On Becoming More ‘Confessional’ In The Classroom

A few weeks ago, in the course of a conversation with a colleague here at Brooklyn College, I remarked that over the years I had become more ‘confessional’ in my classroom  interactions with my students. When gently pressed to explain what I meant, I said that I had become more unguarded there, in that space–in expressing some previously undisclosed sentiments of mine about the teaching experience and about my ongoing relationship with my students.

To wit, I have become more open about telling my students that I regard my teaching as a kind of continuing education for myself, one in which they have a significant role to play. I tell them that I teach the material on my reading list in order to understand it better; I might have read an assigned article or book or excerpt before, but I do not consider myself to have truly understood it till I have discussed it in a classroom with those who are experiencing it for the first time. I tell my students that I consider philosophical education to proceed in three stages: first, reading the text by my self; second, discussing the book with a ‘teacher’; third, discussing the book with ‘students’; I, as a teacher, am now in the third stage with regard to the texts I have read before. I tell them that I teach a wide variety of classes because I consider my philosophical education incomplete and hope to make it more well-rounded by doing so. (This leads to a related confession: that I often place material on my syllabus that I have not read before precisely so that I will be obliged to take the time to read it. Sometimes I even tell them that old joke about an academic who asked another if he had read a particular book and was told, “Read it? I haven’t even assigned it!”) I tell them that when they do not do the readings, my disappointment is made more acute by the fact that these objectives of mine have been thwarted. I ask them to consider me a co-learner in the enterprise that we undertake in the classroom; I express the hope they will take this responsibility seriously.

Most of these ‘confessions’ occur in the first class of the semester but on occasion, I find myself returning to them during the semester too. I hope, of course, in doing all of this, to make them regard the classroom experience as something more than a mere passive exercise in receiving wisdom from on high. I hope that my ‘confessions’ will make them take the task of reading the assigned texts more seriously and help them come to class prepared to talk about it with me–and other students.

Like every other pedagogical ‘strategy’ I have adopted, this has only had limited success. I do not know if my students take me seriously, or if they can bring themselves to believe that they could actually move my education along. But because I do not consider myself to be insincere when I indulge in these confessional sessions in class, I intend to keep persisting with this ‘strategy’ for the time being.

An ISIS Communique For Our Times

From: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

To: All Jihadi Brothers

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

My warriors, after Paris, much work remains to be done. But we have many new recruits. They are infidels, but they have to come to our aid, they will do our work with us. They will ensure that the Caliphate will find new capitals, that it will spread from sea to shining sea. They will turn upon the Muslims in their midst, the devout, and the apostates, those Muslims who–for whatever reason–do not grow their beards, whose women do not cover their heads, whose children do not memorize the Koran, who do not pray five times a day, who study in schools where the Koran is not taught, who do not fast in the holy month, who pledge allegiance to infidel flags. They will turn back refugees from their shores; they will prosecute their own citizens. They will drive them back into our fold.  We shall welcome those who show contrition for their desertion; for the rest, apostasy means death.

Every attack we launch upon the infidel West shows its tenuous hold on its  precious civil liberties, their freedoms that we supposedly covet. One attack on the Great Satan was enough to make it torture, spy upon its citizens, kill many Muslim brothers, and entrap yet others through perverse law-enforcement schemes. A few more artfully placed and timed attacks and we will bring the residents of these dens of fornication and perversity to their knees. In this task, we will be aided, as we already are, by those who continue to disenfranchise their own citizens and commit to oblivion their own esteemed moral, legal, and political principles. They continue to kill our innocent brothers and sisters and their children from the sky; they continue to imprison Muslim brothers without trial, scorning their own precious legal parchments from which the words ‘due process’ have so easily been scrubbed.

Between the anvil of the New Crusaders and the hammer of our armies, the apostates, those who left Muslim lands and vainly sought a better life elsewhere–believing foolishly in the propaganda and lies of secular written constitutions with their pathetic Bill of Rights, and in mock-revolutionary declarations of liberty, equality, and fraternity–will be crushed. They will find no new homes; they will be turned back from the shores that were to welcome them. Those Muslims who imagined they could  live in peaceful co-existence with infidels will find that there will be no such peace for them. They will be blamed for our work; they will be punished for it. Among them, we will find yet more soldiers.

Truly it is by Allah’s Grace that those who imagine themselves the New Crusaders are instead our Jihadi brothers. Such is Allah’s Infinite Wisdom that our enemies become our soldiers.  They speak of waging war against us but first they will wage war against themselves. They are termites who nibble at their own foundations; we need only direct them from afar.

Allah is Great. Victory will be ours. Welcome the New Crusaders.

