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Guilt, Western Masochism, and the Mein Kampfian mind….

Next week (assuming the volcanic gods of Iceland permit) I will attend a meeting in Newcastle (UK) to present my ideas about the reform of financial markets (perhaps more on that later), and there I will meet with a colleague from OZ (of the “down under” type) who asked me to bring along some recently published books that are no yet easily available in Australia.

One of those titles — The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner — is now in my possession, and so I am giving it a read. Translated from French, it is subtitled “An Essay on Western Masochism”. To say the least, the book has me walking around mumbling obscenities at inanimate objects (and some animate ones who do not quite appreciated my sudden outbursts…).

A bit of context: One of the courses I taught this past semester was a seminar on political and administrative ethics, and while I love the course and the intellectual stimulation it provides, it can be a most depressing experience for both students and instructor. This semester was especially difficult (in a very positive sense — if that makes sense) since the American media — especially PBS –has generated all sorts of wonderful “case study” documentaries for the class to ponder. One result is that we hardly got into the texts I had assigned, but I think the overall content of the course did not suffer. Only the more optimistic psyche of students seemed thoroughly and permanently damaged….

So, after starting the class with some background material on basic ethical schools, we engaged in discussions using cases drawn from some classic documentaries as “Fog of War” (an all-purpose case study for any public administration program) and several thought-provoking films (e.g. Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show, A Few Good Men, etc.). But then the PBS season kicked in, with such shows as “The Bombing of Germany” and (most recently) My Lai. I attempted to end the class by getting us back on track with a discussion of “collective responsibility/guilt” featuring some interviews and films centered on the work of Daniel Goldhagen.

With all this fresh in my mind, reading the Bruckner book has turned into a very challenging task. His argument is simple: we in the “west” (let’s call it the OECD West) suffer from a debilitating sense of guilt about the troubles we have brought about in the world and are collectively engaged in a form of unhealthy and unwarranted collective masochism.

This is more than an intellectual reframing (e.g., Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations) or neoliberal blather (e.g., the work of Kaplan or Fukuyama). It is an attack on those who would engage in critical reflection on the role Western civilization and culture has played in global historical development — on those who proffer a sense of guilt and shame rather than an unbridled pride in what the “West” has accomplished with its higher values and morally superior commitments to freedom and the advancement of humankind. And Bruckner makes the case overcoming this collective guilt in a manner and tone that takes the neoliberal view to a dangerous, almost Mein Kampfian level. It is a call to arms — intellectual and diplomatic arms, at least for the present — in pursuit of the rightful domination and historical destiny of Western values and culture….

One can hardly engage in the study of ethics and their application and relevance to contemporary cases without find Bruckner’s work contemptible at best. This is a quite dangerous and detestable work….

May 8th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Reflections on the semester….

The Spring semester is coming to an end at UNH, and although I had a relatively heavier-than-usual schedule of classes and “preps,” it was a bit more rewarding than most of my recent academic terms.

Part of that has to do with what I regard as a technological maturing of the students — each year more and more become adept at (and partial to) the online integration of course material and assignments. Perhaps we have finally hit that generational “tipping point” where students are now more comfortable with the intellectual engagement that thoughtfully designed online pedagogy can foster.

For example, weekly “Discussion Forums” — which have replaced the intermittent written assignment in my classes — have generated some very interesting, insightful and well-written comments and observations from both students at all levels. I find the commentary and exchange among the undergraduates in my introductory American government to be as engaging at times (if not moreso) as those of my students in graduate courses. Expressing opinions in an intelligent way with their colleagues (rather than regurgitating the textbooks or trying to anticipate what I want them to say) is an expanding norm. After several attempts, I’ve learned that my role is to set and enforce (actually, more like “monitoring”) parameters for the online “rules of engagement” while demanding coherent and organized writing. I am seeing some pretty impressive results on a regular basis. Yes, much of what they are doing in these “DFs” is driven by the desire for a good grade — but there is a point in the semester when some other motivation takes hold, and the quality and content of the writing seems take on its own value for many students.

At the same time, that same online technology has made it possible to facilitate the mundane factual regurgitation that is sometimes required in basic courses. While increasingly comfortable with the intellectual challenges and autonomy offered by a well structured DF assignment, there is still the urge among students to know what the instructor expects on exams and other assessment. “Is this going to be on the test?” mentality is fully present, and instead of dismissing or fighting it, I’ve learned to build on it by using the capacity of our instructional technology (Blackboard, in the case of UNH) for online “objective” exams — perhaps to an extreme.

Example: All my “objective exams” in my introductory course are given online at certain hours (often over the weekends), and all students have to do is sign on from wherever they are at the assigned time. Open book? Sure, why not. Taking exam in groups? No problem. What I do is structure a reasonably easy exam involving 30 to 40 questions that must be completed in an hour. That time limit — plus using the testing technology to randomize the order of both questions and answers for each question — tends to offset any effort to “cheat”. The results have been amazingly consistent for several years now — a relatively normal distribution of grades, skewed perhaps toward the a B- average (i.e., 80-82 range) grade. The lesson that I stress for students: those who prepare for the exam by actually reading and understanding the material do exceedingly well — and those who do not prepare/study in advance do poorly despite all the obvious possibilities for cheating.

As pleased as I am with how this semester has gone teaching-wise, I know that my students might not feel the same way. I am always disappointed with their assessments of my courses. I am still convinced there is a pedagogical “sweet spot” where both anxious students and instructors like me can find satisfaction with a course. The search continues on my part, and probably will until they carry me out of the (increasingly online) classroom….

May 8th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments