Sunday, September 11, 2016

Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies Fellowship

I have begun my term as a Fellow at Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. My primary undertaking here will consist in continuing to work on my book project on Herodotus and political theory. Here is a link to a long description of my project. The first paragraph gives an effective overview:

How can social science research support and advance democracy and democratic citizenship? In this project, I turn to Herodotus, perhaps the world’s first social scientist, to reconstruct how his approach to social inquiry contributed to democratic projects in the ancient world and might also offer an alternative to today’s paradigms. Herodotus’s Histories, I argue, model a form of inquiry dedicated to improving the people’s capacity to rule and be ruled in turn and promise a social science that empowers free and democratic regimes to develop self-supporting regimes of truth and forms of inquiry. The example of Herodotus can thus provide us with an approach to research where inquiry and political education mutually support one another as well as sustain the broader political community in which they take place.

This fall I will focus on working out these ideas through an essay on Herodotus and democracy for the forthcoming volume Democratic Moments (part of the Textual Moments in the History of Political Thought series published by Bloomsbury), edited by Xavier Marquez; an article on "Herodotean Materialism" (a draft of which I will present at the University of Virginia's Political Theory Colloquium) that takes up new materialism and shows the strange usefulness of Herodotus to this contemporary discourse; an article on freedom in Herodotus, which I will present at the Northeastern Political Science Association annual conference in Boston; and an essay on the political economy of inhabitation developed by Herodotus, which I plan to present at the Center for Hellenic Studies in December.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The History of Political Thought: Looking Back at the Year

This year I had the great pleasure of teaching a sequence of courses in the history of political thought: “Ancient and Early Modern Political Philosophy” in the fall and “Modern Political Philosophy” this spring. Even better, nine students took both courses, creating a terrific group of youthful political philosophers dedicated to the “big questions” of political philosophy and conversant with writers from Herodotus to Frantz Fanon.

I still have my doubts about the adequacy of the canon, but I had a little faith restored this year. Witnessing how students not only responded to these great books but took them up with vitality and excitement reminded me why such courses exist. Contemporary writers such as Charles Taylor or Shulamith Firestone simply mean more when one has worked through Marx. The student of ancient political philosophy’s politeia can discern the fallaciousness of the liberal-communitarian debate as it’s typically posed. A serious reader of the Stoics sees anarchism as part of a tradition of political critique insisting on the integrity of the individual rather than just one more radical movement.

I ended the courses this year with some outstanding work by Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson on indigenous refusal and interruption that also called attention to the often silent externalities of modern political theory, namely the “other” against which the state has consistently defined itself. Grappling with “the politics of recognition” through Fanon, Taylor, Honneth, Fraser, Coulthard, and Simpson, students confronted colonialism as an ongoing set of situations that complicate liberal stories of inclusion but also don’t admit easy answers. Students had their liberal inclinations challenged. They came to reflect on their complicity and participation in the regimes of settler colonialism.

That said, I think I ended this semester a little too much on the anarchist note, leaving students without a strong enough argument on the other side. Anarchism was far more popular than I predicted. Even Emma Goldman’s condemnation of women’s suffrage, which I thought would repel many students, became a defense of radical politics writ large. While Joel Olson’s terrific Abolition of White Democracy moved our conversation toward participatory democratic politics, anti-institutional sentiment overshadowed him.

I had as a goal this year to include more space and time for reflection in my history of political thought courses. Too often I have emphasized learning content over integrating the questions and ideas of this content into students’ preexisting beliefs. I want political philosophy to matter to one’s political beliefs and dispositions. I have found that worrying about what a course “covers” leads students to view learning as a matter of ingesting information. This can often end up providing more arguments to rationalize students’ unreflective principles without actually interrogating them.

How to encourage deep reflection? One strategy for encouraging reflection used “big questions” to place students as thinkers in conversation with the texts of the course. (I described this in a previous post.) This semester we used barometers and silent discussions (described in pervious posts) as well.  Yet above all else, I found that building strong relationships with individual students helped to promote the kind of reflection I sought. As I came to know students across the semester and the year, I could raise questions and elicit deeper self-reflection about their commitments in ways that would be simply impossible in large lecture courses where students remain anonymous to the instructor.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Teaching Research at Bryn Mawr

Seniors have commenced, grades are submitted, and now I’ve begun to reflect on everything that has happened during the past four months. The semester was full but rewarding. Perhaps most notably, I experimented with some new approaches to teaching research skills and supervising theses. While not all my experiments went perfectly, I was pleased to see strong results and I hope to continue to innovate in these areas.

