All posts by Phil Lagogiannis

About Phil Lagogiannis

Phil Lagogiannis teaches physics at Dawson College, where he is also active in the teachers' union.

McNuggets (9) of Wisdom, or: “It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims”

1091. Be authentic. Do you. Don’t pretend, ever. Be in a state of absolute self-knowledge – like a self-aware MacBook Pro.

2. Travel. There is something new under the sun after all, and tourists are never dilettantes.

3. Stop being so critical about everything. It will make bad movies easier to bear and likelier to get the green light, so it’s win-win.

4. Find a purpose in life. There is no greater achievement for a human being than to become a tool.

5. Stop ruminating on your dilemmas. Thinking is so last century.

6. Network. It’s the way computers communicate, and look how efficient they are.

7. You must be able to love yourself before you can love another. And it is unthinkable that loving another might bring you to love yourself.

8. Don’t care so much about what other people think. You’re the only person who really matters, and the world revolves around your life and what you do with it.

9. You can always choose happiness. Because happiness is just some kind of chemical reaction, anyway. See #8.

—Phil Lagogiannis

On Doing

magritteI don’t do very much.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned to forgive myself for this. Sometimes I feel I might even embrace myself as someone who abstains from doing things, but that nascent possibility is dutifully accosted by the effort it demands. Everything I see or hear, anything anyone ever tells me, is always pushing me to do the opposite of what I think I should be doing. There is no way that I will ever be able to do nothing, and yet deep down there is nothing I want more than to do nothing at all.

My obstacle is the world.

Despite any pretensions we might have as a species, life usually succeeds at getting us to admit that we, as individuals, are a part of what we call world. As a part of something which is only insofar as it is doing, or having done, or going to do, we should expect to be doing things. If we really did nothing, then we’d be nothing; and the world, being not-nothing, couldn’t include someone who is nothing.

I admit that doing nothing may sound boring at first blush, but it doesn’t necessarily involve abstaining from doing anything at all. For example, breathing ought to count as something. But breathing isn’t always particularly relevant, and neither are many other activities. I issue ‘relevant’ here not as the parcel of some cog-in-the-machine capitalist paranoia: being relevant is doing anything linking you to any agenda. If I want to be a painter and I take an art class, that’s very relevant of me.

Accepting this premise makes doing nothing seem elusive. I would go further. Doing nothing is nothing short of impossible. Achieving it for a lifetime is something I doubt even Buddhist monks could fathom. It’s challenging to make yourself irrelevant when having a self-image implies the opposite. The truth is that I have an agenda, and I’m nothing without it. But doing nothing seems like the sensible alternative to performing in the world’s newest song and dance. It’s the only show in town, and I’m nothing if not an actor.

For the intrepid, the most straightforward path to becoming approximately nothing lies in eliminating any connections you have to any sort of network of relevance. From a practical standpoint, this is hardly feasible. The first step to becoming precisely nothing would at the very least be to die, but then you wouldn’t be around to profit from it. The joy of irrelevance is in the magnanimity of nothingness. Nothingness has given everything up – it has nothing left in it.

On the other hand, reducing your overall relevance is not so difficult. The problem is that the world would rather you didn’t. Its progress depends on you, just as your standard of living depends on it. The world is progress, a mercurial network of relevance. Its brand doesn’t always make things better, it just makes things happen: it’s the value-blind impetus that keeps the news new. So it should come as no surprise to us that the world will ceaselessly present us with new things to make, do, see, hear, explore, buy, steal, and eat. But we can turn it down. Not every single time, but more often than is our custom. Our agendas don’t need to be as numerous or as grandiose as they might be right now. We probably won’t save the world. And I wonder whether the world really needs saving in the way we think it does. Maybe that’s just its underhanded way of enticing us into doing.

I’m not advocating for becoming apathetic, isolated, and lazy. Really, I’d settle for just lazy. Laziness is maligned, but it’s misunderstood. Authentically lazy people have discerned the importance of nothing. I’d be surprised if they were any happier than the most relevant among us; I’d just expect them to be more comfortable with the unhappiness sown through our common roots.

If you’re warming to the idea but you fear for your social existence, doing nothing can be a community event. Everybody already understands this, and teenagers best of all. This is why chilling is their priority. Stop doing; just chill.

My friends and I used to spend our chill time devising ways to cheat the rules condemning us to nothing. I believed then that gaining more freedom would make me happier. Instead, confusion and bewilderment are increasingly present facts of my freer life. Happiness is ever more oblique, a treacly little paradox. For a while I thought that this might be a sign of depression, but then I sobered from my drunken scientism. The more I do, the more unsatisfied I become – but I still want to do, always and presumably forever.

I guess I just realized that doing things takes from me. It never fills me up the way I expect it to.

I used to dream of travelling the world. I wanted it to saturate my essence. Now that I’m older, all I want is to do nothing in as many places as I can. I have no desire to skydive or to see every Rembrandt. I feel like I should want to do these things because people keep telling me that they are amazing, but I remain nonplussed. I drift to desolate places instead: deserts and large open seas, mountains and forests. The fewer the things there are to do, the better. ­­

I don’t want to be relevant in the Swiss Alps. I want to recline into their enormous irrelevance. I want their still-water lakes to reflect my own irrelevance, because beneath it all I have always suspected that I am irrelevant and I am beginning to accept this suspicion as truth. By irrelevant I don’t mean worthless or useless. I mean it literally. I might get myself caught up in all sorts of networks of relevance, just like everyone else does and has to. But relevant is not what I am deep down. Deep down I am nothing. And so I like to do nothing as much as possible.

—Phil Lagogiannis

In Praise of Ye

Two capsule reviews, with apologies to Robert Christgau

The Life of Pablo (2016)

Troll deleterHaving recently trolled the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and a certain Google co-founder, Kanye seems poised to become the Black Lives Matter movement’s answer to Donald Trump. Pathologically incapable of doing as he’s told, he’s made misogyny more plentiful on TLOP than anywhere else in his corpus. But as the recent father and apparently dedicated husband that he is, I don’t buy any of it. Misogyny is to Ye as homophobia was to Eminem in the early 00s, and now just as much as then people don’t seem to catch on. (Hint: it’s a middle finger to the coercively totalizing PC discourse of safe spaces and ‘n word’-style censorship by omission, a phenomenon marvelously satirized by the last season of South Park.)  Here Kanye finds himself in decent form: he achieves sublimity at the outset by dint of some Chance grace, unleashes a moment of pure joy while sampling “Bam Bam” on “Famous”, and establishes his allegorical bona fides on “Wolves”. In contrast to the compressive tension which wound Yeezus into a sobering sonic boom, there is significant dithering here – and even a few forgettable tracks. Thankfully, Ye’s sense of humor thrives in the self-aware self-sendup “I Love Kanye”. And he’s not so much out of his mind as he is hell-bent on pretending that he is. In the alleged megalomaniac’s own words: “Everybody gon’ say something / I’d be worried if they said nothing.” B+

 

Yeezus (2013)

yeezus-iphone-6-660x1199Hailed as manifestly id, Yeezy’s zero-fucks-given art album has plenty of ego – not to mention superego to spare, as when he convincingly fuses the political and the personal on “New Slaves” by calling out the CCA and then promising to fuck a shareholder’s spouse. Less a primitive attack than a chest-beating demonstration of the indomitable spirit he so luxuriously represents, this kind of sexual braggadocio is common through the album’s terse ten tracks but never feels trite. Abrasive at first blush, the strident production tricks gradually reveal an aesthetic which sonically unites 808s & Heartbreaks and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – except that the latter’s excesses and the former’s bathos are here muted in favor of darker, more confrontational, more contrarian excursions reified by the numerous descents into dancehall. As the rhythmic and melodic turns and screeching halts unravel, Justin Vernon’s signature Auto-Tuned pleas provide the link, like the Holy Ghost beckoning to Yeezus. A

—Phil Lagogiannis

What Lasts in Teaching?

A reflection from a young contract teacher

by Phil Lagogiannis, Dawson College

This essay originally appeared in issue 524 of the Owl Hoots, the Dawson Teachers’ Union newsletter, in October 2014. It has since been edited.

As teachers, we constantly engage the question of what it means to teach: it inflects our work even if we have never asked it out loud. Our practice is itself a kind of articulation of the question, even if it only flirts with giving an answer through its method.

What lasts in teaching? I don’t mean to ask, “What do our students take away from us?” but rather, “What about teaching remains present over the semesters, over the years?” As a young teacher I can only outline a possible answer, but maybe you will be willing to share your insight upon hearing mine.

A related question we could first ponder is, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” I can speak to this question as a teacher of the precarious sort, but I can only speculate about what it might be like to be a permanent teacher working at the same college.

For example, I have recently come off a regular winter semester composed of two night courses. I felt that I was capable of teaching those courses at a level consistent with my own evolving standards. I have only just now begun to teach a summer night course. This course runs for the usual 75 hours, but it does so over seven weeks instead of over a regular semester’s fifteen. The enrolment currently sits at thirty-four students. To an administrator, it would be reasonable to conclude that my summer looks a lot like teaching two regular semester classes at once: a nearly full workload. Officially, this determination would depend on various factors outlined in a calculation protocol which unfortunately does not apply to contract teachers.

Nevertheless, I feel capable of teaching this course at a level consistent with my current standards. Its 10.75 hours per week translate to 38.7 work hours under the Employment Insurance (EI) Act. This is a special provision for contract teachers which recognizes the value of a single teaching hour as 3.6 hours once preparation, grading, and support are factored in. This seems to be altogether fair to me based on my own experience, but there is no parallel college policy. Since money talks, our high hourly rate reflects this de facto if not de jure.

From what I gather, for contract teachers classes are indiscriminately identical regardless of student enrolment. Maximum workloads are also not ideas we should be entertaining lest we compromise our job security. These are the only conclusions I can reach based on the fact that I was offered a second course, running in parallel but during the day. If I were to accept it, I would be taking on an EI-equivalent workload of 99 hours per week. To an administrator, this should look like a breach of at least one common sense principle: there are only 168 hours in a week, and about 70 of them are spent sleeping and eating. Despite this fact, I was encouraged to take on the extra course in order to secure my position in the hiring pool. If I were to oblige, the ensuing time constraints would require me to lower my standards. Permanent teachers are fortunately exempt from having to make this call.

Would it be worthwhile to accept the work? Some might argue that contract teaching is a stepping stone to permanent teaching. This is no longer the case in many departments given the size of the Continuing Education program and the relative dearth of permanent posts compared to the growing number of contract teachers. Others might suggest that the work is challenging but that the financial reward is due compensation. This is false: a permanent teacher would in some cases make over twice as much for teaching the exact same summer course. Their salary will also grow next year while ours will remain unjustly frozen. We have no sick days, no disability insurance, no guarantees of future work, and no available leaves other than parental leaves.

But none of this directly answers the question, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” Any honest answer must be couched in a certain signification of the word teacher. It might help us to run through two possible meanings of the word: a common one and an older one. This detour will take us back to the question we opened with.

Is a teacher that person who, through persistent remembrance of a set of skills, projects the essential features of her discipline for students to assimilate?

If this is the case, then our employer might even be partly justified in its approach to doling out work. A teacher is a pool of knowledge, a resource not unlike a textbook. Consultation of this resource is a process to which we could prescribe an almost definite structure. That is the meaning of course of study, the duration and scope of which is mapped out in advance. Under this description, we could speak of a teacher’s efficiency and how it is conditioned in part by his experience. We might even conclude that a summer contract teacher with a remarkable capacity for time management who has taught all courses in question before – in my case, I submit to the latter but not to the former – would be able to bring down those 3.6 hours-per-lecture-hour to a more manageable 2.5. Then he is really only working about 69 hours per week, is sleeping and eating about the same amount, and even has some time for his loved ones and for himself during the remaining 30 hours. This is by no means easy, but it is at least conceivable.

There is nothing superficially defective about this signification of teacher and course insofar as it says something true about what we do. But we should also consider that a teacher might not essentially be the foregoing description. Teach comes from the Old English verb taecan, which is etymologically connected to the word token – a sign, a mark. To teach signifies to point out, to show. Learn comes from leornian, which aside from its usual signification of “to study” has the sense of “to find the path.”

Perhaps a teacher is a guide rather than a purveyor of knowledge. She brings her students into the disclosure of a phenomenon by pointing out the way to finding it. She is not a source of persistent remembrance of a skill, but someone for whom the path to disclosure has been trodden many times and with deliberate pre-meditation. Deliberate pre-meditation is therefore her skill. Her sharpened sense of the path and her commitment to treading it is her discipline. Her students follow this path not behind her but alongside her and ahead of her.

To teach is then not to set down the elements of the way as remembered facts, but to remember the way and to bring others into that remembrance. It involves a willful, thoughtfully meditative recollection. This recollection must be pre-meditated anew each time it is taken up. A teacher’s failure results from taking the way for granted, from assuming mastery – exhaustion – of something as inexhaustible as existence. All teachers, whether they teach French, physics, or physical education at bottom engage with existence.

Let me suggest that what lasts in teaching is the way. The students will be different; the metaphors may change; but the way is what we seek to show. Yet it is demanding and often surprising. By forcing us to make of it something so crudely calculable, our employers do not fully encourage us to teach.

If this is true, then the definite structure upon which we rely for the organization of material into a course of study has to be understood as something provisional. A teacher can no longer be seen as an hourly laborer, but must instead be understood as having a task which is far less definite in its requirements from iteration to iteration. A teacher must be supported as a guide, as someone who guards her discipline and shepherds students on the way. A teacher should not need to spend every minute of her downtime eating and sleeping because of the absurd calculations of her friends in administration, and her security should not depend on this impossible proposition.

JUNE 2014