Thursday, September 25, 2014

turning point

I’m in a book club on campus discussing a book about the situation of first-generation college students. Among the things we talked about were the different attitudes first generation students tend to have about college education and the work they have to do in classes. Among the issues was that we as faculty have expectations about the appropriate valuing of and attitude toward coursework, and our first-generation (and poor, working-class) students come with a different set. For instance, when I assign an article to read for class, and say that I expect my students to read and prepare to discuss the article in class, I mean that they should read carefully and work to understand the text. I say this specifically to them, too. But they approach the text in a way of their own, maybe at the end of a 6 am-to-midnight day of work, school, and family responsibilities. At that point, they don’t have much time or attention to devote to a complicated philosophy text, and at best, they skim through it.

On a drive home from Stockton to Turlock, Lauren and I talked more about it. She said, brilliantly, that my students reading these articles is like me reading Husserl in German. German is a foreign language to me, and I’m not fluent in it. Reading Husserl in German is slow and painstaking. I have to look up many words, stop and restart sentences, sometimes practically translate the whole thing rather than actually read it. Not only is the philosophical language foreign to my students, sometimes the text is also in a language foreign to them.

Now, I understood this implicitly, but the explicit statement is helpful for knowing what they’re going through. Plus, I knew immediately, telling them about this would be help my students understand not only that I empathize, but more importantly, what their relationship is to these texts, and what kind of work it may take to read them.
So I have had this conversation with three of my classes. I emphasized the need to go through this slow process, indeed its indispensability, and my eagerness to go through it with them. I said I believe they take a couple different strategies to reading that are unhelpful: giving up, and skating over passages they didn’t understand. In both cases, my assigning the articles achieves nothing.

I offered a different strategy, like the one I take with Husserl. I go as slow as I need to. I look up the words as I go, rebuild each sentence, then a whole paragraph, and often re-read passages four or five times before moving on to the next part. Today a student said that she does the same thing with our articles, and although she finds it frustrating sometimes, in the end she understands them, and it seemed obvious this provided meaningful satisfaction to her.

I challenged my classes to read this way, as much as they can, and that this was how to prepare for class. I also said that if they came to a passage in an article that they didn’t know how to get through, it was worth our time to stop there and work on that passage.

Every semester, each of my classes has a turning point—a single class session that changes everything about the class. It demands attention of even profoundly disaffected students who typically prefer to sit through classes simmering in contempt. For the students who are willing and already buying in, it turns everything upside down. It’s a class session outside of ordinary classtime. If I were into that kind of thing, I’d want to invoke Mircea Eliade and say that this class happened in sacred time, but it might do to relate it to Thomas Kuhn and say it’s a form of revolutionary science, a paradigm shift. The class session always turns reflection on what is going on in the class itself. The discussion is directly and provocatively about how they do or don’t do their work; how they relate to philosophy, to other classes, to each other, and to me; and about their responses, desires, and fears about the class, about learning, and in some way, really, about life. The class shivers from the unexpected candor and the openness to whatever happens next. It’s exhilarating and feels weirdly risky and naughty, and I can’t predict the outcome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about teaching using small group discussions, as part of trying to get at some reflection on reading aloud in class and how that’s going this semester. I feel like there’s more preliminary to say.

I have my classes read difficult material. I write it into my syllabus. I tell my students so in class. “You will read things you don’t immediately understand,” I say. “Expect to have difficulty. When you do, make notes about it. Ask about it in class, because I promise you, everyone in the room will also have difficulty. You might feel shy about it, or like you’re the only one. Trust me: you’re not the only one.”

I explain that their responsibilities are to read assignments prior to class discussion, to look up unfamiliar words and ideas, not only in an ordinary dictionary, but in specialized reference works related to the field, and to take notes and ask questions about the articles. I start every discussion of an article by asking for overall questions, or clarifications of particular words or passages.

I have three justifications for my choices of reading assignments. The first is pedagogical, the second is disciplinary, and the third is political.

The pedagogical justification is that the course is supposed to develop critical thinking skill. The ability to analyze and critique complex material and ideas can only be developed by reading complex material presenting complex ideas. I sometimes set up an article in advance by explaining something about the author’s way of thinking (e.g., “Peter Singer is a prominent ethicist, most known for writing about vegetarianism and animal rights”), or by providing guiding questions on the reading (e.g., “Why does the Clarke conclude that Baby L’s parents did not have the right to demand treatment?”). Sometimes I don’t provide any set up, but just remind my classes that they should come to class with their questions. Sometimes I have them bring a written question.

The disciplinary justification is that philosophy courses should involve reading philosophers’ own writing, as much as possible. It would be much easier to read a synopsis of Onora O’Neill’s article on paternalism and patient autonomy in medicine, but there’s no substitute for reading O’Neill’s own writing. Philosophy is in large part a tradition of texts. The article by O’Neill is a splendid example of the style of British-trained academic philosophers: abstract, concise, and universalizing. Taking a philosophy class ought to expose a student to stuff like that.

The political justification is that articles written in academic and professional journals are in a coded language that excludes most readers, and this exclusion should be resisted by learning as much as possible to break the code. Professions are proprietary about their knowledge bases, and this serves to legitimize their claim to expertise, and their power and authority. In teaching ethics, I’m always aware that almost all the messages my students have ever received about ethics have been pronouncements by authority figures. It would be a cruel irony if an ethics class taught them to replace one set of authority figures (churches, family, cultural hegemony) with another (ethicists).

