French Existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd

by Juliet Sorensen on March 3, 2015

(Author’s Note: this following was published in the “Tales Out of School” column of the Winter 2015 edition of Andover Magazine. I thought the Crooked Timber community might find it of interest, as well.)

We weren’t walking like animals with horns.

“Rappelez-vous, vous êtes des rhinocéros!” exhorted Mr. Sturges, swinging his own head ponderously back and forth in the approximation of a rhino’s.  And so we moved, on all fours in a chilly classroom in Sam Phil, trying for all the world to embody the humans in Ionesco’s play who find themselves transformed into prehistoric animals.   Back in our seats, having resumed our student forms, we had a new appreciation for Rhinocéros, a play about conformity and existentialism in the context of the absurd.

Hale Sturges didn’t just teach French literature; he lived it. He sat on his desk; he paced around the room; he jumped up and down, his corduroy blazer flapping. He believed that the oral tradition was essential to understand literature, so we took turns reading Camus’ The Stranger aloud to better appreciate the alienation of the protagonist, Meursault.

A class was not a monolith to Mr. Sturges. Rather, students were individuals whom he evaluated, coached, and supported in their pursuit of mastering French language and culture. On one occasion, we were tasked with independent research and an oral presentation on one aspect of the art history of France. Decades before PowerPoint, daunted by the prospect of an audiovisual presentation, I managed a few clumsy slides on the Impressionists.

After class, Mr. Sturges gestured for me to stay behind. He told me gently that my presentation had been mediocre. He went on to say that he was taking the time to speak with me about it because he knew that I was capable of much more.  I squirmed and fought back tears of embarrassment during his critique; I knew he was right.

French has enhanced my life in ways I barely imagined in high school.  I’ve studied and worked in France, Morocco, Benin and Mali, the language opening doors that would be otherwise impenetrable to an American. I’ve always been grateful to Mr. Sturges for giving me the confidence and the desire to immerse myself in France’s language, literature and culture.

When I read the call for submissions to Tales Out of School asking for reflections on especially innovative teachers, I thought immediately of Mr. Sturges.  I was stunned and saddened to learn that he had passed away just a few weeks earlier.

But his legacy endures. Next year, my own children will have the opportunity to experience French language and culture firsthand when we live in Paris while I spend a month as a visiting scholar at Sciences Po.

Thanks to Mr. Sturges, I can’t wait to play rhinoceros with them.


Guest blogger: Juliet Sorensen

by Eszter Hargittai on March 3, 2015

I’m delighted to introduce Juliet Sorensen who is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School’s Center for International Human Rights. Instead of annotating her CV here, I’d rather share how we met. The Public Voices Fellowship is an initiative of The OpEd Project whose mission is to get more under-represented voices onto oped pages. In 2013-14, both Juliet and I participated in the program at Northwestern. Over the course of the academic year, we attended four day-long workshops with 18 fellow Northwestern faculty members to learn about the ins-and-outs of writing and getting published oped articles, an activity that is definitely different from writing scholarly articles, but also from writing blog posts (although not necessarily that different from the latter). Juliet was one of the most productive members of our group having published nine pieces during the fellowship and more since. Given the topics she covers, I thought she would bring an interesting perspective to Crooked Timber so we invited her to guest blog with us, which she kindly agreed to do.


A pig in a poke

by John Quiggin on March 2, 2015

I’m doing some work on the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, currently being negotiated in secret by diplomats and business representatives from 12 countries. Two facts of interest
(a) Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb is claiming that a final agreement might be reached by mid-March. While this looks over-optimistic, it implies there is a near-final text
(b) Obama has sought “fast-track” negotiating authority, but there is no sign that this is going to happen soon, given that quite a few Democrats oppose the deal outright, and many Republicans are hostile to anything that would give Obama more authority.

The idea of “fast track” is that the Administration cuts a deal and Congress is bound (by having agreed to the fast-track rules) to give it a Yes/No vote, with no amendments. The assumption (I think) is that, if amendments were permitted, they would proliferate to the point where the legislation would fail to implement the agreement with other parties, who might then back out. Of course, the result is that Congress is, in effect, buying a pig in a poke. Given the unlikelihood of an outright rejection of such a massive deal, they have to accept whatever Obama puts before them. The flip-side is can no individual Congressperson has to explain why they didn’t seek protection for whatever local ox might be gored by the deal: they can respond that they had no choice.

My question is: Suppose that the final text is agreed and made public before fast-track authority is granted. What would be the chances of Congress agreeing to a Yes/No vote, and what difference would it make? There are a lot of issues to be raised here about international relations, trade agreements and US politics, none of which I have a clear feel for. So, I’d be interested to hear what others think.


Sunday photoblogging: Baltimore, Cork.

by Chris Bertram on March 1, 2015


Awakening to Cultural Studies

by Corey Robin on February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it his senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The paper/thesis was about how the TV show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Recalling this conversation, I was reminded of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event. [click to continue…]



by John Quiggin on February 28, 2015

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and Paul Krugman has given me a nice jumping off point with this column on how to respond to economists (including highly credentialled ones) who push zombie ideas such as the threat of imminent hyperinflation. As Krugman notes, providing evidence-based criticism, whether politely or rudely, has no impact on people who have strong reasons for wanting to believe something. This is even more true on topics like climate change than it is on economics. [click to continue…]


How to keep your dignity at bonus time

by Daniel on February 27, 2015

I have an article in today’s Weekend FT! The theme is on how to handle bonus season with a modicum of grace, and preferably while maximising the amount of money that one extracts from Global Finance Capital’s wallet and into your own. To be honest, you lot are probably going to hate it; at least I can promise that it’s protected by the FT paywall, so anyone who is offended or outraged by it can’t say that they didn’t read it on purpose.


