Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Academic Freedom and Me...

Well, folks! It has been over a week since I have been able to make the time to communicate with you.

This evening, my university is having David Horowitz speak, famed mentor to Students for Academic Freedom, So there has been a big push from both sides of the political spectrum to attend and voice opposition/support.

I feel that I must weigh in here for two major reasons. First, this blog is at least ostensibly about issues of intellectualism in the academy, and this might be the biggest issue at the moment on that particular table. Secondly, I co-author and sponsored a bill (click for the news reporting the bill's passage) in my school's Graduate Student Senate that expressed opposition to Ohio Senate Bill 24 ( see for the exact text).

The problem as I see it is multivariate. First, many professors are in fact or in appearance taking as part of their mission as teachers the goals to inform/force students' views on political issues in such a way as to make this information tangential to the course topic and to cause students to fear reciprocity for writing on, researching, or otherwise expressing views that the professor find naive or ill-informed.

I have been in a number of classes over my twenty-year history in the education system that I have felt that the teacher presented their own personal view as the correct one without much room for discussion. At the same time, I have had numerous professors who spent a great deal of time fostering a useful and lively discussion of ideas. In some ways this might result from divergent types of professors, and in some cases there are fundamental problems with instructors.

In other cases, though, the problem lies with students who have not been taught in elementary or secondary schools how to investigate, reason, and present controversial opinions. There is next to no instruction on critical thinking, a process not assisted by "No Child Left Behind"/test-based assessments of progress. Therefore, oftentimes students reach the college level and are surprised when they are confronted by an oppositional viewpoint that a professor has had years to craft and form. The students are unarmed for intellectual combat, and the question becomes, "How do we best teach individuals how to fight mental fights?"

There seem to be two basic camps presenting solutions. Members of both the left and right inhabit both of these solutions, and each brings their own set of presuppositions and biases.

1. We challenge the students openly by questioning and interrogating their presentations of unformed viewpoints. This approach can take the form of lectures, class discussion, responses to speeches/presentations, or the grading of papers.

The problem with this is that students often feel attacked and assaulted throughout their class day. This places them on their defensive posture. Rather than drawing the student out and forcing them to fortify their ideologies with thought and research, they more often either retreat and accept the point of view in order to get a good grade or turn to outside sources for reinforcements.

2. We present the student with facts that support a variety of different perspectives and encourage them to draw from these texts in an effort to construct a personal viewpoint that is more open to considering differences. This is attempted in survey courses.

The problems with this sort of approach basically rests on time and money. In order to adaquately present the vast quantities of perspectives that exist and could come to bear on any one issue would take an equally vast class-length.

It also assumes that students have the ability and desire to truly test and research on their own. This process of self motivation and discernment would require a preknowledge of critical thought. In my experience, students prefer to be told what they need to memorize for a test and then just given a test on that material.

Furthermore, it assumes an ability of instructors to equally and deftly present viewpoints with which they might personally disagree and which does not become merely a multitude of canons from which the student must choose. This is an extremely difficult proposition and is not very easily accomplished.

What I advocate is a combination of the two. I think that the benefits of a truly Socratic style of teaching are huge, but I also know that many times professors have no real desire to hear the opinions of the students but prefer to undercut them or show them how wrong they are.

Therefore, graduate students and professors must be taught how to guide students to find the errors in their own and each other's arguments. This requires confrontation with facts and texts that force a process of questioning. It also requires an openness on behalf of the instructor to being interrogated with equal ferocity, something that causes many professors to shut down into a mentality I call "Agree OR Else" aka "Well I Have a Doctorate and Am Teaching the Class".

Fundamentally, I agree with authors such as Ellul and Levinas who advocate that society as a whole needs to shift a focus from seeking answers to seeking the right questions. I think that judgements must be made, grades must be given, but how we gauge that process might look much more different than A's= 92-100%.

Short of a complete change in society (something I am aware is utopian), all members of this discourse must become more accountable to each other and to themselves. There must be more sources of communication and feedback. There must be something like a campus ombudsman created for students to have an advocate who is not directly affiliated with any particular department or program.

