Saturday, January 23, 2010

Spring Semester 2010: Week One

I'm sitting at my dining table with the wide expanse of weekend before me and a mug of coffee beside me. The Scarlatti sonata (D major) only adds to this good Saturday morning feeling of anticipation.

What shall I do this weekend? How will I spend my time? The answer is always a lot of writing and errands, with a little bit of fun thrown in.

I have yet to figure out this weekend's "little bit of fun" but I am thinking about how to organize my time. But first, I'm reflecting on this week's classes. The semester started on Tuesday; each day this week revealed something new about the classes and students I will work with this term.

I'm teaching two interdisciplinary courses for this term - one fits under the university's Knowledge and Inquiry track (think science) and the other under the Ethics and Social Responsibility track.

The science course is focused on biodiversity - I'm teaching it with a plant ecologist, and we're focusing it on Costa Rica since it is part of a sequence of 5 courses that culminates with our students working on a capstone project in Costa Rica this summer.

I'm responsible for raising issues of environmental ethics (and some philosophy of science, perhaps) in the course, while my co-instructor will teach them how to do science. Of course, the actual breakdown will be somewhat more blurred and we'll share some of these responsibilities. The class is a bit on the quiet side, but Thursday's discussion was more animated. Perhaps the 8 am start time has some impact on this? I'm already playing with ideas to generate more participation...

The ethics course is focused on social research ethics - we've already had some lively discussions in class, and I predict that this will continue through the semester. This course takes a look at various social science experiments and practices and evaluates them through the lens of best practices in research. We focus mostly on research involving human subjects, but we also take a look at animal research practices.

The other course I'm teaching is my passion - Bioethics and the Deaf Community seminar. It has an almost full enrollment and I've moved from worrying about whether the class will go to trying to figure out how to modify the syllabus to make sure that we can get all the presentations and other activities in. This is not such a bad thing to deal with at all. The class is a good mix of hard and soft science majors, culture studies and philosophy majors/minors. The topics in this course always prompt lively discussion - I have no reason to see that this will change.

So, the anticipation of the semester - what will it look like? What will we all learn? What will I discover about myself as a teacher? All To Be Determined.

As for the weekend? Well, next up after blogging and coffee and breakfast is creating my To Do list. Time to get a jump on things while the day is still young!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Readjusting to Bigger City Life

After spending more than a few days in my beloved Barelas, it always takes me a few days to get into the rhythms of Washington. This time is no different. If anything, it is more bumpy than usual.
(There I go again, trying to put the sentence on my hands into my fingers...)

I've been carless in DC for 18 months now - most times this is just fine, though when it is bitter cold and I'm just getting back to town, the idea of walking 2 miles to stock up on groceries is not my idea of fun. Neither is the idea of waiting at the bus stop on Sunday evening in the bitter cold. And the irony of doing this as an effort to reduce my carbon footprint is not lost on me. But you do what you have to do.

So the groceries are in my refrigerator, my bags are (mostly) unpacked, and I am trying to get my office moved and organized. Moving an office is more work than I realized. I think it is worth the extra 24 square feet, though. I now have room for a small table and chairs - this is great for meeting with students or other people. Meeting people with a desk between us is not my preference - it feels like too much distance psychologically.

My mind has settled into the rhythms of ASL/English again - had dinner last night with one of Sleeping Beauty's godfathers who is here in town for a conference. For a few minutes (because he greeted me in ASL and responded to my first question in ASL though he's hearing) I was in ASL mode - then realized that I was in the "wrong" language. So the rest of our conversation was in English. I learned much about ethical issues in urban planning and am still mulling over some ideas in response to this.

So, a new year, a new office, a new semester, and new ideas sparked by conversation with an old friend! What could be better, eh?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunport Status Report - January 10, 2010

It has been a whopping 24 days since I've seen the inside of an airport (whoo-hoo!) and a few things have changed at the Sunport since I've been gone.

1. La Hacienda Express has started using styrofoam containers for their to go orders. I guess this means I won't not be picking up my last chance breakfast burrito with green there any more. So much for "Green Albuquerque".

