This whole frigging place will be down to the ground

2 09 2015

I’m teaching Weimar this semester.

Two months ago—a month ago—I didn’t know that’s what I’d be teaching, but once I hit on it, I thought Yessssss!!

This is actually the 4th version of my Politics and Culture course. The first one, based on women and human rights, was terrible; the second one worked well, but after teaching it a few years, I got bored and redid the syllabus; the third version was okay, but it never quite came together, and I was never fully comfortable with the course.

So, time for yet another revamp.

My first thought was that I’d use Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail. While I had a few issues with their argument (as I had with the Nussbaum book I used for v. 2), I thought the book would work well for the course: it’s well-written, and, importantly, it had the kind of big theory that was missing from one of the books (Banerjee & Duflo’s Poor Economics) I used in v. 3. The students in that course responded when I gave big-sweep historical lectures, so I figured Acemoglu & Robinson’s big-sweep historical analysis would go over well with them.

Except: I couldn’t figure out what to use as an adjunct to the text. Why Nations Fail is all about political and economic development, and while (political) culture plays a role in their argument, I still wanted to round out the course with something else.

Only, I couldn’t figure out what that something else would be. I’d spent a fair amount of time over the past few months looking over my books and pulling one, and then another, and then yet another off the shelf, but I couldn’t settle on one. Then, at some point in mid or late July, I was peering idly at my history books, and I scanned across Richard Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.

Huh, I thought. Then, Yesssss!!

My first thought was The Coming of the Third Reich, then I thought, The Third Reich in Power, but then I went back to The Coming.

Weimar. Perfect. It’s politics and culture galore, is a subject which I’d been reading about off and of the past coupla’ years, and, most importantly, it was something that I was immediately excited about.

I was not immediately excited about Why Nations Fail.

And that’s when I remembered the lesson I keep forgetting: teaching something I’m dutiful about is a pain; teaching something I’m excited about is a gas.

It also helps to teach something which is more rather than less in my wheelhouse. I certainly have interests in political and economic development, but I’m not a political-developmental economist: I’m a theorist, and I want to know how and why ideas move people to act. Material conditions absolutely matter, but they are not determinative; I’m interested in that great gauzy space beyond the material, and how that works out in actual political life.

So why wasn’t I teaching that? Why was I abandoning something that I think also matters? Why wasn’t I taking theory—and politics—seriously?

Weimar gives me a bit of everything; hell, the glory of Weimar as a teaching subject is its too-muchness: economics and diplomacy and monarchy and fascism and liberalism and communism and violence and art and theater and so much promise and in the end, too much peril.

I’ve only taught one session so far (the class meets on Fridays), and we won’t really get into Weimar until the third week, but the students seemed into it. They might not know much about Weimar, but they certainly know something about what came after—Nazis on the march do tend to get one’s attention.

Anyway, I don’t know if this course will work or not, but really, I think it will. And I think the students will end up digging it, too.

In any case, it certainly can’t go any worse than the Republic itself.

Wait wait wait

20 05 2015

Two things:

1. The reasons I want to be on Twitter are the reasons I shouldn’t be on Twitter.

2. Want to make something relatively small relatively big, and then small again?

Easy: Don’t do that small thing, day after day after day, until it looms so large that you can’t not do it, after which it shrinks back to smallness.

Bonus thing! Delay checking enrollment on your summer session-I course, and then, upon finding out it’s so low it likely will be cancelled, think, Huh, guess I should put up a freelancing ad, and then not do it.

You know, on the off chance that in the next 10 days enough students will sign up and everything will be all right.

Because nothing like doing nothing to make sure everything will be all right.

Boom boom boom

18 09 2014

I am a mine-layer.

Some days—most days?—the most I can accomplish is to fling out enough mines that at least some will burrow into rather than merely roll off of my students.

I’m a pretty good teacher—I’d put myself in the B, B+ range—but I think even the best teachers fail to impart whole systems of thought or history or formulae to their students. One might be able to lay out the sets and subsets, the permutations and exemplars and exceptions, in as straightforward a manner as possible, noting what syncs up with which and where it all falls apart, but beyond the assignment or the test or the essay, the knowledge dissipates.

This isn’t their fault—the student’s, I mean—nor is it the teacher’s. Most of the material covered in a college course can only be fully taken in through repetition, and for many students in many classes, it’s one-and-done: the ticking off of requirements on their way to a degree. What they remember may be courses in their major, and that’s because they run into the same concepts and theories and studies over and over again.

