Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Furthermore, if it were possible to present the same issue in just one shape and absolutely no other, then one might think it superfluous to bore the listeners by speaking in the same manner that had been done in the past. But logos (discourse or oratory) has such as a nature that the same issue may be interpreted in many ways, whether making the great small or bestowing greatness (on the insignificant), and laying out the things of old in a new fashion or speaking of recent events as though they were old; no one can escape the topics that people in the past spoke about, but [we] must endeavor to speak about them better.

The past is an inheritance held in common, but to lead it forth at the appropriate time, to conclude the appropriate things about each example, and to arrange the right expression is the individual gift of the wise.

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις, εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ᾽ἧν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις ἀλλ᾽ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν: ἐπειδὴ δ᾽οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήεσασθαι, καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι, καὶ τά τε παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν περατέον. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πράχεις αἱ προγεγενημέναι κοιναὶ πᾶσιν ἡμῖν κατελείφθησαν, τὸ δ᾽ ἐν καιρῷ ταύταις καταχρήσασθαι καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα περὶ ἑκάστης ἐνθυμηθῆναι καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασιν εὖ διαθέσθαι τῶν φρονούντων ἴδιόν ἐστιν.

Panegyricus 4.7-10

This passage comes near the start of the oration published in 380 BCE, in a section that Isocrates gives over to justifying and explaining why he is returning to a theme that has been addressed before. The obvious explanation is a clear justification for the study of history. If history was nothing more than a timeline of events that happened in the past, then there would be little incentive to keep studying the same things and history could be taught almost exclusively by video. Isocrates does not go as far as, for instance, E.H. Carr, in arguing that history is a dialogue between the past and the present, but, then, neither is “history” his primary emphasis.

Oratory and history share a common DNA, with the distinction, perhaps, that history looks backward while oratory looks forward.

In this passage, Isocrates alludes to a common critique of sophistry that it allows the speaker to invert the proper order by making the stronger argument weak and the weaker one strong, but does so with some modification. First, he distinguishes between the mean rhetoric of the courts and that which deals with important issues. Second, and more importantly, he removes moral weight from both great and small. This feature of oratory, then, is not about the individual allowing an unjust argument to be stronger, but giving importance to issues that might not have been considered. Once again this line of reasoning is very much in step with the opinion of many modern historians.

For Isocrates, analyzing the events of the past and deploying them in the appropriate cause is the purview of a wise man, one who would not apply this skill to corrupt purposes. Obviously in this instance the wise man is Isocrates, who, he’ll have you know, is going to speak about the past in a way that is better and more prudent than those who did so in the past. A digression on the misuse of history is simply beyond the scope of this address, but it remains the natural reverse side of the coin. Great harm may follow good intentions and vise-versa, but intent matters.

Isocrates takes an optimistic stance on the use of history. He is aspirational in a way that asserts both the importance of the past and the capacity of people in the present to improve that discourse whether by elevating the importance of the underappreciated or by changing how we think about about our forebears. Isocrates is of course being self-serving in these declarations since they serve to set up the larger arguments he is going to make later on, but this alone does not invalidate what he says.

I returned to the Panegyricus recently in the course of my research and this short section jumped out at me because of the debate over public monuments that has been going on in the United States. This context made what Isocrates omits all the more glaring because both sides assert that the other is attempting to misuse history, sometimes as though public monuments are the primary vehicle for recording the past. (They aren’t, but commemoration and the construction of monuments are their own history that reflects how we think about the past…but that is a topic better suited to another post.) History is an ongoing dialogue and the onus is on all historians (broadly construed) to engage with it responsibly. A modern mind might call for history to be used in ways that are more just or accurate, but there is a simplicity to Isocrates’ dictate: do better.

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

Unjust logos and the crowd

Earlier this year I wrote about attacks on education and Aristophanes’ Clouds. As much as I believe other Aristophanic comedies are funnier and that they are better plays, something about 2016 keeps drawing me back to Clouds, a dark portrait of education, as containing nuggets of wisdom about society.

To recap, the conceit of The Clouds is that Strepsiades is in a bind because he is in debt and has lost court cases. His solution is to send his son, Pheidippides, to school that he may learn all the tricks of sophistry, which will make the weaker argument stronger and get him off the hook for debt. At this point in the play, Strepsiades has gone to Socrates’ school the Thinkery to see for himself what he is going to get with this investment.

