Remembering Reiner Schürmann

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“Symbols effect the translation of discourse into a course, a path.” 1

It was early in the afternoon on November 21st, 1993 when I entered the expansive loft apartment above Houston Street. The space was full of books and paintings, but what I remember most was the overwhelming sense of absence. The effect was amplified by the art, large canvases by Louis Comtois. The bold vertical panels of color, insistent in their presence, rendered the absence of the painter and his partner, Reiner Schürmann, acute.

That day, however, we had come to collect the books for the Fogelman Library.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Only a year earlier, I was sitting in Reiner Schürmann’s class on Plotinus, wondering how he could wring an encounter with what is originary out of a text that seemed on the surface so dry and systematic. The way he read awoke something in me that remains even now, 23 years later, vibrant and urgent. He taught us how to attend to the depth of a text, to listen for the implicit experience that animates the author and puts us in touch with what is most originary as it finds articulation in the tensions and ambiguities of the writing.

In his essay, “Symbolic Praxis,” Schürmann puts it this way: “the symbol opens up a path whose course makes one experience the origin. The condition of this experience is to ‘live without why,’ to let that which is, be.” 2 This injunction to “live without why” is a reference to one of Reiner’s favorite passages from Meister Eckhart:

“If a man asked life for a thousand years, ‘Why do you live?,’ if it could answer it would only say, ‘I live because I live.’ That is because life lives from its own ground, and gushes forth from its own. Therefore, it lives without Why, because it lives for itself.” 3

For Schürmann, this was an eloquent articulation of the anarchic nature of life and a gesture to a living task: to tarry with that which appears from out of itself for itself, to listen attentively and to attend carefully to the ways beings express themselves. Drawing on the Heideggerian notion of Gelassenheit, Schürmann articulates the condition under which an experience of the origin is possible: an ability “to let that which is, be.”

In a sense, this was the lesson Schürmann had to teach us, and it is a lesson that can only be learned by being lived. The life to which Schürmann’s teaching calls us is symbolic and poetic. As he writes: “The poietics of the symbol gives us something to do. Symbols create. The praxis which they invite us to is not inaugurated by man, but by symbols themselves.” 4 In “Symbolic Praxis,” Schürmann is at his most Benjaminian, analytically focused on four phenomena—feast, song, dwelling, and work—to expose a symbolic value that enjoins action. But the poietics of the symbol, rooted in the capacity to “let that which is, be,” “agrees to be multiple and without conclusion.” 5

To cultivate the habits of symbolic praxis requires a deep and ethical commitment to the plural and a refusal to posit principles of stability which, though perhaps comforting, remain always unjust insofar as they refuse to let that which is, be.

Reiner Schürmann died on August 20, 1993.

The power of his presence at the Graduate Faculty is difficult to convey; the impact of his absence impossible to articulate. For those of us at the New School at the time, Schürmann connected us to a great european tradition of philosophy that extended from Alfred Schutz to Hans Jonas, and most significantly, to Hannah Arendt. He had arrived at the New School in 1975, just prior to Arendt’s death, and had seen the Graduate Faculty Department of Philosophy through a most difficult period in which its continuing existence was constantly in question.

When I arrived in 1991, the Department had entered a period of renewal made possible by a remarkable collaboration between Schürmann, Richard Bernstein, and Agnes Heller. But even as these three dynamic scholars were bringing the Philosophy Department at the New School back to life, Reiner himself was dying of AIDS.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1992 that I was able to summon the courage to take Schürmann’s course, “Modern Philosophies of the Will.” As a teacher, Schürmann was an imposing figure, his unrelenting demand for excellence struck fear in the hearts of his students as we tried to live up to his expectations of us. And yet, however daunting, Reiner was a noble, kind, and caring man.

I loved the tone and rhythm of his voice. You can still hear it in his written prose. To this day, I pick up Broken Hegemonies or Heidegger: On Being and Acting, just to read a few pages so I can hear his voice again. This voice is heard too in the volume of the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal dedicated to his memory. In addition to essays by his friends and colleagues—among them Jacques Derrida, Rémi Brague, Robert Bernasconi, Agnes Heller, Vittorio Hösle, Dominique Janicaud, and John Sallis—you will find three essays of his and an account of his two-hour conversation with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg on March 11, 1966. A twenty-four year old Schürmann had written to Heidegger in part to press him on the question as to whether in the experience of the gift, of the granting of being, there is “an experience of saying ‘thou’.” 6 Schürmann’s account of the meeting is compelling, but what strikes me most about it is that his description of Heidegger as a reassuring teacher who had a tremendous ability to listen is itself an apt description of Schürmann.

By the fall of 1992, when I took both of his courses, one on Plotinus, the other on Meister Eckhart, the vibrant figure who had taught us in the spring had become noticeably diminished. Yet he never tired of teaching, and he always had time for his students. I remember late that semester going to his office hours and timidly knocking on his closed office door. I knew he was there because I had seen him walking into the building, an exhausted figure against a cold and grey New York autumn sky. After a few minutes of rustling, the door opened, and he welcomed me with a rye smile, saying: “you now have access to a rested mind.”

Less than a year later, the man himself would be put to rest, but his thinking lives on in the work of his students and in the life of the mind articulated so eloquently in those silent books we came to collect that late autumn afternoon in November 1993.

Originally posted on the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal blog.

N.B. In looking for traces of Schürmann on the web, I found this audio recording of Reiner’s Introduction to Medieval Philosophy delivered in the Fall of 1991.

Cultivating an Online Scholarly Presence

By | Presentation: Interactive, Presentation: Other, Presentations, The Graduate Experience, Vita | 5 Comments

Graduate students are often confronted with conflicting advice about how much of their academic work they should share publicly online.

Although there are good reasons to consider carefully what one shares and how, graduate students who do not intentionally cultivate an online scholarly presence will increasingly be at a disadvantage both professionally and academically.

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Expanding the Humanities PhD Market

By | The Graduate Experience, The Long Road | One Comment

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article Susan Welch and I wrote about the data the College has collected since 1996 on the placement of our graduate students in the social sciences and the humanities. In it we focus on how the 2008 recession affected placements for our humanities PhDs.

The short story, as mentioned in the article, is that “the impact of the 2008 recession was far more severe on our humanities PhDs than it was on their counterparts in the social sciences.”

We said that the trend away from tenure-line positions toward more non-tenure line positions is “worrisome,” but it is of course not surprising. Major colleges and universities, including ours, increasingly rely on fixed-term lecturers to provide high quality and dedicated teaching for our undergraduates. In the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, we have sought to ensure that our lecturers receive good benefits, are integrated into the academic life of the College, and have fair, renewable contracts.

Still, the deeper question in relation to the placement of Humanities PhDs is how to respond to a situation in which the market of tenure-line positions for which we train students continues to be anemic. We didn’t have space to address this in the article, nor would it have been appropriate in that context.

However, there are a number of strategies we have adopted in the College to give our Humanities PhDs experiences that can help expand the markets in which they might more effectively compete.

First, we have developed the Humanities in a Digital Age initiative in collaboration with the University Libraries. Here is how we articulate its purpose and value:

The HDA initiative was created to enhance the research and public profiles of humanities faculty in the College and the University Libraries, open new opportunities for high caliber graduate placements in the humanities, and enrich the undergraduate experience by providing undergraduate students access to and support for cutting-edge humanities research.

By combining digital literacies with advanced humanities degrees, we hope to open new markets for our Humanities PhDs. These students bring advanced communication, analytic and critical capacities to their digital work and learn how to effectively use technology to build community, work collaboratively and engage a wider public beyond the academy.

Second, we have created a Graduate Internship Program for our social science and humanities PhD students. The program is designed to provide PhD students with an opportunity to learn more about the work of the wider university and to develop a wider range of marketable skills. This is how we put it on the website:

Recognizing that graduate students in the humanities and social sciences have highly sought-after writing, communication, and quantitative skills that can enrich the operations of units across the university, the Liberal Arts Graduate Internship Program (GRIP) is designed to connect graduate students in the liberal arts with those university units that can most benefit from their expertise.

We are working with units across the university to create a variety of these internship experiences. The hope is that such experiences will enable Humanities PhDs who obtain a tenure-line appointment to become more effective young faculty because they will have a better sense of how a university operates. But we also want to open new opportunities to those students who, by choice or necessary, pursue a career off the tenure-track.

Third, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State has recently become a member of the Humanities Without Walls consortium. One of the main initiatives of the consortium is to help pre-doctoral students in the humanities pursue meaningful careers outside the academy.

Finally, speaking of alternative academic careers in the humanities, the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) is hosting a symposium this spring on #Alt-Ac careers on March 3rd, 2014. I am looking forward to presenting on a panel about #Alt-Ac careers in the Liberal Arts.

All of these initiatives, however, are designed to augment and support our ongoing attempt to educate creative, incisive, and visionary scholars in the humanities.

A Domain of Your Own

By | The Graduate Experience, The Long Road | 5 Comments

As a graduate student in the digital age, you need a domain of your own.

First of all, you will be Googled, and when you are, your domain should appear early in the results as the fulcrum of a carefully cultivated online identity.

Second, in order to leverage the power of the social web to cultivate a community of scholars interested in your work, you need a domain to which to point your friends on Facebook, your followers on Twitter, and those who have circled you on Google+.

In thinking about your online presence as a graduate student or academic, it is helpful to conceive of it as a kind of ecosystem in which various elements work together to offer the public a picture of who you are and the work you are doing.

A canonical website – a domain of your own – should provide the essential nutrients of your online ecosystem. To create one, register your name or, if you have a relatively common name, register a unique name that identifies you across a wide spectrum of websites. It is not too expensive to register a domain name with a service like Blue Host, for example. Even if you decide to host your site somewhere else, it is important to register your domain so you have some control over your online identity.

Once you have a website setup under your domain, consider it the place in which you document your research, write reflectively on your scholarship, and invite others to discover your work. You might also use the site to curate content about a hobby of interest so as to give people a more well rounded sense of who you are. At minimum, anything you would put on your CV should be added your website and amplifed through various social media channels.

Depending on your area of research, one social media channel might be more important than another. There is a robust and influential community of Digital Humanists on Twitter, for example; while Academic.edu seems to be emerging as a kind of Linkedin for academics.

In this regard, Google Plus has a special role to play. Even if you are not very active on Google Plus, it is worth creating a profile and posting your work there because Google is beginning to integrate G+ into its core business operations, and specifically search. Once you create a G+ profile, you should link it to your domain. This allows Google to associate your G+ profile with the content you author on your site so they are able to serve information about you up with links they present in search results. When it’s set up, this is what is looks like in Google Search:

Chris Long Author G+

Here you can see the way information about you as author is connected with content you wrote to authenticate both the value of the link and your status as author. Once this connection is established, you will be better able to control the content associated with your name when a potential employer or an interested student or colleague Googles you to find out more about your work.

Resources

Google Logo

The Googled Graduate Student

By | The Graduate Experience, The Long Road | 4 Comments

It is going to happen. Maybe not today or this week, but eventually, you will be Googled.

I am not talking about being Googled by an old friend interested in what you might be up to these days, but about the kind of Googling academics do when we are interested in learning more about the work of a young scholar.

Often, of course, this happens during a job search, but it can also happen in the course of your graduate education as you cultivate new professional relationships through disciplinary organizations and public appearances at conferences.

When it happens, you will want content you created to appear early and often in the search results.

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Twitter Owl by Codiew

The Tweeting Graduate Student

By | Technology, The Graduate Experience, The Long Road | 10 Comments

They will tell you it is too dangerous, that you’ll say something stupid and never be hired.

They’ll say it is too fast, too superficial, too full of snark to be of any value to anyone who aspires to serious scholarship.

They’ll say it’s a waste of time, that it’s noise that will distract you from your research and dissertation.

But don’t listen to the naysayers who steer you away from Twitter and other modes of social media communication.

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Time Management for Graduate Students

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One of the most difficult things for new Graduate Students to manage effectively is their time. This is in large part because graduate study has built into it large segments of unstructured time that can easily be wasted. One of the most important skills graduate students can learn early in their career is how to structure their time effectively.
I have gathered here some suggestions that might help students take control of their time so that it can be used most productively.

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