Saturday, October 31, 2015

End of October walk around Princeton!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Prospect Park splendor


This explosion of cranes at the Hudson Yards on the far west side somehow reminded me of China. Or perhaps it's just that I had just been to the Chinese Consulate nearby: plans for a return to Shanghai during our January break are well underway!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Splendid autumn hues also out my windows at work and at home.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The "Spotlight on Teaching" cluster on "Teaching the Moral Traditions of Others," which started as an AAR panel two years ago, is up (here)!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fall at BBG

Fall has found its way to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Monday, October 26, 2015


In "Seminar in the City" today, the topic was the New School College - The New School's forgotten first stab at a liberal arts college, 49 years ago. The most planned-out curriculum the New School had offered outside graduate programs (which isn't saying much, since the adult ed curriculum was by design free-wheeling), it also took students' demand for "relevance" seriously - it was 1966, after all. At the end of each academic year, students and faculty sat down to revise the curriculum. Under pressure from students one course originally called "Interdisciplinary Concepts" wound up renamed "Innovation and Tradition" with an explosive syllabus including Aristotle, Marx and Engels, Che Guevara, Djilas, Mao, Marcuse, Arendt, Kuhn, T. S. Eliot, Harold Rosenberg and Camus! "Talk about relevance," observed one commentator. J. Kirk Sale, "The Changing Academic Landscape: IV: The New School at Middle Age," Change in Higher Education 1/4 (Jul-Aug 1969): 37-45, 45

But the more interesting case we read about was when students in one of the 1967-68 social science track courses decided to take it over in real time. The instructor (who wrote an article about it which we read) came in one day to find the class had already begun without him. Class discussion proceeded without his ever being asked to participate; he was the students' "hired consultant," they explained, not unkindly. He decided to go with the flow, and over the rest of the semester the students tried to design a class on what they thought the most important problems of the day. At least in the instructor's telling, though, they found their way back to something not so different from the original syllabus and approach - though they'd discovered it for themselves; they "took conventional academic responsibility seriously under the new rules." Joseph S. Lobenthal, Jr., "The Catabolism of a Student Revolt," The Journal of Higher Education 40/9 (Dec 1969): 717-30, 728

When I came to class today I secretly hoped that my students would direct me to sit the class out. For their part, some of them had expected me not to show up, forcing them to take the class into their own hands. All in the room, I proposed a compromise: turning the discussion over to them, answering informational questions only when asked... but the energy flagged after a while. We should have a debate, one student said, but nobody could come up with a resolution to debate. I proposed "that the graduating senior class should determine the next year's first year curriculum," and quite an interesting discussion emerged. Just nine weeks into college, my students didn't trust seniors (perhaps because they so recently were seniors themselves). Maybe sophomores, fresh out of the FY program? Perhaps people choosing majors? But what about "the real world" of jobs and employers? Alumnae/i, maybe, five years out? That faculty might know a thing or two was never considered, at least not explicitly (and when this faculty member suggested "maybe everyone should learn coding!" he was quickly shut down). But nobody else seemed positioned quite right to be able to determine what a curriculum attuned to the present and its challenges might be, either.

So, sobered, we continue with the set syllabus, at least for now...!

Chalk full

That time in the semester when the chalk's given almost all it's got.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Fall glory

Magical ride (my first Zip Car adventure) up the Palisades Parkway to Storm King Art Center, the Fall foliage at its peak. Every bend in the
road left me a little breathless with delight: can it be that this mottled glory, this quilt of splendor, stretches on for hundreds of miles in all
directions? And in the park, letting the sculptures be our guides, we found that each tree was its own world of wonders, indeed each leaf...

Friday, October 23, 2015

 Ah, the brilliant autumn light on a Friday afternoon at Lang...

