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!
Shimerians write books. They write a lot of books. Some of those books are theoretical. Some are historical. Some are filled with poetry and some are entirely prose. All of them are worth a gander. But I admit that I do not get to all of them. I did, recently, have a fit of Shimerian reading -- and here's what it inspired.
One of the authors whose work I owned long before I had heard of Shimer: Mary Wings. So, a bit ago, I used my "so not working right now" time to re-read some of Mary's fiction. Here are the three murder mysteries I re-read: She Came to the Castro; She Came by the Book; and She Came in Drag. Each takes place in San Francisco, features lesbian detective Emma Victor, and was published between the mid-1990s and the late 1990s. Yes, that means these are late 20th century in both tone and politics, with an eye to both the impact of the AIDS/HIV pandemic, a look at gay politics in the person of gay politicians, and much more than can feel just at the cusp of timely for all of us today and oddly ancient history. There are reverberations that make me think of Harvey Milk, including the riots when his murderer got off on the so-called Twinkie defense. The notion of something called the Lesbian Revengers and the controversies about outing of celebrities and others also echo - including the fears of being outed, the urge to out others, the pop culture debates and the hideous role of some (and the word is important -- only some) closeted people who maintained their own closets by attacking others who were not closeted. How history matters appears as well -- and the importance of the founding of archives to ensure that history was under the control of those who lived it. And, of course, the underground history of the search for solutions to the medical crises that were and are AIDS.
Perhaps the most Shimer-esque moments appear in She Came by the Book, which features a Gertrude Stein bit from WE CAME, A HISTORY, 1930 as its epigraph:
"History there = is no disaster =Those who make history =
Cannot be overtaken = as they will make = History which they
do = because it is necessary = That every one will = Begin to
know that = They must know that = History is what it is =
Which is is as they do . . . "
The book also includes other bits of Stein, worth the read to find, entwined with these dandy mysteries which are both fun, well written, and just a tad bittersweet in the nostalgia I felt reading them. I am not sure why the nostalgia really got me in the re-reading -- but it was wonderful to feel, and is part of Shimer as well. The place that hides, now, for this reader, between the lines and between the pages.
A delight. I will have to find She Came too Late, as it, alas, was not on the shelf when I went home to look. Nor, I have to admit, are the comix that Wings is also well known for, and which include the first Lesbian Underground comic. And, even worse, I do not own, the novel for which Wings won the Lambda Literary Award.
Fictional characters going to Shimer? Well, as readers of this blog know, that is one way to think about what Shimerians are like, in a somewhat ideal typical sense (a la Weber) or in one's imagination, with a bit less seriousness! We have looked at figures such as Harry Dresden as well as the authors who create wildly popular characters like George R. R. Martin or Neil Gaiman.
Now, we turn our attention to one of the creations of Shonda Rhimes, one of the women defining our culture through the lens of television. Grey's Anatomy? Scandal? How to Get way with Murder? Definitely, most definitely Shimerian Shonda Rhimes. (Plus she has a newish book out.)
Today, though, we are asking about Olivia Pope, gladiator. Is she Shimerian? According to the wonders of quick web based research, she is distantly inspired by a real life figure, Judy Smith, who while smart enough to be a Shimerian attended Boston University.
But what about Pope? As far as I can see, she went to Shimer and is a Shimerian.
(1) According to Wikipedia Pope " thinks fast and effectively" and is a figure who is "emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated" (see here). She has been described as intellectualy strong, though too many emphasize her intuition, and I admit I find the comparison to Monk a bit gender biased, since Monk is himself . . . well. . . In any case, all this leads to the notion that Olivia Pope is definitely Shimerian, despite the source (which is referencing other sources, of course).
(2) Stories say that she graduated from Princeton in Political Science and then went on to Georgetown Law. (See this site.) Of course, Shimer has a direct connection to Princeton's department of political science through graduate and trustee Robert O. Keohane, and we can definitely see his influence on her in her understanding of International Relations. But we think she lists Princeton in order to continue the obfuscation about her background necessary for her in the world in which she "operates."
(3) Olivia Pope tries for a "white hat" in a world that is amazingly grey (at best) and filled with folks quite close to her whose hats are most definitely not white. As she does so, she also allows for the language of gladiators. Thus, she connects recent history to history that is long past, and steers between reality and utopia in ways that are quite Shimerian.
What do you think? Olivia: we know that you are really a Shimerian. Shonda: we know you are as well. We think Meredith might have been as well. Do you?
As I recently wrote, and have occasionally undertaken on this blog, there are many ways to link Shimer to the world beyond what appear to be our boundaries. Indeed, we are "everywhere" if you just know how to look -- and to build the connections. There are historical connections, contemporary connections, connections directly through people or through texts. Since coming to Shimer I have come to see Shimer wherever I look -- and to understand that while humorous and fun, six degrees of Shimer is, in fact, part of our strength. Sometimes the metaphor can be "leaven" -- as in the yeast are everywhere in that loaf of bread, not merely in that one hunk you just put in your mouth. Sometimes the metaphor might be a web or a network moving out from a "center" that itself has a history into the world. Whatever the metaphor, connections, relationships, vary in their importance, of course. And yet, those linkages are what make Shimer.
