hey-relax-buddy-im-working-on-it

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

My first foray into the world of podcasts a couple of weeks ago included an extended discussion of Stoicism. Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cupS. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. coffee cupThen there is my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup–a much appreciated Father’s Day gift from my youngest son–that sits proudly on a top shelf in myoffice. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over seven years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces not that long ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archaeological dig many millennia in the future.

Some time later I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says NO KIDDING–YOU REALLY ARE A BIG FUCKING DEAL! when I have emptied the liquid (not really).

I choose to consider my replacement monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past several years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The retreat I attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want007

So Late So Soon–Memories of Olympics Past

It often is a surprise to those who know that I am a college professor to learn that I am also a sports fanatic. In truth, the most rabid sports fans I know are some of my academic colleagues—we talk trash about our favorite teams and athletes with the same energy you might find at any sports bar; indeed, we often have such arguments while drinking adult beverages. My own sports addictions have become selective as I get older, rionow largely focused on baseball (especially the Red Sox) and college basketball (all Providence Friars all the time). And the Olympics. I love the Olympics.

This month’s Rio Summer Olympics have arrived at the perfect time for me, a welcome respite from politics and an enjoyable bridge from sabbatical to getting back to the classroom for the first time in sixteen months the last Monday of August. Although I do enjoy track and field (although not the endless preliminary races that lead up to the finals), the first week of the Summer Olympics is always my favorite, phelpsmaybe because the focus is on two sports so far out of my wheelhouse that excellence in these sports strikes me as something otherworldly. I can swim just well enough to keep from drowning, so the towering achievements ofLedecki Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecki last week blew me away, as did the overall excellence of the entire US swimming team. The limit of my gymnastic abilities is performing a somersault (I’m not sure I can even do that anymore, and I’m not going to try it out), so watching Simone Biles, Ali Raisman, and the rest of the Final Five women’s gymnastics team blow away their competition in record fashion caused me to marvel at what a human being is capable of achieving.ReismanSimone

 

 

 

 

 

As I look back over my personal timeline, I realize that the Olympics are one of several recurring events that I use to organize my memories and locate myself in the increasingly misty atmosphere of the past. Certain events and athletes became part of my history—here are a few from my early years:

1968—The Grenoble Winter Games are the first that I remember clearly. I had just started learning to ski and France’s Jean-Claude Killy, winner of all three major skiing gold medals, was my hero. I knew, of course, that I was supposed to cheer for American athletes, but my patriotism could not withstand my strong attraction to winners. 1968 summer1968, of course, was a year of assassinations, unrest, and turmoil; the Summer Olympics, held in the high altitude and air pollution of Mexico City, were the stage for an iconic protest. During the medals ceremony for the 200-meter race, gold-medalist Tommie Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos raised black-gloved fists throughout the playing of the National Anthem. Many, including my parents, were outraged, but I recall only thinking of what courage it must have taken for them to make this human rights statement at what was supposed to be an apolitical event. Smith later said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

1972: American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals in the Munich Summer Olympics—an achievement that stood until Michael Phelps won eight golds at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But Spitz’s remarkable achievement was overshadowed by the Munich Massacre, the first time that terrorism burst into my consciousness. munich massacreEleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist group; twenty-four hours later all eleven were dead. I’ll never forget my mother bursting into tears when Jim McKay, the multiple-award winning host of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” wept as he broke the terrible news.

When I was a kid my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms this morn– yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

1976: I married (the first time) less than two months before the beginning of the Montreal Summer Olympics, but they are locked in my memory for a couple of reasons. FComaniciirst, Montreal is only a couple of hours north of where I grew up. Second, they were the Olympics of Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast ever to receive a perfect score of “10” in the Olympics. She was everyone’s darling—she was cute, spectacularly talented, and in the middle of the Cold War, it was a big plus that she wasn’t Russian (although I doubt many of my friends and family could have located Romania on a map). The rise of the United States as a world force to be reckoned with in gymnastics began over the next decade, largely fueled by young gymnasts who wanted to “be like Nadia.”

