New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

Tagged with: , , ,

On tricking ourselves

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on January 23, 2011

Pink elephantEven though I still read them once in a while, I am generally skeptical of self-help books. They are always incomplete, in my opinion, because they have to boil down scientific research (if they are even based on science) into easy-to-sell concepts and action steps. Getting Things Done is a good example. A recent classic in the “productivity” branch of self-help literature, GTD’s entire system is based on a ridiculous notion: to truly feel relaxed in the world, one must have all of one’s actionable  ideas “captured” into sorted lists. Can you really enjoy a casual walk with a friend, the argument goes, while not having a written account of all of your preferences and next-actions for all of your projects close at hand?

The answer is yes, in my opinion, yes you can enjoy your life without planning it every step of the way. The assumption the book makes becomes a personal-productivity tyrant: one can scarcely have an idea pass through one’s head without feeling an obsessive urge to write it down in one list or another.

Of course by “one”, I am referring to myself. That is not to say that I will credit the plethora of useful lists I keep for work-related tasks and the tickler file I employ in my office to none other than David Allen, the writer of Getting Things Done. I just realize that any self-help book is going to offer partial solutions to any problem, and one must have a healthy capacity for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, phronesis, to pick and choose what’s useful for one’s life.

So when I perused the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary section – Printers Row – one day in early January, I read the article titled “Seven books to aid in your new year’s resolutions” with a large grain of salt. But one book did catch my eye, and with the glad-handed aid of Amazon’s cursed 1-click purchasing system, I ordered and downloaded Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard onto my e-reader device. (more…)

On asking the right questions

Posted in Greek, Stories by Alex L. on August 22, 2010

Close-up of Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens"Philosophy began, on the sunny shores of the city of Miletus, as science. The first philosophers attempted to describe the processes of natural phenomena, and this has largely been the legacy of philosophy in Europe and the Arab world. But before Aristotle cast his discerning eye at the heavens and earth, began sifting and winnowing all that sensory data into categories, and cemented this scientific tone to the practice of philosophy ever after, there existed different methods.

Plato is considered to be the father of philosophy. Though only a relative handful of later philosophers had adopted his literary style of philosophical writing (Friedrich Nietzsche was one of them, prompting a modern commentator to note that Plato and Nietzsche are the only philosophers that contemporary people read for fun) he remains famous for the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and the focus that he had carved out for philosophy.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, was the pursuit of discovering how to live a better life. This knowledge resides in every living person, he posited, and the method of mining this hidden treasure was knowing how to ask the right questions. Philosophy, as Socrates famously described, was not about finding the answers, but about asking the right questions.

The reason I bring this up is because this phrase, repeated so often in our culture that it has become a platitude (no pun intended), seems off to me. Today, I was thinking about some problems in my life that have gone unresolved for several years. Applying my brain – as a human being, my greatest tool – to the task of solving those problems, I have failed daily and repeatedly, though I had struck at the issues from every possible angle, seemingly asking all of the right questions.