Monday, March 21, 2005

"In America"

As an American Culture Studies person, and also a film studies nut, any film with a title like "In America" holds a great deal of attraction and deserves some attention. In addition to the attraction of the title and a contemporary immigration story, the critical response to this film make it highly fascinating.

Last week, graduate school forced me into a small breakdown. No, not the kind with Kurt Russell, but I was getting very frustrated with the continuous academic focus of my life. I love the academy as much as any other insane person, but sometimes we all need a chance to switch off the constant drone of critical approaches and just enjoy a story.

Now I am going to try to avoid delving into a the genres of film review or from a critical perspective when I talk about Jim Sheridan's "In America". Rather I would like to give an idea of my experience of engaging with this beautiful film.

In "In America" Sheridan tells a semi-autobiographical story of an Irish family moving to America following the death of their son, Frankie. Though many films would make the death of the son and the tendency to blame each other and oneself for his death, Sheridan picks up on the family in the midst of recovery (a la "Ordinary People" but with way fewer WASPs). So there we are, as an audience, introduced to this foursome on the upswing of grief (if there can be an upswing). They are crossing from Canada into the US, illegally I might add, in their beaten up station wagon, and we follow them for roughly a year as they struggle to find a place to live, make enough to stay alive, and come back to some semblance of "together."

I am well aware that this film, on the superficial plot level, seems more appropriate for the movie of the week, but the way it is put together and shifts focus deftly allows us to really see into each character. Once there, we are given a full range of complex emotions or being in a new place and relearning how to associate as four where there once were five.

In tone, at times, I think this film plays more like a more personable version of Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter". The is not just because they both center on groups dealing with purposeless grief, but that is part of it.

At this point, I need to share that my family of five became a four when my younger brother, Peter, died of a rare heart defect (long q.t. wave syndrome, you might have heard of the Maryland b-ball player who just dropped dead on the court after a game), and so in many ways, I cannot separate my experience of the film from my own experience. However, in many ways, "In America" touches on issues of humanity without drifting far into the melodramatic.

Many films deal with the complexity of life and death in simple ways: there was an overarching purpose, there is a need for revenge (through violence or legal means), there is the carnival of pain, etc. This does not meet my personal experience with grief (being someone who has attended more funerals of friends than weddings has something to do with this). I do all of the normal things. I think the thoughts. I pray the prayers. I sit in grief groups' meetings, but what Sheridan does is deal with the fact that at some point, you must make a decision to either move on or remain in your grief.

Sheridan deals with death and grief on a level that does not deny the need to remember those who are gone, but he does not either feel the need to memorialize them. At the end of the film, the narrator's face, Christy(Sarah Bolger), is shown briefy on screen before fading to the New York skyline. She asks if we remember her face. She then says that she wants to rememeber her brother and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, one of my favorite actors), their neighbor who dies of AIDS, in the same way.

I have been in the middle of a seminar on memory, history, and identity. So, I thought hard to remember what she looked like, and the image had been there just seconds before. The film does not say that memory is perfect. It holds no panacea for emotion or grief, but it does allow us a luxury that is rare in today's digital age. It allows our minds to soften the edges of grief in time. Maybe remembering everything is not the goal. Emmanuel Levinas writes about a form of ethics that is based on the remembering the face of the "Other" who has died, but it is not a clutching to the hereafter. It is the acceptance of the responsibility that the possibilities symbolized by those faces. It is keeping in mind that others are "Others" and taking on their labor as our own. I know that I promised to try to not be "intellectual", but it is hard.

There are a great number of things that I would like about this movie, and this is not to say that the film can be saccharine as moments, but films like "In America" present the power of film to allow for a connection at the same time as it forces some distances.

I will be writing more thoroughly, and in a more organized fashion in an article that I am compiling that looks at "In America" from a memory standpoint for the Society for Reflective Consumption. This has been an excellent opportunity to get some of my thoughts down. Thanks for your time and attention.

The Infrequency of Intellectualism...

Now, I know that I have been somewhat remiss in my duties in posting for the four or five of you who might check here regularly. The difficulty in posting regularly comes from a desire to somehow step my writing up a level and write in preformed, well-thought compositions.

Some things that come to mind is that perhaps I am thinking of intellectualism as a purely cerebral activity. While my daily escapades might not be "intellectual", being a bit more personal with an audience might provide an ability for some to connect to me in a way that adds to any academic argument that I could make about Lacan, Ellul, or Weil.

So I think my next couple posts will be about somewhat more mundane ideas.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Negotiating the Middle Ground...

I mentioned in my last post that I would be posting more on my experience and thoughts on how I navigate being both an intellectual (of the academic order) and a Christian (of the psuedo-Reformed/Evangelical order). More specifically, I mentioned that i would be talking about how I see my ability to negotiate these spheres in relation to postmodern cultural and social theorists.

This is not my goal today. Today, I would like to take a moment, breathe, and give a few examples of others who negotiate this same process of self-identification.

First, there are the blogs that I have listed in my "Links" section to the left. These are friends and groups that are spending a great deal of time on the same issues that I often find myself struggling with. I point them out not only because I want more people to look at their sites but also because I want to prove that I am not an outlier of culture. There are a great number of individuals who are struggling with me over the same issues.

In addition to these blogs I would like to make special note of the following:

This is the article in the Wall Street Journal that talks about some of the pressures on graduate students have to face when they bring their personal ideology (in all its changing forms) into their work.

The story of Laura Winner, a Columbia graduate student, who went from Orthodox Judaism to being baptized into the Anglican church is not as strange as some might think, and it cannot be merely tossed into a labelled bin of another thinker desiring to just turn off their brain and submit to a false consciousness. Her book, "Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Religious Life" (Algonquin)" (although I've only read excerpts) seems to detail a journey very similar to those by such respected intellectuals as C.S. Lewis (I know everybody loves to bring him up), Jacques Ellul, and Simone Weil who not only transitioned in a very rational manner from different ideological positions into Christianity but also detailed their thoughts about this journey in excellent books.

Another such intellectual, Charles Towne, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, recently received the Templeton Prize (also won by Mother Teresa) for those who advance spiritual knowledge. This BBC article give an interesting introduction for those who feel that science and faith cannot mix:

For more daily exposure to the kinds of questions and discussion that other in my position examine please check out at least one of the following:

I know that many people have extreme misgivings about trusting blogs and with good reason, but if you take these as expressions of people's personal journey rather than any sort of polemic, then i think it might help understand how others, besides myself, are working through this problem of belonging.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Some Thoughts on Religion and Intellectualism...

One of the major ideas that I hope to begin incoporating into this site is a discussio of ways that I can integrate one major sphere of my life (intellectual pursuits) with another major sphere (my faith). The problem with this is that members of one sphere all label the members of the other sphere as dogmatic, unthinking, self-centered, political brutes.

The additional problem is that, in general, they are both right. I have written before on the ways that some theorists of the public intellectual, Nancy Fraser mostly, feel that in order to have a truly discursive society, we need to acknowledge and embrace an idea of the public that includes multiple publics which also integrate some aspects of what has typically been called the private sphere (made up of sexual, familial, and personal religious belief.)

In order to accomplish this feat, members of both of my sample spheres (I have many other groups that I self-associate with, but that would only complicate things much further) need to recognize that they both are behaving with a degree of negative dogmatics that they both criticize in the other group. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the only way to resolve these tensions is some sort of violence, whether political, ideological, or rhetorical.

So the task for those of us (read, "me") who negotiate these intersections is to limit the trauma caused to the necessary for the task while at the same time retaining the sense that we respect the ability of those whom we disagree with to hold the beliefs with which we disagree.

One way that this comes out is in small arenas like the blog to which my friends and I contribute. (Society for the Reflective Consumption of Media) Recently, one of my friends, Brad, wrote a piece of literary review/criticism that used Madeline L' Engle to talk about the ways in which Art, as a modern concept, owes a significant debt and connection to a certain understanding of Christian Art.

