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 | 5 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.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 6 Comments

Abandoning the Post

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s governing body just made a serious mistake that will have consequences for the entirety of U.S. academia.

I’ll let people who are better thinkers about organizing a political response within academia take the next steps forward in that respect.

I want to talk about what happens to the larger public culture. Here I think the damage that’s been done is reckless and serious, and I frankly resent it. I use the word “colleague” as my general address to other academic professionals and I very much include administrators in that address. I try very hard to think sympathetically about the institutional responsibilities they have, to live up to those responsibilities myself as an administrative actor, and I’m very willing to turn a critical gaze back on faculty on many issues. But to call someone a colleague, to widen the circle of “we”, means that I expect that consideration in return, and I’m dismayed when it’s not forthcoming. Sometimes leaders just make a mess on their own porch. In this case, they’ve made a mess on the village green.

We’re already seeing the spill-over in the painful deformation of conversations about “civility”, in the implication that it is the same thing as “academic freedom”. It isn’t at all. Academic freedom should protect the capacity to be passionate or detached, to use a range of emotional and expressive affects and styles. It’s possible to have a completely different discussion about what makes for generative dialogues and productive exchanges. It’s fine to suggest that certain ways of entering into a conversation, certain modes of producing knowledge, certain performances of self in the classroom, tend to generate predictable outcomes, some of them generative and some of them destructive. You can unreservedly defend academic freedom while criticizing someone who acts like a bully, you can suggest that some kinds of passion shut down possibilities and silence people, you can complain that some ways of framing deliberation or instruction create a narrow range of possible outcomes. You can even call all of that “civility” if you like, as long as you don’t confuse it with academic freedom and as long as you don’t use “civility” as the standard by which you police what faculty can do and must not do, can say and must not say.

Or at least you could think about this interrelationship before today. But today the administration and board of UIUC did something that muddies those waters. Now they’re either going to have to get serious about the foolish way they’ve intermingled civility and academic freedom, which means sending endless memos to their own faculty about the tone of the last faculty meeting, monitoring the social media use of faculty and graduate students, coming up with lists of forbidden phrases and verboten adjectives, hiring a Vice-President of Civility and the like. Or they’re going to just concede that the policy is a fig leaf to cover a badly-executed decision-making process and let all sorts of grossly “uncivil” concern-trolling by people other than Steven Salaita go unchallenged. If you chase the trolls back to their native habitats, many of the commenters on the case who now claim grave concern about “civility” seem blissfully unconcerned by such worries in their own demense.

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It’s possible that the pressure that other academics can bring to bear on UIUC will in time be enough to create a new momentum there and elsewhere. However, academic freedom in the longer term cannot survive without publics beyond academia seeing it as a valuable practice to defend and extend. And in that context, academic freedom has become a hard sell lately.

So why is it a hard sell? How is it a hard sell? I’ve found it personally difficult to know how to reply to some people in my social media feeds and elsewhere who point out with some anger, and not from a particularly conservative position, that they can’t understand why faculty should be allowed to write what they like about their own institutions, or to express ideas and sentiments that draw strongly negative attention to their universities. After all, they point out, nobody else in early 21st Century America has that privilege. If you work for a company and you criticize it on Twitter, you’re very likely to get fired. If you’re an appointee in the government and you publically attack your boss or leak damaging information, very likely the same outcome. Most people know that embarrassing their organization, whatever it is, will lead to termination, demotion or discipline.

There are a few other groups of workers who generally can get away with expression that draws a negative public reaction, up to a point. People who own businesses that aren’t immediately vulnerable to boycotts, or in industries where there is tolerance for certain kinds of extreme speech. Celebrities or people with sufficient reputation capital that they can survive (and maybe even benefit from) some kinds of outrage or critique. Elected officials whose political supporters don’t care about the speech in question (or who welcome it). But only a few other groups claim a specific need in their work for the protection of their speech rights: writers, artists, and other cultural producers are the main example.

This attack on academic freedom (why do you get it when no one else does?) comes at us through something of an intramural class antagonism: it is most sharply expressed by non-academic professionals, middle managers in private industry, civil servants, and others who see themselves as the social peers of professors, who have been consumers of higher education themselves, and who frequently anticipate sending their children to college or university. I think this is an audience that public universities in particular simply can’t afford to lose outright, but that even private universities and colleges desperately want as supporters, politically, financially and otherwise.

We often move to defend academic freedom by citing the importance of free speech generally but also specifically aligning ourselves with authors and artists, that the fruits of our labor for the wider society are available only if we are given wide latitude in our working lives to produce our scholarship, our experiments, our ideas, our innovations. This still has a lot of legs in it. It is an easier sell when it comes to the work produced by scholarly scientists, which is valued by many of the people who might otherwise be skeptical about academic freedom. It is a harder sell for humanistic scholarship, which has smaller and more fragmented publics and has a more internally divided and contradictory way of describing its own research projects and their utility or necessity. In any event, I don’t think this is sufficient to build wider support.

The claim that we could make more often and often don’t is that academic freedom is necessary for good teaching. I know it’s somewhat customary for professional teachers to disavow the exaggerated, romantic portrayal of teaching as messianic and inspirational, as in Dead Poets’ Society. Rewatching the film recently for the obvious melancholic reason, however, I have to say that I still can’t help but be attracted to Robin Williams’ character, John Keating. Moreover, I think in the wake of Williams’ death, it’s fairly clear that people remember that character very well for a reason, that they are also attracted to that concept of a teacher: fearless, impassioned, emotionally alive to the inner life of students, and deeply passionate about the subjects they teach. And suddenly here not only do we make the case for academic freedom, the necessity to give teachers the discretionary room to make connections as they will, to feel as well as think, but we incidentally manage to pull down the proposition that “civility” only exists when one behaves as a kind of church mouse might, meek and peaceful in the temple grove of academe. This would be my major plan to engage publics: remind them that the teaching that changes lives is only possible with academic freedom. Without it, you don’t have teachers: you have bureaucrats who are handing out certifications.

Having made that point, we have some issues on our side of the ledger to attend to. If we’re going to defend fearless thinking and speaking, and decouple that from “civility”, we will lose every inch of ground we might gain with wider publics if we’re seen to be defending fearlessness only when it suits or flatters our own political and social preferences. This is precisely why I argued for a kind of “free speech absolutism” in the spring in response to controversies here at Swarthmore and across academia. When we cut the distinctions fine and work the instance so that in this one case, with this one person, in this particular circumstance, we’re right to disinvite and unhire and sanction and deny, even if the person or the case really is troubling, small wonder that many wider publics conclude that academic freedom is just a weapon rather than a principle. It should take extraordinary circumstances before we conclude that the obligations of academic freedom can be set aside.

I’ve pointed out before that even as academic institutions are more and more distrusted, professors oddly retain a good deal of public respect. We have it because we’re free: free to say the unpopular thing, free to teach the passionate course, free to study what we think needs studying. To be free means we have to occupy the whole possibility space that waits for our explorations, and take not just our students but our publics along for the ride. We have to keep a trust as well as walk the paths we see before us.

Which does mean, sometimes, that we have to not just tolerate but consider and listen to and even at times seek out the presences and practices that we in other respects passionately dislike or critique or reject. We do that not as “civility” but as curiosity, as part of what makes us each a free mind and fearless spirit.

There’s every evidence in the world that Steven Salaita has done just that in his career as a matter of his practice as a teacher and colleague. And there’s now every evidence in the world that the Board of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has tragically, catastrophically failed to do it. They now defend neither the principle of academic freedom nor the practice of civility. Their failure exposes all of us to harm.

Posted in Academia | 15 Comments

On the Salaita Decision

I wrote a short note to Chancellor Wise when this story first broke expressing hope that she would find a way to delicately undo the decision. I didn’t join some of the collective statements for a variety of reasons. But I’ve written a longer letter today because in many ways I think her defense of the decision today is actually far more troubling than the initial decision itself.

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August 22, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise:

I appreciate that you’re in a difficult position on the Steven Salaita case. I’m also very grateful to you for your appearance at Swarthmore last year. The symposium was terrifically engaging and you were a big part of that.

Nevertheless I urge you to find a way to reverse your decision on Salaita.

I have three significant concerns.

The first you have heard from many other scholars. My own feelings about the issue of Israel and Palestine are mixed, and I personally prefer reading and speaking with scholars who can leave some room for disagreement and debate on that issue. However, my view of academic freedom is that it is more than a restraint against sanctions for speech. I think it’s an obligation to seek out a wide range of viewpoints and expressive styles in faculty, in students and in staff, across the whole of the academic community. So while I admit that if I were sitting in a room looking at candidates for a position, I would be a bit uncomfortable with Professor Salaita’s tweets, I would also try to remind myself of that positive obligation to look for colleagues who are not like me and do not adhere to my preferences. Because all of us are just one decision away from the same kind of negative judgment against us. Which is why we believe in academic freedom.

Both you and Professor Nelson—so far the major public defenders of this decision—insist that in any event it was not about Professor Salaita’s views on Israel and it was not even about the general tone of his writings on social media. You argue instead in your recent public statement that the decision was made because of a belief that Professor Salaita could not maintain appropriate professional attitudes towards his students and colleagues.

I cannot say strongly enough how troubling I find this argument. It is in some respects even worse than what was on offer before.

I am not troubled by the idea that an acceptance of all students as they come to you is an important professional standard. I would go even further than you do in your statement and suggest that persistent inability to accept and respectfully work with students and colleagues with many diverse views is not just a legitimate weight on hiring but should govern whether someone retains tenure. But you must not measure adherence to this standard by reading what scholars or intellectuals say or write in the public sphere, whether in formal publication or in social media.

The proof is in the pudding: in how a professor teaches, in how they participate in the professional evaluation of other scholars, in how they execute their administrative duties. There are innumerable examples of faculty in the last fifty years whose intensely expressed public views had no impact on the professionalism of their work with students and colleagues.

The problem in your case is that neither the University of Illinois nor any of the proponents of your decision have presented any evidence that Professor Salaita would be or has been unable to adhere to those ethics. The only evidence is a handful of tweets that really say nothing about how he approaches the classroom, how he mentors students, how he participates in evaluation. The only evidence available about his teaching and professional demeanor is that he earned tenure at another institution and survived the scrutiny of your own faculty in a hiring process, which is far more powerful than four or five sentences on Twitter dubiously interpreted through a hostile and unfair gaze. I would frankly trust Professor Nelson less based on his recent statements in terms of these professional obligations than I would Professor Salaita.

This is a grave disservice to Professor Salaita: it insinuates something about him as a professional without any evidence whatsoever. If the content of several sentences he wrote is sufficient in your view, then you have a faculty full of unprofessional teachers and colleagues. So does Swarthmore. So does every academic institution in the United States.

My second concern is less commonly expressed by the critics of your decision but equally important. By stepping in at this point in a hiring decision with the justifications you’ve offered, you’ve potentially created a serious administrative problem across all academic institutions. You are as aware as I am that the approval newly hired candidates by trustees or managers is ordinarily a pro forma step of the process, whatever the legalities might be. If it’s ever used to revoke an offer, that is typically because of the emergence of some overwhelmingly and indisputably negative material fact about the candidate which could not possibly have been foreseen through ordinary diligence—the commission of a criminal act in the time between initial offer and approval, involvement in some extraordinary scandal, and so on. None of which are true in this case, whatever one thinks of Professor Salaita’s tweets.

