Archive for ‘empowerment’

May 24, 2010

Nightmares of dead generation

by Carl Dyke

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from marxists.org). Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?

April 18, 2010

Heuristics

by johnmccreery

Because Andrew Abbott’s use of the term “heuristics” in the subtitle to Methods of Discovery (or perhaps just my clumsy presentation of it), I thought it might be worthwhile to flesh out a bit what Abbott means by the term and why he thinks that heuristics are important. First, then,

Most modern writing about heuristic comes from mathematics. Mathematicians often have particular problems to solve: how to solve the normal distribution integral (hint: you can’t do it analytically), how to create a perfect pentagon, how to categorize all the possible types of disconnection in six-space, and so on. Mathematicians often know or suspect the answer they seek but need to be sure of how one gets there. Even when they don’t know the answer, the usually have a clear idea of what an answer looks like. In such a context, heuristic means thinking creatively about how to get from problem to solution. Often one builds out from the problem on the one hand and from the solution on the other until the two halves meet in the middle like a bridge built from two banks.

How to get from here to there, in a situation where there may be multiple routes to choose from. That sounds good to me. A page later, Abbott turns from mathematics to the social sciences.

In the social sciences we often have a different situation. We often don’t see ahead of time exactly what the problem is, much less do we have an idea of the solution. We often come at an issue with only a gut feeling that there is something interesting about it. We often don’t know even what an answer ought to look like….Most teaching on methods assumes that the student will start a research project with a general question, then narrow that to a focused question, which will dictate the kind of data needed, which will in turn support an analysis designed to answer the focused question. Nothing could be further from reality. Most research projects—from first-year undergraduate papers to midcareer multiyear, multi-investigator projects—start out as general interests in an area tied up with hazy notions about some possible data, a preference for this or that kind of method, and as often as not a preference for certain kinds of results. Most research projects advance on all of these fronts at once, the data getting better as the question becomes more focused, the methods more firmly decided, and the results more precise.

The upshot is that a trained ability to envision different possible outcomes and different routes to reach them — to think in terms of heuristics—is a valuable skill. Given my personal experience, that sounds right to me.

March 31, 2010

Just do it?

by Carl Dyke

Back in the day, guys used to work. Nowadays, guys got feelings. — An old hand’s lament.

Yesterday I locked myself out of my office. It was a carpool day and I forgot to grab my keys.

When I got to school it was time for my first section of freshman introductory World History. So I went right to class and got them settled and oriented toward the day’s task, which was peer-review of thesis paragraphs for their papers on agency. (In this section most of the papers will be on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.) Then I told them what was up with my keys, they laughed at me, and I left the classroom to go get my door open.

When I got back after about 15 minutes (took a pitstop while I was at it) they were reading and commenting on their second or third paragraphs each. I let them finish a couple more swaps, then had a group discussion about what patterns they saw in the paragraphs they had read. This yielded some nice insights about constructing a point in relation to evidence and the concept of agency in relation to structure. Then I opened a parenthesis about their teaching/learning journals for the class, and asked them a process question. Colleagues regularly remark on how my students don’t seem to require a lot of supervision, I informed them. Why do students just work in some classes but play limpy or make an obstructive fuss in others?

The discussion was interesting and seemed self-reflectively valuable, so I asked the other two sections the same thing. Then, with a meeting coming up to select the campus professor of the year, I used my seminar today as a focus group to brainstorm qualities that make a good teacher. Across the four groups the students’ perspectives lined up strikingly consistently. A common wisdom among some teachers is that students want to be spoon-fed, so their opinion of ‘good’ teaching is really just easy grades. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Given bad alternatives students prefer an easy teacher to an arbitrarily or inaccessibly hard one. But they don’t respect or appreciate easy teaching.

My students all enjoy most the classes in which they learn the most. Across the board they report learning the most from professors who treat them with respect, show them the value of the work they’re doing, and include them in a shared process of teaching and learning. They appreciate when their teachers care about them and make an effort to shorten social distance rather than pontificating from on high. They love when professors know their stuff, and hate having their noses rubbed in the Herr Professor Doktor’s great expertise. They like to be challenged, not demeaned. In today’s group, where students brought up favorite professors by name, these factors were notably effective regardless of gender, race and ethnicity.

Incidentally, not a single student mentioned instructional technology as a dimension of good teaching and learning.

Previous posts on various aspects of this are behind the links.

March 29, 2010

Tea Party Animals: How many lumps?

by Carl Dyke

The ‘Tea Party’ is an interesting image for the current wave of disgruntled populism sweeping the U.S.American nonurbs and suburbs. Something is awry with the democracy if our own government is reminding folks of an oppressive colonial power. (That something may be civic education. The basic democratic concept that when you lose elections the other guys get to do things their way for awhile is what we’re trying to explain in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Arizona.) Certainly Democratic administrations are always going to stir up the folk libertarians on ordinary ideological grounds. But it strikes me that there’s an added existential dimension to the level of vituperation currently being directed at the Feds.

The Great Recession has been important social-psychologically in the sense that it created relative immiseration, historically one of the best predictors of social upheaval. People will take consistent, reliable misery pretty well. But when stuff they’ve grown to expect is taken away, watch out. Think Germans after Versailles. (To be more precise, the German case shows that the time to worry is when things start to get better again after the crisis has passed.) In the United States it seems to me the basic problem is accelerated by an individualistic popular culture in which all legitimate collectivities are taken to be voluntary. You’d think the government would be included in voluntary organizations because of the vote. But when votes you lose create organizations in which your will is not directly mixed, the conceptual slide into tyranny is real enough that it worried founding fathers like Madison and caused them to set up a clumsy, inefficient governing structure on purpose as a flywheel.

Also critical, I think, is the perhaps unique success of modern U.S.American civil society in hiding itself from individual view. As Durkheim noted, modernity is characterized by high complexity and interdependence, in which all sorts of stuff we need to live as we do happens around the edges of our awareness. We only worry about sewers and food safety and international monetary systems when they don’t work. When the gears and pulleys under the hood start to grind they make a frightening racket. ‘The Government’ is a convenient popular name for all the stuff we desperately need without even knowing it and over which we suddenly and nauseatingly realize we have no direct personal control when it starts to go wrong. It’s comforting that someone’s in control even as we revile them.

