Before reading this review, I think it is important for you to get a sense of my expectations and desires for the course. I wanted to take CC and had been looking forward to it ever since I arrived at Columbia. I like hard classes and I don’t mind spending a significant amount of time reading and writing for a course if the teacher is excellent and the subject matter interesting. I expected CC, with the right teacher, to be a valuable experience. Based on the other reviews of Charley’s class, I expected his section in particular to be challenging, rigorous, and rewarding.
At the end of the semester, I did not feel that my expectations had been met. Here is what I wish I had known before enrolling in Charley’s section:
-If you read everything Charley assigns (and, to his credit, Charley does assign reading and always makes the text the center of class, unlike some other CC teachers) carefully and critically, and if you feel like before you go into class you have a halfway decent idea of the concepts discussed in the reading, you will probably come into class one day and ask yourself “Did Charley and I read the same book? This didn’t happen to me until Tocqueville, but looking back, I can see that there was reason to feel this way from the beginning. Charley likes to ask what I think he believes are thought-provoking questions. Here are some examples: “Did equality create Cleveland, Ohio [asked during a discussion on Tocqueville]? “Is Wollstonecraft just trying to turn women into men? “Are we [i.e., students of Columbia] the colonized intellectuals [discussed in Fanon]? “What would Fanon think of Brexit? “Is it worth it to have double-consciousness [as described by Du Bois]? If you have carefully read any of those texts, the absurdity and irrelevance of these questions should be apparent. Charley misses the main point of nearly every text and, as a result, fails to ask genuinely thought-provoking questions.
-He is not very good at guiding discussion. He comes into class with notes, so he isn’t totally unprepared. But there were countless times when a student would raise a point or ask a question and Charley’s only reply would be “hmmm or “I don’t know. For example, when reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the question came up as to what changes Einstein had made to Newtonian physics. No one in my class knew the answer but neither did Charley, or if he did, he never shared it. The idea of the shift from Newton to Einstein is a central idea in the text and it would have been extremely useful to have the actual scientific facts in our discussion, but Charley didn’t have or refused to share that knowledge. He just let the question hang in the air and then moved on to a new student who had a new question. This method of refusing to answer students’ questions and refusing to challenge anything anyone says provides for very boring and scattered discussion. It rarely felt like there was a point to anything we talked about.
-In a similar way, there was no perceptible through line that connected the texts. In my LitHum classes, my teachers always brought the new ideas that we were discussing into conversation with ideas that we had previously encountered. This made the curriculum feel cohesive and progressive. Charley did not do this much at all, and when he did, it was superficial at best. For instance, there were numerous times when we would read someone who could be considered a social contract theorist or read something about social contract theory. Every time this topic arose, without fail, Charley would ask “Who should we be thinking about? and someone would dutifully answer “Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and then we would move on to another question/topic. The conversation about social contract theory rarely went deeper than that.
-Charley does not play Devil’s Advocate. He does not take the side of the text and defend it against students’ criticisms. Rather, he is often the instigator of questioning a text for any and all reason. If you aren’t careful, you will leave class thinking that Kant, Marx, Wollstonecraft, Nietzsche, Arendt, Woolf, etc. were all utterly foolish.
-He does not leave room for nuance in his questions or discussions. For example, when discussing the Communist Manifesto, after reading aloud a particular passage, he asked something along the lines of “Okay, so what is Marx getting rid of here? Students responded with “property, individuality, freedom, etc. Charley wrote those words on the board and then moved on to his next question, without taking any time to discuss the fact that Marx makes an important distinction between property, individuality, freedom and bourgeois property, individuality, and freedom. If Charley had brought this distinction (which is clearly articulated in Marx’s text) into the conversation, the class could have had a fruitful discussion about how Marx’s conceptions of those ideas differ from the conceptions held by others and whether or not we thought those distinctions were accurate or warranted. It could have culminated in a conversation about whether or not universal concepts such as freedom really exist, or if they are just situational, which could have had ties to numerous other authors in the syllabus (particularly Kant). But Charley failed to note Marx’s distinction, so the class was left with the simplistic idea that Marx advocates for abolishing all notions of freedom, property, and individuality.
Charley is young and modern and is beloved by the Core Office. He knows what a meme is and can use “woke in a sentence. Those qualities were charming to many of my fellow students. If you want to have a teacher who assigns a significant amount of work but who does not challenge your intellect more than a peer (and often challenges it less than that), and are enticed by the idea of having an Internet-literate teacher, Charley’s class may be enjoyable for you.
But if you want to learn about CC’s texts in a deep and nuanced way, Charley is not the teacher to provide that experience.