Sunny came home

16 09 2019

Hi! Hi! Hi!

Sorry I’ve been away for so long, but I was:

*Away, for a bit, in Chicago. I really like Chicago—it’s the place I’ll move to if I ever get chased out of New York—and every time I visit I think “Ohhh, maybe I should just move now.” But that’s just because NYC can suck hard, and when you’re in a likeable city for a few days it’s easy to think that that city won’t also have its sucky moments. Anyway, I was there with friends from Sheb Falls, and it was fun.

*Trying to cram in all of my hours on my second job. Whenever I work at my long-standing second job, I feel the need to work every last hour they give me, not least because these gigs are only temporary. I try to bulk up my bank account, because I just don’t trust the work, be it teaching or freelancing or this job, will keep coming.

*Prepping for classes. I’m using a new textbook for my American govt and politics course, so I have to take all new notes. It’s my contention that all American govt textbooks are mediocre, and that new editions are a scam—usually the only thing that gets changed (besides the price) are the 1- or 2-page intros to each chapter—but the text I was using was 5, 6 years old. I have tended to use the second-most-recent version, in order to keep the costs down for the students, but as American politics in the Trump era are occurring at hyper-speed, I thought I’d best go with the newest version of whatever text I chose. I looked first at the new version of my old text, but, jeez, that cheapest version of that one was 75 bucks; other books were even worse. So I said to hell with it, and went with a (legit) free online textbook, and, y’know, it’s fine.

*Writing an ‘intro to politics’ essay for those same govt-and-politics students. I’d long led discussions of ‘what is politics’ for relevant courses, and this essay pulled together a number of those ideas into a less-fractured format. In fact, this was an excerpt of an incomplete draft of what I plan to develop into a short-ish manuscript I’m calling “A Partial Politics” (have I mentioned this before? I think I’ve mentioned this before). Once I get a bit of breathing room, I want to get back to the manuscript; I may try to pitch it to the same online publishers as that textbook.

*I have a new great-niece! My second niece gave birth to Lyana Rosa two weeks ago. She is a wee angry potato, and it is all I can do not to pester her mum for more pics. No, I wasn’t there so I can’t really excuse her birth for my absence; it’s just good news.

So now that we’re all caught up, I’ll try not to fall behind (again). . . .

 

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You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em

24 07 2019

I would give five bucks to the candidate who’s willing to say: “Hell, yeah, I’m a politician—and a damned good one!”

I know, I know, we’re all supposed to hate politicians and love the mavericks and outsiders and ‘jes plain folks’ who’ll stand up to the corrupt and immoral insiders.

Blah blah blah.

This is of the same piece as “those who can’t do, teach”, which, yeah, as someone who teaches, I find irksome. But more than the personal jibe at such a non-doer as myself, I’m irked at the falseness of the statement: teaching is doing, and it’s hard.

I work at it—the syllabus, the readings, the assignments, the lectures and discussions, all of it—and some days I’m great and some days I’m not; overall I’d give myself a B+. I wouldn’t mind taking a class from someone like me, but, honestly, I’d also want professors who were better than me.

And you, the dumb-ass who thinks teaching is nothing? You know nothing.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Being an effective politician is hard. Politics is a (sometimes glorious, sometimes fetid) mess, and being able to balance all of the competing concerns and different interests and principles and practicalities and rules and ratfuckers and flying monkeys to get anything done requires more skills than are dreamt of in such casual dismissal of the role.

So I want to vote for someone who embraces that role, who gets that just because anyone can run for the job—which is great thing, really—doesn’t mean that anyone can do the job. And to do the job well? You gotta learn, get better, become a pro—become a politician.

That’s a good thing, and should be recognized as such.

Not gonna happen, tho’, I know.





Take the long way home

6 06 2019

I mentioned awhile back that I was working on a project called “Modernity’s Ideologies”, in which I trace the historical emergence of political ideologies in Europe from ’round about 1517-1945. I waaaay condensed that into a chart much like this one:

(Sorry for the bleed-through: I print almost everything on used paper.)

I haven’t given up on that, exactly, but the bugger certainly became bigger and bigger and bigger and I thought, Man, I gotta getta hold of this. So, I’m still reading and thinking and thinking and reading, but I’ve cooled my jets considerably.

That project was/is meant as scholarship, but also as a teaching tool, and I used some of those ideas in my class on the Weimar Republic to try to help the students make sense of the riot of political movements in 1920s Germany.

(I don’t know that it actually helped.)

Anyway, in teaching that, on women’s politics, and a course on American government and politics, I’ve also had the occasion to ask What is politics, anyway?

