I spent most of today writing up my Nussbaum/Sloterdijk/Ulmer/SF Zero article, turning handwritten rough draft into (sloppily) typed rough draft. A fun process. Essentially, I critique Nussbaum's connection between critical thinking and empathy, and argue instead for a post-pedagogical, non-critical, self-explorative thinking alongside a call for local action. More on this to come.

A colleague stepped in and returned a book he borrowed last year--Mark C. Taylor's Moment of Complexity. Flipping through the pages, I came to a passage that rifted nicely with my writing; Taylor:

Through his deconstructive analyses, Derrida attempts to disrupt digital technologies and the systems they produce by turning the digital divide into a rupture that can never be overcome. However, his critique is, in the final analysis, ineffective: deconstruction changes nothing. While exposing systems and structures as incomplete and perhaps repressive, deconstruction inevitably leaves them in place. This is not merely because deconstruction involves theoretical analyses instead of practical action but also because of the specific conclusions reached by the theoretical critique. Instead of showing how totalizing structures can actually be changed, deconstruction demonstrates that the tendency to totalize can never be overcome, and, thus, that repressive structures are inescapable. For Derrida and his followers, all we can do is to join in the Sisyphean struggle to undo what cannot be done. (65)

Essentially, I accuse Nussbaum of something similar to what Taylor accuses Derrida--of a kind of navel-gazing philosophy that does not adequately address the complications of real world change. I do think Taylor is intentionally under-reading (is that a thing?) Derrida here in order to set up his later articulation of complexity (one that draws quite heavily on this "useless" deconstruction). Deconstruction, I think, can suggest to us the necessity of approaching change on a local and concrete level--it is not necessarily inevitable that we leave structures in place.


Fall 2011 Reading Lists

I was doing so well posting here. I even got a comment from Dave Weinberger. And then last week happened.

I spent most of today finishing my syllabi for the fall and submitting my book orders. Here's how my two classes shape up:

Historical Rhetorics

  • Week One (summer reading, discussed week one): Gorgias, Republic VII
  • Week Two: Phaedrus, ???
  • Week Three – Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book 1-2
  • Week Four – Aristotle's Rhetoric, Book 3, Isocrates' "Against the Sophists"
  • Week Five – Isocrates' Antidosis w/ Welch "An Isocratic Literary Theory" and Vitanza “Isocrates, the Padeia, and Imperialism”
  • Week Six - Paper Day #1
  • Week Seven - Gorgias / Protagoras, Dissoi Logoi, Plato's Timaeus (w/ Ulmer, Heuretics 61-78; Schiappa “Toward an Understanding…” 64-85)
  • Week Eight - Vitanza (chapters 1, Ex. 6) / Jarratt (all of Rereading the Sophists) / Poulakous “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”
  • Week Nine - McComiskey (chapters 1 and 2) / Consigny (Chapters 4, 5, and 6)
  • Paper Day #2
  • Week Eleven – Cicero (De Oratore, Book 1 and 3)
  • Week Twelve – Quintilian (from books 1, 2, and 10) / Lanham, “The Q Question”
  • Week Thirteen - Augustine's On Christian Teaching
  • Week Fourteen - Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue
  • Week Fifteen - Grassi's Rhetoric and Philosophy (w/ Proctor on Petrarch)
  • Week Sixteen - Paper Day #3

Yup. That's a lot of reading.

Last time I taught the course, I concluded with Locke and Campbell, Whatley, and Blair, to give some frame of the Enlightenment's disparagement of rhetoric (and its later emphasis on rhetoric as style). But I think Ong's explication of Ramus does that sufficiently; this time I want to dig into the humanist rejection of Cicero's "civic obligation" as our concluding note.

New Media

My undergrad students will read four books next semester:

  • Kalman, Maria. And The Pursuit of Happiness 1594202672
  • Stolley, Karl. How to Design and Write Web Pages Today 0313380384
  • Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous 0805088113
  • Ulmer, Gregory L. Internet Invention 0321126920

I've already read everything here. This will be my first time teaching Weinberger, but I think it will compliment our New Media Wiki project nicely.

So that's what I am reading this fall--what are others looking forward to?


