Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

That’s a wrap

I just told a section of introductory World History they were going to make me cry, and let them out a half hour early.

Their second paper is due next week, so this week was for workshopping. My focus was on the analysis rubric: people, events, ideas, structures, dynamics. I had run through this several times over the course of the semester, not expecting them to learn it yet but just to get it familiar. (They don’t learn things until they need them for something. I’ve observed this over and over – we waste so much time teaching out of sequence with tasks! But I learned it first from Dyke the Elder years ago remarking that he’d had Calculus three different times but only learned it the third, because he needed it then for something else he was doing. Feynman says this in his famous lectures on physics, as well.)

Tuesday I asked the students to pull out their devices and look up structure and dynamics. Because the pump was primed, they found the ‘right’ definitions right away. We talked for a second about how these concepts could be helpful in organizing and making sense of the mass of information they’ve accumulated in their research. Then I pulled up one of their draft introductory paragraphs and we walked through it together, finding the people, events, ideas, structures, and dynamics it mentioned or implied. I diagrammed this all simply on the whiteboard as we went, and filled it up easily. I got the sense that this process really opened their eyes to how much was involved in even the simplest analyses.

Today we pulled up another paragraph, and with very little prompting they did the same exercise with it. The topic was Nazi propaganda, and the author had already figured out that their project was more about redirection than persuasion. By the end, we were talking about feed-in and feedback dynamics among citizens, the army, and the party. It was way cool.

I asked the whole group what they were learning for their own work from the discussion of their classmates’. One said it was seeing its research in a whole new light, as a way to figure things out rather than just amass and spout information. Another said it was now seeing a whole series of connections between its research and the rest of the class. A third chimed in that it was like we were writing a textbook together.

I asked if they wanted to workshop another paragraph and they said no, we’re ready. Which I thought was a good place to stop for the day.


Here at MU we’ve got a pretty generous student worker policy. Each of us can have one or more student workers if we can produce an explanation of how they’d come in handy. Their compensation is part of the financial aid package.

I’ve had several over the years. Their official title is “Igor,” pronounced eye-gore like the Marty Feldman character in “Young Frankenstein.” They’ve done various things for me, from rearranging my bookshelves by color to peer reviewing all my World History papers to bringing me up to speed on digital resources.

This semester’s Igor is an Albanian guy, which is fun because Gramsci (he tells me we’re spelling it wrong) was Albanian-Italian, and also because when my family lived in Italy in the 70’s we mythologized Albania (then a closed society) as a mysterious land of crazy geniuses. Which has, in fact, pretty much fit the few Albanians I’ve known.

OK, so on to the ‘fun’. Igor has been sitting in on one of my World History sections, to get a feel and make suggestions about how to improve the learning experience for students. He’s prepped me with a lot of great traditional teaching materials about 1914 (our topic at the moment). But it’s become clear that we’re not really on the same page about the project, which is no surprise and a learning opportunity for both of us.

I don’t want to be throwing traditional teaching materials at the students; I want to be guiding them in a process of figuring out how to find stuff for themselves. Igor has been impatient with the chaos of this process; he sees the students spinning their wheels and thinks we’re not really getting anywhere. But he’s very smart, and he pays attention, so he gets that I’m not going to be lecturing. What we need to do, he says, is package up the historical resources so they’re “fun” for the students.

Igor’s so far ahead of the game. It took me until grad school to figure this out. So much better than jamming the porridge down the students’ throats. Then it took me until I’d been teaching on my own for five or six years to become dissatisfied with it. It’s a trap. Yes, you win hearts and minds; you gain a positive relationship and a comradely process. Some learning does happen. But, once you go down the rathole of what students find fun, it’s almost impossible to get out. That fun sticks to what they already know and think like glue. Unless they happen to find learning fun, what they find fun and interesting is itself the cognitive / emotional limitation a higher education is meant to open out into new abilities, possibilities, and perspectives.

What I have to offer is not the laborious translation of history into their existing ludic frames. What I have to offer is whole new ways to have fun. The fun of understanding complex processes; of puzzling through ignorance to knowledge; of knowing what the hell you’re talking about. The fun of belonging in adult conversations, of being taken seriously for the quality of your insight and not just tolerated for the humanity of your personal opinion. The fun of a whole world bursting with interesting things, in which nothing isn’t interesting. Most of them don’t know this stuff is fun yet, because it’s not how education has ever worked for them. For some of them, the fun has been actively sucked out of learning. Trying to make learning fun in the ways they’re used to is not a solution to that problem.

Nowadays I try to make the process quirky and offbeat and informal in ways that are at least intriguing and non-threatening. But the fun doesn’t really start until they’ve hesitantly selected a topic and done some research and actually found something out. It’s then that the magic of education can slide in among the other pleasures of our lives.

World history in the tranches

My feeds have been flooded with anniversary stuff for the Great War (WWI, if you prefer) and I, in my usual catlike way when other people want me to pay attention to stuff for reasons I haven’t come around to myself, have been ignoring it. Also because I dislike the whole special occasion / anniversary approach to attention-getting, as if the reason things are worth attending to is because they happened some particular amount of time ago. And yes, I do feel that way about birthdays, including my own.

But also in my catlike way I eventually do come around when the thing actually is worth attending to. So I’ve decided, I think, to use the Great War and this burbling up of materials about it as an occasion to do something I’ve talked about before, which is to organize my World History classes around in-depth study of a year, in this case 1914. And since it’s an introductory class and meant to be a survey, I figured I’d add tranches at 1814, 1714, 1614, and 1514. The idea is to make sharp cuts into world history in relative depth, rather than the usual superficial textbook brushover. This is always my approach, but in the past I’ve made the tranches regionally and sociologically more than chronologically.

So I figured we’d start with 1914 and do sort of the standard survey together, using the course texts. Then branch out into group research projects around politics, society, economy, culture, and environment. The global scope is bound to be a confound, so we’ll have to talk about that and how to manage it, thinking in terms of regions and dynamics and, pragmatically, sources. They’ll be required to keep a process journal, and the first paper will grow out of it. Their job is to figure out 1914.

I reckon that can take us up through midterm. When we come back, they’ll divide into research teams for each of the other tranches, back to 1514. The second paper will relate to the first – somehow, based on where their knowledge and curiosity has gone. There’s something each one is figuring out at this point, another, even deeper tranche. The final paper puts the first two together and transforms them by developing the connection, whatever it is.

I want to use Haraway / Dumit’s ‘implosion’ technique John McCreery connected us to at Dead Voles. I especially want to do Dumit’s knowledge maps and ignorance maps. In my experience focusing too much on reflexive epistemology just confuses most students and shuts them down, but we can at least get at how knowledge is constructed actively and recursively. I also want to keep working on getting more of the ’roundtable’ experiences I’ve discussed before into the class. The first section sets up well for roundtabling the synchronic perspectives assembled (and not) by the war; the second, for exploring shifting (and not) perspectives over time. I think this part of the agenda pushes the implosion analysis toward perspectives as its most likely objects, but I’m going to be flexible about that if students’ curiosity is drawn to other kinds of objects.

This is pretty much the plan of the course; how it works out in particular will vary for the usual constitutive and interactive reasons. I’m at least a week out from doing the syllabus, though, so I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions!

P.s. – In an earlier moment I was finally going to let my frustration with the “Hitler-was-a-uniquely-bad-man-who-hoodwinked-the-gullible-Germans-and-personally-killed-lots-of-Jews” papers I sometimes get, accelerated by hysterical public pronouncements by official persons that Obamacare is just like the Holocaust, direct the class into an in-depth examination of those hypotheses in all their historical inglory. I’ll just do that next time, unless someone talks me out of it or something better comes up.

Going with the flow

I was about ten minutes late to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class today. I’m doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I’m not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation – the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we’re working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino’s Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of ‘internal Othering’, and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would ‘really start’ now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to ‘the front’. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the ‘leading’ group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.

