Friday, July 31, 2009

Things I learned from teaching

In grad school I was a TA (Teaching Assistant) for more years than I care to count. And last year, I taught three undergraduate classes of my own. Over the years, I have learned a few things about teaching (for what it's worth, the subject is history):

1. The "absent minded professor" routine doesn't work unless you are truly absent minded.

2. It is usually--almost always--inappropriate to introduce your own political views in the classroom. As teacher, you have a "bully pulpit" that none of the other students--even the bravest and most vocal--can enjoy. Even if students are not intimidated by the fact that you have the power to determine their grades, you still have the power to open and shut off debate. Use it wisely and only for subject-related, course-related goals.

3. When teaching a controversial issue or any issue that admits of more than one interpretation, present as many legitimate sides of the issue as possible.

4. Just because you were an excellent student does not, by itself, mean you will be a good teacher.

5. Good teaching to a large extent is an art, and that makes being a good teacher very hard. However, certain of the "professional" requirements of being a good teacher are very easy and should be lived up to, even if you are otherwise not a good teacher. These include showing up to class on time, honoring your office hours, meeting with students when you say you will, responding to emails within a reasonable length of time, and grading papers promptly.

These are just a few. I'll add more if and when I think of any.

General theory of job relativity

Jobs always have complications and challenges that the person who does not have that job is unaware of.

This is different from my special theory of job relativity #1 because it does not require the job in question to be more difficult than imagined. Some jobs are easier than others and sometimes people can guess correctly if a job is "easy," at least compared with another job.

Special theories of job relativity #1 and #2

1. Jobs are usually much more difficult than they appear to the person who doesn't and has never had that job.

This is a special (and not general) theory because I once had a job--data entry for the Colorado Student Loan center, as a temp worker--that was indeed at least as easy as it looked. Otherwise, my experience has been that all jobs I've had (including other data entry jobs) were harder than they looked.

2. Jobs are usually much more difficult than they appear to the person who used to work the same job but doesn't work that job anymore. The truth of this theory is directly proportional to the amount of time--number of days/weeks/years--that has elapsed since that person had the job.

For example, I used to be a bank teller, but sometimes I get impatient when waiting to make a deposit or otherwise speak with a teller, even though I know it can be a very stressful job. (For what it's worth, I quite my teller job almost 12 years ago, so it's been a while.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"It was worth it"

A friend of mine once assured me that the 500,000+ lives lost in the US Civil War was "worth it" because it was a war against slavery.

I'm not sure I'd put it precisely that way. It's more like if so many people have to die in such a long and drawn out war, then at the very least some good must come out of it. This is not quite the same as saying it was "worth it."

Certainly slavery was a great evil, and it's not at all apparent that it would have ended soon (or even ever) after the 1860s, when the Civil War happened. Even if it did end of its own accord by, say, 1900 (or even 1890, or 1880, or 1870), it's hard to know that the same kinds of guarantees of civil liberties would have (albeit slowly) accrued to the descendants of slaves. Also, an argument is to be made that every day someone is in bondage, that is an injustice of infinite proportions, so that even if slavery would end on its own, it was a moral imperative to end it right away.

Ultimately, of course, I don' t know the answer. All I can really do is just think of what Lincoln said in his second inaugural address:
"Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How Not to Criticize Mister Bork

In my peregrinations on that informational low-way called the internet, I stumbled upon a review of Mister Robert Bork's Slouching toward Gomorrah, written in 1996. The book (unread by me) purportedly advances Mister Bork's social conservative views, viz., his advocacy of some censorship and his opposition to gay rights and abortion rights.

This review points out several contradictions in Mister Bork's book and has several substantive criticisms of Mister Bork's style of argumentation, pointing out the judge's refusal to consider very obvious counterarguments. I shall take this author's points at face value because I have not read the book.

Unfortunately, this reviewer falls into some unfortunate mistakes of his (I presume it's a he) own. The reviewer claims that Mister Bork uses "Orwellian rhetoric," and the example the reviewer cites is Bork's contention that he (Bork) represents traditional liberalism, not modern liberalism. It is possible that Bork's language is "Orwellian," but this example does not prove it. It seems at least arguable that what counts as "liberalism" has changed over time.

But worse, the reviewer indulges in ad hominems. In answering his own question about why Mister Bork's "inept hatchet job" was even published, the reviewer sarcastically suggests that a clue to the answer might be found on the book's jacket cover, on which can be found "praise from such renowned intellectuals such as Ralph Reed, Chuck Grassley, and William Bennett." I haven't much respect for any of these "intellectuals," but just because their support for Mister Bork does not make Mister Bork wrong. (For the record, I know many very intelligent people whose perspicacity I have much respect for who support the likes of Michael Moore, even though I believe that Moore is an essentially dishonest person.)

