Monday, January 30, 2006

Behind the Curtain

I have now been on the other side of the student/faculty divide for about four months. I am continually amazed at how unorganized higher education can be. At least in the circles I swim in, organizational tasks are the last thing anyone wants to do – time is better spent with students, reading, or writing. I certainly didn’t become a professor to ruminate over bureaucratic minutia, and nobody else did either. This does breed some surprising ways of doing things. Or perhaps shocking is a better word.

When I was applying to graduate schools, for example, I obsessed over my “statement of purpose.” This is a document that explains an applicant's future plans and research interests. I had this picture of graduate student selection committees poring over every word of my statement, ready to reject me at the slightest hint of naivety. I wrote it and rewrote it, taking hours of my time (and Ellie’s time, too). In the first meeting where the graduate admissions were discussed here at OSU, however, I was interested to find out that hardly anyone had even glanced at the application materials, let alone studied them with any care. I certainly hadn’t. The process simply consisted of a quick check of the “numbers” and a quick skimming of the statement of purpose, if even that. And all this was done by only a few members of the committee. (The letters of recommendation seem to be joke that no one really takes seriously -- they all seem to say the same thing). These applications, which many applicants had obsessed over for hours, were given only 30 seconds consideration. And remember these can be life changing decisions!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Judas Iscariot: A bad rap?

An interesting article about Judas Isacriot. Apparently, the NT evidence that he delibertly "betrayed" Jesus is quite scanty.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Goodbye, Omnipotence

It’s happened. I knew it would someday, and yet it’s come on so slowly I almost didn’t notice it. My child has developed a mind of her own.

I’ve bragged to friends and relatives about how sweet and obedient my daughter is, basically since she was born. Whenever I left her with others for a while, I came back invariably to reports of how good she’d been, how well she’d played with other children, how she knew the answers to all the questions.

But she’s had a lot of upheaval in her life this past year—a new home, new state, new friends, new nursery classes, new baby—and somehow amid these changes, my perfect little girl has turned into a terror. Or maybe she’s just become an average child.

I saw the change in her eyes a few days ago when I asked her to do something, I don’t even remember what it was, something trivial like put on her coat or turn off the TV. She looked straight at me and said, “No.” Now, I’m not claiming that she’d never said no before. She did, and fairly frequently. The difference, as I said, was in her eyes. Somehow mirrored back in those baby blues was her clear understanding that she really didn’t have to do what I asked. In that moment, she had gained power: I knew she had it; she knew she had it; she knew I knew she had it.

It’s unsettling—almost horrifying, really—to realize that she knows she has the power to choose. I guess choosing is what life’s all about, and I just must come to grips with it. But it opens up whole new, frightening possibilities I hadn’t really considered. She might choose to do things that hurt herself or her family or others. She might choose to run away or reject what we teach her. She might choose badly.

Up till now, it’s been easy for me to see her as an extension of myself. I’ve just assumed she’ll be like me and choose things that I would choose for her. My beliefs seem na├»ve and comical, looking back on them, but as she is my first child, they have existed unchallenged up to this point.

So now, I suppose she and I must negotiate the boundaries of this new relationship. We both know now that I’m not omnipotent. I sure miss the illusion.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ode to a bowtie round my neck

As many know, I have taken to wearing bowties lately. It is something I’ve wanted to do since my undergraduate days, and now, thanks to a good friend in Champaign, I have finally taken the plunge. Why am I so attracted to bow ties? My guess is that I am intrigued by the personality associated with bowties. It is non-conformist without being countercultural. It sends an “I don’t care” message to the fashionable lawyers in the Italian suits. The focus of the bow tie is the knot, not the endlessly hanging fabric of a conventional tie. In other words, the focus is on the skill of the knot tier, rather than the abundance of silky material. It is competence over style, substance over materialism. It is not all seriousness, though. A bow tie also involves poking fun at oneself and glorifying in the idea of looking a bit outdated and silly. It is this mixture of seriousness and humor that I find intriguing. Wearing a bowtie involves standing back from fashion mores, even standing back from one’s self, to mock both self and society. You could say that a bow tie is for transcendentalists.

