Links, updates, and what I’ve been reading

Hey folks. Here’s a little random blog post:

1. This week in my classes, I’m teaching a widely anthologized and very famous critique of utilitarianism by Bernard Williams.  The Williams article contains a very famous thought experiment, Jim and the Indians, designed to stimulate criticism of the utilitarian idea that we are responsible for what we fail to do, as well as for what we do.

It so happens that the very first post of a new blog called Moontime Warrior: Fearless Philosophizing and Embodied Resistance  (h/t Feminist Philosophers for the link), discusses what it feels like to be a Native youth exposed to Williams’ stereotypical rendering of Indian experience. In her post, Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race and belonging in the classroom, Erica Violet Lee, a Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) student at the University of Saskatchewan, reflects on the effect of the case on her:

After the professor read this aloud, I sat there with every muscle in my body tensed, wishing for the class to be over so I could leave. The worst part, of course, was that no one objected or even questioned the use of this thought experiment – not even me. I didn’t have the patience to explain why it’s messed up to teach an unnecessarily racialized, stereotypical story that deprives Indigenous people of autonomy, in a classroom where you have one Native student, in a discipline that struggles with inclusion of People of Color and women at all levels.

I had become convinced that I was not welcome and that I did not belong in this classroom, maybe not even in philosophy, and “Jim and the Indians” solidified that thought in my mind. I was rendered voiceless. This is a feeling I wish I could share with the professor who told my peers and colleagues that my anxiety was a made-up excuse; who believed that I just wanted it easy.

After reading that post, I couldn’t walk in to my classroom this morning and teach the article the same way I have for twelve years, with a mere disclaimer. I shared Lee’s post and we talked through both Lee’s perspective, and also ways to get at the issue Williams wants to illuminate without resorting to problematic narratives about race and gender. I am very grateful to Lee for sharing her story. I’ll never teach this article the same way again.

2. I finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, my Big Fat Book for March. The narration is excellent, and I switched back and forth between audio and digital.  I just love her writing. I love being in the worlds she creates. Here’s a reflection by the main protagonist and narrator on the loss of his beloved mother at age thirteen:

But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead. [Tartt, Donna (2013-10-22). The Goldfinch (p. 93). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.]

Here’s the main character describing his father:

Maybe he wasn’t drinking any more, but all the old late afternoon wanting-a-drink edge was still there, scratchy as sandpaper. [Tartt, Donna (2013-10-22). The Goldfinch (p. 186). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.]

Here’s a character describing her Swiss boarding school:

“And the view is like the mountain on the Caran d’Ache box. Snowcaps and flower meadow and all that. Otherwise it’s like one of those dull Euro horror movies where nothing much happens.” [Tartt, Donna (2013-10-22). The Goldfinch (p. 387). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.]

Loved it. I’m a little mixed on the ending. I might write about it.

3. Outlander, on audio. Ok, someone has to explain the character transplant Jamie undergoes when he finally returns to Lallybroch and berates his sister for getting raped. So far in the book, some 25 chapters or so, Jamie has been calm, rational, and very mature for his twenty-three years. His uncle basically prostitutes him for his scars, to drum up support for Scotland,  and he bears it with equanimity. Same for his forced marriage. He has a wisdom beyond his years. But he returns home, sees his sister pregnant, and assumes the worst, that she copulated with the evil Captain Jack Randall of the British Army:

“Aye, so ye chose to sell yourself rather than beg! I’d sooner have died in my blood and seen Father and the lands in hell along with me, and well ye know it!”

“Aye, I know it! You’re a ninny, Jamie, and always have been!” his sister returned in exasperation.

“Fine thing for you to say! You’re not content wi’ ruining your good name and my own, ye must go on with the scandal, and flaunt your shame to the whole neighborhood!”

Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (pp. 374-375). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The thing is, he’s not a ninny. So far in the book, Jamie has been masterful at reading signs, deciphering facial expressions, interpreting the way people hold their bodies, even the way horses move, and yet, he can’t figure out he’s all wrong about his own sister? I felt this scene was very out of character.

4. I’m not sure how I found this, and yes, it’s on Reddit, but it’s a really fantastic motivational article. This may be all the self-help advice anyone will ever need:

tldr; 1. Nonzero days as much as you can. 2. The three you’s, gratitude and favours. 3. Forgiveness 4. Exercise and books (which is a sneaky way of saying self improvement, both physical, emotional and mental)

5. Soccer season. In full swing. DS14’s team is outplaying expectations, and the expectations were high to begin with. We all have this feeling there is no stopping them. (Check back in with me mid season!) I was standing on the sidelines somewhere in fucking Massachusetts, at least four hours from home, on a Sunday night, and freezing my ass off, when a fellow soccer mom imparted some wisdom to me. I was remarking that there is so much pressure now, college coaches, showcases, national rankings. And the boys are bigger and the knocks are harder, and I’m so fearful of injury I can hardly stand to watch. She said — maybe the fact that her husband has just had a life saving major organ transplant had something to do with her attitude — that she’s just so grateful her son can run and kick and play and do something that he loves with a team he cares about and coaches he respects. When he gets off the field, she only ever says one thing: “I just love to watch you play.” She said she found the phrase in another mom’s post online, and it made a huge impression on her. It made a huge impression on me too.

6. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but I’ll be at the Popular Culture Association conference in Chicago in April. I’m presenting in the Medical Humanities area, on Harlequin medical romance, but I expect I’ll be spending most of my time in the romance area. I’m super excited that one of my all time favorite writers, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, will be there, and also for so many of the romance papers I can hardly fit them all into my schedule. I plan to blog about it as much as possible.

7. I’m reading Sarah Mayberry’s Satisfaction ($2.99 for Kindle), which just came out and everyone is reviewing. But then I read Brie’s post about the penis-in-vagina syndrome it succumbs to and I had to put it aside. And that reminded me of another great post, by Pamela at Badass Romance, on Some (More) Scattered thoughts about Romancelandia, Overthinking and Balance:

If I do want to have fun with what I read, and immerse myself in an emotional journey along with the characters, is “overthinking” and writing a critical response part of the fun, or does it spoil the fun? Our fun, or other people’s fun, if one asks too many questions in the wrong space? What about the pleasure of reading as a social practice, which many bloggers have noted can deepen the reading experience?

8. I started Beeminding a once a week blog post. That’s the only reason I wrote this. Yes, I’m pathetic. But at least I know how to turn my patheticness to advantage!

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 8.12.55 PM


Hope you are having a good week.

21 responses

  1. When I said I loved the ending, I realize I didn’t mean the ending-ending, but the Boris ending. I just loved how that all went down. I will comment more when you write about the ending so as to evade spoilers. 🙂


    • Yes, please do. There are some things I loved about the ending, but they are mixed mixed with some things I found to be less true to the way the story had been unfolding.


  2. I probably could use some kick-in-the-pants reminder to blog more regularly, but I’m afraid if I do that, I’ll stop blogging entirely 😦

    I’m loving seeing Outlander through your eyes. For a while there it seemed that the most popular sport in romanceland was to mock these novels, so it’s refreshing to see someone else enjoy them even as they are able to see the weak spots.


    • I know many people hate external force when it comes to tasks, but it really works for me.

      Outlander: I read it very early in my discovery of romance and loved it. Like the Black Dagger Brotherhood books, it holds a special place in my reading history. Even though they are flawed books in some ways, I’ll always be grateful to them for ushering me in to the genre.


  3. I vaguely remember Claire making a similar point later in the series–how Jamie is wonderful in so many ways but he’s completely irrational (err, probably not phrased that way) when it comes to unmarried women having sex. When I read Outlander that scene didn’t strike me as out-of-character…I think I viewed it as an example of an otherwise smart, decent person having a major blind spot. Or maybe I’m just not surprised by men who become hypocrites when it comes to their sisters and daughters, but that’s a whole other discussion!

    It’s funny, because I also put Satisfaction aside for a while after reading Brie’s post. I was already having some issues with it (not about PIV sex), and then I read that post and lost the mood to continue so I reread an old favorite. I just started reading it again…we’ll see how it goes.


    • Claire definitely makes this sort of comment earlier, as well. I think that’s how you’d have to defend it: irrationality as a result of his blind love for his sister combined with his sexual mores. Still, it irked me.

      I’m going to pick Satisfaction back up tonight. I feel like I haven;t actually finished a romance in a long time.


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  5. Thx for the stuff about the thought experiment. I love when you tell us about ethics stuff. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall at that lesson.

    Does anyone come up with a way around the dilemma?

    I read something else interesting lately – was it linked here or at Liz’s or maybe Sunita’s (?) blog? It was about impossible moral problems (there was something about a spaceship and a stowaway) and problems with the very set up… I’m not making sense! Sorry. I have a vague memory of it being something to do with Cory Doctorow? Anyone? Bueller?


