Archive for December, 2013

Vitality & Rapture, a post-coda for Happiness

December 20, 2013

My little coda for the Fall ’13 rendition of Happiness (PHIL 3160, aka HAP 101) looks a little glib this morning, in light of Andrew Solomon’s riveting new TED Talk last night..

Borrowing Anglo-American wit Bill Bryson’s “three reasons never to be unhappy,” I signed off with the light reminder (more soberly expressed by Professor Dawkins, and fictively by Richard Powers’ “Miss Generosity”) that we’re lucky to have been born at all. We’re not dead yet. Lunch is free.

I do believe that, and often feel it deeply and seriously.

But not always, not effortlessly. Not everyone can, without pain and struggle, without psychiatry and psycho-pharmacology. I’m not much given to depression, but my mother was. Some of my students are. I hope they can take steps to arrive where Solomon did, with vitality and rapture restored.

The question is not so much finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It’s of seeking that meaning and deciding, when it comes again, “This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it.” I have learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, and how it can be more real than facts… The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality… each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.

Or you could call it happiness.

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A graphic evil genius

December 18, 2013

Spent some time yesterday reviewing a new philosophical graphic novel. The publisher sent me a chapter on Descartes, featuring a demonic green female “evil genius.” Is that misogynistic? No more, I suppose, than Boethius‘s Philosophia, “a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable,” or Nietzsche’s “supposing truth is a woman.” Less, in fact. But why was the demon in a bikini? Oh yeah, they want to sell some books.

Two years ago I did the Intro course on a graphic novel theme. Philosophy forBeginners was okay

And Logicomix:An Epic Search for Truth was better.

Russell (whose relationships with women arguably had their sexist aspect) later and wisely got off the Royal Road, which was always a detour to dogmatism. The “conquest of happiness” is not accomplished via total certainty. But he had to travel that road for a while, to discover that lower-case truth.
Now, I have the delicious task of cashing in my reviewer’s Honorarium: $300 worth of the publisher’s books. That won’t take long.

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December 12, 2013

I’m deep inside that dreaded heart of darkness we academics call Final Grading. 

For the next four days, with the final grade report deadline looming, I’ll predictably receive several annoying untimely interruptions in the form of student emails, asking about grades. I will ignore them, and grumble, and think dark thoughts. Or better, I’ll just pull the plug and begin an overdue Internet/email holiday.
But I  shouldn’t be thinking dark thoughts about grading, I should just be getting on with it and trying to enjoy it. It’s not really evil, it’s just dark thinking that makes it seem to be.
So, to get my head in the right space, a self-motivational repost from the vault:

Grading the harvest, 11.1.12. Grading. I always dread it, because there will always be a percentage of essays written so sloppily or slap-dash as to be literally painful and embarrassing to read. But then, when I’m actually doing it, I rediscover the other and better– not necessarily greater– percentage of thoughtful,  careful, amusing, even inspiring essays that almost redeem the whole business. Just don’t rush me.
My problem with grading ultimately is not the time-consuming process of reading and commenting on essays. That, after all, is one of the best ways I get to learn, and learning is the great boon of teaching for us all.  My problem is with the false implication that assigning a grade is the most accurate form of student assessment and evaluation. I agree with Alfie Kohn:
The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing students’ behavior rather than from test scores or grades. It comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement.

Anyway, back to it. Wendell Berry’s work poem this morning is on point.

Whatever is foreseen in joy

Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

No, of course it’s not that hard. Grading isn’t farming. But it’s true, as in farming a good day’s grading has it’s moments of stress and strain. But overall, it elevates a teacher’s sense of mission. Spiritualizes it, even. It’s our version of bringing in the sheaves.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day, and finds it good.

So, back to the field. The crop’s got to come in.

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Skimming gulls & counting words

December 6, 2013

Wednesday’s freakishly warm weather has given way to true December. Time again to borrow the wisdom of gulls.

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos. -William James

I’ve been enjoying TR’s “darkest journey” in The River of Doubt, a reality-check reminder that there’s menace lurking down at the mouth of the Amazon too. It’s not all skimming gulls. But that’s not the point here. Point is: take the damn weather with you.

Older Daughter’s neither a Gull (yet) nor an Anaconda, but a procrastinating Lynx. Her late-night tweets, entertaining though they were, remind me why I hate word counts and will never tell students precisely how long their essays should be.

It’s time for me to complain about the papers I’m writing through Twitter again. This first paper’s gotta be 1200 words. Let’s go.

WC:1159 I need 41 words. Can I just talk about how much writing this paper sucked for a bit and call it done?

 Remember that research paper rough draft? The final’s due at noon. WC: 1659/2500

 WC: 1659 I’ve been messing with the page numbers and bibliography for the past 45 minutes…

 WC: 1816 It’s a good thing I don’t have an exam tomorrow. Happy Friday all… Paper’s due in less than twelve hours.

WC: 1921 Roommate’s trying to go to sleep, but I’m just gonna sit here and type by the light of my desk lamp.  

