Students continue to amaze and delight me. I’ve taught a few classes now, and each one included moments of student brilliance and engagement.

In a small writing workshop for the classics department on the Apology of Socrates, the students had done a bit of freewriting. They passed their writing to their neighbor, and I asked each to identify the best idea in the document they’d received from another. The first to speak stood up and delivered an eloquent precis of her classmate’s hastily composed paragraph. The speaker generously offered a defense of an argument that was not her own.

Another class of about 30 students is reading the Hippolytus of Euripides. I had been a little anxious about this, for I worried that a tale so rife with tortured desire and malevolent gods might offend conservative religious sensibilities. These young adults, however, were eager to understand how Greek tragedy was approaching the fundamental problems of the human condition. I’ve used that last phrase with increasing anxiety during the last ten years or so, for my young colleagues back in the states are deeply suspicious of claims to universality. They prefer to attend to differences in Weltanschauung and like to affirm that the apparently essential is actually constructed. I agree in many respects: gender, race, class, etc., but I’m not as interested in what makes humans different as I am in what makes them the same. These Sri Lankan 20-year olds, several self-identifying as muslim by their clothing, had no problem working to find the human condition within this play written so long ago and so far away. They unpacked the problems of desire with maturity and subtlety. One young woman in headscarf proposed that Hippolytus’s distance from sex revealed his distance from humanity. At the end of this period I reproached myself for my worries about easily offended religious sensibilities. These students were reading this difficult play with precision and care.

Finally, I taught a lower level class in what is truly ESL. There were about 30 students, and I was asked to teach them how to give an oral presentation. The University often uses oral presentations as part of end-of-term evaluation, so this is a skill the students really need. I had prepared some materials and had determined that I’d build our six two-hour sessions as the steps in generating a presentation, complete with performance. It soon became clear that some of the students were quite comfortable in English, but others could scarcely understand my instructions. I did some theatre exercises to warm up their speaking apparatus, and then we turned our attention to phrasing. Students proposed the placement of pauses in the transcript of a spoken text, and, as expected, they came up with different places for those. What most impressed me was their willingness to engage the differences of meaning potentially created by these different pause points. ESL students are often looking for the right answer, and some of the styles of pedagogy these students have encountered would tend to foster that preference. Students were working against some of their training as they sought to understand how a tiny difference in form necessarily entailed a difference in meaning. The strongest had to give up their sense of superiority to risk accepting the validity of an answer other than their own, and the weakest had to risk being seen as mistaken in the eyes of their more advanced peers.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” as I tell myself several times a day, but neither is this place as strange and unknowable as I had expected. The students are energetic, open, even daring. They want to learn for learning’s sake; many have chosen to read Euripides just because it expands their thinking. They also want to make the world a better place; the ESL class consists of law students, and most professed a desire to bring legal services to their country’s poor. I am blessed to be able to work with such students, just as I’m blessed to be able to work with my students back in the States.


Even in this far-away part of the world, school is school, and that’s pretty comforting. The students are the same age as my students back in the states, and they carry the same sorts of backpacks and cluster in the same groups. In other ways, however, my home institution, a small, expensive, private, liberal arts college, is radically different from this large, underfunded, public university. The disparity in resources is startling. The classics department here is housed in a single room, with three small desks for the three professors. There are three professors in my home classics department, but we each get far more than a desk apiece. When I pulled out my computer to transfer a file for an upcoming class, one of the professors marveled at my MacBook Air, and I casually said that it was the property of my employer. The young instructor was amazed that any school would provide a computer for a professor. I didn’t say that I also had my own office, and that this entire trip was being paid for by an annual research stipend which is probably close to the young Sri Lankan professor’s annual salary. Despite the spartan resources in the academic buildings, the university is gloriously beautiful, with massive trees set in manicured lawns, all on prime real estate near a major city. Many faculty and staff live in on-campus subsidized housing, and there are support staff everywhere, sweeping sidewalks or serving tea.