“Teach him, he has a capacity for sophistry by nature…However, let him learn those two Arguments, the stronger and the weaker, and that the unjust arguments overturn the stronger. If not both, at any rate, [see that he learns] the unjust one completely.” [ἀμέλει δίδασκε, θυμόσοφός ἐστιν φύσει…ὅπως δ᾽ἐκείνω τὼ λόγω μαθήσεται, τὸν κρείττον᾽ὅστις ἐστὶ καὶ τὸν ἥττονα, ὃς τἄδικα λέγων ἀνατρέπει τὸν κρείττονα. ἐὰν δὲ μή, τὸν γοῦν ἄδικον πάσῃ τέχνῃ]

“He will learn them from the Logoi (Arguments) in person.” [αὐτὸς μαθήσεται παρ᾽αὐτοῖν τοῖν λόγοιν.]

“Remember now, that he must be able to speak against every course case.” [τοῦτό νυν μέμνησ᾽, ὅπως πρὸς πάντα τὰ δίκαι᾽ ἀντιλέγειν δυνήσεται]


After a brief exchange, both characters leave the stage and are replaced by personifications of the two Logoi (Arguments).

Just Logos:
“Make room here, show yourself to the onlookers, although you are bold!” [Χώρει δευρί, δεῖξον σαυτὸν τοῖσι θεαταῖς, καίπερ θρασὺς ὤν.]

Unjust Logos:
“Go wherever you want. I will destroy you far more speaking in front of a crowd!” [ἴθ᾽ ὅποι χρᾐζεις. πολὺ γὰρ μᾶλλὀν ᾽ς ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖσι λέγων ἀπολῶ.]


The debate between Just Logos and Unjust Logos continues. Unjust Logos quickly turns to insults (Just Logos is antiquated [ἀρχαῖος]) and profanity, and then slips into an argument filled with non sequitors and false comparisons that rejects Just Logos at every turn. What struck me was how the argument is framed, with Unjust Logos explicitly declaring that his brand of rhetoric works better the bigger the crowd is because the ability of the individual to judge arguments clearly is obfuscated by the emotion of the collective.

Note that Aristophanes does not restrict the strength of Unjust Logos to this setting as often appears in this critique of democracy from ancient Greece to Men in Black, but rather that large crowds magnify its power.

Will I feed on wisdom like a dog? A parable of sorts

Modern applicability in ancient society is a dicy proposition, in my opinion. This is not to say the ancient should be ignored when it comes to understanding what it means to be human, but taking political, social, or cultural lessons usually results in mangling one or both. The cultures are vastly different, the technology is changed, and so on. This goes doubly when making a relatively superficial reference, such as the Thucydides Trap. With that caveat aside, whenever I see attacks on higher education I think of Aristophanes’ Clouds, produced in 423 BCE.

The play opens with Strepsiades, an average Joe, whose own habits and those of his son, Pheidippides, mean that he has debt that he either doesn’t want to or cannot pay.[1] To make matters worse, he has lost several court cases and now the creditors want to confiscate his property. Strepsiades is in a bind, but has heard about the power of sophistry, which appears in Aristotle as making the weaker argument stronger (Rhetoric 1402a23-5).[2] So Strepsiades says to his son “If one gives them silver, these men teach one how to be victorious with words, whether just or unjust [οὕτοι διδάσκουσ᾽, ἀργύριον ἤν τις διδῷ, λέγοντα νικᾶν καὶ δίκαια κἄδικα. 98-9]. With such power, he believes that he will be able to win the court cases and escape from debt. Pheidippides isn’t so sure, describing the scholars as pale-faced (akin to the Spartan prisoners), country-less wanderers. Nevertheless, Strepsiades makes his way to the school of Socrates, known in the play as the Thinkery:

“Open up the Thinkery! Quickly now! Show me Socrates! I want to learn! Throw open the doors!” [ἄνοιγ᾽ἄνοιγ᾽ἀνύσας τὸ φροντιστήριον, καὶ δεῖξον ὡς τάχιστά μοι τὸν Σωκράτη. μαθητιῶ γάρ, ἀλλ᾽ ἄνοιγε τὴν θύραν. 181-3].

Strepsiades is immediately appalled at the wide range of “studies” that are taking place inside, most of which have no bearing whatsoever on his current predicament. For instance, when they show him Athens on a map, he doesn’t believe them because he can’t see the juries in session.

