Pages

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Details, Details...

In the Humanities, we like to emphasize the importance of what we call "close reading," by which we mean concentrated attention to the details of a text: syntax, specialized vocabulary, nuance and conditions, logical order, the manner in which ideas develop and are connected. We do this because we aim to achieve, I hope, precision in our understanding. Not a "vague idea," not something "in the ballpark," not "close enough to count," but rather accuracy, correctness, definitude. Truth, even.

The hard(er) sciences have their own analogous practices, which also aim at achieving verity and securing knowledge: control groups, principles of falsification and parsimony, independent confirmation of reproducible results. Mathematics, even. Our methodologies may differ in some rather dramatic ways, but they're structurally much more similar than we might sometimes like to admit. In particular, when it comes to making claims about the things we purport to know, the first rule across the disciplines is: Get It Right.

It's exasperating to see philosophical claims, or the claims of particular philosophers, so grossly mangled in scientific literature. The recent article in Discovery magazine titled "The Places in the Brain Where Space Lives" by Carl Zimmer is a case in point. It's a really fascinating neuroscience/cog-sci piece about a condition called "spacial neglect," which causes its victims to "lose" (at least a part of their) spatial sense. For the record, I think Zimmer (who is a frequent guest on NPR shows like This American Life and Fresh Air) has a real knack for delivering technical, specialized, and highly sophisticated scientific information to the populus. My guess is that bona fide neuroscientists and cognitive scientists might also have a few bones to pick with his account of the phenomenon he reports, but I want to pick a specifically philosophical bone here. Zimmer's essay begins with a reference to the eminent 18th C. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who initiated the so-called "critical turn" in philosophy with his landmark 1781 text The Critique of Pure Reason. Zimmer begins:

The great philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that nothing matters more to our existence than space. Every experience we have—from the thoughts in our heads to the stars we see wheeling through the sky—makes sense only if we can assign it a location. “We never can imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non­-existence of space,” he wrote in 1781.

The nonexistence of space may certainly be hard to imagine. But for some people it is part of everyday life. Strokes can rob us of space. So can brain injuries and tumors.


So, there it is. Kant must've been mistaken. We found some damaged brains that lack a sense of space. Science proves Kant wrong, right?

I'll put aside for the moment Zimmer's hyperbolic and otherwise naïve claim: "Kant believed that nothing matters more to our existence than space." There's a long and storied battle, even in expert Kant scholarship, about which is the most significant of the philosopher's three "Critiques"-- the Critique of Pure Reason (which dealt primarily with metaphysical and epistemological questions), his Critique of Practical Reason (which dealt with morality), or his Critique of Judgment (which dealt with aesthetics, Nature, and teleology). My own position on this is that the three Critiques constitute a whole, and an understanding of any one is deficient without an understanding of its co-implication with the others. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, for sure, in this case.

At any rate, to Zimmer's credit, making reference to Kant was a smart move. For philosophers, and others familiar with Kant, this is an obvious connection, as one of the more revolutionary claims of the "Transcendental Aesthetic" section of Critique of Pure Reason (from which Zimmer quotes) is Kant's proposition that our understanding of the external world is not derived solely from experience, but rather from a combination of our perceptions and a priori concepts. "Space" and "Time" are two of these concepts, according to Kant. They are not derived from experience; they are the preconditions for experience. That is to say, there is NO "perception," NO "experience," without space and time already (conceptually) being in place. We do not percieve or experience Space and Time as such; rather, they serve as the conditions for the possibility of percieving or experiencing everything else. So, my guess is that even an undergraduate who has had some minimal exposure to Kant's first Critique would be able to see that the neuroscientific phenomenon that Zimmer describes-- "spatial neglect"-- does not constitute a proper falsification of Kant's theory. None of the study's subjects have been robbed entirely of their sense (or, Kant would say, concept) of space. They are experiencing it in an anomalous or strangely truncated way, to be sure, but they are still experiencing. Proving Kant wrong would require demonstrating some experience that is "experienced" utterly independent of space and time.

The "nonexistence of space" is not simply "hard to imagine," as Zimmer (incorrectly) claims that Kant claims. It's impossible to think, much less experience. And although the subjects that Zimmer describes do pose an interesting case, it is NOT the case that the "nonexistence of space... is a part of [their] everyday life."

