The Medieval Survey Class: An Opinionated Prologue

For the first time in six years, I’m teaching a medieval philosophy survey class, and I’ve become a bit obsessed with the question of how best to do it. Over the next month or so I’ll be writing a series of posts on the subject.

Part of my obsession comes from the feeling that this is an extremely important and unsettled question in our field. That it’s unsettled will become clear over the course of my series of posts. That it’s important is obvious, in one way, inasmuch as we think it’s important to teach any class well. But it also seems to me important for a reason that’s less obvious and perhaps might be questioned. For it seems to me of value to the field to have some kind of shared core curriculum that we teach our students, and that, ultimately, we expect scholars in other areas of philosophy to have some grasp of.

As things are, there certainly is no such common core. Perhaps the only text from medieval philosophy that philosophically educated folk can be expected to know about is Anselm’s ontological argument. Beyond that, there’s just a whole lot of more or less obscure stuff, from among which we pick and choose in making up the curriculum for a medieval survey. (And perhaps we don’t even pick the ontological argument, on the grounds that this will get covered in a philosophy of religion class.)

It may be quixotic to think that anything like a shared consensus will emerge over some canonical group of texts. But the more interesting question is whether I might be quite misguided in supposing that such a thing would be desirable. For there is certainly room to wonder whether, instead of bemoaning the lack of a canonical core, we should instead celebrate the splendid freedom that allows us to teach a huge variety of material without feeling any pressure to cover the supposedly greatest hits. And if you are suspicious about the cultural and political pressures that, in other domains, have created our rigid canons of great books, then you might think that the last thing we should be doing is trying to impose such a canon on medieval philosophy.

So there’s a thought one might have. Yet although I see the force of it, I don’t think it’s of such force as to undermine the original thought that it would be desirable for we the experts to coalesce at least a bit around those works that we regard as most important to teach from within our field. To the extent we have political worries about a canon, then those worries should inform the choices we make, so that, in particular, we give a healthy weight to non-Christian material, and take seriously the question of whether any women should get into the curriculum. To the extent we’re worried about our autonomy, well, that seems misguided, inasmuch as we as individuals can of course always make whatever modifications we feel like making, semester by semester.

Weighing against those concerns about the canon are various reasons it would be desirable for the field to coalesce around some sort of common curriculum. Let me mention three.

First, I think it makes a contribution to philosophy as a whole, and indeed to our larger culture as a whole, to develop a shared narrative about the period. If the history of medieval philosophy is simply 500 different texts, and 50 different authors, then no one other than our hearty band of scholars will be able to find it comprehensible, and to learn from it in anything more than a scattershot sort of way. It’s just too much to comprehend. An intelligible narrative about the period, running through a manageable set of canonical texts, would allow educated people to comprehend medieval philosophy in the way that, as things are, is simply not possible for even highly educated people.

Second, following from the first, to the extent we care about promoting the value of medieval philosophy, the development of a shared narrative would be the best way to make that case. As things are, it seems to me that our colleagues in other fields have been persuaded that there’s a lot of interesting material in the medieval period. But they have not yet been persuaded that the study of medieval philosophy is obligatory, or that it’s obligatory for even a large department to have a specialist in the field. And no wonder this is so, given that we ourselves have failed to articulate a well-defined course of study that strikes us as having canonical status.

Third, shifting to the perspective of the undergraduates taking our survey classes, I think we have not served those students well, not because we are not exposing them to a shared canon of texts, but because we often do not do a good job giving them a story about the period, and a set of texts, that is genuinely interesting, or even, often enough, intelligible. Looking back over my own previous attempts to teach surveys of medieval philosophy, I find that I have often tried to get students interested in texts that are outrageously obscure and difficult. Of course, that can be a problem for any historical period. But, at least, if you are trying to lead students through Kant, there is a sense of doing something that fits into a larger narrative and a shared intellectual heritage. How can we justify making students suffer through Henry of Ghent? I don’t mean to stipulate that we can’t. Still, to the extent we think the road through medieval philosophy must go through some very difficult material, we need to do a much better job as a field figuring out what that road is, and what the highlights should be. As we all know, there are marvelous sights to be seen along the way. But I am sure that I am not the only one who has often not been a very good tour guide. By working harder at developing a common core for the period, uniting genuinely accessible texts linked together by an intelligible narrative, we would be producing a curriculum that would be better for our students, and that even non-experts could pick up and enjoy teaching.

