Teaching and Gongfu

I’m teaching five sections of a General Education Introduction to Philosophy course this semester and I’m grateful for this 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu) practice. I am revisiting Peimin Ni’s writings about Confucius and to him I am grateful and will make liberal references.

Before I decided to go to college I was fortunate to study Shaolin Dao with Master Michael Reid and his teacher, Gary Grooms.  It was in that martial context that I was first told that “kung fu” doesn’t refer to fighting but means something like “time invested.” I credit the training I received from Master Reid and my peers with my future academic successes (such as they are).

Peimin Ni helps us understand the phrase even more:

“Originally used to describe human labor during the third and fourth centuries, the term gongfu was later developed into a locus from which a cluster of meanings emerged, referring to the time and effort spent on something, the ability to accomplish intended results, and the result of such effort and abilities. Consequently it came to be used broadly for all the arts of life that require cultivated abilities and effective skills, be it the arts of cooking, speaking, dancing, dealing with human relationships, or the art of living in general.” (Ni, xii)

“Every Day Is a Good Day,”
Fukushima Keido Roshi, ca 2003.

Given my large teaching load, I have had course design anxieties. I’ve been trying to get my classes more accessible because accessibility is a federal right and I am encountering a large number of students so I am statistically more likely to work with folks who will need accommodations. But, really, everyone benefits from a more intentionally accessible course. My course is primarily concerned with habits, especially habits of citizenship (I bookend the semester with Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education).

As I have pursued a more accessible course design I am encountering unforeseen benefits from working with the accommodations that my students request.  Specifically I am having to think more clearly about what is important and how I can best communicate that.

The class I’ve built treats writing as an iterative process, the assignments are repetitive and provide opportunities for the students to practice metacognitive skills (i.e. they’re learning about how they learn, thinking about how they read, writing about how they write).

For example, before each class meeting my students are required to have read primary source material and to have generated at least one well-written question about that material so that we can discuss the reading in class.

To help my students craft their questions I first assign them to read, and subsequently bring to every class meeting, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ handout “Some Notes On How To Ask A Good Question About Theory That Will Provoke Conversation And Further Discussion From Your Colleagues.”

Writing one question for each class is a low-stakes assignment that encourages my students to critically engage with the assigned readings, rather than riffing on a theme they’ve noticed in their reading and asking questions that might make sense to them but tend to lead class discussion into areas that aren’t necessarily useful for the class as a whole.

I then require that my students submit a reading outline in which I ask them to paraphrase, in one or two sentences, each paragraph of an assigned reading and then write a sentence or two in which they tell me where the author’s argument “clicked” for them.

When I introduce this assignment to my students I tell them that this is an assignment designed to get them thinking about how they read and retain the information they are reading. I tell them that this assignment will benefit them if they practice this kind of note-taking, no matter what the course they are in and regardless of their major (although they should all want to be Philosophy majors). The assignment contributes 10% of their final grade, so it’s not a massive project but it’s also not a trifle.

Like this metacognitive reading outline, I follow-up this assignment with an argument outline wherein my students practice tracing out the premises/evidence/reasons/presuppositions that support the arguments made by the authors in their assigned readings. If philosophy has a method, (of course it does and I juxtapose the methods used in science and religion to clarify the differences) this would be it, I tell them.

If in my teaching I only went up to the lectern and spoke about my opinions and recited my (granted, hard-earned) knowledge, I don’t think I’d be doing my students, my university, my state (I teach at a state university), my profession, or myself any favors. I’d be going through the motions but education can be a transformative process when teaching and learning happen in the appropriate manner. In this way I am thinking about what Cheng Yi (1033-1107) said during the Song dynasty, “Nowadays people no longer know how to read. When they read the Analects, for instance, they are the same kind of people before they read the book and after they read the book. This is no different from not having read the book.”

Zhu Xi resonates with Cheng here when he states:

“In reading the Analects and the Mencius one should not merely aim at understanding the theory and the meanings of the text. One should make careful reflection and put the teachings into practice [….] If a reader can relate the sages’ sayings to his own person and examine them through his own embodied practice, his effort will surely not be spent in vain. Every day will bring him the result (gong 功) of the day. If one only takes the books as collections of sayings, it would be merely the learning of the mouth and the ears.” (Zhu, Du Lunyu Mengzi Fa, 3)

The work I’m asking my students to do means I must do a kind of work that that is really interesting to me and puts me into a relationship with the readings and my office that is often unexpected and rewarding.

I am really grateful to my students for meeting me like this, so that we’re both putting in the effort, we’re practicing a mode of gongfu.

Thinking about Shenkui

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group for folks who are interested in discussing Ruist 儒學 philosophy and it’s been very stimulating. I’m glad to be among that group because there are so many very knowledgable and thoughtful folks there that I am sure I will become a better scholar and person from their influence and counsel.

Today I added some thoughts to a group discussion of Bryan Van Norden’s article “Confucius on Gay Marriage.” My contribution does not directly address the matters that Bryan puts forward, but rather addresses a comment made by a member of the group. The essence of their argument is that homosexual behavior goes againse too many fundamental Ruist principles to be consonant with the Ru Dao. The person presents several reasons why they think this is the case (to which many of the group members have provided useful counterpoints) but the point that I will address is their contention that homosexual sex practices are incongruent with the cosmic patterning (li 理) of sexual activity, and contradicts the operations of the world (tiandi 天地) and the ultimate principle governing the transactions of the cosmos (taiji 太極). The person to whom I am responding below argues that both the oral and anal modes of sexual intercourse are irrational (I assume they mean from the Confucian perspective) because these modes do not “fulfill the dao (道, the path or way, among other translations) of the body.”

Most of what I wrote in response is taken from my dissertation, which I am in the process of revising for publication.

I am not so sure that the anal and oral modes of sexual activity are understood to be irrational to the dao of the body as you characterize it.

We see a variety of body techniques developed throughout Chinese history with the goal of yangsheng 養生, prolonging one’s life. Perhaps the Daoist tradition is more typically understood as pioneering these techniques (because an emphasis on translating works that demonstrated to a Western audience that the Chinese were also scientifically-inclined, but that is a whole other thread), but I believe there is evidence within the Ruist tradition of this concern as well.

The dao of the body is what?

The Neijing Tu 內經圖, an “inner-landscape” diagram

From approximately the third century BCE, the Huangdi Neijing 黃帝內經 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon of Medicine) advanced a model of the human body as a dynamic system sustained by qi 氣. The interactions of the blood, saliva, pulses, breath, and seminal fluids that circulate within the body, churn and transduce qi 氣, thereby nourishing the body. All expressions of the human organism, physical form, mental life and emotional states, are manifestations of the workings of qi 氣. Having been born with a finite amount of qi 氣 which animates our organs and the cosmos at large, each person must take steps to ensure that the qi 氣 accumulated within us is able to circulate properly.

We see this concern in Bryan’s translation of the Mengzi:

Mengzi replied [to Gongsun Chou], “I understand doctrines. I am good at cultivating my flood-like qi 氣.
Gongsun Chou continued, “May I ask what is meant by ‘flood-like qi 氣’?”
Mengzi replied, “It is difficult to explain. It is a qi 氣 that is supremely great and supremely unyielding. If one cultivates it with uprightness and does not harm it, it will fill up the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a qi 氣 that harmonizes with righteousness and the Way. Without these, it starves. It is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one’s actions leave one’s heart unsatisfied, it will starve.”

From Zhongyong 中庸 27 (Ames and Hall translation) we gather a sense of the cosmic implications of pursuing the Ruist path:

“Great indeed is the sage’s proper path (shengren zhi dao 聖人之道). So vast and expansive, it propagates and nurtures all things; so towering, it reaches up to the skies. So great indeed!”

Let’s consider Zhongyong 1:

When joy and anger, sorrow and happiness have not yet arisen is called “nascent equilibrium;” when they have arisen and are brought into the proper focus, call it harmony. Activating this focus and equilibrium is the great root of the world; harmony is the advancing of the proper way in the world.

With it’s focus on psychosomatic training and regulation we can understand the Zhongyong as a technical manual for the prolongation of life by avoiding xulao 虛勞 which results from experiencing too strongly our emotions or otherwise being overly stimulated.

Unlike the Occidental tradition’s council toward moderation as a prophylaxis against immoral accumulation, the Chinese tradition councils moderation as a means of avoiding depletion (xulao 虛勞). Whereas the brain came to be the privileged human organ in the Occident—seat of the soul, housing the faculties that distinguished the human animal from all other animals—in the Chinese medical tradition the brain was a relatively minor organ whose primary function was to act as a sort of catalytic converter for qi 氣. As a minor organ, the brain has since ancient times held an important role in Chinese pharmacological, religious practices, and sexological texts. Each of these bodies of knowledge seek to harmonize the functioning of the human body with the cosmos so as to prolong life (yangsheng 養生). Key to this project is the cultivation of habits that ensure the optimal circulation of qi 氣. Qi 氣 is concentrated in one’s seminal fluids (jing 精), and is stored within one’s shen 腎 (kidneys), by far the most important of the central organs in the human body.

