A Quirk

I never remember where I park.  On more occasions than I’d like to admit, I’ve walked around in circles holding out my keys trying to beep beep my way to my vehicle by zeroing in on the sound like a cat ready to pounce.  People slowly driving by seeking out a perfect spot begin following me.  They believe I’m heading straight to my car.  I have to turn to their hopeful face and shrug my shoulders.

No, I’m not walking to my car, I’m looking for my car.

They shoot past me annoyed.  I don’t mean to be a tease.  Lugging a heavy bag of books and wishing I wore different shoes, I snake up and down the university lot’s aisles of cars.  It is not my most dignified of moments.

What makes this a truly regrettable quirk is that my mother also never remembered where she parked.  She drove a tan ’86 Volvo.  It was horrendous.  It was a flesh colored box on wheels, but she loved it.  Hell, she wanted it.  In my mind, it solidified our differences.

One afternoon in the late 80s we wrapped up some time at the mall, and when she stepped outside she said (as usual), “Now.  Where did I park?”  The search began.  Normally we’d find the car pretty quickly.  This one instance, however, required serious investigating.  After considerable time pacing we decided to split up.  I zipped about looking left and right.

It suddenly dawned on me that the car might have been stolen.  With renewed effort I ran faster, not in the hopes of finding the car but with the hope of not finding the car.  Good-bye ugly Volvo!  I giggled.  I prayed.  I fantasized filing a police report and telling dad that we had to go buy something else now.  Perhaps I’d have a say in the purchase.  Maybe a pink convertible with an awesome cassette player for me to blast my Jem and The Holograms tape.

And when the possibility seemed so close I heard my mom calling my name from a few rows over.  She yelled, “It’s over here.”

We kept that Volvo for twenty years.

People say that one day you’ll do something just as your parents.  That “one day” feels like an ominous rite of passage into adulthood.  I suspect I’m not alone in thinking I’d be immune to it, but it’s inevitable.  The moment that perfect imitation escapes your mouth it’s a shock.  The world moves in slow motion.  Your actions don’t feel like your own.  Your “self” is no longer under the illusion of being something singular but rather a collection of experiences and influences.  Every time I park my car in the university lot I take deliberate note of my surroundings.  I’m just a few paces from the third divider.  Or, I’m next to the scrawny tree.  But, after a day of lecturing, chatting with students, and sorting through readings I find myself approaching the parking lot and whispering, “Now. Where did I park?”


The Book Divergent Got Me Thinking…

I’ve been wrestling with a way to address a nagging question regarding the reason for undergraduate general education (G.E.s) courses.  Upon finishing Divergent, a parallel between the dystopia described in the novel and the way in which we view education came to my mind.

What makes the society in the book dystopian?  What makes Tris an interesting protagonist?

For the book’s morale to work we must implicitly reject the society described in the novel and, in turn, cheer for Tris.  Unearthing the grounds for that reaction can lead us to a better understanding of our values, the byproduct of which is partly reflected in the structure of education.

I’ll tread lightly here so as to not give anything away in case you plan on reading it.  There will be no spoilers.

But read the book because it’s fun.

The fictional society organizes itself into five specific factions or groups.  Governing, education, military and so forth are all separate, and once one chooses to become a member of the faction they commit for life.  Moreover, the people of the factions limit communication to others within the faction. To determine which faction/group one is best suited for all youth undergo a psychological test.

When the test is administered to Tris, the protagonist, her results are inconclusive.  That poses a serious problem for the dynamics of society.  Why? Because Tris demonstrates the ability to fit into more than one faction and thus her very existence undermines the supposed governing of the society.  Tris’s capacity for thinking extends beyond their rigid notion.  She is unique.  One might consider her a Nietzschean “overman.”

Tris is warned to keep the inconclusive results to herself.  She must join a faction and pretend to be suited solely for that group.  A tension carries throughout the book about this need to suppress her authentic self.

There are other interesting themes to this book, but I’d like to isolate this depiction of the hero.  She could represent the human spirit, one that refuses to be narrowed by an imposed definition.  Why choose just one way to exist when we are capable of so much more?

