Archive for ‘mayhem’

April 4, 2013

Placing concreteness

by Carl Dyke

One of the things you figure out pretty quickly if you pay attention to what students say is that a lot of them engage with the materials we show them in a very concrete way. One example of that from today’s draft intro paragraph peer review session in World History was the student who kept trying to turn prompts on reconceptualizing its paragraph into a recipe for which words to say and how to arrange them. “What have you figured out about how conditions of trade changed?” became “How many times do I need to repeat the assignment topic phrase ‘conditions of work’?”

Lots of information in a pile, no analysis. A peer shrewdly asked if there were any people involved. So we got ‘Portuguese’ on the board. Then we talked about what kind of work. Trade, as it turned out. So we added ‘trading community’ to Portuguese. Another peer asked if the issue was storms at sea or political conflict. So ‘community’ got complicated to include seamen and kings, we added ‘conflict’, and broke out ‘political’, ‘economic’, and ‘social’. Was any of that sorted out in the draft paragraph? No, so it’s not about adding or moving a word or two, it’s about figuring out what you want to get at based on what you know. At the end the student came up and took a cellphone picture of the board.

Yesterday in the ‘bad literature’ seminar the group presenting on the religious erotica genre (their choice) were struggling with audience. It turned out they assumed that the people who read things are the people those things are about. So the audience for shocking erotica about monks boinking transvestite novices must be young Catholics considering the monastic life. I asked if the audience for Huckleberry Finn was orphans and runaway slaves, and whether they would respect me as a professor if the only books I read were about aging white male professors at nice little regional universities. They had brought up and passed over quickly points about authority and credit/discredit, so I prompted them to get a little more stubborn about developing those analyses. It didn’t take long to work out that an audience of non-Catholics might have reasons to be interested in literature discrediting Catholic authority.

Another fascinating assertion in that discussion was that because all fiction is based on fact, it might as well be treated as such. So the facts about a novel’s rhetoric and context can be read right off of the text. As a fan of science fiction I was tempted to ask about the factiness of phasers, warp drives, and Wookies, but time was running short so we deferred examination of creativity and imagination to our next meeting.

Incidentally, it has occurred to me that part of the problem with the concept of linked learning is that we can see courses, but we can’t see links. We can’t see learning, either, so it’s all very confusing.

(Crossposted at Attention Surplus.)

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February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by Carl Dyke

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

January 30, 2012

Word to your Mama

by Carl Dyke

I had a little fun with my scifi reading circle last week. They were pretty cranky about Gibson’s Neuromancer (although they picked it), which wasn’t giving them a nice clean linear narrative or conventionally identifiable / likeable characters. I told them it was all about getting cool with the unfamiliar, a slow difficult process in contrast for example to dating, boinking and marrying the woman who reminds you most of your mother. (It was boys doing the most vocal kvetching.) They were stricken.

[Update: It occurs to me that in a roundabout way this is one answer to Tim Burke’s question in his current post about why we think critical thinking should be work, not fun, or why we are suspicious of people seemingly just having fun.]

November 25, 2010

Happy accidents

by Carl Dyke

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

February 28, 2010

Guidelines For Overrating Philosophers

by Asher Kay

From the American Philosophical Association’s Philosophical Bookmaking Manual, 4th Ed., 1994 — University of Chicago Press.

1. When overrating a philosopher, attention should be paid to the distinction between “rating” and “ranking”. Any passage that operates as a comparison, either explicitly (e.g., “Spinoza had prettier lips than Hegel”) or implicitly (e.g. “Spinoza had implicitly prettier lips than Hegel”), will be counted as a “ranking”, and will therefore not be included in the APA’s yearly statistical totals. Note that supplying the numerical ratings of two or more philosophers in the same passage (e.g. “Spinoza’s oscular score of 94.3 puts Hegel’s mere 73.5 to shame”) does not constitute a ranking.