Knowing Brother Joseph Again

My in-laws gave me the new Richard Bushman biography for Christmas. I finished it on Friday. For a long time, I have looked for a comprehensive study of Joseph Smith just like this. It is a book that focuses more on the meaning of Joseph’s religion than endlessly debating its “truth.” More than that, though, it is a book I felt like I could finally trust. Bushman is just the right type of person to write about Joseph. He is a believer, but he takes seriously the claims of argument and evidence. He is affiliated with a non-LDS school (Columbia University), so his credibility as a respected historian is on the line and subject to serious non-Mormon review. Accordingly, I came away from the book thinking that I really knew Joseph for the first time – the Joseph as a human being, and not as the caricature drawn by both believers and critics. A believer in Joseph Smith, like me, now knows what he or she must come to terms with.

Here are just a few things I found interesting:

(1) Bushman writes at length about the implications of the following fact: Joseph did not see himself as building churches that would exist within communities; rather, Joseph wanted to build the communities themselves. From this simple impulse flowed many of Joseph’s greatest problems and achievements.

(2) Bushman has much to say about the relationship between Joseph and democracy, something that has interested me for a long time. Joseph was democratic in the sense of participatory democracy – giving simple farmers the chance to be eminent participants in God’s kingdom. Joseph was not so much interested in electoral democracy, with power given to the people to reign (although there are moments when councils legitimately overruled Joseph’s judgments). The democracy Joseph envisioned was more one of a “listening monarchy.” One person has complete executive power, but that person must be open to being influenced by surrounding intelligences.

(3) Bushman details how Joseph grew to be politically engaged with the outside world, and much of it had to do with the Saints’ construction of persecution narratives. These narratives assumed that there were good, sympathetic non-Mormons who would be moved by their plight. These narratives broke down the church=righteousness, world=wickedness dichotomy. For persecution narratives to have a point, you can’t have a black and white world anymore.

(4) And then there is plural marriage. Bushman describes how Joseph married dozens of women, many of whom were married to other men. He does a great job of trying to explain what all this meant to Joseph, though. He suggests that plural marriage was another manifestation of Joseph’s first for community (“He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin,” Bushman writes). I think he must be at least partially right in saying this, and what convinced me was his description of how Joseph married Brigham Young’s 58 year old sister. There is more going on in something like this than simple libido. It was hard, however, to read about how plural marriage played out in Joseph’s marriage to Emma.

(5) It was also hard to read about Joseph’s lapses in judgment – his weird passivity during the Missouri war, his inflammatory rhetoric and thin skin, his trust of bad people, his bad money management, and his failure to learn lessons about getting along with his neighbors. As I read this, though, I saw myself falling into these same traps in those situations. I saw myself in Joseph, in a sense, and I felt I could identify with errors.

(6) Bushman describes how Joseph was able to infuse mundane details with great religious significance. The simple act of record keeping during baptisms, for example, became an action of recording in heaven what happens on earth. Bushman shows clearly why even some outsiders have acknowledged Joseph’s “religious making imagination.”

(7) Overall, I came away with a greater admiration for Joseph. I knew Joseph had it rough, but I had no idea how rough. Reading about many of his close friends turning away from him was gut wrenching. But Joseph had a strong determination and will of steel. He was a real person, with real flaws, whose faith had a real impact.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Second Baby

Our second child, Andrew, was born two weeks ago yesterday. I can’t believe how different in every way the experience of having him has been from the experience of having my first child.

During my first pregnancy I spent days in a mental haze where every thought and action revolved around carrying or planning for my baby. My conversations all dealt with maternity symptoms, anticipations, dreads, or needs. Bryan and I spent hours speculating about the baby’s gender and had both a boy’s and a girl’s name at the ready basically from conception. The baby’s car seat was installed a full month before her due date, as per the instructions in What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

Conversely, my second pregnancy seemed to speed by too quickly. By the week before my scheduled induction, I still hadn’t catalogued what supplies we still needed. We hadn’t chosen a name. I packed my hospital bag at 11:30 p.m. the night before his birth. It seemed almost to me as if there could be no room in our fully occupied lives for this new person. I couldn’t conceive of how he might fit in, since I hadn’t spent nine months pondering who he might be, as I had with my first. In the moments I did think of him prior to his birth, I felt guilt: that I wasn’t as excited about his arrival as I should be; that I might not be able to love him as I loved Nora; that I might resent the loss of sleep and free time he would entail; that he would be the forgotten child.

