Monthly Archives: October 2012

Film and Philosophy, 9 Pairings

Films provide a great medium to promote dialogue about Philosophy.  For the professor who wants to enhance her lecture, or for the student who desires a creative connection to theory, I’ve listed a few pairings below that I’ve used in my own courses.

1. Descartes: The Matrix, The Truman Show, Source Code, Waking Life, Inception

2. Ethical Theory (Virtue, Duty, Utilitarianism, Existentialism): Blood Diamond, The Emperor’s ClubGood Will Hunting, Iron Man, The BeachMatch Point

3. Business Ethics: Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room 

4. Engineering Ethics: Flash of Genius

5. Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women) and/or John Stuart Mill (The Subjection of Women): A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham, North Country

6. Robert Kane’s argument for Free Will: The Truman Show

7. d’Holbach’s argument for Determinism: Minority Report, Sliding Doors

8. Philosophy of Religion: Bruce Almighty, Contact, Dogma

9. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Gandhi

*Note to professors, create a list of questions to pass out before showing the film.  This will keep students engaged and direct their attention to key connections between the film and theory. After the film, put the students into groups to discuss the questions.

Click here for my Amazon Author Page


5 Great Mystery Novels

Looking for a book that you can’t bear to put down?  Here are five great mystery novels:

1) The Likeness by Tana French

2) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

3) The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah

4) Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte

5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

For a long time I feared revealing my love for this genre.  While I enjoy reading in general whether it is Philosophy, History, Politics, or Literature, I confess that when the urge to unwind calls, I tend to delve into a good mystery. (If the book is truly absorbing I have been known to refuse phone calls, eating, and speaking to my husband until I find out who did it.)  But why have I felt such sheepishness about this past time?

During my graduate school years researching Existentialism, I read in one of Beauvoir’s letters (my philosophy hero–nerd alert!) to Sartre that she was sitting down at cafe in Paris indulging in a mystery novel.  My initial reaction was relief: if she enjoys them then why should I shy away from them? However the next line in her letter described a hasty move to shove it into her purse when a fellow Professor bumped into her at the cafe.  She felt embarrassed to be caught with such a book! (The Professor was the esteemed Merleau-Ponty.)

What is it that draws people to this genre and why is it sometimes shunned by the literary elite?

I suspect that the mystery’s inherent nature to be plot driven rather than character driven is part of the issue.  Generally speaking, you won’t find a grand treatise on culture or new views of the world as you would find in something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.  But let us consider what one does find:

1) Great mystery novels appeal to our love for puzzles and problem solving.  The structure must be logical for it to work.

2) An element of psychology often weaves its way through the book.  Motives are examined and deconstructed.

3) They keep us in the mode of critical thinking.  The reader is, in a sense, another character trying to solve the case.

4) When the guilty person is revealed, we marvel at the construction of the story that navigated through potential variations in order to accomplish this result.

On a final note, last year I had the pleasure of hearing Jan Burke, author of the Irene Kelly Series, give a lecture.  She addressed the question of the status of this genre in an intriguing, philosophical way.  At once defending and asserting its validity as a genre she said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that murder is the one crime where the victim is eliminated.  It constitutes the one crime where the victim cannot speak for herself.  Murder, then, requires society to step in for the victim to seek justice.  The mystery genre works because it illuminates this idea; that is, justice for the one who can no longer speak sits at the very heart of these books.

So, dear fellow readers, delve in, enjoy, and contemplate!

*Note, The Brothers Karamazov and The Mill on the Floss are part of my “Top Classical Novels” list.


A Meditation on Women’s Education

She was shot in the head.  Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old girl desiring an education in Pakistan’s north-west, was shot in the head.  She survived.  My heart sank as I read “The World This Week” in The Economist.

Last week I presented a lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the education of women.  In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she outlines the reasons blocking equality and dismantles them.  Among the reasons preventing equal education is tradition: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.”  She argues that this type of “education” fosters a character of weakness and ignorance.  Women are taught to observe effects and to not think about causes.

