on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

April 23rd, 2014

My readers and students know my skepticism about the financial, or human capital, “value” of college education (December 12th, 2012; April 18th, 2013).  And they know I quote a lot of “anecdotal evidence,” including from my immediate family.

My point of departure often was a column by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who echoed academic arguments, often from economists, about this very value.  This of course has been powerfully amplified by national politicians, cheered by universities dependent on student loan guarantees.

So it may interesting to wonder about the possibility that the conversation about college is entering a new phase.

For Friedman is now being educated by Google and he is wondering about what Google is doing might lead:

LAST June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer. (How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2: April 19 2014)

Leo Schwartz, a student editorialist in the Columbia Spectator (the student paper for the university), recently echoed this:

Something like over 90 percent of people from my public high school went to a four-year college. Obviously, this is miles away from what the norm is in the United States, but the reality is that attending college and getting a bachelor’s degree has become the standard. (April 20, 2014)

The same wonder has now become a conceit for the latest new HBO series “Silicon Valley,” which might also be called: “What does it take, and what are the consequences, of authoring a new compression algorythm.”  In the first episode the (anti?-)hero (or dark angel of temptation) says (around minute 8:45 into the episode):

College has become a cruel expensive joke on the poor and the middle class that benefits only the perpetrator of it the bloated administrators … a system that churns out unemployed debtors and provides dubious value.

He is interrupted by an older white bearded man who says:

you are a dangerous man … spewing ignorance … the true value of a college education is intangible.

The anti-hero has the last word:

The true value of snake oil is intangible.

Of course, I am with the professor who walks out of the lecture hall yelling “fascist!” (Even though I could be interpreted as making the same point as the speaker). The true value of a college education is precisely “intangible” (that is, its value is not monetary), and the economists who price it as “10% over total career earnings” (as if they could predict what will happen in 2050) should be heckled with “capitalists!,” “neo-liberals!”.

But, of course, exchanging insults is not useful.  Figuring out what current constraints make possible, what is emerging, and what new constraints it might produce (including a new “gap” between men and women college graduates), is our task as anthropologists.

Dreaming of diverging

March 25th, 2014

Movie posterFor any number of reasons, my wife Susan and I went to see Divergent last Friday.  We were, by far, the oldest people in the theater.  I was, about, the only male (except for a few fathers perhaps).  Everybody else was a 12(+-2)-year-old girl.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you are not into Hollywood generated mass popular culture, or middle-brow cultures concerned with “gender” either.  If “divergent” means to you something that it did not mean a few weeks ago then, as an intellectual adult (one of my readers, as I imagine them), I assume you also know that it is, among other things, the second (after The Hunger Games) of Hollywood responses to the accusation that there were no big budget, action adventure movies with girls as heroines.  So, in the kind of brief synopsis that start this kind of commentary, Divergent is about a 16-year-old girl who violently restores a threatened order and then moves on into the wilderness—and 12-year-old girls know about that.

But, of course, the movie is about much else and this is a response to Andrew O’Hehir who wrote about the movies as “capitalist agitprop” (March 22, 2014).  His thesis:

To begin with, if we accept the maxim that all fictional works about the imagined future are really about the present, what do these works have to say? They contain no intelligible level of social critique or social satire, as “1984” or “The Matrix” do, since the worlds they depict bear no relationship to any real or proposed society. Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.

Later, O’Hehir writes “Divergent is basically a high school drama.”  This struck me also, one third of the way through the movie, when, for the first time, the heroine and other newcomers enter the cafeteria of their new “faction” and have to figure out where to sit.  Then our heroine attempts conversation with the man/boy next to the place she has chosen, only to be told “who do you think you are that you presume to talk to me?” (Those who understand Hollywood conventions will guess that the speaker will be the heroine’s romantic object.)

