Mastering the material

One of my pet peeves -- both in social-scientific analysis or debate, and in ordinary conversation -- lies with the rather troubling sort of exchange in which someone denies doing something but then describes a set of practices that point rather unambiguously in that direction. I run into this all the time debating with academic colleagues who simultaneously claim to be in favor of methodological diversity but then articulate a set of standards and criteria for sound knowledge-production that excludes everything but statistical-comparative modes of reasoning, or who claim to be interested in social construction but then retreat into an analysis of non-social factors that ultimately trump and constrain all of the social construction -- and then claim to be "constructivists." And in policy terms, one see this quite a bit in the pious pronouncements of leaders that they are in favor of human rights, coupled with concrete steps to deny those very same rights or to undermine the work of individuals and organizations dedicated to enacting those rights.

What bothers me is more than just the hypocrisy of the situation. Indeed, I'm more than prepared to acknowledge that hypocrisy has its uses sometimes -- and besides which, who among us ever manages to conduct all of her or his actions in a way that accords with her or his professed values? [There's a whole theological riff here about sin and redemption that I could go on here, but I think I'll spare you that at the moment.] No, it's not the inconsistency that bothers me as much as it is the delusional responses proffered by people to whom I try to point these inconsistencies out. "There's a reason for the inconsistency" is a perfectly valid response, and "you misunderstand what I am doing" is pretty good too. But "there's no inconsistency here" is just a flat-out failure of understanding, since I think that the speaker is either a) lying or b) actually convinced that there's no inconsistency, in complete contravention of basic tenets of logic and reasoning.

I can't really wrap my mind around option a), since if that were the case then there would be no point in talking to anyone about anything. [Yes, Habermas says this too, but my assent to the basic proposition does not mean that I am at all happy about the way that Habermas makes this into some kind of transcendental principle governing communication itself in the abstract…but that's a rant for another forum.] So that leaves me with option b), even though this places me in the uncomfortable position of having to point out to people something that is perfectly obvious to me even when it is somehow less than obvious to them -- and which they persist in not seeing even after I have offered them reams of evidence.

Case in point: For a variety of reasons I have had occasion to discuss my teaching style with some of my colleagues recently, particularly my habit of looking for interesting reading materials -- not all of which I have read in much detail myself -- and then assigning them so that my class and I can all read and discuss them together. I do this all the time, both because it gets me to read other things and because it keeps the discussion fresh since we're all experiencing the texts for more or less the first time together -- and because I can't have a worked-out "take" on the material if I'm reading it along with the class, so it's another way to avoid the ever-present temptation to lapse into Imparting My Wisdom To The Assembled Throngs Of Eager Students, a.k.a. the "sage on the stage" model of teaching that I pretty much abhor. The problem is that such a model is more or less programmed into the student-professor relationship from the start, and it takes concrete work to break it down; one has to be ever-vigilant to avoid accidently slipping into professorial pontification. Hence, among other things, my frequent decision to assign material that I haven't really read closely (if at all!) in advance of a course.

[Full disclosure: when I assign something that I have never read at all, I almost always do so at the urging or recommendation of a colleague or former student. Almost always. Okay, once I picked something based on its title and some of the book reviews from amazon.com, but it worked so well that I just kept on assigning it. No, I am not telling you what it was.]

So here's the conversation I keep having: I show someone one of my course syllabi, they look at it thoughtfully, and then they say that they'd love to have to time to "master this material" but they can't figure out how they could have the time to do that before the semester begins, so they're just going to keep on assigning what they've assigned in the past and read long ago. I say something like: but I don't agree that the purpose of education is for us to impart our wisdom to students; it's about producing encounters with interesting material and pressing questions. They usually reply that they agree with me, but that they want to "master the material" before they set out to teach it. I usually just get a perplexed look on my face at this point, realizing that yet again we are in performative-contradiction-plus-ideological-self-deception territory.

