The History of Disenchantment

Here’s a brief description of a course I’ll be teaching next semester:

In a wonderful early poem, “Merlin Enthralled,” Richard Wilbur describes the way that magic drains from the Arthurian world when the wizard is no longer around to generate it:

Fate would be fated; dreams desire to sleep.
This the forsaken will not understand.
Arthur upon the road began to weep
And said to Gawen, “Remember when this hand

Once haled a sword from stone; now no less strong
It cannot dream of such a thing to do.”
Their mail grew quainter as they clopped along.
The sky became a still and woven blue.

A hundred years ago the great sociologist Max Weber wrote that “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung der Welt). We experience this, he added, as an “iron cage” of rationalization. The purpose of this course is to explore Weber’s great thesis. Is it correct? If so, what are its consequences? What intellectual strategies have we formed to deal with this disenchantment, to break the bars of this iron cage? And if Weber’s thesis is not right, in what forms has an enchanted world persisted?

Major readings:

  • Weber, selected writings on the rationalized social order
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
  • Neil Gaiman, American Gods
  • Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment

Supplementary readings:

  • various essays on the “secularization thesis”
  • Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
  • Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (selections)
  • Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (selections)
  • Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (selections)
  • C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on the “enchantment of worldliness”
  • selected essays and excerpts by Marina Warner

The logic behind many of these choices should be clear — it’s obvious why Taylor’s magnum opus will be the central text here — but a few may need explanation. Gaiman’s novel is a great case study in various culturally particular forms of enchantment and disenchantment, and a profound meditation on how technology affects both. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell explores the conditions and consequences of re-enchantment. Josephson-Storm’s book puts some hard questions to Weber’s thesis and to narratives of secularization more generally. Kass presents Genesis as an intrinsically disenchanting text from the outset, in which it demotes the sun, moon, and stars from the status of deities to that of mere created things — big lights in the sky, worthy neither of worship nor of terror.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

for pedagogical pluralism

Most of what I’m about to say here seems to me quite obvious, and I suspect many of my readers will agree. But if so, then these ideas really ought to be more commonly put forth in debates about pedagogy, like the one I discussed in my previous post.

I believe in, and try to practice, pedagogical pluralism. When people argue about the relative value of lectures, discussions, flipped classrooms, and so on, I always want to ask: What’s the context here? Are we talking about high-school students, first-year college students, advanced college students, graduate students? What disciplines do we have in mind? There is no context-independent “best pedagogical strategy.” When people ask me what I think such a strategy might be my answer is always: It depends.

For instance: when I teach literature to first- and second-year college students we’re likely to have a good deal of discussion, but when I teach literary theory to more advanced students I will probably lecture most of the time. Why the difference? Because those younger students will probably have discussed literature in classes before, and will be comfortable with at least some of the most basic tools of literary criticism and evaluation; whereas even very smart students can be lost when they first encounter theory, because its vocabularies and discursive strategies are so alien to them. So I need to talk to them a good bit, at first, in order to orient them; then, when they know their way around, we can open more class sessions up for discussion.

Because my pedagogical strategies are context-dependent, and because contexts change over the course of the semester as students learn more (but also, sometimes, get more overwhelmed with work), I do ongoing formal and informal assessment of what my students in any given class are prepared to do. I give a great many reading quizzes, which we go over together in class, and I learn a lot from those quizzes about what my students know and don’t know. In both lecture-heavy and discussion-heavy class sessions, I will often stop and refuse to go any further until I get five questions from the class: through that practice I learn what they want to know. Equipped with such information, I can make better decisions about when to talk and when to let them talk.

Teaching is an art rather than a science, and much of the art lies in making adjustments to your strategies when things aren’t going well, or as well as you would like. But you’re only going to be aware of the need for adjustment if you’re really noticing what’s happening in front of you, and often, sad to say, teachers don’t really care enough, are not sufficiently present in the room, to notice. As I’ve said in a somewhat different context, “Everything begins with attention.”

lecturing, bodily presence, neoliberalism

In general I’m in favor of the idea of defending the lecture, but this piece in Jacobin by Miya Tokumitsu blurs some useful distinctions.

Tokumitsu’s argument that the common critique of academic lecturing amounts to an unwitting prop for neoliberalism — “The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics” — is, first of all, surely the ne plus ultra of the Jacobin ethos. And it’s not on the face of it a convincing claim. But when you read through the essay you discover that Tokumitsu isn’t primarily interested in defending the lecture — her chief subject is quite other than what she says it is.

Here’s a key passage:

The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.

The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.

One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolation during the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.

“Oh,” I thought when I got to this part of the essay, “this isn’t about lectures at all, this is about going to class.” See the full paragraph that first brings neoliberalism into the story:

The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.

But lectures are only one of several reasons students “convene regularly”: they do so for labs and discussion-based classes too. So when Tokumitsu writes,

But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

— I think, yes, indeed, but all this happens in discussion-based classes too.

So Tokumitsu consistently confuses two phenomena that are conceptually distinct, even if they sometimes are blurred in practice:

1) The critique of the residential college that advocates for its replacement by online learning;

2) The critique of the lecture that advocates for its replacement by other ways of using class time — e.g., the flipped classroom model.

The latter argument assumes that students will “convene regularly” and will be bodily present to and with one another while engaging in collective learning; it just argues that lectures are a poor use of that shared space and time. The former argument is more radical in that it dismisses the need for bodily presence and instead celebrates individual learning and, occasionally, the use of digital communications media to connect people to one another. If you’re going to get anything out of Tokumitsu’s essay, you’ll need to realize that sometimes she’s responding to the first argument and sometimes to the second; and that it’s only the first that can with any plausibility be connected to neoliberalism as Tokumitsu understands it.

More on lecturing in another post.

those darn millennials?

Stories like this one by Frank Furedi are ubiquitous these days. It’s a refrain sung by many:

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

All I can say is that none of this has been my experience. I’m a pretty tough grader, so I’ve had many complaints about grades over the years, but not discernibly more now than in the past. Once a parent called to yell at me after I failed her daughter for plagiarism, but that was 25 years ago. Some professors complain that they can’t assign long books any more because students won’t read them, but I’ve always assumed that few students of any description will read long books unless you hold them accountable with reading quizzes, so that’s what I’ve been doing since I started teaching literature in 1983. (I learned the practice from my undergraduate mentor, John Burke of the University of Alabama.)

Perhaps — perhaps — my students today are a little more sensitive about criticism than my students of decades ago. But I’m not convinced of it.

So why does my experience differ so greatly from that of many others? Some possibilities:

1) Rosy retrospection by the professorial complainers.

2) Institutional location A: I have spent my career at a highly selective liberal arts college (Wheaton) and a selective program within a university (the Honors Program at Baylor). So my students have been very, very good, but perhaps have not had the unbroken record of triumph that some students from the cultural elite have had: they understand the value of hard academic work but don’t think that perfect success is their birthright.

3) Instututional location B: Wheaton and Baylor are both (though in rather different ways) Christian schools, which means that most of my students come from Christian homes, where they are more likely than many young people to be taught respectf for authorities. Which could mean that they accept the validity of my decisions, or that they complain as much as students elsewhere but not to me. Also, I think that in Christian families academic success may be important but it is never the only thing, and rarely the most important thing: there’s a bit of perspective built in. (It may be noteworthy that here at Baylor the students who have expressed to me the deepest anxiety about grades come from non-Christian homes, but my sample size isn’t large enough for me to conclude that.

Obviously these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; and I may have left out something significant. Any thoughts, friends?

KSR’s Mars: a stab at a course description

Posting continues to be light and rare around here because I’m still slaving away at two books — one and two — but I am not a machine, so I spend some time each day reading for fun. And the other day I was possessed by an unexpected, sudden, and irresistible urge to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

I’m about halfway through Red Mars now and it is just thrilling to be back in this fictional world again. Does KSR put a foot wrong in the whole 2000 pages of the trilogy? I think not. It’s simply a masterpiece.

But in addition to the pure enjoyment of it, I find myself mulling over a possibility: What about teaching an interdisciplinary course built around these books? It would be a way to explore, among other things,

  • the distinctive social value of SF
  • environmental politics
  • the economics and politics of colonialism
  • the future prospects of internationalism
  • the nature of science and the Oppenheimer Principle
  • aesthetics and human perceptions of value
  • geology and areology
  • robotics and automation in manufacturing
  • designing politics from Square One (or what looks to some like Square One)

And that’s just a short list! So, friends, I have three questions.

First, does that sound like a useful and/or fun course?

Second, have I neglected any key themes in the trilogy?

And third, what might be some ancillary texts to assign? For instance, to help us about the ways that SF enables political thought, I might want at least some students to read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed; on the possibilities of Martian colonization I might suggest Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars on the questions of what science is and what its ultimate values are, I might assign Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology.

But I’m not sure what I might assign on the hard-science side. I’d love to find a book on robotics that is technically detailed but has some of the panache of Neal Stephenson’s famous report on undersea cables and international communication, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” but that might be too much to ask for. I’d love to find an introduction to geology that had some of the clarity and power of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World but at one-tenth the length. Any help would be much appreciated.


No surprises here, of course, but when you ask people who teach creative writing in American universities what books they assign, almost all of them assign books written in the past few years. A couple of people reach all the way back to Chinua Achebe, Saul Bellow, and Jean Rhys, and one bold trailblazer — Joel Brouwer, who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Alabama — actually assigns Homer and Virgil. But the rest don’t dare look any further back than yesterday, and, moreover, the great majority of the texts they assign are by Americans.

This studied avoidance of the past, of the world — of anything that isn’t immediate and local — is bad for the future of fiction and bad for the American mind more generally. The default assumption that our writers can be valid only when they’re working in the idioms of their peers is something close to a death sentence for artistic creativity. Looking at reading lists like this, I can’t help thinking that they play a significant role in maintaining the dreary sameness that is so characteristic of the fiction and poetry that come out of contemporary MFA programs.

resistance is futile, part zillion

Alex Reid is very unhappy with teachers like me who ban laptops (and other internet-enabled devices) from class.