Again, I tell my classes about this. None of these agendas are secret. I also refer back to them frequently.

Summing up the situation, I give my students difficult things to read, and explain why I do so, and what I want them to do with these things, and why I want them to do it. We spend most of our class sessions digging into the reading material and the ideas presented. We then expand on that into the broader implications of those ideas. An approach I use very frequently is small group discussion in which each group has an assigned question (usually) and is responsible for responding, based on the text. While they give those responses in class, I take dictation, and sometimes adding my own notes, or prompting them to add more. Their responses then become the basis of a second round of discussion involving the whole class, before I correct, clarify, and try to deepen the response. I then ask the class to take a step back to consider how the whole discussion, and the texts under discussion, bear on an issue or topic. In that way, we move from interpreting details of some particular passage of an article, to the whole article, to connecting it back to the overarching theme of a unit of the course. 

This semester I've restructured my classes completely, so that we begin with a plainly described "situation" in which ethics and ethical questions matter. In Bioethics, it's the Ashley Treatment. In Professional Ethics, it's long-term effects of head injuries in professional sports. Each article gives another bit of nuance or another way to think about the situation, sometimes but not always directly related to the situation itself. When we return to the overall situation, I try to help my students synthesize ideas and rethink their initial reactions. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

a couple notes about teaching difficult texts, 1

We read some tough stuff in my general education Professional Ethics and Bioethics courses, ranging from overstuffed academese to extremely dense philosophical reasoning. I tell my classes at the start of the term that the reading will not be like a textbook, is not written for a general audience, or even a college-student audience, and that they will have to work to understand. Most of my students have difficulty with it. Each student fails to understand at least one significant article or key concept in an article.

My impression is that my students' default strategy when they have difficulty reading is to pass over the difficult passage, or even skip an article altogether. Some prefer to read the article abstracts (when present). They wait for me to tell them what the article was about. If this has been a successful strategy in their schooling, it may be because they have been rewarded for attending to the teacher's explanations, and not for working out what a complex text means. It may be a more canny strategy, expressing a desire to expend least effort to obtain a completed degree requirement.

I attempt to block that strategy, because key goals of my courses are to help students develop their abilities to analyze complex texts and to follow and critique complex reasoning. In short, I am trying to provoke them to do the opposite of what appears to me to be their basic go-to approach.

One of my counter-strategies is challenging them directly, by playing devil's advocate to a position taken by an author and asking for its defense, or by suggesting that the author is trying to trick them into believing something they shouldn't. I want to suggest to my students that they need to protect themselves against charlatanry, or act in self-respect and not accept something told to them by an authority. This is low-stakes, and I guess works to encourage about 1/4 of students to take up the task.

Another counter-strategy is requiring that each student discuss the texts and ideas of articles in detail, in papers they write. Obviously this is high-stakes, and as a motivation to read and analyze, fails overall. I don't remove this requirement from papers, though, because it's justified intellectually. I know that requirements motivate students, at least to comply with the letter of them, but I also know my students have wildly disparate ideas about what it means to "discuss" the articles, let alone "in detail." Still, this does motivate the most grade-anxious.

A middle-stakes counter-strategy is small-group discussions about textual passages. I break the class into groups of 3-5 (depending on class size and numbers of questions or passages), and give each group a question regarding an assigned reading. I instruct them specifically to go back to the article text, find the relevant passage, explain how it answers the question, and then prepare an answer to present to the whole class. They take notes on this discussion, as a group.

There's a lot going on in this activity. I can't control all of it, even if I wanted to. The students interpret their task, keep themselves on the task, interpret their question, interpret the text, compose an answer to what they interpret the question to mean, and, I hope, question themselves and one another about their interpretations, about the text, about their question, and about their task. It could have a self-recursive aspect, in other words.

The questions range from broad, highly conceptual or applicative questions (e.g., "How does the author's idea of 'best interest' help explain what's at stake in the Ashley Treatment?" or "What is 'horizon of ability?'") to very textual (e.g., "What does the author mean by 'the best interests of an incompetent person are simply speculative?'"). I think both poles of this range are important. Most group discussions include some of each.

Students respond in various ways. Some groups present detailed written answers that the groups spokesperson reads from their notes. Some groups misunderstand absolutely everything about the task. Some groups are clearly unprepared. That all shows up when they present. I believe all the students can easily hear the differences.

Although I often reflect on my own responses, I have never set down for myself any sort of guidelines or rules. Here's what I think I do.

As groups present, I take dictation, typing on my laptop connected to a data projector. I type verbatim, or a close paraphrase, under the typed question they are answering, in a Word document. I type whatever they say, for good or ill, whether they have really followed the prompt or not. I do not scold individual groups for failing to be prepared or for missing the point of the task or question or text.

I do, however, correct them, in one of several ways. One approach I take is to open the floor for other comments or responses. I imagine that if other students point in the direction of a more accurate understanding, it sounds different than when I do so -- by which I mean, it may motivate and encourage differently. It also makes more students at a time responsible for doing this work. It also provides a chance for other students to try out their interpretations or to express their own difficulties.