On the Big Scary Other-O-Meter ‘The Government’ probably ranks better than Satan, witches, the international Jewish conspiracy; maybe a little worse than patriarchy, capitalism, and the clash of civilizations. Educated people learn to depersonalize their Big Scary Others.

L'État, c'est moi.

March 8, 2010

New participatory international

by Carl Dyke

I believe I’ve mentioned before that although (because?) I study activism, I’m not much of an activist. Just the sort of smug privileged egghead kibitzing pragmatic gradualist fellow traveler who rightly gets taken out and shot in the early days of any self-respecting revolution, by either side, unless I last until the show trials.

Fortunately for my vicarious karma my aunt is a serious lifelong activist, not to mention a terrific philosopher. She sends me notice of a proposal for a new participatory socialist international of which she is an original endorser. Check it out. While you’re there read her interview, and her inspiring essay on “Labor, Love, Community and Democracy”. For a more despairing, yet still defiant Old New Left perspective, see the essay on “A Way Forward?” by my old hero, pioneering American Gramsci scholar Carl Boggs.

Btw, in a hilarious simulation of censorship it turns out that the string ‘socialism’ engages some spam filters because it contains the string ‘cialis’. Be warned, commenters, Big Brother is crafty indeed!

January 30, 2010

Nostalgia, solastalgia, and some other pains

by Carl Dyke

Paul Mason has a terrific post up at Neuroanthropology on “Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of Our Changing Environment,” riffing on an article in The New York Times Magazine in which Daniel Smith (citing Glenn Albrecht, Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University) wonders if we have an ecological unconscious.

Paul hooks the question up with his experience of economic development in Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. In the process of restoring the neighborhood to pretty it up for tourism, the government forcibly relocated poor locals. A result, Paul says, was solastalgia, “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.” Paul is particularly interested in indifference as a psychological defense against solastalgia. He sees the marginalized locals acting badly toward others and themselves, and finds that they have stopped caring. Faced with change they cannot control, they go numb.

The debilitating effects of Nostalgia can occur when you are physically displaced from somewhere you call home. Solastalgia occurs when the environment you call home changes unrecognisably for reasons beyond your immediate control. Solastalgia can lead to distress, but I believe that this distress is felt by people who care. I am not concerned about the psychological effects of solastalgia as much as I am concerned about the psychological defense against solastalgia. The indifference and resignation that the sensitive observer can read on the faces of the poor in Pelourinho, the indifference that can lead a seven year old to hold a gun to a person’s head and demand money, the indifference that can allow a pregnant mother to abuse drugs are all, to my mind, a psychological defence to the debilitating emotion of ‘care’ in a world that has taken away even the most fundamental security of ‘home’ and removed all sense of place.

Not caring as a defense against helpless care seems plausible enough. Paul ponders, is this psychological dynamic behind the apparent failure of climate change warnings to gain traction with so many people?

From my earliest days at primary school in Australia, I can remember learning about pollution, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, global warming, climate change, the destruction of the rainforests, exploitation of marine life, overpopulation and poverty. And yet, today so many of my age group either seem numb to the topics or they simply have a jerk reflex whenever the issues are raised. Often the topic is changed all too easily.

I don’t doubt it. But I also wouldn’t want to discount some other dynamics that may complicate the analysis (and the prescription). For one thing, there’s the common tendency to value one’s own direct experience over others’ as a source of reliable knowledge. Global warming is not yet immediately evident for most people, and for a lot of them, that’s decisive. Since Paul likes neologisms and I do too we’ll call this syndrome autistalgia.

It’s also not self-evident that climate change, or any other kind of change, is a bad thing. The environment will be different, but difference may be assessed from many perspectives and according to many standards. More ocean and fewer humans would be great for fish, and for whatever new species evolved to replace us as the dominant life-form like we replaced the dinosaurs. Even in the shorter and more selfish term, some people find change exhilarating. I’m not one of them, but they’re out there and when they don’t get all pantybunchy about climate change it’s not necessarily because they’re erecting emotional firewalls to protect their embattled psyches. They’ll just take their chances. I would venture to say that evolution and experience have provided humans with a prudent mix of dispositional sensitivity to risk, homebodies and bungee-jumpers, so that as a species we might both avoid risks and seize their opportunities. We’ll call the inconvenience of this fact for any sort of straightforward climate politics polystochastalgia.

Of course, as a subset of the above some people are just making self-interested short-term cost-benefit calculations. Even if the environment is going kablooie, individual margins of impact are low and it might pay to let other people make all the sacrifices to fix it. It also may be that the real bad craziness doesn’t come down during our lifetime, in which case meh. We could call the subjective effects of such folk culalgia.

And then there’s a dynamic Paul himself evokes when he recalls his own upbringing filled with the insistent pedagogy of ecological degradation. We’ll call this one dejalgia, also known as phantasmalupalgia, or sometimes pullusparumalgia. It refers to the pain experienced when there is recognition that we have heard an apocalyptic scenario many times before, without it however coming true on anything like the forecast scale. It takes real strength of will and unflagging faith in the human spirit to keep running out onto the hillside over and over with spears ready when the mistaken cry of wolf goes up. Those not so equipped may be disproportionately demotivated when the same environmentalists who said nuclear power was going to doom us all before now embrace nuclear power as a great source of alternative energy. It’s not that chronic dejalgics don’t care, but that they’re waiting for a little more to go on. It’s not like there isn’t plenty else to do.

I’m being a little silly here, but this is no laughing matter. In the wolf story only the little boy gets eaten, but the black swan of environmental collapse could take us all out. Which I remind you will be a fine day for fish.

November 10, 2009

Hubert Harrison at Temple

by Carl Dyke

At the conference I met Jeffrey B. Perry, whose work is on the history and consequences of white supremacism. Jeffrey is currently doing a lecture circuit with his talk and slide presentation on “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.” He is at UMass-Boston this afternoon and will be at Temple University in Philadelphia on Thursday. See his website for details.

Although I’ve got some self-taught familiarity with the more famous players in the history of critical race theory, I had not heard of Hubert Harrison until running into Jeffrey between conference sessions. The Columbia UP page for Jeffrey’s book on Harrison offers this compelling capsule:

Hubert Harrison was an immensely skilled writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist who, more than any other political leader of his era, combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness into a coherent political radicalism. Harrison’s ideas profoundly influenced “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his synthesis of class and race issues is a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X.

The foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician of the Socialist Party of New York, Harrison was also the founder of the “New Negro” movement, the editor of Negro World, and the principal radical influence on the Garvey movement. He was a highly praised journalist and critic (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer), a freethinker and early proponent of birth control, a supporter of Black writers and artists, a leading public intellectual, and a bibliophile who helped transform the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture.

Jeffrey has also edited and introduced a collection of Harrison’s writings among numerous other scholarly contributions. His is clearly an extraordinary labor of love and honor.

We met up when my early Sunday morning panel was letting out and his mid Sunday morning talk was about to begin. I was struck by his passion and immediate self-identification as an independent, working-class scholar. I was also struck by his assumption that he had been placed disadvantageously on the program because he was an outsider bringing unwelcome knowledge. He saw a pattern of marginalization there. In contrast, I thought my paper had gotten dumped into the Sunday whatsits (Sunday is when most conference participants leave, so those panels are often loosely organized and sparsely attended) because I had submitted it solo and it hadn’t matched up at a glance with the main themes of the conference.

I suggested to Jeffrey that putting together a coherent panel and targeting it to the conference rubric might be a way to achieve a more favorable placement and reception for his important work. His dismissal of this unsolicited advice was firm and monosyllabic.

I’m glad to know about Hubert Harrison and grateful for Jeffrey’s work.

September 28, 2009

You and me, and baby makes infinity

by Carl Dyke

(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.

There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.

The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.

Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?

The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.

Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.

Careful not to oversauce.

Careful not to oversauce.

Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)

There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.

The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.

To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.

September 7, 2009

Bells and whistles

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 28, 2009

Beyond self-interest

by Carl Dyke

As I commented in the last post, I’m suspicious of theories of social action that require either complete selfishness or complete selflessness as their explanatory motor. Yochai Benkler agrees in his talk at The Edge on “The End of Universal Rationality” (thanks to John McCreery for this reference). He doesn’t talk about teaching, but what he does say about motivation and cooperation hits some key points for different approaches to teaching.

Benkler draws an interesting contrast between what he calls the dominant American economic and management theory of the last 40 years, based on a self-interest model of motivation, and newer research that shows a more cooperative model to be more effective. He characterizes American businesses (GM, for example), as “monitoring and controlling” hierarchical systems based on the premise that people will work hardest to seek maximum return if you get the incentives just right, and shirk whenever they can get away with it. As he points out, this results in ponderous management systems where every worker and manager must be closely motivated, actions must be minutely specified and monitored — all the way up to CEOs, who are also presumed to be prone to shirking if not goosed with the right incentives.

Benkler says if you set up the social situation that way, people will indeed behave that way. But then all the pressure is on getting the incentives exactly right, and the game for workers is to see how much reward they can get for the least work and involvement (free-riding). As you know, Bob, one unintended consequence of this theory was that executive compensation was vastly multiplied by all sorts of short-term incentives tied to corporate performance that only motivated executives to cut corners, take quick fixes, and shirk all the more to stimulate another cycle of reward. Does this sound like any classrooms we know yet? Just substitute grade inflation for ballooning executive compensation and go from there.

In some sense the smart students are the ones who decide it’s a hamster wheel and step off. But fortunately, what management researchers have found is that setting up the social situation differently produces different behavior.

In all of these disciplines, the last 20 years and particularly the’ 90s onward, have seen emerging studies, some models, some experiments, some observational field studies, that are showing, A) that people systematically do not behave according to the traditions of selfish rationality under controlled conditions; B) that when you set up systems with different assumptions, you get different behavior, and you get actually better results. There is a beautiful study, for example, from two or three years ago about knowledge workers….

What happens to knowledge-sharing within teams if on the one hand, you create explicit incentives, monitor the incentives, you share more, you get more; on the other hand, you build much more team spirit and you make it the thing that’s the right thing to do as a member of this team and create much more social relations within the team. What they found was … setting up a social dynamic that’s a team dynamic, and what’s understood to be the right thing to do achieves much greater internal knowledge flows than setting up an effort to create incentives. So you have very real implications.

OK. In order to get better knowledge flows, which I think is a pretty good description of teaching and learning, what I have to do is set up a social dynamic with team spirit and a performance ethic. Students need “a sense of self image and a sense of ‘I’m okay’ relative to the world…” that fits and feeds from the class’ task and process. Individual incentives and top-down monitoring are counterproductive. Well, that sounds a little tricky but a lot more rewarding than chasing the students around like naughty children, giving out candy every time they wipe their own noses.

February 6, 2009

When failure is an option

by Carl Dyke

At Now-Times Alexei has opened an interesting discussion by firing a shot across the bow of grading: he’s not sure it serves any good purpose, he sees that it’s prone to ideology, and he’s concerned that pedagogically useful failures will be discouraged by failing grades. In short, he thinks grades aren’t good for much. I mostly agree, but only because I think we tend to do it wrong. I’ve begun to comment there and I’ve also said a lot of relevant stuff here, here, here, here and here. But I’ve also had this conversation in other venues and wanted to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City:

I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of the draw, but I think it’s because I do explain, in great detail, exactly what I’m looking for in their work, why I’m looking for it, what’s in it for them, how to do it, and what consequences to expect if they don’t do it (including ‘failure’). All of that is explicitly open to negotiation by mindful students who can explain the equivalent value of a different set of tasks or criteria. If they learn nothing else from my classes, they learn how to connect desirable skills and knowledge to standards and standards to performances.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that for many of my colleagues the strategy seems to be to present themselves as authorities pronouncing mysterious olympian judgments, which is not very ‘human’ either; and students with even a smidge of critical thinking do well to question this authority. If we teach standards as reasons, not just rules or arbitrary commands, we get much farther into recruiting the students into the kind of thinking that we know how to do and wish they could too, by enabling them to make their own principled judgments.

It would be great if grading turned out to be the reason our students don’t learn and we could turn them into eager learners by not grading them. I believe actual experiments along these lines have been programmatically conducted with mixed results, e.g. at U.C. Santa Cruz. It’s worth talking about why the results were mixed. But in any event, as part of a mindful pedagogy grades can be useful. Given that they’re the industry standard anyway, I think we should figure out how.

