Archive for ‘entitlement’

October 28, 2009

Let all the evil that lurks in the mud hatch out

by Carl Dyke

When students ask “did I miss anything important on Tuesday” or its correlate, “will this be on the test,” they are offering a peek at the creepy-crawlies under a rock most teachers would prefer not to turn over.

The unstated premise is that the class is only a series of exercises in hoop-jumping, trivia of two types: on the test, therefore given use-value only by arbitrary curricular requirements; and not on the test, useless altogether, a complete waste of time.

The fact of their presence in the classroom means that so far in their educational careers they have been pragmatically right, at whatever level of performance that particular classroom represents. The job for good teaching is to change the game so that the way they were right doesn’t work for them any more.

August 28, 2009

Plagiarism-proofed essay assignments: update

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 13, 2009

Pick your poison

by Carl Dyke

Like most people I’ve been glued to the health care debate, which has predictably turned into yet another of our great national Rorschach tests. I have no great competence in this area so what follows count only as stray thoughts for further discussion.

The number that gets thrown around for the cost of a government health care package is $1 trillion, which is obviously a lot of money; and the question is, where’s that money going to come from. With government, the answer is either taxes or debt. The funny thing to me is that the side of the debate opposed to this often talk as if this would be brand new money to spend on health care. All of a sudden health care is going to cost a trillion bucks more than before.

In reality, as I understand it, we’re already spending that trillion. And the question is not whether we’re going to spend it or not going forward (it should be, but there are wicked wiggly worms and real live ‘death panels’ in that can). The question is whether we’re going to spend it out of incomes and private debt in the form of insurance premiums and direct payments for care, or whether we’re going to spend it in taxes and public debt which then go to pay for the same services. So at this basic level the debate is not about what health care costs but about who’s going to have their hands in our pockets for it, the government or the health care industry.

In principle it ought to be possible to work out with some precision whether the inefficiencies of government or the profit-taking of big business divert more of our money from the basic purpose of keeping us healthy, and whether private or public payments and debts are more cost effective. The idea to run a government option side-by-side with private insurance would actually be a great lab to test this. But here’s where the Rorschach test comes in, because the U.S.American psyche is pretty evenly divided among those for whom Government = Big Scary and those for whom Business = Big Scary. As long as those buttons are available to push, anything like productive national debate of health care policy is unlikely, and what we’ll end up with is the usual kludgy product of interest-group horse trading.

UPDATE: Great survey and analysis of the difference between individual and social insurance here.

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.

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’.

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.

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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August 27, 2008


by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

August 5, 2008


by Carl Dyke

Up to 43.7% of the stuff that bugs me can be traced directly to me being a pain in the ass. Of the remainder, 68.32% is because I pay more attention than I need to to other people being pains in the ass. What’s left is trivial and easily managed.

July 7, 2008


by Carl Dyke

Marx was the master of conditioning imagery — the dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living, and so on — but Kant was no slouch:

“The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space” (Introduction, Critique of Pure Reason).

He refers here to Plato trying to dispense with the senses as the supporting ground of our understanding. So unreliable, yet so indispensable, our senses. The quote has a different resonance for me when I’m dealing with the sorts of radical individualism produced by modern societies. The idea that society oppresses us and holds us back is a common theme of what I’ve been calling entitlement; but as I suggested in the G.H. Mead post, there is no I, me, or us without society. It is the air in which we fly. The tension between the flight society enables and the resistance it creates is a fundamental theme of modern experience as such, so often explored and enacted in art.

I was again struck by this whilst watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright (listen to an interview with Burns here). Burns chronicles Wright’s creative genius but/and also his arrogant disregard for any order of things other than his own. He rejected any outside control while thinking nothing of creating environments designed completely to control the people in them. Like any cult leader he used his considerable charisma to surround himself with people who made themselves the instruments of his will, the means to his ends.

Burns captures Wright’s narcissism but completely misses his underlying anxiety, the unfillable void of anomie that Durkheim predicted for the socially disconnected modern individual. The first is evident in Wright’s posture and pronouncements, the latter in his shifty approval-seeking gaze. As Goffman said, the theater of the self requires an audience.

