Friday, July 30, 2010

Seeking Truth

Quod est veritas?

What is truth?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus this question in John's Gospel.

Since the publication of that particular book in the first century A.D., the question has resonated. Everywhere we turn we hear about professors, authors, journalists, doctors, priests, ministers, and mentalists asking the question and providing answers. Few of these answers satisfy.

The search for truth is a perennial one for humanity. But what does truth mean for the historian?

I ask that question because historian is my profession. What is truth for me? And what role does it play in my work?

First, I think it is important to say that most modern historians do not seek truth. Our sources, the documents and objects that we study, do not permit us to say that something is certainly, or absolutely true.

We acknowledge that truth is often subjective. This is not to say that we cannot make an argument, or that we cannot answer a question with any accuracy. We can. Historians work by amassing information, analyzing that information, sometimes synthesizing that information, and then providing conclusions based on reasonable and defensible theoretical principles. We are often proven wrong. Inevitably someone arises with a better theory, or a more organized method of research, or, very luckily (in ancient history) has found a new source that previous scholars did not have the benefit to use.

Students in history courses are often appalled at the lack of knowledge that we have. They do not always see that the mass of knowledge that we have is the more shocking feature. Not knowing something is the default. It is what we know that makes our profession possible. But it is not a search for truth. Not the abstract ideal anyway. We search instead for a measure of accuracy. All of our information is weighed upon the scale of accuracy. Do we judge it to be more or less believable? All historians should be skeptics. Like the magicians who debunk the psychics and the mentalists, historians must wade through lies, deceptions, and faulty minds.

I often conduct an exercise with my students. I take a fragment of a document. I put it on the screen in a PowerPoint presentation. We read it together. Then, when they have internalized it a bit, I ask them a series of questions: If this document were the only one of its kinds, the only source we had from a particular point in antiquity, what could we tell from it? How much can we trust it?

It isn't always a fruitful exercise. Some students are more imaginative than others. It is, however, always an interesting procedure. For only in that exercise can the non-historian begin to imagine what the historian is up against. Fragments are our life's work sometimes. History, as a process, has not been kind to documentation. We have so little to work with sometimes that we are left with only our speculations. We must be good guessers sometimes, and my students always laugh when I tell them that, but it is true. We guess. A lot. We have to. We simply lack the data to do more. But, that doesn't mean that our guesses are inaccurate, because we always base them on the information we have.

History is a wonderful mystery. I know that sounds a bit trite, but I believe it captures the essence of our work. We are all hierophants, those of us who deal in the past, doing what we can to reveal the important things, the sacred and secret things that time has hidden from us.

I suppose, in the end, it is a kind of truth-seeking. While we know we will never find the truth, as such, we believe, and we work, to reveal as close a semblance to it as we can.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Car Machinations

I took my 1998 Oldsmobile Achieva to JiffyLube this morning. Mine was the only car in the shop, so I didn't have to wait long for the service folks to come with explanations. Having any work done on my automobile is always an experience for me. I'm woefully ignorant of automotive matters. I do not know how a car is put together, and I barely understand how to open the hood, pop the trunk, or fill the car with gas. When most of my friends were learning to drive, I was practicing the skillful art of getting someone else to drive me wherever I had to go. So, when I need to stand in front of the Jiffy technician, I am, understandably, nervous. He begins to rattle off various parts of cars, and I find myself quickly overwhelmed. I do not know which valves do what, which fluids are important where or in what quantities, and I certainly don't know if the prices listed for the variety of services are fair.

This has led me to wonder about the other technologies that I use that I know nothing about. I find that I am remarkably ignorant of most of my machines. I don't know much about how my computer works, or my television, or my mobile phone. I know how to use all of these devices. I would, in fact, consider myself well-versed in their various applications. This ignorance of mine, I'm fairly certain, isn't limited to me. I doubt if most of us know how our machines work. And what does that say about us? What does it mean that we use devices every day that we don't have any idea how they function? I don't think this spells doom for the human race. Many a science fiction author has toyed with the idea that our ignorance of machines will one day destroy us. I'm not convinced. Most of us don't even know how our own bodies work (I point to the chi-wielding faith healers as a prime example), and we get around just fine. Still, I am disconcerted by my own lack of knowledge, and I think I should spend some time learning about how my machines work.

