Philosophy Class LIVE! – Week 4

Our next LIVE online meeting for PHIL 135 – Introduction to Ethics – is on Thursday, 18 Feb 2016 at 10:30 (PT), right here and on Google+ Hangouts on Air. This is specifically for my Truckee Meadows Community College students, but everyone is welcome!


  • Quiz 2 Autopsy: How did you do?
  • Quiz 4 Preview
  • Readings: Consequentialism (Chs 9-10) and Kantian ethics (Chs 11-12)
  • Q&A!

Philosophy Class LIVE! – Week 2

Our next LIVE online meeting for PHIL 135 – Introduction to Ethics – is on Tuesday, 02 Feb 2016 at 6:30 (PT), right here and on Google+ Hangouts on Air. This is specifically for my Truckee Meadows Community College students, but everyone is welcome!


  • Quiz 1 Autopsy: How did you do?
  • Quiz 2 Preview
  • Readings: Psychological Egoism (Ch 7) and Ethical Egoism (Ch 8)
  • Q&A!

Philosophy Class LIVE!

We’ll be having our first meeting of the semester for PHIL 135 – Introduction to Ethics – on Thursday, 28 Jan 2016, right here and on Google Hangouts. This is specifically for my Truckee Meadows Community College students, but everyone is welcome! Live streaming philosophy class and office hours? Yes. See you then!


  • Introduction
  • Syllabus
  • Readings: Introduction and Natural Law Theory (Ch 6)
  • Quiz 1 Preview
  • Q&A!

Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

It’s January. The beginning of another semester. It’s cold and your commitment to attend class is being tested.


Winter isn’t coming. It’s HERE. It’s time to buckle down and get stuff done.

I’ve updated a series of posts I published last year on how to do discussion in a Socratic seminar. I’m calling this the “Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion” series. In today’s post, I’m going to list the five keys (I don’t want to keep you waiting!) and then over the next week I’ll dedicate a WHOLE post to EACH key. So stay tuned for my inside tips to crushing it in your seminar discussion.

The Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

1. Focused Preparation

The key word there is focused. Well, preparation is pretty much a key word, too. But the problem with just telling you to “Have good preparation!” – duh – is that it’s too vague. You want to use your time wisely. So when you buckle down to prep for your seminar session, you want to make the most of your time. After all, you’ve got other classes to study for, too. This Key will be my next post.

2. Full Engagement

You may think you’re paying attention and ready to jump into a discussion. But your behaviors might be tells that something else is occupying your attention. I’m going to discuss the behaviors to avoid and the behaviors to adopt so that not only YOU know you’re engaged, but your INSTRUCTOR and CLASSMATES know you are, too.

3. Dialogue, not Diatribe

Seminar-Table-DiscussionWhen you open your mouth to speak, what’s your goal? What kind of discussion are you actually engaging in? Are you debating? Pontificating? Showing off? Defensive? Frustrated? What kind of discussion leads to the Course goal: understanding amazing ideas and great books and becoming a better thinker? This is one of my favorite topics to teach because it makes such a big difference in how much you learn and take away from the class.

4. Go to the Source

You’re prepared…check. You’re engaged…check. You’re developing those dialogue skills…check. Now what are you going to talk about? Content is king, they say. And your content came from the bookstore or Amazon. So this Key is all about how to make the text the star of your discussion.

5. Repurpose the Discussion

Overheard – 1: “That was a great class!” 2: “Iknowright?” And like a ship silently gliding away on the calm night waters, the content of the discussion is lost forever… When this happens it’s like your team winning a tough game after a lot of practice and preparation, and then quitting rather than going on to play for the championship. But a great discussion should be #winning beyond the bell for that class. In the final post I’ll show you what to do after the class is over and how to take the best material from the discussion and reuse it in the course … or even in other courses.

So these are the Five Keys to successful Socratic Seminar Discussion. Next we’re going to unpack each one in the next five posts. So stay tuned for loads more practical advice on succeeding in your seminar.

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I’m reblogging this post from last year, lightly edited.

In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Honors seminar readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. As Frederick Buechner once said, “The world is always bewildered by its saints” (The Magnificent Defeat). So how do King’s convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the cognitive dissonance some embrace. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and are there moral criteria one should apply to one’s methods for combating injustice? What would those criteria be?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?


Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”


  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

St Andrews Talk: Folktale Structure in Harry Potter

Unlocking Press, the publisher of Ravenclaw Reader, has posted the audio and slides of my presentation on the folktale structure in the Harry Potter series at the international conference on Harry Potter at the University of St Andrews in May 2012. I’m looking forward to participating in the upcoming webinar!


It starts slow as some house elves were helping me get the projector set up in the meeting room.

One point that I underplayed in this presentation was how well the entire series, taken as a single tale, conformed to Propp’s fairy tale structure. It is this fact together with the different responses to the particular books in the series that supports my hypothesis in answer to the question “Why do we love Harry Potter?”

Also, I attached three additional slides at the end that were part of an updated presentation of the research that I gave at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. The content of these slides is a direct result of the discussions I had at St Andrews with colleagues and attendees of the conference. It’s a great example of how a good conference challenges and sharpens one’s scholarship.

Harry Potter Scholarship

harry-potter-joel-hunter-ravenclaw-readerI’m delighted to announce that a new anthology of Harry Potter scholarship has just been published. Hogwarts Preparatory Academy has details about the book launch.

You’ll note that this anthology has emerged from a remarkable conference at St Andrews University in 2012. It was easily the most enriching, challenging, and rewarding conference experience I’ve ever had. I hope that enthusiasm for the book will encourage other institutions and societies to plan another international Potter conference in the near future. Cultural and literary analysis of the Hogwarts saga has evolved considerably since the earliest criticism, ca 2001.

I think a conference in 2017 organized around the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the series is an excellent idea. I’ve had a lot of success teaching an advanced Honors course on Harry Potter because so many of my Honors students were Potter devotees. I believe that an Honors program, or consortium of Honors programs, would be able to draw scholars from all over the world and are better positioned to garner national attention and general interest than those of specialized professional meetings (e.g., studies in popular culture, American culture, young adult literature, and so on).

My main contribution is chapter 5, “Folktale Structure, Aesthetic Satisfaction, and the Success of Harry Potter.” An earlier version of the essay is available on my site (it’s been my number one download in both papers and conference presentations). This is a literary analysis of each book in the series using the folktale structure model of Vladimir Propp, which I argue is sufficient to explain reader enthusiasm for the series. I also show why readers find some of the books more satisfying than other books within the series. For example, why is Prisoner of Azkaban enjoyed more than Chamber of Secrets? I created an empirical method for measuring aesthetic satisfaction, and point to further applications of this research.

The book has a “dynamic dialogue” structure, so each main contribution is accompanied by a response essay. The response to my “Folktale Structure” essay is “Venturing into the Murky Marshes” by Prof Gabrielle Ceraldi. I haven’t yet read her response, but look forward to doing so and offering comments in due course over at Hogwarts Prep.

My second contribution is a response to Dr Jessica Tiffin‘s essay on pedagogy at Hogwarts. I was delighted to be asked to write this response as I so enjoyed Dr Tiffin’s talk at the conference.

How to Read a Difficult Text

Over the past year, I’ve written several posts that explore how to read difficult texts. In this post, I have pulled together some of the key points in those posts to help you here at the beginning of your studies this semester.

Journal-Blank-Page-676pxMost of the reading we do during the day is desultory. Most of what we consume on the Internet, or during times we want to unwind, reading at the beach…these are usually done without any serious effort put into understanding what we’re reading. But some reading that we do needs to done with a more critical eye because we need to work to understand what the author says, or there’s something important that we need to grasp, or we just need to think about what the author is saying. Because so much of the reading you need to do in your hardest college courses, especially in the humanities and liberal arts, requires serious effort to “get it,” I encourage you to develop skills in close reading. As a philosopher, this is the kind of reading I have to do all the time in my line of work. What is close reading and why do you need to read your assigned texts this particular way?

Close Reading

By the time you enter college, you have probably developed reading habits from email, texting, chatting, and web-based content that cripple your ability to read books and texts that require sustained, careful, reflective reading to be understood. That’s why it’s not enough for your teacher to tell you to “read the book.” You need to know the kind of reading that you’ll need to do–close, or studious, reading–and how to develop techniques or new habits to do this kind of reading well. Here’s the logic:

  • You are assigned books or selections from books of lasting value to “digest,” so you need to study what you read.
  • And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to annotate the text or take notes.
  • And if you annotate or take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary.

Here’s another way to put it:

  • The point of close reading is to be able to critically evaluate what you read.
  • Critical evaluation of what you read must be done by careful analysis of the material until you understand the author’s claims or point.
  • Once you understand, then you are prepared to weigh its merits and demerits more objectively.
  • Objectivity requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible.
  • This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned, subjective authority, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow rational being and critical thinker.
  • The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it: annotations in the text and journaled commentary.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. A comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

Your learning style might lend itself to making categories and lists, or nonlinear notetaking like maps or trees. If you are taking notes in preparation for a quiz or exam, you will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes.

What is Analysis?

So far, I’ve referred to this notion of analysis a lot. So what does analysis have to do with close reading? Everything!

Analysis requires that you first understand the author, to see or hear what the author has to say in his or her own terms. This requires you to enter into a system, that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the author as given. Next, your critical analysis begins by looking to the internal logic of that system and to the logical implications of the ideas and arguments contained within it. In other words, once you understand the author’s perspective and argument, look for logical consequences, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. If you haven’t first understood (listened to) the author within the world in which he or she has written, your response will usually be little more than ideologically motivated fault-finding or anachronistic interpretations. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s metaphysics in the Republic and other dialogues, what are you really saying beyond “I don’t care for philosophical idealism” or “Plato annoys me?” What’s the argument contained in such statements? The works of Plato have survived many centuries of uninformed hostility; they’ll outlast another biased reading! You’ll have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to tackle difficult texts.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives helpful definitions of “analysis” and its cognates. Two of the entries are germane to what you’ll need to do in close reading:

Analyze, v. (General): “To differentiate or ascertain the elements of (something complex) in order to determine its structure or nature, and hence to explain or understand it; to examine closely and methodically for the purpose of interpretation; to subject to critical or computational analysis.” (Specialized—Literary): “To examine a text critically to bring out its meaning; to give a critical description of a work especially with regard to its style, structure, or composition.”

