Category Archives: on schooling policy

On policies about the organization of schools and related matters (testing, teacher evaluation, organization. etc.)

On educating a democratic public, democratically

Soon after Lawrence Cremin published Public education (1976), I gushed about the book to a senior colleague.  He did not like any aspect of the book because, as I remember he put it, Cremin made of education a form of “brain-washing.”  My colleague claimed Paulo Freire and, I guess, an alternate view of what it means to educate, democratically.

I must say I was astonished.  My take then, and I have not changed my mind, was that Cremin asks something surprising from us who are given the task to design education for the public.  He asks us to pay attention to what people are doing, in the streets and alleys of the world, far from the halls where pedagogy and curriculum are discussed.

I was astonished that my colleague had not noticed that Cremin was asking us to look at the crowds around us and was criticizing the John Dewey of Democracy and education ([1916] 1966) for not imagining any other educational institution than than the State sponsored school.  I could see how a very unsympathetic critic might notice that Dewey, as a philosopher who also read the psychologies and social sciences of his time, was quite sure as to what to teach the masses settling in the United States that they should learn to participate in an American democracy.  By Chapter 7, Dewey, unapologetically, claims an aim, a “Good Aim.”  In brief, in language Teachers College still uses (though we might wonder about mention of a “social ideal” and the measurement of “the worth of a form of social life”):

Since education is a social process, and there are many kinds of societies, a criterion for educational criticism … implies a particular social ideal. The two points selected by which to measure the worth of a form of social life are the extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups. An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets us barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder. (p. 99)

It is probably the case that Cremin would not have disagreed with this.  Cremin’s concern was with Dewey’s next step, when he gets to assume that the institution of desirable education is the public school.  I was then starting my career in a department soon to be named “Family and Community Education,” that Cremin had been instrumental in creating and which he strongly supported.  With Hope Leichter, Paul Byers, Ray McDermott, we had to wonder about what might count as education in families and communities.  I do not remember us wondering much about who might control this education, assess the worth of the design, or worry that the education parents given their children, each other, friends and consociates, might not be desirable.

Thirty years later, I was introduced to the work of Jacques Rancière who, in many ways, is a scorched earth critique of philosophers-with-an-aim, particularly philosophers of education.  Rancière starts with the Plato of the Meno.  He sides with the various shoe makers whom generations of philosophers have used as example of people who should not be involved in what we know call “knowledge production,” and even less in the teaching of this expert knowledge.  Rancière keeps asking philosophers to pay attention to, and respect, shoe makers

Rancière’s work, like Cremin, is very congenial to the generations of anthropologists who have tried to tell other social scientists and philosophers that all human being produce knowledge, pass on knowledge, transform other forms of knowledge they may encounter and, of course, make different value choices about aims, and are ready to fight for these.

Rancière is also writing about “democracy and education,” but from the point of view of a radical democrat,  Rancière’s hero is a teacher who refused to teach his expertise because he believed teaching what one knows will always be a form of “stultification,” brain-washing—particularly if the “learner” is assessed as having (not) learned just what she was supposed to learn not only as knowledge or skills but also as dispositions (beliefs, attitudes, values).

And so, whether one deplored or celebrated what happened last week, we, as the philosophers of education we cannot help but be, must ask ourselves: what is our business.  Is it convincing or is it allowing people to make up their mind?  And what are we to do with people who do not make the choices we make?

As we ponder the questions, we must face the fact that philosophers cannot control people, even when they are very influential on matters of state authority.  That, I’d say, is what a century of anthropological research has demonstrated.  Radical democracy may be the human condition.

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on parents challenging schooling

Those who follow my work know that I look for evidence (empirical? evidential?) that Bourdieu’s hypothesis about habitus driving (mis-)consciousness is wrong as written. In this search, I prefer detailed ethnographic evidence (the kind sociologists dismiss as “anecdotal”). But descriptive statistics have their place as evidence opening routes for further exploration.

