Back To Teaching – I

On Wednesday, I return to teaching after a one-year hiatus (on sabbatical). Here are the–admittedly skimpy and sketchy–course descriptions of the three classes I will be teaching this coming fall semester. I am looking forward to them. I’m sure my enthusiasm will soon be tempered by encountering my university’s mind-numbing bureaucracy (and the dubious pleasures of grading) but for now, it’s good to be able to anticipate my forthcoming encounters with students and classroom discussions.

Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion queries the foundations of religion and religious thought. Its central questions are among the most enduring in philosophy; they may be engaged by both theists and atheists, and involve the major branches of philosophical inquiry such as epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and ethics.

Among the most important of the questions raised in the philosophy of religion are: What is the nature of religious belief?  What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does God exist? If so, what is (its/his/her) nature? Does morality require religious belief? What is evil? What problems does it create for arguments for the existence of God? What is the nature of religious experience? Is there a difference between religious belief and religious feeling? What are religious language’s distinguishing characteristics? What is the relationship between religion and science?

We will examine these in the context of several philosophical and religious traditions, finding sources in philosophical and literary texts.

Social Philosophy

In this class we examine social theory and social thought—beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing on to twentieth-century postmodernism. The issues we tackle include equality, social justice, gender relations, political structures, family life, ethnic relations, and political economy. We will read philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, economists, novelists; all contribute to grappling with the complex questions facing societies and those who interact within them.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Literature offers us a lens through which to view the human condition; it enables a literary grappling with metaphysical, epistemological, logical, ethical, aesthetic, and political issues of philosophical interest and significance. In this class, we will read several works of post-apocalyptic fiction to facilitate an exploration and discussion of some of these issues.  What is the ethical and political and aesthetic vision these works embody? By imagining a radically altered state of existence, they allow us to speculate about the changes in the world and the humans who live within it; they permit a safe exploration of alternative modes of living, ethical and political systems. Of especial relevance to us is the following question: Why are the concept of the apocalypse and human responses to it of such enduring interest to novelists and philosophers?

The following is the reading list:

As the semester progresses, I hope to blog here about the material I teach, drawing upon reflections triggered by my preparations for the class meetings, as well as the actual discussions in the classroom.

Tomorrow: a report on my first day back in class.

On The Possible Advantages Of Robot Graders

Some very interesting news from the trenches about robot graders, which notes the ‘strong case against using robo-graders for assigning grades and test scores’ and then goes on to note:

But there’s another use for robo-graders — a role for them to play in which…they may not only be as good as humans, but better. In this role, the computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human.

Instructors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been using a program called E-Rater…and they’ve observed a striking change in student behavior…Andrew Klobucar, associate professor of humanities at NJIT, notes that students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written. But [Klobucar's] students are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words in the course of revising as students who are not offered the services of E-Rater, and the quality of their writing improves as a result…students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is “corrective, even punitive” do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer….

The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback…Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note….interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized….Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game-like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.

Not all interactions with fellow humans are positive; many features of conversations and face-to-face spaces act to inhibit the full participation of those present. Some of these shortcomings can be compensated for, and directly addressed, by the nature of computerized, automated interlocutors (as, for instance, in the settings described above). The history of online communication showed how new avenues for verbal and written expression opened for those inhibited in previously valorized physical spaces; robot graders similarly promise to reveal interesting new personal dimensions of automation’s spaces for interaction.

Calling Bullshit On ‘Outside Agitators’ in Ferguson

A few days ago, a friend on Facebook posted the following as his status:

Would any of you be down to help me organize a march on Ferguson, MO? Dead serious. It’s something I hope would send a powerful message to the powers that be, but I’d need help getting it all together. I mean, like a grassroots thing via Facebook to organize a march on Ferguson and get people from here in NYC and possibly the entire country to descend and march on Ferguson. A march to show solidarity. A march to show that we will not sit idly by and ignore human/civil rights violations at the hands of police against anyone, but most specifically to say that we will absolutely not ignore the deliberate genocide of black boys and black men in the United States.

If my friend does manage–beginning with this powerful and passionate call to action–to organize this march,  and is able to bring to Ferguson other concerned citizens to participate in protests and rallies, and perhaps even get in the face of overzealous police to remind them loudly and verbally that they might be overstepping the bounds of reasonable policing, that the murder of Michael Brown will not be allowed to just pass idly into history, he will be regarded as a provocateur of sorts, an outside agitator, one meddling in affairs best left to locals, to the local community and their police, who can, and should, work out by themselves, a response to a highly particular, specific, local, problem, using highly particular, local, specific tactics to devise a highly particular…you where this is going.

It’s a road to unmitigated bullshit, toward the worst kind of self-serving political delusion.

For as long as the cry of ‘outside agitator’ has been made–most notably, in the sad history of racist Southern resistance to the nationalization of civil rights–it has always been code for ‘butt out, and let us continue to address a political problem in familiar dead-end ways.’ In the South, the cry of ‘outside agitator’ was simply a euphemism for ‘we know how to deal with our blacks and we’ve been doing damn good job at it when no attention was paid us.’ The light often sends many scurrying for cover.

What is happening in Ferguson is not a local affair. It never was and never will be. The shooting of Michael Brown was a national phenomenon, temporarily resident in a new setting. That circus will soon move elsewhere, to some other urban killing ground, where soon enough, some other young man of color will fall to a policeman’s bullets. The police in Ferguson are not a local problem; the response to the demonstrations in Ferguson–indicative of a dangerous militarization of the police–is not a local problem. These are American problems, of interest to all Americans.

There are no ‘outside agitators’ in Ferguson. There is no arbitrary boundary that can be drawn around the problems of racism and police brutality; the stench of those wafts easily across one county line to the next.

Cutting Some Umbilical Cords (The Virtual Kind)

The day after the World Cup ended, I called my cable company and cancelled my cable and land-line subscriptions. (My phone call with my internet service provider’s customer service representative was long-winded, perhaps inevitably so given the number of inducements sent my way suggesting I only change the offerings in my subscription packages, but it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that nightmare Comcast call that went viral a few weeks ago.) And then, two weeks ago, I uninstalled the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone.

As far as attempts to roll back the tide of digital distraction go, these gestures give me a Canute-like air; they are minor in conception, execution, and probability of success.  Still, I suppose, they are not entirely insignificant either; they are gestures of a resistance of sorts, and that, even if quixotic, or perhaps because, can be suitably energizing. (The annual monetary savings on the canceled subscriptions promise a couple of airfares to domestic destinations.)

The desperation that provoked them has been alluded to by me here, in these pages, on many a previous occasion. Writing and reading, in these days of being ‘predisposed to interruption’ is harder than it always is; its still a privileged, leisurely activity, most assuredly, but it requires just a little more commitment when easy beguilement is only a tab or so away. This summer, like the others before it, seemed long and endless before it began, week after week stretching away, unoccupied, promising long hours of scholarship and rewarding dilettantism. And then, mysteriously, heat induced lassitude, the World Cup showed up in town, schedules decayed, and as the end of the summer beckoned, as did teaching with its new syllabi and bulging class rosters, so did postponements of publishers’ deadlines. In the panicky mood induced by this sense of a summer slipped out sight, the phone call to the cable company and uninstalled phone apps were no-brainers. I had little time left now for live sport; and I was growing a little nauseated by my mindless scrolling through News Feeds and Timelines while waiting for trains and buses.

Next week, I will travel–to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state–and plan to stay off the grid as often as possible; the relief promised by such abstinence is fast becoming a much-praised reward for the virtuous withdrawal. I look forward then, to not just the auto-back-pat but also the social approval sure to be sent my way. (I have often wondered, ever since I bought my smartphone two years ago, whether I would be able to resist the temptation to post photos to my blog while I was traveling; the answer, as I found after two days of struggling with blogging apps and poor cellphone service in Oklaholma and New Mexico, was that it was very easy to not want to be bothered once I was on the road.)