What Do Hannah Arendt and Mel Brooks Have in Common?

by Corey Robin on February 27, 2015

Mel Brooks, interview with Mike Wallace:

How do you get even with Adolf Hitler? How do you get even with him? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule….If you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him…One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler.

Hannah Arendt, interview with Joachim Fest:

In my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things [the Eichmann trial], since that’s a way of playing them down….I also think you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.


Noted With Surprisingly Little Comment

by Belle Waring on February 27, 2015

From an article by Stephen Totilo on a recent talk given at NYU by Feminist Frequency commentator and noted target of #gamerhate Anita Sarkeesian:

Sarkeesian never acknowledged the security [metal detectors, an overall “heightened” NYU Security presence], and she only briefly mentioned the online harassment she’s received for her work. She fielded one audience question from a guy who said a female Gamergate supporter had been at the talk, had shaken her head at much of what Sarkeesian had said, had left early and, this questioner wanted to know, what Sarkeesian would say to this woman.

At press time the man, now approaching what one might—charitably—call the late-middle-age of his youth, was also reported to have a girlfriend in Toronto. “Megumi” particularly enjoys playing the new Bayonetta 2, because of the way it makes full use of the capabilities of the Wii U gaming system.


Maagdenhuis Occupation

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 25, 2015

At this very moment, you can watch a live stream of the occupation of the Central Building of the University of Amsterdam. This is in fact the second building that students have been occupying: in the last ten days, they occupied another historical university building, the Bungehuis, which will be turned into a posh hotel. That building was occupied for 10 days, but was forcefully evacuated yesterday; 46 people have been arrested.

The demands of the students can be found (if and when their website is not down) at this website. Basically they want to have a more democratically run university – with a university board that is elected by both staff and students (right now, Dutch Faculty and students have only very weak and indirect democratic power.) In addition, they are protesting what you could call the increasingly utilitarian or economistic approach to higher education and science policy. I can’t give you all the details in this post, but the story is familiar, and sounds quite similar to what has been happening in the UK (my hunch is that the Netherlands is following the UK’s path, with a few years time lag).

The members of the University of Amsterdam’s Board spoke to the occupiers about an hour ago – and it was quite surreal to be able to watch this form of direct action/civil disobedience at the same time from that close yet from far away (I am simply at home in another town). Yet the board of the university has filed a legal complaint, and the latest news would be that the Maagdenhuis-building could be evacuated in the next hour. In which case, you may be able to see it on the live stream. Who knows.

Amsterdam being Amsterdam, most of the discussions are held in English, so you can simply follow this real-life political drama right now. For your information, it’s 11.30 pm when I’m posting this and the occupation started at about 8 pm.


Who blinked?

by John Quiggin on February 24, 2015

So, the latest round of the Greek debt crisis has ended in a typical European combination of delay and compromise, much as Yanis Varoufakis predicted a week ago. But in view of the obvious incompatibility of the positions put forward, someone must have given a fair bit of ground. The Greeks wanted continued EU support, and an end to the Troika’s austerity program. The Troika (at least as represented by German Finance Minister Schauble) wanted Syriza to abandon its election program and continue with the existing ND/Pasok policy of capitulation to the Troika.

Put that way, I think it’s clear that the Troika blinked. The new agreement allows Syriza to replace the Troika’s austerity program with a set of reforms of its choice, focusing on things like tax evasion. Most of Syriza’s election platform remains intact. Of course, it’s only for four months, and none of the big issues has been resolved. But four months takes us most of the way to the next Spanish election campaign, hardly an opportune time to contemplate expelling a debtor country from the eurozone with utterly unpredictable consequences.

If the negotations were a win for Greece (feel free to disagree!) how did it happen?

[click to continue…]


Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat—she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain


So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing—yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

[click to continue…]


Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool bus

by Chris Bertram on February 22, 2015


The Dread Pirate Roberts as Statebuilder

by Henry on February 20, 2015

My new piece at Aeon.

Ulbricht built the Silk Road marketplace from nothing, pursuing both a political dream and his own self-interest. However, in making a market he found himself building a micro-state, with increasing levels of bureaucracy and rule‑enforcement and, eventually, the threat of violence against the most dangerous rule‑breakers. Trying to build Galt’s Gulch, he ended up reconstructing Hobbes’s Leviathan; he became the very thing he was trying to escape.


Human Rights, Blah Blah Blah

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2015

Of the war on terror, Christopher Hitchens once said: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.” Now comes Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, when asked by Jon Lee Anderson why he supported the intervention in Libya, says, “Why? I don’t know! Of course, it was human rights, for a massacre to be prevented, and blah blah blah….” Never underestimate the murder and mayhem men will make, just to escape their boredom. Every enthusiasm, though, has a shelf life. Even imperialism.