Nov 27, 2012

Streamlining Life, Thinking, and Writing

If you're a long-term reader of this blog -- or of my other main philosophy blog, Virtue Ethics Digest -- you may have noticed a relative paucity of posts over the last year or so, a lower degree of productivity (or at least prolixity) than previously.  If you're a new reader to this blog, of course, you need only look to the sidebar post archive list, where you can see the numbers.  In either case, you might wonder why that has been the case, and whether or not this is the "new normal," as they say.

You might also have noticed a rather startling change to the look and even feel and function of the blog.  It started out as something like a playground or preserve for philosophical musings and rants, and for about two years I've done more or less what I liked with aesthetics, content,  even eventually scheduling.  Really a decision -- or at least a dissatisfaction -- coming down the pike for a long time, matters finally came to a head this Thanksgiving break, as I reflected on what else I've wanted to do with Orexis Dianoētikē, what I wanted to make of it.  I wanted something considerably more disciplined, focused, well-integrated with my other projects and purposes . . .  streamlined, you might say.  That's reflective of a broader resolve, one extending to (and through) numerous aspects of my own life, incorporating Orexis Dianoētikē within that larger reorientation.

The Best Laid Plans

Over the last year -- after leaving a tenure-track position at a southern university, and relocating to the Hudson Valley in New York -- I've found myself increasingly drawn into a number of different new projects, cutting into the time I'd schedule for researching and writing new blog entries, and interrupting plans for follow-up posts.  And yet, I had to ask myself -- where was all that time going?  I had been teaching full-time, 4 classes per semester, and now I've been teaching just half that load, granted with the addition of an occasional online class.  At FSU, I had found myself sitting on -- even chairing -- more and more committees, elected to the faculty senate, increasingly drawn into faculty development, assessment, and leadership roles.  So, I'd thought switching to part-time, adjunct teaching should open up for me great reserves of that ever-more-precious resource for academics, the currency everything else rests on -- Time.

My plans originally, effective August 2011, allocated just the bare minimum time to developing and teaching the two service courses I'd been offered by Marist College -- Ethics and Introduction to Philosophy.  The idea was that, with the time freed up from the occupations of a (more-than) full-time faculty member -- and now geographically in the same place as my then-fiancee, now-wife -- I would live a writer's life, developing Orexis Dianoētikē, working on articles and books that had been outlined, even partly written, engaging in some public speaking, and doing a bit of educational consulting through our company, ReasonIO, continuing lines of work I'd developed in my previous position.

In working out that general idyllic idea, I'd overlooked a few -- well, actually, quite a few -- factors that, were I to be a perfect, or even nearly always high-functioning practical reasoner, I'd no doubt have taken into consideration and found ways to address, even incorporate and assimilate into what essentially amounted to a new way of life that I'd -- or rather, my wife and I together had --chosen.  Like most of us, though, I'm -- and my life as well -- a work in ebb-and-flow progress, and even armed with enough philosophical wisdom, educational theory, "life-hack" lists of tips, I remain at a stage where I need to work through practical matters very much experientially -- where reflection has to come after some experimentation.

The two classes that I had undertaken to teach demanded far more time that I had originally expected or allotted -- for some reasons that turn out to be good, and others not so much.  You could say that what occurred was a product of the confluence of three interrelated matters: my own tendency towards perfectionism; the potentials I saw in those courses; and, the learning-curve required for development of new proficiencies, and even deployment of those already possessed.  Marist provided me with decent, reliable, well-prepared students, a online course management system new to me, and a latitude in developing my courses commensurate with my decade of experience in teaching.  So, I decided to make my Ethics and the Intro classes into the most effective, interesting, informative, and engaging courses possible.

No textbook -- instead classic and contemporary texts of philosophy readily available online.  So, I created pages of links to hosted readings for my students, and eventually produced pdf versions for them as well.  No textbook -- instead, all of the framing, summarizing, outlining, links to resources would be provided to my students as webpages organized within the course management system, with images, and quotes, and handouts and . . . you see where this sort of thing ends up going.  My first semester at Marist, I also continued the practice of lecture capture I'd started with Critical Thinking classes my last semester at FSU, recording nearly all of my Intro to Philosophy and Ethics class sessions and uploading them to my own YouTube channel -- allowing me to provide them to my students embedded within the course management system.  I even started another blog, Virtue Ethics Digest, originally on Tumblr, eventually switched over entirely to Blogger, intended at first just to be a feed for my own students.

Consequences to Things Going Well

There's an upside to such a significant investment of time, thought, and work -- or rather several good points.  For one, it produces a lot of usable material for future classes, and I've since recycled and refined the pages, videos, handouts, and so many other educational artifacts I'd hammered out that semester.  Several other things -- primarily good things, though I'll soon explain how in a certain way their very goodness can become a problem -- resulted from this as well.  To keep this story running along, I'll just mention two.

The first is the -- for me, still always taking me off-guard -- success in certain respects with these projects.  I do enjoy teaching and talking with my students, and I do love the thinkers and texts that I'm lucky enough to get paid to study and share in classes and other venues, and presumably that passion showing or shining through has something to do with such matters -- my classes quickly got recommended through the various grapelines and student sounding boards at Marist, I think precisely because I deliberately adopted the course management system as a locus in which I could supply students with the kinds of resources and environment to help them get much more out of our in-class sessions. 

