Sunday, September 20, 2009

American Conservatism Lacks Political Imagination

(((Irving Kristol dies; who is left on the American right? cons and neo-cons; who's left on the American left?)))

Hey, it isn't me. I'm just quoting Irving Kristol:
Kristol adds, "American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It's so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left." He goes on, "If you read Marx, you'd learn what a political imagination could do."
As I noted in a comment on FB, it's not like there's a lot of imagination in the American left these days, which I am tempted to say (à la Badiou) is too dominated by party culture and party modes of thinking, when it's not dominated by the false hope of achieving its goals through the Dem party. But I'll admit I'm not prepared to elaborate on that stuff yet. That's coming when I get around to posting on The Meaning of Sarkozy.

Thanks to Doug for remembering this quote from this old but still very interesting essay of Corey Robin's.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Finding your way through (a) book(s)

(((Prep school ditches physical books in favor of digital "books;" what about the "geographical" aspects of reading?)))

A Boston Globe story about Cushing Academy ditching their library for some Kindles is making the rounds. There is, of course, much to quibble with in this decision, including this peculiar way of framing it:
“Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we’re building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books,’’ said Tracy, whose office shelves remain lined with books. “We see this as a model for the 21st-century school.’’
I really don't understand why "traditional library" and "virtual library" are mutually exclusive. Except, maybe, for bad pricing models.

My main reason for preferring to do my Serious Reading with books, rather than on my laptop or a reader, is that I have yet to find a reading device that lets me interact with the text in the same way that a book does. For the minimal cost of a pencil (or perhaps a Sharpie acid-free pen, ahem), I can react to the book in the book, including circling and drawing lines and writing notes, connecting notes to each other or places in the text, and connecting pieces of the text to each other. Some of this can be done digitally, but some of it so far cannot -- especially the drawing of lines.

But that is not going to be my Argument For Books.

My AFB is about geography.

Argument Part the First
When I read a physical text, I get a feel for where in the text something is, literally, physically, "geographically" where. I know it's at the beginning, the middle, the end, at the top of a page, on a "left-hand" page or a "right-hand" page, and so on. This physical, tactile aspect of reading contributes to memory, which a forthcoming post will say is essential to the very possibility of critical, analytical thinking. What I worry about with screen reading, and I do it all the time, by the way, is that this geographic aspect of reading gets lost, and then our reading bypasses a lot of the mental architecture we have for remembering things we've read. For shorter stuff, this "geographical" aspect doesn't matter -- there's not enough geography to the text. For War and Peace or Being and Time or The Odyssey, on the other hand? That said, this way of reading might suit many Christians in their approach to the Bible, where verses devoid of historical or textual context stand entirely alone, or, conversely, it is more important to look back at Zechariah to understand that passage in Matthew than to read the rest of the story in Matthew.

Argument Part the Second
Space is not only important in terms of one's interaction with a single book, but also in terms of one's interaction with multiple books or even texts of shorter length. Colleagues of mine recently expressed frustration at how little of a text they could see at once when they're writing (one of the reasons I sometimes compose online, but for my longer stuff I always edit a printed copy). This limitation applies in spades to working with multiple texts: there is nothing like working on a problem where you are dealing with multiple texts and/or multiple readings of those texts, and having the books spread out on a table or desk in front of you. This is just not the same as flipping between windows on screen, even though the screen in that case takes on a geographical element, and of course the idea of a desktop or of "screen real estate" uses spatial metaphors.

