Monday musings–beware, navel gazing ahead

This weekend was lovely, but I got precious little actual thinking done. I’ve been reading through Bernard Yack’s excellent The Problems of A Political Animal, and it’s slow going not because of the writing–it’s good prose by any standards, let alone scholars’–but because there is so much there I need to note for one of my own chapters. As a result, the read is taking me some time, and I’m having trouble getting myself to sit down with it because of that work, and we all know how I feel about work. And that’s too bad because it’s been a good reading experience otherwise, full of moments where Yack helps me trust my own judgments on Aristotle’s ideas and how they hang together. I’ve read a lot of today’s civic friendship and communitarian scholarship, and while can respect the difficulty of trying to make the case that “we are all in this shit together” when faced with contemporary neoliberalism, I’ve always had a grumpy sense that either much contemporary civic friendship reads Aristotle wrongly, or I did all those years ago. Yack has me nodding my head a lot in his way of confronting what I would call misinterpretations were I more confident.

I also spend a goodish amount of time rendering beautiful Greek sentences into relatively shitty English ones. I’ve been studying my way through bits of The Odyssey grumpy at having to undertake the discipline of the pencil and paper to make myself make decisions about tenses rather than just letting myself read along and join the adventure.

My third activity involved puzzling through Anand-Karmnik draw in 2008 for a good part of Sat.

I’ve also spent some time thinking about the “death of good conversation.” There’s a lot of conversation online, and obviously, I’m a contributor, but it occurs to me that one reason to grieve arts education is that, without the chance to study and reflect in a rather systematic way, people who have an interest, but little opportunity to systematic training, become avid consumers and little more. I am having trouble expressing this properly, and I am only armchair theorizing, but it seems to be that the amount of time I spend listening to/being in conversations about the arts or literature all, inevitably, collapse into “I like this” or “I don’t like…” at some point–the position of the consumer reigns, even in conversation, and without training of some kind, one can’t really see past one’s likes or dislikes. Appreciation, I guess, and the old saw: “I don’t understand art, but I know what I like.” Well, bully for you, but have any of us–and heaven knows I’ve been guilty of this in conversation as well–stopped to notice how very tedious conversations that center on “I like” and “I dislike” really are unless you happen to have found somebody who shares your likes and your dislikes in a shared consumerism conversation. It’s a narcissistic problem, in a way; to be art, it must be a match between me (consumer) and the producer, or I can’t be bothered to understand why it might be a contribution. There are bits by John Cage that are virtually impossible to listen to, but if you are putting it into the context of instrumental music, you can see the contribution (even if you can’t dance to it.)

Madeleine Albright on getting her PhD

I’ve been reading Madam Secretary: A Memoir by Madeleine Albright. Ms. Albright’s summary of her experience in a PhD program:

Getting my Ph.D. was the hardest work I have ever faced on my own. It took thirteen years. I began when Anne and Alice were barely out of their cribs. When I finished, they were in high school. In between they taunted me, saying they shouldn’t have to finish their homework if I couldn’t finish mine.


George Smiley on the bus

From A Murder of Quality:

He enjoyed the bus. The conductor was a very surly man with a great deal to say about the bus company, and why it lost money. Gently encouraged by Smiley, he expanded wonderfully so that by the time they arrived at Sturminster he had transformed the Directors of the Dorset and General Traction Company in to a herd of Gadarene swine charging into the abyss of voluntary bankruptcy.

Tim Hunt, women on Twitter, and more academic precarity

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Blame University College, London for firing Tim Hunt, not the female scientists who riffed on him.

Most of us have heard of the Tim Hunt mishegosse. For those not in the know, it goes something like this: Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who had an honorary affiliation at University College London and who, depending to whom one listens, either let his sexist flag fly or ‘was joking’ and made a rather ridiculous statement when recorded and in front of an audience. The quote, from the Guardian, goes like this:

Scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, according to a Nobel laureate, who said the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised.

Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who admitted that he has a reputation for being a “chauvinist”, said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Hunt said he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.

The 72-year-old, who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, made the remarks when addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists.

His comments were tweeted by Connie St Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University, London, and was attending the conference. She commented: “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”

He subsequently apologized, and the apology isn’t much better, actually–it’s far too woolly and you get the sense that he’s still genuinely puzzled about how it’s not very wise to note that women cause trouble in labs, and oh, it’s just true that you fall in love in the lab. You can hear the apology here in audio. DR. HUNT PLEASE STOP TALKING I BEG YOU.

Note: it’s possible to work with women without falling in love with them. It’s even possible for homosexual males to be in science, and to fall in love with each other, or not fall in love with each other. And, um. Other stuff. Good Lord. This was joke? Has he never talked to the media before? He has a Nobel Prize! How can that be? Ack.

