Archive for ‘curiosity’

May 17, 2016

Replace starter and front shocks on 1992 Chevy S10

by CarlD

I just did this job, and because I didn’t find much specific help on the internet, and because I learned some things while doing it, I’m leaving notes here in case they help someone else later. I am not a mechanic, so this is strictly diy stuff.

The starter is an easy job. What was hard for me was figuring out how to make it an easy job. That took two days. Once I figured it out, the job itself took maybe an hour. Here’s what I figured out:

  1. Unbolt the flywheel cover
  2. Get as much slack as you can on the wires

That’s it. Compared with the starter, the shocks were really easy. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be ready to cut the top nut off

OK, now if you’re interested here’s my story, starting with the starter. The shop manual and the internet both explain the job in a sentence or two. Unbolt the starter; disconnect the wires; installation is the reverse of these steps. All of that is true, but unhelpful. Almost as unhelpful as this video:

The reason it’s unhelpful is because the starter is puzzle-pieced into this tiny space on the passenger side between the engine and the frame and the shock mount. You have to come at it from underneath. The two mounting bolts themselves are easy enough to access and remove, but then actually physically pulling the starter out is amazingly difficult. With the solenoid on top and the wires connected the range of motion is very small, the shapes are eccentric and ill-matching, everything catches on everything else, and the business end is wedged into the flywheel housing. And if you’re lying on your back with your arms all cramped up and only really room to bring one hand into play, well. And it’s heavy, so it keeps trying to drop out of the tiny little manipulation zone. Let’s just say it was only by sheer stubbornness and unfathomable luck that I got the thing out of there, after having at it and taking breaks to not yell and break things and looking for guidance on the internet (to be honest, I did not watch every available video, so I may have missed the perfect one. Because I prefer to read my instructions and I can only take so much of guys with great hands and senses of spatial relations but primitive people skills stumbling through endless inane introductory remarks followed by stilted explanations in that dumb teacher voice they all think they have to do; see above).

AutoZone had a cheap remanufactured starter with a lifetime warranty in stock. They insisted on testing the old one, because for some reason the tech thought he couldn’t sell me a new one if the old one still worked. Well of course, the old one spun right up on the bench. Between the shop manual and the internet I had worked out that the probable problem was a faulty overrunning clutch, which as I understand it was keeping the spin from being translated from the starter to the flywheel. (Interestingly, the encouragement to just go ahead and replace the starter for this fault came from a forum thread of military guys talking about the same problem with their humvees. I think – the jargon was pretty thick.) I told the tech this and he contrived to get a fail out of his rig somehow, and he winked at me and sold me the starter. So that was day one.

Day two, I’m back under the truck trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and get the new unit back up in by whatever miraculous path I got the old one out. Nothing, no chance. The exit and return paths are not symmetrical. You can either have the wires connected or you can have the starter in position, but you can’t have both. When they’re connected the wires take in just enough of the range of motion to defeat insertion. But the solenoid is positioned on the top of the unit, buried between the frame and the engine, which meant there was just no way I could see or read about to get the wires connected once it was in place. Which doesn’t stop numerous web sources from helpfully explaining to insert the starter, then connect the wires.

Around this point the friendly old local guy who comes and fishes our pond sometimes stopped by for a chat. He saw I was working on the truck and a long conversation ensued, extolling the virtues of Chevy trucks and reminiscing about the ones he’s had. In the course of this, he learned that I was working on the starter and his face broke all out in sympathy. Nasty job, tiny spaces, did it on his daughter’s Pinto once and practically had to take the engine out to get at it. So that made me feel a little better, because honestly I was starting to think that I was just being stupid somehow in a way I didn’t even know how to notice.

I’m not equipped to remove the engine. I don’t even have a floor jack to loosen mounts and move it around where it is. So back to the internet, playing search term roulette. Here is where I turned up the suggestion on some discussion forum or other to remove the flywheel cover. The usual laconic gear yoda, who explained there are four bolts, two up two down, then swing the something something out of the way. Well on my truck, I could get at the four bolts (plus another on the clip for some rigid conduit that wasn’t going anywhere but wasn’t fatally obstructive); but I wasn’t seeing anything I could swing out of the way, and as far as I could tell I’d have to remove the exhaust to get the cover all the way off. Which is a whole other level of never mind. However, taking the bolts out freed the cover to move a bit in place and gave me a half inch or so more wiggle room, which made a lot of difference for getting the business end of the starter up and in. Not quite enough, as it happened, so that was day two.

Day three dawned and I’d been doing some thinking. The wires were now the problem. Is there a tool that would allow me to reach in and attach the wires while the starter is in place? Someone sensible on a forum pointed out that if you need some heroic tool to do a job like this, you’re probably doing the job wrong. So I committed to what I knew about why I couldn’t get it done, and I went back in from the front side of the engine to see if there was any way to get even just a little more slack on the wires, so I could get the unit in with them attached. Well the ignition wire was already maxed out, and part of a harness I wouldn’t want to have to mess with at my skill level. But I could pop a couple of clips and get a little more play from the battery wire. And that turned out to be just barely enough to slide the sucker right in, as if it weren’t no thing. Put everything back together, squinted real hard, turned the key, and it started right up. No need for shims, for which I was grateful.

