Saturday, April 13, 2013

Vertical Art

An article in the BBC today reports that Google's CEO Eric Schmidt wants greater regulation of civilian drones.

If I were more cynical I would imagine that the CEO of a search firm would like to limit civilian surveillance so that searches for visual information has to be channeled through a firm that specializes in searches.  Fortunately, I am not very cynical.

Instead, I'm feeling quite charitable.  Since I also recently read that piloting a drone is boring work,  I think we should start new public art projects for the benefit of those doing surveillance.  Until recently, we have viewed ourselves horizontally: we care about how we look from the ground, from eye-level.  Maybe we should start to care more about how we look from the bird's-eye-level.

We could start with rooftop art, and move up to something like new Nazca Lines.  Then all those drone pilots and satellite image analysts could have something more interesting to look at.  Art is good for us.  Rather than asking "who is watching the watchmen?" let's ask "what are the watchmen watching?"  We should give them something worth seeing.  I'm going to start by planting flowers.

Yeah, but what does the roof look like?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hid In My Heart

Before my friend's father died, he had a stroke that left him mostly without words for a few weeks.  His near-total aphasia left little intact, but there were some words that came out readily.  My friend's dad had been a pastor, and when his faculty of speech left him, the words of his prayers, of the scriptures, and of the hymns and psalms were all that remained.  Daily habit of repetition had ingrained them in his heart, too deep to be erased by the stroke.

On his blog, Kelly Dean Jolley has an icon of St Mark the Ascetic, or St Mark the Wrestler, that Jolley has kindly allowed me to include here.  In his hands St Mark holds a scroll that reads "Thy word have I hid within my heart."  Those words are from the 119th Psalm, a long poem about scripture.

When I was in college, my French professor Charles Nunley required me to memorize a new poem every week.  Every week or two I'd go to his office and he would name one of the poems I'd learned and expect me to recite it, and then to discuss it.  I'm not a great memorizer, so it was painful work, but I've been grateful for the discipline every year since then.  It is a gift to have verses hidden in my heart.

I am reminded of Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she heard what the shepherds were saying.  Luke tells us that she "treasured these things in her heart," which I take to mean that she heard them, and then put them in that front room of her memory, the palm and fingertips of the mind where we touch and explore and consider ideas, turning them over and over again.

Well, this is what I do with treasured verses, anyway.  Like I said, I'm a poor memorizer.  But when I work at it, I hold the verses at mind's-eye level and gaze at them, running my inner eye down the length of them repeatedly, considering the way the grain moves and feeling the heft of the words until the grooves of my mind fit the notches of the words like a key.  Because I hope that what I have hid in my heart will be like the Brothers Grimm's "Golden Key," which opens...well, I had better not tell you.  Read it for yourself.

I wonder - when the great grinding erasure of time scrubs away at my memories, what will be left?  What grooves in my grain will be too deep to scrape away?  What treasures, what verses, what songs of my species will be buried too deep in my heart for the thief of time to steal?

Surveillance and Virtue

The recent news that a no-fly zone was enacted over the site of the Exxon tar sands pipeline spill in Arkansas is in line with the movement in state legislatures to make it a crime to record animal cruelty, even when it is plainly in the public interest to do so.  I recently learned it is a crime to film trains carrying nuclear waste, leading me to wonder how I'm supposed to know what any given train is carrying.  So taking a family photo while a train passes in the distant background could be a felony?  Bizarre.

These are signs that our technology is racing ahead of us.  It is easier to create new machines for surveillance than it is to devise a set of rules for ethical use of those machines. The problem of Google Glass is not something altogether new; but the technology sharpens the ethical issues: can I wear it in the locker room at the gym?  Can I wear it while talking with the police, or border guards?  Can I wear it at a party where co-workers are drinking?

The problem of drones is similar: we have increased our ability to watch others without being watched.  As Foucault observed, this is one of the main functions of the prison, a relatively modern invention.  The prison is an architectural technology that allows us to watch over our fellow citizens without having them watch us.

