That Was the Month That Was

Catching up on some of the things that I failed to comment on in the last month but nevertheless have opinions about.

1) I’m deeply impressed by the report of the MLA’s Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. This is the rare example of a professional disciplinary association getting far out in advance of the profession and crafting a really bold statement of principle coupled with very specific and tangible recommendations. While I was very happy to be in Arizona and Las Vegas travelling while the MLA was meeting here in Philadelphia, this report alone made me wish I’d been there just to hear the discussion of it. The report really should become the orthodox standard at all institutions for guiding tenure and promotion in the humanities and social sciences. I’m sure this report isn’t the reason why this season seems to have come and gone without the standard-issue superficial culling of paper titles from lightweight critics of the MLA, of course. On the other hand, I didn’t see a lot of the people who complain about foot-dragging on the reform of tenure pipe up in support of the report, either. It’s always easier to snipe.

2. Another reason I almost wish I’d been at the MLA was to attend the session on blogging, based on Scott McLemee’s report. I think the most interesting issue to me is the question of the distinction between “academic blogs” and “academics who blog”, and the way that gender and pseudonymity get caught up in that. In terms of my recent musings about the limits and lifespan of my own commitment to blogging, I find that it’s impossible for me to stay clearly on one side or the other of “academic blog” versus “academic who blogs”. I do both things, and in both contexts, feel constraints both in terms of my understanding of the form and as a result of blogging under my own name. Some of those constraints I’d probably feel even if I was pseudonymous and doing something more like a livejournal or diary, and that’s where gender kicks in a bit. There’s just something in me, maybe a masculine something, that balks at excessive self-exploration in this online format, or that sets the “too much information” bar at a fairly restrictive point. There are academic blogs that do much more self-exploration than I do that I enjoy very much–Geeky Mom, 11D, Mamamusings, Bitch Ph.D–and it hasn’t escaped my notice that they’re by academic women (though not heavily pseudonymous women). I wonder sometimes if I could or should do more of that kind of discussion of the rhythms of everyday life. If I don’t, it isn’t out of strongly principled objection to that kind of writing in this kind of format. Something deeper in my own psyche is involved.

3) I sort of liked this Charles Stross entry on global warming and environmentalism. One of the things that frustrates me about the overall public discussion of global warming is that the factionalization of the debate leaves me feeling like I don’t have a team to cheer for. Some of the skeptics insist, dogmatically, that the phenomenon is exaggerated, or possibly the result of natural warming cycles in Earth’s climate. Or they’re nakedly motivated by particular vested interests. On the other hand, the dogmatism of a lot of environmentalist discourse about global warming drives me nuts in certain ways. Most notably, in the way that extremely specific public policy solutions to the problem get intrinsically coupled to the empirical documentation of the problem, often in a way that borders on dishonesty. There was a woman speaking for an organization that is looking to save the polar bears from global warming on the local NPR channel a short while back. I don’t disagree that polar bears appear to be in serious trouble as a result of global warming. But the advocate said, quite specifically, that we have a ten-year window, no more and no less, to reduce emissions drastically, and past that point, it’s all over not just for polar bears but the entire global ecosystem, and that greenhouse gas emissions from industry are the one and only thing that can be addressed. Moreover, that they can only be addressed through the specific framework of Kyoto, only through stringent caps on emissions, and so on. I feel like there’s a fairly substantial amount of that kind of rhetoric out there.

My problem is that I’m not real clear about how one carries out a deliberate systematic intervention into a complex system with emergent properties in order to produce a forseeable and controlled outcome. I’m not sure there are a lot of examples of deliberate, programmatic, planned intervention of that kind in modern experience to take as a model. So while I’m convinced that the totality of modern global society, including emissions, is a major cause of contemporary warming, I’m not convinced that the highly specific policy cocktails being sold as a solution to that problem will produce needed or even forseeable changes to that dynamic pattern of change over time. I can even see a lot of perverse outcomes possible here. It’s rather like pushing people to “eat organic”. I think eating organic makes a lot of sense as an aesthetic gesture for people who have money: organic produce and meats, if the term is defined in part through a preference for local sources and markets, and for a kind of “handcrafting” in the production of foodstuffs, are likely to be better. I don’t think it necessarily works out as an environmentalist initiative, though: organic farming and ranching might conceivably turn out to be more wasteful of space, or polluting in different ways, and so on. Massification and consumerism in the late 20th and early 21st Century may turn out to be environmentally positive both through efficiency and through the kinds of complex social transformations that they’re associated with (bourgeois consumerism coupled with available contraception and the legal and social protection of women’s rights has turned out to be the magic recipe for slow population growth, for example). Before I find any policy recommendations convincing, I need to have some sense that the recommenders are thoughtful about the nature of complex systems in general, and aware of the fundamental practical and epistemological problems involved in proposing to intervene in their emergent character.

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3 Responses to That Was the Month That Was

  1. withywindle says:

    You are admirably consistent–this is, of course, the same philosophical outlook you bring to bear on American military intervention abroad. Kudos.

    Just to toss something out there: we do actually now have some data on the effects of past environmental programs over the last century, so it is possible to argue (if hardly with total predictive accuracy) from experience. So 1) this argument predicated on experience is open to environmentalists; and 2) done rightly, it should have some purchase with you.


    You must have written some hundreds of thousands of words on the blog by now. I can’t imagine that you haven’t revealed very substantial amounts of your character by now. I am not sure that the narrative of your daily life would tell us more. (And, I confess, I rather like the idea of some scraps of privacy remaining in the world. Do remain a bulwark against the TMI-ing of the world.)

  2. jim says:

    There’s actually a connection between your (1) and (2). John Holbo’s talk for the blogging panel (a pdf of his draft is linked from Scott’s piece) referred to the report on tenure and promotion (Michael Berube, also on the panel, had been part of the task force: academic incest again). John made an a priori argument that tenure rates ought to remain constant, that a department that too frequently denies tenure thereby incurs avoidable costs: every time you deny tenure you subject yourself to a new search process. To my mind, this nicely resolved the problem with the task force’s report. There are three statements in the report: (1) the publication requirements for tenure in the humanities is increasing, (2) the opportunities for publication in the humanities are decreasing, (3) tenure rates remain constant. The only way all three of these can be true simultaneously is for there to be a disjunction between what departments say are their requirements for tenure and what departments actually do when confronted with a tenure candidate. John’s argument can probably be pushed into a game-theoretic argument that there’s an optimal rate of tenure denial, which sufficiently creates the impression (not least to one’s junior faculty) of dedication to research, while incurring least recruiting costs.

  3. Doug says:

    I think that Bruce Sterling and the Viridian Greens got name-checked pretty early in Stross’ comment thread. If not, they certainly should have been, and if you’re interested in climate and environmental commentary that’s ahead of the curve and orthogonal to tired debates,

    A brief excerpt from one of the early Viridian manifestoes:

    ” The Viridian Grandfather Principle

    “When a particular course of green action is suggested, ask yourself if it might not be done better by someone who is dead. For instance, conserving water. Is your deceased grandfather better at conserving water than you are? He is, isn’t he? He’s even better at boycotting ExxonMobil. These may be worthy efforts, but they are not Viridian. Viridians prefer to carry out green activities that living people can do well.”

    Another Viridian precept is not to fight consumer impulses because they are going to win anyway. Make green choices the most desirable things around and let people’s naturally un-altruistic tendencies work for you. (See also, I suppose, United States Constitution.)

    Anyway, if the Stross discussion interested you, Sterling will too. Plus he’s also got a blog.

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