June 8, 2008

Words and things pt. 4

by Carl Dyke

Here at the AP World History Gulag the work crews just got a visit from Bonnie Smith. Smith is one of my heroes, a terrific historian of women in Europe who has moved to historiography, world history, major edited volumes and now the newly-published Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. She’s prolific, smart, and generally fine, in my view.

She told us a bit about how the sausage gets made in a project like this. Wrangling the egos and enthusiasms of specialized academics is one obvious thang. Prompted by her general editors at Oxford she had to learn to respect/indulge her experts, sometimes in arguably irrational ways. Well right, if I’m being praised, pimped and paid to be an expert I would want to be respected and indulged.

An example of this is the missing entry on “harem.” As I gather from Bonnie’s thoughtful and diplomatic explanation, the area editor decided there shouldn’t be one because harems have been ‘done to death’ as the lazy way to do exotic gender practices of the Orient — footbinding is another example, although it does have an entry. The westerners head straight to the hoochees when they want to be deliciously scandalized about ‘other’ cultures (my observation is that this is reciprocal, as a conversation with a scholar of world religions who’s spent a lot of time in India has just anecdotally confirmed), so the idea was to intercept that dumb ethnocentrism by leaving harems in the index as aspects of other entries.

I’ll not debate the general tendency of encyclopedia-users to be seeking the information that least challenges their intelligence or preconceptions. If you want your stories quick and dirty both you and the people who supply them get what all y’all deserve. At their best encyclopedias take complete ignorance and turn it into relative ignorance. They are useful for orientation toward a deeper understanding, which is the project this editor seems at least momentarily unclear on.

So rather than use readers’ laziness and/or ignorance to prompt a deeper thought, this expert collapsed into a kind of reciprocal superficiality. Rather than, say, do an entry excavating the concept of the harem for its history not just as a way of living for some real historical women, but as a titillating orientalism, this bratty intellectual Stalin decided that just airbrushing it out of the picture would be the way to show those eurocentric snobs a thing or two. We’ll just pretend that one doesn’t exist, shall we? Because the word is the thing.

Meanwhile, how much you wanna bet all those readers will feel shown is that the incompetent editors of an encyclopedia on women in world history don’t even know about harems? Will they be coming back for more?

By the way, I am not one of those historians who worships the sacred inviolability of the past. If there were a reliable way to eliminate human misery in the present by selectively editing or completely rewriting the past, I’d be all for it. This would be a much better use of the past than most of those currently in vogue.

Another thing Dr. Smith said that caught my attention more directly in relation to the current string of posts was that she had to do some work to get some of her contributors using ‘women’ instead of their preferred ‘wymyn‘. She remarked sardonically that there had been a time when she also preferred that term, but she “got over it;” and that her contributors got over it too.

Good for her, and them. I can’t even remember all the dumbass shit I’ve gotten over, but fortunately now this blog exists for older, wiser me to be embarrassed by later.

May 31, 2008

Words and things, pt. 3

by Carl Dyke

True to the logic of fighting the last war, I am completely, unequivocally on board with the project to use language in affirming rather than demeaning ways. (Note: ‘denigrating’ is often used in these discussions but shouldn’t be, because of the notorious ‘nigr’ root. It means ‘blackening’ and careful speakers should question whether they think that should be their image of a bad thing.) In principle, no word that may cause distress should be used by any thoughtful person. Care for the feelings of all others should be a profound moral duty. I really think these things; and they are enshrined in law in many jurisdictions.

Yet, when I get history papers from students that take this moralizing form I gently diagnose them with a case of the shoulds. It’s not that one doesn’t agree (although I also get “all illegal immigrants should be rounded up and deported” kinds of should papers) but that the level of analysis is so low. Young children can produce formally adequate shoulds. A should basically stands between an implied real and a projected ideal. But because the real is only implied, then swiftly gutted for its poor fit with the ideal, the actual relations and dynamics of actual human beings in diverse contexts and situations are obliterated. Further, this procedure reflexively guts the ideal, because without reference to practical relations in the world it can’t actually be clear where the ideal is coming from and whether it is possible or even desirable. To get there from here we need a really good grasp of the here, which is what and why I teach. Even then the paradox of unintended consequences haunts the shoulds.

