Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminist Jurisprudence In The Classroom

Next week, students in my Philosophy of Law class will read and discuss Catharine MacKinnon‘s ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence‘  (Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 635-658). MacKinnon’s writings have featured once before on my reading lists–for my graduate ‘Nature of Law’ seminar at the City University Graduate Center in 2015. She is always a teaching challenge: she is provocative, invariably evoking strong reactions from her readers, and often, a dense read. No matter what the class’ reaction to the assigned reading as students read it on their own, I’m reasonably hopeful that passages like the following will provoke discussion when we gather in the classroom:

Feminism does not begin with the premise that it is unpremised. It does not aspire to persuade an unpremised audience because there is no such audience. Its project is to uncover and claim as  valid the experience of women, the major content of which is the devalidation of women’s experience.

This defines our task not only because male dominance is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history, but because it is metaphysically nearly perfect. Its point of view is the standard for point-of-viewlessness, its particularity the meaning of universality. Its force is exercised as consent, its authority as participation, its supremacy as the paradigm of order, its  control as the definition of legitimacy. Feminism claims the voice of women’s silence, the sexuality of our eroticized desexualization, the fullness of “lack,” the centrality of our marginality and exclusion, the public nature of privacy, the presence of our absence. This approach is more complex than transgression, more transformative than transvaluation, deeper than mirror-imaged resistance, more affirmative than the negation of our negativity. It is neither materialist nor idealist; it is feminist. Neither the transcendence of liberalism nor the determination of materialism works for us. Idealism is too unreal; women’s inequality is enforced, so it cannot simply be thought out of existence, certainly not by us. Materialism is too real; women’s inequality has never not existed, so women’s equality never has. That is, the equality of women to men will not be scientifically provable until it is no longer necessary to do so. Women’s situation offers no outside to stand on or gaze at, no inside to escape to, too much urgency to wait, no place else to go, and nothing to use but the twisted tools that have been shoved down our throats. If feminism is revolutionary, this is why.

I hope to write here next week on the how the classroom discussion went.

‘Prison Literature: Constraints And Creativity’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay, ‘Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity,’ is up at Three Quarks Daily.  Here is an introduction/abstract:

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll attributes “great sociological and psychological insight” to Hegel in ascribing to him the insight that “the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration” and that “where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought.”

In my essay I claim that the perspicuity of this “insight” of Hegel is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance–is populated with luminaries–Boethius, Bunyan, De Sade, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jean Genet etc. Here, constraint is conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate is the prompt to the unlocking of another. For the prison writer, confinement may produce a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not appropriately directed toward alternative artistic expression it can become pathologically repressed instead (as the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals indicated.)

For the prison writer, freedom has changed from being a purely practical affair to one grounded in the act of writing. I explore this stance of the prison writer, its resonances with the perennial struggles of all writers, everywhere, and the truth of the claim–to which Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism and the Orwell of 1984 resonate–that those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for oppressors: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality. I explore this via a consideration of the relationship between repression and creativity–a general one, and the  more specific variant to be found in Nietzsche and Freud.

The Books We Own And Will Never Read

Let’s get real, be honest, face the facts: There are some books on my shelves I will never read. The reasons for this are manifold: the contents of the shelves are not static, as I keep adding to them; my shelves are disorganized, which means that many books escape detection as I inspect the shelves looking for the next book to take on; my tastes in reading have changed, leading me to steadfastly ignore an older acquisition–it just does not catch my attention; some books have not rewarded my reading attempts in the past and have been put back, perhaps to be visited again someday–but we both suspect that encounter will not happen; and lastly, most grimly, most cosmically, time is running out–given rates of acquisition, my physical and intellectual capacities, my waking hours, my many other commitments, some tasks will remain incomplete in this life, as they do in all others. Among them the reading of books we thought we would read some day.

I may have presented this as a ‘problem’ in the opening lines above, but it really isn’t. Every owner of books knows this; you buy books not just to read them but because, quite simply, books are artifacts we like to keep close by, to offer reassurance of all kinds. They are talismans, security blankets, good-luck charms, mirrors of ourselves, souls in the bodies of our lives; call them what you will, they aren’t just objects to be opened and ‘consumed’ and ‘exhausted’; not every fruitful and significant relationship with an object requires us to integrate it fully or even partially into ourselves. When we go to a museum and look at a work of art, we do not bring it home with us, we do not seek to own it; it is enough for us that we were able to experience it in some way, no matter how attenuated. When we go into the outdoors, we do not bring home the proverbial bubbling brook or dale, except by way of photographic reproduction. Our lives brought us together with these; they will take us apart. We will have had some measure of that which we saw and felt and tasted and touched; some, perhaps not all.

Books are meant to be read, of course. And an archetypal mode of pretension in our world is a kind of shallow display, a pointing in a direction we will never go. Books can play that function for those who deploy them as such; you might be able to signal erudition of a socially valuable kind by your book ownership. We should tolerate such pretension; there are worse things to be inauthentic about, and if the outcome is a room full of books for us to look at, admire, and browse through, then so be it.

My ownership of books I will never read is made easier by being a parent; I reassure myself periodically that I’m putting together an inheritance for my daughter. In a life marked by tiny failures at every step, this is one to be proud of.


