A Bad Teaching Day

Yesterday, I had a bad teaching day.

First, I was scattered and disorganized in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class; I repeated a great deal of material we had already covered; I offered only superficial explanations of some important portions of the assigned reading; I did not answer questions from students satisfactorily. (It was pretty clear to me by the end of the class that I did not know how to explain Wittgenstein’s argument against private languages to a novice.)

Then, fifteen minutes later, I walked into my Philosophical Issues in Literature class-where we were scheduled to discuss Jose Saramago‘s Blindness–and floundered again. (Though not as badly.) Here, I largely failed to satisfy myself that I had covered all the bases I wanted to. For instance, I was unable bring the class discussion around to a consideration of Saramago’s satirical tone, his view of humanity, the novel’s take on technology and the reaction of the state to sudden catastrophe–all important in studying Blindness. Instead, the discussion ran in several different directions and I felt entirely unsure that I had done a good job in keeping it coherent.

Later, after a break of a couple of hours, I traveled to Manhattan to teach my graduate Nature of Law seminar. Now, I struggled because of faulty syllabus design. My fifth and sixth weeks of the class were ostensibly to be devoted to studying legal realism. For the first of these two weeks, I assigned three essays by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; for the second, a selection of articles from an edited anthology. There were two problems with this choice. First, the readings were disproportionately assigned to the two weeks–the first required the students to read a mere forty-five pages, the second, approximately two hundred and twenty. Second, and more seriously, some of the readings for the second week should really have been assigned as companions to the Holmes essays. This poor design almost immediately manifested itself in the class discussion.

It was quite difficult to discuss Holmes essays without the surrounding context–historical and legal–that the additional readings would have provided. As a result, my students and I found ourselves either listening to me lecturing about that missing component, or returning, again and again, to discuss threadbare, the same central theses of Holmes that had begun the class session. (Indeed, I found myself repeating some points ad nauseam.) As the class wore on, I could not fail to notice that my students were losing interest; perhaps the assigned readings hadn’t been substantive or provocative enough. Perhaps.

That expression, of students fading out, is a killer. I almost ended the class early–one normally scheduled to run for two hours–but not wanting to admit surrender, hung on for dear life. With ten minutes to go, my students were packing up. I desperately sought to show them the reading at hand had more depth in it, looking for a money quote that would illustrate, brilliantly, a point I had just been trying to make. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, and had to settle for a lame substitute.

Which is how the class ended, lamely.

Hours later, after I had reached home, had dinner, and begun to settle down for the night I was still fuming. This morning, it continued. And here I am, writing a blog post about the whole day.

Teaching can be a wonderfully invigorating experience; it can also be painfully demoralizing.

Mary McCarthy On Henry Mulcahy’s Selfishness

In Mary McCarthy‘s The Groves of Academe, John Bentkoop, a faculty member at Jocelyn College, offers his take on his beleaguered colleague, Henry Mulcahy, who has set in motion schemes of varying deviousness in his bid to hang on to his precious position after receiving a dismissal notice from the college president:

Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He’s capable of commanding great loyalty because he’s unswervingly loyal to himself….Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause. In the world today, there’s a great deal of free-floating, circumambient loyalty that fixes itself on such people, who seem to offer, by their own example, the possibility of a separation from the self that will lead to a higher union with the self objectified in an idea. It’s Hen’s fortune or his fate to have achieved this union within his own personality; he’s foregone his subjectivity and hypostatized himself as an object.

There is no doubt Mulcahy’s ‘gift’ speaks to what could be a great and valuable skill: it enables the kind of fidelity and commitment to a greater purpose that is so often conducive to desirable forms of self-disciplining and to a channeling of personal energies towards a sought-after goal. (This goal will be, in all probability, one only of interest to Mulcahy.) Indeed, it is Mulcahy’s greatest strength–such as it is–that he is so utterly dedicated to himself and his life’s projects. He knows, with little self-doubt, who is number one. Bentkoop does not invoke narcissism here but there is no doubt the loyalty he refers to flirts with such notions.

Bentkoop’s suggestion that Mulcahy’s self-loyalty would be of most use in politics and religion is thus, entirely appropriate: a determined politician or preacher needs to sound–most of all, to himself or herself–entirely sure about his or her political or moral rectitude. Only someone with utter loyalty to themselves could be so convinced.

