Where was I?

29 12 2011

No work, not enough work, too much work, work.

That’s been the last six months. Nowhere near enough money, even with too much work (really blew it on this last freelance job—shoulda charged double), but now things to be evening out: three courses for the spring, half-time admin work for a local-international organization.

I have some idea of what I’ll be doing with the teaching, no clue on what exactly I need to do with the admin work, but hey, I’ve gone from clueless to clue-full before.


Hey, I’ve got some a few new readers! HI!

Thanks for poking your head through my window! I’ll try not to slam it down on your noggin’. . . .

(And yes, I’ll return the favor and check out your blogs as well, now that I have the time to do so.)


I really hate not knowing things.

The problem, of course, is that the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Frustrating, that.

And embarrassing. Before I embarked on my jaunt through the European medieval period, I knew nothing about this history. Nothing.

Oh, something about the break with the Eastern Church in the 11th century, and Luther in the 1500s, but I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, or between the various emperors and the pope.

Yeah, it was bad.

So now I’m learning stuff (yay!), but I’m running up against the parameters that I had initially set for this project. It was conceived as an investigation of intellectual history, with not much room for social (writ large) history, but I’m too much of a materialist to dismiss the conditions (see below) under which these ideas were generated and spread.

This is a very long way of thanking petefrombaltimore for his suggestions in reading.

Yes, a project like this can sprawl out over any boundaries set—hence my initial attempts at capturing only intellectual history—but sometimes the most interesting bits are discovered in the spillage.

Anyway, I just finished Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment and am now on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation; I may then mix in some close-up histories, as well as tackling some of the primary sources.

Can’t say I’ve yet gotten anything solid on the late-margins of modernity by poking around in the early margins, but I am still poking along.


Got my first round of applause for teaching in. . . ever?

It was for my bioethics course, a class which was terrible the first time I taught it (at another university), pretty good the first time I taught it here, and now, well, good. I’ll continue to tweak it as I go along, but I’ve got a solid set-up which should hold for at least another few semesters.

It’s much easier to keep teaching the same thing over and over—all that prep work is already done—but I get antsy. I don’t think there’s a perfect syllabus or course (see: not a Platonist), so after a certain number of repetitions I overhaul the course to try to capture something missing from the previous go-around.

It’s not always better, and almost always requires adjustment, but it keeps me thinking.

Anyway, the applause.

It was common at UW-Madison to applaud professors at the end of the semester. Most of my classes were large lectures, so the performative aspect of teaching was more apparent than in seminars, but classes were similarly large at Minnesota, and I don’t recall the students applauding professors there.

It’s nice, both to applaud and be applauded. I liked that I could show my appreciation for a good professor (or lack thereof with tepid clapping); it seemed to signal that there was something more going on in that lecture hall than a contractual transmission of information from instructor to user.

The best professors gave us knowledge far and beyond that necessary for a good grade: they gave us an appreciation for the wonder of knowing.

I don’t know if that’s what my students were applauding. I work hard to tamp down my urge to overwhelm them with my words—as the person who constructs the syllabus and leads the discussions, I already have great, if indirect, influence on how they approach the subject—but on this last day of class I gave them a concentrated shot of my approach to bioethics.

I started with a truncated version of the epistemology/ontology/practical lecture, zeroing in on the significance of being (or Being, if you please) in one’s understanding of practical ethics. I then moved on to Hannah Arendt’s distinction between human nature and the human condition, namely, that while we cannot with any certainty know our nature, we can approach our condition.

And the most basic of our conditions are that we are biological beings, we are social beings, and we are mortal beings. We may be more than this, I noted (spiritual, philosophical, etc.), but we are damned-near-incontestably conditioned by our biology, our relationships to others, and the fact that we are born and will some day die.

This matters to bioethics, I argued, because any ethics which does not take account of these conditions cannot be of any practical worth.

(You might think that this would be so obvious as to be banal, but it is not.)

I can’t tell you that consequentialism or deontological ethics or casuistry or any other way is the correct approach, I said. We need standards to keep us from justification-by-convenience, to force a critical appraisal of our actions, but, pace our conditions, we have to allow deviation from those standards: the rules are to serve the human, not the human, the rules.

Finally, I said, circling back around, this is where I center my ethics, on the matter of  human being. What makes us who we are, and what we could become? It’s not that our abilities have to be unique among species, but we should think about ourselves, as humans, in how we approach one another.