Be kind; love one another.
 The technology is helpful, and it's not patently evil.  Information is power, we are told, and everyone likes power.  But we should remember the Ring.  The Ring of Gyges, or the One Ring of Tolkien, either one will do; in both stories, the ability to observe while unobserved, this ultimate and total camouflage, is too much power.  And there is some truth to the dictum that power corrupts.

We are unlikely to slow our own technological progress, so we must devote equal energy and resources to ethical reasoning and to ethical living. Here is where I suggest we start:

First, if you're ashamed of someone seeing what your community is doing, don't do it.  It is one thing to protect trademarked secrets and patented methods of production, to enjoy the economic benefits of one's creativity. But if your reason for concealing your business process is that you know I won't buy your product if I know how it's made, you deserve to be exposed because you are manipulating me by concealing information that would affect my decisions.

Second, devote yourself to respecting the privacy and dignity of others.  Do this not just for others, but for yourself.  We know ourselves to be less than we wish we were; and we know that the social impulse is balanced in our species by a desire to do some things alone, unobserved, or only in intimate company. To expose those things unbidden is to dominate.  It is crass, and unkind. If you do not respect others, the technologies of surveillance will become your Ring, and you will destroy your own soul.

At times these two principles will be in conflict with one another - underscoring the importance of continued ethical reasoning.  We can't simply fall back on facile rules.  We have got to keep thinking, and thinking hard, together.  The simple principles, however, can provide a good place to start: do not attempt to dominate or destroy others. Put positively: love one another. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

All The Mountains Are Underground Here

Sunset over the Yellowstone River
Perpetual Motion

As the sun sets it sends its last rays shooting up from below the horizon to illuminate the undersides of contrails, the warp and weft of high-altitude aircraft that have crushed the air before them and left a trail of disturbance behind to mark their racing progress.

I myself am a frequent traveler.  My far-flung family and my work as an educator, writer, and lecturer mean I am often in airports.  At those times, I am mostly concerned with making my next flight.  But when I gaze at the evening sky from my kitchen window and see the silver lines glowing over the setting sun, I wonder: where are we going?  And why are we in such a hurry to get there?

Mise En Place

I recently read an interview with Scott Russell Sanders in the Englewood Review of Books.  In it Sanders talks about the virtue of living in one place for a long time, of "Staying Put."

We Americans seem to be constantly on the move.  We began as a nation of movers, and we have filled a continent by our frenetic motion.

When I took the job I currently have, my wife and I were moving to a part of the world we'd never even visited, the prairies of the upper midwest.  We knew nobody here, had no roots here.  We left our home and friends and family to find work, and we thought it would be a temporary assignment, a sojourn from which we would return to the place where we, like seeds from a tree, first fell to earth.

Little by little I am coming to think I am not on a sojourn here but am a transplant.


I long for the mountains and clear streams of my youth.  But when I think of myself as a temporary resident, I find it harder to put down taproots that can drink deeply from the waters that flow far underground.

The danger?  Plants with shallow roots cannot weather droughts as well as those with deep roots.  By analogy, as we commit ourselves to the place we live in, the more strength we can draw from that place.

And plants with taproots are good for the soil, too.  They break the hard clay and bore holes into which the rain can sink deeply.  Behold the lowly dandelion, the maker of topsoil.  If I sink roots here, I'll make it more likely that my community will benefit from my presence. 

This sinking of roots is hard to do. It can be hard because the culture may be different, for instance.  Eight years into this gig, I still struggle with midwestern indirect communication, and with the very, very slow process of getting to know native midwesterners.

Weaving Our Hearts

Of course, being surrounded by others who are also on the move makes it hard, too.  When I was in grad school one of our neighbors, Lisa, told us she could not be our friend because she knew we were only there for five years.  We shared a backyard, and our children played together, but Lisa knew that too many times she had allowed her roots to grow into the lives of other mobile academics, and when they were uprooted, so was her heart.  It hurt to hear her tell us that, but who could blame her? 

And it is hard for me not to be near mountains. Sometimes, gazing out that kitchen window in the summertime I see great thunderheads low on the western horizon, gathering strength as they roll across the prairie towards Sioux Falls.  My heart so longs for the mountains that nearly every time I see those thunderclouds I let myself believe for an instant that they are solid mountains, not ephemeral, gauzy clouds.  I would sooner believe in a cataclysmic upheaval of the earth than believe I am without mountains forever.