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And this brings me to the aforementioned parallel: Why do classes outside of one’s university major matter?  What are those pesky G.E.s for?

In a word: Thinking.

Our concept of “useful” knowledge needs to be broader.  The assumption is that education and training are one and the same.    When students ask “Why do I need to know this? It will have nothing to do with my job” I don’t begrudge them for their questioning, but I am curious as to where the momentum of this line of inquiry springs.  Not stepping outside one’s major seems akin to tethering one’s life to a specific skill, a not too distant step from the fictional factions of Divergent.  However, the idea that learning an array of subjects and career-life are discrete from each other is an illusion.  Writing, communicating, knowledge of research, how to discern arguments all contribute to one’s overall being.  Thinking is a skill.  Indeed, thinking is the skill.

Forgive me for this shocking claim: A university education is not strictly for getting a job.  The hiring potential of the graduate is the byproduct but not necessarily the only function of studying.  Taking courses in the sciences and the humanities increases one’s capacity for examining the world from different angles.

Again, thinking is a skill.  It is a discipline.  Most “skills” will be obsolete within ten years with the exception of thinking; therefore the ability to adapt, re-evaluate, and meet a changing world head on is extremely important.

It is true that one of my G.E. students in Philosophy will not breeze through a job interview by re-telling Pascal’s Wager or Aristotle’s Virtue Theory.  But what the students do gain in the class is the practice of analyzing premises and conclusions argued by brilliant philosophers.  (I only use the subject as an example and do not mean to exclude the importance of other studies.) Engaging in studies other than one’s major does not create a deficit but enhances thinking.  As with an athlete who sometimes practices yoga to strengthen their overall physical self, a student enrolled in G.E.s becomes intellectually stronger.

The counter position of studying only one subject because it is assumed that said subject will be practiced for the rest of one’s life actually resembles the organization of Divergent.  To be trained to think one particular way for one particular job is unrealistic, boring, and the plot of a dystopia.

Aristotle wrote that the life of contemplation was the means to excellence and happiness.  Learning is so much more than facilitating the capacity for a singular function.  It should be part of growing and enjoying life.  It is human.  Recall a moment when someone told you an interesting fact or you read something that caught your attention.  “Oh.  I didn’t know that,” you respond.  Suddenly you light up at the new knowledge.  What you really mean is “Oh. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that.”  It’s delightful. Your experience of the world opens up.

Besides, contemplation outside of one field allows for people to connect with others.  What will you chat about at dinner parties?  How will you be involved in your community?  How will you vote?  What will you do when you retire? Unlike the factions of Divergent that disengage with other groups, the professions of the real world overlap on several levels.

The character Tris embodies that beautiful non-defining aspect of being human.  By resisting definition she exemplifies a core value, namely, we carry the potential to transcend, to change, to be curious, to be in constant flux.  The “usefulness” of curiosity is without limit.  It is because Tris does not desire to fit into a category despite the society’s rules that we root for her.  In short, she is a badass.


Call for Papers, Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

GSU Phi Sigma Tau

Philosophical Society

Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Georgia Southern University

Statesboro, Georgia

April 11-12, 2014

Conference Topic: Philosophy in Literature and Film

Papers that focus on analyzing the philosophical consequences and implications of film and literature are especially encouraged.  Participation in the conference is open to all undergraduate students regardless of major.  The top papers will be published in Georgia Southern’s undergraduate philosophy journal, The Indefinite Dyad.

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Guidelines:

  • Only full papers will be accepted.
  • Student submissions should be no more than 4,000 words.
  • Group presentations will be accepted.
  • Submissions should contain student’s full name, institution, and contact information (including email).
  • Deadline: March 1, 2014
  • Submit proposals to Geneva Hendrix gsuphisigmatau@gmail.com
  • Questions? Contact Danielle Layne dlayne@georgiasouthern.edu

Time to write. But first…

The hardest thing about writing is writing. -Nora Ephron

I mentally shuffle through different writing topic possibilities in the morning.  But first, I must have coffee.

