Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good Teaching: Critics and Aspiring Critics

Lately I have been considering what good teaching actually entails. There is much talk among my colleagues about who is and is not a good teacher, and what strategies and inclinations he or she uses to facilitate good teaching, or how he or she fails miserably at the task. And yet, with all of this humming from the teacher commentariat, I am not convinced that teachers can adequately decide who teaches well and who does not. The students, on the other hand, seem to have the knack for judging teachers' mettle. Now, to be fair, some teachers are seen favorably by students plainly for giving very little work and grading lightly and infrequently. Those are exceptional, however. Though I do not want to overhear students' comments about fellow teachers, I usually do. The comments consistently reflect what I would naturally assume to be the style and temperament of the teacher being commented on. Students know who is a good teacher and who is not a good teacher. Why? They are the consumers after all, and consumers decide what works best for them. One hopes they will digest slowly.

Danielle de Niese - A Great Mozart Soprano

Her Susanna in Lyric Opera's Marriage of Figaro this year was superbly Mozartian: comic, lyrical, sly, humane. Her glory in the role won the day. Mozart's women, like Shakespeare's, are often strong and noble; but Susanna is the great synthesis of humor and strength: two virtues I often lack more than any others.

The Closest We May Get

"...On that cedar tree shone, however briefly, the steady, inward flames of eternity; across the mountain by the gas station raced the familiar flames of the falling sun. But on both occasions I thought, with rising exultation, this is it, this is it; praise the lord; praise the land. Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fill his cup under a waterfall."
-Annie Dillard

Saturday, February 27, 2010

An Actual Conservative

Paul Ryan (R-Wis) may be firmly ensconced in the GOP, but he must give those of us pause who clamor for health reform. This thorough critique is of the current Senate bill. It does not sway me quite away from the current proposals, but it does incline me to want a more muscular approach to pushing down premiums and making sure providers are able to provide Medicare beneficiaries service in the future.

Big Red

I may emerge, but you have seen enough to know.

Chicago Facing East

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a visionary work. That she blends such rich humility and detachment with such intensely rendered ideas of perception makes the work worth reading on its own. Yet she raises valid epistemological questions, most importantly: how do we see when we expect to see, and how do we dislocate our intended seeing? Prompted by this great book, I attempt to see the stillness in objects; the silence underscored by anarchic and destructive potential. Her casual tone is something to be commended as well, since approaching such a topic as she does without some seeming puerility would be a difficult task for anyone.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

CPAC Roundup

Rational conservative David Frum has a summary of the highs and lows of this year's GOP and Tea soul-searching and motivational speaking.

Kierkegaard, for those who dare

A penetrating essay on Kierkegaard from 1944 by W.H. Auden.

The Torture Era

James Fallows has a sober account of the Cheney torture regime and the recent report from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. Yglesias has a relevant reflection too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ambient 1 - Music For Airports, fast-forwarded

Brian Eno's legendary Music for Airports condensed to six minutes.

Fear of Knowing

Michelle Malkin's HotAir picks up an old silly idea: that younger people prefer "spirituality" to "religion" because the latter consists of rules and responsibilities. That an individual would reject plainly tedious institutional regulations of any organized religion for greater introspection and exploration of what words like "self", "world", and "meaning" mean is not radically lazy. It is absolutely not easier to attempt to derive personal truth than to cowardly follow what one is told to do by an institution of dubious origin. In fact, those who claim personal truth is easier than following arbitrary rules often seem to me incapable of undertaking the very weight of what religion requires: contemplation of the most daunting questions humankind has ever faced. One does not come to know religious truths through servility. So many of these believers who criticize others for having the courage to find their own way in an inexplicably sublime and terrifying universe would be the same people who would crucify Christ again if he came back tomorrow. How can I say such a thing? Let their sanctimony point the way.

Another Unraveling in Iraq?

Tom Ricks is understandably worried over the future of Iraq after comments from a military official in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, General Odierno exposes Ahmad Chalabi as a lackey for Iran.

