then why aren't you listening to my radio show?

Go to the podcast home for "Americana the Beautiful" and download all the episodes. Come on, is there anything more purely noble than supporting college radio? I can't think of anything off-hand, except for maybe rescuing abused puppies (cute ones) or helping one-legged children achieve their dream of mounting Everest.

Cute one-legged children, that is.

Friday, January 11, 2008


What is "nanophilosophy"? Nanophilosophy is the search for and study of very, very small philosophical questions. It was begun by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo in an attempt to drag our age-old discipline kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. The Century of Very Small Things.

I think this is a fantastic development and I want you, my readers, to form the avant-garde of this burgeoning movement. (I choose you because, frankly, I think that readers of this blog qua "readers of this blog" have already demonstrated your concern with matters of infintesimally small significance.) Ideally, there should be a set of nanophilosophical questions for all of the standard subdvisions of philosophy proper. Here are some to start:

What is the sound of two hands clapping?
Is there something rather than nothing?
If a tree falls in the woods, does a bear still shit there?
Is this the best of all actual worlds?

Is there life after birth?
Can "God" be studied?
Is faith consistent with believing?

If a human could speak, could we understand it?
If a scientist was poking my brain in a vat, would my shoes still fit?
Is there a relationship between language and talk?

Is it permissible to harm none to save five?
Do two wrongs ever make more than one wrong?
If I'm okay and you're okay, am I still okay?
Can we derive an "is" from an "is"?

Can science be naturalized?
Is classical mechanics consistent with Newton's laws?

Is there any difference at all between expensive art and cheap art?
Are tragedies always sad?
Does buttered popcorn add anything to the cinematic form?

How would things look if the Earth rotated on its axis?
If the unexamined is life is not worth living, what is it worth?
Can I, in fact, know my arse from a hole in the ground?

Is obeying the law legal?
Does an absolute sovereign have absolute power?
If we never removed the "veil of ignorance," could we form an idiocracy?

These are just a start, of course. I am counting on you to add your own burning nanophilosophical questions. Very, very little is riding on your participation.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How Does This Happen?

Every semester... and I mean every semester... I find that on the second or third day, I already feel behind. How does this happen? I work hard. I prepare. I don't lounge around on my "breaks." Where does the time go?

Let me hazard an answer to my own question. I think the academic life, unlike many other professional endeavors, is unique in this way: one is NEVER "off." As much as I hated it when I was doing it, I often find myself longing for a regular 9-5 job, where I could clock in and clock out, and at the very least I knew when I wasn't at work.

Sure, academics have a pretty sweet work schedule. A few hours a week and summers off. Compared to a regular 40-hr. work-week, that seems like a cushy deal. But the trade-off is that the time we're not at work is "work time" as well. There's always prepping to do. There's always something else to read. There's always a paper to finish. Or, if there isn't a paper to finish, there's one to start.

I imagine that the Younger Me is probably puking in her mouth a little bit at all of this whining by the Older Me. But a girl's gotta vent...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Just Ask, Part 3: What Bernadette Should Do With Her Life

It doesn't really matter whether or not you know who bernadette is, because she poses a great question for the next installment of the Just Ask Challenge. She asks:

What should I do with my life?

Now, it just so happens that I DO know who bernadette is and I could, theoretically, provide an answer particular to her. But that wouldn't be much fun for everyone else. So, let's just keep the "bernadette" details to a minimum, and I will provide them on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Here's what you need to know: bernadette is ABD (translation: "all but dissertation"). Like many of you, she has spent the last several years of her life as a grad student, and she is now at the end of that line, which is also the beginning of another line. The Academic Life Line. The little depot that connects these two life-lines is called the Job Market Station, and its pretty miserable. So miserable, in fact, as to prompt many a traveller to seriously consider another path. I don't think our mystery subject "bernadette" is really planning to forgo her original itinerary, but that's not the point here. She wants to know what her alternatives are. And I am happy to provide some counsel...

I've often imagined what the other me, in that other parallel universe living that other life, might be doing. When I imagine this, I try to consider the Alterna-Me as having a whole other set of options than the ones I had (or have now). So, Alterna-Me didn't go to grad school. She doesn't play guitar. She may not even be from the South. She's just a blank slate, and the possible options for her professional life are wide open. Just like bernadette's in this little experiment here.