I'll restrict my impulse to remind Zimmer et al that Philosophy is ALSO a scientific discipline, the "Science of sciences" even-- remember, Logic is our sandbox, everyone else is just playing in it-- and that Philosophy also has rules and methods and axioms that ought not be violated, not the least of which is to read closely! (I'll resist my corresponding impulse to say "RTFA!"... or, maybe, "RTFB!" in this case). But I will implore all those who find themselves compelled to "throw in" a reference to a philosopher, however well-intentioned it may be, to take more care before they do.

This especially goes for all compulsions to reference Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead" or Derrida's claim that "There is nothing outside the text" or Descartes' claim that "I think, therefore I am" or, well, pretty much anything that Marx said.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Secret Little Book-Banner Inside You (and Me)

This week is Banned Books Week, so designated by the American Library Association, which created the week in the hopes of motivating us to celebrate our "freedom to read." The ALA keeps a list of the most frequently challenged books each year, including a list of banned "classics," and my guess is that a quick perusal of those lists would still shock most of us. There are the predictable ones, of course-- like Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (which clearly encourages people to become serial killers), Nabokov's Lolita (which clearly encourages people to become pedophiles), Orwell's 1984 (which clearly encourages people to read Animal Farm)-- in which one can easily reconstruct the arguments, however fear-mongering and conservative and erroneous, that were levelled against them. Then there are the seemingly vanilla texts-- like Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea-- which just seem curiously undeserving of their proscription. Then there are the ones that, upon seeing them on the list, you find yourself secretly relishing the incendiery, subversive, revolutionary, salacious, or otherwise pot-stirring reputation that got them there in the first place -- like Sinclair's The Jungle, or Rushdie's Midnight's Children, or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or Woolf's Orlando. But there's another general category of entries, I think...

There are also titles on the list-- I'd put Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, perhaps also Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in this group-- which, although I wouldn't proactively solicit their banning, and although I wouldn't waste any lighter fluid to burn them, I also wouldn't be too sad if they went, well, unread. Does this mean I'm not really invested in "celebrating the freedom to read"? Am I engaging in some variant of good old-fashioned Sartrean bad faith here? Wasn't I just arguing a few days ago that I don't want to "police"?

Monica Edinger, over on The Huffington Post, wrote an article titled "Everyone's a Little Bit Book Bannerish" that offers at least some comfort in its suggestion that maybe, just maybe, even those of us who, as a matter of principle, "celebrate the freedom to read" still harbor a secret little Censor that we try to keep in the closet, but which rears its ugly head from time to time. I'd like to think thay my Inner Book-Banner is of an entirely different ilk than the stereotypical ones, prefering as I do instead to steer students, friends and generally literate people away from books in which I think the writing is terrible, or the ideas are stupid, or the style is juvenile... you know, for their own good. But, alas, that's exactly what the Standard Freedom-To-Read-Hating Censors do as well, and for exactly the same reasons, I suppose.

So, just for a moment, I'd like to encourage readers of this blog to go ahead and let their Inner Book-Banner out of the closet for a moment. Do tell: what books would you ban (let's assume you must choose a few)? And why? You are permitted, of course, to saddle your proscriptions with all manner of explanation and whatever other caveats might assuage your obvious hatred of the freedom to read.

Friday, September 24, 2010

60K Come And Gone

Sometime in the last couple of days, when I wasn't paying attention, this blog passed the 60,000 hits mark. Thanks y'all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cold War In The Classroom

Dr. Miller, aka Anotherpanacea, has called me to account for my post a few days ago ("Why I Won't Turn It In"), in which I detailed my objections to the pay-per-plagiarism-police service known as Turnitin.com. AnPan does use the service, and he offers his own justifications for that choice in his post titled "Why I Use Plagiarism Detection Services." There, he claims that the basic axiom governing his decision is simple: "Trust, but verify." It's an axiom borrowed from the (so-called) Cold War and which was most famously given voice by Ronald Reagan, the late, great advocate of preemptive security measures. AnPan breaks down my argument into three basic components, which I will address below in the same order he presents them, before coming back to remark briefly on what I see as the problem with employing his Cold War logic in the classroom.


