Tag Archives: Philosophy

Learning As I Go…

It all began with a simple “Yes” I typed in response to an email from the chair of the Philosophy Department.

I was in the throes of massive coffee consumption, grading exams, and preparing to give a talk at a conference in Chicago, and so, I admit, I didn’t entirely grasp what I was saying “Yes” to.

It turns out, I had agreed to take on another professor’s class: Philosophy of Sex. Well, okay then. I requested the same textbook to be ordered for the syllabus. No, I hadn’t read it.

My background is in Existentialism and Moral Theory. My course load is comprised of classes in that framework. To say Philosophy of Sex was outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise would be woefully understated.

Including my graduate years, I’ve been teaching for about…never mind. Let’s just say Friends was still running and we were in suspense about Ross and Rachel.

In all of my years of teaching I’ve entered the classroom with the echo of something my high school math teacher once stated: “It’s my job to make sure you know more when you leave this room than when you entered.” I’ve held myself to this standard every day I am with my students.

Until…

Taking on this Philosophy of Sex course had me stumbling, blushing, and a type of tired no amount of caffeine could fix. Some topics covered in the textbook were things I had no desire to discuss, like defining the language/terms of sex as opposed to oral sex, are there sexual duties, sodomy laws, BDSM, and all things Freud, like penis envy (that absurd-only-a-man-would-think-that-idea).

I finished every class with a heavy heart as I walked to my car feeling that I hadn’t ensured my students an education or, as my math teacher had put it, knowing more when they exited my classroom. And, for the first time, a student left a scathing review of me online calling me “awful.” I know I shouldn’t have cared about that, but I did.

I was literally going over the chapters of the textbook at the same pace as the students, coming into class to discuss what we’d all just read for the first time. It was a humbling experience, and one that reminded me of a truth I’ve always known but only felt now in a profound way; namely, to teach, in part, is to embrace also being a student. That is, teaching does not the mark the end of one’s education, it’s couched in the continuing process of it.

Fortunately, I recruited my friend, the fabulous writer Stephen Elliott, to give a guest lecture on his piece from The New York Times “Three Men and a Woman.” Class lecture on kink covered!

I also managed to get the incredibly interesting writer Antonia Crane (author of Spent: A Memoir) to speak on the politics of sex work. She was engaging and brought a great energy to the class (for which I am oh so grateful!).  I got to be present, take a seat, and learn right along with my students.

It is with little irony that throughout the academic term I was also starting a writing project, a book all about the dynamics of teaching. I’ve been toiling with an outline framing the various angles of what teaching means and how we learn. For this project I’ve been conducting interviews to include in this book.

So, for the last few weeks I’ve either been in the classroom wondering how to manage actual teaching conundrums or running about meeting people to gather their wisdom on teaching. I’ve kept coffee shops around me in business.

With every meeting, much to my delight, I was reminded of how to view my own plight in teaching a class I found challenging.

Here are some nuggets of wisdom from my interviews:

I traveled to Chicago to meet with two of my friends from grad school, Dan Hutmacher and Dr. Drew Dalton. Both are brilliant and my meetings with them not only gave me food for thought, but had the added bonus of transporting me to memories of our grad school days in Leuven. Dan has undergone quite a journey from academic studies, to the corporate world, to recovering with and dealing with Crohn’s. He’s devoted much time to teaching others about this disease. He told me he’d been teased in the corporate world for spending his studies in Philosophy. But, he said, when your body is trying to kill you and you’re in the hospital, philosophy is what saves you. He reminisced on the writings of Levinas. After much surgery and recovery, he’s devoted time to creating a blog teaching others about Crohn’s.

Drew spoke much about his love of being in the classroom as we walked all over downtown Chicago.  In the throes of conversation he’d point to this place and that offering a brief history.  He’s Yelp personified.  He proposed that the subject “philosophy of teaching” be inverted to “teaching as an act of philosophy.” He said, “In the classroom that’s where philosophy is happening.”

At a café in Atwater Village I met my friend Chris McKenna, a charming actor with an infectious smile. Seriously, one can’t help but smile around him. Or look up. He’s six foot three. I asked him how he continues to learn his craft. He told me he reviews his performances, studies them, and thinks of how to improve. In other words, Chris learns, in part, by self-reflection and a desire to be better.

