Encounters with Benjamin Bloom: Part One

For the last few semesters, I have taught a course on “ethnographic methods” to designers in an MFA program. The class itself is my own design but the title was gifted to me. I can’t say that I approve of the term “ethnographic methods,” but one has to go along at times. In the main, it is every bit as fun as it sounds. I demand students delineate and pursue their own projects, rather than safely shepherding them through a series of artificial exercises. Though they have their ups and downs as the semester goes along, they have responded with some wonderful work.

The problem they encounter in class is the same they will face on a regular basis as designers, and I think the nature of this problem marks an important point of confluence between design and anthropology. The shared joint is most apparent at the beginning of a project when the parameters are fully in flux. At this point, stating concretely what is to be done two or three steps out is difficult. Donald Schön (1984) recognized this issue long ago and wrote of the main problem in design as one of “problem setting.” That is, design is not about applying the most efficient means to a fixed and understood end, but rather about grappling with the relation of the end to the means. It is not possible to specify in advance what should be done if the contours of the problem cannot yet be fully grasped. The end is not given; it must be discovered. This is the difficulty. And here, there are no right or wrong solutions, only better or worse. I often tell my students exactly what they hear in their design classes: “keep going” and “try again.”

Schön’s pedagogical outlook is derived directly from John Dewey, an influence seen most clearly in Schon’s emphasis on experience rather than cognition. Experience educates. It has pedagogical value. And again, there is a parallel with anthropology, in which your body must be placed somewhere in the world in order to experience something. In both anthropology and design, the experience of ambiguity and serendipity followed by deliberation and judgement is the most powerful educator. Yet this creates a problem with curriculum design, especially when “learning objectives” in the Bloomian sense are in play. And with “methods” as well, but that is for another time.

Learning Objectives

The curriculum theory popular at all levels of education today, as those of us caught in its web well know, is heavily invested in the concept of learning objectives. Learning objectives, as they are widely invoked, are a product of the University of Chicago, where following the Second World War, Ralph Tyler and his mentee Benjamin Bloom synthesized a line of curricular philosophy stretching back to W.W. Charters. In doing so, they popularized the concept of learning objectives matched to a curriculum designed to impart these selfsame objectives to students. A correlate of their curricular philosophy is that the learning environment, and the experiences within this environment, should be tightly controlled so as to remain in service to the learning objectives.

The process of developing learning objectives is a form of back engineering. Given a known job, say railroad engineer, you first ask what cognitive traits are required to perform the job of a railroad engineer. Then you create a list of these traits. Finally, you design a curriculum (deriving from the Latin for the course of a race), which imparts these cognitive traits to students. The assumption here is that the category of railroad engineer is a stable and well-characterized configuration of traits. We know, and we assume, what a railroad engineer does. The advantage of the “learning objective” approach is that it makes the assessment of cognitive knowledge about these traits simple. If a railroad engineer is the sum of discrete cognitive traits, then a standardized test will do.  And here the correlate becomes important. As in the laboratory, a tightly controlled learning environment makes measurement both easier and more accurate.

The problem is that human action, to paraphrase Michael Polanyi, knows more than it can tell. What Polanyi termed tacit knowledge lies beyond the measure of learning objectives. That is, even the simplest human action is more than the sum of its cognitive demands. Experience, deliberation, improvisation, and judgement play their inevitable role. Anthropology, specifically in its reliance on ethnography as the main pedagogical tool (don’t be fooled into thinking ethnography is a method), and design are two fields where tacit knowledge is unavoidably pushed to the fore.

I am going to pause for the moment. Next time, I will trace the development of learning objectives and point to an alternative pedagogical approach that has largely been pushed aside in the Bloomian rush.

Michael Polanyi. 2009. *The Tacit Dimension*. Reissue edition. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press.

Donald Schön. 1984. *The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action*. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books.

