Tequila and Mel Gibson’s brain

What Eagleman never considers is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another. Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War. But he does not ask: What let to this war? Why should spotting planes be important (and why might it not have been important during the First World War?

As cohorts of doctoral students in anthropology at Teachers College know well, the second Thursday of the first year colloquium is dedicated to pondering “social facts” and rules for studying them.  What those students do not know at this point, and will struggle against throughout the session, is that they were set up to reveal a social fact: that the major points to be made are about the same points that were made the year before, and the year before that, going back to my first participation in the colloquium in a time that now appears to me “immemorial” (actually probably in the Fall 1991).  Specifically, the students will resist separating the social from the individual in the name of the individual (with due apologies to individual differences in the manner of this resistance).

They are of course in very good company.

Ah! The individual! The mind! The brain!

The same week, I read a somewhat popularized book by David Eagleman, a “neuroscientist.”  In his Incognito: The secret lives of the brain (Pantheon, 2011), he summarizes what excites people in his discipline.  I picked up the book after reading a summary of its argument: much that happens in the brain far below “consciousness.”  As Eagleman notes in his appreciative comments on Freud, this is not an original statement as such.  His point is that there is now a large body of experimental evidence that this is so.  Eagleman reviews evidence mostly from the fields of motion, perception, moral judgement, etc.  He does not review evidence from his colleagues concerned with language processing but this work would point in the same direction.  Driving a car, recognizing a face, making a value judgment, in the real time of everyday life (as it can be modeled in experiments) depends on processes that can be measured to happen on a scale much shorter than is required when any one of these matters are brought to consciousness.  This is also true of both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic processes we use when speaking.

And then he starts a major chapter by discussing Mel Gibson.

In an infamous incident in 2006, the actor is arrested for drunken driving.  As he is, he makes a violently antisemitic rant against the arresting officer.  In the following days he issues two apologies stating (through his publicist) “Please know from my hear that I am not an anti-Semite.  I am not a bigot” (Aug 12, 2006 – CBS News video).  Which is the “real” Gibson?  Elsewhere in the book, Eagleman reports on a study (Wojnowicz, Ferguson, Dale & Spivey 2009) involving moving a computer cursor:

Imagine that you start with your cursor positioned at the bottom of the screen, and in the upper corners of the screen you have buttons labeled “like” and “dislike”. Then a word appears in the middle (say, the name of a religion), and you are instructed to move the mouse as quickly as you can to your answer about whether you like or dislike people of that creed. What you don’t realize is that the exact trajectory of your mouse movement is being recorded-every position at every moment. By analyzing the path your mouse I raveled, researchers can detect whether your motor system started moving toward one button before other cognitive systems kicked into gear and drove it toward the other response. So, for example, even if you answered “like” for a particular religion, it may be that your trajectory drifted slightly toward the “dislike” button before it got back on track for the more socially appropriate response. (Eagleman 2011: 60-61)

What Eagleman never considers (and neither did the authors of the research) is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another.  This also characterizes all his discussions of morality.  Actually it also characterizes his discussions of apparently purely cognitive tasks.  Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War.  But he does not ask: What led to this war? Why should spotting planes be important (and why might it not have been important during the First World War?

Now, of course, asking such questions led Durkheim to consider the possibility of “social facts.”  Asking similar questions leads recent sociologists and anthropologists claiming Durkheim as an ancestor to ponder the mechanisms for establishing that this is disapproved, or for enforcing the disapproval (policemen, anti-defamation leagues, etc.).  In Gibson’s case one might also ponder where the alcohol comes from (when, how, through whom did Tequila enter Hollywood?).  And, of course, how did antisemitism become something to sanction when the reverse had been true for so many centuries?

But, a keen doctoral student might ask, is it not the case that neuroscience confirms Bourdieu (and Parsons, etc.) on the foundations of sociability and the reproduction of social patterns?

More on that another day…

Wojnowicz, M. T., Ferguson, M. J., Dale, R., & Spivey, M. J. (2009). The self-organization of explicit attitudes. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02448.x

detouring the internet and making it legal

Two news item, one from Afghanistan, and the other from Guinea by way of New York City. Both deal with people in serious trouble figuring out what are their conditions and trace a path through them (“enunciate their landscapes” to cross-reference Merleau-Ponty/de Certeau’s jargon). In both cases the people are caught in mid-stream, successful-so-far in surviving, but with no guarantee that the future will be less difficult than their recent past has been. Watching them struggling can teach us much about the world we, ourselves, also face–for it is the same one they do face.

Two news items caught my eyes recently as more examples of the kind of activities I deem “educational” and that I encourage doctoral students to investigate.  Here is another set of “free dissertation topics” to expand our collection of case studies of what so many of our colleagues ignore.

The first item is from Afghanistan, the other from Guinea by way of New York City.  Both deal with people in serious trouble figuring out what are their conditions and trace a path through them (“enunciate their landscapes” to cross-reference Merleau-Ponty/de Certeau’s jargon).  In both cases the people are caught in mid-stream, successful-so-far in surviving, but with no guarantee that the future will be less difficult than their recent past has been.  Watching them struggling can teach us much about the world we, ourselves, also face–for it is the same one they do face.