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Coffee drinking complete and now it is time to sit at my desk to write.  But first, I should really check the news.  Mike Huckabee said what???

I have seen enough news so now I can settle down and write.  But first, maybe I should tend to the dishes.

My kitchen is spotless and now I turn to writing.  But first, Oh my, the book shelves are a bit dusty.  I’ll swiffer that away immediately. 

Not a speck of dust on the book shelves!  Great, now I must switch on my computer.  But first, I think the cat needs some food.

The cat thanks me for her food…sort of, and now I can have a moment to write.  But first, maybe an important email awaits in my inbox.  I should really click, read, and respond.

Emails have been returned!  Now I stare at a blank screen taunted by a cursor.  But first, what’s happening on Twitter and Instagram?  

Perusal of others’ lives complete, so I really ought to return to writing.  But first, I could use a snack.  Hmmm, almonds sound good right now.

My stomach has ceased its growling and now I can write.  But first, I must re-read an article or two for research.

I’m satisfied with my updated research.  I should write on what I just read.  But first, did the mail arrive? 

Catalogs, bills, and more catalogs.  I’ll quickly open these bills.  Now I’ll organize my finances and then I can get down to the business of writing.

Finally, it is time to conquer that blinking cursor and type it away!  But first, I’m going to make more coffee and re-fuel.

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On Things Best Left Unsaid

  1. “I read 50 Shades of Gray. It was interesting.” Right.  I was enjoying my meal but now…
  2. Adding “for your age” to any sentence.  A swing and a miss in the compliment arena.
  3. “Hold on.  I need to take a selfie.”  Selfies are never needed.
  4. After a meal: “Oh God I’m so full.” A simple “Loved the meal” will suffice.  How you stuffed yourself to discomfort can remain a secret.
  5. “You look tired.”  Gee, thanks.  I didn’t realize.  Now I’ll go about my day as normally as possible.
  6. When giving a present: “It was on sale.”  Pat yourself on the back for the bargain instead of announcing it.
  7. When receiving a present: “Is there a gift receipt?”  Woe is the gift giver in this situation!
  8. “I need more fiber in my diet.”  Eww.
  9. “Do you want your upper lip waxed?”  This should never be offered.  Ever. End of story.
  10. “He dies in the end.”  Oh come on!
  11. When reflecting on college: “I didn’t have to take out any loans.”  Congratulations on your economic platform.
  12. After someone mentions what they are currently reading: “Pff!  I read that in high school.”  We’re adults.  Reading is not a competition.
  13. “Totes. Amaze. Cray cray!” Let’s stick to English (or to not speaking).

5 Resolutions for College Students

Resolutions are notoriously grandiose and often unrealistic, yet we keep coming back to them at the start of the year.  Why are resolutions a “thing” if they are also known to be discarded by February?

The idea of starting “fresh” is appealing.  This implies something worth noting, namely, we are aware of our capacity for improvement.  Resolutions inherently point to the notion that we can be better.  We are not static.  We are not defined.  We can imagine doing and being better.  The new year prompts us to this realization and makes us conscious of possibility.

Resolutions must be cemented in habit.  Start with baby steps that are manageable.  Don’t try to be a different person; rather, focus on becoming the best version of yourself. Simply dabbling with the idea of being better is not enough to actually be better.  To achieve staying power, resolutions should be broken down into actionable steps.

Here are some actionable steps for the college bound:

  • Wake up at least 1 hour before your first class.  I recommend 2 hours, but I know some of you are staying up quite late.  Do not roll out of bed and stumble into your morning classes.  Set the alarm earlier and use the extra time to grab a coffee and review your notes before the lecture.  This will only be difficult for the first few days, but by day 5 you’ll automatically be waking up earlier.
  • Join a club on campus.  This step brings you closer to the university community and, studies have shown, will increase your chances of graduating and graduating on time.  Look for a club that centers on your major.  Information will be posted in your major’s department.  This is also a nice opportunity to get the scoop on classes to take (or not take) from other students.
  • Visit the office hours of each of your professors at least once.  This will only take 30 minutes of your time, but the returns on this investment will last throughout the term.  You’ll instantly become more involved in the class.  Making the time to visit in person is also a small habit that translates nicely into “real world” action.  Connect with people face-to-face as opposed to reducing communication solely through email.
  • Read one book outside of class.   I know you are inundated with course work so you needn’t pick something that’ll weigh you down.  I don’t recommend taking a stab at Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance.  However, the habit of reading in addition to your workload will be just as important in your life after college in the “real world.”  The most successful people read or listen to audiobooks because advancing one’s knowledge is simply healthy and good for one’s business.  Ask three of the most successful people you know and see what they are reading and how often.  Stay curious.  (I’ve listed three book suggestions below.)
  • Buy a Journal.  Keep it in a place where you’ll remember to write in it and look it over: nightstand, desk, school bag, or the loo.  Set aside a day (or two) when you will add to the journal.  On this day write what you are thankful for, one thing you learned from each of your classes, and a new word you learned.  Increase your gratitude, awareness of your new knowledge and your vocabulary.  (I had a journal devoted only to new words.  Before a paper I’d turn to my journal and pick 2 words to use.  It became something of a game.)
Snapshot of yours truly enjoying "Off The Road" by Carolyn Cassady.

Snapshot of yours truly enjoying “Off The Road” by Carolyn Cassady.

Book Suggestions:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.  I’ve recommended this over and over again.  This book is about climbing Mount Everest in the throes of one of the worst storms/disasters.  Krakauer’s writing is incredibly absorbing and entertaining. One of my students recently emailed that he read this book based on my recommendation and it came up during a job interview.  He thinks he got the job because he was able to chat about it with his prospective employer.  Bravo, I say!

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anyone interested in business, marketing, advertising, and/or sociology should check this out.  Gladwell examines points at which a momentum shifts and trends take off.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.  I loved loved loved this memoir.  Steve Martin brings the reader on his journey to becoming one of the most successful stand-up comedians.  He is honest, witty, and insightful.  While the book does, of course, focus on life as a comic, its real value is in the underscoring theme of commitment and dedication.  Steve Martin believed in himself, in entertaining, and in re-creating and revising his act.  Anyone needing a bit of motivation to kick start their year and follow through with their goals should read this book.

Click here to visit Gwendolyn’s Author Page.

Best of luck, dear students!  Have a wonderful year!


Clarity in Confusion

*Daily Prompt 

It was the late 90s, San Diego, at a little cafe called Espresso Roma.

Planted in my usual reading spot, Philosophy books and notes were stacked in front of me and a hot mocha cooled off to my right.  I interrupted the study session to ask my friend and fellow philosophy major: “Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t know what you know?  It was so much easier when I didn’t think about these things or even know these things were questions.”

Literature in philosophy involves taking one’s mind on a trek outside of the ordinary.  We read arguments for Free Will only to be followed by equally compelling arguments that there is no Free Will.  What constitutes truth?  How do we know when we know something especially when everything we think we know could be debunked in 50 years as we have debunked “truths” previously believed?  What makes knowledge knowledge?  Reviewing logic supporting the existence of God, and then arguments systematically dismantling that logic also threw my Catholic school upbringing into a menacing tailspin. And what in the world is a “Right”?  Do we always protect the individual, or do we always protect the greatest number sometimes at the sacrifice of an individual?

Facepalm. Facepalm.  More facepalm.

Philosophy compels one to ask questions where one didn’t even realize a question existed.  An intellectually secure footing in the world seemed impossible.  Yet, despite this, I couldn’t help but entrench myself further into the study and devour the arguments. This everything-but-clarity feeling hit me when I took a moment at the cafe to stop memorizing information for an upcoming exam and paused to churn over the ideas I had been studying.  Everything made sense and nothing made sense.

“I’m confused,” I said.

My friend, understanding the look of mental turmoil splashed across my face, smiled and said, “Ah, yes.  But now you are confused at a higher level.”

*Tell us about a time you’d been trying to solve a knotty problem — maybe it was an interpersonal problem, a life problem, a big ol’ problem — and you had a moment of clarity when the solution appeared to you, as though you were struck by lightening.


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