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 “protokolls” (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.

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.

You’ll feel like you were in Nebraska, too!

The graduate students in the English Department of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have put together a pretty impressive blog. It includes a very thorough and thoughtful review of my talk there a couple weeks ago, along with a lot of other good stuff.

Good news!

It turns out that The Girlfriend, who landed a job in Minneapolis in January, is going to be able to transfer to the Chicago office much, much earlier than anticipated. Hence I won’t need to move to Minneapolis for the summer — missing the best time to live in Chicago for the second year in a row (recall last year’s move to San Francisco for her summer internship) — nor will I need to take a leave of absence for the fall to save us from the burden and expense of constant travel, maintaining multiple apartments, etc.

This possibility has been brewing for a few weeks, and I had pondered the idea of taking the leave anyway, to have more time to finish the devil book and start up new research. But when it became clear that it was all but certain to happen, my first, gut-level reaction was, “Oh great, now I get to teach in the fall!” And while I was able to achieve great things in the monastic setting of our San Francisco apartment last summer, I must admit I harbored serious doubts about my ability to stay completely self-motivated for seven months.

So overall, I’m pretty happy.


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