Category Archives: Read it on ALDaily

Pretty Funny Bit

Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way!

There’s not much to say about this aside from it’s really funny.

I moved to Sedona, Arizona, and once again began to focus on my own creative work. Easing back into my own true nature, I had sketched out a temporary title for my novel and had settled on an author photo when I decided to take a break and explore this newfangled thing they called the Internet.

What a revelation! Everywhere on the web I found writers expressing themselves.

I was swept up in the exhilaration. I ran multiple WordPress blogs. I dashed off rants about the New York City book publishing world, sharing them on Scribd as downloadable PDFs. My “What I Ate for Lunch” Tumblr photoblog earned consistently high rankings on Technorati. Fame came to me as well as one of the most prolific photo commenters at Flickr.

But after a year of madness and intoxication I took an honest look at myself. I took an honest look around me. And I didn’t like what I saw.

There was too much writing. And it was everywhere. It was time for me to help writers everywhere find some balance. That’s when I developed:

THE POLLY FROST BOOT CAMP FOR SHUTTING YOU UP!

The seminar lists are pretty phenomenal.

Of course, I know full well about the legions of abandoned blogs out there, and I have to claim three or four of them myself.  As it turns out, writing is work, no matter how many fun toys go into it.  But the bit is funny nonetheless.

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Horowitz at the MLA

Impasse at MLA

Folks who have read my material over at the Conservative Reformed Mafia know that I agreed to participate in an experiment with J. Wizzle (a screen name, of course) in which we both reviewed David Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, he from the perspective of an undergraduate student and I from the perspective of a non-tenured university teacher.  I went in trying to be as open-minded as I could be about Horowitz’s project, but ultimately I found too many contradictions inherent in his philosophy to take him seriously.

I just read that Horowitz was invited to the MLA a couple weeks ago for a panel and that, predictably, the people whose careers he seems bent on ending didn’t receive him entirely enthusiastically.  Not any less predictably, the meeting was not entirely productive:

Mr. Horowitz may have a point about the absence of real discussion, since the two camps seemed to talk past each other. He and Mr. Bauerlein each criticized the professoriate for not acknowledging real problems in the classroom or the ways identity politics can infringe on academic freedom. “The danger to academic freedom comes from within, not from David Horowitz, Anne Neal, or Stephen Balch,” said Mr. Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University. In their remarks, Mr. Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ms. Cantú, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, did not respond to the supposed problems described by the other panelists; instead they offered defenses of academic freedom as essential for higher education, especially as rising numbers of adjunct faculty members lack customary protections.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in colleges where Horowitz hasn’t been much of a presence (though he’s made overtures to UGA’s College Republicans and indicated a willingness to bring his show to Athens).  I do, however, feel his influence, making doubly sure any time that students might misunderstand me to cover my backside and emphasize that I’ve said nothing directly disparaging the GOP or any of its affiliates.  (I know that shouldn’t be a problem for one who teaches Plato and Beowulf, but that’s how pervasive this nonsense is becoming.)  Despite his claims that he wants to take “politics” out of the classroom, in fact he has made quite clear to those of us who aren’t superstars in our institutions that he and his organization can make us more trouble than we’re worth to our schools, ruining our careers, if we dare to bring our fields of knowledge to bear on anything that the students don’t particularly like.

I was also saddened but not entirely surprised to see that Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation (which I reviewed here), was Horowitz’s fellow panel member and attack dog.  I should note his criticism of me, because he says unequivocally that I’m the problem, not Horowitz.  So here’s his quote from the Chronicle piece, responding to accusations that Horowitz deliberately misrepresents the professors he targets:

That kind of rhetoric may have been what Mr. Bauerlein had in mind when he said that certain professors on the left deny to Mr. Horowitz and other critics “any decent or honest motive. They don’t grant them the impulse to care about young minds and the curriculum. They cast them as partisan hacks, and that’s wrong.”

Indeed, I haven’t seen anything from Horowitz to convince me that he’s got any kind of honest motives.  I don’t think he cares about the students.  I think he is a hack.  So I suppose I’m one fo those “leftist” professors, meaning apparently that I’m not impressed with Horowitz.