In any case, here is the Shimerian connection to Lucille Ball -- and Burt Bacharach. It moves through an amazing Shimerian herself, Paula Stewart. Getting to know such wonderful Shimerians, if only through email correspondence, is part of how Shimer reveals itself as deeply connected and, in many ways, deeply influential. In this case, there is a direct link between Shimer and Paula Stewart, who herself attended Shimer. Shimerians, then and now, are the real reason the "game" of six degrees of Shimer is so fun -- and important to understanding why a micro-college is something worth sustaining.
For those like me who do not directly connect the name Paula Stewart to Shimer or to her career, you could, of course, click the link above. Let me, though, fill you in a bit: Paula Stewart (born Dorothy Paula Zurndorfer) is a 1947 graduate of Shimer, then a women's junior college. Like other Shimerians across our history, Stewart is a bit of a polymath, having had a career as actor, producer, entrepreneur, and soon to be published author. She acted on Broadway and in television in such venues as the Lucy Show, the Joey Bishop Show (remember that?), My Favorite Martian, Hogan's Heros, The Big Valley, and Perry Mason. (I admit it: many of these were favorites of mine at the time they first aired.) And, Paula has also been a realtor and entrepreneur.
Her work is what gets us to Lucille Ball in our "game," of course. And, Paula was once married to Burt Bacharach, another person whose music shaped generations. It is the former connection, though, which ia of crucial significant to Stewart, who has written a memoir about their friendship. Keep an eye out for it as another "Book of Shimer"!
Reaching out to Paula was a good thing for me -- as a reminder of the wonderful world of Shimer -- now and in the past. So: I have intruded a bit on her by writing this, and hope she will forgive me!
One of my favorite entertainments since "meeting" Shimer is a game I call (yes, with the obvious pop culture referent and perhaps slightly less obvious theoretical referent -- see here) Six Degrees of Shimer. There are many ways to play, like having someone name a figure and then trying to figure out the minimum number of legitimate (defined variously) degrees between said figure and Shimer.
For example, from Shimer to Jayne Baron Sherman to Cindi Lauper
Stuart Derbyshire, Researcher and Academic, visited and wrote about Shimer for Spiked Online, "‘The worst college in America’? The Washington Monthly could not have got it more wrong, Shimer might just be the best." Read more here.
Some weeks ago, the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was asked by a journalist why he had chosen a cabinet that was 50% women. His answer was short: “Because it’s 2015.”
In the few seconds of Trudeau’s answer, I heard a kind of “it’s about time” tone, as well as just a bit of puzzlement that the question even arose. On reflection, I also came to see his answer as a gentle rebuke to those who are passive in the face of the need for change. Trudeau made it happen. He did not wait for it to happen to him. He stood as if poised between reality and utopia, and grasped them both, pulling them together into a moment for his country and for his country’s future.
I chose to see his words – and his decision – as Shimerian in its bringing together of reality and utopia, bringing “what is” together with “what ought to be,” the conjoining of daily lives with our aspirations. Facing the practicalities of running a country, Trudeau refused to choose between ideals and logistics. He chose both. And he did so together with those who came before him as well as those who stand alongside him today.
What, I have come to ask myself, am I, are we, waiting for? Is my phrase “Shimer – somewhere between reality and utopia” serving us well – or serving to keep us stuck? Am I settling for the tension hidden in the phrase as though it is eternal and we are unchanging? Or, am I – are we—ready to identify the Shimer we must be because it is 2016.
Some of you will hear my question as about diversity, especially perhaps demographic diversity: gender parity, racial/ethnic diversity, and more. Some of you will hear this as about the tangled web of managerial and leadership roles at Shimer or the complex relation of educational mission with fiscal responsibility. The question might shape not only what we read together but why and how we read, what the focus of our conversation-based learning must take up, and who we must become.
All of you, I hope, will hear this as about the many accomplishments articulated in our recent annual report detailing the 10 years we have spent in Chicago. (If you have not received it, and would like to, please write to email@example.com.)
So, as we enter another year together, I challenge each of us to identify the questions and actions we might take because it is 2016. Because it is 2016, and we are Shimer!
Happy New Year and best wishes for a wonderful 2016.
As we enter December, there is much to be thankful for and much to grieve. Violence abounds – both in Chicago and in various places around the globe. Racism and other forms of exclusion persist in horrifying ways. Poverty is more characteristic of the world we live in than many of us can face.
These sentences contain - in both senses of the word – much suffering.
And yet: students and others are standing up in a wide range of ways to change the world. Some of the work is volunteerism – at soup kitchens & settlement houses. Some of the work is activism on campuses and beyond. Some of the work is educational, as we help one another to focus on facts not rumor, to engage critically with the world around us and meet others with generosity and hope. Part of that hope – of dangerous optimism – is our hope to hear and be heard. All of the work is necessary.