1980: Every American above a certain agemiracle can tell you exactly where she or he was when a bunch of US college kids beat the greatest hockey team in the world in the Miracle on Ice at the Winter Games in Lake Placid. I was standing with my mother and father in the middle of their Florida condominium living room, screaming at the television and reveling in Al Michaels’ famous call: Do you believe in miracles? YES!!! Thirty-five years later memories of that evening came flooding back as I screamed at the television watching the final seconds count down on a wildly improbable victory by the Providence Friars men’s hockey team in the 2015 national college championship game. Miracles do happen—sometimes thirty-five years apart.

torvill dean1984: The opening of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” used to include a montage of clips illustrating “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The Winter Olympics in Sarajevo featured Torvill and Dean, the ice dancing pair from Great Britain who earned twelve perfect scores from the judges for their program choreographed to one of my favorite pieces of music, Ravel’s “Bolero.” SarajevoLess than a decade later, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sarajevo was the epicenter of the vicious and bloody Bosnian War; thousands died during the four-year siege of Sarajevo. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat indeed.

boitano orserAnd so many more—The US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games followed by the Soviet boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles, where Mary Lou Retton struck gold for the US in gymnastics; The Battle of the Brians at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary;ali 1996 Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta games; Michael Phelps’ dominance of five straight summer games.

A week ago yesterday my Episcopal priest friend used the following poem from the immortal Dr. Seuss in his sermon:

How did it get so late so soon?

It’s night before it’s afternoon.

December is here before it’s June.

My goodness how the time has flewn

How did it get so late so soon?

The thrust of his sermon was “don’t waste time,” using Seuss’ poem and several of the day’s readings to emphasize the importance of not letting opportunities to be Christ in the world escape our daily notice. The poem comes back to me now as a reminder of how each of our lives are marked by memorable events, the hooks, so to speak, on which we hang the various garments of our lives. The Olympics have served that purpose for me for over fifty years—a regular touchstone populated by people forever young in my memory as I grow older. Olympic memories cause me to both recognize the passage of time and the eternal youth of the human spirit. No wonder I’m a sports fanatic.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Four years ago this month, I finally followed the advice of several people whose opinions I respect and began this blog. Almost 100,000 visits from 160+ countries later, writing here regularly has provided me with more joy and opportunities for growth than I could have possibly imagined. Thanks so much to my regular and occasional readers–your support and comments keep me going! As is my annual custom, today I am marking my blog’s birthday by reposting my very first post from August 2012–enjoy!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

One Nation, Under God

I’m troubled by those who say so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much. William Barber

In early 2014, during an interview with the Global Evangelism Television Network, former Texas congressman Tom Delay had the following diagnosis concerning various problems facing the United States:

I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.tom delay

Tom Delay interview

Sigh. I vaguely remember Delay saying something like this but dismissed it as yet another ludicrous statement from any number of elected officials from the South to whom I pay no attention. But when I bumped into an article about the interview the other day on my Facebook news feed, I decided it would be entertaining to put the link on my wall, commenting only “And I always thought that God wrote the Ten Commandments.” Sure enough, in short order the comments started rolling in, none of them complimentary. Some suggested that Delay had been dropped on his head several times as a baby, others drew attention to the legal problems that led to Delay’s leaving Congress a decade ago. One person suggested that if God wrote the Constitution, there are some inexplicable passages.

  • Interesting that God put in the part about the government making no law about an establishment of religion, and the part about never having a religious test for any office or public trust.constitution

No need for Mr. Khan to lend that guy a copy of the Constitution—he seems to be familiar with it. Several others used the strategy I often use when pushing back against ideas such as Delay’s: looking at the historical evidence.

  • Delay has no clue about the confessional chaos that existed at that convention. Tell me with a straight face that a Catholic is going to trust an Anglican, or a Puritan is going to trust a Deist, to write laws for everyone?
    • Me: I thought everyone trusted Anglicans!
      • Only if you’re serving my ale, my friend . . .
    • At one point, Ben Franklin said “Hey, we forgot to open this convention with a prayer! We better correct that!” The motion wasn’t carried. Madison wrote that everybody was kind of annoyed.jefferson
    • Thomas Jefferson, for one, was a Deist. Delay wouldn’t know that from apple butter. And James Madison was no church lady. These were men of the Enlightenment who had a distrust of theocrats and religious governance and its bloody ruin in Europe’s Hundred Years’ War.
    • “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded in the Christian religion.” –1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by Founding Father John Adams.

