What is More Important in a University, an Assessment Plan for Nebulous Learning Outcomes, or a Climbing Wall?

Anyway, my kids knew where the Climbing Wall was when they attended a private Liberal Arts college.  Somehow they never came home and told me about the Student Learning Outcomes that were presumably on their course syllabi.  There is a very engaging article by Erik Glibert “Does Assessment Make Colleges Better?  Who Knows?

I have to finish my course syllabi for Fall 2015 this week, and will dutifully put on the Student Learning Outcomes of various programs because doing so is relatively harmless.  Still, I wonder why I so dutifully do this exercise?

Basic Human Decency and Death by Hanging in Britain’s Colonies

Every once in awhile, I’ll revisit George Orwell. Last week it was for “Shooting an Elephant,” when I lectured here in Thailand about the nature of ethics and state/political power. The essay is great for teaching about the nature of state power, in this case using 1920s Burma where Orwell himself served as a British colonial police officer for several years.

But shooting rogue elephants peacefully eating by the side of the road was not the only thing that Orwell wrote about, or was called to do. British colonial power required the regular use of hanging of criminals to maintain order. As I wrote in an earlier post about hanging in British Tanganyika here ate Ethnograpy.com, the British memos were meticulous about ensuring that the process was dignified, humane, and especially did not unnecessarily upset the officers and warders carrying out the sentence ordered by the judge. The Acting Superintendent in Tanganyika wrote the following in 1921,

In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.


The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.


At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.


Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.


Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.


I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is out.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is a suggestion of inhumanity.

I’ve read the memos colonial Tanganyika a number of times, and often wondered, who were these men that the British bureaucracy snapped the neck of? What did they do, what did they think, where were they from, where were they buried? When I had a chance, I looked through the British colonial archives, but never could find documentation. At least not until re-reading Orwell’s essay about Hanging in colonial Burma.

At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path…. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned-reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone

Did the prisoners in Tanganyika avoid the puddles as they walked to the gallows,  too? Did they take a little dance to the left during their final 40 steps so that there feet would not be muddied?

And what did the guards and hangmen think? Literature by the likes of Orwell helps us imagine what the agents of the colonial state thought, and how they imagined their place in the grand scheme of the execution:

Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. ‘Well, sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all finished – flick! like that. It iss not always so – oah, no! I have known cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!’

…..We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. ‘Pulling at his legs!’ exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis’s anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. …

Participation in such an execution ritual even had the salubrious effect of bringing a few of the colonized closer to the colonizer:

We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.

And as for the other prisoners in the prisons—the ones not scheduled for the execution, the day was also a downer, because they would not get breakfast until the execution was completed:

‘Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.’



George Orwell “The Hanging” see http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/888/

Tony Waters, http://www.ethnography.com/2015/01/gallows-tale-i-the-hanging-file-of-tanganyika-territory-1922-1928/


Peace Corps Edifice Complexes

Most Peace Corps volunteers are young—in their early 20s. When I went to Thailand with the Peace Corps in 1980, I was 22 and fresh out of college with a degree in Biology. And I want to do stuff—big stuff—stuff that could be seen, and would be talked about, like The Pyramids of Egypt. The stuff of immortality—that which would be talked about and admired forever! Peace Corps of course warned us that edifices was not what it was about—that in fact we were about building “relationships” or something of the sort. But what 22 year old believes that? Particularly the young people with impressive degrees in Engineering, Biology, and other such majors where we had learned about world-changing technologies?

To do such big stuff, I was sent to Phrae, Thailand, where I was assigned to the Malaria Zone Office which had the commendable mission of eradicating malaria. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it some became apparent after I arrived that that job was already done. A decade or two of prosperity, two or three decades of spraying DDT on rural houses, the treatment of all malaria cases had done that job. All that was left was a large boring malaria bureaucracy.

Thus the malaria zone office where I worked in Phrae was a rather sleepy place which processed thousands of diagnostic bloodslides, and sent out teams to spray DDT across three provinces in northern Thailand. It was made up of nice teak buildings, and a place to sit and read the newspaper, nap, and drink tea—frequent habits a the office. It was there in Phrae that I found out that bureaucracies have lots of meetings, sit around a lot, and are generally pretty boring places. So I sat in the entomology office back near the DDT store, where I raised guppies for distribution as mosquito fish, and studied Thai because there was little else to do.

