What is a great book? What is a great conversation? What counts as a great class? a great education? a great idea? a great life? For that matter, what is a conversation? an education? a life? As a great books college, Shimer College is about the questions -- questions which we carry with us across our lives as we work, play, think, read, live. We are about acting responsibily in our world with joy and seriousness. So, Evocations is about higher education -- but like higher education about much more. Please join our conversation today. Scoll down and read more!
As you drive (or walk) along Michigan Avenue, heading north from Roosevelt Road, turn your head a tad to your right. (I think.) What do you see? What appears to be a gathering of legs. Yes, I said legs. There are 106 of them. They are tall. And they are cast iron. This art work, titled Agora, was created by Magdalena Abakanowicz. And, I argue, it shows very clearly that the artist is a Shimerian. Of course, she did not graduate from Shimer. But: there it is, right there, the Shimerian sensibility (implied footnote here to Tim Lacy and Stuart Patterson).
I have several reasons for making this argument. Here they are:
1. Yes, the title. Agora. Doesn't it make you think classical literature? The Polis? Socrates? Aristotle? Plato? And all those chaps? While the artist herself -- and much of the commentary I have read -- focuses on her relation to the notion of "Crowd," the title gestures to a different notion, right? And as a public sculpture, perhaps it gestures to the notion of public as well. Seems to me somewhat Shimerian.
2. Here's another argument. The piece has multiple interpretations. Yes, it is indeed, an aesthetic experience that requires reflection and, perhaps, discussion. Here's a bit from the Chicago tribune that might spark ideas. Such requirement that discussion emerge in any encounter -- well, that too seems Shimerian. Meaning emerges. It is not simply there.
3. Most crucially, perhaps, the experience of walking through the sculpture seems to me Shimerian. In a way, it is like the experience of walking our hallways, where conversations sparkle and mutate and are never quite what they seem? Perhaps the Agora's seeming antiquity, despite the fact that the installation is relatively new, can be read as similar to the continuity I experiene when Shimerians across generations start talking to one another.
When I saw the title -- well, when I heard the title in an interview with Edwidge Danticat -- of her book entitled Create Dangerously, I already knew that she was Shimerian. Then, I IIL-ed the book, read it -- and was even more convinced. No, of course she did not attend SHimer; but yes, she shares the spirit of Shimer. And it is not only because our tag line is "Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853." It is because Danticat is amazing -- as writer, thinker and likely more. Plus, she referenced Algerian (often mistaken for a Frenchman only) Albert Camus in her work.
Danticat, a Haitian writer, a Haitian American writer, a fiction writer and not, is interested in how one crosses borders, sometimes quite literally and sometimes quite figuratively, in life and in writing. To do so can be (again quite literally) dangerous. It can mean one's life (an interesting locution for the notion that one can be killed for one's writing, imprisoned for life, tortured and more). And, it can mean one;s life in an equally meaningful way, for such dangerous creativity can vivify, vitalize, create. Being a writer, a story teller, walks the edge of truth and lie, of life and death, of hope and possibility.
And, it is a political act. Camus knew this as does Danticat, who cites his work on this very topic. Here a her key chapter is: "Create Dangerously: THe Immigrant Artist at Work." After her description of the execution of two writers, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin in 1964, she moves to an overarching theme: a disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment. For those told "do not write", the punishment for writing can be brutal. So too with preading. Here, much of what she writes about is familial: about the plesures and dangers of reading.
So: as we Shimerians read and write -- the pelasure and the dnger are both literal and figurative. For, both are more than leisure, more than "mere" thought. Each is an enactment of the world we expect, we live in and we resist.
Who is Alastair Reynolds? He writes science fiction and I have read a range of what he has written. First, I have read a series that includes the terms revelation, absolution, and redemption in the titles of various novels. So, who could fail to be drawn in by the ways the arc of his series "redeems" or, perhaps better, reframes, the narrative arc of aspects of Christian history.
More crucially, I recently read House of Suns. Without in anyway divulging the plot of the space-opera-ish novel, I will say this: I truly enjoyed this book and it made me think about writing here, on Evocations, a blog devoted to higher education.
Partly, this is for some silly reasons: there is a major aspect of the plot which has to do with "shatterlings" -- aka clones -- that disperse across the galaxy to collect information and experiences. I love the word shatterlings (are all Shimerians actually shatterlings in some sense?). But, what is truly amazing is the ways Reynolds points to the complexity of information - and the various ways in which information and knowledge and memory are distinct from one another and related. As an author, Reynolds does not engage in any didactic asides -- and is always engaging the reader in his tale. Thus the thematic emphasis on the ethics of information collection, information withholding, and censorship reach you in very subtle and important ways. In many ways, the novel raises ethical issues around these themes -- and identifies a whole range of kinds of information collection as well as potential ways that such information might change those who "hold" it.
In addition, the novel (as all of Reynolds' work, actually) directs our attention to the relation of machine and human culture (extending both beyond what is today's experience thereof). By doing so, Reynolds does make us all think -- again, without a heavy hand -- about the ways we all (as I sometimes say) outsource our memories and more.
So: is this enough for Reynolds to be a Shimerian? I would also bring forward the following evidence: (a) he has a vivid (very) imagination capable of communicating extraordinary ideas through the written word; (b) he has a Phd in astronomy and was emplyed by the European Space Agency as an astrophysicist; and (c) he lives in Wales. At least two of these three (perhaps all three) simply make me say even more directly: my verdict is yes. Yours?
This book, authored by David Mikics, is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful? Because it says what many of us seem to be thinking -- slow down, think, pause, read. Frustrating? Because it reads in a kind formulaic fashon and as though the author's main idea is that the people he is speaking with might be . . . . well, slow. reflecting on this, I suspect he is truly attempting to get his readers to slow down as they read, thus illustrating the point he is making. Thus, I suspect it is not his intent at all to treat his readers as though they are (always already) slow. His intent is not embedded exactly in his style or even in his review of wonderful pieces of literature. (he introduced me to some I shall, indeed, read.) His intent is to encourage just what his title says so clearly: slow reading in a hurried age.
Several things I found delightful: (a) a description of why reading well includes using a (preferably print rather than digital) dictionary. I loved this because it read like a description of someone I know - and also because it noted a few of the new words that the OED has recently included. I also found delightful (b) the notion that reading is inherently dialogical -- that is, a conversation between author and reader. Neither, in Mikics' view, can or ought be passive. Neither agreement or disagreement is the goal -- connecting is. And, taking one another seriously. (c) self-reflection is a crucial part of all this. And, the emphasis on self-reflection (and transformation) is another delight in the book. This includes reflecting on why certain books or authors just. . . annoy us. That some annoy us -- but that ignoring the annoyance is not such a good idea -- itself delights. I also loved -- and I mean loved -- (d) the section on writer's revising their works. Totally reassuring. In addition, you may want to know that Mikics himself revised the title of his tome; perhaps thinking about the change from Lost in a Book: How to Recover the Pleasures of Reading to Slow Reading in A Hurried Age itself teaches us. Mikics' reflection on revision encourages stepping a bit out of any given version to think about the spaces between.
I also liked the moments of humor that poked up out of Mikics' text. The author's point is not that reading is entertaining or fun -- but that it is important in a variety of ways. And yet, he does seem to remember that humor is important as well.
All in all, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is well worth slowly, patiently, reading. It is, in some ways, like liberal education itself. It is, well, Shimerian in many ways.
A quotation for the day? None. But, I can tell you I intend to read -- again -- "The Kraken." And, I may, in fact, read it slowly. Want to join me? Click here.
As some of you know, Shimerprez also blogs at Chicago is Our Campus, which is a Chicago Now blog. Rhonda Stern also blogs on Chicago Now, on a blog that focuses on gifted matters. (Indeed, the blog's title is. . . gifted matters.). Rhonda recently visited Shimer's campus and attended a class. Here's what she had to say. Spread the word!
Marc Edmundson is a professor who has written a new book entitled Why Teach? Having just read it, I concur with those who have celebrated it -- and believe that those who teach are not the only folks who might wish to read it. Those who administer institutions might want to read it -- and those who subject themselves to education (aka students) might as well. There are bits to object to; frankly, I get tired of negative portrayals of students -- despite my own sense that we all, includign students, do embody a culture that is peculiarly against education and learning and sometimes, even, peculiarly incomprehensible. There are moments when one or another essay might have been edited -- or even (gasp) omitted. And yet, I recommend the book. And, I would go so far as to say that Edmundson, though he know it not, has a spark of the Shimerian in him.
Here are a few reasons why, which I share in the spirit of nudging readers toward the book. (And yes, I believe even a president can benefit from reflecting on the question "why teach?".)
1. The tone of the first essay is a wonderful and insightful way to understand faculty relationships to course evaluations. Yes, he is unduly negative about students and, I fear, gets somewhat of the wrong message from the evaluations (which seem to me to push him toward entertainment rather than pushing him toward a bait and switch from entertainment to rigor). But, I may be missing his ironic tone in my hasty reading.
2. His argument against laptops in the classroom is worth a good solid read.
3. He seems fair minded when he discusses sports in part because he reflects on his own experience in sports -- and I suspect his experience is more like many of his readers' experiences than those we see on television.
4. His essays entitled "Against Readings" and "Narcissus Regards HIs Book/The Common Reader Now" push this reader to think about reading in new ways.
5. Who can not love his essay entitled "The Uncoolness of Good Teachers." Really.
His passion for his vocation -- and for liberal education -- are indeed inspiring. But, what I really want to talk about is a comvocation address he gave at the University of Virginia in 2005 entitled "Glorious Failure." The essay (as presented in the book) is why I have carried the book around with me for the month I have owned it. Failure. Glorious failure.
The phrase seems oxymoronic, right? It feels a bit like linking education to . . . . bewilderment? Or slowness? It feels somehow wrong. And yet, the essay is inspiring -- that one aims for glorious success and in doing so the failures -- the opportunities for learning -- themselves are glorious. He rages from Thomas Jefferson to Joni Mitchell, on the same page even, noting the ways both tried new things rather than repeating earlier successes. Edmundson has "heroes in the art of failure." Walt Whitman is one -- who did all sorts of things not so well (including it turns out he was -- according to WEdmundson -- bad at everything by the time he was 32). And, Edmundson also writes about the ghost or shadow curriculum vitae (cv or resume); he notes that when we look at such genre productions we see only the successes -- the articles we completed, the degrees we received, the books we published. We do not see the failures or the struggles -- only when one looks at one own cv does one see the rejected articles or the years that lead to that one publication. The shadow of the success is. . . the failures, the work, and the rest of life that disappears behind the carefully planned font and style of our cv.
And of course, for Edmundson, the writer can, slowly, patiently, over the course of a lfietime -- create the reader whose patience and thoughtfulness we all need: the common reader. (See page 179). Perhaps equally importantly, Edmundson reminds us that Wittgenstein was an elementary school teacher. So: teaching matters.
Why should presidents read Why Teach? Because much administrative work is itself teaching -- as is much leadership. And, because we too have a vocation.
Some of you will remember that we launched a social reading opportunity in a test way some months ago. We return to that enterprise now, on the anniversary (the sesquicentennial!) of the Gettysburg Address. Here is a primary text that shaped, for example, the more recent (though itself not young!) "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, given during the Centennial of the Civil War. Both texts are, thus, core texts of today's thinking -- and arguably of modern civil rights thinking and activism. So: please read on -- and join us in reading together:
Dear Shimerians and other friends:
On November 19, 1863, one of the most famous texts of American history -- or, more accurately, one of the most famous speeches -- was given at the consecration of the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As we approach the 150th anniversary of this, Shimerians and our friends can join us in a conversation about the Gettysburg Address via our social reading platform, Shimertopia.
Below are the directions for joining the conversation:
Please first sign up for SocialBook here. SocialBook is entirely free, and in addition to the Gettysburg Address, you will find a huge number of other texts that you may read "socially". Please note that SocialBook works only with Safari or Chrome browsers; unfortunately, it will not function properly with Internet Explorer, Firefox, or other browsers. If you do not already have a compatible browser, you can download Safari for Windows here or Google Chrome here. If you use a Mac, Safari should already be installed on your device, and Chrome can be downloaded here.
After you do all this, email [email protected] with a note expressing your interest in joining the conversation, and you will be promptly added to the group.
As many of you know, Doris Lessing, recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature recently died. Below is a guest post from a Shimer faculty member, Ann Dolinko, reflecting on the impact of the book upon her thinking, her experience, and her teaching.
