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?

king-thinking

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.”

Parallelism

  • 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

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?

 

 

Essay Writing – Post Upcoming

New work and business opportunities have thrown my best laid plans for regular posting on Core Texts into disarray. We’re regrouping over here, having to do the heretofore unthinkable: long-range planning. Nevertheless, we are gratified that the site has unexpectedly garnered so many readers. It’s all very encouraging and motivates us to provide meaningful and helpful content more regularly.

The next post will concern an important skill you’ll need to succeed on your essay writing: assimilating and integrating feedback on earlier drafts and essays into your next essay. I’ve covered the basics of argumentative essay writing in the “Mastering the Human Event” Honors Seminar Tutorial, but knowing what to do with feedback from your instructor is a critical skill for you to learn if you want to improve your writing performance.

laptops-lecture

Engaged students “taking notes”

While I’m finalizing that post, I recommend this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to you about one professor’s experiment banning laptops in class for a year. There is a connection to the forthcoming post.

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, today’s core texts post will focus on his work. In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Human Event 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. After all, as one of the preeminent civil rights leaders in world history, he might simplistically be regarded as a “progressive,” in contemporary terms. Which he was! So how do his 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 contradiction some instructors entertain. 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.

[Edit] 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. These biographical details should inform your analysis.

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?

What do you notice in the 10-year progression of his thought and work starting from “Knock” and ending with “Mountaintop?” Substantively what changes and what remains the same?

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 which methods do you think are more effectual for combating injustice?

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?

king-thinking

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.”

Parallelism

  • 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

Gilgamesh

The Obviousgilgamesh-cuneiform

Gilgamesh is an epic, not a “novel.” Please don’t call it a novel or a book. Cute baby mammals die when you do that.

It is ancient and fragmentary (see the picture on left? And you complain about carrying around printed texts…).

It is the tale of Gilgamesh, a powerful, semi-divine ruler.

One of the major themes is human mortality.

The Not-so-Obvious

It is a tale of transformations, in particular Enkidu’s and Gilgamesh’s.

It is a tale that sets forth a definition or vision of what it means to be a civilized society of mortal beings.

Visions, dreams, and prayers are conduits for interaction between the divine and human orders, and are often the prelude to critical decisions and actions in the narrative.

The value system includes concepts like greatness and strength and glory, but the narrator and the characters in the tale may not agree with each other about the sanctioned forms these values should take.

The Cedar Forest and the battle with Huwawa are more than just a backdrop for a Hollywood-style epic showdown.

AckbarThe Traps

It is a tale in which the divine order both harms and helps the human order. Avoid exclusive thinking about these categories because the text supports a complex, often ambiguous relationship between the gods/spirits and humans. Of course, to point this out is only to make what should be an obvious observation; the challenge is to elucidate this complexity and draw interesting, textually supported inferences from it.

There are significant similarities between the tale of Utnapishtim and the story of Noah in Beresheit (Genesis). Don’t reduce one to the other, however, as the differences are many and substantial. This comparison is frequently made and it is almost always mistaken, superficial, boring, or all of the above. Avoid the intellectual laziness in such “nothing but” thinking. Any similarity across cultures and histories as evinced by two texts is going to be complex, not a photocopy.

It is anachronistic to describe the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu as gay or homosexual (do your research). They clearly respect and love each other, and express this love in emotionally and physically intimate ways. Deal with it.

Don’t overlook the role that female characters play in the epic: Ninsun, Shamash, Ishtar/Inanna, Siduri.

Socratic Method in Teaching and Learning

socratesYesterday NPR ran a good story on schools and teachers using the Socratic method in their classes in a variety of subjects. My own kids are fortunate to attend a public school that incorporates Socratic teaching in middle and high school.

The story quotes John Caelstrom making the crucial point about the aim of Socratic teaching: “Let’s not make this all about learning to gain information but to learn how to learn.”

In a good Socratic seminar you do “gain information” about the history, culture, author, and any number of facts, but the point isn’t merely to acquire the kind of information you can regurgitate on a short answer test or multiple-choice exam. It is instead to sharpen your mental acuity so that you can think through difficult problems and important questions, sift evidence, weigh propositions, and evaluate answers and solutions, all on your own. To encourage an awareness of what you don’t know together with an inquisitiveness and mental toolkit to seek out knowledge. As I emphasized in my tutorial, it is to gain new and healthy habits of mind, intellectual dispositions, that empower you to participate and lead in a democratic society.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll be starting a new series about the specific texts that one often finds on “Great Books” or “Great Ideas” courses. These will be very brief posts, very opinionated, and if given due consideration, I hope very helpful to you. Gilgamesh will be coming to your browser very soon.