In my hometown Pasadena, my friend Patil, a teacher at an Armenian high school, smiled as we spoke over coffee when she talked about her love for her students. She cares for them and invests in them. As a mother, she explained, I treat them how I’d want teachers to be for my daughters. This reminded me that teaching is not merely a job, it’s a relation to others.

One evening in Orange County, while enjoying sushi with my friend and roommate from college, Jennifer Arnoldt, I asked her what people should know about going into corporate America. She answered, that no one knows what they’re doing. But, she continued, you go to work and figure it out. Well, I certainly needed to hear that!

On Melrose in West Hollywood, and a bottle of wine into the interview, I asked my friend Mike Racanelli (a man of several creative feats: producing, writing, acting), what inspires you? He leaned back, folded his arms and said, that’s a good question. Thank you, I replied. Hmmm…what inspires me?, he halfway mumbled. Everyone I meet, he said. You’re welcome, I said. Mike clued me in on the importance of finding the interesting and the possibilities to flourish with every encounter.

At the Cal Poly Pomona campus café I chat with Professor Tom Keith about his work making documentaries and how he decided to make films. He gave a humble smile and admitted that his first film, Generation M, was a project he never expected to get any traction. Really? I asked. It’s insightful and I’ve shown it on more than one occasion to my classes. For him, it was a way to reach out with the medium a lot of students use. You have to meet them where they are, he said. He’s now working on his fifth film. His disposition regarding teaching is one where he respects how the students learn and not just approaching teaching as the way in which he wants to deliver the material.

And, at this point, I’ve reached the end of the academic term. It was with genuine surprise a few students in the Philosophy of Sex class told me they enjoyed the course. My heart warmed with the news. Because, in all honesty, it’s about them and I want for them to learn.

I knocked on the chair of the Philosophy Department’s door. I confessed that I wasn’t sure how the class went, that I fumbled through the lectures, and I may have made of mess of things. It’s okay, he said with a shrug. Want to do it again in the fall?

“Yes.”

 

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Socrates Meets Trump

Socrates: By Hera!  You want to create a ban.

Trump: Bigly.  Against Muslims.

Socrates: Muslims?  You must be an expert to do such a bold move.

Trump: Indeed, I am, Socrates.

Socrates: Tell me so that I can learn from your wisdom, for surely you must know much of Islam.

Trump: Well…

Socrates: I’m listening.  You must have read about Islam, the philosophy, the experts, the practices. Only someone advanced in knowledge would propose a ban.

Trump: Well…

Socrates: You know people who practice Islam, yes?

Trump: Have you seen Homeland?  Tremendous show.

Socrates: I have not.

Trump: It’s important to keep the country safe from terrorists.

Socrates: And could you define “terrorist”?

Trump: Look, I promised in my campaign to restore law and order.

Socrates: Of course, good fellow and patriot.  Now, surely you could define law, for only someone well advanced in judicial matters who understands law would make that sort of promise.

Trump: Law is…have you met Bannon?  Law is what we…I put forth for the good of the nation.

Socrates: But law is certainly broader than that.  You say and write (and tweet) many things that do not fall under the category of law.  Law can’t be simply what you say.  It is much more. Please, good sir, don’t hold back.  What is law?

Trump: Did you hear about how Nordstrom treated my daughter?

Socrates: And what is Nordstrom?

Trump: It is a business.

Socrates: And what is business?  You must be an expert.

Trump: Yuge expert. I am a businessman.

Socrates: But I did not ask for an example, my friend.  I asked what is a business?

Trump: It is a place where goods are bought and sold.

Socrates: I see.  Thank you for that excellent response.  And how did this business treat your daughter?

Trump: They will no longer sell her goods!  Sad!

Socrates: Sad, indeed.  And, tell me, are her goods being bought?

Trump: She is my daughter!

Socrates: And is that part of the definition of business?

Trump: I am the president and I need to keep the country safe from terrorists!

Socrates: Is Nordstrom in the business of terrorism?

Trump: I’ll be investigating.

Socrates: Your concern for safety is admirable.

Trump: Why, thank you, Socrates.

Socrates: What defines a safe country?

Trump: Freedom!

Socrates: Would that include religion? Or a business to conduct itself on its choice of goods?

Trump: Really, Socrates, I would love to explain it all to you but for another time.  I have to post some tweets and get back to watching Fox.