Susan’s recent post to Shimer’s Bulletin about the death of Doris Lessing made me reflect upon my first time reading Lessing’s book, The Golden Notebook. This novel is about two women exploring what it means to live personally fulfilling and politically and intellectually engaged lives. The narrator and the characters are coming to terms with the fragmentation of identity that many women experience within patriarchy. At the time, I first read this novel I was in my early twenties and preparing to take my exam to earn my Masters Degree in philosophy. It was the summer of 1989 and I had a Bachelors degree in Philosophy and had completed all my course work for my Masters Degree, yet I had never read a female philosopher. I was never assigned a reading by a female philosopher in class and I had never read any feminist philosophy as part of my extensive course work in philosophy. My Masters exam was on Aristotle, Avicenna, Descartes, Marx, James, and Husserl. Until that summer it never occurred to me that there was anything missing in my education, nor that there was anything particularly notable about the fact that all the figures for my Masters exam were male and that all my studies in philosophy up to that point were on male philosophers mostly taught to me by male professors. I had many wonderful and inspiring professors throughout my early education as a philosopher and I had what I thought was a firm grasp of the history of philosophy. But once I began to read feminist thinkers I realized that the education I had was only partial; there was an entire aspect to the world that I had never considered. Of the many books that I read in those first few months of becoming a feminist philosopher there are four that I think anyone who wants a nuanced understanding of the Western intellectual tradition ought to read: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, The Subjection of Woman by John Stuart Mill, The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
What all these books made me realize is that I am a woman doing philosophy. This had never occurred to me before. From this seemingly simple realization followed profound changes in how I understood philosophy, education, and the canon. It never occurred to me to question why I had never read a female philosopher; I never even noticed. Once I did notice, my orientation to the whole world changed. I suddenly realized that I was an embodied being in a world engaged in the discipline of philosophy and that my position within that world had profound implications. These realizations did not make me abandon philosophy or the traditional texts which provide the foundation of philosophical thought, rather it made the project infinitely more exciting. As I read Lessing, Woolf, Wollstonecraft, Mill, and De Beauvoir, I realized that thinking is political and that as a philosopher I have a responsibility to the external world. As I have developed as a philosopher for the past 25 years this insight has extended from studying women to studying many other voices that are marginalized within the traditional philosophical cannon. My experience of becoming aware of my own self as a reader of philosophy has influenced what I teach. I think it is crucial to include works by women and people of color and others who are often ignored in canon formation. While the traditional canon has much to teach us it is not a complete narrative. It is partial. One of the major points that Lessing makes in The Golden Notebook is that women’s narratives are disjointed and hard to trace when we try to do so only through the texts of men.
I recently saw Wicked in Chicago. I admit that some time ago I read the novel upon which the musical is based, by Gregory Maguire (whose name often comesup when you google our beloved Cinderella Gergory). I am hoping the some time ago is actually a relatively long time ago, as I hardly recall the plot or the novel at all.
However, the musical did remind me of the novel, and together I was led to ask: was Elphaba a Shimerian? Ordinarily, I am not inclined to inquire whether characters in novels or musicals are or were Shimerians -- focusing my question more on authors (and on occasion recently an architect). But, I must, having seen the bits of the musical that focused upon education, pursue the question. Could he green witch, the so-called wicked witch, be a Shimerian?
I think the answer could be yes for the following reasons. First: she is an active learner and pursues her craft with a kind of dedication and native talent that seems, well, Shimerian. It is the combination of the passion (in her case on occasion anger) and the effort, not one or the other. And, there is most definitely "native talent." Perhaps more persuasively, she is a bit of an outsier as a consequence of her talents and smarts, and this leads to a somewhat complex social situation with her peers. (Ought I not say that? Hmmm.) And, of course, Elphaba is misunderstood. Her commitment to social justice (and full participatory education) are perhaps Shimerian as well.
No, I am not arguing that Shimerians are green. Though I have on occasion noted some green hair. Yes, I am saying the Shimerian ethos and Elphaba as portrayed by Maguire and the musical may have some similarities.
No, I am not arguing that we ought to sing more than we do (though I did recently participate in an intriguing conversation about karaoke). I can indeed imagine Shimer as a musical. Alas, it was a tad painful (except for the bit taking place at Orange Horse).
No, I am not arguing for inclusion of Wicked in the curriculum. But, I would say that some of the themes raised in it -- the complexities of good and evil, the nature of friendship, and the ways politics qua expressions of power can lead to a dehumanizing of the other -- well, those are indeed part of the enduring questions and texts we tangle with. Shiz University as Shimerian? Hmm. No ghost of Hutchins there, I think.