Archive for ‘teaching/learning’

May 9, 2021

Making pie

by Carl Dyke

My grandma was famous for her pies. (I don’t actually know what that means. I never saw her on tv or anything, but there was a family lore to this effect.) I got to eat Grammy’s pies from time to time, and they really were yummy. She was from New England, which helps except when it doesn’t. And she had the knack of crafting a richly fatty crust that was still light and flaky, and she selected and prepared the fruit so it popped and snapped and crisped and smoothed to the tooth as it should, and she deftly balanced sweet and tart for a fulfilling burst of contrasting taste and texture sensation in every bite.

Mom was (is) also great at pie, so I grew up with pie as a kind of family heritage. Sometime in my teens, I don’t remember the details, I decided this meant I ought to figure out how to make pie. And so I did a little asking, and a little watching, and a little noticing, and a lot of reading in the canonical texts (especially Joy of Cooking, I believe), and I baked a pie. And then a few more, but they’re not the story. Like a lot of things I learn I sort of did pie and then was done with doing pie.

My memory of all of this is just barely a few lines of smeary text crammed down into a dusty filebox back in the musty storage barn of my noodle, but as I recall and therefore assert, that first pie was not at all bad. “Edible,” as we say in my family. Because making a pie that’s not half bad is well within the reach of someone who’s been around good pies and knows how to ask, and watch, and notice, and read.

Of course my first pie was not up to the standards of the family masters. I don’t suppose many pies in the world were, or are, up to those standards. I’ve had a lot of pie over the years, including some very good pie and some pie made by people whose business it is to make pie, and I’ve never had anything better than Mom’s or Grammy’s pie. How could my first pie have been that good? It couldn’t. But it was fine, a perfectly decent and edible pie.

Sometimes I’ll get into discussions at school, or in the world, about what it means to learn and to know things. You’d think we could just agree that knowing things is cool, and that asking is helpful, and watching is helpful, and noticing is helpful, and reading is helpful, and experience is helpful, and that there’s usually more to know, and that knowing more is generally better than knowing less. But there are plenty of folks who will adamantly deny that there’s any knowledge advantage to focused study and years of experience, or that it’s possible to know anything from “book learning,” or that leaning in and paying attention is important, or even that knowledge of any kind is of any value at all. They’ll actively resist knowledge that doesn’t come in the right look and feel and delivery system. They’ll get into goofy ranking games about who is a good person based on what they know and how they know it.

I … don’t care? I think it’s pretty cool you can make a decent pie if you pay attention and do some reading. And I think it’s pretty cool you can make even better pies if you keep making pies and just get better at making pies.

March 26, 2021

Raw materials on the interdisciplinary paracurriculum

by Carl Dyke

The syllabus is not the class

The process is the goal

A world full of people

Each class picks a little thing about MU to examine. A meal; a bathroom; a requirement; a building. Let’s figure this out, all of it. Faculty get to geek out on their part, but it’s just a part. What’s the food science of this? What’s the literature of this?

Pulling together the classes they’re taking – how do they relate? What do they contribute?

How is this fun? Interesting? Worthwhile?

“There must be some way this is / to make this simple” vs ok it’s just wicked complex

Being in that world vs trying to act on it

“It works when teachers care about the students, not the material.” – Tavares

Caring in education is learning and growing focused. It can’t stop at validation. We love them as they are and as they’re becoming.

How to learn and grow?

Not knowing, but finding out

[Library competency –> research competency, not a class but a project]

Feral connectivity – conspiracy, intelligent design – vs ecosystems, complexity

Wanting to know, wanting to belong, wanting to be ok

BE POSITIVE, opportunities not threats and deficits

Something to do, someone to be, having / knowing your place, connection / community, self/making – the spectrum of identity services. We are MU / Make MU Great +++

Hypothesis 1: people do better when the work is challenging and meaningful. Rising / growing to fullest. (Final potential may be fixed, but we’re not there yet.)

Hypothesis 2: people find ways to drag and shirk when the work is not challenging and / or meaningful.

The reward platter: nutrition vs sugary treats. Feedback logics – how do I get more sugary treats?

Social learning / family dynamics and metaphors. Getting stuck in the child / mom / dad, pupil / teacher, drudge / boss games.

Playing games vs changing games. Partners, colleagues, finders, learners. Relationships and flows vs hierarchies.

Not all active learning has to be kinetic. Sitting and paying attention works too. Miss Marple ethnography vs Indiana Jones. Divide the dispositions and the labor.

In a (civic) ecosystems view, “burn it down” is the dumbest thing anyone can say. But fire is one of the healthy dynamics.

Online makes crossing / blending logistics much easier

– set this up for experiment / piloting opportunities

Why doesn’t interdisciplinarity ever work? It’s a meta-wicked problem.

Surf not grind, infiltrate not attack, wiggle stuck drawers

Interdisciplinary is not the end but a means, dictated by the field of discipline. They will defend themselves. Why?

How is discipline a resource? How can it be queered without activating the defenses?

Material at hand.

Loose goal, local knowledge – what’s the value added?

Ask – what are your challenges? How could this solve a problem for you? Think big!

Stay away from the Center – edges, networks, flows, rhizomes (reinforcing loops, how systems snap to grid)

The enduring problems of the humanities and liberal arts are enduring because they can’t be solved – they are wicked problems. Difficulties, dilemmas, conundrums, impasses.

Especially in the modern world the tendency of the hard sciences and stem has been to think of the humanities and the liberal arts as the soft dumping ground for unserious questions and projects. What wicked problems and complexity offer is the opportunity to rethink the humanities and the liberal arts as resources for recognizing and managing wicked problems. The wicked problems framework frames citizenship as participating in shared complexity (the civic ecosystem) responsibly and intelligently. Not mastering but learning understanding and adapting.

Self centered, personal interest, leaning in to disconnection

Superficial / ignorant problem solving, dopey eliciting exercises

Rubrics, notecards, prompts, citation formats and plagiarism, hoop after hoop, how-to suck passion out of any topic

Everything is fine but the focus is on disconnected technical requirements rather than the project as a developing accomplishment linked to larger systems of attention. This is consistent with the pattern throughout our curriculum and academic support efforts, which features many interventions with no necessary connection to authentic projects and goals.

With this in mind, adding another disconnected intervention is an exercise in path dependent failure. Ours is a pattern of wasted effort we need to break, not multiply.

Ecology / microcosm

A world full of people

Start w/ one of the cameo histories, e.g. cod, lobster, sushi. Read as model for tracing networks. Everyone picks an ordinary object and does the full global history of it – the materials, the compopnents, the assemblages at various scales; culture, society, politics, economics, world systems. History of interconnection, interdependence, embedding.

Complexity: the mobile. Note distinction of functional, aesthetic, moral analyses. How does it work? Is it beautiful? Is it good/bad, right/wrong? Note tendency of each set of questions to try to take over (e.g. function is also beautiful and good).