Total elapsed time: chunks of three days. Total effective job time to unbolt the flywheel cover, loosen the battery wire, remove and replace the starter, and tighten everything back up (not counting the AutoZone trip): about an hour.

As for the shocks, I knew from very little research that the top nuts could be frozen. Which they both were. So after giving WD40 a fair chance on both sides, I went to work with the Sawzall and a cold chisel. The saw was a bit fiddly again because of tight spaces, so I wasn’t able to align for an optimal cut, which is why I had to finish up with the chisel. But all that took about five minutes a side.

Then, I had read that you need something to compress the shock while bolting it back in at the bottom. Another place a floor jack would have come in handy. But for what it’s worth, I was able to do it by hand with some heaving and grunting. It was just a matter of shoving the shock up with one hand and getting one bolt started with the other, then using that one to tighten down enough to get the other one in. So now the truck doesn’t wallow, which was sort of charming really, except it made my wife seasick.

Why did I do it? The farm is already full of learning curves. My friend Patrick keeps telling me about my pay grade and just letting fellow pros do their thing. Which I mostly agree with. But with it being summer, the opportunity costs of my time are pretty elastic. And we saved maybe $500-$600 altogether, which is not trivial ever, but especially when the refi is still in process and we have all sorts of farm equipment and supplies to spool up. Plus we don’t have a trusted new mechanic at our new place, and at the end of the semester I was in no brain for the kinds of social situations that search involves. Finally, I just like that I can do it and I did do it. Not every time, certainly, but some times. Like blogging!

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So interesting. Again, please continue.

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

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

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

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

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

July 15, 2012

Book Recommendation

by johnmccreery

Kirin Narayan’s Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is not a book likely to make it onto bestseller lists. The audience, people with an interest in the art of writing ethnography, is too small. It is, however, a marvelous book about writing non-fiction prose, taking as its primary example Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, and examining how the great Russian storyteller and dramatist, who was also a medical doctor, produced a work in which,

By closely attending to the people who lived under the appalling conditions of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin, Chekhov showed how empirical details combined with a literary flair can bring readers face to face with distant, different lives, enlarging a sense of human responsibility.

Narayan is herself a superb writer. I remember reading with pleasure her Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels and who could not love an autobiographical ethnography titled My Family and Other Saints. Of particular interest to the teachers among us is the way in which she uses examples from Chekhov and other accomplished writers to motivate the writing exercises with which Alive in the Writing is liberally sprinkled. Were I in a position to teach non-fiction writing, I would instantly choose this book as the textbook for the class and recommend it along with other classics like William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn and Writing Well and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 

April 30, 2012

Split Peas, Distraction, and the enemies of Abstraction

by Jacob Lee

While reading Marijn Haverbeke’s book Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming, I came across this passage, extolling the virtues of abstraction:

When writing a program, it is easy to get sidetracked into small details at every point. You come across some little issue, and you deal with it, and then proceed to the next little problem, and so on. This makes the code read like a grandmother’s tale.

Yes, dear, to make pea soup you will need split peas, the dry kind. And you have to soak them at least for a night, or you will have to cook them for hours and hours. I remember one time, when my dull son tried to make pea soup. Would you believe he hadn’t soaked the peas? We almost broke our teeth, all of us. Anyway, when you have soaked the peas, and you’ll want about a cup of them per person, and pay attention because they will expand a bit while they are soaking, so if you aren’t careful they will spill out of whatever you use to hold them, so also use plenty water to soak in, but as I said, about a cup of them, when they are dry, and after they are soaked you cook them in four cups of water per cup of dry peas. Let it simmer for two hours, which means you cover it and keep it barely cooking, and then add some diced onions, sliced celery stalk, and maybe a carrot or two and some ham. Let it all cook for a few minutes more, and it is ready to eat.

Another way to describe this recipe:

Per person: one cup dried split peas, half a chopped onion, half a carrot, a celery stalk, and optionally ham.

Soak peas overnight, simmer them for two hours in four cups of water (per person), add vegetables and ham, and cook for ten more minutes.

This is shorter, but if you don’t know how to soak peas you’ll surely screw up and put them in too little water. But how to soak peas can be looked up, and that is the trick. If you assume a certain basic knowledge in the audience, you can talk in a language that deals with bigger concepts, and express things in a much shorter and clearer way. (emphasis added) This, more or less, is what abstraction is.

Now, after reading this, I could not help but think about how blogs, listserves, and other open forums for expert discussion can become bogged down by the participation of non-experts, or the badly informed and opinionated, or even people merely coming from different domains of expertise. Eventually, this can lead to the departure of those experts for less congested locales.

There is immense value in the continued existence of open forums. So the question is, how can a forum remain open, but circumvent, or at least diminish the challenges just mentioned? I can think of at least one way, suitable for highly topical forums: namely, the FAQ, or Primer.

So, for example, New Economic Perspectives, a group blog of academic and professional economists interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), has an extensive primer on MMT available on its blog. But a Primer or FAQ is probably not enough, unless it is tied into some kind of policy and practice of policing. An interesting, if extreme, policy might involve some kind of test of the basic knowledge presumed by the epistemic community in question. For example, New Economic Perspectives might test users knowledge of MMT in order to obtain the credentials to participate in the forum, or their scores on such a test could be associated with their comments in all cases. Annoying perhaps. But then, I am reminded of John’s idea of an online community based on concentric circles:

While agreeing fundamentally with grad student guy’s observation about the need for filtering, it is far from clear to me that any currently available technological solution is likely to solve the problem. As far as I can make out, the patterns that emerge in forums like OAC are not that different from those that emerge on listservs. After an initial period of enthusiasm in which people jump on board and stake out positions, things settle down to a handful of contributors accounting for most of the traffic and occasional outbursts of concern about why more people aren’t contributing.

The alternative is to consider filtering as a political problem, where the fundamental dilemma is the gap between the ideal of openness and ease of access and the reality that most people can’t or don’t want to spend large amounts of their day responding to a mass of material that grows exponentially and is mostly repetitious and, in event the best sense, juvenile — an endless rehashing of old arguments that rarely goes anywhere.

The only plausible scheme that I have been able to imagine is modeled on secret societies with a hierarchy of concentric circles, in which it requires an invitation to move toward the center for all but the outermost circle, to which everyone is invited. Are there other options to consider?

January 24, 2011

Lattice Model of Information Flow

by Jacob Lee

I am caught in a maelstrom of work and so I decide to play.

I have an excellent textbook on discrete mathematics on my shelf  from a course I took as a student a few years ago [1]. Its always useful to review such books to remind oneself of certain foundational principles used in computer science [2]. My thesis work concerns, among other things, the study of information flow and in the course of my work I found myself consulting this book to review the mathematical concept of a lattice [3]. Looking through the index of this text I found an entry reading ‘Information flow, lattice model of, 525’. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Funnily enough, the three paragraph section on the lattice model of information flow is only of tangential relevance to my thesis work; yet it was interesting enough. It discussed the uses of lattices to model security policies of information dissemination. Rosen presented a simple model of a multi-level security policy in which a collection data (the authors use the word information) is assigned an authority level A, and a category C. The security class of a collection of data is modeled as the pair (A,C). Rosen defines a partial order on security classes as follows: (A_{1},C_{1})\preceq (A_{2},C_{2}) if and only if A_{1} \leq A_{2} and S_{1} \subseteq S_{2}. This is easily illustrated by an example.

Let A = \{A_{1}, A_{2}\} where A_{1} \leq A_{2} and A_{1} is the authority level secret and A_{2} is the authority level top secret. Let S=\{diplomacy, combat ops \} [4][5]. This forms the lattice depicted in figure 1.

Figure 1: example security classification lattice

Figure 1

The objective of such a security policy is to govern flows of sensitive information. Thus, if we assign individuals security clearances in the same way that information is assigned security classes, then we can set up a policy such that an item of information i assigned a security class (A_{1},C_{1}) can only be disseminated to an individual a having security clearance (A_{2},C_{2}) if and only if (A_{1},C_{1})\preceq (A_{2},C_{2}).

Without looking at the literature [6], it seems that the obvious next step is to embed this into a network model. Supposing that one has a network model in which each node is classified by a security clearance there are a variety of useful and potentially interesting questions that can be asked. For example, one might want to look for connected components where every node in the connected component has a security clearance (A,C) such that (A,C)\succeq (A_{j},C_{k}) for some j and k. Or if one were interested in simulating the propagation of information in that social network such that the probability of a node communicating certain security classes of information to another node is a function of the security class of the information and the security clearances of those two nodes.

So far this discussion has limited itself to information flow as dissemination of information vehicles, contrary to the direction I suggested in my last post should be pursued. One easy remedy might be to have minimally cognitive nodes with knowledge bases and primitive inference rules by which new knowledge can be inferred from existing or newly received items of information. This would have several consequences. Relevant items of novel information might disseminate through the network (and global knowledge grows), and items of information not originally disseminated, for example because it is top secret, may yet be guessed or inferred from existing information by nodes with security clearances too low to have received it normally.

Moving away from issues of security policy, we can generalize this to classify nodes in social networks in other systematic ways. In particular, we may be interested in epistemic communities. We might classify beliefs and/or knowledge using formal tools like formal concept analysis, as I believe Camille Roth has been doing (e.g. see his paper Towards concise representation for taxonomies of epistemic communities).

Fun stuff.

[1] Rosen, Kenneth H. Discrete mathematics and its applications. 5th edition. McGraw Hill. 2003.

[2] Some undergraduates joked that if they mastered everything in Rosen’s book, they would pretty much have mastered the foundations of computer science. An exaggeration, but not far off.

[3] A lattice is a partially ordered set (poset) such that for any pair of elements of that set there exists a least upper bound and a greatest lower bound.

[4] According to Wikipedia such the US uses classifications like the following:

1.4(a) military plans, weapons systems, or operations;

1.4(b) foreign government information;

1.4(c ) intelligence activities, sources, or methods, or cryptology;

1.4(d) foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources;

1.4(e) scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security; which includes defense against transnational terrorism;

1.4(f)USG programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;

1.4(g) vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects or plans, or protection services relating to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism; and

1.4(h) weapons of mass destruction.

[5] An interesting category of information is information about who has what security clearance.

[6] Where fun and often good ideas go to die.

June 28, 2010

Are teachers like coaches?

by CarlD

Well, for one thing in high school lots of teachers are coaches. But I’m going to focus on coaches of big famous sports teams. There are some illuminating similarities, and the differences have a laboratory feel to them for thinking about how both teaching and coaching work and don’t work. I’ve been intrigued by John Doyle’s series of posts at Ktismatics questioning whether teachers actually cause students to learn, based on an extensive survey of studies that pretty consistently show they don’t. We could ask the same questions of coaches and winning.

To set the scene, John finds the data pointing strongly toward genetic (or at least early-childhood) hardwired dispositions to educational performance. In contrast, study after study has failed to find much impact on student outcomes from different teaching or learning styles, experience levels, specialized training, or any other teacher variable. Generously, John’s conclusion in the most recent post, “The Students Make the Teacher,” is that “kids would spool out their genetic intellectual potentials within the constraints imposed by their culture regardless of who their teachers are, but that’s not to say that they need no teaching. Rather, as long as they’re not abusive or neglectful, teachers are probably pretty much interchangeable over the long run. So my bet is that regardless of what sorts of educational outcomes are measured, differences between teachers will prove minimal.” In short, students are going to learn what they’re going to learn almost no matter what.

Of course like most teachers I’d like to take credit for all those Aha! moments that happen in and around my classroom, and I’d like to blame the kids who don’t get it for being recalcitrant. But I’ve long suspected that neither position is well-warranted, not to mention that they’re transparently ideological, so I’m open to John’s suggestion to “be a good enough teacher, rather than one who’s too caught up in performance anxiety and delusions of massive impact on kids’ lives. Enjoy the job, recognizing that ultimately it’s the kids’ job to develop and to learn. Then relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let your own personal style shine forward, and the teacher and the kids might actually enjoy the ride together.”

So what about coaching? John says students bring scholastic performance with them and teaching has little to do with it. A parallel argument would be that athletes bring competitive performance with them and coaching has little to do with it. If this were true, a coach with good players would look brilliant, while the same coach with bad players would look like a dog. And in fact this seems to be the case. In the NBA, for example, Doc Rivers had moderate success with a moderately-talented lineup in Orlando before being fired for stagnant performance. Subsequently the Magic drafted Dwight Howard, signed Rashard Lewis and traded for Vince Carter, becoming one of the dominant teams in the East under journeyman coach Stan Van Gundy. Meanwhile, Rivers won an NBA championship coaching the Boston Celtics, who added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to an already-strong roster of role players led by star Paul Pierce.

The acknowledged superstar of NBA coaching is Phil Jackson, who won multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls following the maturation of Michael Jordan and acquisition of Scottie Pippen. He then went to the Lakers where he won with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, did not win following the departure of O’Neal, then won again with the arrival of Pau Gasol. Clearly his success is player-dependent, but it should be said that his chief merit is that he puts his players in position to succeed; he is a shrewd evaluator of talent and disposition, as witness his ability to get full value out of brilliant but mercurial prima donnas Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, not to mention Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal themselves. I think this is characteristic of both good coaches and good teachers, and it’s not a small thing; teams of superstars without this sort of enabling coordination regularly implode, as witness France in this year’s soccer World Cup.

In NFL football, Bill Belichick is an excellent example of the hypothesis. He was a total dog with the talent-poor Cleveland Browns, then became a genius with the talent-rich Patriots. His excellence as a game-planner did not change, but it was not enough without Tom Brady and Randy Moss in their primes running the plays. Again, Belichick is a shrewd talent evaluator who identifies his players’ strengths and puts them in position to succeed, but without those strengths, as more recently with the injury and decline of Brady, Moss, Wes Welker and other core players, he is helpless to be the difference that makes the difference. Similarly, Paul Holmgren understood the connection of personnel to coaching well enough to insist on controlling both in Seattle. Unfortunately he turned out to be a mediocre judge of talent (see: Branch, Burleson) and was not able to repeat the Super Bowl success he enjoyed in Green Bay with a team assembled by general manager Paul Wolf.

In college sports it is widely known that the best coaches are first and foremost the best recruiters. All else being equal, which it usually is, the best players win. Coaches who can both obtain those players and put them in positions to succeed are of course at a premium, and coordinated teams of good players regularly beat packs of feral superstars, but even here the coach’s merit is in identifying and channeling the existing talents and dispositions of her players. And given the rapid turnover of rosters in college sports, coaches who were geniuses with great players a few years ago are regularly has-beens looking for work when the talent level drops off.

It is also generally understood that over time players will begin to tune out even the most successful coaches. A great recent example of this is the NHL’s Peter Laviolette, a coach who specializes in increasing the intensity of underperforming or undertalented teams. After beginning his career by improving the talent-poor New York Islanders marginally he wore out his welcome and moved to the Carolina Hurricanes. There he lit a fire and got maximum effort out of a moderately-talented team, pushing them to a Stanley Cup. Within a couple of years his approach had burnt the players out, he went from genius to dog, and after a dreadful half-season he was fired. Whereupon he was hired this year by the talented but drifting Flyers and promptly became a genius again, driving them to a Finals appearance. If history holds true (many other coaches fit his description, for example Mike Keenan) he has maybe one more year before the players tune him out or rebel against the constant pressure. The teaching equivalent of Laviolette is Jaime Escalante, the “Stand and Deliver” guy. He was undeniably successful in activating the latent talents of his students, but the pressurized environment he created proved unsustainable.

In this year’s World Cup the Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, was clearly a dog as his talented team, the defending champions, failed to win even one game against lesser opposition and were eliminated in the first round. Yet Lippi had been the coach for the World Cup win four years earlier, just as clearly a genius with an unparalleled record of success. “He was named the world’s best football manager by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) both in 1996 and 1998, and world’s best National coach in 2006. He is the only coach in the world to have ever won the most prestigious competitions both for clubs and for National teams. In 2007 the Times put his name on the list of top 50 managers of all time.” He will shortly be replaced as coach and it’s likely the team will perform better, but will that be because the old guy was bad and the new guy is good?

If the coaching/teaching analogy holds, all of this ought to be quite humbling for all of us would-be Svengalis. Our upside is limited by that of our Trilbys, and our downside is as far down as they care to take us. When the chemistry comes together we can sometimes be catalytic, but this can’t be counted on as the normal situation and often enough a good chemistry requires our removal. Under these circumstances I can certainly understand why we’re paid so little, as we often complain, despite performing what is magically thought of as socially necessary labor. Fortunately the learning that really needs to happen will happen anyway, and maybe along the way we can “relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let [our] own personal style shine forward, and … enjoy the ride together.”

April 16, 2010

Yosemite Sam on the campaign trail

by CarlD

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!

January 5, 2010

Jane Elliott ethnography

by CarlD

The conversation about ‘culture shock’ has continued at Savage Minds and seems to have refocused on the question of the transformation of consciousness. I’ve just written a longish comment over there that I’ll carry over here for convenience:

… it’s that critical distance from second nature that’s looked for, the transformation of consciousness from naive ethnocentrism through a kind of Copernican revolution of mind that enables responsible (self-) criticism.

The problem is that like the Marxists trying to figure out how class consciousness happens, we don’t have a very good idea how these transformations actually occur, and so the tendency is to think magically. If we just throw people at the right kind of experience they will be transformed, abracadabra. ‘Education’ is the usual incantation, which makes all those Nazis with university degrees hard to swallow.

So somehow anthropologists are uniquely positioned to decenter their own cultural presuppositions because they go where people are really, really weird. But this corporate ideology does not work for at least two reasons: one, as Rex and John point out (some) sociological ethnographers, historians and tourists somehow manage to get the point of otherness without the epistemological grandstanding; and two, Euro (and Chinese, and Japanese, etc.) colonialists lived elbow-to-elbow with the Big Blue Others and managed (mostly) not to get the point, as for that matter some anthropologists haven’t.

For the latter reason I’m afraid Greg’s earlier gesture at the lamentable disconnect between white grad students and African Americans won’t actually get us far. No whites in history have been closer to African Americans than the slave owners and Jim Crow racists. You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness (or may do so in undesirable ways).

Yet people do wake up from their dogmatic slumbers and become more mindful, critically responsible participants in human community. What are the conditions and moments of this process?

One classic answer is educator Jane Elliott’s famous exercise, as documented in the Frontline “A Class Divided” (you can watch the whole thing there and it’s well worth it). Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Elliott decided she needed to do more to transform the racial consciousness of her white Iowan elementary school kids. To this end she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed kids, declared one group superior and the other inferior (and then, the reverse), and chillingly succeeded in recreating among her students all the nasty interpersonal dynamics of racism (with emergent structural properties) in no time at all. As a consultant she now works on adults, with the same effects.

Elliott the consultant reproduces her experiment

The exercise is frightening because of how well and how quickly it works, and because of how thoroughly it blurs the lines between teaching, activism, brainwashing and unethical research on human subjects. The kids are tossed this way and then that; they are spared no indignity of subordination, or excess of power; their worst impulses are elicited, encouraged and then ruthlessly dissected. Yet, the experiment was a smashing success. Years later members of the class report an inspiring level of sensitivity to others and critical self-awareness. They are happy and well-adjusted. If they were ‘broken’ by Elliott’s procedure, the new them that was created seems to be far preferable.

It seems to me that the key was not mere exposure to otherness, nor even momentary participation in otherness, although both are necessary. The kids were all deprivileged in turn, stripped of their sense of power and legitimacy, made aware of themselves through a lens of radical inadequacy. That step created anger and resentment; stopping there creates Klansmen and Nazis and terrorists in the wild. Elliott’s brilliance is in the reprivileging debriefing that follows the exercise. Elliott shows the kids the supportive empathy she wants them to learn, but only after demolishing their sense that they were entitled to it. Having torn the kids down and turned them on their heads, she puts them back on their feet, dusts them off and leads them in an analysis that reaffirms every value of themselves they had previously taken for granted, while stepping sideways and looking at it all from another angle. The dialectic of their transformation, then, is emergent in the sense that all of the materials for it were there already; what has been changed is their configuration.

January 2, 2010

Miss Marple ethnography

by CarlD

At Savage Minds Rex has opened up a can of whoopass on the idea of ‘culture shock’ as a pillar of anthropological method. Rex thinks anthropological study can be transformative, but he doesn’t think it’s culture shock necessarily doing the transforming. And he argues that keying on culture shock reifies cultural boundaries at the expense of cultural fluidity, creates false dilemmas about studying ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, narrows the anthropological imagination, and “reduces an ethics of connectivity … to an impoverished series of debates about how best activist anthropologists can help those poor, poor people.”

I might go a little farther and say that the idea of culture shock can exoticize and romanticize native ‘others’ while allowing us to be lazy and complacent about our own weirdness. Rex captures this nicely by contrasting anthropology with sociological ethnography, in which the study of ‘us’ is robust and unproblematic. Symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, sociologists of culture and so on know that “there are lots of different lifeworlds to be explored, all of which are finely textured, unique, and deserving of description.” In a sense Rex agrees with Rachel that when it gets all pantybunched about culture shock anthropology is Otherness for Dummies © — hunting the Big Splashy Technicolor Other rather than all the little ordinary shades-of-grey others of everyday life.

Rutherford all set to crease some skull

Which, along with Asher’s last post, brings me to a thought I’ve had in the back of my mind for a long time about Miss Jane Marple, one of my favorite fictional characters.

I should say off the bat that my Miss Marple is imaginary at least three times over, since she is based mainly on several different movie and tv adaptations and I have not actually made a study of the twelve novels in which Agatha Christie invented and developed her (1930-71). This is even less than usually a trivial proviso, because screen depictions of Miss Marple range from the robustly athletic, even swashbuckling cinematic Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple of the early/mid ’60s to Joan Hickson’s iconically prim and frail BBC/A&E/PBS Miss Marple of the mid-’80s/early ’90s.

Hickson creases her brow

As much as I enjoy the dynamic first-wave gumption of Rutherford’s Marple, it’s Hickson’s more deliberate cerebrality that really captures my imagination. Behind the placid tea-fussing biddy surface is a keen observer and shrewd analyst who nothing escapes and for whom nothing comes as a surprise. Christie’s Marple has some moderate worldliness in her backstory, justifying Rutherford’s take, but the fundamental premise of her character as captured by Hickson is that she has become a profoundly wise old woman by staying put and closely observing the doings around her ordinary little English village, St. Mary Mead. This exchange with Cherry Baker from The Mirror Crack’d (1962, ch. 12) sums it up:

“You’re always surprising me,” [Cherry] said. “The things you take an interest in.”

“I take an interest in everything,” said Miss Marple.

“I mean taking up new subjects at your age.”

Miss Marple shook her head.

“They aren’t really new subjects. It’s human nature I’m interested in, you know, and human nature is much the same whether it’s film stars or hospital nurses or people in St. Mary Mead….”

Miss Marple is interested in everything, notices everything, thinks about everything with the dispassionate rigor of the puzzle-solver. The thing about human nature is a bit of a red herring (or rather, the ‘much’ in that sentence is important): she doesn’t have a grand theory of human essence. Instead, she has a vast and growing database of detailed human observations against which she checks each new case for analogies. The whodunnit gimmick is that she has learned so much from close study of her own little village that she is able to detect patterns and puzzle out manners and motives that baffle more worldly investigators. She is most definitely not shocked by culture.

Part of what I take Rex to be chewing at in his post is how the desirable decentering of self happens, when we awaken from our pre-Copernican slumbers into a world of differences and relations. He’s troubled by the version of the anthropology metanarrative in which to experience this transformation we must go out into the distant corners of the world and engage heroically with shockingly different Others. What both sociology and Miss Marple suggest is that others can be pretty shocking right around the corner; as Gregory Starrett says in the post’s comment thread, “culture shock … might be experienced anywhere practices are unfamiliar, even if some people might define such experiences as being ‘within’ some imaginary bounded culture.” The question then becomes how we sometimes manage to miss the profound otherness of ‘our own’ Others, and whether going where folks wear bones through their noses and eat bugs on purpose is really going to fix that.

December 18, 2009

Searching for Kajiadelakis

by CarlD

It’s a little stale now but I wanted to squeeze in an appreciative shout out to Tim Burke at Easily Distracted for his post “Anatomy of a Search.”

If there’s anything that I think needs to be learned through experience or through directly witnessing the experience of others, it’s online information-seeking. I don’t think you can give a useful general description of how to search that a student can usefully refer back to while doing their own research. When I teach research methods in the classroom, I often concentrate on doing real-time, live searches based on suggested topics from the class while narrating some of the ideas and choices I’m thinking about as I go from one resource to the next.

And then he goes through one in detail, looking for information on his great-grandfather-in-law, a Cretan war hero. It’s a fascinating process for those of us who like to find stuff out. Go read it, you won’t be sorry. His conclusions:

1) Serendipidity counts. If I started this search from the wrong place, I’d have gotten nowhere. It all starts with the museum in Zoniana.
2) Multiple iterations of the same search with different keywords turn up notably different results, each of which iterates further into separate branches of information. Harvesting keywords in each generation or branch of a search is the key art of searching.
3) Knowing when to stop travelling down one branching series of searches to come back to the central “spine” of inquiry is crucial.
4) Knowing when you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns within digital environments, at which point you need to go read authoritative scholarship, make personal contacts, or have direct experiences, is critical to success.
5) You have to know a few things already, or at least be able to make educated guesses. I got as far as I did because I know something about the effect of immigration on the spelling of names, because I could hack out a rough reading of a French document, because I know a bit about conflicts in the Balkans and the end of the Ottoman Empire, and so on.

What’s buried in these absolutely spot-on heuristics is a general cultural foundation and competence (habitus) that provides the ‘elementary’ interpretive screens that take the research problem from a paralyzing everything to a manageable something. “You have to know a few things already.” This is where so many of our students get stopped before they even start, although probably few of Tim’s at Swarthmore. What can we tell the ones who don’t even know where to begin? They just have to read more, listen more, learn more — a lot more so that their guesses may become educated ones; but that’s no quick solution.

UPDATE: While I’m at linking terrific Tim Burke research how-to posts, here’s one he did awhile back on finding primary sources.

December 18, 2008

More thoughts on the lumpenbourgeoisie

by CarlD

*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 CarlD

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.

September 24, 2008


by CarlD

Courtesy of Alexandre Enkerli at Disparate, whose commentary is typically aromatic, here’s a meme.

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.

2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.

3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

So here goes. I will remove some suspense by establishing from the outset that I have a thang about slimy textures. It took me the first five years of my adult life just to teach myself to like raw tomatoes. I’ll also choose savory over sweet most every time. And some of these are pretty transparently reaching for snob appeal. I’m not a collector of experiences just for the sake of checking off an item on a list.

1. Venison (Courtesy of hunter friends. Very tasty; a bit dry, which I like in meat.)
2. Nettle tea (No, but I’ve drunk plenty of flower/leaf/stem/root teas and I’m not clear on why this particular one is the issue.)
3. Huevos rancheros (Yum. Just this weekend.)
4. Steak tartare (Near enough to the edge of slimy to discourage my interest.)
5. Crocodile (No opportunity and not clear why I would seek it out.)
6. Black pudding (Hasn’t come up.)
7. Cheese fondue (Make it myself sometimes, with a touch of port or sherry.)
8. Carp (Not a big fish fan, but if it’s put in front of me I’ll bite.)
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush Eggplant is high on slime but I love the Mediterranean flavors.

August 30, 2008

Big stigma, little stigma

by CarlD

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have me thinking about stigma. Here’s Erving Goffman in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963):

And even where widely attained norms are involved, their multiplicity has the effect of disqualifying many persons. For example, in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective, this constituting one sense in which one can speak of a common value system in America. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior; at times he is likely to pass and at times he is likely to find himself being apologetic or aggressive concerning known-about aspects of himself he knows are probably seen as undesirable. The general identity-values of a society may be fully entrenched nowhere, and yet they can cast some kind of shadow on the encounters encountered everywhere in daily living.

