opinionization and the hybrid classroom

I was so glad to have an opportunity to write a review of Zena Hitz’s insightful and often lyrical book Lost in Thought for Commonweal (also featured today at Arts & Letters Daily). A member of the faculty at St. John’s College, Hitz offers a plausible diagnosis of some anti-intellectual trends in American higher education, but her book is especially fascinating to read as a precaution against some of the pandemic-related pitfalls awaiting our classrooms this fall. Chiefly, she worries about “opinionization,” a phenomenon she defines as “the reduction of thinking and perception to simple slogans or prefabricated positions,” and I suggest that the scalability of our universities’ technological adaptations will catalyze such adulterated intellectualism:

This kind of mental necrosis has its own underlying causes: like our worst politicians, it’s a symptom more than the disease itself. For Hitz, genuine intellectual work depends upon intimate settings, forthright conversation, and modest-sized “communion.” Thoughtless opinionization, by contrast, stems from our “system of higher education [where] person-to-person teaching belongs only to a handful of liberal arts colleges and to elite doctoral programs.” Hitz, whose background is in ancient philosophy, perhaps takes inspiration here from the observation, in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, that a small-scale setting like a courtroom or seminar table is a precondition for nuanced inquiry. Lecture-hall ostentation—domain of the pundit and the PowerPoint presentation—might make for an entertaining spectacle, but it’s antithetical to real intellectual activity.

Visit Commonweal to read the rest of the review.

r-nought literature

Say, Goddess, what causes, after so many centuries, brought forth among us this strange affliction. Did it reach our hemisphere, carried from the Western sea, after a select group of men set sail from Spain, braving the open waves and the unknown waters of changeful Ocean, as they searched for lands that lay in another world? For it is said that in those parts this pestilence reigns in every city with unending affliction, that it wanders abroad because of a perpetual flaw in the climate, sparing few people. Should we then believe that it was commerce that brought the disease to us, that, small at first, it gradually gained force and sustenance, spreading itself to every land? As when a spark happens to fall upon some dried twigs from a torch that a shepherd has forgotten in a field: at first it is little and appears to be biding its time; presently, as it gathers strength, it rises up and victoriously lays waste the harvest and the fields and the neighboring woods, tossing flames up to heaven. Far off some distant thicket, sacred to Jove, begins to roar, and for miles around the sky and the fields are aflame.

Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis (trans. J. Gardner), 1530

laws of planetary motion

TLL vol. X 1, 2309, 37–45

I’ve written a brief reflection for Commonweal on the philological landscape of infectious disease, focusing on how the ancient Latin word planeta could denote both a planet in the sky and an illness in the body:

Derived from the verb “to wander,” the original Greek noun πλάνης was applied to more than just Mars and Saturn—in Euripides’s Bacchae, to take just one example, it refers to a “vagabond” who comes to town. Among the physicians of the ancient world, including Hippocrates himself, πλάνης could also mean “fever,” a pestilence that migrates from person to person. The Romans, of course, had their own words for disease—morbus, pestis—but they adopted this astronomical language in their own medical writings too, using the Latin cognate. In one account, planeta refers to a fever with an “unrestrained onset.” In another, planetae are those illnesses that obey neither finite duration nor predictable prognosis.

If we’re surprised by this strange metaphorical pairing, I imagine that future lexicographers “will marvel at the state of language in 2020, when ‘virality’ could simultaneously denote ironic meme culture and a global medical panic.” A tweet, after all, is not a plague, just as Saturn is not a fever.

Head over to Commonweal to read the rest.