I’ve written about this a number of times before, so let me put it in a nutshell: My students are in class with me for two-and-a-half hours, 150 minutes, per week. During those 150 minutes I choose to focus on our using, together, the technology of the codex. They spend much of the rest of their waking time connected to the internet, and I do my best to teach them how to use it wisely and well for learning. (You can read through the archives of this blog to get a sense of some of the things I do and have done, or look at the syllabus for a course I’ve taught.)

And yet, for Reid, anyone who does not use the internet during class time is failing to confront the ways that “we think differently in the context of digital networks. That’s scary and difficult” and we just can’t handle it. People like me ”offer little or no opportunity for those laptops to be productive because our pedagogy is hinged on pretending they don’t exist.”

Get that? Use laptops all the time or you’re “pretending they don’t exist.”

That’s where we are now with the true-believing digerati: there is no time at which it is legitimate to unplug. There are no good pedagogical reasons for focusing, for less than three hours per week, on learning to use codexes better. Everyone must conform to the all-digital-all-the-time regime!

my course on the "two cultures"

FOTB (Friends Of This Blog), I have a request for you. This fall I’m teaching a first-year seminar for incoming Honors College students, and our topic is the Two Cultures of the sciences and the humanities. We’ll begin by exploring the lecture by C. P. Snow that kicked off the whole debate — or rather, highlighted and intensified a debate had already been going on for some time — and the key responses Snow generated (F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Loren Eiseley). We’ll also read the too-neglected book that raised many of the same issues in more forceful ways, and a few years before Snow, Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values.

Then we’ll go back to try to understand the history of the controversy before moving forward to consider the forms it is taking today. Most of the essays I’ll assign may be found by checking out the “twocultures” tag of my Pinboard bookmarks, but we’ll also be taking a detour into science/religion issues by considering Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria and some of the responses to it.

What other readings should I consider? I am a bit concerned that I am presenting this whole debate as one conducted by white Western men — Are there ways of approaching these questions by women or people from other parts of the world that might put the issues in a different light? Please make your recommendations in the comments below or on Twitter.


laptops of the Borg

What, yet another Borg-Complex argument for laptops in the classroom? Yeah. Another one.

Laptops are not a “new, trendy thing” as suggested in the final sentence of the article – they are a standard piece of equipment that, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, are owned by 88% of all undergraduate students in the US (and that’s data from four years ago). The technology is not going away, and professors trying to make it go away are simply never going to win that battle. If we want to have more student attention, banning technology is a dead end. Let’s think about better pedagogy instead.

Sigh. It should not take a genius to comprehend the simple fact that the ongoing presence and usefulness of laptops does not in itself entail that they should be present in every situation. “Banning laptops from the shower is not the answer. Laptops are not going away, and if we want to have cleaner students, we need to learn to make use of this invaluable resource.”

And then there’s the idea that if you’re not more interesting than the internet you’re a bad teacher. Cue Gabriel Rossman:

Robert Talbert, the author of that post, assumes that a teacher would only ban laptops from the classroom because he or she is lecturing, and we all know — don’t we? —that lecturing is always and everywhere bad pedagogy. (Don’t we??) But here’s why I ban laptops from my classrooms: because we’re reading and discussing books. We look at page after page, and I and my students use both hands to do that, and then I encourage them to mark the important passages, and take brief notes on them, with pen or pencil. Which means that there are no hands left over for laptops. And if they were typing on their laptops, they’d have no hands left over for turning to the pages I asked them to turn to. See the problem? 
I’ve said it before, often, but let me try it one more time: Computers are great, and I not only encourage their use by my students, I try to teach students how to use computers better. But for about three hours a week, we set the computers aside and look at books. It’s not so great a sacrifice. 

the science of grading

A while back Jonathan Zittrain tweeted a suggestion about academic grading that I like, so I’m adapting it for my classes in England this summer. Formal papers are difficult to do in these circumstances, so I’m having my students write journal-like responses to what we read, responses in which they need to quote the texts and quote critics but are not obliged to formulate a thesis. Their writing must remain text-centered but they are free to be more speculative and personally responsive than is usual in my classes. But how do you grade such writing? Here’s the explanatory email I recently sent out:

So, friends, here’s how you can interpret the grading of your journals — which is not easy, I grant you, since I’m encouraging you to write conversationally and I’m tending to respond conversationally:

1) If I use words like “excellent,” “outstanding,” “first-rate,” and the like to describe your entry, your grade is W00T.

2) If I say the entry is “solid,” or “good,” or if I don’t make a qualitative comment but just respond to the content in some way — by adding information, or offering a correction, or the like — your grade is WIN.

3) If my comment is of the “yes, but” variety — which happens primarily if you either don’t offer enough of your own responses or if you stray too far from the text you’re supposed to be writing about — your grade is MEH.

4) If I tell you that you’re just off-track — which happens primarily if you offer no responses of your own (instead summarizing either one of our writers or a critic) or if you don’t really talk about the literary text at all — your grade is FAIL.

5) And if you fail to turn in a journal, your grade is EPIC FAIL.

Everybody got that?