I'm directing an undergraduate project about Alice Walker's The Color Purple. This involves supervising a small group of students. They have chosen this subject out of several others proposed by members of the teaching corps that work for an allotted quota in the international basic studies program.

Meeting regularly with students on a weekly basis is part of my tasks at Roskilde U which I enjoy thoroughly. The Marxist approach to problem based learning combined with what resembles tutoring in the good old days at Oxford is just the kind of melange that appeals to my temperament. Students work towards writing a longer paper which they also have to defend orally at the end of the semester. These papers follow four topical dimensions. This time around my students have chosen the philosophy and science angle which has already posed some concerns for them - one verbally articulated: "how can we use philosophy on a novel? - and one intentionally implied: "does this seemingly trivial topic lend itself to a sophisticated philosophical reading?" I begin my first meeting with two remarks. One clearly articulated, the other clearly implied: “any topic can be read as sophisticatedly as one cares to”; “don’t insult my intelligence by assuming things you are not qualified to assume; why speculate that I might want to spend even 3 seconds of my life on drafting subject proposals that I myself don’t find interesting in the slightest, or sophisticated enough?” The meeting went well.

The second time around, the students are concerned again: “why do we have to read Charles Taylor’s The Politics of Recognition?” I tell them that all they need to know about philosophers concerned with subjectivity at present is that one half of them looks away from the subject (Wittgenstein), while the other half reconsiders the subject in spite of the poststructuralist and formalist turn (Taylor). This doesn’t sound convincing to them, so they insist: “but what about Foucault, Derrida – you’ve taught us about these guys last semester – is this Taylor, whom we don’t know anything about, enough to cover the philosophy dimension?” For a split second I’m at a loss, but it occurs to me that these students associate the idea of philosophy with something ancient. The notion of the politics of recognition seems too basic to them and devoid of philosophical abstract impetus. Consequently, my first impulse is to retaliate against their rhetoric of suspicion and say: “if you don’t think this is enough, how about going home and start reading Plato – all of it – Aristotle – all of it – Kant – all of it – and now that you’re at it – Hegel – all of it.” I say nothing of the sort, but I make two suggestions instead, pointing to the backyard outside, a little square full of aligned trees: “if are you interested in posing metaphysical questions à la ‘who am I,’ you have two options: (1) you are welcome to engage in that most venerable Aristotelian practice and right now take a peripatetic walk in the garden and wait for some divine inspiration, or else, (2) you can wait until you have to catch your train back to wherever you live and start observing the people around you. What do you recognize them as? Do you offer or deny them your gaze? If the latter, what do you think of them: do they look clever, or stupid, arrogant, shy, curious, indifferent, do they strike you as being fashion victims, victims of foreign or domestic patriarchies, full of secrets, full of stories of circumstance, fate, or character?" You are what you give. You are what your space gives you. The meeting ended well.

Students volunteered most sophisticated incidental life-stories that more than made up for their fear of not being philosophical enough - in their own approach, as well as in showing more confidence in other's methods. It goes to show that to be a philosopher is not only to make distinctions but stand against them too.


Bent said…
Beware of peripateia - it usually signals the advent of tragedy:

"It ended well", as Hamlet said to Ophelia on the eve of their 25 marriage anniversary...

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