Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relativism, Revolutionary Fictionalism, Moral Facts and #TheDress

[Disclaimer: this post is a brief, quickly-composed and so incomplete response to a number of tangentially-related events and essays from the last several days.  I have a lot more to say about all of them, including how they are not merely tangentially-related, but not now.]

If you haven't already, you should read yesterday's Stone article in the NYT by Justin McBrayer entitled "Why Our Children Don't Believe There Are Moral Facts." There, McBrayer bemoans the ubiquity of a certain configuration of the difference between "fact" and "opinion" assumed in most pre-college educational instruction (and, not insignificantly, endorsed by the Common Core curriculum). The basic presumption is that all value claims-- those that involve judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse-- are by definition "opinions" because they refer to what one "believes," in contradistinction to "facts," which are provable or disprovable, i.e., True or False.  The consequence of this sort of instruction, McBrayer argues, is that our students come to us (post-secondary educators) not believing in moral facts, predisposed to reject moral realism out of hand. Though I may not be as quick to embrace the hard version of moral realism that McBrayer seems to advocate, I am deeply sympathetic with his concern.  In my experience, students tend to be (what I have dubbed elsewhere on this blog) "lazy relativists." It isn't the case, I find, that students do not believe their moral judgments are true--far from it, in fact-- but rather that they've been trained to concede that the truth of value judgments, qua "beliefs," is not demonstrable or provable.  What is worse, in my view, they've also been socially- and institutionally-conditioned to think that even attempting to demonstrate/prove/argue that their moral judgments are True-- and, correspondingly, that the opposite of their judgments are False-- is trés gauche at best and, at worst, unforgivably impolitic.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Material Conditions of Grade Inflation

One of my colleagues, Jeff Gross (Asst Professor of American Literature and Culture), posted a really excellent essay entitled "Rethinking Grades" earlier today, which I want to recommend that everyone (especially educators in Tennessee) read post haste.  There, he raises a number of questions about how we think about the phenomenon, widespread in higher education today, even at its most "elite" levels, of "grade inflation."  (See here for lots of data and colorful charts about that.)  Gross argues that grade inflation is not, as is widely held, simply a consequence of faculty surrendering en masse to students' highly-cultivated attitudes of academic entitlement (though that may, Gross concedes, be part of it).  Rather, there are a host of complex academic, institutional, sociopolitical and economic forces which have colluded to produce this through-the-looking-glass condition in which we find ourselves, where (as Gross puts it) "satisfactory often means not good enough."

Not good enough for what?  For many students, "satisfactory" grades-- by which I mean a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 grading scale (a "C" average)--  are definitely not good enough to get into grad school, probably not good enough to get a "good" job and, worst of all, very likely not good enough to keep their scholarships, which in real terms means not good enough to finish college. So, as Gross notes, it could be the case that grade-grubbing students are just indulging an unjustifiable sense of "entitlement," but there are many good reasons not to assume that very reductive story.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Leigh Johnson Mystery

Here's the thing everyone needs to understand before s/he starts picking a fight: you can only back people into a corner so far before they come out swinging. UChicago law professor Brian Leiter has decided to pick a fight with me in a comment thread on his blog here. There, in a moderated thread allegedly addressing "issues in the profession," Leiter published a comment by one "AnonUntenured" who wanted an explanation of what he called "the Leigh Johnson mystery." Specifically, AnonUntenured wanted to know how in the world I could possibly have secured not one, but TWO, academic appointments in my time as a professional philosopher. Leiter almost immediately received pushback from his readers for posting AnonUntenured's comment, and subsequently defended his decision to do so by claiming that I was a "very public and rather noxious presence in philosophy cyberspace."  I should say for the benefit of the uninitiated that a lot of people in professional philosophy opt out of engaging Leiter when he starts in on these #DrunkUncle-ish tirades because Leiter has a tendency to hide behind his gigantic bully pulpit blog, refuse to engage his critics, cry "defamation!" and threaten lawsuits whenever he's called to account.

