Bells and whistles

by CarlD

In the comments on the last post Owen suggests, and Kevin seconds, using student blogs leading into writing assignments to intercept plagiarism, while presumably adding the value of recursive drafting. I think this is a great idea, but as I said there I’m not sure that in my situation and for my purposes it isn’t a solution looking for a problem. But I could be wrong. I’m going to say some stuff I think about various pedagogical techniques and technologies, ‘bells and whistles’ as I sometimes call them when I’m feeling generous, ‘magic bullets’ when I’m not, but ultimately my aim is to participate in a discussion about which strategies and media might be good for what.

I don’t think Powerpoint or Blackboard or blogs or Ning sites are automatically good or bad things; they are tools that may or may not fit the job at hand. In general I agree with Diana Laurillard in her excellent Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993) that “[e]very medium has its strengths, so they can help, but each needs to be complemented by a teacher-student dialogue, and that is ultimately labour-intensive” (178). I’ll admit to being a little on the extreme in thinking, as this sentence implies (and as Laurillard shows throughout), that the one essential feature of good, effective teaching is dialogue. And insofar as the bells and whistles are used to save or displace the intensive labor of dialogue, I think they are actively pernicious.

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Because I think this, my classes are set up with the maximum of dialogue and the minimum of inculcation. I lecture very little and mostly just to show the students how to figure things out for themselves, after which they set to it. I do a lot of modeling, guiding and prompting; I elicit, mediate and referee. The basic process is a recursive spiral, much like meditative or martial arts training, in which we start with the basic skills of critical reading, analysis and synthesis and work through them over and over with new material and projects at increasing levels of facility. I consciously save my energy for the intensive reading and reacting that this process requires from me, and beyond the assigned course materials I expect the baby birds to go find their own worms, so I do very little or no ‘supplementing’. Here’s Laurillard again, from an interview:

And over the last century there were ideas from Piaget and Vygotsky and Bruner and Pask, and so on, and all the way through, no matter who your guru is, you can find somebody who’s saying something similar to that, that what it takes to learn is more than just being told. You’ve got to engage with it, you’ve got to have feedback, you’ve got to be trying to make it your own, you’ve got to be working with it, practising it, applying it in real life, getting feedback on what you do, arguing about it with others, negotiating ideas in all of those things; and I don’t think that changes, and no matter how good the technology is, what it takes to learn a difficult idea is much the same kind of thing, of grappling with it, reflecting on it, arguing about it, trying to apply it, trying again to do it better. That’s what learning means. So what we use the technology for is to find ways of making that better and easier. But it doesn’t change the cognitive task of what you have to do, not that much.

I have the privilege of not needing to use bells and whistles because my classes are small enough (the largest are capped at 25) to enable substantive dialogic process in facetime. There’s no need to lecture, old-school or with the Powerpoint magic bullet, because I’m not stuck with mooing cattle for students packed into the intellectual slaughterhouse of a large hall with seats bolted in rows facing the wisdom gun up front. And although I’ve found Michael Wesch’s work interesting and impressive, unlike him I’m not driven to the internet to compensate for the sociological monstrosity of overloaded classes in barbaric spaces. I can and do get my students in a circle, looking at each other.

There are some pretty spiffy ways the bells and whistles can save labor in the drudgeries of teaching and learning, however; this is where I find them the most promising. If I had a net-enabled projector in my classrooms (you may see here that my campus is so tech-disabled that part of what I’m doing is making virtue of necessity) I’d certainly use it to enlarge images for discussion, maps for orientation, and web resources for assessment. I assign an ethnographic field journal in most of my classes as a reflective record of the teaching/learning experience, and I’m pretty close to suggesting a blog as a way to do that (in fact, one student who was already a blogger did it that way recently on her own initiative). I really liked Wesch’s experiment with having students post executive summaries of divided reading assignments as a way to enable more well-informed and wide-ranging class discussions; I’ve done that sort of thing with handouts and/or oral reports, but depending on how much you want the process or the outcome of research to be the focus his way may gain in efficiency and elegance.

And of course software and web technologies can be fantastic tools for enabling access to practices, materials and conversations for students who would otherwise be excluded; to take notes and organize thoughts; or even just to find answers to questions that come up in class on the fly.

I guess this has turned out to look a bit like a luddite manifesto, but my mind really is not made up on this stuff. In what ways can the bells and whistles be more than bells and whistles? Where do they go from workarounds to enhancements? What’s really new about the new systems, as opposed to flashy new ways to do the same old crap? Is teaching to use these technologies effectively an end in itself, even part of schools’ core responsibility? If we can do these cool things, how stupid would it be not to? Thoughts?

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52 Responses to “Bells and whistles”

  1. Hi Carl,

    I don’t think this is about Luddite-ism (luddism?), but the forms of multitasking and communication you want to foster in the classroom and outside of it. I like the course-blog format because it does encourage much more small research assignments, and more interaction outside the classroom than what they’re used to at my commuter school. But I dislike most of the distance-ed style stuff that my institution encourages, for all the reasons you offer (displacement of interaction, discussion, feedback, etc.)

    The biggest difference between the way I teach now, with course blogs and resource pages with links to digital databases, and the way I did pre-technology, is that the technology actually makes it easier for my lit students to access good, reliable resources instantly, and for me to build that kind of searching into my reading assignments, rather than me xeroxing handouts and having them use those. The blogs enable students to present their own findings to peers and share and compare results. The blogs, as has been pointed out, make an interesting place for students to do short-term research assignments (annotated bibs, etc.) and small writing assignments that fall between in-class exercises and formal essays. But blogs are not labor-saving devices, since you spend a lot of time dealing with their responses to everything.

  2. “the technology actually makes it easier for my lit students to access good, reliable resources instantly”

    Dave, I had to laugh because today in class I was illustrating the concepts of constraint and affordance by talking about my dream to commute to school in a blimp; and in one section a student googled up the prices of blimps (I could get a 20′ advertising blimp for about $1300, which would be awesome in my neighborhood but no help with commuting); and in another section a student googled up the salaries of blimp pilots ($60k plus expenses – where do I sign!).

    I agree with these virtues of course blogs, although for resource pages and database links I like to get students used to talking to the research librarians. I’m also more interested in teaching them how to process a few sources fully than throwing a bunch of stuff at them that they’ll engage superficially, especially in my gen ed classes.

  3. Carl, the question is how you structure the assignments, and how you teach them how to do the necessary information-gathering and assessment of sources, resources, etc. One of the benefits of the electronic stuff is that their research doesn’t take place off-stage on the way to a final paper, but that it can be handed in incrementally and displayed in an electronic forum. So the links etc. can be part of that modeling process.

    The other side of the intensive/extensive argument about sources is that students typically will go for the most obvious, easiest to access resources, and so part of the instructor’s job is to show them the variety of sources they could use to pursue certain questions. This again can be solved by proper structuring of the assignment. But this kind of work is probably easier with majors than gen ed students.

  4. Carl: “I agree with these virtues of course blogs, although for resource pages and database links I like to get students used to talking to the research librarians.”

    Kvond: Though one could certainly argue for “research librarian” skills, the importance of all of them forgrounded by an unethical monopoly on institutional knowledge called JSTOR, it has been a staid, higher education trope that “good sources” are only those that the higher-education institutions control. The now rather hilarious idea that dumb, innocent students will sucked into all kinds of “bad source” knowledge, acmed for instance by the epistemologically criminal Wikipedia (as opposed to reading mindless essays that simply recirculate their footnoted material) is quickly becoming passe in the library of the world. What students need to learn is how to feret out the quality of ALL knowledge sources, and not to buy “brandname” knowledge.

    The Summer before I conducted research into Spinoza’s optical practices, research that apparently had never been thought of, or done in 200 years of higher education Instutional thinking. And I conducted it, for the most part, under a JSTOR restriction. The substantive parts of my work was done almost exclusively through the internet, through Google books, email interviews, wikipedia leads, and then finally with some visits to Yale (yes, the “real” research to view very old primary sources). The point is, or at least my point is, if I had had JSTOR or similiar databases, in which there is hardly even a single article that touched upon the subject matter in the least. Instead, no doubt, my thinking would have been directed, channeled onto the “proven ground”. Actually, this is the reason why I suspect that almost no one had even thought to research the question in the first place. In academia one just walks the path already well-trodden.

    Honestly, the fear of sources is the fear of the loss of control. In my opinion.

  5. Just to add Carl, and sorry that I was a bit incoherent in the last, I was a bit rushed and had to sign off. I apologize if I seemed to be too forceful in my point, but I do feel that there are serious ethical issues in volved in the measure of the quality of source, especially has it has been institutionalized by “higher education”. It is difficult to feel that someone such as you with whom I seem to share important values in terms of education is arguing on the other side of the fence, repeating much of the Party Line in terms of controled sourcing. I would have expected us to be more allied. Even the characterization of innovative teaching modes as “bells and whistles” connotes a more or less closed or biased mind.

  6. “there are serious ethical issues in volved in the measure of the quality of source, especially has it has been institutionalized by “higher education””

    Yes, this is a very good point, and I was not nearly as excited as my colleagues about our library’s buy-in to JSTOR for this reason. Nevertheless, where sources are concerned ‘it’s not all good’ either, so there has to be vetting and I don’t feel a need to exclude established methods of source-vetting out of hand; I’d rather see how they work and what exactly each is good for.

    As an insider/outsider and an interdisciplinarian, for what it’s worth, I can’t get comfortable with this blocky notion of ‘higher education’, either. There are many disciplines and within each, many subdisciplines, often in struggle amongst themselves. Part of their classic weaponry in these struggles is claims about what counts as a valid source and why (just like in religious debates). As the academy has grown and included the working class, women, people of color and so on this epistemological dispersion has only increased (this is one of the sources of ‘postmodernism’). So I just can’t find much traction in the idea of a controlling, panoptical academic disciplinary regime. I’d be totally on board with you if there was one, of course, but there’s not.

  7. “What students need to learn is how to feret out the quality of ALL knowledge sources, and not to buy “brandname” knowledge.”

    Yes, I totally agree.

    “research that apparently had never been thought of, or done in 200 years of higher education Instutional thinking”

    Although the humanities are not nearly well-organized enough to generate anything like kuhnian paradigms (assuming for the moment that sciences are), the model is still instructive. Research does not propagate in all directions at once, it follows along established lines until their productivity collapses. This allows work to be built on what came before and to not always be starting from scratch; it enables communities to develop codes and practices that locally underwrite reliable results; it develops depth and granularity of analysis; but at the cost of leaving much unexplored and even excluded.

    “In academia one just walks the path already well-trodden.”

    There’s some of that, but as long as that path is going somewhere this is not especially a critique. And all that conformity does the noble service of supplying the fulcrum against which innovators can brace their lever.

    “Honestly, the fear of sources is the fear of the loss of control.”

    No doubt, but unless you know a way out of the language game trap all any of us has to offer is a different control mode and personnel. That is, any way of making sense has to pin down some meanings and exclude some others.

    Rather than a sealed, monolithic academe I’d actually be more inclined to argue that the academic humanities are now more than ever a free-for-all of fragmented/ing discourses, as we scrabble frantically against our own loss of gravity.

  8. Hmmm. Let’s see. There are a lot of blacks and women in higher education for the old trope of avoiding the “bad” sources on the internet JUST doesn’t apply. Sorry, I can’t follow your reasoning here in the least. It is precisely the opposite. Institutions have been more or less forced to absorb the less elite of society it has been more important than ever to regulate the sources used for “real” thinking. The endlessly recursive footnote chains that simply feed off themselves, recycling their thoughts are in fact driven in the homogeniety and control by the very factors of diversity you suggest adds the spice to the “higher education” soup. The university has to inculcate people into becoming text producers (under the auspices of being “original” well, regulated thinkers), in order to maintain its production of text consumers (the self-same text producers). At least this is my view. Your role in this, forwarding the same old “research librarian” “good source” validation of knowledge is simply a continuation of the Ideology of Knowledge in which the university specializes (no bells and whistles needed). The university has pretty much been like this since its beginning in Paris and elsewhere.

  9. Well, let’s say you’re right, Kvond, and rather than an assemblage of diverse actors variably networked producing a range of knowledges in multiple modes and levels of legitimacy the university is instead a monolithic total institution of world-historical scope successfully devoted to the extermination of diversity and creation of robotic armies of dull pedants.

    Um, I don’t even know where to go with a premise this sweeping and uninformed by the details of the case. How is this not just another of those “da Vinci Code” potboiler plots?

    Everything you say is true among other things about the academy. The kind of creativity-crushing pedantry and jealous interdiction of unapproved knowledge personified by Brother Jorge in Name of the Rose does exist in persons, and with some regularity succeeds in clustering into local nodes of relative effectiveness that may seem total to particular victims. But to tar all efforts to define standards for the production of clear thought and reliable knowledge with that brush just dumps us into vulgar romanticism. And since I don’t see any signs other than your polemical position on this particular thread that you’re a vulgar romantic, maybe we could find a more nuanced position to talk from?

    I’m taking your challenge very seriously, as always. Like my other comments this one was dashed off in between running around like a chicken between other things I have to do. Really sorry if I’ve misunderstood your point and I hope to be able to come back to this with more care later in the weekend. Cheers.

  10. Carl: “Kvond, and rather than an assemblage of diverse actors variably networked producing a range of knowledges in multiple modes and levels of legitimacy the university is instead a monolithic total institution of world-historical scope successfully devoted to the extermination of diversity and creation of robotic armies of dull pedants.”

    Kvond: Hmmm. Where exactly do I make this my “premise”. It in fact is an absurd premise, perhaps though this represents the kind of re-characterization that you teach in your classes on rhetoric. What I have argued is not monolithism vs. diversity (diversity is exactly the catch-word of institutionalism), but rather more specifically that institutions, whether they be “diverse” or not, work strenuously to control the inside/outside boundary which justifies their existence. And indeed, purporting to be “diverse” environments, but environments nonetheless that are highly qualified under criteria that THEY presume to be tantamount, is one of those strategies they employ. A mode of this qualification is most EXPLICITLY carried out on the level of knowledge sourcing, just the kind of party line talk you seem to be forwarding when you characterize other sources of knowledge and their modes of knowledge organizing as “bells and whistles”. Whether you are a robot in your repetition of these truisms of academically justified, and financially controled “good sources” vs. real world actor “bad sources” remains to be seen. A huge corporation in all its complex inside/outside interactions with the world is not usually monolithic (except in commerical representation), and nether is a university, or the university system. But there are fairly widespread programs of doctrine and procedure, often swallowed hook-line-and-sinker, that help make it “go”. In the university system one of these is the “good source” (inside) vs. the “bad source” outside, which often leads to mental inbreeding of thought.

    Carl: “But to tar all efforts to define standards for the production of clear thought and reliable knowledge with that brush just dumps us into vulgar romanticism. And since I don’t see any signs other than your polemical position on this particular thread that you’re a vulgar romantic, maybe we could find a more nuanced position to talk from?”

    Kvond: Hmmm. Standards of production. What does that remind us of? Nuanced position? As long as you are hyperbolizing my position, it sounds pretty unlikely. When there are “standards of production” I say let’s not be romantic, let’s look at WHAT is being produced, WHO is producing it FOR WHOM, WHY it is being produced, and HOW it is being produced. I say the university or its college counterpart is LARGELY a text producing factory, and what it produces in order to produce such texts (which breed themselves) is a controled means of making text-producers and text-consumers. And a PRIMARY means of making this text-producing factory as self-sustaining and recursively organized as possible is the acute regulation of what counts as “sourcing” (another is careful control of expression). If one can establish a monopoly on knowledge, have an ownership investment in the sources of knowledge that qualify as the real deal (those texts already produced, and inter-dependently self-refenced), and then to get the teachers of text-producers to buy in the substantial belief that THESE monopolized texts and resources (controled in access) are in their very nature superior to those they do not control, one has gone a long way to insulating oneself against outside influences and fluctuations. If indeed you can convince society that the “knowledge” products you are producing are of great value, then of course you can achieve non-profit status while accumulating wealth and forwarding your culture of recursive knowledge as best you can.

    In my view this is the furthest thing from romanticization. Rather it is taking the university and the systems it finds itself in at its most concrete and appreciable value. Looking at what it literally does, and how it accomplishes it through the doctrines its workers must keep in order to make it function.

  11. Kvond,

    There seems to be something at stake here besides blogs and library skills, but let me just throw in a few points that I did not want to get lost in this discussion:

    1. Learning how to evaluate your sources (or their evidence) is not a trivial matter, but is the heart of the whole intellectual enterprise, at least in the humanities, and certainly in textually-based fields like literary scholarship. These are not “research library skills” but are fundamental to what the pedagogues call higher-order thinking. Students don’t need to memorize lists of approved and unapproved sources, but they do need to learn the (multiple, conflicting, contingent) principles that would enable them to choose the appropriate source for the specific problem or argument they’re engaged in. This is something that takes a lot of time to build up, and requires a lot of contact with other people’s arguments, evidence, etc.

    2. It’s not surprising that existing scholarship and scholarly institutions, like all human institutions, are riddled with errors, prejudice, and self-dealing behavior, but learning how to critique the scholars, critics, and bibliographers who fall down in this way still demands learning their practices and their principles, in order to make the specific argument about the inconsistencies, factual problems, unnoticed elisions, etc. To my knowledge, there is no escaping this rhetorical imperative. In other words, Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism” could not have come about without his engagement with the scholarship that he was critiquing, and to some extent preserving with his own work.

    3. I can’t imagine a version of scholarly work that would not demand some kind of outside audience for its arguments, results, findings, etc., and I would equally expect in any definition of scholarship, whatever the official status of the individual scholar, that scholars worked with each others’ products and arguments and results to generate their own insights.

    4. Believing items 1-3 does not absolve those in the university from the need to keep reexamining or reflecting upon the privileges, prejudices, blindnesses, etc. that come along with membership in the institution, or from striving to undo their effects. But this kind of self-critique, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the ways that institutions keep themselves viable over time.

  12. Carl, thanks for considering my points.

  13. Pardon a latecomer’s intervention; but I would like to say a few words on behalf of Kvond’s analysis.

    I say let’s not be romantic, let’s look at WHAT is being produced, WHO is producing it FOR WHOM, WHY it is being produced, and HOW it is being produced. I say the university or its college counterpart is LARGELY a text producing factory, and what it produces in order to produce such texts (which breed themselves) is a controled means of making text-producers and text-consumers. And a PRIMARY means of making this text-producing factory as self-sustaining and recursively organized as possible is the acute regulation of what counts as “sourcing” (another is careful control of expression).

    I recall Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade in which one recommended approach to thinking about a problem (the example was, I recall, something like school drop-outs) is to try to design an institution that produces precisely the disturbing result that is seen as problematic. On my reading, Kvond has taken a very good stab at precisely this kind of analysis. I see here the habits of a mind that has taken the trouble to meticulously relate Spinoza’s philosophy to Spinoza’s craft as a lensmaker and really wants to know how things fit together.

    I am also influenced by Victor Turner, who in one of his best essays remarks that it is not the ideas embedded in the logical sludge of the theories in which we find them that are valuable in the field, but very often those ideas torn out of context and applied in ways that produce flashes of insight, sometimes even revealing how apparently disconnected facts are related.

    To which I must also add the experience of a reader who, for largely sentimental reasons, continues to subscribe to a handful of academic journals and rarely, if ever, reads very much in them, since most of it is well-crafted but utterly pedestrian sludge of the kind to which Turner refers.

    You know that I do not oppose the teaching of the craft of scholarship, and here I may part company with Kvond. But to me the critical question of our day is how to teach that craft AND to stimulate students to look beyond it, to take intellectual risks and come up with something to call their own. How to achieve the right balance. Now that’s a real problem.

  14. Serendipitously, Google throws up a quote for the day:

    Plutarch – “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

  15. JM,

    Thanks for the good words and beneficent reading of my point, much appreciated (and the reference to Spinoza’s lenses is right in line).

    But…”You know that I do not oppose the teaching of the craft of scholarship, and here I may part company with Kvond.”

    I should be clear that I do not decry the teaching of scholarship as a craft, or even a genre of literature. I am reminded of even Graham Harman’s ridiculous but true advisement for young essay writers to throw into your essay some antique thinker who has been forgotten by philosophy in order to give heft or allure to your argument. Why not. Great advice into what can be under the hood.

    And scholarship of even greater weight is certainly worth reading and teaching. But scholarship is best understood in its context, amid all the forces that are working to produce it, and within the readership it is meant. It is just a matter of keeping your eyes upon the “invisible” margin.

    Further, I find scholarship in places where others might not. For instance when trying to find out what Spinoza may have been able to see through his microscopes and why he may have polished his lenses a certain way, indeed I consulted all the scholarship I could find (with almost no results), but then through the internet I found a guy in Latin America who made his own tiny lenses by hand, very close to 17th century processes, out of passion. The man was a scholar with no footnotes, while the “scholarship” was mute on the subject.

  16. Further, I find scholarship in places where others might not. For instance when trying to find out what Spinoza may have been able to see through his microscopes and why he may have polished his lenses a certain way, indeed I consulted all the scholarship I could find (with almost no results), but then through the internet I found a guy in Latin America who made his own tiny lenses by hand, very close to 17th century processes, out of passion. The man was a scholar with no footnotes, while the “scholarship” was mute on the subject.

    Again serendipitously, while interacting with folks in the Open Anthropology Cooperative, I have picked up the phrase “ethnographic critique.” This example, it strikes me, is very close to what it should mean. Having read and applied the craft of scholarship to the reading, one turns to the world and to those who may be doing any number of things normally treated as alien to scholarship. Then one of those flashes of insight to which Turner refers may occur.

  17. “The man was a scholar with no footnotes”

    Coupla stray thoughts here. When I was living in Italy as a kid we went up to Venice one winter, and while I was poking around town I found this little shop way off the beaten track in which this young artisan sat blowing absolutely exquisite, perfectly detailed insects. We collected insects at the time so I knew how to see how cool his work was. I sat talking with him for hours. He worked from life and from books, and each bug was a little masterpiece. I’m not sure he added anything to the ‘scholarship’ of entomology, which in fact he relied on, but he was a profoundly accomplished man.

    When I was at Cal State I used to hang out with Ada, the janitor in the social science building. I thought she was the smartest person there. She told me once about how she’d noticed that her daughter was having trouble learning to read. She thought about what her daughter had no trouble with, decided that was eating, and made her letters out of Jello so she could associate them with flavor and texture. At that time I was volunteering as an adult literacy tutor in a progressive program that used a variant of the Slingerland multisensory method. We had the students trace the letters with their fingertips and pay attention to how saying them felt on their tongues. Ada could certainly have published findings on the value of getting taste involved.

    I’ve never thought it helps much to check people’s credentials to see if what they’re saying has value. It either does or it doesn’t; the credentials are beside the point.

    On scholarly insularity I remember being struck when I read Azimov’s Foundation trilogy in my early teens by the young galactic historian who decides he’s going to actually go looking for new sources rather than simply commenting on the secondary sources as his peers had been doing for hundreds of years. Clear enough that’s no way to get anywhere.

  18. All these examples and thoughts are fine examples of activities based on one’s personal knowledge of something, but do they speak to the social functions of scholarship?

    They don’t seem to respond to my point about the need for an audience of scholarship, or a body of circulating, preexisting work that scholars work from/against.

    I think it’s perfectly intelligible to discuss the expressive element in scholarship, which certainly motivates lots of people to engage in it, but at some point we also need to discuss the structures of dissemination and accumulation/aggregation of its insights. What’s the mechanism, social or otherwise, used to regulate the scholar’s address to a scholarly audience? What standards are being used to decide which insights will be taught and passed along to future scholars? I think the linked questions of scholarly insularity and standards (and I don’t believe there are universal, acontextual standards) needs to be considered in the context of dissemination and transmission, which are ultimately going to be collective and institutional questions, as far as I’m concerned.

    Here’s my version of the problem: there were 18th century English fantasies of oral poetry in mid-century writers like Thomas Gray, where poet/scholars assumed that “bards” did what they did for themselves, without recognizing the need for an audience in a face to face setting. Of course, there were still poets like this hanging around in the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland, but these scholars didn’t recognize them as such, and the Gaelic-speakers themselves never had their knowledge of those poems validated as scholarship. That only occurred much later.

    This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a failure to recognize empirically what was going on, but the ability to perceive such activities as “poetry” had to wait on the conceptual framework that would allow scholars to recognize it as both “oral” and “poetry.” That conceptual framework, however, only came about because of scholarly attempts to integrate understandings of “national epic poetry” into their existing framework of classical and modern history.

    I suppose the lesson I take from this example is that individual observation is hugely important, but that it is often dependent on the preexisting conceptual framework that helps to establish it. It takes a major collective shift in scholarly attention (antiquarianism, Scots nationalism, etc.) to begin altering that schema, and this kind of lag is exactly what historians study when they talk about the innovations in historiography in this period. There are certainly innovators in every field, but the other side of this is an audience of practitioners (not necessarily predefined) who understand the nature of the innovation and pursue it themselves.

  19. Kvond said “And scholarship of even greater weight is certainly worth reading and teaching. But scholarship is best understood in its context, amid all the forces that are working to produce it, and within the readership it is meant. It is just a matter of keeping your eyes upon the “invisible” margin.”

    Dave said “individual observation is hugely important, but that it is often dependent on the preexisting conceptual framework that helps to establish it. It takes a major collective shift in scholarly attention (antiquarianism, Scots nationalism, etc.) to begin altering that schema”

    I said “Although the humanities are not nearly well-organized enough to generate anything like kuhnian paradigms (assuming for the moment that sciences are), the model is still instructive. Research does not propagate in all directions at once, it follows along established lines until their productivity [] collapses. This allows work to be built on what came before and to not always be starting from scratch; it enables communities to develop codes and practices that locally underwrite reliable results; it develops depth and granularity of analysis; but at the cost of leaving much unexplored and even excluded.”

    Aren’t we all arguing the two sides of the coin here? The standards of scholarship enable the collection, analysis and communication of reliable knowledge. But they do that by developing, institutionalizing and enforcing conceptual schemata that occlude or exclude other options.

    We also seem to agree that the way to optimize the signal-to-noise ratio is not to institutionalize censorship but to improve our own filters. We must become more discriminating. Still, as Dave says the audience and communication requirements of scholarship mean we can’t each do that any way we see fit and expect it to work out well.

    John said “But to me the critical question of our day is how to teach that craft AND to stimulate students to look beyond it, to take intellectual risks and come up with something to call their own. How to achieve the right balance. Now that’s a real problem.”

  20. If we are arguing two sides of the same coin, this is called a disagreement.

    Essentially, you think “peer review” establishes a firm foundation for real knowledge (and one supposes genuine thinking). I suggest that “peer review”, at least in the realm of the humanities, does much less of either of these. The knowledge tends to be self-referential and “school’ building, and the thinking used to engage it is often directed towards learning how to SOUND like you know stuff, rather than actually engaging with picture building.

  21. For an example of how “scholarship” and School thinking promote dead-thought, when you and I Carl were having a discussion over the importance of certain ideas in history, ideas that you were asking the details about, you ended up shrugging of my arguments with first a). Claiming that you are not really a “systematic” thinking, and b)…

    “And the thing is, when people actually do sit down and grind through that kind of analysis, as for example the Annales School did in their own way, they never find individual thinkers or even thinking at all, except in the pragmatic sense of working with constraints and affordances, as the critical threads.”

    It is precisely this mindless appeal to “scholarship” to CLOSE thinking off, and STILL sound like you really know what you are talking about; I still think your elimination of very specific historical influences upon American history and your failure to address Cartesian influences upon Law Theory as come down to the New Amsterdam colony, acutely unsatisfying. Instead, in typical professorial style you grumbled something like, “well, if you do the right kind of analysis that the so-and-so school did, you clearly see that you are wrong” relieving yourself of any responsibility of either thinking things through anew, or providing actual, living arguments in the face of raised evidence. This is precisely the kind of behaviorial thinking that I suspect you are teaching your “well sourced” research librarian students. Find a school of scholarship, adopt their point of view, drag all their footnotes into your paper, and sound like you know what you are talking about. And if anyone presses you to think, just point back at the “scholarship” and gesture again and again. All the while, very little active thinking has been done. You get this kind of referential school advocacy, I say mindless, intellectual ass-covering all the time in schools.

  22. Gentles, a modest proposal. Suppose that peer review were modified to require reading by scholars in radically different fields, as well as the one to which the author belongs. Instead of assuming that only those who have studied the same or similar things in the same or similar ways are qualified to comment, why not make the test for publication whether someone, of equal or greater academic standing in some other field, finds what is said interesting enough to recommend for others to read?

  23. John,

    There are already practices like this in place in universities, both in dissertation committees (the “outside reader”) and in tenure review (college- and university-wide tenure committees). Do they work as they should? Well, yes and no.

    From my experience, going outside is as likely to introduce an outside agenda into the discussion (e.g., historians hate literary types; psychology doesn’t understand the purpose of education types; economists hate everybody etc. etc.) as it is to critique the insiders’ agenda. And don’t get me started on tenure cases where upper-level committee-members in distant fields start trying to adjudicate on disciplinary matters.

  24. Dave, am I wrong to believe that in most of the cases you mention the “outside reader/reviewer” is someone from the same field in another institution or, alternatively, from an adjacent and, therefore, academic rival field? If not, it might be interesting to see what would happen if the spread was increased; the sociologist has to impress a geologist, the microbiologist say something of interest to the specialist in Chaucer. Not saying that this would be easy to implement, but it could increase the speed of percolation of ideas from one academic silo to others, supporting the renewal of a broad academic culture instead of the chaos of mutually jealous disciplines that Andrew Abbott describe.

    You still haven’t, by the way, responded to the fundamental implication of Kvond’s model, which is that the university now exists primarily to reproduce itself, with academic habits about as much use to the world at large as learning to write elegant “eight-legged essays” was to the mandarins charged with administering Qing Dynasty China. They, too, had their academic standards and faced a world in which what they knew so well seemed increasingly irrelevant.

  25. John,

    In the German medieval universities, I think they had the tradition where the “defense” actually took place in the town square, and scholars actually traveled to different cities to do battle in Latin on theological issues. Is this the model we’re going to adopt?

    Seriously, though, we either bring together those who share topics and problems, or we don’t. If fields share problems then there will be mutual jealousy, and if they don’t, what’s the point of talking together? There is no overarching intellectual order that ensures that business school students will learn useful things from microbiologists. In other words, interdisciplinarity cannot be prescribed in advance of specific problems.

    As for Kvond’s model of scholarly institutions as sites of bureaucratic reproduction, I guess my question, is this really news to anyone who has attended high school or college, let alone grad school, or worked at a university? I suppose I’m not allowed to cite existing scholarship about this, but these are longstanding debates that Max Weber, Samuel Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, or Mary Douglas have all engaged in. Why shouldn’t we avail ourselves of those insights?

    I can read Samuel Butler’s Characters and enjoy the “Character of a Pedant,” so I get the idea, yes. Scholars have been mocked for being out of touch for a long, long time. But specialization and the disciplinary structures it helps to erect are not going away any time soon.

  26. Dave: ” I suppose I’m not allowed to cite existing scholarship about this, but these are longstanding debates that Max Weber, Samuel Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, or Mary Douglas have all engaged in. Why shouldn’t we avail ourselves of those insights?”

    Kvond: Sure, cite all the scholarship you would like. I love scholarship, as long as “scholarship” does not in the abstract stand in for argument. You might like to point this scholarship in the direction of Carl who seems to feel that anything that is not in the service of such bureaucratic, “peer review” (re)production is either a “bell” or a “whistle”.

    It really comes down to a question of pedagogy, and how to best stimulate thinking. Appeal to authority (such and such a “school” in lieu of arguments), the harvesting of footnotes and sources cited (packing) becomes the academic game par excellence.

  27. Dave writes,

    Seriously, though, we either bring together those who share topics and problems, or we don’t. If fields share problems then there will be mutual jealousy, and if they don’t, what’s the point of talking together?

    Is this not the reductio ad absurdum of academic specialization? You declare the irrelevance of any opinion not contained within your closed circle and still expect patrons or taxpayers to fund your personal hobbies. You teach students to do the same and call it education. This in a world where information is cheap and judgment in short supply, where the most valuable skill there is is being able to think outside the boxes that schooling provides.

    And what makes you so cockamamy sure that chanting names like ” Max Weber, Samuel Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, or Mary Douglas” will scare me off? I’ve read them all and sat at the same conference table as Samuel Weber (in Taipei of all places, at a culture studies conference organized by Allen Chun at Academia Sinica). If there are insights here that seem particularly relevant or to count against the arguments raised against you, why not spell them out instead of doing precisely what Kvond accuses you of doing, hiding behind credentialing that increasingly looks like that deployed by the Wizard of Oz.

  28. Kvond, and now John,

    This is going to have to be my last post, because this is taking time away from a deadline that is looming, but here goes, as briefly as I can.

    I’m a little mystified here, because I’m not seeing much in the way of an argument against institutions and disciplinarity beyond the usual critique of bureaucratization as standardization, or institutions as machines that simply foster mindless reproduction of the status quo. Yet to my knowledge, no one so far has actually denied that specialization and/or institutionalization can cause myopia; what I’m not seeing on the Kvond/John side is an acknowledgment that this institutionalization-causes-myopia critique cannot be the whole story about institutions and their effects. There are purposes here that need to be acknowledged, effects (intended and unintended) to be factored in, and potential alternatives that could be weighed. Have these been introduced into the discussion?

    Now I’ve repeatedly questioned whether it is the social organization of scholarship and knowledge-gathering that is chiefly responsible for this problem of myopia, an effect of the division of scholarly labor which some scholars have been well aware of, and attempted to compensate for, for some time. I also believe that standards are inextricably caught up in the problems of communicating and transmitting one’s findings to a wider public. And I do not think think, if university P&T committees are any indicator, that a prescriptive interdisciplinarity would be an effective way to counter the institutionalized myopia that everyone has already complained about, because to my mind the problems are what inspire the interdisciplinary convergences, not the other way round.

    For my part, I have a lot of sympathy for the anti-institutional strain of this argument, because who wants to defend bureaucratization for its cheerful effects on intellectual and institutional life? This is one of the reasons why I appreciated Douglas’s critique of Weber in How Institutions Think, and Sam Weber’s critique of Fish’s notion of professionalism in Institutions and Interpretation. For that matter, that’s why I teach Edward Said every semester to students in a course on Jonathan Swift. All these writers in their own way offer up their own remedies against specific problems of disciplinary myopia. But I wouldn’t mistake their positions for reflexive complaints against specialization and institutions. Every single one of these figures had a relation to some discipline, even as they debated with others about the exact relations that existed between the disciplines they drew upon.

    So all bs aside, what’s the argument about here? As I’ve repeatedly claimed, the argument about standards is (or ought to be) linked to the scholar’s imperatives towards communication of her findings to some scholarly community, however broadly that is defined. Standards, however, are not simply externally imposed by institutions, but are also used by individual practitioners to direct their studies in more profitable directions. You’ve both already made the argument against the external standards but have said nothing about the internal standards that help to direct scholars in their studies. Do you feel that such standards do not exist? Or that they cannot be shared or communicated in any way without risking the robotic alienation you complain about? For that matter, if institutions are devoted to the preservation and maintenance of past knowledges, then how is that to be distinguished from what you term “reproduction”? Should everything be preserved? Nothing? Who is best qualified to make the call?

    Standards may very well function pragmatically at least part of the time as a way to divide sheep from goats, insiders from outsiders, but that is not the whole story; their local function of preserving an institution’s status and prestige says nothing one way or the other about the effectiveness of that knowledge. People wouldn’t give good money to pharmaceutical researchers if they didn’t eventually produce some stuff good for someone’s sales; for that matter, “productivity” is lingua franca in the contemporary university even in the humanities, and even that kind of quantitative measure depends on real research activity, not just lines on a cv. The resort to substantively empty, quantitative measures is at least partly due to the fact that the research activities going on in universities have become so disparate and sub-specialized they are incommensurable in any other form.

    I’m not defending the current configuration of academic knowledge, which I agree has lots of problems, myopia being just one of them. But as long as increasing specialization remains one of the most effective ways to organize the enterprise as a whole, it won’t go away. So I’d like to hear more about where this kind of critique could go, in terms of the organization, dissemination, and transmission of scholarship over time. If institutions per se won’t do the trick, what could (or should) replace them?

  29. “Appeal to authority (such and such a “school” in lieu of arguments), the harvesting of footnotes and sources cited (packing) becomes the academic game par excellence.”

    If authority is the issue here, it seems to me that there is a difference between a citation that seeks to foreclose discussion and one that invites deepening of the common knowledge that enables further discussion.

    “I love scholarship, as long as “scholarship” does not in the abstract stand in for argument.”

    Me too. But we don’t develop arguments from scratch, working forward from grunts and gestures to language to worldviews and so on. Any given discussion and its arguments are defined by the scope of the shared resources its participants can draw upon to make sense with each other. And thus there is a limited ‘zone of proximal development’ for any given conversation, the space between where the participants start out given what they share/don’t share and where they can possibly end up with each others’ help.

    No one can be expected to backfill the whole experience that enables sentences in higher-order conversations for conversants who do not share that experience. If the topic is the Hadron Collider there’s only so far a conversation between a particle physicist and an auto mechanic can go, and if the conversation is Dao practice in Taiwan there’s also going to have to be a long learning curve for the anthropologist.

    There’s nothing inherently elitist about this, it’s just the ordinary consequence of cultural difference and the diversification of experience in complex societies. Nor is it surprising that discourse communities develop to enable people of shared experience to do most of their talking to each other (and to reproduce more), so that productivity may happen at the front edge of the zone of proximal development and so that our delicate feelings may be spared the face-losing experience of relative conversational incompetence.

    Sometimes my students will miss a class for one reason or another, and when next they see me they’ll ask if they missed anything. My first thought is, well let’s hope so because otherwise we’re all just wasting a lot of each other’s time. And then I think, if I could effectively boil down in a few sentences what students need to get out of an hour of class, I’d just do that, and we could either move much faster and cover much more or we could get out early and go play. I love play. And I tell them this, and then I do what I can anyway to fill that little local competence gap, thinking how nice it would have been to know all the things I know without having to sit through all those classes and read all those books, which if the present conversation is to be believed was apparently a waste of time anyway because any argument that has to make reference to any of that is just a bunch of elitist crap.

  30. “And what makes you so cockamamy sure that chanting names like ” Max Weber, Samuel Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, or Mary Douglas” will scare me off? I’ve read them all and sat at the same conference table as Samuel Weber (in Taipei of all places, at a culture studies conference organized by Allen Chun at Academia Sinica). If there are insights here that seem particularly relevant or to count against the arguments raised against you, why not spell them out instead of doing precisely what Kvond accuses you of doing, hiding behind credentialing that increasingly looks like that deployed by the Wizard of Oz.”

    John, the thing is that because you’ve read those people Dave would be able to gesture efficiently at their arguments, with which you are familiar, to make his own point at the front edge of them. In fact that’s exactly what he’s done. But if he has to reconstruct the whole development of the sociology of culture with all its premises and settled understandings for someone who hasn’t done that work, he might never get to make any point. And the next question is why he would even bother to knock himself out that way for someone not just unwilling but defiantly resistant to that work.

    You know, I’ve always thought it was rude to go to someone else’s country and expect them to speak my language. I expect that I’m going to have some learning to do and I’m grateful for whatever help the locals may be willing to offer. I try to keep my relative incompetence in perspective. For people unfamiliar with a body of research relevant to a field of conversation, a citation is that kind of help. Might it also be a power-play? Sure, in the same way that native-speakers can be pretty snarky about the rubes, especially when they live in the tourist zones and see a lot of them.

  31. Friends, I’m in a twist about this conversation, in which somehow I’ve been bizarrely cast in the role of defender of an academy I’ve spent a lifetime ironizing and undermining from within. I am especially amazed to find myself the champion of peer review, which I have not mentioned, much less elevated to an exalted epistemological position. Like most human things it’s a kludge, with upsides and downsides. I share Dave’s puzzlement about what the disagreement is here.

    It seems to me that there’s a hidden premise here, which is that the humanities do not generate respectable cumulative knowledges and expertises in the same way as, say, the sciences. Which may be true, but if so we’re all wasting our time, the outsiders just as much as the insiders. So while I hope no one here would think they could stroll into a lab and start mixing chemicals based on their colors or odors, the presumption seems to be that in the humanities critique is equally available to any player, so that any call on participants to do some work to get up to speed for the conversation at hand is inherently illegitimate schooling, silencing, name-that-offense against decency.

    And no, that’s not how it works. You’ve got to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t, the conversation is either foreclosed by ignorance or becomes part of a process of education. I teach so that there will be more people in the world who are actually interesting to talk to, not because I’ve indoctrinated them into some robotic cult mentality but because they’ve got some depth and breadth to their understanding. Plenty of people get that without formal schooling, and plenty of people never get that from formal schooling. But there’s one common denominator for anyone who’s interesting and fruitful to talk with: they’ve done the work, and they’re willing to do more, and they don’t expect others to do it for them. Grr.

  32. Dave, you are a stand-up guy. Your taking the time to respond at length to my pointed rants earns my admiration. Perhaps we should back up a bit. Could we agree that we both admire serious scholarship: by which I mean careful research, systematically looking for evidence that contradicts our assumptions, and developing arguments that are insightful, logically consistent, and account for the details of the evidence we are talking about. In my case, I see these characteristics in Kvond’s blog Frames/Sing.

    So I don’t thing that our disagreements have to do with a contrast between scholarship and unfettered brainstorming with no grounding in material facts. They have, instead, to do with the current academic apparatus, the institutional context in which academic scholarship is embedded. The traditional chain of gatekeepers—peer review, publishers, critics and librarians—has, historically, provided a form of quality control. Now, however, it seems to me, a friend of the academy but a self-supporting independent scholar, that these traditional safeguards have been overwhelmed by the economics of academic competition. This problem is especially acute in the social sciences and humanities. When the criterion for inclusion in peer-review is membership in a small circle of people interested in problems that are utterly esoteric to academics from other fields, let alone the intelligent lay reader, the result resembles the situation of Javanese peasants described by Clifford Geertz in Agricultural Involution: more and more people cultivating smaller and smaller fields while actual productivity declines. Intensive cultivation can produce enough rice to keep the peasant from starving; but the peasant’s livelihood is constantly threatened by factors beyond his control.

    Does this seem to you to be an unfair characterization of the humanities and social sciences today?

  33. JM: “So I don’t thing that our disagreements have to do with a contrast between scholarship and unfettered brainstorming with no grounding in material facts. They have, instead, to do with the current academic apparatus, the institutional context in which academic scholarship is embedded. The traditional chain of gatekeepers—peer review, publishers, critics and librarians—has, historically, provided a form of quality control. Now, however, it seems to me, a friend of the academy but a self-supporting independent scholar, that these traditional safeguards have been overwhelmed by the economics of academic competition. This problem is especially acute in the social sciences and humanities. When the criterion for inclusion in peer-review is membership in a small circle of people interested in problems that are utterly esoteric to academics from other fields, let alone the intelligent lay reader, the result resembles the situation of Javanese peasants described by Clifford Geertz in Agricultural Involution: more and more people cultivating smaller and smaller fields while actual productivity declines.”

    Kvond: I consider this well-summarized (and thanks for the postive reading of my blog and the research there). Although I agree with this significantly, I also feel that the above finds its deepest entrenchment in the minds of the educators as they come to indoctrinate (i.e., teach them the doctrine) thier students on what constitutes real knowledge (good sources) and not insignificantly WHERE and HOW to find it. The where and how, as a mode or ritual of knowledge making (all the behaviours that surround libraries and their databases) are as firm a foundation for what you describe, as the policies and practices of the journals themselves. Paper writing and footnote dragging are a part of this.

  34. Carl, you are a stand-up guy, too, and you make a good point: To be a serious player, you have to know the game. Do you, however, seriously think that either Kvond or I would disagree with that proposition?

    I haven’t invested a large part of the last two years in studying social network analysis to get up to speed on the tools I need or assembled a small library of relevant scholarly and other literature related to my current project because I think that just anybody can waltz in and do the same thing off-the-cuff. And when I look at Kvond’s Frame/Sing blog I see an obsession with deep scholarship that is positively scary. And nothing that I have read you write suggests that you are anything but a very serious guy, indeed, who is not at all an automaton marching to an institutional beat. We all know things that the others don’t. We all have misperceptions that the others among us could usefully correct. Why not just correct them?

  35. Thanks, John.

    “We all have misperceptions that the others among us could usefully correct. Why not just correct them?”

    The answer in the present case is that the very process by which knowledge is shared and misperceptions are corrected is what’s apparently in dispute.

    There is no short answer to sweeping condemnations of the academy as a whole enterprise, but there are certainly references that can be made to larger literatures that address, from various perspectives, issues of knowledge production, institutionalization, reproduction and so on. For example, as you know Pierre Bourdieu has a whole series of studies, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, Homo Academicus, and The State Nobility in which he develops detailed, devastating, and for those of us with a sense of self-irony, hilarious critiques of the French system very much along the lines that we’re discussing here. As you well know, Bourdieu is not easy to summarize and lends himself to superficial readings and facile dismissals even by those who have engaged him directly. But he’s right on point for this discussion. Now, am I just ‘footnote dragging’ when I mention this, or think the conversation would be better if we didn’t have to reinvent that wheel here? What exactly would count as a legitimate way of pointing to existing scholarship on point that wasn’t just the insular silencing gesture of knowledge nazis? What should we be teaching our students about this?

    Btw, I entirely agree that Kvond’s blog is a model of scholarly excellence and always a pleasure to visit.

    “Does this seem to you to be an unfair characterization of the humanities and social sciences today?”

    Yes and no. But I’ve got to run to seminar now.

  36. Serendipitously I am browsing Questia, looking for references to Alfred North Whitehead and I stumble across the following, from a volume titled The Wit and Wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead. I thought, “Kvond will enjoy this.”

    Again and again Whitehead stresses the danger involved in extreme reliance on words. Is it not true that there are many things we know which we cannot verbalize? Why then try to restrict knowledge only to that which can be verbalized? Worse still, there is a tendency in the modern world to replace an interest in facts by an interest in words. Whitehead notes with ironic humor that, in the Garden of Eden, Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional education system children name the animals before they see them. “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity. It is tame because it has never been scared by facts.”

    To Carl and Dave I can only say that I thought it proper to cite a source or two. Since I only have one so far, allow me to cite a joke I heard from my Dad, whose higher education stopped with an associate’s degree and a machinist’s certificate from the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock apprentice school.

    Q. “What is an expert?”
    A. “An X-spurt? An unknown quantity of drip under pressure.”

    I try to keep that in mind when people call me an expert on Chinese religion or Japanese advertising.

  37. Here, now, is something for Carl from Whitehead,

    “The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. . . . This atmosphere of excitement arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.”

  38. Thank you, John, that’s beautiful.

    It’s because I’d like students to have access to Whitehead et. al. that I teach them how to work with words. This is not an easy access and the learning curve is therefore challenging. But by focusing lots of my effort there I do not say or even imply that words encompass all knowledge or can replace other tools of imagination and thought. On the contrary, I think humanistic intellectuals’ privileging of words is a transparent ideology, and given the relative powerlessness of words in most contexts, a pathetic one.

  39. For a nice framing contrast see Anodyne Lite’s recent reflections on pedagogy in small private and large public universities.

    John, thanks too for the joke, and Kvond for the challenge.

  40. “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity. It is tame because it has never been scared by facts.”

    Boy howdy, you’ll get no argument from me on this. Except – it is inescapable that unless we want our knowledge to be restricted to the products of our own experiences, we need some way(s) to learn from the experiences of others. A community of scholarship is, among other things, a means to get ‘bigger’ and (potentially) more synthetic than any of us alone. That this isn’t exactly how it works has been well-described by Bourdieu, who all of us in this discussion know, and others who we may all not. But Bourdieu has no good solution to the problem, because it is fundamental to the dynamics of the durable institutionalization of community (think of Weber’s ‘routinization of charisma’). He thinks we should be more reflexive, and I agree. But that kind of optional intentionality is a slim, poorly rooted reed compared to the earth and weather and forests and savannahs of established practice, as he himself documents.

    Still, even though the community of scholarship is loaded down with latent functions that impair and occlude its manifest function, savvy practitioners can still leverage its ideals against its jagged edges; and with the recent proliferation of subcommunities, subliteratures and gatekeepers this is easier than ever before.

    To me, it’s not about chopping down the redwood just in case you’d like the oak that replaced it better, but being the termite that knows how to find the tastiest grain. As a good friend remarked, commenting on a previous thread, “I suppose that when you see how things are functioning, you can make (and argue for) value judgments for how it ‘should’ function. Do we really want to live like that? If you don’t know how things are functioning, and see only ‘disfunction’, you can end up pulling a single string and unraveling the whole sweater, unknowingly.

    And then there are those that love to look for just such a string.”

  41. “When the criterion for inclusion in peer-review is membership in a small circle of people interested in problems that are utterly esoteric to academics from other fields, let alone the intelligent lay reader, the result resembles the situation of Javanese peasants described by Clifford Geertz in Agricultural Involution: more and more people cultivating smaller and smaller fields while actual productivity declines.”

    John, as I understand it Agricultural Involution became a standard in its field and an essential point of reference in Javanese policy-making circles. But because the dynamic of involution was external market pressures in tension with durable local practices only partly responsive to market logic, neither of which were directly tractable by policy, knowing what the problem was wasn’t much help.

    In this respect at least, I think the analogy holds. The academy is subject to market pressures in tension with durable local practices. An institution evolved over time largely to reproduce status elites by containing and flywheeling knowledge production has been repurposed from ‘outside’ on the fly to train a new technical intelligentsia and underwrite a legitimating myth of equal status access, both purposes that are fundamentally in tension with the historic mission (and all three also fundamentally in tension with the intellectuals’ own corporate ideology of truth-seeking). The response has been retreat into smaller and smaller fields.

    But there’s a parallel dynamic that is not analogous to Javanese landholding, and that’s ordinary durkheimian division of labor. As population densities and social complexity increase, it is efficient to divide and separate functions more and more, leading pathologically to anomie, which is essentially a breakdown of collective regulatory standards. Under these circumstances it’s to be expected that there would be desperate local attempts to enforce or/and reform community norms, and that these would inevitably fail at the system level.

  42. Carl, that sounds right to me. The next step may be to consider the fractal fragmentation described by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines, in which perennial issues recur recursively, so that, e.g., Qualitative vs. Quantitative is not only a broad division but recurs within both camps, with pure Qualitative types aligned against Qualitative but willing to use Quantitative data/techniques types and pure Quantitative types opposed to those who add Qualitative considerations to their Quantitative analysis…..ad infinitum. The interesting thing here is how the perennial issues define the fractal patterns. I wonder if this observation, if valid, might have practical, pedagogical implications, i.e., ensuring that students have a solid introduction to the basic perennial issues and the ability to recognize them when they recur in new contexts. I wonder how this sounds to someone like yourself who works down in the trenches of undergraduate education?

  43. Yup, ad infinitum, eternal return, history repeating first as tragedy, then as farce….

    The fractal image is terrific because we can see, for example, ‘quals’ and ‘quants’ as attractors at the nodes of ordered distribution patterns that just keep getting more densely populated as the dynamic cranks over from cycle to cycle. Because the nodes are defined in mutual exclusion, it’s hard to see how to add attractors that would change the dynamic. This is not a problem for participants in the system who are strongly attracted to either node. Usually the response from the others is to ‘prefer’ the distribution midpoints where ‘both/and’ solutions cluster. Every attractor will also throw its outliers, of course, and a few system participants will ‘prefer’ those.

    From the trenches, where this all happens for persons in realtime: Attractive recursion is an essential principle of education. And brainwashing. The danger is always there that education will be ‘harrowing’, in the sense of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” I take this to be Kvond’s worry.

  44. One caution, though. From a purely logical point of view there is no reason why the recursion and fractal proliferation couldn’t go on forever. Given the hardware limitations of a material world, there must either be some pruning mechanism or, in fairly short order, a catastrophic system crash. Now the imagery shifts to punctuated evolution with periodic mass die-backs before new forms emerge.

    Returning to our original debate, one observes that peer-review in the form that Dave was describing only works as a pruning mechanism inside the fractal fragment to which the peers belong. It provides no defense at all against the inevitable system crash when there is no cross-cutting feedback to counter continuing fragmentation.

  45. Michael Wesch? Who is this dude? Oh… he’s got a boatload of videos… Christ. And I just spent the weekend trying to absorb John Searle’s videos on YouTube. Now I must go and watch this Wesch guy.

    Slavedrivers.

  46. Mush, Noen, mush! It’s for your own good.

    John, yes, absolutely. The system as described can only function as long as there is expansion of space or resource input, preferably both. Failing those the options are limited. A clear-out is inevitable and will happen ‘naturally’ if it’s not managed intentionally. There will be a collapse inward toward the attractors to concentrate pull, I imagine in the form of a new interest in alliances, and outliers will be dragged in or cut loose entirely because their space and energy cost is too high.

  47. Reading Kafka Improves Learning, Suggests Psychology Study

    According to research by psychologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia, exposure to the surrealism in, say, Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” or Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions. The researchers’ findings appear in an article published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science.

    “The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the article. “And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”

    Yay for David Lynch! Personally, I think I do understand Lynch, or at least have a foothold into his territory. I’m gonna have to go watch Blue Velvet again.

    Now it’s dark.

  48. Yeah, I think good teaching is reality therapy. Double-dipping this Watzlawick quote here, “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.” For people with this delusion anything ‘outside their box’ appears surreal and threatens meaning. The trick is to progressively trouble the obvious without fully engaging the defenses.

  49. So I take it that lecturing dressed as a giant cockroach and then intoning “This is no dream” would be out then?

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