Mastering the Human Event: Conclusion

Alcoa-TN-Site2We arrive at the The End. Of this introductory tutorial to the first-year Honors Seminar, that is. In this concluding post I will summarize the Main Points I’ve been emphasizing throughout the tutorial as well as include some parting tips and wisdom. You will greatly increase your chances for success if you apply yourself to these things:

1. Prepare. Prepare before the course starts by researching the background of the course, the Instructors, and the syllabuses. Prepare for discussions by completing your close readings at least a day in advance and composing a few nontrivial questions and claims.

2. Annotate your readings. Make sure your notes are meaningful: they should help you navigate the text with key words and ideas highlighted, and they should include your considered, reflective thoughts about the reading, specifically, the fruits of your analysis of the reading as you go along.

3. Keep a notebook or journal to develop and record more extended thoughts and arguments. This will be a creative space for both your discussion preparation and your essay prewriting such as brainstorming and mind mapping.

4. Approach the class discussions like a conversation among equals, not a debate of polemicists. Generate light on the text, not heat. Interrogate the author, yourself, and your fellow discussants. Put your own thoughts into the conversation to be scrutinized and interrogated as well.

5. Read the text out loud in the discussion. Questions and arguments should be about the text, so ground your ideas and claims in specific textual citations. It is also useful for moving the discussion on to another topic.

6. Read the text. Out loud. In front of everybody.

7. Stay engaged in the discussion the whole time. Actively listen, regulate your conversational behaviors, and self-evaluate your performance after every class.

8. Communicate professionally with your Instructor.

9. Internalize the Writing Standards for your argumentative essays. Remember that these are general requirements, so study carefully the specific requirements that your Instructor unfolds from them.

10. When you are given the essay assignment, begin working on it as soon as possible. I recommend that you start the paper three weeks before the due date. Since good writing is achieved by writing a lot, plan on producing five times as much written work on the essay (prewriting, rough drafts, revisions) as the length of the final draft of the paper. In other words, to write a satisfactory argumentative essay of six pages in length, you should expect to write 30 pages total in the complete process.

11. Once you have the essay assignment, commit to write every day. The first few days can be spent in various prewriting work. Once your topic is clear and your thesis gels into a workable argument, write at least one paragraph every day.

12. Have a complete draft done at least one week before the due date. The remainder of your time should be spent reviewing, revising, and rewriting.

13. After your graded essay is returned, ignore the grade. Instead, read your Instructor’s comments carefully. These are the key to improving your performance on the next essay. If you do not understand the errors or weaknesses pointed out by your Instructor, then arrange to meet with them for further explanation. Your Instructor wants you to succeed, and trust me, very much wants to read well-conceived and well-written essays. They will gladly help you focus on the areas you need to work on and give you concrete suggestions.

14. Beware the midterm slump. You are taking plenty of other classes at University. Exams in those classes are often pressure-packed. It is normal for your initial enthusiasm to wane as the semester grinds on. It will be tempting to slack off your engagement in the Human Event as your energies are spent in other directions. You must actively resist this process. Maintain your good preparation and notetaking practices. Remember, the Human Event is about helping you develop stronger habits of mind: muscular intellectual dispositions and “the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly.” Unlike bad habits, which, as everyone knows, are easy to obtain, good habits take time, work, and persistence to develop. Start strong, finish strong.

15. Critical thinking is a hard-won intellectual disposition that, when matured, refuses to be complacent. Doubt is the engine of inquiry, as Vallicella rightly says, and the true thinker is distinguished from the poser, bs artist, and ideologue in this (at least): a cleansing, virile doubt about that which one disbelieves as much as what one believes. You can’t rely on your Instructor to do this for you; they will too easily become your antagonist or protagonist, your enemy or your hero. Either role will encourage you to be complacent in your thinking because it is natural for students to align their thinking either orthogonally to or in parallel with their Instructor’s. Developing the intellectual and moral dispositions you need to be a complex, critical thinker is something you will have to take on yourself. Insert athletic training analogy here.

