On being an ignorant schoolmaster

Inside Higher Ed has published an expanded version of my piece on teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. The most notable addition is an introductory bit on Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster.

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“Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.

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Memorization

I’m finally getting around to reading Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and I’m finding it really exciting and helpful. Of particular interest is his emphasis on memorization as a form of intellectual emancipation. Thinking ahead to my Heidegger class for next year, it occurs to me that if I could get every student to memorize one important paragraph from Being and Time, they could conceivably wind up being ahead of a student who passed an exam on the best-ever lecture course in terms of actually understanding how to read Heidegger.

My colleague Aron Dunlap has suggested incorporating a memorization component into our literature class next semester, and while I was open to the idea before, now I’m positively intrigued. Have any of you incorporated memorization into your teaching, specifically of poetry? What were your experiences?

The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics

I was reminded yesterday by a friend of Simone Weil’s classic essay “Human Personality,” and was struck by the notion that at some point (perhaps somebody already has) I might write a piece comparing the centrality of her question here, ‘Why am I being hurt,’ to Judith Butler’s more recent question in Precarious Life, ‘Who shall we mourn?’ Both questions attend to supremely significant issues. Indeed, one might argue that Weil & Butler approach the same issues but from different angles. This may be true, but one must be careful in too quickly affirming the sameness at the expense of the important differences.

I am deeply sympathetic–no, make that outright supportive–of Weil’s desire to speak for those who cannot speak–or, more properly, that which cannot be spoken. The impersonality of this unspoken truth is crucial to Weil, and is apprehended, if at all, in the solitariness of one’s humiliation. She offers no concession to consolation in her work, which is often unsettling. I don’t read Weil as a masochist. Suffering, rather, is an inevitability, of life & of life on the way to the truth. If pain must sometimes be handed out as punishment, this is only because the inevitable is often disproportionately distributed and/or dissimulated by the secular appeal to “rights.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself. Read the rest of this entry »

New Issue of Political Theology

The newest issue of Political Theology is now available. I bring this to your attention as it contains excellent articles by some of our own — see Brad Johnson’s “Doing Justice to Justice” and Anthony Paul Smith’s “The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable.” Check them out.

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Read the rest of this entry »

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