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.

Participant Observation at Its Best: How Max Weber Concluded Nine out of Ten Politicians are Windbags!

It was January 1919, and Max Weber was on a roll in his career as a German politician, journalist, and academic.  Germany had on November 11, 1918, more or less surrendered to the Allied forces of France, Britain, Italy and the United States, and Germany slowly began to collapse into an anarchic state. Bavaria sort of seceded under the apologist Kurt Eisner, and set up its own government—this new government was releasing documents from the Bavarian archives so that the Allies meeting at Versailles could better make the case that World War I was indeed started solely by Germany.

Street demonstrations were erupting in Berlin, and the Spartacist forces of Karl Liebcknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were ruling the streets (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were assassinated that same month, on January 15).

The Rhineland was being occupied, and Max himself was campaigning vigorously as a Center-Left candidate of German Democratic Party, even as he was publishing articles in the German press critical of the Allied role in starting World War I.

It was indeed a lively time.

Let’s see what he had to say as the month went by in his role as a political speechifier, journalist, and academic:

Standing (unsuccessfully) on the German Democratic Party (DDP) list for the new German Parliamentary elections of January 1919, he made speeches proclaiming sentiments like:

We have this revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles.  All we see I dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else.  Liebkencht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens. (see Radkau 2009:507)

In other words Weber knew himself what it felt like to be a full-throated political hack.

It gets better though.   Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, in which Weber blamed The Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I:

In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia…it never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans…

Finally, at the end of the month on January 28, 1919, he was invited to give a speech, the long-winded “Politics as Vocation” by the Student Union of Munich University.  What did he have to say about politics?  He could no longer compare the now-assassinated “revolutionary of the street” Rosa Luxemburg to creatures in the zoo.  So he wrote something that echoes through the annals of social theory even today

 …in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are talking o themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations

This is of course the speech that has endured; it is part of “Politics as Vocation” which is considered to be one of the most important essays about the sociology of politics ever written, and which should be part of every liberal education in ways that the two other things cited here should not.

But talk about a participant observation as a research technique!  If anyone was to know about the how and why of political windbaggery, it was certainly Weber.  January 1919 was indeed Weber’s month!

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

michaeljscroggins@gmail.com

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

ashleyrosekelly@gmail.com

Voting Sheep, Voting Cows, and Sheeple

      Max Weber uses a great German noun Stimmvieh to describe unthinking voting behavior.  Literally translated into English, it means “voting cow,” or “voting livestock” which Weber wrote in 1918 or so.  At the time, he had this love-hate relationship with the United States, so two of his illustrative examples of “voting cows” both came from there.  He saw “voting cows” in both the United States Congress where voting members are herded into party line voting, and in the urban areas of the early twentieth century where ward bosses rounded up recent immigrants to cast votes based on pre-existing ethnic loyalties, rather than the issues involved. 

But I think the phenomenon is actually more general, rooted as it is in the need to conform to group dynamics. In fact just yesterday I voted “aye” (or should I say “moo”) to approve meeting minutes that I had not read.  In fact now that I think of it, on most of the committees I sit, I tend to vote in such a fashion—ratifying the pre-arranged decisions that are presented to me.  I do it all the time on university committees. “How do you vote on X?”  Altogether now “Mooooo.”  Any opposed? (Silence).  The motion passes.  Now that I think of it, same thing happens on church councils, corporate boards of directors, and any number of other places people are told they have “great responsibility.”  In the end?  Mooooo!

Weber is of course writing about is the fact that people vote for things that they haven’t read all the time.  I could of course pick on the US Congress which recently passed a monster bill on health care which few if any of the members had ever read.  This is a well-known foible of the US Congress which happens time after time, no matter which party is in charge; after all Weber wrote about the phenomenon 100 years ago before there was a health care bill.  Congress seemingly has not changed.

But more to the point, I could point to the “stuff” I vote for on the local ballots every year or so (after all I am an obedient and important voter supportive of democracy!).  Thus, I am always thrilled to be ask my opinion on matters big and small, even if I don’t know anything about the subject, or for that interest have much interest in the things that appear on California’s election ballots.  After all, if paid member of Congress don’t read the bills, why should I read everything that goes together in Califronia’s version of direct democracy?  Still the fact that the Legislature and Governor asks me at the ballot box to decide big issues appeals to my vanity, and I dutifully weigh in with a considered opinion on election day.

Do I want to have the government buy bonds to do X, and Y to Z% interest rate? Oh, thank you for asking!  Moooooo!

Who do you want to vote for to assess property in your county?  Well, yes, thank you for again asking my expert opinion, and now that you mention it Moooooo!

Or do I have an opinion about the death penalty, property rights,  air pollution regulations, school policy, sales tax, or the other multitude of issues that clutter the California ballot.  Thanks for asking! Mooooo! Mooooo! And Mooooo!

So as a sociologist, I like the concept of Weber describes—but how to render Stimmvieh into English in a fashion that Weber might recognize?  “Voting cows” does not capture  the spirit of the German.  “Voting sheep” works a little better, since in the English language sheep in particular are known via metaphor for the mindless herding mentality that Weber is referring to.

Indeed in the right wing blogosphere, they have started to use the word “Sheeple” which Wikipedia defines as

a term that highlights the herd behavior of people by likening them to sheep, a herd animal…. used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

In other words Stimmvieh.  That sounds like what I do before voting “Aye” on ratifying the minutes of meetings I have not read, voting for my county’s assessor, or weighing in on a bond issue which I really do not understand.  The problem is that the right wing in the US has somehow appropriated the word “sheeple” and it has come to be associated only with the mindless voting behavior of the Democrats, rather than voters in general like Weber intended.  But we need sheeple back, if for nothing else, because it is such a great idiomatic way to translate the equally idiomatic Stimmvieh.  After all,  Sheeplehood and Stimmvieh behavior is not only for Democrats, but all of us, including you, me, and the guy behind the tree.  It is for whomever has voted “Mooooo,” whether it was to just to go along, inattention, or boredom.

My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants.  Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue.  The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies.  I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me.  Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up.  Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches.  The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue.  What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order.  They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t.  But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy.  We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner.  A nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings.  The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.”  Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on.  Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.”  The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.  We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English.  Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are  called on to legitimate.  Where do you find such Honoratioren?  They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community.  I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government.  They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded.  Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren?  The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.”  But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better!  So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”