Congratulations on completing this tutorial. I look forward to exploring more of the challenges and rewards of an Honors education with you in upcoming posts. Some topics to look forward to are:

  • An encore post to this tutorial. I want to do a little demo on how to read a primary text, annotate it, prepare to discuss it, and develop a conceptual framework for it that might be used in an essay. Which text? Do you really have to ask?
  • A “Three Keys” series on the core texts used in the Human Event and other core text curricula.
  • An in-depth writing tutorial
  • I would also like to branch out into podcasts and videos if my readers find that a more interactive media experience would be helpful. So do leave a comment one of the posts in this tutorial, drop me a note using the Contact form, or email me.

Thanks for reading!Hogwarts-Library

Mastering the Human Event: Socratic Seminar Dynamics

 

greenhouseIn today’s post I’d like to explore with you the sort of environment to expect and the dynamics of the Socratic seminar.

So what is a seminar?

As with so many characteristics of the modern university, we can look to nineteenth century Germany for the antecedents. It was there that the seminar took on the particular sense of a regular meeting of a small group of students with Herr Doktor to discuss the ideas and knowledge within the professor’s expertise. Today, that translates to the kind of course you take at the highest level of graduate school work.

But ‘seminar’ further derives from the Latin seminarium, which long ago was most often applied to what we would call a plant nursery or breeding area. We also get the English word ‘seminary’ from the same source, which is a type of school where students are trained in theology and the ministerial professions.

I think it is very helpful to keep the meaning of seminarium in mind for your Human Event seminar because that reflects pretty closely what sort of environment it is. It is a place where things–your minds–are cultivated and encouraged to grow and strengthen, eventually reaching a maturity that prepares you to be out of the seminarium and thriving in an unsheltered environment.

To push the analogy even further, consider the constant warm temperature of the seminarium as the safe yet open environment of the seminar classroom wherein you are protected from hostile conditions and free to develop your intellectual powers in optimum growing conditions.

Consider the soil, nutrients and light the seeds and young shoots in the seminarium need to grow to be your texts. They are the food for your mind. They are selected by your instructor because, as your cultivator, they have found a specific mixture of texts to stimulate good growth in their charges.

If you consume and digest the food (read the texts closely, annotate, (photo)synthesize ideas, and prepare to discuss them), you grow and strengthen, and you exhale beneficial things like oxygen to the larger environment that sustained and fed you. Good digestion leads to good respiration. This “output” is your informed, thoughtful, reflective participation in the seminar, and ability to contribute to the common good of the wider community.

Eventually, you bud or sprout new growth of your own. In the conversation of ideas between you, the authors, your instructor, and your classmates, your own ideas take better shape. You put out your very own new branch or leaf, a material growth that we can liken to your written assignments.

I think you get the idea…

A Socratic seminar means that the primary style of interaction between discussants exhibits the Socratic method of elenchus, of interrogation and dialogue that aims to unearth and disclose the basic concepts one deploys in theses and arguments, and examine these for logical consistency. NB: you are cross-examining each others’ theses and arguments that are grounded in the text, not the author of the text. (You will find that some fellow discussants will often stand in as a proxy of the author’s, arguing on behalf of what they think are the merits of the author’s assumptions, theses, or arguments, or the implications thereof.)

The dynamics of the seminar are largely dependent on the approach of your HFF. Recall that their job is to introduce and teach you about some of the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. So there will always be /some/ direction and information coming from the HFF to you. The diversity of HFFs means, however, that the distribution of air time for students’ speaking will vary from HFF to HFF, sometimes very significantly. The target that HFFs are advised to shoot for is about 30% HFF, 70% students, but this breakdown is just a consensus suggestion. This is an important reason to do your research before selecting your HFF, or, if you’re already in a Human Event section, do the same research I’ve suggested so that you can better know who your HFF is, what guidelines they give you in their syllabus, and whether their approach is more disciplinarian or exploratory.

