jump to navigation

Approaching Difficult Texts (For Students) 14 January 2011

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
comments closed

I have come up against students recently who are resisting my assigned readings on the grounds that they are “too difficult”. This has been an increasing problem over the past few years, but it’s especially noticeable with texts that I have been assigning for several years, and which have received positive student feedback in the past, but that  are now being met with complaints that they are “too hard.” So I’m trying to design a document that I can give to students when they need some skills or attitude adjustments about encountering texts that they find difficult to read. Very often, I find that students get frustrated with difficult texts and give up, and they usually blame me (I’m a bad teacher) or they blame the author (the author can’t write). Rarely, they internalize the issue as one of their own inadequacy (they think they are stupid). Here is a draft of a document I’m trying to design to address this cultural shift in student attitudes toward difficult reading.


Difficult Texts

There are many reasons we may find a text difficult to read. For our class, which is an upper-division SJSU studies class, here are a few salient possibilities:

• the topic of the text may be new or unfamiliar to you, or may be outside your specialization

• the level of argumentation and evidentiation may be more complex than you are accustomed to dealing with; may be using unfamiliar methods; or may be drawing complex logical conclusions

• the level of the writing may be asking you to stretch and improve or increase your reading skills

Generally speaking, I carefully choose readings for a) topical relevance; b) appropriate level for university students (either upper or lower division); and c) good writing. In AMS-ENVS-HUM 159, I have chosen texts that are exceptionally well written and award winning (both Wade and Diamond). From time to time, I may choose a poorly written article because the contents are so important (and I will usually tell you in class what is wrong with the writing so you can learn from it (e.g., Zuberbühler)). There are a couple poorly written articles in the Agyuman collection, and we can talk about what makes them poorly written in class if you desire that skills discussion.

Faulty or Ineffective Beliefs

I have found that when students find a text difficult, they respond in a handful of unproductive ways that actually hamper and prevent their learning. I have enumerated here the most common problematic beliefs about difficult reading that I have encountered over the past few years.  Most importantly, these are beliefs, habitual ways of approaching the world, that can be changed if you desire to. The unproductive ideas have to be replaced with productive and more empirically accurate ideas. As you read these, ask yourselves which one’s most apply to you and engage in my suggestions for “replacements” to see what you might be able to do. The reward for taking this seriously is the shift in your ability to learn from reading challenging texts.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 1: “I am too stupid to get this text.”

This is a touchy one, but please read me carefully: If this is an idea that pops into your head in my class, do everything possible to immediately counter it with a fact: You are in university; you have already proven your intelligence. A difficult text is not evidence of your intelligence or lack thereof, but of other things entirely. So remind yourself that you’ve already proven your intelligence, and find the real reason why a text is difficult.

Replace with: “This text is about topics which are unfamiliar to me, so I’m going to have to slow down and read carefully and with my full attention to apprehend it. The rewards of doing so are learning and educating myself.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 2: “This text is boring.”

In some ways, this is a personal issue. If you find yourself bored, take some time to figure out where the boredom is coming from. In teaching, I’ve found that there are generally two sources of boredom:

a) It may be that you simply do not care about the topic of the course or of the reading. This can be common in general ed classes where you are fulfilling requirements for graduation. If this is the case for you, I urge you to find a way through your boredom (maybe just focus on successfully jumping through the hoops; or working to find something interesting or relevant to your interests that you can hang on to).

Replace with: “Although I’m not interested in this topic, I will focus my attention on this text for ___ minutes, because I need to know this material for ____.”

b) Often, however, boredom is an indication that you are encountering a difficult text and are feeling the “pain” of having to work to understand a text. If this is the case, please read on.

Replace with“I’m experiencing my discomfort with the difficulty of this text as boredom; that means I need to address directly the difficulties I’m having.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 3: “The author uses big words, when smaller words will do.”

What you’re really saying is that the author is using words that you don’t know. This is not an indication of a bad writer; but an indication that your vocabulary is being stretched and challenged. When you encounter words you don’t understand, work to make your automatic response to reach for a dictionary. Try to avoid Dictionary.com because it’s definitions aren’t very good; I recommend either the Oxford American English Dictionary or the Webster’s Collegiate.  You may also want to keep a running list of words that you learn in your reading.

Replace with: “There’s a word I don’t know. I will look it up in the dictionary, and then reread the sentence to learn a new word and understand the author’s argument.