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January 12, 2009

How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments

by Carl Dyke

A short, droll post by Kathy at Edge of the West concerning an instance of the “plagiarism-industrial complex” has, as is the wont of that site, produced a lively and interesting discussion in the commentary. Much of it concerns the merits of the commercial plagiarism-detection services, including their helplessness to detect truly “artisanal” plagiarism. If you’re willing/able to pay enough to have someone else do boutique work for you, and you’re careful never to submit any of your own work for damning comparison, that will probably work for you. Getting other people to do your work for you being the chief advantage of wealth, after all.

(Sad/amusing aside: a number of us suspect one of our best students of the past decade of ghosting papers — not for money but as a favor for friends. Oddly enough, this special critter was a compulsive perfectionist and almost never turned in its own work no matter what inducements we tried — and we became pretty creative — so if we’re right, we only got to enjoy its gifts at an odd second-hand.)

I’ve made a couple of brief comments there about why I don’t use the plagiarism police. For one thing, I think inconveniencing and anxietizing the honorable to intercept the dishonorable is an ugly way to live. For another, on (quixotic) foucauldian grounds that participating in the creation of docile bodies through the installation and extension of surveillance regimes is profoundly self-defeating. But my main reason I’ve only been able to sketch there, and want to elaborate here: I don’t use the plagiarism police because my assignments are functionally plagiarism-proof.

Howzat? There are a couple of key strategies that I’ll get to in a second, but let’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.

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.

December 23, 2008

Wanted: Prof Whisperer

by Carl Dyke

A couple of remarks by Profacero here and olderwoman at scatterplot are coming together in my head with many such from over the years, to the effect that establishing authority in the classroom is a different challenge for women, race/ethnic minorities, and other stigmatized groups than for white men.

This is now an orthodoxy in the liberal academy, so like all orthodoxies I’m going to try to trouble it here. But it’s also true. It’s undeniable that since Columbus us white boys enjoy an entry privilege as authority figures, especially if we’re ruggedly handsome, brilliant, charismatic and naturally great-smelling like me. A big chunk of this is visually inherent as a function of habits of symbolic ranking and emotional identification. It’s also undeniable that for some fractions of our audiences only white men will do as authority figures, as the underbelly of this last election showed well enough.

It’s important for navigational purposes to understand where these structural reefs and shoals are, but agency at any particular moment is about where we can go, not about where we can’t. Dynamiting Scylla and Charybdis is a worthy project for special occasions but trying to do that daily will wear you out quick, which is one of the worst compounding effects of deprivileging. So in a practical, quotidian sense the question is how authority works under less-than-ideal conditions.

Here I think it’s helpful to come at the question a little bit sideways from the usual focus on qualifying privilege and disqualifying stigma. Things look pretty desperate from that standpoint. We see white guys living it up in the lap of esteemed luxury and ‘others’ struggling, and it looks like the single effective variable is whiteguyness. Looks like we’re stuck with the exhausting dynamite campaign. But wait – what do we do with all the white guys who struggle in the classroom? And what do we do with the race/ethnic/disabled/women/etc. who get in the classroom and kick some ass, without blowing up everything in sight or even breaking a sweat? Don’t we all know some of each of those? Maybe it’s possible to factor out the structural race/gender variable and get comparable positive and negative results across categorical populations! Jeepers, a playground for agency!

The problem with how these discussions go is that they tend to be informed by a lot of reciprocal ignorance and mythology. It’s well-established at this point that hetero white guys don’t know squat about what it’s like to be black/female/queer/etc. We drift around in a happy daze at the gravitic null-point of all social stratifications, unburdened and oblivious to the burdens of others. And relatively speaking, which is all I ever do, this is true. But as Goffman tells us at some length in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, it’s also relatively speaking false. The ideal, unspoiled, unstigmatized identity imagined by disgruntled white-guy voyeurs is a mythic construct not embodied by any real person (this is, for example, the founding joke of “American Dad”). Being a white guy helps a lot in some ways, but it looks better from outside than inside; and if you’ve never been one, you’ll have to take my word for that. We’re all vulnerable in big ways and small, Goffman says (Foucault agrees), and each social interaction is the opportunity for anxious and reciprocal attempts to deploy/negate strengths and conceal/discover weaknesses.

Students looking for an edge against a professor just bump on down the checklist until they find something that will work for them. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability make things easy, but it’s a poor strategic interactant who stops there. Nor is whiteguyness much help, after the moment of entry, when there are other white guys around to cancel that advantage out. We’re a dime a dozen, and when we think things are at stake we rip on each other something fierce. We know each others’ weaknesses. So when white guys succeed in the classroom, it’s helped us at first to be white guys but then it almost instantly hasn’t, and we’ve had to deploy some other strength. What is that?

As olderwoman perceptively noted, classroom success comes to those who “carry privilege, a presumption of competence and authority with them into the classroom.” This is the ‘other strength’ that intercepts the stigma game. She ascribes this to upper-class white men, but notice that what’s being described here is not categorical identity but what Bourdieu calls disposition: an acquired scheme of perception, thought and action. Now, categorical identity is still significant because the dispositions of competence and authority are native products of the rich white boy habitus, and are interactively recognized as such. The nature of white boy privilege is therefore a kind of symbolic capital that is enforced through symbolic violence or its threat. It is in this sense that olderwoman is entirely correct that “[p]eople whose status is unquestioned can afford to be Mr. Cool with students,” because the threat of symbolic violence is understood and gratitude for its forebearance is ritually extracted. And this dynamic is what allows symbolic capital to be converted to economic and social capital, in the form of access to careers, advancement, esteem. Thus structure is produced and reproduced in everyday relations.

If we let it. Here’s where I agree with Marx that our conscious human history has not started yet. The dynamic of dispositions and habitus I have described above does not take us very far past the pack behaviors of dogs. In this connection it’s fascinating to watch the Dog Whisperer. Like the Nanny with children and parents, Cesar Millan’s whole insight is that when subordinates are getting unruly it’s not a follower problem, it’s a leader problem. The show gets old quick because it’s always the same schtick – come into a house, find owners fretting about ‘problem’ dog, discover the dog’s just confused about who’s in charge, train owners how to be in charge. Bingo bongo. And the real problem quickly emerges: white, black, man, woman, straight, gay, lotsa lotsa people have no idea how to be in charge of themselves, let alone others, even just dogs!, and anxious yapping ensues.

Cesar teaches the acquirable big dog skills of authority and competence to folks who for one reason or another perceive, think and act like little dogs. That is, he backfills the dispositions that make white guys winners in the big everyone stigma game, and alpha white guys winners in the little white guy stigma game. There’s nothing magical or mysterious about it, either. “Cesar counsels people to calmly, assertively, and consistently give their dogs rules, boundaries, and limitations to establish themselves as solid pack leaders and to help correct and control unwanted behavior.” That’s what the Nanny says about dealing with kids too. That’s what Obama did in this last campaign.

Calm assertion; clear, consistent boundaries. Not grand gestures, not puffery, not loud yapping. Those say ‘not trusting my own authority and competence, overcompensating’. Not negotiation, pleading or resentful disengagement. Those say ‘power vacuum here, please fill it’. Cesar thinks everyone can learn this. I hope so, because I don’t think we get over these pack-power games and get to human together until we do. And until we do, all of those categorical accounts of why things aren’t going right for us, even when they’re true, are little more than theodicies.

December 21, 2008

Kool-Aid cocktails

by Carl Dyke

I’m still chewing on the conversation at the earlier lumpenbourgeoisie post. Profacero remains firm that whatever merits academic employment may have cannot justify the poor pay. She keeps the high expectations and high self-subsidized costs of our work in view, with specific examples like research and conference expenses, adjunct stints at less than a living wage, crushing personal debt. This is all real stuff. We have no dispute about what actually happens. All of it has happened to me and many people I know, although I am somewhat insulated more recently from some professional costs by the relatively low formal scholarship requirements at my nice teaching-oriented regional slac — which means gaps in the cv that, along with my status as a tenured associate professor, pretty much take me out of play on the market and bind me to this job.

Profacero would also like to be able to afford a small boat. I wouldn’t have minded being able to afford my divorce, which despite everyone’s good intentions cost nearly twice my annual salary. Other colleagues have aging parents to provide for. Ponies are always nice. These things are relative, but the point is that we’re not paid enough to afford many things we might reasonably need or want. And at many places the belt is tightening, as Dr. Crazy discusses in an incisive post following up on others by herself, Historiann, and Tenured Radical, with whom I completely agree. Of course there’s also much to be learned and pondered about conditions and compensation for academic work from Lumpenprofessoriat, e.g. here, and What in the hell…, e.g. here, and Marc Bousquet at Brainstorm, e.g. here.

I’m all for doing what’s possible to enhance conditions and compensation for work, for everyone. I’ve argued that there may be costs along with the obvious benefits to academics specifically for resorting to unions to do that, just as there are costs and benefits to pulling a gun in a bar fight or putting Pavarotti on the jukebox at a party. The situation inevitably gets structured in a certain way you may or may not like when you make those moves; it would be good to consider alternatives. I’m a real fan of the aikido ethic, but to my knowledge we’ve not even begun to think of how something like that might apply. I’ve also argued that dire though the plight of tenured/tenurable faculty might be, for whingeability it doesn’t sort real high on the priorities compared to other folk with genuinely crappy lives, ranging from permanent adjuncts to some of our support staff to starving Haitian babies.

OK, so what’s this post about? It’s about ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’.

I’ve been arguing that whatever influence we may or may not have over the material realities of our employment, we completely control our attitudes toward them. We get to choose how we think (and, to a lesser degree, feel) about these facts we all agree on. We become what we pay attention to, as Mead and the interactionists say. Or Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So while we ponder available remediation or transformation strategies, we also get to direct our attention, think and be ourselves in the now. And I’ve remarked that in the context of this particular now, given the available alternatives, I’m pretty pleased to be drawing a comparatively decent salary to be doing work I notice is personally and relationally affirming. Profacero thinks that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, this is a delusional form of pathetic sacrifice, and “they’ve got” me where they want me.

Perhaps. I agree that sacrifice is pathetic, but what I do doesn’t seem like sacrifice to me. “We are all conformists of some conformity or another,” Gramsci said. It’s not whether you’ve drunk Kool-Aid, it’s which Kool-Aid you drank. You can drink the angry, alienated Kool-Aid or the woeful, victimized Kool-Aid or the contented, peaceful Kool-Aid. These are all interpretive stances. None of them are more or less ‘true to life’, and none are inconsistent with working to make things better, but the latter will take some of the sting out of your day. What we do has value; or at least, it’s what we do. This is Existentialism 101, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Our fate belongs to us. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill our hearts. We can be happy.

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 15, 2008

Teaching philosophy

by Carl Dyke

I’m inclined to agree with Academic Cog, whose various statements about teaching I admire, that “teaching philosophies” as required for job applications and tenure/promotion files tend to be “vague, general, and dorky-sounding,” ranging from inane to robotic. I especially dislike the ones that respond to explicit or implicit questions about “innovative” teaching. I’ve seen and developed some pretty fancy ways to deliver lecture and discussion over the years, but until someone figures out a way to teach the humanities that isn’t a variation on lecture or discussion (knowledge pills? cortical implants?) —

— I may add some tricks to my bag but I’m holding fire on innovation cred.

Re: innovation (or not), here’s the statement from my introductory world history syllabus, under the heading “teaching/learning philosophy as I learned it from world history:”

“If I give a student one corner of a subject and he cannot find the other three, the lesson is not worth teaching.” — Confucius

“When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal.” — Laozi

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” — Walter Benjamin

“Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: — a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad.” — the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.” — William James

“I don’t believe in living in the past. The past is for cowards. If you live in the past, you die in the past.” — Mike Ditka

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. God knows but you do not know.” — the Qu’ran

“The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous.” — Shunryu Suzuki

These are not meant to be linear. My classes are ‘some assembly required’.

Insofar as I have anything like a formal teaching philosophy I fall into the general category of humanists who think learning is good and it’s possible, in principle, for every student to learn; and of pragmatists who think this is better accomplished actively than passively. As for specifics, they vary. I use my classrooms as teaching/learning laboratories, so I’m always trying out new (to me) strategies. I also do a lot of reading and reacting with particular students and groups of students, which means that the instancings of a general approach may be quite different even across sections of ‘the same’ class. Finally, I have noticed that just about any way of teaching will work pretty well if the teacher is excited about it and fall flat if they’re not. So I never teach ‘the same’ class twice because I use each class as an opportunity to learn new things and I periodically cycle out of even very successful teaching strategies to keep myself fresh. I think that teaching stops being about technique and starts being about feel and fit and mindful interaction pretty quickly.