So what is going to happen now if your decision stands is that what was pro forma no longer is, and not just at UIUC. Senior administrators at many institutions, concerned by a newly revealed domain of risk and liability, will be forced to much more heavily scrutinize and micro-manage proposed job offers, with practical authority migrating upwards. Since I suspect that you and Vice President Christopher Pierre do not have significant free time available in your schedules for more assertive, centralized diligence of this kind (nor do your counterparts at other institutions) this will doubtless bring additional pressure for the addition of yet another layer of administrative authority. The net impact, if this develops as I suspect it will is a bigger drain on finances, a slower and less nimble approach to making decisions, and the loss of academic freedom by transferring authority and discretion away from faculty.

The time to make these kinds of discretionary judgments is early. If you privately feel in the aftermath of a search that an individual department is repeatedly demonstrating what you believe is a lack of diligence, that is a good reason for a quiet direct and confidential conversation between yourself and that department. There is precedent for administrative leaders (and often colleagues) to intervene quietly but firmly in a situation where a department is either painfully divided or is seriously out of touch with shared standards and common expectations. But that is done carefully and confidentially for good reason, and it is not aimed at reversing a particular decision about a particular individual. That is precisely what tenure and academic freedom rightfully exist to protect.

My third concern is that this decision is already inhibiting faculty, especially junior faculty, from developing greater facility with social media and its expressive norms. You cannot write a monograph 140 characters at a time, and not just because of the brevity of the format. Different expressive media develop different cultures. What works as expression on Twitter, even by scholars or intellectuals, is different than what works in a three-hundred page book for a scholarly press. It’s important for faculty to be conversant with the entirety of our public culture and to be able to travel across different media and platforms. Not just for the cultivation of their scholarship but also for their ability to teach the current and future generations. I can’t help but feel that the University of Northern Illinois’ dangerous tweaking of their acceptable use policy for faculty and staff announced today has some distant relationship to your decision.

I hope you can find a way to change this decision.

Yours,

Timothy Burke
Professor
Department of History
Swarthmore College

Posted in Academia | 15 Comments

Turning the Camera Around

Through an improbable chain of events, I had an opportunity as an undergraduate to work as a summer intern at the Los Angeles Times. It was a great, life-changing gig–I found that I both liked journalists a lot and yet did not really want to be a journalist.

I was working with the editorial writers, so I didn’t interact that often with the interns who were out working on stories. The Times brought us together for events now and again, though. So I remember talking to two guys about mid-summer who were also rethinking whether they wanted to continue in journalism, but for a different reason than me. They had been sent to help with the coverage of a mass murder in a San Diego McDonald’s. 21 people were dead, some children, and others wounded. They’d been asked to go out and try to speak with the relatives of some of the victims and to take pictures. Both of them questioned the necessity for doing so: the people who did agree to speak generally just repeated the same kinds of “coping cliches” as they grasped for something to say, some way to process it all. But the interns also recognized that this was part of journalism as it was practiced, that the Times couldn’t choose to not do it without pointedly dissenting from broadly-held professional norms at the time (and for that matter, audience expectations).

Revealing accounts of “how the sausage gets made” are available about the inner life and processes that connect to a wide variety of professions. When they come from outsiders who have infiltrated or examined the profession, these looks tend to either be sharply accusatory (think Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death) or affectionate and explanatory (think Mary Roach’s books). Or occasionally they’re participatory, in the style of George Plimpton. When it’s an insider’s account, it usually takes the form of a memoir, entangled in a specific career and its details.

There are certainly many memoirs by journalists. And a few notable outsider’s exposes or explorations of journalism or of specific forms of journalism like war reporting. A few series or films that follow a specific newsroom or set of reporters, most of which ultimately are complimentary to either the integrity of at least one character or to the overall work.

But reading Ryan Schuessler’s short explanation of why he wasn’t going to continue reporting on Ferguson for al-Jazeera America made me realize that we’ve only rarely had something that we very much need, that could quite easily be done: a brutally honest visual documentary of what media professionals in a media spectacle do. A camera trained on the cameras, a crew following the crews. Something that shows us what Schuessler describes: the cajoling, the orchestration, the pushing aside of the experiential reality of the story itself, the crassness, the management of “talent”. But also the political economy of spectacle: where professionals stay, what they consume, how they pay off sources or buy access.

The obvious reason not to do it, of course, is that anyone with ambitions as a journalist knows that this is a “you’ll never work in this town again” kind of move, that much of what a documentary of this kind would show would be seriously embarrassing or damaging to many professional reputations, whether or not it was intended to or consciously slanted in that direction.

I don’t often give money to a Kickstarter, but if Schuessler or someone like him wanted to tackle this subject–spend a year going around to scenes of media spectacle and frenzy and filming what that looks like, talking to crews and reporters about what they’re doing, staying to look at the aftermath when the journalists start to leave–I’d donate enthusiastically.

Posted in Miscellany, Politics | Comments Off

History 82 Fall 2014 Syllabus

Here’s the current version of the syllabus for my upcoming fall class on the history of digital media. Really excited to be teaching this.

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History 82
Histories of Digital Media
Fall 2014
Professor Burke

This course is an overly ambitious attempt to cover a great deal of ground, interweaving cultural histories of networks, simulations, information, computing, gaming and online communication. Students taking this course are responsible first and foremost for making their own judicious decisions about which of many strands in that weave to focus on and pursue at greater depth through a semester-long project.

