Monthly Archives: December 2015

Pedagogy and Disciplines

After several years of working in academia, it’s been interesting to be back in the classroom as a student. Teaching per se was not central to my previous role, but a lot of my work focused on student development.

I’ve also had a somewhat untraditional academic path. My undergraduate studies were in physics, I went on to get a Masters in marketing communication, and then through work I had the opportunity to co-teach an undergraduate philosophy seminar course. So, I’ve been particularly struck by the different pedagogical approaches that can be found in different disciplines.

In many ways, these pedagogical approaches can be linked back to different understandings of wisdom: techne, technical knowledge; episteme, scientific knowledge; and phronesis, practical wisdom.

My undergraduate studies in physics focused on episteme – there was some techne as they taught specific mathematical approaches, but the real emphasis was on developing our theoretical understanding.

My master’s program – aimed at preparing people for careers in marketing – lay somewhere between techne and phronesis. Teaching by case studies is typically associated with phronesis – since the approach is intended to teach students how to make good decisions when confronted with new challenges. But the term is not a perfect fit for marketing – phronesis traditionally takes “good decisions” to be ethical decisions, whereas these studies took “good” to mean “good for business.” The term techne, which implies a certain art or craftship, is also relevant here.

The philosophy seminar I co-taught focused on phronesis. This is by no means intrinsic to philosophy as a discipline, but my specific class focused on civic studies, an emergent field that asks, “what should we do?”

This question is inherently linked to phronesis: as urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg writes in arguing for more on phronesis in the socials sciences: “a central question for phronesis is: What should we do?”

Each of these types of wisdom could be tied to different pedagogical methods by exploring the tasks expected by students. To develop phronesis, students are confronted with novel contextual situations asked to develop solutions. For techne students have to create something – this might be a rote recreation of ones multiplication tables, or could involve a more artistic pursuit. Episteme would be taught through problem sets – asking students to apply theoretical knowledge to answer questions with discrete answers.

From my own experience, different disciplines tend to gravitate towards different types of wisdom. But I wonder how inherent these approaches are to a discipline. Episteme may be the norm in physics, for example, but what would a physics class focused on phronesis look like?



Han Shot First

In on the eve of being honored by the Kennedy Center, legendary filmmaker George Lucas sat down with the Washington Post to reflect on his remarkable career. Among other things, Lucas used the opportunity to defend one of his most controversial decisions: editing a scene in the remastered Star Wars to make it appear that Greedo shot first.

The Washington Post explains:

[Lucas] went back to some scenes that had always bothered him, particularly in the 1977 film: When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is threatened by Greedo, a bounty hunter working for the sluglike gangster Jabba the Hutt, Han reaches for his blaster and shoots Greedo by surprise underneath a cantina table. In the new version, it is Greedo who shoots first, by a split second. 

Lucas justifies the change:

“Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’ ” Lucas asks. “Because I was thinking mythologically — should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, ‘Yeah, he should be John Wayne.’ And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first] — you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.”

The Washington Post points out that Lucas is “a passionate defender of an artist’s right to go back and tweak his work.” In some ways that seems fair – yet art is not created solely by the artist. Art, nearly by definition, is a shared experience; the interpretation of art is a creative act in itself.

So, yes, perhaps Lucas has the right to re-edit his films and add terrible CGI characters. But we, too, have the right to rebel. To hold our interpretations valid.

And CGI monstrosities aside, there is something particularly problematic about the narrative change of “Greedo shot first.”

Lucas himself almost gets at it in his defense: we wish Han hadn’t shot first.

Han is a good guy. We like him. He’s a little rough around the edges, maybe, but beneath his gruff exterior, we know he is a hero. And heroes always do the right thing.

Lucas sees that as a reason to re-write history. A true hero wouldn’t shoot first, therefore a true hero didn’t shoot first.

But that is exactly why it is so important to acknowledge that Han shot first. Maybe we wish he hadn’t, maybe we want him to be so upstanding that no matter how dicey the situation he always gives others the benefit of the doubt. But no matter how much we wish that to be the way the world is, we all know the truth:

Han shot first.

Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal thing to do. Perhaps it represents a moral lapse in his character. But it’s who he is, and it doesn’t diminish his capacity to be a hero.