Another premise undercutting the possibility for equal education stems from the story of Adam and Eve.  She writes: “Probably the prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses’s poetical story; yet, as very few, it is presumed, who have bestowed any serious thought on the subject, ever supposed that Eve as, literally speaking, one of Adam’s ribs, the deduction must be allowed to fall to the ground; or, only be so far admitted as it proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to shew that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.” The reason for the assault on Malala, secularism by way of education, echoes Wollstonecraft’s problem with pitting fundamentalism against teaching women.

Championing the notion of Virtue Ethics, Wollstonecraft challenges the notion that, due to physical differences between men and women, women cannot develop reason.  But the soul, home to reason and thought, is by defintion gender-less. Therefore, one could not point to the body as a foundation for hindering the cultivation of reason in women. To be virtuous, one must choose to be so, and such choices garner the promise for excellence.  To deny education, then, is to deny the possibility of virtue.

This theoretical presentation engenders some head nods in the classroom.  Driving home after lecture I hope that the arguments sink in for my students.   “She’s so hard to read,” a few chant.  Sometimes I suspect that the derogatory way in which the term “feminism” has leaked into culture makes teaching this argument an uphill battle.  Wollstonecraft’s work is over a century old, after all.  And to some, what are women fussing about anyway?  Isn’t everything equal? However, given the recent news of Malala we can see that train of thought is terribly impoverished and narrow.

The incredibly disturbing story of Malala’s “crime” reinforced for me the importance of visiting arguments for equality.  I brought the news to the class and read out loud what I had read from The Economist.  The students were stunned.  I delayed the following lecture to allow for discussion, and this time I got more than head nods out of my students.


Gaffes and Awkwardness

The other day, while teaching my 8:00 am class, I began to write “architect” on the board but stumbled.  Maybe my coffee had not kicked in yet.  I was also terribly exhausted from giving evening lectures the night before. I stared at the board, my hand holding the marker, and the letters I had already written: a and r.  I could not remember how to spell “architect”!  It was a Dan Quayle-esque moment (you remember the “potatoe” incident, yes?) Paralyzed I turned to my students and asked “What am I missing?”  Oh the humanity!  Three or four students chimed in to spell it out while my brain remained in a funk.  The caffeine-gods had definitely forsaken me. This was only the beginning, for I made two more gaffes that week which involved embarrassing confusion and a joke that came out all wrong and potentially offensive.  Eeek!

We all make gaffes but some of us recover from them better than others.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I give three 2hour lectures, and on Wednesdays I give two 2hour lectures so the odds are not in my favor in the gaffe department.  When I’ve spoken to other teachers and professors they always have their own moments to share.  They range from fresh coffee stain on the front of the shirt, unaware of a belt unbuckled, making statements that were seemingly intelligent in the mind but came out sounding horrible to mispronouncing hors d’oeuvre.

One of my all time wondering-why-god-had-done-this-to-me moment was a few months ago when I rushed to get to school and spilled a full container of water in my car that created a pool in my bucket seat.  I was already running late so I sat in the water for the 30 minute drive.  When I stepped out of my car my pants looked like….well it wasn’t good.  On top of that, the entrance to my classroom was at the back, so I needed to pass all of the desks to reach the front of the room.  I stood at the back of the room and began my sad explanation: “Everyone, I have an announcement.”

Students are sometimes in awe of the awkwardness of professors and I think I know why this is.  You see, as an academic we are drawn to reading and researching, an essentially solitary affair.  The kicker is that when you are good at it, then for a living you must stand in front of people (you, the students and other academics at conferences) to present your knowledge. Chances are most of the professors you encounter are introverted, which is exactly the sort of disposition that led them into academia and teaching in the first place.  This is certainly the case for me.  Indeed, this is how you’ll find me in my natural element:

Given the number of hours I spend standing in front of people and speaking, my gaffes are inevitable.  One day I hope to be able to brush them off with more grace instead of toiling over them as I rock back and forth hugging my knees…okay, it’s not that bad.

So, dear students, when professors have their moments, be gentle.  Don’t get too snarky. Help them out.  We’re only human.


A few words on the book Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers chronicles the plight of one family in the throes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  This true story, and a compelling one at that, delves not only into the damage and chaos caused by the storm, but also the compounded issue for the Syrian born American, Zeitoun, making his way in a post 9/11 era.  His wife and children left before the storm hit and he chose to stay behind for the sake of looking after his business.  Initially he is glad to have remained in New Orleans because he was able to move much of their family’s possessions to the top floor of their home out of harm’s way.  When his neighborhood essentially became a river, he made use of a canoe bought not long before the storm.  In his canoe, Zeitoun travels up and down his streets seeing everything anew.  The point of view is at once sobering and delightful.  I write delightful because Eggers crafted Zeitoun’s character in an uplifting fashion teasing out a sense of exploration and purpose.  By traveling around in the canoe, he was able to rescue an elderly woman, an elderly couple, and feed a few domestic dogs left behind.  He called his wife daily and expressed joy at being able to do God’s work during this devastation. With a generous spirit, Zeitoun believed he was meant to be in New Orleans for others.

The book takes a drastic turn when, a few days after the storm, law enforcement and volunteer guards patrolling the area in search of looters and the like come to Zeitoun’s home and arrest him without explanation.  It is only after being manhandled, handcuffed, and detained that he is informed of their charges: he is a terrorist with Al Qaeda.  The gross error is, to say the least, disturbing. Because of the storm, the judicial system failed to function and this good man, Zeitoun, found himself in the middle of this awful mess for nearly 30 days without a right to a phone call, a proper place to sleep, a proper meal, or representation.

I appreciated this book for the window it provides into the experience of the storm and for its overarching theme of addressing injustice.  It is often said that when disaster hits we can see people coming together and get a glimpse at the best of humanity.  Zeitoun offered this.  But, in a disaster where a clear authority or legal structure falls, there is the disheartening possibility of moral failure.  Eggers, through the story of Zeitoun, exposes this and makes us reflect on it.

This is a fantastic book and I have been recommending it right and left to friends and students.


7 Ways to Cram for the Exam…if you must

Full disclosure: I am not an advocate for waiting until the night before an exam to study, but I know it happens.  How are you going to get ready in just a few hours?  Here’s how to cram for the exam.

What you will need:

1) The course syllabus

2) Textbook

3) Class notes

4) Blank paper and/or index cards

5) Review sheet if one was provided by the professor

How to cram:

1) This one will be hard, but you must put your phone away for the next few hours.  It is so easy to divert your attention by checking email, Twitter (my new favorite semi-obsession), and Facebook.  In order to cram you will need to harness all of your fabulous student-mental-powers on the material.  Keep the phone in a separate room or put it in a drawer so that you will not be tempted to look at it.

2) Using the syllabus (and the review sheet) write each topic that is to be covered at the top of your blank pages or index cards, giving each topic its own blank page.  For example, in my Philosophy Course, the students need to know the theories of about 5 Philosophers.  If you were studying for my exam, you’d want to take out five sheets of paper and write each philosopher at the top the page.  1 Philosopher per page.  This helps to organize the ideas.

3) Under the topic (or philosopher) jot down where the information can be found in the textbook.  Example: “Socrates” at the top, pages 3-31. Use your review sheet and syllabus to find the relevant pages. Also, transfer your notes by re-writing them under the relevant topics.  Everything about Socrates belongs on one page, everything about Aristotle belongs on another page and so on. Re-writing helps solidify the information in your mind.

4) After you have filled in the pages with key points, definitions, arguments, dates, and your notes, then take out a fresh batch of papers and once again write the topic (or philosopher) at the top of each page.  Without looking at the previous pages, quiz yourself by writing down as much information as you can without looking at the first group of papers.

5) Re-read or skim the sections of the book you feel the most confident in first.  Master what you know.  This bolsters your momentum for when you move on to the topics you are least familiar with. When you re-read sections of the book, add details to your pages of topics.