The problem arose when one of the founders of the site found that the title and obvious Christian perspective of the article too preachy. Dan claimed that while he supported discussions of faith in an abstract sense as a necessary aspect of someone's life, he did not want to be preached at. While as someone who has been preached at from the Left and the Right for most of his life, I understand this inclination, I also understand the philosophical difficulty in allowing one group to police the definition of something like "preaching"

In larger perspectives, like the classroom as a teacher or student, we have to negotiate these ideas constantly. Am I preaching at my students when I present a form of written expression like the essay as the standard for educational expression. In some ways, I am adopting a ideological stance that is similar in form and presentation to another person standing up and saying that they believe that Jesus is the son of God.

yes, I know that there are radical differences in the passions attached to the essay versus the foundations of the Christian faith. Few people would choose to be tortured and die for their belief that the essay with synthesized sources is the correctly dominant form of academic communication. Still, both of these beliefs involve a level of attachment of the individual to a particular institutional tradition.

Therefore, when we present ourselves within these spheres, we need to recognize the connections, obligations, and biases that we bring with us from academic as well as religious traditions. The importance of thinkers like Foucault to a Christian intellectual such as myself is that they present ways of looking at the history of thought that places all discourses within a framework of tradition, power, and history.

Did I just say that an academic such as Foucault was important to a Christian? Yes. Yes, I did. That should give us enough to think about for today. I will probably elaborate on this connection between Postmodern thinkers and my placement within the border space between these spheres at a later point, but for now, that is all.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Break from Seriousness...

I keep getting the sense that I am being to serious. I mean, yes, this is for a class at least to some extent, but why can't I talk about fun topics as well?

There's no reason, except that I find being serious to be fun in its own way. I guess this points to a more general trend that might or might not relate to some of the issues that I have been bringing up. Why is it that having fun is divorced, for the most part, from the serious things that we do?

It seems that somewhere along the courses of histories that somehow the linkages between seriousness and fun were broken. Sure, we could blame it on the Church or the Puritans at least. Mr. Foucault, i agree that the Christian pastoral has contributed to the categorization of most aspects of desire as sins, but is there something else?

Why can't I just have fun and analyze the film/tv show/music that I am experiencing? There seems to have been some filtering down from the turning of sobriety and seriousness into virtues. While pleasures have been eliminated as unproductive.

Even if we assume that the Christian Church has made it unacceptable to have fun, we have two aspects or perspectives emerging. On one hand, we can look intellectually at how the Church has spread this message throughout the American culture and its institutions, but the other, and the one I am more interested in exploring, comes when we begin to look at how the interpretation of the central text of the faith changed and continues to change to maintain a particular perspective and orientation of power and knowledge.

Oh, darn! Now I've done it again. I start out with the intention of something lighthearted to talk about, and I am already embroiled in a deep cultural and theological discussion.

Well, I will put this off for the time being, just sit back and listen to the soothing tunes of Kajagoogoo. Till next time when I will try to look at some sources within hermeneutics that point to a need for balance within the Christian tradition, and then I can begin looking at how the current state of understanding of desire, pleasure, and virtue play out in a couple specific cultural arenas. So try not to get too excited.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Argumentation and Students...

Now, I understand that this is a bit off topic from my usual posts, but I am having some problems in my teaching. Since this blog is ostensibly about pedagogy and its relationship to teaching and intellectualism as it is expressed by teaching, I figure this is applicable.

For the composition class that I teach, my students are required to write three papers that take a stance within a particular topic and argue it using sources and argumentative organization that relates these sources to the writer's perspective and to one another.

However, despite my experience and training in teaching composition, I have reached something of an impasse. How does one tell another person how to argue a position? My students come to me with ideas that are almost entirely summaries of the information that they have read without any sort of comparative or imperative representations of opinion.

Now, being a graduate student for a few years now, I am well aware of the ways that one can argue for a definition to be reformed or reexamined. This, however, takes some knowledge and skill at formulating arguments and understanding of the context of the original definition.

So I am at a complete loss of how to get students that are primarily 18 to 19 years old to take a stand on anything. Is this a result of growing up in a PoMo world where students assume that either nothing really matters because it is all opinion or because they don't have any sort of authority to speak, so why bother?