Goffman’s project was to ‘decenter’ stigma by noting that in some dimension almost everyone is one-down and painfully aware of it. Just about everyone has a touch of double consciousness, and the management of that eerie social disconfirmation of identity is a game known and played by all; his text is a handbook of familiar rules and strategies. Since the culture wars of the sixties even the white boys have started blushing, or at least bristling, under the onslaught of the stigmatized stigmatizing back.

It may look like Goffman is talking about what I’ll call ‘little stigma’, contingent embarrassments, and one of the standard criticisms of the book is that ‘big stigma’, structuring identities like race, class and gender, operates at a different scale with different dynamics. I think the genius of the book is how he is able to show big structural effects emerging from little interactive causes, but that’s a long technical discussion. Read the book. More immediately, the question this election and some of its key players raise is whether big stigma is eroding into the mass of overcomeable little stigmas like height, weight, age, education, accent, cultural style and so on that irritate, hinder and even incapacitate us without ever rising to the level of structural disqualification. I am not therefore suggesting that racism, sexism and classism have been overcome and are now stigma-free, but that the scale of that stigma may be changing in the U.S.. (I am also not suggesting that weightism, ageism, etc., are trivial burdens.)

That race has become little stigma is certainly the argument of Obama’s candidacy. Faced with the presumption that big structural racism would disqualify him categorically from the presidency, his response is ‘I don’t think so, let’s see’. He hasn’t made race an issue because he doesn’t think race is an issue [or rather, a special issue that needs to be his issue]. Although Clinton’s candidacy had to have the same premise regarding gender, her and her supporters’ demographics pushed toward a more old-school rhetoric of embattled exclusion.

Big stigma entrepreneurs like Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright have tried to push Obama the same way, with no success. The barbarism of schematized identities (a terrific concept from Jennifer Cascadia found here) and their associated stigmas is that life without them cannot be imagined. Obama is imagining this life, and attempting to live it. So far something like half of this country, millions and millions of people, would like to help and join in with that.

Perhaps Tocqueville will turn out to have been right yet again when he wrote that “When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. When everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. Hence the more equal men are, the more insatiable will be their longing for equality.” — Democracy in America (1835/1840). Perhaps our tolerances have grown very fine. We’ll need to get to work next on sexualities, the last of the ‘acceptable’ big stigmas which remains structurally excluding, at least in national politics.

August 8, 2008

Reading again

by CarlD

The new academic year starts in a little more than a week and once again I will inflict reading on a batch of students. Some of them will do it, some of them won’t, and some of them will devise various strategies of PITA and strategic incompetence to cope with it. Eventually through a long, recursive process we may all actually get something out of the process, although I know from experience that it will rarely be the same something. That doesn’t bother me except when I’m trying to explain the value of what I do to people whose goal-process-outcome model is more linear than mine.

I should say that I’m in many ways sympathetic with students in their disgruntlement with the reading-mediated process of education, but their first strategy of resistance to reading, that it’s just ‘book learning’, is not persuasive to me. Try figuring something good out and then just letting it die with you. Books are one of the good ways to record experience, and thus to learn from other people’s experiences, not just our own. They are broadening and potentially transformative. To cut ourselves off from the accumulated experience and reflection of others is, in Mead’s sense, self-defeating.

OK, but reading is an odd thing, as Mikhail has been pondering. Maybe we don’t read as carefully as we think, understand as thoroughly as we should, retain as much as we’d hope. Then there’s this old question of the ‘difficult text‘ and strategies for engaging with it. In some cases you might not want to start where the author did. I often open a book at random and see what happens, but there may be substantive reasons to skip and retrace. Not to mention that behind writings there are authors and behind authors there are more writings, so good reading never ends.

In the margins of more substantive posts Rough Theory and What in the hell… have reflected on reading, reading in order, and reading again. In the margins I’ll note that the theory of reading I subscribe to suggests that we must always read twice: the first time for familiarization, the second time for understanding. When we ‘understand’ something in the ‘first’ reading it’s because it is, or seems, already familiar to us. And that, of course, is a trap: familiarity is easy to ‘read in’, and we may never get beyond the horizons of our preconceptions, or learn anything new, if we always stop at that first reading.

I explain this to students and they are often comforted by it. Many of them have been trained to read (or not read) in bulk, driven by content and coverage. They are assaulted by all manner of new and unfamiliar stuff and, not surprisingly, they don’t understand it. Their folk reaction is either “I’m stupid” or “this book is stupid,” either of which will settle into “reading is stupid” over time. I’ve taken to looping through readings over and over in class, settling them into increasing familiarity and leveraging that to get at richer understandings, then expanding coverage with similar recursivity. It’s perplexing at first but works really well, and knocks out a lot of resentment. I get much better papers. And the best assessment I get is the one where the student says “the class made me feel smart.”