This is a poem written on some apprehension if my efforts to reform the place of philosophy in the curriculum will find a place. I am apprehensive because what passes now for how things are done need to be the way it is anymore. However, without people to see that and see me, the ability to contribute may be impacted. I truly do not know if people see me.
My only goal in life is the advancement of philosophy to have a central place in university curriculum. I can play the intrinsic value game of philosophy. Rarely are colleagues not on your side already persuaded by that argument. For this reason, I would say that this poem is tenuously present in my mind. It has a quality that it could stand for a lifetime of efforts by any philosophy professor to rage against university administrative culture and other professors who gain while you watch what you love wither and die. This is not the death of the humanities; it’s also the death of wisdom-seeking and truth-seeking. I’ve seen this now at many universities and in my life numerous times. For me, it is an intimate death. It is not simply the death of the humanities. It’s intimate because it’s philosophy. It’s the love of reading the best books that have ever been written; it’s a particular way of reading, it’s a particular dialogical encounter to have uncomfortable discussions about our values; it’s a central preoccupation with truth and knowledge; it’s a particular way of being. Being philosophical is much like a conquered people who are the last living remnants of a memory that nobody around them can understand because they are the last.
Making an Impact
I no longer seek the wearied divide
I only hear the hearts that cry
My body fades in tears I cried.
My future ahead will fly
My opportunities wither and die.
I seek the ways of differences to make
Is departmental support a con?
From others who may forsake
For what yesterday was true in the dawn
All my efforts of philosophy begone
In Emerson’s work and inspired pen
I come to write poetry again
The world and me become and grow
The All-in-One will know
How all the parts of the whole relate
Our own virtue in our willing fate
As poetry and sophia combine
Philosophy is the threading line
In soul each poem doth reveal some belief
Leaving behind logos in mind’s relief
True it is said of that I can’t do
Follow the example I knew
My efforts can never reach
What his poetry can teach
Emerson was and is now to judge
A philosopher more, poet begrudge
His work always metaphysical
Despite his wording being mystical
His poems a logic doth reveal
Process ontology unconceal
In process is the really-real.
In the second chapter of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone tells us about a poet named Claude McKay. McKay’s If We Must Die (1919) was published in The Liberator. Winston Churchill was reputed to have spoken the poem, and Cone even says so. According to the International Churchill Society, there is no evidence that can be corroborated that Churchill spoke the poem aloud in the House of Commons or before Congress in the United States.
Cone uses the poem in the second chapter, titled “The Terrible Beauty of the Cross.” In this chapter, Cone outlines the failures of Niebuhr to see and address racism. As a liberal theologian, Niebuhr could give voice to the cause, but not engage it openly and honestly in Christ on the cross. There is a beauty in the cross that would apply to the tragedy of the lynching tree if Niebuhr could see it in the same way that McKay’s poem celebrates the open defiance of facing an impending death on the lynching tree. There is beauty in what is tragic in that poem in the same way that beauty of our suffering is mirrored in Christ’s cross. McKay captures that couplet of beauty and tragedy. As Cone says, “McKay was speaking to blacks who were being lynched by whites in northern riots.” Here’s the poem in full,
If I Must Die (1919)
By Claude McKay
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While around us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The genius of this poem lies in the double meaning of meeting “the common foe.” The common foe is both death and whites at the same time. So, the confrontation of whiteness openly in this country is, then, returned to the lynching tree and the cross at the same time, even on a secular level. The adversary of death and whiteness come together in that line. For McKay, death and whiteness are fused in lynching.
McKay also attaches bravery as a way of acting towards others that would allow the meeting of the common foe. All who meet that fate should act “like men.” There is a nobility in confronting death that is attached to being a man, and in choosing to meet such a “cowardly pack/Pressed to the Wall, dying but fighting back!” requires both the air of dignity and nobility of manhood. In the tragedy of facing a murderous mob in McKay’s mind, the inviolable dignity of the person asserts itself to the point that even the cowards cannot deny but “honor us though dead.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how this year has done a lot to affirm what it is that I do in philosophy. Let me list them in no particular order. Since I will share this with many of my fellow philosophers, I encourage you to make your own list:
1. The pandemic exacerbated standard lines of the Leftist critique of capitalism as we watch disparity in vaccine implementation and how those existing fault lines of inequality fractured: the disparity between deaths along racial and class lines, the hoarding of resources, and who has access to health care to name a few. NPR did a national report about Baton Rouge’s racist vaccine sites. It’s where I currently live. What’s more and perhaps the most shocking–these fault lines of inequality persist so much that the US, my country and often celebrated as the richest country in the world, lost the most amount of people to COVID-19 of all the developed nations in the world.
