Speaking as one with authority

As I grow more accustomed to Shimer’s discussion-centered pedagogy, I am increasingly coming to understand that a big part of my job is not simply to encourage students to speak in class, correcting them or encouraging them as appropriate, keeping them on task and on topic. Instead, it seems to me that I’m there to provide and model certain ways of talking about the material. This is most acute in teaching music, where most students find themselves at a loss for what to say. Some of them will claim that they want something called “music theory,” and I have sometimes not taken that claim as seriously as I could because it was so obvious to me that knowing technical music theory would not be helpful to them in the way they hoped. In a recent conversation about how class was going, though, a student rephrased that request in a way that made much more sense to me: they want to be able to feel like they’re speaking with some kind of authority. They don’t need to be experts, but they want to feel confident that they’re not making up something totally random and off-base.

As my humanities class has wrapped up a unit on modernism, it struck me that, quite unintentionally, that was what I had done with the theoretical texts we used (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art). Both of the texts centered on a broad opposition between two terms (Dionysian and Apollonian, earth and world) and gave some indication of how that opposition might play out in terms of particular artworks — and that was enough. Even if students didn’t feel sure how to apply the terms to the artwork at hand, they were at least able to say something concrete about why they were having difficulty. And once that base-level confidence that one is saying something concrete and relevant was achieved, it seems like the biggest problem was overcome.

The basic oppositions were far from the only thing that we talked about, but they opened up the space for the things we talked about. In many ways, the very uncertainty about how (and even whether) the terms might apply to a given artwork was beneficial — unlike with purely technical terms, there was no clear-cut right or wrong answer, so students could feel comfortable playing with them.

The question I’m now pondering is what kinds of texts might be able to do the same work in a first-year class rather than in a capstone for upper-level students. It seems to me that the Nietzsche and Heidegger texts are too difficult to throw at first-year students if the goal is for them to get rough-and-ready tools that let them start talking with confidence. At the same time, we currently use extremely technical primary texts about harmonic intervals, etc., so perhaps Nietzsche and Heidegger would be an improvement over that.

What I’m teaching this semester

This semester, I’m teaching Humanities 4: Critical Evaluation in the Humanities (syllabus), an elective on The Devil in Christian Thought (syllabus), and a small tutorial/directed reading that I’m calling Heidegger’s Middle Period (provisional syllabus). It’s a pretty exciting teaching slate for me, for a lot of reasons. First, I obviously get a chance to teach over my ongoing research, which should prove helpful in a lot of ways. Second, teaching Humanities 4, which has been in an “experimental phase” for the last few years, allows me to have a more direct hand in helping to shape the curriculum than I would normally have, and the music and art sections should help me to consolidate some of the skills I gained teaching the fine arts course last semester. Finally, this will be my first time doing a tutorial, and it should be fun to dig more deeply into Heidegger’s work with some students who already have a thorough reading of Being and Time under their belt.

Aside from my Shimer work, I’m also going to be doing a directed reading with Stephen Keating over Agamben, which should be helpful as I have a major conference paper over his work coming up this spring and will also very likely be working on more translations soon. (I prefer not to discuss this in detail until it’s finalized.)

What about you, my dear readers? What are you teaching this semester?

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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Reminder about Shimer’s new transfer scholarship

This is a reminder that the deadline for applying to Shimer College’s new two-year, full-tuition scholarship for transfer students is next Friday, November 15. In addition to sumbitting the regular application materials, students will need to write a brief essay reflecting on a piece by Adrianne Rich. Over the subsequent two weeks, all applicants will do an interview with a Shimer faculty member where they will discuss the Rich essay, among other things. The recipient will be announced on December 6.

If you know of any students who may be interested in applying to Shimer, please let them know about this opportunity.

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Text of my devil lecture

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil,” and the text of my talk is available in PDF form here. The talk is aimed at an undergraduate level, and so I did not include much theoretical or scholarly discussion. You can get a sense of how I see these ideas relating to the discipline of political theology, however, if you keep in mind that this recent post was written while I was drafting the lecture.

“A Brief History of the Devil”: Lecture at Shimer College

On Wednesday, October 30, at 3:15, I will be giving a lecture a Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil.” It will be a partial sneak preview of my long-promised project on the devil, providing what one early reader of the text for the lecture calls “a really good reckless dash through the history of devil thought.”

Shimer College is located at 3424 S. State St. in Chicago, blocks away from the 35th St. Green and Red Line stops. The lecture is in the Cinderella lounge on the second floor of our building. Feel free to e-mail me at a.kotsko at shimer dot edu for further details. It is rumored that drinks at Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport, along with fortification from the Pleasant House Library, may follow this event.