Still, as a member of several search committees I have read some pretty inspiring teaching philosophies. Occasionally at the interview they even turn out to match the practices of their authors! But it’s practices we care about in the end, isn’t it? So perhaps we should ask for statements of teaching practice. As to that, I indicated in the previous post I think it’s important to think through what we actually want our students to learn in our classes and teach directly to those objectives. For my students the most important outcome is the ability and disposition to learn independently and to read, think and write critically. I reported out an example of how that looks in practice in my earlier post, Ninja Reading, which is currently my favorite teaching statement and not at all inane or robotic.

December 14, 2008

Grading

by Carl Dyke

I’ve figured out, again, that if I want to get any serious work done I have to get away from my distractions. So for the last few days I’ve been taking up tipspace for as long as I thought polite at a series of restaurants and coffee shops, buying just enough to rent the table and overtipping like mad, bringing down the atmosphere of leisure no doubt with my gradebook, big piles of papers and journals, and the occasional anguished cry.

Actually the papers have not been half bad overall. I finally figured out that I need to teach what I want them to know and do, so I’ve got my teaching and assessing aligned (I ‘teach to the test’). It’s sort of amazing to me how long I got by with a reputation as a good teacher without doing that. Anyway, the papers are much better when I’ve taught them how to read, think and write in the ways one must to write a good paper. ‘What gives’ is content coverage. It’s amazing too how little I care about that if by the end of the class they can develop a coherent, well-supported thought about something in particular relevant to the course for 5-8 pages.

November 26, 2008

Class consciousness in the lumpenbourgeoisie

by Carl Dyke

I’m going away for the long weekend, so for those of you escaping the loving clutches of family and unrescued by football I thought I’d leave a long, debatable one to chew on. It’s rough (I wrote it around the edges of a lot of grading) but if you’re patient and read generously I think the gist is here. I promise to reply faithfully to comments when I get back.

One of my first posts on this blog ventilated my thoughts about academic labor. Now a new institutional outrage in the Tennessee higher education system, which pays adjuncts $15k a year without benefits for a 5/5 teaching load (five courses per semester; four is generally considered high for permanent faculty), has once again refreshed my treachery toward the interests of my class. See, unlike many of my colleagues I am not convinced that it makes sense to describe people getting paid for academic work as exploited, oppressed, overworked, downtrodden, what have you. And although I am affectionately sympathetic to this kind of argument, and believe it is appropriate and strategic to make in a lot of situations for a lot of people, I think it is in some important ways counterproductive for academic professionals to make it about themselves.

Of course ‘making sense’ only happens within structured systems of meaning – cultures, theories – and I don’t mean to sidestep the relevant one here. Obviously it makes no sense to a calvinist, a daoist, a stoic, a burkeian conservative or a libertarian to describe academic work as exploitive, because that standpoint of critique does not exist in those systems of meaning. I’m saying I don’t think it makes sense to describe academic work as exploitive in marxist terms, which is the native vocabulary of such critiques. I’ll mention in passing that I also don’t think it makes sense to describe academic work as ‘oppressive’, but only because I find that to be a catch-all pseudo-critique that’s flung about by some folks on the left like monkeys fling poo anytime something upsetting happens.

Marx of course wanted to smash capitalism, but he admired capitalists and considered them a progressive historical force: destructive in important ways, usefully doomed by their own success. His disdain was reserved for well-meaning clueless intellectuals of various kinds, who he considered worse than useless, including utopian socialists (“Communist Manifesto”), liberals (“On the Jewish Question”), Young Hegelians (The Holy Family, The German Ideology), anarchists (The Poverty of Philosophy), reformers and trade unionists (“Critique of the Gotha Program”). For a brilliant redeployment of these critiques onto recent radical politics, see Robert Meister’s Political Identity: Thinking Through Marx. There’s a lot of sophisticated suspicion of the radical cred of eggheads in these references, but we’ll start with the obvious:

College professors are not proletarians.

I sometimes jokingly refer to my years as an itinerant adjunct as strawberry-picking, but it’s only a joke because it’s transparently silly. I did honest work but I wasn’t breaking my back in the hot sun, humiliated, subordinate and expendable, little more than a sentient machine. My working conditions were pleasant (I find schools pleasant), I enjoyed virtually complete autonomy in my workplace, I was respected as a professional and got full social credit for my work. Although I was sometimes needed, sometimes not, I accepted my responsibility to make my work ongoingly desirable. And as an independent contractor I could say screw this anytime, and I fully controlled the means of my production. It’s an insult to the struggle of real working-class folk to compare my life to theirs.

I was not well-paid. I’m still not by professional standards. Big deal. I coulda gone to law school. I make enough to live on. All needs beyond subsistence are social (Grundrisse) and I’m comfortable with many sociabilities. More importantly, since the bourgeoisie are themselves alienated in their own way, every bit of what I do in this job is my choice and my responsibility, or logically follows from my choices and responsibilities (e.g. there must be administrators; there must be assessments; to fight these things is to fight ourselves). I do not produce commodities, I work with students; and they are mirrors in which I see reflected my essential nature. My work is inherently satisfying, “a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.” In short, my labor is unalienated and I am fully in touch with my species-being.

I was content to kibitz on other people’s posts about this until an intriguing reader comment at the post on this scandal at Easily Distracted drove me past the word-count threshold of polite commentary. Here’s what PQuincy said:

And I think we are exploiting adjuncts whom we pay $4500 a quarter for one course! Evidently, the market for academic proletarians is highly variable by region and institution.

But that still doesn’t justify radically divergent pay-scales for different groups with fundamentally similar qualifications. The steady differentiation between ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’ faculty may be part of the ongoing commodification of expertise, but paradoxically, it also contributes to our ongoing movement (back) towards a society of estates in which privilege and distinction, not qualification, are primary determinants of status, and in which rent-seeking, not profit, drives all sorts of economic decisions.

This is a nice challenge. Just for reference, in the late 90’s I was paid as little as $1200 and as much as $3500 per class; as a tenured associate professor I am currently paid about $1700, I believe, for overloads. I don’t think these numbers are important in themselves, nor did Marx. There’s nothing about “justifying” different pay scales in Marx, or about fairness. In a capitalist economy everything is commodified, expertise being no exception. And as the expert and highly qualified Lumpenprofessor points out, in a capitalist economy work is not paid by its quantity or quality (the “labor” itself), but by its cost of reproduction – the amount it takes to get someone to do that work when it needs doing (the comments on his post are also illuminating):

Instead, Marx demonstrates that what the wage actually pays for is our “labor-power” — our capacity to do work. The wage pays a value equal to our means of subsistence — our house, car, food, clothes, cable-tv, health care, and kids — so that we can continue to come to work. This means that there is always a difference between the value of the wage paid and the value of the actual work done. The greater this difference, the better it is for the employer. This means that the difference in wages between tenure-track and adjunct faculty is not really about the amount or quality of work done, it is just about how well they eat.

That $1700 has nothing to do with my qualifications or my effort or my teaching ‘outcomes’. It has to do with securing a set minimum quality and quantity of work as needed. Apparently it’s sufficient, because I keep teaching overloads. From the labor-as-such standpoint all that matters is that I do it ‘well enough’. If I do it better than ‘well enough’, that’s a nice bonus for the students, the school, and my sense of vocation, but it’s irrelevant from a pay standpoint as long as I or someone enough like me keep(s) being willing to come back for the same pay.

It’s not hard to explain why the University pays adjuncts the minimum amount it takes to get them coming back. It’s much harder to explain why they ever pay more than that. And as long as we herd like lemmings to graduate programs and spend years earning doctorates for which there’s little apparent market, we will have little leverage to change this. No doubt it’s a nice ego boost to have a doctoral program at your school. Each new one incrementally damages the collective bargaining power of academics as workers. We’ll either need to dramatically cut our production of competitive laborers or wait for the revolution to solve that one.

But again – college professors are not proletarians. And the University is not (just) a capitalist enterprise. We operate in a capitalist context, which tends to drive the economics in ordinary ways. But there are also larger fiduciary responsibilities involved: the University is providing a service considered to be a general social good, and therefore providing as much of it as possible as cost-effectively as possible is a positive social good. Who is our employer? Students; society; the imagined community of a fully-educated population. For this reason, it also ought not to be hard to explain why committed academic professionals cheerfully provide instruction at levels higher than required to reproduce compensation. This is our mission, our ‘vocation’ in the calvinist/weberian sense, not just our job. We want our employers to get maximum value out of us for minimum cost; we should be actively complicit with this ‘exploitation’. To grub after money and quibble about what our colleagues make is a violation of our species-being.

Furthermore, when PQuincy says that pay inequality in academe “contributes to our ongoing movement (back) towards a society of estates in which privilege and distinction, not qualification, are primary determinants of status, and in which rent-seeking, not profit, drives all sorts of economic decisions,” s/he is on the right track, but there’s not a movement back here. The professional professoriate has always been a guild; its distinctive self-image, privileges and prerogatives go back to the medieval university. That’s why we wear the dopey robes to gragitation. Our remaining a guild is the only way to explain the fact that academic work has not been completely proletarianized, with price tags explicitly and universally attached to our every ‘product’ from teaching to advising to scholarship. Like all guilds, we are paid much more visibly in status and autonomy than mere, crude, dirty money.

Our leverage to get more than the market price of our labor-power and better than the usual conditions of work comes from that status, and is dependent on the University’s hybridity as both an enterprise within the economy and a status-conferring holy place hovering above it. It is accordingly catastrophically counterproductive to sink to the discourse of proletarian exploitation; it’s like throwing away the face cards in your hand and playing to lose. The question is not how to make ourselves more like workers by unionizing and struggling and Fighting The Man and whatnot. Furthermore this is not even more generally a way to achieve fairness and equality, and it’s a very dangerous strategy in its own right, as the UAW is currently discovering. We need to be working out ways to redescribe our status and privileges as foreshadowings of unalienated labor, then figuring out how to generalize this, not scrambling to join the chorus of the exploited – if for no other reason than they know better, and when they have their revolutions we eggheads are always among the first to get taken out and shot (or ‘re-educated’) no matter what.

So why is this discourse so appealing to people who ought to know better? Well, I’d say that has to do with the expansion of higher education in the postwar that brought a massive influx of proletarians into the academy. We control it now. We brought all of our class resentment with us and worked diligently to demolish the university’s elevated character, while simultaneously championing the right of every person to access its elevating gifts. Hmmm.

Colleagues, we must cease to soil our own roosts.

November 7, 2008

The art of the possible

by Carl Dyke

How to tell the leaders from the led in political discourse:

…[I]f the concrete political act, as Croce says, is made real in the person of the political leader, it should be observed that the characteristic of the leader as such is certainly not passionality, but rather cold, precise, objectively almost impersonal calculation of the forces in struggle and of their relationships…. The leader rouses and directs the passions, but he himself is ‘immune’ to them or dominates them [in himself] the better to unleash them, rein them in at the given moment, discipline them, etc. He must know them, as an objective element of fact, as force, more than ‘feel them’ immediately, he must know them and understand them, albeit with ‘great sympathy’ (and in such case passion assumes a superior form…).

— Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere [Prison Notebooks], notebook 26, § 5, 2299, my translation. (In this note Gramsci goes on to discuss irony and sarcasm as political stances; sarcasm is both a form of advanced consciousness and a passional means of criticizing contradictions in order to elevate consciousness in others.)

As many others have noted, Newsweek is currently doing a smashing job of documenting exactly what this kind of leadership looks like in practice in a series of reports on the Obama campaign.

October 27, 2008

Feminism, conditions, Palin

by Carl Dyke

Thanks again to Gary for elevating the level of analysis in the commentary on my recent post about Sarah Palin’s counterintuitive relationship to feminists and conservatives (my point being, roughly, that all women are not liberals and all conservatives are not men). Gary noted that the relationship is only counterintuitive according to liberal mythology, and remarked that “it seems like liberals are at long last required to acknowledge another sort of feminism, one that conservatives have always accepted. It’s something like has happened with environmentalism. Peel away the partisan cruft from environmental notions and you have something that everyone is always already supporting…. To me it seems that there are several legitimate claimants to the idea of feminism and that the unbiased observer would have to include them all in any comprehensive definition.”