2. As amended in section 40, part 7 (by a plurality vote at the APA’s Making Philosophical Ratings Less Accessible conference in 1990), each separate overrating of a philosopher within a book or article will be counted as a distinct overrating for statistical purposes, unless judged either “gratuitous” (e.g., “By the turn of the twentieth century, Hegel had attained an ocular rating of ninety-eight. Ninety-eight, people!”) or “too verbatim” (e.g. “Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten. And did I mention that Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten?”) by the APA ratings panel. The “gratuitous” exception applies to citations of other works, but the “too verbatim” exception, for obvious reasons, does not.

3. To avoid mistabulation, it is advisable to mention which of the six official APA rating categories are operative in your overrating of a philosopher. The six categories are: “Smartness”, “Coolness”, “Awesomeness”, “Originality”, “Overratedness” and “Prettiness of Lips”.

4. When overrating the overratedness of a philosopher, it is acceptable to use the term, “metaoverratedness”, unless it is felt that this would not be confusing to the reader.

5. Endnotes count halfsies.

6. When using imprecise quantitative terms to overrate a philosopher, refer to the table in Appendix C of the Bookmaking Manual for the exact numerical values that will be tabulated. Some common imprecise terms and their corresponding numerical values are:

A) “Really”: 65.0
B) “Very”: 70.0
C) “Really very”: 75.0
D) “Mega-“: 80.0
E) “Mondo-“: 85.0
F) “Crazy-assed”: 90.0

October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by Carl Dyke

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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September 14, 2009

Better the demon you know

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

April 30, 2009

Argument as war or play

by Carl Dyke

I was just talking with a colleague about the nebulous modernism / postmodernism divide. My shot from the hip was that they’re basically the same basket of ideas about fragmentation, hybridity and uncertainty, the difference being that the modernists angst or ennui about it whilst the postmodernists dance on the verities’ grave. Incredulity toward metanarratives and all that. (These issues came up recently at Cultural Parody Center as well.)

In this context my colleague talked about something she’d just read that distinguished two basic metaphorical approaches to argument: argument as war, and argument as play (or dance). We’re both players. We talked about how these were lenses that could really help to clarify what happens (or fails to happen) in class discussions. And perhaps protracted blog debates about Kant.

Arguments are not always (only) about what they’re about. If I may indulge in self-quotation for efficiency’s sake, when argument is in the war style sometimes what’s happening is a status bloodbath:

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

Apparently I was saying that war is also a game, but of course the (perceived) stakes are much higher.

April 15, 2009

Philosophy is an excellent thing

by Carl Dyke

Over at Edge of the West, in the context of one of the usual pseudo-discussions about what philosophy is good for (prompted by yet another of Leiter’s snarky shills for the discipline, apparently), a guy named Michael Turner just posted a long, fascinating comment explaining how he went from software engineering to (Japanese) technical translation to language philosophy; in the course of which he said this:

OK, so I’m interested in what meaning is, and how meaning happens, through language. Can you philosophers help me out? Which one of you do I trust? Which ones are, by contrast, measuring their value to the field only by citation index, which might only be an indication of how many stupid arguments they’ve been able to start by feverishly propagating misunderstandings?

This is far from the most interesting thing he said (John M. and Evan, this is our kind of guy), and of course it leaves out all the genuinely valuable things the philosophers we all know we can trust do, but I still had a good snort over it.

In another comment, Anderson kindly offers up this provocative quote from Callicles’ rant in the Gorgias:

Philosophy, as a part of education, is an excellent thing, and there is no disgrace to a man while he is young in pursuing such a study; but when he is more advanced in years, the thing becomes ridiculous, and I feel towards philosophers as I do towards those who lisp and imitate children.

One might say the same of the study of history, or any of the humanities.

June 25, 2008

Democracy alive and well at the Justice Department?

by Carl Dyke

In an earlier post I remarked that one of the ordinary ways democracy works is to enable winners to arrange things to their liking. This is, um, the point of winning.

There are, however, debatable limits to how far parties in power can be allowed to politicize the ordinary functions of government. It’s pretty obvious that you shouldn’t get or not get a driver’s license based on whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Naderite, Fascist or Communist. The question is whether you can drive straight, not whether you can think straight, pace my earlier thoughts on getting clear. It’s slightly less obvious, but analogous, that you shouldn’t get the job distributing drivers’ licenses on such a basis either.

