Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scudder's Jihad

And another inspired, and sadly long-delayed, bit of lunacy left on the board by my generally deranged Dar al-Islam class last spring.  They did their best both to hide it behind the sliding blackboards, and then "accidentally" help me discover it.  I like the art work quite a bit, and it's a nice artifact from one of my all-time favorite classes.  It also got me thinking about the message behind the artwork, which I also appreciate.  It speaks to my five year, and increasingly serious, flirtation with converting to Islam.  It's strange how many of my almost transcendent moments have come in the deserts of the Middle East, which may mean something mystical - or it could just mean that I like the calm and serenity and sparse beauty of the desert.  I'm still working my way thorough the metaphysics of that issue, and of the entire question of conversion.  One of the subjects that students always find fascinating is that of jihad, which, unfortunately, all too often, and usually not accidentally, gets horribly misrepresented in the western media.  Inevitably some talking head from a "think tank" refers to jihad as a holy war, usually against the west, as compared to it's more general and correct notion of any action wherein you're asking God's assistance.  So, I often tell my students that they could declare jihad to get through my class, and Lord knows they need all the help they can get.  In the artwork I'm declaring jihad because my students lack a moral compass, which is one of my favorite catchphrases (and which all my students can quote by the third week).  Lacking a moral compass in my class usually relates to continually changing seats or coming in late without a propitiatory offering of donuts - serious crimes, but not really worthy of a declaration of jihad.  That said, it did get me thinking about what would qualify for my own personal jihad.  That is, what is so important to me that I would seek divine assistance.  It may sound cheesy, but in the end it would probably be teaching.  Beyond family and friends, I certainly don't place more value on anything - and I'm certain that more than one member of my family and friends would assure you that I place far more value on teaching than on them.  I always tell my students on day one of every semester that I believe, which I do, that nothing is more important than what goes on in the classroom every day, because the vast majority of the problems in the world are caused by ignorance and their solutions inevitably come from knowledge.  So what we do in the classroom is essential - and everything else is mainly onanistic bullshit.  It also means that I can be very difficult to deal with - both for my students and especially for my administrators - because I can't turn it off.  All too often decisions are made in the academic universe for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with our one true mission, the transformative role that education plays in the lives of our students.

One of my favorite Hadith - "The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr."

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Little Corner of the World

As I grow older I find that my definitions grow simpler.  For example, I think I would argue that in the end you can call your life successful if you've left your little corner of the world better than you found it.  Now, you could define your corner of the world a lot of different ways - so, it might be professional or personal, but have you contributed positively in the world.  In this picture, taken by my good friend Bob Mayer, the little corner is the office I share with him.  I've certainly left it more cluttered, but maybe more interesting, which is doubtless a useful metaphor for my impact on all the little corners of my life.

And speaking of metaphors - nice skull watching over everything I do (and don't do).  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Welcome to the Core

Just a quick picture I wanted to save for posterity.  Here in the Core at Champlain we pride ourselves on inspiring students to take an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems, and here's a classic example.  I had my students read the first eight pages of a transcript of the fascinating PBS Frontline documentary on the infamous Rockdale County High School sex scandal from the late 1990s.  Essentially, the story started with one high school girl testing positive for syphilis, and then the numbers exploded until it was revealed that there was an underground sex club at the high school that involved dozens of students.  It was a fascinating and troubling social phenomenon.  My students were charged with using some of the concepts we had learned this summer from psychology and neuroscience and sociology and theories of the self - and even literature and art and film - to explain what happened.  Here is the result of the free-wheeling discussion.

The key was to emphasize the different lenses that you could - and should - use to analyze evidence.  We did something similar using the pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison which was equally fascinating but even more depressing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Time

