Q&A: Caputo

26 08 2010

how did you come to his works? —dmf

dmf—who clearly knows more about John Caputo’s works than I do—asked me the above question. Given that Caputo is not widely read by political scientists nor, almost certainly, by the general public, it’s the kind of particular query which opens up to the more general: how’dja find this [relatively unknown] cat?

For Caputo and me, the answer is twofold:

1. I read a long review of his works in the online version of Christianity Today; given the length of the essay, I think it was in the Books & Culture section. I was intrigued.

2. I worked in the philosophy section of the Astor Place Barnes & Noble and noticed we had a copy of Caputo and Gianni Vattimo’s After the Death of God. Employees are allowed to borrow hardcover books from their store, so I plucked this one out.

That’s the twinned short answer; here’s the bifurcated longer answer:

Early in my grad school career I became interested in the question of knowledge. It didn’t initially cohere into an inquiry into epistemology, but I did note that many of the questions I had about x, y, or z phenomena would lead me to questions about the approaches to x, y, or z phenomena, which led, ultimately, to questions about any approach to any phenomenon—in other words, not only how do we know what we know, but how do we determine something is a ‘what’ worthy (or at least capable) of being known, and what does it mean that something has been plucked out of the everything to become a ‘what’ in this particular way.

(These kinds of questions, it should be said, can go on for a very long time. You get the drift. . . .)

Epistemological issues were all the rage (really!) in some parts of the academy in the 1990s, which is when I did the bulk of my graduate work. Early on I was a dogmatic post-modernist and quite glib in my denuciations of Liberalism, the concept of the unitary individual, and the notion that we could ever truly know anything. Ah, the joys of the supercharged nihilist!

Then time did its thing, I mellowed, and while I didn’t surrender my skepticism, I no longer held it in such esteem. I don’t know that we can know, but we seem to make do, in the meantime. I toss a lot of knowledge into the category of the ‘provisional’ and go on from there.

There’s much more behind this, of course, but this is reasonable gloss on where I am now.

So I’m much less dogmatic than I used to be, more curious, and more willing to retrieve from my own personal ash-heap notions that had seem dead, naive, or hopelessly problematic. (Note: that something was ‘hopelessly problematic’ was reason both for my know-it-all (!) nihilist self to toss it and my curious self to retrieve it.) One of those things I had tossed was hermeneutics.

My department was very strong in political theory, but most of the theorists were suspicious of the turn theory seemed to be making away from the history of thought and toward considerations of method. Still, there were courses on method, and in one of those courses we mucked around a bit in hermeneutics. This, however, was a hermeneutics of the Gadamer sort, that is, an explicitly backwards-looking interpretation of tradition and meaning.

I have my disagreements with Habermas, but I think he nails it with regard to this type of interpretation: it is the method of the museum.

So to have come across Caputo and Vattimo and their arguments about ‘weak theology’ and nihilism and radical hermeneutics, well, I was intrigued: This was not your father’s interpretive method.

Couple this with an ongoing interest in questions of existence and hop-skip-jump I am led down another rabbit hole.

The second element at play concerns curiosity and cowardice among the credentialed. You see, once you get a degree, you [are able to] assume a level of expertise about your particular field. This expertise requires you both to know the Big Names and Big Debates and to have more answers than questions; it also requires you to shun certain topics and authors as unworthy of Serious Consideration.

In short, you know whose name to drop and whose to dismiss.

Now, I had never heard of either Caputo or Vattimo when I was in grad school, and I have no reason to believe that either had any kind of reputation, good or bad, among political theorists. Still, they were (are?) outliers among my kind, which makes them risky: If others haven’t heard of them, how are you to talk about them? Perhaps there’s a good reason no one else has heard of them; perhaps there’s something wrong with you for thinking so highly of them. . . .

Please note that no one has ever actually said any of these things to me; no, the responsibility for carrying this particular set of neuroses lies with me. But having been acculturated into academia, and by remaining even tangentially involved (as an adjunct) in my field, I remain caught in those cross-currents of ‘credentiality’; perhaps as an adjunct I am even more vulnerable to questions about my legitimacy as a political theorist.

Yet I have also, because I am an adjunct who is not looking for a tenure-track position, had the space to turn around and look at what and why it is I am doing, on the margins, in the academy. What is the purpose of my presence in the classroom?

And that is where Caputo and Vattimo have led me, in their forward-looking or radical hermeneutics: What is your purpose? What is the point? What is the meaning? What are the possibilities?