Sometimes people here try to comfort me by telling me that here, in this same state, we have the Black Hills.  I know they mean well, and I know it's a point of pride for them, but those mountains are over three hundred and fifty miles away.  I cannot see them from here, and for some reason, that matters. It's like telling a hungry person to take heart, because somewhere else, somewhere not here, there is a banquet.  It only makes the pangs sharper.

The Mountains Underground

My heart leans towards the mountains, but for today - the only day I have any control over, and a limited control, at that - I am trying to turn my feet into roots.
A picture of my heart: my boys, and mountains beneath them.

Years ago, when I was working in Poland, a friend brought me to a place called Tarnowska Góra.  There's a silver mine under fairly flat ground there.  Knowing that góra means "mountain," I asked her "Gdzie jest góra? Where is the mountain?"  She smiled, and pointed down at her feet.  "Underground," she said.

This is the image I am trying to cultivate: here there are mountains, too, but like the hidden thoughts of coy midwesterners, they are concealed by the superficial appearances.

These mountains under the prairie are not the Adirondacks of New York, or the bold Catskills fringing the Hudson River, whose heights cannot be avoided.  They are not the Sangre de Cristo mountains or the Green Mountains or the Alleghenies, each of which have been my home, places where my children were born and raised.  These subterranean mountains wait quietly beneath, supporting all things evenly, deeply rooted, immovable.  I cannot gauge their height with my eye; I must measure it patiently, with my feet, by walking the slow prairie, by standing still.  And, perhaps, though my heart is not yet ready to accept it, by letting my body one day be buried here, adding my small mass to these mountains, raising them incrementally by the simple height of my dormant bones.

But that is for another day.  Today, I will walk, and let my feet learn to feel the mountains below.

Scientia Cordis

Bear with me for a moment while I speak in Latin.  This is a passage Charles Peirce cites in several places:

"Maximi plane cordis est, per omnia ad dialecticum confugere, quia confugere ad eam ad rationem est confugere, quo qui non confugit, cum secundum rationem sit factus ad imaginem Dei, suum honorem reliquit, nec potest renovari de die in diem ad imaginem Dei."  
Berengar, De Sacra Caena. Cited in Charles Peirce, Collected Papers, 1.30.  From "The Spirit of Scholasticism," in the first of his 1869 Harvard lectures.  Peirce also cites this passage in his essay entitled "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed For Man."
(My quick translation:  "Clearly it is [a characteristic] of the greatest kind of heart always to seek refuge in dialectic, for to seek refuge in dialectic is to seek refuge in reason; so whoever does not seek that refuge - having been made in the image of God according to reason - abandons his honor, and cannot be renewed from day to day in God's image.")
For Peirce, the genius of Berengar (or Berengarius) lay in pointing out that authority itself must rest on reason, a view that must have seemed "opinionated, impious, and absurd" in his day. (Peirce, Collected Papers, 5.215)

The standard view of logic was that all premises in logic were either derived from other syllogisms, or from authority.  Since syllogisms are made up of premises, it must follow that if we trace our arguments back far enough, all our beliefs must ultimately rest on some authority.  This would seem to prove that those who maintain the religious authority are best suited to resolve disputes.

Berengar argued, in his disputation with Lanfranc, that it is through the use of our reason that we imitate God and, in that imitation, are maintained and made new in that image.  In simpler terms, if you believe you were made by God, then use the mind God gave you.  Dialectic - reason in conversation with itself or with others - is a divinely-given place of refuge from error and confusion.  This doesn't mean reason can't go awry; it's just a reminder that giving up on reasoning is not as pious as it might seem at first. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Should I Go To Grad School In The Humanities?

I have a great job.  But it's not one I encourage others to pursue.