Does anyone know a good primer in learning about a car's operation? I'm looking for something brief and articulate. I'll move on to my computer and my mobile phone next.   

Monday, July 26, 2010

Creating Vera: Lord Night

I am, rather haphazardly, designing a new fantasy-themed world. "World-building" is a hobby of mine, and one that I begin a great deal better than I end. I don't normally share many creative ideas in my blogs, but I think that is more tragedy than benefit. I am all about benefits these days, as I continue in my quest to get my life on the right set of tracks.

The world is known as Vera. This is a nod to Latin, of course, and the idea of truth. For me, Vera is the true world, the center of an entire creative (and created) universe. I am overly fond of wizards, sorcerers, and the magical arts. Thus, Vera is heavily populated with arcane individuals and their equally arcane sentiments. Many of these mystics dwell in a floating city called Aeralunde. Since, however, I'm teaching a course on Greek Mythology this summer, I have had gods and goddesses on the brain. Today's entry is a part of my rumination on the divine.

Subject: Night (celestial divinity; male aspect)

Lord Night is one of the four creative deities of Vera. By creative I mean that his origin was spontaneous, and that he himself is a creative power. He has fathered gods and mortals, and through him aspects of nature and society have come into being. In religious iconography he is never depicted with a face. His body (as a statue) is divinely masculine, although it can sometimes be androgynous. Statues of Night always wear masks. The masks are often elaborate, but during the Fast of the New Moon, a simple, ebony mask is chosen -- the eyes closed, the lips barely smiling. Lord Night is wed to Lady Moon, but their marriage is an unhappy one. Lady Moon did not wish to marry anyone, but Lord Night demanded her hand from Mother Sun -- otherwise he would cease to honor their agreement to keep the days bright and the nights dark. Lady Moon became Lord Night's wife, but she is only bound to his demesne on the night of the New Moon. At all other times, she has freedom. Lord Night can be cruel He is always capricious. He has been known to work kindly, but this has more to do with his whimsy than with any compassion on his part. The night of the New Moon is his monthly celebration and sacrifices to him are made in Aeralunde and across Vera.

Lord Night has many servants, and even more children. His chief servants are the Varja--shadowy beings who act as messengers of Night's will. The Varja usually appear to those who have attended upon Night's mysteries. These initiates will then interpret the will of Night to their acolytes and the city at-large. Night's temple is one of the largest in Aeralunde, smaller only than the Mother's and the Lady's. His mysteries are experienced by many, but very few initiates have ever claimed to receive the word of the Varja. Less benign than the Varja are the demons, said to have risen from Night's anger at Lady Moon's rejection of him. Lord Night does little to control these nefarious creatures, and they have insinuated themselves among mortals. Another servant of Lord Night is actually the chief messenger of Lady Moon, an enigmatic being known as Lynx. Lynx serves Lord Night on the Night of the New Moon, performing tasks that are too complicated for the Varja. Lynx is not believed to enjoy this service, but since his mistress is Night's wife, he has little choice in the matter. Lynx is a jovial fellow, who appears, much like Lord Night, in dapper dress that is only slightly old-fashioned.

That is good for now. A very basic introduction. I will continue to work on Night, the Varja, Lynx, and my demons (who need a better name) in the coming months. Comment and let me know what you think.    

Friday, July 23, 2010

Like Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, you know.

I had a charming ride on the Hopkins shuttle this afternoon. Unlike the ride to campus this morning, which was on a school bus, the ride home was in a lovely, temperature controlled vehicle that smoothly took me from Homewood's green expanse to the subterranean origin of the Baltimore subway. While on the shuttle, I also had the occasion to overhear a conversation that, I think, can only occur near or in a modern university setting.

Directly behind me on the shuttle, a young gentleman and a lady were having a conversation. Their conversation was about a particular TA that the gentleman had, who, while working in one of our foreign language departments was actually a philosopher, and whose book is soon to be published. The TA's book looked, as far as I can tell from my eavesdropping, at the relationship between Heidegger's work and Japanese aesthetics. But that is not the point of my blog entry. No, I am interested, rather, in how the young man and woman were speaking to one another about this topic. It was obviously a topic that the young man found very interesting, and I sensed that young woman was also versed, if not as interested, in matters Teutonic and philosophical. Their discourse, however, consisted of very comprehensible statements about Heidegger, Japanese aesthetics, and Wittgenstein, and a garbled series of "likes" and "you knows", which I took to indicate nervousness from both parties.

I know that "likes" and "you knows" are verbal placeholders, akin to "ums" and "ehs" which we use when we aren't certain what we would like to say. What struck me is that these phrases so often are equated with low intelligence. The individuals behind me could not be said to be of low intelligence. In fact, I would say that they were quite the opposite, being, as they were, able to ruminate meaningfully on German philosophers and their potential intersections with Japanese culture.

So, what is my point?

My point is that I wonder how we can inspire young people, who have accepted the verbal cues of their age, to be more confident in their intellectual abilities, particularly in their ability to articulate those ideas to another person. How, in fact, do we foster the ability to articulate ideas among our students? I would want to see both the young man and the young woman lose much of their nervousness, and be willing (and to let their word choices indicate this willingness) to articulate ideas meaningfully and clearly. We haven't lost intellectual ability since the advent of the Internet, or Twitter, or whatever bugbear is currently en vogue. What we have reduced, however, is the training of students to speak their ideas clearly, and to be confident about their own intelligence. This is something that needs correction.

Well, for an entry that cries out for clarity in speech, this wasn't precisely as clear as I would have liked, but I begin with it. What is a blog if not a place where ideas start, where we can ruminate freely, where the practice of writing can lead to writing as art.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pedagogical Difficulties

Discussion is an essential part of the learning experience. It permits a closer analysis of material, and it encourages the types of debates which can crystallize ideas. The value of discussion in the classroom, I believe, is without question, and yet, it is something that simply does not appeal to many of the students I teach. I cannot perceive if it is because of embarrassment, or if the students have not read the material (this has been a problem in a recent course of mine), or if there is some other underlying distaste of discussion as a tool for learning.

I do not want to believe in the Wikification of learning, where people only care about the acquisition of facts (such as they are), and not about the application of understanding or the deeper analysis of ideas. I recognize that many of my students are more comfortable in the simpler lecture-style portion of my courses than in the discussion element. I know from colleagues that have attempted discussion-based learning before that they have switched over to entirely lecture-based courses. They, too, have noticed my difficulty. If they hadn't, I would have assumed that the problem rested squarely in me, and then I would have tried various personal methods to correct it.

I am, however, convinced that this is a deeper problem, and it requires a new evaluation of how to use and introduce discussion-based elements into the classroom. At this stage of the game, I can only introduce that there is a problem-- Discussion is difficult in class, and students do not profit from it as they should. Thus, a solution must be found (and it will probably be an evolving one) that permits students a more fruitful engagement with discussion-based elements, and that returns the discussion portion of a class to better levels of activity.

As the summer semester winds down, I will begin to post some of the ideas that I have concerning various methods. When I get the opportunity to test these methods, I will post my results. If any of you, whoever you are, have any insights, I would be pleased to hear about them, and look forward to your comments.  

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hierarchies

There are many days when being a graduate student feels just like being a member of the faculty. You teach classes. You grade students. You go to meetings. You sit on committees. You research. You write. You meet with colleagues. In each of these ways there is no discernible difference between the one life and the other, save that faculty get paid considerably more. Inevitably, however, someone or something returns you to reality, you are dashed out of your happy illusion, and you run smack into the existence of the hierarchy. This happened to me today, and in order to have catharsis, I intend to write about it.

Gilman Hall is the center piece of Hopkins' Homewood campus. It is the heart of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, though there are never any sciences present in Gilman. No, that lovely building serves as the home of the school's various humanities departments. In the new Gilman, that is the Gilman post-70 million dollar renovation, three of those departments share space. Specifically, the graduate students of the three departments share a lounge and a workspace room. While seated in the lounge this afternoon, I overheard a conversation between a member of our faculty and an administrator from another department. You see, the issue at hand was the large and lovely pantry (complete with fridge, cabinets, microwave, and sink station), which is a wonderful feature of the new Gilman. Alas, I heard, and had later confirmed, that this lovely space was for faculty and staff only. Graduate students were forbidden to use it. The tone of voice of the speaker made it incredibly clear that a hierarchy did exist, and we didn't measure up to the ability to use the "big people" pantry. Instead we have a destitute little unit of our own.