Figuring out figuring it out

(crossposted from Dead Voles)

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here. That this student has to ‘stop thinking’ in its next class is an amazing observation, and heartbreaking.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

Engaging students (c/p w/ Dead Voles)

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (but perhaps the larger discussion will be at Dead Voles).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with the Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

Fixing a hole

(Crossposted from Dead Voles)

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence, and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these too? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?


In the Bad Writing class Patrick and I have been showing the students how to know things. Of course they know many things, in a variety of modes. What we’re after is the kind of knowledge that can be communicated without local acculturation, personal experience, empathy, conversion, or conquest – knowledge that in principle could look right from many perspectives and regardless of perspective. Not the ‘God’s eye view’, certainly. But robust, responsible, credible findings – the pragmatic midrange of the epistemological field.

Again, we’re not (much) nazis about this. We’re all for alternative ways of knowing and suspicion toward the metanarratives of knowledge. We’ve read Foucault and Said, Harding and Haraway. But we also work with a whole bunch of people, some of them students, whose default mode of knowing is to pull stuff out of their butts. Like, ironically, the Nazis did. We think educated folks ought to have some facility with a less stinky, more intersubjectively valuable mode of knowing, one that doesn’t require us to nod politely while holding our noses when the turds of wisdom are extruded. In such contexts the epistemological niceties are obliterated by brute ignorance and naked ideology. It’s our job to fix that.

This mode is, really roughly, science. (I know, I know, Latour.) In the evening section of the class I remarked to the group that so far (a week, two meetings, 4 hours) it might seem that the class was a chaotic mess. Nods and wide eyes all around. OK, says I, describe what we’ve done so far. Well, we’ve read things. And then we’ve talked about them. We’ve tried to figure them out, and ended up with a lot of questions. Then we’ve done research on some of those questions, and read more things, and found some stuff out. Which we’ve talked about.

And so on. I said, this is it – this is the process. You start with something you’re trying to figure out. You familiarize yourself with it and then do some brainstorming. That leads to questions for research. You do the research, and get answers that lead to more questions. At each stage of the process you know more than before. What you know teaches you to ask better questions, and to modify what you thought you knew before. And so it goes forever. Our answers are never final, but they become part of an expanding network of robust understandings.

So, to make the rubber hit the road again, what we’re showing them is a mode of ‘getting it right’ that, if practiced correctly, allows us to say that Arthur Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races is not just inconvenient to our current sensibilities, or politically incorrect, or immoral, but also actually ‘wrong’, that is, bad as knowledge.

We gave them a snippet from his conclusion. I’m going to paste it here for reference, and also to make it easily accessible since I didn’t find it ready-for-use on the web:

I have shown the unique place in the organic world occupied by the human species, the profound physical, as well as moral, differences separating it from all other kinds of living creatures. Considering it by itself, I have been able to distinguish, on physiological grounds alone, three great and clearly marked types, the black, the yellow, and the white. However uncertain the aims of physiology may be, however meagre its resources, however defective its methods, it can proceed thus far with absolute certainty.

The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. The animal character, that appears in the shape of the pelvis, is stamped on the negro from birth, and foreshadows his destiny. His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle. He is not however a mere brute, for behind his low receding brow, in the middle of his skull, we can see signs of a powerful energy, however crude its objects. If his mental faculties are dull or even non-existent, he often has an intensity of desire, and so of will, which may be called terrible. Many of his senses, especially taste and smell, are developed to an extent unknown to the other two races.

The very strength of his sensations is the most striking proof of his inferiority. All food is good in his eyes, nothing disgusts or repels him. What he desires is to eat, to eat furiously, and to excess; no carrion is too revolting to be swallowed by him. It is the same with odours; his inordinate desires are satisfied with all, however coarse or even horrible. To these qualities may be added an instability and capriciousness of feeling, that cannot be tied down to any single object, and which, so far as he is concerned, do away with all distinctions of good and evil. We might even say that the violence with which he pursues the object that has aroused his senses and inflamed his desires is a guarantee of the desires being soon satisfied and the object forgotten. Finally, he is equally careless of his own life and that of others: he kills willingly, for the sake of killing; and this human machine, in whom it is so easy to arouse emotion, shows, in face of suffering, either a monstrous indifference or a cowardice that seeks a voluntary refuge in death.

