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Thursday, September 3, 2020


For 58 years, my year began after Labor Day with the start of the college year. In the early years, Harvard did not begin until late September when the weather was getting cool and the jacket one had to wear to all meals seemed like an appropriate garb. Every September another school year would begin with the excitement of new courses to take and then to teach, with new students and new classes, new books to lecture on. From 1950 to 2008, with the exception of the year I spent wandering around Europe on a fellowship and the fall I spent in the Army, this was my routine. My little date books, courtesy of the Harvard Coop, actually began the year in September, not in January.

I still recall September, 2008 when, the summer over, I anticipated the start of the school year, only to discover that I was actually retired and had no classes to meet, no new students, no course syllabi to make up. I did what I could. For several years I taught in the adult education program at Duke University and that felt a little bit like meeting a class, although not really. One year I volunteered at Bennett College in Greensboro North Carolina and drove the one hour trip three or four times a week. I got a gig teaching a graduate seminar in the UNC department of public policy one year and that was great, but it was a one time thing, replacing the regular instructor who had a fellowship. In desperation, I bought myself a little camcorder and started recording lectures to be posted on YouTube. After the first series – devoted to Ideological Critique – I actually managed to give my YouTube lectures in a UNC classroom to a small group of students and faculty so that it felt almost like teaching a course.

In 2017, thanks to the intervention of my son, Tobias, and his friend at Columbia, I was elected to the Society of Senior Scholars and for two lovely years – 2018 and 2019 – I would get up early every Tuesday in the fall, fly to New York, take a bus to Columbia and co-teach a seminar with Todd Gitlin. I felt as though I had been reborn.

And then the virus struck. Last March I was teaching a course on Marx at UNC and was forced to do the last five class meetings by zoom. But both Columbia and UNC have been turned upside down by the virus and neither is in any position to continue using my services as an adjunct professor.

So here I sit on September 3, Labor Day just four days away, and once again I feel bereft. My only hope is that once the fall semester starts around the country in whatever form it takes, I will be invited to make guest appearances by zoom in courses here or there.

Mind you, I am not complaining. Susie and I are safe, well housed, well fed, well looked after and in this way vastly better off than several hundred million Americans at this moment. But oh, how I wish I were getting ready to fly up to New York yet again.


David Palmeter said...

I doubt if anyone who isn’t an academic can relate strongly to how you feel. During my working years law was what consumed me, but that was not on a calendar basis. I was fascinated by legal philosophy and legal history, and read a lot of it. I still have three shelves of a bookcase devoted to the subject—which I’ve rarely looked at for the past dozen years. Before I retired for good, I started going to OLLI classes (or “study groups” as we call them) and became a far more disciplined student than I was in my official student days. I love leading study groups. As you’ve pointed out from your own experience, OLLI study groups aren’t high-powered. No exams, no papers. But leading a group for me is like being in reading group in which I always get to pick the book and can always find 20 or so intelligent people who want to read and discuss it too. And the need to read the book several times, to read commentary, to marinate in for weeks, is something I enjoy very much.

I’ve escaped from Trump for the past couple of years, sticking my head firmly in the sand of the past, by doing study groups on history. I did two on the American Revolution last year. I’ll be doing a Zoom group this Fall on Herodotus and in the Spring on Thucydides, and will probably do Gibbon in the following Fall. Gibbon can be a delight to read. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the Decline and Fall:

“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

Here’s another:

“Besieging Rome by land and water, he thrice entered the gates as a barbarian conqueror; profaned the altars, violated the virgins, pillaged the merchants, performed his devotions at St. Peter’s, and left a garrison at the castle of St. Angelo.”

Unlike current events, history does not provoke anxiety. We know what happened, something the people of time didn’t know any more than we know how November 3 will come out—or even when we may know how it came out. Or what in God’s name we’ll do if Trump wins.

LFC said...

There's a piece in WaPo this a.m. based on a piece in The Atlantic citing unnamed sources who served (presumably fairly close to the Pres.) in the Trump admin to the effect that Trump referred to soldiers who were killed in battle or captured as "losers." Of course the WH and Trump have angrily denied this. Apparently the Atlantic piece includes a vignette where Trump and Gen. Kelly, formerly his chief of staff, are standing on Memorial Day 2017 at the grave of Kelly's son, who was killed in Afghanistan, and Trump reportedly said something like "I don't get it. What it's in it for them?" The WaPo piece goes on to say that Kelly "came to understand that Trump cd not grasp the concept of sacrifice for something greater than oneself." Which in itself is not really news, but the crudeness of Trump's remarks, assuming the reports are accurate, is noteworthy even for him.

LFC said...

Link to WaPo piece:


Jordan said...

I think I'll be feeling something somewhat similar next year. I have a philosophy PhD, and had a postdoc for a few years, but the job market has now cratered and so I'll probably be off to some other career. For now I'm still teaching online courses, but I think next September I won't be, and it will be difficult to imagine a school year starting and me with nothing to do to contribute...

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

David Palmeter,
I think history can provoke anxiety. At least for me it does When current events bring to mind an historical constellation of events, the similarities that obtain may well provide ample reason for anxiety. The Orange administration inevitably engenders comparisons to: 1) the rise of Fascism in Europe, 2) the fascist movement in the 1930’s U.S (America First!), 3) authoritarianism in all It’s many incarnations, 4) the use of government backed militias/gangs to seize or maintain power (The Freikorps and the Black and Tans, 5) the obliteration of political norms followed by ignoring legal constraints constraints on power, and 6) the psychopathology of fascist leaders and the authoritarian personalities of the followers of fascist leaders etc.

The degree of political polarization is at least as great as it was leading up to the Civil War and we seem closer to widespread violence than we have been in a long time. Heavily armed militia confronting BLM demonstrators brings to mind the use of extra-legal gang violence by the Know-Nothing party (America for Americans), the KKK, and the use of the PInkertons to intimidate organizers, punish strikers, and protect the property of the capitalists.

I’m no longer anxious, I’m depressed....

Matt said...

I have a lot of sympathy with this post. Even in the years when I wasn't in academic life (to one degree or another) my year tended to run from the fall to the summer, too. (So, I was a federal judicial law clerk for three years, at different times, but because law clerks are usually hired out of law school, their terms run Sept.- August or something similar, keeping the same basic flow of life. And, when I was in the Peace Corps for two years, my "term" started in August of 1999, and went until Aug. 2001, and I worked in a university as one of my main jobs, so I again still had the basic "academic" flow of life.) Oddly, this has been broken for me in some ways by moving to Australia for an academic job, in part because the "school year" is different. For essentially accidental reasons, I usually teach in our winter/spring term and our summer term, and don't teach in our fall term, so teach from July until the end of Feb., and then don't teach again until July. That's already pretty distorting for me, but with COVID, we have been on-line for sometime, and will almost certainly be so again through our summer term. So, assuming we'll be back in the classroom by our winter term again next year at the latest, it will have been a year and a half since I taught to a "live" class - a very long and disorientating spell for me.

David Palmeter said...


I take your point. I’ve been marinating, for the most part, with Herodotus during the quarantine and there aren’t many parallels there. I sometimes have had a queasy feeling from Gibbon when he describes how the Roman Republic slowly died under the Caesars and how the Senate became a rubber stamp for the military. There are definite parallels, particularly during the impeachment trial and the Senate’s abdication of its constitutional responsibilities. There are no Republican Howard Bakers any more, much less Eliot Richardsons or William Ruckleshouses. Many more Borks.

I don’t see as strong a parallel with the lead up to the civil war, but it’s possible. Even in the absence of Trump or his ilk, the structure of the Electoral College and particularly the Senate seems unsustainable to me if present population trends continue, and I don’t see any reason why they won’t. Somewhere recently someone made the point that 17% of the US population accounts for 50% of the Senate. The imbalance continues in the Electoral College, but the distortion isn’t as great because it includes House seats.

I don’t see this trend ending. There was some talk a few years ago that with computers people could live anywhere and work remotely. That hasn’t happened and it doesn’t seem likely to happen. If present population trends continue, I can’t see any way violence could be avoided.

not what i would have considered said...

Well, there is quite a "market" for your talents.
On meetup, working class intellectuals, part time workers and the unemployed or the just the curious are organizing philosophy programs every day.
Some members even started a network outside of the meet up platform, virtual philosophy network
The goal is to discuss with scholars and independently among just regular people on zoom primary and secondary texts.
These are just regular people who can at a very high level discuss philosophy texts on weekends and week day afternoon. There is a busy graduate student out of Fordham who runs some autonomous Marxist-Foucault seminars but absent this nothing regularly scheduled on Marx.
The network is a little too strong on analytical philosophy and in need of some more leftist if you are so interested you can contact me by email
thanks and take care