Monday, August 31, 2015

Back in the saddle

I do so love teaching! After fifteen months away, I'm back in the seminar classroom, creating spaces where students can explore things I love!

Someone's scheduled my two main classes for the semester back-to-back, 11:55-13:35 and 13:50-15:30 Mondays and Wednedays, so I have little time even to catch my breath between them. So I'm still a little breathless now, 4 hours later. Breathless with excitement!

Theorizing Religion began, once again, with the Belief-O-Matic - this time everyone had a smartphone so everyone had a result to puzzle over. Excellent discussion flowed from it, setting the stage for many issues we'll be considering. Including the new one, "religion making." Looking at the odd questions and sometimes even odder possible answers, at the sloppy list of religions at the end (Mayhayana? Reformed Judaism?) and at the weird correlation percentages, along with wondering who designed and who frequents such a page, got us well into our topic. It's a(nother) great group of students!

Then it was a sprint up to 16th Street for my first year seminar, where, after a rather longer discussion of the syllabus (starting with "what is a syllabus?"), I gave them a wonderful introduction to Lang. We started with a video from the 30th anniversary celebration in May - our namesake benefactor Eugene Lang's son Stephen, a film actor, reading aloud the speech his father gave when Lang was started in 1985. It's hilarious because it's such a lousy performance - for whatever reason, Stephen's heart just wasn't in it. We laughed: such self-importance in talk about places, including ours!

But no matter, appearing later in the 30th anniversary program was alumna Jean Rohe (remember her?), who mentioned her "alternate national anthem." We watched her lovely video: you can too!
"Now there's something you could do at college," I said. We were securely back in the land of ideals, of the value, and values, of education. And then it was time for Sekou Sundiata's wonderful "Shout Out" - it was Sekou whom Jean Rohe was talking about at the 30th anniversary shindig. From platitudes to engaged students and their inspirational teachers - now all that remained was to walk down to the University Center and glide down the five stories of courses...

What luck to be able to do something I love in so congenial an environment!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Glorious retweet

US coverage of China is pretty relentlessly negative, so I've taken to following the twitterfeed of People's Daily. Much in the last days has been about preparations for the unprecedented military parade planned for the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, September 3rd. 
Sometimes there's a link to an article in an official news source.
At other times the 140 characters are left to stand on their own. 
And often it's about a striking photograph, a human interest story. I'll let others make sense of the first prisoner amnesty since the death of Mao, but could someone tell me how the third eye bindi has become part of Confucian practice, at least in one unspecified place in East China?

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Sorry to be missing this - a grand project I saw coming together...


Late summer in Brooklyn and all the plants have their seeds held high, dangling low or some version of hitchhiking. These festoons along Underhill outcharmed all the things I was on my way to seeing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden!

Friday, August 28, 2015


If you look up the middle of the Fifth Avenue side of the new University Center you might notice some words on the ceiling of one of the stairwells that zigzags down the side of the building. It is in fact a sort of inverted waterfall of courses taught at The New School's various divisions over the years, starting from Ruth Van Doren's "Modern Woman: Her Dilemma and Potentialities 1" (1965) on the fifth floor and ending with John Dewey's "Method in the Social Sciences" (1919) next to the door to the street, by way of endless

courses in psychology, design, politics, music, cultural criticism... Twisting and turning, the cavalcade (in the two fonts specially designed for the building) flows from greens through reds and browns to end in

blue. I'm not sure one is supposed to read all these titles too carefully - it is a descending staircase after all! - but it's quite impressive. I'm taking my first years there on Monday: let's see what they make of it.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

For the birds

I wrote some words from John Cage on the board at my first meeting with my advisees/first year students. (He was responding to a question about people who had studied with him.) I did it slowly, line by line. "You can write it down too," I said after the first, "if you want to."

The point, of course, was that we are a seminar college - no lecturing! What happens in the class is the fruit of everyone's contributions. Cage's aleatory practice was admittedly an extreme of non-"teaching", but it's that continuum I'm claiming for the New School. No other school, Cage said, would have let him teach. (Gives me plenty of leeway too...!) In the individual meetings with the students afterwards I confirmed that nobody had been spooked by this: it's what they'd come to Lang for.

By the way, I'm not sure that Cage actually said those words. They're from For the Birds, the English version of a French book (Pour les Oiseaux - both are puns on his name) compiled by Daniel Charles from conversations he had with Cage in 1968. But it turns out the original tapes of the conversations translated into French for Pour les Oiseaux were lost, so For the Birds is someone's translation back into English of the French translation of what Cage said! Babel chaos? Vertigo of indeterminacy? Cage loved it. He was given the re-Englished text to read and at first noted there were places where he didn't recognize himself. Then he had a (Cageian!) Gestalt shift:

After a few labored alterations, I found myself reading all the way through, more entertained than I would have been had I been recognizing myself. And then I went back to the beginning and put the word 'stet': that is, keep it as you have it. The ideas, so to speak, have changed their clothes but they are healthy. I decided not to do anything to them. Let them live their own lives. They are certain to change in further unpredictable ways whenever someone takes the time to use them.

