Irving Update Summer 2018


Another semester has ended, and it’s time for an update! Brace yourselves, there’s a lot going on. I won’t blame you if you get confused and lost and have to ask me questions about this all over again next time you see me.



This last semester was my final semester of coursework for the Ph.D. In order to get my Ph.D., I have to fulfill several requirements.

  • ☑️ 66 credits, divided as follows:
    • ☑️21 in the IPS Core
    • ☑️36 in my concentration (Politics)
    • ☑️9 in electives
  • ☑️Ancient Language
  • ☑️Qualifying Exam
  • ☑️Modern Language (in progress)
  • Comprehensive Exam
  • Dissertation Proposal
  • Dissertation Defense

Last year, I took four classes per semester in order to complete all my credits. In Fall 2017, I took:

  • IPS: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevski
  • Medieval Political Philosophy
  • Thucydides
  • Leo Strauss

In Spring 2018, I took:

  • IPS: Homer and Vergil
  • Cicero
  • Johannine Writings
  • Philosophy of Law

This Summer, I am taking Italian for Reading Knowledge. It’s an intensive summer course which meets 2 nights a week, 4 hours at a time. The point is not to be able to speak Italian, but to be able to read it. One of the real highlights of this class is that all six of us who are taking it have seriously studied at least one other language, and I think we also have all had at least limited exposure to a second foreign language. It means we don’t have to sit through three hours of explanation and confusion on the mysteries of what counts as a relative pronoun or an indirect object. The professor can just say “here is what you do for an indirect object in Italian and here are the exceptions” and we are able to get it.

Later this summer I’m going to attend a week-long seminar on Natural Law hosted by the American Public Philosophy Institute. It’s here in Dallas on the UD campus, so I won’t have to travel for it.

Moving forward, I plan to take my Comprehensive Exam in October 2018; after that, I have to get a dissertation proposal approved and then write & defend the dissertation itself. You could say that I’m sort of at the halfway point in the program. I know one intensely disciplined and motivated colleague who finished his dissertation a year and a half after he finished coursework, but his is a rare accomplishment. I will have to do a lot of research for my topic, especially given the depth of the existing scholarship on the subject, so I will probably take another three years or so to write and defend.

If you’ve known me for any length of time, it should come as no surprise that I am planning to write about Dante. I don’t have a finished proposal yet (let’s be honest, I don’t have a started proposal yet, at least not on paper), but I expect it will be answering something along the lines of “Why does Dante put a city in Hell but not in Heaven?”

In one final piece of school-related news, I was recently chosen as a recipient of the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation scholarship. Mr. Sumners is a fascinating character: he was the Democratic chair of the US House Judiciary Committee (and widely considered to be a top candidate for the next Supreme Court vacancy) when FDR proposed the court-packing plan. Sumners ruined his political future by opposing the plan and stalling it in committee. If you’re nerdy like me, you’ll get a kick out of reading the excerpt from the congressional record in which he is questioned about his recalcitrance (skip to the last pages for the Q&A). The scholarship is substantial enough that with a little frugality I will not be required to work during the school year.




Last fall, I started teaching Introduction to Ethics for Richland College, one of the schools in the Dallas County Community College system. It felt really good to be back in front of a classroom again. In a funny twist of fate, my first class was actually a Dual-Credit class at an area charter school: I was teaching high school students on a high school campus, but it was a college-level class. I taught the same class again in the Spring, but this time on the Richland campus. The spring class was very small, but I really enjoyed the close interaction with my students.

Taking four classes and teaching one kept me busy enough that I couldn’t also keep working at Chick-fil-A. I took a leave of absence for the Fall semester, returned during the Christmas break, and then officially resigned when the Spring semester started again. It was a wonderful place to work, and I am incredibly grateful for the experience and growth I was given working there, but it was time to move on. I still can’t stop saying “my pleasure” when anybody says “thank you.”

Fancy archival staple remover

I did pick up some work on the UD campus, however, working as a graduate assistant in the Donald and Louise Cowan Archives. Drs. Donald and Louise were both massively influential in the formation of the University of Dallas; they thought and wrote a great deal about the liberal arts and about literature. The University has established a center for organizing their papers and other resources so that they can be made available to the public. In the fall I was mostly doing a first-pass over the papers (many of which are still loosely piled in boxes), removing obvious trash, duplicates, and items which don’t belong to our archive. I also got to use a fancy archival staple remover called a “spatula” (see picture). In the spring, I was cataloging and sorting the Cowan Archive book holdings [Shout out to Helen Howell, my cousin and the New Saint Andrews College librarian, for the invaluable experience I got working for her one summer when NSA was inventorying their holdings].

I am also working on the editorial board of Ramify: the Journal of the Braniff Graduate School of the Liberal Arts. I am an Associate Editor for Volume 7 (which should be published within the month) and then I will take over as Editor-In-Chief for Volume 8.

For one month this summer, I am working as a receptionist at Cistercian Preparatory School; it’s a boy’s school just across the highway from UD, and they run four week-long summer camps in June and July. I sit at the front desk, answer phones, and do Italian homework. It is a gift of a job (and the camps run like a well-oiled machine…it’s very impressive). It’s also highly air-conditioned, so I find myself in the peculiar position of turning on a space heater for my feet. In Texas. In the middle of Summer.


When the summer camps wrap up, I’ll be heading over to see my family in northern New Mexico; my sister is moving from Idaho to Texas (College Station, a few hours south of DFW), and we’re all going to meet up at the family cabin in the mountains.

I’m hoping to travel to a couple conferences this fall: one on Christianity and Literature at Oklahoma Baptist University, and one on Dante in Birmingham, AL.

In November, I’m going to be in the wedding of a dear friend who is getting married in Portugal (her fiance is Portugese, and between immigration restrictions and her future father-in-law’s generosity, it was simpler to have the wedding there). I’M GOING TO BE IN EUROPE! Since the biggest hurdle to visiting Europe is getting over there in the first place, and since I don’t have to get back to a job, I’m going to take a couple extra weeks to see some places on my bucket list: Oxford, London, Florence, and Rome. (Note: because I am a genius at travel planning, I fly back on Thanksgiving day.)

Looking to the even more-distant future, I have applied to work with the New Mexico State Legislature as a Republican analyst for the 2019 legislative session. If that works out, I’ll be in Santa Fe for a couple months at the start of next year.


Inspired by an essayist I follow on Twitter (Phil Christman, who wrote that tremendous meditation on what it means to be Midwestern last year), I am keeping track of the books I read in 2018 on a twitter thread.

I also got a MoviePass card this year and have been doing my best to take advantage of it. As with the books, I’m keeping track of my movies on their own twitter thread:

I’m still regularly attending Chapel of the Cross (a Reformed Episcopal Church in the ACNA), but I have also occasionally visited St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Irving. Chapel is 20 minutes away and only does communion at 8am during the school year, while St. Mark’s is only 3 minutes from my house and has a 10am communion service. I’ve also visited All Saints Presbyterian (CREC) over in Fort Worth for a baptism.

Every year I stay in Irving, I find myself more and more delighted with the community of friends I have. Moving is hard, and during my first year in Texas I was incredibly skeptical of all the people I met who said that they loved the community. Friendships take time, but they can flourish … even in Dallas.

ON THE OTHER HAND: I still have nothing good to say about the traffic or construction.


My Favorite Things: Noisli

Grad school involves being by yourself. A lot. Even when you take a lot of steps to balance out the isolation, being a student necessarily involves a lot of solitary endeavor. You have to read for yourself,* you have to write for yourself, and you have to think for yourself. All of these things can comfortably be accomplished in the presence of other people as long as those people aren’t actually demanding anything from you, and I find for myself that I actually work better when there is a baseline level of atmospheric distraction. I have described it before in these terms: if there isn’t a small level of external distraction, I have to go seek out the distraction (which then occupies my conscious mind much more fully than is conducive to productivity). In other words: if there isn’t chatter in the background, I go looking for chatter on facebook and twitter.

I attribute this desire for a sociable atmosphere to being an extrovert, but I could be wrong about that. What I know is that coffee shops are an expensive study habit; on top of that, even if I choose to study on campus (for free!) studying away from home means that I don’t have access to all the resources I would like to have handy. I can’t carry three books each for my four classes in a single bag, and I feel awkward schlepping two ginormous tote bags around. The dilemma, then: study at home where it is cheap and all of my things are, but I am alone and things are spookily quiet sometimes, or study in public while either imitating a packhorse or risking that I will be without something essential, and also potentially spending money that I could have saved by staying home.

I don’t always choose the same option. Sometimes I really do need to just get out of the house. But when I’m home, I have found a terrific white noise app that helps create the minimal necessary “distraction” so I can focus. The app is called Noisli, and it’s available for Android, Chrome, and iOS. Besides traditional “white noise” sounds like rain, wind, or static, it also has a “cafe” track with plates clinking, distant chatter, and occasional laughter. I layer that with the train tracks and a fireplace sound to create a really cozy background track for studying. It’s actually handy even when you *are* studying in public places, because it can block out the (often very weird!) conversations that people have in public.

tl;dr: Noisli is a great white noise app and it helps me study.



*Admittedly, a it is possible to read for others if you read aloud. But many of the texts one reads in grad school and many of the ways of reading expected by professors are not actually suited to read-aloud. Additionally, the quantity one has to read in grad school would indicate against reading aloud everything that was assigned in a semester. The eye is faster than the ear. 

A couple notes on being single

First: A friend linked to this blog post a while back: “Five things singles wish married couples knew.”  I like that this is true to its title. It isn’t “five things you can do for your single friends”, it’s just information. And it’s true. I think a lot of my married friends already know this stuff (having been single themselves and all) but it’s a good reminder.

Second: Alastair Roberts has been answering questions on CuriousCat. The questions may vary widely, but Roberts’ thoughtfulness and respect do not. One of his answers (to a question about prolonged or permanent bachelorhood) struck me as perhaps one of the most encouragingly frank statements about single life I have ever read.

While we should always focus on our own agency, responsibility, and capacity in whatever situation we find ourselves in, there are a great many situations in which it won’t be enough to change matters in the ways that we desire.

What it can do, however, is save us from acting and thinking as the abject victims of circumstance. It can make us aware of the ways in which, by giving other people such as a spouse such an elevated place in our imagined happiness, we are engaged in fairly delusional thinking, pinning expectations on them that they could never possibly fulfill. Once we recognize this and act accordingly, we can be a lot happier, whether in or out of a relationship.

In our society, it is easy to believe that it is only possible to be fulfilled and live a meaningful life if you are in a relationship or married. But marriage really isn’t the only way to satisfy our basic human needs for purpose, belonging, stewardship, dignity, and meaning. And when marriage is unlikely, it is incredibly important to reject the notion that its impossibility means that we must learn to live without all of these other things. We shouldn’t surrender ourselves to unfulfilment. While there are certain things that we will lack (a sexual union and biological children, for instance), if we take responsibility for pursuing these things in other ways, we can be fulfilled. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult and painful, but we can rise to our full stature through difficulty and pain: we can’t do so without the satisfaction of our basic human existential needs.

A lack of discomfort can inure us to deep existential lack in our lives. The unhappily unmarried person, who may well have to learn to live in their unchosen state is pushed to learn lessons to which others never truly awake, never developing the wisdom to recognize and escape stunted aspects of their lives.



I had a lot to do on Monday and didn’t say anything to mark the day. It feels fitting, like a mirror: sixteen years ago, we could hardly say anything on the day. All the newspapers my mom went out and collected were from 9/12, because that’s when we could start writing about what had happened.

I was asleep when both planes hit. I think I was asleep when the towers collapsed, too. When my mom told me that terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, I didn’t know where that was. But I remember watching the footage of people running down the streets covered in dust, everybody a ghostly grey. My permanent memory of that day is not framed around the towers; it is the picture of those people down on the street running through the ashy cloud that was not ash, their hair and skin covered in apocalyptic powder.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 at 12.34.15 AMSo strong in my mind is the image of people fleeing the towers that I was viscerally shaken when a Marvel movie included this shot as part of the aftermath of a tower collapsing. I still don’t have very good words to describe my feelings on the subject. I was a little bit angry, a little bit shocked, surprised, and stung; I felt a deep grief; I couldn’t tell if I the filmmaker wanted me to have that reaction—if he was intentionally recalling 9/11 imagery—or if I was importing the connection. When I looked afterward, none of the reviewers seemed to be talking about those shots of ashen faces.

But whenever September 11 rolls around, and with it the refrain of “Never Forget”, mostly what I remember is this:

In observance of Labor Day

A short tidbit from Marilyn Robinson’s essay “Family” (in The Death of Adam, Picador: New York, 2005).

Take for example the weekend, or that more venerable institution, the Sabbath. Moses forbade that servants, even foreigners, should work on the seventh day. If their wage was subsistence, as it is usually fair to assume in premodern societies, then his prohibition had the immediate practical effect of securing for them seven days’ pay for six days’ work. He raised the value of their labor by limiting access to it.

Quantitative analysis

Two reviews that I recently read got me thinking about how you can use quantitative analysis in reviewing literature.

The first is a review of a book titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt. The book apparently presents the results of studying word frequency in a range of authors, but from Matthew Walther’s review it seems like Blatt did hardly anything remotely useful with his numbers:

“Sure, Joseph Conrad wrote three times as much about men than [sic] women, but he wrote more than 100 years ago.” True. He also wrote about the sea and the colonial ivory trade…. No doubt one could employ statistical analysis in the hope of discovering why, for example, the word “suddenly” occurs far more often in The Lord of the Rings than it does in Pride and Prejudice. One could also note, on the basis of nothing more than having seen the respective film versions, that one is a sword and sorcery epic in which goblins and wizards and maidens fair are always popping up out of nowhere, while the other is a comedy of manners whose action scenes tend not to rise above the “Her ladyship was highly incensed” level of tension.

Even though this kind of thing seems like overall it would be a terrible approach, I want to give you a counter-example in this (very long) review of a collection of NYT movie critic Pauline Kael’s columns. You have to read the whole thing to see what I mean, because it’s chock-full of extended quotations and selections, but it works because it is a thorough and ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING demonstration of “the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.” If you’re going to talk about someone’s favorite words, do it like this.

What a Physicist Sees When She Looks at a Fancy Gown

Because I have friends who are interested in fashion, I get a sort of secondhand interest myself. I’m actually fascinated by men’s fashion, because it’s all about infinitesimal variations within fairly narrow perameters: how much of a break do you give your trousers? How wide are your lapels? How wide is your tie and what kind of knot do you use? Women’s fashion is much much more wide-ranging. If you needed proof, just remind yourself that Barack Obama wore the same tux for his entire presidency, while Michelle wore a tremendous variety of dresses. I don’t think it’s really worth complaining about (I mean, POTUS has way more on his plate than FLOTUS, so I’m very cool with giving him one less decision to make), but there’s no denying the difference.

All that is a preamble to this article, which discusses the ways that physics and structural engineering come into play in constructing haute coture gowns.

Think of it this way: Engineering is classically a field of bridges, buildings, ball bearings, and machines. But it’s also fundamental in transforming flat sheets of fabric, piles of feathers, and strings of beads into gorgeous gowns. Material science, geometry, kinematics, strength, structure, and cloth dynamics are all essential theory for successful fashion design.

It’s an article based on this twitter thread which came out immediately after the Met Gala.

The thread and the article are both worth 5-10 minutes of your day. Enjoy!