Researching Around the Surveillance State

Last month in the New York Review of Books, historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a short essay about her experience with the FBI in late 1952. Upon returning from France, where she was conducting archive research for her PhD thesis, this happened:

Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. A publication event had brought them to our door. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. (In 1954, when the Michigan hearings finally took place, students did in fact protest on campus.) The pamphlet was issued in photo-offset, without the name of author, but simply listing two University of Michigan campus groups that had sponsored it. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind and sent its agents to the printer, who obliged with the name of the treasurer of the campus organization that had paid the bill—that is, my husband. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

I was devastated, heartsick, by the loss of my passport. I had counted on getting back to the archives in France not only to finish the research for my thesis, but for any future work I hoped to do on my new path of social history. (Remember in those days there was no web, no digitization, and not even microfilms of most documents.)

Natalie Zemon Davis

The FBI visit had left her cutoff from the archives she needed to finish her dissertation. She had only partially finished her research and it isn’t hard to imagine the panic she must have felt. But, Davis turned the blow from the FBI that could have derailed her career before it started (no doubt their intention) into a lever to broaden and deeper her research.

But wait a minute! Those sixteenth-century Protestant books and Bibles, made by the workers on my three-by-five cards, were available in American rare book libraries. I could find traces of printers and other artisans and much more in the pages of these books and their marginalia; even their bindings held treasures. The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States…

This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past. I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground.

Given the recent dusting off of the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and the NSA disclosures, the Davis essay is well worth your time. Consider it a bit of counsel and hard-won wisdom for conducting research in an age of surveillance.

To Disrupt or Preserve The University

Lately there has been a lot of heat around the idea of disrupting higher education. In fact, the search phrase “disrupting higher education” currently yields almost 2 million results via Google.

Like everything else disrupted in the recent past, the impetus here is the application of digital technology to a new domain in order to lower costs and increase efficiency. This HASTAC article has a nice breakdown of the current state of play in higher education. And here is a presentation on disruptive innovation in education from the man who coined the term and popularized the concept. No word on whether Joseph Schumpeter considered the university as part of the business sector and hence available to be torn asunder, though I suspect he did not.

There is a bit more to the story than just the application of digital technology to higher education. I would argue (and will in a later post) that the confluence of learning objectives derived from Bloom’s taxonomy, standardized testing, and digital technology constitutes the three legged stool supporting this trend. I won’t dwell on the consequences of disruption here, as I have a feeling most people reading this have first-hand experience, or soon will, with the effects of disruptive innovation.

Pessimism in this situation is understandable and, to an extent, unavoidable. But, there is a countertrend afoot: a conserving trend that would see the university reimagined along the traditional lines of a self-governing polity of scholars. Granted, these initiatives are young and some are little more than a few people sitting and talking over drinks, but that is exactly how most movements get their start.

Theses initiatives include cooperative organizations like the New University Cooperative (which doesn’t seem to have any new activity since 2011) and The Social Science Center, Lincoln. In addition to their organizational work, both of these initiatives have spawned conceptual work around the question of whether the cooperative is a sustainable model for the university, here, here and here.

Another direction is represented by the IF Project which aims to provide a  free education in the humanities by using London as an open air lecture hall/seminar room combined with select online lectures. An example of their curriculum can be found here. They also just finished a successful kickstarter campaign. Similar to the IF Project are the Ragged Project, the Liverpool Free School,  the University of the Commons  and The Public School.

Developing in a different direction is The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Here you will find seminars in philosophy and the humanities conducted in found space across NYC. While many of the initiatives I have highlighted are utopian to the point of insisting on not paying their instructors, the Brooklyn Institute charges a modest fee for its 6- to 7-week seminars, most of which flows directly to the instructors. I would imagine the pay per hour is equal to, or slightly better than, adjuncting with the priceless benefit of controlling your working conditions. If you are in NYC, they are looking for new faculty. Though, I notice they are looking for a social theorist and a sociologist but not an anthropologist. Ahem…

Another area of ongoing experimentation is assessment. Some initiatives are pursuing traditional accreditation, others are experimenting with Mozilla Open Badges, and others are going assessment free. This is worth thinking through comprehensively, even more than new forms of organization, as assessment is the most difficult and politically charged issue in education. Not only in the form the assessment takes, which can range from the easy computability of a standardized test to the hermeneutic task of interpreting a narrative evaluation, but also in how, or whether, the assessment might be taken up and employed by future publics.

