A Teaching Philosophy Draft

Who and what we are is determined by our environment: social and economic, political and parental. But most importantly, it is shaped and formed by our technologically mediated environment. It is not so important, then, who and what we are, but how we are all of these. How do we live, how do we want to live, how do we work and play, study and build, destroy and create? A large amount of the answer lies in the recognition of the mediated atmosphere surrounding us: the proliferation of networks, the marvellous connection machinery of the internet, the infinite storage capacities of what used to be memories and what is now smartphones, google glasses, and cloud data storage.

No learner-centered approach can ignore this environment. I hold on to the idea that it is the task of the social sciences in a university to teach students the necessary skills not only to survive in this technologically mediated world, but to thrive; and not only to accept it as it is, but to develop its potentials and to contribute to building a better future for all. But though this demands, it seems to me, the ability to select attention and criticize, to analyze and apply, none of these is unaffected by a rapidly changing media world. None of the old methods, approaches, and values of social sciences has any value if it refuses to be shaped in and by its environment.

As a teacher, I aim to guide students towards an understanding of their future contributions to society in a workplace; I aim to foster their skills of placing their attention to the most valuable information; and I aim to encourage their motivation to hone their fine-tuned analytical skills for in-depth research. All three elements are crucial in a world where the storage of information is not a problem, but access and analysis are. In such an environment, it is the task of the social sciences to enable students to become creative and engaged members of their community, informed and entertained individuals in their private lives, and savvy in their online existences.

The workplace. Classrooms are workplaces, and though it is my task to engage students, and to foster curiosity rather than just deliver information, students must be aware that it is their task to maintain the classroom as a professional, but colloquial workplace. Everything must be up for grabs and questioning, but questioning must also be encouraged from everyone and from everyone’s own unique point of view – which is to say, that I regard it as my supreme task to foster as broad a range of possible opinions excluding those which exclude others. Gendered and racial, economic and social injustices must be objects of discussion, not determinants of subjects of discussion.

Information. A student’s attention and curiosity is frequently unsatisfied, or even dulled, by the classroom environment she finds herself in. Lengthy lectures and boring presentations, and even long readings are no longer adequate means of teaching in a technologically mediated world. Certainly, the lecture is not – and I think it will never be – an outdated model in and of itself. Careful analysis, demonstration, and guidance can be derived from it. However, a student’s attention span is shaped by the mediations it is embedded in on a a daily basis, and here the speed of informational processing becomes important, just as much as the ability to discriminate important information from less important information. The social world, with all its crises and instabilities, potentials and achievements, is only a book of seven seals if one does not have these discriminatory skills. It is my supreme goal to guide my students in their attempts to make sense of the mass of information they face on a daily basis: to choose where to put attention, and to know why.

Analysis. Once a student has reached an understanding of which information is important, encouring her to engage in in-depth analysis is, I believe, no longer a skill to be taught, but merely a question of encouraging the student to spell out what she already did in choosing the piece of information at hand. The scope of every piece of information in the social realm is always world-wide because it is always connected to everything else; but in analysis, a balance must be achieved. Analysis must emphasize levels of understanding – local, regional, state-based, national, international, global – but it must also be aware that two crucial aspects are left out of such a level-based approach. It is imperative to emphasize, for every student individually, that no social phenomenon is a brute fact, and that all of them have social, political, ethical, and cultural ramifications. Likewise, it is imperative to make students aware that levels change and are made to be changed. Thus, an important role is played by visualization – the intuitive grasp of conceptual movements, and networks and links between concepts, for learners who will inevitably think more and more visually – but, equally importantly, students must understand that it matters, to them as individuals and to all of us as a society, what we choose to see and not to see.

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A shift, not decay

As I am starting to prepare the written part of my Teaching Philosophy – as I think about what I want to be, in a classroom and beyond – I find it hard to reconcile two broad aspects of my thinking. Two parts of my personality, almost. Like everybody else in this age of transition or decay (these two already delineate the sides of the argument), I am struck and torn by new media technology and its impact.

I am sympathetic to both sides of the technology-will-change-everything-argument. On the one hand, I do recognize the marvellous chances for long-distance education, dynamic learning, and newly developed instruments of changing the world that new media, and especially the Internet offer. I am fully with Janet Murray in acknowledging that the new mode of spatial being carved out by such technologies – what Thomas Friedman has famously called the flat world – is not only here to stay, but also represents a revolution on par and perhaps surpassing Gutenberg’s.

If this were one hundred percent true, and no residuals remained, the task would be simple: rethink the book, upload it, crunch it, click it, zip it, format it (with apologies to Daft Punk); and teach students how to follow the flow – the flow of information, the flow of trade, and, of course, this flow. Wonderful, and perhaps even brave, new world of technological mediation.

But it’s not that simple. The other side of the equation, equally strong in my mind and doubtless in many others as well, is the haunting realization that media remain rooted in old-fashioned materiality. The Internet, for instance, is mainly a question of access (in this case, scroll down a little and consider the penetration rates – economic reasons, political censorship?) and a question of political liberty, among many other things. Can these be considered by simply endorsing the flow imaginary mentioned above? To play devil’s advocate here: is this simply a question of an opposition of inert nationalist politics against dynamic, international and global information flows? Clearly, we all know what marvellous things have been achieved thanks to global Internet connectivity. But the question remains: is that all? Is not perhaps the global impact of information flows more problematic than we thinknot because of the technological shape and form of information technology, but because of ownership issues, and the question of just what is being transmitted via new media technologies?

The question, posed by this and a myriad other problems, is once again that of the usage of media technology. For teaching purposes, it is slightly modified and presents itself to me like this: how do I make students aware that behind the shiny surface of complete mobility and marvellous transparency, inert and opaque relations of power and economic influence reside; how do I enable them to carve out these problems when new media technology constantly interrupts my attempts to do so by spoon-feeding the shiny surface to students? Put more bluntly: how do I challenge a student to leave a Fox News bubble – and how do I challenge a student to leave a completely politics-free, purely entertainment-driven bubble?

From this perspective, there seems to be less and less hope. New media technology, by reducing us to our own personalized universes, have cut down the public sphere, erased genuine communication, crippled the will to better social conditions, and ultimately blinded people with ideology so they do not perceive the erasure of their individual liberties. New media technology, to this part of my mind and of the public mind, is a means of furthering social alienation, making it increasingly hard – even impossible – to reach a broad audience for a meaningful critique. Or to reach students in classrooms.

As always, there is a middle ground between the first vision – unrestrained freedom in a global space of flow and mobility – and the second one – deeply penetrating alienation and erasure of sociality. I have come to realize that the new media technology may challenge the idea of critique, but does not force us to erase it. It poses new horizons of recognition, instead of just being an alienating force. Specifically for the issue of teaching, media technology, like all other technology, present a new mode of reality to us. I think the main mistake made by both sides of this debate is to treat media technology as a content rather than a form – as something imposing reality rather than shaping the way it presents itself to us. We have to rethink, that is, and not to erase, the book, the classroom, the teaching, the talking.

A concrete example. The issue of attention spans frequently oscillates between the two poles outlined above. Often, it is bemoaned that students are unable to pay attention to information over a sustained period of time; that they cannot focus and cannot think in depth. There may be truth to this, if the increases in ADD and ADHD medication are indicators (I do not think they are, but that is for another blog post). Likewise, it is demanded of teachers to adapt to the Internet age, to recognize this newly formed attention shortening and to turn classrooms into entertainment facilities, offering the same constant stream of short tidbits that the Internet offers 24/7. Consequently, we (the teachers) are told to either stick to the traditional methods because they represent the only means by which we can stem the tide of attention deficits; or we are told to unquestioningly succumb to the mere delivery of ever shorter, ever more attention-grabbing infotainment. You’ll note that both presuppose that something is irreducibly lost, and that students’ attention spans have indeed decreased.

Here’s my idea, however. What if we stop thinking about the issue of attention in terms of verticality, i.e., of concentration being a probing from a surface to a depth, and start thinking about it in terms of horizontality, i.e., of treating the ‘depth’ as just another piece of information, a different viewpoint, a different stratagem? Considering the depth, the careful analysis, more rewarding than surface phenomena is certainly true, and it does require sustained attention. There is more to be gained from a careful analysis of the BP oil spill coverage than from simply watching their apology. And I suspect students would see it the same way. But we need to present it to them such that they find out themselves. Presenting all information – or whatever selection we make – to them on a lateral basis, i.e., as differences rather than hierarchies or sediments of information, will inevitably instill cognitive dissonance. If I approach students by showing them Tony’s awkward apology and then lecturing them about how it is contradicted, reinscribed, or confirmed by other sources, they will, ideally, walk away with three results: a) the information I delivered, b) that I clearly have an agenda, and c) that I incessantly talked about the same thing (the BP spill) from that agenda’s point of view. In acting as if we were talking about vertical layers of information, I have alienated students because they thought I was talking about the same thing over and over again. If I present the same complex, however, in a horizontal way: show them several contradicting pieces of information, or lecture in contradicting ways without guiding them explicitly, there will be a cognitive dissonance – a sense of unease or even frustration. There will be a discussion.

Students attention must be grabbed indeed – which is not a problem of a shortened attention span, but rather a problem that has been with education since it began – but it must only be artifically sustained if I treat information as vertical, not horizontal. Students’ attention span is not shorter than it used to be, it is different: they are very good at following a stream of information. If the analysis I want to get at is presented (in this case implicitly via cognitive dissonance, which makes the experience even more rewarding for both sides) as a part of such a stream, I do not see why there should be a lack of attention. Students follow flows of information – if I insert the depth I want to get at into such a flow, I can reach them – and teach them.

One can see that this requires a lot of fine-tuning. The issue of approaching books based on this idea is a complex one, and I will doubtless have much fun and frustration finding out how to deal with it. Likewise, this idea is clearly restricted to the specific issue at hand (attention spans), and we must continually come up with ways to deal with loss of public spheres, and economic and political problems of various natures.

But I think something else came out equally strongly. This way of thinking about students and teaching is neither an enthusiastic uncritical endorsement of technological mediation, nor a rigid old-fashioned lament of the inevitable decay of attention, publicity, and politicality. Old forms of critique must neither be discarded nor rigidly upheld. Critique must be rethought, reinvented, and remolded. There is no reason why there should not be an immanent critique to new media technology and the mode in which it presents reality.

