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.

Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness, And Its Many Visions

Jose Saramago‘s Blindness is a very funny and a very sad book. It is a very sad book because it is about a cataclysmic event–an outbreak of blindness in an unspecified place and time–and the breakdown of social and moral order that follows; it is very funny because this apocalypse of sorts provides an opportunity for the novel’s author–an omnipresent narrator–to deliver an ironic, caustic, hilariously satirical black commentary on the people–unnamed ones, all of them–and the culture affected by this mysterious outbreak.

This co-existence of the tragic and the comic is what makes Blindness into a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Of course, any novel about catastrophic, apocalyptic blindness, written by a member of a species whose overpowering sensory modality is sight, which so casually dabbles in homilies like ‘seeing is believing’, whose metaphors for ignorance speak of darkness and for knowledge as illumination, and one of whose central philosophical allegories is that of the Prisoners in the Cave, was bound to be philosophically provocative. We, the readers, wonder about the symbolic and allegoric value of the novel’s characters being ‘blinded by the light’, the significance of their blindness leading to a world of overpowering milky white as opposed to coal-black, the relationship between moral, physical and spiritual blindness, about what may be ‘seen’ by those now blind, and what those who are not blind can no longer ‘see’, about what else, in a world no longer visible, becomes palpable and sensed and otherwise experienced. We wonder too, as readers, about our own blindness: what we might be blind to in the book and in our daily lives. (My first class meeting on Blindness  was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of these issues and how the vehicle of blindness played into the author’s larger political, ethical, and artistic vision; oops, can’t stop dealing in these metaphors.)

In Blindness, there is ample description of the breakdown of social order that results from the epidemic of blindness, ample opportunity to shake one’s head at the venality of man that becomes visible in desperate times–there is violence, filth, murder, sexual degradation. What makes these treatments of the aftermath of disaster distinctive is that Saramago’s treatment is both kind and harsh: we sense an observer of the human condition whose heart breaks for the misery he can see around him, who feels the most exalted of human emotions, love, for those who suffer, and who yet, in moments of exasperation, cannot resist a cackle or two at the stupidity, crassness, and greed of the human race. But if the author is a cynic, one bursting to the seams with irony and witticism, then he didn’t start out that way. This world and its peoples made him so. The disaster that has befallen them is not a punishment; it is not a judgment; it is merely an inexplicable event, like the ones this world specializes in, one that has produced this opportunity to carefully study, in some painful and revealing detail, the imperfect reactions of a kind of creature who is always, at the best of times, fumbling in the dark.

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.