Thursday, October 22, 2015


How easily one forgets that one lives on the water!
Across the Hudson from Christopher Piers toward Hoboken

Middle distance

As that new building goes up I've been watching my eyes skittering about the scene, like a Buddhist watches his monkey mind. The first impulse is for them to head straight for where the Empire State Building used to be visible. I delightedly alight on the last little tip of its spire but it's no more than a twig. It's a little farcical to pay it such heed, really. Still, the gaze bounces back in aggrieved affront, even as it notes the bright colors of the construction workers' vests and their insectlike movements. It's amazing that they can be made out at this distance. At that point the gaze, not wanting to admit itself interested in the unwanted view, roams around aimlessly in the valley between it and here, disconsolate and a little peeved, finding nothing to rest on because it's mourning a lost thing and not looking for a new one. I feel it's also trying to get a sense of the scale of the new view opening up, at once curious and resentful about the inevitable adjustment: what will seem near, what far? What sort of skyline - always a work of chance, sometimes the more magical for that - will come together on the valley's far side? Can it be that I'm looking forward to finding out?
An Empire State Building view was a cool thing to have, and I always pointed it out to visitors, but I didn't move here to have it - I told that to visitors, too - and wouldn't have: what a trite, tacky concern that would be! I used to live on the ground floor, which of course had no view (just a garden). I had no idea Manhattan was visible from here at all. When first discovering the view, on moving up here, I was even a little nonplussed: hadn't I left Manhattan for Brooklyn? But I enjoyed the happenstance of it, as if the Empire State Building were following me! With time I took it for granted, as one does every privilege. It faded into the rest of the scene, a point of passing interest but not the biggest or most interesting thing. The construction has obscured my view of it but my fixation on the construction has obscured the rest of my view. Only today, when I went out on the fire escape to take my picture, did I take in the autumn leaves of the trees below, or our wall of flaming foliage.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tipping point

Alfred Schuetz' "The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology" is such a great text for "Seminar in the City"! Students prepared it for Monday's class, but we had so much fun with urban studies, including our own foray into Jane Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet," that we didn't get to it then. We turned to it today, after some discussion of the new and different experiences and orientations the refugee scholars of the University in Exile brought to The New School starting in 1933.

Schuetz (or Schutz, or Schütz) found his own way to New York in 1934, but became a central figure in The New School, bridging not only philosophy and the social sciences in a quite European way, but also bringing together the phenomenological tradition of Husserl (with whom he had studied) and the pragmatist thought of James and Dewey. The essay, published in 1944, doesn't speak from personal experience, but it must have resonated with the experience of many who found themselves at The New School in those years. (In its concern only with strangers seeking to become part of a new environment, it also fit with the public ethos of the refugee scholars during the war, who worked hard to reassure a xenophobic and often anti-semitic American public that they were not dangerous aliens, let alone agents of Germany.)

The central idea is that the cultural pattern of group life is experienced differently by insiders and outsiders, each of whom is oriented to a different objectivity. An actor, someone making a life in a culture, doesn't have and doesn't need a scholar's (or tourist's) view of his culture as a whole. Indeed, the knowledge of the man who acts and thinks within the world of his daily life is not homogeneous; it is (i) incoherent, (2) only partially clear, and (3) not at all free from contradictions. (500) This is because action is contextual and practical, and each situation has different - and limited - conditions of relevance. No quest for certainty is involved (502).

Indeed, the actor's awareness of relevant things is surrounded and enabled by a near-unawareness of everything else. It is the function of the cultural pattern to eliminate troublesome inquiries by offering ready-made directions for use, to replace truth hard to attain by comfortable truisms, and to substitute the self-explanatory for the questionable. (502) It consists not of theories but an unsystematized welter of recipes for effectively getting things done, but it is experienced as objective because of a certain abstractness:
(American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, No. 6 [May, 1944], 499-507: 505). Recipes work because they are shared by actors interacting with each other. [T]he objective chances for the efficiency of a recipe are the greater, the fewer deviations from the anonymous typified behavior occur, and this holds especially for recipes designed for social interaction (505)

The situation of a stranger is thus disturbing and discouraging at multiple levels. Unfamiliar with the new culture's recipes for typical interactions, he gets things wrong. But he also finds no ready answers to his questions about what's going on in this impenetrable culture, which are outsider's views, seeking and expecting general norms and rules. In this he shares the objectivity of a disinterested scientific onlooker of the social world (500), but it's not what he needs: the relevant objectivity here is pragmatist: what works? At the same time, his failures confront him existentially with the inadequacy of his own inherited recipes - which he hadn't had to recognize as mere recipes before. The cultural pattern no longer functions as a system of tested recipes at hand; it reveals that its applicability is restricted to a specific historical situation. (502) But the people in the culture he's trying to participate in don't know this of their world, or want to.