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On Student Responsibility

It is certainly an admirable goal to institute policies such that students are motivated to pursue the standards they will inevitably be submitted to – or even to learn by themselves – rather than just to be forced to sit in class and swallow, in quiet desperation or perhaps, at best, acceptance, what they are being presented by their teacher. ‘Presented’ being, of course, the operative word. Learner-oriented education, as Weimer does not hesitate to suggest, is first and foremost a matter of pedagogical skills; skills to present and apply; skills to foster and hone; skills to encourage and support. There are pieces of knowledge that need to be transmitted and, to an extent, passively be apprehended by the student. No historical class can dispense of dates of events; no economic class with the presentation of allocation curves and market horizons; no engineering class with the demonstration of machinery and foundational theory, to be applied. These parts do not lend themselves to creativity on the part of the student; they may lend themselves to creativity on the part of the teacher. Not necessarily, however: a stylized computer presentation, a worksheet, a Q&A session go only so far. University learning is work.

It is work. The students need to realize that first; otherwise all attempts at encouraging them are fruitless. Weimer is honest enough – more honest in this regard than most other readings pursued in this class – to spell out the conditions that are presented to the young and intrepid scholar, eager to transfer knowledge and engage in the admirable institution of the university; whose long, long era may perhaps now be drawing to a close. Interestingly enough, Weimer fails to mention that the student’s responsibility to make the fundamental decision, beyond which the teacher’s work begins – the decision to want to pass classes, or perhaps even to learn – is not primarily a decision that a student makes. Students can thrive to become intelligent, curious and passionate in an environment that beats them to submission. (An overly technologized humanities classroom counts among these environments just as much as a discussion-based engineering class. And then there is, of course, the actual beating into submission, which Weimer so adamantly, and so correctly criticizes: the uninterested or hostile teacher, the crushing red tape, the brutal standards, the poverty in endowment.) Students can fail to ever activate their inner curiosity in the most openly encouraging environment. The decision is theirs – to an extent. They are formed by social forces before they enter academia – parental, economic, schooling-related; mechanical, quantitative, repetitive. They are bored, and expect nothing but boredom, before they enter the university.

This does not remove my responsibility as a teacher. On the contrary: it makes it more challenging, because students expect – and rightfully so – that I entertain as I teach. That I remove their boredom. I must encourage and entertain – the latter perhaps more than the former -; I must grow as my students grow; I must show my best and be my brightest; I shoulder, I am glad to shoulder, the majority of the burden in any classroom. I must not leave behind. The question is, of course, under which conditions, within which institution, and in what society I must not leave behind. It is me, at the end, who must adapt to what society tells me I need to provide for the students. What is the university, after all, but a preparation of students for the environments they will face in their future?

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On Problem-Based Learning

This post is intended to be a critical engagement with a practice. It is not a critique of a specific class setting – though this class setting, for reasons no doubt bigger than those who conduct the class, is designed to unquestioningly and uncritically spoon-feed said practice to Graduate Students, who then, ideally, spoon-feed it to their students. Likewise, it is by no means – and I cannot emphasize that enough – a critique of the group I find myself in, working towards a project within this practice. On the contrary, I enjoy working with my group, and am impressed with our ability to overcome disciplinary differences and work toward a form of greater unity.

The practice I will criticize is Problem-Based Learning or PBL. Certainly, PBL is useful in many cases, and seems indeed to be a marvellous tool of connecting laboratories and construction sites, engineering classrooms and what is lovingly called ‘real-world problems.’ I have no doubt, and I say this explicitly without any sarcasm, that PBL helps to solve a great many problems, to encourage a great many puzzled students, and to engage and foster them such that they approach problems of a physical, biological, chemical, mechanical kind with more open minds, and perhaps even an increased awareness of the ethical and economic implications of their problems and solutions.

I will even go farther and confess that I indeed belong – and my graduate colleagues know this all too well – to a group that is decreasing in size as we move along; a group that is convinced that scientific progress is frequently, though not all the time, allied with economic prosperity. That the problems this world faces – and especially the problems the advanced industrial societies face – is not one of science and technology, but one of its usages. Its political stakes. Its economic allocations. Even here, PBL might invite us to think about the framework in which it is presented and presents itself. Usage, politics, the economy – can these be reduced to ‘problems’? What kind of a ‘problem’ is inequality, disparity, political sclerosy?

What, in turn, is a political science, if all it can contribute are ‘ethical problems’?

Apparently, the augurs of higher education have decided that PBL is the new standard of pedagogy, an approach useful in most all cases and applicable to most any possible situation, formation, social relation, engineering problem, scientific practice, human condition, universal rule. From ant farms to human rights problems; everything can, everything will be turned into a ‘problem,’ to be solved by a group of experts, endowed with the latest in their disciplinary knowledge, coming together as kindred spirits engaging in an interdisciplinary conversation, working on a solution in an amiable and egalitarian atmosphere, and proposing the solution to an enlightened public which, after careful deliberation, finally delegates the decision to the elected officials it trusts and cherishes, for it to be implemented.

Either we take the last sentence in its entirety to be true: then political science is useless, and ought to be replaced by quantitative sociology. Or we take it to be a regulative ideal: then political science is merely a science of how to reduce the frictions of the implementation process, given (!) a problem and its solutions.

In both cases, most political science is insignificant. To illuminate my frustration, allow me to go somewhat further and make a gesture that – for my low age – is certainly over-dramatic: then my life’s work is insignificant. Perhaps that is the conclusion that ought to be drawn.

