Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Apocalexington

Here’s a WaPo story about a class taught by my friend Eduardo Velasquez, in whose reflected glory I bask. Knowing Eduardo, I’m confident that the class is more provocative and profound than the reporter was able to capture. Here’s the syllabus. Jeremy Lott has some questions for Eduardo. I encourage him to answer them.

Update: Eduardo offers more reflections here. I should note that I’ve read and been impressed by his scholarly work on popular culture. You can get some sense of his range by taking a look at his c.v.. Another source is the program he put together for the Politics, Literature, and Film division (#41) of the APSA. He doesn’t pander and he doesn’t produce fluff.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Hello Joe,

I can assure you that there is not much radiance coming off anything I do. But I will say that the course was remarkably successful, the students absorbed by the issues, texts, films, and especially the music. When I designed the course and advertised it, I did not expect the flood gates to open. Students came requesting entry from all over campus. Clearly, these are troubling and exciting times that resonate with young men and women.

Best,

e

Ah, Eduardo, but your webpage is the coolest.

It is a cool webpage, but I disapprove of the course "approach." This is a syllabus? At best, this self-indulgent approach probably does entertain students. At worst, however, it reinforces the idea that college "teaching," particularly in the humanities and social sciences, is the passing on of the trivial and the titillating.

Yes, yes, I read how Professor Velasquez justifies his approach in the WaPo article. In the service of "reaching the students" I could serve up porn and free beer, but that wouldn’t mean I’m passing on anything very useful. Try this one on for size: We formally teach things that DON’T come easily or naturally to our species (thank you, Steven Pinker). Pop culture is easy, learning is hard. I suggest that Professor Velasquez figure out a disciplined way to reach his students. Admittedly it won’t be as "cool," but then again pabulum won’t monopolize half (or more) of his course.

Mr. Crenshaw raises an interesting issue with regard to self-indulgence in the classroom and Dr. Velasquez’ syllabus does invite ad hominem barbs. But I wonder if "my classes are harder than his classes" isn’t less discernable pabulum.

In Dr. Velasquez’ defense, I have heard from 2 students (a not "very useful" sample size) that his classes are some of the most difficult in Williams School (AND they say he’s real smart.)

Mr. Crenshaw offers the kind of criticisms I am used to. And I would not dismiss what he has to say. Appearances are deceiving. It might help, might help, to know what the spring term at WLU is meant to be. It is an opportunity for us all to step outside the regular curriculum, to experiment. The spring does not stand for the whole, much less for significant portion of the whole. The spring term is unusual, I grant. Consider, by way of contrast, what I offer during the regular terms at WLU. Visit my regular survey courses on the WLU webpage. It is safe to say that I am not simply indluging myself and my students, nor do I propose a curriculum that detracts from the important texts that inform our self-understanding. Not that I compare, but Socrates is said to being the philosohic task with the opinions that inform our moral universe. Those opinions are not ends in themselves; they are where we are, however. Moral indignation and self-righteousness have their place -- but perhaps among the converted only. Let me add that I never said to the Post reporter that I was frustrated teaching the classics. I am not, nor are my students. We try together the take a view of our culture in all its manifestations, to understand it without being a victim to it, without disparaging what we do not yet understand, to learn how to discriminate, for such are the requirements of freedom and independence. And to these ends, we would have to move beyond the spring term, which is not an apology for it. e

Hear, hear, Mr. Crenshaw! Too much whimsy and fancy in this Velasquez course, I say! Facts are all that is wanted in life! Facts, facts, facts!

Oh, Thomas, I’ve been dickens’d! I always love it when someone seeks to "delegitimate" my point of view by analogizing it to some preposterous two-dimensional character! I guess it’s easy to laugh of someone who actually takes a position, isn’t it?

Professor Velasquez, making it "experimental" doesn’t absolve you from your duty to be coherent. I think even you must admit that the odd stream-of-consciousness preamble of your syllabus invites critique. For the life of me, I can’t tell what exactly you are teaching in this course. I know it has something to do with "apocalyptic" thinking, but beyond that it’s almost an incoherent scramble (featuring music!).

I think this could be a good course if it asked good questions, such as: 1) is the apocalyptic theme culturally universal, more limited, or restricted to Christianity?, 2) how did/does apocalyptic thinking shape political discourse?, 3) can apocalyptic thinking be traced to premodern myths (e.g., Norse or Babylonian)? In short, I think there are any number of questions that could have given structure to this course and added to students’ enlightenment. Perhaps you ARE doing these things, but it isn’t clear from your syllabus (and it should be).

Finally, while I’m not a "facts, facts, facts" man, I would say that coherence and reason are the ultimate goals of a liberal education. Emotion, faith, intuition...these things are real and have a place, but animals possess those as well as Man, and generally people don’t have to be educated in them. Formal education should be about building shared understanding, not tailored worldviews, personal truths, or "feelings." Education is not therapy. Perhaps your course isn’t about feelings, etc., but if so you should make that clear to students at the outset.

Thomas, I’d welcome an opportunity to chat with you. I fancy we might even find common ground. Not that we’d agree on all matters. What you describe in your last entry now moves us beyond a reasonable exchange. You betray yourself. It is inappropriate to respond to your venom in kind. I wish you well.

Professor Velasquez:

I’m not sure if you are addressing me or Mr. Dickensian above (Thomas). Regardless, what venom? Are you receiving private (nasty) messages from someone? My comments are frank, clear, and relatively impersonal, and "Mr. Gradgrind’s" sarcasm was directed at me, not you. So, I’m a little perplexed. I do see promise in your course, but I am concerned about how others view it (for it reflects on all of us).

Otherwise, I wish you well.

I find many similar critiques of Professor Velasquez among other academicians of all kinds, often from those working in the same politics department at Washington & Lee.

As a long-time student of Professor Velasquez, I can assure the worriers that the class is not mere fluff, nor is it incoherent to the attentive.

Yet it does remain largely intuitive, and certainly highly emotional. A class with Professor Velasquez is not a pop culture love-fest, nor is it easy. Students who take the class looking to be entertained will fail. Students who take the class solely because they saw Harry Potter on the syllabus and thought that seemed "cool" will fail.

I think Mr. Crenshaw has good reason to worry given that there is a lot of REAL academic softening going on at many universities, even "teaching"-focused ones such as W&L, but Professor Velasquez’s classes are not the place to look for such problems. It is a false dichotomy to say that a course must either be about "objective" understanding, which really does come down to facts, facts, facts, or else emotion and human feeling. The two are really the same, and they are hardly objective.

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