Ah, graduate life. The sooner you are over, the better.

Time to research.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Malfunctions

I had occasion to be in Lancaster, Pennsylvania this morning. One of the doctors that I see keeps his practice in that city, and so I make the trek once (or sometimes twice) a month, generally enjoying the ride up I-83, which is relatively scenic. This is especially true on bright, clear days, when various river valleys and woods are available for the eye to see. Unfortunately, today was not one of those days. The rain, which was much needed and appreciated, was coming down in proverbial buckets. This not only (of course) made the roads slick, but it also obscured the lovely vistas that help to make the ride to Lancaster a pleasant one.

My Oldsmobile Achieva, nicknamed Bessy, chugged merrily along all the way to Lancaster without trouble, fending off the rain droplets with a slightly squeaky swish-swish of my windshield wipers. Bessy also managed to get me all the way back across the Maryland border before something went wrong. Just as the rain was increasing, my right wiper, the one directly in the face of the front passenger, began to malfunction. It started to swing too far to the right, and then kept getting stuck in the down position. I still had my driver-side wiper, and so I didn't worry (immediately) about it. I had another appointment at Hopkins, and so I didn't have time to pull over and figure out (hah!) how to fix it. As I approached Hopkins, with the rain beginning to lessen, the right wiper suddenly flared to maniacal life. It swung all the way across my windshield, striking my working wiper, and entangling with it. This caused me to shout and plead with the wipers to stop their terrifying death dance. I did manage to get them to stop swinging, but now both wipers are bound to the down position.

I guess I know where I'll be tomorrow.

Oh, Bessy, what will I do with you...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How We Decide - a Review


I read a lot. Not every book that I read deserves a review. Some books are just too light, to uneventful, too prosaic to bother adding my opinion to the public records of the Internet. Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide, is not one of those.

How We Decide is an succinct examination of how brain structure and chemistry impact the decisions that we make. This book has changed the way I think about my own mind, and it has made me highly aware of my decision-making process. A few weeks ago I wrote about decision-making as it applied to food in my life. This is only one aspect of how Lehrer's book has affected my life.

I am a consummate procrastinator. I wait until the last minute to do just about everything. This has, in recent years, caused me no small amount of stress and aggravation. For years I have tried to break the ingrained habits created by years of putting things off. I have been mostly unsuccessful. In the past few weeks, however, and much of it due to Lehrer's book, I have begun to take stock of the decisions that I make and the reasons behind them. A particular section of How We Decide deals with the brain's love of instant rewards. Thus, Lehrer argues, we turn to those things that give us "immediate" benefit. Here is the example he used:

A psychologist gathered together some children. Each child was placed in a room, and provided a single marshmallow. The psychologist then told the children that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited for him to return before doing so, they would get a second one. Now, who doesn't want two marshmallows. Most of the children, however, failed to wait. They were unable to control their impulses, those brain desires that demand immediate satisfaction.

I realized, after reading this part of the book, that I was living a life demanding immediate satisfaction instead of waiting for my second marshmallow. I want the greater rewards. I want the things that will be more satisfying. Putting off work, so that I can watch a funny video on YouTube means that I get instant gratification, but it is short lived. Soon I must contend with the fact that my work is not done, and by that time I have even less of a chance to do it. I am no longer putting off my work, or my projects because something fun and trivial raises its head. I will focus on my decisions. I will decide, not my impulses.

Of course, this is only a small part of what Lehrer argues, but he can tell you much better than I can. I give his book How We Decide my highest praise, and I think everyone who has an interest in how the human mind works should give this book a go.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Managing Your Time

Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University until he died of complications arising from pancreatic cancer. While watching TED videos on YouTube this weekend, I stumbled upon his lecture (from 2008) on time management. It was presented to an audience at the University of Virginia, where Pausch was a professor throughout most of the '90s. I've included the video below, but be aware that it clocks in at just over an hour. I cannot, however, recommend it highly enough. I have a problem with time. Most people have a problem with time. We don't treat time as the precious commodity it is. We squander hours in a way that we would never squander dollars. Randy Pausch speaks wittily and wisely in this lecture about the need to determine for ourselves what is really important. Only when we can decide what is important can we begin to prioritize our lives, and when our lives are thus organized we will stop wasting so much of them on things that are patently not-important to us. I do not have pancreatic cancer, and I have a reasonable hope that I will be alive for many years to come. But I don't want to waste any of the years I have.  I'm taking Randy Pausch's advice to heart, and I suggest you do the same.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Joys of Walking the Stacks

