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Report on the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative

Crossposted from the Great Lakes College Association Center for Teaching and Learning blog.

The GLCA Ancient Philosophy Research and Teaching Collaborative Initiative began in 2014 when several of us in the GLCA who work in ancient philosophy began a series of conversations about how we might take advantage of the resources we share across the consortium for teaching and writing in ancient philosophy. In particular, we thought that ancient philosophy was a good site from which to think about pedagogy since these ancient thinkers were interested in questions of what it means to learn and to teach. These thinkers take seriously the problem that the person who does not know tends to be unaware of what she does not know, so the learning process becomes a paradox: how does a person enter a learning process if she does not realize that she needs to learn? Realizing one needs to learn at some level involves already knowing that which one needs to learn because to recognize this point suggests you know the knowledge you lack is missing. How can you identify it as missing if you do not know it? If you know that you miss it and therefore in some sense know it, then you don’t need to learn it because you know it. Some in-between space is required which allows the movement from not knowing to recognizing ignorance and fostering a desire to know.

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In My Feelings: Why it is Affectively Hard to Acknowledge One’s Own Oppression

The last several weeks have been difficult for many women. We saw a Senate accept weak lies from a self-entitled man. We saw many many people including for many of us, people we know, excuse accusations from a very credible witness because they didn’t reach the level of beyond reasonable doubt even though this is a job interview rather than a court of law, and even though people of color are robbed of the presumption of innocence when they are shot down by police. We saw a sitting U.S. President mock a woman for having honest memory lapses in her account of a traumatic attempted sexual assault. We saw, as Martha Nussbaum noted, white men and their supporters being outraged at being called to account for their bad behavior. Despite all the reasons that this nominee should have been disqualified, we saw a partisan push to confirm him as the next justice on the Supreme Court.

I broke down crying twice on Friday when I realized this confirmation was happening. I cried because this confirmation sends the signal that elected officials in the U.S. government and many of their supporters do not care about the trauma women suffer from sexual assault. They think it is the nature of boys. They think it is not that big of a deal. They think women are weak for complaining. They are mad that women have been strong by speaking up. They think if sexual assault could derail a nomination then no man could be nominated. They think that would be a bad thing.

It was a long time since I cried in the face of these realities. I’ve been thinking about why I don’t walk around emotionally distraught more often. It would be impossible to live if one let oneself feel how bad the oppression is all the time. In order to protect ourselves, in order to survive, people who experience not only oppression but the reality that their oppression does not matter, that it is not a concern to others, have to find ways to low-key ignore the oppression. Personally, I have to ignore the many many times men: explain things to me rather than recognize my expertise, assign my ideas to a man, try to shut me down and condescend to me in professional settings, make me feel like I am whining and complaining when I raise questions about diversity and inclusion, assign to me exaggerated claims about gender-related inequality in order to dismiss them. Together, we have to ignore the ways the Senate just conspired to silence women and make us feel like we are exaggerating our concerns.

In order to protect ourselves, we have to ignore how really egregious it all is. From ignoring it in order to protect ourselves, it is a short road to start to think, for our own sanity, that it isn’t really that bad. If it were that bad, we couldn’t possibly deal with it. Since we don’t want to think of ourselves as victims all the time, since we don’t want to suggest that we aren’t strong enough to deal with things, and since we don’t want to acknowledge that yes this state of things continues to do real harm to us, we live and act as if it really isn’t that big a deal. We can still function. We are strong. We have not been undone by all the injustice. If this is the case, we wonder, perhaps it is not that bad. It can’t be that bad right? If it were, how could we go on?

I think this response is a kind of self-care. But I’m concerned that this response approaches a place where it becomes acceptance for this behavior, allowance of it. I wonder even if the inability to deal with what it would have to mean for oneself and how really wronged one has been is what drives all these white women to support men like Kavanaugh. I think they are wrong. But I can see how that position is a short road from here. I want to say to all those women, you can still be strong and capable and they can still have done and continue to do great harm to you and to other women. Acknowledging the wrong does not lessen us as women.

But acknowledging the wrong can make it hurt more. I don’t always have the strength for that. But I do have comrades-in-arms who can get mad for me when I just have to ignore the wrong. I am happy to be mad for my friends. I think an intersectional feminism involves feeling that hurt for others beyond our immediate place. Share the wrath. Stand up, fight back.

