Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

Next year, I’m going to be teaching Shimer’s senior capstone, which is purportedly an overview of the broad Western tradition (ancient and medieval in the fall, modern in the spring) with an emphasis on the concept of “history.” That narrative is becoming less and less compelling to most students, and the through-line of the focus on history tends to get a little lost amid a very crowded reading list (my list will seem crowded, but it’s nothing compared to the existing version!). So I’m going to have a chance to make some changes, to lighten the load somewhat and to incorporate more contemporary perspectives.

I don’t know how much flexibility I’ll actually have, but my mind has started to churn about what I would do with the concept if I had a totally free hand. Accepting the “ancient and medieval” frame for the fall, and taking into account that we have a 13-week semester and that the capstone class meets four times per week (and we generally do 20-30 pages of reading most days), this is what I’ve come up with so far. (Note that most of these books will be read in selections.)
Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

Classics and Class Aspiration

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There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.

My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.

To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”

This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.

A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

With the end of the Spring semester just a few weeks ago I have finished three years of teaching at my current institution. During our third year here we have to finish a third-year pre-tenure review, which I found to be as unenjoyable an experience as you might imagine by that name. While I found some of the process confusing and ultimately unmoored, that doesn’t appear to be an indictment of my institution in particular and seems to be the norm generally for these sorts of bureaucratic exercises. Really though I suspect the impetus behind these reviews comes from a good place and I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to approach it as a moment of self-reflection. Some of that should be a way to acknowledge for yourself the good things you’ve done over the course of the three years, but it also offers a place to consider weaknesses to work on in the coming years. I’m sure that all of this is not unproblematic and there are nefarious neoliberal tropes underlying all of it, but I am also very committed to becoming a better teacher and found this a good way to make use of the required bureaucratic exercise. One thing became clear to me as I read over my students evaluations and those of my more established peers: I am not a very good disciplinarian in the classroom and more importantly I do not know how to work on that within the pedagogical framework I have tried to construct.

First, I hate nothing more than begging. Those who have in the past contributed to online fundraising efforts may find that surprising, but by begging I don’t mean virtual panhandling. Asking for money from people willing and able to give is simply asking. They don’t have to and I do not hold it against them if they feel their money is better spent on other things. Begging in the sense I mean it can only take place within a situation that is effectively governed by a contract where one of the parties only carries out their obligations because they are required to. I mostly teach courses that students take to complete their general education requirements and while they have signed up to a liberal arts education most students resent what is required of them to attain a liberal arts education. When I first began to teach in the US I did find myself wanting the students to like the classes and it felt like I was begging them to. I got over that pretty quickly as it just feels pathetic and embarrassing. But I didn’t give up because I trusted in the contract, I gave up because I saw the (not very good) Hannah Arendt biopic and realized how many of the students I come across could easily become camp guards (or may become part of the prison-industrial complex) after graduation. I began to read a lot in critical pedagogy (mostly works by Friere, bell hooks, and George Yancy). And that work has been really useful and I’ve come to be very happy with the direction of my teaching. But when it comes to dealing with issues of discipline and punishment in the classroom I’m a bit lost. In fact, when I take punitive measures against my students for using their cell phones in class or not attending or even doing something really stupid and unambiguous like plagiarizing I feel like I am back in that position of begging them. It feels like I’m begging them to care about the work, to care about the class, to care about becoming a more interesting person, to care about what’s being said in class even when it’s the boring but necessary parts.

The thing is, when students aren’t interested in taking responsibility for their education then it isn’t clear to me what the response should be from the perspective of critical pedagogy. What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking? Is the classroom an appropriate space to think through these sorts of prefigurative ideas? Or is the classroom too overcoded by the same carceral logic as the wider society? These kinds of questions are even more pressing for me because of how many first-generation college students I have in my classrooms and many more who are products of a society that has not prepared them for the kind of work that I ask them to do.

Possibilities of teaching in Islam

My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.

The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.

But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.

My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).

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