"Unschooling" and David Weinberger

Today a student shared a piece appearing over at the Washington post on education, focusing on debates over class sizes. The piece details two general approaches to education--the first teacher driven, the second student driven. This second approach the article refers to as "unschooling," since it emphasizes how learning has to involve developing independent initiative Coincidentally, I was reading through David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous today (at student asked about the books I would be teaching in my New Media class this fall, I've decided to try Weinberger). Flipping through my Weinberger, I came to the following page contrasting what Weinberg identifies as social knowing to traditional, teacher-driven notions of knowledge and education:

Now poke your head into a classroom toward the end of the school year. In Massachusetts, where I live, you're statistically likely to see students with their heads bowed, using no. 2 pencils to fill in examinations mandated by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Fulfilling the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the MCAS measures how well schools are teaching the standardized curricula the state has formulated and whether students are qualified for high school degrees. Starting with the third grade, students' education is now geared toward those moments every year when the law requires that they sit by themselves and answer questions on a piece of paper. The implicit lesson is unmistakable: Knowing is something done by individuals. It is something that happens inside your brain. The mark of knowing is being able to fill in a paper with the right answers. Knowledge could not get any less social. In fact, in those circumstances when knowledge is social we call it cheating.

Nor could the disconnect get much wider between the official state view of education and how our children are learning. In most American households, the computer on which students do their homework is likely to be connected to the Net. Even if their teachers let them use only approved sources on the Web, changes are good that any particular student, including your son or daughter, has four or five instant-messaging sessions open as she does homework. They have friends with them as they learn. In between chitchat about the latest alliances and factions among their social set, they are comparing answers, asking for help on tough questions, and complaining. Our children are doing their homework socially, even though they're being graded and tested as if they are doing their work in isolation booths. But in the digital order, their approach is appropriate. Memorizing facts is often now a skill more relevant to quiz shows than to life.

One thing is for sure: When our kids become teachers, they're not going to be administering tests to students sitting in a neat grid of separated desks with the shades drawn.

At least, we hope they won't. Weinberger's book was written in 2007--and the changes to education I have seen in Florida since moving here makes me wonder if Weinberger's certainty is so certain.


Teaching a Philosophy of Life

Today's snippet comes from a student's paper defending the value of his liberal arts major. One of the questions I posed this semester, while reading Academically Adrift and Not For Profit was whether Universities' missions included teaching values, or whether teaching values was the province of other social/cultural institutions (family/church). For the most part, my students resisted discussing this question. But one student took up the question in his paper, and noted how research points to a decline among students in prioritizing values; he cites a 2000 study by Pace and Connolly ("Where are the Liberal Arts?"):

In 1966 the percent of students saying that ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ was an essential or very important goal was 80%, but in 1996 it was down to 42%. The materialist goal of ‘being well off financially’ was regarded as essential or very important by 45% in 1966, but in 1996 it was up to 74%” (Pace 54)

I'm looking forward to reading the whole article because I am especially interested in the parameters of those numbers. Of course, the social demographics of college enrollment have transformed significantly since 1966, especially in light of Vietnam spikes in enrollment. And our economy has transformed as well, such that now there are fewer career options available to those without college education.


Rotten With Perfection

Burke fans will probably enjoy today's offerings from one of my favorite sites, Slaughterhouse 90210.

Ethical Learning, Responsibility, and Assessment

A long time ago, when I first became enamored with the possibilities of digital communication and deconstruction, I remember constructing a piece on spectrality and student work. I was proud when the piece won a Parlor Press award at Purdue for Best Multimedia Project, and a bit disappointed when it was rejected for publication at Kairos (though I can't blame them, the thing is a mess). Essentially, the piece emphasized how rhetorical practice involves more than a knowledge of and ability to enact Aristotelian tactics--that interacting with real, responsible (que Levinas) human beings requires a pathetic sensitivity and strength, and that the only way to gain that strength is engage in situations that leave us "weak," out of control, beholden to a spectral other/future over which we can have no mastery or assurance.