Consider, however, what you throw away when reducing, as PBL does, the entirety of political science to a mere delivery of ‘ethical problems.’ The discipline is vast; it is admirable in its scope and size, its depth and width. It houses, in a doubtless friction-laden and uneasy unity, but a unity nevertheless, an enormous array of approaches; some brilliant and wonderful, some strange and challenging, some doing the work least loved and most necessary of all: the application of models, the collection of data, the testing of theories. It is philosophical: is not the first great topic philosophy has ever thought about the unity of nature and this strangest of all creatures, man, in the city, the polis, the state? Is not man this creature, terrible and wonderful, whose endeavors and challenges, projects and aspirations, are all coming together, converging and intersecting, in politicis? Has not a man who once had Europe under his yoke suggested that ‘politics is destiny’? Are not all the results of science, all the projects of humanity, finally to be considered, transformed, brought forward by, in, and through politics?

Enough lyricism! Examples! Applications!

Consider my group’s work, situated in the PBL framework. We have decided, unanimously and without friction, to consider a catastrophic scenario – hurricane Katrina – as our project’s circumstances, and we will consider the engineering, environmental, physical, economic, and political stakes that lead in buildings has had in this context. How admirable a story of the triumphs of natural science over health problems the lead-issue is! And yet, how politically contested, debated, structured!

Here is – and my group can vouch for its authenticity – the general proposal for the kinds of question that ought to be considered, politically, when a catastrophy scenario of this magnitude is to be brought to students.

1) For the project as a whole: do we want to frame the project as an emergency that already happened, or as a precautionary planning project for if it happens?

– the time horizon is narrower in the former case (more urgency, but also less press coverage and thus less pressure)

– application unclear in the latter: can we foresee all possible natural disasters? How much leeway does our fictitious planning committee leave for unforeseen circumstances?

2) Specific project questions for various planning stages:

– all of them will have a budget, and judging from how politics usually works, said budget is going to be too small (if we do a precautionary planning) or comes with riders, pork barrel provisions, and all kinds of other nonsense (bridges to nowhere, as it were) if we do an imminent disaster relief project

– what are the legal forms to be considered for what out fictitious engineering teams do?

– do we only give advice? If so, to whom: to private business rebuilding / restructuring, who operate under a profit margin, to public-private-partnerships (where the public would have to operate under an albeit smaller profit margin), or to public works?

– does our committee hand out subsidies, and if so, to which of the three forms above?

– whose property is it going to be when we rebuild? This question arises most definitely when we presume public-private-partnerships, but also for private businesses. In the latter case, most urgently (seeing what happened after Katrina, but not as much after Sandy): do we simply rebuild what was before, or do we make things more efficient (infrastructures, for example); and if the latter, who owns the new structures which will inevitably displace some old owners?

3) For installing an emergency system: who operates it? Public (Federal or State), Private, or a partnership? This is not only a structural question: you don’t want to wait for the Feds to declare an emergency before you can unleash the full force of emergency and rescue teams.

4) For advanced planning stages: when our fictitious committee laid the frameworks and turns to specific projects, how much influence should the inhabitants of our ficitious town have? Do we organize town hall meetings? If so, how would we (not the committee, but us) build that into our PBL project?

5) Finally, none of emergency and disaster relief is only an economic or engineering question. Human beings being what we seem to be, it’s also a security question. In other words: how much do we reflect in our project that riots, looting, shootings, “accidents” of all kinds will happen? What police forces do we project (Federal and State, public and private securities), and what consequences might that have for whatever else we have our ficitious committee do?

Despite its convoluted nature – for which the author of the questions takes full responsibility – it ought to be clear that all of these can be framed an ‘ethical dilemma’ – as the PBL approach requires – but all of them exceed the scope of such a dilemma. Indeed, framing them as a mere ‘dilemma’ already does violence to the admirable depths and scopes of scholarship that went into the works from which these questions, naked and humble, are drawn.

And not only scholarship. That is the problem for me: thence my frustration. Political science is never just science. Even the most quantity-oriented scholar does not do political science for the ‘science.’ We certainly love (or, at the worst, are addicted to) politics – but never in and for itself. We care for those whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. We want to engage, foster, preserve what we have, and contribute to a better future. We are not unlike our friends in the sciences, natural, hard, or real. We just think of different solutions, different frameworks, different problems. Which, just to mention it, are as real as those faced by the sciences, by the engineers.

Most political situations cannot be framed as ‘problems’ with ‘solutions,’ and that is what makes politics singularly important, and singularly complicated. It is this arena in which decisions are made, for better or worse.

I cannot help but think that PBL, in reducing politics, and its science, theory, and philosophy, to mere ‘ethical problems,’ is itself a political stratagem, a move in a political game. Consider, then, what you gain when playing that game. Consider, more urgently, what you lose.

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Foucault: Archaeology and Genealogy

This is a reflection on the philosophical status of what is usually perceived as a breach between archaeology and genealogy, the historian and the social scientist M.F., the scientific and the power-related F. It is also a critique of the frequent uncritical use of the term “power” when speaking about M.F.’s works.

