Perfectionism

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.

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A good problem to have

With an election approaching and heated rhetoric swirling in all my social and media feeds, I organized all of my classes this semester around the theme of Godwin’s Law. So that means it’s all Nazis, all the time for me this semester. Which can be wearing. But here’s an email I just got:

Greetings Dr. D,

I am having some trouble with my second paper and thought I’d reach out to you in an effort to sort out my thoughts.  Honestly I’m not even sure exactly what I’m going to be writing about, which I’m sure is 90% of the problem ::insert nervous faced emoji here::.  I know that I want this paper to talk about Hindenburg and others like him fearing Communism so much that Hitler was the “lesser of two evils.”  Those people did not want to lose their power or their property.  It was about their status and social position.  I want to talk about how that is just as important, if not more so, in contributing to Hitler’s rise to power.   I also know they thought they could use Hitler to their advantage, but I’m not quite sure what that advantage was.  Anyway, a lot of what I’ve read talks about these on the surface things, like the Treaty of Versailles, as the reason Hitler came to power (basically all the stuff I wrote in my last paper).  And although those things absolutely contributed, I think there were other things happening “backstage” that got the ball rolling, like the aforementioned power struggle.

Well there’s a good problem to have. I told this student to read back what it just wrote, trust what it had figured out, and go for it. Then, since this is a semester-long research project and I’m gradually nudging them past the people / intentions / events layer of analysis, I suggested that

Going forward, you’re absolutely getting into a complex systems kind of analysis. So the next layer after you get the intentions and trajectories of the various actors sorted is to see how those were emerging from and evolving interactively within the larger settings, at various scales.

I do not expect that to be fully self-explanatory in itself, but this and quite a few other students are getting to where they can collate a remark like this with a lot of other things I’ve showed them and we’ve talked about and practiced in class to scaffold up. Which is way cool.

After years of comprehensive education, these students came in pretty uniformly convinced “Hitler was a bad man” was fully explanatory. (From this starting point, “Hitler had some good ideas but” counts as critical thinking.) Three months of critical discussion, ignorance mapping, recursive primary and secondary research, paper drafting and workshopping, lather rinse repeating later, the puzzles have gotten quite a bit more worthy of human intelligence.

“An ongoing myriad of structures”

For the past few years Dyke the Elder and I have been more or less working on a paper about teaching complexity. We haven’t found a home for it yet, and in the meantime I’ve been gathering data in the form of student journal entries from the class demonstration and discussion of a Calder-style mobile.

Here’s one of those I just read. This is a student who engaged immediately and continuously with the class, and so was well-primed for the epiphany it describes by the time of this discussion, just before and after midterm break. I think there are signs here beyond textual assertion that a transformation is occurring. In fact, I think it’s visible even in the diction and vocabulary shift in this entry. This student is clearly pretty rough around the edges, but in the end it pulled together a semester’s research on the hystory of hysteria into a cogent, well-informed, and perceptively analyzed final paper.

Today in class we discussed variables and how they affect our situation. For example, when your driving do you have a control on all of the variables around you? The answer is no. you don’t know if there’s a drunk driver heading your way, or the person in front of you is texting and about to stop short at the light, you don’t know if someone is going to run the light and t-bone you….but you don’t consider these variables. So each situation is an even[t] with various structures within it much like driving. At this moment came the epiphany that there are an ongoing myriad of structures occurring within any given situation of our lives. The mobile represents the connections between the variables and structures that make up the events of life.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Promoting a comment on a previous post to start off this post: I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

In my experience there’s a kind of porno for eggheads quality to syllabus-sharing. Ooooh, check out the size of that reading list! As I just said in commenting on Tim Burke’s recent post asking for feedback on his intriguing draft syllabus for a course called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies,” a reading list and its associated assignments are not very helpful to me for envisioning a class. Those parts are aspirational and maybe even outright fantasies, as I remarked there. All sorts of reading lists and assignments can work or not work, but that depends on the teaching and learning relationship, that is, not just the recipe but what teacher(s) and students do with it, which in turn depends on a complex of dispositions, expectations, practices and relationships that have to be worked through in each case and that can’t be forced based on preconceptions of what college/teaching/students are supposed to be. Is it possible to say anything useful about those variables in a syllabus? Well, I’ve been trying to gradually get better at that over the years – if you’re curious, here’s this semester’s World History syllabus:

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Not much of a reading list, I’m afraid, but lots of other things I wonder what folks think of.

Out of the box

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space (Garfinkel again, but see here for another awesome citation controversy, although oddly enough a different Garfinkel) against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.

Useful uselessness

Bookmark here. Something to connect to previous posts and conference papers about the usefulness of history being its uselessness. Found in Peter Manseau’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution:

All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of “useful uselessness,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a “relaxed field,” during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities—one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.

‘Useful uselessness’ is how I’ve been framing history, so I’ll need to track down Gopnik. Other links: Gramsci’s advocacy of ‘dead languages’, Hegel’s remark about history being too different than the present to offer useful lessons, Watzlawick et. al.’s critique of Freudian psychology to the effect that knowing the causal origins of a complex in one’s developmental history is of no use in resolving it since we cannot go back in time and change them.

Aren’t all of the humanities, at least as taught in Gen Ed to people who will not be following them into serious scholarship, this kind of useful uselessness? Wouldn’t it be good to be clear about this fact and be appropriately playful about them?