George Orwell contra Christianist Authortarianism

John Avlon at the Daily Beast offers an analysis of the unlikely rise of the most appallingly loathsome mountebank since Jerry Falwell. This country needs to get serious. George Orwell correctly asserts in his great essay, "Politics and the English Language", that the level of a nation's political discourse is reflected in the level and manner of the language through which it is communicated. Considering the ranting and charlatanry that pass for analysis and political commentary on our regrettable cable news outlets, we should all be greatly concerned. We may be doomed to obscurity, or, worse yet, infamy.

Orwell lists six rules for avoiding disingenuous writing and communication:

(i) Never use a metaphor or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you
can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

It's Official: Harry Reid Endorses Reconciliation for Health Care Reform

Ezra Klein gives details for the implications for the health care concession package to be pushed through the Senate. Now, finally, the Democrats will have something to run on besides the less the politically successful Recovery Act for November. The public option waits in the wings. Needlessly fetishized as it was by many progressives, I still think it deserves at least a five year trial. If it fails to effect cost and premiums in a positive way, dump it. Even with the noxious effects of vulgar cads like Glenn Beck infecting the health care debate with their ignominious disinformation and distortions, a Washington Post/ABC news poll indicates consistent public support from February through October of last year for a government run health care alternative to private insurance.

Ron Paul and the Future of Conservatism

It seems the Tea Party movement might actually be coalescing behind an ideology. Rather than being a plain corporate public relations creation, the Tea Party howled and roared for Ron Paul at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. If Paul becomes the model for their cause, they may actually gain some legitimacy with rational conservatives and moderates. Up until recently, they seemed to be largely incoherent and raging, mostly against perceived threats against individual liberties and reckless spending: both of which were more flagrant hallmarks of the previous administration. If anything, the Obama administration has been at best tepid in its paring down of the national security state. Its health care initiative - the Baucus Bill from the Senate Finance Committee - was graded as budget neutral by the CBO, and even was projected to cut medical costs by 70 billion dollars over ten years. Yet, with all of that, the Tea Party seemed bound in its fealty to nativism and brutish authoritarian jingoism. Hopefully the enthusiastic reception of Ron Paul at CPAC will engender a strong libertarian turn for the Tea Party, if it has to be around at all. At least then there will be a legitimate political debate to be had between liberals and libertarians.

Late Beethoven

That Beethoven continued to develop as a composer after his great "heroic" middle period is one of those truly miraculous events in the history of civilization. He tends to do the impossible in these late pieces: become stricter in form while stretching its very boundaries. The most radical example of his late period - with the possible exception of the fugal finale of his Hammerklavier sonata - is his Grosse Fugue, which, especially in the first section, rattles the bars of tonality. A dissonant double fugue, the Great Fugue liberates the great visionary Beethoven in a way not even his greatly introspective and intimate late piano sonatas can. This thoroughly modern work is anguished, yes, but also triumphant over incomprehensible suffering. The late works of Beethoven are of inestimable spiritual and visionary power and - it should be noted - composed in a void of total silence.

Public Option and Republican Psychosis

The Public Option lives. Could the Senate Democrats finally have the courage to push it through with reconciliation? I think it could easily be construed as of "budgetary necessity." Oh, the good and the crazy that could result.

Talking Points Memo has the story.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Teaching as Craft or Performance?

Though I certainly see teaching in part as a craft, I am more inclined to regard it as a performative exercise. Of course one must adjust the fine points of one's instructions if he or she ever wishes to hone the small gears of the learning process for students. But the performance of the content, especially in the style of delivery and willingness to engage with students on the subject, I think is paramount. The details of planning and organization should never be eschewed in favor of overly-Romantic conceptions of teaching. Still, it seems students react to a persona more so than to a method. My thoughts on the matter are subject to continuous evolution.

