Talking Leadership with Grad Students

Logo for the Graduate Student Congress at the University of Kentucky.Today I had the honor of having been invited to speak at the University of Kentucky’s Graduate Student Leadership Conference. My talk was called “Democracy and Leadership in Higher Education: A Talk for Graduate Students.” I seconded some of the prior speaker’s remarks, which concerned the value of networking, including online and via social media. One student had expressed her aversion to social media. I explained that at least one wants to have a good Web site, as people do want to look you up some when getting to know you. One avenue that can help are social media profiles, but a good Web site can do wonders too. I would encourage some of the same things. He had said that Facebook isn’t a great medium, but that’s because he was thinking of one’s personal Facebook profile. And obviously he hasn’t read my post about why scholars need Facebook author pages (and since I wrote that piece, my author page following has grown from ~2k to ~141k).

Eric Weber delivering a different talk years earlier, not the one mentioned in this post.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'I wasn’t there today to talk about social media, though. Instead, I spoke mainly about my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, and showed what I think we still have to learn from Plato, even if it needs updating for the modern and democratic era. I find a lot of value in reminding myself of what Plato’s Socrates says in the first book of the Republic. There, Socrates says that good people won’t be willing to lead. They’d rather others do it. But, some compulsion weighs on good people, inspiring them to be leaders against their inclinations. That compulsion is the fact, in his way of thinking, that worse people will lead. In the democratic era, the language of good people and bad people generally rings as unpleasant at best. My translation for democracy is to say that the compulsion could be instead that good people care about problems, injustices, that could be ameliorated with effort. Good people don’t want to be at the top for its own sake, but accept positions of responsibility because of what would happen if other people would not stand up to address key problems.

Bust of Socrates.

Socrates.

After that, I explained how and why I think it’s important that we continue to learn about leadership from Plato, even while we disagree with and let go of his authoritarian outlook. In other words, how he characterizes the virtues of leadership is problematic, but there’s no doubt that wisdom is important for leadership, for example, including in the democratic era. It just needs to be understood, pursued, and embodied democratically. So, I talked about what I take that to mean in many contexts of leadership today, but focusing on prime challenges for grad students. After all, good people will need compulsion in grad school too. Leadership is generally thankless, or worse. Plus, it takes a great deal of time and effort, which generally means a distraction from one’s other work. As such, engaging in leadership efforts as a grad student may well mean taking longer to finish one’s program. That’s something serious to accept. To want to lead despite that may well take some compulsion. Even if it does, however, grad student leaders would be wisest if they engage in democratic practices, acknowledging the dangers, challenges, and harms that can come from leading. They should also beware not to carry the world on their shoulders, as time is short, even at its longest, in graduate school (or we generally want it to be), and colleges and universities are slow-moving, relatively conservative institutions. So, at best one can make incremental change and pass on to the next group of leaders their chance to make a further difference.

As such, leadership in the grad school context should stay humble and stoic about what’s possible, want to lead for the right reasons, and be award of the costs, challenges, and reasons not to lead, all while going after it anyway in those cases that truly call for such a sacrifice.

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P.S. Of course there was more detail in the talk, but this is the gist of what I had to say this morning, and the people in attendance seemed to appreciate thinking through these matters with me, raising some very thoughtful and valuable questions. My thanks go out to James William Lincoln and the Graduate Student Congress for the invitation.

My Latest Essay – on the Intentional Costs of Comfort

Published in the 'Southwestern Philosophy Review,' 31, Issue 1, 2016, 19-24.

Hi folks. Dr. John Lachs.It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted. There’s a reason that they say moving is one of the most stressful times in life. It certainly is. Among the many things I’ve been meaning to post is my latest essay, which is a commentary piece I wrote and originally delivered at the 2015 meeting of the Southwestern Philosophical Society conference. The society met in Nashville, TN, at Vanderbilt University. That doesn’t sound very Southwestern, admittedly, but it’s a great group. The essay was a response to the keynote address by Dr. John Lachs of Vanderbilt. It was an honor to comment on his talk, “The Costs of Comfort.” John has been a mentor of mine for close to 20 years. As you’ll see in my commentary essay, however, that doesn’t mean that I went easy on his argument.

This is a photo of the top of the first page of my essay.

In philosophy, we say that “criticism is the fondest form of flattery.” The idea is that engaging in argument with someone’s ideas isn’t a bad thing. It’s joining in with the author in the pursuit of the truth. The honor is in taking someone’s ideas seriously, thinking hard with him or her, or them, and about something of importance attended to in the piece. In this essay, I respond to Lachs’s arguments about “The Costs of Comfort.” It’s a work in progress, though the version I reply to was also published, with my response to it. The costs of comfort are significant, Lachs argues, and some of what “reformers” want to change about present problems can amount to an unwillingness to accept the costs of living the comfortable lives so many of us enjoy today. We may bemoan environmental degradation, but summers in Mississippi are brutal enough even with air conditioning.

About many examples, Lachs is quite right and reasonable, but there are, I argue, avoidable costs of comfort. There are also costs of comfort that are not only accidental, but actually intentionally targeted towards people who are thereby disadvantaged. Racism and other forms of cultural violence lead all kinds of costs of our comfort to be put upon groups made to suffer their weight. In my essay, I defend the need for “reformers,” not for the basic costs of comfort, but for the many troubling cases. Many people reasonably feel for animals and I certainly agree that factory farming needs reform, but when the bugs start to get into my house or my bed, I feel no remorse for hiring the exterminator to keep certain levels of comfort at the expense of bed bugs.

Photo of a bed bug.

How much sympathy would you feel about hundreds of these critters living in your sheets?

That said, injustice is not some simple thing to sacrifice to beat the heat or to keep the bugs out. If we can significantly reduce air conditioning costs with white roofs instead of black ones, furthermore, shouldn’t policy encourage such reforms? If we can raise chickens in far more humane ways than in the cages that are so troubling, why not endure the small discomfort it takes to make that change? Reform can overreach and be unrealistic, but it can also be absolutely vital for good people to sleep at night.

It’s easy for the most comfortable among us to focus on the simpler examples than injustice. Yes we like our comforts, but in time, so many innovations can at least reduce the costs we cause, and still other costs are simply unjustifiable.

If you want to check out my essay, which is a lot more specific than this quick post, visit my Academia.edu page with the piece.

If you’re interested in a speaker for your event, visit my speaking and contact pages. You can also “like” my Facebook author page and follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber.

Video: “Poverty, Culture, and Justice,” @ Purdue U

This is a screen capture from my talk at Purdue University in February of 2016.

I’ve posted a number of recordings of interviews and talks I’ve given on Uniting Mississippi. This talk is on my next project, which is still in progress. The book is titled A Culture of Justice. One of the chapters that is in progress is the subject of the talk I gave at Purdue University. Here’s the video, about 1hr 28 mins:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

If you’re looking for a speaker, visit my Speaking and Contact pages.

Video: US Judge Carlton Reeves on “Race and Moral Leadership”

Now that I’m finally catching up with my grant reporting obligations, I’m returning to work from October of 2015. We snagged some nice pictures of Judge Reeves while he was here and we recorded the video of the open forum discussion we held. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of Mississippi’s southern district caught my attention in particular with the speech he delivered at the sentencing case of a racially motivated murder in Jackson, MS. NPR called his speech “breathtaking,” and it certainly is.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves.

When I read it I was so moved that after a period of absorbing his deeply thoughtful remarks, I felt compelled to write to him and tell him how much what he said meant to me and to Mississippi. On a whim, I ventured to invite him, were he willing and ever able, to come talk with one of my classes, particularly on the Philosophy of Leadership. He got back to me the same day to say that he would be delighted to come. That’s the kind of guy this now famous judge is. [Video is at the bottom of this post]

Here’s the bio on Judge Reeves that NPR put together after his speech had garnered over a million downloads. It was a profound honor to have Judge Reeves meet with my students and me for lunch, my class soon after, and then the campus and Oxford community members who came to hear and speak with him. Judge Reeves is also famous and to some controversial for his judgments on prayer in school and on same-sex marriage. Progressive Mississippians came to meet the judge to thank him for his leadership and several called him a hero to them. Judge Reeves explained at our lunch and to my class that when he was growing up, his moral heroes in Mississippi were federal judges.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, in October 2015, talking with students at lunch.

Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

The interesting thing about Judge Reeves’s position is that people think that judges must not be activists. Does that mean that they should not really speak up much on public issues? Judge Reeves thinks that they should. A judge should not be prejudiced in making his or her judgment on a particular case, but may, and Reeves argues should, voice their concerns about larger social issues and movements. I asked Judge Reeves whether he had been criticized for delivering the speech that he did at the sentencing for the murder of James Craig Anderson. Judge Reeves said just the opposite happened. If anything, people had issued threats because he upheld the Constitutional prohibition on governmental establishment of religion in public schools. For speaking up as he had, he explained, he had only received very positive feedback.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves in October 2015 speaking at an open forum discussion on "Race and Moral Leadership in the U.S. Judicial System."

Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

A judge holds a complex and interesting kind of leadership position, which is why I was eager to hear Judge Reeves talk about “Race and Moral Leadership in the U.S. Judicial System.” I certainly gained a great deal from his visit, and I welcome you to watch this video of the forum we held with Judge Reeves. Here it is:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and “like” my Facebook author page to connect with me there.

Videoed Talk on ‘Uniting Mississippi’ at USM

Liberal Arts Building at the University of Southern Mississippi.I had a great time at the University of Southern Mississippi on Friday, January 29th. After a fun interview on WDAM TV in Hattiesburg, MS, I headed over to the new Liberal Arts Building on campus, which is beautiful.

Dr. Sam Bruton in the Philosophy and Religion department at USM organizes the Philosophical Fridays program, which runs in part with the general support from the Mississippi Humanities Council. I’m grateful to Dr. Bruton, to the department of Philosophy and Religion at USM, and to the MS Humanities Council for the chance to present in Hattiesburg and the permission to post the video of my talk here. The video was first posted here on the USM library Web site.

I’ve posted the talk on YouTube here below. If you’re interested in the book, you can learn more here or pick up a copy here.

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

If you enjoy the talk and are interested in a speaker for an upcoming event, visit my Speaking and Contact pages.

Fun Interview on WDAM TV

Photo of Miranda Beard in a school library.I had a delightful time in Hattiesburg, MS this January. My first stop while in town was at WDAM TV’s studio for the Midday News on Channel 7. I had the great pleasure of talking with Miranda Beard, who invited me to tell people about Uniting Mississippi and who announced my talk at the University of Southern Mississippi later that day, as well as the book signing afterwards. Miranda is a very impressive news professional and was very kind and welcoming.

Photo of WDAM TV's studio in Hattiesburg, MS.

The people at WDAM were very kind. The studio was easy to find, and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to drive. I will say that Mississippi’s actually quite a big state. I had to get up at 5 and be on the road at 7 to get to Hattiesburg by shortly after 11 for this interview. It was well worth it. One of the members of the audience at my 2pm talk said that she saw me on WDAM and that she had read my interview in the Clarion Ledger earlier in January.

Here’s the interview:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

Thank you to Miranda and to Margaret Ann Morgan, who set this up!

If you’re looking for a speaker for your next event, or know someone who is, visit my Speaking & Contact pages. Also, follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and “like” my Facebook author page.

TV Interview and Talk at USM

I’m looking forward to meeting the folks at WDAM in Hattiesburg, MS, on Friday, January 29th for an interview about Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South. I’ll be on live at around noon. I’ll post a clip of the interview as soon after it as I can. That same day (Friday), I’ll next head to the University of Southern Mississippi, where Sam Bruton in the Philosophy department hosts “Philosophical Fridays.” Check out the sweet announcement poster they made:

Poster of the announcement for my talk at 2pm in Gonzales Auditorium, LAB 108, on 'Uniting Mississippi.'

MHC-logo-FB“Philosophical Fridays” is a great initiative that engages audiences in and around Hattiesburg. The program has the support of the Mississippi Humanities Council, which is great.

If you’re in the area, come on by. I’m finalizing details about the book signing that’ll follow the talk.

Video of My Interview on WLOX TV News at 4

The video clip of my interview on WLOX TV News at 4 in Biloxi, MS, is included at the bottom of this post. I had a great time visiting the coast, seeing the beautiful water, and talking with some really nice people.

This is a still video frame from my interview on WLOX TV News at 4 in Biloxi, MS, about my book, Uniting Mississippi.

I also had a great time meeting Jeremy from Bay Books for the book signing afterwards at the West Biloxi Public Library. While I was at the TV studio, I was able to snap these photos.

I knew I had found the right place. The official studio, looking sharp. The requisite multi-TV display, demonstrating that this is a TV studio. The West Biloxi Public Library, where we held the signing. Made me laugh. One perk of a visit to Biloxi.

Here’s the interview video:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

MHC-logo-FBFor more information, you can visit my page about the book here. If you are looking for a speaker for your group or think your community might enjoy a book talk and signing, visit my Contact page and drop me a note. Groups in Mississippi can apply for a mini grant from the MS Humanities Council, as they have a speakers’ series that features my talks on Uniting Mississippi.

Also, if you haven’t already, follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook.com/EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Public Philosophy Is Worth It

Logo for WLOV Tupelo.I’ve tried my hand at a few new kinds of public engagement efforts that have borne fruit. The latest example for me is in seeking TV interviews to talk about issues in public philosophy, particularly some ideas about how I think Mississippi could benefit from good democratic leadership. I’m headed to Tupelo, MS for an interview on WLOV’s This Morning show, Wednesday, November 18th. Then, on Monday, December 7th November 23rd, (updated), I’ll be heading to Biloxi, MS to give an interview on WLOX’s News at 4 show. After each I’ll be holding a book signing, though only the one in Tupelo has been scheduled at this point.

The Thinker, statue.Scholars or readers curious about higher education may wonder: why do all of this? We certainly have enough work to do teaching classes, researching and writing, applying for grants, and serving our institutions and professional associations (the work of a professor is a lot more than what folks see in the classroom). Why add on to that with “outreach” or public engagement?

In “The Search for the Great Community,” from The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey argues that democracy’s prime difficulty has to do with how a mobile, complex, and many layered community can come to define itself and its interests. He believed that the key to addressing democratic challenges was to make use of democratic means, particularly communication. Democracy can embody wise leadership, but only with widespread, maximally unhindered communication, especially emphasizing the developments of human knowledge — the sciences, broadly speaking. For that reason, it is a clear and crucial extension of his democratic theory to value the public engagement of scholars with their communities.

Scan of 'First Day of Issue' envelope honoring John Dewey in the 'Prominent Americans' series. The envelope bears Dewey's stamp, which was valued at 30 cents and issued on October 21, 1968.

When Dewey referred to public engagement, however, that did not mean only a one-way street. Communication takes listening too. So, the point isn’t only for scholars to speak to audiences, but for them also to learn from the people. When I write, I draw increasingly often from newspapers and magazines to illustrate my points about what people are saying and experiencing beyond the academy. Scholarly research is vital, but so is the world beyond the academy. Some circles have criticized me for it in peer-reviews, but so far I haven’t let that dissuade me from seeing scholars’ task as needing to draw also on sources and input from beyond the academy. In addition, talking with people around Mississippi and in other states about my work has revealed all kinds of interesting insights. Some people offer me great examples that I can use to strengthen my points. Others highlight challenges for bringing about the kinds of changes that I believe are needed.

A November 2015 article by John Corvino in the Detroit Free Press, titled "Why Marco Rubio Needs Philosophers."My point in this blog post is to give scholars and other writers a little nudge of encouragement to try something unusual: reach out to news stations and outlets. Some folks do this already. A great public philosopher, for example, is John Corvino. Few of us consider trying something that a mentor of mine encouraged me to try, though. John Lachs of Vanderbilt University said to me: “Plenty of people will read your op-eds, but vastly more people watch TV.” He encouraged me to pursue that direction for engagement. So, in addition to writing for newspapers I’ve been working on developing my “platform,” for which this Web site serves as a key tool. Along with that, there are ways to present oneself to news organizations, such as in creating a “press kit.” It was foreign to me too until I read Platform by Michael Hyatt (creator of my Web site’s WordPress theme, GetNoticedTheme).

With the help of a student research assistant, I wrote to a handful of TV news outlets to let them know about my latest book, a work of public philosophy — Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South. In the letter, I explained a little bit about the book, as well as my interest in getting the word out about the issues it covers. I then enclosed a nice brochure about the book that the University Press of Mississippi designed for it. Finally, I included an abbreviated 1-page press kit, as well as a short, 1-page set of “interview resources,” that I learned about from Michael Hyatt’s book.  The letters went out in the last two weeks. A little over 10 days later, I got calls and emails from two TV stations inviting me for interviews. It worked.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The point of public engagement as a scholar is not in itself to get attention, money, or fame. The latter two are highly unlikely anyway. The point is to get our ideas out there and to learn from others through that engagement. If the ideas that we develop in the academy are worthwhile, then they’re worth some effort to spread the word about them. Benefits come from doing these things, but by far the greatest of these are the effects, however small, that we can have on our culture and the relationships we can expand and develop through the effort to speak up about issues that we care about and study.

Tell me on my Facebook page or on Twitter about your public writing and engagement.

Senator Sasse’s Moving Senate Speech

Senator Ben Sasse. Link goes to the video of his maiden speech in the Senate.

Public Policy Leadership alumn Elliott Warren kindly sent me a link to this maiden address from Senator Ben Sasse, Junior Senator from Nebraska (R). It was an incredibly kind compliment for Elliott to say that this Senator’s speech reminded him of my classes here at the University of Mississippi. Senator Sasse calls for a renewal of the virtues of deliberation that the Senate is supposed to embody. He explicitly points to Socrates for insight, and to the methods of Socratic dialogue. He calls on his colleagues explicitly to avoid straw man fallacies and other errors of reasoning. It was the most elegant speech I have heard from a Senator in years.

The speech is 29 minutes long. You may not have that time right now. At some point, though, you will be glad that you watched Senator Sasse’s speech. I urge you all to find the time. Here’s his speech on C-SPAN.