Friday, July 14, 2006

Science and the Humanities

My favorite magazine is American Scientist, which we get because my wife is an engineer but which I am always the first to read. Unlike Scientific American or even my beloved Natural History (which I've been reading for more than 30 years), American Scientist hasn't gone too far down the path of mere journalism and advocacy: real scientists still write a lot of the articles and the level of discourse is very high without being obscure.

So I was very interested to see an article in the past month's A S by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, a literature professor at the National Humanities Center (I didn't even know we had one!). Since my own research attempts a dialogue between scientific insights and humanistic scholarship, I was very pleased to see something from a fellow English professor in American Scientist.

[Now, before I go further, an aside: in my very first class in the Loyola Chicago Ph.D. program, we read and discussed Harpham's The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism, and I have to admit, I was not a big fan and perhaps said and wrote some things (which may be archived somewhere) that were intemperate. Some very, very good discussions came out of that seminar ("The Body in Medieval Art and Literature," taught by Allen J. Frantzen), but I found the book to embody many of the most irritating tics of late-80s/early-90s: over-citiation of the same old tedious theoriests, gimmicky uses of parentheses, overuse of antithesis ("anti-professionalism turns out to be professionalism's most typical gesture") as if the revealed "paradox" was a blinding insight, etc. And yet when Harpham was discussing the Isenheim Altarpiece in particular, he was genuinely insightful, and his linkage of ascetisim to criticism was pretty convincing.

One more point in Harpham's favor: I was able to use Harpham to at least give pause to David Halperin, who was the single most obnoxious guest speaker with whom I have ever dealt. Others have told me that Halperin is actually a nice guy, but you couldn't prove it by his behavior at Loyola, where he over did the whole "I'm angry and defensive" schtick to just exactly the wrong audience: really, you are coming to meet and talk with a bunch of graduate students in the worst job market in decades and you are whining that you don't have graduate students at a tenure-track job at MIT? We cobble together the funds to invite you to speak to us and then you act hostile and obnoxious? Also, when you've just had an hour-long discussion with 90% of the audience for your talk, you look kind of foolish when, for the actual talk, you need to put on a leather-daddy hat. Just saying. Anyway, my very pleasant moment was when I asked Halperin about the chapter, "St Foucault," in Harpham's book. Halperin went absolutely white. He hadn't read it, which was no big deal, but his own new book, which was in press, was entitled St Foucault. No big deal, actually, but it was nice to see someone squirm who had been a big jerk for the rest of the day. And lesson from this: the little people remember.]

So I didn't have particularly high hopes for Harpham's essay, and I wasn't particularly disappointed. I agree with Harpham that more connection between the sciences and the humanities is desireable, but what he actually says isn't specific enough. And the program he is running at the National Humanities Center is very laudable:

Research Triangle Park, NC. The National Humanities Center seeks scholars in the humanities, as well as those working in biological or computational science, to participate in a three-year project that will gather, synthesize, and promote new knowledge about fundamental human capacities, including such higher-order capacities as communication, imagination, judgment, and creativity. Participants in the project will pursue their own projects, but will also share responsibility for the ongoing initiative, including lectures, symposia, and, at the conclusion of the project, a Web archive of its findings. Interested scholars are encouraged to apply to the Center (see Fellowships on the Center's homepage)

But the problem with these kinds of calls (and they've been around for a while, including E. O. Wilson's Consilience) is twofold. First, the scientists involved tend to give the very strong impression that the humanists need to learn from them but not necessarily vice versa. I am obviously engaging in a little hubris here, but I think that an evolutionary biologist could also get some good ideas from How Tradition Works just as I got a lot of good ideas from evolutionary biology and even more from various literary and historical scholars.

Second, and perhaps more problematic, is that between the manifestos, theoretical arguments (and their tiresome refutation), funding requests, announcements, etc., the interdisciplinary work never seems to get done. This is a problem with academia in general, and of course for a lot of people, you can't do the research without the funding (one reason why the Sheep DNA project is temporarily stalled), but one big difference between the humanities and the sciences is that for many of our projects, we don't need to go through a multi-stage funding review: we just go to the library, sit down at the computer, and just do it. Let's hear about the results.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Weather

You know, if I'm going to have to live in rainforest weather, I think I deserve the cool animals.