Another is to correct them directly, which I often do when a group has gone terribly wrong. Often I highlight the text I just typed from their discussion, and delete it from the Word doc, while beginning to explain how the response missed the point. Often I go back to the text, and read it aloud, and then open the floor to ask what it means. Often I break down an individual sentence or phrase, or even a single word, to try to show how the meaning of a passage, and thus a concept, is constructed by an author. By doing this, I try to demonstrate how they could themselves do that work while reading, and I hope that my students hear a meaningful and satisfying connection between that analytical reading work and answering the question I asked for the discussion. I also give them the meta-remark that this is the kind of reading work that is sometimes required.

I have mixed results. Maybe there's too much going on in this activity. I like complexity, though, and I also believe these discussions almost always lead into the best, most productive class sessions. I have two main dissatisfactions, about which I'll write more later. First, these group discussions, while they can bring groups of students together, also divide students, into what I'll call for short intellectual haves and have-nots. Students who are following and diligent sometimes help bring around those who are not, but often the students who are successfully doing the reading work are impatient with those who are not. Second, classes, groups, and individual students, vary in their focus and effort, for a variety of reasons, and so group discussions are inconsistent. Two sections of the same course have very different experiences and rates of learning based on this, and a class or group culture starts to emerge that reinforces either productive or unproductive habits.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

is the “Steven Salaita Case” about academic freedom?

Steven Salaita was offered a tenured professor position at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to teach American Indian Studies. He resigned from his position at Virginia Tech to accept the offer. Salaita’s provocative anti-Zionist comments on Twitter were then brought to the attention of administrators and members of the board of directors of the University of Illinois, leading to the withdrawal ofthe offer of employment. (Some have referred to this event as his having been “fired” by the university, but he never was employed by the university.) No one has denied that his comments on Twitter were the reason for withdrawing the offer.

In the heated discussion of the case taking place through media (especially social media), in communication to and from the university administration, and within other organizations, academic freedom has been evoked. The withdrawal of the employment offer has been characterized as a violation of Salaita’s academic freedom, and has been defended on the basis of protecting academic freedom from Salaita’s mode of expression and/or views.

To what does academic freedom apply? Those evoking it to protest or defend the university’s action seem to agree that academic freedom applies in the case of comments made on Twitter. Why would that be? Does academic freedom cover expressions made outside of academia? Or is Twitter use by an academic de facto academic expression? Is there a standard of judgment to rule expressions in or out of the academic field? Twitter posts, by definition 140 characters or less, do not conform to conventions of academic writing or other expression, though perhaps a series of posts would, if used as a (rather awkward) publication medium. Since academic expressions generally involve engagement in reasoned discussion under prescriptive rules for coherence, relevance, evidence, etc., a single post (and perhaps especially an inflammatory post) expressing an opinion is not a strong candidate for inclusion in this field.

If so, then it seems academic freedom is being applied outside the field of academic expression. How could this be? Two possibilities are that academic freedom applies to some not-yet-defined field of expression broader than the academic, or applies to a person rather than to expression. Some of the protesters’ phraseology (“Salaita’s academic freedom was violated,” e.g.) suggests the latter. To what persons, for what reasons, does academic freedom apply? In the case of Salaita, it would seem to apply to him because of his status as a professor. In other words, the academic or non-academic forum or substance of his expression is not relevant, because his expressions should be protected by academic freedom simply because he is.

To reiterate, Salaita’s academic freedom is in question just because he is a professor. Yet he was not a professor at the University of Illinois, and was not a professor at Virginia Tech, indeed not a professor anywhere, when the offer of employment was withdrawn. I am being precious here: he was not a professor in the narrow technical sense that he was not then employed in that capacity. Obviously, professor is a title as well as an employment status. This line of reasoning leads to a messy, vague conclusion. Salaita’s academic freedom is in question if professors have academic freedom just because they are professors, and if that applies to the person and not primarily to their expressions as professors (or to the forum or substance of their expressions).

So, let’s say that academic freedom applies to professors. Who are professors? Now I wonder just how precious I was being before, since being a professor depends on having or having had an employment status as a professor. A professor is a college faculty member who is eligible for tenure or has tenure; a professor could also be anyone who teaches at a college, but colleges and universities deny tenure eligibility to 75% of those who teach, which would make this a rather peculiar way to draw the distinction. In that case, what a college instructor says, in class or in an academic journal article, following the standards and practices of academic expression, would not be protected by academic freedom because the instructor is not a professor.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

what I won't be telling my students as the semester begins

I usually want to start the semester by telling my classes something about what I do that will enlighten and entertain, but mostly that will prepare them for the course to come. The problem, I believe, is that what I want to tell them is not something most of my students would understand, and instead of preparing them for the course, it would bewilder and alienate them.

This semester, what I want to tell them is about the way my ethics classes incorporate existentialism, poststructuralism, feminism, queer theory, and critical disability theory. I wouldn’t just say that, of course. I would like to explain why I keep bringing in more and more approaches to ethics, which is, mainly, that I keep falling in love with new theoretical approaches myself.

 Last year, I went to a panel on pain at SPEP (the big European philosophy conference in North America). I’ve been interested in pain for a while, and had started to read a few things. At the panel, I was taking down names, absolutely delighted, like a kid going through the toys section of the old Sears Christmas catalog. Afterwards I cruised the book display, and the title of a book leaped out at me: Feminist Queer Crip. What the Sam hell?!