I remembered this piece today reading over a Chronicle piece on Assessment and Ethical Learning. One cannot materialize ghosts, nor can one accurately measure an individual's response to the affective rush of alterity, the traumatizing experience of facing an Other that calls a self into question, the infinity that interrupts totality (etc), outside of the radical encounter itself. Recreating that situation is (virtually?) impossible. I'd link to think--in the best cases--that the blogging pedagogy I've been working on approaches the problem; but I certainly wouldn't claim it solves it, or that it in anyway ensures ethical responses. Rather, it makes possible this kind of encounter, and aims to cultivate a responsible (que Levinas again, in this case a response that weighs the other to the neighbor while recognizing the inevitability that violence will occur) response. As the article intimates, there is an issue of kairos to ethical learning largely irrelevant to critical and epistemological pedagogies:

"It is really hard to measure ethical learning because it's not declarative or semantic knowledge, but, like any expertise, it is knowing the right thing to do in the right way at the right time," says Darcia F. Narváez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. In her research, she has found that intuition plays such a big role in moral decisions that she argues it is a mistake to ignore its influence.

As the article further complicates, such attempts run into trouble once they begin to determine what/whose particular values are right. One reason I enjoy Levinas so much is that his work doesn't articulate a morality (hence, it does not belong to logos). Rather, it attempts to establish, via pathos, a mood from which we can hospitably approach those impossible, but necessary questions. Levinas' phenomenological account of subjectivity dis-posess us of any claim to a spontaneous, autonomous foundation, thus, I hope, generating an embodied dis-position from which we can ethically approach argumentation (remembering that we dispute with other people, rather than with mere ideas). Ethics, when I deploy the term, doesn't mean to signify a list of truths, or even an accepted collection of moral laws. Rather, it speaks to the cultivation of a spectral subjective attitude, a pre-condition to productive human encounters. Referring to yesterday's post on Tim Morton, it is the cultivation of a dis-position both open and weird. Irrational though it may be, argumentation is not a matter of simply deploying proper arguments or upholding the proper morality.

As I continue to work on my Nussbaum article, its articulation of post-pedagogy, and the emphasis of ethics over critique, I am caught up in contemporary will to assess. I am trying, hard, to avoid adopting an intellectual position anti-thetical to standardized assessments, especially after reading Academically Adrift such a move would feel reactionary and stupid. Thinking about the kinds of qualitative assignments in Academically Adrift, I am beginning to have new appreciation for the CLA test they endorse. I feel much more obligated to acknowledge and endorse such maneuvers; if we do not cultivate more sophisticated forms of assessment, then we could be burdened (in the post-Spellings Commission, hyper-attentive, economically-crisised-driven University) with something much worse. In my article I deal with recent "reforms," by the CollegeBoard, in Florida's primary and secondary schools--they are now driven by a scripted, day-to-day program accompanied by standardized tests leaving little room for kairos and invention on the part of teachers. To say that such rigid policing could not come to higher education is, I believe, a dangerous stance.

And, if you haven't read Academically Adrift yet, and you teach writing, then I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is. Sure, there are methodological issues with their study (I remember Pat Sullivan emphasizing how, when people want to reject a conclusion, they begin by attacking the methodology), but the picture they paint of learning on contemporary campuses warrants attention and response.


Very Large Finitude and Ecological Irony

Figure/Ground is featuring an interview with Timothy Morton, professor of ecology, theory, and literature. Morton was first brought to my attention last fall by a grad student in my Contemporary Rhetorics class. This snippet from the interview grabbed my attention, especially given my interest in Levinas' concept of (metaphysical) infinity and posthumanism (something fairly anti-thetical to Levinas' own thought).

No, what is ironic enough is ecological awareness. Why? Because we have a situation in which we have enormously increased knowledge of the nonhuman—global warming, evolution, extinction, on and on. Yet we are also overwhelmed by these nonhumans, and, to top it off, for precisely the same reasons. The ecological age is what I call the age of asymmetry. We have a huge amount of knowledge and there is a huge amount of objects, and those things are like giant asymmetrically related spheres. The more we know, the more we realize how embedded we are in radiation, pollution, the biosphere, risks of all kinds on huge inhuman time scales. Like the half-life of Plutonium is 24.1 thousand years. One hundred thousand years from now seven percent of global warming effects will still be happening as the carbon is slowly absorbed by igneous rocks. Infinity, inner space, Kantian stuff is so much easier on the ego than this, which I call very large finitude.

Ecological irony is realizing how caught in your reality you are. It’s like finding out that you’re frozen inside some gigantic Perspex paperweight. You can see everything—I can Google Earth the fish in my mum’s pond in London for heaven’s sake. Yet for this very reason, you just can’t peel yourself out of the Perspex.


Ecological irony doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means doing something and feeling something very intense, yet open and weird. “They were going to make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their army anymore” (Apocalypse Now).