Then in the evening, I would hang out in the market where I made friends with the market ladies who helped me with my Thai, and spent my evenings at my own teak house, which was tucked into a corner of a small Phrae neighborhood complete with a betel nut chewing neighbor I called “grandma,” and another neighbor who drove a pedicab and frequently got drunk at which point he would yell at his daughter. It was a great group of people, especially when the pedicab driver was sober. As for “grandma,” she and her family helped me with my Thai too—there is nothing like listening to a mouth full of betel nut to train careful hearing. Among other things, she regaled me with tales of the former inhabitant of my house, the Peace Corps Volunteer “John” who liked to do drugs of some sort.

All this of course created a problem for that ambitious Peace Corps volunteer who wanted to do the stuff of immortality. The biggest problem was that indeed my predecessors in Phrae did in fact do the stuff of immortality, a condition highlighted by a 100 hundred meter long suspension bridge across a local river. I heard all about Steve (or was it Kevin?) who built the “Swinging Bridge” about 10 years before I arrived in Phrae. Steve was an engineer who in a fit of independence organized villagers to solve a real problem—getting across the river. The bridge had two tall impressive towers, and cables to hold it together. It was great—a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, and it swayed when I rode my motorcycle across! To make it worse, the Thai people told me that Kevin/Steve spoke outstanding Thai, wrote those squiggly characters, spoke the northern Thai dialect, ate the hottest food, and drank the local whiskey. The bridge in 1980-1982 was firmly in place ten years after he left—and certainly people talked about him, especially since the bridge provided access via foot, bicycle, and motorcycle to the entire left bank of the Yom River. So every time I rode my motorcycle across the river, I would wonder, what would my own personal mark on Thailand be? How could I be more “Gaeng” than Steve/Kevin? Or would it simply be two years sitting among the DDT, creating such an impressive bridge? Isn’t the point of Peace Corps to leave a local memory of yourself?

Well, I found a way to leave that memory, or so I thought. Toward the end of my Peace Corps service, I found a village which needed water systems. Cheap PVC pipe which you glued together (as opposed to metal pipes with threads) had recently been introduced to Thailand, and was about to revolutionize water supply. I managed to ingratiate myself to Ban Nam Jom, a really remote village where they still had work elephants for hauling illegal teak from the forest, brewed their own whiskey, and generally thought my Thai was Gaeng! So I hustled up $900 or so from the Peace Corps and Canadian Embassy, and voila—set the mechanics of my edifice in motion. I would provide rural water supply for the three hamlets of Ban Nam Jom—something like 200 people. Surely they would remember me from now until eternity, just like we remember the Pyramid builders of Egypt!

I was so thrilled with this, that after returning home to California, I wrote up one of my first academic articles about installing the water system of Ban Nam Jom. The journal Water International was so thrilled with it that they actually published it—one of my very first publications.

Anyway, earlier this year I returned to Phrae, and of course wanted to re-visit the sites of my Peace Corp glory. This was made easier because last year, using contacts I made while a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1980-1982, my daughter began teaching English at one of the schools in Phare. So I was able to borrow her pink scooter, and jamming a helmet on my head which was two sizes too small. The results of my Peace Corps edifice survey.

–Steve/Kevin’s bridge is gone! I asked around about it, and it was only vaguely remembered. When I went to the site of the bridge, I saw a brand new bridge. (Well, really not brand new, it is probably 20 years old.) As for the towers of the “Golden Gate Bridge of Phrae,” only one is still there, and it is covered with vines.   The locals don’t even notice it any more. Steve/Kevin has been returned to anonymity.

–I couldn’t find the malaria office where I worked for two years next to the DDT boxes. I think a row of businesses have been built on the parcel, but I couldn’t recognize which building it was, and these buidlings now look “old.” (Presumably they have very few mosquitoes though, the result of DDT’s long half life).

–A small hotel was built on top of where my house used to be—in fact it was finished just last year. I asked the family who owns the hotel what had happened to “my” house, and was told that they bought up the buildings, and knocked them down. They also mentioned that everyone was really happy about that because the houses were used for drug dealing, whiskey brewing, and who knows what else.

–I’ve kept in touch over the years with the ladies in the market who helped me learn to speak Thai. They’ve moved their shop across the street, but still settle noodles, as indeed the have for the last 35 or 40 years. They are still there selling noodles—it is the best Pad Thai in the world—if you want a referral, let me know. They are now teaching my 24 year old daughter Thai, too.

–We went out to find Nam Jom, and were told that it was no more—what was left of the village had been merged with a larger village. Ban Nam Jom is now in the middle of a national park, and depopulated—there were only a few houses left. The government has cracked down on illegal lumbering, so the work elephants are all gone. (Maybe if they are lucky, they will get the wild elephant population back!). No idea what happened to “my “ water system.