The problem is that there isn't enough space, and it's simply not malleable enough. It can't be. Why not? While in certain respects you could say that there are infinite dimensions in a computer screen, the truth is that, in terms of the ways humans process visual information, there are not. The visual information communicated by a single book in your hands, or by piles of books and articles and note papers strewn about a desk is richer and more intuitive, taking in the scene tells you about what you have in front of you without your even thinking about it.* How deep is a stack of windows on your computer? It could be a hundred, or it could be two, but how would you know? On a table, you just look, and you don't even think about it. The flattening effect of the screen is in this respect positively debilitating. And we know this, which is why people talk about screen real estate in the first place: we know it matters to have stuff spread out in front of you, rather than buried in a virtual pile. Programmers and designers want big monitors because they need to be able to see stuff easily and not always be shuffling windows from the front to the back -- or top to bottom -- note how there is no difference when we talk about computer screens. It's the simple difference between two and three physical -- not virtual -- dimensions.

I love my computers. Both of them. Couldn't live without them. But they are not replacements for books. And thinking about my comments above about editing, by the way, has me thinking about the effects of this spatial/geographical problem and blog posts . . .

* See the forthcoming post of an article from a cognitive scientist about human processing of information, and in particular the relation of thinking to memory. In short: we remember more than we think, and rely on memory more than we rely on "new" thinking, and even when we think, we think using stuff we remember. So, learning to think is not just a matter of learning "how to think", understood as some pure or abstract skill divorced from content. And content is not just a matter of having something to think about, but of having something to think with. Learning to think is, in fact, in no small part, learning content.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Active Learning is Passive, Too

(((The latest and greatest in ed theory; did anyone ever learn anything before there were education departments? I should note that when I say "our students" and "my students," below, I am speaking in very broad strokes, about students in general, not about any student or students in particular. The question here is pedagogy and how we ought to approach teaching our students. I was working on this before the semester started, so: emphatically not a response to any particular classroom experience.)))

I'm getting really sick and tired of the discourse and attitude around so-called "active learning." This latest shibboleth (although it is not terribly new, by the way) says "passive learning" is bad, and what we're doing if we lecture (which I actually almost never do, anyway, but I'm pretty good at it when I do) -- or, worse, if we don't do the spiffy in-class projects classified as "active" -- is relegate students to passivity, and, so, to not actually learning.

Maybe our students could learn to take in lectures and discussions ACTIVELY, so that, you know, they could ask questions. Why is a conversation or lecture passive? Because students let it be. I don't remember ever in my life listening to a lecture and not thinking about it, even if I thought it was crap. If I wasn't thinking about it, I wasn't listening to it. At all. I read the same way. Unless thinking is passive, there is an issue when "active learning" doesn't include "active listening."

Ah, but here is the problem. Our students approach listening exactly the same way they approach reading: passively. Reading is not supposed to be any work. Textbooks, alas, encourage this, and that is why I don't use them. I make my students buy and read real books. And as far as I can tell, they skim lectures, trying to figure out what the word or fact is that they're supposed to write down -- so they don't know at all how to parse discussion, for example, and in the case of lectures, they don't pay attention until they've heard a word or phrase that sounds like it ought to be written down . . . by which time, they will have missed everything or almost everything that makes said word or phrase meaningful. There are certainly poor lecturers in the world, but this does not make lectures as such the cause of passive listening. Passive listeners are the cause of passive listening; or my other (not mutually exclusive) pet theory is that this what they've been taught to do in middle school and high school. It's the same reason they always ask for "study guides," by which they mean lists of things they're supposed to memorize. They've been trained that they're going to be told what they have to "know" (="memorize"), and then they just have to jump through the hoops they've been told will be there (that's called "taking a test").

On the other side, I'm trying to figure out exactly what is "active" about "active learning" when students are running mazes we've designed for them. Sure they have to do stuff. I get that. They are supposed to "use" the stuff they "know" (although where content comes in is frankly not always clear), and of course the activities aren't supposed to be rat mazes. But what about students coming up with their own problems based on reading I give them? When and how do they learn to do that except by doing it? And why isn't that considered an "activity"?

Am I just being reactionary?