And this hope is both an individual and an institutional hope, if we can envision structures of hope.
What we grieve and what we are thankful for each reminds us that to live fully in the blazing world, as a late, dear friend of mine once put it, is what it is all about. It is about the effort to listen, to think deeply, to enjoy and celebrate, to mourn and be exuberant. It is aspirational and in the moment, not one or the other.
I hope, this month, that you will be as open to new ideas as ever, to the humanity in all around you, to the worth of our best critics who help us see the difference between aspiration and reality, intention and impact.
I hope this month, and all months, that you will support Shimer as we steer between reality and utopia – and as we build hope in ourselves and the world around us.
Harry Dresden is a fictional character appearing in books within the "Dresden Files," written by Jim Butcher. Dresden, the recipient of a GED, is labeled the "only wizard in the Chicago phone book" in the novels. And, yes, he is a wizard -- and something of a wise ass. The books are somewhere in that grey zone between swashbuckling sword and sorcery and murder mysteries. And, they are set right in Chicago at locations such as the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum as well as fictional places that really really ought to exist.
No, Harry has not (yet) gone to college. (Unless one counts the many ways that he learns about his wizarding capacities). But he should. And he should go to Shimer.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Harry had a messy time in high school and is not a huge fan of school. But, he is obviously and entirely smart -- both well read (there is evidence in the books that he has read some of the works we read at Shimer) and thoughtful in many senses of that word.
2. He is not "traditional age" for college. Like many Shimerians, he is not somewhere between 18 and 23. In his case, he is older. He would thus contribute to the wonderful intergenerational learning that is Shimer
3. Harry is curious and wants to learn more and more. This is clear in the ways he engages in various experiments in his sub-sub basement. He also believes in dialogue (with a variety of sorts of entities) and knows that dialogue may require action. And, he values collaboration.
5. Harry is interested in teaching as well as learning, having taken on an apprentice. His teaching methods are a worth reflection, given they are right there at the cusp of kind, inclusive and wildly rigorous.
6. Harry has a sense of humor and has moments of being very very kind. (He shovels his neighbors walks, for example.)
7. Harry gets Windy City weather. And, he lives in a basement apartment given his economic situation. So: he really gets Chicago weather. And, he sprinkles various Chicago insider humor across his worlds.
So: Harry should go to Shimer, where wizards are welcome. Right?
(Post script: Jim Butcher will be signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Skokie on October 1. Click here for information. And yes, Butcher went to the University of Oklahoma.)
Annually, there is an event called Banned Books Week, sponsored by, among others, the American Library Association (I think). The year the relevant week is September 27 through October 3. This year's theme is Celebrating the Freedom to Read, and includes specific attention to YA (Young Adult) books.
As you may know, Shimer has a new-ish youtube channel, and you can watch videos related to Banned Books Week there, including this one by yours truly. If you spend the time to listen to it, this question may make sense: what author of a banned book grew up in Waukegan, where Shimer spent several decades?
But today, as the week of banned books thinking, reading and etcetera begins, here is a list of 10 banned books from faculty member David Shiner:
In my field of academic training, the word myth has a very particular meaning: a story that functions to hold together a community. It is not (as ordinary language sometimes has it) a false story.
So, what I am about to quote is about the clash of myth and history (perhaps a tiny bit similar to the ways that clash occurred in the 19th century, for example, when historians and others debated the status of biblical texts). The words are from the preface to The Idea and Practice of General Education: An Account of the University of Chicago by "present and former members of the faculty." The particular edition I own has a preface by Donald N. Levine (one of my dissertation advisers and an emeritus faculty member of the University of Chicago who has also written on liberal education and served as Dean of the College at the University of Chicago). Here's what he writes:
"Often hailed as the most momentous curricular experiment in the history of American higher education, the 'Hutchins College' has even more frequently been misrepresented. The phrase evokes a widely cherished founding myth: Robert Maynard Jutchins came to the University of Chicago as a young man in 1930; he brought along Mortimer Adler, who introduced him to the powers and pleasures of the Great Books; as a result, Hitchins established a liberal arts curriculum in the College organized around reading of Great Books. The story is colorful, inspirational perhaps, but quite untrue."
As he continues: "The facts of the matter are:
(1) Well before Hutchins was even considered as a candidate for the presidency of the University of Chicago, its faculty has developed all of the ideas for what becamse knowns as the New Plan, instituted under President Hutchins in 1931.
(2) The College faculty subsequently considered but firmly rejected his aspiration for a curriculum organized around the Great Books, after which the plan for a Great Books curriculum got transported to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.
(3) The curriculum consistently developed in the College in the Hutchins years followed an alternative principle, that of leading students to develop their powers by focused work in the major disciplines by means of which human knowledge had been constructed -- not a Great Books program, then, but one that included some Great Books along with other texts whose selection was geared to progressive mastery of some basic ideas and methods of the various arts and sciences." (p. v).