2. They've rearranged the line for the security machines - instead of dropping you off at the middle of the section, the exit point now starts right in front of the full body scan machine.

3. For the first time in a very very very long time, the gate agent Southwest counter challenged me when I asked for preboarding, telling me that this is for people who are deaf, not people who wear hearing aids. I pulled out my hearing aids and explained: (A) these do not function like glasses, they only amplify what is received, and that without them I cannot hear any human speech at all and with them I still need to speechread; (B) I offered to show my driver's license as more proof that the State of NM considers that I have a significant hearing loss.

4. Construction is still going on here.

5. Politico watch - so far, no politicos on this flight.

That's all for the Sunport Status Update this month.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home Is Where the Heart Is

If home is where the heart is, then I must have a bipolar heart.

Most of what matters most to me is right here in Albuquerque, but there are a few things that are at my other home in DC. And days like today - days before I make that physical and psychological transition of moving home base are often topsy turvy.

The biggest challenge is always figuring out what books to bring with me. (Perhaps home is where the books is another way to describe my life?) The books for teaching are easy to figure out, and most times I have duplicate copies of those - unless, as is the case this term, I'm teaching a new course. Kindle has also made this aspect of my life easier - I've downloaded most of the western canon of philosophy onto my Kindle.

The books for research are more or less not too hard to figure out - I might leave something behind in NM, but ILL (inter-library loan) in the DC area rocks. Blogging is another story, but I do most of my research in Albuquerque anyway. What is most challenging is figuring out what books do I want to have with me for pleasure reading for the next few weeks/months?

So here's what I've lined up so far:

1. "The Enemy Gods" by Oliver La Farge - for those days when I miss the blue blue New Mexico skies. This novel was written in 1937 seven years after La Farge received the Pulitzer for his novel "Laughing Boy" - another book on my "Must Read Someday" list.

2. "Ordinary Resurrections" by Jonathan Kozol. I was going to say that Kozol is one of my favorite education writers, but really, he is one of my favorite writers, period. I was lucky enough to meet him a few years ago when he came to Gallaudet University and luckier still to participate in a discussion with him and a classroom full of students. Participate is probably the wrong word - I watched and marveled and made notes of indelible ink in my head. I've reads bits and pieces of this book, but I want to work through the whole of it. Kozol's writing inspires and motivates me to do better in the classroom and with my students outside of the classroom.

3. "The Arabic Book" by Johannes Pederson (translated by Geoffrey French). A book about book production in medieval Islam. Just because.

4. "The Edward Said Reader" and "Out of Place" the memoir by Edward Said. Too many people have been asking me for my opinion on Said's work. This is probably because I'm identified as Arab-American at work and I spend a fair amount of time making sure that people don't conflate the terms Arab and Muslim, which is a pet peeve of mine. My research is very much not in post-colonial studies (I'm not opposed to it, but that's just not my area) or Middle Eastern Studies (ditto) yet I still get these questions. I've dipped into Said's work now and then (my copy of Orientalism is so worn out I should probably relegate it to the dustbin), but I don't think I know his corpus well enough to comment intelligently on it. This is my starting attempt at rectifying this.

5. "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. An old favorite that helps me remember the importance of a connection to the land. This is easy to do when I am in New Mexico - five minutes walk from my front door is the bosque - but when I am in Washington my connection to the land slips away so easily as I get caught up in work and politics. Even when I'm on the National Mall walking to a museum, I find it hard to look past the buildings and concrete and landscaped open parkland to find a connection with the land. The only place where I can do this with some regularity is on the grounds of the Museum of the American Indian (big surprise). Leopold helps remind me of this and it is why I go back to him year after year.

In looking over my list I see some common threads - New Mexico, land, the Arab world, and education. Guess I'm fairly predictable.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sheet Metal and Mummies

I've been bopping around town more than usual - my energy level is creeping back up, though the temperature sure hasn't been.

Yesterday afternoon I ended up at the Sheet Metal Workers Union/training facility in SE Albuquerque near the airport. They've received federal stimulus money to train workers in this field - it seems that there is more demand for this kind of work given the turn to greener buildings. I sure hope some of the workers affected by the General Electric Aviation plant closure later this year will be able to take advantage of this program.

Today, Sleeping Beauty and her best friend and I made our way over to the NM Museum of Natural History. I never noticed until now, but both of my abodes are approximately the same distance from the local Natural History Museum - be it Albuquerque's Museum Row or the National Mall.

We checked out the Dynamax movie on Mummies, giving it a post-modern critique after it was finished. I commended the Rear Window Captioning (this theater and the Guild are my best bets for interesting captioned movies in Albuqeurque - we just don't have the population to support the number of captioned movies that DC has, and most of the time I'm not so crazy about the captioned movie choices in the Duke City - this week it is Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and Up in the Air).

So back to the movie critique - we decided that the shoes and clothes on the women were a bit too 20th century, and that the dramatic sexy sultry walk of the queens was contrived. But the DNA stuff was cool, as was the idea that some dead guy who donated his body to science a few years ago was mummified in the Egyptian way in the course of scientific research.

Long ago I arranged for my body to be donated to science and I've always assumed this meant medical student training. I don't think they'll want to mummify me, but that would be awesome if they did.

After the movie we hung out with the dinosaurs and the Microsoft computer geeks. I like that juxtaposition.

Bill Gates and the Dinosaurs = bad rock band name?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Resolutions: DC Version

I think that it is a bit funny that I see more politicians and politicos in and around Barelas than DC, but I'm sure this is because I'm out and about more here than there. Best places to spot them on a weekday morning? Downtown Flying Star, Nob Hill Satellite, Red Ball Cafe, and of course, Barelas Coffee shop. Three of these are within walking distance of mi casa, which makes it easy.

Monday I posted my DCF blog on New Year's resolutions for Albuquerque. Today I've promised some DC-related resolutions. Some of them, like the belly dancing, work in both places.

Here goes:

1. Take a walk through a different neighborhood in the District once a month. I've been eying the Capitol Hill/Eastern Market walk for some time now, but there's also cool stuff like this Poetry Walk, Washington Walks (they've already told me they're happy to work with my FM system, which seems like no big deal, but not everyone is this enthusiastic), and the self-guided Neighborhood Heritage Trails put together by Cultural Tourism DC, which is an incredible resource.

2. Get off campus once a day. This goal is to help me achieve more balance and less workaholism in my life - sometimes I'm so immersed in work that the only time I leave campus is to go to the airport. Not a good thing, fyi.

3. Do something touristy once a month in DC and surrounding areas like Alexandria, Baltimore, Annapolis. This list is a good start.

That's it for the DC-related goals, all of which point to trying to achieve a balance between work and the rest of life, which is something I struggle with when I'm away from mi casita de Barelas.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Of Rice Pudding and Resolutions

Today's Duke City Fix post is about my Albuquerque-related New Year's resolutions. Stay tuned tomorrow for the DC version!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why Philosophy?

Several people have sent me this article from the New York Times Career U: Making College Relevant. It is an old discussion gussied up in a new guise - should college be aimed at preparing graduates for jobs or should college be about acquiring an education? (I call false dilemma on this, BTW).

I'm struck by a few things here. First, the quantified data about what employers want - good writing skills, good speaking skills, and analytic ability - are seemingly compatible with any major, depending on how it is structured. My limited experience (16 years of teaching philosophy to graduate students and undergraduate students in a variety of environments including small liberal arts college, large state research university, small Catholic university, and Ivy League university) has taught me that there are brilliant students in any major.

What I'm more curious about (and what the article doesn't speak to directly) is this question of the 'average' student. What skills does the average business major possess? How does this compare to the skills of the average humanities major?

There's a reason I ask this, of course. My experience is that students select majors for many reasons - path to employment being one, of course. Another reason is ease of major - a major that requires, say, a 50 page senior thesis, can be seen as a deterrent or at the very least, requiring too much work.

The experience of asking a big question, identifying the issues this question presents, and writing about several possible responses to this question and then defending one's work orally seems to be a great way to improve one's analytic skills. This seems to go right to the core skills that employers are demanding, plus it shows a willingness to take on a challenging task and to persevere through a long-term project.

Students struggle with this, to be sure. Writing is mostly a solitary activity, and thinking hard about something for a sustained period of time is nowhere near as fun as hanging out with friends in the school pub. (Not to say these are mutually exclusive, but thinking time can put a damper on other activities - at least for a short while, e.g. a semester).

Maybe philosophy as a major will go the way of the dodo bird. I'm not sure what to think about this, except to hope that college graduates of schools without philosophy majors would have at least a nodding acquaintance with "great ideas" and the minds that spawned them. I dare say that many of the 'average student' business majors I have taught would probably disagree with me on grounds of relevance, but I wonder if there might be a deeper reason for their disagreement - that for a variety of reasons, philosophy is just too difficult. And that the easiest way to duck this issue is to dismiss it or to eliminate it as a requirement.

In my experience there is a high correlation between a student's ability to write and analyze and their appreciation of philosophy. Students who struggle to analyze do not appreciate a subject whose very essence is analysis and argumentation. In my opinion, a student who has not demonstrated mastery of the basic skills of analysis (and we can quibble over what that means) should not be permitted to graduate from college. One way to measure this might be to require a certain score on national standardized tests such as the GRE or GMAT, but I suspect this will never fly.

Even Plato acknowledged that a society full of philosophers was not sustainable. I'll give him that. I'm more focused on the question of analysis and inquiry. Most of the people who have brought great changes to society have mastered these skills. Philosophy is one lens through which one can study these skills, but it is not the only one - history, chemistry, economics, mathematics, literature, biology - the list goes on.

A society with fewer philosophy majors is not such a concern; a society with fewer people who are able to think deeply and analytically is a much greater concern. How sustainable would such a society be? I wonder...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Counting the Days

I decided that my kitchen needed a 2010 calendar and joined the hordes at Uptown Borders to pick one up. Picking were slim: puppies, kittens, food porn, and Princess Protection calendars. I didn't get too close to the latter, but I think these are for girls who believe that they are really princesses stashed away in another family - a witness protection fantasy for preteen girls.

I was lucky enough to grab the last Jonathan Green calendar - he's a Gullah artist whose reproduced images I've long admired on a colleague's bulletin board. The blues and oranges and reds of his paintings work well in my kitchen, and perhaps it'll inspire me to head to South Carolina this year to see his work in person - I've been curious about Gullah culture for years.

After purchasing a calendar and browsing through too many books to count, Most Favorite Son and I headed over to Trader Joe's for a few items. I'm convinced that Descartes' Evil Demon designed their parking lot.

The holiday season is winding down. We've got a denuded Christmas tree clothed only in lights in the living room - we may leave this up until Epiphany/Orthodox Christmas. Ditto for the farolitos, which are stacked on the front porch. I've started taking down the Kwanzaa tableau. First on the list is to cook the Kwanzaa mazao - Caribbean sweet potato balls for dinner tonight!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Last Day / First Day

So today is the last day of Kwanzaa and the first day of 2010. I have made a resolution to blog every day in 2010 - at least every day when I am in a place with electricity and an internet connection. We'll see how it goes.

Today's Kwanzaa principle is imani, or faith. This seems like a pretty good principle on which to start a new year. Faith in oneself, faith in the workings of the universe, and even faith in a deity (or not), depending on the moment or even the year.

We closed out 2009 with some dear friends and started 2010 with a family New Year's Eve toast at home, with all of the animals present. One of the cats is not so fond of the dogs, so this was quite an accomplishment.

More family stuff up north today (football, Grandpa's chili with an "i", and Turkish Delight) and a ride home in the cold dark.

The dogs were so happy to see us that one licked my earmold on the table and the other one started farting nonstop.

I washed and adjusted my earmold using crochet hooks and my college dissection kit pulled from Nana Amy's antique sewing stand (the dissection tools work best for resetting earmold tubing, though I'm sure my audiologist uses something else) and pushed away the doggie flatulence with some Japanese incense.

An auspicious beginning, no?