I want students to write papers in which they genuinely engage a question that is motivated by the text and their own curiosity in which they come to an insight worth sharing. Getting students to this place in their writing is the biggest challenge of my teaching life. One of the difficulties is that students think of writing a technical endeavor. They are given a prompt. They need to find a thesis that they think that can support based on evidence they can find in the text. They set to work writing the paper by looking for the evidence and then choose a thesis that is most supportable. This approach to writing papers short-circuits the stage of thinking. It is to this stage that I try to return students and get them to work. The problem is that it feels to students like flying without a net. They do not have experience with being asked to think. They do not have experience with being asked to take their own questions and insights and concerns seriously.
This semester, instead of giving prompts in which I tried to motivate their thinking and then hoping it would push them into the gap for thinking they tend to short-circuit, I told them explicitly that this process of finding their own puzzles and problems was what I was expecting. It helped that in the class I did this most explicitly in, we were reading Aristotle and talking about how wonder is the source for philosophizing because when we come to an impasse, we are motivated to think. I asked them to think about what the impasses in the reading were for them and why and then to delve further into the reading to try to work through their impasses. The very first paper in this class was explicitly on what causes them to wonder in the world at large, and how they understand this process of wonder in the pursuit of knowledge better in light of reading the first several pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Read more
Today is the first day of the new semester. Last semester I returned to teaching from a year-long sabbatical. I returned refreshed and tenured (I had already taught with tenure for one semester before my sabbatical as Wabash graciously completes the tenure process in one semester). The year off was good for my research, as we generally understand sabbaticals to be. But it was also good for my teaching. It was good for my teaching as a rest. Recent research shows that the ability to do well over time depends on rest and recovery. It is good to give your mind time off from the tasks that consume you.* I took time off from thinking about teaching to focus on a book project. Ideas for teaching occurred to me in the midst of that work, but I wasn’t trying to come up with ideas for teaching. In planning for last semester, I decided to do some creative non-obvious approaches to organizing my courses because I felt a certain freedom from expectations and a willingness to do what I thought would work rather than what was the typical structure of a course.
As I reflect on how things went, I see four things that I did this semester that made for more successful teaching, four things that were made possible in part by having tenure and then having a sabbatical.
- Slowing down
- Being authentic
- Getting clearer about expectations
- Doing more introduction and transitional set-up
Each of these elements contributed to my goal in teaching to encourage students to engage in the philosophical classroom as thinkers rather than consumers of knowledge. Read more
I made two New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not going to tell you what they were. Mostly because I don’t want you to judge me. I will say that one was about not doing something and one was about starting a new practice. Today is January 14. I have kept up the new practice. I was able not to do the other thing for six days. I haven’t given up on it. But I also didn’t keep it. I’m trying not to judge myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the sheen of the resolution has worn off–it loses its ability to inspire once it has been broken.
We all know that resolutions don’t work. They don’t really change our behavior. I don’t usually make them — maybe one out of every three years I make some resolutions. And yet, there’s something so attractive about the idea that a new year can bring a new you. Just resolving that things will be different can make them so. Much of the critique of New Year’s resolutions amount to a critique of willpower as an effective way to change our lives. We need to engage in practices and projects because willing ourselves to be different does not work. Read more
As John Locke tells the story in his Second Treatise on Government, land that is common becomes private property by the work that a person puts into it. Because work is an extension of oneself, working on land makes the land an extension of oneself and hence gives one the right to that which she has extended herself to (the gender of who works to own and whose work is owned by another is the subject of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, where she argues that under patriarchy women are the natural commons that men appropriate by working on).
Critical race theorists have long noted that Locke is largely responsible for the view that treating land as property is a sign of progress. Those who do not treat their land as private property are deemed backwards and uncivilized. Julie Ward notes how European officials thinking about Africa retain this notion that “entering into history” is a matter of entering into a certain notion of progress based on developing value out of land when she quotes then French President Sarkozy’s address in Senegal on the French-African relationship. Sarkozy remarked that, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future…The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words…”
Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow returns to this question of how work produces property, and specifically what relations of production are required for work to produce property. Property is not only what a person can claim a right to access, as the commons can be, but also what one can freely alienate and exchange for value. Stoll’s account raises the question of which work gives one a right to land and which work does not. It puts the lie to the notion that property is acquired by work rather than by the willingness of government to recognize and enforce a right. Read more
One thing I realized in reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is that all of us concerned with the extreme inequality in American life need a better way to talk about taxes. I found the discussion of the tax bill in terms of how individual families across the economic spectrum would be affected misleading. That approach seems to make the way we think about taxes into whether people at the bottom end have their tax burden alleviated, and if so, it is good. Insofar as liberals are willing to defend taxes, they do so by arguing that taxes support government services. The argument against tax cuts then becomes a defense of government on the basis of the services government provides for the poor. When poor people argue against taxes in general, liberals tend to argue that they are arguing against their self-interest. Liberals argue that taxes are not the problem, it is the regressive structure of taxes that puts the burden on the poor and middle-class and shifts the wealth to the rich, as the recently passed tax bill does.
