pedagogy


In response to my post on individuation, Paul Reid-Bowen of Pagan Metaphysics raises an interesting and difficult question on object-oriented pedagogy. Paul writes:

If you have a moment, a practical and pedagogical question. I quite appreciate Bhaskar’s epistemic fallacy, but do you have any useful advice or strategies for shifting students back to ontological questions and away from epistemological ones. It seems to me that most of my undergraduates are epistemologists, correlationists and subjectivists by default. Sometimes I’m successful in pulling them around to the ontological questions, but there is a real tendency for them to (a) engage in the epistemic fallacy and (b) wholeheartedly embrace various kinds of correlationism when asked to reflect on metaphysics. I realise that this could easily balloon into a very big topic, namely how one teaches OOO, but any thoughts would be much appreciated.

In many respects I believe that correlationism is the spontaneous ideology of our time. It is so deeply ingrained in our thought that whenever questions of what being is are raised we immediately gravitate towards questions of how we perceive or know beings. Here the Marxist in me wants to link the correlationist way of thinking to the rise of capitalism and the information revolution (is it a mistake that the correlationist argument largely finds its seeds in the 17th century?), though I’ll save this analysis for another day. If I had the courage to do it, I think I would do something similar to what Bateson describes doing in one of his classes in Mind and Nature.

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Last week Nate of What in the Hell suggested to me that we both experiment with the 21 Questions Youtube video in our classroom and compare notes. I haven’t yet gotten a chance to look at the video Nate referenced but this got me thinking. With this medium we now have the technology to collaborate in teaching. Not only is it possible to assign texts that we would like to read together, but it is actually possible for us to design assignments that make use of the internet so that our students might collaborate with one another. Over at Perverse Egalitarianism the Braver reading group has, I believe, been a tremendous success. If I have not participated in that discussion it is because I have already been coded in a particular way such that I would be unproductive to the discussion itself and such that my views, honest as they are intended to be, would be characterized in a less than charitable or productive way. Nonetheless, the Braver reading group has shown that such forms of engagement are possible. Why not take it to the next level and develop courses together in tandem that would read one text together over the course of the semester. I am not suggesting that the entire course should share the same texts, but simply a single text. It would be possible to set up either wiki groups or yahoo groups that students would join so that they would be required to interact with one another across the country or the world, enhancing the entire learning experience through collaborative debate and investigation of both the text itself and the topics that the text generates. Simultaneously, faculty would be able to coordinate texts that they want to study or read in greater detail, generating potential conferences, journal issues, or edited collections with one another. This would be an effective technique both in generating shared research and new pedagogical approaches. Ultimately I would be interested in seeing an interdisciplinary approach to such “team teaching”. While I deeply value Nate’s thought and envy his grounding in Marxist thought, I think that such a pedagogical experiment would be most productive if somehow it could meld philosophy and lit courses, philosophy and sociology courses, philosophy and history courses, and so on. My desire is to learn from my colleagues in other disciplines: their research methods, their ways of posing questions, their ways of gathering evidences, their evidences and so on. This is one of the reasons that my experience teaching with Jerry the Anthropologist was so productive in my own thought and pedagogy. At any rate, it would be possible to form a collective where we form collaborative networks from semester to semester or every other semester or every couple of years, where we parcel up experiments and texts and form these networks. Ultimately our students benefit by being drawn into discussions with those outside of their local geography and engaging in discussions from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives. From a Marxist perspective such a pedagogy would be an element in the process of moving beyond the ghettoized university system to a more global sort of discourse, much like what we’ve already been doing here in the theory web where we’ve already been forming our own discourses, questions, trends, journals, publication projects, movements, and presses. Some of us have discussed the possibility of forming another EGS. This would be a step in that direction.

levi_bryant-017Okay, I couldn’t resist… Here is one of my latest publicity photos for the College. Yes, I’m a narcissistic cat. It’s entirely okay and understandable if you swoon.

Now on to the substantive issues. Right now we are reading Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brains? for my intro to philosophy course. Although the students say that the materially becomes clearer to them after the class lectures, a few have approached me expressing difficulties with understanding the material as they read it. This came as something of a surprise to me as I think Malabou is an exceptionally clear writer as far as philosopher’s go. On the other hand, philosophy is something one certainly has to learn how to read. Moreover, it is likely that apart from literature courses, philosophy is probably one of the first courses a student encounters where they are required to read primary texts rather than textbooks. Given that people are reading less and less as they grow up, it is likely that reading primary texts, especially of a theoretical nature, is especially challenging.

Some students have asked for tips on how to read the material. Given that there are a lot of brains around these parts, I was wondering what practical and concrete advice other educators might have regarding “how to read”. What tips do you give your students to assist them in gaining access to texts?

