This Academic Life
Living and learning
This past weekend the study abroad group -- myself, my program assistant (a student with whom I've worked very closely for the past four years), and the six students taking the program for credit -- went on a weekend study trip to Prague. Why Prague? We have been talking about the idea of Central Europe in class, and a visit to another Central European city seemed like a good way to explore the ambiguities of that designation. Plus, Prague is a fascinating and vibrant place -- always good for a visit.
The substantive content of the trip -- the reflections on identity, "authenticity," tourism (including the rising tide of "sex tourism" in which British stag parties fly to Prague for a weekend of drunken revelry, taking advantage of being far from home and from the normal parameters of acceptable and civilized behavior; watching them ogle every female in sight, including my students, was quite disconcerting, and several bars and clubs now post signs saying "no stag parties" in an effort to distance themselves from the plague), and the like -- was fantastic. I suspect that our class discussions this week will be greatly enhanced by the experience. Indeed, it's already showing up in the student journals that I am having everyone keep. Pedagogically, I find this a good technique for promoting reflection.
But even more striking to me than these aspects of the weekend, and of the program as a whole, is the way that the set-up of the program enables a more comprehensive kind of pedagogy. There is a strange intimacy to being on a study abroad program, surrounded by other languages and other customs, recording your observations and sharing them with your study group. It's almost as though we have all become a team of anthropologists visiting an alien civilization, struggling collectively to make sense of it all. This even goes for the two students on the program who are Polish, as they become our Sacajewas or La Malinches: interpreters, mediators, but removed from the stream of daily life by the mere fact of being in the program. We are then Lewis and Clark (or, rather, Lewis and the Clarkettes).
Everyone writes about the great discoveries that Lewis and Clark made. But as far as I know no one focuses on the dynamics internal to the exploratory group, the social construction of the knowledge that we later attribute to their efforts. (And I know next to nothing about Lewis and Clark, actually, so there might in fact be an analysis that focuses on precisely this floating around someplace. If there isn't, there should be: a kind of "sociology of knowledge" take on exploration groups.) There is something very important the the fact that in a situation like this, one lives together with a group (even though we have separate apartments): we see one another daily, both in classroom settings and outside of it. We walk around and the conversations veer from philosophical (can identity be freely chosen?) to mundane (the hot water in one of the student apartments keeps ceasing to function at times). We get news from "home" and discuss its significance. We share stories about previous trips, previous courses, previous experiences. The ordinary process of producing a class vernacular is accelerated tremendously; everything moves faster, as the speed of network exchange is greater and the temporality that it spins moves along at a fierce clip. It's exhilarating and exhausting.
And intimate. All teaching -- all genuine
teaching, as opposed to the dissemination of facts -- is intimate. By "intimate" I mean that there is a certain intensity of commitment, a certain surrender to the evolving dynamic of the interaction, as the group gropes its way to some kind of rough stability, and then hopefully sheds that and keeps moving. As the professor I have more control than other people over the general gestalt of that dynamic, but I am never just an observer of it. If I don't participate -- albeit in a different way, since I am not a student and my responsibilities are not the same -- the experience doesn't cohere in the same way. There is differentiation (including a difference of authority -- the hierarchical character of the professor/student relationship should never get completely
obliterated, as this makes the course unsustainable) between professor and student within the pedagogical situation, but it is differentiation internal to
the situation. And the more intense the pedagogy, the more intimate the relations -- and the more that the experience takes on a life of its own.
Living-with, traveling-with, being-abroad-with: all of these connections enable and make possible the experience. It's qualitatively different than a single student going to study at a foreign university. At the same time, there's nothing inevitable or determinate about this consequence; relations can be mobilized and tapped in very different ways. We're operating in the realm of conditions of possibility here, after all.
The difficult thing for a professor -- for me, at any rate -- is figuring out when and how to sustain the internal differentiation. My general rule has been: I'm around during the day, talking to students and interacting with them. (But I run alone in the mornings, and spend pre-class hours preparing -- prayer and meditation, if you will.) This interaction often continues even through dinner. But after that, we withdraw to our separate spheres. Part of that also involves ritual boundary-demarcation: I watch baseball highlights, stay in touch with people via e-mail, blog as a means of self-reflection, and use the marvelous invention of voice-over-IP to talk to my wife and kids on an almost daily basis (which is a great gift -- I'd have a lot more trouble doing this in the absence of such ready communication with my family, because although we're operating in the realm of conditions of possibility the available space for agency is shaped by those conditions, and on a prolonged trip under such conditions it might be far easier to surrender to the dynamic than to set firm boundaries within it. I have to admit that I am only coming to realize this slowly, and also to realize the applicability of the insight to my life as an academic more generally--more on that in a subsequent entry).