But, of course, who would want to be part of such a high school (or of the world of 1984, The Matrix, or any other dystopian future worlds imagined over the past century)?  Divergent, I agree with O’Hehir, is not about states, or corporations.  It is not about the world adults will experience.  It is about the present world of 12-year old girls (and boys also actually) as they are recruited into states or corporations they can barely imagine.  Sociologically, the movie is about the mechanisms of social reproduction in America.  Divergent is, and I stretch, Bourdieu for 12-year-olds.  It is about what can be questioned about the mechanisms, given an ideology that is, and has been for more than two centuries, the positive model for living and produces the questions that subsequent texts or institutions attempt to answer: “we hold these truths…” and thus “We the People … do ordain and establish this Constitution.”

This is the ideology American children are taught in high schools even as, by every report, from anthropologists (Henry 1963) to movies (Heathers) and television series (Friday Night Lights), high schools are hells (purgatories?) that no adolescent can escape.  Whether they are “really” hells is not the point.  They are, imaginatively, performatively, and potentially dramatically, the moment when young people caught in America first directly experience, and participate, in the segmentation of the population.  This is done through the mechanisms of “cliques” that are transposed in the movie into five “factions” though only three are given any dramatic role: the jocks (Dauntless), the nerds (Erudite), and the goody-goodies (Abnegation).  The last maybe the sign of something that has happened since most of the high school ethnographies I know have been written: the now inevitable presence of evangelicals and others who work in soup kitchens and the like as they claim the moral high ground.

But, as I wrote earlier in my career (1982, 1983), what is striking about clique production in actual high schools is the almost universal rejection of clique identification, particularly by those who may be seen from the outside as dominant members (“Others see us a clique, but we are really a loose group of friends”).  Thus, in America, adolescents collectively keep producing something they critique—like the divergent heroine who saves the factions of her world-as-institutionalized, even as she leaves.

So Divergent is extremely regular in presenting, as a model for behavior (Geertz 1973 [1966] ), the effort to diverge from pre-judicial expectations, build friendships and new lives away from convention given a world where pre-judgment of one’s belonging here or there is inevitable.

Actually, there is a twist here that may be original to the movie.  It is also about one aspect of high school life about which little is actually written, and that is the aptitude testing that sends one into this or that college tract (“she will never make it into Vassar,” “with a little more effort you might make it into State”).  The drama of the movie is that the post-apocalyptic state has actually found the holy grail of what makes the Educational Testing Service a central institution in America: an easy and fail-proof method to identify where one belongs … that one can specifically reject, against all advice.

The call to diverge from such pre-judgment is, of course, the essence of what has been labeled “American individualism.”  Whether it is also “American capitalism” (as O’Hehir argues), the call to diverge that is actually depicted in Divergent is complicated.  The movie, ostensibly, is a critique of the pretension of expert elites for absolute power obtained by manipulating the police and military.  It is one of the paradoxes of Hollywood that all such movies can be read as such critiques.  Puritan farmer and wifeThe critique here may only be of one aspect of the whole (the mechanisms of social reproduction), but it is a critique I have seen in such classic Westerns as Shane (1953), or even Rambo (1985).  The Hero(ine) fights the centralized state (always represented as urban, decadent, evil, obtuse – see The Hunger Games) in the name of local communal ideals.  For the American hero is not only an Individual (as it may in other European ideologies), he, and now she, is the architect of communities built on familial love.  It is not simply a cliche that, at the end of Divergent, the heroine leaves the city, with the romantic lead, into an uncharted, dangerous wilderness.

I argued a long time ago (1977) that American ideology should not be summarized as individualism, or capitalism (neo-liberalism).  The latter may flourish very well in the United States.  But it is not the principle that makes the American imagination flourish: for the individual is only good to the extent that his, or her, divergence, produces a new community, in love.  That attempting all is dangerous and can kill you is everywhere in the morality tales that Hollywood movies also are (Drummond 1996).

But one must at least dream of diverging, on an afternoon, with one’s best friends (if not one’s clique).