Taking Class Time to Discuss the News

Today’s class discussion, as scheduled on the syllabus, was shelved.  We talked about the election results.  A friend of mine said (somewhat incredulously) “You talk politics?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Allow me to explain.  I do not lecture my particular view points, rather I offer a space for the students to voice their concerns.  In all sincerity my heart broke a little for the students who felt as though a vote for Trump was a vote against their very existence.  And, my students who favored Trump did not want to be thought of as hateful.  They, on the other hand, cast their vote in the spirit of wanting economic change, something they believe will be better for the country as a whole.

I let the students know that my participation in the conversation was as a fellow citizen and not as their professor.  I wanted my students to feel safe to dialogue and learn about each others’ views without risk or fear.

The problem we have, I believe, with considering discourse about politics as “rude” means we only chat about it with people who share our views.  This makes any other understanding terribly distant and foreign.  It is the exact opposite of how a democracy that prides itself on freedom and information ought to function.  Unfortunately, throughout the campaign we saw offensive and hateful rhetoric which ultimately diminished opportunity for authentic discourse.  No one wants to exchange ideas in such a climate.

For my students who are minorities and expressed a deep sense of fear and pain I offered them the following: choose to believe in the basic goodness of people.  For my students who supported Trump I said: work to make this a successful and inclusive presidential term.

The essence of philosophy hinges on examining arguments and this cannot be done without exploring premises, the strong and the weak.  So, yes, I shelved our lecture on Descartes to give the students a free space to voice their thoughts about political issues/arguments.  But, most importantly I hope, I wanted to the students to also have a free space to listen.

Honestly, I want nothing more than for my students to be engaged and feel at peace with being part of the democratic process.  Can this happen in a classroom?  Is it right to do this?  For anyone worried that I imposed a liberal agenda on my students, please do not fret. I treated this time as an invitation to talk, not as a soap box moment for myself.  Besides, shouldn’t education be, in part, learning to formulate our thoughts?   That’s more fun than power point, yes?

 

 

 


Are You In A Relationship With Your Phone?

Two of my classes this term focus on the dynamics between technology and culture: Science, Technology, and Society and Ethical Considerations in Technology. The other day I spotted an opinion piece in the student paper discussing the dating app Tinder (Click here to read it). Now, the usual academic set up of the courses involves discussing case studies such as The Challenger Disaster, the New Orleans Levee failure, and Genetic Engineering. In light of the interesting shift in our behavior regarding phone usage, and specifically the piece from the student paper, I decided to shelve the topic on the syllabus for a moment and ask students what they thought of the influx of dating apps.

My intention was to simply spend a brief time on this, but it unraveled into a spirited class discussion lasting for nearly an hour. Everyone had something to say!

I asked students what the advantages are to using an app for dating and put the list on the board. It looked something like this:

  1. It saves time.
  2. It’s efficient.
  3. You can plan your thoughts out in a text or have a friend double check what you text before hitting send.
  4. You don’t have to deal with face-to-face rejection.
  5. There is an ego boost to getting “hits” or “likes.”
  6. There is more control over first impression because you can choose the photo and the bio.
  7. There are so many possibilities.

Unlike reviewing case studies where students learn the information pertinent to the cases, memorize them, and then crank it back out on an exam, this discussion ignited their interest because they are smack in the middle of a cultural shift regarding personal interaction brought about by the fancy-gadget-does-everything-phone.

We then began to pick apart the list on the board. How much time is actually saved if one is on the phone for hours swiping away at photos of potential dates? Wouldn’t there be a similar amount of time spent on going out and being social in person?

For numbers 2-4 and 6 we talked about the very human element of being vulnerable in both friendships and relationships. Removing, or attempting to remove, that from the equation could rob one of an opportunity for growth. Stumbling, putting your foot in your mouth, blushing, awkwardness, and responding in real time with a facial expression are all elements of being human. Is efficiency meant to be applied in this realm? Would you ever want to date a person who had never experienced rejection or a heart break? Isn’t that what makes us humble, caring, and sensitive?

The ego boost is another intriguing aspect. In the normal course of a week, how many compliments does one receive? Without doubt, it feels nice to be on the receiving end of kind words. What the app has done (along with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) is create a potential for a deluge of “likes” within a brief time frame. No longer will a compliment from someone once a week suffice. It’s now needed within seconds of posting something and the desire to check has turned into something of an addiction.

