World Politics Question #8

Whoops -- forgot to post this earlier. My bad.

Question, question . . . hmm. How about: do state governments have a responsibility to promote economic growth? Do they have a responsibility to promote economic growth even if doing so threatens other values and goals? How far should one go in promoting economic growth?


World Politics Question #7

Is the world more secure now than it was on, say, 10 September 2001? Are you more secure?


The p. 69 test

Marshall Zeringue over at the Campaign for the American Reader invited me to apply the "page 69 test" to my recent book Civilizing the Enemy. Here's the result.


Change agents

dormgrandpop weighs in with a thought-provoking post about strategies for promoting change. He references Ibsen's play Enemy of the People, in which an idealistic doctor is frustrated in his attempts to produce an improvement in the health of the townspeople by their resistance to his claims -- and by his stubbornness in sticking to them, and in brooking no compromise. While the play is often read as a warning about how the majority can turn on an outspoken voice and label her or him an "enemy," dormgrandpop inverts this by asking whether the idealistic doctor "has failed the people of the town" by failing to actually get the reforms implemented, even though this might have required compromise and negotiation. After all, dormgrandpop argues, "the activist and change agent must also be effective."

I have to say that after thinking about this for a few days I disagree -- not with the observation that the idealistic doctor's ineffectiveness might not have served the needs of the community very well, but with dormgrandpop's suggestion that this is a problem, and that the doctor either should have known better or should have acted differently. The implicit assumption here is that the doctor was trying to act as a "change agent" -- and that might not be the case. [Needless to say I am not making a claim here about Ibsen's play per se; I haven't read it in years, and don't know it well enough to see whether dormgrandpop's reading of my reading would be a better one. but dormgrandpop wasn't talking about the play per se so much as suing it as an example, so I think I'm within bounds here.]

To assume that everyone who speaks up about a problem is trying to affect practical changes to address it is to assume that -- to use the Weberian language of which I am quite fond -- everyone has a vocation for politics. I'm stretching the concept a bit here, since Weber is quite concerned to limit the term "politics" to matters dealing with the state; this is vital to Weber's indictment of committed idealists who enter politics and compromise their ideals by using violence to achieve their ends, since the "idealists" he is concerned with are non-violent socialists and pacifist Christians. But Weber's basic point -- that politics is about the pursuit of power in order to effect change, and that the only appropriate way to judge a politician is on his effectiveness in achieving his aims -- holds true for spheres outside of the properly political. Indeed, for any organization, we might define a "change agent" as someone who is trying to affect the policies of that organization and to redirect them onto a new course; this covers persons inside the organization, outside of the organization, and persons occupying various other points in between. It follows that all "change agents" are politicians, and should be evaluated accordingly. Did a strategy work or did it not work? Did change result or not?

Now, the problem here is a subtle one, and very easy to overlook -- particularly in a world more or less completely dominated by the notion of efficacy. The (measurable) contribution that some strategy/tactic X makes to outcome Y is the implicit standard that we use to evaluate the worth of just about everything, especially everything that looks like an effort to bring about change. If I loudly express my dissatisfaction with (for example) the cable company's tendency to schedule service appointments at weird, obscure times, or with the tendency of my cable service at home to suddenly stop working for no apparent reason periodically and then appear to be functioning normally when the technician does in fact materialize, this is often taken to be the beginning of an effort on my part to change something about the way that the cable service operates. [Note: this is not an entirely random example. You probably figured that out already.] But is that necessarily so?

Let's distinguish for a second between two possible meanings for the determination: either the desire to change things motivated the outburst, or the desire to change things was intended by the outburst. The first is a deeply problematic contention, since motives are not observable facts and there's no way to tell what actually motivates anyone, even oneself. So let's set that aside. The second is more complex: to say that an action intends something is to situate that action within a larger framework oriented towards some specific goal. But real actions are generally ambiguous enough to allow them to be situated in any number of frameworks, making just about any assignment of intention a contentious one. Which means that sure, we could read an expression of dissatisfaction or a statement calling attention to some undesirable phenomenon as part of a strategy pursued by a "change agent," but we need not do so.

How else might we read it? I am not fond of the idea that we should regard such things as "blowing off steam" or as being generated by some kind of murky deep psychological process(es); neither of those strike me as all that interesting. Instead, I can think of at least two other things that public presentations of this sort might be. First, drawing on Weber, would be to regard a statement or dissatisfaction as a scientific claim, an observation deriving from the disciplined application of a set of standards rather than a strategic intervention designed to alter a practical situation. Thus, a lawyer saying "this is illegal" might simply be stating a fact -- with the caveat, of course, that "fact" always means "from a certain theoretical point of view." Second, and related, we might regard a statement of dissatisfaction as bearing witness, which does not mean simply reporting events but instead means publicly characterizing something in certain terms for the sake of calling attention to it. Hence, witnessing a genocide, or racism, or an exercise of capital punishment, means calling it to mind and reflecting on it, not merely reporting that it happened.

In neither of the two latter cases is the person acting as a "change agent." The point of scientific inquiry is not to change the world, but to generate defensible knowledge about it. And the point of witnessing is not to change the world, but to call attention to something -- and, in many cases, to simply leave it at that. Witnessing is usually tied to faith of some kind, and for most faiths this means leaving the outcome in the hands of God or Nature or Fate or something like that. Indeed, for most faiths, taking overmuch responsibility for outcomes is an act of hubris, to be avoided at the cost of one's soul.

Obviously, the lines between these ideal-types blur and fade in practice: witnessing can be part of a strategy of political change, scientists can put aside their rigorous investigations and simply witness (as many of the atomic scientists did after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945), and so forth. People who didn't mean to be "change agents" can even end up generating change, and actions that were not intended to affect political change can even end up doing so. But it does not follow, as far as I am concerned, that it is right or proper to evaluate all actions in such a political way. Nor does it follow that "success" for all actions means a positive contribution to social change; for witnessing or for scientific inquiry, the standards are rather different.

I'm not even sure that I'd agree that the more politically savvy action is always the one that is of more benefit to the people (however defined). After all, as Weber points out, the committed Christian enters politics and uses its power-laden means at the cost of the salvation of her or his soul -- and it takes a special sort of person to do that, a person who is utterly committed to the ethics of responsibility. Not everyone is -- and hence not everyone should be a politician. For people whose vocation is not politics, perhaps the best service that they can render -- the service that doesn't utterly betray their ownmost inclinations -- is to witness, or to conduct scientific inquiry, or to otherwise avoid political efficacy? After all, there's nothing quite as frightening as a pure idealist with power, is there?

World Politics Question #6

I said at the beginning of the semester that sometimes the weekly discussion question would grow out of our Sunday evening pizza dinners. So in homage to the fact that last night's news was dominated by reports about the earthquake in Hawai'i, here's the weekly question for y'all to wrestle with:

Should natural disasters be regarded as security threats? Why or why not?


Whereof ye know nothing, ye should keep silent

Apologies to Wittgenstein for the title of this post, but if I didn't start off with a dose of philosophical humor I'm afraid that the whole entry would just degenerate into a rant largely composed of terms that wouldn't make it past the people who bleep words out of public broadcasts in the US.

A student forwarded me this op-ed from yesterday's New York Times. In the piece, Eugene Hickok -- former Deputy Secretary of Education and current Fellow at the political munitions factory conservative research institution called the Heritage Foundation -- opines that we should extend the Every No Child Left Behind Act to cover institutions of higher education. His recommendation is largely grounded by several anecdotal observations: college students don't have sufficient "civic literacy" (which seems to mean knowledge of American history, by and large); people teach classes on "the history of comic book art" and other things that he regards as wastes of time; people take a long time to complete their degrees; colleges and universities don't have clear standards for what constitutes an educated person; and, my personal favorite, "Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks."

I'm all for greater transparency in how colleges and universities articulate their missions and goals, and I'm all for requiring professors to make their own pedagogical goals clearer than many of us typically do -- truth in advertising, so to speak. But the idea that the federal government needs to crack down on a bunch of slacking professors airily waxing poetic about comic books and never putting in an honest day's work is both extremely offensive and deeply misleading. And I say this as a professor who regularly offers an Honors seminar in social science and science fiction, one of the books for which is in fact a "comic book" (a graphic novel, really, and Watchmen is every bit as complex as any other novel I use in the course) -- I challenge anyone to look at my syllabus and say that it's not a serious intellectual experience of the sort that we are supposed to be offering to college and university students. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Hickok.