According to AnPan, I gave three arguments for my objection to Turnitin. I summarize his summaries thus:

Argument (1): Cheating is a vice, generating its own vicious ills. The punishment of cheating is only a superadded penalty to something that already harms the cheater.
Argument (2): Plagiarism-prevention services constitute a violation of the Honor System.
Argument (3): Plagiarism-prevention services disrespect the students and, consequently, disincline them from acting with respect (toward the Honor System, toward me, toward themselves).
and...
Argument (4*): I mark this one with an asterisk because, although AnPan doesn't list this as one of my arguments, he does make extensive use of my following objection: Professors are not, and should not be forced into the role of, police.

First, some generic remarks. You will notice that only Arguments (2), (3) and (4) legitimately constitute objections to Turnitin. Argument (1) is more of a framing argument about the cheating/plagiarism issue in general. Also, I don't really see Arguments (2) and (3) as separate arguments, but rather of a piece in my more global defense of the spirit-- if not also the letter-- of the Honor Code. And, speaking of the Honor Code, I actually DO think that it makes a BIG difference that my institution has one and AnPan's doesn't. So, as a beginning gesture of compromise, let me say that I might find myself far more persuaded to adopt some variation of AnPan's approach if I wasn't so concerned with what I see as a fundamental conflict between Turnitin and the Honor Code.

Now, the rejoinders:
Re: Argument (1): AnPan is correct to characterize my position as a variant of the Platonic/Aristotelian theory of vice, which maintains that vice harms the vicious independent of its punishment by the virtuous (or the less-vicious). And he is also correct to state that-- as articulated by Socrates in the Gorgias-- the virtuous, if they are wise, will desire that their unjust acts be punished. Let me say (AGAIN!) that I have never claimed that I think cheating/plagiarism should NOT be punished. My basic objection to Turnitin is that it requires that I treat all of my students as "guilty until proven innocent," which is, in my view, a punishment in advance of the crime. Every institution of higher learning already has mechanisms in place for punishing these sorts of infractions, which I will (and do) employ when needed. Turnitin doesn't add anything here, except that it might make it more likely that cheaters get caught (and therefore punished), but it does so at the expense of treating non-cheaters the same as cheaters. Or, rather, it does so at the expense of treating everyone as putative cheaters. Everyone may in fact be a "putative cheater"-- I certainly wouldn't go to the mat protesting that claim-- but I am no Angry God and the students are not, in my view, already Sinners poised above the fiery pits of hell in my angry hands. Maybe a few more of the "actual" sinners get off with my approach, but the net gain of maintaining an environment in which the distinction between potential transgressors and actual transgressors still has some meaning is worth it for me.

Re: Argument (2): As I said above, I think the Honor Code is the difference that makes a difference between AnPan's situation and mine. An Honor Code, as I see it, ought to serve as the preventative mechanism that makes other preventative mechanisms (like Turnitin) unnecessary. That is not the same as saying that the Honor Code is a preventative mechanism that guarantees a perfect moral community-- which is why it requires, in addition to one's pledge to act honorably, also a pledge to report honor violations. I don't know enough about how Honor Codes operate at different schools, but my school's Honor Code is entirely administrated by students. (The students composed the Honor Code, they propose and approve amendments to it, they adjudicate violations of it, and they hand out punishments for said violations.) So, at my institution anyway, the entire academic integrity system is built upon the default assumption that students are acting with integrity and, correspondingly, they are "policing" violations of their community's collective integrity. I just cannot see how professors' participation in Turnitin is NOT a violation of this Honor System. The students sign a pledge to "not lie, cheat or steal" and "to report any such violation" that they may witness. If I am "turning it in," I am effectively robbing them both of the opportunity to enjoy the trust we generally accord to honest people and also the opportunity to stand up as protectors and defenders (and, yes, policers) of that privilege. AnPan characterizes my position-- incorrectly, if not also ungenerously, I think-- as "turning a blind eye to cheaters." I DON'T DO THAT; I don't turn a blind eye to cheaters. As a member of the Honor community, I also consider it my obligation to "report any such violations" of which I am aware. But there is a world of difference between "turning a blind eye" to transgressions and turning oneself into a Gatsby-esque All-Seeing-Eye-In-The-Sky with regard to those transgressions. As much as I trust in the Honor System, as I believe all members of my institution's community are obligated to do, I also trust in the mechanisms that it has in place for its enforcement. If I take it upon myself to impose other, vigilante mechanisms of preemptive enforcement, I might as well remove my name from the roles of that Honor community... because I am no longer operating on principles of honor, but rather on some kind of suspicious, Hobbesian, and fundamentally amoral principle that presumes everyone is motivated above all by pedestrian self-interest.