If students are able to see the connections amongst ideas laid out in a 3- or 4-hundred-level course in their field, it likely has less to do with that particular professor than with the accumulation of bits from the 100- and 200-level courses.

So what to do when teaching a 1 or 200-level class, or even an advanced class which is supported by no major?

Lay mines. Try to expose the students to concepts they are likely to encounter again, so that the next time they run across “Aristotle” or “Arendt” or  “deontological ethics”, that little bomb will go off and they’ll say to themselves, Hey, I recognize this! and maybe not feel so estranged from what had seemed strange.

So many metaphors could be used here: taking a student down a path and pointing out enough landmarks so that when they traipse down it again, they’ll say Hey! . . . , and feel more confident in their surroundings, more willing to push further on. Tossing out enough seeds in the hopes that a few take root, sprout. Or maybe repeated vaccinations, priming the immune system to respond when next encountering the invasive idea (tho’ there are clear limits to this last analogy insofar as the knowledge isn’t to be annihilated).

Maybe it’s different for professors at elite schools, with students who’ve already been exposed to and are comfortable with these ideas. Or maybe even at my CUNY school I’d find less mine-laying if I were to teach more advanced-level courses in my field.

But maybe not, or, at least, not the way I teach. Yes, I want them to perform well on tests and papers, but more than that, much more than that, I am greedy enough of their attention that I want them to remember this stuff for the rest of their lives.

I’d rather they get a B and be bothered for decades than get an A and let it all go.

So this might explain why I’m partial to the mine idea: because it allows for the possibility of little bits of insight to explode whenever the student strays over forgotten territory. And if those mines are powerful enough and buried deep enough, there’s a chance those explosions might rearrange her intellectual landscape, might change how he looks at the world.

And yeah, I like the idea of blowing their minds, too.

Turn and face the strange

26 08 2014

I knew that birthday call to my sister would last awhile—it always lasts awhile—but I didn’t think it would go on that long.

This, by the way, is my excuse for not posting last night


Classes begin on Thursday. I am, as ever, looking forward to it.

I recycle a lot of material from semester to semester—if it works well, why change it?—but I periodically amend or even overhaul courses: maybe it works well, but I’m bored, or maybe it doesn’t work so well.

The politics & culture course got revamped (due to boredom) last year, and while it worked okay, it just never came together the way I wanted it to. So for this semester I fiddled a bit with the first third, left the last third alone, and redid the middle third.

I’d been using Charles Taylor’s edited volume Multiculturalism to get at, well, issues of multiculturalism, but the argument of he and his interlocutors was pitched a bit, ehhh, not high, but not in the direction that was most fruitful. So I tossed Chuck and added some online readings, readings which come to the pointy-point much more quickly than Chas and his gang.

(If you’ve ever read Taylor you know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s smart and his stuff is worth reading, but good lord the man won’t use 10 words when a hundred will do.)

Anyway, I think it’s a good bet that the students will be more engaged by Ta-Nehisi Coates (among others) than academics speaking academically.

As for the bioethics, that’s pretty damned well set. I did add some short bits on gene therapy and epigenetics, but otherwise it’s the same. I did dig out for my lectures some more recent stuff on genetics and stem cells and, later in the semester, will on ART issues, mostly to make sure I’m not giving my students out-of-date or, even worse, wrong information.

The lectures on the science are, as I repeatedly warn the students, ur-basic and no substitute for the real thing; still, while I’m willing to simplify, I don’t want to mislead.

The good news is that it doesn’t look as if anything I have been teaching has been wrong.


I’m watching Criminal Minds on Netflix and it is, of course, terrible.

Yes, I have new shows in my queue and I do watch them (The Fall, Bletchley Circle), but I’ve gotten so televisionally-lazy that more often than not I prefer comfort and predictability over innovation , or even just the mostly-unwatched.

This is a failing, as I often do like something new, (Leverage! Yay, Leverage!), but if I’m in any kind of mood at all, I’ma gonna click on a link that takes me to a place I’ve been before.

As with Criminal Minds. I watched the first season or two on t.v., when I had a t.v., and this past year I’ve been watching the current season on CBS.

Well, okay, not wholly watching: I am over watching psychos torture their vics, so I zip through those portions. And the show has gotten more savage over the years, stretching out the screen-time given to crimes; in the early seasons, these are more glimpses than extended scenes.

And it’s not as if I particularly like any of the characters on the show. I don’t hate them, but, as with NCIS, they range from boring to annoying to eye-roll-inducing.

