The Impossible Profession

The first week of this semester was strange. On the one hand, my classes went awesome, at least from my perspective. My two Shimer seminars have had engaging discussions where everybody talked at least once, every class (which is harder than you’d think, even in a relatively small group of 10-14), and in my Ethics class, I’ve hit a pretty good balance between lecture and discussion in a larger class of 30. More than that, in all my classes I have thought new thoughts and made new connections because of our discussions. I leave the classroom energized and happy. On the other hand, everything outside of class felt like an absolute disaster. I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule for an early start — the same schedule I had during the year of intense overwork that low-key ruined my life and let to my self-proclaimed sabbatical — and my classes are back-to-back-to-back with only 15-minute breaks between them. My service role also produced more stress and demands on my time than I anticipated this early in the semester. The result was that I felt like I had no time to breathe, much less think — at least outside the classroom.

I’ve never thought of myself primarily as a teacher. When I’m asked to provide a short bio, I often say I’m a writer, teacher, and translator — and I intend it in that order. Like most academics, I viewed writing and research as The Real Thing, with teaching as the way we paid the bills. And like most academics, once I actually set foot in the classroom, I found it exciting and engaging and even addictive. Continue reading “The Impossible Profession”

Adventures in Urban Stargazing

Over the last several years, I have achieved a major pedagogical goal of mine: teaching natural science classes. This is obviously a pretty unusual opportunity for someone with a theology PhD, which is only possible because of the distinctive methodology of the Shimer Great Books School. Our discussion-centered pedagogy makes the course materials, not the professor, the center of authority, and our generalist approach means that, at least in principle, everything we read or investigate should be accessible in some way to any curious person willing to put in a little work. Hence we not only ask all our students to take courses in every discipline — even the dreaded math and science — but we expect professors to be able to teach across disciplines. The requirement is to do two out of the Big Three (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences), but the ideal would be to teach in all, indeed to teach every core course in our curriculum.

This approach means that our science courses are very different from a typical science course, which aims to bring students up to speed with the current understanding. We focus on classic texts and experiments that exemplify profound and decisive moments of discovery. Instead of giving our students an info dump about what scientists currently think, we want to give them an experience of how scientists formulate questions and seek their answers. Older examples are better not only because they tend to be simpler to replicate (since there is less built-up background knowledge to take into account), but also because they let us see how and why scientists get things wrong.

Continue reading “Adventures in Urban Stargazing”

Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

After having a good experience teaching Plato’s Timaeus, I was dreading the next step in my Shimer Great Books seminar on great texts in cosmology: Aristotle’s Physics. Aristotle never seems to teach well, not simply because of his dry writing style, but because of his often confusing presentation — throwing out multiple ideas, some tied to specific names but most not, before gradually whittling the possibilities down to his own preferred solution. Undergraduate readers tend to find that approach uniquely impenetrable. It has been more fun teaching the Physics this year than I expected, though, in part because of how close it is to everyday experience — and also, perhaps, because my years of hard experience have helped me to give them reading strategies.

In any case, I want to highlight two remarkable passages from Aristotle that, to me, vindicate his stature as a real scientific thinker. Continue reading “Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

The Bodily Fluids Game

By far the most successful teaching activity I’ve ever come up with – the most fun, the most memorable, and the most pedagogically effective – is the bodily fluids game I use in Week 4 of my Gender, Sexuality and the Bible module. Having shared it a couple of times with friends and colleagues, I thought it would be worth posting here so it’s more widely available. The goal of the game is to get people thinking about bodily fluids and the way that disgust functions within particular systems of gender, sexuality and society. The game consists of 16 cards, each with a different bodily fluid on it (it’s a non-exhaustive list so you could always tweak it). I’ve laminated mine but you don’t need to:


The game has two parts:

  1. In small groups, arrange the bodily fluids in order from the most to the least disgusting
  2. Take a look at the rankings you’ve produced in some groups. What makes some bodily fluids more disgusting than others.

Once we’ve played the game I talk the students through some of the theoretical arguments made by people like Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva about gender, disgust, the self and society; but extensive testing suggests it’s fun to play even without the academic component.

It all comes down to the triangles

One of the most puzzling passages in Plato’s Timaeus describes the formation of the elements out of triangles. Without illustrations, it is nearly impossible to follow, but he is claiming that each of the four classical elements is made up of particles shaped like one of the Platonic solids — i.e., solid shapes with all equilateral faces. They will be familiar to fans of D&D, and I often provide my students with paper templates that they can cut out and fold into the requisite shapes. Every time I teach the Timaeus, at least one student actually does take the time and brings sample Platonic solids to class to show everyone. Extra credit is duly awarded.

One’s first temptation, of course, is simply to skip that section as a bizarre indulgence. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as absolutely essential for understanding Plato’s project in the Timaeus. Continue reading “It all comes down to the triangles”

When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

Continue reading “When research leavens teaching”

Fractal Weirdness: On Pinocchio and the Garden of Earthly Delights

My main project right now is to finish up my translation of Agamben’s book on Pinocchio. Though part of me wonders why I took on a translation during the busiest year of my life, it has been fun in a lot of ways — above all, by introducing me to the original novel by Collodi, which is significantly different and much better than the Disney film. When I first agreed to do the translation, I bought two different translations, intending to “triangulate” between them and Agamben’s commentary, and My Esteemed Partner decided to read it alongside me. One afternoon, she ran into the office and, nearly in tears from laughter, exclaimed: “He killed him! He threw something at the Talking Cricket and killed him!” And that’s only the first big twist in a book full of true WTF moments.

Continue reading “Fractal Weirdness: On Pinocchio and the Garden of Earthly Delights”

The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)

When My Esteemed Partner asked me which country I wanted to visit next, I answered without hesitation: Spain. My reason was equally clear: I wanted to see Las Meninas in person. I fulfilled that goal on our first full day in Madrid, and the remainder of our trip was full of world-historical artworks: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Picasso’s Guernica, Berg’s Wozzeck (an amazing performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu), and the artwork pictured above, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have wanted to see that amazing church since I learned of its existence in high school Spanish class, and it did not disappoint. More even than the Bosch, it felt like an artwork that I could never exhaust, like every square centimeter was saturated in meaning.

Continue reading “The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)”

Help me plan a module on angels and demons in medieval theology

I’m due to teach a new course in September, which sets out to use angelology and demonology as a way into medieval theology and philosophy. We don’t currently have any modules that focus specifically on the medieval period, though my students read a little of Augustine on the fall of the angels in their first year, and we touch on a few medieval thinkers in some of the other modules I teach.

Here’s the catalogue summary for the module:

Belief in angels and demons has come to seem eccentric and disconnected from real life, in talking about these spiritual beings, medieval theologians explored many of the issues which were, to them, of central concern. By studying the work of medieval angelologists and demonologists, we can come to understand crucial debates about the nature of reality, matter and time; what it means to be human; and how society should be organised. This module will explore key questions of medieval philosophy and theology through an examination of debates about angels and demons.

I’ll be planning the course over the summer; currently my key points of reference are Adam’s The Prince of This World; David Keck’s Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages; Hoffman’s A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy; Lenz and Iribarren’s Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry; and Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I think I’ll probably include Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy because it’s so foundational for 13th century thinkers, and I’m tempted to edge into the early modern period and look at angels in John Dee. I think I’m going to try for a mix of primary and secondary texts, so any suggestions for good translations would be much appreciated, as would any other ideas or suggestions about key – and undergraduate friendly – readings, scholarship, etc.