Monday, March 31, 2008

Morals to Die For

In the critical thinking class that I teach, we just wrapped up a section on moral arguments. We discussed consequentialism, or the theory that what makes a given action good or bad, morally speaking, is the consequences of that action. For example, one might say that smoking is morally bad because it can cause health problems. Someone else might say that donating money to charity is morally good because it will improve the condition of someone in need. These are consequentialist arguments.

One example that I used to test my students’ ways of thinking ran something like this: Imagine we are all stuck in a room. For whatever reason, there are only two possible outcomes. Option (1) is that we all stay in the room and eventually die. Option (2) is that one of us stays behind and everyone else goes free. (The plausibility of such a scenario is not important. Pretending it is a genuine situation is what matters. Play along.) After laying out this situation, I asked my class what the morally right thing to do is. Do we force someone to sacrifice his/her life? Do we kill the first person that falls asleep, quickly and painlessly? Do we all just die? At some point, I asked if anybody in the class would sincerely give his/her own life in order to save everyone else. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but only one or two people in each of my classes said they would do so. The overwhelming response was something along the lines of, “Are you kidding me?”

Call me naïve, but I was rather shocked that the number of volunteers was so low. Not that I would expect anyone to jump at the chance, but I guess I thought most people would be willing to spare their own life if it seemed like the only way several other people could live. Who knows how I or anyone else would react if that situation actually presented itself, but in my mind, I thought I would definitely do it. How could I not? Maybe panic or fear would get the best of me when it really came down to it, but I really think I would do it.

When talking with Melanie about this, she brought up some considerations I hadn’t thought about when I spontaneously made up the scenario in front of my class. I wasn’t really thinking about being in my current situation, with my pregnant wife and child waiting for me at home. I was thinking more abstractly. I do think your family situation could, would, and should make a difference. But I wonder – if you were single and somewhere between the ages of 18 and, say, 24, do you think you’d sacrifice yourself for a group of near strangers? Imagine a situation where your life isn’t in danger if you don’t act, but those other people are. Would you play the hero? And the follow up question – how hard of a question was this to answer? These questions may sound rhetorical, but anyone willing to share his/her thoughts is welcome to do so. I’d be quite interested. I don’t consider myself an ultra noble person, but I’m tempted to think I’d forfeit my life … yet the question remains, would I?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Same Difference

I've always been somewhat annoyed by the phrase "same difference," as when people say, "same difference" to say that two things are the same. But perhaps that is accurate. I've waxed Hegelian in my thoughts this morning. I don't claim to understand Hegel, but what I do think I understand, I find catchy. Here's the trail my mind has been wandering today. It is not complete. There is more to be said.

Difference is existence. Without difference, there is nothing, in that there is unity, in that there is indistinguishability, in that there is nothing. Difference is necessary for existence, even if only difference in time. Say there is just one thing – this will not hold true if there is not change, if this thing is not somehow distinguishable at one moment from another, for how else would it exist? How else could it be distinguished from non-existence, if there is no difference in time to establish it? But time is not enough. One unchangeable thing cannot exist even in time, for time is difference and if there is no difference, there is no time. But the difference must come in the thing that exists, not just in time -- for what would that mean? -- such that the thing is at one point distinguishable from the way it is or was at some other point. Otherwise, there is nothing to distinguish, and there is nothing. So there must be change, or difference, for there to be anything.

Still more, we need difference between one thing and another. We need a multiplicity of things, or differences, in order for there to be existence at all. If we say that only one thing exists, proven by something changing from one moment to another, then this thing will only exist insofar as it is not quite the same thing as it was before, and thus there are two things. This is then what exists – the difference. At any one time, existence exists only in difference, and so there must be difference between things. That is what exists. Imagine a plain white canvas with one red dot in the upper right corner. Imagine this is all there is. What exists? Difference. The red exists, but it exists only insofar as it is different from the white around it. The same with its shape. Its round dot shape exists only insofar as it demarcates one precise way in which it differs from the difference that surrounds it, that is, from the white. Even its location, being in a particular spot on the white canvas, exists only in that it differs from the location of all else. This is what gives it its place -- difference.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Ides of March

It's been over two months since I sent off my last Ph.D. program application. Somewhere in all the vast information I scoured during the application process, I saw that a few schools promised to inform applicants of an admissions decision by no later than March 15th. Tomorrow is March 15th, and of the five schools to which I've applied, two have yet to respond to my application.