So, I am thankful to my colleagues Oren Pizmony-Levy and Nancy Green Saraisky for their report of a national survey they conducted on who opts out of standardized testing and why (Who opts out and why, August 2016). The media, particularly in New York State has been reporting on something that is often presented as new: parents (mostly prosperous) refusing to have their children take some high-stake tests. This may be a cultural innovation, either because more parents are doing it, because they have found out that opting out is actually possible, or because the media started paying attention, or for other political reasons. Historical research is needed. I would also relate this movement with other movements of parents organizing to do something those with official pedagogical authority (in Bourdieu’s phrase) wish they did not do. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and others found out that their efforts to rein in charter schools would fail as parents, mostly inner city parent financially struggling, found a way to stop the reining in. At about the same time, other parents, many recent immigrants from China, many who could not speak English, appear to have stopped another movement by those with authority to change the admission requirements to the most academic public high schools. Elsewhere in New York City, other parents organize to home school their children, while others compete mercilessly to enrol their children in astronomically expensive pre-schools.

Whether all this is good for the children, for their parents, for the State, or for humanity is something else altogether. In any events, parents keep demonstrating that there are ways to resist the school-as-is, or the school-as-some-want-it, even as they participate in the evolution of schooling into un-imaginable forms.

Bourdieu and other structural-functionalists who keep Talcott Parsons alive might mark all this as a failure of early socialization into the practical acceptance of pedagogical authority. It could be that the schools have failed at reproducing whatever made Western schooling so successful for so many years and across the world. We may have a failure in maintaining homeostasis!

But it could also be that reproduction will always fail however determined the efforts to keep alive what was. It could be that (social) life will always be about constituting the heretofore unimaginable.

And so, as I like to say, we need a theory of culture that starts with the impossibility of cultural reproduction and sets aside concerns with enculturation. Instead, we need to pays close attention to the ongoing efforts both to preserve and innovate (Varenne 2007, 2011).

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Policy? or Politics?

Could the hegemony of “policy” be coming to an end?

For many years state officials, “private” foundations, benevolent billionaires, academia and a certain elite media have been telling everyone else what is what in “education”.  (For one sense of this set look at Brill’s 2010 story in  the New York Times magazine).  In the world of academia where I live, this will have been the decade of “data-driven” “policy” “studies.”  We keep being told, repeatedly, such “narratives” (stories? fiction?) as:

In Rhode Island schools, a multidisciplinary effort helps teachers to quickly understand what skills their students have already grasped and which subjects need more attention. In Houston, a regional alliance has noticed signs of students going off-track on higher-level math skills and acted to intervene.

What do these stories have in common? Success here derives from access to data, or big data as it’s sometimes called. The examples above come from the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit effort driving education outcomes through hard numbers.
(GovTech November 2014, retrieved in December 2015)

What interests me here, of course, is the hint of an “actor-network” of local schools and a corporation “e.Republic, Inc.” “The nation’s only smart media and research company focused exclusively on public sector innovation for state and local government and education” (retrieved in December 2015)

One problem with just sketching an actor-network (an excellent thing to do) is that it can end with an altogether static map and little sense of the movements through it, or the temporalities that assemble and then sometimes dissemble the network.

So, recently, I have tried to write about such networks as acting (and revealing themselves) through crowded conversations (deliberations).  I am experimenting with generalizing conversational analyses (somewhat like Latour generalized ethnomethodology when he moved from looking at the production of knowledge in short interactions among a few people (Garfinkel et al. 1981;  Goodwin 1995), to looking at a laboratory (Latour 1979), to looking at the scientific enterprise as a whole (Latour 1987).

And so, once upon a time, we had Senator Kennedy and President Bush (as symbolic leaders) producing “No child left behind” after very long conversations that started at least 20 to 30 years earlier –unless it is 200 years (Varenne 2007, 2011).

And then, a few years later, President Obama and Arnie Duncan, his secretary of education, started new conversations which, among other things,  privileged “data-driven policy.”  I am necessarily wrong in suggesting that they are those who literally started these long-turn taking sequences that were disrupted last years.  But they can stand as markers of a new sequence with somewhat different participants and discursive order as the original metaphor (a child is like a sponge) developed into practical conceit (regulations, the attendant bureaucracies, the texts to be produced among the various actors, etc.).
Continue reading Policy? or Politics?

On grades as statements: to whom?

Ray McDermott and Jean Lave once told me that they asked Rancière whether his writing influenced his teaching.  As they tell it, he looked surprised and answered something like “not at all!”  A reader of Successful Failure once asked me whether I still gave grades.  Besides stuttering, I said something like: “I am required to (by my university and New York State)” and/or “students would not accept my not giving them grades.”

