Summer: Phase 2

The transition from the independent Shimer College to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College entails a switch from semesters to quarters — meaning that my summer break is approximately a month longer than usual. Between my work on Neoliberalism’s Demons (which is nearly complete at this point) and my faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (which will be taking place at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., next week), I have done about as much as I could realistically expect to do in an average summer. Early August would normally be the time when my thoughts would turn more toward classes, faculty meetings, etc., but this year that stuff won’t be happening until September.

I suppose that I could have expanded my work to fill the time available, but instead I have effectively pulled a Cool Hand Luke and cleared out a space of freedom for myself. I’d like to use this time for something very different from what I’ve been doing recently, to get some rest and work out some different parts of my brain. I’ve thought of various reading projects, but what most appeals to me right now is finally getting a start on learning to read biblical Hebrew. I haven’t done a new language since Italian, and Hebrew is of course very different from the European languages I’ve tackled so far — fulfilling my variety criterion. I bought all the necessary books the summer before I started at Shimer, but never got much further than starting to memorize the alphabet. I could make it through at least a good chunk of the grammar book in August, and since my classes don’t start until noon for the fall term, I could likely spend an hour or so most mornings finishing up the grammar and starting to stumble through Genesis. People recommended that I learn Hebrew as a way to warm up for Arabic, and if I keep at it semi-consistently over the next academic year, maybe I could get a start on classical Arabic next summer. And with whatever time is left over, I could do some undirected reading and/or rewatch Star Trek for the hundredth time.

What do you think? What would you do if you had a block of time like this? What would you consider a change of pace or recharging type of activity?

Should I learn Hebrew or Arabic next?

When I finished my manuscript for The Prince of This World, one thing that occurred to me is that literally ever since my colleagues at Shimer have known me, I have been “working on” that project. Around the same time I started, I also made some initial efforts toward another project: learning biblical Hebrew. I bought a textbook, lexicon, and Hebrew Bible, and I set about learning the alphabet… which I almost achieved before the realities of starting a new, teaching-intensive job intervened.

At that time, learning Hebrew seemed like the next logical step. Not only would it be useful to have access to the original biblical text, but I was also becoming increasingly interested in Judaism. That was another area of inquiry that became derailed, as the demands of teaching a diverse curriculum restricted my reading time. And then last year I got a further curve-ball when I was called upon to teach Islam, which resulted in a survey class on Islamic thought and a subsequent class focusing on the Qur’an. I’ve continued to read up on Islam since then — in fact, right now I’m working my way through a survey of Islamic law, as my “fun” reading.

So here’s my question: assuming I have some time to devote to further language acquisition, should I prioritize Hebrew or Arabic? Would doing Hebrew first prove at all helpful for Arabic (or the reverse, I suppose — learning French before Latin seemed to work fine)?

It should be clear that in both cases I’m more interested in reading classic texts than in, you know, talking to people. And with that in mind, what are some standard resources for learning classical Arabic?

Foreign-Language Teaching Resource: LinguaeLive

Yesterday, one of the participants in the DAAD Summer Seminar I’m a part of, Jennifer Hosek of Queen’s University, shared a valuable foreign-language teaching resource that she’s helped to develop: LinguaeLive. The site is a way of giving students a chance to practice with native speakers by connecting classes around the world with complementary target languages. For example, a German class in Canada and an English class in Germany can register and pair off for practice sections. It works over a variety of voice-over-IP systems and is meant to give the instructors as much control over the process as possible: instructors choose which classes to pair up and agree on the goals for the practice sessions, rather than confronting students with a miscellaneous collection of individual peers. I encourage you to check it out — it seems like a really cool resource, and Prof. Hosek emphasized that it only becomes more useful as more people participate in it.

Easily type diacritics in Windows

One frustration with switching to Scrivener has been that I lost Word’s simple key-combinations for typing diacritical marks. That led me to declare that my next computer would be a Mac simply because they have system-wide support for typing special characters easily. Whatever may turn out to be the case on my computer purchasing choices, I have learned from the intrepid @benladen that you can easily set up Windows to have a similar capability — just set your keyboard to “U.S.-International” and the key-combinations are actually even easier than in Word for typical special characters. More details are available here.

The ontology of Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin characters do not exist in themselves. Their function is to serve as occasions for snappy lines of dialogue. In the last analysis, it does not matter which character delivers which line. All are equally quick-witted, and all speak in two and only two cadences — either sardonic rapid-fire or expansive sermonizing.