Afghans working on laptop
Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials (NY Times, 6/12/2011)

On Sunday June 12, the New York Times reported, on page 1 no less, that “U.S. underwrites internet detour around censors.”  The subject of this headline, not surprisingly is “the U.S.”  The subject is further specified in the first paragraphs as “the Obama administration,” “the State Department,” “a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington.”  It is, by the Time standard an “American effort.”  The picture that accompanies the piece, placed smack center at the top of the page, is of two Afghan men and an Apple laptop.  The laptop is set precariously on a chair on a roof.  It is tied to some machines.  One man sitting on the edge of the roof is peering down at the screen, one hand to his mouth, in the classical pose of the person who waits for a computer to complete an important task, or who is trying to interpret what the computer has provided.  The other man is peering into the distance through binoculars.  The legend below the picture says: “Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials.”

Who are these “volunteers”? How were they trained? By whom? What exactly does it mean to “build a wireless internet”? Who else might also be building wireless internet that bypass state controls?  What are the other controls that may not be bypassed? How does one get an Apple laptop to Afghanistan (and the power to recharge it, etc.)?  (According to Google, there are Apple stores in New Delhi and Lahore, but apparently not in Kabul.)  There are many other subjects there than the “U.S.” and probably a lot of “fifth-floor shops” where the actual possibilities made available to local “volunteers” are explored, exploited, transformed.

The other story implies the existence of other kind of “fifth-floor shops,” this time in the Bronx “where many in New York City’s small Guinean population have blended in among other West African immigrant groups in neighborhoods like High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, Claremont and Morrisania” (NYT June 15, 2011).  The story is brief biography of the woman who is accusing Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting him.  The details that struck me is the following:

It is not clear how the woman gained entrance to the United States. In the 12 months ending in September 2002, the United States issued 4,410 visas to Guineans, a vast majority for business trips or tourism, officials said.  But by the time she began her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel in 2008, she had legal status and working papers, her lawyers said.

village in Guinea
The village of Thiakoulle, Guinea, where the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault grew up (NY Times 6/15/2011)

How does one get legal status?  How does one do that, in the details of the peoples, bureaucracies, financial resources that must be involved?  How does one figure it out?  One can imagine the moment when it becomes clear that there are routes that can be followed to go from the village of Thikoulle, Guinea, to New York City, the efforts to find these routes among the maze of other routes that would take one elsewhere, and then the struggles to do whatever it takes to actually follow the route, and then, as is still going on for this woman—for there is no end to all this—, to recast one’s plans as one faces new obstacles and new possibilities.  At every moment and point the woman “learned” something and this something became almost immediately moot since the task that had been accomplished would not repeat itself, while new tasks appeared.

In this case, the one matter that would be worth investigating closely is the network of people who are involved in getting “legal status and working papers,” and to sort out what exactly one has to do.  I am sure that the State Department (or is it the Department of Homeland Security…) has web sites with instructions to follow.  But we also know (as per Garfinkel 2002) that these instructions cannot possibly be enough.  The bureaucratic rules have to be translated though not exactly into a different ‘language’.  Rather, they have to be re-written to become useful at the particular moment when a particular person has to perform whatever it is the rule says this person should do next.  Even more important to investigate are the processes when one finds out that the rules exist, and which of the millions of rules is the one a person should pay attention to now whether to imagine a possible route, or to get through the next gate along the way.  Doing something may just be secondary to finding out that it has to get done.

On ecologically valid assessments

In everyday life, at home, “learning” is not a simple automatic matter proceeding below deliberation or symbolic expression. In everyday life “teaching” (and assessing) is—probably—ubiquitous.

At some point during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011), Ray McDermott raised questions about the validity of the kind of tests the Educational Testing Service and such design.  He told of the work he conducted in the late 1970s as part of Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.  Then McDermott, Cole and others wondered about the relationship between tests and the settings about which the tests were supposed to say something.  As they showed (1979, 1998: Chapter 1), the relationship between, for example, a reading test and baking banana bread by reading a recipe is tenuous, at best.  In the setting of a cooking club, so much else happens (from confused writing to interpersonal tensions) that ability to read is the least of the problem the children have to deal with.  The generalizability of these observations across settings and populations is now well established through repeated observations.

What has been left open in this work is the question of finding out what ecologically valid assessments would actually look like.

Soon after the conference, another participant, Katie Anderson-Levitt (U. of Michigan-Dearborn), suggested we look at Paradise and Rogoff’s recent paper about ongoing learning in families (2009).  In that paper, Paradise and Rogoff mention all the work done in the Cole tradition over the past 30 years with a new twist that fits well with my own sense of what I call ‘education.’  In everyday life, at home, “learning” is not a simple automatic matter proceeding below deliberation or symbolic expression.  In everyday life “teaching” (and assessing) is—probably—ubiquitous.

As I reflected on all this, I saw a route I have not yet quite explored and that could lead to further research expanding on the Cole, Lave, etc., traditions.  Starting with an expansion of the point Paradise and Rogoff made, I suspect that  the movement through publicized ignorance is accompanied by all sorts of speech acts, many of which fit in the paradigm of knowledge assessment.  Developing all this is also an expansion on Garfinkel, as I take him.