Where is my kinkajou? I want my kinkajou now!

(instead of the stupid groundhog destroying my garden)
We Are Supposed to be Better Than This

I just completed recording another course for Recorded Books' 'Modern Scholar' series, this time on Rhetoric and Composition, so I'm even more focused than is usual on logical fallacies. So it's no surprise that when I read two of the latest disasters to come out of academia (the Prof. Deb Frisch making sexualized comments and only slightly veiled death threats towards a two-year-old incident and the "Wisconsin hires '9/11-was-an-inside-job' conpiracy theorist to teach a course) I began noticing a blizzard of logical fallacies engulfing the blog world.

Where to begin?

First, with the Prof. Frisch situation, we have secundum quid, the fallacy of the "hasty generalization," when one data point is taken as indicating a large pattern. Read the comments on the Inside Higher Ed passage, and you'll see a significant number of people stampeding to the conclusion that Frisch represents the "unhinged" Left and that her (completely over the line) behavior shows how Leftists behave on-line and in real life. No. Frisch's behavior shows how Frisch behaved (abhominably); it does not prove anything about anyone else.

But, lest you think the "Left" was covering itself in glory here or that individuals on the "Right" were the only boneheads, I offer you the tu quoque fallacy, one of my favorites. Back in my youth in New Jersey we used a version of this fallacy when we would say: "yeah, well so's your mom" (usually punching followed). Continue with that comment thread at Inside Higher Ed and you'll see a whole slew of people saying "well, Frisch might be wrong, but look what 'Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, ?? Hannity [I don't know his first name], Karl Rove, etc. do." Nope. Doesn't matter. Frisch's behavior has to stand on its own. If what she did was blatantly wrong (and bringing a two-year-old into an insult fight, and using sexually suggestive and violent rhetoric about that two-year-old is blatantly wrong), then what someone else does, particularly someone who never engaged in a discussion with Frisch, is irrelevant.

Then there's my favority comment, which I didn't archive unfortunately, and which I can't be bothered to track down, but which said "Whatever Frisch said, it's not as bad as what Bush is doing killing thousands of Iraqi children, etc." This is a truly beautiful example of ignoratio elenchi, also called the "red herring," in which one injects an entirely new thesis into the argument in order to attempt to change the subject.

For more fallacies, let's go to the embarrassment of University of Wisconsin in Madison hiring someone who believes that the World Trade Center was brought down by controlled demolition (those gigantic planes slamming into the towers while we all watched? Just a cover up). That in itself just shows that this person is gullible and ignorant about engineering: he theoretically could teach another, unrelated class. But no, he intends to include his idiotic conspiracy theory in a class for University of Wisconsin students. But the fallacy I want to point out isn't in this crackpot theory, but in one of the commenters at Ann Althouse's blog who is defending him. Scroll down to some of the comments by "Christian Anarchist" and note the application of plurium interrogationum, or "too many questions," where a mass of questions -- most of them rhetorical and not answerable -- are piled on top of each other in order to give the impression that there are all kinds of doubts that reasonable people have about the question. You can raise as many questions as you like and then try to badger your interlocutor into a "yes/no" answer (Congressman John Dingell was an expert on doing this with scientists brought before his committee, absolutely smearing Nobel laureate David Baltimore), but you're still engaging in a logical fallacy.

Now, you may ask, why should I care? One line of argument in the comment threads is that these people are "just" adjuncts and therefore not representative of the academy. That's a pretty lousy approach to adjuncts, first of all, and does cast some light on why reasonable people might have significant doubts about how much academia values adjuncts: if you don't even care when they behave in reprehensible ways (Frisch) or promote goofball theories in the classroom, it's hard to believe that the institution really respects people in the same condition when they just do a solid job.