2. The pandemic has shown us that the mind and the body are not distinct, but one whole in which the philosophical themes of embodiment are central.
3. The pandemic has reaffirmed a close connection to nature in a strong metaphysical way that comes closest to being expressed by process thought. We are physical beings in constant causal unfolding relationships with nature and each other such that our actions can impact more than those around me.
4. In exciting the fault lines of inequality, our embodiment makes us equally aware of our finitude and mortality. Many people died. Existentialist themes abound during this time.
5. The pandemic has made clear that one party embraced economic well-being and the other favored public health and science. Why these oversimplifications become absorbed in the partisan divide, I really don’t know. However, it’s clear that conservatives wanted people to never interfere with the wealth of the economy even though the lens of public health is about respecting people’s safety. The fact that Republicans openly wanted people to sacrifice their well-being for the prosperity of the economy will never go away. There is blood on their hands. Mortal blood.
6. The pandemic also brought to mind how infantile some can be when they must obey the authority of the state during a global pandemic. Refusing to do the right thing and don a mask, get the vaccine and refusing to care for others reinforces the egoism and isolated individualism that capitalism requires of its adherents. This egoism and individualism are so bad that the success of the economy requires abandoning the conception of having moral obligations to other people altogether. The logic of late-stage capitalism is that everything can be commodified and bought only because no values are higher than market values for commodities. This nihilism is always being denied by capitalists.
7. If COVID-19 did come from China in those food markets where humans live in close proximity to the animals they slaughter to sell meat, then it stands to reason that one way we might mitigate future pandemics is by eating less meat or no meat. The suffering and moral welfare for animals is a theme relevant to being a proximate cause where the virus may have originated.
8. The pandemic brings to light the selfishness in 6 and the willingness of an American underclass to desire openly a fascism that threatened the sanctity of democratic institutions. These people stormed Congress. They attempted an insurrection, and the Republican Senators that agreed with this idiotic populism were never censured by the Republicans. Both parties ignore the elephant in the room that the Republicans are courting these radicals and encouraging them for their own selfish purposes.
9. The fact that certain strands of Conservative Christianities never called Trump out as living in contradiction to their values means that Christianity is not about emulating the agapic and unconditional love Christ had for others for these same people. Instead, conservative Christianities serve as an ideology that legitimates the nihilism late-stage capitalism requires. This trend persists especially for any dispensationalist theology that sees end times as achieving a final future material and political event in which the Kingdom of God on Earth is achieved.
10. The gap in education in the United States and the systematic distrust of medical science and public policy brings to light that more attention to themes like critical thinking, applied epistemology, and philosophy of science are needed parts of not only university curriculum, but public schools. This mistrust of science and not knowing enough about science but people thinking they know enough to challenge science while not truly knowing anything about it–this is a problem. I know my colleagues who work in these areas are now more needed in areas where philosophy does not exist. This is why philosophy is needed in high schools in the United States.
What’s on your list?
I am a stranger to many and known only to a handful. In this way, I weave between that space of both belonging and not belonging, recognition and dismissal. That in-between space is filled with fragments of all those I have related to. In those relations, something transpires, something left behind in me from encountering others. What gets left behind? A memory, a wish, a conception, the values they realize, the love they give or withhold, too many ways to count except to say they are fragments. I take those tiny fragments that get left behind in my imagination and use them in fantastic worlds. In my own fictional worlds, I can be at home with strangers, but more importantly, all fictional worlds are created from the fragments others leave us with.
My mother is using again, or depressed, or a narcissist–in fact any of these will do; it’s actually all three. She abuses her xanax, and several years ago, she relapsed drinking at the bar. In many encounters, my mother has always said passive aggressive things to my wife. Given her abuse, I told her to have a relationship with me that she had to do a 4th step of the 12 Steps she should know so well having been in AA for years. In order to have a relationship with me, she would have to start a program again. I dreamt it would be a way to get her talking and attending meetings. Even 41 year olds have childish fantasies.
A couple months ago, she left message on my phone. Sober or not, I can’t tell. She said she hated my wife. So here’s that fragment I was talking about up top. It’s that small piece left in me. I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s sitting there, deep down. My mother’s hatred cuts down into the very marrow of my being.
Thing is, I love my wife. She’s my rock. She has been for 16 years of my life, and that’s not going to change. To love me is to love who I love. Is it not? That hatred shatters me. I lose pieces of myself when I think of my mother. Sadly, she did nothing wrong: classic alcoholic denialism going on there. I do not think my mother can think the way I do, or even entertain her own agency in this affair. Whatever it is, older people — “set in their ways” as we describe it, expect us to change for them. They deny any agency in themselves. They lived their lives as the people they habitually became. If you hold a mirror to their minds by holding a standards of treatment they seem incapable of choosing to the point that they are vicious and cruel in their refusal to treat you with the standard you’ve set, then they distract away from the responsibility they have now for the situation of defying you. Such a mother is not tied to the moorings of respect. Unhinged and untethered, they can become a will that serves only their own agenda.
A selfishness rooted in hate–that’s the description of evil wizardry and necromancy. So when you see the demons of the Underdark and necromancers disregarding the cosmic balance of creation itself, such things are the inspiration for the villains in the Ravenhawk series. That’s what is left behind in me. I use it. That’s how I get through part of the day.
Olive coils behind me, a perfect black circle
Her snout veiled by her tail
A ninja of cuteness
Her eyes shut in long trust
I read and close always, she is there
Her body stretching and comfortable
A perfect circle, a groomed mass of fur
Her fur, shiny and smooth with tiny
Slivers of reflected wavy lines of light
That dances in shuddered breaths of peaceful sleep
A perfect circle rests behind me.
This post is a response to this new article.
On the points of environmental sustainability, I cannot disagree. On the point of inclusion, I’ve seen a colleague present over Skype who couldn’t make it to the Pragmatism and Phenomenology meeting in Ontario. On the points of opportunities that would never exist, I cannot disagree. Two years ago, I gave an invited talk on Scheler’s Affective Intentionality to La Salle University in Mexico. And this year, I have given two talks to India, Mexico, Muncie Indiana…all from the comfort of my living room, and this weekend, our all-virtual American philosophy conference is this weekend.
I can, however, disagree on one central point. They say, “Luckily, the social aspects of online conferencing are becoming more enjoyable.” I think this explains a difference that makes a difference. Let me explain.
As heard by Roman Altshuler, many of us do not like this. Many of us are part of other-than-philosophy departments or small departments without many colleagues. And assuming that online conferencing is becoming more enjoyable is not true for many of us. I cannot tell you how much I yearn for personal contact and community. In my classes, I can’t prod students to do the reading my making disappointed faces and the subtle connections that virtuality cannot replicate. These experiences may be simulated, but I worry that younger colleagues who had somehow to adapt to this new normal are celebrating a form of life that is a pale substitute to the embodied face-to-face contact true community arises out of.
In my everyday professional life, I am supported by a majority of English colleagues, and they have become good work-friends. And yet, none of them understand why I will spend a morning upset at a paper that gets William James wrong. There are a few here online that do only because we’ve met in person at SAAP. I can’t talk about philosophy to non-philosophy faculty colleagues like I can at a conference.
At face to face conferences, there is a natural organic growth and potential of striking up conversations that even some platforms are trying to simulate. You must think, however, why it is that these platforms are trying to stimulate this organicity of conversation. My thinking is that it is such a natural part of human social behavior that those of us who thrive in those environments cannot straight up justify online conferences becoming the new norm. I can say a future mixture of both face-to-face and online mixtures should happen. I look forward to attending the Emerson Society in person and possibly expanding my circle of colleagues with a new interest in philosophy AND literary studies.
I wanted to give a list of my propositions I believe about teaching in the humanities and social sciences. This is the only advice I’d have for younger professionals coming out of graduate school now who might be starting a job teaching philosophy.
1. A professor’s job should be regarded not as an informational expert who briefly encounters students, but as a model learner.
2. As a model learner, a professor should be open, transparent, and share all research publicly and especially with students. In sharing one’s research with one’s students, the students see not only informational expertise, but what it means for that scholarly discipline to be active in the life of their respective teacher. Professors are teaching-scholars for this reason. What makes philosophy teaching fun for me is when I can recall when a philosophical question was working itself in me in my writing that I can draw from in the actual class.
3. Teaching is the most important part of what it means to be a professor; it has never in my experience been research. Research makes me a better teacher, but given that many do not read the research I publish, I disagree with many graduate programs producing research-only students with no eye towards teaching as the actual real life practice of what it means to work as a scholar.
4. As a philosophy professor, I should from time to time weigh in on the ethical thinking of society and model the skills of patient inquiry and logical argument. It’s more important, however, to do this in class than in public media outlets. The threat of political opponents to dox publicly employed scholars at public state universities also means that one should be careful if one chooses to engage in scholarship of what we now call public philosophy. As a rule of thumb, the United States is not that radical of a place, and even the most benign of pragmatic articles in social philosophy can cause ire, so be careful.
4. A professor should be open to students and serve them. In a way, being a professor is both public servant to society (if publicly employed at a state university) and we serve our students first and foremost (which may also be more of an institutional norm at smaller private colleges and universities). I like to use the analogy that being a professor is like being a secular minister. We must model fairness in all we do, and we should have empathy for our students. We should always imagine that our online classrooms could be shared openly and publicly online. Skills of compassion, generosity of spirit, listening and empathy are now the most important virtues during a global pandemic where students are forced just like us to take online classes and be socially distant from each other.
5. Always be a colleague to other scholars both in your department and in your relationship with others. Be the colleague who thinks of the institution before yourself when you can. And “when you can” is the important part here, and you’ll also engage in activities that put your profession first before yourself too. There are obligations as a professional you’ll take on that do not reward you with money, but the work is somehow necessary and important to you. This is the part of being a professor that administrators do not see: volunteering to referee articles, being a journal editor, organizing conferences, helping out with grad students, reviewing books in one’s field, mentoring and networking with students, being mentored yourself, and any number of things to become the best you can be
6. Always write and compose fair standards in one’s syllabus regarding attendance, schedule, and expectations.
7. Always seek to know the local institutional culture of where you teach.
8. Always ask others about what they are teaching and when possible what they are writing about. Get to know what types of questions others find important in their disciplines. Do not focus only on yourself whenever you’re talking to them. If you’re just out of graduate school, you’ve been writing your dissertation for more than a year and constantly talking to others about your project at job talks and conferences. You’ve been really into yourself for a long time, and it’s easy not to see this blindness.
9. Always create assignments with clear expectations. Do not teach as if philosophy is a medieval guild and only some know how to be good students. Such teaching is never acceptable where I have taught. Instead, be open about what you want students to do. Be open why they are doing it, and also let them know where and when they might struggle with your assignment
10. Always be open to becoming a better teacher and receiving the advice of veteran teacher-scholars. This is the hardest for new PhDs in philosophy who just went through graduate school as they think their experience with philosophy should be everyone else’s experience. To them, everyone should regard philosophy as the most important discipline. As most graduate programs train researchers, your job out of grad school may be to teach Logic and Ethics only. You’ll need to develop yourself, experiment with what works in real time, and most professional conversations I have weekly center more on teaching rather than my philosophical work. Nobody cares if moral realism is true or that Husserl/Wittgenstein should be read this way over another way. My Chair and Dean do care how I structure writing assignments. Pedagogical conversations will be the norm for most of your career. The more prestigious your graduate program, the more you may think that teaching is not as important as research. The sooner you realize that most jobs in academia are 4/4 or 5/5 teaching loads, and that you’ll need to develop as a teacher, the better you will be professionally.
11. As a professor, the hardest things to teach in today’s students are active reading and critical writing of texts. These two skills are becoming less and less emphasized in professional disciplines like Business such that you may have students who are about to graduate who must take your lower-division philosophy class and they cannot write that well as the younger students who are not removed from practicing writing these papers from their high school literature class. I’ve discussed this problem with multiple professor friends across the United States and Canada. Connect with writing professionals in the English department. Focus on what it means to write in your classes. If you reflect on what you are asking students to do in your class and why they are writing it, then you can create assignments that help students become better writers and readers of texts. Philosophy offers such a unique skillset that it should inform the norms of writing pedagogy. I hope our English sisters and brothers can see this someday. Also realize that offering up a reasoned-defense of a singular thesis is the bulk of the writing we implement in classes and you may have to scaffold your assignments to build students up to that type of writing. We all must remember that American and Canadian students have never seen philosophy before going to university.
12. I’ve struggled to teach active reading for many years. In online classes, I will ponder a passage and slow down reading. I model what it means to move through a passage and make students aware of just how many layers are present in a philosophical text. I move in real-time with my students and when a student says something insightful I note it. I will refer to that student’s insight over and over and show the implication of brilliant insight. So say Latesha notes that focus on the Form of Piety recalls Plato’s doctrine of the Forms. That insight elevates the possibility of teaching the Euthyphro because I do not become the one who references a prior reading of Plato’s Cave. Asking the students about what another student said makes them usually more willing to converse and in singling out Latesha, I create an atmosphere where she and all her peers see what it means to have been an active reader. I also reward the brilliance of her insight by publicly acknowledging it.
13. This probably holds for the humanities, but maybe more so in philosophy. There comes a point when a professor must step back and let students have the discussion as if they are leading it for a few minutes. When it happens, you only stoke the fire. As it is your classroom, you can step in at any time when necessary. “Great discussion, I do have other things I want to get to. We can come back to this.” However, when students start seeing the relevance of your subject matter; they will ask questions after class. That’s when you know you did something right or maybe it was a student inspired by the material and your class together. Sometimes, you can’t tell. Exercise judgment about these moments but when possible let them emerge. When students manifest the intellectual autonomy philosophy teaches its students, that’s a success that cannot be measured.