I read feminism and queer theory all the time, so I felt I knew what those words would mean in the title. Crip was what struck me. Was this a lesbian street gang member using high-concept theory to discuss juvenile violence or something? I picked it up and started paging through it. It is, of course, about disability, and the author, Kafer, is putting feminism and queer theory together with disability theory.

 Like the appropriation of queer by queer theory, and more importantly by people who identify as queer, Kafer was picking up crip. This was shocking to me. I grew up with Richard Pryor standup and with NWA on the radio when I was in high school, so I am accustomed to the critical appropriation of words of derogation by identity groups and by social critics and philosophers. Still, crip was shocking. I had to have this book immediately.

I’ve always been like this. I have a pressing need to read stuff that bends my mind. (I remember when I was 16, the clerk at my bookstore in Greensboro shaking his head and telling me Freud’s Three Case Studies would give me nightmares. Later he sold me his own copy of Beckett’s Three Novels, and made me promise not to tell anyone where I got it.)

But take any reasonably complex situation that would call for some questioning in a Bioethics or Professional Ethics class. Let’s say lawsuits by former professional athletes over effects of brain injuries. It’s easy to identify that team-hired physicians who treat the athletes have a conflict of interest. I can’t help but hear a feminist or queer voice as well, asking about the construction of masculinity in sports, about the hazing of injured athletes through name-calling by coaches and other players. I can’t help hearing a Foucauldian voice asking about the subjectivity of the athletes themselves and the forms of power-knowledge and disciplinary regimes that have produced their own values and decisions. I can’t help hearing all three asking about the social meaning of sports and the responsibilities and involvement of fans. I hear a disability theory voice asking about the notions of “normal” baseline tests of brains, about the shapes and capacities of bodies and their display as exemplary objectified bodies. To say nothing of psychoanalysis, or critical theory (of pop culture, e.g.), or situationist critique, or semiotics, or Baudrillard, or Bataille.

So, you know, I suppose I’ll just explain the stuff in the syllabus.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

pain and orientation

I had a bicycle accident yesterday. As a result, I have a bad bruise on my left shoulder, another on my left thumb/heel of hand, and a minor scrape on my knee. I’m also in day three of a relatively minor attack of Ménière’s syndrome.

The scrapes and bruises have different feelings of pain, but none of them is quite like the Ménière’s. The scrapes are most superficial and least constitutive of a sense-perceptual world for me. They are found in a location on the surface of my body, and in that way, phenomenologically, are objective, corporal appearances. The bruises, especially the deep one in my shoulder, appear ambiguously. I can objectify them as such, feel them, delectate in the pain that is “in” “my” shoulder as I might enjoy the sensuous delights of a glass of good whisky. On the other hand, the shoulder moves differently and my motions are changed, not through an objective or mechanical error, but as motions-I-can-make. My range of motility, of intention to move, is limited, and in this way the shoulder bruise appears constitutive of a world for movement, hence subjective.

The Ménière’s symptoms are entirely different. What is objectified as Ménière’s syndrome is a loss or distortion of hearing, loss of balance, vertigo, and feeling of pressure around the ear. From a third-person perspective, that’s somewhat accurate as an account of the symptoms. Subjectively, what’s happening is existentially significant. I realized I was an aurally-oriented more than a visually-oriented person, compared to many people, but that’s not even half of it. I haven’t “lost hearing” or “lost balance.” I have lost a great deal of my sense of spatiality. My orientation to spatiality is not just a matter of (visual) appearance of things having normal up-down fixity (of being “true” or “plumb”). The “pressure in my head” is a loss of my sensitivity to waves of air of all kinds. I have lost the buoyancy of my orientated place in the world. Instead of bouncing along on waves of sound, I’m sunk like a rock under them.

Not enough is said in phenomenological circles about buoyancy as a dimension of flesh and orientation in our perceptual projection into the world. In fact, I don’t recall ever reading about it or hearing anyone talk about it, and I don’t think I would have realized how important buoyancy is to my orientation if it weren’t for Ménière’s.

I’m not thankful.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

what college is for

I think often about what college is for. If it is not a gateway to professional career and prestige—which it never really was, especially not for students like ours at CSU Stanislaus—, and not a means of increasing individual wealth, then what? In brief, if all the (mainly crude) economic justifications for higher education are not true, what could be a good reason to go to college?

I reject the citizenship rationale, because not only do very few of my students aspire to this in any meaningful way, but it is not clear what citizenship would mean, and whether developing citizenship would be good for students (unlike the economic rationale).

I think I can say honestly that I believe the following.

College education is the best way to learn to understand how knowledge, information, and power work at the level at which they work to control the world. What college educators can do is explain how knowledge functions as a shape of power, how knowledge shapes social institutions and practices, and how it shapes us. The practical use of understanding all this is to be able grasp how the people who own knowledge use it, and what they do to manufacture reality with it.

Yes, there are people who own knowledge and information. These are not your teachers, but the people who, ultimately, determine what your teachers teach. They are not researchers at Stanford or Cal Tech. Instead, they are the owners of knowledge, information, and power in our society. For instance, the research professor at an R1 institution must get funding for research, and competes to get it, from those who have a vested interest in that research—the funding agencies, which are government and corporations. They own the products of that research. They literally own it. They control to a great degree whether the researcher can publish the research, profit from it, make changes to it, develop it along new lines, or anything else. In grant contracts, this is laid out specifically: who owns and controls this new knowledge. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Monsanto, Dow, and Chevron use this knowledge to maintain and increase their power. This is not power wielded repressively on us, not power that coerces us by threats of violence. This is power wielded by controlling the shape of the world, the shape of reality—and by controlling reality, the people who own knowledge shape everything that anyone can do in the world.

Knowing how this happens means you are more free, because you understand what your own choices and actions in life mean, and what they don’t mean; what you can and can’t do; and what could matter and might not matter about what you do. Knowing how knowledge, information, and power are distributed, and how the owners of them build the world we live in, makes it possible to consider strategic options for living in that world.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

truth and falsehood or consequences for philosophy

I’m reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, a text not often discussed in Hegel literature, perhaps because it’s obscure, even for Hegel, and contains gross errors regarding scientifically explained phenomena—including mistakes about the science of Hegel’s day. Now, I adore Hegel for some perverse reason, and his errors are embarrassing.

That’s only a minor problem compared to Hegel’s racist and sexist comments, and those occur in texts that are taken seriously not just by Hegel scholars. For instance, his account of women in marriage as the material moment through which the ethical relation becomes manifest takes up a significant if small part of the Phenomenology of Spirit (the most-read book by Hegel in the English speaking philosophy world). Sexism and racism appear in the Philosophy of Right as well (probably second most-read).

I recently had a brief chat at a conference about this basic problem in the canon of philosophical writing. The woman I was talking to summed things up well by saying that if she stopped reading any philosopher who wrote something outrageous about women or that was racist, she’d have to give up reading philosophy just about altogether.

Since almost no one but academic philosophers reads books from the tradition of philosophy, this may seem like a picayune problem. People don’t seem to quit reading novels by racist authors, or stop looking at paintings by sexist painters. If there is a difference, it could be that unlike literature or art, philosophy is supposed to reveal the truth. Since we have rejected the notion that the truth could be racist or sexist, racism or sexism in philosophical writing could seem to undermine its status as philosophy altogether.

I don’t know if I believe that, in part, ironically enough, because of the influence of Hegel on my thinking about philosophy. Hegel’s concept of the truth as “the whole,” which would include “moments” of would-be truths that turn out to be false—indeed, which at times Hegel writes includes the false. If racism and sexism are false, they nevertheless are moments in the development of truth, in the same way that an immediate sensation of something, while not taking in the “whole” of it and thus false, must still be part of knowing that something. Put another way: philosophical texts that involve racism and sexism are necessary for the articulation of philosophical truth because we (philosophers, people) have been and are racist and sexist. That means that racism and sexism must be uttered, but not left simply posited. The positions of racism and sexism must be posited in order to be thought through, in the “labor of the negative” (Hegel’s so-called dialectic), to recover and bring forward what is true in racism and sexism. And that could turn out to be that the opposite of racism and sexism is the truth of racism and sexism.

That’s not to defend Hegel’s racism and sexism, because, at least as I read him, he posits racist and sexist ideas and leaves them standing. To refer to his own language, Hegel commits falsehood whenever he fails to undermine these positions. In as much as the truth and the revelation of the truth would require that negation, Hegel’s books do not tell the truth.

All that is preface to the question of the day, which is what the relationship is between philosophy and truth. Is that a strange question? Anyway, I have two ideas in mind.

First is whether philosophy or philosophers should tell the truth. I think that by reputation, philosophy and philosophers are very much concerned with truth, even dedicated to it. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates seems to prefer the truth to everything, even life itself. (Everything except for hot guys, that is. In the dialogues, Socrates unfailingly prefers hot guys to the truth.) All the same, Socrates lies, a lot. Plus, if philosophy and philosophers should follow Socrates’ lead in the practice of recognizing our own ignorance, philosophy  and philosophers should be reluctant, even reticent, to posit anything as true. (Hegel was hip to this, and as much as said that every position is untrue, just because no position can propose or state the whole that is the truth.)

Second is whether philosophy or philosophers should be held to a standard of truth or truth-telling. Here I mean something like whether philosophy or philosophers that cannot tell the truth should be ejected from the canon. For instance, if a philosopher’s work was based on patently false premises and obviously faulty reasoning, should that disqualify that philosopher from the traditional canon? By analogy with sciences like physics or biology, in which theories are not taught that have been demonstrated to be false, should philosophical works also be excluded? If not, then should those works not be presented as falsehoods, in the manner in which one might tell a biology class about Lamarck’s surmise about evolution? Perhaps no one should read Hegel, given his works’ repetition of bad (or evil, depending on your point of view) ideas. Or perhaps, like a joke in the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus series, we could read it, provided we understand that he was wrong. In that case, what does the tradition of philosophical texts amount to? I hate to think that it is nothing but a special form of literature, having as its differentia specifica that these are texts that pretend to the truth—or are just very badly plotted novels.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

pain and language

What I’m reading about pain keeps coming back to the inexpressibility of pain. This is not to say we lack words to describe pain, but that none of them can, that there is always a remainder, a (somewhat) unsharable, incommunicable something that is only subjectively undergone. I don’t know whether I agree with that as such, but taking it up for now, why should this only be true for experiences of pain? Why is it particularly problematic for experiences of pain?

Of course, pain is often urgent and problematic, and that brings about situations in which the expression of pain is at issue. For instance, when the ER nurse asks you to rate your chest pain on a 1 to 10 scale, this obviously crude device produces data for medical interpretation—reporting 10 will be taken to indicate heart attack and the need for certain types of intervention, but a 3 or 4 is ambiguous. The reason why they don’t ask for more description is that it would be still more ambiguous and would require time, attention, empathy, communication, interpretation, and understanding that cannot be afforded.

But why wouldn’t the same basic problem exist for feelings of pleasure? Imagine being asked at some appropriate moment (or inappropriate, depending on how you feel about it) to rate your pleasure from 1 to 10. Anyway, we like more florid language evoking pleasure, and take our time with it, because we can usually afford to, and because we like it. Nonetheless, the remainder remains, I would say, and there is no language sufficient to express to you just how I undergo pleasure. (It’s peach season!)

David Biro suggests that we express pain by way of metaphor because there is no other, more direct, literal language for it. That is, the linguistic expression of pain is catachresis: terms are used that are somehow out of context, or fit together in ways that aren’t “right.” (The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers as an example: “blind mouths.”) Merleau-Ponty says, “A language which only sought to reproduce things themselves would exhaust its power to teach in factual statements. On the contrary, a language which gives our perspectives on things and cuts out relief in them opens up a discussion which does not end with the language and itself invites further investigation.” (“Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” 77)

What makes pain unique (if pain is unique) is not its confounding of language. All experience confounds language.

"Whatever," says an exasperated and quite dead Wittgenstein, because the problem of how language expresses experience is not a problem, since language doesn't do that in the first place. The linguistic expression of pain, like the number scale, expresses pain because we take it to express pain. How do we know it works? Because it makes people do things like give patients nitroglycerin, or give philosophers peaches. And as the punchline to the joke goes...

Monday, June 09, 2014

the my-body problem

Most often, I believe, the conceptualization of one’s body as “my body” is objectifying and extrinsic. There are ethical, economic, political contexts in which “my body” and the mineness of a body make a great deal of difference, and these concepts inform how we interpret embodiment on an ongoing, everyday basis. We don’t often refer to “my body” outside of very particular, often evaluative contexts: “my body” is “athletic” or “sore” or “breaking down” or whatever. We don’t say “my body got up at 7:30 this morning,” although, no doubt, if I did, so did my body.

The notion of a body as “mine” is perplexing to me in part because of the way these typical ways of talking objectify and externalize body, as though my body were a possession. I don’t experience a possessive ownership relation to my body, under typical circumstances. Only rarely is it helpful to clarify which item in a pile of things is my body, in contradistinction to other things or other bodies. (In those kinds of circumstances, identifying which item is my body is sometimes not chiefly on my mind.)

If I consider the phenomenology of how my being embodied presents itself, I’m at a loss to identify something like “mine-ness.” Typically we move, we sit, we sip tea, we listen to Desprez motets, or whatever else we do, not by way of taking hold of something like a “my body” and moving “it.” Thus the holism of a lot of phenomenological accounts: I am my body, rather than have it. Even in this language, there’s that “my body” that I can’t account for from my own phenomenological assay.

What I find is what I shall call for the time being “tensile coalescing (the) all surrounding, to here.” This is unwieldy, I know.

I sat down at my keyboard, in the midst of puzzling about the “my body” problem, and did a little phenomenology of what turned up when I tried deliberately to set aside any notion that I knew what it might mean to say “my body”—or even “body.” (I think that’s a clue: it’s damned hard to set aside the ordinary posit of “my” without also setting aside “body” as well.) Some surprising stuff showed up.

What showed up was distant and nearby locales of encounter with surroundings. I was sitting in poor posture with the heel of one foot resting on the top of the other. Eventually that hurt, but the feeling of pain was located far away, though not so far as to be outside somewhere. The Desprez motets and the hum of the HVAC fan struck and surrounded. The floor vibrated throughout me. Suddenly the teeming of surrounding became vividly apparent, in a moment of allowing much more of the surrounding to go unfiltered. That teemingness prompts the word all.

There was a centrality to all this, but not a mere point: an ongoing bringing together of these surroundings (read that as a present participle as well as a gerund), hence “coalescing.” When I sat up I noticed better the way this coalescing presented itself as having a sort of tension built into it. This is not “tension” in the way we use it to name unpleasant stress, but tension in the sense of having potential energy to it (which I know I’m using improperly in the technical sense; it’s evocative). What showed up was both kinetic coalescing and potential for moving.

This had a focal point, but not in the sense of something fixed, pregiven, preordained. It was a point toward which the coalescing was happening: to here. Here just means that point—an asymptote, really (again in a nontechnical sense).

So: a tensile coalescing (the) all surrounding, to here.

(BTW, I think I'm gonna keep the name "the my-body problem" for this little venture, as a joke on the old saw, the mind-body problem.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

error types

I don't know why Type I errors and Type II errors are called that. (Type I is incorrectly denying a null hypothesis that is true; Type II is incorrectly affirming a false null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is the opposite of what you believe is true. They are also called false positive and false negative. In either case, these errors involve believing something despite the evidence.) There have been various proposals for a Type III error -- for instance, cooking the evidence by setting up a trial that leads to a preordained conclusion, or misrepresenting the problem.

I can't keep them straight. I never have. "Type I" doesn't mean anything to me. Herewith, then, I propose an alternative error typology.

Dickhead Error. A Dickhead Error occurs when one continues to affirm a hypothesis that has been demonstrated to be false, often with increasing loudness. (The loudness can be vocal, but can also be expressed through revving a truck or SUV engine.)

