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First Post ...

I’ve had good reasons for doing other things in my life. I went to college because I wanted to be intellectually challenged, I came to NYU to get a Ph.D. because I loved New York (still do), I got married because I was in love, we had children (two sons) because we thought we would be good parents (we are…I think), and we got divorced when we realized we weren’t in love anymore, but I can’t think of many other things I’ve ever done in my life for which I’ve had so many good reasons as auditing “Natural Science I: Energy and the Environment” in the all-too-rapidly upcoming semester.

January 18, 2010

I’ve had good reasons for doing other things in my life. I went to college because I wanted to be intellectually challenged, I came to NYU to get a Ph.D. because I loved New York (still do), I got married because I was in love, we had children (two sons) because we thought we would be good parents (we are…I think), and we got divorced when we realized we weren’t in love anymore, but I can’t think of many other things I’ve ever done in my life for which I’ve had so many good reasons as auditing “Natural Science I: Energy and the Environment” in the all-too-rapidly upcoming semester. So far I’ve been able to think of 10, and they run the gamut from tawdry self-interest to grandly noble, often both at the same time…

1. Every year, in my role as Associate Director, Academic Support at NYU, I have a GOAL-setting meeting with my boss, the charming hibernophile, long-suffering New York Mets fan, and all-round good guy, Dean Willie Long. I’d spend an hour chatting with Willie any time, but at the Goal meetings I have to come up with, well, goals for the upcoming year so I don’t find these meetings as relaxing as our other conversations. One of my colleagues, Justin Lorts, in an effort to ensure that students are aware of the assistance that the advising center offers, began to reach out to students in the dorms (wisely, he did not call it “the Adviser in the Dorms”), so “the Adviser on the Classroom” (AIC) seemed a logical next step and would, I’m sure, eat-up at least twenty minutes of my allotted hour with Willie.

2. In these uncertain times, and at a time when even the minimal perks of university life are under assault (a probable reduction in tuition remission for my sons, less administrative support, fewer receptions with hors d’oeuvres – ever more inferior wine at those that do occur), it’s a good idea to ‘use’ NYU’s resources for my own benefit. Taking the course is free, it takes some time of the GOAL-setting meeting clock, makes me look imaginative, and if I want to apply for a new job elsewhere (whenever such posts begin appearing again) the project will be good for a couple of lines in my resume, a few exchanges at an interview.

3. At the risk of drowning in self-referentiality, it seems a perfect topic for a blog, and the editors at Inside Higher Ed, in their wisdom, agreed. Blogs have been around for about ten years and I’ve fiercely resisted writing one for all that time. I’ve had pieces published in The New York Times, and the Irish Times, but sheer base snobbery prevented me from trying my hand at a blog, that, plus the fact that “blog” is one ugly word: it sounds like an eleven-year-old boy’s word for something unmentionable, “He put a blog on her? Yeuch.” But these days every major publication (even my favorites, the New Yorker, Harper's, and the New York Review of Books) has made some form of commitment to the blog, so who am I to continue with my disdain? And the discipline of posting should, I hope, force me to write more and thus make me more productive.

4. In terms of technique, it might make me a better teacher. I didn’t just arrive at NYU in a spaceship, so I didn’t just randomly select a professor from those who teach Natural Science courses. Instead I asked Trace Jordan, who directs the science component of NYU’s Morse Academic Plan (our liberal arts core), if I could sit in on his course. He said yes because he is an obliging and charming man. I asked Trace because he has won teaching awards, is very well-regarded by students, and, perhaps primarily, because a couple of years ago he gave a talk on science, complete with sheep’s eyes and blue liquid that gave off white smoke that inflated a balloon, to one of my son’s sixth grade class and he was so enchanting and clear that even I understood him. Teaching science is, of course, radically different to teaching my subject, political theory, but I imagine I’ll pick-up an idea, technique, or tip that will benefit me, and my students, in the future.

5. In terms of content, it might make me a better teacher. While I teach political theory (surveys of its history as well as seminars on Nietzsche, democracy, and religion and politics), I can certainly imagine that knowing something about the science behind our environmental woes and how we could repair the appalling mess we’ve made of our planet, would be useful in my own classroom.

6. It should make me a better adviser. When I’m advising students who are reluctant to begin the science component of MAP, when all my lofty protestations about the vital importance of some knowledge of science to their future role as good citizens have fallen on ears rendered deaf by the student’s desire to get on with studying English, philosophy or art history, my final entreaty, “Look, at the very least it’ll give you some useful material for cocktail party chit-chat,” I’ll be able to offer a few remarks on the actual content of said “chit-chat.”

7. It will be difficult. When I first thought of AIC, I thought I’d take a course that interested me deeply, something on Vermeer perhaps, or maybe a course on Wagner’s operas, but then I thought that would be, if not too easy, then too comfortable. I’m 48 years-old, and I suppose I wanted a course that would stretch my brain and perhaps help me to avoid my father’s sad end in the miasma of Alzheimer’s. I say this even though the text book for the course, “Chemistry in Context: Applying Science to Society,” is taunting me to open it, but I haven’t done so yet because I ‘know’ that it’ll start fine, even I’ll be able to get through the first few sentences, then I’ll start getting lost and then I’ll experience deep-seated feelings of low self-worth. I say this even though I have the awful feeling that it’s going to be just like reading Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” I read the Tractatus’ about twenty years ago, and when Wittgenstein states in the preface “What can be said at all can be said clearly!” I remember thinking, “Cool, who could argue with that!” until I realized that his definition of clarity was heavily dependent on impenetrability. But as a political theorist, that was a challenge I had to meet, and since I’d read plenty of other difficult works, I got through it.

Science, however, is a radically different field than political theory. There is, or so I imagine, one right answer in science (I’ll be interested to see if I’m correct in this assumption) whereas when I teach theory I tell students, “There are no right answers, just well, or poorly constructed ones!” (Alas, the more cynical and paranoid students don’t believe me and spend their time trying to limn my political views so that they can parrot them back to me.) I’m not at all sure I like the idea of studying something with a correct answer – and certainly I’ve encountered many students who don’t like the absence of a correct answer in my courses (one might say that academic disciplines can be defined by this: sciences have a correct answer, humanities don’t, and social sciences sometimes think they do). I’m not, of course, wholly ignorant about science. I know how it works, that whole noble story of the quest for truth, of hypotheses, experiments, and proofs (and I know, from Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” that that story is often a myth), but I don’t know anything about the basics. I have the math skills of a 12 year-old (I know this categorically because I can no longer help my 13 year-old son with his homework), and I haven’t done any science since high school, and it wasn’t one of my strong suits then. So I’m looking to Trace to fill-in gaps in my own education and keep my brain working properly.

8. Trace is heavily involved in SENCER, an organization of educators who believe that better science education will make better citizens. Trace probably doesn’t think it’s as simple as I just let on, but I’ll be interested to see how true that is for me (although, for the record, I remain an Irish citizen and a mere permanent resident of the U.S.), and for the other students in the class.

9. I want to know if this worldview (the worldview I adopt when I’m in a bad mood) is true…Having seen off religion, science has been having its way with philosophy, What we call, “love” is really just the result of a bunch of neuro-receptors (or something) bouncing around our brains, so take that Plato! Your “Symposium” is just silly literature with no scientific basis! As it is for philosophy, so to it is for the social sciences. On this account, they want to be social scientists not because they want to study human beings in society, but because they want their study to be scientific, not mere “journalism.” And who could blame them, we intellectuals admire scientists. They tell us useful stuff about global warming, they offer cures for diseases, they wear lab coats and people in authority (pace the Bush administration) listen to them. Who wouldn’t want to be a scientist? Thus political scientists, for instance, seeking an at least metaphorical lab coat, sweep away everything that might damage their model. Want to look at the impact of national trade barriers on globalization? Better leave out non-tariff barriers, like Japan’s automobile regulations of the 1970s and ‘80s which were so instrumental in keeping Tokyo’s streets Motown-free, because they cannot be assigned a numerical value. But once you do that, you are content to arrive at a law-like statement so abstracted, if not divorced, from the real world that all that is possible is a very trivial law-like statement; trivial though it may be, it is, perhaps because of its very triviality, scientific. Thus the social scientist, in grimly trying to hold on to science, hunts rabbits rather than elephants and the subject of politics, how best can we live together, becomes lost in neo-scholastic arguments about methods and data sets. It’s my hope that by the time I’m finished the course I can discover if view is…correct, if that’s the right word.

10. It will continue my hitherto unself-realized goal of trying every possible role at NYU. Thus far I’ve been a grad student, a research assistant, a teaching assistant, a tutor, a professor, an administrator, and an academic adviser; I might as well see what it’s like to be an undergraduate. What could possibly go wrong?


Dermot O'Brien is associate director for academic support in the College of Arts and Science at New York University, where he also teaches political philosophy. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Dermot has a B.A. and M.A. from University College, Dublin, and a Ph.D. in politics from NYU. He lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a comic novel about death and home.


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