[Addendum to (2): I'm a poker player. I have a regular poker game, between friends, that I play in weekly. Despite its somewhat sketchy reputation in popular culture, and despite that one of the key elements of the game involves "bluffing," poker is actually a game that requires a lot of honor and trust. Which is why, in my previous post, I analogized using Turnitin to sitting down at a poker table with a pistol under the table. There's no guarantee at the poker table that someone doesn't have an Ace up his or her sleeve, or that s/he won't steal off with the money, or that s/he won't secretly neglect to ante up if it goes unnoticed. But in a game among friends, we all trust that noone is cheating. That doesn't mean that noone ever cheats, nor does it mean that if someone is caught cheating that there aren't consequences, it only means we've all agreed that the game can only be what it was meant to be-- namely, an honorable game-- if we all trust that everyone is playing fairly. I could, of course, protect my money more effectively by assuming that everyone is potentially a cheater and harboring a pistol under the table in case of that eventuality-- which would most certainly disincline the other players from cheating, and would most certainly insure a harsh penalty if they did-- but I would have to admit to myself that I was playing an entirely different game then. More on this when I get to the Cold War analogy below.]

Re: Argument (3): I have to admit, I am utterly perplexed by AnPan's objection here. I simply do not see the analogy between respect and contempt that he wants to draw. My suspicion is that AnPan is engaging in a little bit of elision here between respect/contempt for a person and respect/contempt for his or her actions. I can respect a person, as a matter of principle, and still have contempt for what he or she does. Correspondingly, I can have contempt for people generally and still respect how a particular individual may act in any particular instance. For my part, I think we're morally obligated to respect persons, and morally prohibited from holding persons in contempt, qua "persons." Things like Honor Codes, on my view, enforce these principles. Honor Codes operate on the presumption that it is not required in advance that one "prove" oneself "deserving" of respect, though the implicit caveat of those same codes is that if one does violate the presumptive trust, then one runs the risk of being expelled from the community that the Honor Code governs. (And banished, presumably, back to the state of nature.) Pace Nietzsche, I don't think this is an "elitist" sentiment... though I do agree with Nietzsche that it is a special privilege of our very special kind of animal, namely, the animal that can make promises.

Re: Argument (4*): I'm surprised that AnPan didn't state more explicitly his objection to my objection to (preemptive) "policing," because it seems to me that it is on this point that our positions fundamentally diverge. I don't see anything in AnPan's articulation of his position that indicates he has any problem whatsoever with being a policeman. His axiom-- Trust, but verify.-- is the sine qua non of the logic of preemption. Which, by the way (finally!), brings me to the point I've wanted to make all along...

The classroom is not, and should not be, a Cold War.
AnPan (despite his probably ironic employment of Reagan's poorly-garbled Russian adage) is a lot closer to Ronald Reagan than I think he wants to admit, and he seems to view his students as an American might view Russians-circa-1982. (Or, alternatively, as an American might view Muslims-circa-2002.) He's running a Cold War classroom, in which the basic Nash Equilibrium or M.A.D. rubric applies. That is to say, the classroom is a millieu in which everyone is suspicious and noone can be trusted, so every preemptive security mechanism one can employ should be employed. This is, in my opinion (and all due respect to AnPan), an awful way to conduct a classroom, especially a Philosophy classroom. That kind of CYA attitude is exactly what motivates students to cheat in the first place, convinced as they tend to be that grade-grubbing and ladder-climbing is more important than actually learning. I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to imagine a scenario in which condoning and confirming this world-view is beneficial to anyone. I am not my students' antagonist. I'm not their enemy. We are not at war with one another.

We are on the same side.

I hope, at the very least, that students plant their backsides, however reluctantly, in my classroom every day because they want to learn. And even if they don't primarily want to learn philosophy, I hope and trust that "learning" is at least somewhere on their list of priorities. I'm convinced that if it is not, if they are only there to cheat and scam and maneuver their way to some other imperfectly-evaluated consequence, that I will have the fortitude (and grace) to concede that battle to them. (See Arguments above.) That's not a war I want to engage in, "cold" or otherwise. And employing devices like Turnitin, in my view, is tantamount to conceding that battle. It is, effectively, conceding to the Logic of the Cold War, which surreptiously assumes that we are all combatants, though we pretend not to be, that values preemptive security more than a comminuty that bravely-- and virtuously-- puts itself at risk, and that erroneously determines the spoils of war as trumping anything and everything that might be lost by the warriors' (physical, spiritual or moral) casualties.

