Friday, January 28, 2011

Some People Are Really Just Overly Talented

Headline in the NY Times earlier this week: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated. (via) Some details:
Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related. At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile [...]

Dr. [Naomi] Pierce, who became a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera in 1990, began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. She was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming from Asia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’" [...]

Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated. “By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”

-- Carl Zimmer, The New York Times, January 25, 2011
This is just breathtakingly cool. Now, I've loved his fiction for years (I first read Pnin in high school, then took a course called "Nabokov" back in college), so I'm wildly biased. Still... breathtakingly cool.

Someone needs to update this book.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Publish and Perish, or, The Strange Customs of Foreign Peoples

Oxford had a long tradition of not publishing during one's lifetime, indeed it was regarded as slightly vulgar to publish. People who did publish a lot, like A. J. Ayer, were regarded as remiss for having published too much too soon. As far as having a career and making a reputation were concerned, the attitude in Oxford was that the only opinions that really matter are the opinions of people in Oxford, and perhaps a few in Cambridge and London, and they will know about one's work anyway. One does not need to publish. What one does not want is a lot of graduate students somewhere, picking over one's half-backed publish texts and -- horror of horrors -- finding mistakes.

- John Searle, "J. L. Austin", in A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, ed. Aloysius Martinich & Dzvid Sosa (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001), p. 227

Friday, January 14, 2011

William James Contra the Ph.D. Degree not our growing tendency to appoint no instructors who are not also doctors [i.e. holders of a Ph.D.] an instance of pure sham? Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor's degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor's examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand; and to exclude the former by a rigid rule, and in the end to have to sift the latter by private inquiry into their personal peculiarities among those who know them, just as if they were not doctors at all, is to stultify one's own procedure..... The truth is that the Doctor-Monopoly in teaching, which is becoming so rooted an American custom, can show no serious grounds whatsoever for itself in reason. As it actually prevails and grows in vogue among us, it is due to childish motives exclusively. In reality it is but a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.

-- William James, "The Ph.D. Octopus" (1903)
...not really against the Ph.D. entirely, but against their monopoly in teaching and the general importance placed on them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Two Languagehat Links, One Temporary

Two links, both via the blog Languagehat:

1) Through February 5, the OED online is having a free trial; log in using "trynewoed" as both the name & the password. (Hint: it's three three-letter words written with no spaces.)

2) A blog called Quote Investigator which specializes in tracking down the provenance of obscure, multiply-attributed or otherwise troublesome quotes -- a practice that I've occasionally engaged in myself, but it's fun to see someone focus on it.

Exchanges You Don't Expect To See In Interviews With Distinguished Elderly Philosophers

The late Dr. Marjorie Grene -- a distinguished (if fairly obscure to non-philosophers) American philosopher, one of the (if not the) founders of the sub-field of the philosophy of biology, the first woman to be featured in the Library of Living Philosophers (which had previously featured notables such as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Sartre and Quine) -- in an interview with Believer magazine:
Believer: You know, I forgot to ask about philosopher of science Imre Lakatos—
Grene: I didn’t kill him!!
...I kinda couldn't get over that one. Shades of Kinbote (so to speak).

The entire interview is kind of a hoot, although nothing is quite up to that. Still, a few more of my favorite tidbits. The magazine on what it took to get an interview with her:
After convincing her that the Believer was not religiously affiliated—which required three verbal assurances, two hyperlinks, and finally a hard copy of the Ice Cube issue—we met in her office...
And then, three bits of a series in which the interviewer starts asking about her opinion of various philosophical and scientific writers (a series in which the Lakatos question occurred). First, Michael Ruse:
Believer: Before we started, you said something about Michael Ruse. What’s wrong with him?
Grene:: What’s wrong with him? He’s totally uninteresting.
And on Richard Rorty:
Believer: ...about Richard Rorty. You’re friends with him, though you don’t agree with his philosophy?
Grene:: We are friends, but you can’t agree with his philosophy. It doesn’t exist! He’s a wit! He should’ve lived in the eighteenth century. He just makes clever remarks that don’t mean anything.
And on Darwin:
Believer: Do you like Darwin?
Grene:: Like him? What a stupid question. How can anybody say that? How can anybody not like him? What do you mean?
...the bit about the 'stupid question' was hardly the only such comment, and made me feel a bit sorry for the interviewer.