Answers are fine and necessary things, and in certain contexts require their own kind of courage. But the questions! Those can always get you into real trouble.





No dark sarcasm in the classroom

17 12 2009

‘I love grading! It is the best!’

‘Grading has nothing to do with learning.’

‘Ay? No! Of course it does. It is the best way!’

‘Paugh. We do it because we can’t think of anything better.’

‘Because there is nothing better! This is what intellectuals have done since the beginning—the best, the smartest.’

‘Socrates?’

‘Okay, no, so it was different then. But Karl Marx, Adam Smith—they all had to study! They all had to take exams.’

‘So. So did we. What does that prove?’

‘No, you are wrong. It is the most just and fair way to determine how much the students have learned.’

‘What does justice have to do with learning? Justice has nothing to do with learning!’

‘And you, the philosopher. You should love grading. Write a blog on how much you love grading.’

‘Hah, no.’

‘Grading is the best, I tell you.’

‘You only love grading because you can inflict pain and assert authority.’

‘True. . . .’ (Jtte. laughs)





Be like Johnnie too good, well don’t you know he never shirks

16 12 2009

Hate grading. Hate hate hate grading.

It’s not just the labor of it—tho’ it is also the labor of it—so much as the pointlessness of the process.

Identify this, define that, explain how this fits with that. . . oh my god, I’m falling asleep already. But don’t worry, I’ll rouse myself with coffee or beer (what the hell) and read every fucking word written before scribbling a number which just might bear some relationship to the worth of that collection of words.

Dot i’s, cross t’s, jump hoops, student and teacher alike. You get a grade, I get a paycheck.

So why bother with grading at all? Well, there’s that matter of the student needing a grade and my desire for that paycheck.

Practicalities, in other words.

Please don’t think that, if I had my druthers, I’d abandon all work requirements for the students. If you are not a prodigy or genius and you want to learn, you have to work. (And if you are a prodigy or genius and you want to be good, you have to work.)

The problem is that the work required for learning is only approximated by the work required for grading, and often, not even that.

I shape and cut and alter the course requirements, but, in the end, what I grade only partially captures what they learn, and, for that matter, what they haven’t learned.

A big part of the problem, perhaps even the main problem, is that most students don’t much care about learning. They care about grades, yes, performance, at times, but learning? Mm, no.

How do I know this? Besides the dearth of students who visit me during office hours to discuss the material, or who approach me wanting help puzzling through a problem I posed, or who show any energy at all in class or in the written work? Besides the slack look on their faces when I ask them the most basic questions about the material? Besides the utter lack of interest in finding their own way into the material?

Simple: because every once in a while, one of them does learn something, and he or she is overwhelmed—because they don’t expect to learn.

Understand? They don’t expect to learn, so when it does happen—when an insight or a question percolates up and into their consciousness—they are visibly giddy or discombobulated or even scared. I never knew. . . .Is this real. . .  ? How could this be. . . ?

I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had students stand in front of me with their mouths opening and closing  and their eyes wide and darting as they attempt to corral this feeling into words. They are agape in the presence of knowledge.

I let them work their ways through it, tell them they have something real, and that they should do whatever they can to make sense, that I will help them to make sense.

It doesn’t always work. You can see them back down, or let it go, or watch as they’re distracted by other matters.

But even then, with those who seem to have tossed their insights aside, you can see an angle to their thoughts, and you know it’s still in there, somewhere.

There’s no way to capture that, that abashed curiosity, in a grade. On the margins, maybe, but in the main? No.

This is why I hate grading. This is why I love teaching.





Yesterday’s a day away

7 09 2009

It’s about time.

All those boxes of files, the folders full of print outs of journal articles, cut-outs from newspapers, clippings from The New Yorker and The Nation, transcripts from The NewsHour (and before, the MacNeill/Lehrer NewsHour), Gina Kolata and Elizabeth Farnsworth and Lawrence Wright. Time to go.

Start easy: start with the ‘Media/Polls’ box. There’s only one of those, and you know you want to get rid of those, right? You haven’t looked at its contents in six years, not since you left Montreal, not since you threw a shovelful of dirt over the remains of your academic career and lit out for your life.

One box, shouldn’t take long. One less to cart to wherever it is you’ll go next. And it’s on your list.

The first folder: ‘Media–to be filed’. What? I thought these were mostly polls, old and outdated and easily disposed of, save for pulling out the staples or off the binder clips and reshuffling the paper for reuse as the back end of lecture notes. Gallup and Roper and whatnot.