Garfinkel has kept arguing that maintaining any order requires ongoing work, including the work of figuring out what is going on.  Conversational analysts has given abundant evidence that this is indeed correct.  More recently, Garfinkel wrote about ‘instructions’ as a necessary aspect of this work.  The paper ends with one of my favorite quotes about screwing around and getting instructed (2002: 257).  What I do not think Garfinkel noted, and what I know I never noted myself, is that the instruction moments proceed either from an earlier assessment, or themselves constitute an assessment.  This is also an implication of Gus Andrews recent dissertation (2010) on blog comments when these are assessed as being “wrong” in some way that is specified by a later comment (“this comment does not belong here,” “you should not write your social security number here,” etc.).  In an interactional sequence (conversation?) utterance of the type “Do X differently!” are probably essential mechanisms for maintaining order, constituting emerging orders, moving participants into new positions, etc.

I am quite sure that such ongoing assessment is ubiquitous and should probably added as a function in Jakobson’s model of communication (1960 — though he might have classified it as an aspect of the metalingual function).  Much of the recent work on metapragmatics may also fit here.

In brief, and for our purposes, we could say that Ethno-methodology is at the service of ethno-science (what is the world made of?), and ethno-politics (how do we maintain the order within which we are now caught?), it also at the service of ethno-assessments. [or should we say that (ethno) Methodology is at the service of (ethno) Science, (ethno) Politics, and (ethno) Assessment?]

If this proves a useful direction for inquiry, it suggests that assessment is not an extra-ordinary task.  It also suggests how school assessment has drifted away from the ordinary [I am not sure that ‘drifted’ is the right work, but it will do for today].  The well known school-based QAE (Mehan 1979) model is formally equivalent to what might get known as the SARS model (Statement, Assessment, Re-statement) except that the former starts with the assessor’s question while the later starts with a seeker’s request that may then lead to an assessment (though this proposal may not have been presented as such).  In other words, the sequence starts with ignorance grounded in the here and now (“ecologically valid ignorance”?) and proceeds with statements of local knowledge that are themselves proposals for what it is that the seeker may plausibly not know (I am using the word ‘seeker’ rather than ‘learner’ since it will remain a question wether the subject whose ignorance is marked will learn anything out of the encounter).  This sequence is what I would now say my earlier statements about “productive ignorance” were about.

The question to designers of future tests is something like: how might you produce assessments that are triggered by acknowledgments of ignorance, whether generated by the subject (“I would like to know about X”) or by a co-participant in the polity (“you really should learn more about X”).  The challenge is to find the moment in the sequence of a life when the co-participant teachers will enter.  In everyday life it is a non-problem to the extent that co-participants or “consociates” have the built in or self-generated (legitimate) authority to assess (as siblings may have).  When social distance increases, that is when the network links between those who set what is to be assessed, what is to count as ignorance, and what should be done about include many persons in many institutions, then the problem gets acute.  It may even be unsolvable unless we find ways to reposition the official assessors within the network so they are closer to the performance in such a way that they can get a better sense, in real time, of the feedbacks that the seeker (learner) provides.

(More on what I am trying to formulate about network linkages later)

Practical assessments, perhaps

Imagine a new Google service. Imagine that Google, as run by some revolutionary government, traced my queries, adapted its answers to my renewed queries and, mor or less insistently started asking me about my beliefs and worked at correcting them. Parents do this with their children. And school teachers do this with their pupils. Why shouldn’t Google?

This is my third entry developing some of the points we discussed during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011).  The first two entries (on audiences, and on utopias), and in my initial one before the conference (on political philosophy) were essentially analytic with a definite pessimistic lean.  (School) assessments are bad for the health, and yet they are here to stay given all the powers they serve—including idealistic ones.

Robbie McClintock re-started me on a different track I briefly explored in my last contributions (2010) to the series on Comprehensive Education Ed Gordon and I edited (2008, 2009, 2010).  There I mused about possibilities for forms of institutionalized education that did not proceed from schools.  I am convinced that adults gain their most significant knowledge (about, say, health, emerging scientific and engineering developments, trends in high and popular culture, etc.) from institutions (for example, journalists and television reporters or producers) that are not controlled by the State.  Most of these institutions do not present themselves as primarily in the education business.  But perhaps they should, and draw the consequences.

McClintock emphasized the Web as another source of an education that is not necessarily packaged as, precisely, “education” but perhaps only as “information,” “entertainment,” etc.  Some writers and producers for the Web may present themselves as educating but none, at this moment assess what one may learn by reading their offerings.  Yet, as McClintock pointed out, the new technologies, as they are evolving, afford for possibilities for ongoing, real time assessment that older technologies (for example the printing press) do not afford.

This is intriguing.  Time for a little science fiction.

Imagine a new Google service.  At this moment, Google answers questions of the type “where can I find about X?”  Whether the seeker is satisfied or not with the answer, whatever the seeker does with answer, Google remains silent after providing a list of possible answers ranked by Google’s best guess as to the seeker’s intent.  If the seeker is dissatisfied, he may ask again and Google will answer, but Google has no memory of what this seeker asked and Google’s answers will not evolve as answers do evolve when, say, a child ask a parent about X.  So, last week, while writing my preceding blog entry, I looked for the creationism museum I had read about.  I entered “creationism” in the Google box (search page saved on of 4/20/2011), clicked on the first of 3,150,000 results (a suspiciously ‘round’ number), and found myself in the Wikipedia entry that started, on that day, with “creationism is the religious belief …”  There are no links to the museum in that entry, and so I asked Google again, found that it was second in its list of possibilities (and I also found out, serendipitously, a “Conservapedia” with an entry on creationism that is close but interestingly different from Wikipedia’s.  I am, of course, on my way to educating myself about creationism—not so much as a belief but as an institution with, among others, curricula experts quite deliberately teaching that which School people are quite sure should not be taught.  But Google never intervened in my education.