Health Care Again

Yet another reason I hope the president does not falter in getting the Senate bill through the House. The working poor are the largest uninsured block and they are entitled to health care for working often more than full-time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bombay and the War Against Jihadism

Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, sheds light on one aspect of the terror war that we in the West fail to appreciate: terrorist links to organized crime. Bombay is flooded with organized criminal activity, but the gangs are nominally split down ethnic/religious lines. The most influential Hindu-affiliated gang, Rajan Company, was formed in opposition to the most influential Muslim gang, the Dawood Company. The latter group is headed by Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian Muslim allegedly living in Pakistan, who met personally with Osama Bin Laden outside of Kabul on at least one occasion in the 90's and is seen by many to be intertwined heavily with Pakistani Intelligence Services. Moreover, the Taliban, as we are aware, are financed heavily by opium farming and smuggling and enjoy ISI protection as well. Mehta notes that the battle between Hindu and Muslim criminal gangs in Bombay is not so much about ethnic or religious differences in and of themselves. In fact, a large share of the hitmen in these outfits are mercenaries who detach their ruthless occupation from religious mores and their traditional domestic lives. Mehta insists many in the Bombay gang wars are waging a nihilistic battle against history itself. I wonder if on the most macro level that is what global Islamic terrorism sees itself as doing as well? Is it too sentimental of a claim?

Taliban #2 Captured in Pakistan

Taliban military chief, Mullah Baradar, was captued in Karachi two days ago and is said to be providing intelligence. This, after the incompetent punk Dick Cheney has the temerity to accuse Obama of not prosecuting the war on jihadism effectively or with enough conviction. Let's hope the Obama national security apparatus can nab Mullah Omar or Bin Laden himself next. If that were to happen, would the GOP be grateful to have two of the most heinously wicked thugs in recent history in custody or killed? Or would they invent a way to even downplay such a success as that?

Chicago Facing West

Health Care and Its Discontents

The Washington Post's always steady and edifying Ezra Klein gives a sound rebuttal of a couple arguments gaining steam among health care reform skeptics.

Spinoza, Freud, and God

Having recently read Spinoza's Ethics, I can safely say his concept of God is the closest I think I may ever be able to come to philosophically accepting divinity. Spinoza's God is impersonal, amoral, and devoid of any of the puerile forms of personification so common to so many God concepts. Essentially, his God merely IS, nothing more, nothing less. The idea of God as merely essence is captured perfectly in this piece from this great work:

"The light reveals both itself and the shadow."

Freud, however, maintained that the need to believe in God was the result of the human need for protection from the world and the pervasive unknown. The mistake he made was to assume that just because humans are frail creatures in need of comfort and protection does not necessarily negate the existence of divinity itself. He, like many atheists, bolsters his claims against the existence of God with the silliness and obvious petty selfishness that goes into so much conventional "religious conviction." I have great sympathy for those who criticize such vapid belief systems, but the question of divinity remains an abstract one. There it will always stay. It would be quite a prosaic issue otherwise, and so often it is.

Samuel Beckett, if only momentarily

This is Beckett's shortest dramatic work, and his most fundamentally human. Literally.

Evan Bayh Gives Me ADD

Instapundit hypes a rather silly idea from the ever unintentionally amusing Jonah Goldberg at the National Review Online. Goldberg postulates that Evan Bayh announced he will not seek reelection due to a potential desire to challenge Obama in the 2012 Democratic primary. I'm not...wait for it: Bayhing it. Couldn't help myself.

Tweet Or Not

George Packer has a good metaphor for Twitter at the end of the post. I concur.

Fly-Over State

Bookslut reviews a new book for those of us who have often rolled our eyes.

