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.

Syllabus Help Request

I am teaching a newly designed course, Rhetoric & Dialogue in Religion & Theology (REL 300), which is part of a new sequence of courses running from our introductory course (100) to a new theories and methods course (200) and ends with our capstone (400). This is the course description:

This course builds on the knowledge and application of theories and methods developed in REL 200. It introduces students to the skills of rhetoric and dialogue in religion and theology through close examination and evaluation of the writing and public discourse of contemporary scholars. Students will work with their peers to develop their own rhetorical styles and apply them both to a form of written communication fitting their post-graduate plans and to an oral presentation for an appropriate public, whether in or beyond the department. This course is required for Religion and Theology majors and meets the Effective Expression requirement for majors.

When we attempt to understand religion or we attempt to think through our theology we are presented with real human life, with the pain and joys of everyday life and the scope of human history. Writing and engaging theory is about much more than a piece of paper at the end of four years or the class significations that paper brings. It is about the ideas that live and die on leaves of paper bound and carried throughout time. So, in this course we will join together to study and improve our theoretical and dialogical skills, but we will also consider how those skills fit within the broader scope of the lives we live together.

The course will begin with an intensive working together on our writing skills before moving on to reading an eclectic mix of different pieces of writing on a variety of topics in religion and theology from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives. The course will end with a series of workshops honing our own writing, developing a piece of writing for a popular audience and one for an academic audience. We will end with a student conference where you present your ideas in an academic presentation for members of the Department of Religion & Theology with a question and answer session to follow. 

As part of the course I had students surface their own interests for topics that our reading would cover, since content isn’t the point of the course. I’m now trying to find a number of academic essays and popular writing on a variety of topics and am struggling a bit with the popular writings. If any readers have suggestions for the topics I am very open to hearing them. I am really interested to hear about work that you’ve found works well in the classroom.

Topics

  • Biblical Studies and the Use and Abuse of Scriptures
  • Meaning of Muhammad as the seal of the prophets
  • Origins and History of Cults/New Religious Movements
  • Chinese Anti-Muslim laws and actions
  • Religious Authority
  • Science and Religion debates, especially regarding evolution
  • Music and Religion
  • Gender and Religion, especially with regard to Islam