Robot rights

From the "the distinction between social science and science fiction may not be all that great" department:

Robots could demand legal rights.

Courtesy of the BBC (of course).

The UK's chief science advisor commented that ""We're not in the business of predicting the future, but we do need to explore the broadest range of different possibilities to help ensure government is prepared in the long-term and considers issues across the spectrum in its planning." Where have I heard something like that before? Oh yes, here:

“All they’re [science fiction authors] trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes: listen, listen.” (from Ursula LeGuin's Introduction to her marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness)

In both cases, we have imaginative extrapolation for the sake of shedding some light on the present -- and perhaps helping us prepare to face the future by revealing possibilities and potentialities that we weren't aware of before.

Food for thought.


Grading strategies

1) take breaks. I mean, my attention is going to wander anyway, so trying to just do nothing but grade for eight or nine hours is not really feasible. Hence, a number of timed breaks to browse the web, eat, etc. makes for a more productive grading experience overall.

2) switch courses and assignments. After a morning dealing with the blogs from one of my classes, I am now switching over to the final papers from another. This is good because a) the topics of the courses are somewhat different, so there's no sense of fatigue from remaining in the same intellectual place for too long; b) the formats of the assignments are different, so reading the final papers is a different experience than reading the blogs -- also helps me stay focused; and c) the cast of characters is different -- different students -- so there's a diminished likelihood than while grading student X's paper I'll be wondering whether student X's blogging or class participation was in fact as good or as poor as I graded it, and thus not be focused on student X's actual paper that is in front of me on the computer screen.

3) set aside several days. Sleep is a good thing -- kind of a system-reboot that allows me to start fresh the next day. Of course, the first thing I do at the start of a new grading day is to look back at the last thing I graded the night before, just to make sure I wasn't unfair (either unduly harsh or unduly generous) because of tiredness.

4) remember that it will all be over soon . . . especially in my case, because I am going on sabbatical next semester so I have zero teaching responsibilities until July. That's the prize on the other side -- the chance to read, to reflect, to catch up on some things and start some new ones. I love teaching -- it's the most important part of my vocation -- but sometimes even I need an extended break. (Not a "vacation"; those I get sometimes. No, I mean a break: a time to, as the ancients put it, let the fields lie fallow, and see what emerges.)

Everything changes in a couple of weeks, then -- it's hard to have "course diaries" when one isn't teaching a course. Got to do something about that. But first, more grading.


Virgin (lizard) births

Thanks to the magic of rss feeds, this little gem from the BBC:

"We will be on the look-out for shepherds, wise men and an unusually bright star in the sky over Chester Zoo."

Apparently, Komodo dragons are capable of parthogenesis. Who knew?

Scary Mary!

This is quite awesome:

Mashups are such fun.

Courtesy of Infocult.



This is hysterical, especially for those of us of a certain age who can remember incessantly playing Zork and other text-based adventure games:

And then I was eaten by a grue.

(It's about grading, really it is -- hence the post title.)

Courtesy of PTSD.

Shaking it up a bit

I'm redecorating here at ProfPTJ's blog. Why? Because I can, and because I have considerably more pressing things to do.

Blogging: useful, productive, and also potentially a major time-suck and way of avoiding actual work.



Interesting article in today's NYT about college tuition. It seems that many people are more interested in attending a college with a higher tuition than in attending a college with a lower tuition -- or even the same college with a lower tuition. Places like Ursinus College in Pennsylvania -- a place where I interviewed for a job once upon a time -- have discovered that by raising tuition, they can increase the number of applicants and enrollments. They increased their enrollments by 35% over four years.

Now, most of this increase is illusory, because the colleges that have made this work end up increasing student financial aid by a comparable, or even greater, amount than than the tuition increase itself. But the strategy seems to be working. Among other things, the article reports on "a study asking students to choose between a college charging $20,000 and offering no aid, and one charging $30,000 and offering a $10,000 scholarship. Students chose the pricier option." I find this fascinating both because it's strictly speaking irrational (both institutions cost $20,000 out of pocket) and because of what it implies about what people are looking for in a college: some kind of prestige label? A demonstration of Veblen-eqsue "conspicuous consumption"? Or is this just another demonstration of the consumerist logic that more expensive products must be better, otherwise they wouldn't be so expensive? [This last is a very misleading claim, actually, since it implicitly rests on the idea that the market sets fair prices for goods…which is precisely what is not happening in this case, even though the belief that it is seems to be driving the consumption behavior in question.]

This little bit of "creative accounting" also says, distressingly, that a certain group of Americans seem to believe that higher education is the exclusive province of rich people. There's something inherently daunting about a tuition in the $30-$40,000 a year range, even if a not inconsiderable amount of that figure comes back to the student in the form of financial aid and other credits. And let's be honest: the vast majority of universities don't need to take in anywhere like that much in tuition. Yes, faculty salaries have to be paid and facilities management have to be paid for, but in many places the endowment and other categories of alumni giving are sufficient to cover a lot of those expenses. So why not cut tuition and just make the whole endeavor more affordable? Apparently, the reason is in no small part so that a university isn't perceived as offering a discount or cut-rate product.

I wonder what it is about education that prevents the "normal" logic of the market from working to drive prices down to the lowest level commensurate with continued operations. In almost any other market, if one could offer a quality product cheaper then one could reap major benefits until the other producers either lowered their prices or produced demonstrably better-quality products. Maybe it's the lack of a standard metric for evaluating the output of an educational process -- and by "lack" I mean less "regrettable absence" than "fortunate ambiguity about what it means to be educated." [I say "fortunate" because although I have my own ideas on that subject, ideas that revolve around a kind of critical disposition, I know that not everyone else in higher education shares them -- so the absence of a standard metric means that I can keep on making the case for my definition rather than having to conform to an established definition.] Or maybe it's the fact that so much of what one buys when attending a pricey, prestigious institution of higher education is the brand name rather than any particular educational experiences. Or maybe it's the fact that the market for higher education is divided into oligopolistic cliques, a situation that prevents genuinely open competition.

In any event, these kinds of perverse pricing strategies seem to work in the academic marketplace. But even if they work, they make me uneasy; raising tuition and simultaneously raising financial aid seems to me to be entirely too ethically questionable a move. I'd greatly prefer that colleges and universities develop better ways of communicating their distinctive take on the educational process, so that students and their parents could be informed shoppers (as it were). The question shouldn't be "how much are we paying for this?" but rather "what are we getting for our money?" There are obviously a lot of answers to that question, and I think it incumbent on a college or university to accurately set expectations up front when recruiting and publicizing. We should talk more about the experience, and let the tuition figures take care of themselves (which means: let tuition bills be set based on operating expenses and the like, and not on watching peer institutions and trying to charge as much as they charge). An institution of higher education ought to be more about embodying a vision than about turning a profit -- or about charging as much as it can get away with charging, just because it can. Better to attract students through an innovative program than through duplicitous tuition bills.

[It occurs to me that "ProfPTJ's Course Diaries" may not be an accurate or representative title for this blog, because I talk about more than just my course experiences here. Hmm. Have to give that some more thought.]



Interesting article by Robert O'Hara over at insidehighered.com entitled "Hogwarts U." O'Hara runs The Collegiate Way, a treasure-trove of anecdotes and resources devoted to advancing the movement towards residential colleges in American higher education; he calls for a rather radical transformation of the undergraduate experience in a surprisingly ancient direction -- away from administratively-centralized universities, and towards smaller colleges, even if several of those colleges co-habitate the same university space. The basic idea here is to divide up the undergraduate population of a university into several smaller colleges, thus creating a more intimate community for the students (and faculty) to participate in as they engage both in courses and in extracurricular activities. It's a British house system, in effect, and since such a system is most familiar to American undergradiates from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, O'Hara alludes to that model when making his case for smaller residential units.

O'Hara puts forth "four organizational principles: decentralization, faculty leadership, social stability and genuine diversity" that should govern the establishment and management of residential college units. Decentralization gives us the intimate connections that a large centralized organization often lacks; social stability gives us a set of rituals and traditions that help the community (re)create itself over time; genuine diversity gives us a microcosm of the whole population out of which community can be (re)created. All of these are indeed, to my mind, critical. But the most vitally important of O'Hara's principles, I feel, is the principle of faculty leadership, without which a small college can turn into a kind of extended summer-camp. After all, the really distinctive thing about higher education is its educational character, and the bearers of that educational character are -- no surprise here -- the faculty, since that's what the faculty (ideally) does: they think about things, and then teach students what they uncover in the course of that thinking. And they facilitate student encounters with rich material, and with one another, and with the faculty-members themselves.