The process of assimilation is fraught and complicated in ways Schuetz' account opens up. He intends it to be a general account applicable in many situations, the immigrant ... The applicant for membership in a closed club, the pro- spective bridegroom who wants to be admitted to the girl's family, the farmer's son who enters college, the city-dweller who settles in a rural environment, the"selectee" who joins the Army, the family of the war worker who moves into a boom town (499). I think it illuminates the frustrations involved really well, and the particularly soul-sapping forms of discouragement and alienation, but offers no easy way to get beyond the problem - beyond, I suppose, experience in Dewey's classic sense: "trying" out a hypothesis and "submitting" to what happens next. Eventually one finds one's way into the frame of relevance of the desired cultural pattern, and its myopias.

Still, is he suggesting we need to find a way to shed the objectivity of the outsider or scholar to live? Schuetz' friend (and New School successor) Aron Gurwitsch was appalled at what looked to him like an attack on critical consciousness and, indeed, on the vocation of the philosopher itself (see #3 here). When I first researched this two years ago I reflected: Gurwitsch seems right to sense a kind of assimilationist fatalism in Schütz' account - it does not imagine that anyone might find herself a permanent stranger in a place, or even seek out such a status, even embrace it as an identity and a calling. At play, explicitly and implicitly, are weighty issues of the significance of exile, philosophy, civilization, culture, the everyday, the modern mass society typified by America, and - hidden in plain sight - the perhaps world-historic role of the Jewish outsider.

So many directions one might go... from the experience of what's now called "college transition" to the difference between academic and everyday understandings of things, from all the things celebrated as "critical thinking" to the a Deweyan understanding of "habits" as enabling rather than disabling new learning, etc. but I had time for only a few. So after a rousing discussion of an ideal example of a practice lacking in consistency, clarity and coherence - tipping - I turned our attention back to Jacobs. For Jacobs argues that the genius of cities is precisely the way in which it enlists "strangers" rather than "neighbors" in maintaining a space safe enough for flourishing. My friend J, who led the discussion of Jacobs last week, had mentioned that Jacobs' community of city strangers excluded a lot of people. (One could do an interesting analysis of it as a text in the creation and management of whiteness.) From Schuetz' vantage point, the "strangers" Jacobs celebrates have learned the recipe for safe street interaction. But how does one learn that if one isn't, well, from that kind of neighborhood?

Jacobs describes a scene where an unknown man appeared to be trying to coerce a young girl to go away with him. The street noticed, and moved toward them. It sounds like a scene from a western. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. In the end, nothing happened. I am sorry - sorry for purely dramatic purposes - to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man's daughter. (39) But Jacobs has powerfully conjured the power, the violence, of mob justice. Behind the "eyes on the street" lies violence. In 2015, I reflected, it's hard not to read that scene without being grateful nobody had a gun. And to think of all those killed (not just by police) because they look like the wrong kind of stranger, engaging in the wrong kind of typical behavior.

How do people learn to avoid dangerous deviations from the anonymous typified behavior accepted in a city (or anywhere else)? Important issues for the academy and beyond...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Autumn glory


No end to pleasures at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Monday, October 19, 2015

No-contact improv

In "Seminar in the City" today my friend J visited and led a discussion of early urban studies at The New School, and Jane Jacobs' famous celebration of the "sidewalk ballet" of a healthy city block:
(NY: Random House, 1961, p. 50) At J's suggestion, students were sent out to observe the scene on a nearby block (West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues). They came back with tales of dogs and cauliflowers and moving trucks and piles of unidentified stuff, businesses of various kinds (a "skin laundry"?), and a crowd of teenaged boys in blazers leaving a Catholic school.

As I expected we didn't get to our other reading, Alfred Schuetz' "The Stranger," which is probably for the best. Jacobs describes the city's improvised collaboration of "strangers," at once miraculous and steady, without ever explaining how people know how to play their part in it - and what happens to those who don't know. Wednesday will be fun, too!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mountain ranges

I'm supposed to be coming up with an individual research agenda for the Kailash Sacred Landscape project. I think I have one. As often, it comes out of a correction of a too-simplified view I once held. The over-simplified view in this case is that in Mount Kailash the same mountain is sacred to many religious traditions - what a marvel of religious multiplicity! As someone put it, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Bönpo, a Jain can behold the same mountain and each see something different. My research question involves how they see each other - and how that affects their understanding of the mountain.

