Archive for ‘bemusement’

April 18, 2011


by Carl Dyke

is the name of a blog described as “a guide to living with your philosopher.” The current post addresses philosophers’ constant questioning of every little thing, diagnoses this as an occupational hazard, suggests being complimented that they find you worth taking seriously, and recommends a ‘safe sentence’ to use when you’re just not into being prodded about your premises and commitments.

Philosophers are every bit as weird as any Papua-New Guinean highlander, Kalahari bushman or stock analyst, so this ethnographic site is both inherently interesting and potentially critical to maintaining cordial relations with the tribe in question.

March 31, 2011

Speaking of metaphysics, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

As I’ve mentioned we have this ‘QEP’ (Quality Enhancement Plan) on campus that’s about “creating a culture of reading.” This is the thing for which I teach the reading circle on science fiction (I’ll be doing it again in the Fall). And there’s a little table in my building with a constantly-refreshed supply of free books to take and circulate.

These things came together earlier as I was walking by and noticed a copy of Frank Herbert’s The Santaroga Barrier sitting on the table. I have this amazing ability to completely forget reading I do for pleasure, so although I know I’ve read this book and assume it’s in Herbert’s usual vein of exploring what happens to humans under extreme pressure, it’s ‘as if’ I’d never read it. So I picked it up. And noticed, this I think for the first time, that the main character’s name is Gilbert Dasein and a key plot-point concerns the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative.

It will be interesting to see how far beyond arch conceit Herbert takes this.

December 9, 2010

14.5, to be exact

by Carl Dyke

One of my little missions as a teacher, as usual at least partly a selfish one, is to teach the kiddoes to intake information the first time it’s presented, whether it’s directed to them personally or not. I take this to be a dimension of responsible being in the world, and a minimal first step toward developing the sort of disciplined attention and monologue tolerance that enables participation in the abstractions favored by high culture; which in turn I take to be the substantive point of a liberal arts education. Of course the dispositions of class guarantee that this will not be a widely-distributed skill, which is what makes it so valuable, both in its actual achievement and in its pharmaceutical simulation. Although it is rare to find someone who cannot focus their attention at all when they find the situation ‘interesting’, suggesting that it’s not attention itself that is in deficit.

Anyhoo, yesterday a student I quite like personally came running into my office carrying its journal, and breathlessly announced that it was turning the thing in then as another student had told it it must. I smiled to myself and told it that this transaction was fine with me, although as I’d mentioned in both the syllabus and in class the previous day the standard journal turn-in protocol was to bundle it with the final paper, due next week.

My student friend then proudly announced that the journal contained exactly 14.5 entries. Now we’ll need a little background to see why I almost laughed out loud at this point. As again described in detail in the syllabus and discussed at length in class, the journal is intended to be ethnographic field notes from the semester, a reflective record of the social processes of teaching and learning, in our class and others. The number of entries is not specified, but at least one or two a week are recommended. Easy math gives us a figure of roughly 30 here, but counting is not the point. For the final tally to be manipulable to achieve a target of 14.5, there’s already probably been an epic fail with respect to the actual purpose and process of the assignment, although there are certainly ways to do a passing journal that could wind up around that number.

So, why exactly 14.5, you may ask? Well, because the day before, the final day of class, two separate students at separate moments in open class discussion asked me to personally tell them how many entries should be in the journal. For the first, I explained the above and reminded it of previous discussions in detail of the journal. By the time the second one asked I’d had enough of that conversation, so off the top of my head I invented a preposterous number (not preposterous enough, I’m afraid), 14.5, and stated it flatly as if it was a reasonable answer to a reasonable question. That particular student smelled a rat and asked if I was serious; I said no, I was teasing it, and referred it back to the syllabus for further guidance; knowing, however, that if it hadn’t been doing the journal all along as intended there was no help for it there except a possible glimmer of understanding that it might want to pay more attention next time.

It is from this information-rich context that my student friend plucked 14.5 as the correct number of entries for its journal. I can’t wait to read them.

December 6, 2010

Monologue tolerance

by Carl Dyke

As you may know, Bob, I was trained in one of the smaller and more obscure subdisciplines, a little thing we like to call ‘Intellectual History’ (or sometimes ‘intellectual and cultural history’ if we’re aware, however dimly, that people other than official intellectuals have an intellectual history). Even in the high academy we’re pretty ornamental and there aren’t usually a lot of us around. So it’s been a blessing of sorts for me to live and work just near enough to the Raleigh/Durham node of big research universities to be able to attend the meetings of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar.

The seminar often brings in bigwigs to talk about their work in progress, and also offers a forum for members and their advanced graduate students. The level is high and the distribution of expertises is broader than someone outside our little field might think possible. In general the room is packed with very smart people who know a lot of stuff, so in principle it ought to be a thoroughly stimulating experience – you know, like a conference. And even better than most conferences, papers are distributed beforehand and we’re all there intentionally, so everyone arrives prepared on the topic of the day and there’s no need for the slow death of droning paper delivery.

In practice of course there’s a little of that droning, by way of introduction, but it’s mercifully brief and usually offered with some ad libs to keep it fresh. But by academic standards we get down to discussion remarkably quickly, and here is the perfect opportunity for the exciting exchange of ideas that we all imagined academe to be!, before graduate seminars, freshman surveys, and committee meetings blew our brains out like egg yolks. Except that even here, where conditions are seemingly ideal, that exciting exchange does not take place.

Why? Well, there are just some logistical issues when you’ve got 15-20 smart people who all have things to say and can’t say them at once. Can’t have the loud and the quick dominating the discussion, so everyone gets a turn. Time is limited so followups have to be moderated and tangents discouraged. And although everyone likes a good joke, we wouldn’t want to short the presenter on the serious discussion about her important work that she deserves.

The result of these reasonable considerations is that nothing resembling conversation actually takes place. Because she knows she’ll get one shot to say what’s on her mind and then the turn will pass to someone else with their own fish to fry, each speaker produces a well-crafted monologue so dense with premises and implications that the presenter can only respond to a fraction of it, of course with another monologue. And of course all exchanges radiate from the node of the presenter, with no direct interactions between the other participants. It’s all very orderly, lots of smart stuff gets said, it’s productive, certainly worthwhile, even beautiful in its way; and there’s no transformative effervescence, no spark, virtually no chance of the happy accidental flashes of insight that come from free-flowing conversation, improvisation, riffing call and response, theme and variation, the jazz of the mind.

I said there was no conversation, but that’s not quite right. There is, but it’s on a very slow and ponderous (in the sense of pondering) rhythm. As I sit in that room aching for something a little more upbeat, it occurs to me that success in the high academy is in part a function of tolerance for monologues, both delivering and receiving: relatively short ones like those in the room, longer ones like lectures and journal articles, really long ones like books. For ordinary mortals this kind of monologic sensibility is just plain rude, but for the beasts of academe it’s the measure of seriousness. We discipline our young to patience for the monologues of others, and patience for the development of their own; and tsktsk at the minds both bright and dull who won’t or can’t adapt to the deliberate pace of our conversations. No wonder serious academics are leery of bloggery.

Which brings me to my last point. The paper last night was by Lloyd Kramer, a very good historian who was engaged in it in a conversation about the right way to do history with his graduate advisors, now very old, and R.R. Palmer, now dead. There was a bit of a recovery of Palmer, an old-school big-picture synthesizer, as against the more fragmented, conflicted history derived from post-structuralism that followed. This is a conversation in which the monologues are at the scale of oeuvres and generations, or rather in which it is only at that scale that the apparent monologues resolve into utterances in a very ponderous conversation indeed. In the course of the ‘discussion’ Lloyd mentioned that one difference between these generations had to do with their understanding of selves and identities: as primordial and singular for Palmer, as dialogically constructed and plural for the post-structuralists. Here I wanted to say that it didn’t take post-structuralism to see self and identity this way, since the insight was there already in Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Mead and DuBois to name a few. But I held my tongue, and thought about what kind of selves are constructed out of dialogues that take hours, years, lifetimes and generations to unfold.

May 27, 2010

Clue processing disorder

by Carl Dyke

Old-school parenting expert John Rosemond takes on the newfangled neurological diagnosis “Sensory Processing Disorder” in this week’s column. Rosemond, who is generally against the trend to turn every little behavioral inconvenience into an acronymed medical condition, reports on a child who was officially diagnosed with this disorder because, in part, she didn’t like her underpants. The good doctor instead diagnosed a case of ‘defiance’, and prescribed a fuss- and distraction-free bedroom environment in which the child was required to stay until she was dressed in whatever she wanted to wear.

Two weeks later, I received the following email from Mom: ‘The very first morning, (daughter) reminded us to remove her sleep toys so she could get dressed. She then put on underwear and clothes and came out for breakfast. She has done this with no tantrums or requests for help since we began two weeks ago.’

At this writing, it’s been five weeks since this little girl complained of her clothes not feeling right.

Like Rosemond, I am neither qualified nor prepared to pronounce definitively on the existence of a neurological disorder in sensory processing. Just as I have only personal observation, anecdata and cherry-picked social-psychological theory with which to doubt the neurological foundations of many cases of ‘attention deficit disorder’. It is my general impression that all but the extreme fringes of the survivable human input-output spectrum respond adequately to well-modulated social interaction (that’s what they’re built for, after all) and learned behavior. I do however think that there’s a certain practical value to the current trend of medical diagnoses, since they offer access to some very powerful social experiences.

In any event, what struck me about the little girl’s story was how familiar it was. Distraction-proofing the work environment, putting her in charge of her own process, while creating performance accountability, is exactly how I finally got my dissertation done after several years of fairly creative stalling. It’s also how I get stacks of student papers graded nowadays.

This is also a pretty good model for education and other independent or independentable performances, I think, which means that in a roundabout way I am agreeing with much of what John Doyle says in his current series of posts on educational reform, e.g. “Stop Paying Professors to Teach.”

May 7, 2010

An obsessive consistency

by Carl Dyke

I suppose most good teachers wonder if they’re reading and grading students’ work consistently and fairly. Because I allow students to rewrite the first papers of the term (and all failing papers) I have a kind of opportunity to check myself on that. Many rewrites are perfunctory or spotty, so regularly I’m rereading the same stuff I read the first time. With seventy or so papers to read at once I certainly don’t remember each one, so functionally I’m reading it anew. And although I require the original version to be attached to the rewrite, I do not automatically check it over before I start reading the new version.

I’m working through a stack of rewritten papers right now, and just had a not infrequent Aha moment: I wrote a comment in the margin of one then, curious, checked the original. Beside the exact same sentence there was the exact same comment, in the exact same wording. I’m feeling pretty consistent right now.

This begs the question whether I’m just consistently biased, which I will admit is true. I am biased toward what I consider ‘good’ papers, and I have embedded those biases in explicit assessment criteria in the syllabus and grading rubric. It also more disturbingly raises the question whether I am wasting my and the students’ time commenting on the papers, or commenting in the way I do. In the sense that the students feel attended to and accept the legitimacy of the grade, I think the comments do their job. But I’d like them to be guides to better performance, which in these cases has clearly not paid off. In other cases it does, as I can also see from the rewrites; and where it doesn’t, it seems to be the students who are used to lots of grammatical red ink and baffled by questions about the actual content of their essays. So there, the comments may not pay off directly, but contribute in a small way to developing a new habit of mind about the communicative functions of writing. Or so I’d like to think.

April 16, 2010

Yosemite Sam on the campaign trail

by Carl Dyke

I want to vote for a candidate with this kind of clarity and gumption. Rand Paul, a Republican running for Senate in Kentucky:

I’m clinging to my guns, my religion and my ammunition…. We were intended to be a constitutional Republic. Yet, we have devolved into some kind of mad democracy.

Pause a moment and imagine what the world must look like to this guy and the people this quote makes any sense to.

Ah'm the roughest, toughest he-man stuffest hombré that's ever crossed the Rio Grande!

December 31, 2009

We Have Never Been Miracles

by Asher Kay

On this edge of a new year, I’m reflecting about humanity.

I don’t have any huge hopes or expectations. What I would like to believe is that deep down, people are basically not idiots. I would like to believe that they are motivated, at least sometimes, by a desire to know what is true, and that this desire will lead them occasionally to question things, to evaluate evidence, to reason. Most of all, I would like to believe that in some small but fundamental way, people are capable of setting aside what they want to be true, and that through argument and imagination, reflection and discourse, they will sometimes be willing to follow the trail of what really is.

And with that statement of what I want to believe, I’ll leave you with a quote from Larry Kudlow, a former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan:

Despite the historic expansion of the federal government’s involvement in, intervention in and control of the economy — including Bailout Nation; takeovers of banks, car companies, insurance firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM, Chrysler and GMAC; large-scale tax threats; overregulation; an attempted takeover of the health care sector; ultra-easy money; a declining dollar; and unprecedented spending and debt creation — despite all the things that would be expected to destroy the economy — all this socialism lite and the degrading of incentives and rewards for success — despite all this, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed.

In fact, it is coming back. In 2009, the stock market had one of its greatest rebounds in history. And in 2010, we’re likely to witness a mini boom in economic growth.

If you believe in miracles, as I do, this looks like a miracle. If you have faith in free-market capitalism, as I do, then somehow this faith is being rewarded by a more durable and resilient free-enterprise capitalism than many of us thought possible only one year ago.

December 14, 2009

Special relativity and serious questions

by Carl Dyke

Well sometimes there’s serendipity. As if they’re paying attention to us here at Dead Voles, voilà a new cartoon from xkcd and Chaospet’s reply.

Hey Asher, this is the special relativity one.

Hey John, this is the serious question one.

December 11, 2009

Does this theory make me look phat?

by Carl Dyke

Back when I was in grad school I had a subscription to Lingua Franca, the since-defunct gossip rag of academe. So at the local library book sale recently I was pleased to find for $.50 Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca (2002), a transparent cash-in bid that collects some of the real gems of pithy reportage, analysis, confession, revelation and snark for which LF was known.

At this point it’s all old news, twice warmed over and therefore hardly the material of cutting-edge bloggery, but still it’s great bathroom reading and I can’t help but reengage with it freshly. My topic today is Larissa MacFarquhar’s dry report (“Putting the Camp Back into Campus,” 1993) on the fanzine Judy!, in which “a University of Iowa undergraduate who calls herself Miss Spentyouth” rhapsodizes about the hotness of theory divas including ‘Kitty’ MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Eve Sedgwick, Geeta Patel and Diana Fuss. “These are the ladies who put the lay back in the MLA!” The central character of the burlesque is Judith Butler, then recently wooed by the “floundering” rhetoric department at UC Berkeley on the chance she’d like it better than her steady gig at Johns Hopkins’ Humanities Center (full disclosure: I applied twice and interviewed once for graduate study at the Center but was not accepted, for what I now see was ample reason).

MacFarquhar reports the parodic homoerotic excesses of the fanzine with admirable formulaic journalistic restraint, amplifying the camp in the funhouse of reflection. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new here and true to the ephemerality of this form I have no interest in backchecking. Miss Spentyouth is interviewed by phone from her bed at about 11am; Monique Wittig is “‘fabulous;'” it’s all “‘really a critique of the whole theory circus–I don’t know, don’t say that. You have to make me seem incredibly clever.'”

Of course Miss Spentyouth is a little shit. An awesomely droll little shit with a laser eye for the absurd. MacFarquhar captures both with efficient metadiscursive craft. Not so Judith Butler herself, apparently, who wrote in to LF (a reply brilliantly appended without comment to the original article in Quick Studies) to register her outrage at this “appalling and tasteless piece of journalism.” She deplores the “conjectured and debased speculations [sic]” of the fanzine and asserts that in publishing the story “Lingua Franca has effectively entered the homophobic reverie of the fanzine itself.” “If the fanzine signals the eclipse of serious intellectual engagement with theoretical works by a thoroughly hallucinated speculation [sic] on the theorist’s sexual practice, Lingua Franca reengages that anti-intellectual aggression whereby scholars are reduced to occasions for salacious conjecture … rather than as writers of texts to be read and seriously debated.” Those being the only two options. To top it all off Butler returns the ad feminem by righteously outing the undergrad’s real name. Twice.

Irony circuit overloads, brain locks, jaw drops, words fail.

Words fail. Rebooting operating system. Perhaps an image will help?

Well. In my experience there are three basic categories of people who get something done: people who have no choice; people who have made an existential commitment to press on in absurdity; and people convinced of their own importance. Arguably the latter two are subsets of the first. What seems clear is that Butler, whose work I often admire, is squarely in the third.

Seems…. We can hope that cultural über-theorist, professional rhetoritician and serious reader of texts Judith Butler has made a meta-clever double move here, inventing a humorless ‘Judith Butler’ sock-puppet to add another layer to the parody and reflexively redirect the readership to a contemplation of the ironies of the self-referential construction of theorized knowledge. Yes, there’s always hope. As God is my witness, tomorrow is another day.

September 14, 2009

Better the demon you know

by Carl Dyke

In a bit of amusing local news, conservative groups got together in Raleigh recently for workshops, strategic planning, demon-strations and inspirational speeches from such luminaries as former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean.

Also attending were some Durham progressives who thought it would be a good idea to understand the enemy, the better to combat them. As activist Lanya Shapiro explained, “it has illuminated why the extreme right-wing grass-roots are so cynical and hateful:… their leaders call the left evil and power-grabbing.”

Maybe being called cynical and hateful extremists by evil, power-grabbing lefties has something to do with it too.

August 28, 2009

Plagiarism-proofed essay assignments: update

by Carl Dyke

From a recent post at Edge of the West comes this comment from an artisanal plagiarism entrepreneur:

I used to work for a service that wrote custom papers for students. We advertised on Google AdWords (terms like Hamlet essay were successful, but judging by the lack of advertising on these search terms now, I wonder if Google banned them?), through flyers on college campuses, and through word of mouth. We got A LOT of repeat business as well.

In case you’re curious, our most common customer type was older students (generally with jobs and families) who had gone back to school and felt they “didn’t have time” to do their papers. Second most common were undergrads for whom money was clearly not an issue – we charged $200+ for a five page paper, as much as $500 for a rush job, and kids in this category would usually order well ahead of time and not complain about the price. Third most common were students that were clearly in over their head in a particular course. They tended to feel most conflicted about purchasing the paper, and also tended to be most stressed about the price.

So far as the actual papers we produced, your best bet for identifying them would have been by a shift in writing quality or tone. The papers were all original, and the writers were actually competent. We tended to write papers with a very simple structure…the first thesis that came to mind, followed by 3-5 major supporting points and a conclusion. People who came back to us generally said they’d gotten an A or a B. Our savviest customers would ask for the same writer to do all of their assignments for a semester, and some of them told us they went in and added typos because they thought it made the paper more believable.

As Buster argues in the commentary, “the only reliable way of solving the plagiarism problem is at the point of assignment-creation and building relationships in the classroom/lecture hall,” although as post author SEK notes they’re harder to practice for online and other cattle-call educational formats. Anyhoo, here for new readers’ convenience are my earlier thoughts on the subject. Note that there are several strategies here that would intercept or at least complicate the above procedure:

[L]et’s start with an ethos. You have to be loyal to students learning, not to covering content. It’s not impossible to do both, but starting with the second tends to fubar the first. And you have to give up the idea that there is essential content every student must master. Standardization of content outcomes is the single greatest stimulus and enabler of plagiarism there is. What you’ve got to want is for students to learn critical uptake, thinking and production skills in relation to content, where the skills are essential and the content is contingent. If you’re stuck with essential content, you’re stuck with some plagiarism. Take a moment to make sure there’s no way to get unstuck. I’ll wait.

OK. The first thing to notice is that shifting your loyalty to students learning (note: ’students’ learning’ is a different subject) changes the moral environment of the classroom. Why? Because now what you care about is each student, not the material; which, if you communicate this properly and consistently, creates a social psychology of reciprocal obligation among you. It’s just much harder to cheat on someone who cares about you than someone who’s using you as a means to other ends (reproduction of content outcomes). There’s nothing magical or foolproof about this, however, so if you stop here as some of the more touchy-feely teacher ed. fads do you’ll still get plenty of plagiarism; maybe more, once they figure out what a lightweight you are. Furthermore, although it’s good and right to care about the students as whole people, it’s essential to care specifically about their development as thinkers and doers, which means they don’t get to derail the process or skate to passing grades just by dropping by your office to chat about the weather or tearing up over their abusive childhood.

As thinkers and doers students in my experience are a pretty mixed bunch. The ones who already have some critical uptake, thinking and production skills are rarely the plagiarizers, especially once you get them on the hook by caring about them. They can do the work cheaper and better themselves without plagiarizing. So once you’re caring about students learning and you get the moral environment sorted out so they care back, plagiarism becomes obviously something the ones who do it are driven to by missing elements in the necessary skillset. The task then becomes filling in those skills. Essays shift subtly from being a ritually formalized way to test content knowledge to being part of a longer process to develop practical intellectual capabilities. (It helps a lot to ’sell’ those skills. All but the geekiest of them, who will become us later, think the various specific contents of the humanities are useless, they’re right, and trying to argue otherwise is counterproductively delegitimating.) This process orientation means among other things that for students at all but the elitest schools there will probably have to be lots of explicit instruction on how to write papers as a way to organize and communicate thought, including not just rules and recipes but rationales; peer reviewing of drafts (I do both intro paragraph and full draft); and a rewrite option, at least for the first paper until they get their chops together.

Classroom time has to make the same subtle shift. There are probably a lot of ways to do that. What works for me is to teach content through skills. So for example in World History I might want to cover some modern African history in relation to the Atlantic complex. Let’s say the skill we’re working on today is reading critically, and we happen to be doing that this time around using a 16th-century letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal. This letter is a pretty subtle little piece of work, with a lot of information to be gleaned about culture and politics in Kongo; activities and attitudes of Portuguese merchants there; early phases of the slave trade; and so on. Of course we’ll need to crack the textbook to fill in some context to better understand what the Portuguese were doing on the coast of Africa, why they were welcomed by the Kings of the Kongo in the first place, what the slaves might have been needed for, etc.

Small groups and competitive/cooperative reporting are good ways to get most of the students involved and invested in the process of puzzling it all out. Classroom work has to be personal and recursive, including for example lots of interaction with the groups during their investigations and pauses to allow students who don’t know answers to find them or think them through, so that each student develops a personal class voice and habit of analysis that carries over to written work. Reasons and foundations always have to be specified, by them and us. Expectations should start high and get higher, so there’s always something of value to be accomplished for every student to be proud of. It’s a lot easier to convey the importance of scholarly apparatus to respect and communicate other people’s authority when the students are in touch with their own. I’ve done this directly with classes as large as fifty, by the way, and with discussion sections for classes in the hundreds.

And still all this is not enough to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments, although it’s a pretty good start. To knock out the last lingering vestiges of moral depravity, bad habit and performance anxiety, the last line of defense is to make it harder and riskier to plagiarize effectively than to write the paper straight. Here’s one way to do that with actual pedagogical value: design essay assignments that are unique to each class, its discussions and resources.

The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink. [For a droll instance of this syndrome see here.]

The idea is to make it vanishingly unlikely that they’ll find any mass market boilerplate that adequately addresses your assignment. Here’s an example of such an assignment: “Using only the course texts for evidence, analyze the relation of agency to happiness in rural Ming China,” where the course texts are a primary source reader from one publisher and a world history text from another. (Research comes later in the term once skills and habits are better, but course texts are always required.) What would it take to plagiarize this? Most of the standard strategies – cutting and pasting generic information on China, e.g. – would result in an incoherent, nonresponsive paper that would fail on its own merit without getting into plagiarism detection. Furthermore, they’d fail without regular and accurate citation of the course texts. (I usually get about a third with this error, innocent or otherwise, in the first batch of papers. I don’t even read papers with epic fails, I just hand them back to be fixed. Obviously you have to know, communicate, and enforce your standards for this to work.)

OK, here we are at the end of this post and I have to confess, it’s still not impossible to plagiarize under all these conditions. Easy, in fact, for the resolute scallawag. Here’s how. As mentioned above, they can pay an artisanal plagiarizer big bucks for completely customized papers. At least three of them, in my classes, which would only be prohibitive for really rich scoundrels if all my colleagues were also plagiarism-proofing their assignments. Or if the determined rabscallion wants to save that bling for beer, they could scour the ‘nets for snippets of information about agency and happiness in Ming China, stitch them together with topically-relevant analysis, then invent plausible citations to the course texts. To do that, all it would take is to understand the assignment and its rationale, properly identify relevant information, produce focused and coherent analysis, and know the course texts well enough to target the fake cites effectively. And at that point they might as well write the A paper those skills indicate they’re capable of writing.

August 18, 2009

One more on 'grey vampires',

by Carl Dyke

trolls and insufferable scholars who, as we all know, infiltrate our thoughts and drain our precious energy. My recent perusal of old posts yielded a moment of clarity that came together for me in a dream last night. I’ll let Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, a real expert on these issues and a subtle observer of the human psyche, take it from here:

Now there’s a man with a project.

April 20, 2009

Strategic misunderstanding

by Carl Dyke

At Edge of the West commenter Michael complains that poster Dana has not read his remarks carefully before responding. At Perverse Egalitarianism, Frames/Sing, and Larval Subjects the battle over correlationism, ontology, naturalism and so on rage amid pervasive assertions of mutual incomprehension.

See a characteristic new installment at Now Times. Alexei, Mikhail and Shahar bond over the common hijackings of Kant and Husserl, who are so often criticized based on shortcut readings and caricatures of various kinds. Alexei hypothesizes an origin to this problem in the daunting scope of these thinkers:

But precisely because [Kant] covered all the bases he’s really — but really — hard to teach, and we always end up foreshortening lines of argument for our students, and then they get stuck with a really skewed understanding of him.

I’m inclined to agree with Alexei, but notice what happens when we take thinkers who have all the bases covered and require exhaustive, cross-referenced understanding of their entire projects as a condition of adequacy in claims about what they’re saying. In practice this is likely to produce little insular priesthoods attached to this or that master thinker, feverishly defending their prophets’ legacies against the heathen barbarian hordes, carrying their colors into each new battle with the glamour of righteousness upon them.

Another example that may resonate is Lenin’s claim that Marx’s Capital can’t be understood without reading Hegel’s Logic (which presumably itself requires prior reading to be understood). Again this is no doubt strictly true, but it would (and did) tend to cut most members of the working class out of any effective participation in the construction and adaptation of marxism as a theory of their liberation. I’m not saying that’s automatically a bad thing; it’s a dynamic to notice with consequences we may or may not like.

Thinkers who have all the bases covered are wonderful and terrible monsters. They require an enormous investment and don’t leave much space for you to think your own thoughts once you’ve made it. It may be strategically necessary to cut them down to size and stomp them out, by any means necessary, to get on with what you want to do. Of course for those of us who are not recognized master synthesists the stomping thresholds are going to come up that much more quickly with most readers.

December 20, 2008

Grading – the curve

by Carl Dyke

Interesting old thread popped back up at Lumpenprofessoriat on grading on the curve. The original post offers an elegant way of calculating a curve. Recently, a mom commented with questions about whether her kid was being graded fairly by a high school physics teacher.

Mass higher ed has done its marketing well. The idea that education really matters for life chances has percolated down to many families at this point. Grades sort the levels of accomplishment, so of course grades are what matter. Higher grades must be good. Intervention may be needed to make sure Junior is getting the best grade possible.

But what do grades mean? It’s obvious, I hope, that top grades are meaningless if everyone gets them — unless there’s some very, very dense evidence that excellence has been achieved across the board. Princeton and Harvard (“where the best students in the country get the worst education in the country”) may be able to give everyone A’s on this basis, but most schools can’t. Sorting has to happen. A curve, in particular, starts with the assumption that everyone is not and cannot be excellent. (This is why I think they’re immoral.) You can tweak a curve to get higher or lower distributions, but the point of it is to sort student performances into bad, fair, good, better and best.

As I said over at Lumpenprofessoriat, any competent teacher can sort student performances into bad, fair, good, better and best. If you can’t trust a teacher to do that, ‘fairness’ is the least of your worries. The grading system, whatever it is, is just a pass-through for the evaluative expertise of the teacher. After a whole semester of work and interaction I should – and do – know where a particular student ranks in relation to standards and other students. This is every teacher’s professional responsibility, whether we do it directly or invent a fiddly system to do it for us.

I feel for any parent who cares about their baby’s success. Sometimes mismatches, miscommunications or injustices do occur, and some (self!) advocacy is appropriate. But mostly what’s happening is pretty ordinary, in a this-is-the-rest-of-your-life kind of way. So if a student can’t distinguish her- or himself in a high school or college class, and needs parental intervention to engineer some kind of emotional figleaf, I’m not impressed with their long term life chances. Get smarter, work harder. Eventually the hands of consequence must caress us all — unless when someone hires your kid, you’ll be coming to work with them too.

UPDATE: Ironic karma moment – just opened my school email and found a grade appeal from a student accompanied by separate emails from both parents. If I got it wrong I’ll change it. If I got it right, we’ll see how much my teacherly expertise is worth to various audiences.

December 18, 2008

More thoughts on the lumpenbourgeoisie

by Carl Dyke

*I’m staying away from faculty unions for a second in this one. Yay, unions. For further discussion in that area see Dean Dad’s post linking several more from across a spectrum of circumstance and opinion. Here I’m sketching some more general ways to think about the liberal academy and disagreements/conflicts therein.

*One way a perfectly good discussion can run aground is if the participants are cognitively or morally or aesthetically mismatched between the view that things are/should be either one thing or the other, and the view that things may/should be complex assemblages of disparate elements. There is a lot of leverage in simplification, a clear enemy and a clear agenda, as we know from the histories of racism and sexism; but as those examples show, if it’s programmatic rather than true to life the thoughts, feelings and actions that result are distorted and distorting.

*What is the liberal academy good for? It’s certainly not to prepare people immediately for employment, although when we’re desperate we trot out marketing slogans about how our degrees prepare folks to be effective in any career. We do have functions in the production of a value-added educated labor force, but honestly there are way more efficient ways to do that than degrees in medieval literature or classical philosophy. Our legitimating, hegemonic functions are probably more a matter of lingering (convenient) habits than careful planning and effective resource-allocation by the class overlords at this point. Nor are we and our graduates at least generally happier or more fulfilled than the average bear.

*We’re not structurally that important. A little legitimation, a little status, a warehouse for surplus labor, a containment system for irritating radicals (this is the mistake the Russians made in the 19th century – they trained a critical intelligentsia to show how progressive they were, but gave them nowhere to roost). In a sense we’re pets. We are paid accordingly. When academic administrators try to tap into a more corporate model they are trying to tap into a higher and better-compensated level of structure. They’re following the money, of course they are. To do that they need to look right (pdf, Chaudhuri and Majumdar, “Of Diamonds and Desires: Understanding Conspicuous Consumption from a Contemporary Marketing Perspective”) to the target audience, which is why they need better salary, amenities and perqs than the workforce. This is no mere venality, but a bootstrapping investment; it’s a smart one, although it’s not at all clear that it can succeed. But if it fails, the alternative is to not be tied into corporate funding, which puts the whole institution at the mercy of the market and of the indirect scraps of corporate success the government in a capitalist society is able to skim off. And it is all ultimately tied to the U.S.’s ability to extract far more than our ‘fair’ share from the global economy.

*If we’re good for anything apart from the little services mentioned above, it’s to practice, model and teach the arts of complexity and dispassionate analysis (Weber’s “science as a vocation,” Bourdieu’s reflexive “interest in disinterest” [I apply this kind of analysis at length here – pdf]) — to produce more thorough, balanced and reliable understandings of the world. This is a way cool thing we know how to do! We can start with us. Competence in the humanities = ability to construct persuasive accounts of multiple perspectives. Joining a gang is not critical thinking. Partisanship is instantly delegitimating. Can we do better, or at least differently than that? Bracket our biases, even overcome them, as we teach our students to do? Speak truth to power, not shout our corporate interests and conveniences at power? Well, here’s a test. Is the academy a simple place with heroes on one side and villains on the other? Here’s another one. Can we see the ‘problem’ of academic proletarianization as a direct and elementary unintended consequence of the expansion and liberalization of higher education to include proletarians? Just as the inclusion of women feminizes institutions by downgrading them, and the extension of voting rights inevitably dilutes the value of each vote. Yay; oops. A sense of humor helps so much here.

*At this point we’ve got mass institutions trying to do elite work. That’s a recipe for disappointment on all sides. We’d all like a pony. You can have wealth, status and distinction or you can have openness and inclusion; you can tweak a compromise mix, which is the game we’re really playing now; but you can’t have all you want of everything at once.

*I’m just sayin’.

December 7, 2008

Readability: Hitler

by Carl Dyke

The Dec/Jan 2009 issue of Bookforum has an interesting interview with Timothy Ryback about his book on Hitler’s Private Library. (In Pierre Bayard’s readability system as discussed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, to which I will be introducing my students in the sophomore seminar in the Spring, Ryback’s is an HB+: a book I’ve heard of and have a good impression of.) Ryback was able to identify a number of Hitler’s most personally significant books from more than a thousand housed at the Library of Congress; and prompted by Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” he was able to use them to figure out some things about Hitler as a reader and a thinker.

Most notably, Ryback found that “Hitler was animated not by the excitement of the autodidact discovering a vast world of knowledge but by the intellectual insecurity of a high school dropout who needed to overpower everyone else in the room.” (I know plenty of Ph.D.s with the same insecurity, but the point is we know this type.) Hitler’s genius was for collecting very broad, very shallow knowledge. He liked encyclopedias. He was not a critical reader or thinker; he took what he read at face value and lumped everything together without distinction. In conversation he was a dazzling reciter of facts, constructing detailed but superficial comparisons by juxtaposition.

