Worst practices in curriculum design

The current “best practice” for course/curriculum design is to start from the learning objectives and then fill in gradually more detail, only supplying the actual course content at a relatively late stage. When Shimer was going through some curriculum debates a few years ago, I opportunistically seized upon this principle as a way to open up a little more space for thinking about new and different readings, but it was a way of thinking that just didn’t work, ultimately. We had one meeting when everyone seemed to be on board, and then we got back to the traditional debates over particular readings and how we can’t remove this one thing that really “works,” etc. And I don’t think this was because my Shimer colleagues are especially hidebound — the way they do curriculum design is just the way everyone does it.

The so-called “best practices,” as usual, have virtually never been done, and that’s because they presuppose a very simplistic, unidirectional version of curriculum development. Continue reading “Worst practices in curriculum design”

The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment

Earlier this week, a fellow academic who shall remain nameless posted a link to this story of an academic being fired for expressing their own private political views. The lesson this individual had drawn from this incident is that academics need to learn to think before they tweet. Maybe so. But colleges and universities also need to learn to think before they throw their faculty to the wolves. The crime of saying something questionable on Twitter is much less serious than the crime of destroying someone’s career.
Continue reading “The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment”

Some thoughts on affirmative action

Yesterday, we learned that the Trump administration plans to investigate “reverse discrimination” against white college applicants. As always, the very term tacitly admits that white racism against others is the standard or natural kind — and even they can’t quite bring themselves to call it “racism” without some qualifier (“reverse,” “against whites”). The attempt to root out discrimination against whites is delusional and it is bound to have negative results (if it has any results at all — it may be an empty gesture to placate the base). But at least among white commentators, it is very difficult to find a full-throated defense of affirmative action. In fact, many of the standard responses — “Trump benefited from affirmative action for whites!” — are implicitly (and I hope unconsciously) based on the premise that affirmative action is illegitimate.

I, for one, support affirmative action, 100%. I am happy for anyone from a disadvantaged group to be hired, promoted, or published over me. But no one can deny that affirmative action is intrinsically flawed on the level of strategy. It was bound to stoke a backlash, and that backlash has access to arguments that sound strong and principled to most white people. And it doesn’t even solve the root problem, which is unequal access to the resources that generate “merit” in our system.

The intervention comes too late, and in that respect it’s a symptom of American society’s tendency to try to solve all social problems by means of higher ed. I work in higher ed and it’s a great thing, but it is not up to the task of radically remaking American society and never will be. You can’t restructure the US economy using a mechanism that was originally created to reproduce and legitimate privilege. Tools can be repurposed, but there are limits.

Report from a summer faculty seminar: “The Verbal Art of Plato”

I spent last week at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., where Gregory Nagy and Kenneth Morrell were holding an intensive faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (you can look over the agenda and readings here). It was whirlwind tour of the many ways that Plato took up and transformed the literary models of his culture, with a special emphasis on Homer. Both Nagy and Morrell are amazing scholars, with an intimate knowledge of the texts and contexts, as well as experienced seminar leaders, and they curated a very strong and diverse group of faculty members. It all added up to a really rewarding experience that I will be processing for a long time — and I think that the true sign of their success is that even after spending a couple weeks reading nothing but Plato so I could spend a week talking about nothing but Plato, I actually want to sit down and read some more Plato with the tools they have given me.

Of the many interesting things I learned, two stood out to me as surprising. The first is that Socrates was actually the object of a hero cult, similar to what you might expect for a figure like Hercules. (Prof. Nagy’s book The Greek Hero in 24 Hours is one of many, many works available for free on the CHS website, and this article gives a more brief presentation on Socrates in specific.) The second is that much of the technical vocabulary in Plato’s philosophy amounts to an appropriation of the terminology that surrounded rhapsodic performances of Homer. (This article by Prof. Nagy provides a list of ten key terms if you scroll down.)

All of this led me to question what exactly Plato’s project is. One way I put it in discussion is that Plato is a critic of Athenian culture, but he’s also a critic of Athenian culture — he is so deeply embedded in his tradition. He transforms so many genres — rhapsodic performance, tragedy, forensic discourse, even heroic cult worship — but I wonder if the transformation is ultimately a means of preservation. And these thoughts also led me down various trails relating to my ultimate interest in Plato, which is his appropriation by Christianity and the grounds of possibility for such a move. Is Christianity really “Platonism for the people,” as Nietzsche says, a more accessible version of the kind of transformation Plato was trying to work in his own culture? I’m not ready to flesh those thoughts out quite yet, but the fact that they are percolating is a pleasant surprise after a seminar that I expected to be useful for my teaching but mostly unrelated to my research.

And ironically, I’m not sure exactly how to use the seminar materials in the classroom. I’m certainly a fountain of interesting facts and literary parallels right now, but I need to do more thinking about how to turn the insights I have gleaned from this intensive study into something that students will be able to put to work in their own reading and discussion without having to go to Plato Summer Camp.

Punching like a girl

‘The female person who enacts the existence of women in patriarchal society must live a contradiction: as human she is a free subject who participates in transcendence, but her situation as a woman denies her that subjectivity and transcendence. My suggestion is that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality, exhibit this same tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance rather than the media for the enactment of our aims.’
Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality’

Some time last spring I signed up to take part in a boxing match. I’d been going to a boxing gym to keep fit for a while: I got sick of the cheap gym I’d been visiting, with its constantly changing class times, and its ever-worsening instructors. I got tired of taking step classes led by men who looked embarrassed to be there, in such a feminine space, who didn’t think it was important to time the exercises to the music, let alone plan them in advance. I’d never felt at home there anyway: I was always too red-faced and visibly sweaty. I couldn’t wear the sleek black leggings that seemed to be the women’s uniform because I got too hot. My hair was always a mess and I didn’t wear make-up. Compared to the other women I felt what I often feel around large groups of women, that I was failing to perform my gender in the right kind of way.

Continue reading “Punching like a girl”

A defense of the classroom

Miya Tokumitsu’s Jacobin article on lecture pedagogy is something of a mess. It does argue that lectures at their best can be engaging and community-building, but almost everything it is saying could be recouched as a defense of in-person learning and, more generally, of the traditional regime of college education (non-flexible courses, etc.). Indeed, there’s a fundamental incoherence here insofar as many active-learning methods, most notably discussion seminars, require greater routine attendance — your roommates can share their lecture notes, but they can’t bring up your points in discussion for you.

The submerged point of Tokumitsu’s argument is how neoliberalism undermines the traditional regime of university coursework in an insidiously self-reinforcing way: first it requires students to take on an unreasonable burden of wage labor during school, then it uses this very self-imposed necessity to justify more “flexible” learning methods. And I have to say, the method is effective, even at the resolutely traditional Shimer College — students there do have to work way too much, and even they have sometimes asked for more flexible formats such as online learning.

The real problem is forcing students to “work their way through college,” when college is already hard work in and of itself. The world can make do with fewer baristas and waiters while the next generation takes full advantage of the education that we are constantly told is absolutely crucial to personal and national success. It seems to me that a left-wing publication should probably find a way to make that point clearly and directly instead of obscuring the point with a frankly click-baity “contrarian” framing.