WC: 2027 I’m thinking that I should have asked for a venti coffee rather than a grande. My eyelids are drooping. 11 hours til due. 

WC: 2152 I ain’t about this late night life. (It’s 1:30) My bed is calling my name. I’m coming bed, just let me put on my pjs. 

The other point is: stop procrastinating. But get some sleep first, hyper-caffeinated word-counted over-nighters are no fun to grade.

Yes, it’s grading time again. Not a moment too soon for that old-time gospel of cheer. Just don’t tell me how many more papers and posts and exams I’ve got to get through, I’m not doing it by the numbers. And make mine a Venti.

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Follow me

December 5, 2013

No matter how often I remind myself to heed the philosopher J. Buffett‘s wisdom about taking the weather with you, December days like yesterday – balmy, sunny, intermittently gorgeous – get me every time. It didn’t hurt that it was also the last day of classes and that my morning walk was splendid. I was awake to our parting message that, even in apocalyptic times, all the moments of life are worth living when we have goals to chase and happiness to pursue. “We are the lucky ones” really means something, on such days.

 And, a bonus: several students were actually listening this time when again I raised my sword and contradicted the writing on the wall, in our ROTC classroom (in the building named for Tennessee’s favorite racist Civil War hero). They captured the moment. Two stand out:

Thanks James, Chelsea, everyone.
And just in case anyone’s still confused about what I (speaking for my discipline) really meant to reiterate from Day #1 back in August, with that silly demonstration…
“You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all different…”

That even goes for the guy who said he doesn’t like to think about things and doesn’t intend ever to philosophize again. Especially that guy. Like it or not, friend, you’re different too. 

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Searle, Turing, Singer, Obama

December 4, 2013

More generosity

December 3, 2013

It’s the last day of class in HAP 101, I do hope someone’s bringing egg nog. If you are what you eat (see Feuerbach), then this month I’m largely yolk and albumen. But I’m aiming still for transcendence. In light of Thassa Amzwar’s experience, we’d better hope biology is not destiny. Or self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The entire human race” a massive parallel computer?Douglas Adams should get at least a footnote for that.

Julian Barnes introduces Part Three: “Myth will become reality, however skeptical we might be.” I’m skeptical of that, but note the serendipitous propinquity to yesterday’s CoPhi discussion of Joseph Campbell and his “power of myth.” If myth presages meaning, and the myth of digital technology as our salvation is swamping all other meanings, in our time, then we’d better start paying closer attention.

It’s not just religious apocalyptics who think we’re in the “end times,” we’ve heard about the end of nature and the end of history. Now it’ll be the end of human nature, if the transhumanists have their way (says the Aussie nobelist in Generosity). Are reports of our death exaggerated?

Stone has writer’s block, but if he were writing a book it would apparently be about his creeping feeling of being no longer at home in the world, in our time. Would people buy that book, in their collective wisdom (which he considers “catastrophic”)?

Evolution has designed us to notice life in the bursting present, not so much gradual change over time. That could be our undoing, unless we can catch up culturally.

The “secret of Happiness” is probably not what media reports in our story say it is.  Or rather, fulfilling that condition doesn’t tell us how to do it. My hunch is that the secret has a lot to do with learning to live lightly in the present design space nature has foisted upon us. We don’t seem much inclined to do that.

Engineered happiness is one possible “design template for the future,” but finish this book before you decide to endorse it.

Thassa,we noted, channels Richard Dawkins: “we are the lucky ones,” he said.

And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn
No one should be anything but dead.
Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, but like the rest of us she’ll have a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

All writing is re-rewriting, Stone & Powers & Kurton keep saying. In the past that’s always slowed us down and made us think. But if we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up and change us faster than we can think about. That’s the promise and peril of genomics. Stopping the world may not be an option, nor thinking before we change. 

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the ”witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Another scary thought. 

But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too, and there’s nothing new about that. Yesterday’s pop is today’s classic rock. We’re an adaptive species, we’re easily sold on the new and sentimentally forgetful of the old. What’s new from the genomicists and synthetic biologists?

“So medicine keeps getting more complicated. I see the revenue potential there, down the line. But you can’t run a business without products. What exactly are you selling?”

Is he telling us he’s found the happiness gene? No. Yes. Maybe… maybe you could market it that way.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. Consider that, in connection with the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m all for collaboration, within appropriate bounds, but I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?” You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but my answer is: the story we’re living at this very moment continues with us. Where it all ends is (for us) the great mystery.

The end of “Generosity” (the novel) is good, if inconclusive and unconventional, because we’re all still writing the next chapter. “…[W]hat we will be is ever beyond us.” So the story continues. Meanwhile, Iike our narrator I can still say (at least on a good day) : “I have no choice, delight pours out of me.” Hope you all can, too. The Atlas has not yet gone dark. Happiness is still among our possibilities.

So my parting words, for now: be generous, give all to the present, dream of happy futures.

Cue the symphony.

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Foot, Thomson, Rawls, Moyers, Campbell

December 2, 2013