I want my students to learn lots of things, but the single most important thing I've seen is that students don't know how to read actively. That is the main thing I try to teach, I guess. And a lot of them hate it. But when they learn how to do it, they're then ready to actually start thinking and talking creatively about what they've read, past the first layer of understanding what they've read. They're ready to stop thinking that everything they read should be transparent and not cause confusion. They're past the point where they think that being confused is a bad thing, rather than a place you spend some time as part of the process of learning things. Indeed, if you keep learning, you spend a lot of time in confusion. If you're not confused at points, you're not being challenged by anything.

Or maybe I am just making that up. I certainly don't think it's the only thing they need to learn, or that everyone needs to teach this, or teach it the way I do. On the contrary. But I think I am pretty good at this stuff, and it gets under my skin that so many people think I am just that lazy about my teaching, or so disconnected from "the learning side" of teaching, that I need charts fit for sixth-graders and exercises designed to reveal to me my misconceptions that work as if they were designed for high-schoolers.

I can't help thinking that Socrates had no whiteboards and no PowerPoint (maybe that was his secret!). Siddhartha Gautama didn't distribute rubrics. Thomas Aquinas never passed out study guides before the disputatio.

Maybe here's the other thing, and maybe this for me has always been the hardest part of teaching, the tough nut to crack, the main thing I still think I work on: how do you teach students that sometimes there is no right answer, or no one right answer? How do you put them in a position to understand this? And then to start figuring what to do with it?

I teach a lot of religion, where you can imagine this kind of approach leads to a lot of anxiety and misunderstanding, and so I am very attuned to the finer points of managing it. But maybe that is something to pick up in a second post, where maybe I should also address the difficulty of making this point (about no right answer and what to do with it) in classrooms filled overwhelmingly with students convinced that "everyone has a right to their own opinion," by which they inevitably mean, "stop trying to persuade me of something other than what I already believe to be the case."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Parking in Boston

(((re-tweet, you might say: humor; this month in history; why not?)))

This month's historic dates from the Somerville (Boston-ish) Public Library. Turns out, Bostonians have been complaining about parking since, well, forever.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Quote of the Day: There is no such thing as the State

(((Auden; "September 1, 1939;" Badiou should have written about this, if he didn't, because it really is about communism; I've had it with Thatcher, too.)))

From "September 1, 1939," a poem Auden was "ashamed" of, the famous stanza he struck from at least one printing of it:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
I have written before of Badiou's view of the state, and in particular the communist negation of the state. Thatcher might have agreed (with Auden and Badiou) that there is no such thing as the state, but Auden insists that "no one exists alone." If Thatcher's "there are only individuals" means "there are only people who exist alone," then Auden, at least, knows she is wrong, that people being people live in communities. There is, he says, a human community, a community that is not "the State" (meaning not just national governments, but even local ones), the community in which we exist with other human beings. And whether you are the individual or the representative of the state, you face the same question, the same choice -- to live in that community, with others, or to die alone. This is, I think, the "one world" Badiou takes as a political principle. Not a statement of fact, but an assertion of principle. Whereas the State always presupposes its outside, presupposes (at least) two worlds (but probably really three -- the non-state governed by the state, and the Other State, both of which are threats to the order imposed/maintained by the state).

In one printed version of this poem, Auden rewrites the last line of the above stanza to read, "We must love one another, and die." If you read the whole poem, this makes sense, since it seems so much to be about how death is always with us. So the idea that we can escape death by loving one another is kind of ridiculous, at best, and "the romantic lie in the brain," at worst. But the point is still taken -- we must indeed love one another in order for us to live with each other, and so to live longer, better lives, even if not to become immortal.

Although perhaps, in a way, we become that, too, by loving one another. But that would be another post.

I am certain that I have seen or read (or both) Badiou discussing a part of an Auden poem. I can't find this reference and don't know if it's this poem. I kind of hope it is, since it fits and would slot right into the paper I am working on, but I also hope it's not, so that I can appear momentarily to be clever by making the connection. I'll follow up if I find it, but I would also be happy to have it pointed out to me. Actually, anything where Badiou discusses Auden at all would be helpful.