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Showing posts from January, 2016

Waterloo and the Blue Note

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The Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked in the best British tradition of understatement that the Battle of Waterloo was "a near-run thing."  And that's not a bad description of my life over the last week: a near-run thing.  It really could have been a disaster.

Let me explain.  After a fall sabbatical, I've made the return jump to light speed and am now teaching 14 credits, serving on two standing committees, two task forces, and I stupidly agreed to become temporary coordinator of our honors program. But that's all background because last week was really special: four Promotions and Tenure meetings, a candidate interview and all the while I was manically trying to stay ahead of a grading avalanche as a slow and steady snowfall of papers and assignments floated silently down upon me each day.

Throughout last week, too, I could see in my pedagogical peripheral vision a few of  my new baby freshmen beginning to manifest the kind of week-three behavior that…

The glory and sorrow of the autodidact

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I had an undergraduate professor who was a great devotee of William Faulkner, an author that never really clicked for me.  I admired that professor, though, and for her sake I repeatedly tried to get into him, but it never took.  I recall reading somewhere that Faulkner's unique voice and style might not have developed had he been less isolated from the literary winds of the 20s and 30s.  Apparently he did once make the writer's pilgrimage to Manhattan, but after a few months clerking in a bookstore he went home to Oxford, Mississippi, and wrote his way to a Nobel Prize.

In truth, Faulkner was probably never as removed from the larger literary scene as the legend would have it, so his reputation as an exotic self-creation is maybe a little overblown.  Still, there remains an allure to the idea of the solitary genius or autodidact.  There's an assumption that by doing it alone, you are better positioned to hit upon something fresh and wonderful.  I find this idea attractiv…

The walk to the stream

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I try not to get too zen about fly fishing.  There's already too much of that stuff around (The Dharma of Dry Flies, The Satori of Steelhead).   Even so, I can see how some guys get that way.  The elements of the pastime--streams, currents, nature, sky--lend themselves a little too easily to reflection and metaphor.

In his wonderful essay Everything that Rises, Everything that Flies, the author and fly fisherman Ted Leeson notes that the surface of the water is a border between two worlds: the world of the air and sky, where we reside, and the mysterious watery world of fish with its depths and currents, a world the fisherman can only imagine.  Leeson writes,
A drifting fly is a series of questions inscribed on the surface:  "Are the trout here?"  "Have I alarmed them?"  "Does the fly pattern resemble something that belongs in this place?"-- in short, "Have I accurately inferred the principles by which the river works?"  

At the instant of the…

Struldbrugs

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One of the benefits of teaching a book for many years is noticing  how your own reading of it changes with time.  I have taught Gulliver's Travels every spring for the past 17 years and it remains as fresh and relevant a rumination on the human condition as any statement you can find. 

The genius of Swift's critique is his nimble use of satire and irony to unfold the lie of human progress.  By transplanting Gulliver, his 18th century Everyman, to a series of bizarre societies he is able to contrast a representative European sensibility with other sets of values and ideals. 

Readers see these strange worlds through Gulliver's eyes, but at times they also see Gulliver's hypocrisy in criticizing customs and beliefs that are little better than his own. In fact, as Gulliver passes judgment on the people he meets, we in turn pass judgment on him and by extension ourselves.

Take politics, for instance.  While Gulliver is touring the Academy of Lagado, an institution fil…

Providence or atoms?

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I wrote the other day about a course whose design I have been struggling with for a while (The Muses of Bad Timing).  It just has never come together even though my students haven't seemed to notice or complain. Still I have never been happy with it.  Then, while proofing the syllabus, it occurred to me how I could redesign the entire thing around a few interrelated questions.  

Thinking about it now all I can say is "duh."  Why didn't I see this earlier?  Indeed, all of the courses that I am most comfortable with are hung on simple but broad philosophical questions. I mean that's where learning always begins, right?  With a thought-provoking question.  Duh. 

Here, for example, are the questions for each of my courses.
INTS 121: Nature and Human Nature: How do we define humanness and what are the implications of our definitions?Core Seminar II: "Kosmopolite": Why do human beings sometimes deny the humanity and equality of others of their kind? Is this inev…