The balance between risk and security is always a delicate one (as I argued in a previously published article on the topic). Turnitin certainly offers a security that I do not presently have in my classroom....

But I, for one, would rather take the risk.

The Rich Man's War Is The Poor Man's Fight

Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen's new book The Casualty Gap: The Causes and Consequences of America's Wartime Inequalities (reviewed in The Nation here) proves that the age-old description of the American Civil War as a "rich man's war and poor man's fight"-- which may or may not have been true of the Civil War-- IS in fact true of every other American military engagement since World War II. Kriner and Shen, both political scientists, supply all the data necessary to back up soberly the otherwise rhetoric-and-vitriol-driven claim of people like Michael Moore: members of our country's poor, undereducated, politically-marginalized and opportunity-deficient social strata are disproportionately dying in battle.

In an serendipitous coincidence of news for Kriner and Shen (an unfortunate coincidence for most of the rest of us), the U.S. Census Bureau announced this week that our country achieved record-breaking poverty rates in 2009. Nearly 44 million Americans-- that's more than 14% of the population-- are now living below the poverty line. Just to connect the dots here, that means it's significantly more likely that the brother, sister, son or daughter of someone you know, or your own, will be one of the "poor" people dying in battle. (Unless they're gay, that is.) One might think this would incline more Americans to oppose our military engagements abroad, as the inequality gap presses itself with more economic and existential force on a greater percentage of our population. But, apparently, one would be wrong in thinking that.

Andrew Bacevich (Professor of History at Boston University) offers a compelling agument for how we might reduce the casualty gap described by Kriner and Shen: namely, funding our wars on a strictly pay-as-you-go basis. Bacevich writes:

Consider the following back-of-the-envelope calculations. Since 9/11, the Pentagon budget has more than doubled to approximately $700 billion per year. Let's peg current war costs at $400 billion annually (almost certainly a lowball estimate). There are approximately 150 million single or jointly filing taxpayers in this country. Reduce that number by the 30 million veterans who have already given at the office, as it were, and the per capita cost of ongoing US wars comes to more than $3,300 per annum. Add that as a surcharge to every American's tax bill (or subtract that amount from the annual payout to Social Security recipients), and the "democratic brake" will bring American wars to a screeching halt.

Sadly, the likelihood of Bacevich's suggestion being implemented, or even taken seriously, is practically nil. Why? Because combatting the inqueality gap in this country is a Poor Man's War, and the poor are too busy fighing-- and dying-- in wars that are neither of their design nor in their interest.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I Won't Turn It In

I recently learned that my institution has signed up for Turnitin.com, an Internet "plagiarism-prevention" service that allows professors to submit students' papers and checks them against other submissions to verify that they've not been copied. There's no mandate at my institution yet (as far as I know) for faculty to participate, and so I plan to opt-out. Not only that, but I am considering making it a point to announce to my students that I will NOT be using the service. I believe that my reasons are fundamentally-- if perhaps naïvely-- principled ones, which may require some explanation. So, here goes:

I posted a somewhat fast-and-loose (in retrospect, maybe a bit too glib) account of my attitudes toward cheating a while ago on this blog under the title "Why I Don't Care About Cheating." I still think that most of my claims there stand up (though perhaps I would've done better to choose another title for that post). Let me state my position clearly here out the outset: I DO-- I really, REALLY DO-- care about cheating, as I think is evidenced in my account. It's just that (as I said there) I do not care enough about it to transform myself into a policewoman. As a rule, I'm usually not a fan of the "it's not my job" excuse but, the truth is, I've probably read too much Foucault and I feel obligated to resist the presumption that my primary responsibility as an educator is to monitor and surveil students. What distingishes me from the police, I hope, is that I still believe the act of cheating hurts the student more than the consequences of being-caught-cheating does.