In those cases, I used a version of this chart:

This refers to what I call the “fields of action” of politics, and I first developed it when teaching that women in politics course in order to capture the multifarious ways women participated in political life.

I’ve since adapted this to my AmPol course, and as you can see by the written notes, the adaptation is ongoing.

In fact, this adaptation is part of a new project called “A Partial Politics”, a part of which I plan to use for teaching in the fall. I’ll discuss the fields of action (mentioning that in other nations military, religious, and economic institutions may also form overtly political fields) along with various definitions of politics (Aristotle, Easton, Lasswell, Crick, Arendt, Schmitt, etc.). I lecture on all of this and write it on the board, but I think it would be useful for the students to have a version written out for them and that they can refer back to.

The fields of action thing actually works well for how I teach the AmPol course, which includes a central role for the early civil rights movement (1960-65, more or less): I note the different institutions within government, the splits in the parties, and note how the NAACP fits more as an interest group, SNCC & CORE as activists groups, and the SCLC somewhere in the overlap.

One thing I’ll definitely change in the chart is the implication that “underground” politics flow only out of activist groups: certainly the overlapping roles of the Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils, and sundry other violent white supremacist groups with state and local governments give lie to that. And, of course, the various corruptions involving modern-day interest groups, while not exactly underground in the same way, suggest further modification of the above-ground/underground distinction.

I may also include some discussion of the different types of roles one sees across all fields (although some may be more prominent in one area than another); I currently have:

policy
process
prophet
politicking (persuading, pressing flesh, etc) [eh, too indistinct; maybe ‘persuader’?]
pundit
foot soldier
connector?
trickster (dirty, ie, ratfucker; anarchic, eg Yippie, Pirate Party, Ukrainian comic)
hustler (grifter; spotlight hogs, etc)

Political actors may inhabit multiple roles, or may be primarily defined by one. Nancy Pelosi, I’d argue, is a master of process, but she’s not who to turn to in developing policy or to lead the masses to the promised land, i.e., a prophet.

And this isn’t just about elected officials; you can find people to fill these roles across all fields. John Lewis in his SNCC days, for example, was a foot soldier and a connector, putting himself on the line repeatedly as well as being willing to work with King and the SCLC when others in SNCC were unwilling.

Anyway, this is all preliminary: I’ve got the summer to get at least this part pulled together.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about ideologies and AmPol. That’s due mostly to my focusing on strategies and tactics, but also to the fact that the chart above needs to be radically altered to account for American ideologies (another piece of that overgrown Ideologies project). Given that the US, as a nation (ie, since the 1780s), has always been modern, discussing ideologies as a reaction to modernity doesn’t work. There’s also the matter of how to deal with the slaveocracy, which to my-mostly-ignorant mind, attempts to graft Enlightenment sensibilities on top of a pseudo-feudal structure.

I won’t teach from a mostly-ignorant position, so this doesn’t get discussed much at all. Given that I barely get through the material as-is, this isn’t a problem.

But if I am to fill out that “A Partial Politics”, then I will also have to fill out that ideologies section, in some way or another.

I know, I keep doing wide outruns and getting lost; this time, I’ll try to keep it closer, and plink away at it bit by bit.





Teacher, teach me

7 02 2019

Back in class, again, which is good.

Yeah, I have those other jobs, but teaching is my main job, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m also lucky in that I like what I’m teaching; if I get bored, I change up the syllabus et voilà, no longer bored.

I changed up my intro American politics syllabus last spring. My approach with past syllabi has been to cover the basics via textbook/class lecture, and then try to integrate a complementary theme to bring out some of the wrinkles of our political system; in this version, the complementary theme is street-level or “outside” politics, to contrast with the “inside” politics centered on government.

The first semester was kinda rough, as the first semester of a new syllabus tends to be: I have an idea, but it doesn’t always translate well to practice. The second semester tends to go better, as I figure out which goes better with what, and I usually hit my stride by the third semester.

However.

Last semester it never really gelled. I don’t know if it was me, if it was the arrangement of the material, the students, some combination, or, y’know, Trump (just because).

It was frustrating as hell, not least because I think the particulars of the outside theme are fascinating as hell: I focus on the civil rights movement 1960-65, specifically, on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I chose SNCC both because it was less well known than MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and because the students in SNCC were not much older than the students in my classroom.

It also didn’t hurt that there’s a boatload of good material available online, so my students wouldn’t have to fork over more money for books.

Anyway, SNCC has the sit-ins! Freedom Rides! Freedom Summer! The SNCC volunteers were brave and scared and resolute and angry and patient and oh my goddess they risked everything for themselves and their fellow human beings.