Lately I've been thinking more and more about the passage of time - and also the value of friendship - which I guess is completely age appropriate.  As I've discussed, one of the biggest factors (of many) that shaped the decision not to accept the job in Hong Kong was the thought of losing contact (almost certainly - even though we always fool ourselves that we'll keep in touch) with the extraordinary circle of friends that I'm blessed to have.  I just really struggled with the thought of starting all over again at age 53 by myself.  As a natural consequence of that I've become even more determined to spend time with my friends.  It's a big year for long-time friend anniversaries.  In 2014 I will have been friends with David Kelley for thirty years and with Jack Schultz for forty years.  Staggering.  This summer would also have been my thirtieth wedding anniversary, so there are also some sad reflections on the passage of time.  Recently I had the chance to spend some time with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Doug Knerr, who was passing through Burlington.  I made Doug for the first time in the fall of 1982 when we were both starting graduate school at the University of Cincinnati.  He's one of those people that you feel an instant connection with, and we've been close friends ever since.  My memory of when we met -which my class readings in Linden and Hock would convince me is probably incorrect - represents that quick camaraderie.  I remember walking into McMicken 222, the old graduate history office, and being greeted by a bunch of people I didn't know.  One of the older graduate students asked me how my summer went and I replied "cruel," which was an homage to the Banarama song of the same name that was popular that year.  Essentially, I was just being a smart ass, while also wondering if I had made the right decision to go to graduate school.  Everyone stared at me like I was a lunatic, with the exception of another first-year student, the aforementioned Doug Knerr, who looked at me over the newspaper he was reading with this instant recognition look of "we're going to get along famously." And we have.

And here we are on the deck of the Saint John's Club.  It may have been thirty-two years, but we picked up the conversation as if it were the first day.  It would have been perfect if we had been able to grab carry-out Skyline Chili to eat at the old, sadly deceased, College Inn bar or maybe a burger at the City View Tavern.

Reds Hall of Fame

Or the closest I will ever get to a Hall of Fame.  In April I made my yearly trip back to the Natti for my fantasy baseball draft.  The Irrational League is entering its 17th or 18th season or far longer than can be rationally explained - except that it is a collection of a great group of guys who I am pleased and happy and honored to call my friends.  Every couple years I post pictures of the draft, which if nothing else documents the ravages of time (although none so more than with me).  While there David and I visited the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, which we had heard was the best of any MLB team, and I'm happy to say that it's true.  Of course, the Reds were formed in 1869 so they have more history to celebrate than anyone else.  I'll have to post some more pictures in a bit.  Right now here's a picture David insisted on taking.  I'm mainly curious how my Dad keeps sneaking into my pictures and taking my place.

I'm sure the ball bounced off my head for a home run.

Wedding Redux

Recently I had my second chance to officiate at a friend's wedding.  As we discussed last year one of the pleasant oddities of life in Vermont is that anyone can marry anyone - as long as they fill out the temporary officiant form and pay the $100 fee.  You are then empowered to marry two specific people on one specific day.  The first time I did it was last 22 June for my excellent friends Andy and Heidi.  During that event my friend Sandy met a lovely woman by the name of Debbie, and now, huzzah, a year later they were married - on the exact same day (which increased the chances that Sandy would remember his anniversary).  This wedding took place at the prestigious Saint John's Club, at which most members of the Gentlemen of Excellence are a member (at the exorbitant fee of $50 a year).  It was a lovely day and everything went off brilliantly, even my clumsily worded sermon (which I may or may not publish here on the blog - although I guess I should because Andy and Heidi are still trying to get me to publish theirs a year later).  This one had a Denis Diderot theme, who is Sandy's favorite philosopher - it made sense to me anyway.

The happy couple.  It's now been two weeks and they're still married, so I'm 2-2 in weddings/marriages.

And the lovely set-up on the banks of Lake Champlain.  It is easy to forget how beautiful Vermont is.

And excellent friends.  There were many factors that went into last year's Hong Kong decision, but not the least of them was the depressing prospect of giving up some extraordinary friends.  I find that I'm even more persistent about carving off time to spend with them.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Crypto-Cryptozoology

The excellent Mike Lange and I made a recent trip up into Canada in search of a "town in north Ontario," but more on that later.  Along the way we decided to become cryptozoologists (sort of like the famous Seinfeld episode where George argues that he really wanted to pretend to be an architect).  We decided to try and find the Markham Monster.  Unfortunately Markham turned out to be a lovely little bedroom community for Toronto, and the closest we came to beastly behavior (although in a good way) was Lange discovering an amazing chocolate-covered dessert in a Greek bakery.  Still, it has inspired us to plan several cryptozoological trips into Quebec in the coming months.  Seriously, what could possibly go wrong?

You can just make out the brutish creature.