Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hasta, 2008

This is a last minute quick post to round out 2008. I'm presently waiting for party guests to arrive, all of whom will be accompanying me to Wild Bill's Juke Joint later tonight to ring in the new year. I can't say that I'm sad to see this year go... 2008 was a bit of a bear for me. As you know from an earlier post on this blog, I totalled my car a few months ago which, unbeknownst to me, was only the beginning of several hard months of trials and tribulations. In just the last week or so, I've been robbed, I've spent a night in the ER, I've had to travel through airport security in three different cities with absolutely NO form of identification, and I've been through 3 grueling days of the APA interviewing candidates (3 of whom were friends of mine) for a job in my department. Whew.

Ah well, only a few more hours and we all get a clean slate, right? Bring on 2009, I say. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to return to regular posting on this blog, which I have let languish too much in the past few months. Thanks to all of you who are sticking with this site and reading regularly... I'll do my best to repay your kindness in the coming year.

Signing out for the last time in 2008... this is Dr. J saying:
Read more. Write more. Think more. Be more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Brother v. Brother

I went to my first Memphis Grizzlies game last night. Although it was, at the final buzzer, still a 105-96 loss to the l.A. Lakers, it was one of those games in which the final score only tells half of the story. The Grizzlies led for all but about the last 2 minutes of the game. The FedEx Forum was packed. My friend and I had seats only 10 rows off the floor. (Seriously, we were so close I could hear every word of Kobe's whining to the refs.) And, for about a hot second, I really believed the game might go into OT.

But the real story of the game last night was the epic matchup between a couple of Giant Spaniard Brothers, Pau and Marc Gasol (pictured above). Pau Gasol played for the Grizzlies last year and won the NBA Rookie of the Year award before being traded to the Lakers. Now, the Grizzlies have his younger (and only slightly less formidable) brother Marc, who actually played high school basketball here in Memphis when his older brother was still a Grizzlie. There were a couple of nice one-on-one matchups between the Gasol brothers during the game, which were fun to watch. I suppose nobody ever gets too big to overcome the pure pleasure of schooling his brother on the court... not even these very big guys.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sovereign Exception

As President George W. Bush's time draws to a close, he will be spending some of his time (while he's not dodging size 10's, that is) deciding how to exercise his right to extend pardons and commutations. Just this past Friday, Bush awarded federal forgiveness to 17 "minor" criminals, 16 of which were pardons and 1 of which was a commutation of sentence. Although President Bush is, reportedly, one of the stingiest U.S. Presidents in history with regard to these awards, he nevertheless falls sqaurely within our country's long tradition of Presidents exercising the right granted to them by Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constition, which states that the President:

shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

As many of you already know, part of my dissertation work dealt with forgiveness, amnesty, pardons, clemency and other examples of personal and political exceptionalism. My research was primarily concerned with these phenomena in the context of Truth Commissions, which historically have taken place amidst extraordinary political circumstances. Of course, suspensions of the law should always be in some way "extraordinary" (from the Latin, extra ordinem, "outside the order"), so I find even the more mundane occurances of these phenomenon very fascinating. As my research work has turned more toward issues of human rights, political torture and terror, and their philosophical justifications, I find myself constantly confronted with this issue of legitimizing exceptions to the law.

But back to President Bush for a moment. As noted above, Bush is reported to be one of the "stingiest" Presidents in U.S. history with regard to his awards of pardon, clemency and commutation. If that evaluation were true (or simply true), it would suggest that, under the Bush Administration, we have enjoyed a time in which the "rule of law" was the least interrupted. If cases of pardon, clemency and commutation were the only measure of a sovereign's determination of "exceptions" to the law, then we could say that President Bush has been the one of the most lawful sovereigns in U.S. history by virtue of his reported "stinginess." But, of course, we know that is hardly the case.