The reading load for this course is heavy, but in many cases it is aimed at giving students an immersive sampler of a wide range of topics. Many of our readings are both part of the scholarship about digital culture and documents of the history of digital culture. I expect students to make a serious attempt to engage the whole of the materials assigned in a given week, but engagement in many cases should involve getting an impressionistic sense of the issues, spirit and terminology in that material, with an eye to further investigation during class discussion.

Students are encouraged to do real-time online information seeking relevant to the issues of a given class meeting during class discussion. Please do not access distracting or irrelevant material or take care of personal business unrelated to the class during a course meeting, unless you’re prepared to discuss your multitasking as a digital practice.

This course is intended to pose but not answer questions of scope and framing for students. Some of the most important that we will engage are:

*Is the history of digital culture best understood as a small and recent part of much wider histories of media, communication, mass-scale social networks, intellectual property, information management and/or simulation?

*Is the history of digital culture best understood as the accidental or unintended consequence of a modern and largely technological history of computing, information and networking?

*Is the history of digital culture best understood as a very specific cultural history that begins with the invention of the Internet and continues in the present? If so, how does the early history of digital culture shape or determine current experiences?

All students must make at least one written comment per week on the issues raised by the readings before each class session, at the latest on each Sunday by 9pm. Comments may be made either on the public weblog of the class, on the class Twitter feed, or on the class Tumblr. Students must also post at least four links, images or gifs relevant to a particular class meeting to the class Tumblr by the end of the semester. (It would be best to do that periodically rather than all four on December 2nd, but it’s up to each of you.) The class weblog will have at least one question or thought posted by the professor at the beginning of each week’s work (e.g., by Tuesday 5pm.) to direct or inform the reading of students.

Students will be responsible for developing a semester-long project on a particular question or problem in the history of digital culture. This project will include four preparatory assignments, each graded separately from the final project:

By October 17, a one-page personal meditation on a contemporary digital practice, platform, text, or problem that explains why you find this example interesting and speculates about how or whether its history might prove interesting or informative.

By November 3, a two-page personal meditation on a single item from the course’s public “meta-list” of possible, probable and interesting topics that could sustain a project. Each student writer should describe why they find this particular item or issue of interest, and what they suspect or estimate to be some of the key questions or problems surrounding this issue. This meditation should include a plan for developing the final project. All projects should include some component of historical investigation or inquiry.

By November 17, a 2-4 page bibliographic essay about important materials, sources, or documents relevant to the project.

The final project, which should be a substantive work of analysis and interpretation, is due by December 16th.

Is Digital Culture Really Digital? A Sampler of Some Other Histories

Monday September 1
Ann Blair, Too Much to Know, Introduction
Hobart and Schiffman, Information Ages, pp. 1-8
Jon Peterson, Playing at the World, pp. 212-282
*Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates, pp. 1-82
Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, selection

Imagining a Digital Culture in an Atomic Age

Monday September 8
Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”, http://downlode.org/Etext/nine_billion_names_of_god.html
Ted Friedman, Electric Dreams, Chapter Two and Three

Film: Desk Set
Colossus the Forbin Project (in-class)
Star Trek, “The Ultimate Computer” (in-class)

Monday September 15
Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/
Paul Edwards, The Closed World, Chapter 1. (Tripod ebook)
David Mindell, “Cybernetics: Knowledge Domains in Engineering Systems”, http://21stcenturywiener.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cybernetics-by-D.A.-Mindell.pdf
Fred Turner, Counterculture to Cyberculture, Chapter 1 and 2
Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, selection

In the Beginning Was the Command Line: Digital Culture as Subculture

Monday September 22
*Katie Hafner, Where Wizards Stay Up Late
*Steven Levy, Hackers
Wikipedia entries on GEnie and Compuserve

Film: Tron

Monday September 29
*John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider
Ted Nelson, Dream Machines, selection
Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence, selection
Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth Mother Board”, Wired, http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/ffglass_pr.html

Monday October 6
*William Gibson, Neuromancer
EFFector, Issues 0-11
Eric Raymond, “The Jargon File”, http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/index.html, Appendix B
Bruce Sterling, “The Hacker Crackdown”, Part 4, http://www.mit.edu/hacker/part4.html

Film (in-class): Sneakers
Film (in-class): War Games

FALL BREAK

Monday October 20
Consumer Guide to Usenet, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps61858/www2.ed.gov/pubs/OR/ConsumerGuides/usenet.html
Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace”
Randal Woodland, “Queer Spaces, Modem Boys and Pagan Statues”
Laura Miller, “Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier”
Lisa Nakamura, “Race In/For Cyberspace”
Howard Rheingold, “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community”
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen, selection

Hands-on: LambdaMOO
Hands-on: Chatbots
Hands-on: Usenet

Monday October 27

David Kushner, Masters of Doom, selection
Hands-on: Zork and Adventure

Demonstration: Ultima Online
Richard Bartle, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades”, http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

Rebecca Solnit, “The Garden of Merging Paths”
Michael Wolff, Burn Rate, selection
Nina Munk, Fools Rush In, selection

Film (in-class): Ghost in the Shell
Film (in-class): The Matrix

Here Comes Everybody

Monday November 3

Claire Potter and Renee Romano, Doing Recent History, Introduction

Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web, short selection
World Wide Web (journal) 1998 issues
IEEE Computing, March-April 1997
Justin Hall, links.net, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zQXJqAMAsM&list=PL7FOmjMP03B5v3pJGUfC6unDS_FVmbNTb
Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality”
Last Night of the SFRT, http://www.dm.net/~centaur/lastsfrt.txt
Joshua Quittner, “Billions Registered”, http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/mcdonalds_pr.html
A. Galey, “Reading the Book of Mozilla: Web Browsers and the Materiality of Digital Texts”, in The History of Reading Vol. 3

Monday November 10

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens
Bonnie Nardi, My Life as a Night-Elf Priest, Chapter 4

Hands-on: Twitter
Hands-on: Facebook
Meet-up in World of Warcraft (or other FTP virtual world)

Michael Wesich, “The Machine Is Us/Ing Us”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g
Ben Folds, “Ode to Merton/Chatroulette Live”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bBkuFqKsd0

Monday November 17

Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble, selection
Steven Levy, In the Plex, selection
John Battelle, The Search, selection

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire, Chapter 4
Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Era of Social Media: Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet, selection

Monday November 24

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, selection
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think, selection
Mat Honan, “I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook For Two Days”, http://www.wired.com/2014/08/i-liked-everything-i-saw-on-facebook-for-two-days-heres-what-it-did-to-me

Hands-on: Wikipedia
Hands-on: 500px

Monday December 1

Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom, selection
Gabriella Coleman, Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy, selection
Andrew Russell, Open Standards and the Digital Age, Chapter 8

Adrian Johns, Piracy, pp. 401-518

Hands-on: Wikileaks

Film: The Internet’s Own Boy

Monday December 8

Eugeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here
Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything, selection
Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future? , selection

Posted in Digital Humanities, Games and Gaming, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Intellectual Property, Popular Culture, Swarthmore | 4 Comments

Conduct Unbecoming

A campus Title IX coordinator recently made some interesting comments to Elizabeth Nolan Brown at the Dish about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

A lot of the national debate, such as it is, about what’s gone wrong in higher education and how to fix it, has centered on the question of whether colleges and universities should ever have judicial-style proceedings that involve accusations about serious crimes. Critics suggest that reports of sexual assault should go straight to the police and be resolved through the criminal justice system, that college administrations should be 100% uninvolved.

This is a silly argument as such, because the critics are starting from a misperception of (or sometimes a conscious, active distortion of) the overall context of campus judiciary proceedings. When reform advocates answer these critics in their own terms, the discussion sometimes tends to get trapped inside this misunderstanding. College policies need to be understood first and foremost in the context of college codes of conduct, which is what the Title IX coordinator points out at The Dish.

Both private and public universities admit students according to selective criteria and all of them reserve the right to revoke that admission to a matriculated student who violates their declared rules and procedures.

The most obvious or classic reason to expel or suspend a current student is poor academic performance. While almost no contemporary campuses will expel a student for a single semester of poor performance, a college or university could choose to adopt such a policy. An overly draconian (or lenient) policy on academic performance would likely bring heavy pressure for change from an accrediting agency, and a punitive approach would also very likely scare away prospective students. But you’re at least technically allowed to do it if you want.

Colleges and universities can also adopt very strict social policies if they like, and even strong civil libertarians and defenders of academic freedom tend to agree that a private institution is permitted to do so if it so chooses, though not to violate Constitutional rights or other statutory protections. So a strongly religious college, for example, can have a code of conduct that mandates expulsion or suspension for any consumption of alcohol, for any premarital sex, for smoking, for rejection of congregational doctrine, you name it. If a student matriculates there, they are accepting that code of conduct and the consequences of breaking it.

As the administrator quoted in The Dish points out, even secular institutions with no desire to regulate most private conduct by students in those respects routinely handle a wide variety of infractions of their own codes of conduct. They deal with plagiarism, fistfights, arrests for public drunkenness, vandalism of college property, drug dealing, theft, cheating, and so on.

One of the baseline principles in most colleges and universities is that a student who is a serious danger to the security and safety of fellow students, administrators and faculty or to the property of the institution and its community may be suspended or expelled. The most common second baseline is strictures against students who commit academic dishonesty such as plagiarism or cheating.

Academic dishonesty, for the most part, doesn’t involve criminal behavior, or even serious exposure to potential civil liability. And yet, campuses typically examine it using some kind of judicial proceeding. Higher education also has to deal with questions of conduct that might be criminal offenses in addition , and in those cases colleges and universities cannot afford to defer to and wait upon the criminal justice system. Because their concern in those instances is not with justice in that sense. It is with the safety, health and welfare of their current students, about maintaining conditions that allow those students to focus on their education while they are matriculated students. If you’re against judicial proceedings on sexual assault, are you against them on plagiarism? Ok–but surely then you are not against the notion that either of these infractions might be legitimately as violations of a code of conduct. You just believe that they should be handled differently.

If, for example, mobile devices and laptop within a dorm are being stolen regularly, that’s a threat to the welfare of the students in that dorm. If all the stolen devices are found in a dorm room of an enrolled student, the administration has to consider that student’s status whether or not they or the owners of the stolen devices have any interest in a criminal charge. If they deferred to the courts and took no action until that time, it could be months or years before the case was resolved–and in the meantime, the probable thief is still living in the dorms, where it is difficult or impossible to thoroughly monitor or supervise their actions. The college needs some way to decide what to do–and probably therefore some way to be sure that the student in question is very likely to be the person who stole the devices.

The debate should never be about whether colleges should make such decisions, or subordinate all their decisions to the criminal justice system.

I already pointed out that plagiarism and cheating couldn’t be dealt with if that were the case. There are many other situations that might fall into such a gap. You could, for example, have a student who persistently and deliberately commits extraordinary safety violations in laboratory courses. That’s likely not a criminal offense at all. The idea that a college should just stand by helplessly because there is no outside agency to consider the offense is crazy. So it needs a process, and that process has to include consideration of possible sanctions. If the student in question is a natural science major, then even if the intervention doesn’t involve something like suspension, it might involve compelling the student to change their major, which that student might likely see as a punishment.

How students see these kinds of actions is important, and is a big reason why most institutions today have some form of quasi-judicial process for dealing with some kinds of infractions of conduct codes. Not all of them: I suspect all colleges and universities have quietly suspended or expelled students in cases where they’d just as soon not talk about the infraction openly. Quasi-judicial processes on most campuses carry over historical traditions about honor codes and so on, that students should participate in judging their own and that students should be able to witness the consequences of infractions for exemplary reasons.

Higher education institutions could at their discretion rely on a purely executive decision: a faculty member could report cheating, a dean could then automatically expel. But most decision-making today in higher education is consultative and organizational hierarchies are relatively flat and decentralized, which work against that kind of action. If you’re going to have a consultative meeting between a dean and a faculty member about an accusation, why not throw in a couple more people, including the accused? The relative autonomy of tenure-track faculty, though fading in current institutions, could permit different faculty members to make accusations according to their own standards. The hearing is a chance to tie the decision to a consistent institutional policy or approach. Yet another reason is that most colleges and universities properly treat expulsion or suspension as serious penalties within their own context, and so seek procedures that are both substantively and performatively responsive to that sense of gravity. It’s not just that an expelled student is losing the value they’ve invested in their education. Even before all the current talk of “return on investment”, higher education was driven by a sense of mutual obligation between teachers and students, a belief that every generation was carrying forward important traditions.

A college or university can and should decide on standards that ensure that its students can get the education that they’re seeking. In the case of sexual assault, it can decide that any sexual behavior that could be judged to be predatory, aggressive or violating consent makes it impossible for other students to pursue their education in a safe, secure fashion. Particularly if the college or university in question believes, as most do, that at least some of the education they offer takes place outside the classroom, in the life of the community. In the pursuit of that safety, an institution could legitimately decide to decisively move students to other residences, change their course schedules, or suspend or expel the accused student. Or it could decide that it needs a thorough investigation of any such charges and a complicated, multilayered deliberative process. Or it could settle for a muddled, contradictory approach.

Under pressure from many activists, many colleges and universities are coming to the conclusion that they currently lack the expertise to assess such charges or to cope with their consequences, hence the changes unfolding at many institutions. If you question those changes, you have to come inside the frame of policies intended to deal with conduct violations, not stand outside and advocate relying on the criminal justice system as an alternative.

You can talk about what’s fair and unfair, efficient and inefficient, clear or unclear in how colleges and universities handle students who violate codes of conduct. What you can’t say is that those codes of conduct should somehow defer to criminal and civil proceedings, that colleges and universities should not have codes of conduct. They shouldn’t wait around for years to decide what to do about a student who poses a serious risk to others, or who has abused or disrupted the educational process. The only deference should be to the statutes and regulations (like Title IX) which directly address the obligations of institutions of higher learning.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 13 Comments

The Potential Condescension of “Informed Consent”

Many years ago, I was involved in judging an interdisciplinary grant competition. At one point, there was an intense discussion about a proposal where part of the research involved ethnographic research that concerned illegal activity in a developing country. We were all convinced of the researcher’s skill and sensitivity and the topic itself was unquestionably important. We were also convinced that it was plausible and that the researcher could handle immediate issues of safety for the researcher and the people being studied. The disagreement was about whether the subjects could ever give “informed consent” to being studied in a project that might ultimately identify enough about how they conducted their activities to put them at risk no matter how carefully the researcher disguised the identities of the informants.

I had to acknowledge that there was potential risk. When I teach Ellen Hellman’s classic sociological study of African urban life, Rooiyard, I point out to the students that she learned (and disclosed) enough about how women carried out illegal brewing to potentially help authorities disrupt those activities, which is one of the reasons (though surely not the only one) for the degree of suspicion that Hellman herself says she was regarded with.

But I thought this shouldn’t be an issue for the group because I believed (and still believe) that the men being studied could make up their own minds about whether to participate and about the risks of disclosure. Several of the anthropologists on the panel disagreed strongly: they felt that there was no circumstance under which these non-Western men in this impoverished society could accurately assess the dangers of speaking further with this researcher (who already knew the men and had done work with them on other aspects of their social and cultural lives). The disparities in power and knowledge, they felt, made something like “informed consent” impossible. Quite explicitly, my colleagues were saying that even if the men in the study felt like it was ok to be studied, they were wrong.

Now this was long enough ago that on many campuses, Institutional Review Boards were only just getting around to asserting their authority over qualitative and humanistic research, so in many ways our committee was providing that kind of oversight in the absence of it existing on individual campuses. Over multiple years of participating, I only saw this kind of question come up three or four times, and this was the most “IRB-like” of all these conversations.

I was alarmed then and have remained alarmed at the potential for unintended consequences from this perspective. Much as we might like to blame those consequences on bureaucratic overreach or administrative managerialism, which today often functions as all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card for faculty, the story at least starts with wholly good intentions and a generative critique of social power.

From a great many directions, academics began to understand about forty years ago that asymmetries of power and wealth didn’t simply disappear once someone said, “Hey, I’m just doing some research”. There were a great many critical differences between an ethnographic conversation between an American professor and an African villager on one hand and a police interrogation room on the other, but those differences didn’t mean that the former situation was a frictionless meeting between totally equal people who just decided to have a nice conversation about a topic of mutual interest.

The problem with proceeding from a more self-aware, self-reflexive sense of how power pervades all social relations and interactions to a sense that everyone with less power must be protected from everyone with more power is that this very rapidly becomes a form of racism or discrimination vastly more objectionable than the harm it alleges to prevent. What it leads to is a categorical assertion that entire groups of people are systematically less able to understand and assess their self-interest, less able to understand the consequences of their actions, less able to be trusted with their own agency as human beings. The difference between this view and the imperial and racist version of colonial subjects is small to nonexistent. Yes, there may be contexts like prisons or the aforementioned interrogation room where it takes specific attention to protect and recognize moments of real consent and communication, but it is important that we see those contexts as highly specific and bounded. There are moments where it is strategically, ethically, and even empirically important to defend universals, and this is one of them. Subjectivity has difference, but the rights and perogatives of modern personhood should be assumed to apply to everyone.

A good researcher, in my experience, knows when something’s been said in a conversation that it’s best not to translate into scholarship. Much as a good colleague knows when to keep a confidence that they weren’t directly asked to keep. We’re all sitting on things that were said to us in trust, sometimes by people who were trying to impress us or worried about what we might think, that we never use and often consciously try to forget that we heard. The problem occurs when this kind of sensitive, quintessentially situational judgment call gets translated into a rule, a committee, a structure, a dictum because we’re afraid of, and occasionally encounter, a bad researcher (or a good one who makes a bad judgment call).

I accepted my colleagues’ call in that long-ago conversation though I thought and still think they were wrong, because it was one project being evaluated in one discussion for one organization. I don’t accept it when I think I think the call is being made categorically, in whatever context. If you want an example of what can happen when that sort of view of human subjects settles in to stay and becomes a dictum, I think a distinction between an American doctor being judged capable of making informed consent to taking an experimental drug for ebola and a Sierra Leonean doctor being judged of not being capable of informed consent.

Posted in Academia, Africa, Oath for Experts | 1 Comment

Feeling For You

Just about every day, my social media feeds surge at some point with anger at judgmental comments, sometimes specific comments by a public figure, sometimes collections or assemblies of common forms of implied or ‘polite’ judgmental remarks directed at entire groups of people, aka microaggressions.

If you have a wide enough range of social groups and people represented in your feeds, you will sooner or later hear one group of people saying some of the things in an untroubled or unselfconscious manner that fuel anger over in another group. Very rarely will the two groups actually be talking to each other, however, unless you choose to identify yourself as the Venn overlap and expose them to one another. Most of us know that little good can come of that: more typically, if you’re in basic agreement with the angry people, the simultaneity of conversations may spark you to unfriend or unsubscribe.

You have to have a really wide-ranging network of social media contacts or a really expansive taste for political and social variety to encounter certain overlaps. Almost everyone in my Facebook network is careful about any comments on race or expresses strongly within one major discourse that is critical of racial supremacy and racial injustice, for example, which I’m sure says something about my own professional and personal identity. Generally, I only see some of that overlap when one of my few friends who has a sizeable following to the right says something that seems too liberal in racial terms for the rest of his or her followers.

One place where I do see circles like this in my feeds are two rivalrous groups that are deliberately working to avoid any kind of intimate or insider understanding (and thus possible sympathy) for one another. The obvious case is Palestinians (and their sympathizers) and Israelis (and their sympathizers), but in a more quotidian vein I see it between faculty and administrators (though the latter group tend to be much more circumspect about expressing anything in social media, which I think is a pity).

Where I’m more likely to see this kind of overlap is in comments about body size/body image, mental health, parenting and family, age and youth, and in certain discourses about gender but not others. If I had to sum it up, in conversations about other people that concern attributes and experiences that are historically associated with the private, domestic and personal.

One example. What I see in this instance is one cluster of people for whom the existence of judgmental comments about body size and shape are powerfully explained by their views about social justice and discrimination. And then another group of people who unselfconsciously talk about weight and body size and exercise in terms of public health and private happiness. The second group is barely aware that the first group exists, and if they were aware, would regard them as risible or extreme. The second group is also often politically progressive and regard their views on body size and health as an outgrowth of other commitments they have to avoiding mass-produced food, to self-care and autonomy, to environmental justice and much else.

As an overweight person, I’m sympathetic to the first group. I’m often a bit stunned at how colleagues and acquaintances I know who would absolutely flip out if anyone “microaggressed” in their presence about race, gender or sexuality have zero problem asking me about my diet, commenting on my weight, wondering whether I’m healthy, or in one case, poking my in my belly several times during a conversation and saying, “How about that, eh?”

On the other hand, for all sorts of reasons, I don’t really feel like signing on with the conventional set of moves made within identity politics on this issue. Much of that is that I’m not really the kind of person who suffers serious consequences of body-image, body-shape discrimination: as always, white men get away with stuff that other people can’t. But it’s also that I just am not prepared to identify with or claim anything that’s based on the fact that other people feel it’s ok to be stunningly rude and actually touch my body, even though I find that always annoying and sometimes emotionally distressing.

I am more interested in figuring out what’s going on in this and many other cases, and the assumption that this is part of a coherent structure for the maintenance of discriminatory power seems premature, to interfere with that investigation.

It’s relevant today with the undercurrent here and there of a few people expressing anger with Robin Williams for committing suicide rather than sadness. We hear that kind of expression about public figures, more or less depending on how what they did relates to conventional wisdom. Why didn’t this person do that? Why is that person doing that thing? What’s wrong with them? Sometimes the discourse is fairly unanimous that it’s ok to pass judgment (say, on Justin Bieber); sometimes the discourse is fairly unanimous that only an asshole would say something like that (say, on Robin Williams). The most interesting cases for me are when it’s not only evenly divided, but the two groups are not really talking to one another.