Part of my frustration is with the very phrase "mastering the material." If "material" can be "mastered," then why in the heck are we assigning it to students? If there's a lesson that you want to impart, then just tell them the lesson and don't make them slog through some piece of reading to see whether they can "come up with it in their own" (which is a misnomer, because what you're doing at that point is evaluating whether the students can read the text the way that you read the text, which in the end means that you are evaluating the students' ability to read you -- good for the ego, but good for their educations? I'm not convinced). I fail to see the special skill associated with "read this and extract the same main point that I extracted, or that others extracted" (a kind of Family Feud for students -- "guess what other people saw in this text, and win cash and prizes!") is at all worth developing. I'm much more fond of pushing students to develop the ability to produce defensible readings of texts., which means making an argument (supported by evidence) about what the text means or implies. There's no "mastery" here; there are just better and worse interpretive arguments.

From my perspective, "mastering the material" goes hand-in-glove with things like pop quizzes, "identification questions" on exams, and content-based "learning outcomes" that can be best assessed by comparing a student's answer to the "correct" answer written in an answer-key someplace. All are techniques that point in the direction of education as getting facts inside of students' heads, and all strike me as (not to put too fine a point on it) wrong. Not ineffective, not outmoded, but wrong -- intellectually, philosophically, morally. After all, last time I checked students are human beings too, and as such I firmly believe that they should be permitted the maximum allowable space to encounter the material in their own way. Now, simply encountering the material is not in my opinion enough -- they also need to be able to construct defensible interpretations of that material, and to actually defend their interpretations in more or less public settings -- but it's an invaluable start. And if that isn't the place where one is starting one's thinking about course and syllabus design, or about classroom management, or about pedagogy in general, then one is (in my view) doing something wrong.

But to return to the place I started: I'd be perfectly fine with a knock-down, drag-out fight about what the purpose of education is, because that would first of all rest on an agreement that certain techniques point in one direction while other techniques point in other directions. But can we please not get sidetracked into debates about whether pop quizzes test anything other than short-term memory, or whether a "discussion" of a text that invariably leads in the direction that the professor chose beforehand when she or he was "mastering the material" is somehow anything at all fundamentally different than handing out an outline of what the students were supposed to get from the text and then making sure that they memorize it?

If you know where a discussion is going before it gets there, then it isn't a discussion. It's a lecture masquerading as a discussion.

"A melody has an end, but its end is not its goal -- a parable." -- Friedrich Nietzsche


Scoresheet norms

As a slightly early birthday present, I bought myself a ticket for the Nationals/Padres game this evening -- a really good seat, just behind the visitor's dugout down the first base line. I showed up early, got my complimentary Jose Guillen bobblehead (got to love baseball promotional items), and sat down, prepared to score the game in my typically exacting style -- I record every pitch, something that is basically impossible to do when attending a game with kids. So this was my treat: going to the game myself, and scoring the whole thing.

Scoring a baseball game is a very peculiar activity. Everyone has their own particular quirks when recording the salient points of a game; some people record hit locations, some just the results of plate appearances, others take more detailed notes on fielding. For me it's all about the pitcher, so that's what I focus on and that's what I really try to record: pitch counts, ball/strike ratios, and the like. But scoring is also odd because even fans who aren't scoring the game themselves know what scoring is, and someone who is bent over their scorecard or notebook [in my case I have my own design for a scoresheet, and I print pages out to bring to games, along with a hard writing surface and a pencil-sharpener] occupies a particular role in the culture of fandom. Several people asked me questions about the team, the players, and the like, as though the fact that I was keeping score indicated some profound knowledge about the Washington Nationals. There was also a striking plate appearance by Ryan Zimmerman in the 8th that went to 10 pitches before Zimmerman walked; a couple of people wanted to know how many pitches and what sequence they were in, and asked me. So there's a presumption there.

Most of the plays that happen during an average baseball game (and this was a pretty average baseball game) are "routine," which doesn't mean that you or I could do them, but means that your average major league player can be expected to do them reliably. As the game unfolds, the innings stack up, and by and large they results are pretty easy to record: here's a ground ball to third base that is thrown to first base for an out, a simple "5-3" on my scoresheet. Ho-hum. Even Zimmerman's bad throw in the third inning -- not bad enough to be an error -- that pulled Nick Johnson off first base and allowed Mike Cameron to reach base when he probably should have been out only merited a brief note. Complicated innings with many base-runners and runs being scored (the fifth for San Diego, the sixth for the Nationals) are a little trickier, but not too much.

Then there are plays like the one that the Nationals turned to end the eighth inning. Josh Barfield has walked, stolen second, and then made it to third on a ball four pitch that went past the catcher; Mark Bellhorn had walked and was on first. New pitcher (Mike Stanton) comes in, gets Dave Roberts to pop out and strikes Mike Cameron out. Bellhorn takes off for second with the strike three pitch to Cameron, so they thrown down to second to try to get him. He's safe, but Barfield decides to make a break for home, and here's where the fun begins: they throw home, and Barfield is caught between bases, so they keep tossing the ball back and forth between infielders trying to get close enough to tag him, which they eventually do. But scoring this play is rather complicated, both because a lot of hands touched the ball and because the rundown was such a beautiful play that while watching it I completely forgot to try to track it -- I momentarily lost my scorekeeper's detachment. After we all applauded I went to record the out on my scoresheet and realized that I had no idea what the sequence of throws had been. I was about to just write "rundown" and move on, when the guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked: "How do you score that play, huh?"

"Well…" I began. "It went 2-5-3-something, didn't it?" [All of the players on the baseball field are assigned a number referring to the position that they are playing; by convention, 2 is the catcher, 5 is third base, 3 is first base.]

"Nah, they started off throwing to second."

Another guy piped up: "And when they threw home, they threw to Johnson [first base], not to Fick [catcher]."

Another guy: "Didn't Clayton [shortstop, the number for which is 6] have the ball at some point too?"

A discussion ensued about the sequence, in which we finally settled on 2-4-3-5-2-6-5 as reflecting what happened. In theory we could check this against video or something, but that wasn't the issue. Instead, there were two norms invoked here that I could see:

1) Help Out People Keeping Score. If someone is scoring the game, then you as a fan can be an extra pair of eyes for them and help them record things that they may have missed -- especially in complicated sequences like that one. I've done this myself at games where I wasn't keeping score, so I know the rule well: offer help, but don't contradict the guy keeping score; let him ask you.

2) Scoresheets Should Be Complete. If someone is scoring the game, they are expected to score all of it, and are expected to want to make all of the information to be as accurate as they can get it. So writing "rundown" wouldn't be sufficient -- something the other folks recognized in offering their help, and something I recognized by the slightly guilty feeling I experienced when recording the sequence we'd agreed on and thinking that I almost just gave up and wrote "rundown."

So thanks to those norms, and to their invocation in that particular time and place, I ended up with a reasonably comprehensive record of the game written in my own handwriting on my own piece of paper. And I verified, unintentionally to be sure, that scoring a game from the stands still commands a certain kind of respect or at least distinction within the culture of the baseball fan. Heck, I even got to sit in my seat tallying up the totals for a few minutes after the game ended, when the ushers were shooing people out of the stands: a small privilege, but a privilege nonetheless.


Where the buffalo roam

Chris Matthews -- not my favorite TV news personality even under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly the best of circumstances -- has managed to annoy me, but not in the usual way of news commentators (by misrepresenting things in order to gain notoriety and increase shock value). No, this time Matthews has done what news personalities are supposed to do, and pithily put his finger on something that really annoys me about life here in Coruscant:

People here don't read. Instead, they mine books for interesting nuggets. Or, to use Matthews' analogy, "Unlike the Plains Indians who harvested the entire animal -- meat, horns, skin, hooves -- for their needs, we buy a book simply to cut out its tongue -- that one tasty tidbit that justifies the read."

Yes, I'm oversimplifying. And yes, this tounge-cutting-out, scavenging-for-a-tasty-tidbit style of "reading" is somewhat mitigated here at the university . . . but not entirely. The city seeps into what we do here, modifying (perhaps, if this isn't too string, infecting) the intellectual culture and shifting it in the direction of the Jeopardy! (tm) style of intelligence: if I have a witty anecdote or a striking bit of data to produce in a conversation, then this makes me an intelligent person. As though "knowing about something" were equivalent to "having a number of disconnected facts about something."

There are several things that frustrate me about this kind of "instrumental intellectualism," perhaps the most important of which is that reading through a book looking for some juicy morsel ends up simply reinforcing the prior conceptual predilections of the reader -- and defeating any attempt by the author to shift those predilections. Case in point, drawn from Matthews' article:

The same is true of last year's "The Cold War: A New History" by John Lewis Gaddis. That book had a trio of surprises: first, that Soviet wartime leader Joseph Stalin believed that even a one-year delay of the Normandy invasion would have given him the chance to grab all of Europe; second, that Stalin was so ideologically delusional as to believe that the United States and Great Britain, both being capitalist, would inevitably go to war with each other; and third, that the missiles Nikita Khrushchev delivered to Cuba in 1962 were strategic, meant not to defend Cuba from attack but as nuclear blackmail to get the United States out of Berlin.
The first and third of these points are, in Matthews' smash-and-grab operation, deprived of any of the nuance and subtlety inherent to the historian's scholarly task; reconstructing personal beliefs of leaders is a tricky business, and invariably runs into complicated issues of source criticism and the uncertain weighing of evidence. And even if we did know for sure what Stalin or Khrushchev had in mind, precisely what (if anything) does this tell us? Not surprisingly, that dimension is missing from Matthews' summary as well.

But it's the second "surprise" that Matthews gleans from Gaddis' book that strikes me as the most telling. it's the phrase "ideologically delusional" that leaps out at me here, since Matthews has clearly assimilated Gaddis' claim to Matthews' own convictions and implicitly used it to shore up those convictions. It's not that Matthews has learned something about Stalin here, but that Matthews has acquired a bit of data that reinforces two notions simultaneously: Stalin was "delusional" rather than just mistaken, and the Marxist theory that capitalist countries would eventually go to war with one another over profits and markets is "ideology" rather than knowledge (even if falsified). Both point in the same direction -- Chris Matthews is correct, his views of the world are correct, and here's some new evidence to "prove" it -- and both dramatically illustrate the problem with the culture of the imperial capital.

Matthews in this case annoys me not because he's oversimplifying, but because he's captured something very revealing about this place. There are at least three reasons this instrumental intellectualism bothers me so much:

1) it simulates a genuinely intellectual orientation, but does so in a way that cuts off basically any critical impulse in favor of a scavenger hunt for shiny rocks. People who read in this manner have something to toss into a conversation about a serious issue, but they don't necessarily "know anything" in the sense of being able to talk intelligently about the subject. They sound intelligent, because they have a few pieces of data at their disposal, but that doesn't amount to actually having a good grasp of the situation.

2) it makes social science that much more difficult to sustain, because readers are only too willing to pull data and evidence out of its argumentative context and thus to ignore precisely that element of social science that generates novel insight. Pulling out anecdotes -- cutting out the buffalo's tongue -- eliminates the distinctiveness of wissenschaft in favor of raw politik (to deploy one of my favorite Weberian distinctions) by making it virtually impossible to properly appreciate the significance of those anecdotes. And all that remains is a set of political positions that can't be shaken by either argument or evidence.

[Indeed, tongue-cutting, instrumental intellectual reading is perfectly suited to as political a place as the imperial capital is, because -- as many thinkers from Machiavelli on up have taught us -- the only thing that matters in politics is results. Instrumentalism is built into the whole vocation for politics and the whole political arena. Am I surprised by Matthews' characterization? Not really. Am I shocked by it? Yes, perpetually, again and again, every time I am reminded of it.]

3) having just written a book, it depresses me to think that people may "go through" the book in the way that Matthews discusses, searching for those shiny rocks that they can drop into conversations. Yes, there probably are some of those anecdotes in the book (I do have some neat stories about people like Konrad Adenauer, George Kennan, and Oswald Spengler), but they are buried and embedded in a complex argument. And what I most want people to take away from the book is the argument, not decontextualized details.

For this among other reasons I am not likely to appear on Hardball promoting the book.

Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and people use all of the parts of the animal after they hunt it down.