Putting context aside for a moment, let’s look more carefully at the proposition that distressing language should not be used, and what happens if we follow it through to conclusions. There are many words in a variety of categories that commonly qualify for excision from polite discourse because they distress; examples include (brackets indicate clinical usage here; it’s alright, I am a Doctor) [shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits (yes, Carlin’s famous old seven words, see below), bitch, midget, kike, kraut, guinea, we all know a couple that are missing here, faggot, dyke, damn, cripple, etc.]. Each of these, one of which is incidentally my family name, has a history and current practice of oppressive or at least intentionally offensive use; each is associated for some fraction of the population with involuntary emotional and even physical distress. Readers, it’s just much nicer to certain real human beings to never, ever use these words.

Here are a few more words that also qualify as traumatizing for some fraction of the population: [prick, muffin, clam, beaver, salami, vegemite, monkey, chick, castrate, clitoris, crazy, dormitory (my university desperately, aggressively wants them to be called residence halls), puke, priest, father, school, Republican, no]. In most of these cases the distressing association is either more indirect or more idiosyncratic, but I don’t suppose I need to dwell on explaining the problem with each of these for certain real human beings.

The second list is tricky for at least two reasons. First, the words each have common, everyday meanings for many of their users that are not associated with trauma. They are “part-time” dirty words, as Carlin says, although this distinction evaporates if they cause full-time distress to someone(s). Second, those traumatized by them are smaller or more plainly idiosyncratic minorities than those for the first batch. From the standpoint of universal morals this should not make a difference. This is not a slippery slope, it’s a principle. If the rule is that distressing language not be used, if the motivating ethic is care for the person and commitment to do no harm, the undistressed majority may not use their emotional privilege to tyrannize the distressed minority. We do not get our way simply because there are more of us than you. Morally speaking we need to not be using words that hurt anyone. At all. Ever.

Eventually we realize that each of us has a variety of words that cause us intense involuntary distress; and without question, life would be better without them in it. As an example, I have many, including, thanks to kind training from friends, most of those in the first list. More personally, I am deeply traumatized by that odious combination of otherwise innocuous words with which I am asked if I just got a haircut. The reasons for this have to do with the petty cruelties of a suburban adolescence and long apprenticeship in the sort of intensive feminism for which any scrutinizing gaze is objectifying. Although this example is trivial and you’ll have to take my word for it, the question kicks my adrenal glands into high gear, prompts an anxious fight-or-flight response, and knocks me into a defensive, angry, one-down personality that I do not recognize as myself.

We do not need to use words to empower ourselves by judging others, any more than we need monkeys as metaphors for our amusing failures to reach our full human potential or we need our savory cured meat products to be shaped suggestively like penises. Every one of these outrages against care and decency is arbitrary and optional, and should be eliminated. To clarify the resulting world we do need a Harrison Bergeron for the infliction of verbal harm. I imagine a society in which we each carry a clicker and brain implants with which we can electrically jolt each other’s language centers to disrupt utterances we each find distressing. Eventually we would learn to keep our big mouths shut and just smile and nod to each other, which would be very pleasant, and put George Carlin out of business.

This nightmare dystopia of personal veto over any conceivable utterance follows directly from an obviously correct ethic of care for the feelings of others and an equally obvious rejection of majority tyranny. Since the consequence of following the logic of these sound principles through is a disaster, but I don’t suppose we’d want to draw the conclusion that we shouldn’t care for others or that we should tyrannize the weak, there’s some incentive to see if something’s missing from the analysis. Fortunately, there is at least one unstated premise. The above fully follows only if we make speakers radically responsible for the consequences of their speech. If you remark that I’ve had a [haircut] and my defense systems go into an uproar, or I wear a t-shirt advertising jamaican [cock] soup and yours do likewise; or, to be less coy, you call me a [cocksucking faggot] and I call you a [fucking mental midget] (and if both are in some less offensive sense true, so not merely laughable), we are responsible not just for being [churls] (oops sorry, a classist reference there). We have caused and are morally culpable for that emotional harm the words did.

Well yes, duh. And with all of the power and responsibility in the situation thus assigned to speakers, the only morally acceptable remedy is to modify the speakers’ behavior, by diplomacy if possible and by force if necessary. This is the slippery, sloping one-lane road of moral purity that leads straight to the personal veto and the shocking cortical implants. When people fret about censorship of plainly harmful speech this is why.

