the position of power redux

Robin Hanson begins this post by quoting a passage in Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments in which Cowen talks about whether economics is about satisfying people’s preferences. Hanson wants to reflect on this, but he also wants to talk about something else:

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.)

It has long been remarkable to me how often social scientists, and philosophers when they concern themselves with public issues, consider their subjects from the position of power. As I say in that post I just linked to,

There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

I’m therefore glad to see Hanson push back on this habit. He envisions “a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral ‘dealmaking’ process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all.“

But consider how rare this perspective is, especially among academics dealing with public policy in any form. Imagine academic treatises on policy written from the perspective of people who have policies imposed on them whether they like those policies or not. Maybe there are such treatises, but I haven’t seen them.

academic labor as social media

The current argument about whether scholars should cite the work of nasty people — here is the argument against citing them, and here is a rebuttal — is interesting primarily as a reminder of how citation actually functions in many academic fields, including my own. It is not, typically, an acknowledgment of genuine intellectual indebtedness, but rather a signaling mechanism, a way to mark tribal affiliation.

Pick any recent article in a humanities journal and you’re likely to see several citations that don’t acknowledge the source for a specific idea, or an argument to which the author is responding (positively or negatively), but rather what one might call affiliational suggestion. Here’s an example from a recent article, chosen at random:

My language of counts and miscounts obviously owes a debt to Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis, 1999).

But what debt, specifically, is owed? This the footnote does not say, nor is is meant to say. The message is: “I have read and approved of appropriate critical texts.”

Note that in the essay that promoted this conversation Nikki Usher concludes, “We need to start asking questions about whether there are ways to have frank discussions with editors and even reviewers about why we might not want to keep reinforcing the academic fame and reputation of someone who would not do the same were the situation reversed.” And Usher is exactly right that this is how much academic citation works. By citing someone you pay them in the currency of reputation, because reputation itself is largely a function of simplistic metrics. I have seen departmental websites that list, alongside the name of faculty members, sparklines showing the history of their numbers of citations. Basically, academic citation works, nowadays, like a social media platform. To cite someone in your article or books is, effectively, a retweet. Except that you don’t get to say, and no one would believe you if you did say, “Retweets are not endorsements.”

I am tempted to formulate a new Law: Over time all cultural work asymptotically approaches the condition of Twitter.

the strange world of graduate study

In an article on the Avita Ronell controversy, Masha Gessen quotes a Facebook comment — apparently from a current or former student of Ronell’s — that has stuck with me. The author declined to be identified in the article, citing fear of recrimination, so nothing said in the comment can be confirmed. But I find it fascinating nonetheless:

We don’t need a conversation about sexual harassment by AR, we should instead talk about what AR and many of her generation call ‘pedagogy’ and what is still excused as ‘genius.’ When people talk about sexual harassment it’s within the logic of the symbolic order – penetration, body parts – I doubt you will find much of this here. But AR is all about manipulation and psychic violence…. AR pulls students and young faculty in by flattery, then breaks their self-esteem, goes on to humiliate them in front of others, until the only way to tell yourself and others that you have not been debased, that you have not been used by a pathological narcissist as a private slave, is that you are just so incredibly close, and that Avi is just so incredibly fragile and lonely and needs you 24/7 to do groceries, to fold her laundry, to bring her to acupuncture, to pick her up from acupuncture, to drive her to JFK, to talk to her at night, etc….

This comment brought back something that happened to me in graduate school, something that I haven’t thought about in decades.

In one of my classes I wrote my big final paper on a famous and yet almost wholly unread work, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The professor praised the paper very highly — indeed, I hadn’t written anything to that point in my grad-school career that had received as glowing an evaluation — and made it clear that he believed I had great potential. I was of course flattered by this, and when I saw that he was offering a seminar the following semester on a topic I was interested in, I signed up for it. At this late date I am not sure, but I think I was wondering whether this professor might make a good dissertation advisor; in any event, I very much looked forward to the course.

On the first day, he laid out the plan for the seminar. We would be studying an author of the first importance, he said, a figure fascinating and yet endlessly challenging. Writing about this author could bring out the best in us, or defeat us altogether; but in either case, it mattered — not, he concluded, like writing on something as useless as, say, Sidney’s Arcadia. And then he looked right at me.

After class I went away and thought about what had happened. It seemed to me that the professor was telling me, You are bright, young man, but you don’t know how to direct your abilities. If you take my guidance, I will set you on the right path. But if you continue on the path you are now going, I will have no respect for you. The more I thought about it the more sure I was (and for that matter still am) that this was the only plausible interpretation. So I walked over to the graduate office and dropped the course.

I saw the professor in the hall a week or two later, and he stopped me to ask what had happened to me. He seemed both concerned and wounded. I made an excuse of some kind — I think I said I had a scheduling conflict with my part-time job — and scurried away. We never spoke again.

Eventually I found a very different person to direct my dissertation, the brilliant and kind and odd Daniel Albright, God rest his soul. But just as Daniel and I began to work together, two things happened. First, I took a one-year appointment at Wheaton College — which turned into two, then three, and eventually twenty-nine; and second, a little later, Daniel went off for two years as a visiting professor in Germany. Remember, this was the 1980s and therefore pre-email (at least for most academic humanists). So I had a dissertation to write — in between bouts of grading freshman composition papers, hundreds and hundreds of freshman composition papers — and no ready way of being in touch with my advisor. So rather than writing a chapter, sending it off, waiting for a reply, getting the reply, incorporating revisions, sending it back — forget all that stuff, I thought — I just wrote the whole thing and when I was done, a couple of years later, I mailed it all to Daniel in Munich. A month or so later I got back his corrections and comments, all of them written, in a minuscule hand, on the front and back of one sheet of typing paper.

So what’s this little trip down memory lane all about? Just this: my realization that I have had none, absolutely none, of the experiences that, everyone says, are intrinsic to the career of a graduate student. (See this essay by Corey Robin, for instance, or this one by Chris Newfield.) No passive-aggressive games, no assertions of power, no building-up-and-then-tearing-down — not even anxieties about whether my advisor is writing me a strong enough job-recommendation letter. I already had a job, though I wasn’t sure that it would turn into a tenure-track one.

Moreover, I have spent my entire career teaching undergraduates, having played a role in but a handful of Masters’ and PhD theses, and even then a secondary one. So though I have been a professor of English and then Humanities for more than thirty years now, I am reading all these descriptions of what graduate study is really like with almost an anthropologist’s eye. What a strange and fascinating tribe! How peculiar their customs! I’m really, really glad not to be one of them.

I have one question

Avital Ronell is “original and inspiring.”

I’m sure. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Her “mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years.”

I will gladly take your word for it. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

She is “a powerful, radical, queer, feminist, professor who has always spoken out for the marginalized in society.”

Okay. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“It’s not the same thing to accuse a male person in power versus accusing a woman. It’s just not the same thing, because we’ve got a culture and a very long history in which males were dominant and abusing their power.”

I concede the point. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“People know that she is very friendly and open and crosses traditional boundaries in relationships with her students.”

Duly noted. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Ronell “is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.”

This could very well be true. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

pronoun trouble

Political philosopher Jason Brennan on the case for epistocracy:

Here’s what I propose we do: Everyone can vote, even children. No one gets excluded. But when you vote, you do three things. 

First, you tell us what you want. You cast your vote for a politician, or for a party, or you take a position on a referendum, whatever it might be. Second, you tell us who you are. We get your demographic information, which is anonymously coded, because that stuff affects how you vote and what you support. 

And the third thing you do is take a quiz of very basic political knowledge. When we have those three bits of information, we can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted if it was fully informed. 

There’s an intellectual habit, one very common to academics, at work in Brennan’s formulations that I’ve called attention to before, and you can get at it by noting his use of pronouns: We get your demographic information. You tell us what you want. You take the quiz, we administer and assess the quiz. We ask, you answer; you give us the information we require and we decide what to do with it, and how it should be interpreted. We’re running the experiment, you’re our experimental subject. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! 

Which means, of course, that none of us will ever have our vote discounted. 

As I’ve noted in a slightly different (but not altogether different) context, “There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power.” It’s enough to make a Franz Fanon disciple out of me. 

the ed-tech snake-oil salesmen

This year we in the Honors Program at Baylor were told that we could no longer submit our annual activity reports as MS Word files. Instead, we must use an “instrument” called Digital Measures. Just take a look at that website and you’ll see what Digital Measures is all about: things like “THE WORKFLOW MODULE for ACTIVITY INSIGHT.”

What’s it like to use Digital Measures? Let’s suppose that you want to enter the data for a journal article that you’ve recently published. Digital Measures cheerfully tells you that you can just import a BibTex file, which is helpful if the journal in which you have published the article, or a database in which that journal is available, happens to make a BibTex record available. But of course you’re not likely to know that without some searching. That can be time-consuming, though not nearly as time-consuming as entering the information manually — so maybe it’s worth the trouble.

Because if you have no luck finding a BibTex file for your article, then the fun starts in earnest. How to record a journal article? You go to the landing page and discover that there are thirty-five categories in which you can enter data. Let me spare you some time and tell you that the one you’re looking for is called “Intellectual Contributions” (which suggests, by the way, that much of the rest of what you do as a faculty member does not involve “intellectual contributions”). So you click on that.

Congratulations! You are now faced with a page containing no fewer than forty-six form fields. Surely DM does not expect you to fill out all forty-six? Indeed Digital Measures does not have this expectation. However, the UI experts who designed this page did not see fit to let you know which of the forty-six fields are required and which optional — even though few practices are more standard in database UI design than to provide that information for users (most commonly by the presence of an asterisk). So you type in what you have and hope that it’s right. If you guess wrong you get a message like this:

(Of course, few people would forget the date of publication; I just chose that to get a ready example.)

Let’s go back a step, though. The first thing Digital Measures wants you to do on this page — you discover through trial and error — is to identify what type of “intellectual contribution” you are making. Once you select “Journal Article” the page refreshes and you now have a field in which to enter the name of the journal. Possible names are drawn from a database, so you get a drop-down list — but the field is helpfully pre-filled, thus:

So if on the off-chance that your article is not published in the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals etc. you will need to click in that field, select all, and only then start typing in the name of your journal.

But suppose the journal in which you have published does not appear in the list? That happened to me roughly 100% of the time, since the databases from which they draw the journal names are all in the sciences. (As far as I could tell, not one single journal in the humanities is on the list. This, along with the charmingly innocent belief in the universal availability of BibTex records, tells you which faculty members this service is designed for — and which ones Digital Measures, and very possibly your university, couldn’t care less about.) It turns out that at the very bottom of the list of dozens (hundreds?) of journals there is an option called “Not Listed.” Should you happen to scroll through screen after screen of journal titles and finally get to that little Easter egg, you’ll be able to enter the name of the journal you published your article in. (If you have been around this block often enough to guess that such an option would be available, entering “Other” or “Not in List” yields nothing. You have to get it precisely right.) It’s enough to make me want to submit all future articles to the “Constantin Brancusi” University Annals from Targu Jiu.

I could go on, but that, I think, would be to belabor my point. A “service” like this is designed with absolute contempt for the people who are sentenced to use it. It is vastly expensive, so once a university commits to it there’s no going back. The only real option is to add to the cost by hiring people to help the miserable faculty navigate the inscrutable interface, thus adding to the costs. (Unless, of course, you’re a scientist, in which case you probably have the relevant BibTex files readily accessible and a research assistant to do the data entry for you.)

And the university ends up with less information than it had under the previous system! The reason is this: because the data entry is so onerous and slow, faculty typically are not required to enter all the data for their articles, nor to fill in their entire CVs. (As I pointed out to one of my colleagues: if I spent an hour a day, five days a week, entering items from my CV into Digital Measures, I wouldn’t be finished by the end of the semester.) So we enter as little as we possibly can; whereas most of us have, ready to hand, a complete CV in a Word or LaTeX file that is trivially easy to update, to share, and to parse.

So we tell once again the old, old story: the ed-tech snake-oil salesmen convince universities to spend enormous sums of money on a ineptly-designed, user-despising “service” that gives that university less data, and less usable data, than it had under the infinitely simpler previous system. A certain line from P. T. Barnum comes to mind.

the invariant ed-tech sequence

  1. Some company creates a new “killer app” for Academic Task X that is supposed to make the machinery of academic life run more smoothly but is basically a database with a hideous UI;
  2. Some administrator or committee at your university decides that this is just the thing we need to pay $$$$ for because it’s The Future of the University;
  3. Use of the app is imposed on faculty who despise it, because it is manifestly inferior to what they were doing before but far more cumbersome to use;
  4. Administrators, faced with serious faculty pushback, back off on their demands for making the app central to the whole academic enterprise, but only to some degree, because they paid $$$$ for this piece-of-crap-code and feel that they can’t back out now;
  5. The result: the app is forcibly implemented, but only partially, with the result that faculty are still unhappy with having to use the crappy app but have to use it *less*, which means that the task that was performed adequately with previous technologies/means is now performed less effectively and completely. Everyone loses except the people who made the sorry-ass app.

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