The Post-Apocalyptic World Of The War Refugee

A year or so ago, in writing about classroom discussions centering on Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, I had noted that the homeless–whom the Man and the Boy most resemble–live in a post-apocalyptic world of their own:

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk….the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered…they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night….the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

There is another way to think about the Man and the Boy in The Road: they are refugees. They have lost their home; their family is devastated; they are fleeing violence; they are seeking shelter and food and warmth; they are, as their name implies, seeking refuge. The world they knew is no more; they seek another world, one in which they might, perhaps, begin life anew.

It is easy to imagine–as we voraciously consume products of the post-apocalyptic genre in literature and film–that the post-apocalypse is a fantasy, a possible world about which we can safely speculate from a distance. But we forget all too soon that apocalypse stalks this world of ours; it is present in the lives of many. For zones of  war are zones of apocalypse. ‘Normal’ life is no more; daily existence is subsistence. Homelessness and sudden, violent death is the norm for civilians. Abandon all hope indeed, ye who enter here, and ye who dare escape.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this as we think about this war-stricken world’s refugee crisis. And in particular, of course, about the refugees fleeing the four-year old Syrian war. Over four million are now displaced, and many more will be, for the conflict shows no sign of abating. Most, if not all, have lost loved ones; all have lost their homes. They too, have passed through landscapes not too dissimilar to the ones depicted in The Road. Their life is reduced to the most elemental of all missions: food, shelter, clothing.

Perhaps this world might stop fantasizing about survival strategies in an imaginary post-apocalyptic worlds, and think about how it might address the problems of this all too real one.

On Not Celebrating Steven Salaita’s Settlement With UIUC

I cannot bring myself to celebrate the news of Steven Salaita‘s settlement with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). The reasons for this are fairly straightforward–as noted in a petition now circulating: the crucial legal issues at the heart of his dismissal remain unresolved, and his job has not been reinstated.

Shortly after Salaita announced he would be taking legal action against UIUC, I made some caustic remarks–in the company of many friends–to the effect that UIUC should fire its legal team. How could they possibly have advised a public university to take action that seemed clearly punitive and retaliatory against the exercise of political speech by one of its employees? Did they not envisage the terrible damage that would be done to the university in the discovery stage of trial, where email correspondences and internal deliberations would go public, where it would become clear that the university had succumbed to the pressure exerted by donors?

In conversations with my wife–a lawyer herself–another disturbing possibility presented itself. That the university’s legal team had not discounted such a possibility, that a cost-benefit analysis had been carried out, one which reckoned the financial damage to the university resulting from the loss of donor money if Salaita was appointed as being greater than that resulting from the terms of any out-of-court settlement with Salaita. (The amount that Salaita settled for, $875,000, is far less than some big-pocket donor might have threaten to withhold had Salaita’s appointment not been rescinded. By way of comparison too, think of the salaries of football coaches at large university systems like the University of Illinois.)

And so it has come to pass. Salaita’s case never went to trial; the crucial First Amendment issue that lay at its core was never resolved; and instead, a simple calculus for violating academic freedom has emerged. In saying all this, I do not mean to second-guess the decision made by Salaita and his legal team; he must have wanted put the legal dispute behind him and get on with his life, which has been subject to terrible emotional pressure, and that is not an insignificant consideration. He has a life to live, and it does not need to include being the poster child for a political movement. But it remains unclear whether he will ever find employment at an American university again, for as we might well expect news of his hiring will be greeted by the same furor that precipitated the loss of his UIUC job. His academic future remains in limbo.

To reiterate, the courts of this country were not called on to put their considerable weight behind Salaita’s plea to be reinstated on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been violated. An important legal precedent would have been set had he won, and academic freedom–seemingly perennially under threat when it comes to particular issues in the current political climate–would have received important legal, political, and moral protection. Perhaps I’m too glib in assuming that Salaita would have won, and perhaps his legal team, based on its knowledge of the relevant case law, felt this was the safest path. Fair enough.

Still, when the smoke has cleared, the landscape looks much like the one before. Indeed, university administrators have learned from Chancellor Phyllis Wise‘s behavior how not to fire someone for exercising their  academic freedom, and the amount of settlement lays down a marker all its own. Academics will still remain uncertain about what their free speech rights in this situation.

Marco Rubio And The Philosophy Of Welding

Many years ago, I taught the inaugural edition of my Philosophy of Welding seminar. I began the semester by introducing some of the problems that would hold our attention during the semester: What is welding? How is it distinguished from other activities that claim to be welding? Is there a distinctive being-in-the-world characteristic of the welder and his tools? What makes a welded work beautiful? How should such works be shared? In the political economy of welding how is value created and sustained? Do we have a moral obligation to weld? And so on.