As you may be able to guess from the fact that I have not posted about the three responses that I have received, nobody has admitted me thus far. I received an email from Indiana University-Bloomington a while back letting me know that I didn't make it, that the applicant pool was unusually strong this year and they couldn't admit as many people as they would like to have done. Nevertheless, they wish me the best in my future endeavors. (This is basically the exact same message I remember receiving from those schools that rejected me back when I was applying to master's programs. It's probably true every time they say it, but I can't help feeling that it smacks of insincerity when the message never changes.) Then, this Monday (Tuesday?) I received an email from Cornell University. Again, though they appreciate the time I put into my application, they were not able to admit me at this time. And on Wednesday, it having been a few days since I'd checked our postal mailbox, I got a letter from the University of Notre Dame. They trust I'll make it into a program of my choice -- just not theirs. They also wish me the best.

In some regards, it can be relieving to hear back from schools, even when they're rejecting you. At least it puts an end to the waiting and wondering, as far as those particular programs are concerned. Sadly, I don't feel all that relieved to hear back from these three schools because they are the schools I didn't really expect to get into. The other two are the ones that have me biting my nails. (As a reminder, I also applied to University of California-Riverside, which is basically my dream program of the moment, and Florida State University, which would theoretically be the "easiest" program to get into of those to which I applied.) I've been hoping that this week I would find out one way or the other, but as today drew to a close, I realized that the March 15th decision day (D-day!) I've had in my head for two months now may not apply to these two remaining programs. So I looked up their respective websites and quickly perused all of the available online information. Neither school promises to let the applicants know by March 15th. At least not that I can see.


Apparently all the emotional energy I've invested into making it until March 15th isn't going to be enough. For all I know, it'll take another few weeks before I'll hear anything. I hope not. But as they say, hope is for horses. (Is that what they say? Well, close enough.) Granted, I'm writing this on March 14th, but I guess I'm not all that convinced that I'll be hearing back from someone on a Saturday. They all have better things to do, I'm sure. And, truth be told, I've largely (though not entirely) written off the idea of getting in somewhere. In my head, I'll be staying in Atlanta, hoping to a get a visiting instructorship at my current school, and then repeating this mess again for next year--hopefully with greater success, which I guess would be any success, really. As I may have mentioned before, my applications were not of the caliber I had originally intended them to be, mainly because I spent the bulk of last semester on my back due to my crushed heel bone. So I really do think I'll be a much better applicant next time around. Heck, maybe I'd even get into Cornell or Notre Dame. But really, I can't help hoping there won't be a next time as far as Ph.D. applications go. I do hope to get in somewhere. We'll see...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

So, again with this crazy Daylight Savings / Standard / Shmavings / Stupor whatchamacallit. Does it even serve a purpose anymore, other than to guarantee at least a few of us end up late to work / church / the airport / brunch / whatever?* And then to make us spend the next week and a half trying to readjust. Now that they’ve rescheduled the biannual rescheduling of the clocks, it’s even worse.

Wouldn’t you know it, Melanie and I were scheduled to speak in our church services this last Sunday. We had known we were going to speak for about two months. You’d think that would have you well prepared, but any good preparations fly out the window when you’re unaware of the time change. Our services start at 9:30 a.m. At approximately 8:30 a.m. by our clocks, Melanie and I were (fortunately) dressed and just sitting down to eat breakfast when the phone rang. It was a guy from our church, asking if we were planning on going to church that day. I jokingly said, “Do we have to?” I assumed he was just calling to confirm that we were still planning on speaking, kind of as a courtesy. He didn’t laugh at my joke, but I quickly informed him that we were going to be there without a problem. He then said, “Ok, well, we started about five minutes ago because of the time change.” My jaw dropped. I had no clue about the time change whatsoever. It’s not as if I had just forgotten about it that morning, or the previous night, or even a few nights before. I’d never known!