What is the case, and what is both interesting and frightening about Bush's time in office, is that his reluctance to exercise his Consitutional right to suspend the law in cases of pardon, clemency and communtation has been been accompanied by an over-zealous enthusiasm for exercising all sorts of non-Constitutional rights to suspend the law, that is, to determine extra-judicial "exceptions" to the law. In Judith Butler's essay "Indefinite Detention" (from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence), she argues that the practice of "extraordinary renditions" and "indefinite detentions" are evidence of the emergence of a "new" kind of sovereignty, which is primarily justified by and arises as such only in the context of the suspesion of law and the corresponding declaration of a "state of emergency." (As an aside, I highly recommend the film Fall of Fujimori, about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, for its frightening similarity to the Bush story as well as its treatment of just the sort of "new sovereignty" that Butler analyzes.) What Buter identifies as the new sovereignty is found exactly in the sovereign declaration of "exceptions," the power of establishing a domain in which the rules no longer apply. In the suspension of their application, the power of the sovereign is both constructed and reinforced at the same time that it is exercised.

In Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben addresses just this strange relationship between the law and exceptions to the law in his analysis of sovereignty. There, Agamben writes:

"... what is excluded in the exception maintains itself in relation to the rule in the form of the rule's suspension. The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying to it, in withdrawing from it." (Homo Sacer, 18)

The point that both Agamben and Butler are making, of course, is that sovereign exceptions do not "negate" the law/rule so much as they establish the meaning and power of the law/rule as such... as something that can be excepted. The "new" sovereign power, such that it is, is the power to establish domains or determine actions/persons/spaces that can be "taken out" of the domain in which the law/rule applies. ("Excepted," from the Latin excipere, ex- "out" + capere "to take") So, what is particularly curious about Bush's "stinginess" with pardons-- which are, curiously, lawful exceptions to the law-- is that he has been anything but stingy in his determination of other exceptions, particularly ones not established by the law. He has, in effect, reversed the relationship between the rule and its exception in his exercise of non-Consitutional exceptions and, what's more, he has done so so often as to make his kind of exceptionalism the new order, the new "rule."

In sum, don't be so impressed by Bush's stinginess with pardons. Those are the least objectionable exceptions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blogging in the Classroom, Revisited

As promised in my earlier post on this topic (which you can read at Blogging in the Classroom, originally posted in September), I'm back to report on my pedagogical experiment with blogging this semester. You can go back and read the earlier post if you want to know my justifications for trying this, so I won't recount them all here. However, if you're interested in seeing what the actual blogs looked like at the end of the semester, here are the links to my 3 courses: Existentialism (mostly upperclassmen and mostly majors, though I had several sophomores), Power (an topic-oriented Intro to Philosophy Seminar restricted to first- and second-year students, so mostly non-majors), and Search (this is the third semester of my college's three-semester "core humanities" course sequence, the full title of which is "The Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion"; the third semester spans from the Renaissance to the present and students are able to choose a "track" for their final Search course, so this class was the "philosophy" track of Search). Although there are a few things that I would do differently, I have to say that the experiment as a whole was a success, and I intend to implement it again in my courses next semester.

I handed out a narrative evaluation form in each of my classes at the end of the semester that was mainly designed to measure the students' experience with blogging in the classroom. One of the questions asked: "If you had it to do all over again, would you rather blog or write traditional (short or long) papers?" Out of a total 58 students, only 3 reported that they would not want to blog again. About 8 or 9 of them reported that they might prefer to write papers in addition to blogging, but those students unanimously spoke in positive terms about their blogging experience. Of the remaining students, the overwhelming majority of them were major fans of their class blogs.

But, I know that you're probably wondering about specifics. So, let's start with the negatives:
First, there were a lot of students who had quite a bit of anxiety early on in the semester about exposing their writing to the entire class. So, getting the blog activity going was a bit of a challenge at the start. I had anticipated this phenomenon and I wasn't that worried about it for a couple of reasons: (1) students were required to blog as a (significant) part of their grade, so I knew they would get over their anxieties soon enough if they didn't want to fail the class, and (2) one of the advantages of the blogs, in my mind, was that it forced students to overcome exactly this anxiety. That is, I wanted them to experience both the anxiety and the gratifications of the peer-review process, since I know that this is one particularly effective way of improving both one's writing and one's thinking. LESSON LEARNED: Sometimes negatives are positive.

Second negative: each of the class blogs had stretches of time during the semester when the activity was minimal. There was a mad flurry of activity just before the midterm and the final, mostly by the students who were trying to make sure that their "required" number of posts/comments were satisfied in time to count towards their grade. On the other hand, there were also mad flurries of activity when someone posted a particularly interesting/insightful/provocative entry, so I feel confident that even when the activity was slim, the students were still regularly checking in on their blogs. The problem here was that I gave students very loose and non-specific requirements for their blog participation (1 post and 4 comments before the midterm, 1 post and 4 comments after the midterm). My reason for this was that I wanted them to post/comment when they were interested and had something interesting to say, not just when they were "required" to complete an assignment. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I think we professors read so many bad papers-- students write much better when they have some internal motivation for writing about whatever they're writing about. That's what I wanted them to do on the blog.) LESSON LEARNED: Next time, I think I'm going to have to concede the reality that some students just need assignments. When I do this again, I'll make sure that each week at least one student is required to post.

Third negative: It's much more difficult to evaluate/grade blog-writing than it is to evaluate/grade traditional papers. Although the overwhelming majority of the blog posts/comments were quite good, in my view, I still found myself struggling between grading the students on the content of their participation and just grading them on whether or not they comepleted the required participation. Then, there was also the problem of students who did extra posts/comments... I mean, in a regular class, I wouldn't generally give out extra credits to students who independently wrote and handed in unassigned papers. (Though, to be honest, that would never happen, of course!) Students-- especially students at my college-- really crave feedback, and on the end-of-the-semester blog evaluation form, many of them remarked that they wished I had participated more on the blogs. (Incidentally, I made every effort to not do this... my reason being that one of the things I wanted them to learn was how to have critical and engaging intellectual conversations without my saying who was right and who was wrong.) Finally, even though they were repeatedly warned about this, some of the students reverted to very non-formal writing on the blogs. Of course, blogs are set up to be conversational and I was okay with that as long as the "conversational" writing was relegated to the comments section... but, alas, it sometimes creeped in more than I would have liked. So, LESSON LEARNED #1: Next time, I will probably "grade" at least the first "post" by each student in the same way that I would grade a short paper. And I will definitely reinforce (more forcefully) what I expect in terms of the formality of their blog-writing. (The good thing is that next time I will have my former class blogs to refer to in order to make these things clear.) And, LESSON LEARNED #2: I will participate on the blogs next time, at least in the first half of the semester. This won't be a hard adjustment to make, since it was often very difficult for me to refrain from jumping into some of their more interesting conversations.

Of course, there were lots of postives about blogging in the classroom as well. So, let's move on.

First positive: On the whole, my experience is that the quality of students' writing (and what they were writing about) was heads-and-shoulders above what I've gotten in the past. I attribute this largely to the fact that they got to write about things that interested them, and not only things that I assigned them to be interested in. But I also think that their writing was better because of peer pressure. I notified each of my classes that their blogs would be viewable to anyone in the world (though only members of the class were authorized to post or comment). So, not only did they have to worry about embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates, but also in front of any-old-body who happened across their little corner of the blogosphere. LESSON LEARNED: Raise the stakes for students and they rise to the challenge.

Second positive: One of my hopes for the blogs was that they would extend our conversations with each other outside of the class, so that my courses were more organically integrated into the students' lives. In that way, the blogs were a total success. On the end-of-the-semester evaluations, several of the students remarked that they were going to miss the class blogs, and a couple of the blogs have even seen activity after the official end of the semester. Also, the in-class conversations in my courses this semster were of a much higher quality, since they spent so much time outside of class talking with each other. Students emerged as real personalities with identifiable commitments and ideological persuasions, and they were able to anticipate each other's possible objections in our seminar discussions. They also raised the bar for each other-- it was a disadvantage for any one of them to come to class without having stayed abreast of the conversation outside of class. In short, they took on the "life" of real intellectuals. LESSON LEARNED: Philosophy can happen in our students' lives more than 3 hours a week.

Third positive: I really feel like my students came to understand philosophy as something applicable to the "real world." One of the advantages of blog-writing is that one can insert links, videos, images, etc. with relative ease. Imagine if your student handed in "papers" with hot-links and images! Well, that's what I got! I think it's really important for us philosophy professors to bring our discipline into the same century that the students live... which, incidentally, is the 21st (not the 20th). For whatever reason, blogging prompted students to think about philosophy in combination with the virtual and real world in which they are most comfortable (and invested), and the result of this fortunate combination was that students were able to see connections and applications of philosophical ideas in ways that often escape them. LESSON LEARNED: We're not dead yet!

Let me say, by way of conclusion to this too-long report, that I also benefited immensely from this experience. I don't think that, in general, my students view me as a stodgy, out-of-touch, dated professor... but there was something about the integration of blogging into the classroom that I think made me more accessible and human to them. They came by my office more often, they stopped me on campus to chat more often, they genuinely wanted to talk philosophy with me much, much more often. (And, not insignificantly, more of them declared themselves philosophy majors!) But, perhaps most importantly, I feel like I knew them better this semester. I mean, I came to know them as young people with real and identifiable ideas, commitments, struggles, questions, and hopes. For what was originally a half-baked experiment in pedagogy, that's one very fine pay-off.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When It's Not Funny Anymore

A mere 37 days before leaving office, our Lame-Duck-in-Chief President Bush was all the news yesterday. During a press conference in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shiite Iraqi journalist (Muntadar al-Zeidi) stood up and threw one of his shoes-- and then the other-- at President Bush's head, missing Bush by a hair both times. Al-Zeidi is reported to have shouted in Arabic: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." He was quickly wrestled to the ground by a hoard of Secret Servicemen and Iraqi journalists before President Bush composed himself and quipped: "All I can report is it is a size 10."

Strangely enough, I do not find this story funny at all. I find it embarrassing, and sad, and frustrating... a depressingly acute reminder of how far our country has fallen in the esteem of the world. The Leader of the Free World is a laughing stock and, what's worse, an oblivious laughing stock. I have no particular nostalgia for the "Founding Father" type, but seriously, whatever happened to statesmanship? Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office?

There are a lot of things to complain about in the last 8 years: the rolling back of civil (and human) rights, the pandering to corporate and capitalist interests that have decimated our economy, the unchecked hubris of American neoimperialism, the assault on science and good sense in the name of "values," the legitimated disdain for diplomacy, the wars. As Hugh Laurie said in his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live this weekend: "What an amazing year it's been. On the plus side, you've had the most exciting election in the history of American politics. And, I suppose, on the minus side... everything else."

One of the things that I look forward to most about Obama's presidency (and, to be honest, this would have been true of McCain too, I think) is the return of some modicum of decorum and stateliness to the Office of the President. Frankly, I just don't have it in me to laugh at episodes like Bush's shoe incident anymore. As cynical and sardonic as I may wish to be, as much delight as I may want to take in that circus show, it's just too old and too tired and too disappointing now. I'm ready for a change I can believe in.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The M**ket

While just about everyone else is full of yuletide joy, this is a dreaded time of year for philosophers. It's Job M**ket time. (The very word conveys so much Sturm und Drang that it feels like a profanity.) I imagine that this year is even more ulcer-inducing than years past because of the depressed economy and numerous "canceled" searches, but it's bad every year. The next week or so is particularly bad, because philosophy job candidates are waiting for the phone to ring with APA interview invitations, which are the first measure of one's chances of being employed next year. Two years ago, when I was on the m**ket, I was spending this time pathologically checking the Philosophy Job Wiki and reacquainting myself with my Magic 8-Ball. Fortunately, I landed on my feet (and employed) after it was all over, but I remember well the misery.

This year is my first time on the other side of the process, and I can report that it's not much better from this vantage point. We received over 300 applications for our position. That means, if everything else were equal, each applicant would have only a 0.oo3% chance of getting the job. That's 3 thousandths of a chance. But everything else isn't equal, of course. Many of the applicants don't fit the job description; many of them don't look like they'll finish their PhDs in time; many of them aren't the "liberal arts" type. Even still, after all of those obvious cuts are made, the chances of any one of them getting the job are still depressingly slim.

In fact, when I first saw the complete array of boxes that held the applications, my first thought was: How does anyone ever get a job??!! (Followed closely, of course, by: How in the world did I get a job??!!) The truth is, most of the applicants are qualified. They're PhDs or very close to it. They have interesting research projects and evidence of good teaching. They've published. They are reported to be good colleagues. So, in the end, it seems to come down to finding the right "fit" for our department.

And there's the rub.

I was on the m**ket recently enough to remember how much is riding on what I am doing now, so I'm probably a more sympathetic reader of files than your average search committee member. Even still, no matter how much I try, I know that the odds are that I will somehow miss a "gem" amidst the 300+ files. So, I want to extend my sympathies and encouragement to my many friends who are on the m**ket this year. Here's hoping your file rises to the top, and survives to the end.