Chewing the pedagogical cud

One problem I have perceived in Shimer’s general approach to course design is that there is not much room for students to fully “digest” all the difficult texts that they’re working through. In part, this is due to the Iron Law of Curriculum Design — namely, that it is possible only to add to a curriculum, never to subtract, so that the reading burden will tend to grow over time. Papers provide one solution to this problem, but they necessarily only apply to a limited number of texts (usually two max), and the paper writing process itself would surely benefit from more digestion time for all the texts.

In the senior capstone class, the major writing comes in the form of “protokols” (summary papers), which primarily summarize and respond to the previous day’s discussion. I am thinking that for my next upper-level class, I will partly adapt this model. Instead of summaries of the discussion, students will write brief summaries of a given day’s reading, with the goal being for the students to collaboratively generate a summary of all the course readings. The course would then be divided into two or three distinct units, and at the end of each unit, there would be no new reading except to review all the summaries for that unit, so that we could talk about how they fit together, etc.

I’m undecided on exactly how to implement the summary papers. My current thinking is that an initial draft of the summary will be due before class the day the reading is first discussed, and then they will be required to rewrite it in light of the class discussion and my comments. They will then present the summary in the following class to provide a review of the previous reading and hopefully create greater continuity. If there are still serious problems with the summary, a further rewrite could be generated and then distributed to the class (or stored in a Google Drive folder accessible to everyone).

Another issue I’ve been grappling with is how to change their habits in paper-writing to get them away from last-minute all-nighter type strategies. Currently the reading load militates against that, especially for working students (i.e., virtually all but the very most privileged students). In my current course, it has worked out pretty organically that the final text we read is both easier to read and very conducive to bringing together a lot of themes from the previous readings — so perhaps after the discussion of the final “unit,” we could discuss a text like that (no longer doing summaries as we go) and also build in a few writing steps (an outline or summary, an annotated collection of salient quotes, etc.) prior to the final deadline. Including peer review at some stage could be helpful, not just intrinsically but as a way of introducing “positive peer pressure” into the mix and making sure the students actually do the steps required.

There are many possible drawbacks. Above all, a lot hangs on making sure students provide summaries of passable quality — or even provide them at all. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with the capstone course, but then their entire writing grade depends on the “protokols,” whereas I am still including a traditional paper as well. I can think of punitive measures, but I don’t want to create that kind of atmosphere. Every other measure I can think of (such as letting others do a missed summary for extra credit or letting other students edit an inadequate summary) would seem to have hierarchy-generating effects that cut against the collaborative approach. I don’t know. Maybe you do.

Digesting the Cross

What if the Gospel writers didn’t know why the crucifixion happened? What if the Gospels are all an attempt to cover over this fact by making it seem increasingly predicted, inevitable, mysterious? Making the cross something that promises meaningfulness, without a concrete meaning?

The basic strategy is twofold. First, establish Jesus’ authority. He’s the messiah (though he kept this fact secret for most of his career, according to Mark), he’s the one who was predicted by certain decontextualized fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures — it’s all right there in front of your face! And once we have that established, we primarily rely on his authority to establish the necessity of the crucifixion. He reaches a turning point in his ministry and begins mysteriously invoking this paradoxical event. He knows it’s coming and meets it with calm assurance. It’s the culmination of his mission on earth.

It’s often said that the Gospels are all Passion Narratives with introductory materials. Clearly the crucifixion is central to all their accounts. Yet I am beginning to suspect that the mountain of detail is meant to distract from the fact that they don’t know why it’s happening. It’s persuasion through repetition and ritualization — “Do this in memory of me!” Why? Because I said so. And if you don’t understand, you can take comfort that the original apostles, almost uniformly portrayed as bumbling dolts, didn’t understand either.

The most meaning we get is that it sets the apocalyptic sequence in motion by inaugurating the resurrection of the dead. But why this specific event? Paul begins to develop some ideas about its relationship to law and justice and human divisions — but for the Gospel writers, it basically happened because it happened. We have to trust that it’s the right thing because Jesus is the messiah and he knew what he was doing.

CFP: The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Heritage

Colby Dickinson of Loyola University Chicago reports the following:

I’m very happy to announce an interdisciplinary conference, ‘The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Heritage’, set to take place 14-16 April 2016 at Loyola University Chicago. Please see the attached flyer for more details.

Our conference is designed to explore and celebrate the mutual enrichment between the Catholic tradition and continental thought, and brings together some of the most important figures in this ongoing dialogue, including Julia Kristeva, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Luc Nancy, Richard Kearney, John Caputo and Adriaan Peperzak.

For further information and updates about the conference, and the Call for Papers, please visit our page on facebook, and/or follow us via any of the other links included on the Call for Papers.