That's the normal weekday schedule; being in Prague altered that somewhat, since we tended to eat together more and socialize a bit more in the evenings. But I have set an earlier curfew for myself than the students typically have, so that they can go and get into their own trouble (so to speak). After all, my job is not to monopolize them and their time, but to strike a delicate balance.
It's fascinating and exhausting. But also exhilarating. Just jump in with eyes open, and insist on some internal boundaries with meticulous -- even fanatical -- consistency.[Posted with ecto]
Recognition is central
Several months ago I had agreed to produce a chapter for a "handbook." Handbooks in the social sciences are a rather odd institution, serving mainly as reading sources for graduate student syllabi as well as for scholars hoping to gain quick familiarity with a literature or approach with which they are not already familiar. Handbooks also serve an important function in terms of the sociology of disciplinary knowledge, in that they consolidate a kind of official line on issues, functioning in a way similar to the textbooks characteristic of the physical sciences (brilliantly analyzed by Thomas Kuhn, among others). It's a little odd for me, as a junior scholar, to be contributing to something like this, but the handbook in question is kind of a heterodox compilation to begin with, so there is some sense to it.
Even within this heterodox compilation, though, my position is somewhat extreme. My piece calls into question the fairly widespread social scientific practice of comparing across precisely delineated events to produce cross-case generalizations, and instead radicalizes the focus on mechanisms and processes to argue that we should be concentrating on "eventing" -- the practice(s) by which some set of occurrences is made meaningful as
an "event" in the first place. Social construction all the way down, in other words, at least analytically.
But the point is that my chapter is a little extreme even for this collection. So I was deeply gratified when the editors of the volume -- both quite senior scholars -- informed me that they found the piece "sparkling" and "dazzling," and wanted me to simply play up the fact that mine is a heterodox take. That I can do.
The lesson here, I think, is that academic standing is highly recognition-dependent. I like my position and feel that it is defensible, but having senior scholars acknowledge that (even if they don't buy the content of the position entirely) feels extremely nice. It's not that I would change my position if senior people didn't approve, but that having some of them in my corner personally (if not entirely substantively) reassures me that I can actually do this and be taken seriously. It must be very hard to be an academic without that kind of recognition and support. Part of the whole game involves bolstering those scholars who you find interesting, largely by citing them and then when you are more senior by including them in projects like this handbook; the image of disconnected thinkers puzzling away at their computers is quite misleading. Hence, I feel like I am beginning to "arrive" in some sense. It's a good feeling.
There is undoubtedly something to the Hegelian argument that mutual recognition is central to sociality, and is transcendentally presupposed even (and perhaps especially) in civil conflicts with opponents. But I don't think that much in particular follows from this in ethical or moral terms. Senior scholars including me in a handbook and granting me a measure of recognition is an exercise of discursive power in an effort to shape the discipline and the knowledge that it sustains. It's a powerful tool, but in no way devoid of strategy: they recognize not my "inherent worth" or the pure rational force of my argument (after all, they don't actually agree with the substance of my position on all particulars), but in a sense acknowledge that my contribution is useful to the larger project in which they are involved. And I'm perfectly fine with that.
(Note that I am not necessarily attributing instrumental motives to senior scholars or anyone else here; the point is not that this is a deliberate calculation, but that the intersubjective intention
of the act is through and through strategic. Motive might correspond to intention in this case, but it need not. And how would you ever know, anyway?)[Posted with ecto]
God bless the InterNet
Here I am in Krakow, finishing up a book chapter which is about three weeks late, and I need to cite an article which I do not have with me. I have the publication information, but nothing else; I need a specific page number for the point that I want to make. So I fire up the web browser, navigate over to JSTOR
(with a quick stop at my university library's page to pick up the remote login -- JSTOR is a commercial service to which many organizations have subscriptions, and mine uses a proxy system for authentication when accessing electronic resources from off-campus), and download the article to my hard drive in pdf format.
The only thing better would be if JSTOR pdfs were text-searchable, which they don't tend to be. Got to investigate why that is.
But in any event, God bless the InterNet indeed.[Posted with ecto]
I. How many Krakows are there?
> google: krakow
"Krakow is the city exactly on the intersection of 20 degrees East and 50 degrees North. According to some cartographers it is the geographical centre of Europe. It not difficult to come to Krakow from different parts of the world. The Krakow international airport at Balice, just 15 kilometres from the city centre, has direct flights to many foreign airports, for instance: Paris, London, Zurich, Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Rome, Tel Aviv, New York, Chicago. The city is an important railway junction with a regular and reliable train network linking Krakow with other cities both national and international. It is also possible to come to Krakow by coach or car. Our city is linked to the main Polish and European roads and thus the access is very easy."