In the Chinese medical tradition if one needs increased vitality, this is possible by circulating one’s seminal fluid through the shen 腎 circuit, filtering through the marrow and brain (the process is called huanjing bunao 還精補腦). By engaging in sexual commerce but refraining from ejaculation, the skillful practitioner accumulates an energized seminal fluid that transforms into qi 氣. This process acquired the more poetic name “making the Yellow River flow backwards” (huanghe niliu 黃河逆流), wherein this energized qi 氣 ascends up to the brain and expands one’s spirit (shen 神), reducing the deleterious effects of long life, understood as the depletion of one’s qi 氣 over time.

From at least the Han, if not the Zhou period, sexual union between man and woman has been understood as an arena for potential mutual benefit, promoting longevity among the participants and the practices of the bedchamber were said to be the climax of the human emotional life, “touching on the hem of dao 道 itself.”

During coitus a man should not only prevent ejaculation because it contains their essential yangqi 陽氣 fluid, and in addition to the pleasure of the sexual act, but the man should be attempting to induce an orgasm in his female partner so that he can absorb her yinqi 陰氣. Producing this he can thereby fortify the circulation of his own shen 腎 circuit. In this way we can understand why the seventeenth century medical and sexological authority, Zhang Jingyue’s opus Jingyue Quanshu 景岳全書 has a section on the techniques for enhancing sexual activity with the title Gufang Bazhen 古方八陣 (Strengthening the Battle Array) obviously opening us to the question of how the practitioners understood who or what the combatants were, their partners or themselves. There is a robust tradition extolling the mutual benefit of what Needham calls coitus thesauratus: where men “hosted” women seeking to replenish their qi 氣.

When excessive qi 氣 is lost, the person becomes lethargic, weak, infertile, their hairs won’t grow properly, and so on. They are wasting away (xulao 虛勞). The presence of these symptoms suggests that the person’s kidneys (shen 腎) are not functioning properly, and it is understood that the kidneys are not functioning properly because they are not full of jing 精. The resulting condition is called shenkui 腎虧 (literally, kidney depletion), and is attested to from the sixteenth century. Today the phrase is commonly understood to mean impotence.

What I Love about Teaching Critical Thinking through Writing

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course on critical issues in contemporary art. This class is the first course of a two-course sequence of “Critical Thinking through Writing” (CTW) classes that all majors at our R1 Research University have to develop for their students.

I love teaching these CTW courses because this course is often the first theory-intensive curriculum these students have undertaken. Although that means that many of the students I work with are frustrated with the materials we engage with, it’s also a course that generates a lot of self-reflection and critical conversations.

This course is also deeply satisfying for me because of the students I work with. The majority of the students I work with are nonwhite, and many are from working class families, and are first-generation families. Our university has improved its graduation rate by twenty-two percent over the last decade through the implementation of a variety of advising programs. Not only has the overall graduation rate improved, but our university now graduates more black students each year than any other U.S. college.

That I get to introduce a range of philosophical perspectives and theories to a group of students who are not theory-oriented is a challenge I relish. Not only are they often not theory-oriented, but because they are artists, they are also often not inclined to express their thinking through text, preferring other media as their primary mode of expression. I welcome this challenge because this is my opportunity to make what is assumed to be an abstract and strictly academic affair into something applicable to a student’s lived experience and directly contributing to their aspirations.

That I am also in the position to encourage people of color and from working class homes to “do theory” is a rare opportunity as well because these students are often absent from philosophy programs in graduate school and then in professorial roles. It is in our class that we find more robust vocabularies for describing our lived experiences, for articulating our aspirations, and in this class we often see for the first time how the work we do in our city interacts with a global system of exchange. And it is in this context that I am able to “tarry, to linger with the ways in which [I] perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which [I am] racist,” as my fellow Atlantan, George Yancy has recently counseled.

This is not to say that I lead a struggle session (批鬥會) with my students. Rather, I am presented, daily, with the opportunity to expand myself beyond the habitual practices of sociality that have historically enabled a host of iniquities to persists among us. Core to my Confucian (or Ruist 儒學) practice is the application of what I have studied and moral self-cultivation through wholehearted engagement with my community. Cultivating critical writing skills with students has been an exceptional mode of self-exploration and -expansion for me in this regard.

As a longtime resident of Atlanta and someone with great affection for the area, I feel a special obligation to be true to the work of the people who fought for equality in my country because this is the home of SNCC, of Dr. King, and it is from here that so much of the Civil Rights Movement radiates.

In our Critical Thinking through Writing course we learn about audiences, we learn about and discuss the limits of representation, we grapple with the differences between democracy and republic, and we find ways to connect our interior lives to the world-out-there in a manner that only writing can. Writing operates in a way that neither speaking, nor painting, nor manipulating other materials simply cannot. In writing we find ourselves as someone greater than we had anticipated.