Mulcahy thus seems to have achieved what many others seek so desperately: some cause, some leader, some channeling of our otherwise all-too disparate energies toward a coherent objective. Fidelity and commitment to something–if only we knew what it was! Mulcahy has the answer: first, engage in a psychological maneuver–unspecified by Bentkoop–to transcend one’s own subjectivity, and then, regard oneself–and our goals–as a distant other to be approached with loyalty and desire. Thus, perhaps, who knows, we might even find the desirable balance between narcissism and self-abnegation.

As The Groves of Academe shows, the problem with Mulcahy’s loyalty to himself is that he does not find this balance: he is all too quick to sacrifice others to his cause. His colleagues, his family, his students, are all merely pawns, incidentals in a larger enterprise. McCarthy’s view of Mulcahy’s moral failings–forced upon by him by the news of his possible firing–is acutely unsparing.

The readers of her novel are not the first, and neither the last, to discover that self-loyalty is sometimes just an exalted name for selfishness.

Of Therapy And Personal And Academic Anxieties

Reading some of the discussion sparked by Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture has prompted me to write this post.

In the fall of 1996, I began studying for my Ph.D qualifier exams. I had worked full-time at a non-academic job for the previous year, saving up some money so that I could take a month or two off and study for my exams. I had notes, I had copies of the previous years’ exams. I was set. I began reading my way through an unofficial reading list.

As I worked, my mood swung between extreme anxiety and over-confidence. There were times I felt I would breeze through my pair of inquisitions; on other occasions, I would fight a rising tide of panic at the thought of sitting in a classroom, an empty blue-book in front of me. Sometimes, I would rise early, drink two cups of coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, look through my notes, and decide I could not read any more, just because the reading was making me anxious. Sometimes, I would check out, smoking pot all day before returning to work again the next day. Sometimes I wondered what the point of long, endless pursuit of  a degree which would only guarantee unemployment at the end of it all was. I was lonely and isolated in my apartment; my girlfriend returned home late at night from her corporate job.

One day, I worked out in the morning, returned to my apartment, stared long and hard at the papers in front of me and burst into tears, sobbing on and off for about thirty minutes. The next day, I called a friend to ask for help.

Three years previously, shortly after I had begun graduate school, I had met my friend at a student party. Over a beer, she had told me she was in ‘therapy.’ I was surprised to hear her talk about it openly, as something she ‘needed’, which ‘kept her from going nuts.’ Then, in the fall of 1993, it had not been even six months since my mother had passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer, and I knew I was still mourning. I had often felt in the months that had passed, a melancholia that was not easily dispelled by the immersion in school and off-campus work and the long hours of drinking in bars that were my primary modalities for treating it. I had flirted with the idea of seeking help for a mood that was stubbornly resistant to being lightened, sensing that I was not in the grip of a garden variety change in mental disposition.

But therapy seemed like a cop-out. Many of my male friends spoke disparagingly of it, of the culture of whining it seemingly created, the endless childish blaming of parents for adult pathologies. Therapy seemed wimpy, not manly enough; it seemed like a solution for those not strong enough to deal with life’s adversities, who wanted to wallow instead in self-indulgent pity parties on therapists’ couches.

So I had held back, hoping I would just ‘deal with it’ and get better. But I noticed little change; I easily descended into gloom and doom; I struggled with sleep, with drinking too much, with staying in romantic relationships; I found anxiety and panic to be constant companions. I never used the d-word to describe myself, but I often suspected I was depressed.

In the fall of 1996, with my qualifier exams creating many new opportunities for questioning my self-worth, and thus further compromising my fragile sense of being held together, I had finally broken down. I went looking for help.

My friend directed me to the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan where, after intake interviews, I began therapy twice a week. A year later, I considered taking anti-depressant medication, and consulted a psychiatrist for an evaluation. The good doctor told me he could prescribe one of the most popular medications at the time–Prozac or Serzone. I agreed, but then, panicked, and said I didn’t want to start. I continued with my talk therapy. But it was a secret; I told no one, and continued to feel like I had ‘copped out.’ Sometimes this secrecy would require elaborate subterfuge; I would tell friends I had to leave them to ‘run an errand’, sometimes walking in the wrong direction, away from my intended train station.