We don’t have to be heroes, I observed. It’s not about pulling someone out of a burning car or tackling the bad guy or dodging bullets; it’s about recognizing one another as humans.

And then I told the story of a group of people in a small town in Wisconsin who decided to hold a funeral for an unknown woman who had been found, murdered, in their town. She wasn’t one of their own, and would never know what had been done for her, but through the donations of the funeral home and money raised for a plot and marker, and in the service at the cemetery, these people did in fact claim her as one of their own.

There was nothing heroic in this ordinary act of burying the dead, but by taking care of this dead woman’s body, they recognized her as one of them; they demonstrated their humanity in their recognition of her humanity.

We can take care of one another, I said. Our ethics ought to be centered on how we take care of one another.

They seemed to like that. I didn’t expect the applause—I thought I had gone too far—but even if I had, they didn’t seem to mind.

It was nice.


As a coda, I’ve consolidated my earwig approach to teaching (“I want this stuff to bother you for the rest of your lives”) into a line stolen and adapted from Serenity:

I aim to trouble you.

It’s not me, really, who can do this, but I can bring the trouble of politics and theory and ethics to my students, and hope that it disturbs them a good long time.



7 responses

29 12 2011

Funny thing about applause…I was always embarrassed by it. Odd for a lead actor and a high school coach to write, I suppose. I’d clap all day for a great performance, but accepting that appreciation for my own work? Crimson face. It takes a certain amount of grace, which you posess, to do it right.

You’re fortunate in my view; what I enjoyed, and deeply miss, is the performance. Holding an audience, working for their focus…miss it, miss it, miss it. I just don’t miss taking the bow.

We applauded every lecturer at Madison as well. I think it was the passion they showed for their subject. Not all were great performers; I can’t think of one that lacked passion. I think, therein lies your (deserved) applause; passion screams from these posts.

29 12 2011

glad to hear that you have some work ahead that better suits you.
omaha was peacefully green for xmas, thanks for asking.

on the pop history dawning enlightenment/modernity book front the Swerve was pretty interesting reading.

not sure if you got this Bernstein/Arendt link, do you get over to new school lectures? they have a good series there in philo
do you teach Slow Cures in yer ethics class?

hi, golden horders

29 12 2011

hmm, my attempt at an earlier comment seems to have contained an im-moderate number of links, is there a deus ex machina in the house?

31 12 2011

Hi BJ. I always liked the applause, but then again, it was easy to take because I was onstage, in costume and makeup, and surrounded by others. If I see it as applauding a performance rather than me, it’s much easier to take.

So even though I have a general sense of teaching as performance, I’m also leery of it—and was thus surprised by the applause. I blushed, but yeah, I smiled, too. Next time it happens to you, try to enjoy it, crimson face and all!

Hi dmf. Finally fished out your comment, tho’ you’re well enough know to WordPress to have been held in “pending” rather than banished to “spam”.

And yeah, that Swerve book is on my list. I read an excerpt of it in The New Yorker, and while I’m leery (once again) of arguments that grand historical moments hinge on one event, a well-told story often includes enough of that grand history to make it worthwhile.

I’ll check out that Arendt link, and Slow Cures? T’ain’t never heard of it; I’ll check it out.

31 12 2011
4 01 2012
Pete from Baltimore

It was my pleasure to recomend those books to you. I hope that you are able to find one or two from the list ,that you find interesting

Do you teach at Madison now? Or did you used to teach there? Ive only been there one time, a couple of years ago. I had a very short 6 day stay there .Which was one of my best vacations in my life. Madison has a great hostel a couple of hundred yards from the Capitol [only $23 a night]. And my main regret about my trip was that i spent 10 days in Chicago and 6 days in Madison.Looking back, i wish it had been reversed.Chicago was great.But i found Madison to be an ever better place to visit. Hopefully i will get to go back one day .I found it to be an extremly friendly city

4 01 2012

Hey Pete

Nope, I teach in New York, at a City University of New York school. I did my undergraduate work in Madison, and try to get back there on at least some of my visits back to Wisconsin.

If you do go again, I’d recommend going in late May or June. The campus has emptied out, but everything is still open, and Madison in general is open and more laid-back once school is out. And don’t forget to get ice cream at the Memorial Union on campus, then head out to the terrace to watch the boats on the lake.

I’d avoid the joint in January. . . .

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