Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

Why do we do courses?

During my five years or so of teaching, a nagging thought has kept resurfacing — namely, that the traditional course format is remarkably unforgiving. This was especially clear when I taught on the quarter system, where a moderately serious illness could very easily lead a student to miss 10% of the class sessions. Yet semesters have their own drawbacks, as they can sometimes feel like a marathon. In fact, a semester is just long enough to have multiple spells of sickness, which tend to hit first-year students particularly hard.

And all these issues could even happen under the best-case scenario of a full-time, residential student with no significant work commitments and no serious family crises during the semester. Once you start throwing actual reality into the equation, things quickly become more complicated. Work schedules tend to accomodate class time itself, but not prep time — and often students will schedule the maximum amount of work time possible for their normal weekly workload, leaving them no additional time to work on longer-term priorities such as papers.

In short, it seems like the format was devised for a particular kind of privileged student, and it isn’t even very forgiving for those people. I might be okay with this if there was some kind of positive pedagogical justification for the format, but I’m not sure there really is.

Let’s look at the format objectively. Read the rest of this entry »

A matter of utmost urgency

A while back, Shimer was planning to refurbish its classrooms, and they asked the faculty whether they preferred chalkboards or dry-erase boards. I put in an impassioned plea to retain chalkboards, though I was sadly overruled in the end.

In my view, chalkboards are the more robust technology, precisely because of their simplicity. Indeed, it is unclear to me what practical advantage dry-erase boards could possibly have. Markers dry out remarkably quickly, and it’s all too easy to confuse a dry-erase marker with another kind, potentially permanently damaging the board. You need specialty chemicals to clean it, and using water can damage it and make it more difficult to clean in the future.

Obviously chalk boards require maintenance as well, but virtually every dry-erase board I have ever used, other than ones that were literally brand-new, has been in terrible condition. I’ve routinely been in classrooms with no markers or dead ones, whereas I’ve almost never been in a classroom that was completely out of chalk.

I understand the seduction of a new technology, but we as educators have decades of experience with the pitfalls of dry-erase boards. Why do we put up with it? Why don’t we agitate for a return to the old familiar regime of chalkboards, which has served us so well for centuries?

The only explanation I can think of is that businesses prefer dry-erase boards, and universities are imitating corporate fashions. Further, I speculate that businesses initially preferred dry-erase boards precisely because they didn’t have the baggage of academia. So basically, we’re imitating the shitty technology of people who hate us, and we aren’t even doing a good job of it.

Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

This article on the limited value of teaching evaluations makes for bracing reading. It is based on experiences in UK universities, but I assume many of the lessons would be applicable to similar mainstream institutions in the US. Broadly speaking, the study referenced concludes that positive teaching evaluations actually correlate negatively with educational outcomes, meaning that students basically hate professors who actually make them learn. What’s more, it claims that a narrowly functional view of education actually increases over the course of the students’ college career — many come with a real love of learning, and it’s gradually beaten out of them.

On one level, of course, it’s satisfying for us as faculty members to imagine that negative course evaluations mean that we’re bold truth-tellers resisting the lowest-common-denominator model of education, etc. I’d suggest, however, that this negative correlation only holds in institutions without a clearly articulated set of pedagogical commitments. In institutions that do have such explicit commitments — like Shimer College, for instance — I imagine that teaching evaluations and educational outcomes correlate fairly closely, at least if students have significant buy-in and investment in that pedagogical model.

And for student buy-in to happen, you absolutely must have faculty buy-in. Faculty should all be able to answer questions about why courses and programs are structured in the way they are, and those answers should be consistent. Whatever the preferred pedagogical model, whether it’s lecturing or discussion or some mix, everyone involved should be able to give an account of why that method is preferable and what purpose it’s serving. Not every professor has to do the same thing, but there should be some sense of what benefit students are supposed to derive from a variety of styles — and people should actually mean it, not just be hand-wavy.

This sounds totalitarian, I know, but we already see what the alternative is: a relative indifference to pedagogy as a topic of explicit reflection, leading to each individual instructor re-inventing the wheel in near-total isolation from their colleagues. Why shouldn’t students “shop around” for pedagogical methods that come easiest to them when we’re doing literally the same thing with our own pedagogical approach?

If students know what they’re getting and know why it’s supposed to be beneficial, then education and satisfaction should go together. In a total vacuum of explicit pedagogical reflection, students will default to non-academic standards for satisfaction, because we’re giving them nothing else. If students don’t know how to evaluate whether we’re helping them to learn, it’s not because students are stupid and ignorant and we shouldn’t ask them anything — it’s because we’ve failed to teach them that. And the only way to lay the groundwork for actually teaching them that is to make focused discussion of pedagogical commitments, with both fellow faculty members and with students, a pervasive feature of the culture of a given school.