I'm not saying -- certainly not -- that no one else can bear that educational function. But to try to construct a residential college without faculty leadership would strike me as a waste of the best educational resource that one already has on a university campus. As O'Hara comments, residential colleges "return the management of campus life to the faculty" because "as faculty-led academic societies, are consciously crafted to provide a wide range of informal educational opportunities for their members day and night, week after week, year after year. Their object is to ensure that students’ formal learning in the classroom is integrated in every way with their external life in the world." Obviously this takes collaboration with the capable managers of the physical facilities, and with the rest of the administrative apparatus that ensures that students' needs are met. But I agree with O'Hara: the faculty have to lead it, because the faculty have the clearest sense of what that educational function is. It is, after all, their vocations.

Our University College is something of the kind of college that O'Hara advocates. It's still a pilot project, but it does decentralize certain aspects of the university and provide ample opportunities for collaboration and outside-of-the-classroom learning encounters. What it has not done, as yet, is to build much in the way of a group consciousness or awareness; there are all-University College events from time to time, but not the kind of continuing sense of participation in a common enterprise that, say, Gryffindor House provides. Perhaps it's because we don't compete with other houses for points throughout the year. Perhaps it's because the various members of University College don't live in the same place (although those enrolled in each course do live together). And maybe it's because we don't have an Albus Dumbledore -- or, indeed, any Headmaster.

All of these things would be useful at enhancing the sense of University College community, but in some ways I almost think that the appointment of a Headmaster would be the easiest and most significant. Someone who could be a living representative of the College, both a visible symbol and a permanent advocate. That, and a quidditch team, is perhaps all that stands between us and Hogwarts.


Saving the best for last

Sometimes, one needs a whole semester of class in order to get to the point -- intellectually, socially, culturally -- where one can have a really outstanding discussion. Something that just catches fire and overflows the banks, something that appears to have no order or logic to it at all because it's just rushing along like a river sweeping up everything in its path, going every which way at once…but somehow still connecting, both in the sense that the points seem to hang together and in the sense that everyone participates and contributes and helps out.

I was fortunate enough to have two of those class discussions in the past two days -- and one other really nice small-group session on Hegel. Actually, all of them were yesterday; not that today's discussion in World Politics wasn't quite good, but the tempo of it was somewhat subdued. These other discussions were wild, frenetic, in ways that my World Politics class has been at other times during the semester. But apparently my other two courses were waiting until the end of the semester to really let loose.

1) the most eclectic, bizarrely energetic discussion I've had in any classroom in a long time was in yesterday's sci-fi seminar. The starting-point was Iain M. Banks's brilliant novel Look to Windward, which is about liberal empire and suicide bombing and faith (among other things). Okay, that was the book we read, but the real starting-point was a student presentation on "World of Warcraft" that began with a demonstration of how to create a character and run around killing wolves and stuff, which was followed by a longish conversation about the differences between the "real" and "virtual" worlds -- and, naturally, some wrestling with the question of whether religions were in some sense virtual environments. (I say "naturally" because if you've read the novel, it's an obvious leap.) Then we had a break, and during the break a student drew a mathematical puzzle involving a triangle divided into parts on the chalkboard, and when we got back no one was really concentrating on the discussion as they tried to figure out the puzzle…so I stopped the discussion, and we collectively worked on the puzzle, which required a detour into trigonometry and plane geometry, which somehow got us to a discussion about fractals and mathematical truth and scientific truth and religious truth. And then Iraq, and a long bit about the oddity of copyright law and socially established standards of all kinds…then some more about Iraq and intervention and certainty in/and politics, which ended up (several minutes after class was supposed to end) with my blunt statement about the role that faith plays in Banks' novel, and how it is about surpassing knowledge and leaping into an abyss. Exhilarating.

2) neat little session on Hegel, during which two students and I spent some time ruminating on the legacy of the Enlightenment and the persistent drive to "make sense of it all" -- and whether, perhaps, that drive itself wasn't actually our perennial cultural and political problem? A bit more subdued, but high quality.

3) and then, the nightcap: in Masterworks, where we were dealing with Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, we spent a bit of time tossing things back and forth about the book when all of a sudden things kind of clicked and we really got into the low-level operation of the text, the way that the argument proceeds without really spelling out the logical steps involved but instead presses its points by appealing to sets of commonplaces (WWII good, My Lai massacre bad) with which it is hard to disagree, but then knits those commonplace images and shorthand references into a compelling chain of propositions that, nevertheless, doesn't stand up to criticism on empirical, logical, or methodological grounds -- but which is still oddly compelling nonetheless. "You can pick it apart, and pick it apart, and pick it apart, but there's still something there," I remember saying at one point. "It's not a disciplinary something, but it's not that easy to ignore." It either bothers you or it reassures you, but either way, it has an effect without being, strictly speaking, defensible by the standards of more specialized scholarship. This led to a longer meditation on the difference between disciplinary scholarship and the works of a public intellectual, which eventually got us to a point where we were worrying over the universality of claims that don't insist on their strongly universal character but which still aren't satisfied by being thought of as one person's opinion.

Excellent experiences all. And none of them were planned. I had no idea where we were going when I walked into any of the three of them; I just did my usual thing of pressing points as they arose, following threads as they presented themselves, weaving strands together somewhat freely and trusting that they'd turn out all right somehow…which they did. Brilliantly. It was true joint action at its best: no one of us did it, but we all did it collectively.

In the end, that's why I love teaching.


In the light of yesterday's discussion in my sci-fi seminar about MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, let me point out this new brand of crack that "they" are busily concocting in a lab someplace:

Firefly Reborn As Online Universe

All I can say, mixing cult sci-fi universes for a moment, is "frack me." That, and: "remember, kids, the first hit is free, but then you have to start paying by the dose." No one should ever let me anywhere near this game, because I might never come back out into rl.

But surely one hit wouldn't be so bad, right? No. NO. Keep that sh*t away from me.

But man do I want to dive in and play it when it's released.

Peanut butter and jelly

Taking off my jacket in my office after class yesterday, I was surprised and mortified to encounter a glob of something sticky on the inside of one of the lapels. Upon closer examination, it was revealed to be a dollop of peanut butter and jelly, which had presumably been deposited there when I ate my sandwich during one of the most amazingly eclectic class discussions I have ever had the good fortune to officiate in my teaching career (I'll say more about that in another post later today). Now, I ate my sandwich during the first hour or a two-and-a-half-hour class, and then got into my car and drove back over to the parking lot and then walked, accompanied, to the residence hall in which my office is located. And I didn't take off my jacket for several minutes after arriving, spending that time doing a few administrative tasks in full view of more than one student. When I did take off my jacket and found the offending smear, I also discovered that the substance had managed to get on both jacket lapels and on my tie, necessitating the dry cleaning of the whole outfit (since a little water from the bathroom sink was insufficient to dispose of the mess).

But here's the really important question: why did no one point this out to me? Why didn't someone say something? Was it because:

1) no one else saw it;

2) people saw but didn't think it appropriate to mention the fact that I was wearing part of my lunch;

3) people saw but figured that I had some kind of bizarre good reason for having a pb&j suit-and-tie combination;

4) people saw it but thought it was just completely normal and in-character for me to have food on my suit?

Puzzling. Intriguing in an ethnomethodological sense, too.


Watchmen parody

Okay, this is a bit twisted, but i found it hysterical:

Inkblot Confronts The Black Heart of Humanity

I suspect it's considerably less funny if you haven't read Watchmen -- and if you haven't, please go and do so now. Now. NOW.

I know I am running a couple of days behind on my 15 minutes of daily blogging. I'll try to make it up tomorrow. Now, more grading to do. Sigh.

World Politics Question #11, er, #12

Call this a "time machine" question: try a thought-experiment, thinking yourself ahead one hundred years to 2106. Will "introduction to world politics" courses still begin with a discussion of sovereignty and the system of sovereign territorial states? Will world politics be organized into such a system a hundred years from now, or not? Why?

[Yes, this is actually question #12. Sorry.]


Fifteen more minutes

I did my fifteen minutes of blogging yesterday -- more, in fact. And more than fifteen more minutes this morning. The result is over at Duck.


Next fifteen minutes

Okay, I promised, so I will blog before bedtime.

I am beginning to think that the operational definition of "close" is about fifteen minutes of travel-time. I think that holds for any kind of travel: walking, car, bicycle, etc. There's something about fifteen minutes, a quarter of an hour, that puts it slightly above "let me just stick my head next door" while still below "pack a lunch."