The reviewer continues the ad hominem attacks by reprinting comments from people who disagreed with the review. These comments are poorly written and insubstantive. Making fun of one for misspelling words and criticizing another for not disclosing his full name. These comments, which the author reprints, are certainly poor answers to the review, but they don't necessarily prove the review is good.

The reviewer also makes distressing appeals to authority. While pointing out that Mister Bork references Christian writers in an attempt to show that morality comes necessarily from religion, the reviewer notes that Bork refuses to consider
"the names of pioneers such as Richard Alexander (author of Darwinism and Human Affairs and The Biology of Moral Systems) or Frans de Waal (author of Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured) who have explored the biological basis for morality. Neither does Bork cite Robert Wright (author of The Moral Animal, an excellent popular treatment of these topics). "
Perhaps Mister Bork ought to have considered the many well-reasoned arguments advanced to support the claim that morality does not depend on religion. My problem is more with the insistence that name dropping provides a devastating critique of Mister Bork's point of view.

Finally, the reviewer makes what is likely a straw man of Mister Bork's argument about religion. (I say "likely a straw man" because I haven't read Slouching). The reviewer claims that Bork uses religion as a justification for strict government regulation of culture only as a "tranquilizer" for the masses:
Never mind that there is no serious evidence for the existence of God -- Bork never says that we should believe the claims of religion because they are true. No, the masses must believe because it keeps them tranquil. Bork is less clear about whether he himself needs to believe to keep his anti-social impulses under control.
I seriously doubt that Mister Bork openly avows, or impliedly suggests, that he does not believe in the truth of religion. I also seriously doubt that Mister Bork at any point entertains the notion that "there is no serious evidence for the existence of God."

The reviewer makes some very good points. Indeed, from all I know about Mister Bork and from the one book of his I have read (The Antitrust Paradox), I'm inclined to agree with the reviewer's conclusions. My criticism is that he overindulges in ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority that mean little and straw man arguments.

The Borkean Paradox: a Judge at War with Himself

Richard Epstein has a review of a recent compilation of selections from Robert Bork's writings. (Hat Tip: David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy). I have not read this recent book; in fact, I have read only his book on antitrust, and I found it wanting in some particulars. At any rate, Epstein criticizes Mister Bork for claiming to be an originalist but in some instances succumbing to two tendencies that undercut his (Mister Bork's) message:

1. Mister Bork's putative originalism leads him to inveigh against many forms of economic regulation but to condone, inconsistently, extensive government regulation of cultural issues.

2. Mister Bork adopts a confrontational, even mean, tone in his writing that might alienate his potential supporters.

Mister Bork seems to me like an angry man.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

George Bailey didn't sit on the draft board

I've been thinking about the classic film, It's a Wonderful Life. You will recall that the movie was about an honest man, George Bailey, who gave up his dreams of world travel and wealth and fame to run his late father's honest "Bailey's Building and Loans" business and to save that business from the clutches of the richest man in that small town, Mr. Potter.

The movie chronicles George's life, from his youth in the 1920s, to his marriage and his takeover of the building and loans business during the Great Depression, and through World War II. During World War II, George does good, helping, if memory serves, to ensure proper preservation of materials important for the war effort. (It's been a while since I've seen the movie, so I stand to be corrected on the specifics.)

Meanwhile, the evil Mr. Potter is head of the town's draft board. Of course he is. He's a bad man, and making people go to war involuntarily is an unsavory thing to do.

My question, though, is, isn't this a bit too convenient? It doesn't seem to me that George Bailey's character objects to the idea of drafting people, and the film's audience, probably, does not so object either, or is not expected to object. Yet, drafting people is unsavory, something that smells bad even if it's necessary, and why not let bad people do it?

Capra was obviously making use of a common literary trope--bad people do the necessary but unsavory things while good people do the necessary and savory things.

We see this a lot. For example, in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, there is a scene where the protagonist--glamorous bank robbers who scrupulously attack only bankers and avoid stealing from honest, hardworking farmers--take a man (played by Gene Wilder) out drinking and carousing. They eventually find out that his occupation is that of an undertaker, and when they do, they abandon him on the road, far from his home. The moral, as I take it, is that the man who profits off other people's deaths is to be loathed. (Still, his services are necessary.)

I suppose such tropes are okay when it comes to entertainment. Maybe they're are even necessary. But is there not some room to acknowledge moral ambiguity?