Anyway, it's all sort of fun, although I must admit you don't get much sense of her actual, y'know, philosophy (although you do get a sense of what she wrote about, at least).

Oh, and Lakatos? Here's the complete exchange:
Believer: You know, I forgot to ask about philosopher of science Imre Lakatos—
Grene: I didn’t kill him!!
Believer: Why does everyone say you had a part in it?
Grene: Because once he helped me out of a taxi in London and he hit his head on the door. And I didn’t kill him! He died soon, and I don’t know if it was the head bump. But it wasn’t because of me! [Laughing heartily]
Believer: OK, we won’t get into that.
...for which you can hardly blame the poor interviewer, I think.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona Massacre Quotes and Links

This post by Conor Friedersdorf (via) is fabulous, and I hope he'll forgive me if I quote the lion's share of it:
...I’d argue that tone is overemphasized in these conversations about political discourse, while substance is mostly ignored.

What if we took the opposite approach? I don’t think that Sarah Palin bears any responsibility for the shooting in Arizona, or that her rhetoric is the most egregious you’ll find on the right. I don’t have any problem with her poster putting various Congressional districts in cross-hairs. It’s a commonly used visual metaphor, for better or worse, and the substance being communicated is basically that the GOP wants to take back or “target” certain seats. The “tone” is arguably extreme, but what’s being said, the ultimate message, is perfectly acceptable: beat these people at the polls.

In contrast, Palin’s remarks about death panels communicated an untruth: the notion that Barack Obama’s health care reform effort sought to empower a panel of bureaucrats who’d sit in judgment about whether an old person’s life would be saved or not. That is the sort of thing we ought to find objectionable, even if the substance is communicated in the most dry language imaginable, because were it true, radicalism would be an appropriate response. “They’re going to start killing old people? We’ve got to stop this!”


Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, an usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.

If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”
Yow. In fairness, I should note that (I believe) Conor is a conservative (just a sane one), so I suspect he'd draw different conclusions from this than I. But sticking to just what he said: word.

But ultimately, I think that in Conor's post is the reason that Ezra Klein's thoughtful self-reflection about his own rhetoric is unwarranted: the substance matters, and not just the rhetoric. Still, while I think he errs (fundamentally) in applying the thought to his own rhetoric, this point is still well expressed:
Many of us have known people who, after watching a loved one die of an awful disease, have begun taking better care of their own health. It's not that they were at risk of whatever killed their relative. But the awful experience focused attention on how they were living their own life. That's how I view the situation we're now in. Did the talk of "Second Amendment remedies" and "armed and dangerous" resistance lead anyone to pick up a gun and start shooting? It didn't. But seeing what an unbalanced person might do if convinced of the need for a violent remedy has been sobering.

Other things I read on the massacre that said things that struck me:

* James Fallows on political assassinations

* Mark Kleiman on the role the end of a gun-control provision played in the scale of the horrors in Arizona. (In the NYT, Gail Collins made a similar point.)

* Digby on where the line between just heated rhetoric and beyond-the-pale extremism should be drawn.

* Steve Benen on the fact that a Republican Senator felt a need to hide behind anonymity when making an anodyne point about some right-wing rhetoric going too far.

Poem of the Day: Donald Justice's "Men at Forty"

Men At Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father's tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

-- Donald Justice
I turn forty in March, a fact that has not escaped my attention over the past... well, year really. So this poem has recurred to me recently. I learned about from Hugo Schwyzer, who quotes it frequently,

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Syllabus for The History of American Thought Since 1865, Spring 2011

Starting a week and a half from now, I'm teaching (for the first time) an upper-level course on U.S. intellectual history, entitled The History of American Thought Since 1865. (That is, it's the first time I've taught it; it has been offered for many years by a senior member of the HWS history department who also teaches -- most recently this past fall -- the companion course, The History of American Thought To 1865. (I should say that it's his course title; I'd prefer one with "intellectual history" rather than "American thought" as the key term -- perhaps since the latter can be read to imply a unity that I don't think exists, but possibly just because it sounds old fashioned.) I thought I'd tell you about it.

First I should say that this is not, in fact, the complete syllabus for the course -- I don't see any particular reason that anyone save my students would be interested in my grading policies or my office hours. But since I've been interested when other academic bloggers have posted their syllabi, and since, in putting together this course, I benefited from looking at the online syllabi of instructors at other institutions who were generous enough to share them with the world, I thought I would pay it forward and give the interesting parts of the syllabus, namely, the required readings and some indications of the nature of the assignments.

One thing I'd note is that there is (I believe) a wider range in what is taught as the basic material for U. S. Intellectual History than for any other sub-field of history -- not only in books taught, but in subjects covered. Its comparable, I think, to courses like "Introduction to Philosophy" or "The U.S. Novel Since 1945", where you wouldn't be surprised to see entirely nonintersecting topic lists appear on multiple syllabi: there's simply too many different ways to approach the material. Thus, despite my filling the shoes of a senior (and, IMHO, quite fabulous) scholar, I am teaching the course quite differently than he does -- and, indeed, quite differently than did any of those whose syllabi I've seen, online or elsewhere. Perhaps doing so is cheeky, but I think that even those of us who are but Sub-Sub Academics (as Melville might have put it) have to approach a topic as we ourselves see it -- something which is shaped by, but not copied from, our elders & betters. At any rate, you should know that this is my particular take on this material; if you look at any other online syllabi, you'll see very different ones.

So. The term has fourteen weeks of classes (not counting the week of spring break that interrupts it). It starts and ends mid-week, so there are thirteen full weeks, plus two partial bookends. I will be assigning a book (or significant chunk of one) every week -- an unusually heavy load in this time, I'll admit. We'll have one discussion a week, on the readings; the other two weekly classes will be devoted to lecture, when I will attempt to put into context what we do read, and to talk a little about the thousands of equally important books that didn't make my list of 13.

Here are the thirteen reading assignments:
  1. William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883)
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  3. William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) and "The Will to Believe" (1896)
  4. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916) (select chapters only)
  5. Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Women and Economics (1898)
  6. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922)
  7. T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land" (1922), plus a few critical articles on it
  8. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)
  9. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, (1953) (select chapters only)
  10. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
  11. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
  12. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, (1989) (select chapters only)
  13. Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures (1987)
Where available (#1-8), I have linked to complete online texts; otherwise the links go to Google Books (if they offer a preview) or elsewhere (if not).

Precisely which chapters of the Dewey, the Kirk and the Rorty will be assigned is something I'm still mulling over. (I might even assign all of the Rorty -- it's hard, but it's not that long.) From the Kirk I'll assign the American chapters (he does the U.S. and Britain) -- but I might cut down on those further. Dewey I just need to cut down for length -- but I'm not sure how I'm going to do it yet. (That's one of the things I need to do between now and the first day of class.)

As for why I'm assigning a few articles to accompany "The Waste Land", although I don't for the others: it's just a very different sort of text. The other twelve writers, however complex they may be, are each trying to make an argument; Eliot writes a poem. Thus its connection to the course material will be more obscure. Also, it's a difficult poem to read for the first time. So I'm going to assign a few articles to (hopefully) help the students through these stumbling blocks.

To anyone who wants to say: "this is insanely ambitious": I know, and I agree. Let's move on.

The assignments will be threefold. The students will write a one-page reaction paper every week, making an observation and asking a question about the book; I'll have a few students read these aloud each week to serve as a jumping off point for our discussion. (These papers are largely intended to make sure students both do and think about the reading.)

There will be a final paper of 10-12 pages, due on the last day of class. As a concession to the "this is already insanely ambitious" point, I've decided not to make this a research paper; it will be a paper on some selection of the books for the course, tracing some intellectual issue (race, gender, democracy, class, the nature of scientific knowledge, the role of the state in society, etc, etc) through a number of the works. (Thus, if an ordinary upper-level course requires a lot of reading, plus a fair amount of reading for a final paper, this will hopefully balance out by just making the students write about the course material.)

And, finally, there will be a final exam, based largely (but not entirely) on the lectures, to make sure that portion of the instruction is tested and evaluated in some way (i.e. to make sure they come, listen and try to remember what I say). I'm going to pass out sheets each lecture with key terms (people, books, names of ideas, etc.) to help with this, since there isn't otherwise a textbook.