I'm even more concerned about the long-term damage that Ward Churchill's plagiarism and various other examples of academic bad behavior and/or loopiness are doing to a very important institution. I'm sure this will be offensive to a lot of people, but I really do believe that we in academia are supposed to be better. Seriously. We are not supposed to use logical fallacies, we are not supposed to engage in name-calling in place of debate, and we are supposed to uphold high standards in our professional lives. It is fine for talk-show hosts, politicians, political authors, etc. to engage in non-intellectual, boorish and stupid behavior. I could not possibly care less what Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin or Al Franken have to say about various issues. They are entertainers. They aren't professors. They therefore do not have a special responsibilty to attempt to live up to the highest standards of intellectual debate (by the way, readers may think, from that list above, that I'm being too critical toward the "right," but the leaders of various "politically correct" causes at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s were just as dishonest and intellectually flacid as those rightists I've mentioned above; their pet projects were leftist, and I criticize them, in print, with great frequency).

So I don't care about talk show hosts. But I do care very much about the ways that people like Churchill, Frisch and the guy at Wisconsin are damaging the institution of academia. A lot of my colleagues are very leftist in their politics, but none of them engage in this kind of behavior (plagiarizing, making sick sexual comments about children, teaching false theories in which they have no actual expertise --i.e., Wisconsin guy isn't an engineer). The politics that drives people to defend this stuff is mindless sports-fan ('my team, right or wrong') rooting: rather than defending 'our own' we academics should be the strongest and most intellectually rigorous critics of those who trade on the good names of universities, painstakingly built over many years, for their own selfish purposes. They are eating our seed corn, and we will not find it easy to replace the stores thus depleted.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

My Nightmare Journey
or, how an utterly terrible trip ended with a great conference

I had meant to blog about this long, long ago, but many things intervened, including the Encyclopedia proofing (which is now done) and writing and recording my Rhetoric/Composition course for Recorded Books (which is done), and recording all of Beowulf in OE (which is done), and finishing revising my paper from the conference I'm going to discuss (which is now done).

In April I had the worst travelling experience of a life that has included its fair share of awful travelling experiences (including the 8-hour plane ride that came on a day when the two-year-old developed the worst case of diaper rash in history and concluded with an additional hour wait in the parking lot of the airport as the rental car people tried to find the rental car that had been lost in said parking lot).

But my trip to Udine was particularly special.

Usually, I book with American Airlines, because we have a lot of frequent flier miles leftover from when my wife was travelling all the time. In the past I've upgraded to business class with miles. But this year, American has come up with this brilliant idea that they will charge you $250 for each leg of the trip just to use your own miles. The genius who came up with that idea should be pleased to know that we'll be using up all of our American miles and then dumping them. Morons. But I digress.

Because American Airlines now sucks even more than they used to, I decided to try the fabled SwissAir (which now has a new name). The ticket was actually the cheapest I could find, and I thought that as a courtesy to my hosts, I should take it. After all, SwissAir has a good reputation, and I'd get to fly through the Zurich airport, which is nicer than Gatwick.

So, I book a ride to the airport for 4 p.m., giving me plenty of time to get home from teaching classes, finish packing, etc. Unfortunately, at 4 a.m. the phone rings. It's the driver of the car, who is sitting outside my house wondering why there are no lights on. This call wakes up the child, scares the bejesus out of me, etc. I calmly explain the error. There is much apologizing.

Next day, bleary through all the classes, I come home to find a message on my answering machine that the flight has been delayed from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. "That can't be right," I think, and call SwissAir. 45 minutes later, I finally speak to someone who says that yes, the flight has been delayed that long. But everything is rebooked and fine for when I get to Zurich. Ok, so I get dinner with my family and get to put the kids to bed.

Go to the airport. Flight is further delayed. Finally arrives at 2 and takes off at nearly 3. Get a whole row of seats to myself (obviously everyone with sense got away from this cursed flight) and would have been fine except for the old man who got confused in the dim light and sat on my feet. That wasn't so bad. Anybody could make a mistake. Except that he stayed there. For a while. I finally woke up enough to ask him what he was doing, and when I spoke to him, he nearly jumped out of his skin. I really don't understand what was going on: I mean, airplane seats are uncomfortable, but he was sitting on my feet and didn't notice.

