States and countries visited

Meme, meme, who's caught the meme? Who wants to avoid doing actual work for a few minutes? Ooh, ooh, me!

In accord with the norm I have avoided states and countries that I've either just driven through or in which I never left the airport.

Create your own visited states map.

Hmm. Does it show that I'm a Northeasterner, first because of my parents and then later by choice?

Create your own visited countries map.

Hmmm. Does it show that my empirical focus is the United States and Western Europe?


Should I be pleased?

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

"Students -- and it's whom, not what."

This morning I was thinking about the grammar of the verb "to teach." It occurred to me that "to teach" has a usage pattern quite unlike verbs such as "to speak" or "to minister," in that the latter verbs properly take a preposition when indicating the object of the activity while "to teach" does not. [It's like "to love" or "to hate," which take no preposition when indicating their object either, street slang of "hating on" to the contrary.] In fact, when "to teach" does take a preposition, it's ordinarily something pejorative.

Think about it. "I was speaking to him." "We minister to the sick." In both cases, the preposition "to" designates the flow of the action and the target of the process. But one doesn't "teach to" a classroom full of students -- and the only usage of "teach to" I can think of off-hand is "teach to the test," which I think that just about every right-thinking individual acknowledges as a Bad Thing. [Note that it's one thing to "teach to the test" if you are, say, teaching a test-taking class, like an SAT prep class or something, but I usually don't hear that locution in that context; instead it's "teaching someone how to take the test" or something like that.] You can teach someone about something, but in that case the preposition signifies the subject-matter, not the students.

I think that this is related to another oddity about the grammar of "to teach": if someone asks me what I am teaching next semester, I ordinarily reply with a list of courses. Or, in a slightly different context, if we are discussion a particular course and someone asks what I am teaching, under normal circumstances this seems to function as a request for information about the syllabus. So the grammar of the verb designates the subject-matter as the object that is to be singled out: "I am teaching a course on science fiction and world politics" or "I am teaching Dune and Watchmen and The Sparrow, among others" seem to be the appropriate response to a question about teaching.

How very very odd. At least, how very very odd when I stop to think about it. There's a missing term here someplace. And that missing term is students. In some sense, the correct answer to "what are you teaching next semester?" should, I think, always be "students -- and it's whom, not what." And then perhaps by way of elaboration some information about what kind of students: what level, how many, in what format, and so on. But this isn't the usual reply, and it's not what leaps quickly to mind when the question is asked. Oddly, students are not ready-to-hand when we start talking about teaching. Oh, they're there implicitly or in passing, but not immediately as the direct object of the verb (even though, semantically, students are the direct object of the verb "to teach" -- which is why they don't require a preposition).

Hence, the oddity. After all, what is more important in the end -- the material that one is supposedly teaching, or the students that one is actually teaching? I often think that the material that is supposedly being taught is just an excuse, a way to gather a group together and get them started as a learning community. There has to be a there there in order to keep people focused, and there are certainly some things that I think it instructive for students to grapple with (Hobbes and Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Kierkegard and Wittgenstein and Weber never get old, in my opinion). But in the end, I don't really care whether students walking out of one of my courses "got" the material as long as they participated in a learning community that was wrestling with important issues.

So, what am I teaching next semester? Students (two undergrad courses and one graduate-level course) -- and it's whom, not what.


Kierkegaard Rules!

From today's Washington Post:

A crowd of Danish-loving demonstrators gathered outside the Embassy of Denmark yesterday to show support for the Nordic country in the wake of controversy over cartoons featuring the Muslim prophet Muhammad that were first published in a Danish newspaper. Attendees brandished signs with Dane-friendly slogans such as "Kierkegaard Rules" and "Submit to Havarti."
I don't think that any commentary from me is necessary. Or that it would add anything to the surrealistic absurdity of someone brandishing a sign that read "Kierkegaard Rules."


The Balancing Act

My usual pedagogical style is heavily discussion-intensive, largely because my whole notion of teaching is that my job is to bring people into encounters with complex and challenging material and then to help them to develop a defensible "take" on that material. I don't care so much what people do with the material that I force them to read and discuss; I care mostly that they a) read and discuss that material and that b) they develop positions that are grounded in close readings of the texts and theories in question. And that they can defend themselves when pushed to do so, either by me or by other members of the class.

This works remarkably well when dealing with philosophical and literary works, all of which are rich enough that close textual reading generates multiple defensible interpretations. In that case we can read things as a group and then grapple with them publicly and privately. If there were final answers, then such grappling would be somewhat beside the point -- in that case, my thought is, why not cut to the case and present the punchline right away? Why make people work so hard to get to a place that I already know that they're going?

Once we get outside of complex literary and philosophical works, I find myself performing a delicate balancing-act, since there's just not enough ambiguity in more straightforward works (such as most social-scientific books and articles) to fuel such intense discussions. It's not all that hard to figure out what Waltz or Keohane or Wendt are saying in most of their works; at any rate, it's a lot easier than figuring out what Kant or Hegel are on about. So what I'd like to be able to do is to simply move to the second-order discussion -- who is right, which theory tells us the most about the world -- and not spend much time at all on the first-order discussion about what so-and-so author said. Especially since it's not that hard to determine.

The balancing-act comes in that I want people to develop and promulgate their readings on their own. I don't want to do it for them, even for relatively straightforward works. But I also want to make sure that everyone's on the same page before the conversation goes further. So I have to balance the potentially deceptive "discussion" about what the author in question said with the real discussion about what we are supposed to do with what the author said. Thus far this semester I feel like I've done okay, although not fantastically; sometimes I come out of class feeling a bit like I was "fake lecturing" (i.e. holding a discussion that I knew the outcome of in advance) instead of facilitating a genuine discussion.

It's not helped by the fact that both of my courses this semester actually have material that they are supposed to communicate to people (the layout of IR theoretical debates, and how one conducts interpretive and relational research). Most of my courses don't have learning outcomes that can be so easily specified with reference to some body of information, and as such they don't call for the same kind of careful balancing.

One of the ways I am doing this balancing is by podcasting a few lectures outside of the normal flow of the course. I am thus giving myself a few specified locations to simply "have my say" about some issue or topic, and freeing class-time for the more important task of helping us (myself and my students) to wrestle with questions and problems. But even then I have to continually watch myself, lest I slip into information-distribution mode during class time. The subject-position of standing at the front of a classroom lends itself only too easily to such a role; the expectations, voiced or otherwise, of many of my students (like students everywhere -- it's what students are trained to do from a very young age) that I will provide them with knowledge and insight and answers provide additional pressure.

It's tough, but I wouldn't be comfortable doing it any other way.


InterNet access in the sky

Would someone please explain to me why airplanes operated by European carriers seem to be able to offer wireless 'Net access on their transatlantic flights, but airplanes operated by American carriers don't? I'd Google it myself and see if I could turn up anything, but see, here's the problem: I'm typing this while on a United Airlines flight from Munich to Washington DC, I'm somewhere over Europe (as evidenced both by the picture on the absurdly tiny screen built into the seat in front of me, and by looking out of the window and seeing land and not water far below), and I have no 'Net access. This time four days ago, flying on a SAS flight? 'Net access.

Since I can't ask the InterNet why I can't connect to it at the moment, let's try a little eliminative inference. Obviously I can't connect to the 'Net because there is no access provided on board the flight, so the question is about the differential capacity of US and European flights. What might explain this difference?

1) it could be different aircraft. Maybe there's some technical reason why wi-fi interferes with the systems of, say, Boeing airplanes but not Airbus airplanes. Perhaps -- the plane that brought me to Europe this time was an Airbus 330, while this plane that I'm on now is a Boeing 767. But this seems unlikely; my understanding is that wi-fi specifications have been designed so as to not interfere with other elements of the radio spectrum. It's also unlikely because the ISP I was able to use on the eastbound flight was Connexion by Boeing, and it would be very odd indeed if Boeing were providing a service that was technically incompatible with their own aircraft.

2) it could be cultural -- maybe Europeans like connectivity more than Americans do, and so it's not worth it to install the equipment on American planes. This strikes me as unlikely as well, since the Connexion service is marketed to business-travelers, and who is more obsessive about keeping up with their business than Americans?

3) it could be absurd security considerations. Now we may be getting someplace. When they did the usual set of announcements before we took off -- right after the requisite information about what to do in the unlikely event of a water landing; you know the drill (and could probably recite it from memory if pressed) -- they introduced something I'd never heard before. The usual litany began: turn off cel phones and leave them off for the remainder of the flight, list of approved electronic devices is in the in-flight magazine, yada yada yada…and then a set of restrictions that were framed as "security issues":

a) stay in your own cabin.
b) only use the lavatories in your own cabin.
c) don't congregate in the aisles or near the lavatories.
d) don't use wi-fi to connect any computers together, or to connect any portable electronic device to a computer.

That last one got my attention; I think I've heard the "no congregating" stuff before, and the "stay in your own service class" was also familiar. But come on: wi-fi as a security threat? A threat to what? Here, let me use my wi-fi enabled computer to beam secret messages into your airplane and force it to do my bidding? Or: let me use my nefarious wi-fi connectability to brainwash everyone on the plane into helping me commit criminal acts? Please.

It seems to me that if airplane navigation systems are so sensitive to the minute amount of signal-power generated by wi-fi cards and cel phones, the only workable solution is to change those systems. I mean, what if someone forgets to turn off their cel phone before the plane takes off? What if someone's wireless card is active during the flight, even if there's no network to connect to?

This is all exceptionally silly. I suspect that the real answer is something like

4) ISPs are fighting before the FCC hoping to obtain a monopoly on the relevant part of the wireless spectrum, and no one is going to offer airborne wireless until they get such a monopoly. Or something along those lines. Give me a few minutes with a 'Net connection and I could find out . . .

. . . but as I said, I'm typing this 30,000 feet over Europe, on a flight operated by an American carrier, and I have no 'Net access. Sigh. Oh well -- at least the flight wasn't full so I was able to get a row to myself.

[Ironically, of course, I can only post this once I have 'Net access again, at which point I might look up the answer myself -- if I remember to do it then.]


The comedy of ringtones

Basic rule of etiquette that I think needs to be plastered across the head of invitations to academic conferences:

TURN OFF YOUR CEL PHONE BEFORE THE PANEL BEGINS, or at least put it into silent or vibrate mode!

This is important enough with the basic ringtones that ship pre-installed into cel phones these days. A cel phone going off during an academic talk is very disruptive, whether it's an audience-member or a panel-member (more embarrassing if you're on the panel, I think). but nowadays, since it's easy to download customized ringtones, and since modern cell phones are increasingly able to play mp3s that sound surprisingly lifelike, a phone call can be announced by a snippet of the latest pop hit by whomever -- or an older hit, like the call that came in a few minutes ago to a woman in the audience and was announced by Britney Spears belting out "hit me baby one more time." General amusement all around, and the woman practically died of shame as she bolted from the room to silence the phone and to take the call.

The moral of my small story is easily stated: TURN OFF THE DAMN CEL PHONE. Sheesh.

[Says Professor Jackson, busily typing and blogging away in the audience of an academic session -- but I think that's less intrusive. Maybe I'm wrong.]

Should have worn a wire

I just finished giving my presentation at the Finnish conference on 'the West' where I am right now -- I guess I'm now "liveblogging" it (a term I first encountered in this entry on Marc Lynch's excellent blog) , since I'm actually typing this while the panel is still going on. I love wireless 'Net access :-)

The conference is interesting thus far, although many of the participants seem committed to conflating the analysis of civilizational discourse with the practice of civilizational and anti-civilizational politics. What do I mean by this?

The analysis of civilizational discourse, which is what I do in my book and have done in several articles and papers, means doing an empirical analysis of the "terms of engagement" that people use to shape their relations with one another. Seen from this angle, 'the West' is a political strategy, a way of worlding that envisions certain possibilities while excluding others. 'Civilization' -- in the singular, which is more universalist and messianic than the restricted, exclusive 'Western Civilization' -- represents a different political strategy, a different direction of engagement. When doing this kind of analysis of discourse, one willfully suspends questions about the empirical validity of identity claims (one does not ask "is this really a Western value?") in order to focus on the practical effects produced by particular rhetorical deployments.

Civilizational or anti-civilizational politics, on the other hand, is about deploying particular commonplace elements in order to legitimate one or another course of action -- and in particular, to deploy notions of 'civilization' or 'Western civilization' to this end. [In civilizational politics, the civilization-in-the-singular/civilizations-in-the-plural split is not always so clear, even though it's crystal-clear analytically: 'the West' is conceptualized as one grouping among others, whereas 'civilization' only has as its opposite the barbarian, the savage, or as G.W.Bush put it on Tuesday evening, the "evil".] This can also be anti-civilizational inasmuch as the speaker deploys a notion like 'the West' in order to challenge it (maybe by showing that the West isn't as distinctive as people might think, or showing how "Western" values are borrowed from non-"Western" peoples). But in any event, the focus is on deployment as a means to an end.

There's a relationship here, but it's a relationship that I see as one of primary source material versus secondary source analysis. The analysis of civilizational discourse takes civilizational politics as its source material, and strives to make sense out of what is going on in those political struggles. It does not -- not if the analyst wants to remain on the wissenschaft side of the line -- seek to adjudicate those struggles, or even really to intervene in them. From the perspective of a political actor, this aloofness seems absurd; from the perspective of a scientific analyst, it seems a necessary precondition for doing sound empirical work.

But as the conference goes on I am more and more struck by how people seem to want to blur that line, and use an analysis of civilizational discourse as a way of engaging in civilizational politics. I have both seen instances of the genetic fallacy ('the West' is a bad concept because it emerges from racism or imperialism or whatever), of academic analysis as a political trump-card ('the West' is a bad description of empirical reality and thus shouldn't be used politically), and of claims to superior representation (we shouldn't base our policies on secularism or democracy or whatever because I know that this hasn't always been a component of 'Western values'). Personally, I think that both of these can be useful courses of action, but a) in different fora and b) at different times. And an academic conference does not strike me as the right forum for this kind of thing, and it's just confusing if people switch back and forth, sometimes so quickly that they do it several times in the course of a single presentation or a comment!

Hang on a second, questions coming in to me.

Question about possible conflicts between neoconservatives and religious conservatives in US foreign policy, which I handled by stressing the 'exceptionalist' character of both arguments. Question about whether 'the West' is like other communities, and whether the ideal-typical comments about "community" that I offered to begin my talk were appropriate, which I handled by basically "pulling a Weber" and suggesting that ideal-typification is a stage in singular causal analysis -- we start with some bare things about "communities in general," then the empirical analysis shows how in practice those forms and mechanism and gestures play out, in conjunction with other things. [You can't get much leverage over empirical phenomena by speaking in abstractions, but abstractions can be useful parts of the analysis -- and are in fact indispensable steps in doing good social science.] Question about the difference between conceptual analysis (a la Reinhart Koselleck} and discourse analysis, which I handled by casting some doubt on the utility of analyzing big huge things like "modernity" and instead limiting our empirical focus to specific things like policies or courses of action -- a big conceptual map is a useful ideal-typcial input to such an analysis, but unless we give it some tight focus we all too easily get lost in the speculative clouds. Question about 'new Europe,' which I handled by cribbing a page from Dan Nexon [with citation] and characterized as bad divide-and-conquer tactics. Then there was a question about universals and particulars, which I took as an opportunity to go off a bit on ideal-typification and the civ/civs distinction…

I am enjoying myself, if you can't tell :-)

The title for my post refers to a thought I had about five minutes after I finished delivering my talk: man, I should have clipped on my iPod and mic and recorded the talk, and the podcast the sucker. Would have taken no real time at all. If I'm serious about this "recording artist" model of academia, then don't I have to take advantage of my live performances as opportunities to make and distribute recordings? Missed that opportunity this time :-( Oh well, something to keep in mind for the future.

I wonder if anyone would download those podcasts if I started making them?


On a plane

I'd just like to point out that I'm posting this pointless blog entry from someplace over the Atlantic, on an airplane, flying to a conference in Finland on 'the West.' Technology is often a very good thing. I'm impressed.

Yes, this entry is just to post something because I can post something. Besides, I put something substantive up over at Duck Of Minerva on the State of the Union address; go check that out if you are in search of actual content :-)