Note: Sometimes scholars do make a writing mistake, when they write in jargon. Jargon is specialized words that only specialists know; sometimes, scholars use jargon as a short-hand when they are writing for each other. This is actually bad writing when the writing is intended for larger or more general audiences. You will notice, however, that Prof. Ormsbee assigns readings were nearly all specialized terms and concepts are defined in the text. This is not jargon. This is the author using the text to introduce you to specialized vocabulary in the field.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 4: “This text is redundant, repetitious and wordyThere are too many details.

Although there are moments when authors are redundant, generally speaking Prof. Ormsbee is assigning texts that are offering up detailed and thorough arguments. If you find an idea being repeated, it is more often an indication that there is a concept, fact, or issue that is connected at multiple points and is central to the overall argument; it is usually not an indication of a bad writer.

Replace with: “The author is repeating this set of information several times, so it is my job to figure out why that idea, fact, or issue keeps emerging in the text, what is so important about that idea, what it’s interconnection is to the overall argument.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 5: “This work is too long. The author could’ve said the same thing in a much shorter space. There are too many details.”

From time to time, Prof. Ormsbee does assign lengthy pieces that could be edited down; but generally speaking, Prof. O has chosen texts that walk you through a complex and thoroughly evidentiated argument. The details presented by the authors we’ve read in class go directly to substantiating their argument; they explain the details of the research, the argument, the logic, and the evidence that lead them to their conclusions. If you only read the bullet-pointed conclusion, you do not actually understand why we should believe the author’s claims or why the author’s claims are important. If you only read bullet-points, you never learn how to build complex arguments yourself.

Replace with: “The author is spelling out for me exactly how s/he arrived at his conclusions and why his/her conclusions are reliable and important.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 6: “I should be able to read this text quickly and casually and understand its argument easily without working at it.”

Very few people would ever say this out loud, but I find by my experience that this is a common underlying belief of some students. Reflect carefully about your experience with difficult texts, and see if this is a belief that you hold. There are many cultural reasons why we expect texts to be immediately and effortlessly assimilable, but this is a belief that is detrimental to learning. Imagine that what you’re saying is that you learned everything you needed to know by 8th grade (the level most of us can read without having to engage our attention) and that 8th grade level of writing and argumentation is the most complex that anyone should be required to read at. This is detrimental to your learning, your attention, and your retention.

Replace with: I am a university student and am still learning, both at the level of information and facts, and at the level of argumentation and writing. Difficult texts are challenging me to learn new things and approach increasingly complex argumentation and writing. This is part of the learning process.

edited per feedback


Naturalistic Theory of Culture 16 February 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Teaching.
comments closed

I’m constantly working on explaining the naturalistic theory of culture to my students. I have posted on this several times in the past and am still working it out. I want my students to understand both that culture is plastic and context dependent, and that culture is also always embodied and emergent from interaction. My main beef with postmodern views of culture isn’t that they emphasize its contingency, but rather that they often elide the ways that it is connected to the material, biological, obdurate world  that produced it. Often (and I admit that I’m being glib and gestural here), postmodern cultural theory becomes a “nothing is real” stance, mistaking the fact that human culture is contextual and emergent for proof that it is disconnected from the world. Also, the constructivist view (which I am 90% in agreement with) often ends in a cultural determinism which is, for me, as problematic and irksome as a biological determinism. In short, culture is not an independent, self-referential, pure construction; it is rather a grounded, embodied emergent property of the interaction of brains in environments.

I begin my “Nature and World Cultures” course with a three-week crash course in human evolution where I attempt to demonstrate the emergence of the cultured-brain as an effect of evolution, and where I try to give the students the base for seeing at a base, empirical level the ways that minds (what brains do) and the “environment” (i.e., nature) are so connected as to blur into the same thing. My stance here is based on John Dewey’s extended argument in Nature and Experience, but has built from there from my readings in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and from my own empirical research about gay men and meaning.

Here is my most recent attempt to explain to students my conception of a naturalistic explanation of culture. I’m using the word “umbworld” (a back formation from an Old English word) to emphasize that the human environment is both physical/ecological and social (as is actually true of all social species).

At the end of class today, we had arrived at the central thesis of the first section of the course, which is our working theory of culture: its origins, how it works, why it exists, how it changes over time. It is naturalistic (which is a word from philosophy) because it insists that the separation between “nature” and “culture” is a false one. Here are some key ideas that arise from the information we’ve discussed the past two class days.

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature).

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively acts upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

2) Without the obdurate, physical environment (including other humans), our minds wouldn’t exist. Mind (culture) arises (emerges) our of constant, never-ending interaction with the umbworld (which includes nature). And the umbworld itself is emergent, and arises out of the constant interaction with human minds (cultures).

3) The naturalistic theory of culture, then, insists that asking the question “nature or nurture” or “biology or culture” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how our evolutionary biological form produced the cultural brain; how culture is an emergent property of brains in a society; that culture only exists in a body (culture is embodied) and could not exist without a body; that the beliefs, practices, and objects of any individual or group emerge over time in specific umbworlds; that the brain evolved to give a degree of agency over both the umbworld and its own consciousness to solve problems; and finally because culture is inextricably linked to the environment and because the environment is constantly changing, so is culture a necessarily emergent property of the brain, not a thing in itself.

Is there a future for liberal arts education? 20 January 2009

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education.
comments closed

If Stanley Fish and his former student now professor Frank Donoghue are right, there is no future. We are on a train to nowhere, killed by American values and anti-intellectualism.  I really wish I hadn’t read Stanly Fish’s latest missive wherein he traces the history of the slow but steady decline of the humanities. It’s not pretty. But I fear that he is correct.

I think that it’s actually even worse than Dr. Fish predicts: The social sciences are equally underfunded and even some of the sciences, especially biological and theoretical sciences are likewise shrinking and for, in my opinion, similar reasons. Or if they aren’t shrinking, they are moving and shifting to a market instrumentality (e.g., genetics research yes, but for instrumental purposes, not for knowledge or understanding).  

I also think that the switch to an adjunct faculty across the higher education landscape spells the end (eventually) of universities as locales of research and pursuit of knowledge. The contingent faculty (of which I was a part for 5 years; I was one of the very few lucky ones who ever get into a tenure-line position) are both the effect of the diminution of the ideal of “the higher education” and harbingers of its death. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been in those trenches and it is hard work and thankless and low-paid and demeaning on so many levels. But by its very nature, it requires adjuncts to usually teach on multiple campuses and they are nearly always relegated to the very classes that are seen as the basic need for people to graduate (e.g., college writing courses) and not the courses that push forward the idea of yesteryear’s college and university. Adjuncts, no matter how hard they work or try, are outside of the institution that exploits them, and even when they feel they have a stake in their departments and classes, structurally they are excluded from participating in the building of their programs, curricula, majors, etc. And don’t even think about trying to research and publish and keep up in your field if you must commute between three campuses to teach five courses just to make enough money to pay the rent.

I already teach in an environment that is completely focused on results-oriented education (i.e., degrees as qualification for employment, with the budgetary lines a stark reminder of where the institution’s priorities lie: engineering and business).  And I don’t think my experience is unique.

I have read elsewhere and still wonder if really the best future way to organize things is to divide professional education from liberal arts education. My reservation with that, however, is that I firmly believe that people working in business or engineering *should* be deeply educated in the liberal arts as well. America already suffers from a culture of people who think that market instrumentality and personal well-being are the end-all and be-all of their existence.

A Sociological Meme 23 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Social Sciences.
Tags: ,
comments closed

[Updated below]

So I wasn’t tagged on this (which is fine), but read it on the GlobalSociology blog; and since I don’t know any sociologists who blog I won’t be tagging anyone else. But the general idea is pretty fun so any of my readers should feel free to jump on board and try it out for fun.

Pick sentence 6-8 on page 123 of the nearest book, write them down and pass the game on to 5 other bloggers.

From Kwama Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), which I’ve been reviewing for an upcoming lecture on identity politics.

Yet if I and my ‘culture’ are Kokoran [in Esotnia], and I cannot practice my culture on my own, what will Kymlickan ‘multicultural citizenship’ offer me? Is the state to provide me with others from my hometown? Nobody would suggest such a thing, and not merely because of administrative costs.

Huh. Random sentences from a relatively complex, book-length argument, taken out of context are almost surreal, aren’t they?