Imagine that Google did intervene.  Imagine that Google, as run by some revolutionary government, traced my queries, adapted its answers to my renewed queries and, mor or less insistently started asking me about my beliefs and worked at correcting them.  Parents do this with their children.  And school teachers do this with their pupils.  Why shouldn’t Google?

I suspect that the technological infrastructure of such a service is already in place and that it would not take much tweaking of the various flavors of social software already available to make them serve the new function.

The challenge is multiply institutional.  Who is to start it? Fund it? Control it?  Who is to credential (authorize) the persons or software assessing self-sought knowledge in real time?  Who is to establish the curriculum and it goals to which seekers are to be brought back even as they explored far and wide?  Individuals, clubs, associations, etc., may already provide feedback in the sense that their web sites are less informational than argumentative.  For example, the fifth set of links to ‘creationism’ on Google mostly lead to “atheist” web sites specifically addressing creationist links and debunking the claims.

I have never heard of States getting into this as deliberately as States get in the business of setting school curriculum.

The libertarian and anarchist in me whispers: why would you want the State to get involved?  The school critic from the left and the neo-liberal from the right might ask the same question.  States have a wonderfully awful (or is it awfully wonderful?) track record of setting the curriculum for the mass populations they govern.  Why would they do better with real time ongoing assessment than they have with the usual forms of test or examination based assessments for which schools are (in-)famous?

The statist in me begs to differ.  Free, state regulated, public schools have done much that is good in transforming what is to count as the knowledge on which public and private lives should be based, as well as the means for the production of such knowledge.  Rationally based, modernist (?) expertise should probably remain at the core of what States support, propagate, and assess as, precisely, rationally based.  If Latour (1993 [1991]) is correct, “We may never have been modern.”  Modernism itself is a cultural construction that must be reconstituted on an ongoing basis to remain the order of the day.  True enough, but what else might we wish to build?

What ongoing assessment software should be now build?

Utopias and dystopias: Futures for education, technology, and the assessment of authority over knowledge.

In brief, everyone, about, can read Wikipedia (and other sources available on the Web). But Wikipedia writers cannot assess what people are doing with the reading. Readers may learn, as individuals. More significantly for us, they may then act publicly and practically. Disagreeing with Darwin for religious reasons is one thing. Building a “Creation Museum” is something else together. Doubting the efficacy of vaccines is one thing, not getting a child vaccinated is another one.

When we met last Monday (April 11, 2011) for the mini-conference on the future of assessment, we, of course, talked a lot about the impact of the new technologies.  Without much prodding from Robbie McClintock we mentioned the oft celebrated opening of access to knowledge as well as the distribution of the production of widely accessible knowledge.  The new technologies open routes to knowledge that do not pass through the gate-keepers we are familiar with: universities, research libraries, newspapers, state-controlled curricula, medical institutions (not to mention the theologians and priests who, until recently appeared to be fading as gate-keepers).

Someone then mentioned that all this has a very dark side.  With the distribution of access and production comes a distribution of the authority to interpret and constitute knowledge so that it can guide practical action in the world.  This can be scary.

In brief, everyone, about, can read Wikipedia (and other sources available on the Web).  But Wikipedia writers cannot assess what people are doing with the reading, whether in real time or, in a posteriori tests.  Readers may learn, as individuals.  More significantly for us, they may then act publicly and practically.  Disagreeing with Darwin for religious reasons is one thing.  Building a “Creation Museum” is something else together (not to mention trying to enter creationism into the public school curriculum).  Doubting the efficacy of vaccines is one thing, not getting a child vaccinated is another one.

Can “democracy”—as Dewey might have meant it when he titled a book “Democracy and Education” (1916)—survive the full democratization of knowledge?  This, of course, is an old problem.

I will stay with the technical issues and keep the implications for political philosophy implicit.  The issue we must raise concerns the interpretation of two sets of now common observations about the entry of the new technologies into public common practices.

On the one hand there is the evidence for the power of crowd sourcing to establish, through communal self-correction, what is, for an intent, purpose, and polity, expert knowledge.  Much of Wikipedia fits here and there are reports that many fields are using crowd-sourcing for scientific purposes in the modernist sense.  McClintock’s own experiment with StudyPlace is a valiant attempt to use wiki software for more than the writing of encyclopedias.

On the other hand there is also evidence for the power of any number of other self-constituting polities to constitute, propose, defend, etc., forms of knowledge that other polities—says academics—will characterize as erroneous.  Post-modernists, critical theorists, performance artists may celebrate this anarchic blooming but the flowers of such blooming can be toxic.

In both cases one has “education” in my sense of “difficult collective deliberations” (2007) particularly as the various polities discuss and address each other.  In both cases one has evidence for collective ongoing “assessments” of earlier statements (Andrews 2010) by people who specifically claim some expertise, or who just proceed as if the assessment had been made by an expert.  And both cases leave state-regulated or controlled “public” schools in a difficult position.  For a century or two school people have been charged with developing knowledge (in research universities for example), deciding which subset of this knowledge is appropriate for what kinds of publics (through the setting of curricula), experimenting with methods (pedagogies) to impart this knowledge.  They have also been charged with vouching that particularly populations have incorporated this knowledge—through achievement tests for example.  In this arc of knowledge (re-)production, alternate forms of knowledge were either specifically discounted (“grand-mothers’ knowledge”) or just ignored.

