You And What Army?

Perhaps “check your privilege” is just a form of in-group signalling, a move that distributes discursive power between people who see themselves as belonging to the same social and political community. It functions as a kind of progressive Robert’s Rules of Order, a relatively impersonal way to nudge or remind someone to stop dominating conversation or leadership.

The rhetorical use of “ally” operates very similarly. It comes out of a deep history of critical attention to the way in which whites, men, straights, abled or white straight abled men consistently grab the reins of political and social struggles for racial, gender or sexual equality and justice. Often unintentionally or unconsciously. The ways that space and power are ceded to dominant actors are often equally unconscious, evidence of the persistent power of stereotypes and discrimination. The reminder to be an ally is meant as a kind of habitual reminder against those tendencies, a sort of struggle checklist. Who is speaking to represent what a group or movement wants or is doing? How was it decided that they should speak? Who is claiming to represent what a group or constituency want or think? Those are always valid questions, and if a movement concerned with what’s being done to people of color or to women or to queers, etc., always finds that the answers are “somebody else”, then that’s a problem.

Uncomfortably, however, ally is sometimes used more expansively, in several ways. For one, it seems to me that sometimes the people who are most likely to police a debate or movement by asking some participants to recede into ally status are themselves people who ought to be “allies” in that circumstance. It’s very likely that in regular reading of progressive conversations in social media you will come across many examples of white straight men or women telling other white straight men or women what it means to be an ally and what the content and appearance of proper ally behavior in the conversation at hand ought to be. This is at least an intervention that begs for a self-reflexivity that it often lacks.

For another, without a fairly careful and historically self-conscious use of the idea, talk of allyship sometimes seems to function as a kind of in-group manipulation of eager outsiders who want to hang out with the in-group. A sort of progressive rushing of potential pledges, with some being sent off to the equivalent of a social justice Delta House. The point of reminding people about being allies is to not speak on behalf of groups or causes, to not anoint themselves as representative speakers without a representative structure for making decisions. The objective is not to produce a state of fawning dependency in someone who is essentially seeking a merit badge or other acknowledgement of their personal virtue.

More importantly, however, is that there is another meaning to “ally” that is strategically important to any group pursuing political or social change. The question in this case is not the distribution of power or authority within a group, but about what groups, institutions or causes require to make strategic gains, to achieve their goals.

“Ally” even in the sense of trying to be mindful of authority within a loosely progressive coalition or group is also a move that insists on at least the necessity and vitality of organizing struggles in terms of identities. Even if you invoke intersectionality, those identities tend to resolve into discrete, structured forms. There is a huge body of scholarly and political writing on identity politics, essentialism (strategic or otherwise), new social movements and so on, and I won’t try to laboriously navigate my way through it all. I don’t quite agree with the sort of left critique that Walter Benn Michaels and others have offered that puts class or economic inequality out there as the important and “real” issue. It should be apparent that I have my doubts about the wisdom of many forms of identity politics, but I would hope in some sense to be enough of an ally of sorts to say that their pursuit is not for me to say yes or no to: the strategic decisions involved are properly vested elsewhere, in other people and other communities.

The point where I and many others enter the picture, with whatever sympathies and knowledge we may have, is when groups, communities or institutions are not by themselves and of themselves sufficient to achieve their goals, protect their practices, or satisfy their needs. Some political and cultural projects don’t need allies or have very parsimonious requirements largely aimed at securing or protecting otherwise sufficient existing practices. Even in this case, the important thing to understand is that “ally” necessarily means someone who is not part of the group and does not share its direct interests or outlook.

Whether political and social actors need few allies or many, they have to think clearly about three things: 1) the instrumental goals that require allies; 2) which allies and why; 3) and what those allies need or want as the price of their support. If there’s no difference between supposed allies–same struggle, same fight–then they’re not your ally. They are you. If they are an ally, they’re not you, and don’t have the same interests and goals that you do.

If I can accomplish an important goal of mine entirely on my own, I will. Of course I will. Who wouldn’t? If it’s a goal that others seek in exactly the same fashion, again, why wouldn’t we just accomplish it if we could? If you can mobilize enough power to overwhelm or ignore any divergent or opposing interests, why not do so?

If we need allies, what we’re doing is recognizing first that there are people who do not share our goals entirely but who may support some of our goals. Second we’re recognizing a limit to our capacity or to our power, that we can’t do it on our own. It may be that one of our goals is to live in a world where there are other groups with other goals, of course. In fact, that’s almost necessarily true if we expect anyone to be our allies except in the most brutally cynical sort of Molotov-Ribbentrop sense: if we look for allies and don’t expect to betray or dispose of them at the first opportunity, we believe that our own goals are compatible with other goals, and our goals are thus limited or constrained in their scope. So third, you are recognizing that other groups and other people have different goals and needs that are at least tolerably distinct or divergent from your own, and that you can not only live with but support the difference between you and your ally.

That’s of course why talking as if you don’t need allies, as if you’re already sufficiently empowered, when this is absolutely not true, is such a bad strategic move. There’s very little reason for allies to join your cause if you’ve preemptively dismissed the need for such allies, or displayed contempt for the ways in which their priorities and needs may diverge from your own.

Perhaps many movements don’t think very clearly about alliances because doing so sometimes means that they come to discover that their own group is not the hero of the story or the prime mover of change. Sometimes thinking clearly about alliances means they discover that they are the ally to some more powerful or coherent institution or cause. Sometimes thinking clearly means they have to recognize that they don’t even know what they want or how they’re going to get it, or what the minimum necessary costs of an alliance might be. Sometimes, at least for progressives, they end up recognizing that a lot of muddled assumptions about the social coherence of the left are unwarranted. That’s precisely why many progressive coalitions have the half-life of Rutherfordium. Too many people want to just demand alliance and not enough people want to think about the ways that successful alliance requires suppressing or deferring or modifying some aspect of their own goals and needs.

Another part of Grasping the Nettle.

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An Ethic of Care

There’s an odd thing about privilege-checking as it has evolved into a shaming slogan, a sort of taunt. Shame only works if the target has an internal sense that the moral argument of the shamers is valid, or if the shamers reflect an overwhelmingly dominant social consensus such that it takes an iron will to refuse to be shamed.

But “privilege” as a concept essentially takes its cues from a deep body of pre-existing social theory and social history that dissects the origins and continuing maintenance of inequality. Much of that body of theory argues that in some fashion or another, inequality is functional to the individuals, groups and institutions that sustain it, that it is the product of self-interest. Part of the point behind that general argument is to aggressively dissent from other bodies of theory that see inequality as the natural outcome of meritocracy, competition, or intrinsic pre-existing differences between human beings, to argue instead that inequality has a history and is an active creation of social processes and institutional power.

It would be possible to argue that inequality is both a product of historical circumstances but not self-interested, e.g., that it is an emergent or unintended (if undesirable) outcome of processes and actions that were undertaken for other reasons. To the extent to which that is true, calling out privilege might be a genuinely educational gesture, and one where it’s plausible that the person named as privileged would have no vested desire to defend that status.

For the most part, this is not what progressive or left social theory would argue. The assumption is that the privileged benefit from their privilege, and therefore have every reason in the world to defend or maintain it. So what could possibly get them to do otherwise? Only one of two possibilities, broadly speaking. Either the mobilization of sufficient coercion or force by the victims of inequality such that they can compel the privileged to surrender some or all of their status, or the possibility of convincing the privileged that their status is either morally repugnant or is ultimately more of a risk to their long-term social existence than a more equal disposition would be.

If it’s about mobilization, the only benefit to privilege-checking is painting a bullseye on a target, of making a threat. At some point, making threats casually without the power to back them up is at the least futile, at the worst incredibly dangerous.

If it’s not–if there is some possibility of persuading a privileged person to assist in the abrasion or surrender of that privilege because that’s a thing they ought to do–it’s worth considering what that implies about the act of privilege-checking itself, and many other kinds of related communication.

If the “ought to do” is “because if you don’t eventually there’s going to be a revolution and you’ll be worse off than if you aimed for a soft landing from inequality”, then that’s just a deferred threat, to be taken seriously to the extent that the person making the argument can mobilize evidence about the inevitability of that outcome.

If the “ought to do” is because inequality is morally wrong and there is a hope that even its beneficiaries can see that, the question is: morally wrong how? Potentially for a range of reasons, some of them complementary. Morally wrong because perhaps a democratic society requires some form of rough equality to work, is premised on the notion that all people are created (and therefore should remain) equal. Such that anyone who professes to believe that a democratic society is preferable to any other ought to believe in the active maintenance of equality. But perhaps more because inequality’s consequences hurt people, both in absolute terms in terms of affordances and necessities they cannot access and relatively because they see others who have no greater merit or right enjoying vastly greater privileges.

E.g., privilege-checking arguably works only because or if it’s assumed that the person being called out is compassionate or can be morally moved to compassion.

Here we come to other problems. First, this doesn’t sit entirely well with the notion that the privileged are rationally self-interested in protecting their status. At the very least, to privilege-check as an invocation of shared morality implies that self-interest is never a sufficient explanation of social outcomes and even less of consciousness.

Second, the moral appeal only works if it is shared. It is undeniably true that members of marginalized groups cannot systematically discriminate against, that people of color cannot be racists or women be sexists, in the sense that this argument is typically made. Because to discriminate requires organized social power. It is not true, and is usually not claimed by activists to be true, that people cannot be cruel to one another as individuals. Power is no security against feeling personal and emotional pain, and relative powerlessness is no guarantee of interpersonal emotional virtue.

Early celebrations of online communication embraced it as a many-to-many medium, a wholesome democratizing alternative to the one-to-many structure of earlier forms of mass media. What that characterization obscured is that in some cases, the Internet functions as a many-to-one medium, magnifying and focusing the attention of crowds on individuals.

The problem is that such attention is often not compassionate in its imagination of that individual, even when it is coming from crowds who act in the name of a politics that requires a belief in the possibility of compassion even in those who have no necessary reason to feel it. If you call for people to worry about the injustice of inequality, to feel moved by the immorality of privilege, and believe that it is possible that this call will be heeded, then that requires an ethic of care. Anyone who worries about privilege has to be at least as compassionate as they hope the privileged might be.

In a many-to-one appeal, even if the many are just a handful of activists with little to no social power and the one is an intersectionally powerful person, it has to be possible to imagine that the awakening of compassion will be mingled with feelings of panic, sadness, and fear. The critique still has to be said, not the least because status, privilege and inequality are social facts that need to be spoken about with the same precision and clarity that we devote to talking about the chemistry of covalent bonds or measuring the absolute neutrino mass scale. But calling out privilege shouldn’t be an act that requires hardening the heart or relishing a hope for social exclusion. Which means also that it should be the exact opposite of a flip or easy rejoinder, never the progressive equivalent of a sneer or a call to silence.

Perhaps that means “check your privilege” is a phrase to retire because it invites that kind of ease, a lack of awareness about what that statement hopes for and requires. If it’s not an expression of an ethic of care, trying to radar-ping the world around it to find out who else shares or might share in that ethic, and not a threat with power behind it, then what it usually leads to is the moral evacuation of a conversation and the production of a sort of performative austerity, of everyone in a community pretending to virtue they do not authentically embrace and avoiding the positive or generative use of the forms of social power they might actually have genuinely privileged access to.

A part of Grasping the Nettle.

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Nobody Expects the Facebook Inquisition

Another day, another story of busybodies calling the police to punish another citizen for doing something that the busybody doesn’t approve of. Or in this case, not doing something, namely, not keeping their children inside and under 24/7 monitoring. 21st Century America sometimes feels as if Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched was given the Presidential Medal of Honor, held up as a model citizen and sworn in as a deputy of the Department of Homeland Security.

Or is it instead that we’ve become a nation of Batmen, with social media our trusty utility belt? Vigilantes on patrol against the sort of malice that no law could punish but that leaves people reeling and downtrodden? Who else will punish the asshole car dealers who try to get an innocent pizza delivery man fired if not all of us?

I don’t think there has yet been a definitive history of how we stopped being a society where children could roam away from constant parental surveillance and where adult bodies could be unseen and anonymous in plain sight, but I’m certain that this past moment is uncomfortably twinned with a world where brutal injustices were glossed over as normal and white men from “the greatest generation” could go to sleep at night unperturbed by, unaware of, the racism, sexism, and discrimination that was everywhere around them.

However you could have hoped to go forward from that moment, I think going towards a world of ubiquitious attention to public bodies and everyday speech while leaving much of the force of structural discrimination unperturbed is not high on the list of aspirational possibilities.

21st Century Americans are in many ways becoming a kind of democratic Stasi, reporting on their neighbors and colleagues, assembling dossiers of suspicious or questionable action and speech. This would be one thing if it were social pressure, but it isn’t just that. In many cases, if you call the cops or report to an employer, the target will be dealing with potentially ruinous consequences. Both the state and capital alike encourage, protect and extend mutual surveillance.

Nor is it just reactionary in its content. There will be no fable here of McCarthyism, nothing that lets this story sift neatly into defenders and enemies of an open society. My Facebook feeds are crowded with messages forwarded by progressive friends: look what this person said! Look what that guy did! Hashtag that creep, report that guy to his boss.

That at least you could account to the rough and tumble of political struggle, that you can’t pursue justice and be endlessly genteel and forgiving. But my social media, written by educated progressives, are just as much full of other kinds of negative attention to public bodies. A quiet undercurrent of disdain for misbehaving, unruly bodies that have the bad taste to be visible: fat bodies, slovenly bodies, flyover bodies, bodies that don’t spell and talk good, bodies that look funny. Bodies that eat the wrong foods, bodies that go to the wrong places. Bodies that like the wrong movies, bodies that do the wrong things. We no longer look to a single column in the newspaper to inform middle-class manners, no longer go to charm school. Bourgeois etiquette is done by swarm action now, by flash mobs. And when we swarm over a target, it’s the equivalent of Edward Snowden releasing his memos: it says, “You also are being watched.”

The problem with a lot of our ubiquitious surveillance is precisely not that it is overtly hateful and hating. Instead, what makes so much of it easy to pursue is that it presents itself as a kindness. Here is some advice about not reading the Internet so much! Here is a way not to die because you read your iPad before sleeping! Here is some food you should eat instead of what you are eating! Here is a movie you shouldn’t have liked, ever! Here is a book you should know better than to have read! Here are some bad people that I am sure you are not.

Our new Stasi enlists us out with concern and responsibility. See something? Say something! is the security-state version. Bystander intervention is the progressive, communitarian one. The libertarian complaint about nanny-states falls flat because of the narrowness of its understanding of where surveillance and regulation live (they live everywhere) and how they derive their power (the state is only the beginning of it). You can’t hide from surveillance because to hide from surveillance is to hide from sociality and all its necessary affordances. The Unabomber’s cabin is the only destination for “privacy” envisioned in those terms.

What I do think we can do to check what our new Stasi is doing to us, with us, for us, is to restore some sense of the gravity of “filing a formal report”, as it were. There’s nothing wrong with watching and photographing and talking about the vast social landscape around us. That is and has been a necessary part of being human in mass society. But we do not now act as if there is much of anything at stake when we draw attention to a body, when we circle a face in a photograph, when we link and hashtag and forward. We don’t check to be sure that we’ve got it right, we don’t worry much about what happens next. It’s easy to say that the car dealers were asking for it, but hard to take note that the mock Yelp reviews for the dealership quickly turn into a swamp of juvenile and often ugly sentiment that uses the excuse of righteous ire as a opportunity to perform with unbridled id on a stage of momentary notoreity. The we that follows in from hashtaggery is just as likely to be a mob with torches as it is a polite delegation of neighbors requesting that the lawn be mowed just a bit more often, please.

If we’re going to be spies, let’s accept our moral agency. We’re not reporting up a chain of command and leaving it the hands of our superiors. We are reporting to ourselves. If we believe we do that out of love and concern–or in pursuit of justice–then we need to be better than we are at following an ethic of genuine care, and better than we are in thinking systematically about what we mean by justice.

Another part of Grasping the Nettle.

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The Soft Target

The 20th Century was more than a literal graveyard for almost uncountable millions of people, it was also a mausoleum for the idea of taking on the hardest targets. Overthrow a tyrant by force of arms? Here come a bunch more. Never again will there be genocide! Well, until the next one. The war to end all wars! Right.

The overthrow of exploitative capitalism. The elimination of poverty. An end to disease. No more malnutrition. Equality of opportunity. Transparency in government.

Even more modest reformist goals sound increasingly forlorn at this end of modernity. Reduce corruption and inefficiency in government? Less police brutality? Better public education? Maintain the infrastructure? Don’t torture people? Don’t be hateful. Don’t be cruel?

All the institutions and systems involved in what seem to be the most awful, oppressive or unjust dimensions of everyday life in the 21st Century seem to be vulnerable to nothing but their own frailities and contradictions. The powerful are mostly behind walls, inside fortresses. They have the money and the influence to outlast or overwhelm most legal challenges. They don’t particularly fear mass protest, not that there seems to be much danger of protests being genuinely massive in the United States as they have been in many other countries. The political process is drowning in oligarchic money, and even if reformers get elected, they often find it nearly impossible to challenge entrenched interests or do much beyond tinker with the status quo.

Most targets are hard, both in the sense of “difficult” and “protected”. So what has happened in a lot of what passes for democratic politics in the 21st Century, particularly in the United States, is a preference for soft targets: institutions that have to remain ‘open’ in some sense to protest and dissent, or individuals and groups who are compelled for some reason or another to remain accessible and responsive to public criticism. Universities are perhaps the most important example of a soft target. Another might be celebrities, pundits, or indeed any individual who has an active presence in social media.

If protest or critique were aimed at these soft targets because of actions, policies or practices which are native to them, that poses no issue beyond whatever range of debate there might be about the subject of that critique. Protests concerned with the dwindling of public support for education, with issues of access and justice in education, with the eroding of academic freedom, with the safety and security of matriculated students, with the need for open-access publication: all of those could and should target educational institutions and speak to those who work in them, who regulate them, and study in them. (Although, complicatedly, when you’re attacking a soft target for something that is genuinely important to and strongly invested in the real operating life of that institution, it tends to turn into a hard target.)

The problem is when the soft target is used as a proxy for the targets which are too hard to reach. For me, the most important example of this is fossil-fuel divestment. If pushing universities (and other civic institutions) to divest from fossil-fuels has any usefulness at all, it is only as one very small part of what has to be a very comprehensive campaign to bring pressure on fossil-fuel companies and their government supporters. What I warned our local student activists about when they started the campaign here is that a focus on getting the college to participate was likely to very quickly lead to confusion about the instrumental objective of the whole campaign, as the college itself was not the ultimate political target nor was it in any sense actively colluding with that target (at least not to a degree that distinguished it from any other institutional or private user of energy). Pretty much as I predicted, college administrations around the country became almost the singular target of the entire campaign, and the institutions were rhetorically accused of being the fossil fuel companies simply because most of them declined the invitation to join the campaign in the particular way that one group of activists had chosen to pursue it.

The reason to target colleges, if you’re a student activist whose concerns are essentially directed at objectives that are not local or native to higher education, is that many of them are compelled in various ways to listen to and consider the demands that students, alumni and faculty make. Not in any sense, of course, to adopt or pursue those demands. When student activists say that they are not being listened to, what they mean is that they’re not being agreed with, since most of them choose to assume that if someone really listened to them, agreement would be the only rational and tolerable outcome.

This is really another example of the downside of thinking in terms of increments. When a “soft target” is ostensibly chosen because it’s an early step in a long incremental chain of approaches to a hard target, but is in fact actually chosen because of its convenience and accessibility, it becomes very easy to mistake the soft target as a proxy substitute for the hard one, and thus to forget the ultimate point of the critique. It is also seductively easy to misrecognize or misrepresent any opposition in that first “soft” step as being de facto the same as the resistance that the ultimate target might offer. But soft targets understandably resist being cast as proxies for other institutions and actions, and often have difficult missions of their own to tend to which are not necessarily enhanced or advanced by endlessly offering themselves as an accommodating first step for ambitious projects of political and social transformation. A professional association might quickly lose sight of its professional mission if it were constantly being used as an expressive platform for causes with tangential relevance to that mission. A university might have no way to legitimately decide which of the potentially infinite number of causes held dear by some of its students or employees deserves institutional sanction, and might spend a great deal of time and energy deciding how to decide that.

But again, at least incremental thinking is better than no thinking; at least choosing a soft target because there’s some sort of strategic vision about how it relates to a harder or more protected target is debatably valid. Sometimes we choose soft targets because otherwise there’s nothing at all to focus on. We hashtag someone or build up a three-day outrage on social media because the pain and frustration that the targets stand in for are otherwise too diffuse, too distributed, too everywhere and nowhere. The hardest targets are the ones that are in the air, in the water, in the everywhere of the world around us. But making some individual stand for these kinds of wholes, no matter how worthy of scorn that individual might be, loses general support and sympathy, bleeds out political energy, because it mismatches the proportionality and gravity of the structure, the distributed social fact, to the available, vulnerable individual appointed to represent that ubiquitous but ephemeral reality. We end up talking about the fairness or unfairness of targeting that person with a hashtag or a meme rather than the thing itself.

Sometimes soft targets are the bars on the cage. You grab them and rattle them and howl because they’re the only thing you can grasp. But if there are hacksaws or other tools around, it would be a shame to keep rattling the bars rather than patiently filing through them, one millimeter at a time.

(One part of Grasping the Nettle.)

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The Increment

“We have to do something. Anything is better than nothing.”

A standard topos in political rhetoric that to me usually signals desperation. Let’s get started! Let’s not think too much! What, are you happy with the status quo?

It’s not just favored among some progressive activists. Development experts love it. Neoconservative advocates of war against Iraq loved it. It’s a salesman’s move. “You gotta have one of these, why not this one?”

Contrast it with the Hippocratic Oath, though. “First, do no harm.” Plainly in some circumstances nothing is better than anything.

But surely in many cases an eternal nothing is unbearable. So the real question is how the small something that we’re being asked to do right now pays off, justifies itself, becomes something more than just the doing-something-so-as-not-nothing. This is the increment. Politics as compounding interest, a small investment of effort today that draws other investments to itself and becomes an unstoppable force tomorrow.

This is where I either get sold or walk away with my wallet closed. One thing that keeps my wallet closed is when the seller acts as if it’s an insult to ask what the next increments are and where this is all going. “It’s unfair to ask for a master plan! It’s unfair to demand a map to Utopia! We don’t know what’s going to come next. We’re not in charge of what comes next. When did you get so horribly teleological? All political projects ever started as increments, no one ever has been a master planner who knows exactly where the tipping point is.”

Fair enough responses. Anyone with aspirations to act politically is not required to produce a road map to the ultimate outcome of their actions. Political action is not solitary, and so by definition is not under the control of any individual actor. It’s true that many important journeys in social transformation began as single steps. Or even as missteps. Transformation is almost by definition an emergent outcome that follows from many simultaneous activities pursued independently, including many that at the time seemed to have nothing to do with seeking some instrumental end. I completely buy Robert Darnton’s argument in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, for example, which posits that the French state was de-legitimized in part not because of the deliberate intent of the authors (or audiences) of those best-sellers, but because bit by bit the content of each eroded the legitimacy of the ancien regime and bit by bit the state undercut itself trying to stop the books from circulating.

And yet. Sometimes it’s high-end theory, like Negri and Hardt at the end of Empire, saying “Here comes the Multitude! Who knows what will happen when they take over, but it’s bound to be better than Empire!” As prediction, this is ok, but as a politics that asks its reader to endorse or participate in particular incremental actions that somehow are all Multitude-favoring, not so much. As Gopal Balakrishnan has observed, the Multitude in Empire are analogized to the early Christians of Rome, a sign of the eventual unmanageability of the Pax Romana. If one is an early Christian–or acting as the Multitude–you have intrinsic motivations for doing what you do. You don’t need to be sold on the increment, or even to care about Empire or Rome at all except inasmuch as it poses a threat to your life or your activities. The only person sold by an incremental logic of action here is a citizen of Empire, who can choose either to be pleased and bemused by its gangrenous rotting away or can try to hold back the tides, usually by killing even more Christians or making life even more miserable for the Multitude.

In a way, it’s the same as pre-Revolutionary print culture: the increments that produce change are the increments of cultural and social practice rather than conscious political work with instrumental aims. This is an old dilemma for any body of political theory that believes in the possibility of systematic progress towards a coherently better world. It’s not at all clear that the people and actions that get you there are always the people and actions that mean to get you there. Intentional projects of comprehensive transformation tend to do best when moments of striking disjuncture manifest. If there are increments that get you to those moments, they’re usually not what you expect.

Sometimes it’s just particular political campaigns. Divest from fossil fuels! Sanction Israel! Interrupt white people at brunch! Make a hashtag!

Sometimes when you ask about the logic of the increment, you get a pretty good sales pitch. Many advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israeli government policy can concretely describe what the plausible next steps might be–the next sanctions, the next moves. More impotantly, they can point to considerable evidence that the possibility of incremental growth in the movement actually worries the hell out of Israeli politicians and is concretely affecting their actions. It certainly worries the hell out of supporters of the Israeli government, who dump vitriol in industrial-grade amounts on anyone who appears to contemplate joining BDS. You might question the unintended or negative consequences of these incremental steps (I know I do) but there’s a demonstrated coherency to the game plan.

Sometimes you don’t get a sales pitch. It’s none of your business, it’s reactionary to even ask the question, it’s an assertion of privilege, something’s got to be done and what have you been doing that’s better? Sometimes you get a sales pitch and it’s all about will and not about intellect: everybody has to believe in fairies or Tinkerbell will die. The increments sometimes make no sense. This leads to that leads to what? And what? And then? Why? Or perhaps most frustrating of all, each increment features its own underlying and incommensurable theories about why things happen in the world: in this step, people are motivated by self-interest; in the next step, people are motivated by basic decency; in the next step, people are motivated by fear of punishment. Every increment can’t have its own social theory. That’s when you know that the only purpose is the action itself, not the thing it’s trying to accomplish.

I think that’s what worries me most about the increment. Not that we’re asked to think of politics (or any other project) in such a fashion, because as some level it’s a necessary kind of compartmentalization for any big undertaking. It’s when the steps themselves exhibit a kind of magical thinking that claim that they can only be properly discussed and evaluated after they’ve been taken, and when each increment has a kind of isolated and infinite justification. Do this and if it doesn’t work, do it more strongly and if it doesn’t work do it more strongly still. Where there is no possible test of failure or inadequacy. Walk one step at a time thataway, and fear no cliffs or mountains. You don’t have to have a master plan for the end destination but you do have to have a specific idea of the journey you’re on. Is this a reconaissance? A quick, efficient jaunt to a known destination? A voyage to the spot on the map that’s marked “Here Be Monsters”?

(One part of a series: Grasping the Nettle)

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Rebooting

Folks who follow this blog, or my social media presence generally, have probably noted that I’ve not had much to say lately.

Part of that is feeling overly busy, but it’s more the consequence of a growing sense of perplexity and unease about online discourse, about academia, and about the political moment (both domestic U.S. and global). I feel as if I’m losing my voice, or as if it’s not worth speaking up. Or even, sometimes, that the risks to speaking outweigh any benefits to myself or to others. Also, about my inability to easily distinguish between my feelings about all of that and my middle-aged anomie. One of the great failings of some public writers is a narcissism that encourages them to confuse a confessional for an analysis, to think that their moment in life is the world’s moment. Just because at fifty you’ve seen what seem like a few recurrent cycles, have learned to hurt and be hurt, or have seen predictions fulfilled and consequences dealt out, doesn’t mean you’re right about what you think you’re seeing now. Though perhaps that’s middle-aged anomie as well, at least my version of it. I started this blog uncertain about whether to trust my own readings and arguments, and have become less trusting with each passing year.

But just as all honest writing–perhaps most of all truthful fiction–has its inevitable cruelties, so too does all argument have its narcissism, its vanities. To give voice to any opinion at all about how the world ought to be? That means you hold your own thought in higher regard, even if just for the moment that thought is ventured, than the thought of someone else. To share an insight into the way the world is means you think you know something that others haven’t, can’t or won’t see. So very well. Here’s to self-regard, however provisional, and to trying to see clearly, even when it hurts.

I want to start a new year of writing in public with a series of fragments that will repeat each other, as well as some old themes at this weblog. An exploration of this moment in public conversation, in politics, in the lives of academic communities. Rather than tie up all my thoughts in a single logorrheic essay, as I usually do, I’ll try to break up this exploration into smaller overlapping parts and see if it all weaves together. Call the whole thing Grasping the Nettle, and we’ll see how it goes.

Posted in Academia, Blogging, Cleaning Out the Augean Stables, Grasping the Nettle | 2 Comments

Counterfactual History: A Course Update

So I’m teaching the second iteration of my course on counterfactual history this semester.

I’m doing a really different kind of group research project in this version of the class. Basically the students are working in two-person teams to develop one stage of a counterfactual history, and they then hand the counterfactual to the next team who have to take it the next step. As this goes on, as with any counterfactual, it gets harder and harder and necessarily shades into fiction. The first team to handle a scenario has to make a decision about whether to backtrack and talk about the branching points or plausible circumstances that caused the counterfactual or whether to take it as a given and move forward from it.

Here’s the six scenarios I handed them:

1. The Internet does not come into existence between 1970-1990.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft does not die after the birth of her daughter but in fact lives into old age.
3. There is no “new imperialism” in the second half of the 19th Century, no rivalrous claims of colonial dominion by European nation-states over Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.
4. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton never duel.
5. Native American societies have robust resistance to Old World diseases at the time of contact with Europeans in the 15th Century.
6. There is no Balfour Declaration nor a Sykes-Picot Agreement and shared Arab-Jewish councils are successfully formed under the Mandate government in the 1920s.

The students have already really surprised me with the theoretical and empirical savvy they’ve put into the first round. Here’s how things stand so far:

1. This is because Vincent Cerf decides he likes the cello more than computers; TCP/IP doesn’t develop and packet-switching experiments remain more boutique, obscure DARPA projects for a while, only becoming more known much later than they did. (Next team has to decide what the 1980s and 1990s would have been like without the Internet…)

2. Wollstonecraft has to retreat somewhat from public life anyway because of her Jacobite sympathies, but takes an interest in the early 19th Century in educational reform and the abolition of apprenticeship by indenture.

3. [This one was amazing] The students decided to depart a bit from the spirit of my prompt a bit and argue that “liberal imperialism” wins out more thoroughly at an earlier date in the UK and leads to the establishment of something more like a loose liberal/commercial “sphere of influence” in much of the non-Western world that is almost entirely maintained by England, largely eschewing direct administrative or territorial control. (For various reasons I don’t think this is necessarily plausible but I really appreciate that they tried to figure out how to make this more than just a by-fiat counterfactual. It also kind of punts the really, really hard job to the next team, which is part of the fun of the exercise.)

4. The Burr-Hamilton people decided that Burr and Hamilton were kind of washed-up and irrelevant anyway by the time of their duel, so they said, “Nothing really changes”. But they were very thorough about building their case for that, referencing a lot of the work we read in the first part of the class about determinism and contingency. The next team is apparently going to back up and change the first team’s scenario a lot by having Jefferson die in office and Burr become President, which is why there’s no duel in their version.

5. This group took disease resistance as a given (as I think they have to, given that this prompt is modeled on James Axtell’s counterfactual essay that considers how events from the 15th Century onward would have been different without any previous human inhabitants of the New World). They chose to focus on 16th Century contacts in North America and argued that the capacity of Native American societies in North America for military resistance to European settlement would have been dramatically enhanced. Several students noted the possible similarity between this counterfactual New World and the actual history of European contact with African societies from 1450-1650, which I thought was very perceptive. Now the next group has the hard job of either deciding to talk about the rest of the Americas in comparison, or moving the counterfactual forward by a step to the late 1600s/early 1700s.

6. The Balfour Declaration/Sykes-Picot group backed up to think about how that might have happened and argued specifically about a counterfactual England that for various reasons was markedly more hostile to Zionism before and during World War I, leading to a much more diffident approach to governing Mandate Palestine. The next group has a much more difficult job in talking about the 1920s and 1930s in this counterfactual.

———
An update!

1. The Internet group focused on the psychological impact of an absent Internet on the early adopters who felt most empowered or transformed by its existence. But I think it’s really hard to figure out what to say next, so I’ve decided to consolidate a little and take this one off the board.

2. The Wollstonecraft group decided that she would have been a supporter of Luddite unrest and also very drawn to the early Romantics, and even decided that she would have had an affair with Lord Byron, essentially being drawn into the same social and intellectual world as her daughter was, which I thought was a very amusing idea that can be worked further by later groups. We talked a bit today about what the counterfactual Frankenstein (or Shelley’s oeuvre generally) looks like in a world where Mary Shelley has her mom hanging around with her and her friends/husband, but that’s sort of the next group’s thing.

3. The imperialism group focused on Egypt, South Africa, India and China and how they would be different in a “spheres of influence” model, absent of formal administrative imperialism. Too many balls to juggle, maybe, but I liked their idea that company rule would have ended earlier in India and that there would have been no move to consolidate a Raj, leaving most principalities more intact and autonomous. The next group can work with that.

4. President Burr sounds pretty interesting. This team had him fixing to go to war with Spain over Florida, but left a lot of the thinking about Burr’s counterfactual personality and career to the next team.

5. This group has the Five Nations forming a much more assertive “secondary imperialism” to deal with European presence and a very limited British trading presence in the Hudson Valley (the Dutch having decided to avoid it after seeing other European outposts shut down by Native American aggression). They also had the French expelled by Five Nations action. I think this leaves the next group with some pretty workable ideas about what comes next.

6. The No-Balfour group chose to focus on their counterfactual Zionism, arguing for a much stronger split between those who were determined to settle Palestine, those who pursued emigration to Argentina, and for the Uganda idea to get a second look by the British and the ITO advocates and for an active settlement project to begin there after 1917. So they had a “three-pole diaspora” going into the late 1920s where all three options had strong advocacy and participation within Zionism. This seems really promising as a counterfactual concept for the next group.

Posted in Swarthmore | 8 Comments

Gamergate. Shit, We’re Still Only in Gamergate.

A couple of nights ago, I got up to go to the bathroom. Still only partially awake, I flushed and stumbled back to bed, only to hear the gushing sounds of the toilet overflowing. I seriously considered just letting it keep going, but I did a U-turn and went back to plunge out the blockage and sop up the mess with towels.

That’s how I feel about writing about what’s going on with what has stupidly become known as “Gamergate” in the last month or so. (The title itself flatters the pretensions of the worst people drawn to it.) I really don’t want to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but this whole thing is not going to go away. The truth is, for those of us who know both the medium and its audiences, the last month is not a sudden rupture that changed everything. It’s just an unveiling of a long-festering set of wounds.

That dense nest of pain and abuse raises such complex feelings and interpretations in me. I hardly know where to begin. I’m just going to set out some separate thoughts and hope that they ultimately connect with one another.

1) If there is such a thing as “a gamer”, meaning someone defined in part by their affinity for video and computer games as a cultural form, I’m a gamer. Games have been as important to me as both a leisure activity and a source of inspiration and imagination as books. Before I ever venture any deeper into the stakes of Gamergate, my most elemental reaction is raw disgust with other gamers who have the unmitigated arrogance to represent their feelings, their reactions, their ugliness as “what gamers think”, as if they’re the “us” being put upon by some other “them”. On several forums that I used to frequent before this last month, I’ve had the displeasure of reading other long-time participants anoint themselves as the representative voice of “gamers”. My first impulsive thought is always, “Look here, sonny jim, I was playing Colossal Cave Adventure on the campus network in 1983, and Apple Trek on an Apple IIe when you weren’t even a lustful thought in your parents’ minds, so don’t say anything about what real gamers think. I didn’t vote for you. You don’t represent me. You don’t represent most of the people who play games.”

2) As a result of my background, at academic meetings about digital culture and games, I’ve often identified myself, somewhat jokingly, as a “native informant” rather than a scholar who comes to games as an object of study with no prior affinity for them. (Which of course earned me a pious, self-righteous correction at one meeting from a literary scholar who wasn’t aware that I also work on African history about how I might not know that the word ‘native’ has a complex history…) In that role, I’ve often found myself suggesting that there were insider or “emic” ways to understand the content and experience of game and gameplaying that many scholars rode roughshod over in their critique of that content. In particular, I’ve tried to suggest that there are dangers to reductive readings that only take an interest in games as a catalog of racialized or gendered tropes whose meaning is held to be understood simply from the act of cataloging. Equally, I’ve observed that seeing games as directly conditioning the everyday social practices and ideologies of their audiences (particularly in the case of violence) is both demonstrably wrong as an empirical argument and is also a classic kind of bourgeois moral panic about the social effects of new media forms, something that often leads to empowering the state or other forms of authority in very undesirable ways. I’ve argued, and still would argue, that at least some kinds of mobilizations through social media against racist or sexist culture are both too simplistic in their interpretations of content and counterproductive in their political strategies. I’m not going to stop arguing that certain kinds of cultural activism are stuck on looking for soft targets, that they avoid the agonizingly difficult and painstaking work of social transformation.

But this is another reason I hate the people associated with “Gamergate”. They are working hard to prove me wrong in all sorts of ways. I’d still argue that the kind of tropes that Anita Sarkeesian has intelligently catalogued are subverted, ignored or reworked by the large majority of players, but it seems pretty undeniable at this point that there is a group of male gamers whose devotion to those tropes is deeply ideological in the most awful ways and that it absolutely informs the way they think of themselves across the broad spectrum of their social lives, including their real relationships to women. It seems pretty undeniable at this point that there are men who identify as “gamers” who are willing to threaten and harm simply to protect what they themselves articulate as a privileged relationship to gaming.

3) But then, my protestations about complexity have always been checked by my own experience as a game-player and as an academic thinking about games. I’ve always known that the “Gamergate” types were out there in considerable numbers. Ethnographic studies of game culture have been thinking about this issue for years. Players themselves have been thinking and talking about it, every time they’ve tried to think of ways to defeat griefing, ways to keep female players from being harrassed, ways to make more people feel comfortable in game environments.

In one of my essays for the now-defunct group blog Terra Nova, I noted how odd it was to find myself in virtual worlds like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft playing alongside teenagers and adult men that I intuitively recognized as the kind of people who had bullied me when I was a kid. Profane, aggressive, given to casually denigrating or insulting others, enjoying causing other people inconvenience and even real emotional pain, crudely racist, gleefully sexist. Not all of them were all of that, but many of them were at least some of that. In many environments, there were enough men like that to ensure that everyone else stayed away, or avoided many of the supposed affordances of multiplayer gaming. But maybe this is part of the problem, that geeks and nerds, especially those of us who identified that way back when it got you a lot of contempt and made you a target for bullies, convinced themselves that being victimized automatically conferred some kind of virtue you on you. Maybe the problem is that I and others always felt that “Barrens chat” was the work of some Other who had infiltrated our Nerd Havens, when in fact it was always coming from inside the room. I remember once in junior high school when the jocks were bullying a mentally disabled kid by shoving him inside the shed where all the equipment was kept and then holding the door closed on him. They yelled for a couple of the geeky kids, including me, to come help them keep the door shut while the boy cried and banged and tried to get out. And it was so uncharacteristic for the jocks to ask us to join in that we almost did it just out of relief at being included.

Being a target doesn’t vaccinate you against being an abuser later on. In fact, it creates for some gamers a justification for indulgent kinds of lulz-seeking bad behavior, a sort of lethal combination of narcissistic anarchism with the sort of revenge-fantasy thinking that’s normally only found in the comic-book monologues of supervillains.

4) What I’ve seen since “Gamergate” became a thing is that some of the older male gamers who have always been clear that they were just as annoyed by subliterate teenager brogamers on XBox Live, that they also hated griefers and catasses in MMOs, that they also think badly of the most creepy posters on Reddit, lots of these guys who postured as being the reasonable opponents of extremists of any kind, have turned out not at all the disinterested or moderate influence they imagine themselves to be. I’ve watched guys who claim to think that everyone’s being overexcited by this controversy becoming profoundly overexcited themselves, and very much in a one-sided way against “games journalists”, “neckbeards”, “feminists”, “the media”, “social justice warriors” and so on. At around the one-hundredth post professing not to care very much about the whole thing, you have to turn in your “I don’t care” card. Most of them say, half-heartedly, that of course it’s bad to harass or issue death threats, with all the genuine commitment of Captain Louis Renault saying he’s shocked about the gambling in the backroom of Rick’s Cafe Americain. They usually go on to specify a standard for harassment that disqualifies anything besides Snidley Whiplash tying Penelope Pittstop to the railroad tracks, and a standard for “real death threats” that disqualifies anything that doesn’t end with someone getting killed for real.

I can’t quite say I’m shocked by these non-shocked people, but I have found myself deeply disturbed to see significant groups of formerly reasonable-signifying male posters in various forums accepting without much dissent sentiments of tremendous moral vacuity like, “If you post feminist criticisms of games, then you just have to expect to get harassed and attacked” or “Well, some guy on XBox Live threatened to rape me during a game of Call of Duty, you just shrug it off”. I’ve been wondering just how wrong I am about people in general online when I think the best of them, or how misguided I am to try to see the most interesting possibilities in how someone else thinks, if it turns out that when the crunch comes, the people I’ve thought would have their hearts in the right place are instead too busy frantically defending their right to download Jennifer Lawrence nudes to care about much else.

5) The assertion by many “Gamergate” posters that they represent the economic lifeblood of the gaming industry is just demonstrably wrong. And this is an old point that should have long since had a stake driven through its heart. The current criticism is focused on various indie games, which the gamergaters charge wouldn’t get any attention at all if “social justice warriors” weren’t promoting them. But the fact is first that the most economically successful games in the history of the medium have not been made with the sensibilities of the most devotedly “gamerish” game-players in mind. Moreover, the history of video and computer games is full of interesting work that didn’t cater to a narrow set of preferences. Today’s “indie games” have many precursors. Arguing for the diversification of tropes, models, mechanics is good for gaming in every possible way. It’s not that companies should stop making games for these “gamers”, it’s more that the major commercial mystery of the gaming industry is that so MANY games should be made for them, considering how much money there is to make when you make a good game that appeals to other people too or instead. Maybe this is what accounts for the intensity of the reaction right now, that we are finally approaching the moment where games will be made by more kinds of people for more kinds of people. Fan subcultures are often disturbingly possessive about the object of their attachment, but this has been an especially ugly kind of upswelling of that structure of feeling.

6) Many of the most strident gamergate voices are bad on gender issues but they’re also just a nightmare in general for everyone involved in game development (except for when they ARE game developers). These are the guys who hurl email abuse and death threats when they don’t like the latest patch, when they think a game should be cheaper (or free), when they have a different idea about what the ending to a game should be, when they don’t like a character or the art design or a mechanic. These are the people who make most games-related forums a cesspool of casually-dispensed rhetorical abuse. These are the people who make it a near-religious obligation to crap on anything new and then to be self-indulgently amused by their own indiscriminate dislike. So much of the fun–the enchantment–of gaming has already been well and truly done in by gamergaters in other ways: they have destroyed the village they allegedly came to save. Much of what they do now is a bad dinner theater re-enactment of the anti-establishment sentiments of an earlier digital underground, one that elevates some of the troubling old tendencies and subtexts into explicit, exultant malice.

Posted in Cleaning Out the Augean Stables, Games and Gaming, Popular Culture | 6 Comments

How College Works: Assessment

I don’t think it’s a secret that I am very frustrated with prevailing trends in higher education assessment. I feel bad that this frustration often forces me to be a major annoyance to great local colleagues in the faculty and administration who have responsibilities for ensuring that Swarthmore keeps its commitments and conforms more closely to those prevailing trends.

I recognize that faculty at many institutions are sometimes overly defensive about assessment of any kind. All of us should be constantly re-evaluating what’s working and not working about our teaching. Good re-evaluations shouldn’t just be private and introspective, because it’s a bit too easy to convince yourself that everything’s fine and you’ve done enough. It’s also important that we create some kind of transcript or data or visible record that the entire world can critically examine. Our students and their families, as well as our publics in general, are owed that.

We shouldn’t be too sensitive about assessment. And we shouldn’t be against it simply because it’s more work, though it’s not unreasonable to actually subtract or remove some other part of the labor of teaching a course to compensate for producing assessment data. If it’s important, then it’s worth doing as something other than a freebie add-on to existing work.

I’m not against assessment in general. I’m against assessment as a diversionary tactic for government agencies trying to keep people from looking too closely at the failures of government. I’m against assessment as an unaccountable practice imposed upon professionals, a practice that actively contradicts what those professionals know about their own working conditions and practices and that cuts corners by using cookie-cutter bureaucratic procedures that treat all teaching institutions as if they’re doing the same thing under the same conditions. I’m against assessment when it trespasses against what my colleagues Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe describe as forms of professional and experiential “practical wisdom”.

I’m against assessment when it’s measuring the wrong things in the wrong ways. I’m against it when it’s about providing one organization the product they need in order to give another organization what it needs so that the third organization can please a fourth organization, all up and down the food chain. If that’s how meritocracies ensure their version of a full employment program, I’d just as soon have giant, clumsy, inflexible socialist bureaucracies instead, because at least more people get paid off a little bit that way.

In a recent discussion, one of my colleagues wearily suggested that we just render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, do whatever our accreditors want so that they go away and let us get back to doing good work. In response one of my other colleagues said, “As long as you’re doing what Caesar wants, why not make it useful for you too?” My typically confusing attempt to play the metaphor further in response was this: “Convincing yourself what Caesar wants is good for you too is pretty bad if you’re a barbarian beyond the Roman frontier.” What Caesar wants in this sense is a “civilizing process”. If you have another way of doing things that you feel is better for you, for your culture, for your world, then making Caesar’s way your own is the beginning of the end.

Especially when what Caesar wants isn’t even good for Caesar.

And that’s where How College Works kicks in. Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have some explicit things to say about assessment. What they say explicitly is characteristically polite, measured, and backed up by detailed research. The most direct commentary comes in Chapter Eight, “Lessons Learned”. They first argue that some of the worst wastes of energy and resources at colleges and universities involve futile attempts to “microengineer human behavior” in strategic plans and other kinds of initiatives (here echoing Schwartz and Sharpe) and too much pursuit of “pedagogical innovation” (ok, that one leaves a bit of a mark on me personally). But they then proceed to note that after eleven years of close study of all of the major styles of educational assessment, they “came away skeptical of the entire assessment enterprise”.

Why?

1) Because assessment regularly works with the wrong units of analysis. Courses, teachers, programs and departments are the wrong units. Individual students are the right unit.

2) Because what you need to assess or understand is how students “experience your institution”. They add “Don’t assume that you know what matters.”

3) “Be open to all outcomes”. E.g., that specifying a set of learning outcomes on a syllabus and then measuring the learning outcomes just completely misses the point when it comes to understanding what is and is not working with education.

4) Because assessment practices create far more data–and far more work in chasing the data–than they need. Because assessment practices end up interfering with the work faculty are already doing to no good end. (I’ll add something to that: and because people trying to enforce assessment practices often don’t believe faculty when they say so.)

But I think there’s more said in the book that applies to assessment. Chambliss and Takacs argue throughout the book that a course or a semester or even several years of a matriculant’s experiences are not the right time frame for understanding what works and doesn’t work about assessment. That at the end of a semester, for example, students often don’t really know yet what they’ve gotten from a particular course.

The authors observe that the vagueness of many liberal arts programs about how students derive the benefits they derive from that education is empirically warranted. Meaning, that trying to break down each element of that education into measurable, atomistic units, via rubrics and standards and lists, and then tinker one-by-one with those atomized elements is missing the forest for the trees. It turns out, if you accept their research, that students get better at writing and speaking and thinking and understanding via the simultaneous, synergistic interaction between all of those activities, both in courses and outside of them. That they learn by watching others, by observing models (especially professors), by experimenting with their scholarly and personal personas in a safe environment. That efficacy in educating involves trying to nurture and support the richness and complexity of a purposeful, focused life.

Basically, I come away from How College Works thinking that the upshot of their argument, resting on their empirically-driven, carefully-designed research is basically what Geoffrey Rush’s character says repeatedly in Shakespeare in Love: that theater is naturally beset by “insurmountable obstacles on the road to disaster” but that in the end all turns out well. Why? he is asked (at first by a hostile investor who reminds me very much of an accreditor from Middle States). “I don’t know”, he says, “It’s a mystery.”

My dream is that some day accreditors and federal bureaucrats and parents and publics will learn to take that insight seriously. It’s not obfuscation or defensiveness. It’s the truth. Not a mystery beyond understanding, but a mystery in that the coming together of an education is about a great many things working together simultaneously, none of which are properly understood or measured or changed when they’re treated in isolation from one another. It’s about process and flow, not product.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 7 Comments

How College Works: First Appreciation

One of the most extreme extreme cases of an unfair division in attention to two different books dealing with the same subject is the difference between William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep and Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs’ How College Works.

The one thing you can say about the intense attention to Deresiewicz’ book is that it goes a long way towards verifying some of his argument. E.g., a critique of the most elite institutions for producing coddled, soulless meritocrats touches a lot of influential people in a sensitive spot, and thus clears the way for lots of column inches in the mainstream media as well as lots of social media chatter.

But Chambliss and Takacs have done a huge amount of sensitive, interesting, qualitative work on one hundred students at Hamilton College over nearly a decade. They don’t denounce anyone or run around talking about the falling skies. But neither do they just wave everyone away and say that all is well. If you were looking for an understanding of how higher education works but also an explanation of what isn’t working, or what could work better, this book is where you should start. It’s where the national conversation should be, not the least because the findings in the book should discomfort or surprise most of the stakeholders in higher education.

The book suggests that some of what faculty fervently worry about and spend time discussing around curricular planning and pedagogy is at least a waste of their time. It suggests that administrators who focus on enrollment levels may have much more of a legitimate philosophical point about both equity and quality of education than many faculty would like to credit. It politely but insistently documents that most of the assessment practices being pushed on colleges right now either measure the wrong units or are just plain empirically wrong from start to finish. Perhaps least sensationally but most importantly of all, the book suggests that most of what colleges do, they do well, even when they don’t themselves understand what it is that they’re doing right.

The following people should treat it as a must-read book:

Prospective college applicants and their parents.
First-year college students during their orientation.
Faculty, especially at small liberal-arts colleges.
Higher education administrators, especially at small liberal-arts colleges.
Consultants, policy-makers, foundation executives, accreditation executives or any other professional whose work is focused on higher education.

Let me pull out what I found to be the most startling or interesting findings in the book, some of which affirmed some views I have developed in the course of my career and others of which challenged or reinterpreted some of those views.

1) The biggest impact a professor can have on a student is through direct, personal conversation with that student in which that professor is perceived by the student to accurately understand that student’s capabilities, aspirations, motivations and needs. This conversation can be challenging, it can be critical or intense, it can be friendly or kind. The basic thing, it seems from their research, is that a student needs to feel that a faculty member really understands them personally. Just once! That’s what is so interesting–a single such experience seems to make a big difference in satisfaction and in educational outcomes for many students. The book mentions that there’s something of a power law involved as well–that a small handful of faculty account for a large proportion of these strongly positive experiences.

2) A professor can have almost as big an impact in such a conversation in which they grossly misunderstand or mischaracterize a student’s character, interests or aspirations. Except that in this case the impact can be intensely negative–this kind of interaction is sufficient to offset much of the rest of an educational experience. So there are risks here–a faculty member who has poor emotional intelligence, who relies on stereotypes, or who is just presumptuous can all by themselves do a tremendous amount of damage to what the institution overall is trying to do.

Chambliss and Takacs argue that the effects of these interactions are sufficiently pronounced that almost everything else that faculty incessantly fret over in teaching and curricular design are comparatively unimportant in their effects on students. I think they’re right that we pay almost no conscious attention to this kind of interaction. We just assume that it will happen as an outcome of small size and intense focus on academics. The closest we get to deliberate institutional attention at Swarthmore is with programs like the Rubin Scholars that aim to connect individual students with faculty. I suppose you could argue that faculty advising as a whole is intended to promote the good kind of these conversations but it is mostly a more modest part of the overall logistics of the curriculum.

2a) Bad or indifferent teaching in introductory courses not only has a negative impact on the perception of that discipline among students, it has a disproportionately negative impact on the overall educational experience of the students exposed to such a course. It’s not such a big deal in other kinds of courses (you get the sense that their research indicates that in every student’s life, a little bit of weak teaching is inevitable) as long as it doesn’t lead to the sort of negative personal discussion described earlier.

This makes me worry a lot about whether Swarthmore and institutions like it are systematically attentive to this issue. I suspect not.

3) “Most learning happens outside the classroom” turns out to be unambiguously true in a wide variety of ways. Not only does that finding underscore the suggestion of a few faculty visionaries that “courses” might not be the best default structure for higher education, it makes the contempt that faculty like Benjamin Ginsberg show towards “deanlets”, residential life administrators, and the idea of “learning outside the classroom” look very short-sighted. What’s particularly notable about How College Works in this respect is that the researchers found that the single most important predictor of whether a student will have good educational outcomes is whether they made friends in their first six months. If Chambliss and Takacs are right, this is an aspect of the educational experience of students that faculty have virtually no influence over or interest in other than incidentally providing one possible site for friendships to develop (e.g., courses).

4) Small classes are perhaps over-exalted by faculty. They may produce better educational outcomes on average (if nothing else, giving a faculty member a much higher probability of understanding individual students well enough to have one of those powerful moments of direct connection) but they are by nature inequitable. This for me was one of the oh-my-god-of-course-why-didn’t-I-see-that-before moments in the book. Chambliss and Takacs found to their surprise that the students they were speaking with often hadn’t had a small class experience even at a small college, or that they’d had very few. And then it dawned on them: small classes are small, e.g., very few students are in them. If you have three large classes with 50 students in them and ten small classes with 5 students in them (presuming for the moment they’re not the same students in both), then the three classes have 150 students total and the ten classes have only 50 total. Only 25% of that total population is having a “small class experience”. Chambliss and Takacs gently suggest that this observation (and some similar findings elsewhere in the book) mean that at least some of the way that administration (or faculty managers) try to be mindful of enrollments and resource distribution is necessary–and that an excessive prioritization of small class experiences can produce a hidden elitism. Their discussion of this is more subtle than this summary suggests, but even at this relatively simplified level it was an uncomfortable challenge to some of my own conventional wisdom.

There are a lot of other findings and observations of great interest–say, for example, about the impact of off-campus study, about the reasons why seniors are often disengaged from their studies, etc., but these points alone struck me as having immediate, powerful implications for how faculty (and others) think about achieving better educational outcomes.

I also think the book politely but insistently undercuts contemporary fads in assessment. That’s important enough that I’m going to devote a second post to it shortly.

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