With number 7, we discussed how the idea of “many fish in the sea” has radically changed to an infinite amount of fish in the ocean. Hmm…how has the idea that there could always be someone else impacted commitment? (Vanity Fair published an article on this over the summer much to the dismay of Tinder. Click here for the article.)

The conversation morphed into a more general dialogue about being on the phone. It’s a security blanket. One never needs to feel alone because one can always get online to see what people are up to. It is a companion.

In the spirit of bringing this dialogue into the subject of philosophy and specifically The Apology where Socrates gives his famous defense, I asked the students what Socrates would think of our addiction to the phone. Are we similar to Athens?

Socrates argued the soul inherently held more value than the body and other material goods. (If you do not subscribe to the idea of a soul then swap it out with the concept of character.) How, then, does one care for the soul? By asking questions, seeking knowledge, and developing virtues such as Justice, Courage, and Creativity to name a few. For Socrates, spending time on the soul through intellectual and moral pursuits allowed for the good life: “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul.  Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”

Are we subverting excellence by tending to the phone? Are happiness spikes from internet activity an excess? Are we losing sight of what it means to develop our souls/character by diverting too much attention to the impersonal “likes” of others? Are deep conversations eclipsed by quick messages or updates?

I don’t mean to sound as though I’m anti-technology. (I’m a fan of indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, my kindle, and travel by air.) Nor do I mean to negate the door that has been opened with respect to information sharing.  This reflection concerns the apparent restructuring of the building blocks of relationships.  To be clear, I did not treat this classroom time as a dispenser of wisdom and instruction but as a person also swept up by the phone. And, not totally dissimilar to my students, I’m frustrated by how the phone gradually altered from a device of convenience to one tethering me to its intrusions. I have three email accounts, this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, an author account, a log for my Crossfit WODS, LinkedIn, a step counter, a calculator, a GPS…the list goes on! In order to take time out to read and write I disconnect the internet from my computer and I put my phone in airplane mode to force myself to focus.

At the end of class I offered the students this challenge (and please feel free to do this and share your experience in the comments): go out for a meal alone and without your phone. What is it like? How does it feel? Does the prospect of it cause anxiety?

Reading Suggestions on this topic:

Alone Together. Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

The Circle, by Dave Eggers and/or my previous post on this novel.


Morality and The Circle by Dave Eggers

The novel The Circle lays bare the trajectory of our culture’s attitude towards online life. It illustrates both a warning and a reflection. Have we incorporated internet “liking,” posting, and commenting into our conception of “activity”? Is this what it means to be “social”? To communicate?

Imagine a fictional corporate entity resembling a magnified combination of Facebook and Google and there you have Eggers’s The Circle. The underscoring logic of the company, the founders claim, is to promote transparency and thereby a heightened sense of morality.

  • If everyone could be tracked and cameras become ubiquitous (and perpetually provide live streaming) then would anyone ever dare to lie, cheat, and/or steal?
  • And, given the idea that information ought to be free for all, would it be “wrong” to withhold all information including personal information?

These questions posed by the novel compel us to examine what is meant by moral action. Eggers’s work here echoes a sentiment elucidated in Camus’s The Fall (la chute). While it may be true that knowledge of being shadowed would nudge one in the direction of being on one’s best behavior, there is something left to be desired insofar as positing a definitive statement about morality. The concept of the moral agent is reduced to one who acts either for recognition or with fear of consequence.

Camus demonstrated the poverty of this line of reasoning through the character Jean-Baptiste in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste devoted a healthy portion of his day to charitable acts intentionally executed in public. He boasted of offering his seat on the bus for the elderly, for instance. One fateful day when no one was looking and he found himself confronted with a situation to help a woman in dire need he froze. His paralysis haunted him because in that moment he realized his past “good” actions could never testify to his character.

Instead, his character unfolded in the singular moment he failed to act. He fooled himself into believing that acting according to “good custom” granted him moral agent status; however, without rules and an audience the truth of his cowardice emerged.

The ancient Greeks focused on character as the cornerstone to morality. Aristotle in particular argued that excellence attained by habit, practice, and the development of reason led to a fruitful and good life. To act justly and bravely, for example, necessarily includes acting with a right disposition.  That is, the thrust of action must be derived from an authentic desire to be “good” and for its own sake.

Public honor, according to Aristotle, renders an inferior motive because it depends on the view of others whereas genuine “good” action is inherently self-sufficient.  “Good” action originates from the agent rather than an external force.