One final thought. Might it be that medieval philosophy just doesn’t lend itself to the sort of narrative and canon I am urging us to find? This, I think, is a very naive thought. The reason we think of “early modern” philosophy, say, as having such a well-defined narrative and canon is that scholars have imposed this structure on the period. There is nothing about the 17th and 18th century that makes it specially intelligible in this way, and nothing about medieval philosophy, other than its size and scope, that makes it inherently unintelligible. We have just failed to do the job. And though I can well understand that there will be those who resist the sorts of distortions and oversimplifications and prejudices that such a narrative requires, I think we should accept that this is what historians do, and it is what we must do, if we want the material we love to have any influence on the wider culture.

Obviously, this has now become the sort of rant I try to avoid on this blog. So let me reassure anyone who’s made it this far that future posts will confine themselves to presenting the data I’ve collected. Next up: which textbooks are people using?

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The SMRP

Congratulations – and thanks! – to Therese Cory, who has agreed to serve as the president (elect) of the Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, taking over from Tamar Rudavsky. Thanks as well to John Inglis and Sayeh Meisami, who have joined the executive committee. [Subsequently added clarification: although Therese was just elected as president-elect, that makes her vice president for the next few years, and marks the start of Tamar’s term as president. So our most proximate thanks should probably go to Tamar!]

I learned this information from an email sent out to members, announcing the news and inviting members to complete a brief survey about what role the SMRP should play in the future. In completing the survey, I discovered that I have rather strong feelings on the subject, which in a rabble-rousing spirit I thought that I would share here. (I won’t, however, share the link to the survey, since it may be that the folk organizing the survey would like it to be limited to SMRP members.)

It seems to me that there is one overriding thing the SMRP ought to begin doing, which it has not done in the past, and that this is to organize its own conference. Currently, the SMRP hosts sessions at the APA and sometimes other conferences, but these sessions are often poorly attended, and do a poor job bringing together the medieval community. The sessions, by themselves, are not enough to tempt medievalists to come to an APA (unless they have other reasons to attend), and because they are typically scheduled in the evening, in depressing hotel conference rooms, attendance typically feels more like a duty than a pleasure.

There is, however, very little else out there by way of general medieval philosophy conferences in North America. Cornell and UCLA and Toronto all put on regular events, which tend to be by invitation only, and there are a few more specialized things, but the field badly needs an annual flagship conference that would bring the community together. Such a conference might rotate around North America on an annual basis, organized by different institutions, year by year, always with the financial and institutional support, and prestige, of the SMRP.

Some of you will recognize that I write this with the thought in mind of the conference that just concluded here in Boulder. Despite my advertising the event essentially not at all, 70-some medievalists came together for 3 days of non-stop medieval philosophy in Boulder. The success of the event speaks to the need for more such occasions.

السلام عليكم

Since beginning this blog in 2012, I have resolutely tried to avoid the sort of editorializing that — depending on your perspective — makes the blogosphere at once both delightful and abominable. My guiding editorial principle has been “just the news.” But the latest political currents in my country strike me as demanding some kind of response from all decent people. And although I don’t suppose that this blog goes very far toward that end, it is, I hope, better than nothing.

Perhaps significantly better, inasmuch as scholars of medieval philosophy are particularly well positioned, among academics, to explore through their research and teaching some of the great glories of Islamic civilization. Here, then, is a brief tour of some resources pertaining to Islamic philosophy.

  • First, there are these recently announced jobs for editorial positions working on the Averroes edition at the Thomas-Institut. (There is a position for each of the three relevant languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Latin.)
  • Second, I am pleased to announce that the Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy (edited by Richard Taylor and Luis Xavier López-Farjeat) is, as of this fall, available in print.
  • Third, the Denver-Marquette conference series on Philosophy in the Abrahamic Traditions is scheduled for next July 6-8, at Marquette. It will focus on al-Ghazali.
  • Fourth, if you are interested in bring more Islamic philosophy into your classes, but need suggestions on how to do this, help is at hand. I’ve asked a few leading scholars for their suggestions in this regard, and I’ve received syllabi, for classes of various sorts, from Jon McGinnis, Deborah Black, Sarah Pessin, and Richard Taylor’s. All of Richard’s teaching material is available – along with much more – on his website. I have collected the other syllabi in a dropbox folder. (If, by the time you discover this page, that folder is no longer accessible, please don’t hesitate to contact me or any of the above scholars. We’ll be glad to help.)