If you are so inclined, we would greatly appreciate your circulating the attached flyer to any and all interested parties. Thanks.

The gender dyad in the Qur’an

Repeatedly in the Qur’an, we read that God has created humanity male and female. This duality plays a directly theological role: in contrast to God, who is absolutely One and eternal, who has no partners or offspring, humanity is dual and reproductive. It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience). Indeed, the latter possibility never seems to come up, while several tellings of the Sodom story not only make it much clearer than the Bible does that homosexuality is the big problem — but that such a practice was literally unthinkable before the Sodomites invented it.

I wonder, though, if there may still be room to maneuver within Qur’anic terms toward a more open attitude to non-binary gender experiences and expressions. I have a sense that the purely negative theological role of the gender dyad may be the opening — the point of such declarations is to clarify humanity’s radical difference from God, rather than to make normative claims about human character. Presumably if humanity was more polymorphous, its difference from God would be even more strongly highlighted.

Further, we can see evidence that God views variety (beyond duality) to be a positive benefit to humanity, as in 49:13, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” As with the gender dyad, the multiplicity of nations is not a curse or a failing (as in the Biblical narrative of Babel), but a positive opportunity for growth and communion. Could the same not be true of a more expansive view of gender experience and expression?

(Perhaps this is a stretch, and I am after all an outsider — but I am committed to the project of finding liberatory readings of scriptural traditions generally.)

Absolute Economics is Back

After a year on hiatus, as Indradeep Ghosh and I have gone through career and life transitions, we are once again actively posting up at Absolute Economics.  I’ve put up a couple of things over the weekend, some notes on The Merchant of Venice and a few more on the extraordinary Museo del Oro in San Jose, Costa Rica.  See you there.

Cameron’s Christianity

This week David Cameron ventured into the realm of political theology, boldly speaking up for ‘the values on which our nation was built’ – that is, ‘the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility’. The Guardian were quick to object, with both an editorial in which we were informed that Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the world was, actually, ‘the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities’; and with a piece by Giles Fraser which argued that ‘Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers’, and that the real meaning of Easter is that ‘failure is redeemed’.

But however much we might dislike Cameron’s Christianity, we can’t simply reject it in the name of some more authentic form of Christianity, of ‘Christianity, properly understood’, of what Jesus really meant, if only we could learn to focus on the right verses, read in the right way. What Christianity really is is also what it actually means and does in the world today, what people who call themselves Christians think and do.

And In that sense, Cameron is absolutely right: Christianity is about respectability, hard work, ‘decency’; it is about white middle class values. The Protestant work ethic, the cleanliness that is next to godliness, the respectability politics of compulsory heterosexuality and all those ‘real and necessary’ values that have been weaponised so effectively by the West as it has pursued racist, genocidal, and colonialist policies around the world are precisely a Christian invention, whatever the elusive historical Jesus might have made of them.

Christianity is the things Cameron represents because that’s what it is for many, perhaps most, British people who call themselves Christians. 70% of British people call themselves Christians even though most of them never attend church services, because for many of us ‘Christian’ has come to mean ‘white British’. The language of the far right in Europe is increasingly moving away from that old appeal to securing a future for white children and towards the mainstream political discourse – eagerly endorsed by popes and archbishops alike – of defending Europe’s Christian heritage. Remember Anders Breivik? Whatever Christianity was, or should be, or could be; however multiple it is, however contested its terms, it is now also a metonym for white supremacist patriarchy. We need to confront that.

Two notes on calling oneself a Marxist


There is also a sort of game that I play with this. I often quote concepts, texts and phrases from Marx, but without feeling obliged to add the authenticating label of a footnote with a laudatory phrase to accompany the quotation. As long as one does that, one is regarded as someone who knows and reveres Marx, and will be suitably honoured in the so-called Marxist journals. But I quote Marx without saying so, without quotation marks, and because people are incapable of recognizing Marx’s texts I am thought to be someone who doesn’t quote Marx.


I hear people saying ‘You picked a good time to salute Marx!’ Or else: ‘It’s about time!’ ‘Why are you so late?’ I believe in the political virtue of the contretemps. And if a contretemps does not have the good luck, a more or less calculated luck, to come just in time, then the inopportuneness of a strategy (political or other) may still bear witness, precisely, to justice, bear witness, at least, to the justice which is demanded and about which we were saying a moment ago that it must be disadjusted, irreducible to exactness [justesse] and to law. But that is not the decisive motivation here and we need finally to break with the simplism of these slogans. What is certain is that I am not a Marxist, as someone said a long time ago, let us recall, in a witticism reported by Engels. Must we still cite Marx as an authority in order to say “I am not a Marxist”? What is the distinguishing trait of a Marxist statement? And who can still say “I am a Marxist”?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,202 other followers