Just as lines can land on any character, the cadences can land on any situation. One might think that sardonic rapid-fire is particularly suited for high-stress work situations, but it can work equally well for an elevator ride or a drink after work. Similarly, there is no necessity that expansive sermonizing be reserved for moments that, in our world, would “naturally” lend themselves to leisurely reflection — it can just as easily arrive in the midst of a stressful situation in which every second counts. After all, how will the audience know what’s really at stake in that situation if they are not explicitly told?

The imperative is always: tell, don’t show. Continue reading “The ontology of Aaron Sorkin”

Teaching Searle and Analytic Philosophy

This summer term, I decided to use a different set of readings that I have been using for my Introduction to Philosophy class; and coming to the end of the term, we’re following a progression of Nietzsche, Sartre, Russell, a unit on feminism, a unit on postmodernism, Searle, and conclude the course with a discussion of philosophical practice (we read Marinoff).

Teaching Searle is always an interesting experience, as analytic philosophy sometimes feels little out of my comfort zone, but Searle is, in my opinion, a great writer and his work on articfical intelligence a lot of fun to teach to undergraduates.  The work seems “safe” compared to other topics with which we finish the course but the questions are significant and relevant.  In fact, reading the Chinese Thought Room Experiment is again, a lot of fun to read out loud and discuss while reading as a group; next time I teach this I want to find a way to re-enact the experiment. Continue reading “Teaching Searle and Analytic Philosophy”

An unanticipated benefit of the Great Books curriculum

This summer, I have had trouble motivating myself to maintain my foreign language reading abilities. I know it’s necessary and I’ve had reasonable success in doing at least something every weekday, but it has still felt like a chore — or more precisely, it felt like I was just spinning my wheels, making sure I didn’t deteriorate too badly so that the skills would still be useful when I needed them.

Since receiving sample syllabi for the Philosophy and Theology course at Shimer College, which I’ll be teaching in the fall, I’ve had a bit of a revelation: my teaching can easily structure my language maintanence from here on out. For instance, here’s the standard reading list for the course:
Continue reading “An unanticipated benefit of the Great Books curriculum”

Language acquisition and maintenance

Today K College is closed due to the world-historical blizzard that ripped through the midwest, wreaking havoc that included completely paralyzing Lake Shore Drive to the point where people had to abandon their cars:

Lake Shore Drive after the apocalypse

I decided to take the opportunity to get back into a habit that I’ve sadly neglected: language maintenance. I find that even as little as a half hour a day of focused foreign-language reading makes a huge difference in keeping things at the point where I can effectively plunge back in when my research requires, but for whatever reason, that basic language work is always the first thing to go when my schedule becomes more hectic.

The languages I’ve done translations in are usually much more durable and can stand periods of neglect between more concentrated work, but others seem to deteriorate much more rapidly — setting off a vicious cycle where I am intimidated to work on them precisely because they need more work.

The only permanent solution would be to integrate the language work directly into my research and teaching, but there’s basically no way that would happen organically, especially with undergrad teaching. So the best I can do, short of periodically doing translations in all the languages I’m trying to maintain, is try to remain faithful to some kind of holding pattern that will allow me to call upon those skills in a hurry when necessary.

Does anyone have a better approach?

Language Acquisition

I would like to highlight a post by Justin E. H. Smith that I’ve already shared in the sidebar, discussing the fact that foreign language programs are the only aspect of the humanities that really “rewire” your brain in a serious way, akin to learning the play a musical instrument — and also claiming that the fact that getting a degree in French no longer remotely means you’ll be able to speak French means that the actual closure of foreign language departments is more the finalization of something that was already long gone.

This post was interesting to me, because I really think that what made the difference in my graduate study, what pushed me beyond what an avocational student would have done, is precisely the work I’ve done on languages. I am a decent reader of several languages at this point (though my ability varies widely — Romance languages seem much easier for me than either German or Greek), and all of that took hours of tedious labor that I simply would not have done were it not for the formal requirements of exams or for the requirements of my research.

I was overoptimistic in my early years about what I could accomplish on that front — I pictured myself, sometimes at least, reading simply everything in the original — but I still hold to a position that I know many regard as elitist: if you are going to do research in the humanities, you must be able to work with foreign languages. Continue reading “Language Acquisition”