To get a sense of the chaos, compromise, and principled hard work that went into the shaping of our Constitution, read James Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787. It should be required reading for all citizens of the United States. conventionFranklin, Washington, and Jefferson were all Deists, as were many other Founding Fathers; the tenets of Deism are pretty simple. There is a creating force we call God, what we do in this life matters, and we will be held responsible in some way for it. When one takes the traditional Christian God and strips away those characteristics that cannot be argued for using reason and logic alone, you get the Deist God—a God too disengaged with the everyday workings of creation to get involved with writing a founding document for a bunch of successful rebels.

So why do so many people, particularly various sorts of Protestants, insist in the face of a massive amount of contrary evidence that this country was not founded on secular principles but rather essentially as a theocracy? A comment from my cousin was most insightful.

  • Unfortunately, it is very common for fundamentalist protestants (the “born-again” crowd who simply call themselves “Christians” as if they were the only ones) to view all mentions of God or “the Almighty” within their framework only. For that reason, they actually believe that the US was founded as a Christian nation because of oblique references to the Almighty or the Creator in our founding documents. Given my fundamentalist background, I know whereof I speak.
    • Me: We were raised as insiders!
      • You’ve got that right!

Frnativismom seventh grade through high school, my cousin and I virtually lived in each other’s houses. We experienced together—and evolved from—exactly the sort of Christianity that sharply divides those who are in from those who are out, a religious form of the nativism that frequently rears its ugly head in our national discourse. This type of Christianity separates those favored by God from those who are not, just as nativism separates “us” from “them” in various ways. Tom Delay has simply taken the additional step of merging these two forms of exclusivity together.

Politicians often compete with each other as they seek to establish who is more “Christian” than their opponent. During my lifetime it is the Republican party that has owned the mantle of “most Christian,” particularly since the rise of the moral majorityMoral Majority during the 1980s. But during our current election cycle, it feels like an alternative universe. The Republican nominee for President said nothing about God, faith, or religious values during his acceptance speech at their convention, while the Democratic nominee referred explicitly to how her Methodist upbringing has shaped her life of public service. The patriotic energy of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of a Republican convention in any other Presidential election cycle.

And then there was this. William Barber, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP and leader of that state’s Moral Monday movement, demonstrated clearly in his ten-minute speech at the Democratic convention how it is possible to bring one’s faith-based values into the world without insisting that everyone must sign on to a particular religious worldview.

One person commented on YouTube: “I’m an atheist, but I’ll go to service every week wherever he preaches. Just amazing.” This is how one can bring whatever one believes God to be into the public square without assuming that every person in that square means the same thing by “God” as you do. Barber’s comments are an inspiring and eloquent expression of what I mean when I frequently say and write that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. In our nation dedicated, among other things, to the separation of church and state, ostumbling blockne should not bring one’s faith into political debates and become, as the Apostle Paul put it, “a stumbling block and an offense” to those who do not share your version of your faith or to those with no faith at all. Rather, one should enter the public arena as the person one’s faith has caused one to become.

P.S. for those who appreciate gospel music and good singing—Rev. Barber’s final reference is to two lines from an old Baptist hymn: “Revive Us Again.”

Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love

Let each soul be rekindled with fire from above

I know this hymn well—various church congregations in my youth sang it with gusto on a regular basis. If you’re interested in what a cappella singing is supposed to sound like, enjoy this recording of the hymn—the verse Reverend Barber quotes begins at 1:11. If you have no interest in or reject the theology in the lyrics (which I do, at least partially), at least enjoy the beauty of the human voice!

A Modest Proposal Part Two–or why my time should not be for sale

A week ago I wrote about the most effective and illuminating hoax I ever pulled on my students. Here’s what we learned from it . . .

In a recent post I described a proposal concerning access to my services that I proposed to my students during a recent course.

A Modest Proposal

SandelWe were studying Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, an exploration of how in our contemporary world market economies are generating market societies, societies in which ideas and values that have traditionally been considered as outside or above being reduced to numbers and dollar signs are gradually being sucked into the vortex of market activity. Everything, even the most revered and sacred activities, is up for sale. For general class discussion, I created a hypothetical scenario that I hoped would resonate with the group—student access to faculty time.