With regard to Turnitin, however, I want to emphasize a different point. My institution operates under an Honor Code, which (at least ostensibly) governs the conduct of the entirety of the Rhodes communtity, students and faculty alike. My sense is that the Honor Code is one of the things that sets Rhodes apart from comparable schools, and it's one of the things that I appreciate the most about working here, as I've noted on this blog before. I believe that the Honor Code is, at heart, a trust-agreement. That is to say, all of our (tacit or explicit) participation in it constitutes a kind of social contract to which we have all agreed to abide, and our allegiance to it, like all social contracts, is derivative of our faith in the virtue of the other members with whom we have agreed to constitute a community. That being the case, I am inclined to believe that utilizing Turnitin amounts to a violation of that agreement on my part, as a professor. As a member of a community governed by an Honor Code, I believe that I am obligated to trust, by default, in the integrity and honesty of my student co-signatories. (Technically, faculty do not "sign" the Honor Code-- every student does-- though a faculty's signature to the Honor Code is, I assume, implicit in his or her signature to the employment contract.) So, basically, I belive that my consent to abide by the Honor Code necessitates my trust in the honor of my students, and prohibits my "turning them in" in advance of their violation of that trust.

If I participate in Turnitin, I am negating their Honor Code promise and, effectively, treating my students as if they never signed it. Quite simply, I do not know how I can reasonably expect students to take the Honor Code seriously when my actions indicate that I am not taking it seriously. It's like sitting down at a poker game with a pistol under the table. Or being in a relationship where you secretly check your partner's emails or text messages. Sure, there's always the possibility that someone's cheating, but if my obsession with pre-emptive security mechanisms indicate that I assume you already are cheating, what's the motivation for you to take seriously your duty, your promise, to be honest with me? And, even if you are honest, how can I possibly merit you with that honesty under these circumstances, motivated as it is by a fear of certain reprisal and not a genuine respect for integrity, for the trust-agreement, for your or my honor?

I understand that, in all things, balancing security and trust is a delicate maneuver. But I'm concerned that trying to train students in the habits of academic integrity with devices like Turnitin reaches the point of diminishing returns. It doesn't motivate honest students to be any more honest, and it only motivates dishonest students to be more cleverly dishonest.

--------------
UPDATE 9/21/10: Dr. Miller over at Anotherpanacea disagrees, and he has laid out his (multi-part) criticism of my position there in a post titled "Why I Use Plagiarism Detection Services."
-------------
UPDATE 9/22/10: I respond to Dr. Miller's objections here: "Cold War in the Classroom"
-------------
UPDATE 9/23/10: Dr. Miller returns the volley (and, presumably, accuses me of having a hard heart) here: "The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts"
--------------
UPDATE 9/27/10: Scu weighs in on the debate between Dr. Miller and myself here: "On Using Plagiarism Detection Services"

3-Minute Fiction (Round 5)

Just a reminder that the 5th round of NPR's excellent writing contest for listeners, Three Minute Fiction, is currently underway. This round is hosted by Michael Cunningham (author of A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days and, perhaps most famously, The Hours) who will serve as one of the judges and who will read the winning essay on air. As before, the rules are simple: writers must fabricate a story that can be read aloud in 3 minutes-- so 600 words or less-- and which must follow two other restrictions set by the host author. Cunningham, cleverly, has decided to choose choose the beginning and ending lines for the contest.

Each story must begin with the following line:
"Some people swore that the house was haunted."
And must end with this line:
"Nothing was ever the same again after that."

The deadline is this coming Sunday night, September 26th, at midnight. Complete rules for the contest can be found here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinking In Images

I was at a dinner party recently with colleagues and, per usual, the conversation at some point turned to bemoaning students' sometimes less-than-ideal language skills. The complaints were standard fare-- what ever happened to proper grammar? to sophisticated and orderly essay construction? to close and careful reading skills? to the capacity for clearly translating ideas into words?-- and they concluded with the customary exasperated sighs and eye-rolling. Kids today! I'll admit that I've engaged in my fair share of teeth-gnashing over these very same issues, but over the past couple of years I've seen my frustration abated, or at least qualified, by a corresponding observation: Kids today may still leave a lot to be desired in the word-skills, but they are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to deciphering, manipulating, interpreting and "reading" images.

I don't suppose this should come as much of a surprise, really, given the image-and-media-saturated millieu that serves as their natural environment. Everything about that environment suggests that many words are a waste where an image will do. One only need watch the 24-hour news cycle for a bit to see just how dramatically the importance of carefully-chosen and intelligently-combined words is being reduced. It's talktalktalk all the time, to be sure, though the cumulative vocabulary-count is compromised by ever so much stupid repetition. But the images continue to stream over, under and through it all like unfolding fractals, iterations on a theme, repetition in difference. Word-deficient and image-heavy social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter reinforce the same, promising implicitly that individual identities, whole communities, even "movements" can be constructed in 140-characters-or-less. Alas, yes, blogs constitute another head of the beast. Even the one you're reading now.

At the risk of dating myself, let me say that my "adult" life has straddled the transition from the old world (before the Great Technology Divide) and the new one. I didn't have email in high school-- hell, there really wasn't even an Internet when I was in high school-- though the change was already underway within my first few years of college. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube and the many other Digitizations of Everyday Life were for the most part inventions of my graduate school years. But I was then, and still am, a bit of a technophile, so I've kept up. The two image-based medium that I've pretty much missed out on entirely are comic books (er, I mean, graphic novels) and video games. (Though I did read Asterios Polyp recently... on the recommendation of a student, of course. And, god bless my parents, mine was a household that did have the original Nintendo, back in the day.) It was only recently that I realized just how sophisticated video games are now. Just for an example, take a look at this advertising trailer for Halo Reach:



There you have it. No words at all, not a single one. And yet, a whole world of social, political, moral, emotional and psychological complexity delivered in just under 3 minutes of (entirely technologically manufactured) images. There's a lot of debate about whether or not video games are really "art," but that's not really my concern. I'm more interested in whether or not things like video games have enabled students to THINK in a way that the rest of us Old Farts are unable to recognize as thinking. That is, to ACTIVELY think. That is, to actively think WITH IMAGES. Lest you think that such media only encourages passivity on the part of its consumers, let me speak for a moment on behalf of those young consumers.

Last year, in my Existentialism course, I decided to try out an experiment to test my intuition that students have a special talent for working with images. I gave my class the opportunity to create a short film on an existentialist theme. There were only three guidelines to the assignment: (1) The film could be no longer than 6 minutes. (2) They could work in groups of no more than three people. (3) Each film had to be accompanied by a one-page "artist's statement." (So, if they wanted to film a guy sitting on a park bench doing nothing for 6 minutes, that was fine by me, but I needed some kind of explanation as to how that was "existential.") Take a look one of my favorties that was submitted: a less-than-2-minutes, stop-action film called "Little Freedoms." It's a simple little film, but my experience was that hearing the students talk about it revealed that they had engaged the text-- and the IDEAS-- in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way than I often see evidenced in their essays.

Now, let me say that I'm not about to give up on essays, or reading, or translating ideas into words, or any of the other age-old practices of the Academy. But it's a shame, I think, to not recognize that our students have a different flavor of smart going on here, cultivated and shaped as it is by the world in which they live. I don't see anything gained in the dimunition of that skill. In fact, I wish I had more of it. We've got to find a way to make the old world and the new world complementary, not contradictory. I've tried to do this with my practice of class blogs for several years now, and I plan to incorporate a section on social networking and image-effects next semester in my class on "Humanism and Human Rights."

It's a brave new world, folks, and the train is leaving the station.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Ground Zero A "Sacred" Site?

As everyone knows, there has been much Sturm und Drang about the proposed Park 51 project (a.k.a., the "Ground Zero mosque") and its proximity to the lower Manhattan site where the World Trade Center Towers stood before 9/11. Let me say at the outset that I'm not going to comment much here on the merits or demerits of that specific project or the shameful vitriol it has inspired, though I recommend you take a look at the interesting exchange between fellow-bloggers Dr. Trott ("9/11: Burning Korans and Other Acts of Cultural Terrorism") and Anotherpanacea ("The Politics of Crazies") on that matter. Rather, I'm interested in one small rhetorical device often employed in these discussions, namely, that Ground Zero is a "sacred site." Whatever else one may think about the possibility of different religions' sacred sites existing in close proximity to one another, it is clear that the designation of Ground Zero-- where people of all faiths, and no faith, perished together-- as "sacred" is a contentious claim. Even more so as its sanctity is as the exclusive property of one particular religious faith.