Drexel University Bans Professor From Campus, Gives Alt-Right An Early Christmas Gift

I’ve signed and shared a statement of solidarity supporting George Cicciariello-Maher of Drexel University who has been placed on administrative leave by his employer, Drexel University. That statement begins as follows:

On October 9, 2017, Drexel University administrators sent a letter to Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher informing him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. The reason, they stated, was based on considering professor Ciccariello-Maher’s presence on campus a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community and to himself, after he received a number of death threats against him and his family. The threats followed Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s postings on Twitter about the shooting in Las Vegas. Prof. Ciccariello-Maher sought to answer the question: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? by tweeting “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid.” The tweets unleashed the series of threats against him and his family, to which Drexel University answered by placing Professor Ciccariello-Maher on leave.

Drexel University has, by this spineless display of capitulation, sent an early Christmas gift to white supremacists and others of their ilk by providing them a blueprint for how they can silence those who might speak up against them: all you need to do is make a few death threats and the university will obligingly prevent the professor from teaching or even being present on campus. Ciccariello-Maher’s students have been denied their time in their classroom with their professor; and the alt-right can now turn its eyes elsewhere, looking for the next ‘loudmouth’ to silence. The tactical and strategic stupidity of their actions does not seem to bear too heavily on Drexel University; for now, they can hide behind the screen of ‘public safety.’ But such excuses will not wash, of course; Drexel has sought to silence Ciccariello-Maher previously as well.

A couple of weeks ago, I made notice here of a libelous postering campaign directed at Brooklyn College’s student and faculty, which accused me of being a ‘terrorist supporter.’ The college and university administration’s response has been tepid at best. (Our chancellor’s response descended into utter banality as he merely took note of some ‘troubling posters.’) These responses seem to be driven by the worry that responding in stronger terms will stir up a hornet’s nest, provoking more unwelcome attention. What they fail to realize is that the hornets are astir already, and will not be deterred by such pablum. They will especially not be deterred if universities cower and do their dirty work for them by banning and silencing those who have provoked this attention from the right.

It should be noted that Ciccariello-Maher does not have a First Amendment defense against his private employer; he is more vulnerable than those employed by public institutions (like me.) No matter how much you might disagree with his chosen rhetorical style or content, the fact remains that a dangerous precedent has been set, thanks to an astonishing capitulation in a political atmosphere that demands the very opposite of the actions chosen by Drexel University. Drexel should immediately reconsider and reinstate Ciccariello-Maher. (If you are an academic, please sign and share the statement of solidarity linked to above.)

#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

Blade Runner 2049: Our Slaves Will Set Us Free

Blade Runner 2049 is a provocative visual and aural treat. It sparked many thoughts, two of which I make note of here; the relationship between the two should be apparent.

  1. What is the research project called ‘artificial intelligence’ trying to do? Is it trying to make machines that can do the things which, if done by humans, would be said to require intelligence? Regardless of the particular implementation? Is it trying to accomplish those tasks in the way that human beings do them? Or is it trying to find a non-biological method of reproducing human beings? These are three very different tasks. The first one is a purely engineering task; the machine must accomplish the task regardless of the method–any route to the solution will do, so long as it is tractable and efficient. The second is cognitive science, inspired by Giambattista Vico; “the true and the made are convertible” (Verum et factum convertuntur) or “the true is precisely what is made” (Verum esse ipsum factum); we will only understand the mind, and possess a ‘true’ model of it when we make it. The third is more curious (and related to the second)–it immediately implicates us in the task of making artificial persons. Perhaps by figuring out how the brain works, we can mimic human cognition but this capacity might be  placed in a non-human form made of silicon or plastic or some metal; the artificial persons project insists on a human form–the android or humanoid robot–and on replicating uniquely human capacities including the moral and aesthetic ones. This would require the original cognitive science project to be extended to an all-encompassing project of understanding human physiology so that its bodily functions can be replicated. Which immediately raises the question: why make artificial persons? We have a perfectly good way of making human replicants; and many people actually enjoy engaging in this process. So why make artificial persons this way? If the answer is to increase our knowledge of human beings’ workings, then we might well ask: To what end? To cure incurable diseases? To make us happier? To release us from biological prisons so that we may, in some singularity inspired fantasy, migrate our souls to these more durable containers? Or do we need them to be in human form, so that they can realistically–in all the right ways–fulfill all the functions we will require them to perform. For instance, as in Westworld, they could be our sex slaves, or as in Blade Runner, they could perform dangerous and onerous tasks that human beings are unwilling or unable to do. And, of course, prop up ecologically unstable civilizations like ours.
  2. It is a philosophical commonplace–well, at least to Goethe and Nietzsche, among others–that constraint is necessary for freedom; we cannot be free unless we are restrained, somehow, by law and rule and regulation and artifice. But is it necessary that we ourselves be restrained in order to be free? The Greeks figured out that the slave could be enslaved, lose his freedom, and through this loss, his owner, his master, could be free; as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Human Condition the work of the slaves–barbarians and women–does ‘labor’ for the owner, keeping the owner alive, taking care of his biological necessity, and freeing him up to go to the polis and do politics in a state of freedom, in the company of other property-owning householders like him. So: the slave is necessary for freedom; either we enslave ourselves, suppress our appetites and desires and drives and sublimate and channel them into the ‘right’ outlets, or we enslave someone else. (Freud noted glumly in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization enslaves our desires.) If we cannot enslave humans, with all their capricious desires to be free, then we can enslave other creatures, perhaps animals, domesticating them to turn them into companions and food. And if we ever become technologically adept at reproducing those processes that produce humans or persons, we can make copies–replicants–of ourselves, artificial persons, that mimic us in all the right ways, and keep us free. These slaves, by being slaves, make us free.

Much more on Blade Runner 2049 anon.