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.)