I am not one of those people.  I actually enjoy a good fight. Srsly, come at me, bros.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Awkward

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the new film Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the erotic romance novel of the same name by E.L. James.  I hadn't read the books beforehand, which I expect I would have found insufferable if the general consensus about the quality of their prose is even half-true.  (Judging from the stilted, melodramatic, overwrought and thoroughly unbelievable dialogue in the screen adaptation, I suspect that the negative literary evaluation is dead-on correct.)  By way of a hand-waving "review," I'll just say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a far cry from a cinematic masterpiece, but it wasn't an awful film, either.  It fell squarely within my generic category of "Sunday matinee"-quality movies.  Not bad enough to walk out of, but not good enough to pay full price for.

My guess is that anyone who has been keeping up with pop-culture of late knows already that the FSoG phenomenon is to adult (over 30) women what the Twilight phenomenon was to younger (under 25) women a few years back.  Both tap into a host of so-called transgressive and unspoken desires that heterosexual women have heretofore refrained from sharing in polite company and, in so doing, both are as complicatedly liberatory for women as they are subtly re-normalizing,  Somehow, the accidents of Fate aligned two years ago to magically unveil these secrets in a manner that women of a certain age were ready to avow, even if reluctantly and still semi-secretly.  Those women began reading FSoG together in their book clubs, they sipped their wine and winked and nodded to one another in tacit affirmation, they made clandestine purse-to-purse exchanges of the novel in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.  Then, producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (who, not uncoincidentally, also produced The Social Network) let the Freaky Cat the rest of the way out of its bag with a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  And now there it is on the big screen, for God and everyone to see, at your neighborhood multiplex: bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, dominance and submission, fetishism and pleasures whose names we did not speak.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How It Will Go, Episode 4: Teaching Marx

This is the fourth installment of my series How It Will Go, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: Karl Marx on "Estranged Labor" from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I teach Marx in a number of different courses, The only course in which I have enough time to teach the entirety of the 1844 Manuscripts is my 19thC Philosophy course, so most of the time I'm only teaching a selection of that text, namely the section on "Estranged Labor."  Nevertheless, whether in whole or in part, I find that students' responses to Marx tend to follow the same pattern.  As I often say to them on the first day we take up Marx's text, I don't think there is any other philosopher that students come to with more grossly erroneous assumptions and/or prejudices than Marx.  (Nietzsche is a very close second.)  As a consequence, I generally aim to direct my students' attention, in the very short time we have with Marx, toward his careful critique of capitalism and its constitutive dependence upon estranged/alienated labor, rather than his speculations regarding whatever may follow capitalism's inevitable collapse.  That is to say, my primary (if not singular) aim in teaching Marx's essay on "Estranged Labor" is to provide students with the conceptual apparatus necessary to realize that they are, qua workers, necessarily dehumanized by capitalism.

How It Will Go, Episode 3: Teaching Plato's "The Story of Gyges' Ring"

This is the third installment of my series How It Will Go, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: Plato, "The Story of Gyges' Ring," (from The Republic)

Context in which I teach this figure/text:   I begin all of my survey courses with selections from Plato's Republic, which I find to be the very best way to introduce students to the practice of Philosophy.  (I mean "the practice of Philosophy" here in the very Platonic "formal" or "ideal" sense, which is decidedly not descriptive of the contemporary "profession of Philosophy," a horse of an entirely different color.) In my experience, the story of Gyges' ring, recounted by Glaucon in the course of an argument with Socrates et al regarding the alleged profitability of being just, generates as much genuinely interesting and morally reflective conversation among students as any other prompt offered up in the history of Philosophy, save the obvious exception of the Trolley Problem.  For those unfamiliar with Plato's story, the basic premise is that Gyges' ring allows its wearer the opportunity to become invisible.  As a consequence, even a "just" person, given access to Gyges' Ring, would not act justly, Glaucon argues, since the only reason we act justly is because we fear the consequences/punishment of acting unjustly.  Plato sets this argument up as a way of forcing Socrates to defend the claim that justice (and, correspondingly, "being just") is good for its own sake, and not in the service of some other end (i.e., gaining reward or avoiding punishment).  As I'm sure it must have seemed to Socrates, it is entirely unsurprising to me that students' responses to the story of Gyges' Ring, i.e., the possibility of acting without consequence, are entirely predictable.

How It Will Go, Episode 2: Teaching Du Bois

This is the second installment in my How It Will Go series, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: W.E.B. Du Bois on "The Conservation of Races"

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I usually teach "The Conservation of Races" in my Philosophy of Race course, somewhere around the fourth or fifth week of class.  Since the first half of that course is structured historically--beginning with François Bernier and working up to the 20th C. Nègritude movement and Frantz Fanon-- Du Bois' essay ends up immediately following Alain Locke and Ashley Montagu. To wit, students are fully primed to be not only skeptical about the value of the concept of race, but also inclined to do away with it altogether.  The Montagu/Du Bois sequence allows me to introduce the "eliminativist"/"conservationist" distinction vis-á-vis race theory. I follow Du Bois' "The Conservation of Races" with Anthony Appiah's "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" in order to further complicate the conservationist position and also to demonstrate-by-example for students how a close, critical, philosophical "reading" is done.

How It Will Go, Episode 1: Teaching Kant

I'm starting a new series on this blog today, which I've named How It Will Go (hereafter, HIWG).  In each installment, I will anticipate how teaching a particular figure or text will go in my class, based on patterns that I've seen previously.  If something unusual or noteworthy happens, I'll report back on it, but I don't expect that to happen often.

First up:  Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I include Kant's Groundwork, in whole or in part, in almost every one of my courses. Since most of what I teach falls under the general categories of moral or political philosophy, Kant's articulation of the Categorical Imperative is an indispensable element for all of my course content.  In an intro-level "survey" course, the Groundwork is particularly useful, as much for its brevity as for its clarity. Perhaps more than any other figure or text, I have found students' responses to Kant's Groundwork  to be incredibly regular and predictable.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hashtagging Solidarity

The printing press, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane: each in their own way radically shrunk the world, diminished the power of mere distance to maintain our strangeness to one another.  Yet, arguably, no human innovation has served as a greater tool for transcending Nature's most seemingly impregnable boundaries, space and time, than the World Wide Web. The Internet, that curious and most favored tool of our particular variety of talking ape, also has facilitated the trespassing of infinitely more complex human-constructed borders, those of nation, culture, even language.  It quite literally translates, deciphers and transmits the foreign, the distant and the strange in an instant, on command.

Alas, the one remaining boundary the Internet has not yet broken, because (as some philosophers have argued) it cannot be broken, is the one that delimits the space of idiosyncratic subjective experience, if not also the idiosyncratic relations of that subject to the purlieu and milieu in which its experiences are experienced.  During the last several months, we've seen several noble efforts at border-crossing the empathy/sympathy divide, efforts that more or less amount to digitally establishing communities, both in the positive sense of solidarity (#BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #ICantBreathe, #YesAllWomen) and in its negative sense (#NotAllMen, #NotAllCops, #NotAllMuslims, #IamNotCharlie).  There is an interesting existential symmetry to both these negative and positive labors-- "I am x, like you" and "I am, like you, not-x"-- as they likewise attempt to articulate, express and encode what are in effect shibboleths.  Because their codes are meant to be deciphered, because they are intended not to be secrets but rather passwords, they both reinforce and threaten the borders of the very communites they mean to establish each time they are uttered in public.

Monday, January 05, 2015

It's the Exploited Labor, Stupid

Despite much well-earned Sturm und Drang in the last few years surrounding the so-called crisis in the humanities, the regrettably pernicious corporatization of higher education, the imminent death of American universities, the (at turns, but more often in conjunction) sexist, racist, homophobic, classist and just garden-variety asshole-ish paucity of civility/collegiality in academia-- especially in the discipline of Philosophy--  I sometimes fear we may have lost sight of the really important, in fact, core malady that continues to plague, sicken and weaken the the quality of higher education in the United States. If I may, allow me to channel for a moment my inner James Carville-- to my mind, one of the most brilliant American political strategists of the 20thC who is not also a war criminal (see here and here for his less illustrious competitors)-- and say what is already painfully, desperately, economically and existentially OBVIOUS to more than 50% of faculty working in higher education today:

It's the exploited labor, stupid.