Now this is were is gets even woollier. Twitter got involved, of course. The response, I felt, was rather light-hearted, with scientists posting photos of themselves in the lab, snarking about how they haven’t cried that day or had anybody fall in love, noting that lab suits and the like are hardly the stuff of glamour or SyFy movie scenes where one (male) scientist looks at another scientist, pulls off her glasses, while her hair tumbles over her shoulders, and exclaims “Miss Howard, you’re beautiful!” in shock and surprise, even though Miss Howard is clearly beautiful the whole time because she’s a 21 year-old actress with breast implants that some costume department has put glasses on instead of somebody who actually holds two PhDs in difficult fields.

Some of these were quite clever.

There was the typical reaction-o-sphere, and it’s really hard to tell whether his comments were just an ill-considered joke or, as a joke, part of his inability to deal with people well, particularly women. This later piece, in the Guardian, makes Hunt out to be a victim of the internet meanies. The first Guardian story, you’ll note, mentions that even prior to his comments, Hunt had a rep for misogyny. Now, I don’t know where the rep came from, and that’s important. But in the Guardian story, a number of his female students and colleagues over the years spoke up for him, and that’s says a lot to me anyway.

Because now, of course, are going to come the sad, sad stories of how those internet meanies forced University College, London to force Hunt to resign. Soon this will be all the feminists’ fault. However, let’s get real: UCL over-reacted. It’s not Twitter or female scientists’ fault, or the internet meanies. On Twitter, a conversation occurred mocking the original statement, which deserved to be mocked.

It became a moment where–OMG OMG–female scientist used social media to speak for themselves, represent themselves, and talk about their jobs for a bit. We can’t conflate that as meanness or with the yapping journalists outside the Hunts’ door (Why, for heaven’s sakes? What is interesting about this after the initial comments? Leave them alone!)

So who is at fault? Tim Hunt’s wife, an immunologist, hits the nail on the head:

His wife, Professor Mary Collins, one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, is similarly indignant. She believes that University College London – where both scientists had posts – has acted in “an utterly unacceptable” way in pressuring both researchers and in failing to support their causes.

Certainly the speed of the dispatch of Hunt – who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology for his work on cell division – from his various academic posts is startling. In many cases this was done without him even being asked for his version of events, he says. The story shows, if nothing else, that the world of science can be every bit as brutal as that of politics.

Yes, well, if you have ever read Bruno Latour, you won’t spend a lot of time being surprised that scientists are human beings and all (the last sentence), but yeah: administrators at University College, London wet their pants and forced him out instead of protecting an asset and working with him. Somebody at the university should have helped the man with his apology, which was a shitshow.

The man has a Nobel-freaking-prize. The fact that they are so worried about their public image that they are willing to flush him because of bad press is the problem, not the fact that women in science used social media to break the silence that often surrounds them. Female representation in science is dismal, and university environments in general are often awful for women in general and for women in science in particular, but many brilliant women persist and make contributions to labs every day.

Letting that story be told, without institutional over-reaction and vilification of one guy, could have been an important moment. But now it will turn into another sad tale of Political Correctness!! Gone wild!! Instead of what it should have been: yet another instance of administrators worried about press and brand reputation more than than messy work of public dialogue and deliberation.

College degrees are not commodities, but…

Hunter Rawlings III was the president of the University of Iowa while I was an undergraduate there. He subsequently left to go run Cornell, and i strongly suspect that he was a good university president; I have no idea. I scarcely knew what a president was for back in those days. Certainly his WASPy patrician aspect and height didn’t hurt him any in the “cutting-the-right-figure-for-leadership” department. And I’ve always enjoyed his public lectures; I believe he is a classicist.

Thus I read with some interest his op-ed in the Washington Post: College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. What truly makes an education valuable: the effort the student puts into it. He has a great deal that is wise:

A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television

Again, there is much wisdom to this, and my only real quibble is that this thinking should also apply to K-12. Teachers are not solely responsible for learning; students are not solely responsible for learning; parents are not solely responsible for learning; all three of them have a role to play, and if any of them slack, the learning is very likely to suffer. There are bad teachers; there are bad students; and there are lousy parents. A great, motivated student can, indeed, overcome bad teachers and misguided parents. A great teacher can help motivate a disaffected student, or can help shore up poor parenting.

Thus I’d agree with Rawlings here. Going to college and refusing to do any work and then blaming college because you didn’t learn much is a little like me buying a gym membership, never going, and then complaining that I am still fat. But I joined the gym! I should be thin for all that money I paid!

I am usually among the first to say that I don’t think MOOCs are going to replace college or K-12 because I don’t think “mass” has anything to do with how people learn. Education should be, as Adam Gropnik rather preciously points out in reminiscences about La Hune in Paris, sentimental as well as didactic. It’s about being with, intellectually and materially, people who are taking time to worry about the same topics as you are. It’s about coffee shops and a beer and strolls across a quad and sitting under a fig tree reading a book with others stroll by on the quad. We spend entirely enough time clinking on computers rather than living a real life.