Shithead Error. A Shithead Error occurs when one ignores all evidence contrary to a particular hypothesis, or contrary to any hypothesis whatsoever.

Asshole Error. An Asshole Error occurs when one formulates a hypothesis that serves to re-affirm the incorrigible certainty of one's perceptions, attitudes, orientations, goals, and even mood.

Fuckhead Error. A Fuckhead Error occurs when one ignores all perceptions, attitudes, orientations, goals, and even mood that are not one's own. (Fuckhead Error is often expressed loudly either vocally or through revving a truck or SUV engine.)

Making Shit Up Error. A Making Shit Up Error occurs when one invents, imagines, or indulges in fantasy of evidence. (Making Shit Up Error is often coincident with Shithead Error or Asshole Error.)

Wile E. Coyote Error. A Wile E. Coyote Error occurs when one formulates a hypothesis beyond one's capacity to test without causing oneself injury.

Oh, Right Error. An Oh, Right Error occurs when the probative evidence for or against a hypothesis is ignored until pointed out. (Often repeated ad nauseam.)

This error typology could have wide application, beyond scientific fields. For instance, during political debates, it's likely to come across instances of Dickhead, Shithead, Asshole, Making Shit Up, and even Fuckhead Error. Some political ideologies are composed of nothing else. I believe the typology could be handy in organizational governance meetings as well. How often have you observed your boss making an Asshole Error? With the proper terminology, you can clearly indicate the kind of error your boss has made, when you are in a job interview, answering a question about why you were fired.

The Wile E. Coyote type error is particularly useful for describing faulty reasoning by cats and skiers. Oh, Right Error, though ubiquitous, is still good to ascribe, in hopes that the faulty reasoning does not devolve into Shithead Error.

I'd like to see some publications adopting my improved error typology in the next few months, so get on it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, the ethics of care was a predominant theme in feminist ethics. Based ultimately on an essentialist view of femininity, the ethics of care focused on human relationship, need, and care responses, as an alternative to the Western philosophical tradition's rights and law based approaches.

It might be expected that, raised masculine in a patriarchal society, I would think about ethical responsibility in terms of my autonomy and authority, and I do. But for me, this is not entirely a matter of gender. I was raised also to think of care as an alarmed response to an abnormal situation, rather than an ongoing, basic response to the ordinary human condition of need and interdependence. Seeking care, that is, admitting need, initiated a conflict or crisis, and the response was to that immediate emergency. Once resolved, the moment passed, both need and the care response were considered settled and finished.

While this may be underlying the patriarchal masculine notion of autonomy and independence, I also know that my own upbringing was profoundly lacking in ordinary and ongoing care. It was always better to remain in need than to ask for care. Admitting need is, for me, admitting pathology and vulnerability. Need exposes me to harm, terror, and chaos. Metaphorically speaking, sirens would blare, everything would need to come to a halt, until the care was provided.

My response to need is similar. Although I am better at caring than being cared for, my caring is still based on sensing the situation as abnormal. I worry over making sure I have provided the proper care for the particular need of the moment. I am driven to reach the point when care is done.

Of course, the feminist ethics of care tells us that care is never done, because care and need are ordinary, everyday, and fundamental to the human condition. It took reading Susan Wendell's chapter on care and disability in The Rejected Body for me to realize this about myself, and about what I had not really understood about the ethics of care.

It's really awfully sad, isn't it? Oh well.

(By the way, The Rejected Body is very good, and although the care discussion makes it rather dated, I plan to use it in Bioethics next year. My undergrad students won't have read any feminist ethics, so it won't be dated for them.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

lifestyle vs. academic freedom

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have fired chosen not to rehire a contingent faculty member named Kilgore, following a local newspaper story revealing that Kilgore had been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and had been jailed. Kilgore had informed university officials about his past. As Christopher Kennedy, board chair, explained:

"But our general position is clear. We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayer's money and tuition ... and people paying tuition who have will have concerns about underwriting this lifestyle." Kennedy also said that because Kilgore is an adjunct, there are not academic freedom issues at stake. "We're not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn't have tenure. It's completely different," he said. And Kennedy said he has been "very clear" in sharing his views about the issue with university administrators.
We can tell more or less precisely when the board gained this clarity about how to act on their devotion to the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois, based on the facts presented in the Inside Higher Ed piece. It was after the news story publicized Kilgore's past.

We can also tell to whom the board is willing to extend whatever they might understand by "academic freedom": tenured faculty.

Frankly, I'm willing to take their word on that. As this starts to become a topic of email conversation among contingent faculty across the country, the lack of academic freedom for an "hourly employee" is the focal point. For good reason, contingent academic labor are insulted by this avowal that they are sub-citizens. But I believe Kennedy and the Illinois board are telling the truth about their understanding of the role of contingent faculty and the extension of "academic freedom." That may be the only thing they are telling the truth about, in fact.

Kennedy's assertions that the board is "not reacting to public pressure" is flatly contradicted by his statement that the decision was based on the concerns of the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois regarding Kilgore's "lifestyle." (I'm delighted by the conceptual mush implied by the use of lifestyle in this context. Is being a member of an anarchist terrorist group a lifestyle? It's easy to imagine Kennedy explaining the equivocal meaning of the word is.)