What is most infuriating about the piece is that the author seems to write with precisely no knowledge of what a professor in a college or university actually does on a daily basis. "Fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom" is apparently meant as some kind of damning charge -- and if in fact we were all only spending that amount of time doing our jobs on a yearly basis, then yes, that would probably be cause for concern. But classroom time is just the tip of the iceberg for a professor; there is also course prep time, office hours, other meetings with students, advising, mentoring, setting the course for the organization as a whole…and, oh yes, researching and publishing, which is (regardless of what the public relations flyer says) the most important component of how one gets tenure and thus retains one's job (with the partial exception of four-year liberal arts "teaching colleges" -- although even there you have to publish and establish a scholarly reputation with your peers). 200 hours a year? Please. If I put in 200 hours a month it's a light part of the semester.

With two caveats, I'm going to briefly outline my schedule from last week. Caveat number one: I am not claiming that this is a statistically "typical" week, although it doesn't seem to be too markedly different from any other for me, although I went to my brother-in-law's wedding during the weekend and thus missed the couple of Saturday hours and the five-hour Sunday evening block that I typically work (this semester, the Sunday block consists of a dinner with the students in my freshman class, part of the ongoing effort to construct and sustain a "living-learning community" that is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish in this program, followed by a showing and discussion of a film for my sci-fi class). So if anything it's a comparatively light work week. Second caveat: I am not claiming that this work week is statistically typical of other professors, whether at my or at another college or university. But if pressed I would bet money that it's not too different.

7 hours "work at home," which consisted of podcasting two course lectures, answering student questions via IM and e-mail, and generally preparing for the week ahead by reviewing course material in preparation for class discussions.
2 evening hours of trying to stay on top of the continual flow of e-mails, some of which are from students, some of which are from colleagues discussing papers and books we're writing, conference panels we're organizing, etc. -- and reading the course blogs for each course.
total: 9 hours

1.5 hours on an independent study with two students, discussing Thomas Hobbes' Levitathan.
1.5 hours of office-hour time mentoring and advising students.
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria, some of which is spent talking with students.
4 hours office-hour time.
2 evening hours tying up loose ends from the day, and trying to finish course prep that wasn't finished on Monday.
total: 10 hours

2 hours faculty meeting, discussing hiring policies and curriculum reform
1 hour lunch in student cafeteria
1.5 hours office hours
1.5 hours work at home while watching children (translation: not getting much work done, but we have to have this arrangement because we don't make enough to afford more daycare)
2 evening hours, as usual, still trying to finish reading blogs and the like.
total: 8 hours

1 hour meeting students who couldn't make regular office hours
2.5 hours class
2 hours seminar (at another institution, so there was also travel time -- and that total 1 hour travel time was spent discussing things with a PhD student, but I'm not going to count that for the moment even though I easily could) in which we discussed globalization and the German film industry
1 hour working dinner with student to discuss graduate school applications
2.5 hours class.
total: 9 hours

1 hour working lunch with student to discuss MA thesis
2.5 hours class
1.5 hours in office.
total: 5 hours

Friday was a short day because I spent the morning dropping my wife and kids off at the airport, driving back to the university, teaching, then driving up to my brother-in-law's wedding. Usually, Friday morning is another 2-2.5 hours of office hour or e-mail time.

Total for last week: 41 hours. And as I said initially, that week did not include the normal Sunday block or the hour or two on Saturday.

Total "classroom time" narrowly construed: 7.5 hours. Total work time outside of the classroom: 33.5 hours.

And if you notice, none of that week involved grading of assignments, since I haven't assigned any exams or papers yet. Those are coming soon and they will have to be added on to the existing nutty week.

Oh, and I work that schedule year-round. I have to teach summer courses every year in order to pay the bills, so it's not even like I get to do my research and writing during the summer months.

Don't get me wrong -- I love my work, and I work as many hours as I do because of that love (certainly not because of the remuneration). I am not pleading for a reduction in work hours. I am merely incensed that the number of hours that I and other professors put in was so badly mis-stated in the editorial.

People who have no clue what goes into this line of work should keep their mouths shut when they feel like taking professors to task for not working enough hours. Indeed, even though I seriously doubt that this blog will ever come to Mr. Hickok's attention, I'd like to more or less publicly challenge him to a battle of day planners. Let's sit down and open our schedule-books and see what hours we each work. They are lots of valid reasons to call for change in higher education, but the notion that professors don't put in enough hours is certainly not one of them.


World Politics question

We don't have class this week, and you're writing a paper for me anyway, so there is no weekly question this time. If you feel inclined to blog about something, please go ahead and do so -- but this week, blogging is completely optional.


World Politics Question #5

Is it ever appropriate to evaluate an international organization (like, say, the IMF) on moral and ethical grounds, or should we confine ourselves to the realm of practical efficacy when discussing such matters?