The play goes on and includes a debate between “Unjust Argument” and “Just Argument” about who rules Athens [Unjust Argument does] and what is proper education, and Pheidippides undergoes a radical transformation, which, in turn, challenges the family structure. The vision of society in Clouds is conservative and modest, despite an exchange about whether there is any virtue in modesty or chastity with a dig at the sexual prowess of Achilles’ father Peleus. Debt remains an issue throughout the play, but it turns out that this newfangled education only resolves the issue to a point, while offering new complications.

I should note that this is very much caricature. The historical Socrates actually had a good reputation as a soldier and could hardly be counted among the pale-faced vagrants corrupting the young people, at least at this juncture, though the play shows that the reputation that would eventually cost him his life had already begun to develop.

As is frequently mentioned with reference to Aristophanes, his entire purpose is to win first prize in a theatrical competition, so the play is naturally layered with jokes ranging from the vulgar to the esoteric. Aristophanes’ plays tend to be conservative and, the war plays particularly, follow a somewhat predictable pattern: appearance of a problem (frequently: the war and its consequences), emergence of a comic hero or heroine who can resolve the problem, hijinks, party to celebrate the return to the peaceful days and old social order. Along the way there are layers of jokes, and, possibly, crowd interaction.

However, Clouds is peculiar in a couple of ways, showing a bitter, sour meanness that run contrary to most of his other plays. First, there is a famous choral scene in which the leader–often thought to be Aristophanes himself–breaks the fourth wall and directly berates the crowd for their support of Cleon and for having censured Aristophanes for mocking him in an earlier, now lost, play. Cleon, sometimes characterized as the bloodiest man in Athens, is a frequent target of Aristophanes, but not directly in Clouds, so the passage stands out.[3] The second difference is in the resolution to the play. Instead of the traditional euphoric conclusion, the disillusioned learners swarm the Thinkery with torches, determined to burn it to the ground. The conclusion, in particular, has a bitter edge to it, so it is perhaps not a surprise that the play did not win.

The core problem of Clouds is the intersection of debt and education. Aristophanes implies that a traditional education would keep one from falling into debt in the first place and is derisive of these new, weird forms of learning. Strepsiades isn’t interested in those, but is clearly willing to spend money on education, provided that there is a material gain for himself.[4] When the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t offer a monetary reward or seems to be potentially “subversive,” it is condemned as at best frivolous, at worst dangerous.[5]

[As Strepsiades sets fire to the Thinkery]
Student A: What are you doing, mister? [ἄνθρωπε, τί ποιεῖς;]

Strepsiades: What am I doing?! What else than subtly-discoursing the support beams of this house? [ὅ τι ποιῶ; τί δ᾽ ἄλλο γ᾽ἤ διαλεπτολογοῦμαι ταῖς δοκοῖς τῆς οἰκίας;]

[1] Strepsiades’ name means, roughly, Debtdodger.
[2] Technically, Aristotle is preserving the advertising slogan of an early teacher, Protagoras.
[3] What we have is actually a revised version, so it is possible that something like this passage was added later.
[4] There is a conflation of types of education in Aristophanes’ depictions, with Strepsiades thinking that he is going to get an education from Zeno, Gorgias or Isocrates, but instead stumbles into natural scientists like Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. All forms of new learning are linked under the banner of Socrates.
[5] The cost of college makes the monetary reward ever more of a pressing concern, if only for practical reasons, but that is a topic for another post.

January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

Bizarre Dreams

I have a lot of strange dreams, most of which are the sort I’m asleep for rather than being a commentary about my ambitions in life. Among other things, I’ve been chased in airplane crashes, shot in a convenience store parking lot, and chased by dinosaurs. Sometimes there is an alignment with some particular thing going on in my life and I certainly remember the dreams more when I am stressed, something probably related to my tendency to wake frequently through those nights. Dreams are one of those things like fantasy sports, politics, and religion that one should tread carefully about because they are either boring or likely to cause a fight. Still, I had a dream last night that I want to document because it goes beyond any sort of dream logic, cinematic action sequence, or witty repartee.