One more thought before I wrap this up. If you think things are bad in the social sciences and humanities, and they are, take some comfort in knowing they are no better in the life sciences. Ethan Perlstein has been talking for a couple of years now about the “postdocalpyse” in the life sciences.  Yet, Perlstein and the projects mentioned here continue to pursue their intellectual projects by other means and in the process take small, but important, steps towards repairing the disruptions.

Call For Papers: AAA 2014

CFP AAA 2014: Producing Anthropology, Producing Science: Citizen Science and Emerging Problematics

Many of the challenges facing anthropology today have their parallels in the emerging citizen science sphere. Anthropologists have long conceptualized, and re-conceptualized, the permeable boundaries of knowledge production, but new challenges emergent within citizen science mark a changing landscape where new forms of knowledge production and dissemination are reworking scientific boundaries long considered stable. Professional scientists are addressing new audiences in new contexts, including in new economies of knowledge production, moving beyond binary distinctions between internal and external discourses, and engaging new modes (open access) and media (online scholarly publishing, blogging, and micro-blogging) to disseminate knowledge.

These wider audiences include amateurs, who both challenge and contribute to professional knowledge by creating new modes of production. Challenging the boundaries between professionals and publics, citizen science is a site engaging many of these challenges and illustrating these changes. This panel seeks to address these challenges and changes through the lens of citizen science, broadly understood. We address several questions, including: What challenges are posed to, and changes are occurring in, how scientific knowledge is produced? How has the emergence of citizen science accelerated or slowed these changes? In what ways does citizen science engage or overlap with the scientific theories, methods, or projects of anthropology? Considering citizen science as a site of socialization, education, and knowledge production can help us challenge the epistemological commitments of anthropology and subsequently refigure the kinds of partnerships that might be formed, expand the audience for anthropological work, and illuminate possibilities unique to anthropology.

Please email producinganthropology@gmail.com with a 250 word abstract by March 31st, 2014.

Michael Scroggins. PhD Candidate, Teachers College Columbia University


Ashley Rose Kelly, Assistant Professor, Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University


Happy #anthrovalentineS Day

I will leave it to the historians of wikipedia to sort out the history of Valentine’s Day. And I will leave the critique to the Huffington Post .

Today I want to publicly thank @DonnaLanclos , an anthropologist who works in a library, for storifying the results of the twitter hashtag #anthrovalentines .

My favorite tweet, and a savvy nod to the intersection of public and private interest in fieldwork, is this one:

@EthnoGraffiti  I would do anything for love, but I won’t do multi-sited ethnography #anthrovalentines

And thank you everyone who contributed to the hashtag. I LOL’ed.

Gates On Diamond

2013 was a year marked by yet another Jared Diamond book and yet another round of anthropological hand-wringing over Jared Diamond’s public profile. I won’t launch into a criticism of Diamond. Instead, I will sum up the year of Jared Diamond with the following Bill Gates takeaway:

He (Diamond) describes several areas in particular, like raising children, dealing with the elderly, and eating well. He doesn’t romanticize these societies, as I thought he might, or make some grand pronouncement that they all do these things better than we do. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.

For his part, Diamond added this observation in a conversation the two had last July:

For much of the past several centuries, people from Europe and Americans have viewed traditional societies, including our Native American societies, as groups who should be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible or dragged into the modern age whether they like it or not.   

The opposite view idealizes traditional people as tree-hugging, peaceful environmentalists who don’t have war and are not subject to all the evil things that began with our state governments. 

Both of those extremes, of course, are unrealistic because people are people.

Academic Deans, The NSA and Censorship

Jay Rosen has written a fascinating article in the Guardian today about Johns Hopkin’s response to this blog post by Professor Matthew Green.