Often, one contrasts seemingly polar opposites in Foucault’s approach: the “autonomous” conception of discourse as the historical conditions of possibility for saying things in general, and scientific things in particular; the “strategic” concept of discourse as a field of differential power relations posited by actors with agendas. I would like to question the opposition between the two.
On the surface and by a classical reading, it is plainly visible: with the archaeology, Foucault gives an analysis of linguistic entities (the emergence of meaning), and with increasingly desperate gestures, he tries to circumvent the necessity of saying who speaks – for, ultimately, it is man who speaks, Man in His glorious self-presence and self-affection. Genealogy, then, is Foucault giving in, as it were, to the pressure of saying who speaks and under what conditions; what social, political, ethical, and cultural factors enter every statement, and what is to be done.
However, consider this quote from “The Order of Things” (Vintage 1994, p. 305):

“To the Nietzschean question: ‘Who is speaking?’, Mallarmé replies – and constantly reverts to that reply – by saying that what is speaking is, in its solitude, in its fragile vibration, in its nothingness, the word itself – not the meaning of the word, but its enigmatic and precious being.”

Superficially, again, the opposition mentioned above is reerected. Man does not speak, Foucault seems to say, and has not spoken even in Nietzsche’s question, so eloquently answered by Mallarmé. The word speaks: an absurdity. Foucault’s attempt to erase speaking Man was doomed to fail, and he acknowledged it by converting to genealogy.
But consider the last part of the statement: “…its enigmatic and precious being.” Perhaps one should pay more attention to Foucault’s own discursive existence (as has been pointed out, Foucault can indeed be read as the creator of a discourse on discourses, and – in the vein of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo – a discourse on, about, through, and in himself), and his elusive and frequently ignored statement that he is influenced by Heidegger. Thinking the being of a statement as a dynamic being rather than a static one – as a Seinsvollzug, a dynamic interpretative mode of being. The statement does something when and as it is. It constitutes its speaker just as much as vice versa. Every text projects an author, and that author is not the empirical scribe – the condition of possibility for authorship is the death (structurally, not empirically) of the scribe.
That is, every statement also projects the power differentials giving rise to its situation in a specific socio-historical environment. Author and Speaker are projected textually: they are encapsulated (enshrined, as it were, in the monumental pyramid Hegel identified the sign with) in the being of the word. The power differentials the genealogical Foucault observes, I argue, are part of the same differential and socio-historical, but ultimately textual mode of being. The scientific statement projects its speaker and their credentials, that is, the institution, that is, the power differentials between the speakers and statements of that institution (“of” in both senses: authored/authorized by it and constitutive of it), that is, the socio-historical context of the institution (again, both senses: society projects institutions which project society), that is, the conditions of social emergence: economic, historical, political. The true is the totality: il n’y a rien dehors le texte. I do not think there is a breach between archaeology and genealogy – if one reads Foucault’s project as a differential-historical (that is, a différantial) one.

Which segues into the question of M.F.’s usefulness for social scientific research: for the poor scribe of this text, dead as he is; for us, authors and scribes of our classes; and for the wider academic community. Power, for Foucault – it cannot be said often enough – is differential and nothing but that. That does not mean, however, that is loses its specificity: it has, I think, a very precise philosophical meaning. I read it as the mode of being of a social relation – a social relatedness (Christian Matheis is currently writing a wonderful dissertation on this question) – a pacing-out of a differential-hierarchical duplicity (or multiplicity) of positions (all of which, in turn, are differential and project what they differ from). The power relation precedes its poles: actors, institutions, formations. Which is, ultimately, why I think there is no actual difference between archaeology and genealogy: the object of both is a monumental identity (a statement, an actor, an institution) as it is (dynamically) in and out of the relation. Foucault thinks about differences: the pacing-out of differences. He thinks about hierarchies: the pacing-out of power differentials (whose quantitative differentiality, as Deleuze has pointed out, constitutes their quality – we might say: their content, their meaning).

In other, perhaps all too elliptical words. Perhaps M.F.’s concept of a statement is not so much of this world – not so much concerned with the empirical act of speaking and its conditions of possibility. Perhaps it is rather to be found in the immanence of the relation between difference and identity, the movement of difference towards identity: of the difference to a statement, of the differential to a so-called human being or an institution. Perhaps M.F.’s thought is less of this world, and more of the differential that precedes it, and that exceeds it at all sides. “The time of discourse is not our time.”

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Teaching Social Phenomena

I am formally capable of teaching in three different disciplinary realms: Political Theory, Political Economy, and Philosophy (currently, I serve as a Teaching Assistant in the latter department).

It seems to me that teaching and research in these areas have a lot in common. What a good teacher in the three fields of my interest does is to offer interpretations of social phenomena – contemporary and historical – that students can analyze and reflect upon, ideally neither ‘accepting’ nor ‘rejecting’ them. The topic, and hence the task of an educator in social philosophy, political economy, political science, and philosophy, is to show the world as a totality: out of every concrete social phenomenon, the interpretation by the teacher and researcher has to uncover its historical processes of becoming, its embeddedness in local, regional, national, and global connections, as well as all possible sides of interpreting it.

Obviously, this comprehensive approach woud require a systematic explication of the totality of the current global political economy as it presents itself in and out of concrete phenomena, and thus remains a regulative ideal. The topics I am situated in, however, pose some problems in teaching because of my choice of totality-based philosophical approach.

Often, I encourage discussions only after pointing out all possible facts and diverse opinions of a topic myself. As a large part of the topics to be approached in such classes are fraught with division and contention, and students need, I think, learn how to argue rigorously first. In times when the political division in this country seems to have reached record heights, to a point when even calls for a rational discussion are now seen as a strategic move (in this case, ‘from the Left,’ whatever that means), I cannot leave issues such as fiscal cliffs, global financial crises, the concept of (lowercase-r) republican civility, or standards of rationality to a classroom full of people whose only acquaintance with philosophy is – I hesitate to even name her here – Ayn Rand.