In this dream I was back in one of my elementary school classrooms. The building has a first floor atrium with four rooms with tall doors and small chairs. The tall doors may be a residual memory from passing through them as a child, but the chairs were normal-sized back then. In this dream, I was back in class in the room through the near door on the left as you walk into the atrium from the front of the building. This was the room I was in for first and second grade, I think. In the dream, I was sitting in the little chairs at the little tables, but at my current age, knowing everything I know now, as the teacher lectured us on Greek history. I was in the class and going to be graded on…something. That part of the dream is fuzzy. I also have no idea why we were getting a simple, but legitimate lecture on Greek history in first grade, except that what the teacher was saying was wrong and I was getting mad. But I was in first grade and correcting what was being said was going to count against my grade. Why there were stringent grades is another good question.

Then I woke up.

This was just a strange dream that built on my insecurities and cast me back into a situation where I no longer belong. It was a strange dream that mashed together a bunch of things I think about on a regular basis, including education and Greek history. If I were to analyze this strange dream it would be that I still daily fight with imposter syndrome, except that, in this case, I knew better than the one who was permitted to speak and had all the authority and I found myself chaffing at this situation. Maybe it is all a metaphor for adult life, or maybe it was just a strange dream compiled by misfiring synapses trying to tell me I need to take a break.

Process Stories

There is an episode in Season Four of the West Wing by the same title as this post. President Bartlet has just won reelection and the staff is celebrating, but the press is pushing for stories from the campaign, to get the behind the scenes version of what the campaign did to win. While the West Wing as a show was, to an extent, an idealized version of an extended process story, one of the themes of the show is that they do not want the media to cover the process because it detracts from the issues–and in this episode, it allows for some know-nothing to claim a role that he had not played.

It seems to me that when it comes to some things, people are excited to see a dramatized version of that process story, but, much of the time, people have a vested interest in presenting just the final product, whether because the process will reveal weakness or uncertainty or just detract from the overall product. But the emphasis on the final product is a disservice to the process, or to the idea that education itself is a process, whether what is being learned is algebra or essay or story writing or a language or pedagogy itself. My comment here is hardly novel, but students and even dedicated teachers sometimes manage to skip the process in favor of results, or at least a particular emphasis one what the successful end product looks like without establishing the process by which those products are achieved. A parable about fish comes to mind.

The issue of process versus product has been on my mind recently as I have struggled to pick up steam on my dissertation. I have been obsessed with the process of writing it, both in a sort of intellectual curiosity and in terms of establishing good work habits that will hopefully serve me well in years to come. Along these same lines, I have long been interested in hearing academics talk about their intellectual development, again as a form of my own intellectual curiosity and also as a motivational, self-help tool. It is sometimes more depressing than helpful to hear the stories, but it usually helps remind me that nobody emerged from the uterus as a fully-formed intellectual titan and that everyone has to cover up or otherwise cope with their own insecurities. What people know they have had to work at at some point in their lives and, almost more importantly, there are always going to be times when they don’t know something–a situation that can be met with intimidation or curiosity.

One of my failings is that when I am overworked (so, always) I have a tendency to get discouraged in situations when I don’t know something. While I try to learn at least a little something about the topic for the next time I run into it. Here I do not mean the specifics of an argument or a case, but knowing so little about the topic at large that I can not really interact with it at any level. Being able to admit ignorance and move back into that role of learner would save me quite a bit of angst. Of course, having this ingrained compulsion to know things before they are taught to me quite defeats the purpose of an education.

I have also witnessed other people ruminate about related problems in the classroom and how they can be coped with. Most obviously and necessarily, these issues focus on grades, which are a product that the students want but is mostly divorced from the actual processes of learning. I have not yet heard any ideal solutions, but it is the right idea.

I do not know that I have any particular process, at least not one that bears out under scrutiny. Ideally, I have time to balance out my desires and hobbies–the reason that I am making a legitimate effort to keep reading literature through the dissertation, as well as exercise, baking, doing a bit of socializing, writing here, and doing a little bit of gaming, is that I am a happier person when I do these things and a happier me is a me who is better equipped both to think well and write well. But this is general life philosophy that, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because I am exhausted all the time and somnolent me is not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful writer (note my current battle to keep my head from rolling to one side as I type this). “I read stuff and I write stuff,” while true in principle also fails to capture any sort of process.

So a few general process thoughts about my own slow slog towards the various plateaus that substitute for actual completion:

  1. Coffee. Lots of coffee. If I cross a certain threshold, tea. I have spoken to some people who swear by various teas as fluids of choice while writing and I agree with the principle. Nevertheless, I am a coffee junkie who likes tea as a change of pace, but only after the system reaches a sufficient saturation level.
  2. A corollary is that I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, even now that I am without a laptop. As much as I might wish it were so, I am not dreaming of imitating Hemingway in the cafes of Paris, but rather that my office is far too warm for me to concentrate in and there are always chores to do when I am at home. The environment limits the number of sources I can have with me at any given moment, but this handicap is recovered by actually working.
  3. I also change formats. A lot. I will alternate between hand-writing, typing at a computer, and, at moments of panic, writing on paper that is upside down. I used to believe that I think at about the same speed that I write–this is still true, but I have also come to appreciate the momentum provided by the speedy, rhythmic spew that typing can engender. The latter requires extensive revision, but at least there is something on the page. Recently, I have taken to printing out whatever I have typed for the day, editing somewhat, and then adding about another page of material by hand, which I then type up the next day and from which I can launch into another day (or half day, with another round of editing and writing over lunch) of typing.
  4. In terms of time, I have been fighting a battle to reclaim my mornings, since I am a matutinal being these days, working best first thing in the morning and wind down about one in the afternoon–I can, and do, work after that time, but I am best at grading or other low-intensity tasks unless I have another hefty infusion of caffeine. Of course, reclaiming and defending my time has been one of the most difficult steps in this process.
  5. I have been learning to maximize available time, but if I have twenty minutes I am much more adept at grading an exam or two rather than writing a few sentences. I tend to write with my sources at hand rather than from notes and in all my writing, from this post to my journal to my dissertation, I prefer to clear time and work at a deliberate pace rather than feeling pressed by imminent appointments. If I had to pick a single one of these steps to build and improve upon, it would be this one, even if it was just toward writing here more often and save the time I can truly dedicate to the dissertation.
  6. I read as much as I can, particularly novels. I have a hard time reading non-fiction in my “free” time simply because that is what I spend the majority of my work time doing, too. There are exceptions to that rule, too, particularly because I have been making an effort to start knocking books off my academic to-read list, an ambition that meshes “fun” and my goal of being a well-rounded scholar. But I am also reading novels, slowly, but surely. First, I enjoy reading novels and, as stated above, if I can indulge myself just a little, I stay saner. But, second, I also do this because it makes me a better writer and I want to be both a good scholar and a good writer (though this also slows down the whole writing process).
  7. For similar reasons, I listen to other writers, historians and otherwise, talk about their writing. One of the more intriguing discussions has been the difference between discovery and outline writers and I suspect there is an academic parallel to that literary dichotomy, but as I am at far more words than I intended, that may be a topic for another post.

The writing phase feels as though I am in an interminable process, shoe-horned in between other responsibilities. I am dwelling on the process because there doesn’t ever seem to be an end–above and beyond the idea that maybe now, finally, I will learn one or two good study skills. The destination, or, at least, a destination is out there somewhere, but all I have right now is a journey.

I may return to this topic or something similar, but, for now, I would be interested to hear anything other writers or creative types have to say about their own process or reflections on process versus product more generally.

An insidious hierarchy

One of the harshest criticism that a professor can give to a graduate student is that s/he writes “like an undergrad.” PhD students bemoan that MA students do not participate in class discussion. Graduate students and professors alike rend their clothing and tear at their rapidly thinning hair to lament that undergraduates don’t go to class, don’t do the reading, they don’t edit, cannot spin out mellifluous prose, and (to hear some people talk) haven’t a solid thought in their airy little heads.

These are stereotypes and stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. In the case of the last example, it probably comes from the fact that most undergrads are not old enough to drink (legally). People need time to grow up, to learn, to mature. Writing like an undergrad–or acting like an undergrad more generally–is probably influenced in some ways by the college culture and college experience in the sense that the environment one lives in is going to affect behavior, but it is going to be even more influenced by the student’s age and educational experience. So, too, upper level undergrads are going to be different than freshmen. And there is no immediate change in newly-minted graduate students from “undergrad” to “grad.” Learning is a process, intellectual development is a process. One hopes that there will be an evolution from the first year through graduation and then continued development through a graduate school career.

Using “undergrad” as a term to imply intellectual retardation, even retardation through youth, is a problem on several levels. First, it implies a sharp division in ability, when there is really only a division in expectations. Second, such comments reinforce an elitist, ivory-tower perception of graduate schol. Third, and most problematic for me, it is not a constructive critique. It carries with it a number of implications, but doesn’t actually convey in what ways (analysis, source use, insightfulness) the graduate student needs to differentiate him or herself. One would hope that there would be further comments that would be more constructive, but the comparison to an undergrad doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.

The hierarchy implies an unnaturally sharp distinction between the categories. I mostly note this because one of the things I see most frequently on social media w/r/t student exams or papers is that undergrads claim radical historical change happens at unnaturally specific dates. And yet, the act of donning a robe and walking across a stage is a ritual that transforms a high schooler into a college student and a college student into a graduate student? Changed expectations are one thing, but the change in performance is not going to happen when the students walk across that stage.

A few weeks ago there was a John Hodgman quote floating around social media that highlighted how scary learning can be. Admitting ignorance is conflated with admitting inadequacy too often. Ignorance is correctable, but the admission, the struggle, is difficult. The mistake I feel that I am watching on the part of educators is sloppily,haughtily, fogetting how difficult this process actually is. None of us sprang from Zeus’ forehead fully formed. Yes, learning and school come easier to some than to others, but to forget that learning is a process only serves to discourage students. When students are discouraged from learning we have failed.

Writing this piece reminds me of an incident in high school where one of my friends was called out for hypocrisy over an essay for which she won a prize. I am not trying to excuse myself of wrongdoing, though. I am guilty of contributing to this hierarchy, too. I lament the state of undergrads and their inability to read a short assignment or participate in class, or how they can’t seem to answer all the questions on an exam. I generally make these comments while in the throes of grading. This is a form of venting and, in my experience, doing so makes it easier to continue grading. I do my best to avoid broadcasting these laments on social media or even to too many people. I need to vent, but the jokes and the complaints are not something that most people should hear–or should care about.Instead, I want to be more conscious of making these statements and caution against, in all our exhaustion, frustration, and stress, using this sort of hierarchical, exclusionary, and unconstructive language.

Here is my main issue with this hierarchy. Whether to cover up their own insecurities or out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, academics seem to go over the top with these complaints about “undergrads” (and usually seem to mean “underclassmen” for “undergrad”) and forget that they, too, were once undergrads and were once MA students. I suppose that it is possible that all of these other instructors were perfect students back in their day–always going to class, doing the readings, talking in class, editing their papers, having fully-formed and developed thoughts in their work–but I know that I was not. At one point in my college career I regularly skipped class, fallen asleep in class, did not edit papers, did not do the reading, and sometimes even turned in assignments that I am now ashamed to have attached my name to. Even when I did turn in work that I was proud of at the time, it was not always great work. That is because I was young. There were some subjects I wasn’t good at, there were some that I didn’t care that much about. I fully admit that I was not a particularly good student in college nor am I a great student even today and I wonder at the irony inherent in that I am now teaching college students and have to give advice on how to study on a regular basis. When I feel myself becoming too myopic about students, I remind myself of this past, that I was once there too.


The corollary to what I just wrote is that there will always be a wall of sorts between what the teacher says and what the students hear, there will always be students who give less than their full attention to the instructor, and there will always be an impatience on the part of students to find out their grade–something exacerbated, not created, by the Pavlovian nature of a grade and standardized test based educational system. On the former points, it is frustrating dedicate hours to preparing for class and to see apathy on the faces of the crowd, but even the best lecturers are going to have to deal with that. On the last point, grading papers is one of those things that it is impossible to understand how long it takes unless you have had that experience yourself. Are these things frustrating? Yes, absolutely, yes. But undue venting about these issues is also counter-productive. The type of understanding I have suggested throughout this piece the understanding David Foster Wallace was talking about in This is Water. “Understanding” and “patience” are not simple solutions to a long-trending institutional problem in education, higher education, and society, but it seems that to do otherwise is contributing to the problem.

Thoughts on Orthodoxy in the classroom

Orthodoxy is believing the correct things as demonstrated by adhering to the correct creeds, saying the right things, and otherwise demonstrably proving that you are not heretical in your belief.

Orthopraxy is performing the correct actions and conducting yourself in the right way.

These two concepts are most often applied to matters of religion with the idea that one begets the other, but with different emphases on how to best preserve society. I would like to apply them to education–partly based on a frustrated tangent I went on in the classroom this past semester.

Freshmen in college seem either to know or to crave “the right answer” in history classes, depending on the question. If the question is about racial or gender issues but does not require much prolonged thought, students can regurgitate a politically correct answer that they learned in high school. Slavery is bad; Europeans have treated Native Americans badly and are never sympathetic people as a result; of course women should be allowed to have jobs and vote–to give a few simplistic examples. The problem is that when the students prepare essay answers or write papers they sometimes say shocking and bigoted things, sometimes because they are trying to say something else entirely, and sometimes because while they know the politically correct answer, they are grappling with the issues presented only in a superficial way while holding onto beliefs that they have been trained to hide.1

Somehow schools and society are teaching students that they need to have the correct, rote answers on political issues ready at hand. If they can repeat those answers for the teacher, then everything will be fine. Thus, students go into a class like mine trying to rummage around and provide me with the right answer that I am looking for on any given week. If they don’t have that answer or can’t find it in their tea leaves, they stay silent for fear of being wrong.

I teach discussion sections for the survey of American history. Beyond answer questions about the lecture each week, my goal is to foster an extended discussion of the readings and topical issues going on in the world related to the readings. There are inaccurate facts–and I am a stickler on that count–but, assuming the facts are correct, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and I am looking for them to talk about the issues, talk about the reading, and otherwise engage with the world around them. I am interested in the process by which they come to answers and beliefs and less about the beliefs. This emphasis on orthodoxy only serves to get people to mask potentially politically incorrect beliefs, which actually does nothing toward creating a more understanding society. If students are forced to follow the process, then, even if they are not persuaded to be more caring, understanding, and respectful, then at least the beliefs will be laid bare.

The issue at hand is that education is a process, not a test, not a series of facts, and certainly not a series of answers. In fact, education is about the absence of answers–and the journey to find them.2 The is an uncomfortable truth that many people do not like to deal with and why there seems to be a rush to escape school. But education–whether in kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, or your spare time on weekends–is a process by which we learn about the world around us and thereby interact with the world around us. Any active antipathy toward the process combined with the fear of failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I just need a better way to convey this to my students.

1 For instance, in a paper about the American myth and the war in Vietnam, one student wrote: “The soldiers however were not met with open arms from the natives, most were not even looking to be freed.”
2 As Martin Schwartz points out in a discussion of the importance of stupidity in scientific research.

Assorted Links

  • Chinese Textiles from Palmyra– From Dorothy King’s PhDiva, some color pictures of Chinese silks found in Palmyra.
  • Academic Groupthink and the Power of Randomness– A discussion by Neville Morley about invitation-only academic workshops. His basic point is that invitation-only events tend to support a limited group of students and scholars, while marginalizing everyone else.
  • The Historicity of the Hall of Fame Debate– A discussion of historiography and the baseball hall of fame by way of responding to the group of people determined to maintain “the integrity” of the institution by excluding those who cheated…also known as everyone who played in the 1990s and most of the 2000s. His point is much as mine has been (and why I would put Pete Rose in the hall, though I can understand the lifetime ban so long as he is put in posthumously), which is that the hall of fame is both a record of the game and a memorial to the greatest players of each generation. The game of baseball is what it was at the time and no amount of omission will change that. Put them in and then you can have a debate about what narrative is presented with the plaque–are we going to remember Mark McGwire for chasing and then breaking the single season home run record or for steroids (or both)? That should be the debate, not whether or not he should be in the hall of fame, any more than the height of the mound, size of ballparks or a game without an emphasis on home runs at all should be held against players of other eras.
  • History With a Beer ChaserA nice story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a reading and writing group of the sort I crave.
  • The end of Homework?-Discussion in the New Yorker about the potential of eliminating homework in schools on the grounds that it does not provide a significant benefit for test scores and is universally despised. The author suggests that providing extra-curricular activities–music lessons, sports programs, museum trips, etc– for students through the schools (so that the financial burden does not fall on the parents) in place of homework would allow for the elimination of homework for everyone (since the opponents are affluent parents). For some types of classes this idea works well. For others, there is a need for homework (paper writing once students reach a certain age, and certainly reading books) because there is simply not enough time in class for students to read entire novels or even news/history articles that should expand their awareness beyond what the teacher says–one of the dangers of a lecture based education that dominates history at all levels. Moreover, while the idea of more extra-curricular activities is a good one, there needs to be more imagination to meet the needs of rural schools for whom museum trips is not feasible, as well as more education funding to pay people to lead these activities.