Frankly, I am so grateful that I grew up before the “Moocs will get you an education from your computer” phase started because I could just see my parents, for whom money was a definite object, telling me that I had to get a crap job in my home town and live in my room for an online college “because it’s cheaper.” Now my parents sacrificed for me to go to college, and I am very grateful (it doesn’t sound like it, but I am), but one of the most valuable things about going away to college was falling under the influence of educated people, rather than remaining a child of uneducated people in their midst and subject to their directions every day. Everything my parents wanted for me happened–a good job, a secure life– and it happened explicitly because I became part of a world that wasn’t theirs.

Moving away from home to go to college is a good thing for people who want more than the same places they grew up and the same people they grew up with. (If you don’t, no problem!)

But…it’s also now a cripplingly expensive thing for families to take on. And they have to think about what they are getting out of it. It’s only practical, and failing to think about that is neither pragmatic or just.

State governments have systematically stepped away from funding higher education, as the consensus around education and everything else has died. At the risk of making yet another culture war argument, the right gets a lot of the blame for undermining higher ed (deservedly so), but the left has done its fair share, blaming universities for being bastions of privilege, making it a whipping boy for failing to solve poverty, etc. That stepping away from funding, regardless of whether it significantly explains the rise in tuition costs, is at least a symbol of the idea that many people just don’t believe that college is important to public life. And that’s an issue, too, and I don’t think we recapture the idea that college is important by making esoteric arguments about making better citizens. We need better answers.

Novels set or around trains or public transit

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite Agatha Christies, the 4:50 from Paddington. It really is a fully imagined novel, with all sorts of lively characters, including the eyewitness, Mrs. McGillicuddy, and the wonderfully, refreshingly competent Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy is a particularly wonderful character because everybody around her falls in love with her, and to my best recollection, Christie never describes Lucy’s physically at all. She just gets shit done and possesses both tact and a sparkling intelligence.

One best bit from the 4:50 from Paddington has the redoubtable Miss Marple getting on trains, looking at train schedules, and cadging some maps to do a geographic analysis of sorts to find the probable

This got me thinking about novels that have an important train aspect to them. There’s obviously Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on A Train . And, of course, more Christie: Murder on the Orient Express. Speaking of the Orient Express, there’s Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love.

I can’t think of any more. Suggestions?

Planners and policy professionals should be more than retweeters and forwarders

Rather routinely, technophiles in my field come and out triumphantly announce that essays are over! reading is over! plans are over! It’s all video, now! It’s all this! There’s a New Thing!

Only new things strike me as being a lot like old things, and while planning is about new things, and future imaginaries, it’s also about existing modalities of communication. For the first decade of the web, all I heard were predictions about how digital technologies were going to be “end of reading” or the “end of something or other.” But given what the web is and how it functions, writing is more important now than ever. Sure, video matters, but all those comments below the YouTube video are also about written communications, and it’s very clear who can write effectively and who can’t in this domain, and there are advantages to being in the former.

Clearly, images are important, but they have always been important; the difference now is the ability of many more people, not just painters or architects, who can share images. I do not mean to downplay the social and cultural shifts such changes bring. I just note that it is easy to overstate those changes and much harder to really understand what those changes mean for skills, let alone predicting the death of one thing and the flourishing of another. I’m all for digital literacy here, but I’d note that literacy is still literacy.

To wit, I personally think that most technological changes happen as a function of our existing modes of thinking and communicating. There’s a technology, and many of us just use to make things we are already doing easier than we did them before. And gradually, over time, innovators think of new applications that catch on because of those fill a gap. (Just armchair theorizing here.)

I’m observing, now, the many videos of police brutality to black residents surfacing on the web. Those are powerful. They are more powerful still when combined with the comments from black Twitter and Te-Nehisi Coates’ commentary. (Read this one, too, about Kalief Browder, and the abuse of his rights to due process.)

I’ve noted in my research that learning to communicate effectively on social media is important to planning and planning agencies, and I think it’s no less important to public administrators and policy folks. But don’t forget the role of Coates in the evolving social discussion: while he is on Twitter (and he’s very good with that medium), his blog posts strike me as being both very important and a powerful means of persuasion. And those blog posts? They are digital versions of the traditional argumentative essay that people are always telling me is “over.”

So what should we be teaching in planning and policy school? I personally want to teach students to be capable of Coates’ level of thinking, speaking and writing. There’s no technological substitute for quality thinking or communicating, no matter which medium. Otherwise I think we are training students to be consumers and followers—the retweeters and the followers in the digital world–rather than the creators.