You won't be entirely surprised by my interest in this line of questioning. My experience of the kora is profoundly shaped by the reality of people circumambulating in both directions. I'd been engaging in a perhaps too easy triangulation from this. The mountain clearly seems to be more than just what the clockwise kora people think, and just as clearly more than just what the counterclockwise kora people think; it easily accommodates both. But that's really just a particular (and probably incoherent) model of religious pluralism. The beholders of the mountain recall the old chestnut of the blind men and the elephant. (But who says it's an elephant?)

But that's me bringing my understanding of the meaning of the multiplicity of religions to the mountain (you could add: to my understanding of the meaning of mountains). It's just a sort of spin on that other old chestnut about many paths leading to the peak of the same mountain. What chestnuts do the other visitors bring?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

New view emerging around Ground Zero

Friday, October 16, 2015

New York minute

In a discussion group about liberal education pedagogy which I'm participating in, a physics teacher described a brilliant thing he's started doing. Unlike in biology, he said, most key words in physics are also commonly used words in everyday life, often with quite different meanings. To make students aware of this, and reflective about it, he ends his online study questions on each new category with a prompt to use the term in a sentence about something in New York.

The corpus of statements thus generated show the students' world and wit - and also where the most common misunderstandings lie. He showed us some of the sentences students came up with for the category of "acceleration."

New York subways accelerate steadily until
they reach a velocity of 17 miles per hour.

To accelerate the speed of the people walking in times square, the governor is planning to decrease the seconds on every traffic light.

The bus driver accelerated quickly just as the stop light turned
red at 14th and 6th, barely clearing the intersection.

Every time the cab driver accelerates the car,
his passengers fly forward in their seats.

People in New York often accelerate when we walk
because we are often annoyed by the people who
are in front of us and walking very slow.

I had an amusing conversation with my discussion partners about the last one, in which it emerged that each of us was picturing a different situation. I wondered if the student was thinking of negative acceleration. One colleague thought of people speeding up to walk angrily around dawdlers. Another was sure the student was describing a sort of behavior whereby a New Yorker tries to force dawdling out-of-towners to speed up by a sort of tailgating, something I haven't tried.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Village life

My friend X is three days into his first American sojourn. We're in no hurry so we're taking it slow. After two days in Prospect Heights it was time for Manhattan, well, for the Greenwich Village south of my school. Interesting to be reminded that I spend my New York life in pretty leafy landmarked precincts...

Empire State Building view, R I P


Do you remember?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Monday, October 12, 2015

New development

My friend X has finally arrived in New York - and just in time to catch my last views of the Empire State Building in the golden sunset light.
Good thing it's not being built at China pace: that new building has 8 more stories to go. Maybe we can build some stories, too, here at 265!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

That churning feeling

Perhaps you know this story. In the beginning, gods and asuras were struggling for an elixir of immortality - churning the world into being in the process - only to find a terrible poison rising to the surface. Shiva, perched in meditation atop Mount Kailash, came to the rescue, his throat turning permanently blue as he held the deadly poison there.
This picture accompanies the story in a book written by one of the Nepali participants in our project (it's painted by his son), but adds further details. The serpent is the attendant of Vishnu, who, in the telling of one of the Indian participants, had brought the desired elixir in the guise of a beautiful woman, possibly precipitating the churning. And here the serpent is coiled around Kailash the way ropes were, I gather, tied around the blades of traditional butter churns. Other accounts have the asuras using an inverted Kailash as a churning blade, though usually the mountain so used is not named as Kailash.

What really happened? I'll make sure to ask Shiva when we visit his abode again next August. But in the meantime I'm happy to be part of the churning as the India China Institute's "Sacred Himalaya Initiative" team works out coordinated individual and group research projects on various aspects of the glistening mount. It's a quite remarkable group with a remarkable range of experience and expertise. (And me.)

My inquiry will be about how pilgrims' experiences of the mountain is affected by the presence of pilgrims with other understandings of its nature and significance. My shorthand image of that is the experience pilgrims doing the kora/parikrama/circumambulation have of other pilgrims going in the opposite direction. (Buddhists and Hindus go clockwise, Bön practitioners go counter-clockwise.) I've not seen one of those ancient butter churns but from what I understand of the mechanism, isn't the blade turned first in one, and then in the opposite direction? Interreligious churning may go way back here...