To set my proposal up, I described for my students how at various times during the semester student demand on my expertise and time often becomes very heavy. Specifically, my long-standing offer to read a couple of pages of students’ rough draft material up to a week before a major paper is due, drafts that I read on a first-come, first-served basis, creates a log-jam rivaled only by the queue outside my door during office hours in the days before a major assignment is due or an exam takes place. In the interest of streamlining the process and making my time most directly available to those who want it the most, I made the following proposal:

Preferred accessAt the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

After walking the students through the details of my proposal, I put them in small groups to discuss the ideas involved, reminding them to apply two tools Sandel identified as useful when testing such proposals with market creep in mind. Is there a problem of fairness involved? Is there a problem of corruption involved?

When we reconvened after ten minutes or so of group activity, it was clear that the students had taken my proposal very seriously, and they were not pleased with it. At all. It was a matter of figuring out what was at the core of their intuition that something was seriously wrong with this proposal. market meSoon various challenges were raised.

What about students who can’t afford the $250?

To which “Market Me” responded “What about them?” This is the way the market works—those who want what’s for sale badly enough will find a way to come up with the asking price. After all, if I tell a car salesperson that I really, really want the $50,000 car on the lot but only have $5,000 to spend, I will be told “too bad!” But someone pointed a possible difference—what I have for sale in my proposal is different from a car. What I have put up for sale is something that arguably should be equally available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. There’s a problem of fairness, in other words.

Aren’t you already getting paid to provide access to students? We’ve already paid for access to you with our tuition money.

This prompted my providing my students with a peek into the world of a faculty member. Yes I am getting paid to provide access to students, to the tune of a required three or four announced office hours per week. gradingAnd that’s what your tuition is paying for. But my practice of reading rough draft material is above and beyond the call of contract and duty. Indeed, many of my faculty colleagues have pointed out the insanity of voluntarily taking on such a time consuming task, given the already enormous time challenges of college teaching. So I’m willing to amend my proposal—office hours will remain first-come, first-served, but preferred rough draft access will be for sale. And by the way, I am still committed to providing access to all of my students, even those who do not purchase the all-access pass. My proposal just adjusts the dynamic of that access.

Making extra money for yourself in this way makes you look sort of like a jerk.

Really? I’m just trying to make a buck here! But to keep the discussion moving, I asked whether they would feel better if I set up a paypalPayPal account and the $250 went directly to the Providence College General Scholarship Fund. Everyone agreed that this would solve this particular problem; I even got the impression that with this adjustment several students would give a thumbs-up to the amended proposal.

But they shouldn’t, because even if the money is shifted away from me toward a “good cause,” access to me has still been commodified. The fact that the $250 is going to the scholarship fund rather than my checking account does not remove the fact that my time is for sale. dont be a jerkAnd if I’m still a “jerk” for even coming up with this idea, we need to figure out why. What exactly is at risk here? What important value would be demeaned and corroded if this policy were put in place?

I’m concerned that even though you say you will still give access to everyone, you will unintentionally stop paying as much attention to those without a pass, even when you aren’t backlogged.

A corruption problem in other words—a value is being damaged by its being placed on the market. This gave me the opportunity to introduce a way of thinking about education that many professed to be unaware of—the business model. What if we think of higher education institutions as putting a product up for sale, a product that students are purchasing with their tuition? What is the product? happinessHow would the buyer be able to tell if their purchase was a good one?

As we talked about the business model of education, many students admitted that they do think of their four years at Providence College as something they have purchased with another end in mind, most likely a good job, a comfortable lifestyle, and the very happiness that we all claim that money can’t buy. “How are you able to tell if your purchase has been worth it?” I asked. With a bit of prodding, some admitted that their parents at least consider a low grade at the end of the semester to be evidence of a bad investment. Not only education but family relationships themselves start being judged with market categories. Finally, someone said what had been lurking beneath the surface throughout the discussion.love of learning

Students are supposed to love learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of what they can get with it.