Sorting out how the Powers-that-Be yield their power by watching local wardens

March 21st, 2014

Those who follow this blog may remember that I had to contribute my two bits to a discussion about “promoting diversity” in our department, programs, teaching, etc. (February 25, 2014).  I may also heave mentioned a while back that I was charged to write an “Assessment of Learning Outcomes” report for the programs in anthropology.

Note the passive voice in “I had to…,” “I was charged.”  I started the diversity entry with a reference to the “Powers that Be” (PtBs).  Those, of course, are Latourian black boxes.  But that is not saying much, yet.  Actually, the particular acts that triggered my own activity where made by various individuals (deans, department chairs, etc.) who were very specifically told to tell me that I no choice but to perform the tasks whether as faculty member (for the diversity thing) or a program coordinator (for the assessment thing).  Still, none of these individuals originated the requirement that I do “it.”  As they all said, apologetically often, is that they were “passing on” the requirement from higher (? The right metaphor?) up.

This could be a call to “follow the network” of particular people told to ask other particular people to do the specific things (and they are very specific indeed).  I tried to do something like that once (2007).  It could also be a call to reveal the “bricolage” (to put it as blandly as possible) that “Those Who are Told” (TWaTs [?!]) must engage in to produce what the PtBs will accept as good enough for the current purposes.  Jill Koyama (2010) did some of this in relation to administrators, teachers, and parents, in the local worlds NCLB produced.

I would like to suggest that we also need something else if we are to trace the detail of the exercise of political power for whatever purposes, whether nefarious or the contrary.  This is partly an expansion of my critique of Foucault’s panopticon analogy.  The requirement to produce “Assessments of Learning Outcomes” is undoubtedly part of the attempt to discipline university teaching through examination.  And it includes a threat of punishment (loss of accreditation, and thus of students, and thus of economic survival for a university) through the reports by various wardens and wardens of wardens that something was (not) done (appropriately).

But none of these considerations tell us much about the relationship between inmates and wardens (TWaTs and their immediate PtBs).  So, a year ago, when I assumed the position of program coordinator, I received an e-mail that started with:

Now that we have settled into the new academic year, I would like to remind you that the data collection from the assessments of student learning outcomes begins this year. The Advisory Committee for the Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes (ASLO) chose the competency area of Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship as a focus for 2012-2013. This means that by the end of this year, each program will have collected and analyzed data on student learning outcomes related to Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship and used the results to assess its effectiveness and/or make improvements.

Who exactly is “ASLO” was not specified, but the steps that were to be taken, as well as the identity of the authoritative PtP-for-me-at-this-moment was clear.  I would not deal with ASLO but with her and I would have to satisfy her.  Given the enormous amount of text to be produced by each program at Teachers College (perhaps more than 100 pages for anthropology), I suspect that no one but her will have read everything.  Her PtBs will have to trust her.

Actually, this PtB is a very nice helpful person who has been very good at dealing with my various frustrations, as well as firmly telling me what would pass and what would not, what was under a program coordinator’s control (and, by implication, the faculty) and what was not.  For example, in the big charts that I was given to fill, one column cannot be changed.  These are “TC goals” negotiated and passed by the College, as TWaT by its relevant PtB.  Some of them are obvious (“Professional Practice: Demonstrate mastery of the content and methodology of their discipline or profession”); I, personally, find others problematic (“Diversity, Multiculturalism, Social Justice, and Advocacy: Appreciate diversity, understand nature and causes of injustice, and take actions to promote better world”).  But I cannot change any of this and, furthermore, I must fit what we do, or at least some of it, as evidence that we actually assess our students on whether they “take action to promote a better world.”  When I questioned the latter, the steel came out as I was told, sternly, “Don’t you try to get your students to make it a better world?”  “Of course” was my reply as I continued to search for what would count as evidence that we do. (This is where bricolage might come into play…)

So, our local PtB has been working with me editing an older text that partly worked as what it will have to be and partly did not work.  She will tell me whether a recent draft works.  I will edit further and, I am sure, something will get produced that will pass.  How exactly this will get done, and who will be involved in this passing, and how long this passing will pass, all that remains to in the future.

what is to constitute that a conversation is “about promoting diversity”?

February 25th, 2014

Powers-that-be have asked our department to produce a “Diversity Report” on our practices “promoting diversity.”

Not that there is anything wrong about that—though we may not have produced such a report without of formal request from the Powers.  The Powers also told us that earlier reports were not adequate.  We were asked to discuss our practices and propose changes in these practices over the next two years.  This post is one of my statements in this discussion.  Students and colleagues are welcome to comment, in the spirit of transparency.

Famously, discussions about “diversity” are difficult (Lin 2007; Pollock 2004, 2008).  At some point in the discussion someone will ask: what “counts” as diversity: LGBT status? Disability status?   Others may whisper: Religion? Age?  National origin? Nationality? One of our colleague in the College once argued that, as the only Skinnerian behavior modification person on the faculty, he, a white male, might be the most “diverse” person there.

There is a “gotcha” side to expanding what is to count (what should be quantified) as diversity.  There is a powerful political consensus here that is not to be trifled with, and questions about expanding the categories are soon set aside.

A more disrupting argument is made by those who argue that discussions of “diversity” masks the political imperatives that let to affirmative action policies in favor ed federally labeled “minorities” (Guinier 2003) as well as the transfer of the definition of what is to count, and how, from national polities (and the courts) to local polities with little accountability except to themselves (and their public relation departments).  This line of argumentation will also be set aside, but not without some discomfort,

In any event, the reports of the past few years (some of which I wrote as department chair) have mostly emphasized the counting of faculty and students from protected federal categories.  I insisted a few years ago that dissertation topics might be another index of our efforts at “promoting diversity.”  This allowed me to talk about a research concern with “disability” that does not fit neatly in any effort to quantify diversity.

However, as I made the point about dissertations, I wondered whether I was being innovative or sarcastic.  In the long history of affirmative action, as I understand it (and this is not my academic field), the issue mostly concerned issues of membership and blocks on membership.  Reporting on numbers of “minorities” in a polity could then be used as shorthand evidence that blocks still existed, or had been removed.  In recent years however there has been much debate on whether removing formal blocks is enough.

This brings me to my own activity as an academic anthropologist and university professor.  I know I am expected by many to reflect on how my activities might block this or that diverse person—and not only when I sit on an admissions committee, or grade papers.  I must wonder how some of my claims to diversity may advantage me, or how I should keep others among my claims in various closets.  I might wonder on the powers that make some of my claims advantageous, and others dangerous—to myself and others.  I might wonder how a diversity trait is differentiated from another (how many skin colors? Where is the boundary between “light” and “dark” skins? How many genders? Etc.).  I might wonder whether all this is good (bad?) to think, or to eat…

Actually, of course, I teach courses about all this—in relation to education, family, technology, education.  The anthropologists among my readers will have recognized the quote in the last sentence (Lévi-Strauss 1963 [1962]: 89).  Arguably, anthropology is the social science founded on the recognition that the ongoing production of diversity is fundamental to humanity.  One might wonder whether Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan would have been possible without Margaret Mead (1949)—or whether Mead, and the institutionalization of anthropology, is part of the same movement with de Beauvoir and Friedan against earlier evolutionary and biological understandings, and the politics derived from them.

My question for today: is an academic discussion of the production of diversity in its poetic and political contexts the discussion that “we” should have about our diversity practices and how they might evolve in the coming years?


Guinier, Lani. “Admissions Rituals as Political Acts: Guardians at the Gates of Our Democratic Ideals.” Harvard Law Review, 117, 1, 1-491. 2003

on expert ignorance

February 19th, 2014

A visit from Gus Andrews is always refreshing and invigorating as we explore some of the intellectual links in our mutual networks.  So, last Wednesday, February 12, we talked, among other things, about the efforts of the organization where she works (she will have to provide the link…) to convince people around the world to use encryption to communicate in ways that, perhaps, governments and other cannot listen in.  One of the problem is that it is hard to identify who are these people and, when members of plausible audiences are identified, convince them that this encryption is the solution to a problem many do not know they have.  Some already use VPN (whatever that is, and however it works–it will advertise my ignorance here) and tell representatives of the institution that this works well enough for their purposes.

Now, this is a classic problem in adult education when potential teachees cannot be caught and wittingly or not, transformed into students whose knowledge can then be assessed.  It is of course also a problem in the mandatory public education of children and young adults in schools and colleges.  But there it is more a matter of sub-rosa resistance.  Adults may listen to experts and accept being taught by them but expertise, as such, is rarely enough.  One can coerce adults to take mandated courses in various forms of what used to be called “re-education” (safe driving, sexual harassment, etc.) but state coercion can only go so far.  There actually is an academic field of “adult education” in schools of education where courses with titles like “How adults learn are” taught.  I am not specifically in that field but, of course, most of what I, along with many my students of the past decade or more (including Gus Andrews, of course), have been concerned with.

Mostly, though, we have been concerned with collective self-education when adults seek new knowledge and devise new ways to gain it.  This is what Jacotot’s students did when they taught themselves French by reading a French-Flemish version of Fenelon’s Telemaque.  What Gus’s institution is trying to accomplish is more akin to what experts upon experts keep trying to accomplish when they tell whoever will listen that one should not smoke, eat more vegetables, devise stronger passwords, etc…

The questions that came to my mind later in the day of Gus’ visit concerned the experts’ ignorance about a whole range of issues:

  •   From the exact location of the people to teach: how are “we” to find them? Where should we look?
  • to the extent to people prior knowledge and or experience with the experts’ expertise;
  • to the exact nature of the ignorance the experts’ teaching might alleviate;
  • And so on and so forth.

The big issue is that experts are not always (mostly?) not aware of their own ignorance about all these matters and are more likely to blame (or patronize) the people for the inability to listen to the expert and learn from them.  In medicine, this produces a whole literature on “patient resistance.  In field of adult education, it produces much discussion of the properties of adult and their learning.

We need to convince the world of experts, and particularly those who fund research, that they need to find out about their own ignorance and its consequences—particularly when what the experts have to offer is ostensibly valuable.

where bias can hide

February 4th, 2014

Check this editorial Scientific Pride and Prejudice by Michael Suk-young Chwe

Anthropology is not mentioned (which may be a good thing).  We, of course, know about bias in observation and analysis, we are getting to know how science is actually produced, and we can criticize.  But we must go further than Chwe. We cannot simply end with bias.  Bias, a point of view, a starting point and an angle of attack, is essential: how else would we chose what to look at?  Then, we must trust the communities of our practice to point out what we should also have looked at, redundantly.  Of course, we also know that polities can develop common blinders (more or less powerfully enforced).  But, we can hope, that future polities will show what these common blinders have been, from new points of view, new angles of attack, new biases.

In any event, it is nice to read a clear a cogent, well-written, clear, critique of scientism hiding behind methodological hocus-pocus! (And I do love Jane Austen!)

While reading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson

January 16th, 2014

Last week, I read Rancière’s tract against Althusser (Althusser’s lesson [1974] 2011) and Karen Velasquez’s first full dissertation draft.  The first has almost mythical status in the scholarship on Rancière.  And I looked forward to the second for its promise (now about fulfilled) of giving us more of the kind of work we need to produce what Rancière started calling for in the late 1960′s and throughout his career as philosopher and polemicist.