    • Yes. I linked to the article by Doctorow in my last links post. I keep meaning to read one of the short stories he talks about — the one with the stowaway. Thanks for the reminder.

      Actually, it took a while for anyone to agree that the dilemma posed a problem. Much like our discussion of problematic themes in historical romance, students wanted to defend Williams as writing from the prejudices of his time. But eventually we thought about creating a scenario that would be more politically realistic today, something like Russians and Ukrainians, or Syrian rebels. Unfortunately, there is an aspect of chauvinism disguised as cultural relativism in the story (“special occasion”) that is hard to eliminate, narratively, because it motivates Pedro offering the gun to Jim.


      • Let’s try this again. THIS is where my comment was supposed to be (feel free to delete the erroneous one Jessica!)

        I take it the point of these thought experiments is to force an otherwise morally upright person to choose between two shitty options, both of which are morally repugnant? There’s never an option 3 (which is morally okay)?


        • Kaetrin– the point of the thought experiment is to reveal a problem with utilitarian theory. It’s really theoretical, not so much normative. Williams claims that from a utilitarian perspective, the answer is not only that Jim should shoot one man, but obviuously that Jim should shoot one man. But the obviousness of the answer reveals a flaw in the moral psychology of utilitarianism: no one who is deeply committed to certain projects or values should have to put them aside when they get caught up in a web of cause and effect that someone else created. Williams is committed to the idea that we are primarily responsible for what we do, but utilitarianism says we are equally responsible for what we do not do. So it’s a theoretical dispute about responsibility, agency, and integrity. Reading the Williams is not supposed to have any effect on the students in the sense of making them better people or revealing to them their own ethical views or anything like that. But obviously, such readings DO have those effects, and I felt the need to attend to them.


          • Sounds like I need to listen to that Philosophise podcast and learn a bit about the various theories. It’s fascinating but I know so little about it.


  6. Thanks so much for sharing the story about the Williams article. Williams has always been up high in my pantheon of contemporary philosophers, but like many of his peers he had some major blind spots on identity issues. The part of Lee’s account I find most troubling is that the professor made it her problem. I frequently think twice about older readers and how they will work in classes today, but how the hell anyone can think that a student’s natural reaction to being stereotyped and objectified is the student’s problem is mind-boggling.

    I’m enjoying your comments about Outlander. I doubt I’ll ever reread it (again; I’ve read it 2-3 times) and I’m dreading the social media takeover when the miniseries hits, but it was a formative read for me. I’m not sure how well it stands up to the kind of analysis Olivia and Liz are talking about in their most recent posts (and yes I know it’s been the subject of academic analysis), but it’s a ripping good yarn.


    • I love Williams. He was and continues to be one of the most influential philosophers in terms of my own approach to ethics. Sadly, most classic philosophical problems in ethics have similar shortcomings (push the fat guy off the bridge to stop the train, for example. sigh; the “drowning wife”, etc.).

      Philosophy on the web is in a period of huge growth right now. For years there was only the one blog, Leiter Reports, and in the past few years several blogs have sprung up which are almost as widely read (NewAPPS, Feminist Philosophers, etc.). I’m thrilled, but it’s also shining a harsh light on the many problems in the discipline, so it’s been painful too.


    • I feel the same way about Outlander – loving following Jessica’s reread and dreading all the hype about the miniseries and the new book. The Outlander series was formative for me not just in terms of reading genre fiction but also in fueling my first forays into online book/fan communities, and there were aspects of the experience that engaged my emotions in a way I’m still not sure I’ve entirely figured out.

      I’ve found that Jessica’s comments, and yours here, are helping me reframe my ambivalence about the whole series. I wish the later books had been better and I’m pondering whether I will bring myself to read Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, or will be able to resist the urge to know what happens next. I think I’m more interested in the new book than in the miniseries, though.


  7. I really like your holistic approach to the weekly post, which incorporates all the kinds of diverse themes and ideas that make up the mental landscape over the course of week, from professional challenges and intellectual growth to watching kids grow to books and blogs read for pleasure and personal growth… I’m grateful that you take the time to share all this with your readers – it’s inspiring, thought-provoking in all the right ways, and also fun.


    • Thank Pamela! I don’t know why but after the first four years blogging started to feel less like an escape from my to do list, and more like like every other task on my to do list. I’m trying to just blog whenever and whatever I want, and that definitely helps.


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