I am inclined to think that the site known as Ground Zero is sacred. I follow Thomas Dumm's basic reasoning (in his article "Let the Dead Bury the Dead") on this point: "That we remember this place a sacred is a consequence of our knowing that the remains of many dead people are still there." Sacred sites, as Dumm rightly argues, are not confined only to places of worship, but also include "graveyards, mausoleums, and places where we scatter the ashes of the departed." Of course, it could be argued, a liberal application of that definition might leave no patch of earth on the planet unconsecrated, as darkness has been drawn over the eyes of human beings practically everywhere in the course of our species' tragic history. The reason that Ground Zero deserves special consideration here, I think, is because it is not merely a place where people died, but it also represents a place where those deaths came to be invested with a broader, communal, truly ecumenical significance. ("ecumenical": from Greek oikoumenē "the inhabited world," from feminine of oikoumenos, present passive participle of oikein "to inhabit," from oikos "house." That is to say, Ground Zero is our home, all of us in the inhabited world.) It is, in that way, sacred beyond and despite it's symbolic import as a place of death. It is also sacred as a site of collective constitution, fabrication, redefinition-- a place where the living and dead commune. That sort of consecration need not involve tradedy. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is sacrosanct in the same way.

I worry that what is missed in the invocations of Ground Zero as a "sacred site" is the fact that its sanctity belongs to everyone in our co-inhabited world, that custody of it is not exclusive, and that the effort to employ it as an instrument of division is an act of desecration, not devotion.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Deny and Imply

Gary Shteyngart's new novel Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a not-too-distant future America that reads uncomfortably familiar and, consequently, entirely believable. There, America has suffered a sharp decline in global economic and political importance, and has refashioned itself as an almost unabashedly consumerist Security State-- though the Horatio-Alger-esque resolve (and hubris) that has always buttressed and betrayed her citizens remains unironically intact. Shteyngart's America is one in which each of our lives is supersatuated by an anonymous and ubiquitous conglomerate of Tech, Credit, Sex, Security and Media, which surveils, controls, fashions and corrects us by means of an iPhone-like device (called an äppärät) that each wears around his or her neck. (The äppärät functions a lot like Foucault's panopticon, minus the actual "prison.") It's a fascinating, imaginative, thoroughly engrossing construction of a brave new world-- equal parts utopic and dystopic-- that Shteyngart narrates and navigates with expert ease. And it's scary realistic.

An example: throughout Super Sad True Love Story, the characters find themselves at state-sponsored "security checks," where their äppäräti are scanned for who-knows-what, which will determine whether they can pass or whether they will be transported (extraordinarily reditioned?) to a "facility" in upstate New York. At each of these checkpoints, there is some iteration of a sign that reads:

"By reading this sign, you have denied existence of the [object/person/message/location] and implied consent."

The "deny and imply" leitmotif is one of Shteyngart's most brilliant and most disturbing narrative devices. And the shoulder-shrugging, oh-well-if-we-must, that's-just-the-way-things-are-now passivity with which his characters imply, deny and comply serves to eerily reduce the historical distance between Shteyngart's futuristic America and our own. Like ours, theirs is a world in which it is entirely unclear to what one's implied consent is tacitly acquiescing. I was often reminded in these passages of my own utterly thoughtless practice of clicking on the "I Agree" tab to various internet licensing-agreement "consent" forms. Have I ever actually read even one of them? Would it matter if I did? I know, of course, that not consenting is not a real option, resulting as it would in a prohibition to continue with whatever it was that I wanted to do-- or, what is more likely, resulting in a repetition of the insistence that I consent.

We're not asked-- not explicitly, anyway-- to "deny" the imperative to consent that regulates traffic through our digital worlds today. But there is something of that in it. We deny the existence of whomever or whatever commands it, partly because we must and partly, I think, because it's just too inconvenient not to say "it's because we must." What's more, it's entirely within our capacities, today, to imagine the funhouse logic that might lay behind a directive to simultaneaously imply consent to the very same thing of which one is denying existence. (Just last week, our President declared the end to a "war" that was never declared as such in the first place.) The ol' razzle dazzle, digitized.

As I've said many times before on this blog, I'm not much of a fan of science-fiction literature. Shteyngart's novel is not exactly sci-fi-- it is, in the end, a super sad true-ish love story-- but the mise en scène is thoroughly engrossing and provocative. And so, I recommend it.

**NOTE: By reading this blog, you have denied its existence and implied consent.**