All of us have made mistakes in our lives. All of us have moments we are not proud of. All of us wish we could exploit our “artist’s rights” to go back and edit our darker moments, to remake ourselves more like the heroes we wish we could be. But, of course, none of us really have that luxury.

The truth is, Han shot first. But that doesn’t make him less of a hero. He can still save the day and he can still get the girl.

Han shot first, but we are all capable of redemption.



Feminism and Nietzsche

It is no secret that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a lot of problematic things about women.

Of course, he is hardly alone in this, but Nietzsche’s pointed and ironic style make many of his comments particularly brutal. He plays into many typical tropes about women:

“Women are all skilful in exaggerating their weaknesses, indeed they are inventive in weaknesses, so as to seem quite fragile ornaments to which even a grain of dust does harm,” Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science. Women are manipulative, dangerous creatures who only feign weakness in order to beguile man and “defend themselves against the strong and the ‘law of the jungle.'”

And, of course, women are not capable of real connection with others; they are shallow creatures. “Woman’s love involves injustice and blindness against everything that she does not love…Woman is not yet capable of friendship: women are still cats and birds. Or at best cows…,” he writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Or, if you prefer: “Everything in woman is a riddle, and everything in woman has one solution—that is pregnancy. For the woman, the man is a means: the end is always the child.”

Thanks, Nietzsche.

Yet, none of this is a reason to throw out all of Nietzsche – he does make some more meaningful arguments – and some feminist scholars have even embraced his works.

In the collection of essays, Feminist Interpretations of Friedrich Nietzsche, Kelly Oliver and Marilyn Pearsall explain why a feminist would read Nietzsche in the first place:

How do feminist reconcile his apparent woman-hating aphorisms with the plethora of female figurations that ‘haunt’ his writings? Far from evading and ignoring femininity and maternity, as other canonical philosophers do, Nietzsche seems compelled to speak of them. His texts abound with references to women and the feminine, and specifically to feminists themselves. He continually deploys women as a trope – for life, for art, and for truth.

This argument is somewhat problematic in its own right: feminists should study Nietzsche because while other philosophers show their misogyny by ignoring women, Nietzsche at least has the decency to display his misogyny directly. But, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Oliver and Pearsall go on to describe the two approaches feminists take to reconciling with Nietzsche.  The first approach, which seems to me to be the most pervasive, is to generally write Nietzsche off as the terrible misogynist he portrays himself to be. A feminist philosopher might still salvage some worthwhile remarks from other portions of his works, but these readings all must start with outrage over his “privileging of masculinity and denigrating of femininity.”

The other approach – which I find myself drawn to – is to consider Nietzsche’s comments with irony as part of his esoteric approach. These feminist philosophers “view his sexual dualism with the context of Nietzsche’s anti-essentialism and anti-dualism. They cite his ironic treatment of an ‘eternal feminine’ or essential woman. They see his perspectivism as questioning the fixity of sexual difference in favor of social constructionism.”

At worst, this approach finds Nietzsche, as Maudemarie Clark argues, caught in a contrast between his philosophical beliefs and his own misogynistic sentiments.

At best, this approach credits Nietzsche with – rather than expressing his own misogynistic beliefs – exposing the misogynistic beliefs of society.

That last reading is perhaps too kind, but I find myself intrigued by the idea nonetheless.

When Nietzsche writes about women, I rarely read him has writing about women. From his work, I’m not sure he has every actually met a woman – rather it seems as though he looked the term up in a dictionary and found a social construct that would serve as a perfect foil for his ubermench.

Did Nietzsche really think such terrible things about women? Perhaps, though as feminist philosophers have noted many of his comments are dissonant with his deeper beliefs. But, one thing I am confident of is that Nietzsche did not invent these images of women.

He writes about women as beguiling, as shallow and manipulative, as weak but somehow strong in their weakness. These are tropes that have been oppressing women for centuries. Nietzsche’s writings bring them to light – and, as modern reader – seem to mock them.

Nietzsche writes like a little boy having a tantrum. But beneath all the pomp and circumstance, beneath his exhausted peacocking, Nietzsche strikes me as deeply ironic in all that he writes.

Words have the power to create, not simply reflect, Nietzsche argues, but his words create a dark reflection of society’s misogyny indeed.