But now I find myself unable to tear myself away from him. His sweet milky smell, his soft skin, his fuzzy hair enchant me. My initial fears and guilts have been replaced by this overpowering, melting, fiercely protective infatuation. And I can’t stop marveling over how this second venture into motherhood is so much better than the first. Labor was simpler, nursing is simpler, bonding is simpler. While my inclination is to declare him simply an easier baby, I don’t think that fully explains it. It’s more the fact that he’s the second. Talk to almost any mother you’d like, and you’ll hear the same thing: “My second baby was so much easier.” Certainly it can’t be the case that everyone has a difficult baby first. It’s more likely that the same newness of a first baby that’s so exciting and all-encompassing has a darker side, too. With my first I was anxious, obsessed, and overwhelmed by the searing waves of pain, first of labor, then of recovery, then of nursing. It seemed that each new development threw what I thought I had learned into doubt. I felt confused, depressed, and exhausted, barely treading water in a black sea of chaos.

While the pains haven’t been so different this time (although nursing has been much better), somehow knowing them, knowing what was and is bound to come, has made them easier to bear—in fact, scarcely noticeable. I have been able to enjoy our little boy’s infanthood in a way I could not enjoy my daughter’s because of my myriad anxieties. The very obsessiveness that I thought was key to good motherhood stood in the way of my enjoying her.

I am pleased to see now, more than anything, that I have learned something. Something concrete, something demonstrable, something worthwhile. Something I didn’t know I’d learned until I experienced it a second time. I have learned how to have a baby. How to carry him, bear him, feed him, bathe him, dress him, change him, enjoy him. I learned how to take deep breaths, relax, and love the baby I thought I’d forget.


Teaching, Power, and Tragedy

Sometimes being a teacher feels like an impotent and silly profession -- especially being a teacher who specializes in theory and philosophy. Sometimes it seems like all talk and no action. That is, it sometimes feels like a meaningless job with nothing really to grab onto and no real accomplishment to admire after a long day’s work (students rapidly forget most of what they learn in class, and no one reads your publications). Recently, however, I’ve been working with a former student from Illinois who is applying to graduate school in my field. Indeed, she is applying to graduate school, it seems, because I once suggested it to her. It wasn’t much, really. She was a great student and I said, almost in passing, that she should go on to study philosophy of education. She perked right up at this suggestion, and before long she was investigating schools and asking for letters of recommendation. It was not something she had considered before I suggested it to her, she said. So there you have it: one little comment from me, her teacher, will probably end up changing her life completely. Hopefully it will change it for the better, but I guess I really can’t be sure of that. She might dedicate years of her life to something she will eventually learn to hate. Maybe it will even ruin her life (it wouldn’t be the first time that graduate school has ruined somebody’s life, that’s for sure). It is a burden to wield such influence and to point people in directions where there is no guarantee of happiness. Whatever else it is, I’ve learned that teaching is far from impotent. It is loaded with tragic responsibility.


So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

As a teenager, my brother Derek was way into the books by Douglass Adams, an author whose magnum opus was probably the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Derek would sometimes tell me about humorous moments from the book, and I always meant to get around to reading it someday. Alas, I never have read it, but I recently rented the recent film version. I can’t comment on whether the movie lives up to the book, but I can say the film was hilariously philosophical. One of the central themes of the film is that a few aliens and human refugees from an obliterated earth go looking for an answer to “life, the universe, and everything else” with the aid of a guidebook to the universe entitled, The Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the film, we learn that the answer to the big questions is the confusingly simple number “42.” Silly as this is, I think it underscores an important point, namely, that answers are meaningless unless we have learned to ask the right questions. Unless we have meaningful and deeply troubling questions, there is no such thing as a meaningful and fulfilling answer. That is exactly what is wrong when, in Sunday School or secular schools, we try to give people answers to the big questions without helping them to first see the force of the questions. An education that tries to inculcate a particular pattern of life will always be shallow without an element of critical thought that develops questioning as much as answering.

Another theme of the film is looking beyond appearances. For example, the film tells us that, although we think that humans are the smartest creatures on earth, we are, sadly, just the third smartest. Dolphins, it seems, have been trying to send us messages for years and yet, we simply see them as performing amusing tricks like jumping through hoops and flipping their fins. Throughout the film, the heroes are placed in situations that thwart expectations (who would have thought that a towel, for example, would be one of the most important tools in the universe!). It reminded me of the research on creativity which suggests that creative thought is the ability to break free from “functional fixidity” and see irregular uses of regular things.