An important distinction regarding character resides between a person who acts bravely for publicity versus a person who acts bravely for no reason other than it was the right thing to do in the circumstance. Notice the end result may appear the same, namely an act of bravery came to the fore; however, the former feels shallow since the act was a means to another end (public honor) and the latter exudes heroism.

FullSizeRenderOn this point, the fictional leaders behind The Circle miss this mark. In the novel, the possibility of public praise or blame serves as the sole impetus for moral action, a Jean-Baptiste manner of thinking. Attention to the inner life of the individual, paramount for Aristotle, falls by the wayside.

The Circle’s constitution additionally chips away at the notion of character development by inducing a hyper attention to a life lived online which amounts to not really living at all. Hours of an employee’s day must be devoted to commenting and “liking” posts, ultimately replacing time for self-reflection and rumination. If one fails to maintain an online presence they become a pariah.

Consequently, a “self” no longer exists. The Circle absorbs all traces of it. The Circle owns it.

The concept of information sharing warps into a compunction to share one’s point of view on social media. “Information” exceeds our normal understanding of news and seeps into personal experience. When one travels, for instance, The Circle insists that pictures and descriptions be posted. To not do so violates their standard of information sharing.

Followers of the company enthusiastically chant “Privacy is theft!”  Keeping an experience such as a vacation to oneself is to steal from others the opportunity to view one’s photos of a place they might be interested in visiting someday.  Nothing may be kept to oneself. Moreover, to not share amounts to lying on one’s social media profile. Shouldn’t everyone know everyone’s interests and hobbies?

This “Privacy is theft!” mentality blindly embraced by the leaders and followers of The Circle resembles the mind bending claim “2 + 2 =5” from 1984.  Both dystopias usher in slogans countering the readers’ sense of normalcy.  But, as I stated at the beginning, Eggers’s book not only warns.  It reflects.  Where are the lines between private and public life blurring and how much of a role are we playing (willingly)?

The irony of posting a review about The Circle is not lost on me.  Have I succumbed to the trappings of The Circle?  I patiently await your comments 🙂

 

 


Bookworm Faces (Nearly) Impossible Request

An impossible question was posed to me via Facebook: What are the top ten books that have made an impact on you?

You mean just ten books?  Mental scrambles. Head scratching. Seeks coffee.

For me, the impact of a book and/or author is rooted in the following:

1) Do I feel more connected to the world?

2) Is my world view broadened by this book?, and

3) Have I been intellectually challenged and invigorated?

 

I settled on this list:

  • Force of Circumstance, by Simone de Beauvoir
  • The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt
  • The Apology, by Plato
  • The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi
  • The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie (I am a mystery buff after all!)
  • The Doll, by Boleslaw Prus
  • East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

But, of course, I threw my hands up because there are so many more wonderful authors who should be included!  Here are my honorable mentions:

  • Soren Kierkegaard
  • Aristotle
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Nelson Mandela
  • George Eliot
  • Jane Austen
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Roberston Davies
  • Zadie Smith

What books have made a great impact on you?

 


5 Zingers from Socrates

*Daily Prompt

In the spirit of preparing my syllabi for upcoming philosophy courses, I’ve decided to tip my hat to the Greek master of backhanded compliments: Socrates.

1. Socrates to the young lawyer Euthyphro:

“Dear friend, that is the reason why I desire to be your disciple. For I observe that no one, not even Meletus, appears to notice you; but his sharp eyes have found me out at once, and he has indicted me for piety. And therefore, I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety….I cannot do better than to assent to your superior wisdom.”

Translation: The more you nod your head yes to being called “wise,” the more foolish you look.  I see it.  Everyone sees it.  Will you see it?  I’m actually the teacher in this scenario.

 

2. After the prosecution has rested their case:

“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was—such was the effect of them…”

Translation: My, what an active imagination you have, dear lawyers!  Your ability to weave a fiction is uncanny!  You clearly don’t have a case.

 

3. Regarding poets:

“I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.”

Translation: Please stick to what you know.

 

4. Socratic Method is good for you:

“While I have strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

Translation: You’re quite shallow for having come from such a magnificent city and tradition.

 

5. Final Request Before Dying:

“When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when really they are nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.”

Translation: Act justly by preventing my sons from becoming morons, like you. Cheers.

Quotes from Euthyphro and The Apology.

Quotes from Euthyphro and The Apology.


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