Reflections on teaching fine arts

I’m about halfway through teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. So far, we have done a couple weeks of intro each for visual arts and music, then started a sequence based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired a large number of artworks in various genres and also includes interesting reflections on the fine arts. In the spirit of Ovid’s often contrived transitions, we have also pursued some side roads only obliquely suggested by his text, including an architectural tour of some buildings in the Chicago Loop that vaguely recall the palace of the Sun described in Book II. I had developed a certain level of comfort with the art and music sections, and introducing a new artform at this late date was kind of a curveball — so the tour was an occasion for some reflection on what the class is really trying to do and what I, a non-specialist, can bring to the table for the students.

The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly. Read the rest of this entry »

Further thoughts on the new scholarship at Shimer College

I’m going to continue to post on the new scholarship for transfer students at Shimer College approximately once a week until the application deadline of November 15. We find that Shimer often proves to be a good fit for students who are bored or frustrated with more traditional, authority-centered modes of education, and so their official record may tell us very little about their ability to succeed in our program. As with our four-year full-tuition award, the Montaigne Scholarship, students must show their aptitude for Shimer’s distinctive pedagogy by writing about and discussing an important, challenging text — in this case, Adrienne Rich’s essay “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” After they submit their application with their essay, they will be contacted by a Shimer faculty member (possibly me, in this case) by November 26 to conduct an admissions interview that includes a discussion of Rich’s text. The winner will be announced in early December.

If you teach at a community college and know a student with a real passion for books and ideas, I encourage you to let them know about this opportunity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting videos from previous transfer students who will share their experience at Shimer, but I can tell you from my perspective that our transfers often prove to be among our best students. We’ve also benefited greatly from having a number of students who are older than traditional college age, so older students shouldn’t hesitate to apply.

On another note: one of my most popular blog posts was My Radical Pedagogical Program, which emphasized the gap between what we all know to be educational best practices and what the typical college prioritizes. What I didn’t say explicitly in that post is that at Shimer, we actually do the educational best practices. I know that many of my readers have been deeply concerned about corporatization of the university and have perhaps written eloquently in critique of those trends. That’s valuable, but I don’t think it’s a subsitute for helping an institution that really is doing the things that we’d hope for all colleges to do — and that, due to its urban setting, is uniquely positioned to reach the kinds of populations who are most often targeted by corporatized universities and for-profits.

To continue doing what we do, we need support — and the very best way to support Shimer’s mission is to support its students directly. As I noted last time, this form allows you to designate that you want your donation to go toward the fund for this scholarship — or if you prefer, you can also call Mary Pat Barbarie, our Director of Development, at 312-235-3539. I know that our audience is not a wealthy one, but if you have anything to spare, I urge you to seriously consider supporting this scholarship fund.

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New scholarship for transfer students at Shimer College

I’m lucky to be able to teach at a school I really believe in. I’ve written before about the distinctiveness of Shimer College’s pedagogy and about all the ways it cuts against the trends toward narrow over-specialization and one-size-fits-all pedagogy at mainstream universities. While many associate programs like Shimer’s with elite, exclusive schools, we have always tried to reach beyond that well-heeled population, in the belief that a liberal education is for everyone. In recent years, our student body has been particularly enriched by transfer students, particularly from the City Colleges of Chicago — a shift that has already made Shimer the most racially and ethnically diverse Great Books school in the country.

Now Shimer is doubling down on its commitment to transfer students with the Dangerous Optimist’s Scholarship, a new two-year, full-tuition scholarship for transfer students who join Shimer in the spring semester. The title comes from the semi-official slogan coined by our president, Susan Henking, and the scholarship competition has a unique structure. Instead of submitting credentials, students must demonstrate their ability and enthusiasm for doing what we do at Shimer — reading, writing, and talking about significant, challenging texts.

I encourage anyone who knows a potential transfer student to let them know about Shimer and about the opportunity to apply for this scholarship. If you are able to donate, this form allows you to designate that you want your donation to go toward the fund for this scholarship — or if you prefer, you can also call Mary Pat Barbarie, our Director of Development, at 312-235-3539.

Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition

Yesterday on Twitter I made one of those jokes that is bound to become a reality at some point: I proposed developing a “Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition” sequence similar to a “Great Books” curriculum. There are a lot of questions about how one would organize it, how many classes would be included, etc., but lately I’ve been watching a lot of old sitcoms, and so mentally I’m going through how one would structure a sitcom course. Let’s assume from the outset that you have one 13-week semester to give a decent overview of the sitcom, and let’s limit it to the American sitcom just to make it more manageable (we can do British shows as an elective or something). Some shows seem non-negotiable — I Love Lucy, Dick van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld — and there are difficult cases (e.g., do you put The Simpsons in among the sitcoms or somewhere else, perhaps in an animation course?).

Assuming one week per major show or else one week for a particular subgenre or theme, how could one structure this? What kind of readings might be assigned alongside the shows themselves? How many episodes would you assign, and on what basis?


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