On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?

Education that works

As I may have mentioned before, I am Assessment Czar at the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. (It’s an unofficial title, so I feel like I can choose the exact wording.) It is not a job anyone really relishes, and in fact I only got into it because I was scared the accreditors would shut us down while everyone else (understandably) dragged their feet on it. Over time, we committed to a very large range of assessment tools, many of which were probably not very meaningful, but our core rubrics on writing and discussion skills demonstrated something that we already knew: our program works.

Students of all ability levels who stick with it grow as writers and discussion participants. We were initially suspicious that the upward trend reflected the weaker students dropping out, but when we controlled for students who participated in every checkpoint exercise, the result was the same. One of my colleagues often reminds us that Shimer is not an honors program, though the things we do — small classes focused on discussion of important primary materials — are usually reserved for honors students or at least upper-level students.

It works because it is intensive — they are immersed in an environment where they have to figure out how to learn and grow in a student-driven classroom. It works because it is systematic — our curriculum has a structure with built-in checkpoints. And it works, above all I think, because we know our students — the same cohort of student is in continual contact with the same group of faculty members, who all share the same goals and standards (though admittedly students do sometimes think we are radically and inexplicably different).

Much of what we do is contrary to the trends of higher ed. At most schools, students at the lower levels are taught by contingent faculty who are treated as disposable — and though they typically do a great job, they simply can’t build relationships with individual students over time. At most schools, at least until a student has chosen a major, individual courses are treated as isolated monads with no particular relationship with one another, as departments are forced to compete for students. And building a structured core curriculum in a school that hasn’t already inherited one seems impossible due to the endless (justified!) arguments about ends and means that would surely result, even if everyone put aside anxieties about turf, etc.

At the same time, our apparently old-fashioned approach does cohere with the skill-based orientation of contemporary higher ed. We are teaching them flexibility and exploration more than we are expecting them to memorize lines from the Iliad, for instance — and anecdotally, I have often experiened better educational outcomes by using texts that would not normally fall under the heading of “Great Books.” It is important that we share a central canon that spreads through the curriculum, but its contents are to some extent arbitrary, and certainly we have learned that its boundaries can be flexible. This leads me to think that our approach could also be beneficial in a more conventional disciplinary context, if people could break the spell of “coverage” — something that we have had to do in recent years as we saw that we could never include materials of greater diversity if we were quick to insist that a student “had to” get certain texts.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to wrap this up other than to say: we are doing something that works, and we are doing it in a way that is not conservative or backward-looking. We are doing it off in a little corner and it is hard to get people to see and understand what we are doing, but we are doing it, and it works, and it should be a model for others.


I had trouble sleeping last night, and it feels like it is happening more often over time. Looking back, the last three years or so have been a near-constant ramping-up of stress caused by the instability of Shimer College, then the uncertainty of the merger process with North Central, and now the ongoing complications and obstacles integrating into our new setting. Early on, I had stomach problems that have since levelled off to manageable levels, but sleeping difficulties have taken their place. Last night in a Facebook post, I quoted Regular-Sized Rudy from Bob’s Burgers: “I don’t express this enough, but this is literally killing me.” It was not solely as a joke.

Continue reading “Sustainability”

Does scholarly productivity lead to academic job offers? Report from a natural experiment

As I reflect on my academic career so far, I realize one could view it as a natural experiment on the question of whether scholarly productivity as such leads to multiple job offers. I am kind of the ideal test subject because I lack other obvious markers of prestige — my PhD is not from a top-tier school, and until recently, I taught at a place that was, shall we say, very little known. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a boast to say that I am in the top 1% in sheer scholarly productivity among my age cohort in the humanities. So if publication volume, simply taken in itself, were a sure-fire ticket to multiple academic job offers, then I would be experiencing that. Hence I conclude that the answer is no.

This is not to say that it should. My publication record is a pretty abusive baseline expectation for a comfortable middle-class job, and if every aspiring academic published as much as I do, there would be an unimaginable glut of material. From my own perspective, I do in fact have a satisfying job at a great school. And I didn’t do all this work so that I could get a job — I did it because I enjoy it, and I have gotten the rewards (great interlocutors, invitations to come speak, etc.) that are really important to me from my work.

But for the young academics out there — no, sheer volume of publications is not a silver bullet. Write and publish as much as you want to and can, but don’t do it in the expectation that the academic job market will directly reward you for the length of your CV. And, I would say, you shouldn’t make serious sacrifices for the sake of writing projects you wouldn’t have taken on through your own sincere interest and passion, just for the sake of building your CV. That’s just not how it works. I don’t pretend to know how it does work, but I’m pretty sure at this point, I know better than anyone that it doesn’t work in this particular respect.

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”