UPDATE: Per comment below, I hereby tag Wry Catcher, sociologist for The Man. teehee

The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , ,
comments closed

NOTE: This is one of those moments when I’m definitely weilding my “hammer”; but I want it clear that I’m thinking out loud. I know that this can be highly charged and controversial; I’m hoping to invite thoughtful and detailed consideration and dialgue about this issue. As an educator, it is of vital importance to me. Edited for clarity, March 1, 2008.

As a university teacher, I often find students resisting me not at an intellectual level, but at the level of identity. Can I, a gay white male, possibly be an effective mentor or teacher to a Mexican American? An African American? An immigrant from India? A straight man? A Christian? A Republican? Are our identities so incommensurate as to dehumanize us beyond mutual understanding, compassion, trust, sharing, and simple interaction?

Sociologically, I have been trying to understand the racial and ethnic dynamics of identity in California since i moved here, mainly because my own values on the topic are from a typical multicultural perspective: celebrate and respect differences. But I’m also of the first Sesame Street generation, so my mulitculturalism is more liberal than radical, and I find myself saddened that what I experience in here in California isn’t the integrated world I was promised by Bob and Susan when I was a child. Now, everyone’s hybrid/creole/mestizo/mixed, but pretending they’re not, and drawing what feel like ever-tightening boundaries around their various communities, reifying differences (in some cases inventing them) for the sake of difference itself.

I have questioned the practice of multiculturalism on this blog in the past, if not its values; and continue to struggle with the lived effects of multiculturalism as it is practiced here in day-to-day life, and that I see in California’s political, social, and educational life. I wonder if there isn’t a need to revisit the ideas of having a shared identity in addition to all these others, in order for a democratic state to function well and for real communities (with caring, sharing, trust, and participation) to form. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with the huge caveat that I’m saying all of this already assuming for a knowledge of the past, the racism and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government and the travesties of the dominant culture; meaning to say that I’m not naive. I also understand social privilege and white privilege and how it might be informing my position here.

As a sociologist, I can step back and see California’s ethnic identity intensification relatively dispassionately as a confluence of a) a massive proportion of the population of CA is immigrant; b) immigrants already feel beseiged in their receiving countries; and c) American culture’s reification of cultural differences and fetishization of identity. These three factors have produced since the late 1960s–in addition to the old-style “white flight” (not to mention middle-class of color flight) we’re all used to–an intensification of self-ghettoization of immigrant communities, where living in ethnic enclaves has become the desired norm. Californians, when polled, often prefer it (I’m trying to hunt down the cite for this; it’s been a couple years since I read it); Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception). Nearly 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live in California, that is, nearly 1/2 of all people born outside of the U.S. who now live in the U.S. live in CA. [This number was from before 2005, the first year that the majority of Mexican immigrants went to destinations outside of California; I don’t know what the current proportion of total immigrants to the U.S. living in CA is now.]

Immigrants in the past also lived in enclaves, but they were smaller, not constantly fed by new arrivals (in increasing numbers) and they pushed their children to succede in American culture. Most of the civil rights battles of Latinos and Chinese Americans, for example, here in CA before 1970, were about having equal access to the institutions, fair and equal treatment under the law, and about becoming Californian. Now the cultural emphasis is really different: Parents want their children to stay in the enclaves and ‘be’ something else. The civil rights battles seem to have shifted to the right to stay separate, culturally and socially (e.g., the current battles in San Jose over what to name the new “Vietnamese” district). On one hand, I think democratically that the right to free association gives people the right to form enclaves if they want; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the best decision to make; and I’m pretty sure at this point that it serves to reproduce racist discourses by reifying the racist identifications with cultural identities and communal associations, rather than undercutting and eliminating racism, which in my opinion should be our goal.

This gets even more complicated when you look empirically at how the children of immigrants live. In the past, COIs were “bicultural” and could move easily in “American” contexts. The key here is that all indicators are that this trend continues, even in the larger, more permanent enclaves of today. In other words, COIs still integrate into larger American culture. The one differences researchers are noting is that it may take a bit longer and that COIs retain much more of their parents’ native culture, not because of their parents, but because the enclaves are constantly being fed new immigrants with whom they interact. So I see a contradiction in our insistence on cultural difference and identification with those differences, and the empirical realities that the COIs and 3rd gen are relatively completely integrated into American society. What do we get from the values having shifted to emphasizing the identity difference rather than social justice; or to say it a different way, what are the consequences of this shift, where the right to identify as different seems to have supplanted all other older arguments for real social justice in the law, education, housing, etc.