(By the way, this is obvious only in the context of ‘modern’ formally-organized states based on some kind of abstract popular consent. In ‘traditional’ client-patron systems like feudalism or the Mafia you do, in fact, only get things because of your affiliation with groups and networks. These systems work very well and are by no means completely displaced by formal organization, as the current case illustrates.)

The Department of Motor Vehicles is just one of many agencies of government that perform technical functions according to rules and procedures, regardless of what party is in political power. Politicizing those agencies would – and does, where it happens – entail massive discontinuities and disruptions of ordinary service every election, as the new rulers throw out the old cronies and the new cronies learn on the job. Think of Kenya, Louisiana and Zimbabwe here. Meanwhile, you’d have to offer political (or other) favors in order to get your sewer hooked up or your taxes refunded. (Yes, yes, I know.) As galling as it may be, the very best thing about the horrible bureaucratic impersonality of the modern democratic government is that it’s not ‘who you know’ that should get things done, and eventually does.

This is a principle that the Bush administration has been notoriously unclear on, most visibly in appointments to positions and policy enforcement in the Justice Department (DoJ). I won’t rehearse previous instances, but a new one popped up in the paper today (AP reporting, I will not be quoting) and it’s kinda interesting. It concerns the hiring of new law-school grads for summer internships and ‘Honors Program’ jobs. As the former spouse of a top law graduate, I know how desirable and competitive these things can be as career steps. There’s a lot of incentive to parse the criteria, which are formally supposed to be politically-neutral accomplishments like grades, quality of law school, clerkships, and other experience.

One way to get at this would be to wonder how neutral those neutral criteria are. The privileges of group affiliation get packed down into life chances and institutional access in some pretty complicated and shady ways. Bracketing those questions for now and just looking at the numbers in terms of political affiliation, two examples are given in the article I read. In 2002, 911 (wow) applied for Honors jobs. 100 were identified by the screening committee as liberal, and 80 of those were denied. Out of 46 applicants identified as conservative, only four were denied. In 2006 the numbers were: 602 applicants, 150 liberal, 83 of whom denied; 28 conservative, five of whom denied.

You can eyeball the percentages and come up with the obvious conclusion that makes the story: a far greater proportion of liberal applicants were denied than conservative applicants. It’s possible that this is because liberals tend to be knuckleheads and this is reflected in their resumes, but the story assures us that highly qualified liberal applicants were denied while lesser qualified conservative applicants were accepted. OK, let’s accept that the report’s sources do a better job of assessing credentials than the screening committee. So apparently the effective variable is not the quality of the candidates but their political affiliations. Given that this is a formally depoliticized area of government, it looks really bad.

I’m stuck on the raw numbers, however. I’m not at all confused by the large remainder of applicants who had no discernable political affiliation; this matches nicely with the general apolitical drift of the people I partied with when my ex-wife was in law school. My impression was that a lot of those were essentially conservos in their vague unreflective commitment to laissez-faire individualism and the pursuit of personal wealth, as were the majority of the lawyers I partied with once my ex-wife began her career. Then you had the fringe ideologues on both sides, who made the parties more fun and who are presumably those who screened as liberal or conservative at the DoJ.

My impressions cover only one top-twenty law school and two metropolitan corporate law crowds, demographics that are both skewed conservative for reasons I presume are obvious, but those are the kind of people who are also live candidates for fancy post-grad internships. So why were there from two to six times as many liberals as conservatives among the applicants?

I don’t know. One possibility is interpretation bias in the political screening: it might have taken less ideological purity to be branded a liberal than to be anointed a conservative. Another possibility is in the nature of the ideology: laissez-faire individualists are not much devoted to collective political struggle, while bleeding heart do-gooders are, so the traces of their politics show up differently. Along the same lines, activist liberals may be more attracted to the good they imagine they can do in a government job, while conservatives may disproportionately zero right in on the law firm track to get their careers and earnings moving. Then again, conservatives are more associated with law and order, so I’m a bit surprised they aren’t swarming to the DoJ. Figuring this stuff out would take far more nuanced categories of analysis than ‘liberal’ vs. ‘conservative’.

All of this is background to the point that leapt out at me, which again is just the raw disparity of numbers. Yikes! If I’m a conservative running the screening for entry to the justice pipeline I’ve got to be horrified that the candidate pool is so politically skewed, just as a liberal would be if the positions were reversed. In fact, in these circumstances turning a blind eye to politics in the selection process would produce a dramatic overabundance – 2X to 6X – of liberals in the agency, in effect politicizing it. I would expect any good democratic citizen to be appalled by such a blatant violation of the spirit of the laws, and to take affirmative action to correct it. Fortunately, between the screeners’ frontier justice and the current backlash, this seems to be the process that’s underway here.

June 12, 2008

Rescue

by Carl Dyke

Rachel recently got an inquiry about buying this painting from a couple who were married in the gallery in which it and its siblings were showing. Their wedding photos and video are full of her images, so here’s a sweet memento hookup that might happen. Music swells, eyeballs moisten.

In another dimension the connection is a little more odd, yet apt. This series of work is called “Rescue.” Rachel found a very old lifesaving manual and appropriated/repurposed some of its images and text as part of the layering in these canvases (there’s also antique player-piano paper and a whole bunch of other stuff going on, some of which you can see above). Her theme is good intentions, miscommunication, and hurting the ones we love, which is just about right for a lot of marriages but maybe not what most newlyweds have in mind.

The central point of the lifesaving manual is that when you go to rescue someone who’s distressed, you probably need to beat them up and disable them first or they’ll drag you down with them. So there are all these images of struggling and grappling and submission holds and whatnot. Both people want the same thing, but at least one is working at cross purposes and the way through is pretty unappealing. At this point the metaphor is eerily capturing some significant fraction of my interpersonal relations, with me on both sides at one point or another.

There’s a real danger that the peril of one will become the demise of two. My dad was reflecting on the “pacification techniques” he learned in his Red Cross lifesaving school in relation to his own indifferent swimming skills. It’s a nice image that when we’re floundering we would be rescued by some super-competent, patient and gentle hero. More likely it’s whoever’s handy, and they’re just barely making it themselves.

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 22, 2008

Battle of the sexes

by Carl Dyke

I was already thinking a thought about sexes when I happened upon some help from the most excellent Hoyden About Town, writing about a newish dating service that thinks sex is more complicated than one from column A and one from column B. Well hallelujah, brothers, sisters and friends, let’s run with that for a moment.

Much of third-wave feminism has been about troubling the categories of the body, by taking seriously the huge variety of human experiences of embodiment and in particular, of gender/sex/sexuality. Morals and practices are often quite narrow and rigid about these things, but vary dramatically from place to place and from time to time. Grappling with these differences in what parochially seem to be fundamental categories of our existence is now one of the ordinary requirements of a liberal education, which is my biz.

A favorite resource for me as a teacher lodged in history is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur shows that in Europe well into the early modern period, and supported by close anatomical study, the dominant understanding of sex was that there was only one. Basically, they thought that everyone was a male but either an innie or an outie; depending on the body’s heat the goodies either got pushed out or retained inside. Ovaries are retained testicles, vaginas are inverted penises, and so on. (I’m simplifying Laqueur’s rich discussion quite a bit and he simplifies a rich history filled with a variety of understandings to make his point. See Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture for a far more nuanced and comprehensive analysis.)

There were some interesting corollaries to this view, including the ones where both partners (obviously) had to orgasm for conception to take place, and women were (obviously) the natural sexual aggressors because they wanted to incorporate men’s heat, aka precious bodily fluids:


Laqueur shows that in this as in so many other ways the modern advances of knowledge and civilization of the 19th century were a load of crap for women, who went from being second-class but sexually empowered to being second-class and sexually repressed. More than this, he shows how our ‘readings’ of the body are always mixed up in our cultural preconceptions and political agendas. (A neat parallel discussion about weight and dieting is at Savage Minds.)

So, to boil this down even further, it used to seem obvious to educated European persons that there is one sex. Now it seems obvious to educated Euro-American persons that there are two. History and anthropology show that a three-sex model is not at all uncommon. This is all by people living within, looking at and thinking about ‘the same’ physical bodies.

It’s all very well to play with the wrong wacko theories of other deluded folks, but fortunately we now have things properly sorted out and there are two sexes, no more no less, right?… except I can’t see any final reason to believe this, even if we take a very strict scientific view. Science went from one to two before, and science does not deal in settled truths, it deals in robust theories (e.g. two sexes, evolution, laws of thermodynamics) subject to new findings. It may well turn out that there are biologically three sexes, or six, or forty-two, with all sorts of surprising consequences for getting the pairings wrong.

Let’s say there are six. There are various ways this could work. The above-mentioned dating service points to one. Protein, hormone or immune-system variances may turn out to sort into sexualizing packages one through six, such that ones and fours are well-mated but ones and fives are not. It could be that twos and sixes can only work with help from a three or four. Could something like this explain reproductive difficulties? Was Henry VIII a three looking for his six but foolishly marrying one five after another? Maybe he ought to have smelt their pee more carefully….

How about if it turns out that the gender continuum — ultra-masculine to ultra-feminine — actually contains sexualizing thresholds, creating natural sex/gender composites? So the six sexes might be: masculine male, neutral male, feminine male; masculine female, neutral female, feminine female. Who knows how this is written into the genes, I’m speculating here. Sexuality might still have little to do with any of this, as is the case with the current two-sex theory. Or it might turn out to run most smoothly through the ‘gender’ component of the sex composite (masculine to feminine, with neutrals most open to anything), with conflict inherent at the extremes. Or it might turn out that same-to-same works best. Although this version of the hypothesis obviously feeds off of a lot of old stereotypical gender garbage, it would certainly naturalize, explain and demarginalize a lot of things about transgendering and transsexuality, as well as a variety of familiar failures in normative hetero/homo relationships.

One thing’s for sure. We don’t know the full truth of these matters yet; or rather, we know a variety of mutually-inconsistent truths about them. And maybe, given how people abuse the truths they have, it’s better that we don’t. My vote is for Burkean existentialism.

April 23, 2008

10 Ways to Be a Better Teacher

by Carl Dyke

Just picked up this great quote on teaching from Rough Theory:

“…the first thing I learned as a teacher was that nobody is a good teacher for everybody, which I found a very bitter lesson. Slightly later in life I learned the corollary, which I found even worse in a way – that just about everybody is a good teacher for somebody. You meet these incredible klutzes, and it turns out there is somebody out there for whom they have made all of the difference. This observation led me to conclude that teaching is not a method, it’s a name for a whole group of social situations in which all kinds of things happen and about which it is not possible to say anything really very useful on a technical level.” – James Renfield

I can attest to all of this, including the further corollaries that we all look like incredible klutzes to someone; exactly the thing that makes us good in one situation makes us lousy in another; and being someone’s most favorite teacher unavoidably means being someone’s least.

Does this mean that “it’s all good?” Not by a long shot. But it does suggest that a certain diversity of teaching approach is a desirable thing, if not in individuals then certainly in departments and schools.

April 13, 2008

Steam train revisited: thinking through the Edict of Nantes

by Carl Dyke

In the textbook we use to teach introductory World history there’s a picture of a peasant leader from the Peasants’ War in the Holy Roman Empire during the early 16th C. He’s a handsome bearded man with his arms tied behind him, attached to a stake with a short line. The stake is surrounded a couple of paces out with a ring of dry burning wood. He is undoubtedly roasting slowly to death.

This seems sort of unfriendly to the students, and I’d have to agree. But since it’s a History class we have to try to figure out what was going on in the heads of everyone involved where it ‘made sense’ to them. There were of course various dimensions of political and class conflict in these events, but the religious conflict of the early Reformation is easier to get at and revealing of the profound cultural differences that help to make history worth studying, so I focus at first on that.

One obvious wonder has to do with the disconnect between this seemingly-unfriendly treatment and what we today would think of as ordinary human rights. We might not like someone, we may even think it’s ok to kill them. But doing so by inflicting lengthy extraordinary pain is beyond a kind of threshold to us. (I tease students that if the threat of this kind of punishment did not deter the peasant leader, what chance does painless execution have to be deterrent? I also look outward to the history of the Atlantic slave trade and point out that if Europeans were acting in nasty burny ways toward ‘each other’, there’s not much point in being shocked about how badly they treated the Indians and Africans.)

So what was the moral context in which this sort of public spectacle of pain made sense? Was it just the amoral brutality of war? Yes, there was some of that. When you’ve just got done stabbing and hacking at other people’s flesh with edged weapons, and perhaps been carved like deli meat a bit yourself, a little extra fire might not seem like a big deal. Among the participants in this particular war were early mass armies with little sense of noblesse oblige, along with rural knights whose self-restraint was being seriously tested by a shift of power to the towns that soon made them obsolete.

This explanation won’t do the whole trick, however. There’s a symbolic, even ritually sacred quality to the execution that isn’t captured by mere brutality or resentment. I suggest to the students that we take seriously for a moment the idea of heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment. Let’s say we really believed that. It would start to matter a whole lot how we lived our lives here. There’s no sense in talking about hell if ‘it’s all good’, so apparently there are ways of living that will send you or others there; and given the scale of the punishment, it would be very important to avoid them. It would also be nice and friendly to do everything in your power to save others from this fate.

In the scale of eternity, this peasant’s torturous end is fleeting. Nor is the pain of earthly fire any comparison to the furnaces of hell. Furthermore, from his perpective this pain is also as nothing compared to an eternity of bliss. At the individual level, therefore, his torture is of little consequence; but at the symbolic level it represents a vivid contrast between an object lesson in the wages of sin, on the one hand, and his own virtuous martyrdom, on the other. (The former is why the execution had to be done in public. The latter is part of why eventually executions were moved away from public view.)

‘Human rights’ are quite beside the point here. They are about the secular sacredness of the human individual, but the flesh being fried here is much bigger – ideas of fundamental truth and eternal salvation or damnation. No individual can measure up to this level of moral universalism.

Which is why the Edict of Nantes and its various analogs are so significant. It’s not actually that Henry IV said ‘it’s all good’. What the Edict actually says, in context, is that we think you’re still wrong and you’re still going to hell, but we’re exhausted by all the killing each other over it so we’re not going to try to stop you anymore; and if you can talk other poor fools into following you there, so be it. This turned the murderous logic of moral absolutism into a pragmatic policy of toleration.

It was for the intervening centuries and processes I hope to get to in good time to turn this license to be wrong into the notion that each of us is right in our own way.

April 10, 2008

You could have a steam train (to nowhere)

by Carl Dyke

When Martin Luther nailed his feces theses to the church door in Wittenberg and began printing up Bibles so everyone could get a direct, personal relationship with God, the sensible reply of good Catholics was something like “Dude. If you do that there will end up being as many arbitrary personal versions of God as there are arbitrary persons interpreting the text for their convenience. Eventually you’ll have a new paganism and the world will be spammed with ‘personal spiritualities’ none of which have any more claim on truth than the whim of their creators.”

Which is exactly what has happened. And it’s “all good,” that is, we don’t really have a lot of moral traction in anything more sticky than our own tastes and preferences to say it’s bad.

I’ve just described one of the historical trajectories toward what’s called postmodernism (and far from the most important one). What made me think of this right now is a post and responses on Enkerli’s blog. Blork has been quite rightly offput by the spamming of the blogosphere with nasty junk posts whose only purpose seems to be to generate advertising hits. The claim would be that there’s a good version of blogging and a bad one.

In short, he don’t like these other folks’ voles; and neither do I. But the historical trajectory of the sanctification of individual conscience and the mechanical enablement of democratized publishing, of which the internet is the current cutting edge, don’t offer much hope of a trend toward fewer and higher-quality products of our collective intellectual life. Quite the opposite.