an education into Ritalin for college success

I am an altogether avid reader of Discover, a magazine about “Science, Technology, and The Future.” I find something interesting in almost every issue. Sometimes it is a bit of new knowledge interesting for its own sake. Often it is because it provides a brief glimpse of the actual doing of science, and thus help think further about the anthropology of science, and also anthropology as a science. Quite regularly, in recent years, it gives me a sense of a journalistic discourse about matters at the edge of science and politics–particularly, on the one hand in the common articles about ecology, global warming, etc., and, on the other hand, on human evolution and sociobiology,

In the April 2009 issue I found in passing a little of Americana directly related to my arguments about the uncontrolled education of the officially ignorant. In an article on “Building a better brain” (the title is not ironic, and gives a sense of the editorial attitude towards the story) that discusses about the great things “mind-altering drugs” might do for humanity, they write:

In a study published last year in Pharmacotherapy, researchers at the University of Maryland found that of 1,208 college students, 18 percent took ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall even though the drugs had not been prescribed. You might think the college students were taking stimulants mostly to party, but that is not what the researchers found. The students were taking the stimulants mainly to help with studying. (Baker, 2009)

The story is written in the “brave new world” discourse of enhanced possibilities (“Think of millions of workers in India or China cognitively enhanced with neuropharmaceuticals. Will the United States be able to compete?”). The original study took the opposite tack. The paper ended with warnings to physicians and parents about “overuse and/or diversion of stimulant drug” (Arria, Caldeira, O’Grady, Johnson, & Wish, 2008, p. 266).

Neither wondered about is my perennial question (Varenne 2008, 2009): where do the students find out about these drugs? What sort of conversations do they have about them? To whom do they talk about it? That is, how do they educate themselves about these drugs? What is the place of the race for school of success in these discussions?

The last matter is particularly intriguing. For those who have done the work to inform themselves about off-label use of these drugs, how to take them, when, etc., including the possibility that it will improve their test scores, then the total event is another aspect of the battle of the mediocre middle-class against the probability that others are likely to do better on pure merit. As with steroids in sports, it is a matter of getting the edge. In other words, it is possible that taking these drugs is part of a larger conversation about succeeding in school that older adolescents and young adults must be having among themselves and with their parents (and about which we altogether have little detailed research).

Given this ongoing education about school success, then it is probable that the call from the authors of the article for “more parent education” that consists purely of listing the “risks” of taking these drugs is altogether pathetic. The risks of NOT taking them, for some students, may be higher, and they will not trust the People of the School, and all the less that they must also know that, for all intent and purposes, taking these drugs is cheating at School.

‘LOL’: on the construction of a cultural fact

Mar 11, 2009 09:20:41 AM, &&&&&& wrote:

What does “lol” or “l.o.l.” mean?


On the


Those are the 3 most common ways to say you think something is drop dead funny

The questioning message was prompted by an exchange between Professor and Wife as they disputed what ‘LOL’ stood for. For wife, this was obvious: “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Lots of Love’.” Professor was quite sure that it stood for “Laugh out Loud.” So Daughter-in-Law was asked for instruction.

Her answer is unambiguous, but a professor cannot let matters stand. Who says that ‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’? Does Daughter-in-Law settle the matter? Or is it ‘everybody’ these days? Was wife ‘ignorant’? Or simply not very powerful on this matter? And what is ‘LOL’ made up of, in any event? What are the contexts in which it appeared and in which the dominant mode of interpretation appeared?

I got to wonder about this as I was teaching Jakobson on “Linguistics and poetics” (1960), and the following is a take on his model. ‘LOL’ is code for ‘Laugh out loud’ which itself is, to simplify, a signifier for at least two possible mental images (“laughing” and “loud”). It is also heavily marked for electronic messaging by particularly kinds of people. In that sense writing ‘LOL’; participates in constituting the context for the message either as electronic message or as about electronic messaging. It also constitutes the addresser as someone who “thinks that something is drop dead funny.” And it is built as a kind of play (poetry) with possibilities within English orthography. It is also particularly useful given the technical constraints of electronic personal communication (a matter of the support for the means of contact between people). And finally, it is a metalingual commentary on what was said before.