I’m teaching a class for the English Language Teaching Unit, which serves the entire university. There are three languages of instruction, Sinhala, Tamil and English, but many programs use only English as a medium of instruction, including the law school, which provides the students for my ELTU class. English is required of all students, but they get no academic credit for it. That means that students are not highly motivated and may feel irritated that they aren’t allowed to study in their native languages.

English is the language of instruction for many classes in the Faculty of Arts, including one of my other classes, a course on Greek Tragedy. It seems rather strange to be teaching Greek Tragedy in this setting, but why should that be any stranger than U.S. students taking a class on the Ramayana? I’m curious to see how these students, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim, respond to the Hippolytus of Euripides. I expect that I’ll encounter some different student attitudes than I’m accustomed to. I didn’t pick this play; it was next on their syllabus, so they handed it to me.

At dinner with some senior professors the other night the conversation quickly turned to politics. At my home institution professors talk about politics with wry humor or cynical distance. Here the conversation was far more vivid and impassioned. A new party is coming to power in India, and that bears upon Sri Lankan politics. The dinner guests were eager to speculate on how such changes might affect even minor issues.  There was no sense of a distance from political events.

As my visit advances, I’ll be looking to see how this teacher of the colonialist language is received by students and faculty.  When I walked on campus today, I was the only white guy around. I’d be suspicious of me, but so far folks have been nothing but welcoming.


Dear door, why task me thou severe?

Dost dream I here am come now utterly undone?

Though pining, I do strive to breach thy bolt.

I’m come with ram, this pen, to do thee ill.

Her heart within, her cloistered heat, must hear my imprecations.

To pick thy lock I use these tools, tempered ‘gainst her scorn,

Paronomasia, paraclausithyron, even parataxis.


Doth creak thy hinge? Doth tread some step within?

Away, alas, I’ll leave this gate!

I ask here only leave to prate,

Room to state my grim affliction,

Artificial affectation.

Warder, let that bar stand fast!

Love let in but briefly lasts!

The original sin of Adam and Eve is disobedience; not murder, betrayal, deception or abuse of power; just disobedience.  The story of Eden makes resistance to authority the first cause of all other evils.  Now that the political right has joined the political left in celebrating resistance to authority, few voices can be heard recommending social hierarchies, but I listened to one of those on a four-day cross-country drive this week.  Looking for entertainment for my trip, I downloaded public-domain audio files from and listened to Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I had given this poem minimal attention in college, forty years ago.  I remembered that I liked the rhythm of the lines; that’s why I wanted to hear it read aloud while I drove.  I wasn’t looking for instruction in respect for authority.

Milton’s verse is intoxicating.  The sentences are complex enough to force attention, without being so convoluted as to confuse.  The enjambment creates forward momentum to the next line, but the rhythmic regularity means that we always know when a new line is beginning.  The verse is orderly, and so is the vision of the world.  When Milton wants to talk about the angels, he often recounts their positions within the divine hierarchy: “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,” 5. 772.  That sense of order appears at various degrees of magnitude in the poem: line, description, speech, book, and epic. This poem enacts the hierarchy it discusses.

Like most folks, I’m pretty suspicious of hierarchies, since sexism, racism, economic inequality and colonialism all flow from a respect for hierarchies.  Much of the intellectual work of the late 20th century sought to reveal the operations of hierarchies.  Here’s an existentialist feminist’s approach:

I have already stated that when two human categories are together, each aspires to impose its sovereignty upon the other.  If both are able to resist this imposition, there is created between them a reciprocal relation, sometimes in enmity, sometimes in amity, always in a state of tension.         de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 69.

But to listen seriously to Milton, I needed to try to crawl inside his mindset and to see the world from his perspective.  It’s too easy to dismiss lines like these:

“My Author and Disposer, what thou bidd’st

Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,

God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more

Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.”

     Eve to Adam, before the fall; Milton, Paradise Lost, 4. 635-8

I needed, instead, to figure out what Milton saw to be good about hierarchies and the subordination that they necessarily entail.

