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Why I Teach 25 January 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Teaching.
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The new semester has begun, and as is my habit, I have come back to the question of why I do this. Is it for love or money? In many ways, at a so-called “state teaching university”, where I teach a heavy load in a program that basically services general education (that means: for all intents and purposes, no majors and no grad students), my professorial experience differs from many colleagues, even at my own university. My pre-hire expectations have taken a beating over the past couple years on the tenure-track, both in terms of what my own intellectual life means and what it means to be a teacher in higher education.

I read somewhat glumly PZ Meyer’s post this morning about why he teaches biology. It is interesting to note the different paths that he took as a biologist than I as a social scientist: In the social sciences, you necessarily see yourself as a teacher as well, whereas PZ didn’t see himself as a teacher until after he started his tenure-track job and was slammed into teaching. PZ’s post led me to a couple others, including the original meme on Free Exchange on Campus, which in turn led me to this brilliant post from Dr. Crazy, a community college literature professor.

Reading Dr. Crazy’s post, I was amazed at her (is she a her?) articulation of the main projects of teaching a broad range of students and what they can get out of studying literature, which most of them don’t care about. Although I’m a sociologist, I teach in an interdisciplinary program where I actually have to teach history and humanities in addition to sociology, including a massive freshman level, two-semester course on American culture. In some ways, I feel lucky that I get to branch out into the humanities, into poems and literature and even some music that I love, to get students to engage in questions of meaning that I may not get to in otherwise straight up social science course. In other ways, I regret not having sociology majors, people with at least a minimum level of interest in what I have to offer, people who are sort of junior scholars in my field, exploring the world that turned me on when I was in my early 20s.

So I teach more or less four classes a semester of students who aren’t engaged (in general; there are exceptions) or who don’t care about what I’m teaching. They are there for the basest of instrumental reasons: To fulfill a requirement. One of my jobs, then, is to convince them to care in some way, to entice them to engagement. On good days, I succeed; and it is really a rush. On mediocre days, we get some excitement going and I’m content. On bad days, we barely make it through still liking each other.

Over the first two years of my tenure track, I have slowly been developing a new, more grounded in my actual teaching experience, raison d’apprendre.

a) The Value of a Liberal Arts Education. I have found first that my personality still doesn’t allow me to give up my ideals about education or the material I’m teaching. That is, I discovered last fall that I just cannot give in to the instrumental culture of general education and what my students call “getting a job”. I don’t mean to say that I will spend my career “kicking against the pricks”, as the New Testament says; but rather that I still have to keep my grasp on why I do what I do, even if it doesn’t align with the reasons the students come into my class. I have discovered that I still believe in education as a means to improvement, that knowledge and learning really do afford the chance for students (and myself) to become better people. I still get massive pleasure out of learning, discovery, inquiry, and even argumentation. I still believe that functioning democracies sorely need educated citizens. So on the first day of class this semester, I started by telling the students about the values that drive me to teach, the values that bring me to them each day and why I do what I do. I hope to have started a discussion with my students that, in some way, will continue through the semester, about the value of a university education beyond “getting a job.” Idealist? Yes. But I’m not yet ready to leave behind those ideals. I was relieved that my students actually wanted to talk about this and then excited by the discussion; it seemed to reveal (and this could be wishful thinkingn on my part) that the “getting a job” rationale actually weighs on them and distracts them from learning.

b)  Describing the World as It Is, Part One: Complexity. Here I dovetail with Dr. Crazy and, I’m sure, many other professors. One of my chief goals as a professor is to teach a set of thinking skills. I hear a lot of professors talk about “critical thinking”, but in some ways I have found the way we talk about this as professors to have been detrimental to other aspects of teaching. I have colleagues who argue that as long as their students can “think” at the end of the coruse, they have succeeded. What concerns me is that the process of critical thinking requires to actually have something to think about. The skill does not exist without substance. So first on my list is teaching the students to observe the world and to be able to describe it, as best they can, as it is. This involves teaching them to think stochastically, especially in the social sciences, where any social question is so intricately connected to tens, hundreds, even thousands of other phenomena, that explanation requires a suppleness of perception and agility of language. This is, for me, complexity. I want my students to learn to see multiple causalities and multiple and contradictory effects of any given phenomenon and to be able to explain them.