Some HFFs will be front-and-center, clearly leading most of the topics of discussion and asking the questions. This dynamic is one in which most of the dialogue “goes through” the instructor, a call-and-response kind of exchange. A subset of HFFs who use this approach also do most of the talking during the class, the sage-on-the-stage. In any event, however, you need to understand the discussion etiqphilo-medievaluette the HFF expects from you and the group. The times when your input is welcome may be regulated closely, perhaps by systematically calling on individual students to read from the text, give a response to a prepared reading or discussion question provided earlier by the HFF, or respond to a specific question or issue posed by the instructor. Or your input may be limited to when the HFF gets tired of talking and waves you in with a general invitation to comment.

Other HFFs have a light hand on the rudder, allowing or even demanding that students learn to take the lead in raising topics, identify text-based problems to solve or questions to answer, and otherwise steer and drive the discussion. Many of these HFFs also expect the conversation to NOT go through them, but rather that students respond to and interact with each other. The HFF may prefer to remain in the background of the discussion most of the time, chiming in occasionally to correct an error (though students should be the first responders when a classmate is inaccurate), moving the discussion along to another issue, or asking an unexpected or uncomfortable question.

The dynamics of any given Human Event section will often be very clearly either HFF-driven or student-driven. But some HFFs take a multiplex approach, mixing up the dynamics from time to time, and you need to be flexible enough to adjust to those dynamics from session to session. Every instructor you have at the university teaches differently and has different expectations about your presence in the class; HFFs are no different, so get used to adjusting your conduct and performance based on the individual instructor, not the course name.

It should be clear from the range of seminar dynamics that are possible that the way you prepare for each class meeting is going to differ depending on what dynamics your HFF creates and expects. Actually, that’s not quite right. The way you prepare may be very consistent across different HFFs, but your conduct in the seminar will be different, sometimes strikingly different, depending on whether your HFF takes an approach that is hands-on, hands-off, or something in-between.

In my next post, I’m going to cover some general conduct do’s and don’ts, and then we’ll dig into the nitty-gritty details of developing your discussion skills.

Mastering the Human Event: Selecting A Teacher

I said, "Bow!"

I said, “Bow!”

After a seasonal pause in this series for you, the prospective or new Human Event student, I want to give you some advice about how to select your Instructor.

This is a surprisingly easy decision. That is, unless your goals don’t really overlap with the College’s educational goals for you. For example, if your main criterion for selecting your Human Event instructor is “Who is easiest?” or “Who gives the most A’s?”, then you can close this browser tab now because you’re wasting your time here, not to mention the privilege afforded by Honors education.

The reason selecting a teacher for your Human Event course is an easy decision is because the College has already done an incredible amount of work selecting its faculty. The current Barrett faculty are the primary investigators and decision-makers for hiring new faculty in a nation-wide search. They know how to identify strong teachers, student-centered educators, scholars committed to Honors education, winsome and effective colleagues, and all the other characteristics that make Barrett faculty unique and the best teachers in higher education. So you can take this to the bank: any Human Event Instructor you select is a good choice.

But you may also want to know whether or not the instructor’s interests and approach to the course will suit you. That’s a reasonable criterion, too, and I want to spend the rest of the post giving you some guidance about that.

Every Barrett Instructor, aka Honors Faculty Fellow, has a PhD. That means that they have particular expertise in their academic area of study. This is often expressed on a CV as an Area of Specialization, or AOS, which is the subject area in which the faculty member has their scholarship and research focus (if their degree is a theory-based knowledge area). They will also have related areas of expertise that they picked up along the way in their graduate education called Areas of Competence, or AOCs.

1. So the first thing you ought to do is go to the directory of Barrett HFFs, find the link to their CVs, and look at their academic discipline, their AOS and their AOCs. The CV has lots of other good information to help you get to know what the scholar’s interests are: the courses they teach or have taught, their publications and conference papers, presentations, and thesis and graduate work they have directed. Write down a list of HFFs whose education and scholarly activity interest you.

2. Next, you ought to research the approach of the HFF to the Human Event. For this you should look at the Human Event syllabusesboth semesters–that the HFF has posted. Read the Course Description carefully. There is a standardized course description that all Human Event syllabuses will have, so what you should focus on is the description added by the HFF. This will give you an insight into how that particular HFF conceptualizes the course and what they especially care about in teaching it.

I’ve already mentioned that my Reading List is mostly printed books and that digital texts have to be printed for annotating and use in class. This, of course, is a matter of pedagogical practice preferred by the HFF, and there is no one right way to use texts in the course. I find printed books and excerpts the best practice. I find it sets a particular material context in the classroom that lends itself to effective person-to-person dialogue, which is a very important course goal for me, and it provides an easy means of checking student preparation to discuss the material. But YMMV.

Next you should look at the Expectations and Grading Breakdown. There are two basic areas that compose your grade: participation and writing. Within these two areas there can be a lot of variety.

Some HFFs break out participation into in-class discussions, attendance, and other forms of showing that you are engaged with the course. Read the HFF’s description of this component carefully. It should be clear to what extent the HFF expects you and your classmates to carry on an informed, competent, and thoughtful in-class discussion on your own, and what the role of the HFF will be in that. If the description of participation is mostly general in expectations or assessment, then email the HFF and ask a specific question that will help you understand what the discussions are supposed to be like.

The writing component is usually a bit more straight-forward. All HFFs require three argumentative essays, though the form these essays take can vary. Some HFFs may have a journal assignment, or short reflection essays, or a quote mining assignment, or in-class writing exercises, or quizzes. Some may break down the first essay into separate assignments or a process of drafting, peer review, and revision. If you’ve identified HFFs that interest you from Step 1, but you want to learn more about their participation or writing assignments, then email them your question. (I will cover communication etiquette in the next post.)

Go back to the Reading List for a moment. Look at each reading assignment and classify it. What kind of text is it? Poem, theater, philosophy, musical piece, visual art, religious text, history, personal narrative, didactic, theoretical treatise, etc. Consider the variety of these types of text. Does the syllabus concentrate on particular types of texts and perspectives, or is it all over the place? Now you should reflect on two things:

1. Recall your goals. Which kind of Reading List is going to challenge you, provoke you, push you to encounter perspectives and ideas you do not share?

2. Compare the HFF’s scholarly expertise with the Course Description and Reading List of their Human Event syllabuses. How much does the HFF’s scholarship and the Human Event Reading List overlap? Here’s my own advice about what to do with this information. As we’ve examined in the earlier posts describing the purpose of the Honors College and the Human Event, there’s a high value implied in pushing outside one’s knowledge comfort zone. Based on their syllabuses, you can evaluate how an HFF values this criterion.

Suppose they have an Economics PhD and specialize in International Market Dynamics (I just made that up, I have no idea if that is a thing or not). And their Reading List, especially in the second semester (HON 272), has quite a few selections of economics literature, and it’s clear that they really want you to have a good introduction to economics and their own areas of interest. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but it is pretty clearly not the sign of a scholar who is comfortable too far outside their area of expertise. And that, by the way, is typical for the modern academy, so don’t read that as a negative judgment except as it applies to the institution of higher education today. To endure the rigors of a graduate education and obtain the specialized knowledge necessary to pass doctoral examinations in one’s disciplinary area is rarely compatible with a scholar who is committed to broad reading and learning, exploring from within areas of human experience they find difficult to understand or appreciate, or of creating courses that will foster the habits of mind needed to critically engage “the key social and intellectual currents in human history.”

On the other hand, if the HFF is, say, an engineer but her Reading List has significant time spent on poetry and drama and novels and art, then you know that’s an HFF who strives to be a generalist and is as open to and interested in knowledge outside her field as in it. If I had to break down HFFs into two groups, these hypothetical examples illustrate some of their characteristics. Group 1 is Disciplinarian (as in focused on their scholarly discipline and related offshoots) while Group 2 is Exploratory. These outlooks affect the content that the HFF selects for their Human Event sections, and to some extent, the type of assignments you will do in the course. There are strengths and weaknesses to both groups, so put some thought into which approach might align better with your goals. Of course, it’s possible to value both approaches, but usually one is clearly favored over the other, especially in the second semester (HON 272).

My advice is that you give little regard for how closely the HFF’s scholarly area overlaps with your own major and focus more on understanding the HFF’s approach to the course so that you can identify one that matches well with your own goals for your Human Event experience.