And so life goes on. What really remains are the relationships, and I suppose the fact that people in “my” Peace Corps town of Phrae continue to do more for me and my daughter, than I did for them. I seem to remember that somewhere in our training we were told that this would be the case—that the real edifice are in the relationships built. For the rest—it is all dust! Even for the engineers like Steve/Kevin.

Dee Thao’s Movie about Hmong Identity in Laos, Thailand, and the United States

At this time of getting ready for Fall classes, just a reminder that Dee Thao’s movie about Hmong identity is an excellent introduction to issues involving the Hmong in the United States and Laos, as well as more generally issues of identity, migration, refugees, family, and generations. It’s 24 minutes, which fits well with a discussion. I know that I’m planning on using it this Fall for my International Engagement class. THe link is here.

Click to continue reading “Dee Thao’s Movie about Hmong Identity in Laos, Thailand, and the United States”

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.

What Does Social Science Miss When China is Left Out?

I just came back from China—my fourth trip. This time it was to Jishou University in Hunan Province for a few days. Jishou is the capital city for the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao and Autonomous Prefecture and is in a remote mountainous corner in China. Still it has the hallmarks of every other Chinese city I’ve visited, including thirty story high apartment blocks, and a very social public square where during the evenings hundreds of people come out to do rhythmic dancing, and generally socialize in the evening. The square is a very pleasant place, despite the crowding, and competing music.

Then there is also China’s newness in Jishou—many high rises were under construction, and the airports and roads we drove on were new. The roads were particularly impressive with their long-span bridges, and long tunnels. And as I’ve heard in other Chinese cities, the “old town” was built in the 1980s. And then we were taken to the museums where the really old things dominating the 5,000 years of Chinese history were displayed.

There was also the overwhelming power of our differentness in China, which I do not feel in other countries. In Jishou, we did not even see another white westerner the four days we were there. My rudimentary Chinese helped—but only a little bit—I still got noodles (mian) when I thought I ordered rice (mi fan). And the written system is of course in Chinese characters, which take me time and effort to decode assuming I have a modern dictionary ap on my iPad available (there are some really cool ones you can use to copy characters). Then there is of course the different music in the square (no western tunes—though I did hear a bit of western pop at the airport), and the struggles with food and menus.

I was also impressed with how polite and friendly people in Jishou were—there were many smiles and much laughter when I made mistakes in Mandarin, and they made mistakes in English. Still I was befuddled by the hot water taps (the handles work in some strange direction), the web sites I was seemingly blocked from accessing (Facebook, New York Times, Google, Dropbox, my Wells Fargo bank account), and the strange foods for sale (the pickled stuff—I’m not sure what it was—was particularly tasty). My wife was befuddled by the difficulty in finding her most loved food: coffee and German bread.  Tea and steamed buns were just not the same!

I have read a lot about China, and spent four semesters trying to master some semblance of Chinese language skills. Despite this I am hesitant to write much about China beyond what I saw and thought. Social scientific conclusions are difficult for me when it comes to China—China is too different from my 25 or 30 years of engagement with the anthropology and sociology of many other places. The ultimate sin of premature generalization is tempting—but only so much. (A previous example of premature conclusions was posted here in 2012.

But I will stick my neck out regarding one conclusion I have reached, which is that that unless an article or book addresses the role of China in the world, they are probably missing something—just like 50 years ago the books and articles that left out gender or race missed something.* How can you write about politics, economy, urbanization, psychology, ecology, agriculture, or society anywhere without referring to the example of China? Or for that matter, how can you discuss gender and ethnicity without acknowledging data from China? Or philosophy and the nature of human rights?

Then there is engineering: How can you think about engineering without understanding that political commands from Beijing that have created tens of thousands (or more?) cookie cutter thirty plus story apartment complexes across one fifth of humanity? In my own state of California there was a bit of a scandal when it was discovered that Chinese steel beams had been used to build the new Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. The United States has not built such structures for thirty or forty years, so naturally looked to the place where major bridge projects continue to be built routinely—China.

China’s emergence will overwhelm the world, and not the other way around. Sure there are elements of Western-style capitalism and culture in China. But I can’t help but wonder how things are working the other way around. The Chinese way of building not only cities, but politics, society, culture, and economy are already swirling around the world. Chinese culture is deeply embedded in Southeast Asia, and has moved strongly into western North America, and parts of Africa. The 1.3 billion Chinese, and the largest economy in the world are effecting the rest of the world. The only question is how is it happening?


*Ok, one risk I am already taking is that someone, perhaps Kerim Friedman, will say something like “O.K. what about India? Won’t India potentially play a similar role in the 21st century—and indeed it may. Note already how Indian ways of doing things are spreading around the Indian Ocean littoral, and into the United States as well.