Chicago Facing South

One Hippo's Tambourine Dream - Another Idea of Animals and Imagination

Hippo’s Dream

The sun blazed over the Zambezi as the rainy season approached. Soon the river would rise to its highest levels and expand over the rims of the savannah. As the rains begin and the water levels rise, the territory of the hippos significantly expands. Many take advantage of the high water levels by seeking solitude when they can. When the river’s levels are more modest, solitude is nearly impossibly to come by. But the rains help certain hippos get away to meditate when they need to, which is often, since other hippos’ aggression often can drastically affect their well-being. Many travelers on safari who tour the Zambezi during the rainy season comment on how it resembles a lake much more than a river. Often they are taken by its placid surfaces and sense of repose. But when a hippo’s head rises up with a fixed stare as rigid as it is poised, the travelers know they must flee. Hippos have claimed many human lives on this river.

One hippo went off late one afternoon to be alone. Hip, as she was called, needed time away from the predictable chaos of others in the group. She swam for a half a mile downriver until she found a spot eight feet down. Hip, like all hippos, could stay underwater for nearly fifteen minutes at a time without coming up for air. She was feeling especially drowsy as evening approached, so she decided she would descend until she needed to come to the surface. After that, she would return to the group with the hope that none of them would be too angered by her leaving without telling anyone. As she descended she felt a spell of heavy sleep come over her. Just fifteen minutes, she thought to herself, all I need is fifteen minutes on the bottom of the river. But as she went deeper and deeper down, her sleep overwhelmed her. She began to dream.

Her dream was a normal hippo’s dream at first. She dreamed of spinning a crocodile on the tip of her nose before biting it in half. She dreamed of running down a gazelle with such efficiency that she could circle out in front of it and merely let it run into her mouth. She even dreamed of one of her favorite pastimes of all: turning over canoes with humans in them. Hip was not interested in eating the humans, however. She only loved to watch from below as their legs kicked and swayed. It gave her a strange sense of comfort that nothing else could. As Hip gazed up with glazed, weary eyes to the surface, she saw a boat propeller cut through like a comet in a transparent night sky. She thought she saw those same legs kicking and swaying above too, but she wasn’t sure. The dream deepened.

Hip suddenly dreamed of herself, yet something was different: she was no longer confined to just being a hippo. Somehow her dream enabled her to be like a human. First, she stood up on her squat hind legs. It wasn’t easy at first, but she mastered upright walking quickly by shifting all of her considerable weight from one foot to another in a kind of waddle. Next thing she knew, not only was she walking, but she had a tambourine in her hand. Little by little she began to shake it. It was a simple rhythm at first. Like all simple rhythms, though, it began to assert itself. As she continued to walk and play her tambourine, the crocodiles, swept up in the music, suddenly began to dance. All around they propped themselves up on their triangular tails and bounced to the beat of Hip’s tune. Each of their toothy mouths hung almost completely open, as if to catch the happy jingle in their jaws. The elephants also started dancing. One by one, they stepped forward and then back on their front legs. The leopards too began to dance by holding their paws up in the air and swinging their tails in a circle motion. It was a scene even the warthogs admired from afar, though they did not dance. They nodded their heads to the beat of the tambourine, however, since even they couldn’t resist. Then in a flash the river became a fire. This fire did not burn though. It warmed all the dancers with a balm of ecstasy. Fire is a natural dancer after all. As the crocodiles spun, the elephants stepped, the leopards shook, and the warthogs bobbed, Hip’s dream rollicked on.

The stars began to fall from the sky. As each star fell into the glorious flames of the river, a swirl of iridescence rose in a flourish that perfectly complemented the rhythm of Hip’s tambourine. Eventually all of the stars fell out of the sky, leaving it not black, but the deepest blue imaginable. The flames from the river reached higher to the sky and the animals ecstatically danced as if possessed. The river reached the sky. The heavens were ablaze with the triumph of Hip’s tambourine. The world was aflame with music, dancing, and joy. The heavens were the earth; the earth the heavens. Hip dreamed of the whole universe. As she looked out through outer space, she squinted to see a small dot far off in obscurity. The harder she looked, the more it came into focus. It was the planet Earth. It was a reflection in the pupil of her eye.