So, operating with the assumption that bernadette might be willing to completely wipe clean her own life-slate and actually consider anything, these are some things I think she should do with her life:

1. Ride that lonely road as a truck driver. Unfortunately, we tend to associate truck drivers with generally uneducated and uncultured people. We snobbily imagine that the only people who would choose such a life are those who are too poor to have options or too unmotivated to think of something better. But I've always had a kind of romantic image of the truck driver's life. A new town every night. Endless time to think. An arsenal of one-of-a-kind characters to count among your friends. Just you and your music and your big-ass truck. She could even use "bernadette" as her CB handle. It may be a "lonely" life, but I think there's a very good possibility that it's not that way at all. Your relationships with everyone would kind of be like an academic's relationship with his or her "conference friends." You see them every once and a while for a few days, so you don't have long enough to develop all of the negative complications that come along with really knowing people. It would be like living an endless conference tour. And you should see inside the cabs of some of those semis... they're nicer than a lot of apartments I've been in.

2. Call the shots as a referree. Now, I'm being a bit unfair here, because I'm partly using things that I already know about bernadette to make this suggestion. For example, I know she's a pretty good judge of things. And I know that she doesn't tend to sway under the pressure of other people who may be unhappy with her judgments. I also think she looks good in stripes. Anyway, I'm not even sure if one can actually have a "career" as a professional sports official, but it seems like it would be a great one-- with a few obvious blips of misery when you make a bad call in front of millions of people. But, hey, we all make bad calls in life. The difference between ours and the ref's is just a difference in degree, not in kind. The referree's life is also similar to the academic's in this way: you only work for a few hours on a few days a week, and you have an "off-season." (Yes, I know that's not really true for academics, but that's what people think.) bernadette also tends to be a somewhat elaborate hand-gesturer, which would come in "handy" here.

3. Make little children's dreams come true as a carnival barker. I know, I know. We think about carnies the same way we think about truck drivers. I don't really have a romanticized notion of the day-to-day life of the carnie, and I can't say that bernadette might not become bulemic if required to eat that crappy food every day... but wouldn't it all be worth it for those moments when you get to say: "You, young lad, are a WINNER! Choose one of the BIG animals for your prize!" That always looks so fun. And ditto the thing about hand-gesturing above.

4. Go undercover as a food and travel critic. This may fall under the general category of "referree," but it has the added draw of being a clandestine operation. Plus, you get to eat well and go to cool places. If you publish your critiques under a pseudonym-- like, oh I don't know, "bernadette" maybe?-- then you could avoid punctuating your life with the referree's shame and embarassment. It's a win-win, really.

5. Take the easy road as a golddigger. Marry rich. Hey, women do it all the time. I saw this reality show on television called "The Real Housewives of Orange County" and it's really hard to find much that's too bad about their lives. Sure, you could be giving up on your own dreams and abilities for a wad of cold, hard cash. Sure, you might have to snuggle up at night with someone whom you find totally vacuous and repulsive. Sure, you may be setting back the feminist movement 75 years. But, hey, if you're going to be so high and mighty about this suggestion, then why don't you just go to grad school and try to get a life as a professional academic or something?

I'm sure that bernadette is open to any suggestions you may have about what she should do with her life as well. I mean, for goodness sake, she put that question to me on my blog, so I'm guessing she's not that picky. Bless her heart.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Just Ask, Part 2: The "Steakburger"

Today is a two-fer in the Just Ask Challenge! In response to my ealier post about Burger Friday, I received another Just Ask query from Ideas Man (who also wrote an entire post about this on his blog). Leave it to Ideas Man to skip the whole romantic story there and instead ask:

How does a steakhouse get rid of its leftover meat through Burger Friday?

Now, Ideas Man's real question is, how do you turn steaks into burgers? or what's the difference between ground beef and steak? Apparently, he had a bad experience with a steakburger at some Steak-n-Shake (pictured above) in Florida. Now, I can't speak to the tastiness of Steak-n-Shake's alleged "steakburgers," but I can explain the principle behind the steakburger, which I will commence to do now...

[Warning: the following explanation may offend the sensibilities of my vegetarian readers... or my carnivore readers who aren't particularly concerned to know where their meat comes from.]

When regular beef is processed, all the "good" parts of the cow are cut first (steaks, roasts, brisket, ribs, etc), then the bones are trimmed of all remaining scraps and that is sold as stew meat. What's left is shavings of meat, fat, and connective tissues which are blasted off with pressured water or air. It's these last scraps that are ground up and sold in the grocery store as ground beef. (Except for the meat that is sold as "ground chuck", which is the ground-up excess of the chuck steak-- the toughest cut of meat.)

Now, we usually make hamburgers from ground beef or ground chuck-- but, theoretically, hamburgers could be made from any part of the animal, since all of it can be ground up, pressed into patties and thrown on a grill. So, you could have a T-Bone burger or a Rib burger as long as your grillmaster has the time and desire to de-bone and grind your meat for you. The reason that steakburgers taste better than regular burgers is because they are made of better meat. There's less fat and other undersirable tissues and they should, theoretically at least, taste like a boneless version of whatever steak meat from which they were made.