c) Describing the World as It Is, Part Two: Truth. If you’ll excuse a gross oversimplification, my students come to me either with deeply embedded naive relativism or a deeply embedded sense of Eternal Truth. Both sides of this (false) dichotomy are a challenge to teach. Those who believe in Eternal Truth also usually believe that they already know it. That results in a sometimes intractable teaching situation, where there is no way into the student’s head. On the other hand, those with the Kumbaya naive relativism have two problems that contradict each other but to which they are blind: on one hand, they refuse to judge other cultures, societies or individuals, because everyone is “equal”; on the other hand, they are deeply moralizing and constantly judge people who aren’t like them. It’s an odd contradiction. Ironically, the naive relativists actually treat their world view like an Eternal Truth, so at the end of the day, they all have that same problem. My task is to crack through their assumptions about whatever values they are bringing to the classroom vis-à-vis truth and to get them to start to see truth in a completely different way.  This is a task that I never complete in a given semester, and for most of my students, I think it is a process that will take them well into their adulthood to fully grasp. In some ways, real-life experience will unconsciously lead them here if they’re open to it. But hopefully something we do in class together will move them toward seeing truth as being both still important and real, but also being always contingent and a process. William James said that truth was a verb, not a noun; it’s something that unfolds in time through experience, through learning and interacting; it is not something that can be possessed and held onto once and for all. The reason this is so difficult is because I’m trying to teach them a seemingly contradictory thing: first, the truth is contingent and highly situated and that it emerges out of interaction with the umbworld (the social and cultural environments); but second, that the truth as we know it at any given time is inextricably connected to how we live our lives, especially how we formulate our values and how we act in the world. Just because we may learn something tomorrow that changes truth does not mean that we do not or cannot act today on what we know right now. Indeed, the realities of life necessitate action, and action is always driven by values, and values are already based on the current state of the truth. At the same time, they have to understand that what they think of as true today, might change tomorrow; that what is true for them, may not be true for anotehr human in another time and/or place. My hope is that learning that truth is situated will bring a humility and a care to their declarations of knowledge and to their value formations; and that seeing that they nonetheless have to  act in the world will bring an urgency to getting the best truth possible in any given situation.

d) Value propositions. Arising out of a redefinition of truth comes an awareness of where human values come from and in turn a consciousness of the valuation process. I want to teach students to be aware of their values, and to be able to see where exactly they come from, then to take their best knowledge of the truth at any moment and formulate the best possible value propositions. In otherwords, what I’m trying to teach them is that values are not things-in-themselves, but are always propositions. As such, they are always open to evaluation and scrutiny.

e) Argumentation. Part of what I’m trying to teach is how to make solid arguments in the most basic format: Claim, Reason, Evidence. This goes for all kinds of arguments, from substantive (what, facts, data), to critical (how, why), to interpretative (what does it mean) to evaluative (what is it worth). My hope in the classroom is that building from complexity and truth, as I defined them above, students will be able to make lucid, grounded arguments and at the same time that they will be able to analyze and evaluate the arguments of others.

f) Social. In the end, I have to admit that one of the key reasons why I teach is because I love the students. (With the exception of a few bad eggs and a couple of assholes here and there, that is). I love that time of life when the world is before you and you are free to explore. The trick of my job, however, is that I teach a student body that is driven mostly by the instrumental rationale I discussed above, so I have to awaken that curiosity and openness, that I see as their right to enjoy, in them. It isn’t easy; it can be frustrating; and I fail as many days as I succeed.


Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal 14 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Islam, Journalism, Judaism.
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The more I read the opinions of Ezra Levant, former editor of Canada’s conservative magazine Western Standard (à la Weekly Standard…get it?), the more I disagree with him and nearly all of his wrong-headed politics. However, I stand with him on the issue of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience as foundational to a liberal society and to a functioning cultural democracy. Even if I conclude that he had unethical motives for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed from the Danish magazine, his intention should have no bearing on whether or not he should be free to publish them. The more I see Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech laws” in action (not to mention England’s and Denmark’s and Holland’s), the more convinced than ever I am that this kind of  multiculturalism, although perhaps well-intentioned, when taken in the wrong direction can be a grave threat to liberal democratic values and, ironically enough, cultural diversity itself. Here’s Levant’s opening statement to Canada’s sham of a “human rights” commission in Alberta Canada from last week. Hear! Hear!

How the University Works 10 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary, Teaching.
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How the University Works is an amazing blog by Marc Bousquet, an English professor at Santa Clara University in the south bay, about the gradual erosion of higher education. He pays particular attention to the horrible working conditions of adjuncts around North America (includes Canada), but also addresses changes in tenure and especially how university administrators work. Most of this is stuff I knew already (as I scrape by on my 25K below median income with massive student loan debt and one bankruptcy to my name), but it’s great to get details, numbers, studies, etc., behind my intuition.  He also spends a lot of time on how undergraduates, especially from working class and poor backgrounds, experience their studies. If you care about Higher Education, check this out.

