Sunday, September 25, 2016


We've taken to attending the "Service of Meditation and Sacrament" in the warm sepia light of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Sunday nights. It's a spare but deeply resonant mix of interfaith readings, chant or song for a single voice, a companionable Eucharist and an opulence of silence. A new Evening Psalm, recited by all present, appears every few weeks. After a Buddhist and a Sufi one, we have one credited to the Chinook Psalter whose refrain goes

Bless the wisdom of the holy one above us. 
Bless the truth of the holy one beneath us. 
Bless the love of the holy one within us.

Very nice!

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Next semester is shaping up to be rather exciting for me. I'll be engaging Confucianism for the first time as a teacher in the new iteration of "Exploring Religious Ethics" (more anon) and teaching a brand new course called "Not To Scale: On Sacred Mountains." This last flows from the things I've learned as part of the Sacred Himalayas Initiative - the India China Institute project which took me to Kailas. I'll get major reinforcements midway through the semester as the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture is dedicating its annual conference to the theme of "Mountains and Sacred Landscapes" - and New School is hosting that conference! (I'll have a hand in planning two panels and will present a paper, too.) Students will have a chance to participate in a major international conference, and as a class we'll be able to encounter cutting edge research. Sweet mountain air!

Friday, September 23, 2016


The Met's new blockbuster "Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven" (which we got to see early as members) is full of discoveries, and presented as if one were discovering them in the covered markets and alleyways of today's city. (Overhead are beautiful slides of the city which turn out to be videos with only the most occasional move-
ment - a tree blowing in the wind, someone passing through a doorway - revealing that time has not stopped.) Of the many surprises I successfully snuck pictures only of the 12th century "crusader capitals" found in 1908 at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Buried before ever being used (probably because Saladin was about to retake the city) they look as if they were carved yesterday. But they're also really weird. The knee-buckles and long faces look 12th century French but the costumes feel somehow central Asian and of gauzy attic fabric - and everyone's knees seem to peek out! A form of Christian art I'd never encountered before, what a delight! 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

99 Theses

In class today I took advantage of a cute monster someone had drawn on the board to make a reading comprehension drill more enjoyable. I hadn't intended it as a drill, but I wanted to see what students got out of an article we had read, and so asked teams of students each to prepare a three minute mini-lecture about it. None was quite what I expected - we don't do lectures here, so perhaps it's no wonder students don't know what a lecture it - but between them they provided a word cloud of most of the article's central categories. (I wrote key words down on the board as they came up in the students' presentations.) The larger historical argument went over most of their heads, though. Trying to draw them out about the "Long Reformation" (1300-1700) at the center of the piece's story (a term I'd put up before the presentations, hoping in vain that someone would refer to it) I finally realized most of them had no sense of any Reformation, long or short. "Protestant," a term used a lot in debates in religious studies I've told them about, was an empty signifier for most of them. One student recalled learning in a German class that Martin Luther had nailed 99 theses on a cathedral door, and had also invented the Christmas tree.

Black lives matter

what the dead know by heart 
Donte Collins

lately, when asked how are you, i
respond with a name no longer living

Rekia, Jamar, Sandra

i am alive by luck at this point. i wonder
often: if the gun that will unmake me
is yet made, what white birth

will bury me, how many bullets, like a
flock of blue jays, will come carry my black
to its final bed, which photo will be used

to water down my blood. today i did
not die and there is no god or law to
thank. the bullet missed my head

and landed in another. today, i passed
a mirror and did not see a body, instead
a suggestion, a debate, a blank

post-it note there looking back. i
haven’t enough room to both rage and
weep. i go to cry and each tear turns

to steam. I say I matter and a ghost
white hand appears over my mouth

Since I encountered this poem (Donte Collins won the Most Promising Young Poet Award this year) it hasn't left me. This week, as more names were added to the list of the no longer living, it's resounded like a dirge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Falling into revisionism

In our course on the history of The New School today we introduced the Parsons problem. How do we tell the story of Parsons before it merged with The New School? (If we identified as Parsons people it might rather be The New School problem.) Since all the university's efforts today are going into making us a distinctive and delightful fusion of the two, how does one avoid making it seem like TNS and Parsons were destined to come together, despite the 51 + 74 years they'd spent happily on their own?

My co-teacher J started the lecture with some important critiques of the "new history" we learned about last week. While it's good not to be terrorized by the past, mining the past only for answers to present questions risks missing much that happened. Many historians think we stand to learn the most  - both about the past and for understanding our prospects - from trying to understand the past's own questions. Distance allows perspective. For my part, I likened our slick common timeline to the way, when old folks get married, perhaps after divorce or widowhood, people often present a series of parallel old photos suggesting the present convergence was in the cards from the start. Look, both of them with lollipops as toddlers! hugging big dogs! awkward in formal dress as teenagers! raising a glass as young adults! with embarrassingly dated hairdos or eyeglasses! in the mountains or in Venice! Clearly they were meant to be one!

J then provided a helpfully defamiliarizing history of Parsons - starting with the several names it went through even before the arrival of Frank Alvah Parsons, its later namesake. American impressionism? Fine and applied arts? Period rooms? Decorative arts? Costume design? Standards of taste? None of these resonates with our current design-led argot.

But then I went and messed things up. I have a tendency - a virtue in most classes - to refer back to past classwork a lot, like a juggler who keeps adding balls, never letting any go. It gives students a sense of knowledge as a conversation, and incentives to do the readings and remember them, since they'll keep coming back. But in the setting of today's class I should have emphasized disjunction rather than continuity. I meant to! Instead, I talked about Horace Kallen, in the description to whose Spring 1921 course "Beauty and Use" the word design appears for the first time in a New School course catalog, as if he were already then part of the conversation of Parsons. Laying out the argument of the article which came out of this course 18 years later, I translated Kallen's somewhat forbidding mid-century philosophese into the familiar idiom of today's makers, innovators, design thinkers. Oops!

And then things got even worse. Before I knew it, the students' evident satisfaction at these harmonizing translations led me to assert affinities between the rather opaque arguments of Frank Alvah Parsons and Kallen, between Parsons and the historian founders, and - the nadir - between plein air impressionism of Parsons' earliest progenitors and pragmatism's anti-metaphysical ethos. Oy vey!

In my defense, the gap between the cultures of the two places seems to me so great that this was all just a rhetorical game: "if one were trying to bridge these histories, the best one could do would be X [clearly contrived affinity]..." But to the students, who don't know better (indeed, all they know is that The New School is part of the name of Parsons, and that The New School's logo is in Parsons Red), this may have achieved the opposite of what we were seeking to do, which was to keep the histories far enough apart from each other to open space for questions about our present smarmy symbiosis. Oops. Next week we estrange again.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mainstreams and margins

At a faculty development seminar on "Understanding and Navigating Identity as Faculty" today (one of several our faculty has undertaken in response to student concerns that our our courses and pedagogy are inadequate to the era of Black Lives Matter) we were asked to spend 60 seconds recalling a time when we felt marginalized. Then (through a nifty online response site) we were asked to supply words describing how we felt, the attitude of those marginalizing us, and what different response we would have liked to see in them. It was a well-designed and fruitful exercise, and helpful for us as we try to be better teachers.

One-minute exercises don't leave you time to pose, even to yourself, so they can be quite revealing. The times I called to mind weren't times I felt marginalized for being gay, but felt excluded for being single. I recalled many times when I was the only person not in a couple, and how I dreaded hearing them trot out the stories of how they met, etc. Since I was visibly without partner there was nothing for me to say in these situations, and it frustrated me that there was nothing I could do about it. I would have liked the others at least to notice that I was silenced, and to steer the conversation in a different direction.

It's funny that came to mind since I'm single no longer - or maybe that's precisely why it came to mind! I'm acutely aware (or think I am!) of conversations with my close friends, many of them single, happily or unhappily. I cringe a little when I hear myself start a sentence with we.

The seminar, led by the Director of Higher Education Research and Initiatives at Penn's highly regarded Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, included the very helpful slide above, which suggested that

We tend to live in the pain of our marginalized identities
and act from the arrogance of our mainstream identities. 

So true! I'm glad to be part of a community striving to discern these patterns and to overcome them. There are many marginalizations I cannot begin to grasp, related as they are to privileges I too casually own, but I feel like we made a good start today in owning that, and committed ourselves to learning to create spaces where larger patterns of marginalization might be mitigated or even overcome.

Monday, September 19, 2016

New York was very tense this morning. The person who'd placed the pressure cooker bombs in Chelsea last night was at large. Many of us were woken up by a text message with the name of the suspect; he was later apprehended in New Jersey. The unease involved both worry about what had happened and worry about the sort of over-reactions it sought to provoke (and, of course, did) - New York has experienced this lethal cascade before. For now, if the man arrested is indeed the perpetrator and acted alone, peace is restored. The unease remains.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Shiva, the Bodhisattva!

This is, as they say, rich. But then Anagarika Govinda, the German-born Lama whose Way of the White Clouds is still widely read by travelers to Kailas-Manasarovar (this is from page 201), knows how to pile it on.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Days of yore

Scenes from the original New School on 23rd Street, from a 1925 promotional brochure. (You can read the whole thing here.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Path to Kailas

Went finally to one of New York's hidden jewels, the Nicholas Roerich Museum on West 107th Street - three floors of a brownstone, with 200 paintings in glorious colors. I know of Roerich (1874-1947) as he's the preferred painter of the Himalaya for many. He even has a series of paintings from the 1930s called Sacred Himalaya! (He also has a
remarkable history involving stage designs for Borodin and Stravinsky, a yoga-inspired school of all arts and a union of religions here in New York.) But I went also to see if there were any painting of Kailash. No - he never made it there, most of his craggy mountains are stylized anyway. But several are called "Path to Kailas"; I bought postcards.