Anyway, no, this isn't an academic freedom case, but not because Kilgore doesn't have the right to academic freedom (which he doesn't, because the board says so). It's a lifestyle case. The board has asserted that, at least for contingent faculty, public "concern" about a faculty member's "lifestyle" can be valid grounds for not renewing the contract, even one who is supposedly very good at the job. There's no currently prevailing concept of academic freedom that I'm aware of that pertains to lifestyle or even mentions it.

Why, after all, should the Great Taxpayers support the lifestyle of a faculty member about which they have concerns?

So, in the interest of being completely above board and candid, and so the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of California can decide whether or not they have concerns, some details of my lifestyle follow.

  • I am 45 years old. (I don't have concerns about this, myself, but I do have objections.)
  • I live in a 1472 square foot house on the edge of town. 
  • I live across the street from cows.
  • My spouse and I are intentionally childless. 
  • We intentionally have two cats, and unintentionally have one more, and a stray turtle.
  • I used to be a member of the Philosophers' Drinking Club, as an undergraduate at UNC-Charlotte.
  • I serially violate stop signs while riding my bicycle.
  • I own a dozen guitars.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

academic despair

A study of "academics" in the UK revealed what should come as no surprise to my friends in academia: lots of "academics" have mental health problems. The story tells us that "academics" have heavy workloads, pressures to publish, and are isolated; many face tenuousness as an everyday condition of employment. The story also tells us that, in the UK, 0.2% of people working as college faculty disclosed mental health problems to their employers. Now, why do you suppose that is?

I've written rather dismissively about faculty mental health in this space before. Today, I happen to be prepping for my last Intro to Philosophy classes for the semester, reading Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." Under Sartre's influence, I am thinking that, although the mental health issues of faculty are not surprising, they should be understood also in terms of the way academic life is structured, not organizationally by management hell-bent on exploitation, but situationally by faculty themselves/ourselves.

From this perspective, a key factor is isolation. Marxist and quasi-Marxist criticism of industrialized labor aside, that is, without the presupposition of class division and alienation of labor, the isolation in which most faculty work is a situation created by the workers themselves.

In an ordinary workday, I come across maybe 10 other faculty on campus -- a campus of more than 400 faculty. "Come across" is the right description for these encounters, since they generally amount to passing by one another, on our way to our own offices, our own classes, our own "work," and, as the UK report would have it, our own mental illnesses. Of course, institution and discipline of academia promotes or generates this normalized sense of ownership, and that sense of ownership makes faculty good targets for exploitation. I don't mean to deny that. But inasmuch as this situation is experienced as isolation, I think an existentialist would want to ask some critical questions.

Let's say, following Sartre, that because there is no a priori law dictating how we should act, how we should work, or what meaning this situation should have, we choose what to do, how to work, and what it means. When we retreat to our offices (those of us who have offices), what choice are we making in regard to work and the intersubjective world of work? What values are expressed in this choice?

Isolation is a denial of the intersubjectivity of the world. It expresses excessive consideration of oneself, inflation of subjectivity to royal status, and denial of the situatedness of freedom -- as though only in isolation, only in my own research and my own classes do I have freedom. It is as if, in isolation from others, mental illness will set us free.

An existentialist interpretation of academic freedom, which I haven't come across yet, would center on the concept that freedom implies and requires the freedom of others, and is fundamentally intersubjective. It would remind us that freedom cannot be one's own at the expense of others or without regard to others. It would focus not on one's own research, etc., but on jointly shared responsibility for and determination of the situation of work.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

academic freedom vs. freedom

 “This much understood term refers to the set of practices such as tenure and faculty governance that allow academics to generate new knowledge in an unfettered manner and to disseminate that knowledge using pedagogic practices that inspire critical thinking among students. With this freedom comes responsibility: scholars must conform to the mores of their disciplines, and their behavior is monitored through a network of institutions that enforce such professional conduct.”
     -- Ashley Dawson, in “Columbia versus America” in Dangerous Professors, p. 227.

A very strange turn on academic freedom would be to consider freedom in Foucault’s sense. Freedom would be the “recalcitrance” and “intransigence” of the one to whom power is applied by various forms of governmentality. Freedom subsists in the shape of resistance to subjection, to the disciplinary regimes of social institutions/knowledges. For instance, freedom could describe the dubiousness of a person who avoids complying with a doctor’s firm advice to get a blood test, on the basis that this person is not eager to have the result, and not eager to be subjected to a regimen of treatment based on the result. Freedom could also describe the condition of incomplete or imperfect discipline of a person who has undergone schooling but resists proper performances of mandatory school tasks. Freedom is also the name of the condition of possibility of being disciplined through one or another regime of power. It is prior to discipline and power, and Foucault suggests that freedom is expressed by the choice of which regime to become subject to.

Freedom in this sense is certainly at odds with a demand of conformity to mores of a discipline — academic or otherwise. Dawson’s account suggests a freedom of means rather than ends, in as much as the “academics” will adhere to standards and practices of generating and disseminating knowledge. Obviously, the monitoring of behavior is subjection to surveillance in Foucault’s sense. So the situation Dawson calls academic freedom would be anything but. It would be academic autonomy, but not freedom.

Academic freedom, taking freedom in Foucault’s sense, might mean resistance to those very forms of discipline, responsibility, and moral normalization — not necessarily rejecting them, but treating them with recalcitrance.

I’m not sure where, if anywhere, to take this. I don't know if it makes sense to modify freedom with academic (or anything else).