Over my 40years+ at Teachers College ,I have also been part of several faculty-wide conversations about “grade inflation.”  These never went anywhere and, by now, I gather from various sources, only about three grades are given: A, A-, & B+.  Personally that is, mostly, what I do and it is not altogether different from distributing grades among A, B, & C, except that it limits, mostly again, student complaints.  And while I do not grade “on the curve,” I do get nervous when I find myself only giving A’s.

Now, of course, what is the point of giving differentiated grades?  More specifically, what difference does it make? to whom? and with what consequences?  Taking the “gift” of grade as a statement, who is the audience?

A grade is structurally in the position of the “assessment” moment in Mehan (and many others)’s model of the “lesson.”  The teacher sets a curriculum, asks students to do something related to “the class,” and then differentially assesses how well each individual students performs the task (“has learned” in the current authoritative language among accreditation agencies).  The grade then becomes a datum (actually just another word, in latin, for “gift”) to the student.  But a grade is also a gift to others besides the student—though not to everyone given various legal strictures about who may see a student’s grade (tracing who may see a grade when and for what purpose would actually be a way of revealing the structure of social reproduction).  These “others” may then legitimately mete various consequences that have nothing to do with the original class, e.g. they may give the student various privileges, including, at the high school, college or Masters level, admission to a further degree program.  Thus the grade that looks like a private communication between teacher and student, is also a coded statement to powers-that-be (admissions officers, funding agencies, accreditation bodies, etc.).  Which is why, of course, grades are a political issue and “grade inflation” a political problem (see also my post on Lake Wobegon).

What does all this have to do with “education”?  Little, I say, with many others.  In recent years, I have gotten to say that I translate my current designation as a “professor and advisor of graduate students” into a “masters of apprentices.”  In that perspective, I maintain that I give grades because I am required to do so but that they should only be taken as a statement about a progression and my potential willingness to work with the student as apprentice.  The grades I give are not about individual learning per se.  This “faction” (fact making that may constrain in some future) is easier to maintain at the doctoral level where it is actually the case that one receives a doctorate by accumulating grades but by demonstrating that one can be recommended for entry into a discipline or profession.  So, I’d say:

Code equivalent to a statement like:
A+ = “Wow!”
A = “You are at mastery at this stage.”
A- = “You are well on your way.”
B+ = “OK, but discipline yourself”
B = “You may be in the wrong career given your talents”

In the long run, my “real” assessment of a person work is the enthusiasm of my letters of recommendation whether for funding or professional positions.  And these letter never never mention grades since “Pass” is the only possible one at the final levels.

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On education on Lake Wobegon

Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!”  Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )

Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.

And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:

Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)

The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are.  The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying.  As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998).  It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful.  It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.”  The label must apply only to a certain percentage.

The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.

The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.

“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight.  The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.

I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”).  In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable.  They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).

I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure.  As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality.  We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course).  We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 [1961]) on the relationship between individualism and racism.

This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture.  So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed.  McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon).  But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.

Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports.  I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions.  The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say.  But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time.  In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not.  And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.

What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?”  except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…).  Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production.  How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.

References

Dumont, Louis 1980 [1961] “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus

Koyama, Jill 2010 Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 

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Is this blog “property”?

Is this blog “property”?  If so, whose? And who controls the answers to these questions (and the consequences thereto attached)?

Once upon a time (let’s say about three months ago), I thought the answers obvious enough: “in America,” this blog is “mine.” It is expression which I could transform it into property if I decided to commercialize it and/or sell it.  It all had to do with “freedom of expression” and particularly “academic freedom,” privileges granted by the Constitution to individuals.

And then I was taught about “work for hire laws.”  As summarized in a work for hire document written at the request of a corporation developing a “policy on intellectual property” (note the word “property,” not “knowledge”) the law says:

Under the Copyright Law, the copyright to a work created by a person in the course of his or her employment is Work for Hire, which belongs to the employer rather than to the individual creator.

I remembered reading something about this around issues of whistle blowing in large corporations, but never thought much about it, assuming that this was other people’s problems.