My target in the post was what I very loosely called “pop feminism,” by which I meant that basket of commonplaces about women’s oppression by patriarchy celebrated as self-evident truth by folk liberals and derided as self-evident crap by folk conservatives. Gary is quite right that feminism understood as an interest in the condition of women encompasses a much wider variety of positions, ranging from entire satisfaction with the special power and authority already enjoyed by women in traditional social relationships to critical incredulity toward ‘woman’ as a category of being. My own feminism is of the latter sort, although I would not dream of denying the conventional solidity and real consequences of gender constructs and therefore accept the situated logics of the former sort and all points in between.

In fact, as a historian and social analyst I think it’s very important not to let critical ideals, let alone habits of mind, feed back too quickly into the selection and interpretation of the data. Perhaps it helps that I was trained as an intellectual and cultural historian, so I always already know better than to take the truthiness of any particular conceptual schema too literally. But it should be that studying anything about the past or any other instance of ‘otherness’ ought to stimulate this insight. (It often doesn’t; why is a long story.) This is therefore the primary mission of my classes.

Back to feminism. Having grown up in a rural area dotted with family farms, and being married to Rachel who grew up throwing cows around on a subsistence farm, I know Gary is correct that there are socially conservative communities in which the strength and authority claimed by Sarah Palin as a woman, wife and mother is familiar and comfortable. The most common division of labor assigns men to the public and women to the private sphere, but in practice the borders of those spheres are quite fluid and contextually negotiable. Things need doing and everyone pitches in. It is never surprising to see one of these women whose interest is aroused appear in public to represent it, nor would she be stigmatized for doing so. But her authority to shape the family’s discourse at home often means that she can rely on her men to agree with and represent for her.

A hard, impermeable boundary between the public and private spheres is, as rigorous feminist history has repeatedly shown, enabled only under very particular conditions of relative prosperity in a basically static economy. Keeping a private home and dominating a woman there is an expensive luxury, both for the family and the society. We’re talking about withdrawing capable people from productive labor (unfetishized child-rearing is not labor-intensive) and expending effort on supervising them. Even the guarantee of reproductive exclusivity afforded by feminine domestic bondage is a luxury afforded only under relatively flush conditions. There is a class dimension to the feminine condition.

An example of how this works has been gradually coming into focus in my modern world history classes this semester (our themes are community and agency). We started by reading an excerpt of a set of rules from the Miu lineage, a rural southeastern Chinese family during the Ming dynasty (Kevin Reilly, ed., Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, 3rd ed. vol. 2). On the face of it this document demonstrates the absolute control elder men enjoyed over every aspect of family life in this patriarchal agrarian / commercial society.

But not so fast. Rules are ideals, and generally not everyone’s ideals. Since there is no need to legislate what is already being commonly done, rules are inherently in tension with practices. Each one, in mandating or sanctioning conduct, identifies its transgression as a thing that happens often enough to be worth regulating. (Less frequently, rules are hysterical reactions to imaginary threats; this requires a deeper excavation of the real practices that are being symbolized by the imaginary ones. Witch scares are a famous example of this.)

When the Miu elders complain that “most men lack resolve and listen to what their women say. As a result, blood relatives become estranged and competitiveness, suspicion, and distance arise between them. Therefore, when a wife first comes into a family, it should be made clear to her that such things are prohibited,” they are attempting to simplify by fiat an ordinary situation that they are describing as in practice being quite complicated. Apparently, their experience is that the women they’ve arranged for their sons to marry do not arrive from their own families in a condition of abject subordination, nor are those sons so well imbued with a habit of masculine command that feminine disruption is quickly snuffed out as it ‘should’ be. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given that elsewhere in the rules the training of both sons and daughters is assigned to the women of the household. Indeed, we learn here that these outside wives are able swiftly to detect and exploit latent fissures and conflicts within the family.

The document describes a strict hierarchy of functions and responsibilities. Women are house-bound (if not foot-bound) and assigned familiar duties like running the kitchen. Although they are apparently excluded from the formal decision-making of the family, they also supervise the servants and calculate the grocery expenses, which might be described as managerial functions, and as we’ve seen, they are successful enough in exerting informal influence to inspire a plaintive attempt to reassert patriarchal order. The young men too are subject to patriarchal discipline, with the promise of more power and responsibility later; note that they do not choose their own wives, nor in this rural setting could they expect to get a concubine, which was a status requirement and welcome release for elite men but this farming family saw as a divisive frivolity.

Nevertheless it’s tempting to read our value of individual autonomy back into this document and see these women as distinctively oppressed. But individual autonomy is by no means a self-evidently primary value. It is antithetical to the community, order and continuity the Miu all valued and worked toward in their own ways. It was within this frame that their gendered strategizing and positioning occurred.

It’s this reading-back that led my students at first to prefer the life of the women the Miu warn against: “Women from lower-class families who stop at our houses tend to gossip, create conflicts, peek into the kitchens, or induce our women to believe in prayer and fortune-telling, thereby cheating them out of their money and possessions.” These women are not house-bound, seem to go where they please, are involved in the public economy, and have influence. But weren’t they forced out of their homes by economic necessity? And what’s this about the Miu women having money and possessions to be cheated out of? There are some trade-offs here between difficult autonomy and relative ease within carefully ‘husbanded’ community; but no one was choosing their position, not even the Miu elders.

I wouldn’t want to call the strong-minded effectiveness of the Miu women feminism, nor would I want to call the more contingently autonomous lower-class women feminists. We can see their thinking and practices as adaptations to their environment; they took the opportunities that were afforded to them and pushed for more where they could. In this context individual autonomy was the unenviable result of scrambling to maximize family resources under conditions of scarcity, just as the Miu’s division and hierarchy of functions was a way to stabilize and maintain the resources of the community for the relative good of all. In a very rich society these trade-offs would lose much of their sense, as they have for many but not all of us in the contemporary developed world.

P.S.: Rachel the cow-tosser does not like Sarah Palin, who she thinks is a nasty manipulative twink. Sarah is not Rachel’s kind of babe. “She’s a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. She looks nice and you think you’re going to get a great treat, and then you bite into it and you’re like ‘Shoot, I paid $3 for that’.” For every wise and wonderful Miss Marple, the countryside generates dozens of what Rachel grew up with and sees in Palin: folks who are not dumb but narrow, hyperspecialized creatures of their environment, tough, closed and judgmental. Rachel is particularly offended by the authoritarian model of leadership as herding cattle. She thinks that’s what’s happening when Palin “talks about feelings and checks the right boxes: family, God, guns, abortion.”

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