So why watch? Goddess help me, it’s a fucking procedural and fucking procedurals are my televised comfort food. This fall I’ll probably end up watching both that NCIS New Orleans show and CSI Cyber or whatever the hell it’ll be called.


Yes, I should change my diet, but I’ll probably only go as far as occasionally adding something more intellectually nutritious, and will keep mowing down the junk in the meantime.

Stand up for your rights

10 06 2014

All professors hate grading.

Okay, I know, I shouldn’t presume to speak for all professors everywhere, especially since I’m just a punk adjunct and lack the tenure Real Professors™ have, but on this issue, I’m pretty confident that I speak for every professor everywhere ever.*

(*Except for the sadists who see grading as an opportunity to inflict pain, and those who think grading provides an excellent opportunity for students to lea—no, wait, the latter are graduate students and ABDs who’ve yet to have their pedagogy snapped into reality.)

Anyway. I hate grading, and while I try very hard to grade in a thoughtful and conscientious manner, with every paper I pick up I have to fight the impulse to rush through and offer some bullshit “whatever” comment before dashing off the only thing most students care about: the grade.

Except, this summer, this session, I might actually enjoy reading my students’ papers.

Well, maybe “enjoy” is too strong of a word, but it’s possible that it won’t entirely suck.

I’m teaching a course I’ve taught once before—women and politics—but instead of having them write papers anchored in the required readings as I did the last time out, this time they’re writing one short and two longer papers on, yep, a woman in politics.

The first paper is a short bio, pretty much straight-up description. The second paper focuses on the movement or party in which the woman worked, and the third, an analysis of her role in that movement and her/its impact on society.

My students have picked Jeannette Rankin, Ruth First, Yuri Kochiyama, Aun San Suu Kyi, Denise Oliver, and the Mirabel sisters.


Yes, it helps that this is a very small class, but this is a Murderer’s Row lineup.

Well done, students. Well done.

Teacher teacher, can you reach me

30 01 2014

Classes have started again. Thank goddess.

I need the money (of course: I always need the money), but it’s more than that. While I’ve been working at home for the 2nd job, I just get. . . antsy before a new semester. Part of it is worry that my course will be cancelled, but even more so is the sense that my real work is in the classroom, so to be out of the classroom is, even if I have other work, to be out of work. My real work.

It’s taken me too long to get to this point, to know that, yeah, my real work is as a professor. Unfortunately, due to the many bad decisions I’ve made about my career, instead of being snugly ensconced in a nest somewhere in mid-level academia, I’m left to swing from semester to semester, hoping I can grab the next vine of courses just after I let go of this one.

(In 2011 those vines got yanked away a couple of times, and I crashed, hard. I won’t dig out from that financially until next year—if all goes well.)

Can I recover and manage to build some stability into my career? I dunno. You’ve only got so many years post-PhD to slide into the tenure track, and as I am some multiple of years beyond that time, I may have missed my chance(s).

But I don’t want to give it up, either. I enjoy teaching and am pretty good at it, and while I think academic publishing is a scam, I remain capable of solid research.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I am constitutionally unsuited for corporate work? Not that any corporation would have me.

I’ve gone round and round on this before, and have done nothing. Dmf has given me links to the, ah, Brooklyn Institute, I think, and there are plenty of non-CUNY institutions in the NYC area in which I could teach. (CUNY limits the number of courses adjuncts can teach any given semester & over the course of the year, so while I will send my c.v. to the campus closest to me, if I want more work I’ll have to go outside of CUNY.)

So there it is. I’ve finally figured out this is what I can do; now I need to just, y’know, do it.

She blinded me with science

14 12 2013

Quick note/plea: I’m putting together a proposal to teach another 300 general education course (as is the bioethics class), tentatively and excitingly called “Technology & Society”.

I’ve begun putting together a web page to serve as a resource for my would-be students at my course blog; as I am just getting started with this, the page is a bit thin on content. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll wrassle the various possibilities into a (semi-) coherent course, so I’ll be tossing up  links to as wide a variety of sites as possible.

Why do this? As the course will require a couple of honest-to-pete research papers, and as this is the first time many of the students will be writing h2p research papers, I’d like to give them as much of a boost as possible to get going.This isn’t meant to serve as a substitute for their own research, but rather, as leads.

(For comparison’s sake, you could look at the Bioethics articles and Bioethics sites & docs pages.)

Anyway, any help you could offer (in the comments, or via email—absurdist [at] gmx [dot] com) would be greatly appreciated!


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