But here’s a piece by Sallie Tisdale, and another by Annie Dillard and another by an old colleague, Carl Elliott. Carefully annotated with publication date, volume, number. Haven’t read any of these likely since I yanked them out of Harper’s and The Atlantic 7, 8, 12 years ago.

Next up: Cloning. All the Times‘ pieces, the television transcripts. Here are a few pieces by Leon Kass, my Pilot-penned scrawls arguing with him in the margins.

Here is the stillborn promise of books never to be written, articles never to be submitted. Here is my dead career, never carefully tended, finally abandoned to die, mummified in filed slices.

And my career as an academic is dead, no question about it. Oh, I stroll through the cemetery regularly as an adjunct, but ‘adjunct’ is just another term for dead-end job.

I know this. I know this. I knew what I was doing six years ago, even if I didn’t know the consequences of what I was doing, even if I had no idea what I was doing. Still, I knew that the slow climb from assistant to associate to full professor was not for me, that I would not end an emeritus.

Even now that I know the consequences, I can’t say I was wrong to have dropped off the tenure track. Sure, I might even have managed the climb, secured myself in some out-of-the-way department somewhere, but it wouldn’t have been my life. A role, only.

It will be good for me, finally, to have finished with these files, to have disarticulated the stories and narratives within. But I know they meant something, once, that they mattered, once, and it grieves me to put it all behind me.

I will feel lighter, when I am done, however heavy I feel now.

Lighter, yes.





Teach the children well

4 03 2009

Do I go with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young—or Pink Floyd (‘Teacher, leave those kids alone!)? Do good, or try not to do harm?

Eh, I go back and forth. My colleagues Jtt., D., and I spend a fair amount of time dissecting just what is required of us as professors, both by the college and our own senses of obligation. We deplore efforts to sex up the curriculum, or to put a shiny happy face on the educational endeavor generally, but none of us is quite willing to write off what we do.

In short, we take teaching seriously.

As an adjunct, however, there are limits as to what I’m willing to do for my students or for the college. As I mentioned to a colleague at another institution, the shitty pay of adjunct-ing is somewhat compensated for the by the release from meetings: if I am paid only to teach, then that is all I will do. My current college is good about paying for adjuncts to attend enrichment seminars (perhaps at the, ah, urging, of the union), and, knowing that I have a long commute, my department chair schedules all of my courses two days a week.

That said, there are things I won’t do as an adjunct that I probably would do as a tenure-track professor. One, I refuse to correct for grammar and style. However important I think good writing is, I’m a political science prof, not a composition teacher. I grade on synthetic and analytic abilities, not syntax.

Second, I refuse to agonize over late papers. This is a recent conversion. Most students hand in work on time; a few do not. I used to believe that the principle of fairness required me to penalize the latecomers, but I’ve since decided that any ‘real’ penalty often assumed an importance disproportionate to the offense. And it was a pain in the ass to determine a fair penalty across all categories of tardiness—this one had to work, that one’s kid got sick, the other one hit a wall—when to penalize and when to waive? It was more trouble that it was worth, and I’m far more interested in the students’ mastery of the material than in their promptness in delivering proof of that mastery. That I no longer penalize lateness has had no effect on the percentage of students who hand their work in on time.

Finally, I refuse to agonize over the grading process itself. When I first started teaching, it was very important to give students plenty of feedback, to try to help them improve their performance over the course of the semester. This evolved into a practice of having students write a rough draft of the first part of a paper, which was graded and returned with about a page of notes, and then writing a complete final paper, incorporating the changes suggested in the marked-up rough draft. Only it didn’t work. Oh, one or two students would actually rewrite their drafts, but more often they would simply paste the draft into the final version—often complete with spelling and grammatical errors. I then switched to a modified version of this: I offered students the option of writing a draft (which would be graded), or just going with the final version. More than half would take this option, although, again, they often ignored the comments on the drafts. I stopped this practice completely after a student complained to my then-department chair that I gave too much feedback. Too much feedback! Fine. Done.

Were I not an adjunct, I might feel a more-than-minimal sense of responsibility to the college and the standards it was trying to raise or maintain. As such, I might reconsider how my standards do or do not match the standards of my institution. Now, however, I worry about the standards of effective teaching and whether I live up to my own understanding of those standards. That’s enough, I think.

Still, my understanding of those standards does lead me to ‘non-required’ work. My college uses Blackboard, which is a kind of online syllabus and bulletin board for students and professors. I haven’t been trained in this, so haven’t made use of it. I like the idea, however, of having some place my students could to refer to additional course-relevant resources, or even just copies of syllabi and paper requirements.

So I set up a blog for my students. Although it’s still not where I want it to be, I put in a fair amount of time and effort setting it up—time for which I will not be compensated. But if I’m to measure my performance by the standards of efficacy (as opposed to, say, institutional demands), then it’s worth that time and effort to at least try to increase or deepen that efficacy.

I like my institution, but I won’t forget that I’m in a mercenary relationship to (with?) it. Can’t say the same about my relationship with my students, however: in the classroom, good teaching reigns.





Teacher tells you stop your playing get on with your work

29 12 2008

I hate grading. I’d rather do laundry than grade, and I hate doing laundry. Empty the cat box. Clean windows. Shovel after a blizzard.

Did I mention that I hate grading?

It is, alas, necessary in the corporate academic complex. (I almost managed to write that with a straight face.) No, I actually do see the point of it, I just hate doing it.

What would happen if I were to tell my students, on the first day of class, that they would all get B-‘s or C+’s, no questions asked. If they wanted a better grade, they’d have to do the work—and still no guarantees of a A. How many would would show up for class? How many would do the reading?

How many would actually care to learn about the subject?

Ha. I know. Perhaps I lay on one condition: You get a C+ if you show up regularly, a B- if you participate. If the class isn’t too early or too late in the day, I’d probably get a decent turnout.

And almost no grading. ‘Almost no’ because there would always be those few students who want the A and/or would feel too guilty not to do any work.

Of course, there’d also be those students who would be so offended by my mockery of the Purpose of Education that they’d narc on me. ‘How dare she not force us through flaming hoops for meaningless letters on a transcript no one will ever look at?’

Don’t worry, I lack the guts/foolishness to try this. Gotta pay the rent.





Where was I?

20 11 2008

Fascinatin’ discussion on a number of conservative sites (Douthat at the Atlantic, Rod Dreher at CrunchyCon, Christianity Today mag) on whether Obama (ahem: President-Elect Obama!) is a Christian. Or whether he’s a good Christian. Or Orthodox. Or orthodox.

All this based on a 2004 interview with Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Trib and parts of Dreams of My Father. The key for these commentators is not just what he said, but what he didn’t say. He’s insufficiently Nicene! He’s Arian! He denies the divinity of Christ! He doesn’t know how many angels dance on the head of a pin! (Okay. I made that last one up.)

Goodness. These gents are behaving like jazz fans or vegetarians: if you don’t line up exactly—OUT with you.

For the record: I like jazz and am vegetarian-ish, i.e., I don’t know who the drummer was in that session on Blue Note in 1954, and I occasionally eat fish.

Not very orthodox, I know.

_____

I like to read thoughtful religious and conservative posts, and not (just) in a know-thy-enemy kinda way. I think it’s important to remind myself that ‘the other side’ also contains a fair number of thoughtful people, that I can find good criticism of my own positions, I can learn something about which I know little, and, yeah, that sometimes ‘the other side’ isn’t so far away.

That said, Rod Dreher at CrunchyCon has lost his mind when it comes to Prop 8 and homosexuality. One commentator in response to his hysteria (viz. his header: Gay mob assaults peaceful Christians) put it best: ‘The Russians are coming!’

Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t understand why some folks are upset by Prop 8, and saying mean things to religious proponents.

Doomed. DOOMED!

_____

An article in the New York Times a week or so ago, about the various and too-often violent clashes in India, contained a great line:

One observer (gotta go back and get his name) accused the various sides of engaging in ‘offense mongering’.

Offense mongering. Excellent!

_____

I’ve given up on NaNoWriMo.

I’ll still work on the story—which would never have made it to novel status, anyway—but I’m no longer chasing those 50,000 words.

As I discussed with C., cramming for words doesn’t really work for me, and I’m worried that stuffing in all those unnecessary adverbs and adjectives is wreckin’ ma teknik.

Still, I’m glad to have written what I have, and glad to have participated in this. I wouldn’t have known, otherwise, how this race for words could be so disruptive.

C., however, is bangin’ away, and says that this kind of pressure is just what she needs to kick her in the head. In a good way.

_____

Abortion.

Oh, criminy, I can’t even start. Can’t. do. it.

Let’s just say that women are apparently not to be considered.

_____

I’m an adjunct professor, so should probably blog about the execrable position of adjuncts in academia at some point.

But I have to get up early tomorrow to go teach.

_____

My dad is home, and expected to recover fully.

The docs said he is very, very lucky.