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.

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