Back to Steak-n-Shake. I checked on their website and it looks like you did, indeed, eat a bona fide "steakburger" when you were there. They claim to make their burgers out of steak meat, in the tradition of their founder, Gus, who back in 1934 was grinding up round steak, sirloin and T-bones right in front of his friends to make their burgers. Of course, since Steak-n-Shake is a chain restaurant, we can probably assume that there is a good amount of regular old ground beef mixed in with the "finest quality steak meat"... but that would just be speculation on my part and I wouldn't want to malign Gus' good name without proof.

For future reference, here's a handy guide to the meat parts of a cow:
There you have it. Order up!

Just Ask, Part 1: Home

So, I'm kicking off the Just Ask Challenge with a query from the very inventor of the game, Petya. She asks:

What is home like?

Great question, Petya. Not only do I like the vagueness of your question, but also its form. You don't ask what home IS, but what it's LIKE. For me, the associations I make with "home" are almost all sensual. Smells. Sounds. Touches and tastes. So, I'll start with those...

[Olfactory answer] Home is like... the smell(s) of barbecue, fabric softener, talcum powder, fresh-cut grass, hot biscuits, wood-burning stoves, fair food stands, frying bacon and piles of raked leaves.

[Aural answer] Home is like... a pedal steel guitar, a church choir, a football stadium cheer, "Rocky Top," a horn section, a B3 Hammond, Delta blues, Stax, Sun, a banjo, a train whistle, the ringing and dinging of a fair midway, a Southern drawl, the words "y'all" and "fixin'," what Isaac Hayes used to call "hot-buttered love songs," the "amen" of a congregation, clinking beer bottles in a bar and a well-stocked jukebox.

[Tactile answer] Home is like... sweltering humidity, oppressive heat, the bracing chill of walking into a buiding with AC when you're covered in sweat, barbecue sauce or grease on your fingers, bare feet in Bermuda grass, the stitches on a beat-up football, an afghan crocheted by my grandmother, mosquito bites, the exact amount of breeze that you can get on a front-porch swing, the furry ears of a good ol' dog and the vibrating handle of a gas-powered lawn mower.

[Gustatory answer] Home is like... barbecue (of course), anything overly buttered and/or deep-friend, gravy, pickled okra, homemade blackberry preserves from a mason jar, a Coke out of a real (and real cold) bottle, biscuits, oh-so-salty country ham, green jello "salad," any kind of cassarole, sweet tea, meats-and-threes plates, fair food, pie, Budweiser, Jack Daniels, a hot toddy, cornbread and greens with lots and lots of vinegar.

I had every intention of trying to answer this question abstractly, but I came to discover that "home" is very hard to describe apart from my home. That is, I think home is a lot more than the place you hang your hat. For example, I could never, ever associate "scrapple" with "home," no matter how long I lived in the Mid-Atlantic states.

Thanks for the question, Petya. And we're off!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cogito, ergo blog

That image to the left there is a visualisation of the "blogosphere." There are several such constructions on the web, and even a site that offers an interactive "map" of the blogosphere. Totally fascinating.

So, yeah, I intend to keep this little dot in the blogosphere going. That will probably be the one New Year's resolution I'll be able to keep. But, to get the new year kicked off, I need your help. I'm starting off with a little experiment called the Just Ask Challenge, invented by Petya, who executed it to great effect last year. Click on the link for a full explanation, but it basically works like tihs: you get to ask questions, and I'll post an entry-long response. Simple as that.

Hope you are all still out there...

In other random news, I've been catching up recently on a few cable series that I somehow missed out on. I watched the first couple of seasons of HBO's Entourage, which seemed a bit simple and a little too frat-boyish at first, but has turned out to be pretty interesting. Major kudos to Jeremy Piven, who delivers a great performance as a scheming talent agent with a heart of, uh... well, sterling silver at least. On the recommendation of several friends, I also watched the last season of The Wire, the HBO series about the "corner" drug business in Baltimore. My friends were right. It's amazing. (And for those of you who've seen it, can you believe that Snoop is almost 30 years old?!!) And, just yesterday, I started on Rome, which I think I remember Kyle saying that he loved. The jury is still out on that one. I haven't decided whether or not its much more than soft porn and gore.

These series have served their purpose for me over the last couple of weeks, which was primarily to ease the drudgery of constructing syllabi and prepping for the new semester. I start back next Wednesday. Argh.

So, get your Just Ask questions in... otherwise I'll be forced to bore you with blow-by-feeble-blow accounts of my life.