Hm. Without abandoning the notion that we’re responsible for our speech and morally tasked with self-censoring right down to silence if need be, let’s pause a second to doubt that all of the power and responsibility between speakers and hearers is lodged with the former. Do hearers have any power other than that of righteous censorship? Is it possible that we too have a responsibility to the other in conversations we find distressing?

First, responsibility. Yes. The same ethic of care for the feelings of others we’d like to require of speakers requires hearers not to reject or silence speakers. If the remedy for distress is itself reciprocally distressing, a compound harm has occurred. Rejection and silencing are distressing to speakers. So we have a mutual responsibility not to offend as speakers and not to take offense as hearers. This is not a slippery slope, it’s a principle. Out of care for the other we may well have some leeway to encourage them to use their speech more affirmingly; but only within the limits of respect for their feelings.

Finally, power. As hearers of upsetting language we have a common interest in not being upset; we would therefore like (and we humanly deserve) the power to manage our situations so that we are not upset. If our only mechanism to accomplish this is to compel the actions of others, our serenity depends on the actions of others, so this is by definition a highly contingent and dependent empowerment. Even if there were no jerks in the world, I could get complete polite compliance on the don’t-comment-on-my-haircut rule from every person I ever met and still live an uncertain and uneasy life as new people come into it and need their training. Just because some of the more common offending words can be handled in a more wholesale way does not change the basic problem. To give the agency of our serenity to others is inevitably a form of subservience, unless our aim is to control others absolutely. Machiavelli’s Prince is a cautionary tale.

I’m reminded of the legendary emperor who wanted to have all the roads paved with leather, until an advisor suggested that strips of leather be tied to the bottoms of his feet instead. The obvious solution is to take what power language has within ourselves; and to deny to all others, known and unknown, trained and untrained, well-intentioned and evil, clod and jerk, the power to distress us with a word. Since we cannot be certain of our ability to control their behavior and we may be responsible not to, even to our own detriment, our locus of control is our own interpretations and reactions. Treating words as offenses may be emotionally ingrained, but it is intellectually optional. Bracketing our emotional responses (feeling them but not acting on them) is hard but well within each of our power, much more so than controlling the language of the whole world.

Sticks and stones. So go ahead. Say something about my [haircut]. You shouldn’t, but I should have it covered.

May 30, 2008

So You Think You Can Write a Paper?

by Carl Dyke

Rachel and I occasionally enjoy the talent shows that currently populate the airwaves, although I really miss the gong. Last night we were watching “So You Think You Can Dance” and I was struck by how much like writing and grading papers the show is. Perhaps the facts that I just finished the Spring semester by reading about a thousand pages of student final essays and journals and I’m about to wing to Colorado for a week of reading high school essays in the AP World History Gulag are shaping my thoughts?

There’s a real contrast between the singing shows (“American Idol” and “Eurovision” just wrapped up) and the dancing shows. With singing there’s very little talent or skill involved in the selection and outcome. A basic ability to loudly hit intended notes most of the time is of course critical, although not even that is essential, as Sanjaya mythically showed. Once through the wringer of this very basic requirement, contestants are judged chiefly on their style and emoting. It helps if the notes they miss are at the top of their range, since this makes them sound intense, sincere, and a little vulnerably desperate. (Bono has made a whole career out of this trick.) Winning one of these shows is like winning the lottery, which is lots of why they’re mass favorites.

The dance shows are much different. Although the quasi-celebrities on “Dancing with the Stars” can get away with some pretty minimal competence for quite a while — e.g. Billy Ray Cyrus, Marie Osmond — eventually a focused and systematic ability to get the body to move in exactly the right way is key. For the amateurs on “SYTYCD” this is even more true. They don’t have celebrity going for them; more of them than needed are conventionally and/or edgily attractive; shaking it is no advantage since doing some genre’s version of that skillfully is the aim of all. To even be considered past the first round of the show, which true to format is mostly dedicated to weeding out and publicly humiliating the wannabes and clueless losers, they have to be pretty good dancers.