Another problematic aspect of my totality-based approach is that I de-emphasize the national and especially local settings in favor of pointing out the global implications as they play out in shaping, forming, or at least overdetermining the local and regional origins and ramifications of a social phenomenon. This is often perceived as dismissive of local and national factors, especially to an audience situated in a country which is only slowly getting accustomed to the thought of no longer being the sole global Power Which Can Do Whatever It D*** Well Pleases (this phrase, heard a lot among older Americans, is usually uttered such that one cannot but capitalize all initial letters).

A much more serious aspect of this is, however, that I thereby reinforce my somewhat authoritarian position of universal White validation: my interpretation of globalization, for instance, is the only one not immediately categorized by an adjective, as in “indigeneous globalization,” “women’s globalization,” “Chinese globalization,” et cetera. To an extent – and I do not see a solution for this problem – teaching political theory, and a fortiori political economy, is still a very white, though fortunately decreasingly male discipline. Seeing economic, political, and generally social phenomena with an attention to their global interconnectedness rather than national contexts is inevitably going to lead to me putting undue emphasis on a Western, white and male vision of the world. It is this vision, after all, that is responsible for globalization, global capitalism, and Modernity’s grip on non-Western societies.

Thus, my focus clashes with the broader implications of my discipline. I am, however, continually working on refining methods and approaches to teaching (even only as a Teaching Assistant for now), and am convinced that a totality-based interpretative approach and a classroom encouragement of civility, openness and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive.

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Rigor and Liberation

On first glance, it may sound absurd to reference the question of ‘rigor’ in the context of liberatory educational efforts. Is not ‘rigor,’ especially in positivist and scientist traditions, a means of preserving arbitrary standards and standardizations, excluding less intelligible, more contextual, or simply more preliminary arguments from a discussion?

Therefore, it may perhaps come more natural, given the topic of this week’s readings, to talk about liberation through education. Liberation, when talking about this, can be taken in the broadest possible sense: it seems to me that it can be doubted whether Steele and Freire are even talking about the same kind of liberation. Their contexts and approaches (a socialist scholar in Latin America, a positivist social psychologist in English America) suggest otherwise. So do their topics: while Steele contributes to the discussion of inclusivity and diversity through conceptual means of identity contingencies and their more specific subgroup, stereotype threats, Freire approaches the concept of education in a context of praxis that involves thinking a (social, political, economic, or perhaps worldly) totality.

Both have in common, however, that they attach crucial importance to education alone. They do certainly not neglect the broader horizon of it – in Freire’s case, such an insinuation would be obviously absurd – but one is nevertheless tempted to add critical questions to their elaborations. Is autonomy of thought, which seems to be Freire’s goal, indeed indistinguishable from real or material autonomy, such that a liberatory education can result not just in free spirits, as a famous European philosopher once called for (that is, in students, scholars, scientists whose horizons are emancipatory), but in social individuals whose behavior is emancipatory, and has liberating effects on their surroundings? In other words: it is doubtless a necessary condition, but is it a sufficient condition for sustaining a free community to educate individuals qua individuals to live free, and to live free together? Furthermore, what about the institutional setting a teacher finds herself in? Is it even possible to make students, whose education is a constant rat race of grades, scores, stipends, awards, classes, and, alas, more or less strictly segregated campus events, crammed into a maximum of four years, and often less; is it possible to make such students aware of the insensitivities, awkwardnesses, shameful implicit expectations, and unfounded assumptions they are embedded in? (As a corollary to that: what about teachers themselves? Is the average Graduate Student, whose days are evenly distributed between reading three books a week, teaching one, two, three recitations, attending three classes, weekly assignments, midterm assignments and final assignments, really equipped to constantly question, doubt, second-guess herself?) Finally, and perhaps most troubling to me: what about the balance between teaching topics and contents and teaching awareness and approach? Does not the notion of an education whose primary goal is fostering awareness and overcoming social obstacles lead – not in all cases and under all circumstances, but conceivably and in some circumstances – to a sloppiness in either of the two: content or awareness? (This pertains perhaps more to the natural sciences, whose topics coincide less with questions of awareness and inequality than those of the social sciences.)

In other words: what is it that one has to teach in addition to, but deeply intertwined with emancipatory approaches and perspectives? What is it about curiosity, encouragement, playfulness that must nevertheless be taught and cannot simply be demonstrated, exercised, picked up?

This is where I think the much-maligned concept of rigor comes back in. The substance of, i.e., the principle and dynamic underlying the problem of identity, identity contingency, stereotype and stereotype threat, as well as thought insensitive to the totality of circumstances, is that concepts are not well-defined, static referential markers of reality that can, through a social practice, simply be replaced, expanded or contracted. The concept is, rather, a living entity, an endless labor of subsuming everything that is non-identical to its denotation, such that all non-conceptual haloes surrounding and exceeding concepts can finally be preserved – which is to say: sterilized – in the monumental self-identity of a concept.

The mechanism is simple: gender is reified, not as such, i.e., not as a simple referential observation, but as a difference, which is to say: a hierarchy. I am not simply heterosexual – I am heterosexual against and above homosexuality, against and above lesbians, gays, queers, transgendered persons, or those that do not want to be persons at all. Furthermore, their resistance to my hierarchy (which, on top of it, is not even my hierarchy) must be an assertion according to the same hierarchical difference – otherwise, it is not recognizeable as resistance. Asserting one ‘s status as a human being when resisting heterosexuality’s claim to normative superiority is only meaningful of “human being” includes “gendered being.” Otherwise, the assertion is simply meaningless: it does not hit its target.

In other words: language is not something one uses. It always exceeds immediate usage. (As Judith Butler has famously shown, this goes both ways: a racial slur can be appropriated by a community and turned against its oppressors.) What surrounds a concept is given by the concept: it is a determinate negation of the concept. Resisting gendered oppression remains within the means of the concept of gender. Attempts to simply leave behind the question of gender altogether therefore reinforce it even more strongly: liberal colorblindness does not erase racism, it only covers it up and pretends nothing is happening. Likewise, assertions of post-gendered societies only cover up the real remaining inequalities between the genders.

What needs to be given to students in their education, then, is not a simple horizon of emancipatory thought. What must be given is the ability to follow the concept as it unfolds its reign by forcing resistance to be articulated within its own horizon. We need to pay attention to how hierarchy is implied even in seemingly innocent concepts. This can be trained: all that is needed is attention to rigorous elaborations of the haloes surrounding concepts. Rigorous explanations of concepts as they are used in everyday language give the tools for concrete circumstantial resistance to the endless labor of concepts.

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On ‘Diversity’

I suppose I am in a position to say something about ‘diversity.’ The usual protocol of posts like this one requires me to elaborate on the reason why I am, which then usually devolves into an abstract celebration of my country of origin, and a pseudo- (or proto-)nationalist tale of how and why its values can enrich these United States of A-. To an extent, there is nothing wrong with that; but, for obvious reasons, I dislike the celebratory tone that inevitably creeps in when I write about my so-called home country and the reader, again for obvious reasons, is structurally unable to tell the sarcasm. Suffice it to say, then, what the usual protocol recognizes as the minimum threshold for my voice to get an authority which is somewhat greater than other speakers’ whose country of biological origin happens to be the aforementioned United States of A-, to speak about diversity in conjunction with the question of foreign countries: I am legally obliged to present a German passport when stopped by the police of my host country, and one can indeed discern a German accent (though I am told that it is slight) when I speak.

Credentials aside, I do have something to say on diversity, especially with a world-wide context. This issue, too, tends to assume a rather celebratory tone when it is asserted that “students encounter and learn from others who have backgrounds and characteristics very different from their own,” encounters whose “educational value … will become more important, not less,” as the United States of A- approaches the Twenty-First century (Milem, 127). A significant portion of students’ diverse backgrounds is indeed contributed to A-can campuses by students from foreign countries – like myself, which I add here just to make sure that my credentials remain intact – such that A-can students are encouraged to significantly improve their foreign-country-related (language, cultural, social) skills. For, after all, “[s]tudents need to become “global citizens” and useful neighbors to everyone, including those in our own communities.” (Braskamp, 2).

There is certainly nothing wrong with such commitments – though experience (…and here we go with the credentials again…) obliges me to add a skeptical question mark to the idea that the so-called “3M mix- millenial, post-modern, and missionary” (Braskamp, 3) is indeed a positive attitude of students leaving the country I mentioned so often already that I will simply refrain from doing so for the remainder of this post, and fly to foreign countries. Since Braskamp’s source does not elaborate on what the first two elements of the mix mean, we are invited to focus on the third: what exactly is there to be ‘missionary’ about? What, besides the Simpsons (of which I myself happen to be a long-time fan, watching them in my native tongue first, and subsequently developing my English, or perhaps rather American, language skills in tandem with the growing elaboration and complexity of the Simpsons’ characters), craft beers, and the occasional financial unpleasantness, is it that makes American education, and American educators so special?

Certainly not the reduction of difference to ‘common values’ this paragraph celebrates in a manner lending itself to be quoted at length:

“What is important is that we do not limit our perspective to cultural differences that historically have been associated with nations and countries. We instead need to understand and respect justice, equity, fairness, and equal opportunities as virtues and values that should not be viewed as assumed universal truths, but important and contested goals and ends in our dialogues that also accept different traditions. Moreover, we need to work together and collectively to achieve these virtues and values.” (Braskamp, 4)

This invites a number of questions, of which I will focus only on one. What is justice, loftiest of all old ideals, if not an abstract virtue, a regulative idea hovering over us, inviting us to paint castles into the sky and neglect that there is no such thing as a common ‘justice’ shared by all different perspectives on it: there are only different perspectives on different questions, and it is doubtful whether they can be resolved towards a common ideal of ‘justice’ shared on a world-wide scope. Diversity is disagreement about justice, not within justice; for if justice is already established as the eventual point of arrival, result, and redemption, what about the injustice to those whose systems of justice are different from the one closing itself over the others? What ‘justice’ is in the endless attempt of systems of law to approach it? More importantly, what kind of justice are we talking about when we presume, somewhat willy-nilly, that it can account for the endless attempts of several systems (plural) of justice? Justice: eternal and everlasting? Justice: authoritative, substantial and unquestionable?

Furthermore: what is said about ‘diversity’ if it is already defined – structurally, not in terms of content; this freedom to elaborate we have – as a form of ‘productivity’? Why should I encourage diversity in the classroom, and at the same time draw boundaries around it such that the prefiguration of a commonality of ‘justice’ induces weakness of argument, sloppiness of critique, complacency of discourse? What productivity is the possible likely result of such ‘diversity’? Why ‘promote diversity’ and yet preclude questioning the very differences that give rise to its merits in the first place?