Given that Bauerlein’s recent book (see the link above for a rather positive review) argues that professors should reassert themselves as teachers of wisdom and resist consumerism’s encroachments into the academy, I think that his backing Horowitz goes beyond the absurd and into the unintelligible.  After all, to put outside pressure on the teachers, to let them know that exploring the wrong topics will end their careers, is to put the students’ basest desires in the driver’s seat.  If a professor stays on the script that the consumer-students want, great.  If not, if the teacher decides to challenge some preconceptions or point out contradictions or do the sorts of things that teachers ought to be doing, then it’s curtains.  The result is that the consumer-students get precisely what they want, which may or may not be anything resembling education.

Of course, I realize that teachers’ drinking hemlock is nothing especially new, and I realize as well that teachers who criticize the powerful of the assembly are the ones most likely to drink it.  I just wish that people could be honest enough to call Horowitz the anti-intellectual that he is.

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Anthropology’s Big Fight

The Great Divide

I’m not an anthropologist and have had reservations, about which I’ve written here, about anthropology as a discipline.  That said, this little essay is making me realize that what I’m concerned about might reflect a division among anthropologists about what the discipline itself is about.  Discussing the rise of evolutionary anthropology, Tim Ingold, chair of Anthropology at Aberdeen, notes a flavor of discourse that I find quite familiar:

“They seem to be stuck on a very rigid form of argument, and it’s one which they’re not prepared to question. They already assume they have the correct answer. It’s extremely frustrating. They’re not prepared to accept any kind of criticism from people on the social side,” Ingold says. “From where I sit, the biggest obstacle to satisfactory integration in this way is this dogmatic adherence to a fairly orthodox neo-Darwinian paradigm.

I’ve wondered, in this blog and elsewhere, whether philosophical debates between materialism and its alternatives might be the root of the so-called evolution/ID debates, and now I see that a similar and similarly unnamed dispute over metaphysics might be at play in the social sciences.  Perhaps surprisingly to those who consider “evolution” to be the intellectual territory of “liberals” (but of no surprise to people who are familiar with the history of the controversy), a common worry about the rise and belligerence of evolutionary anthropology has to do with its affinity for right-wing ideologies:

The Royal Anthropological Institute is at the vanguard of a new unity within the discipline. Hilary Callan, the institute’s director, says the charity exists to represent the interests of all anthropologists. As such it has inevitably faced its critics.

“The discipline has suffered from the progressive divergence between the sub-disciplines. There has been a tendency for the biological end to be associated with the political right and the sociocultural with the political left. I would not support that polarisation. I think it’s a false one,” she explains.

“We are positioned as an institution that’s representative of all of the subdisciplines. There have been debates about whether there has been over-representation of the interests of social anthropology at the expense of biological and evolutionary anthropology.”

But Callan is optimistic, and such criticisms have not deterred the institute from its aim of getting biological and social anthropologists talking to each other. The institute is hosting lectures with a focus on all disciplines bringing the two forks together – psychology and behaviour; nature and culture; Darwinism and religion.

Once again, as someone who tends to land on the cultural/social/Aristotelian end of things, I tend to think that strong materialism and other reductionistic theories tend to be inadequate to actual human experience of the world, but I can already hear the counter-claim that I’m a superstitious twit.  The more and more of this stuff that I encounter the more I’m convinced that Milbank’s final argument in Theology and Social Theory holds some water.  He finishes that bombshell of a book by arguing that in cases of incommensurable philosophies’ encountering one another, what ultimately wins out is not intellectual rigor (after all, any closed system will increase in rigor over time) but aesthetics.

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Marketing Western Civilization

Learning for Everyone

Not a profound essay, but an interesting bit of American popular history.  I knew that the Great Books movement started in the early twentieth century at Columbia and Chicago, but I never knew about its appeal outside of universities:

The Great Books craze began in the early 1940s in Chicago, expanding from Hutchins’s university to an evening seminar in the Loop for the city’s movers and shakers. It then caught on with other intellectually (or socially) hungry adults in the city and state — 5,000 by 1946 — and spread to Cleveland and other Midwestern cities. In 1947, Hutchins and Adler launched the Great Books Foundation, which, using low-cost paperbacks of the classics, spread the gospel outside the Midwest.