Back up the river the other hippos began to worry about Hip’s absence. The entire night had passed without any of them seeing or hearing from her, and worry understandably pervaded the group. The bull hippos immediately flew into a rage. They flashed their mighty tusk-like teeth and arched their necks back, as if to appeal to the open expanse above. The females swam the surface of the water. Their eyes were scanning above and beneath. The more they looked the more they sensed that looking was futile. If Hip was near, they felt, she was not to be found. Days later, at the mouth of the Zambezi, Hip’s lifeless body floated out into the Indian Ocean. She floated for a long time until land was long out of sight. Then she began to sink down into the darkness of the deep. Slowly she disappeared.

Animals and Imagination

I have long been mystified by lovers of animals. That is not to say that I don't find animals endearing and suitable temporary companions, but I never understood the intuitive bond many animal lovers claim to have with their pets. Today I visited the Lincoln Park Zoo and made a few stops to see a few of my favorite animals. The pygmy hippo and the tiger each looked a little sluggish and morose. Again, I am not sure if they were morose. Likely I impressed that upon their otherwise inscrutable animal countenances. The pygmy hippo and the tiger deeply intrigue me every time I see them, since each of them is solitary in the wild. Being solitary and having terrain to roam and claim as one's own might be affirming for an animal. But when a solitary animals are in captivity I am compelled to wonder: does their captive state bring them great distress, or does it bring them a sense of comfort? Another way to look at this question would be to imagine if a purposefully solitary person takes greater comfort fending for himself or herself in the world or being cared for in confined surroundings by another. I suppose it would vary, though I can't help but wonder if their solitary disposition trends toward a need for self-sufficiency.

Finally, I visited my favorite zoo residents: the meerkats. Meerkats are intensely loyal and familial, and have an adorable tendency to stand on their hindquarters in an alert posture. As I was the only person in the meerkat habitat today, I had a chance to really pay attention to their actions. None of them paid much attention to me as I stood there for the better part of twenty minutes; but, as I was leaving, each of them stood on their hind legs and stared fixedly at me as I walked out. I immediately conjured some idea in my own mind as to what they might have been thinking as I left. Then it occurred to me: animal lovers do just that. What creates the special bond between man and animal is not what the animal emotionally or psychologically provides. Rather, it is what the human imaginatively conjures and impresses upon the heedless animal. Now, no doubt, animals have some intuitive capacity, as they are developed, living creatures. Yet, I doubt their capacity for actual thoughts or mature feelings, as I would think most sane people would. But the bond between man and animal is not subverted by this limitation; it is validated. The bond between man and animal is an imaginative one, and that is a fundamental human need. Our only sense of freedom is imaginative, as our material circumstances bind us in every which way. And because animals are ultimately inscrutable creatures, we are left to imagine what they must really be and how they must really feel about us. It is a beautiful thing after all.

What We Can Learn from India's Lack of Fear

Since Partition, India's religious/ethnic political landscape has been one torn by clashes military, criminal, and otherwise. The threat of Pakistani terror always looms large, as was the case with the brutal attacks on the Taj hotel and other locations in Bombay over a year ago. Yet, in the face of it all, India does not, like us, wish to suspend the rule of law, wage a perpetual war for perpetual peace, or wallow in pathetic flailing over their victim status. No, instead they persevere toward their national goals of self-determination and global legitimacy. Matt Yglesias reminds me.

Balancing Politics and Policy

Jonathan Chait has an excellent post at The New Republic on the inevitable dance of winking deceit each side of the health care "debate" must maintain to come out of the "summit" in good standing. For one, Obama is in a better position to expose the GOP as willful, recalcitrant obstructionists with no values other than short term political ones. The GOP is keen to portray Obama as partisan and secretive in the drafting of healthcare legislation with his congressional cohorts. The problem with their narrative, of course, is that the Obama health care agenda has stalled due to an over-extension of bipartisan sentiment and, to a lesser extent, a progressive caucus in the House still smarting from the death of their coveted public option.