Mastering the Human Event: Why the Human Event? (III)

In this third and final post about why the Human Event is the cornerstone of your Honors education, I will follow-up our previous post on why books, especially material books with printed letters in them, are the key technology, the preferred medium, in which to confront the “key social and intellectual currents” of human history. In this post I will explain the practical reasons books and printed texts help fulfill the course emphasis on “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing.” But first, a warning by way of the irrepressible Calvin:

calvin-hobbes-01

Our friend Calvin has walked unawares into one of the great dangers of reading books. There is nothing more dangerous than a book and a library. Within them are the seeds for the overthrow of the world…and your own convictions. Revolutions are spawned in the library. Stroll through Hayden one day and observe shelf after silent shelf of sheathed swords. Some of them seem to have been asleep for centuries. But they aren’t. Like Calvin’s Hobbes, there are many among them that are tigers crouching behind the door, waiting to spring upon you.

Many Human Event students will report on their course evaluations things like Calvin says in the second panel: “this course presented me with perspectives and ideas I had never before considered…it was awesome.” You might appreciate that such experiences as you’ve read have been important to some humans in history and even today. But if you are actually doing close reading, like Calvin has, some of these texts might provoke some unlooked for self-examination to occur. Recall my earlier post, “Who Are You?” If you are asked to read a poem, a Greek tragedy, an Eastern religious work, an historical report of colonial practices, a philosophical examination of virtue, or any number of other works, and your answer is like Calvin’s in the last panel, then the Human Event is not for you. It indicates that your mind is made up and that developing new habits of mind, to explore “key social and intellectual currents” that challenge the established patterns and conclusions of your thinking, or even which you find offensive, is not an education that you value. Mind, to unsettle and complicate your life is not the point of the Human Event, but if you perform the necessary close reading of the texts, it is a possible, even likely, byproduct. Here be dragons, so prepare yourself accordingly.

Now, what is the connection between reading books, dangers notwithstanding, and the Human Event course aims of developing your abilities in “critical thinking, discussion, and argumentative writing?” Let’s connect the dots from books to these abilities.

A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading.” However, to develop the intellectual powers needed to “read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience [“the horizon” Sertillanges speaks of] analytically and disinterestedly,” you need the right content and the right method of reading that content.

The “right” content of the primary sources you will read is not the specific ideas advanced by the author of the work, though these are crucial to perceive and understand and you will need to note and think about them carefully. No text should be approached as if it were an unquestioned repository of wisdom, though the intellectual virtue of charitable reading should be your default posture toward them. No, many of the works you will read in the Human Event have been selected because their authors exemplify the very habits of mind that Barrett seeks to teach you. This is why books that can be read and understood desultorily are unsatisfactory, and why secondary sources like Wikipedia and Sparknotes will be of no help whatsoever in thinking critically about what you read.

Sertillanges goes on to describe why desultory reading is of no avail:

What we are proscribing is (…) the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

The problem with only reading works that themselves don’t exemplify the ability to examine core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly is that they dull rather than sharpen your mind. Wikipedia, Sparknotes (not to mention almost all content written for the web) and other sources written with the express intent of being read desultorily (because they reduce the original material for you to what you “need” to know and therefore have already done your thinking for you) atrophy your intellectual powers, making you less capable of reflection and concentration, and of resisting the ebb and flow of ideas and images that have your momentary attention.

The “right” method of reading the texts is close, or studious, reading. Here’s the logic. You are assigned books of lasting value to read, so you ought to study what you read. And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to take notes. And if you take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. The point of close reading is ultimately to evaluate critically what you read. Ingest the good, reject the bad, but not on subjective bases, like whether you “like” what you read or not. Rather, critical evaluation of what you read must be done on careful analysis of the material and the disinterested weighing of its merits and demerits. This requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible. Remember, forming intellectually powerful habits of mind is the name of the game. This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned ideological sovereignty, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow critical thinker. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. medieval-scribe-aberdeen-bestiaryA 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. Although your learning style might lend itself to nonlinear notetaking, I recommend that you not leave your notes in such forms (maps, trees, etc.). Ultimately, you will be required to write a reading response or an argumentative essay that draws from the text. 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. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

I will discuss more tips and suggestions for reading and annotating in future posts, but I conclude this “Why the Human Event?” subseries with the connection between reading books and the writing you will do in the Human Event. Reading books that must be studied to be understood is essential to becoming a good writer. “We learn to write by reading,” as Leo Strauss puts it. Here’s more from Strauss’ excellent insight:

It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written.

In my next post we’ll turn to that decision that worries so many incoming Barrett freshmen: selecting your Human Event instructor.