Four years later, Mr. Beam reports, there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, chamber of commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases, and, yes, in prisons.” By 1961, when the marketing push for Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” was in high gear, about 47,000 Americans were enrolled in Great Books discussion groups.

Such a phenomenon fascinates me mainly because as someone who believes in intellectual development in churches, I couldn’t imagine assigning homework from the Bible to most Sunday school classes I’ve taught, much less getting a group together to read Aristotle.  I have been a part of a few groups, all church-related, that read novels and Christian books together (the sorts that fall somewhere between the Christian Inspiration section at Barnes and Noble and the theology catalog at Cambridge University Press, intellectually speaking), but in almost all of those cases the hectic paces of our lives devoured them.  I sometimes blame myself for lacking the leader’s personality that could sustain such a group, but I know full well that’s generally not my role in the world.

At any rate, since it is a WSJ piece, there is a brief stab at the modern university, and it goes something like this:

Given what has happened to the study of the humanities in the past two decades — with theory and politics playing a larger role and fewer people reading the traditional canon — it is hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for Great Books earnestness. In academe, there is only what might be regarded as a saving remnant: “Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began” — around the time of World War I, long before the mania erupted in Chicago — “still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates,” Mr. Beam notes. “Tiny St. John’s College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do.”

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John’s in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John’s sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. “She told me they were studying Rhetoric,” Ms. Rothenberg said, “and they would be watching episodes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?”

I have to admit that I share some of this snobbishness–I did pat myself on the back, knowing that of the roughly two hundred forty freshman comp students I’ve taught at UGA over the last three years, not one has escaped without some knowledge (even if it is the knowledge of stuff they should have read but didn’t) of Plato, Boethius, Job, Genesis, or the Psalms in modern translation.  A goodly number of my students, those who did both semesters of my “Apostle Paul Sequence,” have spent two long semesters learning to write while wrestling with some of the Adler list.  I know that some theorists would say that division between “Great Books” and other texts is crass Marxist superstructure, coded markers for social class.  Certainly there’s some merit to that critique, but I also know that while my students spend about twenty bucks to buy their copies of Plato and Boethius, the kids down the hall doing pop culture reviews paid sixty for their anthologies.  My curriculum might have encoded class markers, but theirs costs more at the bookstore.

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I Want to Be This Sort of Professor

The Thinker

I ran into this little piece on ALDaily, and it reminded me once more that what I’m doing, if I stick to doing it, is a worthwhile way to spend what years I’ve got left breathing air.  The best thing about this report is the end, in which Kelly Jolley, the philosophy professor in question, reveals that he’s far more of a Platonist than this amateur teacher of Plato could ever imagine becoming:

Perhaps the dispute between Jolley and his critics boils down to how you define great teachers. You typically think about them as being devoted, above all, to their students. Jolley says his first priority is to philosophy itself. “I care about the discipline of philosophy more than the academic fate of any individual student — and I think I should,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into syllogism.”

At first, I thought, “Wow!  That’s great!”  Then I realized that I’m not sure I agree with it.  (Leave it to a philosopher.)  While I don’t think that I should be a babysitter who does syllogisms, I do think that I should take into account students’ levels of ability and make my classes fit them.

On the other hand, I’m not omniscient, and I shouldn’t presume to know whether a student lacks the ability or just hasn’t pushed hard enough, and thus I should keep things difficult and let the students who drop out write their own fates.

Yet effort and ability are not everything in intellectual endeavors.  Sometimes, if a student discovers that she can lift the small intellectual weights, she goes on to take on bigger questions and rises philosophy rather than starting out on its level.

But then one can’t wait forever, in a fifteen-week semester, for everyone to rise to the basic competencies that dialectic requires.  If one waits until week five for some students, others have missed out on four weeks of more advanced stuff.

I’ll have to do more dialogue with myself on this one.  No, that doesn’t make one go blind.

I like the fact that Jolley came out of a Church of Christ background, and I love that he carries his instruction out of the classroom into the world.  I admire that he engages in non-credit reading groups with students (I’m trying to get one going with the Dawg Cogitans group), and I nearly said Amen out loud when I found out that his introductory syllabi are filled with primary texts.  In other words, if I have the time and strength, I will strive to become this.