Whatever brings on this bizarre observation?

There are several reasons why my wife and I decided that, even though I was working in Coruscant, we would not buy a place in the city itself. Part of it was the generally poor school system in the city, and part of it was a desire for something a bit larger than was generally available in the city in our price range; both of these reasons were related to the immanent arrival of children. But we also decided to buy outside of the city because there was no way we could afford to live "close" to the university, which is in a rather expensive area of Coruscant (a three-bedroom colonial down the street from the university just sold for like $1.1 million -- and it was a smallish colonial at that), there was no point in trying to live in the city when I'd have about the same commute time with us living outside of the city. If there had been something available "close" to the university, that might have made for a different set of calculations.

Hence, my usual daily commute to and from the university is more like 30-60 minutes depending on the time of day and the direction of travel. If I hit it just right in the morning, driving after rush hour, I can usually get to the university in about half an hour; coming home, when I invariably get caught up in the evening rush, it's usually more like an hour. It's not a long commute by comparison to what I used to do when teaching in New York and living out on Long Island; that was 2 1/2 hours each way, several days a week. And when we first moved down here it seemed like nothing at all --"we're practically next door," I remember thinking.

Seven years later, the commute has gotten old. And in particular, I have noticed that about fifteen minutes into it I start to get a little anxious, and often find myself thinking that if this were all the travel-time I needed, I'd be fine. But it's not, and so I have to keep driving past that "close" limit.

Commuting is not fun. Even with a good radio station or some good CDs, it gets old after a rather short while, especially if it's a daily thing. Plus, the fact that it's longer than the "close" limit means that I can't "just run in" to the university; I have to make a trip, which further keeps the university at arm's length. And this in turn contributes to the odd feel of the campus, which I often experience as a commuter campus even though hundreds of students live there in residence halls. The faculty don't tend to live "close," so they spend time commuting to and from the university -- time that could otherwise be spent living in a campus community.

Maybe the university needs to invest in some faculty housing "close" to the campus.


Fifteen minutes

Been lazy with my blogging lately -- haven't posted on Duck in (literally) months, not because there hasn't been anything interesting happening lately, but just because I'm swamped. Swamped. Between grading and advising and letters of recommendation and the rest of it, I haven't had much time to even think a coherent blog entry, let alone write one.

So I'm trying something different: fifteen minutes, no more no less, every day from now until the end of the semester. Okay, that's only two weeks, but still. And I am taking Saturdays off as family time. But at least that forces me to write something every day for a little while, and see what happens.

Eleven minutes left.

Someone stole the digital projector from the classroom I use for World Politics. This is distressing to me for several reasons: we need a projector for Friday's showing of the student-produced films that everyone in the class has been busily producing over the past month -- which is distressing because now I need to somehow ensure that the proper kind of equipment is brought over for Friday's class; the installation in that room never worked right anyway, so even when there was a projector in there (which there was until last week), it was non-functional either because it was wired up wrong or because it was quite literally hanging from the ceiling suspended by only a VGA cable and a power cord connected to the unit -- this is distressing because it dampens my hopes of ever getting that room to work right; the classroom in question is in a residence hall, and hence is in principle only accessible to residents of the hall and to other students for whom they vouch -- which is distressing because it strongly implies that some resident of the hall knows something about this crime and isn't saying anything to any of the proper authorities; and the projector in question, as university property, is labeled and marked in a number of ways, so anyone trying to sell it will be unlikely to be able to do so -- which is distressing because it means either that someone stole the projector for personal use (unlikely, since the power cord remains in the room, cut through by the same wire-cutters used to detach the projector from the other cables) or, most distressingly of all, that someone stole a digital projector on a whim, as some kind of prank or childish act of rebellion. I mean, really: why the heck would you go and steal a digital projector that you probably can't use anyway? What possible point can there be to such a wanton act?

I hope that someone has the moral fortitude to own up to knowing something about the missing projector. Someone transgressed, and now everyone is going to pay the price in inconvenience and eventually in higher technology fees in their tuition bills. Obviously, the return of the projector in working order might help to alleviate some of that -- and it would be a wonderful demonstration of commitment to the community. After all, admitting that one has done something wrong is the clearest testimony to the power of the norm that one has violated.

Fifteen minutes leaves little or no time for proofreading or editing, either.


World Politics Question #11

A bit late, but better late than never --

In his conclusion, Todorov argues that "The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect." Do you agree? Why or why not?


World Politics Question #10

Sorry this is a few hours late.

Could Columbus have understood the indigenous people he encountered in a different way? Should we hold him accountable for the way that he thought about and acted towards those people, or was he simply a product of his times who should be exonerated on those grounds?


Comment on Fish

Stanley Fish has been making trouble again through his New York Times blog, which I'd link to except for the fact that it's behind the "TimesSelect" subscriber-only firewall. The post that has sparked a lot of attention of late was Fish's admonition that academics should do their jobs and not worry about trying to fashion their students into people of character or to impart to them a particular ethical or moral vision of the world. Predictably, my Weberian inclinations led me to rejoice at the advice; just as predictably, most of the subsequent discussion has been negative, with people posting outrage at Fish's political irresponsibility and the like. I am particularly impressed with one of his responses to a critic:

. . . the second assertion – academicizing is not what we should be doing in perilous times – has a genuine force; and if, as a teacher, you feel that force, your response should not be to turn your classroom into a political rally or an encounter group, but to get out of teaching and into a line of work more likely to address directly the real world problems you want to solve. There is nothing virtuous or holy about teaching; it’s just a job, and like any job it aims at particular results, not at all results. If the results teaching is able to produce when it is done well – improving student knowledge and analytical abilities – are not what you’re after, then teaching is the wrong profession for you. But if teaching is the profession you commit to, then you should do it and not use it to do something else.
All I can say to that is "amen, amen," except for the bit about there being nothing virtuous or holy about teaching. What I actually posted as a reply on the TimesSelect blog was this:

"As a self-proclaimed Weberian I delight in most of Stanley Fish's admonitions and recommendations for the proper conduct of the classroom: don't preach, don't engage in political mobilization, don't go into a classroom with any goal in mind except one, the goal of opening space where students can encounter texts and ideas and one another. What they do with the experience is not my concern as a professor; my concern is simply to produce the space where learning may take place. And genuine learning, in this case, is less about mastering some determinate piece of material (where "mastering" is a code-word for "agreeing with this or that perspective on the text/idea/issue") and more about developing some more or less defensible argument of one's own about it.

The one place where I diverge ever so slightly from Fish's recommendations (his rejoinder about hoping that what we academics do is irrelevant to practical and political life brought a big smile to my face, and will most likely serve as the seed for a post or two on my blog in the near future) is in the idea that one should never "give it [the classroom] over to a discussion of what your students think about this or that hot-button issue." In my experience -- and this is quite possibly due to the fact that I teach political science and political philosophy rather than literature -- such discussions can be most rewarding, precisely in that they force students to both articulate their own positions and to engage the positions of their peers (and sometimes they also have to engage the position that I adopt, which I do for pedaogical purposes and certainly never because I want the students to agree with it). Those classes are not "politicized," although they are full of political statements and statements about politics; the key difference here is that I as a professional academic have absolutely no opinion whatsoever on what position my students should adopt. I have such opinions as a human being, but I wasn't hired to be a human being -- I was hired to be an academic, and I try to do my job.

If my students want to know what I really think of their positions, they are free to ask me outside of class, preferably after the class is over and I am no longer in a position of direct authority over them -- a position of grading them, in other words. If they want to know what I think about some substantive issue within my sphere of competence, they can look me up on Google Scholar and see what I've written on the issue. But in the classroom, my job is not to have positions; my job is to encourage/inspire/force my students to have their own positions.

I also disagree slightly with Fish about the point of the exercise. While I share his disdain for academic fields trying to justfy themselves in terms of the services that they provide to the state or to the world as a whole, I do think there's something being provided here: by giving students the opportunity to explore positions and stake out claims and defend them, I feel like I am providing a space for self-crafting, a place where students can perhaps come to know more fully who they are. There is no specific agenda here; I am not trying to make them into certain kinds of persons with certain kinds of views. But I do want to push them -- regardless of their positions on whatever we are considering -- to go further, to develop their stances, to confront what Weber called the "uncomfortable facts" that every perspective has to face precisely because no perspective is simply and universally true and comprehensive. If I had to give that process a name, I would choose something like "intellectual and spiritual maturation," a content-neutral moral preference for a certain sophistication and subtlety of thought and general comportment. Of course it's useless -- but it may also be the among the most valuable things in all of human experience.

