My Stuff

https://umass-my.sharepoint.com/:f:/g/personal/rwolff_umass_edu/EkxJV79tnlBDol82i7bXs7gBAUHadkylrmLgWbXv2nYq_A?e=UcbbW0

Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Sunday, May 30, 2021

TECHNOLOGY

I taught my first class in September, 1955 and with a few breaks, for the Army and one thing and another, I have been at it ever since. For the first 65 years I met my students face-to-face in a classroom. I could see them, they could see me, after a bit I got to know them and after a bit they got to know me. From time to time I used modern technological devices to assist me in my teaching, like printed books and mimeographed handout sheets, but operationally speaking the basic activity in which I was engaged was not fundamentally different from what Plato did in the Groves of Academe.

 

Thirteen years ago, I took a giant step forward into the 21st century and started blogging. Some years after that, I even went so far as to record more than 30 hours of lectures on a wide variety of subjects which I posted on YouTube. Strange as it may seem, when I began blogging and putting lectures on YouTube I did not at first give much thought to the fact that my relationship to my audience had fundamentally and irretrievably changed.

 

The technology brought with it striking changes. Interpreting somewhat the statistical data provided by Google, I estimate that my daily blog posts reach a worldwide audience of considerably more than 1000 people. Only once in my life have I actually addressed that many people in person – at the first meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City, where I was one of four commentators on a speech by the great Polish communist and scholar Isaac Deutscher.

 

I think in my long career I must have taught the Critique of Pure Reason twelve or thirteen times, reaching in those classes perhaps 175 students or a few more. But the first of my nine lectures on Kant posted on YouTube has been viewed 164,000 times, according to YouTube, and even the ninth and last lecture in the series has been viewed more than 13,000 times (which, it is probably reasonable to assume, means that more than 10,000 people have watched the entire series.) It would take me 50 teaching careers to reach that many students in person!

 

And yet, and yet. It really is not the same. I have from time to time made a fuss about people who post anonymous comments on this blog, and in the last several days there has been an extended thread of comments about this matter, but to tell the truth, it is not the presence of abusive anonymati that upsets me the most. It is quite simply the fact that I cannot see you, you cannot see me, we cannot talk to one another in the way that I did with my students for my entire adult lifetime.

 

Now one might say, “Why are you so disturbed? It does not upset you in the same way to publish a book that is read by you know not whom, you know not where, and even in languages you yourself cannot read.” Which is true but somehow does not alleviate my discomfort.

 

When the pandemic hit, I was teaching a graduate course on the thought of Karl Marx at UNC Chapel Hill and after the first nine meetings I was forced to switch over to zoom. Even though I knew the students and had spent time with them personally in class, I hated that and dream of going back to the good old way.

18 comments:

Jerry Brown said...

Well Professor, maybe it is also a good thing you can't see this particular audience. My impression is that few of your frequent commenters are in their late teens or early twenties. And half the time I'm reading your blog I am in a bathrobe or pajamas and, unfortunately, I don't imagine anyone would want to see that at this stage of my life.

But if you are ever in Connecticut and want to visit, I will make sure to be dressed appropriately for the classroom.

s. wallerstein said...

It seems to me that the most prominent anonymous at least has come alive through his writing and we don't need to know his name (although many of us do know it) to know him as well as
we know you, Professor Wolff.

We, human beings, reveal ourselves through our work, including what we write. In fact, his very need to use multiple aliases and now to post as anonymous tells us a lot about him.

By their fruits you shall know them.

David Palmeter said...

Have you thought of hosting a zoom discussion? Of course, it wouldn't be quite the same as a live class or seminar, but it's much more personal than emails or blog posts.

I've both taken and led discussion groups at OLLI using zoom and am a big fan. A large part of my enthusiasm for zoom, however, stems from the fact that I'm seriously hearing impaired. With zoom, I put a small blue tooth dongle in a USB port and that sends the audio signal directly to a receiver clipped to shirt pocket which relays the audio straight to my hearing aid. That means that the only background noise(enemy #1 for the hearing impaired) is that which occurs between the speaker and the microphone on the speaker's computer, and that isn't much. Combined with subtitles, it doesn't get any better than that.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Maybe there is someone who can organize this with ZOOM for Prof. Wolff, so that he only has to take care of the content and not the technology.

Anonymous said...

The pandemic has demonstrated, I believe, that Darwin’s theory of evolution has ubiquitous application to every environment. In the face of the pandemic, technology has evolved to compensate for the loss of services we depend on. Unable to attend movies in movie theatres, the amount of entertainment available on streaming venues has multiplied beyond belief, almost rendering movies made in Hollywood for theater viewing obsolete. Similarly, reluctance to go grocery shopping has generated numerous food customization services which will send meals to your home. Zoom visits by physicians, classroom instructions, long-distance family reunions have evolved from the necessity of adaptation caused by the pandemic. These new adaptations are here to stay, even after the pandemic has become history. This all proves, once more, the genius of Darwin’s insight that mutations emerge in every environment, and only the fittest mutations survive.

AnonymAss said...

Except that this isn't Darwin's theory of evolution in action, since the common biological ancestor, the differentiation into species and gradualism are missing from Zoom meetings and Door Dash. But the account moribund enough for Memorial Day.

Anonymous said...

AnonymAss,

The comparison is, shall I say, a literary device.

AnonymAss said...

An invitation to a discredited Social Darwinism. Fair enough counselor.

Jerry Brown said...

Luckily I am way too unsophisticated to employ literary devices. I probably would not know one if it hit me in the head. But what is the objection to them in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Jerry,

Jerry,

The objection is that they are based on an aesthetic appeal which, depending on the comparison, may or may not have any substantive merit. In prior posts, for example, I claimed that Marx’s literary device of comparing the mystery of transubstantiation to what he regarded as the mystery involved in the exchanges which occur in the marketplace is misleading, and therefore does not really explain what is occurring in the exchanges in the marketplace. AnonymAss accused me of misrepresenting its purpose, that it is supposed to serve as an invitation to the reader to look at the exchanges which occur in the marketplace from a new perspective. (I think I got AnonymAss’s criticism of me correct, but he will be sure to take me to task if I have not.)

Misleading literary devices in the form of a metaphor can have disastrous consequences. For example the metaphor which was used during the 1950s-1970s comparing the civil war in Vietnam to a series of dominoes, predicting that if South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam, all of the countries in Southeast Asia would fall one after the other, like a chain of dominoes, and come under the hegemony of Communist China. The literary device was erroneous, but a lot of Americans bought it, resulting in the trauma of the Vietnamese War.

Anonymous said...

This is a totally unrelated post, but I feel compelled to post it.

Watching PBS news tonight, which included a segment on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which resulted in the total destruction of the African-American community known as Greenwood, and the death and internment of hundreds of African-Americans, the narrator indicated that the State of Oklahoma had recently enacted a ban against teaching antiracism in Oklahoma schools! See https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/25/antiracism-teaching-ban-oklahoma-490159.

This is impossible to fathom. The law precludes educators in Oklahoma from requiring courses or teaching concepts which cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” Whose sensibilities is this law supposed to protect – the perpetrators of racism, or their victims? I assume the former. Is this not, by discouraging condemnation of racism and racist acts, in fact, an endorsement of racism and racist acts? The fact that such an absurd piece of legislation could have garnered the majority support of any legislative body, and then have been signed by the state’s governor, more than anything else I have read about the Republican Party in recent weeks does raise my concern for the future of democracy in this country.

AnonymAss said...

Fair enough on all counts, counselor. I don't think Marx's metaphor has disasterous consequences, any more than Dickens's metaphor of the fog in Bleak House. One can disagree whether it's an apt metaphor or whether it ought to impel the reader forward. It's not an indispensable metaphor. As for democracy in America, maybe it's time to consider a two-state solution.

Jerry Brown said...

Well hundreds of thousands of deaths in Vietnam because a stupid game that uses small wood tablets that people also like to stand on end in rows. These literary devices are quite dangerous it seems. Maybe we should ban them or require a license to use them at least. Marx turned out to be quite disruptive after his death also. I don't think I would want to have to tell Stalin he fell for a literary device. In fact, I would be most willing to hire you to explain it to him while I kept far away:)

Rev. Todd Scull, O.S.B. said...

Thank you for making your lectures available online. I've taught English at the high school level for a little over thirty years, and your reflection on having students whom you do not see and interact with has become familiar to me now that my classes are being held on Zoom. I've had an entire class of freshmen I've never met in person for the first time. I wonder what Walter Benjamin would have to say about this pandemic-driven pedagogy, the Zoom classroom.

Thank you for your time in helping me to return to my days studying philosophy. I only wish we had the opportunity to meet in person.

Unknown said...

I understand what you mean by the disturbing thing of not seeing or exchanging thoughts with the audience, but allow me to make some sort of personal inventory. 1) I had been reading your posting (from time to time in the past few years) since B. Leiter posted a link towards your new (then) blog. 2) your blog and spirited conversations came at the moment of my life when I truly needed them. Most importantly, not only that you gave me some sort of spiritual map of a journey you had, and spirited observations about people & places that I wandered how they might have been, but you gave me hope. Your life experiences and what you made out of them gave me hope. I don’t really know if I had two, maybe three professors whom I know directly & took their classes who gave me hope. So, this is no small achievement. 3) from a professional perspective, you provided me with a perfect understanding of what is a dissertation when I needed most (I was an ABD still struggling with the structure and narratives then). Since then I ever pass this sage advice to my students citing you, of course. And I did not even had time to watch the more recent videos or to read the interesting exchanges about them that you had, but I will. Shall I continue?

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