The short version of the story is that Green wrote a blog post about the NSA and cryptography on September 5th. Last Monday, Green received a takedown request from the dean of the engineering school claiming that his blog post contained “classified” information and that his use of the NSA logo was a violation of some kind. In response, Green took to twitter and made public some behind the scenes machinations which led to the takedown request. Happily, as of now, Green’s original post has been restored and his dean sent him this note of apology.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the possibility that the original complaint against Green’s blog post came from within the university, perhaps from someone working on a project which received government funding.

As Rosen notes at the end of his article:

In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often. Instead of trying to get Matthew Green’s blog off their servers, the deans should be trying to get more faculty into blogging and into the public arena. Who at Johns Hopkins is speaking up for these priorities? And why isn’t the Johns Hopkins faculty roaring about this issue? (I teach at New York University, and I’m furious.)

Notice: Matthew Green didn’t get any takedown request from Google. Only from Johns Hopkins. Think about what that means for the school. He’s "their" professor, yet his work is safer on the servers of a private company than his own university. The institution failed in the clutch. That it rectified it later in the day is welcome news, but I won’t be cheering until we have answers that befit a great institution like Johns Hopkins, where graduate education was founded on these shores.

On Time and Evaluation

by Scott Freeman

I was recently at a bar and jokingly attacked by a couple of friends about non-quantitative data. Consultants love them some numbers. While their jests were well taken, the underlying point was also well taken. As Hervè Varenne addressed in his position paper on anthropology and education, students of anthropology often find themselves kowtowing to quantitative research, apologizing for ‘sampling limitations’. This is to say that the type of modernity that insists on brevity and a numerically constructed objectivity may be the current that we swim against most.

The problem is, many times, this current pushes in a very problematic direction. When a particular type of research or evaluation is seen as dominant, and the only type of inquisition worthwhile, what is lost in the fray? In the world of development aid, pushes towards an auditable and measurable development are more common then ever- graduate students in schools of international development pine for “Monitoring and Evaluation” expertise. The demand is high.

However, development evaluations, or audits, still retain that potent monetary thread from the inception of audits as we know them, in the realm of the financial (see Power (1997) and Strathern (2000)). As such, the imposition of audits (or site/donor visits) in the world of development are more often oriented towards the source of the money rather than the more holistic effects of their efforts. Auditing becomes an assurance to donors, an assurance that ‘something’ has been done.

In his investigations of international aid, David Mosse (2004, 2005) asks us to question not whether an aid project is successful, but rather how success is constructed. For the implementation and evaluation of short term environmental aid projects in Haiti, this question could not be more relevant.

Soil conservation projects (the subject of my dissertation research), present potent examples of the ways in which success becomes constructed. Soil conservation is the umbrella term for a number of strategies that seek to keep soil from eroding off of Haiti’s deforested hillsides. Most often, these projects involve the digging of tree lined trenches across the slope of the hill- efforts to collect and slow the downhill path of water and soil.

Aid disbursed through the UN or USAID comes with a time restriction tied to the completion of the project. A visit to the hills by UN staff might check on the work of a local association subcontracted to do dig and plant. In one case I observed, a UN representative declared the project a failure: the saplings planted in the soil conservation trenches had died within a month. But the implementing agronomist wanted the monetary reward that comes with a “successful” evaluation. When new saplings were planted, the UN evaluator quickly returned to declare the project a success.

But here is where two temporal worlds collide: the growth of trees takes much more than mere months. Five to seven years might be required for that tree to grow. For soil conservation, more than this amount of time would be needed to see if the tree lined hillsides remain tree lined, or if the young saplings were soon eaten by grazing animals (a fairly common occurrence), or cut down.

In these cases of international aid, the evaluation is not tied to the halting of erosion. Rather, it is tied to observations based on financially imposed time limits which have little to do with the continued maintenance of a soil conservation structure. Surely the world of international aid needs a check or balance (or two). But financial audits impose a particular time scale that may be completely irrelevant for the judgment of “success”. Agricultural time, and arboreal time are measured in seasons and years. A few months hardly provide adequate time to grant “success”, yet failure and success here were granted within a few weeks. According to the agronomists who implemented these projects (and in line with my observations) more often than not, these trees would soon be gone and the land unchanged.