So far so good – a nice triangulation of something we already knew or at least assumed about the guy. Perhaps the surprise is that Hitler was a compulsive reader; we might have thought him even more shallowly absorbed in his own wacky thoughts and the echo-chamber of his cronies than that. But here’s where Ryback seems to get into some trouble. Ryback is an old-school liberal artist and bookworm – one imagines corduroy, tweed and elbow patches – who struggles to imagine how reading could not be positively transformative. “‘We believe literary reading is an ennobling enterprise,’ he says. ‘The underlying assumption is that we are better people for reading. What’s shocking about this is that we had a man who read to fuel exactly the opposite, everything that was destructive to intellectual processes. Out of this imbibing emerged such evil that it flies in the face of what we believe reading actually does.'”

Not so fast with that “we,” Tim. We’re not all congregants in your religion; books do not light up all rooms with their halos. If books are sacred things you might be right, but if they’re human things, not so much. And sure enough, books are read, and first written, by human beings, who are what they are before they write or read any particular book. Good humans usually write good books, and bad humans generally write bad books, although the reverse can sometimes be true. Good humans tend to prefer to read good books, and bad humans gravitate toward bad ones (Hitler was a big fan of Henry Ford’s and Madison Grant’s racist tracts); but also good humans may read bad books well, and bad humans may read good books badly. Nor is it a simple thing to sort out ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with respect to humans or books. One needs a moral system for that, and moral systems are contested.

We are riddled with confirmation bias, hard-wired for jamming new data into old schemata. Of the three basic kinds of analytical thinking – habit, belief, and theory – only theory is readily subject to disconfirmation by new information. I sometimes tell students that the way to tell if your theory is a good one is to track your surprise. A good theory will prepare you for reality, a bad one will leave your head spinning every time something that doesn’t fit happens. By this standard, the theory about the ennobling powers of literary reading is a bad one; but of course, if it’s really a “belief,” as Ryback says, and not a theory, his surprise will motivate no substantive transformation of his thinking. And sure enough, his own reading will not have ennobled (or better, enlightened) him, either.

August 27, 2008


by Carl Dyke

At a (contentious) faculty meeting at Cal State some years ago a colleague said something so completely funny that despite (or because of?) my tendency to remember only bad jokes it has stayed with me ever since. He remarked that higher education is the only big business in which the customer always demands less.

Tell it to the poor souls who run Student Services, but for those of us on the instruction side this can seem like an ironic definition of our lives. For those students this description fits it is, of course, a form of the game of limpy, or strategic incompetence as I have recently discussed. I am not automatically outraged by this as some of my colleagues are. I understand why the students might not instantly be excited to yummy up our dead voles. In this economy they’re stuck with college. Part of my job is to show them the value of the knowledge, skills and perspectives I am offering, that there’s lemonade to be made with these lemons.

It’s not my job to meet them more than half way, however. Limpy is a zero-sum game in which every bit of work I do is work the students don’t have to do. In the classroom and elsewhere its classic performance is to turn every simple little thing into a baffling, difficult fuss where it’s less bother for me to step in and tell them exactly what to do than to wait for them to figure it out themselves. Nope. Once I’ve determined that the question I’ve asked or the task I’ve assigned is clear, their effort must take over. My understanding of the social dynamics of awkward silence is far greater than theirs, and sometimes I must exploit this. Low standards do them no good.

Today I will be poking my students with this thought: If you make simple things hard, you make hard things impossible. Expedients become habits, and with habits, as James tells us, you’d better have good ones.

August 19, 2008

Outside the box

by Carl Dyke

There’s always a box. There are many of them. The best we can do is think outside this one. Sometimes that’s enough.

August 11, 2008

Playing limpy

by Carl Dyke

That’s what my friend Tom in grad school called the kind of PITA I’ve just discussed as strategic incompetence. In the field of education this game is sometimes what Geertz called ‘deep play‘ (pdf), in which the provision, seeking, and evasion of education are about much more than just the transmission of skills and knowledge. In ‘honor’ of me, my students, my colleagues and our administrators as an exciting new academic year fixes to open, here are a couple of videos:

The first is courtesy of Donna, with whom I play mixed doubles. Her job is to design computer tutorials for a big corporate law firm so that the attorneys can actually use the fancy software the IT guys afford them. We’ve bonded over the unique kind of stupid highly specialized professionals can be. The second leverages my favorite metaphor for the same thing.

The real horrors of education are not brought by people (teachers, administrators, students) who are just plain dumb. They’re doing their best, bless them, we help as we can. Intelligent people may also just disagree about priorities and practices. No worries there. Talents differ; this can be worked with. No, it’s people whose smarts and talents are blocked or diverted somehow that buckle one’s knees and blur one’s vision.

When irrational waste is occurring Geertz tells us to look for ways in which people’s sense of social honor is at stake. Sometimes the particular equipment in play — cocks, novels, philosophical systems, histories, footballs — is far less important to the players than “the dramatization of status concerns.” Certainly we can see this logic being played out in the Olympic games — how else to explain the enormous economic and political capital being spent over dubious accomplishments soon forgotten? A “status bloodbath,” as Geertz quotes Goffman. But can we see this sort of game being played in our own meetings, hallways and classrooms?

Btw, in a nice irony, Geertz’ famous article is apparently so often and stereotypically assigned as a paper topic that several of the top google hits for it are commercial plagiarism sites.