What Jakobson’s model does not quite do is allow us easily to explore the matters of control over most of these matters. Saying “‘LOL’ stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’” is a matter of metalinguistics that leaves open the grounds for the legitimacy of the statement or its power over future conversations. This is where we need to call on the pragmatist tradition. We need to find a way to add a third dimension to Jakobson’s model, perhaps in the following fashion:

The “factors” might be:


The “functions” might be:

————————————————– Controller

The “functions” might be:

————————————————– (Policy)

I am not quite sure about all this, and particularly not about the words in parenthesis. Furthermore I am trying to fit all this within the graphic representation Jakobson proposed, and this may not be the most fruitful way to proceed.

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given arbitrariness, then instruction…

Professor fiddles with computer in full view of about 30 graduate students.  Complains audibly that he can’t get rid of something on the screen.  One student (or more) suggests clicking on what seems the offending screen overlay.  Professor clicks there, and then clicks somewhat wildly on various options.  Apparent success.  The overlay shrinks.  But now the cursor is wrong.  A(nother? Or more) student suggests something like “click on the ‘x’ in the upper right corner.  Professor complies and is satisfied with the result.  Professor then uses the sequence he has thereby ended as an example of “distributed cognition.”

And now I, the professor expands on this discussion in the context of the class discussion about arbitrariness and culture.  As we move from identifying the properties of a social field (culture, semiotic system, etc.) to acting within this field, the essential question then becomes: how do human beings deal with the arbitrariness of their world, including the ongoing evolution of new forms of arbitrariness.  This, for a social scientist is an empirical question.  For an anthropologist inspired by conversational analysis, this is also one that must be answered through examining closely instances when, arguably, people face arbitrariness in the midst of a collectivity.  Thus the exemplary usefulness of the above example.

Living with computers and other such technologies involves facing on-going changes in the acts needed to accomplish simple tasks.  Depending on much, this can be exciting or annoying.  During a lecture, using a now unfamiliar computer, the latter is probably the most usual personal response (from watching myself and others as the carefully prepared presentation collapses more or less completely).  The issue, in the context of a lecture on arbitrariness, is that in all cases, the act that will resolve the matter and get the computer to do what one expects, cannot be simply predicted.  Familiarity with stylistic choices by software developers (e.g. Windows vs. Macs) can suggest where to look for the solution.  But one soon discovers that familiarity can lead to dead ends (e.g. the version one is now confronting may be newer or older than the one one is used to and the sequence one has used, does not work).

In cultural anthropology and related field, the usual next step is to invoke the need to “learn” the particular encoding of the task.  This is OK as far as it goes but actually does not specify how this is to happen.  “Learning” is also the search for the instructions that will teach them.  But instructing is not a trivial task, as Garfinkel has shown (2002).

And so, in the instance above, we have an “in-situ” instructional sequence.  But it should lead to more to questions about the collective organization of the sequence than on what the professor learned (which is probably going soon to be an irrelevant bit to knowledge given probably changes in the software).


(Lots of Love?
Laughing out Loud?
Who decides? [the power question]
How does one find out? [the educational question])

more on arbitrariness

I am experimenting here with a blog that would relate to a class I am currently teaching.  This Spring 2009, I am teaching Communication and Culture.  It will mostly consist of thoughts than came to me after finishing a lecture.  It is often the case that, while walking home, I wonder whether this or that point needed to be made more systematically.

For example, after the class on Saussure, and partially in response to a question about change and education, it came to me again that, at this point, it is what he started when emphasizing the arbitrariness of the sign is most relevant to the future of anthropological theory about culture and education, along with what he had to say about syntagms.  Of course, I take arbitrariness much beyond where Saussure stopped, and will include all matters of classification (including the classification of human beings) as well as matters of processes (e.g. schooling as a means of socialization into participation).  By direct implication, this means that arbitrariness unfolds in time and involves a possibly very large number of persons.  It also implies that the very arbitrariness of the process will reveal itself continually to participants and so that they will have to keep telling each other what to do next (or what they should have done, etc.).  This then directly ties to the major concern of ethnomethodology with ordering as an ongoing process.

This has to be particularly the case given that even a well-ordered event (say a joke, a class, a ceremony or ritual), that is a syntagm of parts having to be performed in “just this way” to work so that the working is not noticed (i.e. “grammatical according to native intuition”), will take time and be distributed along many participants, including many who know much about what is happening.

Thus the ongoing possibility of trouble and mistakes, as well as fun and change through mis-takes (Klemp, N., McDermott, R., Raley, J., Thibeault, M., Powell K. & Levitin, D.J. 2008).

Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist