Archive for August, 2010

graphic philosophy

August 31, 2010

Another Opening Day for Intro to Philosophy, another journey of enlightenment before what we hope will be a soft and not-yet-terminal landing. (That was the whale’s wish, too.)

Today is mainly for introducing all the ladies and Bruces [orig.], and clarifying what is and isn’t within the bounds of acceptable philosophical argument. Welcome to philosophy.

I like to try new things in Intro. In addition to the usual textual guides- Passion for Wisdom, Consolations of Philosophy (reviews)we’ll add Doubt: A History as a recommended supplement. Philosophy may begin in wonder but it sustains itself on intelligent skepticism.

And, this time we’re going visual with some high-toned graphic novels. OK, comic books. Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth, and Philosophy for Beginners.

I attended a symposium in August where someone presented a (fun) paper on “Putting the Fun Back in Philosophy.” It’s almost always fun for me, but this should be fun for the class of ’14 too.

And just wait ’til midterm, when we’ll have some fun with pop culture [& more]. In sum, We’ll tolerate no stuck-up sticky-beaks here.

To those of my colleagues who may be scandalized by this approach: you’re no fun at all! .

“Future” begins

August 30, 2010

I have to say it at least once: The future is now.

The “Future of Life” course, that is. It starts today. Trying to get a jump-start, I’ve emailed students (though Beloit says the “1st Yrs,” the Class of 2014— born in 1992!– don’t really do email anymore) and asked them to begin pondering a statement from William James in his Pragmatism, at the end of his third lecture:

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in ‘the seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultra-rationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity. Gutenberg etext

I’ve asked my still-future students (or the ones who still read email, anyhow): Do you agree with James? Wherein lies the “vitality,” for you? Or is the future a black box any normally-constituted human should expect to have difficulty imagining or caring about? What would it mean, really to care about it? How would, or how does, caring impact your choices and actions?

That’s part of what our course will be about. “Future” and “life” both sprawl in an almost untameable way, of course, so we’ll have plenty of parsing to do as we go along. That means even more basic, orienting questions: Is the future all about me, or about us, at all? Or is it all about successors to whom our relation is murky? Should we consider our main obligation to be to ourselves as individuals, to our (contingent) historical epoch, to our wider communities, our DNA, the species, the planet, the carboniferous form of life, or— as the late Carl Sagan said– to the very cosmos, “ancient and vast” and ongoing, itself?

So many questions. We’ll begin looking for answers with a nod to Dan Dennett, who pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of generations of people who cared about us while knowing they’d never meet us, and with a forward-looking glance backward from 19th century futurist Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward“). How easy it is to get details wrong, but how exciting to dream of real progress in subduing the inherited scourges– including economic and political as well as biological plagues– of the past.

Then, Sagan’s calendar and the Long Now Foundation’s clock (“now“),’s “Third Culture” crowd, Jaron Lanier, Bill McKibben, Richard Powers,  maybe E.O. Wilson and Aubrey de Grey too.

So many possibilities, in the great open-ended pluralistic universe. I talked about some of them on the radio back in the Spring, when the future seemed so far off.

But first, it being the first day, we’ll introduce ourselves. I’m tired of being “Dr. Phil,” maybe I’ll pass along Older Daughter’s suggestion that, in this class at least, I become “Phil of the future.”

together again

August 28, 2010

The “entire faculty” did not show up for our Fall Faculty meeting  yesterday morning, not even close.

But those of us who did, and who endured all the disingenuous platitudes about “this great institution” and our “wonderful university” etc., ad nauseum, were finally treated to a couple of moments I, at least, found to be well worth waiting for.

First, the President shared a quote from the Sultan of Swat about the value of teamwork. It doesn’t matter how many stars are on your roster, the Babe once sagely (allegedly) observed, they won’t succeed if they don’t play well together.

I loved the cornball oddity of our leader’s appeal to a hall full of Ph.D’s with deep insight from an undereducated old athlete. (This on the heels of reassuring us that our Blue Raiders are scholar-athletes all.) But of course it happens to be true, no matter who did or didn’t say it.

Then, the real highlight: the annual award to a distinguished elder statesman of our tribe, for a lifetime of service and scholarship. This year it went to a chemistry professor-emeritus who became very emotional recalling 9.11.01, when he found himself in Hiroshima, Japan at an academic conference attended primarily by Japanese, German, and Russian scholars. The clear message, once again: it is crucial, and very possible, for us all to work together– that word again. Hiroshima has rebounded and is today a beautiful modern city, he said, showing how resilient humans can be. Not a natural admission for a Scandinavian like himself, he said, but born out in his long experience.

There was also a very nice tribute from the President to Dean McDaniel, who probably knew more about getting disparate egos to pull effectively together than any of us. His absence was keenly felt in the hall, in the deficit of intelligent wit and humanity we always counted on him to plug.

So, the team still on the field is just going to have to suck it up and leave it all out there.

If that’s not enough sports metaphor for you, tomorrow’s convocation speaker is the author of Outcasts United, about a diverse soccer team of refugees in a small Georgia town learning to play well together. Teamwork and resilience. Got it?

I hope a few of us will make the effort to be there. 90% of success– or is it 110?– is just showing up. Which, presumably, we’ll all do whether we feel like being there or not, on Monday. Opening Day, finally.


August 27, 2010

Another preliminary step this morning, on the way to the 2010-2011 season opener on Monday: the Fall Faculty Meeting. It’s one of the very rare times when the entire faculty and executive administration of the university can reasonably be expected to gather under the same roof, for two hours of forced inspiration and motivation.

You certainly can’t expect to find us all there for convocation or commencement. Regrettably we’ve let ourselves learn to approach those occasions as rotating chores, not welcome festivities heralding another chapter in the great book of life’s progressive release from indentured ignorance.

Two long hours. The highlight of this event, for me, was always our Dean’s introduction of the new Liberal Arts faculty. He always sprinkled the occasion with his distinctive wit and erudition, and was often the only person on stage who seemed genuinely to be enjoying himself.

Dean McDaniel left us in May. Today’s gathering will feel longer and more pro forma than it has before. I’m sure he’d meet my complaint, though, with something from the bard reminding us all not to squander our own brief moments on stage while our candles still shine.

And I think he’d agree with our new Provost: we’re fortunate to be here, at this school, at this time.


August 26, 2010

Last year my university was preoccupied with proposals for substantial reorganization. Month after month, the faculty Senate discussed and debated and fretted about what it might mean to us, to students, to the institution’s health and credibility. We were never clear on the purpose of the undertaking. It felt a lot like re-arranging deck chairs at a time when budget slashes threatened to sink the whole enterprise of higher education in our state, for those of us who don’t wear orange. It felt like a diversionary, irrelevant sideshow to keep us on the sidelines while other players made off with our funds.

At year’s end, nothing changed. My department’s still afloat, we’re still as un-reorganized as ever. And at the Senate retreat yesterday when the President asked for questions nobody asked: what was that all about. It seems we’ve all moved on.

The old adage is really right: most of the things we worry about never materialize.

The new provost’s hopeful statement yesterday was really right, too: all this turmoil and trouble shall pass. Meanwhile he commiserated, noting that sweeping talk of restructuring can bring needless demoralization and stress. He announced a “drop in” policy, said his office door would stand open to us all, and promised to be our “conduit” for more effective advocacy in the teeth of unreasonable top-down demands from our overseers. He’s going to be busy.

There was much talk at our retreat of how our school can “market its distinctiveness” and stand out from all the other schools in our state. At the moment, I’m more interested in marketing my own distinctiveness and helping my students discover theirs.

In other words: I’m ready for classes to begin.

holy grail

August 25, 2010

Very interesting “Fresh Air” interview yesterday:

The constant stream of information we get through mobile and hand-held devices is changing the way we think. Matt Richtel, a technology writer for The New York Times explains how the use of digital technology is altering our brains — and how retreating into nature may reverse the effects.

Richtel’s latest Times piece on this topic caught my eye while I was traveling last week, in particular this buried line from a psych professor who joined colleagues on a digital-free holiday to “study what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected”:

Attention is the holy grail.”

I read it on my iPod.

narrative and identity

August 24, 2010

Back to the question about storytelling in our time…

What do we stand to gain and lose, specifically in terms of our personal and collective “identity,” through the incessant spinning of all these public “narratives”?

I was wondering about Julia Sweeney’s decision to stop telling stories in public, for fear of warping the private relationships in her life with daughter, husband, and perhaps herself. Not unreasonable fears, in the digital age.

So many of us have gone public now, casually hitting the “publish” button almost daily, sharing personal information with “friends” we’ve never met, impulsively tweeting our unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

What would Socrates say? Is this the examined life? Or is it cave painting and shadow puppetry? Do we know ourselves better than ever, or have we become shallow image-makers? Are we really connecting with one another, and deepening our relationships? Or are we cutting ourselves off from genuine reality and disbanding the ties that bind?

When a brilliant pro like Sweeney, whose stories almost always transcend the personal while still striking her listeners in a way that feels intimate and direct– becomes doubtful of the value and impact of public narrative, the rest of us ought to take notice. The philosophers who will meet next March in her hometown to talk about “narrative and identity” certainly should.

One relevant consensus amongst my colleagues emerged and caught my attention, at the Symposium up east: philosophers  in the pragmatic pluralist grain must learn to be good listeners. A story worth telling is worth hearing. The best narratives are not merely internal monologues, they’re to be shared.

That’s why William James’s best essays (in his own estimation) were those in which the words of other persons outnumbered his own. There are so many stories yet untold, so many voices are required for a harmonious chorus. We must all sing our songs.

Fortunately, Julia’s are already recorded.

time’s up

August 23, 2010

No time for leisured reflections this morning, or possibly this week – papers to write, classes to prepare, Senate retreats to retreat to, convocations to convene at…

Summer 2010, I’ll always remember you fondly.



August 21, 2010

Revisited a couple of August rituals yesterday, after coming down from Lea’s Summit.

The annual auto tag renewal chore was one. It was the usual scene, at the County Clerk’s branch office in Green Hills: a long line of bored people waiting to shell out too much for the privilege of risking life and sanity on these metropolitan by-ways.

The clerk’s office is in Grace’s Plaza, just off the beautiful atrium and across from the former independent bookseller where I labored happily during one of the many self-imposed sabbaticals of my gradual school days two decades ago. There’s still a Davis-Kidd, a couple of stone’s throws away. In the mall. It’s not what it was, not the special place where I met good friends, and my wife, and gradually learned that while I didn’t much like being in grad school (“ABD”) I also didn’t like the thought of a lifetime spent retailing books (pleasant as that could be) but not really engaging them deeply.

But I always liked being in that space, when it was a world-class bookstore back before anyone ever heard of digitized e-reading. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but again, it’s not the same.) The atrium included seating for the Second Story Cafe, where I fondly recall many espresso-and-brownie breaks and “important meetings.” It was a place for civilized conversation and rumination and imagination, and now it fills me with longing and regret and remembrance of temps perdu.

Now it’s a bank, and a restaurant whose namesake was my mother’s regrettable second husband. You can’t get a good madeleine cake, or a Mr. Cookie Bar, there anymore. I can’t, anyway.

But, back to the clerk’s line. What was noticeably different about it this time was, at least half the tag renewers in the queue were occupying themselves with personal devices. The other half were starting into space or at the floor. So far as I could tell, no one was looking at the monitor mounted on the wall behind the clerks’ desk showing Puccini’s La Boheme. And no one was conversing with anyone.

A sign of the times.

The other August ritual, last night: the annual Middle School play. (A cute and, as always, colorful and earnest rendition, this time of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.”)  For the first time since Older Daughter entered 5th grade, many years ago, our family was unrepresented on stage. We were all in the audience. And for the first time in all those years, we were unaccompanied this year by at least one grandparent.

A sign of the times of our lives. And a milestone, as time goes by.

Iceland redux

August 20, 2010

Lovely mild and foggy morning, after a restless night. Meant to be here earlier for it. I’m trying to re-set the biological clock, to get myself up and going even earlier to reclaim this time of day before getting sucked into the perpetual school-day whirl. Also trying to heed Randy Pausch’s time management wisdom about not dragging around a sleep deficit, the great time killer.

So when the iPod sounded at 5 I just couldn’t spring eagerly into the pre-dawn dark, this time. Eric Weiner’s wonderful Geography of Bliss was playing, and I lingered to tempt myself again with the improbable seduction of a charmed life in Iceland. Really.

One of the Icelanders was making a lot of sense, to my sleep-deprived waking state of semi-consciousness, talking about how our restrictive imaginations rule out possibilities whose pursuit would likely raise the rate of “flow” in our lives.  We limit ourselves to a single identity, when we could all be leading many successive lives. When Americans think about going somewhere, he said, they think of places like North Carolina or North Dakota. (Yeah, North Dakota: where college professors get free iPads.) They don’t think of Reykjavik.

Well, today I’m thinking of it. I’ll think of it again, later, in commuter traffic. I’ll also think of the possibilities inherent in really committing to a place like home.