Teaching research skills

Along with the Social Sciences Librarian Olivia Castello, I developed a new research component in my course The Power of the People. Olivia and I sought to introduce students to the idea of a research conversation, the discussion scholars have with one another through their scholarship, and to equip students with the skills to discover and explicate one of these conversations. We did this through staging research and writing projects alongside explicit instruction about finding library materials, using databases, and creating bibliographies.

Here’s a photo of students on their library Scavenger Hunt.

The students embraced this project, choosing topics from how local tribal governance and democracy interact in Ghana to democracy and social media to Latino/a voters and participation in the United States. I loved how students surprised me with their creative explorations of democratic theory in a variety of contexts and from unpredictable angles. And I think the exhilarating discoveries of research surprised the students even as they developed confidence about their abilities to make sense of complicated scholarly work.

Senior Theses

I also supervised eight senior theses this semester on themes such as civil society in China, religion and anarchism, and “the political death assemblage.” This year I experimented with an accountability method of advising that worked very well. At the beginning of the semester students committed to their goals for the semester: how much time they could devote to the thesis; to what degree they wanted to prioritize the thesis; and whether or not “done was good” or they were striving for a graduate school-worthy academic product. I found it extremely helpful to know from students up front about their goals; this also allowed me to push (or encourage) them in the appropriate ways.

After our initial meeting, two groups of four students each met with me once a week for an hour. At the beginning of each meeting, students described how well they had met their goals in the previous week and what obstacles they had encountered. I recorded their progress in a Moodle forum. Once we had checked in, I opened the floor for questions. If I had read drafts recently, I would also use this time to respond to any general issues that were appearing. At the end of the meeting students would commit to how much time (how many hours on what specific days) they would devote to the thesis in the coming week as well as what concrete tasks they wished to accomplish.

Student response to these accountability sessions was strong. I was struck by just how difficult students found the activity: committing to specific times in the coming week helped to highlight how many events could interfere with completing one’s work, from the needs of people in their dorm to midterms in another course; students just like most adults never have enough time for everything they want to do, let alone those things they may not want to do but must. But so much of the challenge of independent research lies in just this kind of time management; if the students learned anything, I think they learned this.

The theses themselves were in general stronger than last year’s. More importantly, the stress levels seemed lower. I saved time explaining the same basic questions to student after student in one-on-one meetings; our small groups also found ways to support one another – even if this was group lamentation of the “academy of misery” – even while undertaking very different projects.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Updated "Research Description"

I have updated the description of my Research under the heading above to include more about my projects since the publication of What Would Socrates Do? Enjoy!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

New from Theory & Event: "The Polis Artist"

I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my article on Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and the politics of literature in Theory & Event. Here is the abstract:

Recent work on literature and political theory has focused on reading literature as a reflection of the damaged conditions of contemporary political life. Examining Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, this essay develops an alternative approach to the politics of literature that attends to the style and form of the novel. The form and style of Cosmopolis emphasize the novel’s own dissonance with the world it criticizes; they moreover suggest a politics of poetic world-making intent on eliciting collective agency over the commonness of language. As a “polis artist,” DeLillo does not determine a particular politics but shapes the conditions and spaces of political life with an eye toward alternative futures.

If you would like a PDF of the final version, send me an email.

While the Herodotus project has continued to percolate, I have given a good deal of energy to this project on political theory and literature. Building on my article “Socrates in a Different Key: James Baldwin as Black American Socrates,” I've been interested in contemporary American literature and its relationship to democracy. In three essays substantially revised and drafted since coming to Bryn Mawr, I've explored how literature not only figures democratic deficits of various kinds – legitimation crises, absences and silences in ethical life, pathologies inherent to the experience of freedom, and so forth – but also how literature responds to these deficits, how it intervenes in the very problems it diagnoses. On my reading, writers like DeLillo and Joan Didion not only share an epoch of recent history; they also share a reflexivity about the work of literature (and writing more generally) in this epoch. I see this commonality in their attention to form, compression, and the language codes and keywords of their times; these aspects of their writing suggest modes of political work entailed by their literary practice.