I was wrong.  The paragraph continue:

The law provides, therefore, that works created by faculty members in the course of their teaching and research, and works created by staff members in the course of their jobs, are the property of the College.

Note the “therefore.”  This blog is the property of the College, by law.

But not to worry:

It is traditional at this College and other colleges and universities, however, for books, articles and other scholarly writings by a faculty member to be deemed the property of the author, who is considered to be entitled to determine how the works are to be disseminated and to keep any income they produce. This tradition reflects the College’s commitment to encourage members of the community to write and to publish what they wish. In recognition of that longstanding practice, the College disclaims ownership of Traditional Works of Scholarship.

Over the past several weeks I have pushed and prodded the people involved in writing and re-writing all this, that is in transforming ideas into potentially authoritative texts for which they are being paid but which will never be considered “theirs” (deans, lawyers, other staff).  In the process (besides making myself somewhat obnoxious—and I apologize for unnecessary outbursts!) I got to think further about an issue I could not quite figure out.  Over the past years, many on the faculty have complained about the movement of the College towards a “corporate model.”  Two years ago, the controversy swirled about the College’s President sitting on the board of directors of a Large Multi-National Corporation.  But I was not quite sure whether this was a complaint about individuals or about something broader.

What is, interactionally, the “corporate model”–leaving aside the values, beliefs, interests, etc. of individuals who may benefit from it, or who may resist it?

One answer lies in taking seriously what I was told again and again when I objected: “Herve! This is the law! There is no choice here!”  the College is a corporation, no different from Apple or Google (in another generation one might have written “no different from General Motors”)! You are an employee!”  And I was reminded that all my emails (all that I receive from colleagues, students, etc.) are archived at the College (actually, they are physically on Google servers) and may be read at the discretion to the College.

The corporate model, then, has to do with the reality (non-negotiable) that my personal life, as employee, is largely at the discretion of the College.  Technically, in recent anthropological jargon, the College is a Latourian agent who (to quote from above) “deems,” “considers,” “encourages,” “disclaims.”  The College (speech) acts.  All this is controlled, allowed and enforced by “the law of the land,” that is by the College’s Sovereign who grants Corporations certain privileges.  That is, the Law does not require that my blog be deemed property of the Corporation.  The Corporation may disclaim.  But the Corporation is now the Active Subject that speaks through internal policies, sub-regulations, etc.  The Sovereign (State, nation, people) has stepped back.  A preamble may state that a “policy” regulates rights:

This copyright policy retains and reasserts the rights of faculty members for books, monographs, articles, and similar works as delineated in the policy statement.

Politics (the protection of expression and academic freedom) has been devolved to policy.  State actors yield to corporate management.  We are more fully than I thought in the world of the “Non Governmental Agency” (and, of course, the word “agent” has to be taken in all its many meanings) with its specific properties (affordances).  This world has been coopting broader and broader areas of everyday intervention around world.  For example, in my world, what used to be considered major decisions about, for example, the control of public schooling has been devolved to various corporate bodies with various, more or less delineated, right to participate, authority to regulate and mete sanctions.  I wrote about this when the teacher education programs at TC had to yield to NCATE (and produce a lot of “work-for-hire” intellectual property) (Varenne 2007).  I was fascinated by report from Steven Brill in the New York Times about the web that has been entangling the aftermaths of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The report was about the wonderfully awfully named “Race to Top” program.

So, one might answer the questions about property, ownership, and control of my expression, with a quip: the Benevolent Billionaire Barons of the 21st century!  This, of course is too simple as it does not specify the mechanisms that makes this blog “deemed” my own by Teachers College (and I thank the Corporation for its generosity).

More on that another day.

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Anthropologies of the dangerous (?)

[my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014]

There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.   Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)?  Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities.  “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach.  But they also control what can be made public, how and when.  They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense.  We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.

Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends.  But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers.  From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act.  But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”).  They have also wanted to help.  Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II.  This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.  W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead.  That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996).   It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies.  And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.”  The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.

The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.”  This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia.  It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).

Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques.  Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements.  Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.

Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks.  The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct.  Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers.  We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek.  We now need to move a long conversation forward.

Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public  pp.  S23-S53

Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

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)

Continue reading on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

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

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

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

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?

REFERENCES

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