Finally, if what you really need is just cheering up, here’s Seth Meyers:  “A protester had to be escorted out of a Donald Trump rally last night for yelling, ‘Trump’s a racist.’ The protester was removed because the Trump campaign has that phrase copyrighted.”

 

 

The Evils of OSO

I have come to the conviction over the summer that the field of Philosophy, and academic publishing more broadly, faces a dire threat — one that, so far as I can find, hardly anyone has taken notice of. I refer to the evils of Oxford Scholarship Online.

In case you have had the good fortune not to have had any dealings with OSO, let me explain that this is OUP’s idea of how to make its books available in digital format to institutions and individuals who are willing to subscribe to such a service. Last year, my library (at CU/Boulder) made the decision to sign up, and this seemed like quite a good thing at the time, inasmuch as it means we get electronic access to all OUP books (at any rate, all of them published after the starting date of our subscription). Right away, however, we received the grim news that, with our OSO subscription in place, our library would no longer be purchasing OUP books (except by special request), meaning that our only access to OUP materials would be digitally, through OSO.

Still, we thought, perhaps this is on balance a good thing. It has become very clear, however, that the decision was disastrous.

Now I am no Luddite – indeed, for a great many purposes, I prefer to read material on screen, and I have accumulated the usual collection of programs and devices to facilitate that sort of thing. So my objection is not that OSO marks a prominent step on the path toward the end of books in academia. The problem is that what OSO offers, in place of OUP books, is, to be blunt, execrable.

The heart of the problem, as anyone who has used OSO will know, is that Oxford is unwilling to make images of their published books available. So instead of the usual .pdf file that we are all familiar with receiving in place of printed journal articles, OSO gives the reader something like an .html version of the book, one that looks nothing like the book itself, even if in principle it is a word-for-word duplicate. Their fear, presumably, is that if an exact digital version of the book were made available, it would soon become available everywhere for free. The worry is a reasonable one, but unfortunately their solution is to make their product so wretched that no one could possibly have any interest in circulating these OSO editions.

To make things more vivid, let me concentrate on the last two works that I read using OSO, a recent paper in epistemology by Jane Friedman and a recent book on Hume by Frederick Schmitt. I might instead have talked about anything I have ever read on OSO, since the problems that I will describe are endemic to the system. But these two will do.

Here is a screenshot of what the printed OUP version of Friedman’s article looks like (ignore the highlighting):

friedman oup

Now here is a screenshot of the OSO version:

friedman oso

The first thing to remark on is just how horribly ugly the OSO version is. There was a time when Oxford University Press cared deeply about the art of printing, maintained high standards of typesetting, and took pride in decisions about fonts and other aesthetic niceties. The printed version of Friedman’s article reflects those traditions in ways we have come to take for granted from serious presses. How is it, then, that one of the world’s great publishing houses can now care so little about all that as to give us something as wretched as what we see here from OSO? Are they, for instance, incapable of right-justifying the margins, or do they just not care? Did they deliberately choose the ugliest possible mixture of fonts? Why all that extraneous numerical and legal information? Why on earth are there distracting OUP “watermarks” stamped all over the page?

If this were just a handy, searchable supplement to the book, to be consulted only as a temporary stand-in for the real thing, then these complaints might not matter. But in my part of the world this is the main form in which OUP publications are available. And I am not alone. In the past, when I could not get an OUP book from my own library, I could almost always get it from a consortium of libraries in the Colorado area. But with respect to both of the books I have mentioned, a search of the consortium reveals that not a single library in the Colorado area owns a copy of these books. The only versions available are the electronic versions.

If only this were the end of the story. Matters get even worse when we look at more substantive matters. Notice, for one thing, how the book gives us footnotes, whereas in the OSO version these become endnotes. Apparently, footnotes are another thing that the technical whizzes at OSO are incapable of. But the difference matters. Careful authors find out whether their work is to published with footnotes or endnotes, and treat the two differently. (Moreover, OSO does not even bother to supply hyperlinks making it possible to flip back and forth from text to note, meaning that one must laboriously scroll forward and hunt down each note, then scroll back. Then repeat.)

Notice, too, how it is impossible to tell where Friedman’s article begins, in the OSO version. For reasons quite unclear to me, it is an obsession at OSO to collect abstracts and keywords not just of whole books, but even of individual chapters within books. Now you might suppose that, if an author thinks such information belongs at the start of her work, then she will supply that information herself. Not at OSO. Here every chapter to every book has stuck onto it at the start an abstract – maybe written by the author herself, or maybe not, maybe cranked out in two minutes before heading off to teach a class, based on vague memories of what the chapter says – and formatted in such a way that the innocent reader has no way of knowing that this is not in fact a part of the author’s text.

At least here we are given the author’s name. I have seen books where that has been omitted, and for some reason these OSO versions never seem to provide the number of the chapter, something that obviously matters when you are trying to read the chapters of a book in the correct sequence. It was in fact not easy to find Friedman’s chapter in the book, because for some reason the front page of the OSO version provides only the title of each chapter, not the authors’ names. Moreover, even stranger, the OSO version omits the table of contents where the authors’ names are listed in the book, so that a reader who wants to know who has written the thirteen chapters in this book has to hunt that information down chapter by chapter.

Friedman’s article contains a fair number of technical notations, and I was impressed with how much success OSO had at converting these into its proprietary ugly font. Or, at any rate, into some font or another. One thing that one sees over and over is that, although the OSO version is converted straight-over from the final printed version, the conversion process is often shaky at best. On page 65, for instance, Friedman gives us the formula 0 < x y < 1, which in the printed version looks as it should. But for some reason in the OSO version that comes out as this:

equation

Similar infelicities abound, thoughout. Usually, the reader can make sense of what is going on, but is this really the best Oxford can do?

Alas, Friedman’s case looks like a glowing success next to Schmitt’s new book on Hume. As before, superfluous material has been added in front of each chapter. But in this case Schmitt had his own ideas about the sorts of overviews he wanted to prefix at various places, and so the book is very carefully split into three Divisions, with a brief “preview of the Divisions” and then brief “previews” of each individual division. These are to be found in the OSO version, but the reader is unlikely in fact to find them, because the first is printed as if it were part of Chapter 1, and the others are hidden away as separate files that the OSO-user is very unlikely to discover. Only someone in possession of the book itself will understand how Schmitt himself wanted to introduce its various chapters.

There’s worse. As before, footnotes have become endnotes, but the really amazing thing here is that the notes have been mangled in a way that makes them virtually unusable. In the very first chapter, the reader is presented with two endnotes assigned the number 1, and two more endnotes assigned the number 2. What’s going on? A reader fortunate enough to be able to consult the book itself (or someone less fortunate, like me, who teases this information out of the Google online preview) will learn that in fact these doubled notes have been somehow imported from other chapters. The first doubled note comes from Chapter 2. The doubled second note comes all the way from Chapter 7. This goes on and on – there are actually 3 versions of notes 22, 27, 31, 33, 34, and then at the end there’s a note 85, following directly after note 65, that somehow got imported from Chapter 2. Here’s just a taste of what it looks like:

schmitt-notes

Subsequent chapters are just as bad, and indeed for good measure there are 87(!) pages of random notes stuck onto the end of the book, after the index – don’t ask me where these came from!

How can things be so bad? How can the world’s leading academic press be churning out material of such shameful quality? The essence of the problem is that – as every author knows – it takes a great deal of hard work to create elegant, carefully produced volumes. I myself have published several volumes with OUP, and have always been pleased with how the books have come out, but it has happened only at the end of a very long process involving a great deal of hard work by many hands. With OSO, almost none of that happens. In particular, at least in my experience, authors are never asked to look at the OSO version of their books, and judging from Schmitt’s book, no one else looks closely at them either. (In my case, not only was I never asked to look at the OSO versions, but in fact I have no access to them, so I am blissfully ignorant about how bad they might be!)

The solution, of course, cannot be for authors to go through two production processes, one for the book and one for the OSO version. As published authors know, one such process is agony enough. So the ultimate problem is that OUP is trying to do something that just will not work – it is trying to produce two versions of a book at the cost and effort it takes to produce one. The results are predictably appalling. But we should keep in mind what I said at the outset, that this is, for OUP, ultimately the whole point. The OSO version of a book is supposed to be something that is so markedly inferior to the printed version that it will not pose any commercial threat to the sale of printed books. This is what scholars and librarians need to understand. And if we care at all about the production values of the books we love, we need to stop letting Oxford get away with this.