Analysis, n. (Specialized—Philosophical): “The investigation of complex ideas, concepts, etc., so as to determine their constituent elements and their structure.”

To analyze a text you examine the specific details you find in the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the text, as well as the context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. A relevant and substantive selection does not speak for itself. You must “break it down” by differentiating its elements (words, phrases, sentences, ideas, concepts, and so on) and examining these elements methodically, how they relate to each other, and in their proper context. This comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. Paraphrase your relevant findings from this effort and transpose them into your written notes and commentary.

This is where your thoughts encounter the author’s thoughts. Organizing the ideas of the text into relevant and irrelevant categories assumes that you have some framework, some model, some structure for sorting through those distinctions. This is often the most difficult step–being aware of the conceptual tools that you’ve been using to unlock the meaning of the text in your commentary. If you’ve written down what you think about the reading, then you’ve been using some criteria to justify why you take particular terms, ideas, and claims of the author as relevant or not. As you organize your annotations and write out some commentary, these concepts around which you are expressing your thoughts and discussing the text should become clearer. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify those concepts and figure out if they’re related to each other in some sort of organized, structured way. If you’re required to write an essay or long reflection piece on a reading assignment, this conceptual framework is what you will need to have a strong, insightful, original “take” on the text. And it will all have come about by the careful analysis you did through close reading.

Let’s Do It!

Not long ago I wrote a three-part mini-series on doing close reading and annotations–

Part I

Part II

Part III

RP-3411I used an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I had used to develop an essay for a philosophy conference and later into a published article. I encourage students to practice alongside my example and use my annotation system. Once you’ve tried it on your own, find an annotation system that works for you. If you’re annotating a text that you are going to write an essay on, then that system might look different than annotations that you are going to use to study for a quiz or test. Make up your own annotation system, adapt mine or another one you find, and use one of the notetaking systems linked above to help you get the most out of the time you spend doing your close reading and understanding difficult texts.

In the comments, I’d like to hear about your annotation system. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?



Robots and Natural Selection

it's-a-lathe-not-a-robotIn an interview on Here & Now today with researcher Fumiya Iida, it was claimed that a robot – “Mother” – builds child robots “using the process of natural selection.” Is this accurate?


This one, as the kids say, is not even wrong. It is a simulation of textbook artificial selection.

First, it’s ersatz artificial selection, not natural selection. See Chapter 1 of The Origin of Species, “Variation under domestication and under nature.” Where do the selection criteria come from? Just like actual artificial selection, they come from humans, from characteristics that humans want to select for when they breed living things. Natural selection, on the other hand, is when the environment acts on variations within a population. The process of “selection” undertaken by the overseer robot does not involve reproductive success; it selects for a trait that serves some pre-determined mechanistic purpose. The technology is no different in kind than what you find on plant floors all around the world, for example, in those processes that use ultrasonic or infrared flaw detectors on an automated assembly or testing line to kick out widgets that fail to pass “genetic” muster.

Second, it’s ersatz artificial selection. Just like a factory robot, Momma R is just an instrumental extension of a human activity. How does the robot “decide” what to do once the selection criteria are satisfied? It executes a subroutine written by a human being (or within parameters imposed by a human programmer). There is no agency here, only necessity. (”If the voltage at test point A for unit 1 is greater than the voltage at test point A for unit 2, then pitch unit 2 in the rubbish.”)

Two observations:

(1) Why are so many bewitched by breathless claims about artificial intelligence and the impending technological utopia that they do not get basic facts right? It smacks of desperation, this grasping at the weakest kinds of ersatz transcendence.

(2) I suspect it is this offense given to ersatz transcendence that evokes cries of “Luddites! Away with ‘em!” just about any time someone has the temerity to critique the stories that reassure us of how wonderful, how glorious, are the technological advances overseen by our Mustapha Monds. Because medicine. And smartphones. Quibbling over scientistic equivocation is just so ungrateful.

Neoliberal by degrees: The repackaging of an American college education

Fog-Stair-676pxWilliam Deresiewicz is interviewed on This is Hell about his Harper’s article, “The Neoliberal Arts.”

Some of the issues Deresiewicz highlights, like the shift in costs from the public treasury to individual families, are indeed problems. But his claim that the consumer culture fostered by a neoliberal ideology has all but eliminated the liberal arts curriculum, or “real” education, I argue, is specious. My two responses:

Upon Further Review

Honors Education: A Parallel College?