Melanie and I ripped our poor protesting child away from his breakfast and forced him into his car seat so we could speed our way to church. We got there before we even would have done our things, but it wasn’t a pleasant way to set the tone. Things went really well, but it makes Daylight Savings leave an even nastier taste in my mouth than it has done before.

Not that I’ll be complaining in October when I get an extra hour … or is it November? Sheesh!

*For the record, there are supposedly numerous advantages to the observance of Daylight Saving Time. See this Wikipedia article for more information. It may not make a convert of you (or me), but it should at least make your annoyance at Daylight Savings a more informed kind of annoyance.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Teacher of My Dreams

My elementary school had a certain fourth-grade teacher—Mr. Schulz—that, as far as my family is concerned, is infamous. He just seemed a little off, and the three of my parents’ five children that had to endure this certain teacher as their homeroom instructor all have disturbing fourth-grade tales to tell because of it. I was the last one in my family to suffer from what can only be deemed his nerdy wrath. I’ll share just one of those memories now, and then I’ll tell you why I even bother mentioning him nearly two decades after I escaped his reign.

First, you ought to have a better idea of what Mr. Schulz was like. If memory serves me correctly, he was fashionably stuck in the later 60’s, or maybe the early to mid-70’s. He certainly didn’t go beyond that. He typically wore snug, horizontally striped, often polo-style shirts, the color schemes of which were reminiscent of the palettes donned by the lesser aesthetic football teams, such as the Green Bay Packers or Cleveland Browns. His hair probably qualified as a flattop, and he wore horn-rimmed glasses. A thick, creamy string of spit generally flapped between his lips as he talked, somehow refusing to break and managing to last the entire year. (My older sister, three years ahead of me in school, was subjected to the very same strand of spit!) Mr. Schulz was fond of forcing his students to chant mantras such as “Do it! Do it right! Do it right now!” or to respond to his “Get it?” with “Got it” so he could say “Good.” He prided himself on his ability to outrun any one of us, the fact that we were half his height and one-fourth his age making no difference to him whatsoever. He had a reputation for picking his nose, and was generally referred to by students as “Mr. Pic-n-Save.”

The foremost Schulzian memory in mind is the day I left school with a couple of friends and walked past a fight that was just beginning to brew on the playground. A couple of kids were yelling at each other, and it may be that they even started hitting each other. I don’t remember distinctly. What I do remember very distinctly is Mr. Schulz exploding out of the school in a rage. I’m sure he must have stopped the fight, but that doesn’t even stand out to me. My memory is too caught up in what he did to me, the student minding his own business. (Apparently that was the problem.) Mr. Schulz chided my friends and me for not actively seeking to put an end to the fight that was taking place. In fact, he made us go back into his classroom and read a construction paper sign he had hanging on his classroom wall. Little did I know at the time, but what he had me read was Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” This was public school, mind you, and while I was too young to think much about the inappropriateness of reprimanding a child by making him read scripture, I felt violated that I had been punished for avoiding a violent situation. This memory has forever bothered me.

The reason I am bringing up Mr. Schulz today is that, a couple of nights ago, I had the unpleasant misfortune of dreaming about him. I actually had a dream about him once back in elementary school. I dreamed that he put my sister and me in a cage, and he wasn’t going to let us out until one of us was dead. One of us had to kill the other before either of us would be released. Well, the dream from a couple of nights ago was also a violent one. I dreamed that, for whatever reason, I was in his classroom, organizing some papers in the back corner. I wasn’t part of his class, but I was there for whatever reason. At some point, he said something like, “What are you doing, girl?” and in my head, I had a suspicion that he was talking to me. I wasn’t looking his way, however, and so I ignored it. Then one of his students said, “Ben!” to get my attention and let me know that Mr. Schulz had been addressing me. I turned around and said, “Oh, that’s very funny. Ha ha ha. Hey, Mr. Schulz, do you have a vagina? Did your penis fall off?” as I approached him. I then proceeded to beat him mercilessly, including slamming his head multiple times into the chalkboard.

It’s strange how people, places, and things show up in your dreams so long after they’ve disappeared from your life.