14. Always be open to student struggles. In my case, I know that perhaps other students have taken advantage of my generosity and yet in those cases where students have lost loved ones, have documented disabilities, and struggle to write—I’ve come up with unique solutions. In one case, a student had a lot of anxiety about being wrong and writing, so I told him to write the paper in my office. He came in for a week. I would read over drafts. Here he was a student athlete that would play before hundreds, and probably had an undocumented learning disability. He hated appearing stupid, and he suffered from severe panic attacks. Writing all of his papers in my office for a whole semester really helped him overcome something. I don’t have the vocabulary to know exactly what. I only knew that it was helping him. The result: he hugged me two years later as a junior at random in a hallway. Always try and accommodate students as much as possible without comprising the integrity of local institutional norms and your own classroom policies. Above all else, you’re a mentor, and young people are still learning to become virtuous and thrive.
15. As a professor, embrace King’s notion of universal brotherhood and beloved community. I am harmed when other people are harmed. Being my brother’s keeper and believing that when injustice occurs elsewhere that it is a threat to justice everywhere should be at the heart of your pedagogy.
16. Be authentic, honest and open. Young people know when they are getting brushed off. They also know when someone does not care about them. I happen to think that what feminist ethics of care identifies in the importance of relationships should be read instead as the basic ontological interdependence of being a person. Persons are in constant relationship to each other and we emerge together when people act on this shared sense of interdependence. It motivates one to care in ways that others fail to recognize this deep metaphysical truth.
Through mottled skies and gray swirls
The cannon fire smoked high heaven
Crisscrossed and star-spangled,
The treasonous flag waved to divide
Rabble-roused, the heart sees it again
Nightmare lingers on the edge of Douglass’s lament
As if neither heart nor could fathom the ugliness
Of those deplorables
Next time you hear someone in analytic philosophy of religion refusing to entertain the analytic and Christian gatekeeping that determines what counts as philosophy of religion, I’ve been involved in a little experiment. I have circulated a very competent and well-written essay on how we might characterize Scheler’s concept of God as providing a basis for nondualistic readings that challenge established dualistic readings of his later thought. I will not share the rejection letters I get from top-regarded philosophy of religion journals that are also analytic in orientation (or let you know which ones as I think that is a bit unprofessional), but if you are wondering why the process studies community and Continental philosophers do not publish as much in these journals (and thereby had to create their own journals) or why they care not for the type of scholarship I (or any phenomenologist/pragmatism about ethics and religion) do, then let me characterize the brief and uncharitable dismissals I have gotten, one of these being today.. (A).
A. That thing you said at the end. We want a paper arguing that thesis about that concept you mention at the end (No explanation or engagement with what I did). No developed reasons as to why my work is being rejected.
B. Given Scheler’s departure from Catholicism, we cannot publish this piece. Your “excellent scholarship” only confirms this.
C. Why would someone think phenomenological descriptions make up a reliable ontology for God and why this guy Scheler? Don’t you know this is an analytic journal!
In no cases of these journals did I receive what were developed engagements even from non-experts. There are no referee reports at all but simple one-line rejections. It took 11 months for three of these journals. So, one may infer a combination of analytic gatekeeping bias that what I do even counts as philosophy of religion and an unwillingness to be broad and pluralistic about philosophy of religion. Even when somewhat reviewed, there exists an unwillingness even to field such work on its own merits. So, I’ll keep you abreast of this piece in a few months in more friendlier places, but analytic philosophers of religion very much need to know how impoverished and sterile it is. They also need to know how power works in their field to affect the possibility of being more inclusive. AP Philosophy of Religion exercises a hermeneutic control over the possibility of philosophy of religion itself and this is an intentional effort on the part of its members. The next time they shake their head, it’s a genuine effort not to be pluralistic.
And let me just assure you, I have now about 30 articles, book reviews, and chapter invites in the seven years I’ve had my Ph.D. I’m very good at what I do. 25 of them are peer-reviewed articles and English-speaking phenomenology journals regularly ask me to review work on Scheler when it comes their way. My work on Scheler has appeared in special volumes on his work, European, and American journals. On one occasion, I have worked anonymously with an international graduate student to help him with his English for a Scheler chapter in his dissertation. I am humble about my expertise and the range of my own capabilities. But what I am trying to stress here dear reader is as old as the romantic comedy: “It’s not me, it’s you dear analytic philosophers of religion who have the problem.”