For at least half-a-century, critics have protested this arc but they did it mostly from the safety of various ivory-towers (think Bourdieu blasting La Sorbonne from his post at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales).  They rarely had to deal with the practical consequences of direct attack on academic expertise from putative experts who now have the tools to be heard.  It is only recently that the population at large has had the technological means to make fully public these alternate forms of knowledge.  It may be that finally, post-modernism is being institutionalized.

And so, those of us, particularly in anthropology, who see merit in the argument that constituted knowledge is founded on arbitrary institutional (political) means must confront the consequences of the mass distribution of constitutive tools, and thus the appearance of new forms of arbitrary political power (in all the sense of “arbitrary”—the political as well as the semiotic).

In a future that may already be here, schools may become irrelevant as producers, transmitters, or assessors of knowledge—though they could remain as essential baby sitting institutions, and as gate-keepers into the service industries.  This future may be wonderful, or awful.  Stressing the reality that the web makes public all knowledge and frees inquiry from the mediation of the institutions that limited access, can turn into technological utopia.  Stressing the reality that unmediated information can lead to all forms of altogether dangerous knowledge, can turn into technological dystopia.  It is probable that the 21st century will be a time when the classic debates about letting the Christian faithful read the Bible will be reprised (and will not, one hopes, lead to the kind of violence Europe experienced in the 16th century).

Assessing audiences: identifying reachable designing assessors

… We are talking about entering ongoing conversations about assessment with professionals and political actors of all types and, potentially, or inevitably, run the risk of being co-opted back into what we criticize. We are talking about changing discourses and, we hope, practices not mainly in classrooms and local schools, but rather at the level of the governmental institutions that control what is to be known legitimately about individual schools, teachers and, of course, students.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my confusion when I was asked by Ed Gordon to consult for a “Commission on the Future of Assessment” he is convening.  The first meeting of this commission is to happen in June and I am now expected to write a few pages based on a mini-conference held last Monday (April 11, 2011) at Teachers College.  A longer paper is to be written later.

The mini-conference brought together Robbie McClintock, Ray McDermott, Kathryn Anderson-Levitt and half-a-dozen recent doctorates (Gus Andrews, Alex Posecznick) and students.  A grand intellectual time was had by all, and I will be writing about various highlights of the conversation in future blogs entries.

For today, I want to muse about one theme to which we kept coming back: who is our audience?  Are we addressing each other, sympathetic anthropologists, students (“the choir”)? Are we addressing Ed Gordon who convened us? The Educational Testing Service that is funding the commission and is, of course, a most powerful designer of tests and other means to assess large populations?  The universities and other institutions that buy the tests or their results, and that may also shape mass assessment, whether directly (through, for example, their admissions practices), or indirectly (through research and other activities that justify or interpret assessment)?  The “policy makers,” an altogether opaque “group” (?) who propose programs to deal with what the test results appear to reveal? The politicians who may or may not accept what policy makers propose? The tested people, or their parents or guardians, who organize their life around future test taking, of past test results?

Those who know my recent work as it has been influenced by students like Jill Koyama or Gus Andrews will recognize in this paragraph a very sketchy sketch of a “network” in what may be Latour’s sense.  In this network each node (which is itself a complicated network) is constrained by what happens elsewhere and constraints what can happen there.  Together, they may constitute what Ray McDermott and I talk about when we write about “the School America builds” (1998).

Ah! The pleasures of analysis!

This leaves us with the practical problem: Given our position in the network (some backwater of the research university), who will even notice that we have spoken?  Where should we stand so that we will have a better chance not only to be heard, but also listened to?

This, of course is a general and classical problem for anthropologists.  Different anthropologists, from Boas to Margaret Mead, to Geertz (to mention only some who are now part of the history of the field), have given very different answers and entered very different publics–or withdrawn from them.  As faculty in schools of education, all of us have had to accept, mostly willingly I would say, the position of spokesperson about anthropology or philosophy to an audience of students, and some faculty colleagues, whose main concerns are with action in the world beyond the analytic or interpretive action most typical of academic researchers.  It is said that some of our colleagues in academic anthropology argue that anthropology should not be “applied” and that, I guess by implication, anthropologists should not address the public.

Many anthropologists disagree with this.  The American Anthropological Association regularly passes resolutions on the hot political topic of the day.  But we are talking here about doing much more than that.  We are talking about entering ongoing conversations about assessment with professionals and political actors of all types and, potentially, or inevitably, run the risk of being co-opted back into what we criticize.  We are talking about changing discourses and, we hope, practices not mainly in classrooms and local schools, but rather at the level of the governmental institutions that control what is to be known legitimately about individual schools, teachers and, of course, students.  We are talking about entering the political fray and finding a way to be listened to.

We certainly did not find out how to do this.  But we need to keep addressing the issue.

