Monday, 30 March 2009

Is there any escape?

Afraid I haven't updated in quite a while, mostly due to being very busy and having nothing interesting to say.

A week and a half ago, my computer died, completely wiping the contents of my hard drive. Luckily, I had backups of most of my thesis, which is now over 75000 words, although the backups were all a bit scruffy and in different places. So reconstructing the thesis has been taking quite a bit of my time. I also have around 70 undergraduate essays to mark. Not the biggest load of marking I have ever had, but still enough to turn me into a bit of a hermit.

In addition, I a trying to put in a job application and get some funding for a mini conference at a time when there seems to be precious little money around for such things. Bah.

So I am filled with a really dull feeling of ennui. At a time when there is so much work to be getting on with, the temptation is to do precisely nothing. Or at least, to do precisely nothing related to my academic work. Life is so lacking in light and shade at the moment, especially as I am also pretty short of cash. I almost wish I could blow my entire overdraft on a holiday somewhere hot where I could forget about everything, get drunk on horrid cocktails, get high, and allow myself to be seduced by attractive strangers. However, that would not be a terribly good idea for my career, my finances and possibly my relationship.

Still... Anyone know of any moral philosophy conferences coming up in the Carribean?

Saturday, 7 March 2009

How do you deal with an undergraduate moral relativist?

I do all of my teaching on a Friday. The idea is to get it all done in one solid block, go home, have a bath, then go out and get drunk. One day I will develop more sensible strategies for managing the work/life balance, but just at the moment this arrangement suits me just fine.

I try to do all of my work relating to teaching (apart from the teaching itself) on evenings and weekends, to allow myself the weekdays free for PhD work. On Thursday night I was desperately cramming for the next day's tutorials, when microsoft works crashed, wiping all of the prep that I had done. The combination of PMS and a flu bug made this seem a lot worse than it probably actually was, and I was sat at my computer, with unattractive streaks of make-up running down my face, until 1.30am to make sure I was ready for the next day. The combination of red eyes, aforementioned black eyeliner trails, tears and a temper from hell, meant that probably even Marilyn Manson would have found me scary. Ethics boy however responded with hugs and regular cups of tea.

I think it probably takes a saint to live with anyone in academia, whether it is a lowly postgrad like myself, or one of those venerable professors, whose wives seem to maintain constant good humour despite the fact that their husbands' meticulous attention to detail does not extend to the new haircut, the fantastic meal on the table, or any other signs of the effort that they put in. All that we can do is remember that not everyone lives the weird esoteric type of lives that we do, and try to appreciate the sacrifices that other people make to enable us to do so.

Anyway, enough of that particular ramble. As it turned out, the tutorials went reasonably well as usual, and the students did not seem to notice that I was menstrual, flu-ridden, and by this point sleep deprived. However, in one of the tutorials, it was incredibly difficult to get anywhere. The tutorial was supposed to be on the concept of evil: how we understand it, and whether it has a useful role in moral theory. The difficulty was that one student kept pressing the claim that none of this mattered because all concepts of good and evil were relative in any case.

I guess this is one of those perennial problems for anyone doing tutorials in moral philosophy. I could have spent the entire tutorial delving into questions about ethical relativism. This student's own views were rather incoherent and hazily formed, and they would probably have benefited from clarification. But this would have been unfair on everyone else and would not have been relevant to the topic of the tutorial. So I pretty much responded by listening to what he had to say and then changing the subject. This felt very unsatisfying, and possibly gave the student the impression that I could not answer his points, but the purpose of tutorial is not to get sucked into combative disputes with individual students, it is to encourage them to discuss the questions, elucidate their understanding and try to allow everyone to bring something to the table.

The problem was that the student kept reiterating his views as though this was supposed to be some kind of conversation stopper. Because he understands all values to be, in some sense, relative, no further discussion is necessary or possible. How in hell's name are we supposed to deal with this issue? It is something I have encountered before, but haven't yet found a satisfactory solution to, and I have heard from others that the 'freshman relativist' is one of those very common bugbears.

I wonder if it might be good to restructure the way that ethics courses are taught. Rather than starting, as many do, with ancient philosophy or classic moral theories, what would happen if the first lecture began with a presumption of no moral truth? If the lecturer began with these issues, and then explained the different things that this could mean, and brought out the difficulties with theories that are relativist, subjectivist, non-cognitivist etc., then this might be a good way to start introducing alternatives, and would challenge the freshman relativist from the outset. Thus these students, who are undoubtedly intelligent and switched on, would be given something to get their teeth into and struggle with, rather than simply calling for a stop to all ethical dialogue.

In my case, the ethical dialogue ceased at the point that I entered the pub. A good time was had by all, and the frustrations of the previous couple of days forgotten.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Diamonds and Rust

Yesterday I sold a piece of jewelry that was given to me by an ex-boyfriend, and the whole thing left me feeling as if it wasn't my finest hour.

My thinking was that the jewelry was ugly. I had never liked it even at the time, although I would never have said so. I even wore it back then to please him. It seemed as though it would be no good to have an expensive but unattractive lump of metal and rock sitting in the bottom of my jewelry box never seeing the light of day, when some other person might actually like the ghastly thing and could supplement my meagre earnings from part time teaching for the pleasure of indulging their bad taste.

But a bad taste was what stuck in my mouth after collecting the cash. The horrid thing was given to me as an expression of genuine affection. Granted, it was about seven or eight years ago now, and I haven't seen the man in question for more than six of them, but don't objects like this still deserve to retain some of their symbolism? Was I, in effect, saying that everything that had happened between us was reducible to mere monetary value? And even though the action will have no bad consequences for anyone (it is virtually impossible that he will ever know) what does it say about the kind of person that I am?

On the other hand, perhaps holding on to meaningful trinkets like that is a bit creepy, as if we are clutching on to the accoutrements of our past relationships. Nobody wants to be Miss Havisham, sitting alone in her yellowing bridal dress surrounded by stopped clocks (not that I was jilted at the altar you understand, I finished the whole thing before it got to that stage).

So how do we shed our old skin with dignity and still acknowledge the significance of the people and places that have been important to us in the past? Throwing gifts away would be no good - it would seem like a dismissive and melodramatic gesture, and the whole thing was too long ago for me to indulge that sort of behaviour. Giving it back would have a similar nuance, especially as it would involve contacting someone who I have not spoken to in a long time in order to throw his gift back in his face. I no longer have any ill-will toward him, so that would be hurtful and inappropriate.

Perhaps even worrying about this is an act of self-indulgence. Maybe I should be redirecting my precious emotional energy into far worthier causes.

In any case, I have now taken the money. Although he will never know, I am very grateful to my ex for buying the philosophy books that I really need, and come the weekend, I will raise a pint of his beer to him in gratitude.