That such a statement is often immediately dismissed as idealistic and naïve is an indication of just how far down the market road of no return we have already travelled in our culture. But my students, although they admitted that they often ignore this conviction about education when buried under papers, exams, and stress about the future, all agreed that whatever the value is that is at risk of being corrupted in my modest proposal, “the love of learning” captures at least a portion of it.

Almost two years ago, in one of my many reflections on teaching in this blog, I wrote the following:tongue of a teacher

The Tongue of a Teacher

The whole process of teaching and learning, when liberated from my frequent well-meaning but misguided attempts to shape and control it, has transcendent energy behind it. This all sounds idealistic and impractical in a world where the value of higher education is often exclusively identified as and judged according to the standard of focused (and very expensive) job preparation. Maybe so—practicality has never been my strong suit. But identifying the tools of lifetime learning and honing skilled use of these tools through engagement with the greatest texts that human beings have produced is an activity whose importance transcends the size of one’s future paycheck.

Thanks to my students’ discussion of my modest proposal, I am once again reminded that at its heart, education should not be for sale. It’s too valuable for that.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

What is a Podcast?

I remember clearly the morning several years ago when a colleague from the English department, one of my teaching partners in a team-taught interdisciplinary course that semester, revealed to our sophomore students that he had just entered the twenty-first century. He had purchased his first I-pod. The students cheered enthusiastically, more or less in the same manner that I imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors might have cheered a person who figured out how to use fire several years after everyone else had been enjoying their fire-enhanced lives. IpodI didn’t mention, of course, that I did not have an I-pod. I still don’t.

Fast forward at least a decade. I received a cryptic email from a young colleague in Institutional Advancement at my college asking if we could meet to discuss a new initiative that he was involved with. We scheduled a coffee in the student center, where he first told me about his new project–the new Providence College podcast, scheduled to go live within a week or so. Here’s the description of the now live podcast on the site:

The Providence College Podcast features interviews with interesting members of the Friar Family. PC podcastThese in-depth conversations with PC students, Dominicans, faculty, staff, and alumni provide a rich look into the lives of noteworthy Friars. Occasionally we will also bring you on-campus lectures and presentations. Go Friars!

Second, my colleague asked if I would be willing to be the first faculty member interviewed on the podcast. “Sure,” I said–as the director of our signature humanities program for the four years before sabbatical, I became used to being the unofficial face of the faculty in any number of situations and venues. Shortly after our coffee meeting, though, I had a concern. I wasn’t exactly sure what a podcast is. Sure I know about their existence and have even listened to one or two of them on-line. But what makes a podcast different from, say, a video on a website? My ignorance of these things is boundless. I am not entirely ignorant about technology and social media–I’m pretty good on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn–but podcasts, apps, and such tend to blur into one fuzzy unknown for me.

Fortunately my colleague realized that I might need a bit of a primer–probably because once we scheduled the interview, I asked what I should wear. what is a podcast“A podcast is pretty much radio on demand,” he said; his colleague, the AV guy who would do the taping, assured me that I could wear whatever I wanted. Actually, as it turned out, a podcast could be recorded with everyone in the nude–but that would just be weird. I began to worry, since my colleague did not specify exactly what we would be talking about or even exactly why he had asked me to be part of this initial recording. It was only when I realized that I should approach the podcast the way I approach most of my classes–prepare a couple of good questions and see what happens–that I became less nervous.

As it turns out, we didn’t talk about the program I had directed or any number of other things I thought would be front in center. Instead, we talked about my blog, my experiences over my last two sabbaticals, and how to introduce people to philosophy. The descriptor on my podcast episode reads this way:

This episode features Dr. Vance Morgan, professor of philosophy and former director of the Development of Western Civilization Program at Providence College. Morgan recently completed a yearlong sabbatical that allowed him to finish a final draft of an upcoming book based on his popular blog,www.freelancechristianity.com. We discuss his career teaching philosophy, his foray in the blogosphere, and how he likes to throw his ethics students headfirst into moral and ethical dilemmas.

Enjoy!

office hours

A Modest Proposal

Classes begin at the end of August, and I’ll be back in the classroom for the first time in fifteen months. As I plan my courses, one important question is when I will hold office hours. Which reminds me of one of the most effective and thought-provoking hoaxes I have ever pulled on my students . . . 

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?