The yellow race is the exact opposite of this type. The skull points forward, not backward. The forehead is wide and bony, often high and projecting. The shape of the face is triangular, the nose and chin showing none of the coarse protuberances that mark the negro. There is further a general proneness to obesity, which, though not confined to the yellow type, is found there more frequently than in the others. The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy; he commits none of the strange excesses so common among negroes. His desires are feeble, his will-power rather obstinate than violent; his longing for material pleasures, though constant, is kept within bounds. A rare glutton by nature, he shows far more discrimination in his choice of food. He tends to mediocrity in everything; he understands easily enough anything not too deep or sublime. He has a love of utility and a respect for order, and knows the value of a certain amount of freedom. He is practical, in the narrowest sense of the word. He does not dream or theorize; he invents little, but can appreciate and take over what is useful to him. His whole desire is to live in the easiest and most comfortable way possible. The yellow races are thus clearly superior to the black. Every founder of a civilization would wish the backbone of his society, his middle class, to consist of such men. But no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve-force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.

We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races; a perseverance that takes account of obstacles and ultimately finds a means of overcoming them; a greater physical power, an extraordinary instinct for order, not merely as a guarantee of peace and tranquillity, but as an indispensable means of self-preservation. At the same time, they have a remarkable, and even extreme, love of liberty, and are openly hostile to the formalism under which the Chinese are glad to vegetate, as well as to the strict despotism which is the only way of governing the negro.

The white races are, further, distinguished by an extraordinary attachment to life. They know better how to use it, and so, as it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man.

Arthur comte de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55), excerpt from “Recapitulation; respective characters of the three great races; the superiority of the white type, and, within this type, of the Aryan family.”

Blech. I think pretty much everyone nowadays gets it that this is offensive, politically regressive, and immoral. For most purposes that’s enough. But none of those things means it’s factually wrong. Is this the kind of fact we’ve chosen to ignore for higher purposes? If it’s wrong, how can we tell?

Well for one thing, there is a century and a half of further research that abundantly shows this is all a bunch of crap. By settled and robust finding, there is no such thing as biological race in the way Gobineau thought. But can’t we give him a pass for being early in the investigation and not knowing better yet, like we give Newton a pass for not knowing Einsteinian relativity yet? Isn’t this ‘good’ science patiently going through its process of partial findings later revised as evidence and analysis improve – as in fact happened?

No. We can start with the “absolute certainty” his admittedly flawed method supposedly gives us about the existence and essence of races. There’s nothing in science justifying claims of absolute certainty. This points to a more systematic problem, his presentation of, at best, provisional observational findings as definite biological conclusions rather than hypotheses (questions) for further investigation.

We also have assertions of various facts not in evidence. Although we can’t know without reading the whole book what his dataset was, we can reasonably doubt that all Black folk have undiscriminating appetites, all Yellow folk are fat and lazy (how’d they get that wall built?), and all White folk are bright and creative. Surely this evidence is verifiably selective; and partial findings require more research, not overbroad final conclusions. He also seems to know what other peoples’ feelings are. This was a common conceit for Romantic types, but it’s not science – our data about the feelings of others are at best inferential. When research starts to go in circles we’ve reached the limits of possible knowledge.

Not finally, but enough for now, judgments are made and presented as settled fact using concepts that have no settled or settleable scientific content – liberty, honour, desire, and most notably the whole conceptual apparatus of evaluative ranking (superior, inferior). What criteria and data would we use to research the superiority of a race? Like flu virus, vultures, and the majestic slime mold, we can know that continued existence means living things are ‘fit enough’ for something or other. We can figure out what that is. But whether that something or other is ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘better’, or ‘best’ depends on what else you might be trying to accomplish from time to time. It’s a place to form a preference between alternatives rather than a place to find out more, and therefore it’s another of those circles where knowing ends and agendas of various kinds begin. Not that there’s anything automatically wrong with agendas. Just that when we see them happening, we have a whole new sort of question to answer and puzzle to figure out.

We won’t do that agenda-and-audience investigation together on Gobineau, although a student or students might pick the scientific racism genre of bad writing as their own research project. But we will do at least a little of it with “The Communist Manifesto,” to which we’ll be turning next week.

Conditions of work

I’ve been struggling with this teaching/learning journal because it feels like judgment and so it feels like I need to write perfect little essays, which for me is a disabling frame of mind. But that’s not what it’s for – it’s a rough field journal. So I’m going to try to get over that feeling. In the meantime, here’s an overelaborated post by the ideal standards of the genre:

I’ve been reading a report on gen ed reform (pdf) originally produced at Portland State University. It’s got the merits of being research-based and giving a glimpse behind the curtain of the reform process. One of the really important drifts of it (this is in 1994) is the contrast of an exposure-to-content gen ed model and an orientation-to-learning gen ed model, with its corollary contrast of consuming knowledge and producing knowledge. Very roughly speaking, in the first model content is the input, in the second it’s the output of a class. (Of course it’s almost never that simple in practice.) Another really important drift of the report is that students ‘get’ a gen ed that involves them in improving their learning and thinking skills, while bitterly resenting a gen ed that feels like a bunch of arbitrary content hoops they have to jump through.

Today I started my two gen ed World History classes on the orientation-to-learning path. Our topic this semester is ‘conditions of work’, and we began today with Nzinga Mbemba’s famous letter to the King of Portugal, from the early 16th century. We were in a circle, as usual, about 25 students per class. Warmed up by taking roll for the Registrar, played with names a little bit to relax the mood, then asked them to open the book. On the first page of the reading several things were going on, so we did some meatball epistemology: what are they? An editorial introduction consisting of skinny context; a section of questions for reading; a source citation for the document; and the start of the letter itself. How might it matter to notice these distinctions – doesn’t ‘the book’ just say things?

We (that is, the five or six easy talkers in both sections and I) got pretty quickly to the perspective-shift between primary and secondary sources, which allowed us to talk about perspective, bias, and the ‘God’s eye view’. Since we’re all limited in our scope, where’s the truth? Some of it is in each perspective, they said, so we agreed that improved truthiness comes from bringing diverse perspectives together. So primary sources have privileged direct access to bits of the truth, whereas ideally secondary sources are working synthetically with bigger chunks of it.

So if that’s true, why didn’t Reilly, the expert editor of the volume, just tell us everything he knows? Why did he stop at two skinny paragraphs? Why are we reading this rich but undeniably partial source? Well, from the pedagogical quotes in the syllabus we’d talked last (the first) week about Confucius’ suggestion that good teachers give students one corner of a subject and expect them to find the other three themselves. Not just the content but its mode of acquisition is important – being told makes dependent learners, figuring things out makes independent learners. But also: even though his expertise gives Reilly’s understanding a real multiperspectival authority, he’s still neither omniscient nor personally experienced in his field (he has never been an early 16th-century King in Congo). When we join him in the direct investigation of the past we add further breadth and depth of perspective, and help to correct for the limitations of his own point of view, however well informed it may be. We are all in this boat together.

But what’s the payoff? After all, no one in the class is going to get laid, get a job, get a better car, or play football better because they know something about the Congo five hundred years ago. This is knowledge we have no interest in; we don’t care about it. It doesn’t remind us of us.

Well, maybe we’re just curious. But more compellingly, what happens when we try to figure out our own lives? We get bogged down in the myopia of overinvolvement. Our feelings get all jostled. Our prejudices hem us about. Apparently, caring and being interested are not reliable guides to quality knowledge. Maybe we can practice the skills of analysis on something we don’t care about; something in which we have no interest. And then we become people who can figure out stuff for ourselves, reliably and responsibly; which, I suggested, is how college education makes you somebody suited to the kind of job where you make your own decisions rather than obeying someone else’s orders.

In each section this all took about 45 minutes and we had about 20 left to look at the document itself. That was very, very interesting but I’m running out of brain for the day so it will have to be another post.