My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

Given a setting that may be “quite an experience,” how might one write a research question to investigate the participants’ experience

My (M’I) experience(s) of the Colloquium

I have written about participants’ “experience” of moments, settings, scenes, such as–say–a seminar when first and second year doctoral students in anthropology present their work and discuss it in front of program faculty.  At Teachers College, what is known as “The Colloquium” is famous among all who participate, or have participated, as “quite an experience.”

The faculty like to tell students, during discussions of difficult passages in Durkheim, Marx, or Weber, to imagine how this or that point might apply to, precisely, this colloquium in which they are participating.  Now, how would one phrase a research question about the colloquium to address the possibility, attested by anecdotal reports in bars and corridors, that it is indeed “quite an experience?”

A good student might ask “how do students (faculty) experience the colloquium?”  and then spend a lot of time writing about the room, the demographics (gender/age/ethnicity/etc.) of student and faculty, the biographies of some, the rules spelled out by the faculty, etc.  At the end of the presentation of all this information, a faculty member might ask: what does this information tell us about the students’ experience?  Another one might quip that it depends on what you mean by ‘experience’ and how the question is asked–given that there might be at least two not quite commensurable ways of understanding ‘experience’, asking research questions about it, and then using particular techniques to answer the question. Still another might ask what the distinction is.

Very briefly, what might wonder what are the matters that trigger an experience, a wonder that might be phrased as “what do participants experience in the colloquium?” with answers such as “some participants evaluate performance, other participants are evaluated.”

One might also wonder what is the personal experience of the colloquium, a wonder that might be phrased in the same way but with answers of the type “some are anxious, some are bored, some are angry” leading to questions differentiating participants with answers such as “more women are anxious than men” which of course would be misleading given that in recent years there have been very few men among the students while all faculty are men.  So we would be led to divide the participants further, adding other categories (such as race, age, citizenship status, etc.).

The possibility of confusion has a long history.  So, when I teach anthropological methods, I always start with the last two pages of Malinowski’s classic introduction to The Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961 [1922]).  Malinowski starts with a  list of everything an ethnographer should collect:

1. The organization of the tribe, and the anatomy of its culture must be recorded in firm, clear outline. The method of concrete, statistical documentation is the means through which such an outline has to be given.
2. Within this frame, the imponderabilia of actual life, and the type of behavior have to be filled in. They have to be collected through minute, detailed observations, in the form of some sort of ethnographic diary, made possible by close contact with native life.
3. A collection of ethnographic statements, characteristic narratives, typical utterances, items of folk-lore and magical formulae has to be given as a corpus inscriptionum, as documents
(1961 [1922]: 24)

This is a list the Foucault of The Order of Things (1970 [1966]) would appreciate in the wonderful arbitrariness of its distinctions.  But Malinowski then proceeds to tell us that all this is only a step towards “The final goal [which] is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (1961 [1922]: 25).  This phrase has had a famous history in Geertz’s discussion (1976) which led him to the skepticism of the end of his career when he despaired of anthropologists ever getting at this “point of view” which he understood as a personal, though public, matter.  He had pushed Weber (not to mention Margaret Mead and most second generation Boasians) into an impasse.  Almost by definition, particularly given our current understanding of the limits of linguistic or symbolic expression, personal experiences are unreachable.

I agree with this and it is one of the reasons why I have more and more systematically presented my work as not concerned with something that psychologists may still struggle to get at, but which I am convinced no extent ethnographic technique can reach.  But I do not agree with my “post-modernist” peers on what is to follow for anthropology.  Malinowski, like Boas, and then many others in sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, ethnomethodology, and indeed anthropology, have kept telling us that there are other matters of human activity that are reachable.  Moreover, precisely because of what we have learned about the historical consequences of public symbolic expression, we have no choice but to pay very close attention to such expression, as it unfolds in time and space—and to challenge each other to ever greater rigor.

To summarize, provocatively perhaps, “my” experiences of the colloquium are not “m’I” experiences.  That is any experience one might plausibly attach to Hervé Varenne’s “self” (in G. H. Mead’s sense) or “identity” (in what I take to be the most common sense of the term these days), are at best “interpretations,” classifications into a culture or discourse.  M’I experiences are un-speakable and so, as McDermott and Varenne have said, we should turn aside and look for what others do to ‘I’.

[This is something of a development on my December 28, 2010, post]

on the political philosophy of educational assessments

The question Gordon is now asking me to address concerns the possibility of finding different ways to sequence assessments given my sense that the most powerful educational processes are not those controlled by schooling. Formally, this is a problem in the politics of assessment at the most philosophical level since it concerns the very organization of the good society and, in our times, of democracy.

Ed Gordon has asked me to consult for a “Commission on the Future of Assessment” he is convening.

Dilemma: My work, particularly with Ray McDermott, has mostly been about ferreting the noxious side-effect of … assessments, and particularly of what follows even the most well conducted assessments by the most dedicated professionals.    McDermott and I are convinced that these noxious side-effects are structural features of assessments as currently sequenced within the life of a person as caught within a particular polity.  By this we mean that the consequences are not the product of the quality of the assessment (whether of the test or of the tester, of its validity or reliability).  They are the product of the way a test is required (when, by whom, for whom) and by the way the test results are subsequently used to inflect the career of a person in this or that direction (school tracking or admissions, treatments, therapies, not to mention employment).  In fact, from our point of view, the better the assessment as assessment, the more serious the consequences since they cannot be legitimately challenged.