As an illustration: I have many COI students who grew up in an enclave of (pick an) immigrant community, but who listen to the same music as most American kids, speak English with that irritating California terminal upspeak, are mostly secular, follow American sports, watch American Idol, etc.; but when asked if they are American, they wrinkle their noses and say no. They are filipino/mexicano/vietnamese/chinese/etc. So empirically, they are living lives similar to most Americans of their age, but they refuse the identity.

As a teacher, I often see this manifested in a really destructive way among some of my Latino students, for example, who in the privacy of my office have confided that they are going it alone, because their friends and sometimes even their families think that going to college is “acting white” and that they are betraying their heritage by getting an education.

As an educator, these are symptoms of a problem that is troubling to me. If we are at all concerned about the COIs being able to succeed in American society at school and in the workplace and becoming fully participating members of the American democratic sphere, then it seems we need to revisit how we are doing “identity”. Perhaps the model we adopted from the early 1970s, which has gone uninterrogated for the past 35 years, is no longer adequate or working.** I’m not suggesting anything particularly radical here, just that in addition to our identifications with ethnicities, religions and cultures of our immigrant ancestors, we should also be thinking about what we have in common. The fetishization of difference to the exclusion of what we share has made it increasingly difficult for a more desirable kind of multiculturalism to develop.

Because of our (bad) history of ethnic inequality here in California, we are very touchy about “assimilation” and the dynamics of assimilation, so no one wants to talk about how this might be handicapping the children of immigrants. In a freaky (ironic?) sort of way, we have ended up back in segregation land, but through different social dynamics from the segregation of the past. [And this leaves aside the whole issue of social cohesion so necessary in a democracy (see Robert Putnam’s research from last year on how diversity increases social distrust, depresses social/communal participation, and reduces democratic dialogue).] And so how do we re-theorize this new kind of segregation, where racism is still a factor, but a much more complex and multi-directional racism (i.e., not a simply white v. black racism of 50 years ago); and how do we think about where we want to go from here? Is separatism really the only answer, the only way for people of color and COIs to find meaningful identities in America? Is America really that far beyond redemption? Is the Sesame Street (and for that matter, Barak Obama) version of mutliculturalism really just a lie?

**In a larger sense, and too big for this discussion here, I often find that our theories of race and gender are still based on assumptions that worked well in the 1950s and 60s when they were formulated, but don’t match the world we live in now. I think it’s time for a rethinking of our theories of social inequality and stratification writ large.

Why I Teach 25 January 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Teaching.
comments closed

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.

How the University Works 10 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,
comments closed

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.
Tags: , ,
comments closed

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!

What Is a Scholar? 12 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

Reading in the October New Yorker magazine the brief intellectual biography of Jacques Barzun, historian and culture critic, I found myself wondering again, what exactly makes someone a scholar? Is a scholar a teacher or a researcher? Does a scholar retreat to their study to read and think, or is a scholar engaged on the street with the proverbial “people”? Is a scholar a call to a certain ethical kind of life? Indeed, is scholarship a calling at all? If you are a scholar, how should you be spending your days? Do other people have to recognize you as a scholar in order to call yourself a scholar, or is the title “scholar” not something anyone should ever say of themselves, at least not among those who would consider it gauche? Is scholarship pretentious or vital? Does having a Ph.D. make you a scholar or just a wanna be?

Barzun has spent his life reading, writing, thinking, and teaching (he turns 100 this year). Thirty-five books and countless articles later, a popular teacher at Columbia, recognized as an originator of “culture critique” in literary theory, and a champion of a humanistic kind of history (as opposed to the social scientific mode), Barzun seems to exemplify what a scholar is or should be. Some of my favorite thinkers were immensely productive in their first 40 years of life, and most were also teachers.

Perhaps the most glaring exception to this would be William James who spent the first 36 years of his life trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Reading James’ biography this summer, I felt somewhat comforted, not simply because of my low productivity so far, but because he and I share so much in common in our temperaments.

But the academic system of the United States has made scholarship into a job, and I feel more or less like a factory worker: produce bachelors degrees at break-neck speed and in your down time, produce enough scholarship to get you through tenure. The increasing proletarianization of the academic labor force, the loss of funding for public universities since the 1970s, the transformation of the professoriate into a temporary, expendable workforce has created a publish or perish mentality, spoken of in bitter tones by academics even as they work to keep their jobs. Research has become instrumental (and in many cases slipshod), teaching completely rationalized and assessed (the fault, in my opinion, of “scholars” of education who justify their existence by creating nonsensical rubrics for judging outcomes)), and the life of the mind is now a giggle-inducing joke among graduate students and professors alike.

