Review Comment

Religion and Postmodernism, Religion and the Modern World

January 08, 2006

Taylor, Mark
Religion and Postmodernism, Religion and the Modern World

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

CULPA reviews for Mark Taylor seem to gravitate towards two poles: The Mark-Taylor-is-god camp and the Mark-Taylor-is-a-total-fraud camp. I have had a lot of contact with Professor Taylor. I was in his first class as a sophomore and I just finished a second (required) class with him as a senior, I've frequented his office hours, and I think I'm as qualified as an undergraduate will be to present a fair critique of him. This man has been an integral part of my academic experience. But, unfortunately I have moved over the course of those two years from being entrenched in the former camp to being firmly in the latter.

First lets get some basic commonalities of all Taylor classes out of the way. First of all, the readings for his classes are invariably excellent. The Religion and Postmodernism syllabus in particular is stuff that you really won't read in almost any other class (De Certau, Jabes, Kristeva, Blanchot). However, the reading lists are also always absurdly, truly absurdly, long. If someone wanted to concentrate solely on this class, it would probably be plenty of work for an entire courseload. Taylor says this is because syllabuses are required to have 200+ pages of reading per week or something, but, strangely, no other classes that I've been in have had this requirement. In any case, he does not give any hint on which 30 pages (which would be plenty) to concentrate on, and you will inevitably get very far behind on the reading, to the point where you may have to abandon entire authors.
But these readings are awesome, and very inspiring.

The second most salient aspect of Mark Taylor's classes are that they are never, or rarely, boring. He has this bigtime cowboy thing going on, kind of an intellectual Burt Reynolds or something, always wearing black cowboy boots sometimes taking it all the way with black jeans and shirt. He struts around and stomps his foot to accentuate points or when he asks a question; he beckons at you like Neo; he puts his foot up on a desk and flexes and preens, or takes a chair and sits like A.C. Slater. He shouts a lot, and he always emphasizes how important the material is, saying things like, after Kierkegaard, if you're not frightened right now, you're not really alive or something like that.

And students seem to love Mark Taylor for this. They love him because he opens their eyes to this new world where school, and philosophy, matter, and he makes them feel important. That's how he made me feel when I took Rel & PoMo as a sophomore. I hadn't really ever read any philosophy after Kant, and the way he talked about this stuff made it seem like the coolest, most important stuff in the world. So that class came to dominate my life, as it did to the other 13 unsuspecting undergraduates. We would run into each other on campus, bleary-eyed, and shake our heads in futility together, but kinda smiling, before we went back to reading more PoMo at the glacial rate of about 4 pages an hour, for about 100 pages per class. Not that it necessarily bothered me. Hell, I loved it. Right up until the time when I actually had to do some thinking of my own. The takehome midterm for the class, 2 five page essays, befuddled me to the point of tears, until I finally turned in something I was totally ashamed of about two weeks late. I just chalked it up to my own failure to deal with pressure, even when the same thing happened for the final paper, and then I moved on, my GPA and confidence a little worse for wear, but with pride at having stuck with course.

Then I took some real philosophy classes, read some more, learned how to think, and came back for Religion and the Modern World eager to show that I could handle whatever he had to throw at me. And that's when I realized, with great disillusionment, that Mark Taylor does not teach philosophy, but rather a dangerous, fetishized doppelganger of it.

Mark Taylor claims that you really don't need any philosohical background for his classes, that he'll tell you all you need to know, that he'll prepare you to think on your own. Unfortunately, this is a complete lie. Mark Taylor actually prevents critical and creative thinking in his class. He jumps around, stomping this way and that giving his interpretations, whittling down these incredibly complex thinkers into digestable chunks. That's not bad, of course. That's what you have to do at this level. But Mark Taylor doesn't stop there. He whittles these thinkers down into three-word sound bytes, dichotomies and keywords. And he gets you to understand it by every so often asking a question about what he's just said. The problem with Mark Taylor is that he will only accept the exact three-word turn of phrase that he's been using the entire semester. If you deviate it from this at all, perhaps to maybe put it in your own words, or try to go over the logic--you know, to actually understand it--he will just cut you off and move on to the next person who can give him the exact answer, word-for-word, that he is looking for. When that person parrots back that phrase, the implication is that they have done well, that they have done philosophy. Of course, when he asks a question out of nowhere, usually one that would require a multiple-disseration lenght answer (trace the concept of the world as a work of art from Kant to Scleiermacher to Schelling to Hegel to Marx. Go), everyone is left stuttering, but that must be because this material is just really hard, right? Yeah sort of, but mostly its just because Taylor has gotten everyone into the mode that philosophy is just the evolution of three-word phrases over time, so no one is really able to think creatively. Even the people who have actually had some of this stuff in other philosophy classes can't really answer because they have to get in his mode of thinking in order to follow his frantic lecturing.
Somewhere in the middle of this class I looked back and rethough my PoMo experience. I thought I sucked in that class. I would have said that the primary reason I thought I sucked was because I couldn't answer his questions, whether they were expecting one or two words or tomes (there's really no in between). I wondered what was wrong with me when I couldn't do these papers at a level that was at all satisfactory to me, especially since Mark Taylor had made such an impact on me. But now, looking back on it, I think I did great in that class. My level of thinking from reading (and living and dying with) those books grew tremendously. But back then, I woudl have said I did terribly. And the reason I thought I did poorly was a direct result of the incredibly skewed implication of what philosophy is in Mark Taylor's teaching: not critical, creative, and disciplined thinking, but a shiny set of three-word answers. And I'm sure part of why I screwed up those papers was performance anxiety, but a greater part was that Mark Taylor had not prepared me to think on my own about these people, about what broader implications their ideas could have. You can't write real papers with glitzy catchphrases.

People who haven't had a lot of philosophy classes will be very impressed by Mark Taylor. He will make a significant, and not unimportant, impact on them, and inspire them to read further. However, he will also instill some dangerous philosophical tendencies, like a violent reductionism, pedagogical utilitarianism (quick, how can we fit this book into the greater narrative???), and style over substance, and these tendencies will only be overcome through a lot more philosophy and critical self-reflection, which they will never get if they only take classes with Mark Taylor.
People who have had a decent background in philosophy will find his teaching of Relgion and the Modern World (I can't really speak for PoMo, b/c i didn't know any philosophy then) infuriating. First of all, he never directly answers pointed questions. You fit an ungodly amount into the semester in this class; obviously a lot of important, relevant stuff is gonna be left out when you do Hegel in only two days. But when you ask him a real, important philosophical question, he'll do one of two things: He'll either nod and say good, then say, lets hold that or we'll come back to it, or we'll do it when we get to Derrida. Sorry to burst your bubble, but 95% of the time, he ain't coming back to it. Or he'll get real excited and flustered, outthink himself for a few seconds, then start in on something totally unrelated (cheese, the Cleveland Indians) and try to tangentially relate it to your question.

In fact, Taylor spends at least half of the class time on these tangents. Now very often these are pretty relevant tangents. For instance in a class on Hegel he'll spend ten minutes talking about Pat Robertson and fundamentalism, 20 minutes talking about Schelling and Kant, some time talking about nominalism, and maybe 40 minutes talking about Hegel. These meanderings aren't bad in themselves; i'd love to hear them most of the time, and they're usually pretty interesting, though he does repeat himself a ton if you go to his office hours or take a second class with him. But when you're covering an incredible difficult thinker in two periods or less, there's just not enough time to go off on as many sidetracks as Taylor does.

Lastly, Taylor's readings of these people are actually not that interesting, and in some cases they're actually pretty bad. I actually don't find his readings particularly creative. He makes them interesting by his classroom delivery and by the gravitas he always lends them (they've got plenty already). Sometimes this is becausy he goes around so much that its impossible to retrieve a coherent explanation from it all.
Other times, I think he just didn't explain them all that well. Some authors are covered in both classes (Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche), and in looking back at my notes, I felt that he taught them much better and more thoroughly in the Postmodernism class. My suspicion is that he tried to dumb them down a bit for the RMW class, which is a lower level, and in doing so, removed some concepts that were absolutely essential to understadning them. I've also heard from friends who took RMW last year and then sat in on a few of this year's classes that his teaching slipped a bit.

Taylor tries to present himself as hip, as in touch with students and the modern world and promoting creative thinking, and I am sure he has absolutely the best intentions. But he just doesn't do this at all. People assume that he's in touch with the modern world because he talks about it, but he's actually totally removed from it. He's blocked by his precious philosophers. Taylor doesn't really look at the modern world. He looks at the modern world to see how we (actually just he himself) can use it to talk about Kant or Baudrillard, and to confirm them. He never really observes the world in itself. If he did, you might hear him actually critique someone (to this day, I really don't know of a philsopher that Taylor doesn't like). He only observes what he wants: Hegel in the world, Derrida in the world. Never the world itself, the observation of which itself is philsophy. And since truly creative thinking only comes from this naked observation of the world, it's no surprise that Taylor doesn't really value creative thinking. He says, "All I really want is for you to take this stuff where I can't," which is a total crock of shit. What he really should have said is "AllI really want is for you to take this stuff where I WOULD," i.e. applying his specific dichotomies and rigid formulas to a tiny little corner of a room he hasn't quite finished exploring.

I think Mark Taylor would respond to a lot of this criticism by saying, as he has a few times, that Religion and the Modern World, and probably Religion and PoMO, are not survey courses, meant to broadly educate on a specific topic. Rather they are courses meant to advance a specific argument of his about religion, that it's a complex system of adaptive networks......But no set of undergraduates is astute enough to understand the difference between an argument and a survey while taking a course of this difficulty. Taylor ignores the responsibility he has to provide undergradutates who probably have not had much exposure to this material with a fair reading of them, and, much more importantly, to develop in them the ability to think critically about these authors for themselves, in which, in my opnion, he fails decidedly.
Yes it will be entertaining, and to some degree informative, possibly even inspiring. But anyone who's new to the material will be overwhelmed by him, and anyone who's not will be extremely frustrated by his lack of philsophical etiquette. If Mark Taylor, were teaching an upper level course, and you had a solid philosophical background, it might be worht it. I'd bet his teaching would improve. But his mindbogglingly reductive attitude toward philosophy would remain. If you want to take his classes for his reading lists, fine. But don't let him make you doubt your own critical thinking ability. A respect for critical thinking might cause you to do poorly in this class, but that's the reason you shouldn't worry if you do poorly, not because Mark Taylor is some indicipherable, seduce-and-destroy type philosopher.

Workload:

As others have stated, insane reading load. RMW just had a midterm paper (topic of our choosing, 10 pages), and a final, although the previous year there was another paper.
Rel and PoMo had a midterm take home, a final paper, and a final. All of these are panic inducing, for reasons listed above. The one constant will be the final, for what could be a better measure of a philosophy class than writing as much as you can on incredible malleable topics as quickly as possible?

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