While many in aid do recognize the need for anthropology, it is essential not to limit the conversation to previously established paremeters. Rather, we’ll need to incur a lot more joking attacks in bars to ensure that the questions we find most important continue to be asked.

Scott Freeman is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia University Teachers College, and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, where he blogs at http://focusonhaiti.org/.

Lawrence Cremin and Mara Mayor Discuss Technology and Education In 1989

Given the discussion of MOOCs that has been occurring in the blogosphere over the last year, I thought it might be helpful to get a longer perspective on technology and education. In that spirit, I have dug up this 30 minute conversation between Lawrence Cremin of Teachers College and Mara Mayor of the Annenberg CPB project on the role of technology in education.

The conversation is here.

The conversation demonstrates that the question surrounding the interplay of technology and education haven’t changed much in the last 25 years, or the last 50. However, as in many fields, the early formulation of the problem and the positions taken relative to that problem are clearly visible without smoke from the latest hype cycle obscuring the view.

There is a nice nugget in there about the chalkboard as a technology to personalize education.

Thank you to the good people at archive.org for preserving so many wonderful things that would otherwise be lost. If only we could turn the NSA to such useful pursuits…

Discovering Exaptation: Or, How To Leverage Your Philosophical Baggage To Further Science

I want take up Tony’s question about this Dennett quote:

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)

One way to answer this is through recourse to the literature on Science and Technology Studies (STS). We could weave our way through a dense web of philosophical and empirical work on scientific practice that demonstrates time and again that value-free inquiry is an illusion. Yet another way to answer is by making a formal argument using Weber as a guide.

But, because so many readers of this blog are big, big fans of Stephen Jay Gould, I will use Gould and Vrba’s 1982 article introducing the term exaptation to demonstrate that philosophical baggage can be used as a lever to discover better questions.

Gould and Vrba, in contrast to Jason Richwine and Steve Hsu, are fully aware that the categories through which you effect an analysis matter. And in what may be the finest use of Foucault within the pages of Palaeontology, Gould and Vrba start their article with the following passage:

We wish to propose a term for the missing term in the taxonomy of evolutionary thought. Terms in themselves are trivial, but taxonomies revised for a different ordering of thought are not without interest. Taxonomies are not neutral or arbitrary hat-racks for for a set of unvarying concepts; they reflect (or even create) different theories about the structure of the world.

The opening sets the tone for what follows. Gould and Vrba proceed to note the analytic term adaptation carries two differing connotations, which are subsumed under the prevailing classification scheme. They imply, by way of the opening paragraph, that the classification system they criticize has its roots in Victorian mores and morals.

Adaptation, they argue, has two meanings: historic origin and current utility. Gould and Vrba further note adaptation refers to both a process and a state. After introducing the philosophical baggage they will unpack and leverage, they proceed to tease apart the twin uses of adaptation using the tools of rhetoric in a way that Richard McKeon might have appreciated. That is, by using rhetoric to open a new view on an old paradigm.

What was gained is the concept exaptation. A trait or feature may have been adapted for one purpose but is found useful for another, often quite different, purpose. It is a concept which might be described as future utility.

Following the formation of the concept, Gould and Vrba use a few examples from the fossil record as illustrations of the concept. The best known example are feathers. Feathers evolved for warmth but were exaptated for flight. Another example they use is the case of extra or junk DNA. Many organisms carry around duplicate, spare, or otherwise unaccounted DNA, whose presence cannot be explained by recourse to adaptation. Like a brocoleur at his pile of spare parts, these organisms use their DNA junk piles to make new traits as needed.

But the main point I want to make here is simply that Gould and Vrba demonstrate that natural sciences and philosophy, like the Dennett quote indicates, are intertwined, and each can make good use of the other. Just compare Gould and Vrba’s rich conceptual development to Richwine’s unexamined and altogether ridiculous deployment of the category “hispanic,” or Hsu’s utterly lazy and unscientific conflation of IQ, SAT score and the g-factor.


In a similar vein, I wrote about Tools and Toolchains earlier this spring.