My reading list for the class was not excessively ambitious: I stuck to some of the usual suspects–Heidegger and some of the works of the Shipyard Collective, for instance–and concentrated on a few key passages in each, hoping close attention to them would repay dividends in the form of rich class discussion. Early in the semester, I began to notice that one young student did the readings diligently, came to class prepared, and engaged vigorously in all ensuing discussions.

This was no idle interest; no lofty, disengaged, from-on-high tackling of philosophical problems. This young man was in the trenches, on a mission. And it was quite clear what it was: defending–nay, aggressively speaking up for–welding and welders. He had air-tight definitions for welding: necessary and sufficient conditions for it neatly marked its domain off from the impostors clamoring to be let in; he offered an at-times-almost-mystical description of the relationship of the welder to the welded (and the tools that mediated that relationship); he spoke movingly of the affective responses that welded works provoked in him, deftly bringing in Kantian notions of the sublime; he offered a creative theory for how welded works could be copyrighted and welders granted patents for their work; he described the outlines of a political economy for welding that would allow welding to continue to generate surplus value in a world increasingly dominated by the intangible and the immaterial; and most movingly of all, he offered a passionate, stirring, argument whose fascinating conclusion was that we have a duty to weld, a moral inclination that must be obeyed.

It was on this last point that we passionately disagreed. Even though I recognized the importance of welding, I could not bring myself to accept this argument. Surely, one could assign welding a respectable position in our hierarchy of valued activities without taking the final move to make our engagement something that acquired normative weight. But this young man would not budge. Welding, as an activity, had normative implications; it gave our lives meaning and value; it was the tide that would raise all boats. It was not the cement of the universe, but it was the tool that brought the fabric of space-time together.

By semester’s close, our disagreements had grown sharper. When it ended, it was clear I had lost my student. My failure–and the rest of the class’–to accept and internalize his arguments seemed to have turned him off philosophy altogether. I do not know what had so animated his passion for welding, but it was clear and distinct, an important motivational force in his psychological dispositions.

Last night, I saw that young man again. Marco Rubio is now a presidential candidate for the US, and his passion for welding has not diminished one bit. And neither has his disdain for philosophers.

The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

No One ‘Conquers’ An Eight-Thousander

Despite the dozens, if not hundreds, of mountaineering tales that talk about the ‘conquest’ of mountains, especially the fourteen eight-thousanders that are the world’s tallest mountains, no one ‘conquers’ them. Not the mountaineers who climbed them first, who ‘deflowered’ their ‘virginity,’; not the ones who climb them by new routes, each selected to be harder than others, each with its own peculiar and particular challenges; not the ones who climb them in the dead of winter, in short days and freezing weather. No matter how bold, how adventurous, how pioneering and revolutionary the ascent–without oxygen, without porters, alpine-style, at breakneck pace–the mountain remains unbeaten, unconquered, and unconquerable.

Those that make it to the summit, all the better to plant a flag, take photos, burn incense, pose for posterity, and sometimes bury souvenirs, they do not conquer the mountain. They do not stick around to assert dominion; they do not dilly-dally to set up camp, to settle down to a new residence; they do not triumphantly stake out a parcel for themselves, asserting that this will be theirs till someone dislodges them. Instead, they leave. The smart ones leave quickly, setting off down the slopes they have just painfully and slowly ascended, back to the safety of their last camp, into which they will stumble, exhausted, their physical and mental reserves rapidly running down to empty; they know the mountain has been kind enough to let them in for a quick taste of glory; an extended dalliance on its slopes could mean death. (The frozen, perfectly preserved bodies, still clad in their colorful mountaineering clothes and boots, which litter the otherwise pristine acres of the world’s greatest mountains are ample testimony to this fact.) Conquerors do not behave like this; they do not leave the scenes of their triumphs so quickly; they do not retreat with such haste from the domains that are supposedly theirs. Conquerors are far more immodest. These supposed conquerors only speak of their conquests once they are off the mountain. They know the respect due the mountain.

Despite the genial contempt that some expert mountaineers direct at the ‘easy’ eight-thousanders–speaking relatively of the differences in technical difficulty involved in climbing them–none of them, consummate professionals each and every one, would dare, in their working hours, to show anything other than the appropriate respect to these peaks. They have been ‘up there’, they know what time it is.

The mountain is no place for man (or beast.) It may let you in for a sneak peek at its inner sanctorums, a quick glimpse of the most breathtaking vistas possible, but you do this on sufferance. You do not conquer the mountain; it merely permits you access; a truce is declared, and you are ushered through for a temporary reprieve. And then, time’s up; you must leave. Back to the bottom; back to the safety of the plains. Off the mountain; now left to its own devices, to its solitary splendor. The summit is no one’s to take, dominate, or retain. It is the mountain’s alone. No one and nothing, except the snow and the winds, retains dominion there.