“I have taught a course called Science and Politics for a number of years and
one year in particular, it was very early in the morning, a big lecture class
at 8:00am. To get to the lecture hall we all passed this little shop that sold
good coffee and chocolate croissants. . . . And just as a way of waking up in
the morning, I would ask people to unpack objects, to take a chocolate
croissant and lead me through flour and chocolate and butter and sugar and
coffee and connect us to world histories that way. I would ask people to pick
an object, the T-shirt that the person sitting next to them was wearing,
what was printed on it, the label, the very fact of labeling, the fibre com-
position. If it’s got polyester, then take me through the history of Purity
Hall and research labs at Du Pont; you know, back me up into nitrogen
chemistry. If it’s cotton, then back me into pesticides and the California
water projects and where cotton is grown and the length of the fibre and
what about what you are wearing on your chest? I would ask people, as a
way of talking about science and politics, to take a pencil, a piece of paper,
the architecture of the lecture hall that you walked past; pick something and
get the class started by giving me an account of it.”
—Donna Haraway, in Live Theory (via Dumit, Implosion)

NB limbering exercise – is that what IDS is for?

How many people had to do their job for you to (x)?

Resources: their experience, networks, previous classes, classes now, instructor expertise, informal and formal research

Modalities

Hybrid / asynchronous enables all kinds of connecting and blending. Team teaching, project based learning, topic walkabouts. Plenary + breakouts / work teams, multimodal engagement.

To start with use interdisciplinary stuff as connective tissue. Student level, inherently customized, no need for faculty/major involvement.

Process not outcomes. Get curious about something and explore. Understanding vs problem solving.

“It was fun and challenging to work on such an interdisciplinary project. As a physics student studying biological systems, I had never expected myself to use concepts from economics.”

https://phys.org/news/2020-11-unexpected-similarity-honey-bee-human.html

Prompting exercise: use this as a mad lib:

“As an X studying Y, I never expected myself to use concepts from Z.”

Thinking of disciplines as boxes of tools and resources rather than domains / turfs.

Research teams:

Figuring out the life

How did they feed themselves?

How did they think about things?

How did they organize themselves?

What did they do for fun?

How did they care for themselves?

How did they handle disputes?

“What we’re trying to do is to get managers to set up strange attractors, so that you get relevant behavior without somehow identifying a point in advance where you want the system to go.”

https://journal.emergentpublications.com/article/vol1-iss1-1-4-pr/

March 25, 2021

Education budgets

by Carl Dyke

A friend asked a question on Facebook about suggestions on teaching history writing – not articles or books for students on how to write (there’s a whole industry in those, and several industry standards), but suggestions for professors on offering feedback and teaching techniques. I feel like I’ve gotten far enough out in left field on these questions that I hesitated to do more than recommend Sam Wineburg via this old post, but what I think is that most conscientious content-oriented professors are probably doing about as well as they can do as long as they keep focusing on content. And that’s because, roughly speaking, teaching content crowds out anything else you might want students to be learning. If you want writing to get better, writing has to move to the center of what your class does.

There are a lot of ways to get to this thought – mine was conditioned by getting sick of reading through stacks of awful papers that never seemed to get any better. But one way to come at it is to think of our classes as being on a kind of budget, where the resources under management are time and attention and effort, both ours and the students’. And there’s only so much of those any of us have. I don’t think this metaphor forces us into neoliberal transactionalism, either. The myth of the infinite budget is a problem all over the political spectrum. There’s only so much we can do, so it’s good to think through the budget and invest it wisely.

In History education, you could certainly put all of your budget into content. The objective would be to cram as much information into the class via lecture and reading as possible. This is a kind of familiar old school of History education we still see sometimes today, and gets you into the world of study skills and note taking and reading comprehension and test taking. And you’re not going to have time or attention or effort to teach those if you’re all in on content. But if you can standardize the curriculum around this mode of instruction, you can offload the skilling onto a remedial paracurriculum and academic support services. Even better, if you can afford to be selective, you can just admit and work only with students who’ve already been skilled up in content acquisition and retention through their families and k-12 training.

Obviously you can try to do the same with the writing skills, but the problem there is that those require much more cognitive elaboration than information storage and retrieval. They’re beyond the capacity of most k-12 programs to teach, so they don’t. Kids are going to show up without any effective scaffolding in a complex skillset. And there’s actually very little chance the remedial paracurriculum and academic support services can accomplish from scratch all the heavy lifting of college level writing instruction, especially early in a student career where it’s had no time to take and settle and develop. Because this is now a very familiar and widespread problem there are lots of ways around it, all of them cringy and resulting in college graduates everyone agrees are kind of useless.

The only effective alternative is to move some of your time, attention, and effort budget into writing. If you want them to write well in your class(es), you’re going to have to teach them how. Preferably this is happening all over the curriculum and being supported by the paracurriculum and academic services, but good luck with that. I saw a very determined senior colleague break herself over many, many years on this obvious fact about writing across the curriculum. If you want a bite of other people’s classroom budgets, you’re not going to get very far without an apocalypse.

Like I said, writing is hard, and teaching it is going to come at the expense of content. So let’s circle back and see if we can get content to cost us less. I think we can, for two reasons. First, the content is now all readily available on the internet to anyone with a device and a data plan. And second, none of the content is in itself uniquely essential to being an educated person. I’m personally convinced this means I don’t have to budget for any content at all in my classes. Let’s see if I can make that case.

First, all of the content is available on the internet. Of course it’s not “all” available, but for any given historical topic vastly more is available than we could hope to ‘cover’ in any given class. Because this is true, there’s obviously no need for students to learn anything about history that they have to remember. Their prosthetic memory is in their pockets, and it makes their potential carry-on knowledge base much larger than it could ever have been with meat memory alone. What they need is clearly search, recognition, and processing strategies, to activate the availability of that virtually infinite content. We do have to teach them research skills, and those are also cognitively elaborate. But this saves us from teaching them particular contents, in favor of giving them responsible access to all of the contents.

So now they have something to write about, which is tremendously important in writing instruction, and they’re practicing historical researchers. Just like that, we’ve replaced a perennial content problem (what to cover, how to decide) with a perpetual content solution (whatever you need for any given purpose), and spent only the budget it takes to teach and practice internet research skills. It follows that the single dopiest thing any history teacher can say these days is, put your phones away. It’s the modern equivalent of smashing the tablets and burning the books. That’s where the freaking content is, all of it, right at our fingertips. And later, when we’re not around to carefully curate and control our students’ access to content, the internet will still be there in their pockets or maybe in a chip in their heads, waiting for them to make something of it or watch another kitty video or tumble down a conspiracy rabbit hole. Wouldn’t it be better if they knew how to get at, recognize, and process the good stuff? How many lectures and course-pack readings on the Napoleonic wars would we trade for knowing how to learn about the Napoleonic wars for themselves?

I picked the Napoleonic wars there because they’re in-field for me, so I could in principle think I was supposed to teach them, and in a European and modern history kind of way they’re fairly important. I think it’s fair to say that any well educated American man four or five generations ago would have been expected to have some Napoleonic wars in his game. He’d get the joke about land wars in Asia in “Princess Bride,” and have opinions about the weight of great men in the scales of History. He would not, however, have considered the Haitian revolution as a counternarrative of modern democratic nationalism, nor would he have read Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the rights of women. He would certainly never have pondered whether the White Lotus movement was an important precursor to the Taiping rebellion, or how the slow erosion of Chinese sovereignty by foreign interference throughout the 19th century might have fed into a series of escalating disruptions culminating in the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately the Chinese Revolution. But he would probably have heard of the Opium wars, which were about free trade, and seen a couple of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan movies. In other words, he would have been deeply, catastrophically historically ignorant. The kind of ignorant that enthusiastically supports intervention on the wrong side of a war of national liberation in Southeast Asia because he doesn’t have the faintest clue what Communism is or how it might have appealed to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong more than free trade. And no useful idea of how to find out.