What struck me most in Althusser’s Lesson is that it is a kind of time capsule of a time when, as a 20 year old, in May 1968, I looked in much bemusement at the antics of my fellow college students and their impenatrable marxiscist discourses.  Soon most of us went on vacation; I left for the University of Chicago; and I about forgot about “Mai ‘68″ as it faded into myth.  It took me a long time to realize how much of an event the two or three years that led to the riots, strikes and evaporation of whatever it had been, had been for many of the elite French intellectuals of the time.  As I kept reading “May ‘68 established that Sartre bested Lévi-Strauss in the debate the latter had waged in La pensee sauvage.”  What reading Rancière (very long after the events have receded) has given me is an opening on another debate that raged in the late 1960s and early 1970s among the Marxist intellectual elites between, to simplify following Rancière, those who wished to work through the Parti Communiste Francais as aginst the Maoist “gauchistes.”  As Rancière wishes us to see, this was a fight among the elite of the intellectural elites about another fight (that of the students and the workers of the time) about which this elite knew very little–given that all their practical knowledge was designed to produce … future readers of Marx in elite universities! (Reading Capital being, of course, the title of the book by Althusser to which Rancière contributed as a student).  This elite was produced by the series of famously difficult examinations that lead to admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  The list of famous alumni (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.) is altogether astonishing: I do not think there is anything like it in the United States and perhaps the world.  How can one institution be so powerful?

The debate was also conducted in a particularly abstruse language which only advanced students in philosophy and Marxism could decipher.  Reading 1974 Rancière reminded me why I was so relieved and satisfied reading ethnography at the University of Chicago in September 1968.

What then struck me—and it is deeply buried—are Rancière calls to pay attention to what the workers and students were actually saying in the 1960s, in the sites and at the times of their struggles.  The whole weight of Rancière’s argument is brought to bear against Althusser’s stance that they could not possible know what produced their struggles, that their discourses revealed their misconceptions, and that only the “scientific” analysis that intellectual Marxists would conduct could reveal conditions and the appropriate discourses.  There, of course, is the Rancière who, later, uncovered Jacotot—and could finally write without tiresome disquisitions about bourgeois sociology (the worst insult he hurls at Althusser is that he was just another Durkheimian!).

Two quotes:

In Besancon, however, when Lip workers began to speak, what they put forward was a coherent discourse about their practices.  There were none of the words, cries of indignation or formulaic sentences that leftist practice cuts from the discourse of revolt and pastes onto the discourse of the spokesperson for the universal proletarian.  What they gave us, instead, was a veritable theory of what they were doing, a theory where the ideas of May 1968 joined hands with the syndicalist tradition, but also one where we recognized a new kind of ‘fusion’: that of the experience of the workers’ struggle with a Christian ideology that yearns, it seems, to be something other than ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’. ([1974] 2011: 120-1)

‘When the prisoners begin to speak’, Foucault says, ‘they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice.’  It will be pointed out, certainly, that prisoners are in a privileged position to theorize their condition. ([1974] 2011: 120)

{Note that the quote from Foucault conversation with Deleuze (1972) has a somewhat different tone from his discussion of the Panopticon in Discipline and Publish.}

Of course, I take the comments about the striking workers of the Lip clock factory as a call for detailed ethnographies of workers discourses in the sites of these discourses. Rancière, of course, never said that (that I know) and may have been skeptical of any activity that smacks of social scientism—including ethnography, I’d bet.  This is a frontier we need to explore.  This is where Karen Velasquez’s dissertation comes in.  As some of you know, it is about people from Latin America and Korea getting to work together in Queens restaurants.  What is wonderful about the work—and I do not want to steal her thunder—is her revealing, in detail, what Rancière assumed we would find: complex analyses of conditions, of what can be done about them and with them—in the here and now of various difficulties, in the short and perhaps even longer run.

Generalizing to processes, general and particular

November 26th, 2013

Over the past weeks, while teaching Ethnography of education, and in a discussion of research in educational linguistic, I was faced again with the perennial problem of the “generalization” of ethnographic research.  As the discipline encounters critics, and particularly when the critics are friendly and knowledgeable, what do we claim on the basis of a single case study (however multi-sited, with a large number of participants, etc.)?

In the class, a student had summarized my convoluted answers in a pithy way that captured one of the things I was trying to say: “anthropologists do not generalize to populations, they generalize to processes.”  She could have added that anthropologists do not predict the probability the a particular number will show up when rolling a dice; they analyze the structure of the dice (of the arm throwing the dice, the game within which the dice is being thrown, etc.).

