Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?

by Harry on September 10, 2015

Here’s the text from which I gave a talk to our Geography Department’s welcome lunch for new graduate students, postdocs, etc, at the start of this semester. The charge was to come up with something that would be relevant to everyone in the room, and would be funny. A previous speaker told lots of Ole and Lena jokes. So…

Thank you for inviting me to talk. When I was asked to talk to you, I was stumped about what to talk about, especially when told that previous speakers were humorous. It ruled out Philosophy as a subject, and, really, ruled out explaining the Laws of Cricket, which is my second go-to. Anyone want to know about the subsequent career paths of all the cast of The Love Boat? Or the history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal? Or why I know anything about those subjects? No, I thought not.

So I thought I’d talk about something that you all should be thinking about right now, that is, teaching. You will all, or almost all, be teachers of some sort. Some will become professors, who teach graduate students and/or undergraduates and the general public. But every professional teaches – whether it is students, or clients, or co-workers, or mentees, or, sometimes, one’s supervisors. And typically, actual, well informed, high-quality, training in teaching is a low priority in research universities. So, I thought I’d talk about why it should be a higher priority, and how we could do it better (the training, and the teaching).

Since I am a philosopher, let’s start with one of my favourite sayings: “Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”. The declarative phrase in that sentence is true. And there is some good news, but also some bad news, in its truth.

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George Scialabba is retiring from Harvard

by Henry Farrell on September 10, 2015

George Scialabba is one of the great writers and intellectuals of our time. He’s also a member of the CT community, both as a commenter, and as the subject of a seminar that we ran a few years ago on his wonderful collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? He’s also someone whom I consider (although we’ve only met in person two or three times) to be a good friend. In a properly constituted America, he would be a Living National Treasure. His greatness as a critic and essayist is a result not only of intelligence and prose style but of willingness to try to get inside the heads of the people he is writing about, so as to understand what they were trying to do on their own terms, before reaching judgment. People may reasonably have different opinions about which of George’s essays is the best. My personal favorite is this devastating piece on Isaiah Berlin.

George is retiring from Harvard, where he has worked for many years scheduling events for the Center for Government and International Studies, while writing in his spare time. There are many people at Harvard whose work and thought I admire enormously, but with no disrespect to them, I think that George has been the single best public intellectual working there over the last few decades (I’ve sometimes wondered whether Harvard’s senior administrators know who he is, or have any idea what a gem they have had in him). The good news (as Scott notes in his appreciation at Inside Higher Ed is that this should give him more time to write. The Baffler is throwing a party for him this evening; I’d love to be there. In lieu of that, this post. Congratulations, George. And more importantly, thank you very, very much.