A year later, I changed therapists. I had felt like I was going in circles. Much had changed; I had passed my qualifiers, passed my oral exam with distinction, and also ended my older relationship and begun a new one. It was time for a new therapist too.

I found a therapist and resumed therapy twice a week. I continued to keep my therapy a secret (from everyone except my girlfriend and my friend.) I finished my dissertation, and for the semester that I was in the US after completion, stayed with the same therapist. My move to Australia meant my therapy would be interrupted. I took this break in stride, telling myself that perhaps I could move on now, a new person in a new land.

But a few months after I had moved to Sydney, I was looking for help again. I found a therapist–a Kleinian interestingly enough–and began visiting him twice a week. I was struggling with the usual anxieties academics suffer from; these seeming ephemera jostled with my struggles with a long-distance relationship, with subterranean feelings of fear and non-belonging, and an anxiety that never vacated the basement. I crossed an important barrier when I told some good friends–including a particularly near and dear male friend–that I was in therapy; that openness felt liberating.

After I returned to New York to take up my current position, my therapy was interrupted again. Two years later, I called up my old therapist to find out if he would take me back as patient; he was agreeable, but he had moved. I gave up looking for therapists, unwilling to go through the process of finding a compatible one. Over the years, on several occasions, I would go searching for therapists, look through web pages, and even make a few phone calls. But I never went all the way. I stayed hesitant; finding a good therapist had been hard work, and I seemed unwilling to do it all over again. I wondered if a cognitive behavioral therapist might not work better for me, compared to the analytical types I had previously worked with. Some good friends of mine urged me to resume therapy, sensing from some of my pronouncements that I might need it. (My career moved along; I was tenured and became full professor, but I never stopped doubting that I belonged in this profession, never stopped suspecting that I was simply not smart enough, hard-working enough. And I never stopped missing my long-departed parents.)

I haven’t started therapy again. Perhaps I dread its ‘ramping up’ phase too much; perhaps I have convinced myself my ‘workarounds’ are adequate; perhaps I’m ‘cured.’ I’m not sure but whatever the answer, I’m glad my graduate school friend helped me out when she did, that she urged me to overcome my hesitancy and discomfort about seeking professional help, that I was able to speak openly and frankly with my friends that I had done so. I am now a father and my anxieties have not diminished; if anything, they have increased. Perhaps I will seek help again. I won’t be shy about telling my friends I’ve done so.

Steven Weinberg’s History Of Science Syllabus

A few years ago, on reading–perhaps in the New York Review of BooksSteven Weinberg mention his teaching an undergraduate history of science class at the University of Texas, I wrote to Weinberg:

Professor Weinberg,

[…] I believe you teach a class on the history of science at UT-Austin. I would be very interested in perusing your reading list for this class. Would it be possible for you to send me an electronic copy?

Weinberg wrote the following brief email:

My reading list consists of a set of collections of original sources, such as Heath’s Greek Astronomy, and Matthews’ The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy, and Plato’s Timaeus. I include some handouts, like xeroxed copies of pages from Ptolemy‘s Almagest, etc. I add Kuhn‘s The Copernican Revolution. [links added]

Because Weinberg did not send me an electronic copy of his syllabus, and because I thought he would have if he had had one, I did not persist in asking him for it. And I did not ask for any more detail about the unspecified portions of his syllabus. Weinberg seemed like a pretty busy guy, and I didn’t think he’d be interested in entertaining curricular inquiries from a perfect stranger. (Yes, I know, I was being a little star-struck by a Nobel laureate.)

It is hard to evaluate this syllabus in this incomplete state. Still, there is certainly philosophy in it, as well as some interesting original sources. (Matthews’ collection, for instance, makes available some brief excerpts from the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton etc.) Some of Weinberg’s selections–because of their archaic language–are likely to be challenging for the modern undergraduate; the readings are definitely non-trivial and not light. It is, as might be expected, biased towards physics; there is little biology to be seen.  Of primary interest to me is that there is almost no ‘modern’ history of science in it: that is, no work by contemporary academic historians of science. Rather, Weinberg relies on ‘classics’ like the Heath collection, Kuhn, and primary works from the periods of interest (Almagest, the Matthews, Timaeus etc) I wonder if this disregard is because Weinberg distrusts modern academic treatments of the history of science, suspecting them of smuggling in illicit philosophical speculation into their ‘critical histories.’ Weinberg’s own skeptical attitude to modern philosophy of science might inform such a selection.

