Teaching-off-Campus (In Support of a Strike)

Video from Kare 11 News - U Faculty move classes to support strikers

[Video about the strike, interviewed me and a student after class, from KARE 11 News]

About 1/3 of our secretaries, technical workers, and some others have gone on-strike at the University of Minnesota – seeking higher, more reasonable wages. The administration continues to resist…

I’m a (tenured) Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. Given that the secretaries are my co-workers, friends, supports, I (and a number of others – professors and graduate instructors – this all began on the first day of classes this year) have decided to teach our classes nearby, but off-campus. My location is a couple of blocks from the original University classroom site: University Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

This course is “Issues in Cultural Pluralism” and has over 40 students, mostly juniors and seniors; almost all of whom seem pleased to be off-campus (a few dropped the course, for whatever reasons). The church room is quite informal, and helps us to engage in the kind of active dialogues which enrich my teaching style.

With a few comments about the strike – especially noting that the strikers are mostly women – an aspect of the primary questions of Cultural Pluralism: who are we, who “makes” it in America, who doesn’t do so well; history, why, when did women become “citizens?” – answer 1920, with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we have been actively discussing the course subjects.

The course is “framed” by an argument between Aristotle in his “Politics” and Thomas Jefferson in the “Declaration of Independence.” Aristotle claimed that “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.” – the historical justification for monarchy. Jefferson stated that “all men are created equal” – democracy, not monarchy, for the first time in history. I remind the students that America is framed in slavery – the 13 to 15th Amendments “ended” it the first time; then “Separate-but-Equal” in 1896 until 1954 and Brown vs. the Board of Education, and now the huge numbers of African-American (mostly young males) incarcerated by drug “possession” – What and why? – we ask.

So: ideas from history, who gets/deserves what and why, monarchy vs. democracy…to the Constitution: “We the people…” and its evolution to include most everyone until the complications of today. But Amerindian people, African-Americans, Latinos…some others still are excluded, profiled, etc. We are in a “money-bubble,” a new “Gilded Age.” How to see the present, to locate ourselves, to work toward continuing democracy in a most changing world. Immigration and its history; eugenics, Hitler, many of the ideas were developed right here!

The movement of classes off-campus has been resisted – scolded, even – with the claim that we are not doing our proper jobs. I respond that the U. of Minnesota has been a “Land-Grant” University, and ask if we are abandoning that idea and moving toward whatever buys prestige and big bucks, credentials more than critical thought and ideas. I hope that students in this course learn much, especially toward critical thought of how and where we are…and where they will take us in their futures.

I quote the lovely phase embossed high up on the central meeting ground of campus: Northrup Auditorium – and wonder why it is not included in our current “strategic plan” for the University:

University of Minnesota


Founded in the Faith that We are Ennobled by Understanding


Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth


Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State

  • I can’t see the problems you mentioned in the set-up of this page. But since I’m here anyway, I might as well try to think.

    There’s a lot something you could call either nuance or inconsistency in Aristotle’s treatment of “natural” rulers and slaves. For example, at 1332b in the Politics, there’s this passage:

    “Now, if some men excelled others in the same degree in which gods and heroes are supposed to excel mankind in general, so that the superiority of the governors was undisputed and patent to their subjects, it would clearly be better that the one class should rule and the other serve. But since this is unattainable, and kings have no marked superiority over their subjects, such as Scylax affirms to be found among the Indians, it is obviously necessary on many grounds that all the citizens alike should take their turn of governing and being governed.”

    The Athenians were much more serious about giving everybody a chance to govern than we are, and they went so far as to select the presiding officers of the Assembly by a lottery among the “tribes.” This got Socrates into serious trouble once upon a time, as he describes it in the Apology:

    “The only office of state which I ever held, O men of Athens, was that of senator: the tribe Antiochis, which is my tribe, had the presidency at the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae; and you proposed to try them in a body, contrary to law, as you all thought afterwards; but at the time I was the only one of the Prytanes who was opposed to the illegality, and I gave my vote against you; and when the orators threatened to impeach and arrest me, and you called and shouted, I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death.”

    I’m not sure we wouldn’t be better off with a similar system, something like William Buckley’s legendary preference for being governed by the first hundred names in the Boston phone book instead of the faculty of Harvard. I have a slight prejudice in favor of Harvard over the random sample, but compared to the hundred Senators actually running the show, I like the phone book.

  • Although it’s always fun to argue back and forth with Harvey Sarles, I’m going to shift gears and deliver a little testimonial instead.

    Harvey Sarles is the deepest thinker among all the professors I encountered in a long and peripatetic career as a university drop-in, from the University of Minnesota to the University of Paris, and from Harvard to Berkeley.

    It took me about fifteen years to figure this out. My own obtuseness is only at fault for a relatively small fraction of this delay.

    Although the Sarlesian classroom process has some superficial ressemblance to the “Socratic method” of free and open discussion, the connection between Socrates and professor Sarles is actually much darker and more negative. This is the Socrates who says “All I know is that I know nothing,” and “Human wisdom is worth little or nothing.” The bright side of this ressemblance is a relentless curiosity that isn’t overwhelmed by the horrible difficulty of understanding the least little thing.

    Harvey Sarles is a professor who will make you realize that you don’t know what your tongue is doing in your mouth. This is a level of “aporia” that even Socrates never attains! Meno doesn’t know how to answer the next question, but Harvey Sarles takes you around a corner where all you can do is gargle.

    Most of his students quickly forget these moments that so closely ressemble the dream-sensation of falling through infinite space. Who can stand to think that the unthinkable is so intimately a part of everything we are? What persists is an awareness of the abyss under what we think we know, where consciousness floats like a toy boat over thousands of fathoms of dark blue water.

    Harvey Sarles has less talent for bullshitting than it seems possible any intelligent person could have. His words rise to the surface like heavy bubbles, and burst unpredictably in all directions. Mr. Nietzsche, allow me to introduce you to my neighbor’s Down’s Syndrome baby!

    Former students inherit his hopeless inability to bullshit. A queasy abyss quickly opens under every line of facile patter. But they also inherit a sense of the intersection of everything with everything else in an infinite number of dimensions, and they are the worst audience you could ever inflict on any of the real bullshitters of the world.

    The world according to Harvey Sarles isn’t much like what most people think of as an “education.” It’s a difficult way to think and be, more like a Cloud of Unknowing than the latest committee conglomeration of cores and electives.

    All it can offer by way of compensation is an incomparable depth.