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.


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.


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.


Timothy Burke
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.


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


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

The Listicle as Course Design

I’ve been convinced for a while that one of the best defenses of small classes and face-to-face pedagogy within a liberal arts education would be to make the process of that kind of teaching and coursework more visible to anyone who would like to witness it.

Lots of faculty have experimented with publishing or circulating the work produced by class members, and many have also shared syllabi, notes and other material prepared by the professor. Offering the same kind of detailed look at the day-to-day teaching of a course isn’t very common and that’s because it’s very hard to do. You can’t just videotape each class session: being filmed would have a negative impact on most students in a small 8-15 person course, and video doesn’t offer a good feel for being there anyway. It’s not a compressed experience and so it doesn’t translate well to a compressed medium.

I have been trying to think about ways to leverage participation by crowds to enliven or enrich the classroom experience of a small group of students meeting face-to-face and thus also give observers a stake in the week-by-week work of the course that goes beyond the passive consumption of final products or syllabi.

In that spirit, here’s an idea I’m messing around with for a future course. Basically, it’s the unholy combination of a Buzzfeed listicle and the hard, sustained work of a semester-long course. The goal here would be to smoothly intertwine an outside “audience” and an inside group of students and have each inform the other. Outsiders still wouldn’t be watching the actual discussions voyeuristically, but I imagine that they might well take a week-to-week interest in what the class members decided and in the rationale laid out in their notes.


History 90: The Best Works of History

Students in this course will be working together over the course of the semester to critically appraise and select the best written and filmed works that analyze, represent or recount the past. This will take place within a bracket tournament structure of the kind best known for its use in the NCAA’s “March Madness”.

The initial seeding and selection of works will to be read by class members will be open to public observers as well as enrolled members of the class. The professor will use polls and other means for allowing outside participants to help shape the brackets. One side of the bracket will be works by scholars employed by academic institutions; the other side will be works by independent scholars, writers, and film-makers who do not work in academia.

The first four weeks of the class will be spent reading and discussing the nature of excellence in historical research and representation: not just what “the historian’s craft” entails, but even whether it is possible or wise to build hierarchies that rely on concepts of quality or distinctiveness. Class members will decide through discussion what they think are some of the attributes of excellent analytic or representational work focused on the past. Are histories best when they mobilize struggles in the present, when they reveal the construction of structures that still shape injustice or inequality? When they document forms of progress or achievement? When they teach lessons about common or universal challenges to human life? When they amuse, enlighten or surprise? When they are creatively and rhetorically distinctive? When they are thoroughly and exhaustively researched?

At the end of this introductory period, students will craft a statement that explains the class’ shared criteria, and this statement will be published to a course weblog, where observers can comment on it. Students will then be divided into two groups for each side of the bracket. Each group will read or view several works each week on their side of the overall bracket. During class time, the two groups will meet to discuss their views about which work in each small bracket should go forward in the competition and why, taking notes which will eventually be published in some form to the course weblog. Students will also have to write a number of position papers that critically appraise one of the books or films in the coming week and that examine some of the historiography or critical literature surrounding that work.

The final class meeting will bring the two groups together as they attempt to decide which work should win the overall title. In preparation, all students will write an essay discussing the relationship between scholarly history written within the academic and the production of historical knowledge and representation outside of it.

Posted in Academia, Defining "Liberal Arts", Digital Humanities, Production of History, Swarthmore | 3 Comments

On The Invisible Bridge

I’ve been following some of the discussion about Rick Perlstein’s new book on the 1970s.

I agree with many scholars that the basic problem with online endnotes is the persistent danger of the main text and the sourcing becoming disconnected over time unless there’s a heavily institutionalized plan for any necessary migration of the citations. At this point, there’s really nothing of the sort, so I think both publishers and authors would be well-advised to just stick with putting the notes in the printed text.

I’m guessing that Rick Perlstein might be wishing he’d done just that at this point. It’s not clear that it would have protected him from the basically spurious claim that his new book plagiarizes an earlier book by Craig Shirley, but from the current state of the back-and-forth between the two authors and their various defenders and lawyers, it may be that Shirley jumped to the conclusion that Perlstein had paraphrased him without proper attribution because the numerous attributions were in the online endnotes. It’s more likely, though, that Shirley objected because Perlstein looked at the same things that Shirley did and came to very different conclusions. Following the discussion online and looking at the evidence, I really don’t see anything that I would call plagiarism and not much that I would even call careless.

I’m just starting the book for its actual content, but I’m sympathetic to David Weigel’s suggestion that Perlstein is being targeted because Reagan is a more sacred figure for contemporary cultural conservatives than Goldwater or Nixon. Most of them abjure Nixon as a RINO, if they remember him at all, and Goldwater is at this point as relevant to many of them as Calvin Coolidge. Many current conservatives, however, have a strongly vested interest in not remembering Reagan in his actual context, where he presents some real puzzles in terms of our contemporary moment.

For me, though, the persistent argument I like most in Perlstein’s previous two books applies with more force to progressives than to conservatives. I suspect his new book will continue the general thrust of his analysis in this respect. I think Perlstein shows (and means to show) that postwar American conservatism has surprisingly extensive and complex social roots and that at least some of its social roots have a kind of genuine “from below” legitimacy. This might account for why his previous two books initially received appreciative readings from conservatives, in fact.

In his book on Goldwater, Perlstein documents, among other things, that one of Goldwater’s enduring sources of support was from small business owners, especially away from the major coastal cities. I read Perlstein as being genuinely surprised not only that there was a sort of coherent social dimension to this vein of support but that the antipathy of this group towards the federal government had some legitimacy to it, primarily because as federal authority expanded after the war, small businesses got hit with a wave of regulatory expectations that had a serious economic impact on them.

In general in his books, Perlstein does a great job of careful investigatory attention to the social origins of conservative sentiment and ideology and then couples that investigation to a critical appraisal of how political elites and party leaders reworked or mobilized those sentiments. The layered account he gives of the rise of postwar conservatism explains a great deal about how we got to the point we’re at today. While he’s not at all sympathetic to either the content or consequences of conservatism as he describes it (then and now) what I think his account comprehensively rebukes is the kind of progressive response to right-wing political power that falls back on tropes like “astroturfing” or that otherwise assumes that conservatism is the automated, inorganic response of a dying demographic to the loss of social power, that there is nothing real to it or that its reality is simple and self-interested.

I remarked briefly on Twitter that I think most of Perlstein’s progressive fans miss the implications of his work in this respect (and he replied that this needed more than 140 characters for him to make sense of my point). In a way, I’d see Perlstein’s work as a modern companion to the richer kinds of histories of “whiteness” that Nell Irvin Painter, David Roedinger and Noel Ignatieff have written, none of which encourage us to see whiteness as a subjectivity or social formation that was defined solely by instrumental self-interest or that was constructed entirely “from above” with conscious design.

The implications of an analysis like Perlstein’s for actual participation in contemporary politics would be to first peel apart the sources of historical and social energy within your opposition and look carefully at where there are real and imagined grievances that you can actually appreciate, address or be in conversation with. Communitarians have one axis of sympathy they can try to traverse; liberals and libertarians another.

The second is to never assume the charge of astroturfing does much of anything to advance a meaningful politics or for understanding why things actually happen in elections, in governance, in popular consciousness: that is the move of a largely intra-elite war of position that gains inches at best, not yards. Focusing on astroturfing, even when it is undoubtedly happening and has significance for controlling dominant “framing” narratives that influence politics, is mostly an alibi for not doing the much harder work of understanding what’s happening in the larger lived experience of communities and regions. The astroturfing charge is ultimately a sort of degeneration of an older left belief in ideology, a belief that coherent formations of thought and belief crafted by self-conscious elites then structured consciousness and directed political action outside the elite. Thus you get folks like Thomas Frank thinking that losing Kansas is largely a matter of dastardly hegemons cunningly and deliberately blinding people to their authentic self-interest, rather than a slower organic history in which people connected some existing religious, cultural, and social convictions to an increasing disenchantment with the role of the state in their everyday lives, a connection that they have held to with some degree of deliberate agency.

Third, stop assuming that postwar conservatism’s content is wholly protean or arbitrary. “Big government” in this sense may be in all sorts of ways a really messed-up construction that obscures the degree to which mostly-conservative voting districts are actually the enthusiastic recipients of all sorts of public money, but it’s not a random or senseless trope at its origin point, either, at least not as I read the history that Perlstein so ably distills. Which doesn’t mean that the social reality of its derivation is positive, either, since at least one of the aspects of “government” that had become an issue by the early 1970s in Perlstein’s view, as per Nixonland, is its interventions into the political economy of race and racial discrimination.

Fourth, restore some contingency to the story. Perlstein is very good on this in particular when he’s talking about political elites, politicians and party leaders, that the ways in which the fusion of popular and party agendas happened was full of false starts, unpredictable gambits, and improvisations.

All of which to me imply that progressives today habitually underestimate the historicity, rootedness and local authenticity of what they regard as conservatism, and therefore mostly end up stuck with intra-elite theaters of struggle and debate within familiar institutions and communities, all the while misperceiving those as more than they really are. I’ll be curious to see whether this part of what I see in Perlstein’s history changes as we move in to his “invisible bridge”.

Posted in Politics, Production of History | Comments Off

Playing the Odds

The idea that higher education makes you a better person in some respect has long been its soft underbelly.

The proposition makes most current faculty and administrators uncomfortable, especially at the smaller teaching-centered colleges that are prone to invoke tropes about community and ethics. The discomfort comes both from how “improvement” necessarily invokes an older conception of college as a finishing school for a small, genteel elite and from how genuinely indispensible it seems for most definitions of “liberal arts”.

Almost every attempt to create breathing room between the narrow teaching of career-ready skills and a defense of liberal arts education that rejects that approach is going to involve some claim that a liberal arts education enlightens and enhances the people who undergo it in ways that aren’t reducible to work or specific skills, that an education should, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, “cultivate humanity”.

This is part of the ground being worked by William Deresiewicz’s New Republic critique of the elitism of American higher education. One of the best rejoinders to Deresiewicz is Chad Wellmon’s essay “Twilight of an Idol”, which conjoins Deresiewicz with a host of similar critics like Andrew Delbanco and Mark Edmundson.

I see much the same issue that Wellmon does, that most of these critiques are focused on what the non-vocational, non-instrumental character of a college education was, is and should be. Wellmon and another critic, Osita Nwanevu, point out that there doesn’t need to be anything particularly special about the four years that students spend pursuing an undergraduate degree. As Wellmon comments, “There is, thankfully, no going back to the nineteenth-century Protestant college of Christian gentlemen. And that leaves contemporary colleges, as we might conclude from Deresiewicz’s jeremiad, still rummaging about for sources of meaning and ethical self-transformation. Some invoke democratic citizenship, critical thinking, literature, and, most recently, habits of mind. But only half-heartedly—and mostly in fundraising emails.”

Half-heartedly is right, precisely because most faculty know full well that all the substitutes for the older religious or gentlemanly ideals of “cultivation” still rest upon and invoke those predicates. But we can’t dispense with this language entirely because we have nothing else that spans academia that meaningfully casts shade at the instrumental, vocational, career-driven vision of education.

The sciences can in a pinch fall back on other ideas about utility and truth: their ontological assumptions (and the assumptions that at least some of the public make about the sciences) are here a saving grace. This problem lands much harder on the humanities, and not just as a challenge to their reproduction within the contemporary academy.

I wrote last year about why I liked something Teju Cole had said about writing and politics. Cole expressed his disappointment that Barack Obama’s apparent literacy, his love of good books, had not in Cole’s view made Obama a more consistently humane person in his use of military power.

I think Cole’s observation points to a much more pressing problem for humanistic scholars in general. Intellectuals outside the academy have been and still are under no systematic pressure to justify what they do in terms of outcomes. As a novelist or essayist or critic you can be a brutal misanthropist, you can drift off into hallucinogenic dream-states, you can be loving or despairing or detached. You can claim your work has no particular instrumental politics or intent, or that your work is defined by it. You don’t have to be right about whether what you say you’re doing is in fact what you actually do, but you still have a fairly wide-open space for self-definition.

Humanists inside the academy might think they have the same freedom to operate, but that clashes very hard with disciplinarity. Most of us claim that we have the authority that we do because we’ve been trained in the methods and traditions of a particular disciplinary approach. We express that authority within our scholarly work (both in crafting our own and in peer reviewing and assessing the work of others) and in our curricular designs and governance. And most of us express, to varying degrees, a whiggish or progressive view of disciplinarity, that we are in our disciplines understanding and knowing more over time, understanding better, that we are building upon precedent, that we are standing on the shoulders of someone–if not giants, at least people the same size as us. If current disciplinary work is just replacing past disciplinary work, and the two states are essentially arbitrary, then most of our citational practices and most of our curricular practices are fundamentally wasted effort.

So if you’re a moral philosopher, for example, you really need to think in your own scholarly work and in your teaching of undergraduates that the disciplined study of moral philosophy provides systematic insights into morality and ethics. If it does, it shouldn’t seem like a big leap to suggest that such insight should allow those who have it to practice morality better than those who have not. This doesn’t mean necessarily that a moral philosopher has to be more moral in the conventional terms of a dominant moral code. Maybe the disciplinary study of morality and ethics leads scholars more often to the conclusion that most dominant moral codes are contradictory or useless. Or that morality is largely an arbitrary expression of power and domination. Doesn’t really matter what the conclusions are, just that it’s reasonable to think that the rigorous disciplinary study of morality through philosophy should “cultivate the humanity” of a moral philosopher accordingly.

But if you’ve known moral philosophers, you’ve known that there is not altogether much a notable difference between them and other academics, between them and other people with their basic degree of educational attainment, between them and other people with the same social backgrounds or identities, between them and other people from the same society, and so on, in terms of morality and ethics. It seems to me that what they know has strikingly little effect on who they are, how they act, what they feel.

Many humanist scholars would say that reading fiction gives us insights into what it means to be human, but it’s pressingly difficult to talk about what those insights have done to us, for us, to describe what transformations, if any, we’ve undergone. Many historians would argue that the disciplined study of history teaches us lessons about the human condition, about how human societies navigate both common social and political challenges and about what makes the present day distinctively different from the past.

I’m often prepared to go farther than that. Many of my colleagues disliked a recent assessment exercise here at the college where we were asked about a very broad list of possible “institutional learning goals”. I disliked it too, mostly because of how assessment typically becomes quantitative and incremental. I didn’t necessarily dislike the breadth, though. Among the things we were asked to consider is whether our disciplines teach values and skills like “empathy”. And I would say that yes, I think the study of history can teach empathy. E.g., that a student might through studying history become more able to feel empathy in a wider and more generative range.

The key for me is that word, “might”. If moral philosophers are not significantly more moral, if economists are not significantly more likely to make superior judgments about managing businesses or finances, if historians are not significantly better at applying what they know about past circumstances to their own situations, if literary critics don’t seem altogether that better at understanding the interiority of other people or the meaning of what we say to one another, then that really does call into question that vague “other” that we commonly say separates a liberal arts approach to education from a vocational strategy.

No academic (I hope) would say that education is required to achieve wisdom. In fact, it is sometimes the opposite: knowing more about the world can be, in the short-term, an impediment to understanding it. I think all of us have known people who are terrifically wise, who understand other people or the universe or the social world beautifully without ever having studied anything in a formal setting. Some of the wise get that way through experiencing the world, others through deliberate self-guided inquiry.

What I would be prepared to claim is something close to something Wellmon says, that perhaps college might “might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and the larger society as well”.

But my “might” is a bit different. My might is literally a question of probabilities. A well-designed liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee wisdom (though I think it can guarantee greater concrete knowledge about subject matter and greater skills for expression and inquiry). But it could perhaps be designed so that it consistently improves the odds of a well-considered and well-lived life. Not in the years that the education is on-going, not in the year after graduation, but over the years that follow. Four years of a liberal arts undergraduate experience could be far more likely to produce not just a better quality of life in the economic sense but a better quality of being alive than four years spent doing anything else.

I think I can argue that the disciplinary study of history can potentially contribute to the development of a capacity for empathy, or emotional intelligence, an understanding of why things happen the way that they do and how they might happen differently, and many other crafts and arts that I would associate as much with wisdom as I do with knowledge, with what I think informs a well-lived life. But potential is all I’m going to give out. I can’t guarantee that I’ll make someone more empathetic, not the least because I’m not sure how to quantify such a thing, but also because that’s not something everybody can be or should be counted upon to get from the study of history. It’s just, well, more likely that you might get that than if you didn’t study history.

This sense of “might” even justifies rather nicely the programmatic hostility to instrumentally-driven approaches to education among many humanists. Yes, we’re cultivating humanity, it’s just that we’re not very sure what will grow from any given combination of nutrients and seeds. In our students or ourselves.

This style of feeling through the labyrinth gives me absolutely no title to complacency, however. First, it’s still a problem that increased disciplinary knowledge and skills do not give us proportionately increased probability of incorporating that knowledge into our own lives and institutions. At some point, more rigorous philosophical analyses about when to pull the lever on a trolley or more focused historical research into the genesis of social movements doesn’t consistently improve the odds of making better moral decisions or participating usefully in the formation of social movements.

Second, I don’t think most curricular designs in contemporary academic institutions actually recognize the non-instrumental portion of a liberal-arts education as probabilistic. If we did see it that way, I think we’d organize curricula that had much less regularity, predictability and structure–in effect, much less disciplinarity.

This is really the problem we’re up against: to contest the idea that education is just about return-on-investment, just about getting jobs, we need to offer an education whose structural character and feeling is substantially other than what it is. Right now, many faculty want to have their cake and eat it too, to have rigorous programs of disciplinary study that are essentially instrumental in that they primarily encourage students to do the discipline as if it were a career, justified in a tautological loop where the value of the discipline is discovered by testing students on how they demonstrate that the discipline is, in its own preferred terms, valuable.

If we want people to take seriously that non-instrumental “dark side of the moon” that many faculty claim defines what college has been, is and should remain, we have to take it far more seriously ourselves, both in how we try to live what it is that we study and in how we design institutions that increase the probabilities that our students will not just know specific things and have specific skills but achieve wisdoms that they otherwise could not have found.

Posted in Academia, Defining "Liberal Arts", Generalist's Work, Swarthmore | 10 Comments