Unsurprisingly, almost all the readings above would function well in many philosophy of science classes. The Heath alone might be considered a historical supplement in a straight philosophy class, but it too, could feature in a more comprehensive ‘History and Philosophy of Science’ class–like the kind I had suggested in an earlier post on the philosophical education of scientists. The inclusion of the Timaeus is quite intriguing. It remains a rarely taught Platonic dialogue; in part, because of its style, which makes it not a particularly easy read but also because of its subject–cosmology.

I’m not going to take the liberty of suggesting additions to this syllabus largely because I don’t want to speculate about what might be on those unnamed ‘some handouts’, but it does seem to me that some supplementation with philosophy of science could turn this into a useful history and philosophy of science class.

Learning From Freud: Addiction, Distraction, Schedules

In An Anatomy of an Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and The Miracle Drug CocaineHoward Markel writes:

At some point in every addict’s life comes the moment when what started as a recreational escape devolves into an endless reserve of negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Those seeking recovery today call this drug-induced nadir a “bottom.”…The bottom that Sigmund experienced featured far more than the physical and mental ravages of consuming too much cocaine….Most recovering addicts insist that two touchstones of a successful recovery are daily routines and rigorous accountability.

As Sherwin Nuland noted in his review of Markel:

Around 1896, Freud began to follow a constant pattern of awakening before 7 each morning and filling every moment until the very late evening hours with the demands of his ever enlarging practice…writing, lecturing, meeting with colleagues and ruminating over the theories he enunciated in such articulate literary style.

Markel goes on:

It appears unlikely that Sigmund used cocaine after 1896, during the years when he mapped out and composed his best-known and most influential works, significantly enriched and revised the techniques of psychoanalysis and…attempted to ‘explain some of the great riddles of human existence.’

Because I consider myself an excessively and easily distracted person, one who finds that his distraction makes him miserable, I was struck by the description of the ‘drug-induced nadir’ that Markel refers to. In noting my own state of distraction, I wrote:

Like many users of the Internet I suffer terribly from net-induced attention deficit disorder, that terrible affliction that causes one to ceaselessly click on ‘Check Mail’ buttons, switch between a dozen tabs, log-in-log-out, reload, and perhaps worst of all, seek my machine immediately upon waking in the mornings.

The effect of this distraction on me is not dissimilar to that experienced by other sufferers: I sometimes feel a beehive has taken up residence in my cranium; my attention span is limited to ludicrously short periods; my reading skills have suffered; writing, always a painful and onerous task, has become even more so. Because of the failure to attend to tasks at hand, my to-do, to-read, to-write, to-attend-to lists grow longer and cast ever more accusing glances my way. Worse, their steadily increasing stature ensures that picking a starting point from any of them becomes a task fraught with ever-greater anxiety: as I begin one task, I become aware that several others are crying out for my attention, causing me to either hurry through the one I have started, or worse, to abandon it, and take up something else.


I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

And then, I thought about some of the techniques I’ve used to try to combat these these states of mind and being:

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.


I have tried many strategies for partial or total withdrawal: timed writing periods (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour); eight-hour fasts (I pulled off several of these in 2009…to date, this remains my most successful, if not repeated since, intervention; since then, somehow, it has been all too easy to convince myself that when I work, I should stay online because, you know, I might need to ‘look something up’); weekend sabbaths (only accomplished once, when I logged off on a Friday night, and logged back on on Sunday morning); evening abstentions (i.e., logging off at the end of a workday and not logging back on when I reached home). None of these strategies has survived, despite each one of them bringing succor of a sort.

And I went on to conclude:

I do realize, as many others have, that all of this sounds most like an incurable, pernicious addiction.

I take some solace in the fact that the strategies I have adopted–even if unsuccessful–at least put me in some very good company.

The Pencil Eraser As Proustian Madeleine

I prepare for classes by reading the texts I have assigned. As I read, on occasion, I make notes in the margins or underline words and sentences. Not too vigorously or extensively, because I still suffer from old scruples and niceties having to do with a fetishistic respect for the printed word; it took me a long time to get over my hesitancy  about marking up books. In graduate school, it took some doing for me to mark up even printed or photocopied versions of journal articles; I always preferred make notes in a separate notebook. I cannot, still, markup a book with a pen, but I have mustered up enough courage and wherewithal to mark up text with a pencil. (Suitably sharpened.)