Formally, this is a problem in the politics of assessment at the most philosophical level since it concerns the very organization of the good society and, in our times, of democracy.

The question Gordon is now asking me to address concerns the possibility of finding different ways to sequence assessments given my sense that the most powerful educational processes are not those controlled by schooling.

Let me indicate briefly whence I would start looking.  I have become somewhat bothered by all reports trumpeting the important of college graduation not only for personal happiness but also for material benefit.  When this is combined with arguments about the wealth of the nation in the competition between American and China, the arguments seem unimpeachable until one starts wondering about exactly what it is about “college graduation” that produces all these benefits—particularly in the United States where colleges are so varied in their curricula, pedagogies, not to mention “reputation.”  The issue soon becomes pathetic, if not politically explosive, when one reads about very small colleges, often in urban settings recruiting struggling working class people by using academic research to demonstrate that the enormous indebtedness the students are assuming will soon be repaid.  The admissions officials in such colleges do not quite tell potential students that colleges in the fourth rank are likely not to be those that were used in academic research (Posecznick 2010).  At the limit this is akin to selling very expensive snake oil aided and abetted by the federal government through its student loan programs.

All this might be something we should accept if we were sure that colleges do produce the experiences and skills businesses need, or that colleges are the most efficient way of gaining these experiences and skills.  But we must doubt this.  One has but to look at the school profile of many workers in the internet world to realize that a business that needs a good web site is more concerned with the product than with the credentials of the person who design it.  More research is urgently needed in what businesses actually do need, with subsequent discussions of where people should be prepared, or who should fund what part of the training (the person? the State? the business?)

One aspect of the possible shift from college graduation as a sort of general proxy is the question of how the business is going to assess whether the person has the needed skill.  Developing a special test for assessing this is quite a different thing than using “college graduation” as proxy.  What many do not consider is that the assessments that lead to college graduation (from grades to tests assessing the aptitude of people for college work) have a lot do with what interest colleges (and their faculty) and possibly little to do with whatever it is that we talk about when we talk about national wealth.

I will confess that I prefer a student excited about literature and philosophy than in a student excited about book keeping.  I am glad to have been part of a generation that pressured students to say there were excited by literature and philosophy so that they could become book keepers.  And yet, as I step out of my tower and into the market place, I am so glad for the many magnificent book keepers (insurance agents, car salesmen, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, bank assistants) that have helped me sell my apartment and buy a new house, and whose eyes have glazed when they hear that what I teach at Columbia is “cultural anthropology”…

On the way home or, “When is m’I culture?”

Recently, I happened to watch Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s early career.  It is titled “No direction home” and starts with a soliloquy by Dylan wondering whether this would be an occasion for him to tell an odyssey of his return to the small town of his youth.  He concluded that it would not be because “I was born very far from where I am supposed to be.  So I am going home” in a future he had not reached when the documentary was made (in 2005).  In the same vein he also said at about the same time “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens.”

In my words, I exhort us, pre/post/never modern, intellectuals: do not explain Bob Dylan by calling on Robert Allen Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota, or any other further “roots” in Judaism, Ukraine, Turkey—or even rock-n-roll, jazz, country, folk, “the 60’s,” … America.  An archaeology of Dylan’s songs will find them all there.  But to stop with the discoveries of a deconstruction is to blind oneself to humanity.  Robert Allen Zimmerman’s dispositions are not causes.  Hibbing … America are obviously Dylan’s resources, the raw material of what he is still cooking for ever renewed present (at the time of composition) constructions (that are now, of course, our enlarged resources for further construction—as for example this post).

I have said all this many times in recent years (20072011).  I’ll just sketch today another correlate by riffing on “home” and the direction there.  As I take him, Dylan makes of “home” a matter of eschatology, not history.

When I started thinking from Dylan’s statement, I was reminded of a paper by James Boon where he compared/contrasted  Lévi-Strauss and Geertz on what could be called the harmonics of the concept of culture (1982: 137-147).  Boon quotes Geertz “‘Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men’ (1973:49).”  And then Boon continues:

If that bothers you, think how it would sound in French: Sans hommes, pas de culture [structure?], certainement; mais également, et d’une manière plus significative, sans culture, pas d’homme.  In English it sounds antiatomistic and almost optimistic (although Geertz himself—in this respect more Weberian than Parsonian—is pessimistic).  In French it sounds somehow pessimistic, even nihilistic. (1982:146-7).

{Note what may be a typo in Boon’s translation of the second “men” in Geertz’s quote: an ‘s’ is missing and Boon’s French would have to be translated back into English as “without culture no Man”—thereby directing us on other paths in classical musings about humanity vs. human beings}

In any event, Geertz’s quote evokes another classic statement I associate with Margaret Mead (but may be by someone else—I cannot locate it): “a child is born with the potential to live an infinite number of lives, and end up having lived only one, fully shaped by ‘his culture’.”  Every single human being is made by possible by “culture”—“without culture, no men” in a plural that would now be written, more corrrectly, as “without culture, no men or women.”

Whether this formula can be applied to say “without America, no Bob Dylan” would seem to be a question for anthropology (sociology, psychology, etc.) and it would seem to require a positive answer because, to simplify “Dylan is the product of America.”  This would be altogether “normal anthropology” on the relationship between history and career whether one is concerned with musical genres, political sensibilities, gender, age, religion, race, etc. Robert Zimmerman would be a white Jewish male born in … [add any aspects of his biography you wish].