6) When you are studying, be sure to step away from your work every 45 minutes to stretch, jump up and down, or take a brief walk.  Yoga wouldn’t be a bad idea either.  This pause helps you to remember the information.  If you study 3 hours straight, for example, then you will only recall the beginning and end of your work while the middle part of the session gets lost.  In this break, do not turn on the television because it numbs your thinking.  Look at a magazine or do something active to get oxygen to your brain.  When you return after the 10-15 minute break, start up by giving yourself a quick quiz.  I know it is counter-intuitive to break since you are desperate to cram, but trust me, it’ll make the material stick.

7) As you are reviewing, re-reading, and quizzing yourself you might have a couple of questions about the material.  Write the question down and get to your exam 30 minutes early.  Chances are the best students will be sitting outside the classroom early going over their notes.  Grab this opportunity to exchange ideas and clarify the material with your fellow classmates.  Having a brief chat about the material before the exam will keep it fresh in your mind.  I don’t suggest sending the professor a late night email with the question because you will be hinting to the professor that you are not prepared.  As a general rule, if you must email the professor for clarification on the material, make sure it is before 2:00 pm the day before the exam.

Good luck!  Click here for more study tips.


The Disconnect

After reading Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes, a book that outlines the dynamics of a merit based ideology in the U.S., I’ve found myself haunted by one particular passage.  Hayes writes the following as an example to illustrate the disconnect between those governing and the reality of people’s situation during Hurricane Katrina:

“According to the 2000 census, 8 percent of Americans resided in a household without access to a car, but that number varies widely depending on class and location.  Among the poor nationwide, 20 percent live in households that don’t have access to a car, and among the poor in the city of New Orleans that number was 47 percent.  What’s more, the city was home to hundreds of thousands with disabilities, according to the 2000 U.S. census: fully 50 percent of residents over sixty-five had some kind of disability.  Further compounding the problem was that the storm hit at the very end o f the month, a time when those on fixed income, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, were at their most cash strapped.”

This clearly highlights several factors that contributed to many people not being able to simply pick up and go despite increased warnings of danger.  By becoming aware of socio-economic conditions impacting people’s lives, we can engender an appreciation of the hardships overlooked by the average-to-well off American.

I would like to use Hayes’s insight to consider a current debate in the U.S. regarding voter identification laws, or as some have argued, an effort to suppress voting rights.  In a similar vein, although not life-threating as the case with Hurricane Katrina, there is a lack of understanding for the means of several Americans to obtain government identification.  It has been argued that getting an i.d. is not problematic.  That claim, I believe, also demonstrates a disconnect between the have and have nots.

Obtaining an i.d. requires transportation, money, physical mobility to get to a bus, train, or to stand in-line, and at times going out of state to get a birth certificate.  This is not an easy feat for the elderly or poor.  In fact, it may be an impossibility.

And, because I often concern myself with college-life, I cannot help but point out that university students are also pushed aside as citizens in this discussion. Post Wednesday’s presidential debate, I’ve overheard students on campus engaged in lively political discussions.  Many of our youth are excited to cast their first vote! The fact that some states want to declare a student i.d. insufficient for voting, but will accept a gun registration is astounding and a disgrace.  Students contribute to their community and often temporarily reside in their college town for 4-5 years.  Even if they are not a permanent resident of their college town, they should be able to vote in their temporary residence, because they are impacting, and are impacted by, that district for half a decade.  Here are some ways students are involved in their college community:

1. They buy food, gas, clothes, and entertainment in the area; thus they are paying sales tax.  This also boosts local business.

2. Students do community service via outlets like campus clubs or the campus Career Center.

3. Students hold part-time work in their community.

4. Student athletes bring revenue to their school.

5. When students are successful post-graduation they also increase the visibility of their alma mater.   As a result, the university’s enrollment and reputation flourish thereby bringing in more students for the future.

I write this to encourage people to consider possible factors that go into obtaining a government i.d. so that it is not brushed off as a simple endeavor, and to increase the visibility of the college student voter.  Obliging citizens to strict regulation does indeed hinder several people from voting.  It is unfair and it is not living up to the standards of a free society. Let’s not disenfranchise people.  Remember the point of the American Revolution was to enable representation, not to keep power in the hands of the upper echelon.


%d bloggers like this: