The Chinese word for “crisis,” as generations of commencement speakers have reminded us, is written using the same character as “opportunity.” Whatever inspirational quality this chestnut may possess does not grow with repetition – and it is a curmudgeonly pleasure to learn that it’s wrong, or at best only fractionally true.
In fact both “crisis” and “opportunity” are written with two characters. The one they share can mean “quick-witted” or “device,” depending on context, and can be combined with another glyph to write “airplane.” (An airplane is uplifting, albeit not motivationally.) And Victor H. Mair, the professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania who debunked this hardy linguistic urban legend, points out that apart from the Sinological blunder, it’s terrible advice: “Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.”
But you don’t uproot a cultural weed all that easily -- especially not when crisis-mindedness has become totally normal. That’s a paradox but it’s also indisputable. A quick search of Google News finds 89.5 million articles with the word “crisis” in them as of this writing. Rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with it, of course. But it’s also the long-term effect of a state of mind that Susan Sontag characterized so well in an essay from 1988: “A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms … and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms. […] Modern life accustoms us to live with the intermittent awareness of monstrous, unthinkable – but, we are told, quite probable – disasters.”
The instances she had in mind were the threat of nuclear war and the AIDS epidemic. In 25 years, neither has disappeared, though other catastrophes (actual and potential) have moved to the fore. The crises change, but not the structure of feeling.
Anti-Crisis by Janet Roitman, published by Duke University Press, digs deeper than Sontag’s comments on apocalypse fatigue. Roitman, an associate professor of anthropology at the New School, approaches the ongoing discussion of subprime mortgage "crisis" (as it’s hard not to think of it) with questions about the assumptions and implicit limitations of a word so ubiquitous that it is normally taken for granted.
She does so by way of the late Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to intellectual history, known by a term even some of his English-language commentators have preferred to leave untranslated: Begriffsgeschichte. No way am I going to try to type that again, so let’s just refer to it as “conceptual history.” But arguably use of the full Teutonic monty is justified in order to distinguish Koselleck’s work from what, in the Anglo-American tradition, is called the history of ideas.
As Koselleck writes in an entry for a major conceptual-history handbook on social and political ideas, the term “crisis” played an important role in the work of the Young Hegelians, who took their master’s thinking about the philosophy of history as a starting point for the critique of existing institutions. Given that a key term in Hegel’s system is Begriff (the Concept) and that one of the Young Hegelians was Karl Marx, who maintained that recurrent crisis was an inescapable part of the history of capitalism itself – well, given all that, it’s possible to see how the word Begriffsgeschichte might carry layers of implication soon lost in translation.
The argument of Anti-Crisis is nothing if not oblique, and self-reflexive to boot, and paraphrasing it seems a fool’s errand. It is a good idea to grapple with Koselleck’s essay on crisis before reading Roitman’s book (so I learned the hard way) and no hard feelings on my part if you did so before finishing this column.
So now to run that errand. For Roitman, "crisis" is not simply a clichéd label for -- among other things -- recent economic developments, but a fraught and dubious concept. The word itself has roots in an ancient Greek medical term referring to the phase of an illness which will either kill the patient or end in recovery. It came into frequent use to describe social, political, and cultural phenomena beginning late in the 18th century -- one element in a very complex series of shifts of meaning between religious concepts of social and cosmic order and a (seemingly?) secular pattern of life.
The French Revolution, with the spectacle of comprehensive upheaval, doubtless made the word especially vivid. But Koselleck also cites Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, from 1776. “To Paine, the War of Independence was no mere political or military event,” he writes; “rather it was the completion of a universal world historical process, the final Day of Judgment that would entail the end of all tyranny and the ultimate victory over hell... .”
In sum, then, “crisis” came to possess small range of theological, political, and other connotations. Calling something a crisis implies its urgency or consequentiality. But it also posits that elements of the crisis are intelligible. They are the effects of departures from a norm, or aspects in the unfolding of some grand narrative. The crisis has causes, which we can discover. It has effects, which we begin to interpret even while enduring them.
“Crisis is a blind spot that enables the production of knowledge,” writes Roitman. “… More precisely, it is a distinction that secures ‘a world’ for observation.” The process rests upon “a distinction that generates and refers to an ‘inviolate level’ of order (not crisis)” that “is seen to be contingent (historical crises) and yet is likewise posited as beyond the play of contingency, being a logical necessity that is affirmed in paradox (the formal possibility of crisis).”
Now, assuming I understand her argument correctly, Roitman regards calling the great vertigo of financial free-fall a few years ago as something we can label a crisis -- at the risk of assuming we understand what it was, how it happened, and why.
That, in turn, posits that our ideas and information are adequate to the tasks: that government regulation distorts the healthy functioning of the marketplace (if you’re a neoclassicist) or that insufficient government regulation tips the market advantage to the unscrupulous (if you’re Keynes-minded) or that crisis is built into capitalism because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (as Marx believed, or didn’t believe, depending on which Marxist you ask).
The problem in any case being that the causal explanations now available rest on understandings of the economy that don’t take into account how crises (or, rather, judgments about the risk of crisis) are not only a factor in how decisions are made in financial markets but operate in instruments involved in the functioning of those markets.
Derivatives and credit default swaps are the examples that everyone has now of, at least. More have been invented, and still more will be. Risk management is a thriving field. So can we judge something to be in a crisis when expectations of crisis (and of profit from crisis) are operational – and bound to become more so? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I have no idea one way or the other, and if Anti-Crisis answers it, I did not mark the page.
“We persevere,” the author says, “in the hope that we can perceive the moments when history is alienated in terms of its philosophy – that is, that we can perceive a dissonance between historical events and representations…. We are left in a chasm: perplexed and immobilized by the supposed radical dissonance between the value of houses and the value of derivatives of houses.”
Perplexed? Yes. Immobilized? Not necessarily. (Epistemologically induced paralysis is only one of the possible responses to a foreclosured mortgage.) I respect Anti-Crisis for making me think hard, even if it occasionally felt like thinking in circles. Meanwhile, it turns out that that Simon & Schuster will be publishing something now listed simply as Untitled Financial Crisis Book, appearing under the company’s Books for Young Readers imprint in early 2015. Whatever baggage its conceptual history has laden it with, the notion of crisis seems to be making itself very much at home.
In today’s Academic Minute, Susan Fiske of Princeton University reveals what baseball rivalries can teach us about why we sometime take delight in the misfortune of others. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Submitted by Ry Rivard on December 3, 2013 - 3:00am
Administrators at the University of Michigan are delaying a controversial attempt at cost savings amid faculty uproar. University officials had planned to move 275 staffers from across campus into a single building on the edge of Ann Arbor to save money. But on Monday, university administrators said the move, scheduled to begin in April, would be delayed "beyond April." It is unclear if the university still intends to finish the move by next fall, its initial deadline to consolidate scores of staffers under one roof. The "shared services" plan has met with opposition from faculty concerned about losing trusted staffers. There are also questions about how much Michigan will actually save as a result. Administrators have gradually bowed to this concern since faculty began going public in recent weeks. The statement Monday from top Michigan administrators, including Provost Martha Pollack, is the clearest sign yet that faculty have been heard.
"We will bring faculty into the process immediately to evaluate the timeline and to ensure the establishment of a shared services program that is structured to meet the needs of our faculty and our students while achieving necessary cost savings," the statement said. "Each school and college will work directly with its faculty so the ultimate outcome is one that provides adequate support for teaching and research."
University officials initially hoped to save $17 million using shared services but now that figure is down to as little as $2 million in the first year and $5 to $6 million per year in the near term after that. Some of that savings is offset by new costs, including $4 million to fix up the building staff are supposed to be moving to, $1 million a year to lease the building and nearly $12 million for consultant Accenture to work on shared services and other cost-saving efforts.
This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.
Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.
All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.
The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”
Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.
On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.
By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.
We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.
None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.
None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.
While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.
At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....
The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.
This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.
The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.
Julius Nyang'oro, the former chair and former professor of African studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was indicted Monday on a felony charge of accepting $12,000 for a course he did not teach, The News & Observer reported. The charge is a lower level felony, authorities said, and unlikely even upon a conviction to lead to jail time. But the indictment is another milestone in a scandal about no-show courses -- many of them taken by athletes. Nyang'oro -- who has not commented on the allegations -- left his faculty position as the university stepped up its investigation in the classes.
In today’s Academic Minute, Justin Denney of Rice University reveals the connection between social status and the likelihood of death in a preventable accident. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
André Schiffrin, whose work at Pantheon Books of Random House and at the New Press was influential in promoting the work of many intellectuals, died Sunday at the age of 78, The New York Times reported. The cause was pancreatic cancer. Among the writers whose work Schiffin championed, the Times cited Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, and R. D. Laing.
“On the Guarding of the Heart,” a piece for chamber orchestra by Serbian-born composer Djuro Zivkovic was named Sunday night as receipient of the 2014 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Born in Belgrade in 1975, Zivkovic has lived in Stockholm since 2000, and teaches at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.