That, to me, is the vocation for higher education. There are other vocations, to be sure, but let's keep them in their proper spheres and out of the classroom."

The post about the irrelevance of academia and academics to practical/political life is forthcoming. Count on it.


Not dead yet

Sorry for not posting anything except the bare minimum (class discussion discussion questions) here for the past few weeks. Things have been a bit nuts. After the ISA-NE conference this weekend, matters should improve and I will hopefully have some time to start posting regularly again.

World Politics Question #9

After some wrestling I couldn't bring myself to choose one of the two discussion questions that I had in mind for this week, so I'm going to break with tradition and offer you two things to think about and possibly respond to:

1) is it better to be wealthy than otherwise? Is wealth always desirable?

2) should there be a right to wealth? (This question is specifically in reference to the conclusion of the Inayatullah article, so you'll probably want to start thinking about the issue in conjunction with that reading selection.)


World Politics Question #8

Whoops -- forgot to post this earlier. My bad.

Question, question . . . hmm. How about: do state governments have a responsibility to promote economic growth? Do they have a responsibility to promote economic growth even if doing so threatens other values and goals? How far should one go in promoting economic growth?


World Politics Question #7

Is the world more secure now than it was on, say, 10 September 2001? Are you more secure?


The p. 69 test

Marshall Zeringue over at the Campaign for the American Reader invited me to apply the "page 69 test" to my recent book Civilizing the Enemy. Here's the result.


Change agents

dormgrandpop weighs in with a thought-provoking post about strategies for promoting change. He references Ibsen's play Enemy of the People, in which an idealistic doctor is frustrated in his attempts to produce an improvement in the health of the townspeople by their resistance to his claims -- and by his stubbornness in sticking to them, and in brooking no compromise. While the play is often read as a warning about how the majority can turn on an outspoken voice and label her or him an "enemy," dormgrandpop inverts this by asking whether the idealistic doctor "has failed the people of the town" by failing to actually get the reforms implemented, even though this might have required compromise and negotiation. After all, dormgrandpop argues, "the activist and change agent must also be effective."

I have to say that after thinking about this for a few days I disagree -- not with the observation that the idealistic doctor's ineffectiveness might not have served the needs of the community very well, but with dormgrandpop's suggestion that this is a problem, and that the doctor either should have known better or should have acted differently. The implicit assumption here is that the doctor was trying to act as a "change agent" -- and that might not be the case. [Needless to say I am not making a claim here about Ibsen's play per se; I haven't read it in years, and don't know it well enough to see whether dormgrandpop's reading of my reading would be a better one. but dormgrandpop wasn't talking about the play per se so much as suing it as an example, so I think I'm within bounds here.]

To assume that everyone who speaks up about a problem is trying to affect practical changes to address it is to assume that -- to use the Weberian language of which I am quite fond -- everyone has a vocation for politics. I'm stretching the concept a bit here, since Weber is quite concerned to limit the term "politics" to matters dealing with the state; this is vital to Weber's indictment of committed idealists who enter politics and compromise their ideals by using violence to achieve their ends, since the "idealists" he is concerned with are non-violent socialists and pacifist Christians. But Weber's basic point -- that politics is about the pursuit of power in order to effect change, and that the only appropriate way to judge a politician is on his effectiveness in achieving his aims -- holds true for spheres outside of the properly political. Indeed, for any organization, we might define a "change agent" as someone who is trying to affect the policies of that organization and to redirect them onto a new course; this covers persons inside the organization, outside of the organization, and persons occupying various other points in between. It follows that all "change agents" are politicians, and should be evaluated accordingly. Did a strategy work or did it not work? Did change result or not?

Now, the problem here is a subtle one, and very easy to overlook -- particularly in a world more or less completely dominated by the notion of efficacy. The (measurable) contribution that some strategy/tactic X makes to outcome Y is the implicit standard that we use to evaluate the worth of just about everything, especially everything that looks like an effort to bring about change. If I loudly express my dissatisfaction with (for example) the cable company's tendency to schedule service appointments at weird, obscure times, or with the tendency of my cable service at home to suddenly stop working for no apparent reason periodically and then appear to be functioning normally when the technician does in fact materialize, this is often taken to be the beginning of an effort on my part to change something about the way that the cable service operates. [Note: this is not an entirely random example. You probably figured that out already.] But is that necessarily so?

Let's distinguish for a second between two possible meanings for the determination: either the desire to change things motivated the outburst, or the desire to change things was intended by the outburst. The first is a deeply problematic contention, since motives are not observable facts and there's no way to tell what actually motivates anyone, even oneself. So let's set that aside. The second is more complex: to say that an action intends something is to situate that action within a larger framework oriented towards some specific goal. But real actions are generally ambiguous enough to allow them to be situated in any number of frameworks, making just about any assignment of intention a contentious one. Which means that sure, we could read an expression of dissatisfaction or a statement calling attention to some undesirable phenomenon as part of a strategy pursued by a "change agent," but we need not do so.

How else might we read it? I am not fond of the idea that we should regard such things as "blowing off steam" or as being generated by some kind of murky deep psychological process(es); neither of those strike me as all that interesting. Instead, I can think of at least two other things that public presentations of this sort might be. First, drawing on Weber, would be to regard a statement or dissatisfaction as a scientific claim, an observation deriving from the disciplined application of a set of standards rather than a strategic intervention designed to alter a practical situation. Thus, a lawyer saying "this is illegal" might simply be stating a fact -- with the caveat, of course, that "fact" always means "from a certain theoretical point of view." Second, and related, we might regard a statement of dissatisfaction as bearing witness, which does not mean simply reporting events but instead means publicly characterizing something in certain terms for the sake of calling attention to it. Hence, witnessing a genocide, or racism, or an exercise of capital punishment, means calling it to mind and reflecting on it, not merely reporting that it happened.

In neither of the two latter cases is the person acting as a "change agent." The point of scientific inquiry is not to change the world, but to generate defensible knowledge about it. And the point of witnessing is not to change the world, but to call attention to something -- and, in many cases, to simply leave it at that. Witnessing is usually tied to faith of some kind, and for most faiths this means leaving the outcome in the hands of God or Nature or Fate or something like that. Indeed, for most faiths, taking overmuch responsibility for outcomes is an act of hubris, to be avoided at the cost of one's soul.

Obviously, the lines between these ideal-types blur and fade in practice: witnessing can be part of a strategy of political change, scientists can put aside their rigorous investigations and simply witness (as many of the atomic scientists did after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945), and so forth. People who didn't mean to be "change agents" can even end up generating change, and actions that were not intended to affect political change can even end up doing so. But it does not follow, as far as I am concerned, that it is right or proper to evaluate all actions in such a political way. Nor does it follow that "success" for all actions means a positive contribution to social change; for witnessing or for scientific inquiry, the standards are rather different.

I'm not even sure that I'd agree that the more politically savvy action is always the one that is of more benefit to the people (however defined). After all, as Weber points out, the committed Christian enters politics and uses its power-laden means at the cost of the salvation of her or his soul -- and it takes a special sort of person to do that, a person who is utterly committed to the ethics of responsibility. Not everyone is -- and hence not everyone should be a politician. For people whose vocation is not politics, perhaps the best service that they can render -- the service that doesn't utterly betray their ownmost inclinations -- is to witness, or to conduct scientific inquiry, or to otherwise avoid political efficacy? After all, there's nothing quite as frightening as a pure idealist with power, is there?

World Politics Question #6

I said at the beginning of the semester that sometimes the weekly discussion question would grow out of our Sunday evening pizza dinners. So in homage to the fact that last night's news was dominated by reports about the earthquake in Hawai'i, here's the weekly question for y'all to wrestle with:

Should natural disasters be regarded as security threats? Why or why not?


Whereof ye know nothing, ye should keep silent

Apologies to Wittgenstein for the title of this post, but if I didn't start off with a dose of philosophical humor I'm afraid that the whole entry would just degenerate into a rant largely composed of terms that wouldn't make it past the people who bleep words out of public broadcasts in the US.

A student forwarded me this op-ed from yesterday's New York Times. In the piece, Eugene Hickok -- former Deputy Secretary of Education and current Fellow at the political munitions factory conservative research institution called the Heritage Foundation -- opines that we should extend the Every No Child Left Behind Act to cover institutions of higher education. His recommendation is largely grounded by several anecdotal observations: college students don't have sufficient "civic literacy" (which seems to mean knowledge of American history, by and large); people teach classes on "the history of comic book art" and other things that he regards as wastes of time; people take a long time to complete their degrees; colleges and universities don't have clear standards for what constitutes an educated person; and, my personal favorite, "Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks."