Failing that, each individual faculty member should be able to give an account of why they’re doing what they’re doing and of what it would look like for students to be really making progress. If we don’t have an answer — for instance, if we just assign a mid-term and final paper because we need something to grade — then we should change our approach to something that has an actual rationale. And I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for any particular pedagogical model (such as Shimer’s), but for any explicit model at all. We at least need an ethos if we’re going to fight against the inertia of nihilism.

Help with course planning!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be offering a course on the Qur’an next semester. One thing I didn’t factor in when I volunteered to do this, however, is how quickly I need to complete the book order (due to some changes in how Shimer is managing its book ordering). So I have two questions:

  • Is there any standard, classical commentary on the Qur’an by a major figure (like al-Ghazali) that is readily available in English translation?
  • Is there any specifically Sufi commentary on the Qur’an that plays a role similar to that of the Zohar in Judaism? Is it readily available in English translation?

I welcome other recommendations as well, but those questions are the most urgent for me.

Thoughts on teaching Islam in a “Great Books” style

At Shimer College, we pride ourselves on teaching “primary texts” as much as possible. The goal here is to make sure that all the reading we assign is “discussable,” which secondary sources providing background usually are not. In general, I prefer this approach, but so far in my Islam class, I have begun to see its limitations. Class discussions have a greater number of uncomfortable silences than usual, and it seems to be mostly because the students don’t feel equipped to approach the texts.

On one level, this is strange, because although Islamic intellectual traditions are of course different from their various “Western” counterparts, they’re not that different. Indeed, in many cases they are drawing from literally the same broad traditions as the “Western” sources we discuss in other classes — above all, the biblical prophetic tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. In the grand scheme of things, the surah “The Cow” from the Qur’an is more similar to Deuteronomy than different, and ibn Khaldun’s political philosophy is more similar to Machiavelli and Hobbes than different. Yet in both cases, the latter would most likely produce a much more fluid and comfortable conversation.

I’m not sure the problem is that the students lack background. It’s not as though the Islamic world has radically unintelligible social standards, and I’m confident that the texts I’ve provided have given them at least as good a rough and ready background on the general shape of cultural life as they tend to feel like they have of Greek society or medieval times. Most of their assumptions about the Greeks and medievals probably wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and I do sometimes cringe when students pull out a facile argument about how something would’ve made sense “in the culture of the time” — but that sense of initial familiarity, even if partly unfounded, gives them confidence.

Yet it’s not simply foreignness as such that’s at issue. I don’t have direct evidence here, but I suspect that students would be more prone to jump right in with texts from other “Eastern” traditions. They would come to those texts expecting to find fascinating new ideas unparalleled in the boring Western traditions with which they’re familiar — and even if their sense of knowing what to expect is unfounded, it gives them the confidence to get started.

With Islam, by contrast, American culture conveys a consistent impression of inscrutable Otherness, utter impenetrability. Orientalist scholarship of course exacerbates this, as even introductory works throw an unconscionable number of Arabic terms at their readers, creating the impression that Muslims make use of bizarre, foreign concepts that we Westerners can’t fully understand. Further, engaging with Islam feels much more fraught and dangerous than engaging with Buddhism. Political circumstances give us the sense that it’s urgently important to “understand Islam,” but fear of making insensitive remarks or perpetuating stereotypes produces a unique degree of reticence and caution.

In the short term, I plan to deal with this problem next semester by simply giving up and using more secondary sources in my course over the Qur’an, for instance by opening the course with Sells’ much-recommended Approaching the Qur’an and using a translation of the Qur’an with much more robust explanatory notes. If students feel like they need more background to get started discussing, I’m probably not going to achieve much by repeatedly insisting they don’t.

In the long term, though, I think the only solution for Shimer College, if it wants to remain faithful to its general approach while doing the needed work of exposing students to Islamic thought, is to include Islamic sources alongside Western sources as a self-evident part of the dialogue that we’re trying to create. This doesn’t mean that every course must include Islamic sources, but I do think we would be well served to include Islamic texts beyond the obvious realm of philosophy and theology — why can’t ibn Khaldun appear alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, or why couldn’t we read portions of ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic? Why can’t we read Hallaq alongside Foucault?

Yes, this would mean cutting something out in order to make room, but maybe every “Great Books”-style curriculum would do well to give up on the self-defeating goal of “covering everything” and think more intently about what we want students to get out of the texts and their juxtaposition (aside from checking them off the list of books that “everyone must read”). I’m sure that if we really had to justify every choice on a pedagogical level, we would find that no, we don’t actually need to read every single canonical early-modern political theorist, for instance, since our students are not at the level where they can detect the fine distinctions among them anyway. And in some cases, we may indeed find that the Islamic sources are actually more accessible and more suited to a background-free, “Great Books”-style approach than some of the Western texts we throw at them.


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