While I'm not getting rich (humanities jobs at small liberal arts colleges are like that) I've got pretty good job security, and a great work environment.  My job offers:
  • Stimulating work.  I'm paid to teach smart young people to think on their toes, and I'm expected to think, read, and write about cutting-edge ideas in philosophy;
  • Flexible hours. Some of my work, like grading and preparing lectures, I can do wherever I want;
  • Great co-workers. I'm surrounded by brilliant people, most of whom love teaching, and nearly all of whom love learning.  Sitting around a coffee-shop with just a handful of my colleagues is like going back to graduate school.  I learn from them all the time;
  • Opportunities for self-improvement.  In fact, if I'm not constantly learning, I'm falling behind.  I get to take students abroad, to learn new languages, to read new books, to listen to lectures - it's a great way to stay sharp;
  • Considerable autonomy.  For instance, I write my own lectures, and I design my own syllabi; and
  • The joy of seeing students grow.  
That last one is huge, by the way.  My job can be stressful, but it's also full of joy.

Even so, I'm reluctant to encourage anyone to follow in my footsteps.  While I enjoy a great work environment, the road here was long and the rewards are largely immaterial. Consider this:
  • Grad school is not a simple matter.  It's hard to get in, and while it is often fun, it can be both difficult and stressful. I was in grad school for seven years, most of the time earning minimum wage.
  • Similarly, Getting hired after grad school is also not simple. The academic hiring cycle can be quite long.  Academics tend to take a long time to vet our colleagues, so the time between applying for a job and getting your first paycheck is commonly close to a year.  If you're not hired right away, it can be multiple years.
  • This is because there aren't that many jobs in the humanities.  The number of tenure-track jobs is diminishing in many fields.  The humanities seem especially susceptible to being cut when budgets are tight.  I suppose this is in part because the benefits of the humanities are communal, not just individual.  The individual poet or bassoonist may not get rich by making her art, but the culture is enriched by her presence.  We're all better off for having good storytellers, teachers, and artists, and they usually love their work. Which makes it easy to underpay them, or to fire them when things get tight.   
  • The tenure track is stressful.  Satisfying a tenure and promotion committee can feel like shooting at a moving target - in dense fog.  When the standards for publication, service, and teaching are clear, they can inhibit high-quality work by focusing your attention on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  If promotion guidelines call for four thirty-page articles in top journals, then that's what you need to write, even if you haven't got a hundred and twenty pages of things to say.  On the other hand, if promotion guidelines only call for evidence of or a habit of scholarship, you can be left wondering if you've provided enough evidence, or sufficiently habituated yourself. 
  • The pay is so-so, and the hours can be long. Every time I hear stories about overpaid university professors, I wonder how I can get one of those jobs. Teaching isn't just what we do in the classroom.  Grading is an important part of teaching, and when you're trying to teach people to reason and read and write well, grading becomes a continuation of the conversation you had in class.  Multiply that conversation by the number of students you have (I have ninety or more in a typical semester) and you've got a lot of important conversations you're trying to carry on.  Which can translate into a lot of hours at work.  
I've been through all that, and I now have tenure at a great institution.  I have excellent students and brilliant colleagues, and we're led by someone I think of as America's best college president.  Even still, I worry sometimes that I'm one of the last of a dying breed.  As American institutions fixate more and more on teaching what they see as profitable rather than on what is good to learn, more on preparing for careers and less on preparing for life, more on jobs and less on vocation -- in short, as colleges favor dollars rather than scholars, I worry that the age of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is coming to a close.

So here's what I tell my students who are thinking of grad school in the humanities: if you can get into a program that pays you to go to school, it's a great way to spend a few years.  Learn what you can, enjoy teaching, and graduate without debt.  Then go on to whatever work you can find.  But if you insist that the only work you'll allow yourself to look for after grad school is a job like mine, you may be in for a great disappointment. But you may be able to find, or to create for yourself, a job that is as fulfilling in some other field.  I hope so.

Because my hope is not that a few of my students will be able to find jobs like mine.  My hope is that all of them will, that all of them will find meaningful work with good colleagues, where they can use their gifts for the flourishing of their communities.  My hope is that all of them will find jobs where they have the joy of helping others to live well, and to grow.

Which is what makes me keep doing what I do.


Update: An interesting article in The Atlantic entitled "The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors (In One Chart.)