How do we pick out what the essential historical knowledge is, in that paragraph? My categories are pretty chunky, but it’s still much too much. Especially for an undergraduate education, where we may hope for several courses but only get one or two, there’s no way for coverage to pick out the essential from the very important from the maybe what you urgently need right now from the oops, no time for the Cold War. We don’t make that better by just deciding our thing is the essential thing, although at least then we have a focus. But to know enough history is inevitably to know you don’t know enough history. Throwing content into that abyss in whatever quantity is forlorn.

So much the worse for content, I say. So with our budget freed from ruinously expensive ‘coverage’, how do we teach history writing? Workshops, basically. We learn any set of skills by practice and feedback on practice. So then we have to think about what the skills of historical writing actually are, and design the workshop practice around scaffolding them from basic research to primary sources and scholarship, through drafting to finished work. In my case, I’d like the students to get all the way to knowing their stuff, so these research and writing projects develop through a whole instructional term in a developmental and cumulative sequence of papers. If they buy in and do it right, they’re much better at it by the end and the final papers are fun to read.

But still, writing is hard, so what’s much better and not bad by the end is still mostly a bit short of really good. If good writing is what we want from and for our students, it’s just not a matter of little tips and tricks of pedagogical technique. It’s a matter of full investment in what it takes to achieve that outcome. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to cost us anything that matters much.

August 7, 2020

Why I won’t be using Zoom

by Carl Dyke

There’s a lot of personal detail in this post. I think it’s necessary, and also in my case pretty funny because I’m empowered to shield myself from the unfunny bits. But if you can’t be bothered I don’t blame you. The tl;dr is that for me and some other people, I reckon, the experience and performance of self is awkward in ways that make personal imaging technologies existentially confusing, disruptive, or even threatening. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. But as we head into a technology-mediated school term because of the pandemic, I have this to add to the lore of video course delivery and the confounding diversity of human kinds.

My Grandma Liz famously disliked being photographed. This seemed odd to everyone else, because by many standards she was a beautiful young woman and a handsome older lady, with strong features and an intelligent gaze. The standard garbage folk diagnosis was vanity, but her frank discomfort with her own image ruled that out. Some of us chalked it up to the free-floating poisonous critical judgment that can emerge from the family talent for observation and fine discrimination. And certainly it becomes swiftly wearing for a smart, ambitious woman to be constantly reminded that for others she’s little more than a pretty face and a fine rack of lady parts. In any case this was nowhere near the only way Grandma was odd, as are we all, so we all got on with it. I don’t have Grandma’s figure (it’s probably for the best), but I used to get along pretty well with her and I’ve gradually come to believe we had something more permanent in common.

At some point when I was a kid, I remember being given to understand that Dad was concerned I might be showing signs of self-absorption. This was a pretty serious party foul in Dad-world so I installed it as a priority hypothesis to test in a life cobbled together out of experiments. I think the irony must have been lost on me at the time. There was plenty of evidence – I was pretty fascinated with mirrors, or really reflective surfaces of any kind. I looked at myself any chance I got, from every angle I could. Store and car windows were magnetic, personal video selfies before personal video selfies. It probably wasn’t quite obsessive.

Fortunately I was not self-absorbed, at least in the sense of vanity. The issue was not connection but disconnection. I was fascinated with the image because it was obviously ‘me’, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that to make sense. Every time I looked, every step and angle, this uncanny something or other I couldn’t find any way to identify with moved right along with me. In middle school I took the sewing version of home ec and for a few years after that I would buy thrift store shirts and custom tailor them for myself. Badly, which I knew at the time, but it wasn’t really the craft I was concerned with. I have no idea what I thought I was doing at the time, but I was trying, I now think, to get what I looked like to have anything at all to do with how I experienced myself.

Yes, I had a fedora phase. And this:

Felix the Superbeetle and cousin Lindsay

One of my girlfriends in college remarked that when she saw me walking across campus, “it” looked good to her. I was delighted! Yes, nailed it!

Was “it” like that for Grandma too? I have no object permanence to myself. I don’t fear death, because how would it be different? To this day, when I see my reflection in a mirror, in a photograph, or on video, my first reaction is “what the hell is that.” Every. Time. From one moment to the next, I have no damn idea what I look like. Obviously I get queer, and for what it’s worth I count normal as a genre of queer. I get the horror of being pinned into any of the categorical identities, and the further horror of having to inhabit them in self defense. I can really understand why some people automate their self-presentation with stereotyped hair and wardrobe constructs, and I’m sympathetic with the chaos that must break back into their lives when that presentation is disrupted. But when they expect it of me as well I draw the line. It’s not that I want to fight that battle, but I don’t want to live it either. I is the kaleidoscope you see (I guess?), for better or worse.

All of this is stuff I’ve long since learned to manage, or at least live with. The Carl-bot is a practiced performance in many settings, and lets me peek out around the edges of ritual and expectation to express my care in the ways I care to express my care. But the bottom line is that having or making an appearance is an active and chaotic and distracting process for me. It’s work, and adds to the multi-tasking burden of all the other chaotic feeds I’m getting from environments full of other critters like and unlike me commanding my attention in various ways.

Seeing that work reflected back at me in realtime is mesmerizing and awful. Thinking about it happening on all of the other screens is an infinite regress of confounding self-reflection. I know I can turn off my video. I’m not telling you a problem and I’m not interested in your solutions. I’m an adult, responsible, smart, and adaptable. I guess? What I’m saying is, this is why I won’t be using Zoom.

February 2, 2020

Research guidance

by Carl Dyke

This is how I teach it, starting with the world history surveys. I wrote it down for the online class I’m teaching now. The whole process is meant to be recursive, generating new questions and diving back into the research. All of the research projects are written up in three phases culminating in the masterpiece.

Education can be a lot of jumping through hoops, and you may not be used to studying things you’re interested in. In this class, you learn by engaging your curiosity and then developing the skills and knowledge you need because there’s something you actually want to figure out and understand better.

Somebody has to do the research and find the sources that support informed and reliable historical knowledge. If you’re writing the paper, that somebody is you! There are some skills involved in good research, but there’s also a disposition. Good researchers are curious, stubborn, and persistent. They want to know, they’re confident the information they need is out there, and they keep digging until they hit it. Good researchers don’t say “I can’t find anything,” they say “let’s try another approach.”

If you can’t find the sources, you can’t be informed and reliable, and you can’t write a paper on that topic. There are two ways to handle this (well, three, if you count giving up). You can pick a different topic where the sources are easier to find. Or you can get stubborn, persist, and find the sources you need, becoming more ‘resourceful’ in the process.

Overview research

For any topic, it helps to have a general understanding of how that topic works in itself, and a general overview of that topic as part of a place and time with various other things going on. For this kind of orientation, encyclopedias and brief online summaries from reliable providers are fine! You can even go ‘Wikipedia surfing’ – find the entry for your topic and then click all the links, and then click all the links, and so on until you feel like you have a pretty good idea of the main outlines and features of your topic. Sometimes the citations, bibliography, and external links on better Wikipedia pages can even guide you toward more serious research.

Overview research is the common knowledge level of investigation. You’re just getting up to speed on what anyone who knows anything about the topic already knows. Any educated person with a device can do this step in a few minutes. You have not yet “done the research,” you have “informed yourself.” It’s very good to be informed, and a great start for serious research. But none of this basic information belongs in a research study. You only make yourself useful when you get way, way past Wikipedia and the first page of Google, and figure out something that wasn’t common knowledge.

Search terms

Other than general knowledge, the most important takeaway from overview research is an enhanced list of search terms. Most failed searches are just worded badly, and part of getting better at research is getting better at words. Make note of words and phrases that characterize your topic, then plug them back into your search to get more informed and specialized results. Keep doing this as you go to achieve a virtuous knowledge spiral.

Secondary sources

Most of your overview research will be what’s called “secondary sources.” In this case what makes them secondary is that they are written after the fact (second hand) by people with no direct experience of the topic. Secondary sources come in different grades of reliability and different levels of elaboration. For historical research, specialized sources published by scholars are usually where the reliable knowledge in depth is. They’re usually “peer reviewed,” which means approved by other people who study in that field. And they’re usually long format, starting in the 15-20 page range. You should get used to seeking out and reading research in that range.

Google

Regular Google searches move ads to the front, and after that are designed to give you the common knowledge overview, because that’s what most people want. So if you’re not careful, Google can distort your research and even your understanding of how knowledge works toward the superficial and trivial. Over time you can teach Google to take you more seriously and return better quality results automatically, but in the meantime you can go direct to Google Scholar and do your search at https://scholar.google.com/.

Proquest

There’s lots of great free scholarly content on the web. But if you hit a paywall, or you want to get straight to the good stuff without fighting through garbage, and also take advantage of your tuition dollars at work, it’s best to go through an academic database. At Davis Memorial Library the one database to rule them all is Proquest. It comes in a lot of curated subsections, but unless you know for sure that you only want the results from a narrowed search, go with Proquest Central, which is all of it. Look under P in the Digital Resources section of the library web page, (). (For History specifically, JSTOR is also great. Look under J.)

Primary sources

Primary sources are really important in historical research, because they were produced at the time you are studying by the people you are studying (primary in this case means first-hand). They can be a little tricky to find and may require some creative flexibility. The Library has what are called “LibGuides” that offer access to some primary source collections. There’s a link to the LibGuides on the main library page, and they’re organized by general topic area, including World History. Lots of libraries have terrific libguides online and you can use any of them, but signing in and going through MU’s libguides can help with paywalls if that’s an issue.

If you know the specific primary sources you’re looking for, Google can work fine. There are also collections of primary sources online that can be accessed directly if you know what they are, or discovered by searching your topic plus the search terms “primary source” and/or “archive” (an archive is a place where old writing is stored). Obviously you should have lots of different ways of saying your topic to the computer so you don’t miss the resources you need just because of bad wording.

Reading

Finding great sources is terrific, but then obviously you have to read them. In good research where you develop knowledge in depth, you should expect to find and read hundreds of pages, including lots that don’t turn out to be all that useful. This is why it’s so incredibly important to pick a topic you find genuinely fascinating. For guidance on extracting information and understanding from sources by reading them, see “Reading for Evidence.”

Research help

You can schedule a personal consult with a research librarian. They will help you find what you’re looking for. It’s not even cheating! Here’s the link: ()

December 2, 2019

The rules of sociological theory

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been teaching sociological theory for twenty-five years now, long enough that what used to be contemporary theory is sliding into the classical theory / silly old obsolete theory grey area. Enrollment permitting I’ll be teaching it again in the Spring. I’ve taught it a bunch of different ways. Here’s my rough draft of the guts of the syllabus, after all these years:

This is a class for investigating and discovering how societies work. We’ll look at some examples of how that’s done. You can decide what society you want to investigate and what about it you’d like to discover. There are only two firm rules for the class:

1. You may not assume or assert that all societies work the same. The data set of that claim is every society everywhere in all of history in every dimension, plus every possible future society in all of the universe forever. None of us has access to that data set.

2. You may begin and end with methodological individualism (the principle that individual motivation explains social phenomena). But you may not just camp out there. That is, you must at some point honestly and robustly consider and explore the possibility that individual motivations do not explain social phenomena.

We will spend the first week of the class discussing what these rules mean, why these are the rules, and what is accomplished by them. They are subject to change if our little society legitimately reaches that consensus.

April 2, 2019

Chuck Dyke, Themes in Existentialism

by Carl Dyke

 

This was a cool course, and important for at least a few people. I’m posting the syllabus here to archive it publicly. Neither Chuck nor I have/had any patience for the idea that a syllabus adequately describes a course as a social setting and process. Notice and discussion of Chuck’s inevitable fate can be found here.   

 

PHILOSOPHY 3186  FALL 2010  DYKE

THEMES IN EXISTENTIALISM

Office hours: Mon 3:00- 5:30  Anderson 721

Premise: As a narrative art, film is as legitimate and powerful as the written literature that preceded it and lives alongside it.  In both literature and film, some works are masterpieces, some are garbage, and most range in between.  In this and every other comparison, film can hold its own.

This means that good films ought to be watched and thought about with the same care with which a good book ought to be read and thought about.

 

Existentialism: The family of views you get when you ask the question “What does it all mean?” and find that the answer you get is “Nothing.”  There are and have been, in fact, very few honest existentialists.  Clustered around them are a number of thinkers (De Sade and Dostoyevsky among the earliest) who are afraid that “Nothing” is the answer, but wiggle and squirm to avoid it.  For example, Heidegger is the godfather of a group who use the answer “Nothing” as a springboard for the mystic leap to the godhead (and, in his case, maidenhead).  Others, like Sartre, try to sneak around the corner of the answer to re-install some version of more or less traditional rationalism.  If you’re going to be an honest existentialist, it helps to have a sense of humor; and Sartre had none.

Overall, there are far more honest existentialists in the narrative arts than in philosophy.  There are good reasons for this that will emerge over the course of the semester.

 

The Absurd: The primary meaning of “surd” is “rational,” as in “surd number,” i.e. one that has a square root.  The primary meaning of “absurd” is “non-rational” (not necessarily “irrational”).  Rationalists, of course, want the primary contrast to be that between the rational and the irrational, but that’s obvious ideological hype.

Over the course of the last two centuries there have been many conceptions or varieties of the absurd.  Two that we’ll observe particularly closely are Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.  Because we’ll be dealing so much with imaginative narrative, we’ll also be constantly in the midst of Pirandello’s variety of the absurd: the creation of character.

 

Dealing with death: Facts being as hard to come by as they are, we can be thankful for one modest certainty.  We’re going to die.  Of course we spend fortunes trying to avoid it, and creating the illusion that it doesn’t exist; but that just makes the point.  The seminal (as it were) works along these lines is the Marquis De Sade’s “Dialogue between a priest and a dying man,” and Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.  In the films, we’ll come across one instance after another of this dialogue — one of the main themes of existentialism.  In fact, by the end of the semester you will have seen so many of these dialogues that you’ll be ready choose one of them to compare with the original – as a final exam.

Meanwhile, you’ll plunge right into the world of film analysis and criticism, by writing six (6) short studies of six (6) of the films in the course.  1000 words each.  You are not trying to tell Mr. and Ms. Middle Class what to rent for the weekend.  You are engaging in an intellectual dialogue with a circle of frightfully knowledgeable, ruthlessly critical students of film and society.

Three of these studies must be handed in before October 22.  Failure to provide all three will constitute failure of the midterm.  This doesn’t have to mean that the three are on movies we’ve talked about in class.

Finally, you’ll choose either Nietzsche or Camus, and find some way to insinuate them into a term paper of about 10 pages.  This will be due on the day of the last class meeting.  We’ll talk at length, as we go along, about the term paper – and about writing in general, for that matter.

 

Reading:

De Sade, “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man” (Blackboard)

Camus, The Stranger; Exile and the Kingdom

Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche

Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor”

[For those with prurient interests, my take on The Stranger and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly can be found on my web page in the department website.]

 

Pattern of class discussion:

Each Monday, the first topic of conversation will be the film of the week (So, on Sept. 6 we’ll start talking about Kowalski).  You’ll be expected to have watched the film.  There are so many sources these days, and all twelve are readily available.  In a number of cases, if you have a VHS I’ll be able to loan you the film.  We’ll always have the DvD’s in class to refer to, and clips will be shown.  (The opportunity for weekly film parties is obvious – at your own pleasure and convenience, and, for some, the sharing of expenses.)

During the discussion, existentialist themes will arise and emerge.  Many times that will lead to the specific assignment of sections of Nietzsche, and that’s how his work will be used.  The other readings are required in full, and as quickly as you can do them, so they can put more meat on the bones of our conversation.  The conversation will continue on Wednesday and Friday.

Everyone participates in class discussion in their own way, but each has to find a way to participate.  Some solipsists find this difficult, others find it easy.  That’s (obviously) their own business.  Absences, on the other hand, are, as they accumulate, mini-failures, and cause inevitable subsidence in your final grade.  The same goes for those who habitually betray an ignorance of the films and readings.

 

THE FILMS

 

1                                   Sarafian, The Vanishing Point

An introduction to meaninglessness: the foundation.

 

2                                    Bergman, The Seventh Seal

The one representative (perhaps) in the course of religious existentialism: by Kierkegaard out of Strindberg.  Some students might well want to pursue this line of thought far more than is done in the course proper.  This film is presented at the beginning to suggest and legitimate the possibility.

 

3                                   Jarmusch, Stranger than Paradise

The excitement of existence.

 

4                                   Leone, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The greatest Nietzschean film ever made.  Don’t underestimate it.  Leone had won the right to make this one.

 

5                                   Greene/Reed, The Third Man

The bleakness of post WWII Europe was the scene existentialism matured in.  All the themes are here.  Western obligato.

 

6                                   Fellini, The Nights of Cabiria

Our first look at Sisyphus happy.

 

7                                   Traven/Huston, Treasure of Sierra

Madre

Our second look.

 

8                                   Clouzot, Wages of Fear

Sisyphus too happy.

 

9                                    Kosinski/Ashby, Being There

“Being there” in German is “Dasein.” Nobody ever said all there.  Where does wisdom lie? What does a song of innocence really sound like?

 

10                                  Wilder, Sunset Boulevard

The creation of self and world; being, and not being, in time.

 

11                                Antonioni, The Passenger

          Closure: The eternal recurrence of Kowalski: this time at a reduced speed.

August 27, 2018

Memory work

by Carl Dyke

Recently I bought a load of driveway gravel from a local landscaping yard. The guy was an efficiently skilled tractor operator so it was the work of five minutes to get two buckets of mixed gravel and base into the bed of the pickup. For the next hour I leaned on his loader frame and he talked his thoughts and world at me.

Not surprisingly a lot of it was paranoia and racism. I learned loads about how hard it is to make a living in landscaping when your competitors are undocumented immigrants who can bid jobs without factoring in the costs of bonding, insurance, and taxes. I learned that some tractor sales and service companies will deliberately sabotage your machine to make a buck on the repairs, and that when your equipment goes down in the middle of a job you have to pay top dollar to have it seen to right away. I learned that if you buy your cars from the same dealer over a period of years they start to take you for granted, and that they’ll deliberately delay a repair until you’re out of the warranty window. I learned that you can admire and remain friends with people who do you this way. I learned that 98% of us white men voted for Trump because he says the things we aren’t allowed to say. I learned that bush-hogging is a terrible job because who knows what equipment-destroying solid objects are hidden in that underbrush you’re clearing, and that no one wants to pay you for this risk. And I learned that it’s much more efficient to shift piles of material by pushing and pulling with a blade than by picking it up and putting it down with a bucket.

Somewhere around the hour mark it seems to have occurred to this fella that I might have somewhere else to be, and I allowed as how I might want to get to work soon. He asked where that was, and I told him teaching History at the local university. So then we had to have the conversation where he told me everything he thought about education and unpacked his own history as a student.

His most vivid memory was high school English class in eastern North Carolina, tobacco country, in which he did a lot of what he called “memory work.” The chalkboards on three sides of the room would be filled when the students came in, and they were to memorize all of it. He mentioned in particular the Beatitudes, selected Corinthians, and Shakespeare. There was drama over his recitation of the Beatitudes, which he attempted three times without the teacher marking credit in the grade book. This was an exercise of arbitrary authority, but also completely normal and just to be expected.

I remember doing a lot of memory work in Italian school when we lived there in the early 70s. I don’t remember what, exactly. I have a phone in my pocket now with 32 gigabytes of memory, enough to store every bit of text ever produced by the human race until we started texting “‘Sup?” “Not much” at each other by the terabyte.

Here are the Beatitudes, from Wikipedia:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 5:11-12

August 10, 2018

Really great lectures!

by Carl Dyke

A lot of electrons have been spilled over the pedagogy of lecturing. As a matter of research, I’m persuaded by the physicists and other scientists who have given up on lecture because they find that people who have been lectured at can answer lots of questions about physics but can’t actually do physics. I’m also too much of a dispositional anarchist to feel at all comfortable sharing a room with a bunch of other people and rudely hogging the conversation.

I do see what people like about lecture. In my own education I was fortunate to study with a number of really excellent lecturers (and a whole lot of really dreadful ones, who you might think would explore other options out of self defense). Maybe the best lecturer of them all was Rod McGrew. When I was an undergrad at Temple I took several courses with McGrew, including a really great one on disease in history and a couple on Russian history I would otherwise not have been much interested in, in large part because he was such a dynamic, compelling teacher.

In class, which I skipped much less than was my usual habit, McGrew lectured almost exclusively. I sat in front, he was at the desk. He also sat, but leaned forward with his knees out, his elbows down, and his hands up. He had huge, gnarled hands and bony wrists that stuck out crazily from his suit jackets, and as he spoke he would grasp at the air as if he could massage understanding directly from the atmosphere. His skeletal old face would crease with intensity, his wispy forelock would bob, and his drooping lower lip would struggle to keep the drool in around the flow of words. It was like watching the tightrope walker flirt with death and greatness in Zarathustra. McGrew lectured without notes, cogently, brilliantly. To see someone at once so comprehensively learned and so freaking smart about how things work was profoundly inspiring. I LOVED that guy. Rod McGrew is singlehandedly why I went from a wifty interdisciplinary undergrad degree to a graduate program in History.

Really great lectures! I think it’s fair to say I don’t remember a single thing Rod McGrew ever said. At all. Granted it’s been a long time, but I can report with some confidence that I didn’t remember anything in particular he’d said even in graduate school just a year or two later. I couldn’t tell you without refreshing my memory from his publications what his general approach to history was. He told us an amazing amount of information, organized with exceptional rigor and analyzed with dazzling clarity. It was, almost literally, in one ear and out the other.

What I do remember is the research projects I did for McGrew’s classes. I can tell you about those without refreshing my memory. In the disease class I got interested in how endemic malaria and other diseases degrade a population’s ability to maintain ‘surplus’ activity beyond subsistence, and what this might mean about patterns of civilizational distribution, density, rise and fall. It was pretty broad brush but it was a good start on thinking about multidimensional dynamics in history beyond the scope of intentional human action. In the Russia classes I got interested in revolutionary intelligentsias and the dynamics of change. This is when I first figured out that people use ideas like tools and therefore that the particulars of this or that system of ideas are not in themselves the causes of anything much.

As a research mentor McGrew had a light but effective touch. He was first of all interested and supportive; the message was yes, go to it. As the project developed he would drop little analysis prompts and bibliographical suggestions, calibrated to how fast and well you were integrating the previous suggestions. So for example for the intelligentia project I read all of Venturi’s Roots of Revolution and from there a bunch of secondary stuff on Russian revolutionaries like Berdyaev and Chernyshevsky, as well as some of the primary writings, and then moved into the secondary literature on ideas and intelligentsias by people I would never have heard of or discovered for myself like Mannheim and Gouldner. But then he suggested I take a look at a new book on the Bengali intelligentsia, which I now realize was the next level up in developing an understanding of how context shapes dynamics, and I balked because it seemed irrelevant, too far afield. And so he didn’t make that kind of suggestion again.

In fact I got kind of stuck, because I realized ideas and intelligentsias weren’t really where the action was at, but I wasn’t ready yet to do the work to develop a better picture. So in the end I kind of dumped the half-hearted debris on McGrew as my senior project, and he was appropriately disappointed. But he must have written me a great letter anyway, because I got a nice fellowship from U.C. San Diego, and it certainly wasn’t on the strength of the confused mess my transcript and essays were. I expect he knew it’s a process, and there’s only so far and fast someone can go from time to time.

I know I’m weird, that the way my memory works is weird, that the way I engage with people, ideas, processes, and things is weird. I’m not going to say my experience works as more than a data point, perhaps way out on the long tail, and as general rules my intuitions are useless. Nevertheless, when I talk to other people about how they learn, and in particular when I talk with people who like lecture about what they like about lecture and what they got from lecture, I don’t get back the kind of specific content recall you would expect from a pedagogical mode explicitly oriented toward clear and efficient transmission of content. Mostly, people don’t remember anything in particular from being lectured, which makes the whole fretful ritual of carefully preparing them seem kind of silly to me. What they do remember is having their curiosity stimulated, and having their learning process supported, and whatever work they themselves did in that general sort of context.

So oddly enough, even though one of my favorite and most influential teachers was a really great lecturer, that’s not what made him a really great teacher. Which then leads me to wonder what work the lecture is doing at all, and reminds me where I want to put my effort and care for the upcoming year.

April 8, 2018

Politics? In MY classroom?

by razumov

(This untimely post is in honor of Chuck, who certainly must have thought about these things over the course of his life.)

Two things have happened to me recently. One, I got a tenure-track job at a university where the students have a professional and not just a personal interest in learning about Russian history. Two, I became politically active, to the extent that joining a socialist organization and doing stuff with them a few hours a week is considered active. It’s my second semester now and I’m teaching Intro to Russia Since 1825–and, of course, this being the revolutionary centennial school year, thinking about the eternal question of Politics In The Classroom.

As an undergrad, even a politically-opinionated one, my opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I did not want to hear about my dumb professors’ political views because I knew that these would amount either to the tepid NPR liberalism I got plenty of elsewhere or something noxiously right-wing that would be even worse. I had enough acrimonious debates with profs in seminars that I knew that a prof who had trouble concealing his (usually his) politics was also unlikely to argue for them in good faith. Instead my favorite classes were the ones that seemed to point to an escape from the political tractor beam of the late Bush era.

As a professor, I’m much less confident of all this than I used to be. First of all, of course, there’s no way to teach the history of Russia’s twentieth century without “classroom politics,” if nothing else because students come in with preconceived ideas shaped by a deeply political process. Even if it were possible, though, would it be desirable? As a socialist I want to help people understand the Soviet experience in the light of its real strengths and weaknesses, not through the kind of propaganda that still wins Pulitzers. As a scholar….I want the same thing. (I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have beliefs if I didn’t think they were true.)

Yet converting this growing comfort with classroom politics into actual teaching has been surprisingly hard. A lot of what I try to do in my lectures–the debunking aspect–involves my mental image of what students already believe. To my surprise, I’m consistently off in my evaluation of these beliefs. The whole class pretty much already understood that the Soviet Union’s role in WWII is consistently downplayed in US schools, for instance, and their opinion on the place of Jews in Imperial Russian and Soviet life (a Fiddler on the Roof narrative I’d thought was fairly widely shared) was in fact pretty much nonexistent. Half the time I must be confusing them awfully, the poor things, as I shadowbox with an opponent not relevant for American students since the 80s. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

The flipside of this is that I’m finding that my interventions make little difference anyway. I assigned an article legendary in my field for marking a shift away from both the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality (Jochen Hellbeck’s “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul”), but my students felt no compunctions about fitting it into their familiar totalitarian view of Stalinist life. Hell, maybe they’re right.

At least, if nothing else, my rant about Nineteen Eighty-Four being the worst possible book for understanding the Soviet Union will stick. I hope.

February 25, 2018

Charles E. Dyke, 1938-2018

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke

Chuck Dyke died Wednesday afternoon, February 21, 2018, less than a month after multiple inoperable cancers were discovered. He slipped away quietly with his wife and life companion Linda reading by his side, as perfect an end as such a loving and sentimental man could wish.

Chuck was the only son of Robert and Thelma and grew up in Stoughton, Massachusetts. From his childhood came his love of horse operas and pie for breakfast, and hatred of boiled chicken and being told what to do. As soon as he could, he began making decisions for himself, eventually opting out of the local school system and paying his own way at Thayer Academy. He worked his way up a series of jobs, including camp counselor, soda delivery man, and emergency room orderly, contributing to his extensive and often surprising fund of skills and lore.

From Thayer Chuck went to Caltech, where he realized he had made a mistake within the first two days but lasted out the semester. The mistake was not STEM, which remained his lifelong passion, but the way it was taught in relation to how he learned. He returned east to Brandeis University, where he was introduced to Philosophy in the most Chuck Dyke possible way, by signing up for the elective the guy he was chatting with in line was signing up for. Collaboration and saying yes to learning new things remained defining dispositions.

Graduate school was at Brown for training in analytic philosophy and a “doleful dissertation” on Rawls, Arendt, and civil disobedience. The undoleful thunderbolt of romance struck when Chuck knocked at a fellow philosopher’s door and her sister Linda, a biologist and St. John’s graduate, opened it. As soon as social proprieties allowed their two sons appeared: Carl, a historian, and Alex, an environmental engineer.

More on Chuck’s education and career can be found in the excellent interview by John Protevi at the New APPS blog.

In the happy days of the early Sixties the academy was still in full mid-century expansion. Chuck had his choice of jobs and settled on Temple University in Philadelphia, where he spent his entire career. Chuck and Linda looked at the local commuter rail system (pdf), drove out a little farther from the farthest stop, and bought a nice old house with a barn and an acre and three quarters out in Bucks County farm country which is still the family home. The mortgage was about $90 a month, which for thirty years was a source of increasing amusement as the bank tried frantically to get them to refinance. This homestead hosted many, many gatherings of colleagues and students over the years.

In the early 70’s, during the oil embargo and the World Cup, Chuck accepted a two year posting at Temple’s Rome campus, another typical embrace of an opportunity to learn new things, and a life defining experience for the whole family. He read Machiavelli, Mazzini, and Hugo Pratt, did the hard crossword puzzles in Italian, figured out how to launder a car registration through Switzerland, and made friends with local scholars who showed him how to find the best regional wine. In those days he was “Baffone,” Big Moustache, and carried his hand carved pipes in a tooled Italian leather holster on his belt. Linda began to become an art historian, the kids went to Italian public school, and everyone looked at more triptychs of the Madonna and child than is good for anyone’s sanity. For summer vacations he packed the whole family of four large Americans into one of these:

fiat 126

Fiat 126, circa 1973

It was a tight fit. The family insect collecting equipment went on the roof rack, which led once to an amusing loss by theft of multiple boxes of dead, pinned insects.

Although he was professionally housed in Temple’s Philosophy Department, Chuck never identified with that or any other discipline. His genius was association and he went where association, collegial and intellectual, took him. His early interest in collective decision-making evolved into concern for the broader fields of relationship and possibility in which decision-making communities emerge, to the evolutionary dynamics of complex adaptive systems, nature, ecology, and climate. He was deeply concerned, broadly speaking, with how humans are systematically fucking things up for ourselves and everyone else, and with finding ways to make this plain enough to do some good.

At home Chuck was a gardener and an artist. He spent decades of attentive digging, fertilizing, rotating, composting, and mulching, transforming an unpromising clay slab into an intensely fertile garden that left him no alternative but to sneak up to neighbors’ doorsteps late at night and ply them with produce by stealth. His art encompassed any useful and interesting thing that could be rendered in carved wood, ranging from pipes for his own iconic use made from everything from brier to salvaged barn wood, to Appalachian chain carving and caged balls,

IMAG1136

Chain carving from the Bells and Whistles series. Collection of Carl Dyke and Rachel Herrick.

mobiles, finials, tools, knockers, handles, distributed copiously and freely to friends and family, to finally his award-winning abstract sculptures in cedar and walnut. As he did in all his teaching and collaboration, he let the wood speak to him, worked with what it was, and prompted the best of what it brought to their partnership.

Chuck was a huge human being of many parts, relations, and situations. If you knew him, please add to these remembrances in the comments so we can assemble a more complete record of him together.

February 8, 2018

People, bodies, characters

by Carl Dyke

Dyke the Elder recommended a fun book recently, The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen. It’s about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith and I’m looking forward to reading it. As we were talking about it I also thought of the book I’m using as the core text in all of my classes this semester, the Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777 : elucidating the history of that country, and the description of its productions, viz. quadrupedes, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots; with an account of the indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea. By Captn. J.G. Stedman. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings, designed from nature, by the author, 1796. I am not an expert on this text! I’m teaching it so I can learn new things.

As you know, Bob, all sorts of interesting stuff was happening in the late 18th century Atlantic World around the universal themes of freedom, rights, and humanity. And for just as long people excluded from the universe of propertied white men have been pushing back on their degradation to the service of their oppressors. The mismatch between the high pronouncements and glittering achievements of the Enlightenment and the grim practices of the colonial slave economy that financed it is clear enough to us now that it may even seem it was clear to everyone then, too. A book like Stedman’s is interesting because it’s right in the middle of the ideas and practices we’re interested in, but isn’t the product of hyper-elaborated cutting edge high intellection. What did a guy who was pretty much just a guy think about, for example, the personhood of enslaved Africans?

Stedman was an interesting nobody, a low level Atlantic World cosmopolitan born and raised in the Netherlands but identifying as an Englishman, a brevet Captain in a Scots regiment who couldn’t afford to buy himself a higher rank, who shipped out to Dutch Guiana because that’s where the action was for an ambitious guy of talent but little social or economic capital like him.

He was a smart cookie but he was little educated and no philosopher, so it’s interesting to see how he thought about the leading intellectual issues of the day, or rather, how he didn’t. His book was published as an abolitionist tract, complete with gorgeously gruesome engravings of slave torture by William Blake. But Stedman himself was untroubled by slavery, which he mostly didn’t think about, but when he did thought was convenient and patriotic and probably good for the slaves all in all. What bothered him was excessive cruelty in the treatment of slaves, which he reports with outrage and ascribes not just to the Dutch, but to everyone else as well, especially the Jews.

The front matter of the text is full of conventional hyperventilation about his poor literary gifts and the advantages of authenticity and veracity this guarantees. But in the same breath he tells us that

Here, in the different characters of a Commander — a Rebel Negro — a Planter, and a Slave — not only tyranny are exposed — but benevolence and humanity are unveiled to the naked eye. Here the Warrior — the Historian — the Merchant — and the Lover of Natural Philosophy will meet with some gratification; while, for having introduced my private adventures, I must make some apology — but none for those of the lovely Slave, who makes not the least interesting figure in these pages — as female virtue in distress, especially when accompanied with youth and beauty, must ever claim protection.

So are there any people in this text? Well sort of — there are characters, literary abstractions, some of them people-based, some of them (tyranny, humanity, female virtue) more directly concept-based. He certainly elevates the lovely Slave by treating her as a princess and a lady, but does he humanize her? It’s a better character than barbarous Jew, that’s for sure, and also than domestic labor appliance, and perhaps than mere “black body,” as we now say to dramatize the degradation of African humanity within systems of oppression. But characters dehumanize everyone. Her character certainly tells us nothing about her as a particular person nor, as feminist scholars have thoroughly established around the princess and lady tropes in our day, is it likely to lead there. She, whoever she was, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a damsel in distress. And when it turns out from Stedman’s diaries that he purchased her from her mom as domestic help, and abandoned her readily for a proper white wife (who he didn’t get along with and used for socially appropriate reproduction) on his return to Europe, and that he was just routinely having sex with all of the slave women when the mood struck him, there’s just not much human left under the romanticism to have anything like human rights, let alone all of the detail people have.

Compare all this to one of the first stories Stedman tells in the main text, in chapter 1. He’s on the ship taking him to Surinam, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s just told us about some interesting sea birds and gunnery practice.

On the 14th, in the morning-watch, we passed the Tropic, when the usual ceremony of dunking the fresh-water sailors was ransomed by tipping the foremast men with some silver. About this time the Boreas most unluckily lost one of her best seamen, the boatswain’s mate, whose hand slipping by the wet, he pitched from the fore-yard-arm into the sea. His presence of mind in calling to the captain, as he floated alongside, “Be not alarmed for me, sir,” in the confidence of meeting with relief, attracted peculiar compassion, and even caused some murmuring, as no assistance was offered him; in consequence of which, after swimming a considerable time within view, the unfortunate young man went to the bottom.

The next paragraph covers trade winds and dolphins, which he thinks are superficially charming mooches.

Are there any people in this story? There’s the mate, the captain, and the compassionate murmurers. It might be more accurate to call all of these ‘roles’. Presumably the Captain, in his authority, made a cost benefit kind of decision between hauling the whole ship around and losing way vs. losing a boatswain’s mate, and found the latter loss more tolerable. In a split second of responsible decision this fine fellow finds his value, and it’s remarkably low. Glug, glug. Well, right about the same time you’d line up rows of guys like this a few paces apart and have them blast away at each other with muskets until one side or the other broke. Talk about bodies. That was Stedman’s world.

I think it’s fair to say that Stedman had nothing at all resembling an abstract theory of universal humanity, and so the discourse of dehumanization would have made little sense to him. People came in various characters, roles, ranks, types, uses, and situations. He seems to have been able to deal with them accordingly without making any conclusions about their further attributes or qualities, sort of like the Walmart checker and I do with each other. Killing rebellious Negros or any other sort of enemy was fine with him; making them suffer unnecessarily in the process was not. There was a person in those bodies, but for the most part he wasn’t concerned with who that was. In fact across the board, he seems to have thought that wasn’t any of his concern.

December 23, 2017

On knottiness

by Carl Dyke

It occurs to me while I’m out splitting firewood that this is another of those analogies for teaching. Not that we want to hit our students with axes, you understand.

If you have the right power machinery you can do anything you want with a pile of logs, make them any size and shape you need by application of brute force. This seems to be what a lot of people imagine teaching just is. Or marriages, or politics. But if you’re working by hand it’s fair to say that you have to work with the wood. It splits easily along the bias of the grain, whereas you can whack at it forever, make an ugly mess of it, and break both your heart and your ass if you try to cut across the grain.

So learning to read the grain is one of the basic skills of splitting logs (and indeed any sort of craft woodworking). As always the process is noticing, experimenting, and noticing some more. There are patterns and trends among types of tree and you can build a useful database of approaches and strategies out of that. Within those types there’s all kinds of variation down through particular trees to individual logs, ranging from the size and age of the tree, whether it had to cantilever to get to the sun or twist against its own weight, how it got stunted and adapted to the stunting. Branches make the grain flow in multiple directions at once and finding the splitting bias is either a matter of patient experiment or blind luck. Sometimes around lots of branches, injuries, and compensations, the grain is downright turbulent. That’s when it’s tempting to get out the chainsaw.

There are woods like maple and cedar that split so easily you only have to wave the axe at them. In contrast sweet gum, which we have a lot of, has a close, tight, one might even say grumpy grain and splits very reluctantly. You sort of have to work a suggestion of a split for awhile until it almost relaxes into releasing. Sometimes a piece of wood has set into a twist under some kind of pressure, and those will actually explode apart if you find the right seam. With big, tough old logs you kind of have to whittle them down from the outside in. No matter what, you can’t split a log with one blow. It takes a whole series of whacks.

You can split almost any sound log if you come at it right. But if the wood has been sitting outside in the weather for awhile it may have gotten soggy and rotten. You can’t split soggy, rotten wood. Same thing if the bugs and borers have gotten to it. I bust those up a bit and leave them for the chickens to pick over. My analogy may be breaking down a little bit here. I hope so.

Here’s one of my favorite videos. That’s nice splitty wood she’s working with there, but she’s also got this unbelievably skillful technique where she twists the axe slighty just after the moment of impact to pop the wood apart. That’ll learn it!

 

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by Carl Dyke

There’s sort of a general theme here at the blog and in my own approach to teaching, life, the universe, and everything: that complexity is the rule; and that observant, resourceful flexibility, a disposition to learning and the ability to code switch, is therefore strategically desirable.

But we’ve also often discussed another strategy, which is to engineer systems that gear down complexity into mere complication, or even rigorously simple linearity. Under the right conditions this can work very well and get a lot done, although maintaining those conditions is generally very costly and ultimately unsustainable.

As I dig through our oral history project’s Trump rally interviews (I’m working on a longer post that will provide more framing information on this), one of the things that is gradually coming into focus is that the Trump rallyers we talked to were explicitly not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity, and that they all had robust histories in systems engineered for linearity (the military, nursing, library science, factory work) with the dispositions to match.

Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any automatic political valence to this sort of history or disposition. I know plenty of liberals and lefties who are also not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity. Such folk tend to be in charge no matter what. I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a no man’s land between two armies of essentially similar people, fighting bitterly over the details of a narrow, rigid world that I would hate to live in either way.

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by Carl Dyke

I’m forging slowly and painfully through John H. Holland’s Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014). I’m going to recommend it, but it’s tough going for me because Holland comes at complex adaptive systems from an engineering and computer science perspective. The approach is computational, so I would imagine tremendously congenial to Asher and perhaps JohnM. Whereas I can work it out (thanks, John), but it’s way out of my silo. I’m a house painter, not a pigment chemist, Jim. Consider a passage like this, from Chapter 5, which took me about an hour to decode:

To get a more precise view of the routing possibilities for tags, let’s look again at the use of #s to define the conditions for signal-processing rules (introduced at the beginning of Chapter 4). A condition can be set to respond to a given tag by using #s (don’t cares) on either side of the tag; thus the condition #100### … # responds to a signal string with tag 100 at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions of the string. Note that a condition with many #s can accept a variety of tags while a condition with few #s will accept few if any tags (requiring a specific string when it has no #s). Or, looking at tags themselves, short tags satisfy a variety of conditions, while long tags make highly specific requirements on conditions.

“Don’t cares?” Wah? And then he does some tables and stuff to show how the routing and recombination of tags happens, creating emergence. Which normally I’d ignore and wait for the explication in words, only then the words assume I have a basic understanding of how binary works; and although I do, I also kind of don’t. My balls are not making it through the urn gates, if you get my drift.

“If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem [of climate change],” [Bill Gates] said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.”

So as usual I resort to a kind of rough and ready translation, to find enough cognitive overlap with something familiar where I can get a handle on what I’m being told. Which, if I understand correctly (but how could I, given this cludgy workaround), in itself corresponds to what Holland is saying about how information tagging works, and the emergence of something like knowledge. And because of the election and the work I’ve been doing to try to bridge the various discourse communities I interact with, the something familiar I go to is politics.

I’m especially interested in, roughly speaking, the information content of political discourse. I surf a lot of short-form information streams, ranging from domestic and foreign press and commentary (Atlantic, Guardian, Jacobin, Baffler, Breitbart, Red State, etc.) to online affinity groups (Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers) to Facebook statuses. I interview Trump ralliers for my department’s oral history project. I talk with neighbors and friends. None of this is meant to be scientific or in any way dispositive; I’m just grazing.

What I find is that American political discourse seems like it could be usefully analogized to DNA. There isn’t actually that much divergence or diversity of original information. You can get almost anything said by rearranging and elaborating on a few basic concepts like individual, community, threat, and opportunity. DNA is just four proteins, CGAT. That’s plenty. How they’re arranged is what actually does the work, all the way up to thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations (Holland).

There’s nothing new about ‘reducing’ political discourse to unit ideas. Recall George Lakoff boiling American politics down to basic orienting metaphors of the family: authoritarian father and nurturing parent. But those are already speciated information complexes, and as the subsequent commentary has shown, highly vulnerable to complexifying analysis. He’s missing the rearrangement step. It’s like if he said, “Over there you have monkeys, whereas here are the humans.” And because the matter is in motion, just about everyone turns out to be a missing link.

It is unusual for CAS agents to converge, even momentarily, to a single ‘optimal’ strategy, or to an equilibrium. As the agents adapt to each other, new agents with new strategies usually emerge. Then each new agent offers opportunities for still further interactions, increasing the overall complexity (Holland).

 So here is a human interaction I wrote about on Facebook the other day:

I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.

But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.

The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.

It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.

What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.

It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).

So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.

The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),

homelitesuperwiz66003

and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.

OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.

Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by Carl Dyke

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by Carl Dyke

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

June 23, 2015

Bellwether?

by Carl Dyke

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

February 20, 2015

Friendly fire in the war of position

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

October 14, 2014

Bringing the excitement

by Carl Dyke

I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.

It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.

Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.

I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.

OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?