Somewhere around age 16, I decided I was going to get a Ph.D. — I had loved school for as long as I could remember and it seemed like a good way to keep on keepin’ on. I loved learning and exploring, read constantly, soaked up information wherever I could find it. My mission and foray into orthodox Mormonism simultaneously halted my “mindlife” and prepared me for new directions, questions, and insights. But college did as much to squelch my desire to learn as it did to stoke my curiosity. For some reason, much of my schoolwork came to feel like a chore instead of a joy (of course, that had been true in high school as well, but as a teenager I naively thought that was merely an aberration).

Graduate school introduced me to the realities of academic work, as opposed to the sheer joy of learning. There were moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. Teaching, which I thought I would love, proved to be incredibly difficult. My 2nd year teaching Western Civilization, I had a class of students who had waited to take their requirement until they were seniors and so thought they knew the course material, and resisted every single thing i tried to teach or do in the classroom. I had serious doubts about becoming a teacher at that moment. Despite that roadblock I decided to continue in my quest to become a university professor.

As an undergraduate, I imagined my professorial life to be one of reading a lot, and having animated conversations with curious students. I imagined thinking important thoughts and writing them down. I imagined arguments and debates with other impassioned scholars.

Graduate school introduced me to the idea of the “public intellectual”, and I began to think that perhaps my research and thinking could actually help people, change the world. I knew that it was naive and idealistic, and yet I still secretly harbored the hope. I also found a great deal of satisfaction in teaching, and thought of it as opening minds and engaging with bright young people who inspired me.

Now two years into my tenure-track job, I find I’m in a place of disillusionment. It’s a weird place to be when I knew much of this coming into the position, having been told by mentors and friends what being a professor is “really” like. Yet actually living it is somehow more bracing and upsetting than merely being told about it. I teach in the largest public university in the United States, guided by a legal dictate from the 1960s to offer undergraduate education to (I think) the top 30% of all California’s high school graduates. The CSU has to fight for minimal funding every single year, but pays its administration at the system-level absurd amounts of money and benefits with no transparency (Arnold Schwartzenegger just vetoed the bill that would’ve made executive pay in the system transparent and accountable). Student teacher ratios continue to rise, as does the ratio of courses taught by temporary, part-time faculty vs. full-time, tenure-track faculty (if I’m not mistaken, a majority of our courses are now taught by temp workers). The preparation of students coming in is often well below what is necessary to succeed in a university. The teaching load, which was reasonable before the publish-or-perish model of tenure, is now crushing if you want anything resembling a research program, which ironically you must have in order to get tenure (specifically, 2x the teaching load of the UC system, significantly lower pay, but 1/3 of tenure is still based on research). The relative comfort of tenured professors who bought houses in the 80s when you could still buy a home on our salary combined with a tight and deeply conservative institution makes institutional inertia almost a given. Like professors all over the country, I’m disheartened by the depth of apathy in many of my students.

In short, my idealism about being a scholar has been crushed. I’m not saying this to whine or complain (although I’d really appreciate making a more liveable wage for the bay area). Rather I ask the question: Given the realities of higher education in the United States today, and my particular experience in my tenure-track job, what does it mean to be a scholar? Is scholarship the privelege of a select few at Columbia University? Or is it a thing of the past? Are there no places left where curious students and excited professors talk, argue, engage, and stimulate each others’ minds? Do you have to quit academia to be a scholar at this point? Is a university truly nothing more than a factory producing credentialed workers for the economy?

In many ways, these are personal questions. I have to figure out what, if any, of my old ideas of having a “life of the mind” (before the phrase made me scoff) I can salvage; in what ways might I still, in a more realistic sense, be a “public intellectual”? Given the expectations and values of my students, what should my expectations be of them and of my life as a teacher? Should I have a reasonable expectation of being able to research and write throughout my career, or is that something I need to modify? For someone who has felt that scholarship was his vocation since he was 16 years old, these are not trifling questions. John Dewey argued that a good philosophy is one that meets the world where it is. This can be painful and difficult if you still find yourself attached to the old philosophy, one built on values that still resonate in your core world view.

Evolution, Religion, Biology and Social Science 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Biology, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Social Sciences.
comments closed

I’ve written several times here about whether or not I think religion is evolutionarily adaptive. A friend of mine referred me to a recent critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion written by David S. Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson is famous for his theorizing of the evolution and adaptiveness of human religion, and he is a compelling evolutionary thinker. I find myself having many of the same problems with Wilson’s writing about social phenomena that I do with many other scientists: In a nutshell, why do individuals trained in biology think that they are qualified to talk authoritatively about society and culture? It is especially ironic, considering how biologists get all cranky when physicists, chemists, engineers, or medical doctors (or for that matter, social scientists) purport to know about biology.

Christopher O’Brien, an archaeologist/anthropologist and one of my favorite science bloggers. He recently posted a great discussion of why biology is so complex, and why it’s irritating in the extreme when engineers and medical doctors speak as if they have authority in biology (emphasis mine):

[Richard Dawkins wrote] If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as the physics books say it should; then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird into the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away and may not touch land this side of the county boundary.

We can explain the dead bird completely in relation to physics. But the live bird we must explain not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also anatomy, physiology, zoology, ecology, ethology, paleontology, geology, and a host of additional disciplines. The explanation for living things (what they do and why, how they live and why, where they come from and why) is more complicated than any nonliving system. (I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase – so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology – but don’t tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems.

I would never say that Wilson or Dawkins should not explore social or cultural issues or phenomena, merely that they should do so humbly and with care. And please with at least a nod of acknowledgment to the 1000s of men and women for the past 150 years who actually have expertise in studying human culture. So after reading Wilson’s review of Dawkins, and being admittedly intrigued by his discussion of evolutionary theory, I came away with that exact same feeling about Wilson that I often do with biologists and evolutionary psychologists who are studying social phenomena.

First, I agree completely with Wilson’s critique of Dawkins refusal of group-level selection. Papa D is an amazing thinker and at that gene-level thinking, brilliant. But like Wilson says, he misapprehends group-level selection completely. [I liked the article’s explanation of the history of the idea of group selection in evolutionary biology.] But the problem in talking about humans is that group-level selection is the consensus norm among anthropologists. And there’s an entire body of research into human evolution that basically demonstrates clearly that many if not most of the selective pressures on human evolution come from the social environment, that is, the adaptation of the individual to the social group. Anthropologists have been working on this for decades, and the state of the field is a brilliant synthesis of the ways that human complex sociality co-evolved with cognition, bipedality, enephalization, and language. When I read a couple of biologists having this arcane argument, while there’s an entire discpline that’s been working on this stuff for years and years, it makes them seem oblivious.

2) On a purely evolutionary level, Wilson is right that to evaluate religion as a trait means to see it as adaptive, maladaptive, or as a spandrel (the result of genetic drift or the accidental byproduct of other adaptations). Where he and I part ways, however, is twofold. First, his approach to human culture belies an overly simplistic view of how cultures work (not surprisingly) and an ignorance of the social sciences. Second, I disagree with his conclusions about the adaptiveness of religion. This, however, is a normal part of these kinds of dialogs, and it’s less a critique than simply my read of the evidence. Wilson believes that religions are, group-selectively, adaptive. I think the social scientific data don’t support that conclusion.

Social scientifically, religion must be seen in interaction with all other aspects of culture, for religion is, simply, a subset of culture. It moves through time in much the same way as other kinds of culture *except* for its “otherworldly” aspects. Wilson’s argument makes short shrift of the otherworldly, saying that evolutionarily the only thing that matters is what it causes people to *do*. Unfortunately, this undercuts his entire argument by willfully ignoring the complexities of where human culture comes from, which includes not merely observable behavior, but the experience of qualia and the cognitive-rational processes that undergird the behavior, and how all of these things interact to change over time.

Indeed, when religion is taken in its whole form, including its experiential as well as cognitive aspects, you get much more complicated views of how it works, and you are prevented from drawing too-easy conclusions about its adapativeness, because you have to see it interacting with all other aspects of the culture and you must account for the side of religion that is an experience of the individual.

In sociological terms, where Wilson ends up is with religious functionalism: what role does religion play in the social group. This made me laugh out loud when I read it, because this is literally an idea that’s about 130 years old in sociology, and Wilson presents as if he’s discovered something new. Social functionalism, however, at least in the way Wilson frames it, is about what’s “good for the group.” In other words, Wilson’s framework relies on the non-human biological group-selection frame. For humans, however, and I would argue for most other social organisms, at the raw level of adaptability it has to do not with the good of the group (or at least not baldly so), but rather with the adaptation of the social group to itself and of individuals to the group. Anthropologists have book length explanations of how human social complexity arose for species survivability, and how that pushed the co-evolution of our brains to handle complex social interaction.

[To be fair, Wilson’s functional conclusions, that religions are practical and that new ones form when old ones don’t work, are spot on. They just date back to Durkheim, and probably even Comte before him. This is hardly a revelation. And so it is only a “transformation of the obvious,” as Wilson calls the shift from seeing religion as non-functional to functional, to someone who is ignorant of the hundreds of years of social science about this topic.]

Why I disagree that religion is adaptive:

First, religion acts in conjunction with many other aspects of a culture to produce the positive group effects Wilson describes. In other words, the kinds of cohesiveness he sees (with the Jains, for example) is common in all kinds of cultures, religious or not. Second, his use of ESM as a source for understanding how religion effects the relative happiness and integration of individuals is fascinating and I can’t wait to look it up; but as Wilson points out, ESM is limited in that it cannot explain the differences between religious and non-religious to a degree that would satisfactorily demonstrate emotional adaptiveness of religion. It is, at best, suggestive; and incidentally, it’s also contradicted by numerous social-psychological studies into the relative happiness of atheists.

But more importantly, I simply find the evidence of the cognitive psychologists when combined with the work of paleoanthropologists to be far more convincing. By ignoring the “otherworldly” experience of religion, Wilson’s hypothesis ignores the main question: of all the cultural solutions to group cohesiveness (and there are many), why is religion among the most powerful and widespread (basically universal among humans)? The cognitive science work seeks to answer that question (I’ve covered this ground in other posts, so I’ll be brief here):

Human brains co-evolved with complex social interaction, in a beautiful dance between gestation length, energy expenditure on brains, encephalization, energy expenditure on child care, and social hierarchy. The older mental process of working in the physical environment (our innate physics, if you will) has combined with our more recently evolved mental process for dealing with complex social interaction (our innate sociality) to create an overlapping cognitive space where our understanding of cause and effect (physics) interacts with our need to impute intention in interacting with other humans (sociality). In studies done of atheists, even they fall easily and unthinkingly into a mode of thinking of imputing intention where none exists. Cognitive psychologists call this “hypertrophic social thinking.” Our hypertrophic sociality, which enables interaction in complex groups, also makes us extend our theory of mind outward from the body, so that we both experience our own mind as being separate from our bodies and we then infer that others’ minds are also separate from their bodies. Again in studies done of atheists, even they, when they aren’t thinking carefully, impute intention and existence to dead things (even inanimate objects!).

Wilson all but rejects this evidence, claiming that it is merely the building blocks upon which adaptive religion is built. But the cognitive science has taken a giant step toward answering *why* religious culture as opposed to other cultures in creating the cohesive function that Wilson describes, and why religious culture is *universal* among humans.

In the end, Wilson’s functionalist answer for group-level adaptation falls apart for me on the grounds that while religion is sufficient to create the cohesive result he finds, it isn’t necessary. That is, other cultural formations have the same effect.

So we are left with the original question, is religion adaptive evolutionarily?

With all this evidence, I fall to the side of seeing religion as a spandrel, a byproduct of the evolution of our social minds. The effects of religious culture overlapped with culture more generally, producing group cohesion, necessary in a species so radically dependent on each other for survival. It was only adaptive in the way that culture generally is adaptive; but as a specific kind of culture, one tied to otherworldly experience, it is evolutionary neutral. I have to agree with Dawkins on this one point: Religion is on the verge of becoming maladaptive, by which I mean that religion by its nature, according to Wilson’s own research, is about drawing group boundaries and defining social relationships, so in a world of increasing pluralism, a level and degree of pluralism our species has never known before, those kinds of rigid group boundaries will increasingly lead to violence and I fear group extinction — that is, maladaptation to the social environment.

So after reproducing (badly) the work of 135 year old sociology, Wilson ends up with the wrong answer to the evolutionary question.