We were discussing Holland and Eisenhart’s Educated in romance (1990), as well as Moffatt’s Coming of age in New Jersey (1989).  As happens regularly, there was much nervous giggle among graduate students a few years away from dorm life.  Not surprisingly, as the students practiced their budding methodological sophistication, comments started flying to the effect that “things are not like that any more,” “not in my college in California,” “this is about the South,” “in the 1980s.”  That one of the college in Holland and Eisenhart is a Black college remained silent.  I let things run for a while by emphasizing the probability that this track of critique could mention further possible differences in demographics, regionalization, etc.  I talked about elite colleges, community colleges, small private urban colleges “unranked” by US News and World Report (Posecznick 2010), etc.  Multiplying all this made sense, but I was caught: what do these ethnographic reports tell us, beyond a local, time-bound, story?

So, let’s say that the books are about processes, as well as the structure of the pieces involved in practicing (in Lave’s terms) everyday lives in these colleges?  Holland and Eisenhart actually are quite clear: the book is about the further gendering of adult careers as young women move into adulthood, enter into the work force, marry, etc.  Gendering is a process in which much more is involved than childhood memories of playing with dolls or trains.  The same must apply to young men in college.  And it must still apply, at least when young men and women are isolated and left to figure it (sex, gender, display of these, etc.) out, apparently “by themselves.”

Those who know about my work (in recent years) know where I would then go in a class on “education” (“much more is taught/learned/found out in college than skills so that research that solely focuses on college life in terms of the production of human capital is sorely limited”— and that this is a processual generalization ethnography can make and confirm).

Today, I also want to return to an earlier theme in my work.  “Gendering through co-ed life in college” is certainly not a universal process.  It is actually quite recent and far from something all, or even most, young men and women experience around the world at the turn of the 21st century.  I have been fascinated by Leigh Graham’s ongoing work on the romantic education young women in a strictly segregated college in Saudi Arabia give each other.  There the women can go for months without contact with men—except perhaps their brothers.  Boys are “everywhen,” in conversations and fantasies, but never in the flesh.

Reading reports like this, or considering the history of college life in the United States, makes one notice sub-processes that are hidden in plain sight in Educated in romance and the other ethnographies: there is something quite extra-ordinary (extra-vagant) about these gendering processes and the complexity of the mechanisms for the control of romance (gender, marriage, work identities, children, housing, etc.) as they are set, suffered, resisted, played with, etc.  Anthropological ethnography, because it emphasizes comparison, keeps demonstrating that the most general of processes (e.g. gendering) are always mediated by sub-processes most strictly referred to as “cultural” in the early Boasian sense Benedict wrote about as “islanding” (1932).

And so, Educated in romance is, also, about America at least at the end of the 20th century and ongoing.

Ima say suttin

November 4th, 2013

Katy Steinmetz, a journalist for Time Magazine recent summarized “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time Magazine, September 9, 2013). Actually Steinmetz mostly mentions the kind of sociolinguists who like to make statements like:

the term “suttin” (a variant of something) has been associated with Boston-area tweets.

using methods such as:

researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed an automated tagger that can identify bits of tweetspeak that aren’t standard English, like “Ima” (which serves as a subject, verb and preposition to convey “I am going to”).

Personally, I would say that these methods will be more useful for a social history of the present than about linguistics.

That is, as far as I can see, both Chomsky and Labov would agree that “Ima” is a fully grammatical form of the English way to mark the future tense of the verb following: “Ima” is another way of doing “I’ll.”  Whether “Ima” derives historically from “I am going to” is interesting but has little to say about the current state of twittering English.  If it “takes” outside Twitter (and it may already have (ask Labov or his students)), new speakers will have to be told that there are now three forms of the future in English: “I shall,” “I will,” “Ima.”  And then, they will be told of the contextual “rules” that appear to govern which form to use when and with whom.

Those who know will have noticed that I have restated the (in-)famous Saussurian distinction between diachrony and synchrony—though with a twist.  The cultural question (to keep the word “social” for probabilistic statements about the recent past) is whether the new linguistic forms that continually appear–not only in Twitter, but every time someone speaks–will “take,” that is whether they will remain associated with a person, a small group, an activity, etc., or whether they will “be adopted in the collective mode” (paraphrase of something Lévi-Strauss once wrote to distinguish individual statements from myths in L’homme nu 1971: 560).

In other words, “Ima” (and the resistance against it) may become the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by a cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970]: 5)—unless it fails to impose itself.  In any event, the important thing about all this is the arbitrariness of the process that leads to “Ima,” its imposition (partially helped by the Time magazine article which taught people like me about the form), and its demise (as current users age out and new forms are developed).  As I have argued in other posts (9/6/2013, 9/30/2013), the future of cultural forms cannot be predicted by any analysis of the state of the present.  “Ima” is not simply “functional” in a world where statements are limited to 140 characters.  “Ill” would have worked as well.  So “Ima” is, in Boon’s terms “extra-vagant” (1999), a poetic (in Jakobson’s sense) play on grammatical/dialectal possibilities and constraints.

Note, for example, that “Ima” marks first person redundantly in a least three ways: through 1) leaving the “I” in, 2) capitalized, 3) with the first person “(a)m” form of the verb (check what McDermott and I wrote about Maxine Hong Kingston tale of her difficulty reading “I” aloud 1998: Introduction).  And may thereby signal the continued relevance of “individualism” as the field for hegemonic pratices.

Trying to make it a good day when things fall apart

October 25th, 2013

I hope that everyone left the conference last Saturday as invigorated as I was.  It was worth all the efforts that went into from so many.

Two moments were particularly salient for me.

Early on, Michael Scroggins read a passage from Cremin that I have read many time but which struck me as if I heard if for the first time.  The passage closes the section of the “definition of education” in his Public education but it goes much further.  Cremin wrote:

”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.”(1976:30)

I take this as further evidence that Cremin was indeed part of the movement that keeps renewing what anthropologists of education are doing.  He wrote this at about the time when Ray McDermott was watching Adam and heard him say “Anybody who wants to try to make it a good day today, say ‘Aye’” (Varenne & McDermott 1998: 39).  Adam did not have a good day that day, but he was “ever hopeful,” and McDermott has been looking for the theory of education that people like Adam deserve.

The other salient moment for me came during the last session when Jill Koyama talked about her research into things that fall apart—particularly policies by institutional actors (in Latour’s sense) that stresses other actors to the point that everyone involved will have very bad days.  For Adam, it had been enlightened researchers attempting to undermine the grounding of intelligence testing and, in the process, making a space for the enactment of “education as race” with winners and crying legitimate losers.

Cremin was an optimist.  Koyama presents herself, I’d say, as a pessimist.  McDermott insists that kids (teachers, assistant principals, etc.) “make sense.”

But both Cremin and Koyama, like McDermott and all those I recruit into the “movement,”  insist that we build theories that will “assist” (note the verb) people “act intelligently.”  McDermott may have written “act ‘sensibly’” reminding us of course that people always make sense even when (particularly when?) their conditions are made difficult.

So, things fall apart (why-ever).  As Garfinkel once put it “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 250). That is, if a cafeteria line falls apart then everyone starts working on telling everyone what they should do next so that they can make it a good day (and not have to repair what ought not to be broken so that, perhaps, more complicated matters can get repaired).  The cost of that repair work is what Garfinkel was not concerned with.  Nor was he quite concerned with the work of those who dis-order (why-ever again; intentions is not the issue).  Not with the possibility that re-orderings (through instruction, etc.) might also producing dis-orderings (resistance, etc.).

A theory of education that may help us assist people as they educate themselves, will have to take into account these matters too and many of the papers presented at the conference are a step in that direction (as well as a demonstration indeed that data-driven research cannot possibly shed lights on these matters!),