I get a visceral thrill from wandering the stacks in a library. First, there is the famous (or infamous) library smell, the scent of millions of pages slowly aging between their various bindings. Second, there is nothing quite like going to search for a book, and then seeing the book next to it, and the one next to it, and the one next to it. Related to one another, and yet potentially very different, the wanderer in the stacks can make connections between texts that the Internet searcher cannot. This is what I hope will become available for e-books. When we walk through an e-book library, I want the same random feeling that comes from walking down a library corridor. I want to be able to look at the shelf above and the shelf below and make the mental connections between texts that a computer cannot.* Today I began in a section of the library devoted to family studies and then continued to walk two or three shelves down, and I found myself in a section devoted specifically to the raising and training of children. I know that libraries are not randomly organized, and that this procedure I love first requires categories to be established, and so I understand that I a significant amount of order has been applied to chaos, but there is still nothing like simply turning around from one side of the stacks to another and seeing what is on the other side.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Making Decisions

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide opens a window onto the inner workings of the human mind. I have always had an interest in the intersections between brain chemistry and cognition, and Lehrer's work answers so many of my questions. In the very briefest of nutshells -- dopamine and the prefrontal cortex work together (or in opposition) and thus our decisions are made. Lehrer takes gambling, credit cards, and the stock market to task, since all three play upon logical failings within the mind. His work has forced me to take a sterner look at why I make the choices that I do.

Example:

I have for several weeks been attempting to eat better, to choose foods that are of better quality, more likely to end my hunger, and best for me and my personal longevity. But, if I fail to eat a proper breakfast, one that has enough staying power to last me until lunch, and I find myself near the coffee counter in the library, all of those muffins, which I know to be both bad for me and bad tasting, call my name. This is my prefrontal cortex demanding a sugar spike. It has lost the energy it had from breakfast, and you know what, when your mind is focused on writing, or reading a complicated text, and it is faced with the possibility of an easy sugar fix -- it will take the easy fix. Before I know it I'm munching unhappily on an icky-muffin, ruining my meal plan, and leaving my wholly unsatisfied with my choices. Boom.

The lesson I take from this? Willpower needs help. In any specific moment our minds can fail us. We can be misled by quick numbers, or by the need for a shot of sugar. Getting ourselves to make better choices takes care and careful planning. Breakfast needs to be more substantial, and better mid-morning snacks need to be made readily available so that the icky-muffin doesn't present so tempting an option.

Thank you, Jonah Lehrer, for making me understand my own mind a little better.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Grandfather - R.I.P. April 18, 1930 - June 30, 2010

Sometimes people get better. Sometimes they don't, and we have to say goodbye. We said goodbye to my grandfather a week ago Wednesday. I flew down to Florida earlier on the same day. Little Thorn was in tow. I saw grandpa alive, one last time, but he barely looked like the man I have known all my life. Thin, pained, his breathing shallow, my grandpa, once so vigorous, so engaged, waited for his body to admit defeat. It is not something I think he did easily. Death has knocked on my grandpa's door more than once in his eighty years of life. But, in the end, we all die. Avoidance is temporary. Eighty years is long. One hundred years still wouldn't have been long enough. Thorn got to say goodbye, too, although he didn't know it at the time. There were many tears, though none of them mine. I've said goodbye to two grandpas now, and I still haven't cried. I don't really know why. Everyone else did, even my father. Maybe someday it will hit me, and I will weep. Right now, though, I write.

Grandpa did not want to be buried, and so according to his wishes he was cremated and his ashes spread around the grounds of his Floridian church-home. The funeral service, which I could not attend, I am told was beautiful and fitting for my grandfather. I am glad. There is power in ceremony, in ritual, and funerals can help to close relationships, just as marriages can begin them.

I have also seen the strength of my family through this, and the strength of my grandmother. There were tears, but there was also laughter. Stories were swapped. Tales of sorrow, of joy, of humor, and of foolishness were traded around the tables of my grandmother's small home. Grandpa would have been happy. He will be missed.

All love to you, Grandpa.

Porto, portas, portat.