Judging the goodness of a dancer turns out to be a lot like judging the goodness of a student paper. It’s actually quite a while before the judges get to the more properly aesthetic or ‘subjective’ levels of assessment. First they look for levels of competence. Level one, I noticed last night, involves the distinction between ‘moving’ and ‘dancing’. Dance wannabes who can’t move are like students who can’t articulate thoughts in complete sentences. The judgment is easy, and so is the prescription. Work. Much. Harder. (I would like very much to be able to say what those judges say next, which is some version of “Go away, and don’t come back until you’re at least moving and it’s not a torture to watch you make that godawful twitching.”)

Movers are people with a basic ability to control their bodies in relation to music. You wouldn’t be embarrassed to be on the floor with them at a bar. They’d be in play on “American Idol,” but on “SYTYCD” they’re not even in the game. In the world of student papers the movers are the kids with a basic ability to control written language in relation to a thought. They may be perplexed or offended that this is not enough, as are many show contestants. I find here that my grading is more “AI” than “SYTYCD,” because my movers will usually get some kind of a D or low C when really, they ought not to be getting through to the next round at the college level.

At the lowest level of skill the dancers can do actual choreography without looking too spastic. They have muscular control and some sense of genre; they’re not just interpreting their feelings by flailing around. You can see what they’re up to, although it’s pretty rushed, choppy and imprecise. There’s a general tone that says ‘dancer’. In student papers, I’d begin to see a recognizable introductory paragraph with an assignment-appropriate topic statement here; maybe some raw flair but probably not much of a thesis; and rambling yet underelaborated paragraphs with something like evidence and a tenuous thread of continuity between them. We’re solidly into the C range here.

Next up in the world of tv dance are the contention fodder, whose destiny is to get culled through the early competitive phases of the show, much to the consternation of their adoring hometown fans. They’re moderately skilled in all the technical aspects of their genre. Although the performance is a bit mechanical and they have no real feel for what they’re doing, they hit their marks and positions with some flow and formal grace. They’ve mastered the plastic smile but haven’t got the nuances of making it look like authentic joy. A paper like this has all the elements it’s supposed to — correct but probably not fluid writing, by-the-numbers introduction with topic/question/thesis, logically outlined body paragraphs with evidence reasonably chosen and analyzed. There’s nothing much wrong with a solid B dancer, or paper. They’re fully competent; you could eke out a living with that. I get a whole bunch of this kind of paper from kids who were in the top 10% of their high school classes. They’re the ones for whom an A is an entitlement and a B is a cosmic injustice.

Competence is not excellence. I remember seeing Baryshnikov some years ago. Not knowing much about ballet I was really impressed with the dancers in the opening numbers. They seemed very good, and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be waiting for with the big guy. Then he came out and did his thing, and within moments it was clear. Where the other guys were technically proficient dancers, his mastery was so complete that what he did was more than mere dancing: it was artistry using dance as the medium. There was no sense that he was dancing at all, no feeling of choreography or effort to perform. He flowed and glided and soared about the stage as if he was translating a special thought into motion on the fly. Skillfully creating, as Hines says below, “the illusion of the first moment.” I suspect this is what the movers think they are doing.

Genius is not a fair standard for either dancers or student essayists, but it helps to clarify in my mind what’s happening in the shift from a B paper to an A paper, just like the shift from a competent dancer to a really terrific one. The dancers who have a shot at winning the show are going to do more than master the steps and movements of the various genres and choreographies. They’re going to understand the inner logic, inherent grace and opportunity for expression in those forms and use that to create something that’s uniquely, virtuously and fascinatingly their own.

Back when I first started teaching, for Revelle College at UCSD, I worked as a T.A. in the writing program attached to the core humanities sequence. We got a lot of support that did a great job of showing us how to take the students up to the B range. But they did not and I’ve never seen anyone since explain coherently how to make that next step. I had a student named Martin who was with me through the whole five quarters of the sequence, and he worked his way up from the low C to the high B range, then stuck. And stuck, and stuck. Then finally I read a paper of his that was a new sort of thing — fully masterful and genuinely interesting. An A paper. So wanting this for all my students I asked Martin what had done the trick for him. He said, I don’t know. Something just clicked.

Since then I’ve had many students make that leap, and I still ask them how. And it’s always that something just clicked. I’ve never seen that click happen without a solid, practiced, mastered and habituated grasp of the fundamentals of competence, however. It’s when that’s in place that the magic has a chance to happen.