Now, writing with a pencil is a curious sensation. I hardly ever write any more with one. So the mere contact of hand on pencil, pressing down on paper, feeling, watching, and sensing lead marks appear on paper and arrange themselves into shapes pregnant with meaning is an interesting enough experience. But it gets better.

Sometimes I make notes that are incorrect. Sometimes I call out an author in the margins with a ‘!’ or a ‘?’–even an odd ‘?!’ here and there–and sometimes with a more elaborate expression of surprise, disbelief, or skepticism, and then find out, a few paragraphs later, that I spoke too soon. In those cases, I shamefacedly return to the margin and erase my note, my mark-up.

When I first did so, I noticed a curious sensation manifest itself, one even more peculiar than the sensation manifested by my writing with a pencil. When I erase pencil marks, I apply eraser to paper and scrub, hard. Then, I brush off the accumulated residue of paper, lead and eraser material, sometimes blowing it off the paper. These archaic bodily sensations, these antique bodily memories, this embodied set of memories, these were all part of my normal arsenal of daily sensations and bodily interactions at a particular point in my life–schooldays mostly, of course, but also time spent at home with my books. Locked up in that eraser and my use of it–just like it is in pieces of music–is a kind of Proustian madeleine then.

Using an eraser summoned up memories of notes taken in classrooms, of sharpening pencils, of homeworks completed late at night, of correcting drafts of essays and exams, of bemoaning the induction of black smudges in place of neat handwriting, of painfully wringing my hand after a furious bout of scribbling and erasing. (Confession: I never used the term erasing when I was in school; then, I used a ‘rubber’ and rubbed. And yes, that nomenclature is a leading contender for hilarious differences in American English and the English spoken elsewhere.)

So it was via that eraser that an older being suddenly emerged and poked its head around. There’s always multiple selves in us; many lie dormant; and some, if subjected to the right stimulus, the right madeleine, can remind us of their presence, and of the time that they were formed and made their way into our being.

Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m teaching Wittgenstein this semester–for the first time ever–to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.

The style of the Tractatus is notorious for the difficulties it can create for the unprepared. Many students find it its terseness, its statement in quasi-mathematical form as a series of seeming definitions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries–as part of a presentation of a grand total of seven propositions–off-putting and abstruse. Yet others find in it a curious beauty, a poetic statement, stark and austere, pregnant with meaning and suggestion. The content of the Tractatus can be forbidding too. Many philosophical doctrines–the picture theory of language, the truth-functional account of propositions, logical atomism and the correspondence theory of truth, the verification theory of meaning, the ‘no-sense’ theory of ethical and emotive statements–may be found here, varying in their level of implicit or explicit statement. A special vocabulary is employed, and the meanings of many of the special terms of art employed–‘facts’ for instance–has to be unpacked carefully.

I have read Wittgenstein before, and indeed, did my dissertation with a logician, Rohit Parikh, who doubled as a Wittgenstein scholar. (This excellent paper by Juliet Floyd explores the several dimensions of his appropriation of Wittgensteinian themes in his work.) For several years during graduate school I attended a discussion and reading group, conducted by Parikh, which often veered off into conversations on Wittgensteinian themes. Years after I completed my dissertation, I realized that many of its fundamental presuppositions and descriptions bore a similar stamp. But, I never taught Wittgenstein.

Now I have. And so, yet again, I’ve been reminded of how radically different my relationship to a philosophical text or doctrine becomes once I’ve had occasion to teach the material. I read differently; I critique differently, trying to anticipate the ambiguities my students might encounter; I notice more in the text, I seize on more. And then, in the classroom, as I work directly through the reading with my students my relationship with it changes yet again.

Sometimes, my teaching has consisted of making a few opening statements, previewing the theories and theses to be presented, and then turning to the text to find their statements within. I invite students to point me to particular propositions that they have found thought-provoking and/or difficult. At times, I have read aloud sections in class, stopping to offer and receive–along with the class–explications and exegesis. I’ve used the ‘reading-aloud-in-class’ method before; in that case, for Leibniz and Kant. What I wrote then about that particular method of approaching a philosophical text still holds:

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context.

Now, with Wittgenstein and Tractatus, I am struck again, by how the seemingly familiar takes on a little of its older novelty.