There are days where I feel a sort of generic libertarianism is the right answer to all of this discourse, to all those circles in my feeds where someone is concerning themselves with another person’s body, behavior, looks. Just tend to your own knitting, judge not lest ye be judged, beam in your eye, all that.

But not only is that an impossible prescription to live up to, it’s too incurious. Why do circles form where it’s not only permitted but almost mandatory to pass judgment on some group or behavior? The conventional answer in most identity politics is that the judgments are produced by an infrastructure of stereotypes that is a functional part of structures of discrimination. E.g., that dominant groups use such judgments (and communicate them through microaggressions) in order to buttress their own power and status.

I think that’s part of the story, but when you wander away from the histories and structures whose connections to power and injustice blaze in neon, when you wander into that more personal, domestic, private space, I think some other dimensions crop up as well.

When the streams do cross and someone in a group or a discussion suddenly says, “Actually, I feel pretty hurt or offended by the way you folks are talking about this issue, because I’m actually the thing you’re talking about”, what happens? Sometimes people make non-apology apologies (“sorry that you’re offended”), sometimes people double-down and say, “You’re crazy, there’s nothing offensive about talking about X or Y”. A turn or two in the conversation, though, and what you’ll often hear is this: “Look, I just care about you and people like you. So I want to help.” (Or its close sibling: “Look, not to insult you personally, but people like you/behavior like that costs our society a lot of money and/or inflicts a lot of pain on other people. Don’t you think it would be better if…”)

I’d actually like to concede the sincerity of that response: that we get drawn into these discussions and the judgments they create out of concern for other people, out of concern for moral and social progress. That we feel passionately about people who let their children go to the park by themselves, about people who train their children to go hunting, about people who are overweight, about people who drive big SUVs, about people play their radios too loudly in their cars, about people who buy overly expensive salsa, about people who play video games, about people who raise backyard chickens, about people who demand accommodations for complex learning disabilities, about people who follow the fashion industry, about people who post to Instagram, about people who feed their kids fast food twice a week to save time, and so on.

I’d like to concede the sincerity but the problem is that most of these little waves of moral condemnation or judgmental concern don’t seem to be particularly compassionate or particularly committed. The folks who say, “I just want to help, because I care about you” show no signs of that compassion otherwise. They usually aren’t close friends to the person they’re commenting on, they usually have little empathy or curiosity overall. The folks who say, “Because I care about progress, about solving the bigger problem” don’t show much interest in that alleged bigger problem. The person who hates the big SUVs because they’re damaging the environment is often environmentally profligate in other ways. If the SUV-judger is consistently environmentally sensitive, some other aspect of their concern for the world, their vision of a better society, may be woefully out of synch or weakly developed.

The people I know who really care about others generally aren’t the people going on Facebook to say, “Man, I’m sick of people hiding behind claims of depression” or “If I meet another mother who thinks it’s ok to bring cupcakes to my child’s class, I’m going to go berserk”. The people I know who are really think about incremental moves to improve the world don’t get hung up on passing judgments on someone they’ve witnessed fleetingly in public.

I’m in strong agreement with the idea that there is no such thing as “reverse racism”, if by that we mean the capacity for a white person to suffer systematic consequences for being white. Even if a white person works in a specific context where the professional consequences of felt animus towards whites might have an impact on them, that’s still a very limited and constrained kind of consequence.

But any single individual can deliver emotional suffering to any other individual, sometimes consciously and directly, other times without any awareness of doing so. My feeds are lighting up right now with very well-meaning people reminding everyone that middle-aged men, including white and wealthy men, are both prone to depression and prone to keeping their feelings private. The categorical part of that point is sociological. It’s the same way that we rightfully identify the problems that our society suffers from and ought to confront. But the compassionate part of that point might be to think about specific individuals with whom we’re in specific social connection. To be aware that we can always hurt someone else, that we have hurt someone else. Sometimes that’s not our fault, and sometimes what we said was needful or important or defined own freedom to express and imagine and explore. In a world full of familiar strangers and strange friends, there’s no way to anticipate all the minds and hearts that might be touched by what we say and do. There are ways, though, to be mindful of the possibilities.

This is something that many of us found out in the first wave of going online. The classic sequence was that first we all self-disclosed and felt a sense of intimacy, but not because we knew the other people in the conversation as people. We did it because a sense of anonymity: talking with a million other strangers was like shouting across a cliff in a wilderness. Who was there to remember? And then we discovered that the familiar strangers could actually reply and engage in dialogue. Some of them said things that we hated or disagreed with, so we unloaded on them with greater and greater intensity. Many of us still do that in various online hang-outs. Sooner or later, most of us discovered the hard way that a person on the other end was real. Sometimes we found, painfully, that their reality was radically other than their online persona. That the person who engaged everyone with their tales of being victimized by a family member or otherwise was the victimizer, the person dying of cancer wasn’t, the person who spoke with authority knew nothing. Sometimes we found, equally painfully, that the person we’d attacked or disparaged or belittled was writhing in emotional pain about it. Or that someone we’d never thought we were attacking had felt that way.

Social problems, oppression, injustice: we shouldn’t apologize ever for trying to engage them and change our world. When we justify what we say because we claim to have a sense of compassion: I just want people to be well, I just want children to be raised in a way that makes them happy and strong, I just want people to be more considerate of others, I just want people to know that actions have consequences? Then I think we have to be sure that it’s compassion we’re speaking from, rather than an insecure attempt to assure ourselves of our own superiority to others. Compassion, it seems to me, grows not from judgment but curiosity. Not from certainty, but humility. I’d love to see social media feeds where the Venn overlap on “curiosity” and “humility” in my various circles was one hundred percent.

Posted in Miscellany, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Popular Culture | 4 Comments