Get to Zurich. Rushing to get to next plane. Stand in line for 40 minutes as stupid American college student tourists try to figure out what to do after losing boarding pass. Then they find it. SwissAir desk clerk informs me that Boston never re-booked me off of the 8:30 a.m. flight. "But I didn't arrive, on your plane until 1 p.m." I say. "That flight left hours ago." But I do see that there's another flight from Zurich to Venice at 5:30. "Can't put you on that one," says clerk. "It is now full." "Why didn't they put me on that one back in Boston?" "I don't know."

Now we have a problem. There is much to-ing and fro-ing. Finally, they come up with the brilliant solution of putting me on an Alitalia flight from Zurich to Rome and then another from Rome to Venice. I have a 1-hour connection at Fiumicino (and I have to go through immigration and customs). The flight to Venice gets there one hour before the last train of the night leaves for Udine. My stupid US cellphone doesn't work, so I find an internet kiosk and email my worried hosts at Udine and rush off.

Flight is, of course, late. Get to Fiumicino and get stuck behind a Japanese tour group at immigration. Sprint across airport because even though I've come in on Alitalia, I had to go through immigration at one end of the airport and the gate for Venice is at the other.

Completely drenched in sweat (and having been travelling for sixteen or seventeen hours at this point), I get to the gate, only to be told that the thing I have isn't a valid ticket. Get sent to a counter. Wait while clerks chat with each other. Woman closes window just as I get there, and, for one of the only times in my life, I raise my voice and pitch a small fit in a public place. Get on the plane as door is closing.

Get to Venice. Find bus to train station. Bus is 20 minutes late. Run through train station. All windows closed. Find automatic machine. Go through process of ordering ticket three times. Each time machine quits just before I can insert credit card or money. Sprint to train and get on anyway. Fall asleep. Get woken up by train inspector. Get lectured in Italian for not having a ticket. Get fined 25 Euro. Get to Udine. Have not eaten since 7 p.m., East Coast US time day before. Wander through town and find hotel. Get to room. Conference gift bag included gigantic cake/muffin thing with almonds in it. Eat entire cake. Don't feel so good.

But the conference itself was amazing. Entitled Leornungcraeft, the conference examined two seemingly disparate fields of knowledge in Old English studies: the study of medicine and the study of education (and it was linked up with manuscript study and a database also). At first glance these two areas did not have much to do with each other, and the organizers didn't necessarily think that they would. But what happened, maybe fortuitously, was that each paper seemed to build on the previous one and connect up the knowledge in really interesting ways. The best part, for me, was that I discovered, thanks to the work of Prof. F. E. Glaze, that medical aphorisms were transmitted unchanged for enormous periods of time and that they developed a detailed commentary tradition because they were not able to carry their exact meanings with them. It is a perfect test case for my meme theory and, from what I have been able to gather so far, it supports the theory very, very well.

Although I have recently published an article on Anglo-Saxon medicine (co-written with my friend, Prof. of Biology Barbara Brennessel), I would never have thought to look in the Latin aphorism tradition (A-S medical studies are focused elsewhere) for replication of memes and the interpretive problems created by that replication. It was really remarkable.

The rest of the conference, and the excursion to Aquilea (and having the Prof. Maila D'Aronco help me pick out a beautiful shirt-tie combination) and the hospitality and the intellectual excitement were all wonderful. Anglo-Saxon studies in Italy is (to me at least) the perfect combination of the philological and the literary and the historical, so I get along very well with the Italian Anglo-Saxonists and very much enjoy their company.

(The trip home was also, hellish, especially the brilliant tactic of rounding up very single person going to America in the Zurich international terminal and re-checking their passports and asking them where in the US they were staying. Although this was done by Swiss police, I am certain that the Department of Hopeless Stupidity [motto: Protecting Our Featherbed Jobs by Unnecessarily Inconveniencing You since 2001] must have been involved.)

But it was definitely a worthwhile trip, not only because I learned so much (and received valuable feedback on my paper) and got a great idea, and saw good friends and bought a really cool shirt and tie, but also because I now have this story, which, really, I am not making up.