And those young men and women weren’t terribly impressed with politicians or presidents, the NAACP or MLK, even as they relied on them to convert direct action into law.

I could go on—but I won’t. The upshot was that my students just weren’t into it and I couldn’t figure out how to get them into it.

So, this semester I tinkered a bit with the schedule to try to make it easier for the students to engage with it, to see the connections (and frictions) between the activists and the politicians, and to understand that politics happens at all different levels.

We’ll see if it works. Initial indications are good—although this may have less to do with me and the schedule than with having students who bring an interest in politics with them into the class. When that happens—when there are a handful of students who are eager to question or comment—the discussions are richer, and tend to pull in even more students.

That was part of what I was missing last semester: that participatory core that could energize everyone else.

That said, I remember what a long-ago college professor said to me: “Ten percent of the students are going to love you no matter what you do, ten percent will hate you no matter what you do, and the other 80 percent don’t really care one way or the other.”

I’d long since come to see that as a challenge, to try to rope that 80 percent into caring—not about me, but about the subject. Last semester that didn’t happen, which sucked. I don’t like to fail my students, and that’s what I did.

But it’s a new semester, and so far, so good.





History recalls how great the fall can be

26 10 2017

My teaching has changed.

Not that it’s obvious: I’m still teaching the same subjects (politics, bioethics) and assigning the same (-ish) readings, still presenting much of the same material, still asking many of the same questions, and still assigning papers and take home essays.

But I’m also less, mm, neutral than I used to be.

Again, not in terms of conclusions I expect students to reach or questions they may ask—I invite disagreement—but in stressing what is at stake in these questions and conclusions. I want them to know that everything we study has happened, is happening, or could happen, and that these happenings matter. They must be able to think in order to deal with what is and what’s next.

What was that old Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones quote? Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict!

I don’t say that directly to the students, but, yes, that’s the attitude I now take in teaching them.

This started awhile ago, in teaching bioethics. Bioethics is not neutral: there is explicit value placed on human life, health is a good, and biomedical research is in general (although not always in the particulars) to be encouraged. Those who work in bioethics make commitments to the values of the field, and while there is little consensus on how best to uphold those values, there is a sense that, yes, to work in bioethics is to pick a side.

I think that exists in other fields, as well, although in much older fields (bioethics is quite young), those values may be submerged beneath a veneer of professionalism, i.e., what matters is what is done rather than what is valued in the doing. That doesn’t mean those professionals are value-free so much as value-assumed.

Shit, I’m not getting this right. What I want to say is: read the last chapter of Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler.  Really, read the whole thing—it’s a terrific takedown of David Irving’s Holocaust-denying, Hitler-apologizing, so-called historical work (an evisceration performed in service to Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against Irving’s libel claim)—but in that last chapter he goes all-in on the necessity of standards in historical research, and of the necessity of historical research itself:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents those that they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case or abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive as a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents, and events for which there is no historical evidence to make their arguments more plausible to their readers.

At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historians. [pp. 250-251]

Irving, of course, did all of these.

Now it could be said, fairly, that what Evans presents is an idealized version of what is a good historian, and that, as with idealized versions of scientific inquiry, the reality falls rather short. Still, he is making the argument that we can, with much effort, learn, come to know something of the past, and that this knowledge matters enough for historians to put in that effort.

I am more leery than Evans of speaking of the truth of various events, but, really, if I believe—if I know—that Holocaust denial is false, then aren’t I saying that the truth is, in some way, out there?

Anyway, in last week’s politics & culture course we went over the early career of Hitler; I made a point to highlight that his eliminationist antisemitism was there from the outset (1920) and that those who would deny that Hitler knew anything about or wanted to kill all Jews were not credible. The evidence is there, I said, in documents and speeches, in the recollections of others and in his own book, and these can’t just be dismissed.

You can’t just make shit up.

They tittered when I said that, but I was dead serious. Yes, there are legitimate interpretative differences of agreed-upon evidence, and not everything can be known, but if you want to know—if you value knowledge—then you have to take reasoned account of that evidence. You can’t, I repeated, just make shit up.

And that, I guess, is how I take a shortcut to this post’s end: I have until too recently been too cavalier about the value of knowledge itself. Ye gads, yes, the post-structuralist in me is screaming and the epistemological nihilist rolling her eyes, but I can’t, or really, won’t, in this moment, say Lol, nothing matters.

I never really did teach as if nothing mattered, and I’m (almost) always enthusiastic about what I do teach—it is not uncommon for me to interject Isn’t this cool!—but, yeah, I have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with regard to what the students get out of a course. I wanted them, sure, to get something out of it, but I don’t know that I ever thought it necessary that they do so.

Now, I think it’s necessary, that it was always necessary.





The sailor who can read the sky

1 09 2016

How nice to not dread teaching.

I’ve mentioned this course before: Politics & Culture. I’m on the 4th version of it, and think I’ll be able to stick with this for quite awhile.

The first (women and human rights) and third (half mash-up, half Banerjee & Duflo’s Poor Economics) were slogs: they never quite came together. The third, built around Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development, was fine, but I got bored with it after awhile.

This version, which I introduced last fall, focuses on the Weimar Republic, and it all came together pretty well. As I did before, I’m using Richard Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich, a coupla’ chapters of Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics, and Carl Schmitt’s The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (I’ve already warned the students about this one), as well as various online primary-source documents; for this semester, I’ve shifted a few things around, added some docs and discarded others, but otherwise kept it together.

And, oh yes, as I think I’ve mentioned 10 or 20 times, I totally dig the subject.

Happily, the more I read about it—I’m a little abashed, actually, at how little I knew going into it last year—the more I want to read about it. Which is good, not just for my own curiosity, but because I like to smother a subject.

It’s not enough to know just what’s on the syllabus, but all those bits and lines which both feed into and lead away from those topics. Or, to put it another way, if I want to cover a 4×4 square, I have to paint 6×6 or 8×8. Last year, it was more like 5×5 or even 4 1/2×4 1/2; this year, I think I’ll be closer to 6×6.

The over-painting metaphor no longer works for my bioethics course, which I’ve been teaching for years. Now, it’s about adding dimensions, tipping things over, and, most importantly, being willing to rip apart the fabric in front of the students. I’m now so comfortable with my knowledge of the subject that I’m willing to shred that knowledge, to say, What else is there?

Boredom while teaching a long-taught subject is always a risk—as I noted, I got bored teaching version 2 of Politics & Culture—but teaching long allows one really bring out the sheen on a topic. The problem with v. 2 was that while I cared some, I didn’t care enough about the central topic to want to spend time with it even when I wasn’t teaching it.

That’s not a problem with Weimar, or with biotech. I want to know, for myself, and it’s this greediness which in turn makes me excited to share.





Doctor, my eyes

25 08 2016

I’m a little paranoid about teaching.

No, not the students or the work itself, but the schedule: when do classes start, end, what are the switch-up days (CUNY always has switch-up days, when, say, a Friday becomes a Tuesday, in order to balance out the schedule), what’s the room number, when do classes meet.

Shoulda double-checked on that last one.

I’ve been on a TThF fall schedule for, mm, years. I teach 2 classes TTh, then one on Friday; this works for me.

WELL, today I traveled up to the Bronx for the first day of my 300-level bioethics class, was in the office about to make copies of my syllabus, when one of the work-study students said she was looking forward to my class on Monday.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Nooooooo.

Yep.

The woman in charge of scheduling this course didn’t switch the days, didn’t know why the days were switched, couldn’t do anything about it. (I didn’t really expect her to do anything—the students have already registered, so there’s little to be done—but I did want to find out what was what.) Make sure you check your schedule, she said, helpfully.

But I diiiiiiiiid, I wailed, when I ordered my books. Coulda sworn I saw TTh!

Nope. Did not see TTh.

Now, this situation isn’t as bad as it could be, i.e., having to spend money and time traversing to the Bronx 5 instead of 3 days a week: my second TTh class is for a program which hasn’t yet registered students (classes start and end later).  The guy who runs it is great, and was willing to request a schedule change; the acting chair of my dept is my friend Jtte, who said she’d sign off on the request as well.

So, while it’s not certain that I’ll get a MWF as opposed to MTWThF schedule, there’s a pretty good chance I will.

Now, that same work-study student also said the course was an online class, which, OH HELL NO it is not; happily, she was wrong about that part.

One last thing, just to make this day super-duper: the water in my building has been turned off all week 8-4ish. This hasn’t been a problem for my new, late-night sched because, well, in the summer I take a shower in the early evening anyway. However, since I [thought I] taught this afternoon, I got up at 7:30am to shower. (Okay, I then went back to bed until 10, but, y’know, that second sleep is never as good as the first one.)

SUCH A FINE DAY.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, well, it actually could have been worse: the semester could have begun on Wednesday, and I’d have missed the first day.

If I get to choose my fuck-ups (which I don’t, but go with me on this one), I’d much rather have a semi-wasted—I had errands in Manhattan planned—trip than a missed class.

But what a fuckin’ way to start the semester.