I enjoyed listening to the characters’ conversations.  They use alternating speeches rather than dialogue, so I could get caught up in the arguments that each character develops.  I especially enjoyed the relationship between Adam and Eve; their paradise is a community of two.  They are sweet to each other, as they manage the details of their lives.  They discuss at length the question of whether they should part for a few hours to pursue different tasks.  Ultimately, Adam trusts his wife’s ability to behave properly without his supervision:

“Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more;

Go in thy native innocence, rely

On what thou hast of virtue, summon all,

For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine.”

   Adam’s last words to Eve before she tastes the apple, Milton, Paradise Lost, 9. 370-75

After the fall, harsh words are exchanged, but they are both eager to accept the blame and are concerned with how the other feels.  Eve wishes that all the punishment could fall upon her alone:

                                                      “….that all

The sentence from thy head remov’d may light

On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe,”

       Milton, Paradise Lost, 10. 933-35

Adam is equally willing to take on the blame:

                                            “…If Prayers

Could alter high Decrees, I to that place

Would speed before thee, and be louder heard,

That on my head all might be visited,

Thy frailty and infirmer Sex forgiv’n,

To me committed and by me expos’d.

    Milton, Paradise Lost, 10. 952-57

There is no doubt about the hierarchy between these two, but they approach one another with consistent goodwill.  Milton takes great pains to present this marriage as mutually respectful and loving.  Even when Eve disobeys God, she is thinking about the advantages which eating from the Tree of Knowledge can offer both herself and her husband. 

Another familial relationship which caught my attention occurs between God the Father and His Son.  Again, Milton includes much conversation in which the two characters express their concerns about what the other wants and feels and thinks.  As with Adam and Eve, the hierarchy is clear, but the subordinate participant asserts His own interests and preferences with some vigor.  The Son is enthusiastic about redeeming the sins of humans through His future crucifixion, and He pleads eloquently for the Father to show mercy to the sinful humans.  The Father/Son pair, just like the husband/wife pair, converse with reasoned arguments and self-conscious goodwill.  They compete to be good to one another, even within the hierarchy of the Father’s authority over the Son.

Milton’s presentation of goodwill within hierarchy made me think about the hierarchies of academic and familial communities.  Teachers have power over students, parents over children; these fundamental relations of families and academies flourish when the hierarchy is accompanied by goodwill.  The abusive parent or teacher corrupts the growing and learning, so goodwill is absolutely essential.  But the hierarchy itself is also essential; the teacher needs to know what is worth teaching; the parent needs to be a responsible caregiver.  On the other side of the hierarchy, the students need to respect the authority of the instructor, if they are to profit from the instruction.  The child should step back from the cliff’s edge when the parent shouts.  As long as the hierarchy operates with goodwill, both parties flourish.

Hierarchy has such a bad reputation now that many consider it to be an evil itself.  Listening to Milton has reminded me that hierarchy’s proper functioning depends upon mutual goodwill, and it has helped me see how much of contemporary thought resists the value of hierarchy.


Marilyn Joyce Meme

An old friend of mine, a sober and intelligent middle-aged professional, posted a full-caps exclamation on Facebook shortly after the capture of the marathon bombing suspect in Boston (included below, with names removed).  I am not going to comment on who may or may not have placed bombs at the marathon.  I would like to comment on conspiracy theories in general and the notion of individual guilt in particular.

The poster is concerned that the suspect has been tried and convicted in the media, though guilt has not been legally established.  Laudably, the poster seeks to remind us of the presumption of innocence.  The poster affirms his own belief that the suspect must be actually innocent.  This quickness to judgment surprised me, as it did some of the respondents included below.  I had long believed that the legal presumption of innocence was supposed to function as a presumption of our own ignorance.  That is, we presume innocence because we don’t really know a suspect’s guilt or innocence.  A presumption of our own ignorance is humble and prudent.

Later on in the thread, the original poster links to a website proposing a conspiracy theory.  The website offers photos and a narrative advancing the idea that “contractors” associated with the FBI may have had more to do with this event than has previously been suggested.  If we presume our own ignorance, we must grant that this could be so.

