February 20, 2015

Friendly fire in the war of position

by CarlD

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

January 16, 2015

Philosophy of social science, help or hindrance?

by johnmccreery

It may depend on when you took the course, says Daniel Little at Understanding Society.

What think you, Voles?

January 7, 2015

R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]

by johnmccreery

Beck has long been one of my favorite sociologists. His description of the Risk Society as one in which invisible risks replace visible wealth as the dominant form of social inequality and only experts can claim to identify and know how to address those risks resonates strongly with the world of Chinese popular religion that was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

One interesting possible application rests on the observation that all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds. The primary question for those looking for “It” to solve their problems is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. They turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations lie in the apparent success tail of a normal curve. . . .

P.S. I would be delighted if some computational sociologist with greater math skills than my own could build a model around these assumptions.

But, yes. I mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?

heisus

When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.

December 16, 2014

Lost in translation

by CarlD

JohnM asks if the voles are really dead! Only as dead as we’re dead, I’d say, or as alive as we make ourselves. But I’ve been doing my micro-blogging on Facebook, so his comment jostled me to realize I could just go ahead and do some of it here to get things moving a bit.

I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84, and enjoying it. Via Overdrive, btw, a cool library app. And I just came across this:

She entered the bar a little after seven. A young piano and guitar duo were playing “Sweet Lorraine.” Their version was a copy of an old Nat King Cole record, but they weren’t bad.

The use of ‘copy’ here is odd. There’s a general oddness of the prose, which is clearly a theme of the book. It may be a theme of Murakami, but I don’t have the background to assess that. In this book there seem to be adjacent dimensions in partial contact; the signal of this so far is that things are a little off. So is this one of those? Or does Murakami not know that a ‘copy’ of a song is conventionally called a ‘cover’? (No idea if that distinction exists in Japanese – John?) Or did the translator miss one here? Or are they both playing with similarity and simulation in a way that needs to be teased at in language?

Anyway, this then got me thinking about the first time I was introduced to the concept of a ‘cover’. I was young but already aware of music, and it was via our family friend Luther Dogan, the partner of Dyke the Elder’s colleague Paul Snyder. Luther was a professional musician who, if I remember correctly, did mostly backing vocals. He used the word ‘cover’ in conversation and then explained it to me when I was confused. I remember rolling it around in my brain quite a bit, probably one of my earlier exposures to metaphorical language that doesn’t map neatly onto the naive meaning it’s applied to.

I also think of Luther frequently because one of the times I remember being just plain wrong was in a much later conversation with him about Ry Cooder, in which I confidently asserted that “Paradise and Lunch” was Cooder’s first album. I don’t know why I thought that, but it wasn’t, and Luther knew it. But he was very gentle about prompting me to reconsider, and graciously dropped it when I didn’t.

I also think about Luther a lot because he was the Black partner of a White man, which I later learned was supposed to be a big deal in several dimensions. But it wasn’t a big deal at all – they were just our friends Paul and Luther.

November 23, 2014

Procrastibaking

by CarlD

Got some papers to read, so made some bagels inst…also.

everythingbagels

November 15, 2014

The banality of banality; or, big causes from little effects

by CarlD

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Existentialism is back on my radar, for a couple proximate reasons. First, because I’ve got a really good student at the moment who’s both motivated and capable to do something more interesting with feminism than tribalize her grievances. So I showed her to Beauvoir and prompted her to make sense of a feminism fundamentally critical of femininity. Second, because in my ‘isms’ reading circle we’ve just gotten to existentialism (via liberalism, conservatism, communitarianism, feminism, communism, and anarchism), so I’ve been re-reading some Sartre (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), Beauvoir (Second Sex intro), and Camus (“The Myth of Sisyphus,” The Stranger). And third, because Hannah Arendt has been popping up a lot lately, via renewed scholarly interest in Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ‘banality of evil’ thesis.

It’s of the latter I now write, motivated by equal parts fascination, perplexity, and pique. This being a blog I’m not going to get all scholarly and construct a ponderously authoritativish argument. For what it’s worth, I was raised by a guy who wrote a book on Camus, so my conversation with existentialists has a certain family at the dinner table familiarity to it. I haven’t read everything Arendt wrote any more than you read everything your scholar aunt wrote (sorry I haven’t read everything you wrote, Aunt Ann Ferguson). There may be surprises there and there are certainly disagreements, but the premises of the discussion are embedded deep down in the basic premises of pre-reflective selfhood. We argue about what to do with them, not about them. And there are ways of not getting existentialism that are, y’know, banal to me.

My first copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem was so marked up, so conversed with in the margins, so thoroughly representative in that intertext of how I think about the world, that I passed it on to my most cherished student when she went away to grad school and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. Then got another copy and marked that one up too. When I first read it the banality of evil thesis gave me a tool for understanding the world that fit my hand right away, as if the calluses of that work were somehow epigenetically already emergent there. Its two strands – that moral personhood is only achieved through responsible, attentive engagement, and that no part of that project can be laid off on any other entity – seemed both obvious to me, and obviously damning to so many human outrages large and small. Yet also a reminder that I didn’t get to sit in easy, disengaged judgment; that the attentive engagement I was responsible for meant I needed to understand first, and that project is never done.

So. Corey Robin is, as usual, doing some good work of a sort with this at his own blog and at Crooked Timber. The issue in the particular post I just linked, a response to two recent books, is whether Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s act: whether she was a dupe who failed to understand the enormity of his vocation for evil, and therefore wrote him off as a clueless drudge unaware of the scope of his crimes, rather than the intentional, calculating monster he was. There are several fatal confounds built into that last sentence, but for now let’s move on.

Robin’s good work is to show that it makes no essential difference to Arendt’s conclusion whether Eichmann was speaking himself truly or shilling a character at the trial. Either he was someone who in the first place wasn’t clear on the enormity of his crimes, or he was someone who in awareness of that fact thought he could get the court to sympathize with him, therefore not actually getting the enormity of his crimes. Either way, Eichmann was both ethically deranged and admittedly participant in enormous crimes. So either way he was evil, the Holocaust was evil, and Arendt was on it.

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

It’s really nice of Robin to translate Arendt into his own Anglo-American liberalism and make her intelligible there; this may even be appropriate, given that the attack on her comes from within the righteous quasi-religious certainties of liberal or social-democratic moralizing. But Arendt’s argument was not based on Anglo-American liberalism, nor even on ethical leftism. It was premised on a distinct kind of activist humanism in the Kant / Hegel / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche trajectory that also led to the existentialists Arendt hung out with. These folks knew their Nietzsche. They knew that God was dead. They had been beyond good and evil their whole thinking lives. They therefore knew damn well that there was something pathetic and clueless about slapping the evil label on troublesome stuff, as if that got it all nicely contained and managed – as if we knew already what that meant and how to handle it, as if delivering the j’accuse enacted a reality more fundamental than the messiness of our beings together.

Camus didn’t talk about evil at all. As I’m reminded as I read through “Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger again, at the macro level he was interested in absurdity, the collapse and absence of any ultimate foundation for meaning or ethical choice. At the micro level he was interested in thoughtlessness, the brutalities and cruelties large and small we inflict on each other because we haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves in relation to others.

And why was Eichmann’s evil banal? Robin tells us: because it was thoughtless.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

Good. But what does this mean to Robin? That Eichmann was, possibly, just a schlemiel. But that can’t be right, because big effects like the Holocaust can’t come from little causes like that. But that’s not what Arendt says, and strangely, it’s not what she means, either. Arendt is arguing precisely that big effects can emerge from little causes; in fact, that this is routinely what happens. This is why, for her, it doesn’t get any worse than thoughtlessness. Robin thinks he needs to rehabilitate Eichmann’s evil given that he might just have been a schlemiel. He reads thoughtlessness as a kind of bourgeois party foul, inattention to the magnitude of his crimes as a tic or trick that needs to be explained away to get to the heart of the matter. But for Arendt, like for Camus, the thoughtlessness and inattention ARE the heart of the matter. Eichmann’s dereliction of thought and attention meant that, no matter how cunning or effective he may have been or not been, he was incapable of responsible presence in the world with others. This failing is not minimized, but intensely magnified, if God is dead and we have nothing but our intelligence and relationships with others to construct an ethical life out of. Add some power and all scales of mischief ensue. Far from threatening to let Eichmann off the hook by calling him ‘merely’ thoughtless and inattentive, Arendt damned him as decisively as the conceptual materials at her disposal made possible.

It’s certainly the case that no one of a religious or quasi-religious cast of mind will find this a satisfying argument. If only the narratives of good and evil will do, have at it. But Arendt paid attention to Eichmann, and thought about him, rather than installing him as an outsize cause in a pat morality tale. And it’s thoughtless and inattentive to accuse Arendt of being a bad foundational moralist, when she had no interest in being anything of the kind.

Note: for a cool takedown of the liberal inability to understand distributed mass action except through inflated personal responsibility, and a partial takedown of Arendt for addressing this via Eichmann as an imperfect case to demonstrate the point, with bonus reflections on how Marx handled such partial theorizing through the concept of the fetish, see Uncomfortable Science.

October 14, 2014

Bringing the excitement

by CarlD

I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.

It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.

Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.

I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.

OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?

September 12, 2014

Mea culpa

by CarlD

Mea maxima culpa.

July 24, 2014

Snowpiercer

by CarlD

Saw an interesting movie last night, “Snowpiercer.” Based on a graphic novel, I gather. The premise is that in response to global warming, the governments of the world leap into action and seed the skies with a chemical meant to bring temperatures down. It does, there’s a catastrophic ice age, and all life on Earth is extinguished. Except for one special train, the work of a visionary inventor, that travels a continuous loop around the world with the few remaining humans, some fish and bugs and whatnot aboard.

The humans are segregated on the train by their conditions of boarding, from first class up front through non-paying refugees in the rear. The plot is driven by the revolt of ‘steerage’, so to speak. There’s a sort of Ayn Randian quality to the basic setup – in the distrust of goverment, of course, but also in that the tail sections in fact contribute very little to the functioning of the train (beyond the odd child of the correct height to tend the innards of the engine) and owe their entire existence to the charity of Wilford, the visionary industrialist and engineer. Consequently, the ethics of sympathy for the poor downtrodden are more Kantian, a la categorical imperative, than Marxist, a la exploitation and alienation. We then go back to Rand to admire the effective gumption of that one leader and his few talented confederates who organize the (incredibly violent) breakout. None of this is articulated with any great care.

What is articulated with great care, notably by Tilda Swinton in a magnificent performance as Wilford’s top henchwoman, is an ideology of sustainability based on rigorous ordering of a closed system. Over and over the rulers explain that the whole can thrive only if each part keeps its place in exactly calibrated balance. It’s a fabulous caricature of vulgar sustainability discourse, and pokes ruthlessly at the fascism that’s never too far away when urgent images of righteous living in relation to existential threat are about.

June 2, 2014

So you want to teach History

by CarlD

I got an email from someone reaching out to local History professors for intel on grad study, with an eye to teaching in higher ed. Research was turning up very negative.

It’s fashionable nowadays for mindful profs to discourage young seekers from taking this path of inevitable doom. I was trying to give the questioner more credit for being able to make its own informed decisions. Here’s what I wrote – anything to add?

Hi! You’re right, the general indications for a teaching career in History at the college level are mixed at best. There are a lot of graduate programs and a lot of applicants for very few positions, and the positions that do exist tend to be low level and impermanent. At this point a doctorate is little better than a hunting license, and a Masters qualifies you only for temp work.

For reference, I have my doctorate from UC San Diego, and it took me three years of gradually working my way up the adjuncting scale, teaching sometimes at three different universities a day, before I got this permanent position at MU. In my field of specialization there were something like 15-20 full-time job openings a year, nationwide, and I have a file three inches thick of rejection letters thanking me for being one of 200 highly qualified applicants. Those are not good odds.

That said, there are jobs and some people do get them. And if it’s your passion, you might as well try to be one of them. What I would recommend is to join the AHA, start stalking the job listings, and pay careful attention to the trends in where the openings are and what sorts of fields and experiences are being sought. Part of my problem was that I was in European intellectual history, a field with lots of graduates but very little workplace demand. In my cohort, Africanists were much more scarce and in demand, and that probably remains true. In general, the market for Americanists and Europeanists is both larger and much more saturated than that for non-Westernists. It also helps a lot to work on underrepresented populations, although if your niche is small enough you could again find yourself in competition for very scarce openings.

Basically, you want your training to pop you as not just another of the usual thing. That gets you in play for the larger departments and the more forward-looking small ones. Then, you want to also be able to handle at least one and preferably several of the bread and butter fields. The big surveys that junior faculty are brought in to teach because senior faculty want no part of them; or the courses that are pretty much the whole curriculum where History is a service field. Smaller departments and community colleges need breadth and flexibilty much more than exotic specialization. Think about niches and prepare yourself strategically.

I would also tune in to H-Net and its associated blogs. There are frequent discussions of the job market there. There’s a lot of fretting, which you shouldn’t discount entirely, but just keep remembering that the job market is segmented and there are, in fact, jobs that people are getting. It’s just a matter of being smart about what’s in demand and developing your interests accordingly. Your passion does not entitle you to someone else’s paycheck, I’m afraid.

Of course, the other thing you can do is push on through with that one burning love, and hope it works out. That’s kind of what I did, and it kind of did work out, but there’s a lot of flaming wreckage along that road also.

Good luck! Carl

May 26, 2014

Here’s a course I wish I’d taken

by johnmccreery

I am not going to run on about it, just provide the link to one of the most thought-provoking articles on education that I have read in a long time. Looking forward to hearing what the Dykes, both junior and elder have to say about it.

February 13, 2014

Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity

by CarlD

I just had what might have been a good moment on the Facebooks. Jim Livingstone posted on how the New York Times hasn’t gotten around to officially noticing the death of Stuart Hall yet (neither had Dead Voles, until now), and in that context I wrote this:

It’s interesting to me how Hall embodied the thesis [“the ‘dispersal of power’ from state to society, ca. 1870-1930, as Gramsci tracked and projected it in the Notebooks (trans., pp. 210-76), thereby explaining why a ‘war of position’ now superseded a ‘war of maneuver’. In effect, a brilliant manifesto for cultural politics,” Jim Livingstone]. He basically WAS Gramsci: layers of marginality radicalized by immersion in the center. But where for Gramsci the hot revolution still looked like a plannable endgame, for Hall it was off the table right from the start, precisely because of that decentering of power. But – given the catastrophes of communist centralism, I think it’s fair to wonder if power has ever not been decentralized, really, so that the whole hegemony thesis ends up looking like a really rough draft of an actual theory of complex systems.

Seconds later, I noticed that here at last was a handle that made me actually want to pick my old Gramsci dissertation / book back up. Until now, other than posting the most recent version here online, I’ve abandoned it to the gnawing of the rats, because I couldn’t figure out how it was anything but yet another idiosyncratic take on well-worn materials. I didn’t have to publish it anyway to get tenure, so I didn’t. Aren’t there enough of those books cluttering up the shelves?

But there’s this thread of analysis in the piece that I always quite liked, and didn’t really know what to do with. I argue that the theorists of the early 20th century really weren’t equipped to cope with the actual complexity of the world, and so they resorted to what I called ‘space maintainers’, sort of folded up theoretical napkins under the short empirical table legs. Constructs that weren’t nearly constructive enough. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony then looks like an attempt to actually theorize complexity rather than shortcutting it somehow. Still, not surprisingly, very shortcutty and so not a good candidate for adoption here and now, but in context quite the thing.

So in that Facebook comment on Hall and Gramsci I haven’t actually said anything new to me; I’m still gnawing on the same bone I always was. But what’s changed is how much I know about following theories of complexity, and how they’ve gradually begun to inform the human studies. All of our discussions on Deacon, Juarrero and so on, for example. Which means I’m now in a much better position to frame the Gramscian / Weberian / Durkheimian moment in the history of theories of complexity, for example by seeing Hall as what Gramsci looks like in a different moment of the intellectual-evolutionary process.

And since this feels like it was my insight and agenda all along, just come into a more satisfying unfolding, I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling I always had when I was trying to think of some way to graft something more interesting onto the stuff I know. Plus, the stuff I get to read to come up to publication speed on this version of the project, and the way I get to read it, actually feels interesting and valuable in its own right, and not just a bunch of legitimacy hoops to jump through.

All of which means I actually have a clear reason to apply for a sabbatical, which is long overdue. So now we get to see if this is a passing enthusiasm, or a project that actually has legs. Cheers!

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:

WE BRAKE FOR EPIPHANIES

At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by CarlD

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

October 18, 2013

Engaging students

by CarlD

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (I’ll crosspost at Attention Surplus, but that’s more of a journal and the commentariat here is larger and more diverse).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right'; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

October 9, 2013

The Overpass National Anthem

by Asher Kay

O Overpass, your majesty bisects the hostile sky
Between the hours of four and three your keening voices cry.
Your wedge, too steep for pudgy tyrants, rising o’er the scree
Provides salvation’s path, which, though abrasive to the knee,
Will ever earn the praises of the luckless such as me
The luckless such as me.

O Overpass, your hundred hearts that beat with every tire
In schizophrenic palpitation kindles the desire
To lie in peaceful slumber, snug between your concrete beams
Until, in fifteen minutes, by the rattling of your seams
The quick and dead alike are raised from hundred heart-beat dreams
From hundred heart-beat dreams.

O Overpass, your purpose is for those who skate above
But purposes have shadows, and all shadows are a glove
And in that glove are birds and fear and cardboard and debris
And shelter, blessed shelter, for the luckless such as we
The luckless such as we.

September 17, 2013

Deacon deepening

by dyketheelder

“One theme of this book is that the planet, and indeed the cosmos, is replete with self-organizing, spatiotemporal systems flowing at different speeds, levels of sophistication, and degrees of staying power. These impersonal systems are open to some degree and never in perfect equilibrium; they interact, with each having a degree of entanglement with several others. … The biosphere itself is an open, thermodynamic system, driving heat into space and contributing to the condition of life on Earth. Such a perspective does not deny self-organizing power to economic markets. It does, however, suggest that these systems are much more fragile, interdependent, and volatile than their fervent supporters imagine, partly because they are closely involved with other self-organizing systems operating at various scales and tempos.”
That’s from the first paragraph of the chapter “second interlude: modes of self-organization” in William E. Connolly’s new book THE FRAGILITY OF THINGS: SELF-ORGANIZING PROCESSES, NEOLIBERAL FANTASIES, AND DEMOCRATIC ACTIVISM Duke UP. The rest of the chapter does a halfway interesting job of spelling out some of Deacon’s apparatus (he calls it “teleodynamism) and applying it in a preliminary way to financial markets and their social consequences. I haven’t read any other chapters except at a glance — I’m real busy at the moment — but the book looks to be pretty wide-ranging (Sophocles, Kant, Whitehead, among others). I’ll certainly get to it when I have the time.
For me, Connolly is a blast from the past. He was one of the more or less Marxian political scientists active in the 60’s (Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes were others), and I read some of his stuff then. He went completely off my screen for about a half century, and now he’s back. Lo and behold, he’s traveled some of the same ground I have, and we meet at Deacon. Those of you who see promise in Deacon’s approach may want to look at its use by an old lefty with a real track record.

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September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

The faculty at the University of Oregon appear to have hoisted themselves in exactly this way we talked about here earlier. I am officially sad about that.

kliban eye poke

August 20, 2013

Yeast again

by CarlD

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

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