Thursday, May 26, 2005

Evidence that I'm still grading, or something

It came up in the car on the drive up to Sacramento. It was one of those moments of kizmet that pop up in the non-sequitir stream of commentary on long drives, between curses directed at aggressive drivers and asides pointing out the beautiful, the strange, and the silly. I can't quite remember precisely how it came to this point, but it did: The terrorists may already have won.

I don't mean that in any political sense. I mean that when the new TV Guide sweepstakes comes out, it will inevitably be mailed to a Mr. Al Qaeda, in a big gawdy quasi-official envelope declaring in big red letters: "GRAND PRIZE WINNER!" Underneath, of course, it will bear the usual disclaimer, "If the code number on your official entry form is selected at random."

So yes, indeed, the terrorists may already have won.

All of which leads me to think that somebody in Homeland Security (Heimatssicherheit in the original German) should be identifying an address to begin a massive campaign to undermine funding for terrorist operations, by sending a constant barrage of unrequested magazine subscriptions and other junk mail offers to them. Imagine the time and energy it will take away from planning attacks, if they're constantly on the phone to Wine Spectator, or Hustler, or Field and Stream, trying to stop a subscription. ("No, no, you don't understand. We are not hunting and fishing enthusiasts! We do not want your decadent magazine!")


Lauren and I took time out of finals week to go up to Sacramento to join a few thousand of our closest friends to protest Governor Schwarzenegger's continuing campaign against education, nursing, and public safety. The news stories from papers across the state all resemble The San Francisco Chronicle story (a fact which holds its own lesson): all understate the crowd size considerably, all tell a story of conflict between the Governor and a group of vocal protestors. This discourse decontextualizes, for instance, by referring to competing claims about whether the Governor promised to fully fund schools according to Prop. 98, and competing claims about whether his budget does fully fund schools (he did make the promise, he did reneg on the promise).

Standing in the heat, yelling, chanting, hearing the speeches making our case, all felt very good, but it was also terribly exhausting. And today, back into the fray.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Grading papers forces me to confront anew the difficulties of a semester. This term, I decided to push for open dialogue as much as possible, and did everything I could to make that happen. Of course, it didn't work all the time. When it did work, notably in Professional Ethics, the students took initiative, thought things through, brought their own ideas and experiences to bear, and respected differences of opinion and the dialogue itself. When it didn't work, I am fairly convinced, the students didn't find a way into the dialogue, or the spirit of the dialogue. I am at a loss why, because I do believe my approach didn't vary all that much between classes.

And I don't say this to single any class out or to assign blame to any group of students, nor to assume blame myself. bell hooks desribes a class that didn't work in Teaching to Transgress. She concludes that teachers can't create dialogue all by themselves, that it takes the response of students to make it work. Obviously true, but hooks seems to evade the issues of (a) whether that means it's the students' fault when a class doesn't become dialogical, and (b) to what extent a teacher can, after all, make it work. She also isn't terribly specific about how to make it work.

What I tried to do this semester is threefold. First, I tried to take as much grade-pursuing pressure and behavior out of the courses as possible, basically by making them easy to pass, and frankly, easy to ace. The goal there is to turn attention away from the need to produce a pleasing performance and toward the material under consideration itself. Second, I tried to show myself to be an interested dialogical partner pursuing knowledge along with them, rather than as a possessor of knowledge monologically presenting it to them. This is an attempt to be honest about the nature of philosophical inquiry, specifically its openness to revision, reflective reconsideration, etc. It was also an expression of my changing attitudes, beliefs, and understanding of life, the universe, and everything. It was also an attempt to invite students to be part of the dialogue, not to assume they will be fed the answer I'm expecting back from them, and to take responsibility for contributing to class discussion. Third, I tried to keep the tone light, which is something I usually have done anyway. Even when the course material gets into dark areas - issues of death and dying in Pro Ethics, for instance, or the existential dread of choosing in the Intro class - I attempt to inject levity of some sort. Mainly, this is because I am funny. But it's also a deliberate and conscious technique.

Anyway, these don't always work. Sometimes people don't get the jokes. Sometimes people don't get the point. Sometimes people seem to deliberately obstruct me, or others, or even themselves - which is mystifying. The most mystifying thing is when I'm taken absolutely wrongly: when I'm taken to be lording knowledge or power over my students, or something like that. This is deeply weird given my demeanor in class. I believe I make the classroom open to saying just about anything. The only limit I impose is that you should take philosophical points of view seriously, not be dismissive.

But that's what it appears to boil down to in many cases of abiding resistance to dialogue: an absolute refusal to consider that philosophy may be relevant, that something other than one's own point of view and habit of thought may be significant. That may be the point at which bell hooks' account is most pertinent.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Last night we went to the annual reading and celebration of the release of Penumbra, Stan State's literary and art mag. Lauren has two poems in this year's issue, and decided she would read.

She absolutely stole the show. It turned out that Lauren was the last one to read, luckily for everybody else. She read "A Letter to My Lover, while waiting for a Northbound to pass," complete with rhythm, complete with sway and swing, complete with line breaks that she used to give herself a backbeat. Hubba hubba. It was a very sexy reading of a very sexy poem. I think five people stopped her on our way to the parking lot, after two or three came up to her at our seats, all glowing with praise, richly deserved.
I think that was the poem that my pal Jim ("The Most Optimistic Man in America, in a Miata") Williams responded to by asking me, basically, if I was going to be able to deal with Lauren being a poet, and a better one. Well, yeah!

On the way home, Lauren wondered how inspiring her performance might have been. She was hopeful that everyone went home in right randy states.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Judges and filibusters

Far be it from me to accuse Senate Republicans of being over-aggressive. I don't really need to accuse them of anything, because moves like banning filibusters in order to get 10 crazed judges appointed aptly demonstrate it. The news as reported lately (see, for instance, Heated senate showdown opens on judges) completely de-contextualizes the situation. For instance, it's not reported in this story, nor, I'll bet, in 90% of the stories on front pages of newspapers today, that while Senate Democrats are filibustering to stop 10 Bush appointments from being approved, Senate Republicans, controlling the Judiciary Committee, stopped numerous Clinton appointments to federal judgeships, simply by not considering the nominees. (See Senate Rules Meltdown for more context.) The stories also fail to point out that close to 170 of Bush's appointees have been approved, and that the federal bench has its lowest level of vacancy since 1990.

It almost sounds like Republicans are seeking absolute authority to do anything they want, in Congress, in the judiciary, in the executive branch. Checks and balances? Not for them, not when they hold the majority.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Impervious to irony

Courtesy of my pal Owen Kelly, who shared this at the Society for Phenomenology and Media conference (Owen teaches in Finland): America We Stand As One. Owen claims that this says something deeply meaningful about American social reality. And maybe it does.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

How to go to conferences

I actually wrote this yesterday, but since getting in last night at 11:20, I let it wait.

Often the best things that happen at conferences don't happen at the conferences. I've only learned how to enjoy the setting of a conference over the last few years. I've learned that the way to get the most out of conferences is to do two main things: (1) find the right bar, go there, and stay there as long as everyone else does, and (2) spend some time with another conference-goer or two checking out the locale.

Obvious, I know now. But I had had such an angst-ridden posture, really a defensive one, that I didn't get into the right frame of mind.

One thing missing at the Helsinki conference was the right bar. For one thing, Helsinki was so incredibly expensive, but also a difficult city to be a tourist in, I'd say - at least, to be a typical American tourist, or at least me. But Oregon's coastal towns boast a generous helping of good pubs, and the one we found served local brew on tap, including a dynamite stout that the conference probably bought a keg of over the days. The wait staff were ridiculously nice, which threw me. (That became sort of a theme - everywhere we went, the clerks, cashiers, waitresses, etc. were all terribly, not to say suspiciously, nice. Dave finally asked at the Malt Shop in Manzanita, Oregon for an order of whatever medication the waitress was taking. Myself, I looked around the place, and thought, well, why wouldn't you be nice in a place like this?)

When SPM went to Helsinki in 2003, I ended up spending my last day wandering the city on foot with my friend Paul. Along the way we checked out an international fair at a park in the middle of town; found a store selling odd decorative and art items, mainly from Russia; and ran into Lars, who had hosted the conference, because we had blundered into his neighborhood. This year's conference ended Friday evening, and today I spent the afternoon on the Oregon coast with Dave and Owen, wandering along the beaches, checking out caves and such (at low tide, since they're inaccessible other times).

So now I'm in the Portland airport, waiting out my flight to Sacramento, to be followed by the long drive home. I'm exhausted, but mostly eager to be home.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stuff going on


Lauren and I went to see the university's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead last Friday - one of my favorite plays. This was her first time seeing it, my second. It was well done, especially Roque Berlanga's Rosencrantz. I thought the last half of the second act and beginning of the third lagged a bit, but that can happen. As Lauren pointed out, it's gotta be hard to inject a lot of energy into dialogue about inevitable doom.

Saturday I tried writing more on the paper I'm presenting to the Society for Phenomenology and Media on Thursday of this week. I'm nowhere near satisfied with the paper. I leave tomorrow for the conference, up in Oregon, which I face largely with dread, to be perfectly honest.

After that, there's only one more week of classes, a disturbing number of papers to read, and then the school year will be over. I would like to spend a week going for walks every day, whenever we feel like it, to wherever we feel like going, for however long we like, alternating walking with cooking, playing games, reading, and a generous amount of blissing out (which is not a euphemism per se).