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Approaching Difficult Texts (For Students) 14 January 2011

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

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.
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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.
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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.

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.

What Is a Scholar? 12 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
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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.

Orthodoxy, Belief, Cynicism, and Credulity 8 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, American Pragmatism, Ethics, Religion, Teaching.
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I’m teaching a course about Nature and Culture this summer, and I’m in the middle of the first section which gives the evolutionary psychological background of the origins of human cognition and, by extension, culture. I take a naturalistic approach to social theory, and this is my favorite class that I teach right now because I get to bring that to the fore in the content of my class.

For the most part, my students in California are at least liberal and very often secular, but California has a solid conservative religious community, and in the central valley, a large evangelical community. In my classes, I’m as likely to have religiously conservative Muslims and Hindus of various stripes  as I am Christians, and this term I have several students who are extremely uncomfortable talking about human evolution. So far, we have only covered the basic theories of human physical evolution, but on monday we will do the evolution of mind and then on wednesday we will move to culture and, problematically, religion.

As a professor, I find that some of my basic  personality traits are in conflict. I have always been the kind of person who refuses to take anything on face value, I question authority (I did a lot of eye-rolling throughout my teens and twenties), and I personally believe in open-minded exploration of ideas. However, as my intellectual career has progressed, I have come to accept the basic tenets of scientific method (in the broadest of senses) and that credulity is merited by substantiated claims. Watching my students sit with their arms crossed, refusing even to take notes as we talk about evolution, and then hearing them assert their independence of mind in the hallways during break (summer courses are 3.5 hours long, so I give a couple of breaks), or reading their papers where they disengage from rational discourse and simply assert their right to believe anything, I find myself frustrated by the lack of credulity.

Have I become “The Man”? Am I now just an old fart, stuck in my ways? Has my mind closed? Or have I simply become a stereotypical professor where, god damn it, I’m right and everyone who disagrees can go fuck themselves?

What is the relationship between what I consider to be a moral obligation to the truth (small-t, because I believe “truth” is contingent, a process, an end-in-view) and the ethical stance of freedom of conscience. In a public sphere, this is easy. I make my argument and if you disagree and even after examining the evidence still don’t believe, you can walk away and I never have to see you again. But as a teacher, do i not have more of an ethical responsibility to my students? Obviously, I can’t make them believe; indeed, the classroom is not a place for orthodoxy and I would never want that. But have I failed as a teacher if even after having taught them how to think (how to analyze and critique data and generate theories), and after I have presented the evidence and the state of the field theories, the students still refuse to believe?

Orthodoxy is a scary to me, probably because of my experience growing up Mormon. Orthodoxy is a relatively new development in monotheisms that a requirement of belonging to a community is that you have to believe in a particular set of ideas, dogmas, tenets, or interpretations. It used to be that most monotheisms were orthopraxic, that is, that what the community cared about was that you practiced the rituals and behaviors of the community. Generally speaking, the reformation and enlightenment in Europe (Christianity), sectarian splits in Judaism in the 18th and 19th century, and modernization in the Muslim world over the past 300 years or so changed that, so that religions now require belief for salvation. The result has been an inward turning of the control mechanisms, so now instead of just having to control what adherents do, religions have to control what adherents think and believe, and monitor membership based on those thoughts and beliefs. because of my experience in mormonism, with its “testimony culture”, i’m hyper-sensitive to dogma now.
Orthodoxy in Academia would be detrimental to the process of learning. And yet there are orthodoxies within academia nonetheless. When plate-tectonics were introduced to geologists, people lost their jobs and were laughed out of meetings. Of course we all know plate-tectonics are true now, but it was extremely controversial at the time. When E.O. Wilson presented his theories of sociobiology in the 1970s, he was protested, booed off the stage, even received threats of violence. Luckily he already had tenure. Today, although social scientists are still less friendly to his ideas, that bodies and culture interact is pretty much taken for granted.  I recently had an article rejected for publication, and the reasons given were, in my opinion, basic orthodoxies concerning method and content.

Perhaps I am an idealist. Coming from my immersion in Pragmatism, I see the search for truth as a lifelong, noble cause. And I see it as a never-ending process, a goal never fully achieved; but I also see that ‘truth’ exists as we currently understand it and so the truth we have now is good enough to work now, even though it will change tomorrow. So I also believe in credulity where credulity is merited. I believe in being skeptical, requiring evidence and reason for belief; but I believe that cynicism is ultimately detrimental to the entire process of knowledge-seeking.

Whereas I used to find myself in a sort of knee-jerk way questioning everything and refusing to believe anything, in my old age (and probably as a result of my education), I have come to believe that there are things that are true. Maybe it’s from having to teach somewhat coddled children of baby boomers, but I’m tired of knee-jerk incredulous reactions, as if refusing to believe is an end in itself. The refusal of orthodoxy should manifest as a constant openness to new ideas and new evidence. What I find in some of my students is not open-mindedness and a spirit of exploration and discover, but rather an egocentric cynicism, a willful refusal to believe for the sake of not believing, as if refusing to believe anything were itself a sign of their intellect and moral superiority. [I’m speaking of one trend among my students; not how they all act. The most common attitude among my students is simply apathy.]

So now I find myself in the odd and, given my personality and personal ethics, uncomfortable position of getting angry when I present evidence and solid argumentation for a position, and people (i.e., students and colleagues) decide simply not to believe. I know that I don’t want orthodoxy, but I do think that replacing orthodoxy with cynicism is not the right answer. There are times and places and circumstances where credulity is required, namely when the evidence and reason warrant it.

Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
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After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.

There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.

The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.

Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.

I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.

For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?

Catching Up 20 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Evolution, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Political Commentary, Politics, Religion, Secular Humanism, Teaching, War & Terrorism.
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Wow, since I’ve been out of the blogging loop, so much has happened, I don’t think I’ll be able to catch up. So here’s a roundup of the things that have interested, fascinated, horrified and angered me over the past few weeks (in no particular order, other than how they popped into my head):

1) The Foley Affair: The man is a creep, not a pedophile. The Republicans have no shame, playing on pedophiliphobia (to coin a word) and homophobia for their own spin needs. It appears they have failed, however. I have no sympathy for closeted public officials who use their power and self-hatred to oppress gay people.

2) Outing Closeted Republican Politicians and Staffers: As many elsewhere have noted, there is nothing wrong with the outing of public officials. The only reason you could think outing was wrong is if you accept the premise that being gay is shameful or wrong in some way, which it is not. Although I’m more sympathetic to private individuals, elected officials have no excuses or expectations of privacy on this matter.

3) Legalizing Torture and Creating a “Unitary Executive”: Where were the riots? Where were the protests? My students didn’t know this had happened and didn’t care. Why are Americans asleep on this issue? This is exactly what the anti-Federalists were afraid of back in 1789: An Executive would become a King. Meanwhile, we have become what we used to hate.

4) 650,000 Dead Iraqis: Although I think there may be some problems with the methods of this count, the point isn’t missed: Iraqis are suffering immensely under our efforts to “save” them. We must look at the consequences of our actions as a nation, and rethink them immediately. The solution we tried didn’t work (duh). Time for a new one.

5) Military Coup in Thailand: You cannot defend democracy from a corrupt Prime Minister by overturning the democracy.

6) Nuclear Bomb in North Korea and Bush’s Dissembling Remarks: Why did we attack Iraq? Why was one of the first actions of the Bush administration’s foreign policy machine, early in 2001, to cut off talks and withdraw an agreement with North Korea?

7) Reading, The Working Poor: Shipler’s book, a couple years old now, does an amazing job of painting the complex matrix of circumstances, personal choices, and social institutions that work to keep people on the bottom of our society on the bottom of our society. Without waxing overly sociological, he uses the research and brilliantly conveys the lived experience, the oppressive conditions, the physical and psychological effects of poverty. And he concludes by excoriating the right-wing view of government and it’s effect on tens of millions of people’s ability just to live in the United States.

8 ) Reading, The Trouble with Difference: I’ve been personally struggling with the effects of some kinds of multicultural theory and practice lately, as it seems to me that our focus on “cultural diversity” as an end-in-itself has actually led us to ignore real inequalities around us. Michael Benn Walter’s little book makes this argument eloquently (although sometimes lacking in what my sociologist brain requires: evidence) and powerfully. I’ll do a whole post on this book later this weekend.

9) The Economics of Working in Higher Education, or I Need a Raise: I realized yesterday that because of the funding of my University and the contract for faculty, I would be at this pay scale for 5 more years, with probably no cost-of-living increases (joke) and no merit increases (eliminated from our contract) and only a minimal raise when I get tenure (6%, I believe). That means I’ll be living like a graduate student for the rest of my life. In material terms, I’m starting to question if my 8 year ordeal to get a PhD and secure a tenure track position was really worth it.

10) England’s Total Misunderstanding of the Principle of Free Speech, or How Wrong-Headed Versions of Multiculturalism Will Fuck Us If We’re Not Smarter than the Brits: First, they throw an anti-gay bigot in jail for distributing anti-gay pamphlets; then they throw out a gay police association’s advertisement out because it was “mean to christians”. How could people in the land of John Stuart Mill have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the freedom of speech?

11) Michigan Rejects Intelligent Design: Hooray!

12) Teaching the Evolution of Mind to Freshman Science Majors, or How Can Freshmen in University in California Be So Clueless about Human Evolution?: A guest lecture this week went very well, as I tried to explain in 50 minutes the naturalistic theory of cultural evolution. What I wasn’t prepared for was a group of science majors who had no clue about the basics of evolutionary theory and how scared they were as I talked about “human ancestors” in trees and starting to walk upright and growing big brains. Surreal experience of the inadequate K-12 science education.

13) Nobel Peace Prize for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh: I have always been sharply critical of capitalism in general, because of the social, human costs of an unfettered market. But in my old age, I’ve moderated a bit, to start thinking about how capitalism might be controled and used (I’m adamantly opposed to Market Fundamentalism and Laissez-Faire) to create the wealth necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering. The market is powerful, but not all-mighty. And so I was fascinated by this idea of “microcredit”, giving loans to small entrepreneurs in Bangladesh instead of large donations to often-corrupt governments in the developming world. Building a successful middle-class is a key part of democratization, because you have to have a social base of people who feel they have a stake in the society before they can have a participatory democracy.

14) Why I Have a Crush on Olbermann: Listening to him eloquently and bluntly thrash George W., & co., just makes me horney, baby.

15) Anti-gay Violence: Man Lured to His Death in New York: There seems to be a sudden spurt of anti-gay violence around the country these past few months, and it’s starting to piss me off.

16) The New Virginia Ballot Proposition that Would Ban All Legal Rights for Same-sex Couples: You not only have to outlaw same-sex marriage, but you also have to prevent all same-sex couples from having any legal arrangements or contracts with each other at all? What the fuck is wrong with America?

17) A Series of Rapes in the Castro: The anti-gay violence comes home, as a series of three brutal attacks on gay men in the Castro followed by sexual assault. The press and police keep talking about how baffled they are by a group of straight men raping men. That is just ignorance. Men have been raping each other for thousands of years, because it’s about power and humiliation. This is not a new kind of hate crime against gay men; it’s just that we now live in a society where we can actually talk about it in public. And in England they punish the gay policemen for saying that anti-gay Christians are legitimizing anti-gay violence?

18) Dissension in the Ranks of the ACLU and a Turning Point for What Has Been the Most Important Civil Rights Watchdog Group in American History: The dissenters are right to criticize the current board of the ACLU and to demand the open dialogue and disagreement that has been the hallmark of the organization until recently.

19) Mirror Neurons Are Cool: Don’t have much to say here, as I’m just learning about them. But they are fuckin’ cool.

20) Will Stephen Pinker and George Lakoff Please Stop Pissing All Over Each Other? Yeah, Lakoff is kinda a hack; but Pinker makes claims way beyond what’s warranted by his evidence. I’m just irritated at what seems to have devolved into a pissing match, instead of a constructive argument. This reminds me of some of the more irritating exchanges between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould re: punctuated equilibrium.

21) Rethinking Sam Harris’s Book and Richard Dawkins’ Rationality Meets Salon’s Effort at Being “Provocative”—Dear God, I’m Tired of Religion: At first, I thought Harris’s book was overly simplistic, but as I’ve digested his argument over the past year, I’ve come to agree. Religious moderates must take responsibility for their part in making fundamentalism acceptable. And Dawkins’ interview in salon about his new book made me want to slap the interviewer.

Death 19 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Teaching.
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One of my students was killed in a car accident last week.  I found out through a phone call from his sister.  It’s early in the semester and so I didn’t know him very well yet, but I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut.  I think many of us educators have unconscious paternal connections to our students, and for some reason this feels really personal to me.  My thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends today.

When I was religious (a lifetime ago) I had all kinds of pat answers for why death happens and what it means to die.  It’s been years since I believed any of that, and now I find myself left with the anger at the caprisciousness of the world.  It is no wonder that we spend our lives seeking meaning out of the senselessness of birth and death.

But the connections are real, even if they are fleeting and tenuous, and when one of us dies, it’s an inevitable loss.   It’s more than just being reminded of my own mortality; it’s about all Kris had ahead of him, the promise of a life denied.