His book by the same name has just been released by NYU Press. Here’s a review of the book from Inside Higher Education.

On Beling a Public Intellectual 8 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary.
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Russel Jacoby’s recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education revisits his 25 year old contention that the American public intellectual tradition is dead. In the 1980s, Jacoby argued simply that the professionalization of academia, the postmodern movement in the humanities, and the publish or perish working conditions produced a huge generations of scholars who wrote for each other in a kind of academic echo chamber instead of for the public. I was in high school at the time and cared more about my long bangs and pegged pants (yes, I was gay then, too) than I did about academia, so his argument was lost to me and perhaps my generation. Responses to his book amounted to, it seems, a bunch of huffy academics stomping their feet and insisting that they were in fact relevant and public (Jacoby notes wryly that no one heard them).

During graduate school in the 1990s, I was introduced to the idea of a public intellectual through cultural theory and cultural studies (which ironically is often in form and content completely anti-public in its obfuscation of the obvious and misapprehension of the most basic of social facts). And as I mentioned a few weeks ago this became something of an ideal for me, to do research and thinking that would somehow matter beyond my narrow social circles in academia. I have since had to temper that ideal because the realities of academic work, particularly of getting tenure, in many ways foreclose the possibility of being a true public intellectual along the lines of, say, Daniel Bell or Kenneth Galbraith (both of whom Jacoby mentions).

I suppose I even started this blog in the hopes of attracting people to think with me and get some of my thinking out there. But the realities of blogging are that it takes a lot of time, it’s highly uneven, my personal posts about hot actors get 80% of my internet hits (I suppose I could create a separate academic blog, which would get no hits at all), and although my intellectual and smart friends do engage with me, it’s basically my small circle of friends. Jacoby argues that in many ways blogging is a further deflection from public intellectualism and that many intellectuals are starting to give up on blogging and go back to writing books and articles.  Intellectually, my own posts are of a lower quality than something I write for publication; I usually write them off the cuff, stream of consciousness style, and the arguments are usually rushed and only lightly evidentiated.

Although I decry the loss of true public intellectuals in American culture along the lines we used toknow before the 1970s, I also wonder if it’s even possible any more. Technology has fragmented our attention, and not even the well-educated among us have the time or patience to follow a long, detailed argument. Professors themselves have teaching loads more than double what they were 50 years ago and have publication requirements that would have made no sense in the 1930s when it was assumed that in general you had to be a seasoned scholar before venturing into book writing.

My own book which will be out soon (I know I keep saying that, but it really is happening this time), despite my efforts to make the prose more accessible, will at best sell 500 copies to libraries and may get skimmed from time to time by a grad student here and there looking at 1960s gay culture.

His sarcasm twinkling, Jacoby ends his article with a celebration of the loss of public intellectuals:

Yet let us accept, for the moment, the argument that humanities departments house more leftists than Home Depot or the police department. Shouldn’t this be something that conservatives celebrate, not decry? Doesn’t this mean that the system works elegantly, not poorly? Are these professors the successors to the last generation of intellectuals? If so, society has successfully insulated them. They inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders. As academic intellectuals subvert paradigms and deconstruct narratives in campus symposia, conservatives take over the nation. Brilliant!

Youtube for Intellectuals…There is hope for the internets 7 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory.
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Big Think is a youtube-like venture that just went live this morning. Big Think posts interviews with leading intellectuals, thinkers, movers, and shakers in American and global culture and then viewers can post video responses, a sort of delay-time video debate, or at the very least, a place for ideas to circulate. I’m thinking this sounds ripe with possibility.

Although I admire the optimism of the founders and brains behind Big Think, I still have some skepticism about how the internet can function to heighten debate and dialogue. Of course, it can’t be much worse than mainstream media, which caters to the lowest-common-denominator as it is. The Internet seems to be a wide-ranging cesspool of everything from scat porn to nazi propaganda to raving bloggers (present company excluded, of course).