Buying a House: The Home Improvement Project That Should Not Have Been

I think it was last March now that I looked at the bricks on the street-facing front of the porch and thought, that paint is practically coming off of the bricks on its own-I bet I could scrape it down to bare brick! Jeff was away so no one was here to talk me down. I found a scraper and got to work. Forty hours and several months later, the first layer of paint was off, only to discover an unscrapable layer underneath as well as a wall in need of a serious pointing job. I should have left it alone.

It turns out that the bottom layer can be taken off with a serious power-washing effort and some potent chemicals, but this approach destroys the surface of the brick. That might not matter so much in an internal brick wall, but external brick walls need that surface to protect them from moisture and wind.

The wall behind the bushes, that I seriously cut back last winter and they never grew back so I had them pulled out, is the one that I repainted. Now I know why they had bushes there!

My consolation was that the brick wall really did need to be repointed and I would never have known the extent of the problem unless I scraped. Rest assured, I am not pursuing this further information on the other walls around the porch, though I suspect at least one is probably in the same shape. I considered pointing it myself, but by this time it was early August and I was trying to get some projects finished before classes started and prep for the coming semester. So I posted the job on Angie’s List. I had never done this before. You describe the job and Angie’s List makes it available to contractors who can do the work. I do not think that this is the best way to find a contractor, as I think it tends to send out your work to people most in need of it, which I think might be the people who aren’t getting work through word-of-mouth, which is to say, people who other people aren’t recommending to their friends. I received a call from a contractor who offered a free estimate. On the phone he was very friendly, which is fine, but it felt creepier when he got here and wanted to chat more than seemed comfortable. When he showed up he had very bloodshot eyes and one looked like a black eye, which also made me a little nervous. I don’t even think any of this would have shown up to my consciousness if the estimate hadn’t gone the way that it did. He started looking at the wall, then he went to the side wall and noted how it was buckling and said that this buckling was probably causing the siding to rot and it would need to be redone as well. Then he left me a quote about $800 for the front wall and more than 4 times that to fix the issue with the other wall that he insisted was a serious problem. He didn’t itemize the estimate to explain how he reached these numbers. Before he gave me the estimate he was talking about how he would come to the numbers and said, well, I have a team of two or a team of four, you probably wouldn’t need that many, but even if everyone isn’t working, they all have to be paid. I mean, I’m here for labor but this explanation sounded like the guy was trying to play me, rather than treat his workers fairly. This short little new homebuyer, what did she know? What I know is that my dad was a contractor and I can tell when someone is trying to make money off of me rather than do the work I need.

After pointing work.

I thanked him kindly and called someone else. They had a salesperson come out, who took a look around. I told him what the other guy told me about the side wall and how it needed to be redone because it was likely affecting the siding. This guy said that the buckle could have happened over the close to one hundred years that the house has been standing. I should take a photo of it now, he said, and see if it shifts year to year — that would be a sign that it was a problem. But if it was just a slow buckle, it probably wasn’t holding water that was damaging the wood siding. Now that’s my kind of contractor. Also my kind of mechanic. Tell me why the problem is not really a pressing problem and you have a customer for life. He counted the number of joints that needed to be redone and gave me a quote that was half of what the first guy gave me even including some other joints on the far wall.

They came and did the work and have now been harassing me to write a review for them. I was waiting until I had repainted the bricks to get up close with them and see how good the work was. I just finished the painting today. They did an ok job, but they could have mortared more joints than they did. Maybe that was why it was so much cheaper than the other guy. I’m a little afraid that I was using primer as a kind of sealant when that really should have been mortar but at this point, I’m just happy it’s done.

Cutting in.

I’ve been working on this house since we bought it while working on a project on matter and form in Aristotle’s biological and theoretical works. I keep being surprised, time and again, though I shouldn’t be, by the resistance and character of material. On a material level, bricks resist being painted. This fact should be reason enough for no one to ever paint bricks. I blame Jo and Chip Gaines. I blame HGTV. I blame anyone who ever thought bricks were unattractive. Painting bricks sentences bricks to another life, a life they were not meant to live. Painting bricks means that bricks will forever have to be painted. It means also that bricks will resist this form of life in new ways every time. Don’t paint your bricks. But if they were painted when you got to them, know that painting them well will require a kind of care and vigilance that seems overstated for the work and the benefit of having nicely painted bricks.

First coat.

I’m finished now, but my place of improvement is really just back to square one. The square one I wanted to get to was the square before the previous owners ever painted the brick. That’s the real reason this job never should have been done. I have heard people say this about home-owning, that you feel like you are just running to stay still. That’s pretty much what concluding this job has involved. Now, to stand still until I can think of what to do next.

Aristotle in the Active Classroom: Group Activity 2

I’m on a roll folks. After I did the last group activity, I was inspired to do another, and I think this one was even more successful in getting students to think about Aristotle’s Metaphysics. For this game, I distributed envelopes to every group. In the envelopes were two sets of flashcards that I had made. One set was the same in every envelope. It included all of the four causes, the ways of being, and the candidates for substance. In the other set were instances of one of these.

Students had to figure out to which of the first set the second set belonged. Some of the sets of instances could belong to more than one category, for example, the genus set, which included animal, plant and planet, could also be considered universals. One set that was particularly hard for students was that of substance, in which I included various “thises” – Dr. Trott, the tree on the mall, their pet dog Spot. Students had to report out to the whole class to which of the first set their instances belonged and they had to explain why. Some students struggled, but the class was asked to help them figure out the right answer.

Even more than the first exercise, this one got students invested in understanding the material, drawing distinctions and thinking about how Aristotle offers them a vocabulary to explain the world. It also helped them see what wasn’t clear to them in the process of having to apply their learning to concrete examples. And it gave them an opportunity to explain to one another in a more informal setting and to raise questions to one another in a low stakes environment.

Aristotle in the Active Classroom: Group Activity Success

I am a little more than one week in to teaching my ancient survey. This is my second time starting with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I know that sounds wild, but I think Aristotle sets up principles that make it easier for students to see what the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod are doing, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary for thinking about what counts as knowledge. My theme for the course as a whole as a search for a good measure. I like to frame the beginnings of Greek thinking as the opening up of and taking seriously of the question of whether we have or need proper measures for living and knowing. I teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Protagoras after Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics and Hesiod and then I come back to the Nicomachean Ethics at the end. I think it works well, but I’ve been trying to find ways to get students to engage more actively with the texts earlier on in the semester, especially since the Metaphysics is hard. 

I’ve also been recently inspired by colleagues at Ball State whose workshops I attended when I gave the keynote at the Conference for Pre-College Philosophical Engagement in April. Matthew Hotham and Jen Howland both ran workshops where they had students do an active exercise in order to think through some complicated concepts. Jen set up a capitalist regime where only she owned the means of production and the rest of us had to fight with one another, organize against her, get co-opted as law enforcement and snitches — what started as just a simple claim she made at the beginning articulating the terms ballooned into an intricate representation of how capital works including how it draws on principles of competition and insecurity in the community. It was very cool. I was not able to pull something like that off in the discussion of the law of non-contradiction. What I did was more like what Matt did in his group. First he asked students to define a religion. Then he gave out packets that included a slip of paper that described a religion and asked people to decide whether it really was a religion and to think about what standards they used to make that judgment. It forced students to think about why they used the standards they did and whether they should always apply.

I did something a little bit like that. I printed out ten slips of paper with various claims from the second half of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV. These were claims that Aristotle uses as examples to say either that the person was violating the ban on contradiction or was invoking it even if they claimed to deny the need for such a ban. For example, the first one was, say something that is meaningful to you and to someone else. Aristotle says to do this and thus to differentiate oneself from a plant is to invoke the law of non-contradiction. Another one said, to avoid tripping in the well, an action that implies that you are stating that tripping in the well is bad, not not-bad. I divided students into groups and asked them to explain how the claim on their paper either violated the ban or invoked it. We started the exercise on Wednesday when they had only read the first several chapters of IV where Aristotle sets up the need for the starting-point of theoretical knowledge and then articulates it. Then students had to read the rest of the book where Aristotle says he can’t demonstrate the truth of the claim but he can refute anyone who denies it. Students then had to reference the reading to explain how their claim would violate or invoke the ban on contradiction. Read more

The Low Down on Aristotle

Heidegger famously said of Aristotle’s biography, “He lived, he worked, he died.” While many scholars take that to mean that Heidegger was dismissing the significance of biography in considering a philosopher’s work, Iain Thompson has convincingly argued that Heidegger takes for granted the significance of biography, so in the air was Werner Jaeger’s work on Aristotle’s biography, that he means not to dismiss it but to say it is not sufficient for understanding Aristotle. As when people resort to psychologizing a particular thinker instead of dealing with their work, it would be dismissive to say that we can entirely understand a thinker on the basis of things that happened to them or the whims of fortune that characterized their lives.

And yet. Perhaps we have swung too far away from caring about the specific details of the lives of those we study. I hesitate to say that the details can wholly frame our reading, but I also think it behooves us to see these thinkers as human beings: they didn’t just live, work and die; they struggled to find work they enjoyed, they loved, they fought, they studied and were disappointed; they struck out on their own. Examining the details we know and the gossip we can gather about a philosopher who has become more a marble bust than a human thinker can bring down to earth a towering colossus. Read more

Greece is Burning in More Ways than One and Its Neoliberalisms Fault

I had to fly back to Athens from Rome last night after my week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum. I had arranged to stay at a place I found at hotels.com that turned out to be the guest house of a residence in the town adjacent to the airport. Soon after I booked the place I received an email informing me that I would have to pay another €20 for a cleaning fee when I arrived. Since I was unable to cancel and had not been aware of this fee before I booked I requested that it be waived. The owner agreed. He kindly arranged an “airport shuttle,” which he said would be cheaper than a regular taxi at €15 each way. At the airport a man was waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it. He told me that the police had hassled him for stopping right outside the airport and so he had to park in the pay parking lot, which he told me cost €4. I was skeptical because I had been dropped off by a Greek colleague and I saw signs saying the first 20 minutes were free. We got to his cab and drove off. On the way he told me that he was old and tired. He also told me that the recent fires were in the area about 10-20 kilometers away.

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A Slovenian Feast at Gostilna Skaručna

Last Wednesday, we went with friends for a fifteen-course traditional Slovenian meal in the small town of Skaručna outside of Ljubljana. Gostilna Skaručna has been run for forty years by the same family, one brother runs the restaurant and the other the attached inn, Klub Gurmanov, where we had an amazing breakfast (if you go, the restaurant takes credit cards but the inn only takes cash).

We were in Ljubljana for a friend’s art exhibition and for a lecture on the theme of the exhibition, “Heavenly Beings: Neither Human Nor Animal.” The opening was Tuesday. We went to the lecture on Wednesday, which happily for me referenced some of the work on Aristotle’s work on animals, and then when the lecture was over we trekked out to Skaručna. After settling in at the inn, we walked to the restaurant which is in the front part of the property. We sat outside for an appertif and the first course of a cucumber and yogurt dish. The appertif was gendered — women were given a short glass of a red pulpy drink and men a beaker full of a strong liquor. We decided not to raise any questions. But the proprietor did explain that the men’s drinker was much stronger. After the appertif a pitcher of honey beer was brought to the table. I’m gluten-free, and they were accommodating (they brought me gluten-free bread and wine in the place of the honey beer).

After a leisurely beginning, we were invited inside. Our party of seven–three Slovenians, one Canadian and three Americans–was big enough to be able to enjoy this meal which requires a decent-sized party for it to be worth it, but small enough to share one conversation. The wait staff brought wine with each course — the wine changed after the soup courses. And a traditional lemonade and a water, which the server called, “decoration.” Read more

Walking to Plato’s Academy

Today we walked from our place in The Mets to Plato’s Academy, about five kilometers – it’s about 1.5 miles from the Agora. My colleague Lew Cassity is working on a book on Plato’s Laws and wanted to get a sense of how the walk from the Agora to the Academy would feel. We stopped off at the Kerameikos, where the Sacred Road that led to the Academy begins, and then we walked up Platonos all the way to the Academy.

When I was here in 2014, we took the bus out there and it seemed to take forever. I think it probably took as long as our walking it this time. In 2014, I remarked how unmemorial like the site is, less so even that Aristotle’s Lyceum. Like I said then, I guess, as Thucydides wrote, famous men have the whole world as their memorial; they don’t need statues. Read more

The Art of Conversation At the End of a Common World

Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.

My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more