But Bob Dylan challenges us to a different anthropology which I find quite congenial with what I have been trying to say these past few years.  One can start with the statement that “without Bob Dylan no America” (my initial America included Bob Dylan, along with big cars with fins, cowboys and Indians, Doris Day in “Pillow Talk,” and other miscellanea).  But there is more.  Bob Dylan, in his life, has kept producing a culture that was not quite there and about which we, his mass audiences, know altogether little.  Above all, his statements are universal: all human beings are born very far from where they are supposed to be, with wrong names and parents that are always in some ways wrong.

Dylan is often dismissed as being in some way a mystic whose insights are to be bracketed out by serious behavioral scientists.  Their task would be an incommensurable one and so, from Freud to Boasian anthropologists, from pragmatic philosophers to Parsonian sociologists (including, of course Bourdieu), the scientists of the past century or two, have explained adults careers in terms of what has happened, most particularly in the earliest years of one’s life, and most powerfully when one has forgotten what happened.  Merleau-Ponty, de Certeau, (Bob Dylan?), have tried to go in the other direction but exploring this direction systematically has been difficult—particularly given the difficulty of making the point that historically produced resources, and ongoing constraints, must be taken into account even as one follows the production process.

The one exception to my generalization about the social sciences if, or course, an ethnomethodology that has been modified to take into account the ongoing production of new orders—however minimally “different” they may be from earlier orders, and however these differences are disappeared by further constructions that ignore the potentialities of the preceding (thereby treating as allophonic what could have become phonemic [but I am getting ahead of myself here]).

In other words, my home is in the future of my ‘I’ and (continuing a riff on G. H. Mead) my culture is really “m’I” culture, that is an act, a word, that cannot be captured without collapsing it into other people’s cultures.

[all this being potentially related to soon-to-happen events prefigured by the two contracts we have signed over the past three months: a contract to sell our apartment and a contract to buy a house.  The—aptly named—“closing” on the apartment is now scheduled for January 5th, 2011.  What should be named the “opening” on the house should happen in February.  Then, my wife and I will go home on our ways to still future homes…]

journalists are educators

Most of us get most of our scientific education from journalists.

[this was to have been published in April 2010]

Mostly, in my work, I celebrate what Linda Lin (forthcoming) felicitously labeled “untamed” education.  Sometimes, I also fear the untamed, particularly when I am asked to imagine “educational policy” as it might be built up with an acknowledgment of the limits of schooling.  And so I celebrated/feared Oprah as a later day Benjamin Franklin, and as a sometimes force for mis-education (from the point of view of the sober public intellectual).

All this came to me when reading another editorial in Newsweek, this time by Sharon Begley (March 29, 2010).  She titled it “Why scientists are losing the PR wars.” She criticizes “scientists” for not communicating well, and “Americans” who believe both in the absence of intermediaries between God and individual (no priests needed for salvation, no expert needed for knowledge) and in the wisdom of crowds.  Classically, she criticized the people of the United States for being both too individualistic and too conformist.  “No wonder so many Americans have decided that experts are idiots,” Begley concludes.

There is just one problem here.  After all scientists are not trained to be (public) “communicators.”  Actually it is trained out of them in graduate school and only a few may have the nerve, late in their career, to address those who are not their peers in a language they may be familiar with, or through the media they have access to.  As for the non-scientists (including scientists in other fields than their own), where do they get their information?  As far as I can tell from my own experience, and that of a rather extended network of kin and friends including several Ph.D.’s., MD’s, as well as office workers and laborers, over close to a century (since I include grand-parents I came to know well and who were born early in the 20th century), these two or three hundred people got all their scientific knowledge from journalists.

There are exceptions to that generalization.  My grandfather learned about growing tomatoes in Southern France from his father, and from long experience.  Cousins who are radiologists have a professional knowledge of radiation and the human body that do make them if not first level expert knowledge producers, but second level ones with direct entry into that level.  But they have no more direct entry into the world of climate scientists than I have.  Actually, I can say that my first lesson in climate science came to my grandmother who liked to repeat, each time the weather was not exactly what she expected that “ils nous ont détraqué le temps avec leurs bombes atomiques.”  Atomic bombs, she had learned, by exercising her intelligence with what she had read in the popular press, might have an impact on the weather.  Actually this was the time, in the mid-1950s when the movement to ban testing bombs in the atmosphere was starting to be discussed.  So, having ended her schooling at the 6th grade around 1910, and then working mostly at the edge of the unqualified working classes of Marseille, she was not far off.

Half-a-century later, her grandson, with his PhD, and appointment as Full Professor at Columbia University, is in the same position in relation to climate science (and about all other forms of science except the social sciences) as she was.  I do not read primary sources in climate science, and I suspect I would not know how to read them, or how to evaluate the evidence.

Science News Cycle
If this is the case for most of the human population, and every evidence suggests it is, then the major educators in the modern world are journalists, and we should take the cartoon by Jorge Cham that I have already mentioned, as a model for the network that, transforms what Latour might call a ????, within the world of science that produces Nobel prizes, into the personal knowledge of the scientist’s grandmother, and, more fatefully, the knowledge that the polity, and particularly a democratic one, will use as it deliberates its own evolution.