I'll have one student enrolled in the course for graduate credit. In addition to the books listed above, she'll read an additional three books -- secondary rather than primary sources -- and write two-page response papers on them; we'll also meet to discuss those books separately. The first of those books is Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, which is one of the most engaging and accessible of the secondary sources on this material; the other two I'll pick in consultation with her, to match her interests. Her final paper will be 15-20 pages, rather than 10-12, and will have to work at least one of the additional readings in in a significant way.

And that's my course. Putting this together -- and preparing the lectures -- has taken an insane amount of my time over the past few months, in particular in the weeks since last semester ended. Various other projects that I care deeply -- in certain cases, much more deeply -- about have been put on the back burner, if not all the way in the fridge. But it's been a fun course to prepare. If the students have half as much fun taking it as I have had putting it together, they'll love it. And if they do a tenth as much work, they'll ace it. Let's hope they all do. (Nothing would make me happier than to give everyone an A.)

Comments are welcome, bearing in mind that it's too late to make more than minor modifications for this spring (e.g. the bookstore has already ordered all the books). So even if you argue, convincingly, that I should throw this out and start again, I won't be able to.

Update, Spring 2012: I am teaching the class again with just about the same syllabus. I added a fourteenth book (as you can see I was already thinking of last year if you read the comments) -- Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (between Baldwin and Rorty, for week 12, knocking Rorty and Chomsky to 13 and 14 respectively). And in a few cases I'm shorting the readings somewhat -- not out of a concern for length particularly, and certainly not to balance adding the Gilligan (it doesn't), but because a slight shortening of some particularly difficult readings seemed in order; so I'm omitting a chapter from James's Pragmatism (chapter 4), one from Chomsky's lectures (chapter 4) and saying that students needn't read the (second-edition) postscript to Kuhn, only the text as originally published in 1962. Otherwise the syllabus is essentially unchanged.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Hidden Dumbing-Down Threat

Everyone's been abuzz about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn that will rewrite Twain, replacing the n-word with "slave" in every single instance. (A lack of respect for the history, the literary integrity of the work, a need to honestly confront America's racist past -- you can write most of the dialogue yourself.) But hidden in that NY Times story about the fracas is the following:
“I’m not offended by anything in ‘Huck Finn,’ ” said Elizabeth Absher, an English teacher at South Mountain High School in Arizona. “I am a big fan of Mark Twain, and I hear a lot worse in the hallway in front of my class.”

Ms. Absher teaches Twain short stories and makes “Huck Finn” available but does not teach it because it is too long — not because of the language.

“I think authors’ language should be left alone,” she said. “If it’s too offensive, it doesn’t belong in school, but if it expresses the way people felt about race or slavery in the context of their time, that’s something I’d talk about in teaching it.”
I'm sorry -- what? She would teach about slavery and the context of the time... except that Huckleberry Finn is too long?

Ok -- the heck with all the dead birds dropping out of the sky. That, Noble Readers, is a sign of the fucking apocalypse.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Not Resigned to the Inevitable

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

There is, I would claim, something almost indescribably profound about this lack of resignation to that which is most inevitable. It connects, I think, to the spirit of fighting without hope that (as the best Tolkien critic I know of, Tom Shippey, persuasively argues) is so central to the worldview of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- the "spirit of the north" as he called it,* which he identified as a determination to fight for what is right even in the face of hopelessness -- with a belief in the idea that even ultimate defeat does not imply that a cause was wrong -- with a refusal to despair even when all hope is, in fact, lost. (Tolkien himself, as a Christian, thought there was an ultimate hope of course -- blunting the spirit that he himself saw in the pagan writers he admired, that of fighting in the face of genuine, inevitable defeat.) And what is more hopeless than the fight against death?

Hopeless: genuinely, eternally hopeless. And yet, and yet: I am not resigned. As a poetic contemporary of Millay's put it: rage, rage against the dying of the light.

* If memory serves. I don't have my copy of Shippey's work right now, and neither Google Books nor Amazon will let me search inside for the precise phrase. But it's something in that vein.