Steven Stoll makes the case in Ramp Hollow that it was the introduction of a tax, specifically of a tax on whiskey that forced the enclosure of the commons in Appalachia and made previously independent mountaineers into people irrevocably tied to and dependent on the national economy and eventually dependent for their sustenance on coal companies. This case suggests that tax when used as a mechanism against those who live off of a commons is a coercive mechanism in the service of enforcing a capitalist economy, where those who might be laborers must work to increase value for capitalists rather than work independently for their own sustenance to the extent they wish to work. Capitalists are willing to pay a tax if the tax changes the relation of the mountaineers to their land, their labor and the national government. Later discussions of the distribution of the tax are incidental to this initial demand that everyone pay the tax, a demand that requires those living off the commons to turn their commodities into value, and thus to monetize what was previously beyond the scope of the national economy. At this stage in late capital, the distribution of the tax contributes to inequality, but knowing the history explains how taxes on rural populations in the early days of the United States were the coercive efforts of the government to enforce one economic system on those who had no need for it, and who received little support from the government in return for it. Read more
Somewhere along the way, the concept of “Tragedy of the Commons” has become an argument in defense of enclosure and private property. The term first came into use by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833 to argue that unregulated grazing on public land could destroy the land, but it has largely entered public discourse through sustainability advocates to describe the situation of what happens when public resources such as rivers are unrestricted, everyone fishes them, and the ecosystems that fostered the fishing are destroyed. Open to everyone, people act to deplete the resources for everyone. The argument of the tragedy of the commons has been used to justify restricting access to fishing and hunting in order to protect the common lands, not unlike the kinds of decisions people have been making about the commons for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Students have come to think that “tragedy of the commons” means that only what is held in private is properly managed. It’s not just students, though. This kind of argument has been put forth as the public justification for privatizing public services and utilities including the U.S. mail service as if the resources will only be well-managed when they are managed for a profit. On that point, there is little evidence. This reading misunderstands “the commons” as that which is unregulated and open to anyone, instead as that which serves the whole community. The whole community is invested in regulating and facilitating the protection of the commons when it is the source of sustenance for the whole community. The case for how this works has been made by 2009 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom. Read more
I have long been involved in two forms of exercise that really don’t take that much equipment. Running and yoga. Running requires a good pair of shoes. I should probably replace my shoes more often. I buy the top of the line shoes, but I almost always only have one pair of running shoes that I’m using at a time. Yoga requires a mat, a towel, a bottle for water and some running pants and a sports bra. I have three yoga mats, actually two are my husband’s that I have commandeered. I use my old bath towels for yoga towels in addition to one YogiTowel that I got with my annual membership deal at the studio. I don’t actually like it much better than the bath towels. I’m happy to wear my running tights some of which have holes in them to yoga class. I don’t really care how I look in class–it’s hot and sweaty and no one looks good. Running, same.
I particularly like running because nothing needs to be bought to do it well. My yoga studio on the other hand can sometimes seem like a pusher of yoga gear. I did a little research and learned that it is common business plan for yoga studios to have good deals for yogis to attend class and to make most of their money on overpriced yoga gear. I don’t really begrudge them the effort, but I only buy things when they are on 75% discount, and rarely even then. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile–there’s always a little “here’s the sale going on” bit at the end of class that detracts from the spirit of the class. I try to just meditate through it. Read more
There appears to be a cottage industry of thinkpieces in defense of the lecture. Alex Small defends his mixed lecture and discussion approach in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago in his piece, In Defense of the Lecture. He defends the lecture as an opportunity to put on display the way an expert in a field approach problems. He also describes how he uses discussion to set up and break up the parts of class where he lectures. Miya Tokumitsu defends the art of collective listening in her piece in Jacobin earlier this year, In Defense of the Lecture. In 2009, Adam Kotsko wrote A Defense of the Lecture for Inside Higher Ed in which he argues that lecturing can help bring students to the level of good readers so that an engaged discussion might ensue.
In planning for courses in my return from sabbatical, I spent some time thinking about why I have typically refrained from lecturing. I tend to conduct class in a way that tries to get students to come to insights on their own. But I found that this approach has a certain inauthenticity insofar as it involves asking questions I already know the answer to. My thinking has been that students learn better when they reach their conclusion themselves, but I think that supposes that there is a limited number of insights and that I have already had them. The result is that I hold them back to lead students to have insights. Read more
Last semester, I ended the last three weeks of my ancient philosophy course on the Stoics. I began the course with Aristotle’s first line from the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” The entire course unpacked this sentence and its multiple possibilities. What does it mean for nature to direct our desire to know? How is human nature a matter of knowing? How does knowledge function as a measure of ourselves and of the world? How does knowledge depend on desire? To what extent and in what ways are we responsible for becoming who we are, for fulfilling or not fulfilling our nature? I was happily surprised to find the Stoics a fitting conclusion to these conversations, especially because of the way they think of the order of nature itself as fate, and human virtue as a matter of affirming this order or fate.
The Stoics offered a new possibility for understanding Aristotle’s famous opening line in a way that shows the intimacy between nature, fate and freedom or responsibility for the Greeks. This intimacy is something that is very difficult for Aristotle to separate. The Stoics were students of Zeno of Citium but they were clearly drawing from both Plato and Aristotle. It isn’t much of a stretch then to offer a Stoic interpretation of Aristotle’s anthropology and ethics. When Aristotle says that all men by nature desire to know, the Stoic interpretation would be that human beings fit into the order of the cosmos as knowing beings. They fulfill that order when they fulfill their nature as knowing beings. They are responsible to become the kinds of beings who affirm the order of the cosmos. Human virtue consists in managing the pains and pleasures of the world so that they do not detract but support their role in the order of the cosmos. Human vice is giving in to impulses that detract from the order of the cosmos. Aristotle describes choice as that which leads to actions wherein our desire is guided by reason. Choosing is affirming the rational order of what is. Read more