No: we need to ask what we mean by ‘diversity.’ There seem to be two kinds of diversity: one that precludes final questioning, and one that encourages it. One is the nominal kind of diversity that is encouraged and achieved – and rightly so! – by affirmative action. I wholeheartedly support this version, but ask whether it is not possible to ge even further beyond it, towards acknowledging that the very assumption of ‘common values’ is not already a violation of someone’s sentiments, an injustice to someone’s beliefs. What we need to be aware of is that, when we talk about ‘diversity,’ what we mean to say is not so much paying attention to diversity on a common stage. Diversity is the right of the last other to disagree – and that is what, I think, should be encouraged in the classroom.

Returning to the credentials mentioned at the beginning of this post: perhaps it is the attempts to encourage the second, more far-reaching kind of diversity, in classrooms and beyond, that can make American education special, at least vis-à-vis its German counterpart.

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On “Lockhart’s Lament”

This is, by necessity, a brief comment. The piece in question is a short rumination on what happens if everyone is to learn standardized music – sheet music, mind you; not guitar chords or drum patterns or even computer production techniques. Its message for us, however, is less than clear. Might it attempt to make us think what happens if everyone had to learn the same thing – Westernized musical notation -, and creativity were thus confined to its narrow boundaries?

Clearly, we are inclined to say, that would be disastrous. But would it? Let’s say we apply this warning to what everyone of us indeed has to learn in elementary school: words and letters and sign systems, basic math, basics of history and society, basic sports, and so forth. Is it tragic that everyone learns English (or Spanish, or Chinese, or German, or…) and learns to write latin letters and arabic numbers? If we say it were tragic – does that not mean we argue that immediate individual inspiration, such as a child babbling or speaking in tongues – both of which, alas, are incomprehensible to us because they do not stick to the standardized sign system – were superior to what we learn in school?

That would scarcely be an argument that could reasonably be made.

What if we apply the critique of standardization the piece invites us to consider to college education? Well, first problem: not everyone is forced to go through it; hence the example is lacking in the important aspect that is indeed still possible – though admittedly getting harder and harder – to get by without a college education. Not everyone is forced through standardization, then. And the second problem, more pertaining to music: art critics and artists, from Hegel to Baudelaire to the New Yorker‘s columnists, agree that art, far from being a product of sheer inspiration like the divine tongue or the babbling baby, is in fact a question of hard work and precise measurement. That is, a form of creativity based on standardization.

So what does the example tell us?

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Leadership: Creation, Destruction, Creative Destruction, and Destructive Creation

What is “leadership”? What is “leader effectiveness”? What is a “social entrepreneur”? More importantly, by what mode does a “social entrepreneur” operate, and what exactly does “leading” mean here? “Leading” where? “Leading,” why? Are initiative, innovation, leadership (and, for that matter, excellence, foresight, progress, engineering, advancement, steering, and guidance) values in and of themselves? Why are they, and how do they come to be shrouded in veils of glory – or, at best, quite acquiescence (accompanied by the nagging feeling of being inadequate)?

Where do all these concepts come from? What are the hidden meanings and untold origins of invoking “entrepreneurial foresight” and “leadership excellence”?

The Austrian economist, political scientist, and sociologist Joseph Schumpeter had a few things to say about progress. Progress, he maintained, is certainly a question of creation. He also argued that “entrepreneurs,” that is, exceptional individuals with a specific kind of brilliance, audacity, and foresight would take it on themselves to steer industrial society towards the path to greater profit – certainly, and why not? – but also greater standards of living, technological means, and comfort for all. And since there are more than one of these individuals at any given time, their competition would quickly weed out the weak, and pave the way for even more progress, even better leadership, an even brighter future. Creation, competition, leadership: path to progress.

Perhaps it is time to add a footnote to this most American of all tales. Competition is not a zero-sum game: certainly, but there are losers nevertheless. Progress is not a zero-sum game: certainly, but there are those left behind nevertheless. Progress towards what, and for whom?` Creation, this most human and most excellent of all capabilities of the brain, is also replacement of old alternatives, that is, destruction. Competition is ruthless, progress is blind to suffering, leadership is as destructive as it is constructive.

Creative destruction, then: creation means destruction, destruction means creation. Creating a new machine means increasing comfort and destroying employment. Creating scientific progress means increasing the sum total of possibilities and the devaluation of works-in-progress, careers, lives. Creating a social network means increasing the ability to share world-wide and the increase in net work.

Leadership must realize this fundamental truth: progress is blind to its social outcomes. The important part of a new invention, a better technique, and a more efficient standardization is not its scientific or technological implementation. The important part is that its social consequences are not capable of being subsumed under the concept of ‘implementation.’ They have to be assessed differently. The invention of the computerized industrial assembly line – perhaps the last great invention of the twentieth century – is not simply the invention of a tool that makes everyone better off. There are losses here: unemployed workers, overburdened managers, families without home or hearth (or health insurance).

In other words: was the inventor of the computerized industrial assembly line a great innovator, an entrepreneur, a leader? Certainly. I am not arguing against scientific and technological progress. (I do write this on a laptop, after all.) What I argue here is that “leadership,” “innovation,” and “excellence” are used all too frequently to cover up the social and (ultimately, perhaps) human cost of a creation that is destruction.

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