The time is quickly approaching for me to order Fall semester books for my Intro to Philosophy courses. Next Fall I would like to shake things up and rather than teaching texts exclusively from the history of philosophy, teach more contemporary texts. So far I am thinking about Catherine Malabou’s wonderful little book What Should We Do With Our Brains? and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I would like to do something on the intersection of contemporary physics and philosophy, but try as I might, nothing comes to mind beyond Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World and DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (the latter, I think, being a bit too complicated for first time undergrads). Do readers have any suggestions?

spinozaFor the last two semesters I have been teaching, after previous failed attempts, Part 1 and Part 3 of Spinoza’s Ethics in my Intro to Philosophy courses. Much to my surprise compared to previous experience, it has been a pleasure to teach this text this time around. In the past, I think, the failure of my attempts to teach it was due to starting at the very beginning. Jumping straight into the Ethics from page 1 is very likely doomed to failure as Spinoza gives no overarching account as to what he’s attempting to do, but rather simply assaults his reader with a series of definitions and propositions without explaining why he’s beginning where he’s beginning or what he wishes to demonstrate. The trick is to instead begin with the appendix to Part 1. On the one hand, the first sentence of Part 1 summarizes what he believes he has demonstrated about the nature of God, while the remainder of the appendix– a beautiful critique of superstition –outlines the consequences that follow from this understanding of God and God’s relationship to its creatures. In this way the reader is given something like a thesis, helping to guide him through the text.

This semester, rather than teaching Spinoza at the end of the semester, I chose to begin with the Ethics. In part I chose to do this because Spinoza– even where he fails –give such a gorgeous model of deductive argument coupled with careful explanation. One of the things I find about my students is that they simply don’t know what an argument is. Beginning with Spinoza would therefore give me the opportunity to discuss the nature of argument, the distinction between inductive and deductive arguments, the relationship between premises and conclusions, what it means to make inferences, and so on. Spinoza’s thought is particularly suited to this end not only stylistically (his famous “geometric method” where the relationship between premises and conclusions is clearly laid out), but also in the sheer integrity of his thought. By “integrity” I am here referring to something like “deductive fidelity”, where one sides not with intuition or “common sense”, but with what is deductively entailed by the premises of ones arguments. Take the example of Spinoza’s infamous parallelism. Clearly parallelism or the idea that the order and connection among thought is the same as the order and connection among objects is a deeply counter-intuitive view. However, Spinoza is led to this position by claims he has already demonstrated in Part 1, namely the lack of anything in common between different attributes. Rather than hedging and claiming that thought can affect bodies and bodies can affect thought, Spinoza squarely accepts the implications of his claims about attributes and develops its implications (I do not, of course, endorse Spinoza’s parallelism, but nonetheless admire his deductive fidelity).

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040830-grammarA while back someone tagged me– I can’t remember who, but seem to recall it was Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism –with the question of what new practices I plan to implement in the classroom this year. At the time I didn’t respond because I was in the midst of my depression and could barely bring myself to read, much less write. Reflecting on this semester, however, a few things, while not entirely interesting, come to mind.

corrosion02Since I have begun teaching, one of my absolute passions has been eradicating the words “opinion”, “feeling”, and “belief” from the vocabulary of my students. Few thinks irk me more than reading these words in a student essay or hearing them enunciated in class. In and of themselves, of course, these words are perfectly serviceable. However, in a Wittgensteinian sense, there is a grammar behind these words that is on the one hand a defense against entertaining claims, and on the other hand corrosive to critical thought. The student will remark, “It is Plato’s opinion that…”, “Nietzsche felt…”, “Saint Thomas believed that…”, etc. Why are these locutions forms of defense against thought and corrosive to critical thinking? The common thread behind these forms of enunciation is that they detach claims from grounds by which these claims are arrived at. In other words, when a claim is treated in terms of the signifiers “belief”, “opinion”, or “feeling”, it becomes like the famous smile of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat detached from the body of the cat, floating about of its own accord.cheshire65 As a consequence, the person can then conveniently ignore any of the reasoning or grounds that lead to the claim, rendering themselves immune to any argument supporting the conclusion or claim.

In short, since “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, and since “everyone has their own beliefs”, the student can then set their own opinions in opposition to the philosopher claiming “while Leibniz believes x, I believe y, so I don’t agree with Leibniz.” Here their own views are protected behind an impenetrable fortress and need never be challenged or subjected to any sort of critical scrutiny. Given that one opinion is as good as another, the student can continue to cleave comfortably to their prior beliefs without entering into any sort of becoming. Everything remains the same. Not coincidentally, I find that those students who most vigorously use the language of “opinion”, “belief”, “feeling”, “perspective”, or “perception”, are also the ones who tend to do the worst in my class. The reason for this is that they inevitably end up summarizing the “opinions” of the philosopher– “Spinoza believed that God and the world are one and the same” –without analyzing the arguments by which the philosopher arrives at his position. Everything thus remains at the superficial level of an inventory of the philosopher’s “opinions”, without any examination of just what line of reasoning leads the philosopher to such a conclusion.

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spinozaFor the last week I have been in the midst of a terrible cold and grading, both of which have conspired to make me exceedingly grumpy and do little more than sleep. In these conditions there is, as Spinoza recognized, a tendency of the mind to lash out against things unrelated to the efficient cause of the illness. As Spinoza puts it in proposition 13 of part III of the Ethics, “When the mind thinks of those things that diminish or check the body’s power of activity, it endeavors, as far as it can, to call to mind those things that exclude the existence of the former.” In and of itself, this wouldn’t be a problem if it led to things such as resting, taking vitamins, and taking medicine.

However, as Spinoza points out in the first two postulates of part III of the Ethics, 1) “The human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or diminished; and also in many other ways, which neither increase nor diminish its power of activity” and 2) “The human body can undergo many changes and nevertheless retain impressions or traces of objects and consequently the same images of things.” It is the phenomena described by the second postulate that gives rise to problems where our relation to the world is concerned. Spinoza contends that,

…our approach to the understanding of the nature of things of every kind should likewise be one and the same; namely, through the universal laws and rules of Nature. Therefore the emotions of hatred, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow the same necessity and force of Nature as all other particular things. So these emotions are assignable to definite causes through which they can be understood, and have definite properties, equally deserving of our investigation as the properties of any other thing, whose mere contemplation affords us pleasure. (Preface, Part III)

While it is indeed the case that, as Spinoza argues, the mind and emotions are not something outside of nature and independent of nature, following no laws of nature, the traces or impressions left on the body through its various encounters with objects introduces an additional level of causal complication to the functioning of mind (as Freud noted so well in his early Project essay and “Notes on a Mystic Writing Pad”), preventing us from positing a one to one cause and effect relation between objects and how a body reacts to objects. Rather, the interaction between the body and object passes through the network of traces left in the body, complicating the response to the encounter with the object. This, in part, would account for why we so often are ignorant of the efficient cause of our passions. No doubt this explains, in part, why Deleuze was so profoundly interested in Bergson’s theory of memory and the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious, where the latter is composed of “writing” or traces.

hitchcock_vertigo_2Roughly speaking, the problem then arises from the fact that objects can resemble one another while having very different causal properties in relation to the body. Thus, on the one hand, Spinoza remarks that “the mind, as far as it can, endeavors to think of those things that increase or assist the body’s power of activity” (Prop 12, Part III). In a state of sickness we can hypothesize that the mind strives to conceive of those things that would increase or enhance the body’s power of acting. However, because the sickness resides in the body, the mind casts about for some way to externalize this sickness. Thus, as Spinoza puts it a bit later, “from the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have something similar to an object that is wont to affect the mind with pleasure or pain, we shall love it or hate it, although the point if similarity is not the efficient cause of these emotions” (Prop. 16, Part III). Here, then, we would have an account of why the ill are often led to lash out at those about them. What takes place is that those about them are treated as the efficient cause of their sad passions, such that the mind endeavors to destroy this mistaken cause so as to return to health. If this externalization of the cause takes place, then this is in a vain attempt to gain some mastery or control over that which causes the pain in the sickness. Such is an elaborate rationalization for grumpiness when in a state of sickness. It is odd how everything in the world begins to look menacing and like an assault when the mind is in a fog and the body aches (here, perhaps, it would be appropriate to look at Heidegger’s account of affects and how they color the world).

All of this aside, I was pleasantly surprised as I read over the final quizzes of my students this morning. The theme of my intro courses this semester was God, the infinite, and religion. Over the course of the semester we read Lucretius, Leibniz, and Spinoza. Now, living outside of Dallas, Texas I am in the heart of the apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist movement, so I had some worries about teaching Lucretius and Spinoza. At the end of the semester I always give my students a few questions that pertain to their experience of the readings. On the one hand, I ask them which philosopher they found most interesting and why. On the other hand, I ask them to name at least one idea, argument, or concept that challenged their beliefs in some way without necessarily leading them to endorse the particular position in question. Much to my surprise the students were nearly unanimous in claiming that they found Spinoza to be the most interesting of the philosophers we studied. Again and again they remarked that they had never entertained the thought of God and nature being one and the same thing, that God creates all that God can create by virtue of his infinity and nature as absolute affirmation (unlike Leibniz’s God that chooses among worlds), and that God does not act according to purposes or goals.

While most of the students did not come to endorse Spinoza’s position (which is not the aim of the course, anyway), most of the students remarked that the course readings had led them to significantly revise their religious beliefs, and a number of the students remarked that they would never again be able to think of natural disasters as punishments from God or think of prayer as a way of gaining favor from God. One very devout student put it nicely, remarking that where before he thought of the aim of prayer as gaining benefit from prayer, he now saw the value of prayer as pertaining to the person himself, engaged in prayer (e.g., prayer leads one to meditate on the ways in which they are fortunate, to resolve internal conflicts, to meditate on solutions to their various problems, etc). In addition to this, a number of the students remarked that they no longer saw the study of nature and their religion as being in conflict to one another. However, what pleased me most as how many students expressed admiration for the rigor and clarity of Spinoza’s argumentation. Having struggled over questions of the way in which reason gets imbricated with the passions for years, this, above all, shocked me given the cultural context in which I teach.

Back to grading.

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