The original poster has used the Internet’s form of screaming (FULL-CAPS!!) to affirm that a false assumption of the guilt of an individual has been consciously perpetrated by a deceptive government conspiracy.  Whether the bombing itself was done by two individuals or by a government conspiracy, the debate on this Facebook thread seeks to assign personal guilt.  The event is presumed to be best understood as the action of two individuals or as the action of a cabal of malicious officials.  In either case, the discussants are concerned only with the willful, conscious actions of particular people.

Earlier in the week, we heard of an explosion at a fertilizer plant outside of Waco. I wanted to understand better why this seemed to get less national emotional energy than the less lethal event in Boston, so I asked my friends at dinner what they thought.  One suggested that it was important to see a distinction between the systemic evils of the Waco event (profit-seeking, regulation-avoiding corporate malfeasance) versus the individual evil of (presumably) two individual bombers.  This friend affirmed that it was especially important to pay attention to systemic evils, even though it may be easier to focus upon individual guilt.

Coming back to conspiracy theories, I’d like to affirm that they miss the point.  Conspiracy theories imagine conscious action on the part of individuals.  The original poster on Facebook sees “leaders” as terrorizing, killing and lying.  I fear such individuals much less than I fear the unwilled and unconcious operations of power.  Some upcoming debate about the Boston events may concern the degree to which the suspects were acting on their own or at the behest of others.  Either way, we might wonder about the degree to which their actions (assuming that they did act) arose from the private concerns of disaffected young men or from the global political concerns of refugee Muslims.

I can’t resist going theological/philosophical on this one.  When, where, why and how do we see evil as emanating from individuals, be they fanatic Islamist bombers, greedy corporate capitalists, or power-hungry government officials?  Do we yearn for a comprehensible entity to blame?  Is that why God was invented, to have someone to blame for the tornado that devastated our local countryside?  And how do we respond to evil that we can’t ascribe to some agent?  The capitalists of Waco don’t act only out of malice (though there may be plenty of evil in what they do); they may be partially motivated by a noble desire to advance the Green Revolution which is feeding the world.  The bombers of Boston don’t act only out of malice (though there may be plenty of evil in what they do); they may be partially motivated by a noble desire to free their homeland from imperialist domination.

What troubles me most is the presumption of understanding.  The conspiracy theorist and the Islam-hating bigot have both assumed that guilt is located in individuals, rather than in impersonal systems.  I don’t mean to deny that individuals are guilty; I only want to affirm that grand evils are rarely limited to the malice of individuals.  We do ourselves no favors by ignoring systemic evils in our preference for finding a person to whom we can ascribe individual guilt.

Here is the Facebook post and thread (with all names deleted) which stimulated my thoughts above:


[Photo of  Tsarnaev looking like a regular, sweet teenager]

Respondent A: You need to provide a bit of actual evidence here. Not just a sweet face.

Poster:  Who needs to provide actual evidence are his accusers: what ever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Respondent A: I hope he gets the best legal defense possible. I truly do. I imagine they must have a pretty strong case if they’re willing to not read him his Miranda rights.

Poster: Your faith in the American legal system is inspiring.

Respondent A: Don’t know what to say. They have these kids on tape, for you and I and the world to see, putting bombs behind 8 yo olds. The uncle and wife believe they were guilty. I’d say the burden of proof why I should start believing in Illuminati conspiracies is on you at the moment.

Respondent B: Dude, this is nuts. Really, get off of it. When you live one mile away from where you home has been turned into a police state, to catch these guys who admitted to this while car jacking a car, get back to me. Really insulting.

Poster: [LINK to an article arguing that the bombing was a conspiracy involving the FBI] “’Contractors’ at Boston Marathon Stood Near Bomb, Left Before Detonation, Seen across street after blasts talking with FBI bomb squad. Who were they? What were they and the FBI doing?”

Poster: I understand how you might feel – it is nuts – much more nuts than we mortals can or are willing to conceive. We’ve got to look farther than what we are fed by the news media. The whole idea behind this is to be able to turn our country into a war zone not only with impunity but with the whole-hog support of the manipulated mob.