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Matrices of Morality

What Makes People Vote Republican?

I’m never sure what to think about anthropologists–on one hand, at least they’re trying to understand what some people wouldn’t.  On the other, I wonder whether they ever actually ask the people involved what they think is going on rather than just narrating from on high.  This article, though it makes good points in parts, largely falls victim to the crass-hermeneutics-of-suspicion that characterizes most anthropologists.  Oh, and he’s examining American conservatives:

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

Of course, Haidt is just picking up on the old concept of taboo, the inexplicable prohibition that simply must stand as unexaminable.  The problem, of course, with such a category comes when the people in question actually do have explanations for the prohibitions.  Haidt, apparently never asking for such reasons, simply takes his field experience studying the caste system in India and lays the template over the American red state:

Back in the United States the culture war was going strong, but I had lost my righteous passion. I could never have empathized with the Christian Right directly, but once I had stood outside of my home morality, once I had tried on the moral lenses of my Indian friends and interview subjects, I was able to think about conservative ideas with a newfound clinical detachment. They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn’t think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to “thicken up” the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men.

Somehow the idea of studying such things with “clinical detachment” makes my skin crawl, especially when it’s for the sake of manufacturing consent in a federal election.  I can understand the classical liberal idea of tolerance, refraining from coercive force and legal hegemony when relating to one’s neighbors.  But this strikes me as standing above humanity, studying the ways people live with statistical models for the sake of manipulating them.  I’m not naive; I know politicians have been doing this at least as long as modern psychology has been around.  But that don’t make it right.

Once again I’m thrown back to that good old Enlightenment-conservative, Neil-Postman-singing-in-harmony-with-Al-Gore idea that attempting to convince rationally, with a common language to which all parties have access and through which all parties can publish, might be better than a culture in which well-paid technicians of the soul put together 30-second television commercials for the sake of garnering votes.  Frankly, I tire of image managers and pollsters conducting polls about what people think of polling and 24-hour news in general.  What ultimately makes me sickest about the whole enterprise is that, while I’m trying to teach young citizens to articulate ideas and critique others’ ideas and participate in the ancient practice of philosophical dialogue, advertisers and anthropologists are doing blatant end-runs around real thought, playing at democracy even as I hold out hope that something like reasoned consent is actually possible.  I suppose this is why nausea rather than duty is what grabs me when I think too long about federal politics.

Wait a second… how did I get on that?  I can’t wait until about December 18, when the Supreme Court has decided who won this recount.  Then perhaps I’ll have a good three weeks before campaign season starts back up again…

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Going Forward, Doing More with Less, Fill in the Blank?

Are you Going Forward?  Then Stop Now.

Of course, being part of academic and church cultures, the first thing I thought when I read this is how suitable it would be for somebody to do an analogous piece on each of those places and their particular brands of groupspeak, but of course, I’m too busy, so who wouldn’t be?  But I did have to post this bit about “passion” abstracted from its sexual and Christological contexts:

Even to get a humble job in a call centre passion is required. One of the big banks is currently advertising for such workers saying “we seek passionate banking representatives to uphold our values.” This is a lie. Actually what the bank is seeking is competent people to follow instructions and answer the phones.

I’m three episodes into the final season of The Wire now, and I’m disappointed to say that one of the series’s flattest new characters, the executive editor of the Baltimore Sun and proxy for corporate interests in Chicago, is also one of the funniest because he’s incapable of finishing a scene without busting out one of these vacuous phrases.  (His favorite is to tell his reporters to “do less with more.”) His foil is Gus Haynes, a veteran reporter (City Section editor at season’s start) who’s spent his whole career in Baltimore, and who watches, frustrated and powerless, as Scott Templeton, a youngster ambitious to make a big city newspaper, wows the clueless executive editor over by making stuff up to spice up his stories and make them more emotionally compelling.

I’ve been fortunate enough, I suppose, not to have been around an office-speaker, though I’ve heard enough Christianese-speakers that I believe they exist.  I know it’s a cliche for English teachers to decry the dishonesty of late-capitalist jargon, but what can I do?  Iyam what Iyam.

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