I'm all for greater transparency in how colleges and universities articulate their missions and goals, and I'm all for requiring professors to make their own pedagogical goals clearer than many of us typically do -- truth in advertising, so to speak. But the idea that the federal government needs to crack down on a bunch of slacking professors airily waxing poetic about comic books and never putting in an honest day's work is both extremely offensive and deeply misleading. And I say this as a professor who regularly offers an Honors seminar in social science and science fiction, one of the books for which is in fact a "comic book" (a graphic novel, really, and Watchmen is every bit as complex as any other novel I use in the course) -- I challenge anyone to look at my syllabus and say that it's not a serious intellectual experience of the sort that we are supposed to be offering to college and university students. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Hickok.

What is most infuriating about the piece is that the author seems to write with precisely no knowledge of what a professor in a college or university actually does on a daily basis. "Fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom" is apparently meant as some kind of damning charge -- and if in fact we were all only spending that amount of time doing our jobs on a yearly basis, then yes, that would probably be cause for concern. But classroom time is just the tip of the iceberg for a professor; there is also course prep time, office hours, other meetings with students, advising, mentoring, setting the course for the organization as a whole…and, oh yes, researching and publishing, which is (regardless of what the public relations flyer says) the most important component of how one gets tenure and thus retains one's job (with the partial exception of four-year liberal arts "teaching colleges" -- although even there you have to publish and establish a scholarly reputation with your peers). 200 hours a year? Please. If I put in 200 hours a month it's a light part of the semester.

With two caveats, I'm going to briefly outline my schedule from last week. Caveat number one: I am not claiming that this is a statistically "typical" week, although it doesn't seem to be too markedly different from any other for me, although I went to my brother-in-law's wedding during the weekend and thus missed the couple of Saturday hours and the five-hour Sunday evening block that I typically work (this semester, the Sunday block consists of a dinner with the students in my freshman class, part of the ongoing effort to construct and sustain a "living-learning community" that is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish in this program, followed by a showing and discussion of a film for my sci-fi class). So if anything it's a comparatively light work week. Second caveat: I am not claiming that this work week is statistically typical of other professors, whether at my or at another college or university. But if pressed I would bet money that it's not too different.

7 hours "work at home," which consisted of podcasting two course lectures, answering student questions via IM and e-mail, and generally preparing for the week ahead by reviewing course material in preparation for class discussions.
2 evening hours of trying to stay on top of the continual flow of e-mails, some of which are from students, some of which are from colleagues discussing papers and books we're writing, conference panels we're organizing, etc. -- and reading the course blogs for each course.
total: 9 hours

1.5 hours on an independent study with two students, discussing Thomas Hobbes' Levitathan.
1.5 hours of office-hour time mentoring and advising students.
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria, some of which is spent talking with students.
4 hours office-hour time.
2 evening hours tying up loose ends from the day, and trying to finish course prep that wasn't finished on Monday.
total: 10 hours

2 hours faculty meeting, discussing hiring policies and curriculum reform
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria
1.5 hours office hours
1.5 hours work at home while watching children (translation: not getting much work done, but we have to have this arrangement because we don't make enough to afford more daycare)
2 evening hours, as usual, still trying to finish reading blogs and the like.
total: 8 hours

1 hour meeting students who couldn't make regular office hours
2.5 hours class
2 hours seminar (at another institution, so there was also travel time -- and that total 1 hour travel time was spent discussing things with a PhD student, but I'm not going to count that for the moment even though I easily could) in which we discussed globalization and the German film industry
1 hour working dinner with student to discuss graduate school applications
2.5 hours class.
total: 9 hours

1 hour working lunch with student to discuss MA thesis
2.5 hours class
1.5 hours in office.
total: 5 hours

Friday was a short day because I spent the morning dropping my wife and kids off at the airport, driving back to the university, teaching, then driving up to my brother-in-law's wedding. Usually, Friday morning is another 2-2.5 hours of office hour or e-mail time.

Total for last week: 41 hours. And as I said initially, that week did not include the normal Sunday block or the hour or two on Saturday.

Total "classroom time" narrowly construed: 7.5 hours. Total work time outside of the classroom: 33.5 hours.

And if you notice, none of that week involved grading of assignments, since I haven't assigned any exams or papers yet. Those are coming soon and they will have to be added on to the existing nutty week.

Oh, and I work that schedule year-round. I have to teach summer courses every year in order to pay the bills, so it's not even like I get to do my research and writing during the summer months.

Don't get me wrong -- I love my work, and I work as many hours as I do because of that love (certainly not because of the remuneration). I am not pleading for a reduction in work hours. I am merely incensed that the number of hours that I and other professors put in was so badly mis-stated in the editorial.

People who have no clue what goes into this line of work should keep their mouths shut when they feel like taking professors to task for not working enough hours. Indeed, even though I seriously doubt that this blog will ever come to Mr. Hickok's attention, I'd like to more or less publicly challenge him to a battle of day planners. Let's sit down and open our schedule-books and see what hours we each work. They are lots of valid reasons to call for change in higher education, but the notion that professors don't put in enough hours is certainly not one of them.


World Politics question

We don't have class this week, and you're writing a paper for me anyway, so there is no weekly question this time. If you feel inclined to blog about something, please go ahead and do so -- but this week, blogging is completely optional.


World Politics Question #5

Is it ever appropriate to evaluate an international organization (like, say, the IMF) on moral and ethical grounds, or should we confine ourselves to the realm of practical efficacy when discussing such matters?


Go . . . Rockies?

Did I ever think that I would be sitting here on the second-to-the-last day of the baseball season, rooting for the Rockies and Matt Holliday in particular to have a good game against the Cubs? A game that matters not a whit for the post-season standings? Well, no. Why am I in this position? because I'm 2 1/2 points out of the lead in our fantasy baseball league, I've already maxed out the games that I can get credit for at the outfield, first base, and shortstop, so I put Holliday rather than Teixeira in the "utility" spot for the day in the hopes that the combination of Wrigley Field and the Cubs' woeful pitching will generate a slight boost to my OPS. I'm only a hundredth of a point behind the next place in that category, so if Holliday smashes a couple of home runs for me I might catch him.

So: go Rockies, go Holliday!



I'm involved with AU's Greenberg Seminar program; have been for several years. (Actually, in the interest of getting new blood involved, this will be my last year of formal involvement with it, which is in some ways too bad because I love doing it.) The Greenberg Seminars are about training Ph.D. students to teach, largely by holding sessions where we can actually talk about teaching (bizarre that we have to go out of our way to make time for conversations like that on a university campus, but there you are), as well as providing opportunities for those of us who have been doing this for a little while to share some tips and advice with those just starting out. All in all, it's a good time.

One of the issues that came up during this Saturday's session involved the careful balance that one has to strike in a classroom -- or when designing the syllabus that will shape the expectations of what will go on in that classroom -- between establishing/maintaining authority, and giving students in the class the freedom to develop their own ways of engaging with the material. Over the years I've become much more convinced that it is better to establish all of the hard-and-fast rules and expectations up front, both by writing them in the syllabus and by reinforcing them in person during the first few class sessions. I'm primarily talking about things like "I don't accept late papers unless you have a documented family or medical emergency" or "this is a discussion-oriented class, and if you just sit back and listen for the whole semester you shouldn't expect to do very well." But noting things like "we have an Academic Integrity Code and you're not supposed to violate it" seem to me to fall into that category as well; stating such things up front simply makes sure that everyone in the class, students and professor alike, start off on the same page about what the rules are.

After the session ended, a couple of people told me that they were a bit concerned that putting all of those expectations up front looked and sounded "defensive." This was also, I think, because we had a discussion about maintaining order in the classroom: how to react if students behaved inappropriately, made derogatory comments, or otherwise impeded the educational process. During that discussion my position was pretty clear: I always reserve the right to do whatever is necessary to propel the educational process along, even up to asking people to leave if they are being disruptive and counterproductive. And when push comes to shove I am still the authority-figure in the class; the fact that I usually don't choose to exercise that authority in ways that I don't think are all that appropriate for a classroom environment does not detract from the fact that at the end of the day I am the one who gets to decide how far to let things go.

Most of my classes are discussion-oriented classes, which means that most days are spent trying to hash out issues collectively. We range all over the map, and I am very lenient in my management of discussions -- wherever people want to go is fine with me, I have no pre-set agenda: it's just "here are some texts, here are some issues, here are some ideas, go." In order for that to work, everyone in the room has to be on board with the style and the agenda (such as it is); if they aren't, for example if they drop out of the main discussion and just have a side-conversation with the person sitting next to them, I regard it to be my duty to intervene and try to draw them back into the central exchange. Indeed, that's my job in a discussion: push, prod, challenge, press -- not direct, shape, manage, or other such things. I facilitate; students do the conversational work.

For me, stating expectations up front is the best way to set up the classroom environment. There are some picky things, like when assignments are due and what I expect everyone to do for those assignments; on those I brook virtually no compromise. But those firm borders are what permit the generally wild and uncontrolled flow of the daily discussions in my classes. Everybody has to know that they should play hard; as long as everyone agrees to that, the kind of learning I am after can take place. There is a bit of an irony here, in that I need to establish ground rules and thus my own authority in order to divest myself of it as the semester proceeds, but who ever said that this process was supposed to be completely rational?

World Politics Question #4

Are ideas and ideals nothing more than masks for the interests of the powerful, or do they play some kind of independent role in international political life?

Note that in discussing this question you would probably be well-advised to tackle it both in the abstract and in some specific instance. An abstract answer without details can come across as superficial; a case-specific answer without a broader theoretical context can come across as groundless. So you probably want to try for some kind of combination of the two.

[Further thought: "human rights" and "free trade" are certainly ideas and ideals, but so are "death to the Great Satan of the United States of America" and "kill all of the {insert ethnic group here}." Would your answer change if we were talking about "bad" ideas/ideals as opposed to "good" ones?]


Happy Empire Day

Not surprisingly, Chancellor Palpatine said it best and most bluntly:

"The Republic will be reorganized as the first Galactic Empire to ensure a safe and secure society."

Bush had his own version. Read all about it here.

In any event, Happy Empire Day to all.


Two links of note

The first from my former student Lisa:

Mr. Universe (login required because it's on the NYTimes site), an op-ed by Ronald D. Moore -- writer of what I think is pretty incontrovertibly the best science fiction show on television, Battlestar Galactica -- about Star Trek and visions of the future.

The second courtesy of Tim Burke over at Easily Distracted: Goof-Off Readings: Genesis; The Muqaddimah; The End of History and the Last Man; Guns, Germs and Steel. You see, the Weekly Standard has decided that Tim's course is a "lightweight" and something worthy of mockery. I'm offended -- if Tim's course is a "bit of fluff," then what is my sci-fi course? Come on, Weekly Standard. Please tar and feather me too! I mean, I even assign a comic book (Watchmen). Granted, I'll match my course up with anyone else's course any day for intellectual rigor and the like, but only if I actually get challenged on it . . . so come on, Weekly Standard, by the (and I use this word loosely) "standards" you're using I am clearly teaching a "fluff" course that signals the End Of Western CIvilization As We Know It. So put me on the blacklist too!

World Politics Question #3

Among other matters on which they disagree, realists maintain that military force will always remain a central part of world politics, while liberals hold out the possibility that rational negotiations can overcome the need to settle disputes by force. Which argument do you think is right? (Note that "right" here can mean either empirically, or normatively, or both.)

Podcast on liberalism will be up at kittenboo later this afternoon.



Everyone's been posting reflections on the fifth anniversary of '9/11' for the past few days. I have held off because my own experience of that day was pretty much like most other people's if they didn't have relatives at or near one of the attack sites: watching the television, dumbfounded, as the towers collapsed, and then trying to find other people to talk to about the situation. The rest of the day is pretty much a blur.

But -- and here's the point I want to make -- the day wasn't '9/11' yet. It didn't become the emblematic icon that it is now until a few days later. At the time, it was just crazy, an event that seemed rather incomprehensible but which people were all trying to make sense of in various ways. Things were unsettled, in the precise and technical sense of the word: almost everything was up for grabs, including how the United States would respond and what the implications would be for the regulation of daily life. They didn't settle down until (I would say) over a week later, on the 20th, but I'll post about that (probably both here and over at the Duck) next week.

For now I want to note another five-year anniversary, one that doesn't get a lot of media coverage: on this date five years ago, the university was evacuated because of a bomb threat. As far as I know they didn't find anything, and nothing blew up, but that day the campus was cleared while bomb squads searched the premises.

And it was chaos. I arrived at the Metro station to discover a large crowd of people, students mainly, milling around and talking excitedly. There were a lot of rumors about what was going on and about why the campus shuttles weren't running; the words "terrorist" and "bomb" ran through the crowd like magic talismans handed around as fast as they possibly could be -- as though the only rational response to the situation was to repeat what one had just overheard, pass it on, pass it on. I had a cel phone -- one of the few (remember that five years ago cel phone penetration in the US was nowhere near the level it is nowadays) so I called the information line and got a recorded message saying that the campus was being evacuated. I decided (after calling my wife) to walk the mile from the station to the campus to see if I could help; after all, I was faculty, and maybe I could do something as a representative of organizational authority.

As it turned out they had no idea what to do with me. There was no contingency plan in place for evacuating the campus due to a bomb threat, and certainly no plan for utilizing faculty-members who suddenly showed up on the scene offering to assist. After some negotiations I ended up in a church across the street with a bunch of students, presiding over a discussion about security and threat and Islam -- a discussion that both exemplified and expressed the fears of of the young kids (yes, kids -- 18, 19 years old) who were suddenly faced with the necessity of abandoning their dormitories and their possessions (several were in bathrobes) perhaps never returning to them if there really had been a bomb. Maybe it even helped to allay some of their concerns. Maybe the sense of normality -- here's a professor holding a class discussion, albeit in a church with students more frightened than usual -- helped to clam people down. It helped me, that's for sure, as it gave me something to do and helped me feel somewhat useful.

As it turned out, there was no bomb (as far as we were ever told) and everyone made it back to campus fine. But it was the first encounter that most of us (I'd wager) had ever had with such things up-close and personal. 11 September was images on the TV for me; 13 September was a more direct experience.

Masterworks blogs

Here are the addresses for the four blogs from this semester's instantiation of the Masterworks course:

Masterworks Quest

SIS 604 Group Two

Old Dead Guys

IR Thought: Reflections on Essential Works


Sci-fi class blogs


As of right now, I only have the urls for three four of the class blogs for this semester's edition of the Social/Science/Fiction course. They are:

To Sometimes Blog Where No Blog Blogged Before

Funky Fresh With P. Diddy J

PTJ Group Two

The Winship Enterprise

I know that there are other class blogs out there; in fact, there should be two one other s. But I can't find the urls for them it in my e-mail. If you are a member of one of those that group s, please please e-mail me the url for your group's blog ASAP.

World Politics Question #2

Here's the second weekly question: should the United Nations have more authority and capacity to intervene in events taking place within the borders of a single state? Take events in Darfur, for example: should the UN be able to send in troops without the consent of the Sudanese government?

Also, the "realism" lecturlet is online and available for download at www.kittenboo.com. While you're there you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for the course so that you'll automagically get all of the other lecturelets as I pose them to the site; ask around if you don't know how to do that yet.


Giving out iPods

Courtesy of my student Amber, an interesting article from the BBC:

Students Given Free mp3 Players

It's a good idea, I think. The iPod, like the other portable mp3 players on the market, provides certain pedagogical advantages in terms of making course content available in virtual format: portability, the ability to move the listening experience to a locale and a time where students are more comfortable (especially important for kinesthetic learners who take in information best when their bodies are in motion), and the ease with which presentations may be paused or repeated. Plus, let's not underestimate the coolness factor: listening to an iPod is certainly hipper than listening to a cassette tape, and as such might be a more acceptable thing to do within the lifeworld of the contemporary college student. (It certainly is for me, after all.)

Not surprisingly, educational reactionaries like the Campaign for Real Education are staunchly opposed to the "progressivism" expressed by such a move. At least they have their complaint right: used properly, devices like iPods and techniques like the podcasting of lectures and other course material do undermine the traditional style of education-as-the-trasmission-of-information-from-experts-to-students. Yes, there's a real difference of opinion here. I just think that in the end they're wrong: education should be about facilitating encounter, not about pontification by experts. Dewey was right.

Human Geography

On Thursday I set out from my office with the intent to go to class. Because of the APSA meeting, I had not been physically present for the first meeting of the course, so this was my inaugural journey to take a look at the classroom. So it was in many ways the first day for me -- and I did not recognize the name of the building in which the class was scheduled.

Now, this is not an unfamiliar experience for newcomers to a college campus, but I've been here for over six years. The fact that I'd never heard of the building -- the fact that I had to consult a campus map to get a general sense of the quadrant of campus in which the place was purportedly located -- felt very strange. Fortunately, on the way there I ran into Liz, a student in one of my other courses, who was (coincidentally) on her way to an interview to be a campus tour guide. Not surprisingly she knew where the mystery building was, and was able to direct me there and even to suggest an alternate and faster route to get there from my office in the future. This last is particularly important because the building in question is about as far from my office as one can get and still remain on campus, and after being here for a while my tacit sense of how long it takes to get places on campus does not, in fact, encompass the path I took from my office to the class building, while the alternate path is just about at the upper bound of that tacit sense. Still, I need to reset my internal clock and leave a couple of minutes earlier than I ordinarily would in order to ensure that class starts on time.

The whole experience illustrated a simple point: individual experiences of "the same" place need not have much to do with one another. If I were to take a campus map and then to draw out the pathways I ordinarily take over the course of a semester, and to do so in such a way that frequently-traveled routes were darker in hue than more infrequently traveled paths, I suspect that I'd generate a kind of geographical fingerprint that would be wildly different from many of my colleagues in other departments and divisions of the university, and probably also different from the average student geographical fingerprint. There are places on campus that I've heard of but never seen, and places I frequent that I doubt are frequented by most students or most other faculty. And even with my now having entered the class building I'd never heard of before Thursday, there are still buildings on campus in which I am almost positive that I've never set foot.

Of course, how many of my faculty colleagues have ever set foot in a dormitory? Part of the whole idea of the Residential Faculty program is to ensure that my pathway through the campus intersects with student pathways outside of the classroom or the office; the fact that my office is in a dorm is the first step in that process, but it goes much further than that. I regularly take meals in the student dining-hall, which makes for some interesting entanglement of pathways; I also teach in the dorm where my office is and where the members of that class reside, further breaking down the boundaries between "faculty space" and "student space." At the same time, I am keenly aware of the need for privacy, so even though my office is in the dorm I do not regularly go and wander the halls upstairs or anything like that -- and sometimes (not often) I close my office door while I am inside working on something. But my very presence in the dorm -- the fact that my pathway from a classroom to my office intersects with the pathways of a number of students returning from class to their places of residence, and the fact that we run into one another in the reception-area by the hall's front desk -- makes some of my experience more similar to that of a student on campus. At least in a geographical sense.


The other kind of "football"

Here's a little piece that inverts the gun-sights, as it were: a bona-fide European talking about what Americans generally call "football."

Gridiron war games rule

Right off the bat I'll disagree with the author's contention that American football is "the most intellectual of all team sports." First, intellectual for whom? Certainly not for the grunts running around the field in Kevlar body armor. Certainly not for the coaches and managers basically selecting plays from a playbook. And as far as I can tell, not for the fans, who do a lot more yelling than appreciating in my experience. And second, if there's an intellectual sport played in America, both in the sense of having more intellectuals interested in it and in the sense that one needs to be somewhat of an intellectual to really appreciate it, it's baseball, followed by things like golf (and maybe tennis, if one wants to count David Foster Wallace's brilliant novel Infinite Jest as a highly intellectual novel about tennis, which I would, at least in part). Any moron can appreciate American football: take ball, move ball down field, tackle person with ball. But baseball -- that takes effort to appreciate. Chess at 90 miles per hour, as Roger Kahn calls it.

Thanks to Priya, one of my PhD students, for the link.


At long last -- and I wish I could say "by popular demand," although there are only a couple of people who have asked me for this -- I* have established a central site for distributing the various podcasts that are linked to my courses, as well as distributing other random things I manage to record myself doing (conference presentations, public lectures, etc.). It is (drum roll please):


Yes, there's a story behind the name; feel free to visit the site and learn what the story is. I'll be syndicating all of the podcasts for all of my courses from that site from now on, and also distributing other random things through the RSS feed ProfPTJ's podcasts.


*This is "I" in the sense of "with the assistance and technical support of my graduate assistant Avi Zollman, who actually did the WordPress install and designed the very cool masthead."

World Politics blogs

Here are the five blogs for this semester's World Politics (SIS-105) class:

World Politics Are a Changin'

High 5ives

I Like Dirty Liberal Words

Four Girls and a Guy

The Blogtastic Four

Now, if someone would just choose a different blog template so that all of the blogs didn't look the same… :-)

Seriously, though, feel free to customize and to innovate. And feel free to read and comment on posts to blogs that are not your own!


World Politics Question #1

So here it is, weekly question number one:

What is the most important issue in world politics today, and why?

[Nothing like a broad one to open the year with, right?]


The Philadelphia Shuffle

[UPDATED: an mp3 of my remarks on the panel is now available at www.kittenboo.com.]

One of the interesting things about only having classes on Thursday and Friday this semester is that although the semester formally started on Monday, I have yet to actually appear in a classroom this Fall. That changes today.

However, it changes not at the scheduled time for my sci-fi class; it changes this evening at the scheduled time for my IR theory/philosophy class. Why, you ask? because today I am driving up to Philadelphia, meeting some colleagues, having lunch with an editor, presenting a paper on a panel about "methodological diversity," and then getting back into the car and driving back down here in time for my evening class. Call it "the Philadelphia Shuffle."

The occasion for this craziness is the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. This is the annual gathering of my professional tribe, ostensibly to present research and debate weighty issues, in reality to meet up with friends and colleagues and get the latest gossip on who got tenure, who didn't, what jobs are open at which institutions, and the like. Academic conferences are their own peculiar little worlds, and the first rule of conferencing is that the content of panels and roundtables is rarely the point; the point is to network, to see and be seen, to make a splash or an impact or to otherwise get oneself involved with the people who are having a particular set of conversations. Call it a socially embedded process of knowledge-production (not that there's such a thing as a process of knowledge-production that isn't socially embedded, but so designating it calls attention to what is most important about the event).

APSA is an enormous conference, full of relatively independent subgroups called "sections" that organize their own panels and basically do their own thing over the four days that the meeting takes place. I am going up to Philly because I was invited to participate on a panel on a subject close to my heart, "multiple methodologies" -- a notion that I think is largely nonsensical, and I intend to spend my 10-15 minutes of presentation time saying so. The panel is sponsored by the Qualitative Methods section of APSA, one of the few sections whose panels I generally like; much of APSA is dominated by various sub-sub-categories of the study of American Politics, and that's not what I do. APSA really isn't "my" conference, but I'm going this year because I was invited and because it's (barely) possible for me to make it there and back in one day, and thus not have to pay for a hotel.

This does mean that I miss the first meeting of the sci-fi class, but my assistant can handle that for me, and I'll be back for the other class tonight. Still, six hours of driving for four hours of conference is a somewhat tenuous exchange. I do not intend to make a habit of this.


Educational Purposes

A fair amount of my time over the past two days has been devoted to making sure that one of the activities in one of my courses this semester is in fact legal. The course in question is my Honors seminar "Envisioning the Future of World Politics," also known as the sci-fi course; the activity in question is the series of films that I show during the semester as a way of enhancing and extending the discussion. That this became such a complicated issue still baffles me, but in an uncertain legal environment, I can certainly see in retrospect why this might have happened.

The problem, as I understand it, is two-fold: copyright law changed with the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act a few years ago, and second, the Motion Picture Association of America, like its allies the Recording Industry Association of America, is a very litigious organization that is prone to go after just about any activity that it perceives as a violation of the rights of the owners of the work in question (which usually means the movie studio or the record label, not the artists) to receive a royalty from a performance of the work. Put these together and you have a situation in which no one is quite clear about what they are permitted to do and what they are not permitted to do -- and one does not want to be sued by the MPAA, which has very deep pockets and retains very good lawyers. So anything that might potentially be problematic has to be reviewed at multiple levels, which is how we ended up with the bizarre situation of my having to get legal opinions about a facet of my class. I don't fault the university; in an environment like this they were simply trying to make sure that they were on the right side of the law. But there is something absurd about the fact that it was even a question whether my use of films was legally permissible.

See, existing copyright law has an exception for educational purposes, known as the "face-to-face teaching" exception. What this says -- and this is not a legal opinion, but is in the actual text of the law itself -- is that if a faculty-member is using a piece of copyrighted material in the course of their "face-to-face teaching" activities, then they do not have to pay royalties in order to display/perform/show that work. I can show Star Trek VI in an international relations class and use that to spark a discussion about great power politics and the decline of empires, and I don't have to pay for doing so. (I have done this before.) And I can show important and interesting sci-fi films to my sci-fi course, and discuss them in class, and not have to pay for the showing of them.

It's good to know that I'm doing a legal thing. But it seems to me that the law itself is somewhat ambiguous, since "face-to-face teaching" is kind of vague. I mean, whenever I meet with a student I am engaged in "face-to-face teaching." Whenever I am around students, I like many other faculty-members are on the lookout for "teaching moments" where an important point can be made inductively, by drawing on the current activities or conversation. So logically, doesn't it follow that whenever faculty are around students, teaching is taking place, and so copyright law should permit the use of materials without cost? I wonder if there's a way to "perform" a book chapter or an article, and hence get around the necessity to pay publishers a fee for the use of that material. In a way this would fulfill the educational mission of the university much better, since no one could possibly mistake the publishing of academic writing for a commercial action!

In any event: I am gratified to know that I am legally permitted to continue to use films in my teaching. The sci-fi course wouldn't be the same without them.


Community (Re)Construction

Day Two of our DiscoverEncounterDC experience was a bit more neighborhood-focused. We spent some time in Anacostia, which unlike the RFK region is actually a place where people live and have lived for generations; where RFK was stark and empty, Anacostia was bustling and alive. But also very economic challenged and impoverished: buildings in disrepair, people sitting on street corners, more graffiti and broken windows than we're used to in our small wealthy corner of the city.

The centerpiece of our trip, as it is the centerpiece of life in the neighborhood, is the city's long-term development plan for the area. According to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which is where we began our day, there is a 20-30 year vision for the area that involves a massive amount of rebuilding -- and of necessity also involves a massive amount of demolition and resettling of residents. The immanent move of the Washington Nationals to a new ballpark along the Anacostia River (the ballpark is scheduled to open in March 2008, and if it doesn't, there are likely to be massive lawsuits for breach of contract) has accelerated part of the plan, with the city now striving to find or construct adequate parking along the streets near the site, and also finalizing agreements with various businesses whose presence will help to create and solidify a local commercial district. And developers are also building new apartments, condos, and townhouses, all of which promise to being wealthier residents to the area and thus create a new, more financially viable area.

In my quick glance over the city's plans, and in reflecting on them as we went through our day, it seemed to me that (leaving aside the issues of gentrification, the displacement of long-time residents, and the destruction of existing communities -- including the DC gay community, members of which might not have lived in the area designated for the stadium, but which frequented the bars and clubs that have now been forced to move because of the city's use of its eminent domain powers) the planners have done a good job with one particular aspect of their vision, and a not-so-good job with another. The not-so-good aspect involves schools, an important part of any decision by parents (such as myself!) to relocate a family; regardless of other amenities, without good schools for my kids I'm not going to move. DC public schools are a mess, and when we combine that with the high cost of living in the area (which further militates against families moving in, except for those families living in public housing) we get a situation in which the new apartments and condos are likely to be occupied by childless professionals -- people who aren't likely to push for improvement in the local schools either. So you get a vicious cycle: bad schools -> no children moving in -> no pressure for schools to improve -> even worse schools. [Of course, extremely wealthy people may move in with children, but then send their children to private school programs -- different causal pathway, same observed effect.]

What's the solution? I have heard of development contracts under which builders and businesses have to agree to fund the rebuilding and enhancement of local schools, so maybe that's an option.

The other issue, the one that the planners appear to have done well (whether deliberately or not deliberately I have no idea) involves time and transportation. The most important thing for developing and sustaining a community, in the end, is time: the time that its members spend interacting with one another and thus, through use, revitalizing the common resources that make up the community's public cultural life. Just as a language is sustained and renewed by people speaking it, so a community is sustained and renewed by people engaging in its rituals and practices. [Indeed, "community" isn't really a noun; it's a verb, an active doing rather than a passive and static object. Ditto "state," and "nation," but those are issues for another time.] And if people don't have time, then they can't participate in those rituals and practices -- and the community might simply vanish.

So how do you give the members of a community more time to be together as a community? The simplest way to do this, I think, is to locate the places where people work close to the places where they live. If everyone is spending inordinate amounts of time commuting from home to work and back again, this diminishes the time for community in two ways: first, it means that people are not physically present as much, and when they get home after work they are likely to be too tired to engage in the rituals sustaining the community; and second, by placing people in their work lives someplace other than the place where they live, people's attention is of necessity split up, and it becomes quite likely that they will either be an active member of neither community (presuming that there are practices of community at both ends of their commute), or possibly that they will choose one over the other and thus further diminish one community.

The Anacostia development folks have done a nice job here because the two metro stops serving the neighborhood around the stadium (one on either side of the river) are about 10-15 minutes away from downtown DC, and less during rush hour. From my experience, 10-15 minutes is about as far as one (well, me, at least) can travel without getting into "commuter mode" and thus detaching from a community. You're still close enough to home that you can remain connected to it while working, and it's not hard to get home so there is a grater possibility for community rituals when you do get home. I can see that region populated by (childless) professional couples in a few years, creating and sustaining a community of their own while working downtown for the Empire.

The moral of the story is that one needs to live close to where one works if one wants to have viable communities at both ends. Ideally, such living-in-proximity would produce one community, in which people lived and worked and then recreated and socialized and so forth. But stretch out that transportation length too much and you end up squeezing hapless commuters enough that there aren't viable communities at either end.

Unfortunately, housing in northwest DC around the university is so expensive that my family and I have to live outside of the city entirely. Yesterday morning I went in for a brief 45-minute orientation session with some new students; the session was good, but I had to travel for over an hour to and from it. Many other faculty-members are in the same boat. Is it any wonder that I often feel that the campus community lacks a certain something -- and that that something involves active faculty participation? If the university were to construct some housing units for faculty, and make them available at something other than the ridiculous market rates that prevail in that part of town (a practice that other urban universities follow), imagine the impact on the campus community. Which just goes to prove my point that time is the most important resource that a community has: time for it to persist in the practices and rituals of its members. With time there can be community; without it, we are likely left with a disconnected collection of individuals.


Encountering DC

In keeping with my new refrain -- teaching is about encounter, and in particular about three different kinds of encounters (student-material, student-faculty and student-student, and student-themselves) -- I'm going to rename the program that I participated in today. The real name of the program is "DiscoverDC," a name which almost makes it sound like we'd put the darn city down someplace and had to go find it again ("did you discover DC?" "yeah, it was about where we thought it would be."). But the idea of the program is that incoming first-year students should be introduced to some of the neighborhoods in the city, and should get outside of their accustomed comfort zones in order to start experiencing a new place. In other words, they should be encountering DC. So that's what we did.

Sort of.

See, my group of students is part of the University College program, and as such our schedule relates to the course that I am teaching in the College this semester. And since it's an introductory course in world politics, I decided to look at one specific avenue through which various dynamics of world politics -- especially the interaction between "local" and "global" factors -- maybe glimpsed. And the avenue that I chose was baseball, a decision which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my desire to spend time thinking about baseball for credit. It also had nothing whatsoever with my desire to have a behind-the-scenes tour of RFK stadium (which we had today) or to get a briefing from the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission about the construction of the new stadium (which we also did today) or to walk around the area where the new stadium is being constructed (which we will do tomorrow). Even if these things did somehow impinge on my decision, my feeling is that it's better to have a class oriented around things that the professor actually cares about then it is to have a class oriented around things that the professor feels that she or he has to cover.

Make no mistake -- these sessions in the city are, as far as I am concerned, class sessions. There's a faculty member (me) involved; there is a pedagogical purpose; our activities are linked to a course; and the point of the exercise is encounter. Sounds like a class session to me. Will it be on the test? Well, since I don't use tests, the point is kind of moot…

Anyway, the somewhat odd thing about our encounter with DC today is that we didn't really encounter DC per se. Because we went to RFK stadium, what we encountered was a 45-year-old edifice that is woefully inadequate for either of the two professional sports (baseball and what I think of as real football and other people think of as "soccer"), a number of people earnestly committed to trying to make baseball succeed in DC and also to use baseball to develop various regions of the city, and the great urban wasteland that surrounds the current stadium (we had to get back on the metro in order to find a place for lunch). Not much "DC" for us to encounter.

Still, I think the trip worthwhile. It sets up what we are doing tomorrow (visiting the new stadium site, and the neighborhood that is scheduled to be radically transformed by that construction and the associate redevelopment plan), it got us all thinking about the various social issues involved, and it provided an opportunity for everyone to et to know one another a bit while walking and eating lunch and riding the metro. These aren't ancillary or optional parts of the course; they are the course. So I think we're off to a good start constructing a learning community.

I'm sorry that more of my colleagues didn't have the chance to be involved in these activities; they are wonderful opportunities to get a class off the ground.