Well, that clears things up. According to the map, only one. Well, that's not strictly true; there is also a Krakow in Wisconsin, but there is apparently only one in Poland. And it has a particular layout:
All of these streets, laid out far in advance of my or anyone else's arrival; all of these remnants of a medieval past, including the green park which lies on the site of the former moat and fortifications surrounding the city; all these houses and shops and cafés just waiting to be seen and experienced by travelers and tourists. Travel guides point us in the right direction, as do tips from people who have been here before: "Oh, in Krakow, you have to make sure to go take a picture with the fire-breathing dragon statue by the big castle?" (but you can't now, because some silly American tourist climbed up to do so and scorched his or her hair, so they turned it off for the time being).
"There's no place like Krakow." Of course not -- there is only one of it.
II. How many Krakows are there?
This morning I went for my second run since arriving here. Alarm goes off at 7am (I slept in -- I want to try to be out the door by 6:30am on running days, but I was tired last night). Limp -- my right arch is a little sore after walking around in bad shoes too much a couple of days ago -- into the kitchen and make coffee on the stove (no pilot light, so a match has to be struck). Change into running gear; lace up shoes tightly for support. Drink coffee; feel brain begin to function. Create on-the-go playlist on iPod: Counting Crows "Accidently in Love"; Blackalicious "Release parts 1, 2, 3"; Transatlantic "Suite Charlotte Pike live medley including large swaths of Abbey Road"; Train "Drops of Jupiter" as a cool-down song. Walk up Biskupia, left onto Krowoderska, left again onto Szlak. Start to jog. Right on ?obzowska, cross into the Planty, turn right and make a large circle around the Rynek. Not too many people out this morning. Some workers already dealing with construction jobs or picking up trash, a few people walking their dogs. (One other jogger, too -- looked American.)
The workers obviously see a different Krakow than I do; what looks to me like an obstacle in the road looks to them like something to be picked up and replaced, or perhaps it is the necessary consequence of a repair job involving electricity or plumbing or whatever it is that they are working on. The dog-walkers obviously see a different Krakow than I do: grass is a place for the dog to relieve itself, trees and posts are message-drops from other dogs, so stopping is a frequent occurrence; vigilance means preventing the dogs from getting into fights. Indeed, any Krakow resident sees a different krakow than I do: the Barbakan looks to me like something exotic and ancient and evocative, but I suspect that it is just another building one you live here for a while.
And it's not even as if I have a single view or experience either. Yesterday on our walking tour of much of the center of the city I was in part focused on the pain in my right foot, and experienced certain pathways as simply long and problematic. This morning those pathways -- were they the "same"? How? -- served as conduits for my exercise, taking me past fascinating places and providing a character to the run that had a distinctive feel. Certainly not like jogging around my neighborhood at home. But as I jogged I also wondered how my kids would be if they were here; the Planty is a great place to walk and run and ride a bicycle, but it lacks playground equipment and large open spaces for tag and chase and the other games that my kids play together. So wearing my parent hat, even while running, the experience changed; Krakow-as-a-parent is not the same as Krakow-as-a-jogger, or Krakow-as-an-academic.
Maybe there are as many Krakows as there are persons and roles from which to experience it.
III. How many Krakows are there?
The form of the statement "there are as many Krakows as there are points of view from which to experience it" might lead one to conclude that there are both one and many Krakows: one "real" Krakow, which underlies and limits all of the diverse experiences that one can have of the place. Then we can debate precisely what the character of this one Krakow is that it can give rise to these multiple interpretations and experiences, how "thick" a baseline it provides, how severe a constraint it produces. So we have essence-of-Krakow (singular, even if vague) and experiences-of-Krakow (plural, depending on how each individual subject or agent comes to the place and what they choose to see, with those choices arising from a combination of their own personal histories and the essence-of-Krakow that pre-exists their experiences of the place). Hence, one can be a "tourist" and carry around a little bubble of your home country as you go; this is becoming easier for Americans to do in Krakow since there are McDonald's restaurants and relatively familiar-looking stores and cafés. Plus almost everyone speaks a little English, at least enough to take your order and give you your change. But one can also be a "traveler," trying to deviate from the beaten path of must-see sites and Kodak-approved photographs: take the side streets, get to know local people, soak things up in a more nuanced way. And because there is an essence-of-Krakow out there to be experienced, one can in some sense be "correct" in one's experience of Krakow and let that experience conform to the essential city, or one can be relatively oblivious and stay in one's own comfort zone.
I am not convinced by this argument. Not because I reject the distinction between a tourist and a traveler, but because I don't think that we need a concept like "essence-of-Krakow" in order to get at the plurality of experiences that people have. Tourist-Krakow is different from traveler-Krakow is different from resident-Krakow not because these are three ways of seeing the same thing, but because they are three ways of being-in-the-world (as Martin Heidegger might have put it). Being a jogger opens the world to me in a particular way, as does being an academic or being a parent. But it is also more subtle than that; "the world of the happy man is different from the world of the unhappy man," Wittgenstein reminds us (Tractatus
§6.43). This is the case even if all the facts remain exactly the same: I am in Poland, the Planty runs around the center of the city, the Rynek has cobblestone paving, etc. Heidegger likewise points out that "moods" are not just subjective impressions, but more fundamental and existential modifications of how the world presents itself to us. So "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" means nothing in particular
and has no
determinate implications for my world.
Actually, "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" is only a fact from a certain perspective -- that perspective which contains concepts like "cobblestone paving" and "Rynek" and the like, and also one which regards tangible, empirical, physical observations to be factual. There is a whole metaphysics concealed in the simple statement "the Rynek has cobblestone paving," as well as a value-judgment about which way of cutting into the world is "factual" or fundamental and which is superfluous, secondary, "subjective." Since there is an unavoidable theoretical mediation at play here, it is far from obvious that we should privilege this perspective over others. Doing so is just as much a judgment as the privileging of any other perspective, or the privileging of none. Hence, the essence/experience distinction -- "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" vs. the meaning
of that cobblestone paving and the Rynek itself -- is shown to be itself a value-laden position, rather than something transcendentally presupposed and therefore "true" in some grandiose and objective sense.
So: how many Krakows are there? In the end, this is an empirical
question. There can be one Krakow only if efforts are made to harmonize and restrict people's experiential narratives of Krakow. Theoretically, there are an infinite number of Krakows, and maybe in some sense they all virtually exist simultaneously. In practice, not all of those possible Krakows are actualized, and only concrete research can ascertain which are and which are not. My Krakow -- and your Krakow -- emerges someplace between all of our experiences and narrations and memories; by coming here I am complicit in the building of a Krakow in a specific way (I could have engaged in such a process from my house, and actually did so by reading travel guides and talking to people about it before I came). But there is nothing privileged about my being here that makes my Krakow any closer to the "real" Krakow -- not because there is no such thing (which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, would be a silly statement just as dogmatic as its opposite), but because the "real" Krakow is emergent from experience, not a non-social (or, better, non-discursive) baseline for those experiences.
I suspect that I will be complicit in the building of more Krakows as the month goes on.
[Posted with ecto]
I find myself in Krakow, Poland, leading a summer study abroad program for six students (5 MA, 1 undergrad, plus my program assistant / TA). I'm no Central Europeanist -- more of a Germany specialist, I guess -- but there are fascinating identity issues being played out here, so it seemed a logical place to go for a time. And as yet I speak no Polish; hopefully that will improve in time.
But I have to say that I have a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of globalization. The last time I was in Europe two years ago, InterNet access was a bit dicey. This time, I have a broadband connection in my small apartment. Last time, cel phones were unable to work outside of their areas; this time, I got off of the plane, turned on my regular US cel phone, and dialed home. No problem, once I figured out that the long-distance code in Poland is 0-0 and not 0-1. Yes, the roaming charges are somewhat excessive for daily use, but the convenience is marvelous.
And the 'Net connection in my apartment allowed me to watch extended highlights of last night's marathon, marvelous Yankees-Red Sox game -- won by the good guys, of course :-)
So globalization has an upside, too. And since this is an official academic program, my cel phone is now a business expense.
Went for a walk around the city last night with one of the CES guys, trying to stay awake long enough to get on a normal schedule after the long flight and jet lag; about six times during the walking tour he made reference to the difference between the "real" or "authentic" Polish (and sometimes "Central European") practice of some activity and the touristy, commercialized version of the same activity. Case in point: absinth, which is not "really" supposed to be lit on fire (apparently, this custom was started by backpackers in Prague, and then caught on). My TA commented that she wanted to light and drink some absinth in Prague because that's the thing that you do now, which was a great post-modern moment: a desire for the authentic experience of inauthenticity, as produced by misunderstandings and commercial deployments. The CES guy shook his head, continuing to insist (in a friendly way) on doing things "right" as much as possible. Fascinating stuff all around.
[Posted with ecto]