Figuratively the Humanities

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has once again irked humanities scholars. In 2014, he had declared philosophy a “useless” enterprise (a stance his colleague Bill Nye once held and has since revised). This time Tyson drew backlash for what he didn’t say.

The public intellectual tweeted about the lack of educational enterprises helping students discern the construction of “facts” and “data” in an age of “fake news.” Tyson has long been an advocate of meta-cognitive pedagogy. But the tweet’s concise pronouncement suggested that no one is doing that work. Continue reading “Figuratively the Humanities”

Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

Martin Luther King Dream

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my children often figure significantly into my posts if only because people in the midst of being socialized are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting people around. This is also why so many of my posts about my kids are often focused on their educational experiences, for while there are a large number of ways in which we are socialized, most of these experiences are rarely as intentional and self-conscious as formal education. (If you’re interested, you can check out  my reflections on their school introduction to Columbus Day and 9/11).

With that said, I recently had an interesting experience that shed some light on the ways that we negotiate our social rituals in order to suit the specific power relationships that such rituals foster. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurred a few weeks ago in the U.S., a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. Many of you, no doubt, saw all sorts of King-related posts on social media, most of them lines extracted from King’s larger speeches and writings, transformed into motivational statements like these: Continue reading “Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?”

The Golden Age

As a college professor I often hear faculty lament the students we have “these days”; there’s a nostalgic decline-and-fall narrative we tell, according to which we’re far removed from the golden age when students were prepared for college and could actually read and write upon arrival. If only we could return to the seventeenth century, when students came to college reading Latin and knowing their Seneca and Cicero!

However, when this narrative is shared (and, to be honest, I’ve told the tale myself), what I hear — what that narrative seems to implicitly suggest — is this: things were better back in the old days, before they let a lot of women and blacks and kids from the working class into college. Continue reading “The Golden Age”

Coz these are the good old days

dairyI remember my dad, when I was younger, talking to a customer at the gas station that my parents owned and operated. The man was complaining about the price of gas going up and up and waxing nostalgic for how much it was years ago.

Now, my dad, who was born in 1923, also remembered things about the past but his memories ran counter to his customer’s; so I recall him replying with how much a quart of milk used to cost (yes, my dad once was a milkman, going door-to-door with a horse and wagon), pointing out that no one today seemed to complain about its astronomic rise in price — for if we use the early 1930s as our benchmark, when he was a kid, then the cost of milk has increased somewhere around 800% since then. Continue reading “Coz these are the good old days”

How Old is That?

fossil2

The following is a brief excerpt from my own Introduction to the soon-to-be published collection of essays, Fabricating Origins, from the Working With Culture on the Edge book series.

Among the assorted knick-knacks that line my office’s shelves — ranging from such relics as photos of friends and family or gifts I’ve accumulated over the years to a selection of tattered romance novels shelved long ago among my books by mischievous students — is a nicely matted and framed “fossil” of Knightia, a long extinct genus of small boney North American freshwater fish, dating to more than 35 million years ago (or what scientists know as the Eocene epoch), and which was recovered from the well-known (to fossil hunters, at least) Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming. I bought it one summer, heavy wooden frame and all, about ten years ago in a gift shop in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, at the same time that I purchased for my Department’s library a number of other artifacts, such as the stereotypical dancing Shiva statue and the Thai-styled bust of Buddha, complete with its intricately carved curls. I never anticipated writing about my framed piece of sedimentary rock, though I have often used it in classes to illustrate a point or two about discourses on origins; I now realize that this rock might have some uses outside of the classroom. Continue reading “How Old is That?”

Fabricating Origins

Picture 17We used a typescript copy of my small, forthcoming edited volume, Fabricating Origins (due out this summer), in my upper-level seminar this semester, a course devoted to examining origins narratives — seeing those various sorts of “In the beginning” tales we so commonly tell as not being about the past their tellers claim to narrate but all about the present and future hopes of the tale’s narrator. The course started out with Barry Levinson’s endearing film “Avalon” (but one that opens the way to discussing hidden fractures in the life of any social group) and then a couple weeks later we watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (in which the notion of nostalgia is problematized so nicely) — both setting the tone for the course. Students kept notebooks in the class (something I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith and which I’ve incorporated into most of my upper-level seminars), and they handed them into me last week; it was interesting to see, from some of their notes, how effective the films were in framing the problem of the course. And then, eventually, we worked our way to the ten revised posts from this site, collected together in the above-named volume, complete with commentaries on each by a group of young scholars I’ve mostly met online through social media. And, like the movies, the volume seems to have worked well with students, to press home the point of the course.

And that point was…?

Don’t look in the distance, or the past, at whatever someone is gesturing toward; rather, keep your eyes on the one trying to direct, perhaps even to force, your gaze. Continue reading “Fabricating Origins”

Our Extended Arms

Picture 15To open the Introduction to my 2003 collection of essays, The Discipline of Religion —  a book concerned with, among other things, investigating the links between the invention of and social uses for privacy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the practical, governing role played by the discourse on belief, experience, or faith — I wrote as follows:

it is 1988 and I’m at home, living just outside Toronto, watching a television special on the Olympic torch relay across Canada to Calgary, the host of that year’s winter Olympic Games. I recall seeing a young boy, lucky enough to be selected to carry the torch for his designated distance, running through the crowded street with the torch held out over his head, obviously excited. His father runs alongside with his video camera, matching his son’s pace, documenting the event for posterity. The boy looks at his father, and into the camera, and says, “I can’t wait to get home and see this on TV. ” I recall thinking to myself, “You’re living it now, kid, so why do you have to get home to see it on television?”

This is likely one of the first memories I think I have of an occasion when the intertwined nature of the past, present, and future became apparent to me, i.e., when the present’s continual invention of itself was obvious, via its contrived distance from an imagined past that is no longer here or a hoped for future that has yet to appear. Continue reading “Our Extended Arms”

When the Sledgehammers Come Out

Picture 9I keep seeing laments online for what the members of the Islamic State are doing in museums — laments that easily slide into virulent critiques of their humanity since they obviously have no civilized respect for our collective human past.

I’ve written about this before, but what I wish to highlight here is how quickly otherwise nuanced people forget their own understanding of such things as the ideology of the museum, the politics of world history and discourse on civilization/barbarity, as well as the constructed nature of the past — quickly, that is, when their own taken-for-granted narratives of progressive development, value, cultural authority, and historical interconnection/lineage are called into question by those who, presumably, subscribe to a rather different narrative. Continue reading “When the Sledgehammers Come Out”

Going to the Talkies?

movie-piano“Going to the movies over the winter break?” is a common enough question this time of year, but the curious thing is that if we asked:

“Going to the talkies over the winter break?”

Continue reading “Going to the Talkies?”