On the other hand, because the Internet’s profit structure and raison-d’être are so different from MSM, maybe there is a way that it could function like Jefferson envisioned small-scale local democracies should, within the right parameters. Given the global reach of the Internet, it’s no small irony that I’m saying it could be like small scale democracy: But when a site like Big Think comes along with a particular vision and they set boundaries to create a different kind of online exchange, the potential for democratic and/or true intellectual exchange increases. We’ve  all seen gradual shifts in online interactions already, for example on social networking sites (compare Facebook with the original Friendster, for example, in terms of advertising, layout, openness, privacy options, etc.); or the change in dating sites or chat networks since the late 1990s.

What gives me hope is that people seem to have eschewed the early idea of cyber social spaces as free-for-alls and have begun doing online what they already do in face-to-face interaction: they create actual community dynamics, with boundaries and rules that allow the group to function smoothly and to meet particular ends. (To be fair, ancient bulletin board and newsnet forums used to do this in the early 1990s before the WWW.)

Big Think looks like a promising step toward making an internet space for a more public and engaged kind of dialogue (and more human, in a sense, since it’s video); but with time delay that allows for cooler thinking (hopefully); and perhaps moving the intellectual dialogues that already occur online out of the private or small echo chambers into a larger and more diverse field of views.

Okay, now I’m being overly optimistic.

Here’s Big Think.
And here’s the NYT article about it (sycophantic and slightly patrician in tone, per usual).

[edited for some truly appalling grammar and spelling]

Freedom from offense a human right? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[Sorry for the second question-form post title in less than 30 minutes.]

Last month, the UN’s 3rd committee passed a resolution against the ‘defamation’ of religion. Not surprisingly, the resolution was written and sponsored by Organization of the Islamic Conference, and names Islam as a besieged religion. Regardless, the resolution makes the classic illiberal mistake of thinking that freedom of religion means that no one can criticize you; that if you’re offended your rights have been violated; and that you have the right to do whatever you want to without scrutiny as long as you do it in the name of religion. I’ve waxed long and hard against this issue before, so I won’t belabor the point. I will, however, point you to a great rebuttal of the UN resolution from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an international consortium of humanist organizations):

Universality of Human Rights under Attack at the UN

Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.

Social Privilege 4 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences.
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[Update: My friend Molly corrected the provenance of this meme in the comments section below:]

This is a difficult concept for students to think about, and I alternate between dreading the topic and loving the topic, depending on the class I’m in. Because people are anchored in their own lives, it is difficult for them to see their social power relative to the system as a whole. Here’s a brief “study” being done by some students at Illinois State. I’m highly dubious of the reliability of the data they’ll collect by looking at blog memes (computer literate, bloggers who would answer this particular meme are quite a self-selected and, I would guess, privileged group…so what meaningful conclusions could you draw from these data?). Regardless, it’s an interesting set of questions and issue to think about and follow the standard sociological research about what gives individuals in American society privilege relative to others. From Wry Catcher:

“What Privileges Do You Have?” is being used for a research exercise by students Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you choose to participate, please include this statement so that when they run search engines later, they will be able to locate your entry.

Instructions: bold any statements that are true for you.

Father went to college

Father finished college

Mother went to college

Mother finished college

Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers—yes, by high school; but as Wry pointed out, this is a highly problematic question for a gen-pop survey, let alone a sociologist (i.e., me) who has an overly complex notion of class to begin with.

Had more than 50 books in your childhood home

Had more than 500 books in your childhood home—honestly I don’t know, but I don’t think so

Were read children’s books by a parent

Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18—piano

Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18—I did have flute lessons, but they were through the public school and free, so I’m not counting them

The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively — In general, yes, although American anti-intellectualism runs strong and so there’s a bizarre simultaneous respest and rejection of the academic in the media

Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18

Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs

Went to a private high school

Went to summer camp—I camped with the BSA, but I don’t think that’s what this question is asking

Had a private tutor before you turned 18

Family vacations involved staying at hotels – never that I can remember, other than maybe when moving across the country

Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 — plenty of homemade stuff and I wore most pants and shoes until they were hole-y and threadbare

Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

There was original art in your house when you were a child – My aunt does oil painting and it has meaning within the family, but it was free and worth nothing on the art market, so I’m going to say No.

You and your family lived in a single family house

Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home

You had your own room as a child—well, I was an only child until age 13, so this is a bit misleading as a question unless you get full demographics on me

You had a phone in your room before you turned 18

Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

Had your own TV in your room in High School

Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16

Went on a cruise with your family

Went on more than one cruise with your family

Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up

You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family – I was until I was a teenager and my dad was unemployed…then I became hyper aware of such things; and we were always living on the cusp (although middle class) and so my mother was always quite vocal about the costs of things and our money in the home.