At this spring's meeting of the Western Political Science Association, I will present another essay in this series, examining the poetics of citizenship in contemporary American poetry.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Spring 2016 Courses

The semester approaches and I have drafted new versions of my "Modern Political Philosophy" course as well as a democratic theory course entitled "The Power of the People." I'm also supervising eight outstanding thesis writers in the Political Science department, so it will be a busy winter and spring!

In "Modern Political Philosophy" (draft syllabus here) I'm teaching Adam Smith for the first time as well as devoting a few weeks to colonialism, multiculturalism, and the politics of recognition with readings from Frantz Fanon, Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Audra Simpson, and Glen Coulthard. When I taught a course on capitalism at Deep Springs a few years ago I first recognized the proximity of Smith and Marx; teaching them in succession leads students to see how much the latter emerges from the former and thus how communism can really follow from capitalism. My addition of readings around questions of recognition also stems from the last time I taught "Modern Political Philosophy" at Bryn Mawr when I saw how much students wanted to think more about multiculturalism and issues of identity in diverse societies. Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks is so brilliant and my experience teaching that as a prelude to work on contemporary work (in my Hegel and the Politics of Recognition course at Deep Springs in Spring 2014) showed its effectiveness in opening up these questions even to students insulated from the struggle for recognition.

"The Power of the People" (draft syllabus here) examines democracy and democratic theory with a special emphasis on deliberative democracy. This course owes a lot to conversations with two of my good friends from graduate school and especially David McIvor, who taught a very similar course at Colorado State last year. I'm excited to teach contemporary work by folks like Danielle Allen and Jeffrey Stout as students consider what democracy could mean beyond national elections, both at the grassroots level in the United States as well as around the world. I'm also experimenting with a critical literature review aimed at helping students to join the research conversation about democracy so that they can contribute to (and popularize) this work.

I will post final versions of these syllabi in the coming week under Teaching.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Further reflections on the fall

Reflecting on the two courses I taught during fall 2015, I've come to realize the importance of another part of my teaching: the book club that I helped to organize and facilitate in a Philadelphia prison. Every Friday I and two of my colleagues along with seven or eight of our students from Bryn Mawr's "Arts of Resistance" 360 Cluster (website) traveled to northeast Philadelphia to a women's prison where we read and discussed books together for ninety minutes. We read Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," the Seamus Heaney translation of Antigone ("The Burial at Thebes"), John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers," and some other short pieces. The books constituted our curriculum: students took turns preparing "lessons," which usually consisted in questions and activities to stimulate discussion; we left a great deal of space for the conversation to emerge and develop in the most organic way possible. ("Organic" insofar as we're still talking about a particular kind of hot house, one surfeited with "artifices" of domination and oppression, inequality and difference.)

I'm still making sense of this learning community but it's cast different light on some of my criticisms of conventional colleges and universities. For one, the degree of freedom -- to study, to discuss, to experiment with one's life -- at American colleges and universities amazes me. For another, the way that ideas circulate in material terms through texts and the special pleasures of these texts, pleasures one does not fully recognize until they're lost or, as in my case, witnessed anew when the incarcerated people took the books we gave them and came to treasure them -- this astounds and impresses me.

Most of all, I'm struck by how the lack of a powerful reality principle -- the narrowing and focusing that the career mentality imposes on all students to varying degree -- changes the tenor of a learning community like the one in the prison. Here we were in a situation of radical unfreedom and yet I and my Haverford and Bryn Mawr students often felt freer than we felt in any classroom. It was a playful and imaginative space devoid of posturing and the dynamics of reputation and shame. I kept (and keep) wondering: Why can't we have something like this without having these horrific institutions of incarceration? And how can we bring together folks from such different places and with such different stories for something like this -- a simple book club, yes, but also a space for genuine reflection and dialogue untethered to any specific politics or collective decision?