The Tuyuca language of Brazil and Colombia, like some others, includes a grammatical category to indicate evidentiality, by which speakers must distinguish between what they know and what they have heard.  I propose that all future business of the United States Congress shall be conducted in Tuyuca. Tuyuca has five categories of evidentiality:

Visual              díiga apé-wi

                        I saw him play soccer.

Non-visual      díiga apé-ti

                        I heard the game and him, but I didn’t see it or him.

Apparent        díiga apé-yi

                       I have seen evidence that he played soccer –such as his clothes in the     changing room- but I did not see him play.

Secondhand     díiga apé-yigi

                        I obtained the information that he played soccer from someone else.

Assumed         díiga apé-hiyi

                        It is reasonable to assume that he played soccer.

Crystal, D. (2002). Language Death. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Tuyuca has less than 1,000 speakers and will likely be dead soon.  Of the roughly 6,000 languages in the world, one dies every 10 days. We are in the midst of a linguistic mass extinction event, comparable to the Late Cretaceous extinction event, which eliminated the dinosaurs.  Studying the grammatical category of evidentiality in Tuyuca is like studying a biological creature soon to pass from the face of the earth.

Some readers may recall a prior post on Cross-Linguistic Syntax.  As I’ve read more on this subject, I have come to a better understanding of what’s involved.  Not only is this field vast and important, it is also remarkably difficult.  On the one hand, serious work on the formal structures of human languages requires the analytic mind of a mathematician combined with the semantic sensitivity of a literary critic. On the other hand, this topic is enmeshed with the moral and political issues entailed by linguistic genocide.  Few possess the combined skills of a mathematician, a literary critic, and Mahatma Gandhi.

I’m a scholar of dead languages, so maybe I have a moral obligation to drop what I’m doing and go out to record a currently dying language.  I could learn its syntax, phonology and lexicon while doing what I can to preserve the body of its oral literature.  Maybe those efforts could lead to the preservation of texts as profound and complex as the Greek tragedies I’ve spent my life studying.  But that seems quixotic, and I certainly don’t possess the combination of skills mentioned above.

Paralysis is an expectable response to massive moral disaster.  Economic inequality, our current biological mass extinction event, the Mideast conflict, genocide in Africa, the global war against women; I’m accustomed to thinking there’s nothing important I can possibly do about these things, even though I admire the energetic young people here at my little school in Vermont who are committing themselves to working on these issues.

A few nights ago at dinner, some of the students here who will be managing social justice organizations in the next decades were talking about how some NGO’s may look good on balance sheets, with low overhead costs, but may actually be doing less good than others who have higher overhead.  Those more successful organizations may be finding ways to direct their efforts better toward what counts.  This suggests that a single individual can also try to figure out how his or her abilities might be best employed.  Since teaching is my principle skill, I need to figure out how teaching might in some small way alleviate the moral disaster of the ongoing mass extinction event for languages.

Several of my instructors here have argued that teachers can adopt plurilinguistic pedagogy and that we can undertake language research with our students.  Plurilinguistic pedagogy means using and respecting the linguistic resources students bring into a multilingual classroom.  We can help make students more aware of linguistic diversity and how it is a natural resource we can’t afford to squander.  That doesn’t guarantee that a student will go out and document a dying language of the Pacific Northwest or of New Guinea, but at least it might get out the idea that this non-biological form of genocide is progressing at a disturbingly rapid rate.

We often hear about consciousness-raising as a small but valid contribution to moral disaster.  Teachers are well positioned to play that role.  It feels less direct than going to Vanuatu and recording village elders telling tales of the old days, but we all have to find little ways to do something when we are disturbed by a particular moral problem.  It makes most sense for us to do something to counterbalance the problems we create.  That’s what makes folks purchase carbon offsets; they pay for reforestation in Brazil to compensate for driving an Escalade.  As a teacher of English, I am actively contributing to the global mass extinction event for languages, so the least I can do is to try to raise my students’ consciousness about the value of our perishing language resources.