What is the focus of your current writing? What are the big questions that you are investigating and the main stories that you hope to tell in your projects right now?
I am working on two different projects. I just completed a book chapter on agrarian themes in Willa Cather’s O! Pioneers for an edited volume. Also, a friend and I think that what the world needs is another defense of the liberal arts. Yes, there is a bit of a cottage industry on this topic, but we think we have a unique angle to the subject. Without giving too much away, as one never knows how a project will progress, there is a bit of a Tolkien angle to our work. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing on liberal education. What is it? What is it for? Can it promote virtue? If so, how? My co-author teaches medieval literature, so he is also concerned with the manner in which literary theory has injured the study of literature. Part of our project, then, is about how one engages in a text. Is it critically? Skeptically? Politically? Humbly? We imagine a couple of theoretical chapters and then using some texts as case studies. We are roughly 60% sure of what we are doing and where the project is going. It may change!
Can you give us a taste of something surprising or intriguing that you have found in your recent writing projects?
So, I’ve been doing all the reading and writing on education. I notice that in the last couple years, four of the big books on education—by Zena Hitz, Roosevelt Montas, Jonathan Marks, and Scott Newstok—were all published by Princeton University Press. Someone there REALLY cares about liberal education. I wonder if they think there is room for one more, perhaps written by two obscure academics from a small, non-descript regional public university in South Dakota?
What is your personal favorite of all your writing in the past year or so? What is your favorite recent read?
I wrote a chapter about South Dakota on film for a recent edited volume on South Dakota history. When your job is watching movies and writing about them, you know you’ve made it. (I’ve also co-authored a book on film and literature and have taught a handful of film classes.) What I really enjoy doing is taking a piece of good (and maybe not-so-good) popular culture and interpreting it in light of political theory. For example, in this piece I consider the condition of Native Americans in South Dakota in light of Frederick Douglass’s famous question, “What country have I” and the television show Deadwood as a study in Machiavellian founding.
Coming from my work on education, I wrote a piece on critical thinking for Public Discourse. There are two great ways to learn about a subject: teach it or write about it. I have had inchoate thoughts about so-called “critical thinking” for some time. I finally sat down and systematically worked through why that term bugs me so much. Voila! This piece is a good example of how writing on a subject can clarify one’s ideas by forcing you to articulate them for an audience rather than just having them randomly bouncing around in your head.
I have two favorite recent reads. Academically, my reading on education included a recent book by John Agresto, The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to do About It. Agresto writes with vigor and with wit. Great read. For fun, I confess that my guilty pleasure is crime novels. Slightly in that vein are the Nick Herron Slow Horse/Slough House spy novels. AppleTV has turned the books into a series, now two seasons in. That inspired me to start reading the novels. I have gotten through the first two, which correspond to the first two television seasons. Herron’s writing reminds me of Raymond Chandler—I wish I was as witty as the characters in these novels. I can recommend both the show and the novels.
What are some broader questions that fascinate you in your reading, thinking, and writing?
I am a political scientist, but my co-author on the in-progress book project likes to tell me that I really am a misplaced literature professor. He might be right. I really get more joy these days out of reading fiction than non-fiction (although I still enjoy a good history or work of political thought). There was a time in my life when I would have found this circumstance unimaginable. Why spend time with made-up stories, I thought, when there are real stories (history, biography) and serious thinking (political thought) to be read. Over time my mind changed, and I now see literature as a serious medium for philosophical and political thinking. As well as generally more enjoyable to read!
I also had the opportunity to serve on a committee to re-work South Dakota’s K-12 Social Science standards. We did so with a strong nod toward the liberal arts and commitment to content-based (rather than outcome-based) learning. The vigorous opposition to these standards by the educational establishment wasn’t surprising but still constituted a bit of an education. Why are they opposed? What alternative do they offer in place of a content based, liberal education? This is what has drawn me to the subject of education and especially liberal education. What is it about literature and other humanities subjects and makes them valuable and have we lost something as these subjects have been pushed to the periphery of education?
In my more political science-y writing, my two big influences are Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln. My first book was a consideration of Lincoln’s statesmanship. Given the status of American politics (just look out your window!) the fragility of democracy is of primary concern to my thinking these days. This fragility is of central concern to both Tocqueville and Lincoln. I have also been deeply influenced by the Federalist Papers. There is much wisdom in this statement by James Madison in the justly famous Federalist 51: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Concern over the future of American democracy occupies much of my mental energy, which is why I need to watch movies and read crime novels as an antidote!
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