Change, as Cage's frequent references to the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes, confirm, is of the essence. In his own preface Daniel Charles writes (well, in the English translation): I have the feeling ... that these texts comprise a multiple and unique gloss of Chuang-tze. In any case, the sole aim of my questions was to bring out what, for brevity's sake, I call Cage's Taoism (9).

China, you found me even in my New School-focused course!

John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds
(Boston & London: Marion Boyars, 1985), 89, 12

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


My first year seminar starts in two days! Well, that's when I'll meet the students, who will be my academic advisees for the year, too. (The new school year officially begins Monday.) I'm eager to see who was attracted enough to list this among their top five from a list of many exciting-sounding first year seminars:

LNGC 1428 The Seminar in the City: Within and Beyond Lang College Lang College, 30 years old this year, builds on The New School's nearly century-long commitment to imagining more socially engaged forms of higher education. We explore the history and development of this often anti-institutional institution through online archives, site visits, and research projects around visionary classes from the past, while also studying the pedagogical philosophies that have shaped the values of the school, including writings by John Dewey, John Cage, Sara Ruddick and Sekou Sundiata. We ask how The New School's experiments empowered students to learn first-hand in the city, and how seminar pedagogies can work to catalyze and synthesize such learning. As a final project, students will lead a model seminar of their own that speaks to the urgent demands of the present time.

This language is the combination of me, vague and distracted in Shanghai, and the new chair of the First Year Program, who had ideas of his own. So what will we be doing? It'll be a lot about the history of The New School before and alongside Lang, but it'll only seem a bait-and-switch to students who didn't bother to read the course description.

Still, this won't just be another tour of the fascinating congeries of experiments which is The New School, though it will build on all the work my friend J, the university archives, and many others have done in that department. I want the course to live out my refrain (repeated with seven cohorts of the Seminar Fellows who peer advise incoming students) that successful students at Lang, no less than their predecessors in The New School's other and earlier avatars, must not just "make The New School their own" but "make their own New School." We'll see if I can pull that off over the course of a semester!

I think it will be a useful first year experience for students to learn that institutions are neither omniscient nor immobile. That sounds a little anti-establishment, and Lang at thirty does call to mind the Sixties admonition Don't trust anyone over thirty! But I know myself well enough to know that it won't be as anarchistically anti-institutional as some of my more radical colleagues. So it's not perfect? Then make it better. The point is not to learn to "play the system" but to let your emergent understanding of the system's gaps and possibilities improve the system so that everyone can get more from it. The course will be anchored - of course! - in Dewey's Democracy and Education.

Time for religion?

Yesterday's Shanghai stock market rout was apparently not reported in China's official media! But images of a grotesque 6-meter sculpture of a bull pinning down a bear in Xiamen were. The wry story accompanying is about the incense sticks placed in front of it by investors. Business as usual for Chinese religion, you might say, faith in business as usual. In context it expresses not so much faith in markets as in market control.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sand water sky

The flight from San Diego to New York was, as so often, a feast for eye and spirit, skirting Grand Canyon, the cross-hatched Midwest, Lake Erie and monumental thunderheads on its way... Simply magnificent.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stardust beach

As the waves glide up our local beach out of a low tide, they sometimes leave long fine lines in the smoothed sand. If the conditions are right these are a darker grain and look like sketches or brush paintings. They often look like landscapes of hills and not too distant mountains, each wave outlining a new ridge. Today I found this entrance to a valley under starlight, surely a beyul.

Surely? The other day I happened on a ridgeline, the dark edge of line glowing in the golden light of a setting sun, and was convinced, utterly, that there was somewhere in the world a mountain with just that shape. Not just that the same processes which trace the curve of one trace the other, I thought, but the same particular shapes emerged - though there might not be someone at the right angle to notice them.

I was at that angle, for the beyul on the beach and also somehow for the other one, wherever it might be. (It didn't occur to me that my mountain may look like that only in distant ages of past or future, or that there might be several, or that my hidden mountain might not be on this planet; no matter.) My oceanic feelings are mineral, counting an endless repetition of moments at once unique and, well, not.

[24 August: Reflecting a little more on this, I came up against the fact that the phenomena of this beach, of any beach, of any wave, almost certainly aren't replicated. The factors and components are too vast. Every possible combination of them (my Aquinas-like thought) won't happen, though more than mind can grasp will and do (and I wasn't too far from a certain kind of theology of omniscience). Everything's one-
off. So was I merely being sentimental? In my defense, the claim wasn't that nothing happens only once but that nothing happens alone. The recurrent shape was just a line, an outline, and the resonant vastness was felt in a disjunction of scale and materials which seemed merely apparent - a tender wave edging forward in two dimensions, and rocky ridges weathered down in three. Things are unique "and, well, not."]

Friday, August 21, 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

UCSD flora

In the later August of a drought year, you wouldn't expect to see much in bloom in these parts. But if you look carefully, as I did making a circum-ambulation of the UCSD library today, you'll find plenty. Not all of these solitaries are native, but many are. And practically nobody's getting watered.