What happened with the videos particularly astounded me.  I'd shot them during class sessions imagining that mainly just my students would watch and use them, that I might get the occasional viewer from outside my classes, let alone outside Marist.  Instead, the proportions were entirely reversed.  I estimate that less than 1-2% of those viewing my various philosophy videos -- even two semesters ago -- were Marist students.  I've gotten, I would estimate -- taking my own responses out of the picture -- at least 800 comments on videos in the last year and a half, yet more if I take into account YouTube direct messages, emails, and posts on my Facebook author page.  People from all over have told their stories to me, in which watching the videos we've shot and uploaded plays a small part.  Some use them to study for qualifying exams in England.  Others watch them to understand better what is happening -- or should be happening and isn't - in their own Philosophy classes at other universities. Lifelong learners watch them to enrich their own study.  People who can't afford to go to college follow along the playlists so that they can enjoy some aspect of the higher education "experience."

The second -- last winter, viewers started making requests for me to shoot videos on particular topics and thinkers, and I informally polled those willing to comment on my channel, deciding on the basis of the results (lots of requests for Sartre and Heidegger) to start shooting a sequence on Existentialist Philosophy and Literature -- a project still in progress (21 1-hour videos done so far, though).  It has been exhilarating to go back to texts, many of which I haven't read for years, prepare lectures, and then record them -- and to find out that those videolectures are being watched, awaited, discussed in the most unpredictable places.  It is rewarding work, but it has taken a lot of time and planning -- always much more than expected, not least because until this week, simply to get a venue, a chalkboard or whiteboard in front of which to shoot, entailed a 40 minute drive south and across the Hudson (to find a classroom on campus).

By way of digression -- what occurred with these YouTube philosophy videos turned out to confirm my wife's generalization of the Field of Dreams adage:  if you build it they will come.  She had faith, first that I ought to start a blog, and that, interested in the content, readers would come, and many of them would come back, even stay.  Then, it was shooting the philosophy videos (all of which, I should point out, she tirelessly processed, edited, and uploaded) -- if I just got in front of the camera, and talked about the books I loved to read, and showed viewers what was in them, more and more people would watch them.  She's said if you build it they will come about other things as well, and as it turns out, she's generally right -- but enough digression. 

The point about the second thing is essentially this:  it turns out that people do want to watch videos about philosophy -- even long videos set in front of a chalkboard, an anathema and skandalon to the education "experts" out there! There is a palpable and at times powerfully articulated hunger to learn, to understand, to know, to consider.  And, I discovered, if I decided to -- even if I just suggested I might like to -- produce another course sequence about a different philosopher, a subject, a movement, there are viewers warmly welcoming such a proposal.   So, I found myself giving more and more time to the various activities needed to produce videos. 

I also decided -- again both prompted by requests from viewers and buoyed up by the faith of my wife -- to start shooting shorter, "Core Concept" videos, designed specifically to help current students and lifelong learners alike get their heads around some tricky philosophical idea -- Aristotle's conception of virtue as a mean, for example.  I also started experimenting with, and sometimes incorporating and endorsing various other educational tools or platforms that showed some promise -- Learnist is one prime instance -- and broadening my involvements on various social networks holding out the possibility of some decent educational "bang for the buck."

Streamlining and Simplifying

So, as you can see, I've been quite busy -- precisely why I found myself simply not getting to blogging with the frequency I desired (and in my view, the blogs deserve).  It's seemingly a matter merely of a limited quantity of the key variable -- Time.  Take some time for some worthwhile new project, and it has to come from something else.  All too often, it has meant drawing away hours from Virtue Ethics Digest and Orexis Dianoētikē, leaving me with a growing sense of dissatisfaction -- an emotion which, much like the closely related feeling of worry,  hinders, disrupts, sets off balance the kind off creative work in philosophy and education I'd had the intention of doing. 

The whole reason -- well, not the whole reason (after all, getting to actually live with my wife, rather than conduct a relationship long distance, was really -- and ought to have been, the reason trumping all others!) but a major reason -- for leaving my full time, tenure-track position at FSU, moving up north, with all the financial and professional uncertainty it entailed, was to get to teach, to talk about, to work on philosophical projects into which I could pour my own passion.  Until this Thanksgiving break -- and the rejuvenating "staycation" my wife proposed we deliberately take -- I was increasingly losing sight of the original idea, that purpose for launching out, for writing the blogs, for shooting the videos, for giving the talks, for building ReasonIO.

Oftentimes -- and I think this is becoming a more and more widespread problem in our time than it had been previously -- the moral challenges, the problems of practical reasoning one faces in portions of one's own life are less a matter of stark contrast between good things faced off against bad things that threaten to diminish, to destroy, to replace the good.  It's not a matter of not having enough good things either -- of privation, poverty, lack of access, scarcity.  It's a surfeit of good things, all of which are attractive by virtue of being good, each of which exercises its call upon us -- evocations of desire, the answers to which are in reality not all equally compatible with each other.

Really, it's a matter of adequately understanding the goods one has, which one's imagination offers to oneself, which may or may not be possible-- and like I wrote earlier, I'm hardheaded enough to require education by experience!  It's a question of judiciously organizing and ordering goods -- something that does not naturally arise or occur on its own.  It's not even enough to be relatively intelligent, prudent, practical -- rather one needs to refine these into what Aristotle called phronesis, and what nowadays, those of us in that business call "practical wisdom" -- something the need for which one can recognize without already possessing it!

This new clean look, updated pages, and better navigability of Orexis Dianoētikē -- one of the big projects decided upon and tackled over the break -- is not just a particular symbol of a resolve to systematically streamline and simply projects, desires, plans, motives, life -- it's actually one component driving along those dynamic lines.  Doing precisely this -- reflecting, thinking matters through, writing about philosophy and about life -- is one of the main reasons I got into this racket to begin with two decades back.  Realizing this -- more broadly speaking, for anyone -- realizing what it is one does, what one is up to, or ought to be up to, is one thing.  Actually articulating it, formulating  this explicitly for oneself and for others-- that's another matter, and that's what clicked over this break for me.