These little corners that I keep cutting, in an effort to clear some space in which to do work, to quell the monkey-brain, require little effort to identify; the hardest work is acting, and then, staying on the straight and narrow.

Ferguson And The Tale Of Two Wars

A nation at war–an indefinite, borderless one, conducted against a faceless enemy, with little legal or moral restraint, with an endless wallet to be dipped into–will find, sooner or later, that the same inchoateness, the same vagueness, the same productive lack of definition of that conflict, which permitted its waging to be conducted secretly without trammel, will also facilitate the seeping back of that war to within its own borders. Wars, if conducted long enough, come home. To stay. To search too long for enemies elsewhere is to make possible and easier their location closer to home.

There are two wars currently underway, conducted by the US. There is the war on terror, kicked off in 2001, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, a budget in the trillions, and a progress report card that would qualify for an F–thanks to the political, legal, and moral disasters it has left in its wake. Local states made unstable; hostile regimes made stronger; religious and sectarian strife reinvigorated; torture and killings without due process; and of course, curtailment of civil rights at home. And then, there is the war on drugs. Its kickoff date is a little uncertain but there is no mistaking its cost and failures: rampant, social-service destroying budgets, a racialized conflict written into legal stone, a grossly bloated drug enforcement apparatus, interference in the domestic policies of sovereign states, the incarceration and criminalization of thousands of young men, the list goes on.

The blowback from these never-ending wars is clearly visible in Ferguson, where a perfect storm rages in exquisite miniature: a hostile, militarized, aggressive police stalks the streets of a town with a significant African-American population, their fingers resting lightly on the trigger, convinced they are in hostile territory; a  confrontation with the locals–now not understood as members of a ‘community’ but as potential deadly criminals–quickly turns violent and murderous. Police all over the nation know the feeling; they are used to patrolling behind the lines on search and destroy missions. They’ve seen plenty of footage of kick-down-the-doors raids, of young men lying on the ground, waiting to be searched; they know what to do when someone talks back. A punch to the throat, a kick in the groin, and sometimes, when they don’t stop coming at you, a bullet to the head. Nothing is as important as making sure dimebags stay off the streets.

Then, when protests occur, they are met with disproportionate amounts of force and regulation and policing, with all the tools whose use has been perfected in the years of control that have followed the declarations of these wars. The language is that of peace at any costs, no matter the damage done to the values supposedly being protected. The peace of the graveyard–an orderly place–will do just fine.

All too often, it is imagined, because of the relentless hagiography of the Second World War, that war is an ennobling thing. But it isn’t. Those who conduct it lose themselves in the process; the fighting doesn’t remain directed outward.

If you stare long too into the abyss of war, it stares back at you.

Not So Fast With The Private Surveillance

A revealing–no pun intended–reaction to news of Steven Salaita’s troubles at the University of Illinois was that he was only paying the price for having his social media speech monitored (or surveilled) by his employer. As the argument goes, all employers monitor social media; we should all accept the consequences–in our places and zones of employment–of our public speech being monitored by our employers in non-workspace settings; Salaita’s employer did just that; he should deal with the consequences.

In an earlier post, I noted some of the adverse implications of such a situation for academics. But it is problematic for all workers, precisely because of the not-so-benign assumptions smuggled into its premises. First, it  uncritically accepts employer surveillance, not just of work spaces but of speech zones elsewhere as well–the restriction to social media networks is a red herring. This premise suggests we have no expectations of privacy–0r vastly lowered ones–in public spaces; but we clearly do, as our reactions to rude eavesdroppers at our restaurant table or street-corner conversations would suggest. Rather than meekly rolling back the boundaries of acceptable private surveillance to include more speech zones, this debate offers us an opportunity to inspect and examine where and how–and to what end–we consent to having our communications monitored by our employers.

Second, what does it mean to allow the content of our non-work space speech used against us in work space decisions such as hiring and firing? It means introducing an element of critical control and scrutiny into a domain where we expect to speak freely, to permit a regulation of speech by an entity as powerful, if not more, than governmental ones. No legal strictures would be required for chilling effects to be produced; the mere fear of the denial of livelihood would be enough. (Unsurprisingly, political activism of all stripes becomes easier when means of livelihood are not at stake; not for nothing is the tenured radical’s freedom so often lampooned by his critics.) The paucity of First Amendment restrictions on private employers is well-known; permitting their expansion, just because the technical means enable it, is to concede defeat all too quickly. Moreover, to permit it in a zone where the technical means permit it is to open the door to more extensive surveillance provided the technical means can be made available. This is to lose the argument at precisely the wrong point. After all, why not just micro-chip all from birth so as to permit future employers make the most informed decisions regarding suitability?

This reaction–the surveillance is in place, it is inevitable–is also depressingly indicative of the acceptance of an asymmetric surveillance; there is no talk of increasing employer–or chief executive–transparency to accompany this rollback of privacy safeguards. And lastly, as always there is the most appalling suggestion of all, more indicative of a civilizational  decline than anything else: when it comes to doing business, to making money, all concerned enter a morality-free zone of sorts; no imperative larger or more grand than an increase in profits need animate anyone’s actions.

Camping As Urban Escape

On Thursday and Friday I went for a short hiking and camping trip with a pair of old friends. We drove up to the Catskills–two hours north of New York City, parked at a trailhead, hoisted our backpacks on to our backs, and went for a walk. Our planning had been minimal; our destination–Table and Peekamoose Mountains–had been agreed upon only the night before; I had borrowed a tent from a friend–who kindly donated me hers after hearing me describe the pitiful moldy condition mine was in; we bought fuel for my stove and basic food shortly after we settled on our plans for the night we intended to spend out under the stars.

We didn’t get lost–small mercies; we got rained on–not all the time; we clambered up rocks–some mossy, some dry; we sat on rocky ledges; we exclaimed over inspiring views; we felt a breeze cool our sweaty brow and back; we saw no animals–disappointingly; we fought off bugs with bug spray; we purified water; we used sunscreen; we didn’t eat most of the food we brought with us; we brewed coffee using ground coffee and a stove-top brewer, sprinkling our Spartan endeavors with a touch of urban luxury; we told many lewd jokes, conforming to the stereotype of male activities in the woods; we started fires half a dozen times and failed; we finally succeeded–thanks to an overly efficient wood collection endeavor and some useful advice from a fellow camper–and happily watched flames leap up and flicker brightly in our darkened campsite; we groaned in disappointment when the rain drove our campfire’s flames ground-ward; we slept in sleeping bags on little mattresses unrolled on tent floors; we clucked a few times about the stiffness in our old bones; we fell asleep the sound of raindrops on our tent flaps, cascading down noisily from the gigantic canopies above; we awoke to the bright light of the forest dawn.

It was, in short, a typical camping trip out of the city, undertaken by spoiled city slickers.

You realize, on a camping trip, as you have so many times before, that it is both harder and easier than it looks; you are thankful the modern technology of the tent makes its pitching and packing so much easier ; you are relieved at how light your hiking boots feel. You are amazed at the length of your pre-hike packing list; you are pleasantly surprised by how little you actually need once you have put some distance between yourself and all the things you use–or think you need–on a daily basis. You realize–as you have, on every single hike you have undertaken before–that food and water taste so much better when you have been carrying a backpack around–and preferably uphill–for a little while. You realize that walking toward a destination is the most elemental of physical endeavors, the simplest to imagine and execute.

You dream of a return, again and again, to these moments, away from all that preoccupies and vexes and consumes.