EDIT: Heehee! Good for them:

May 27, 2008

Words and things, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

Bobby P. was like the evil twin of a Victorian gentleman. No one was more careful with their language around ladies than these profoundly sexist patriarchs. After all, they thought, proper ladies are delicate flowers of virtue for whom fainting couches and smelling salts must be provided lest the slightest vulgarity upset their fragile equilibrium and bring on the vapors.

Women were actually being used symbolically there (or participating actively in a class and family project that gave them some relative perqs; analyses differ in their subtlety on this point) to demonstrate the distance of the Victorian bourgeoisie from vulgarity on two fronts: the working class on one hand and their own non-noble pedigrees on the other. Propriety was the thing – a very strict, gendered discipline the middle classes deployed to leverage themselves into position as the heirs of the civilizing process and the rightful wielders of power and status in the new modern world. This discipline may have had its origins in the protestant ethic, but its elective affinity with the industrial and financial bourgeoisie’s rising entitlement and the marginalization of the old nobility fully vested only in the 19th century. The new elite took over the old one’s touchiness about honor and propriety as part of their power grab.

Working women and the working class in general were a different story. Their feelings were not the issue. They were expected to get on with the task at hand regardless. This attitude persisted well into the 20th century. I vividly remember hearing an old working-class black guy marveling (critically) at the younger generation: “Used to be guys just worked. Now guys got feelings.” Beside this stoicism fractions of the working class trending upward struggled to create spaces where they could support their own hierarchies of offendability, while others resisted the class stigma by reveling openly in their vulgarity and toughness, e.g. by ritualizing mutual insult in games like ranking or the dozens.

This contrast is instructive, because it spotlights the class and gender relations behind aversion to coarse or vulgar vocabulary. In terms of Western cultural history there are two kinds of people who can lay claim to offense at the words used around them: the delicate, and the entitled. Both delicate and entitled, the ‘ladies’ of the Victorian bourgeoisie enjoyed the kind of defenses against upsetting verbiage that had previously been reserved for princesses, although in both cases because of the delicacy it was men’s job to do the actual work of policing interactive entitlement.

Of course, the luxury of touchiness is rooted in economic power and a certain leisure. People with imperative stuff to do can’t afford to be touchy. The ability to enforce rules and vocabularies of interaction and to take offense at their breakage, i.e. to become ‘classy’, looks like a victory for the oppressed in the 20th century, and in a sense it is. But the success of this strategy lies in its dependence on the expansion of the capitalist global economy. History is chock full of impressive freedom-fighters who never got much of anywhere with it; conditions have to be right. In the core of the global economy women, the working class and minorities have been pulled into and up the professionalization scale of the production side by this expansion, and entitled on the consumption side by their paychecks and access to credit. Despite wage gaps and credit crunches more people are more distant from the vulgarity of starvation than at any time in history.

In this process women, the working class and stigmatized minorities are following the trajectory laid out by the European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Although gender delicacy remains as a culturally-embedded interpretation of insistence on linguistic propriety around them, the dominant dynamic is one of class entitlement.

But because everyone is now entitled, power is spread very thin and there’s little discipline to be found anywhere. Funny.

May 25, 2008

Words and things, pt. 1

by Carl Dyke

More than twenty years ago I began and ended my career as a formal activist, working as an outreach fundraiser with a progressive political organization in Pennsylvania. My co-workers were serious, committed people with definite ideas about how the world would be a better place, which for the most part I shared. Among the things they knew for sure was that there was no place in a right and just world for words that, because of their racist, sexist, ableist, or other oppressive histories, were hurtful to folks. This notion is still alive and well among people I respect and admire. I have heard many passionate and/or well-reasoned arguments for it. But I have some doubts.

I grew up in a lefty family, so oppressing and hurting folks was never my thing. We are also a family of smart-asses, with a special penchant for word play. Our punny humor often involves using words according to their sounds rather than their definitions, pulling them out of context and incidentally showing how arbitrary their meanings are. It’s like speaking a second language. Explaining this to my activist organization’s co-directors was of no help; I got ten minutes-worth of consciousness-raising about the inherently offensive nature of the word ‘chick’, especially in substitution for the word ‘check’. Hm. Noted. “Progressive” is an especially inflexible language.

Contrasting with my privileged linguistic oafishness was my colleague Bobby P. Bobby was a real catch for this group. He was a working class boy from northeast Philadelphia, a real man of the street. I liked him and so did everyone else. He made the middle-class organizers feel like they were effectively reaching out and creating cross-class coalitions. What made Bobby even better is that he came with the right principles, took the cause very very seriously and quickly became a polished speaker of Progressive. Perhaps I should have been more like Bobby.

The second-drunkest I have ever been in my life was the night Bobby and I went out and did Jack Daniel’s and Schlitz boilermakers for hours while we shot the shit about this and that. Bobby liked me a whole lot because of my honesty. He always knew what I thought and where he stood with me. I was authentic to him. So after a couple of hours he clued me in to his purpose at work. It was to get paid and get laid. He didn’t give a damn about ending sexism or cleaning up Superfund sites. And he’d figured out that the chicks at work (he knew to call them women) were suckers for a line of snappy progressive patter in politically-correct language from a real nobly-oppressed man of the masses. So he fed them what they wanted to hear — one after another. In a matter of months he slept with half a dozen women in the organization, that I know of, including one of those co-directors. Bobby was a smooth operator. I knew his type. Politics does make strange bedfellows. But we never went out drinking together again.

To be continued.

May 21, 2008

Empowerment and entitlement

by Carl Dyke

“Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well.”

“But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors.’ The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.” — Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter 1.

Being nice to weak people is a way for the strong to reinforce their power. And weak people’s first inclination when they get power is to abuse it. There are so many traps here.

The horns of this dilemma seem to me to spring from a distinction I’ve been trying to work through — between empowerment and entitlement. Entitlement is visible all over; in Freire’s much-criticized but actually quite apt gendering, it is the attitude of men and people trying to become like men. With nobilities in mind they imagine that power means they should get all of what they want, that everything should go their way, and that others will be means to their ends. Any sort of compromise with complete autonomy looks like subordination, any challenge to it gives offense.

With this as the contrast, empowerment has to start with rejecting the subjection of others to one’s projects, desires and prescriptions. It means radical responsibility for having one’s own junk together and not taking it out on anyone else. First. For example, not offending but also not taking offense.

Reciprocity, compromise, responsibility, interdependence, respect all go into empowerment. But I’ve run out of steam so this post must have been mostly about entitlement.

May 21, 2008


by Carl Dyke

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” – Barry Goldwater.

“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality” – John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing Dante.

Well, there you have it. Something that the left and the right in U.S. politics agreed upon quite recently. The ’60s which, as we all know, were the good old days of activism what with all the draft card and brassiere bonfires. Of course, what they did not agree upon was what the correct content of extreme moral commitment ought to be. That’s the tricky part. How to find such agreement whilst shouting from up on those holy mountain-tops.

Extremism makes nuances and opportunities disappear. Here’s a more common example. On another blog by a respected colleague and its comments I read a compelling account of interpersonal dynamics in which the two options boiled down to getting to talk however you want or being silenced into complete servility. This is a classic extremist analysis. The first option is the dream of complete empowerment. The second is the nightmare of total oppression. These extremes do not describe many real-world situations. Living as if they do must be very stressful.

May 9, 2008

Discipline and interdisciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

Again on Easily Distracted, there’s a terrific analysis of interdisciplinary programs. ED looks at the College of the Atlantic, which is an inspiring exemplar. Links are there.

I should say first by way of context or confession that I am barely disciplined. Although my doctorate is in modern European history, for the first four years after graduate school I taught philosophy, sociology, and human development but almost no history. (I am tenured in a nice little history department now and teach history exclusively, or at least that’s what it says in the course catalog.) My undergraduate degree was similarly eclectic, and while I was in grad school I identified and studiously avoided or resisted (which I now regret) the professors who made it their mission to discipline the younguns.

Much of my indiscipline I would now call preconscious. While I was teaching all that whatsis and looking for a permanent job, I got more conscious and thought a whole lot about discipline, indiscipline and interdisciplinarity. I also worked for several years in an interdisciplinary human development program, one of the great experiences of my life, and interviewed at a couple of interdisciplinary institutions. This does not make me an expert, just an interested commenter.

The concept of interdisciplinarity takes disciplines for granted. This is realistic. Knowledge systems are organized into disciplines as a matter of fact. There are accordingly two ways to accomplish interdisciplinarity. The first is to bring people with different disciplines together. I call this serial disciplinarity. The second is to expect individuals to become multiply disciplined, that is, actually conversant with and practiced in not just the material of different disciplines but their codes, practices, assumptions, debates, sacred texts. I’ll need to talk about this more in a second, but here I’ll just say that this is really exceptional. The third option, to train people outside of established disciplines, is what interdisciplinary programs usually shoot for. But the products of these programs are not interdisciplinary properly speaking. They are undisciplined.

The temptation is to think of disciplines as just databases or at most, bodies of knowledge. If I read “Gravity’s Rainbow” and use it as a source on receptions of WWII in popular culture, I am interdisciplinarily doing literature, right? Well, um, no. The discipline of literature is not defined by its materials, but by its habitus. Literature is a way of seeing, thinking and judging, not a thing to see, think about and judge. People disciplined to literature are disposed to see the whole world as a text, not just books. The purpose of literature departments is in part to organize the investigations and knowledge produced by the practices of the literature habitus, in part to reproduce themselves by passing on the dispositions of seeing, thinking and judging that define the field to new generations.

Historians have a habitus (which includes the various internal contestations of it, of course; all of those contesters are historians) and are disposed to examine everything historically, including texts. Philosophers also have a habitus, and so on. All of the disciplines of the humanities fantasize that they are the master discipline that encompasses all the others. This is self-evidently false, if we think about what disciplining means. When Lit types dabble in context they are not practicing historical interdisciplinarity, they are taking snapshots like intellectual tourists. And I just have to laugh when philosophers tell me things like they are Wittgensteinian/Hegelians, in that order. Well, you can be that in philosophy.

Getting back to habitus, becoming disciplined is a way to narrow, direct and focus one’s attention while providing a sense of purpose and belonging in a meaningful community of like-minded folks. Disciplines enable some conversations and disable others by foreclosing tangents and digressions, by specifying right and wrong questions and adjudicating right and wrong answers, by categorizing, and by providing shared vocabularies. The enabling is just as important to notice as the disabling. Taken as wholes, disciplines offer their disciples a morally ordered universe and a firm sense of ratified adult identity. This is why disciplined people forced into interdisciplinary contact with other disciplined people often end up feeling existentially angsty and deciding that the ‘others’ are immoral, as I have repeatedly seen.

ED points to this when he concludes “[i]n the end, for all of us who chafe at excessive departmentalization and balkanization in academia, this is a problem of culture, attitude, practice and orientation. Cultures change slowly and organically, and you can’t rush those kinds of transformations even by the radical redesign of underlying structures.” I agree completely, except – is it a problem? Why? He also admires generalists who have a conceptual map of the disciplines and thinks they’re a rare breed. Thanks! We know how to think outside of the box, play different games, speak different languages, pick your metaphor.

However, the role of the generalist is necessarily a limited one. Disciplines are ways of getting things done, after first defining what needs doing. Like any sort of groupthink they encourage narrowmindedness and arrogance if left unchecked; anxiety and defensiveness when challenged. I certainly saw both dynamics in play at the interdisciplinary programs in my experience. But disciplines are also a way to get grounded, to build leverage. We generalists tend to be a wifty lot. We’re good at playing with boundaries, but like Socrates or two-year-olds who keep asking whywhywhy we can get irritating to serious people fast. At a certain point you’ve just got to plant your feet somewhere and do stuff in a disciplined way.

The best role for the undisciplined generalist is probably translation. We don’t really have the chops that a lifetime of focused devotion to one discipline can bring, so we’re never the cutting edge. We can point to stuff that’s going on from field to field where intersections could happen. We can try to unpack disciplined information so that it’s usable in an undisciplined way. We can be oddly comfortable with our interstitial identities and remind people that boundaries are often arbitrary. There should always be some of us around. But I’m not sure we’re what a whole program should be built out of.

I notice I started in one place and ended up in another here. I don’t have a train of thought about this stuff so much as a pile of boxcars. This is another problem with indiscipline, of course.