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.

What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

The prior post on complexity in practice was trying to be ‘about’ a paper by Chuck Dyke that is ‘about’ Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson et. al. However, the discussion quickly encountered an antecedent problem, just what sort of thing the paper actually is, or as Asher put it, what the author is trying to do; which is then a question about what to expect from it, how to read it and how to decide if it’s a good version of what it is. It occurs to me that addressing that question is actually a perfectly good way to talk about the paper, so here’s my take, broken out into a separate post for ease of handling.

As I asked last time, what would it look like to practice complexity, not just talk about it? My sense is that Dyke (and Deacon I think, but less so Juarrero) is trying to do this. Of course if all of them are right, and this is the general takeaway of the now-long history of systems theory, in one obvious sense we are all practicing complexity all the time – we are in fact morphodynamically and perhaps teleodynamically complex. What I mean though is that Dyke’s paper seeks to demonstrate the complexity it discusses. It is both about complexity and an enactment of complexity. In this sense it is the same sort of thing N. Pepperell argues Marx’s Capital is on a much grander scale, both a discussion and a demonstration of complexly dynamic and complexly coupled systems.

This is a rather different sort of enterprise than the usual linear thesis-driven essay or monograph, of course. In that sort of writing we’re looking for a “fundamental point,” as JohnM diagnostically put it in the prior discussion, which is then systematically developed with logical rigor and point-mapping evidentiary support – the Popperian philosophy of science model, as Michael pointed out. But as we see when we try to teach our students the technique, it’s highly stylized and artificial, not actually how anything in the world works – including the world of practicing scientists, as Latour and Woolgar famously showed now long ago. Endless handwringing and some very good jokes have been devoted to the ‘problem’ of the procrustean mismatch between logocentric linearity and anything it is ‘about’, as well as the tendency of logocentrics to pick topics and arrange situations that happen to fit the very specific and narrow virtues of their procedure.

Well, for better or worse by the time we’ve been indoctrinated and certified into the communities of expertise that constitute scholarship we have learned to ‘recognize’ disciplined, monographic linearity as the proper form of authoritative discourse, and immediately to dismiss as undisciplined, muddled, confused or meandering (‘poetic’, perhaps, if we’re being generous) anything that represents more directly the complexity it is about. This is a constraint that accomplishes a great deal, of course; the joke in Borges is after all that the map which most accurately represents the territory is also the most completely useless. The productive advantages of abstraction, specialization and focus, like the division of labor and the assembly line, really need no rehearsing, especially when volume is the objective and advanced artisanal talent is not widely distributed. Nevertheless, there is something inherently self-defeating about linear discussions of nonlinearity. If complexity is your topic, it makes a sort of elementary sense to adopt complexity as your practice. And it also makes sense to expect readers to modify their expectations accordingly. But as Asher has already discussed at length and as Dyke also thematizes, this puts a lot of pressure on readers, especially those for whom the strategies of linearity and discipline have been or promise to be the most successful.

What clues do we have that Dyke is trying to enact complexity, that is, that he’s not just wandering around pointing randomly at birdies and flowers and clouds that remind him of his first girlfriend? Just a few guideposts here.

We could start with the (sub)title of the paper, “a plea for pedagogical plurality.” Pedagogy? That’s teaching, communication more broadly. Purpose: transmission of information. Plurality? Why? If the linearity metanarrative were true, there’d be no need for pedagogical plurality; a single beam, properly focused, would pass through all receiving prisms identically. This image Gramsci called “an Enlightenment error.” But if that’s not true, and the author knows it’s not true, then perhaps the author will be compensating for the complexity of reception by shooting a variety of beams from a variety of angles, and expecting that the enlightenment effects will be subtly or even dramatically different each time. What will this text look like? It will make ‘the same’ point in a variety of ways, which will seem repetitive or chaotic exactly to the degree each reader reflects or refracts the luminous dispersion.

Of course if the author could rely on functionally identical readers, this pedagogical plurality would not be necessary. And here we see one of the amazing accomplishments of the discipline constraint: by absenting all other possible configurations, it delivers functionally identical readers who have been rigorously cut and rotated so the light they each beam out will be received and refracted just so by all the others. Like a well-hung crystal chandelier the blazing glory when such a cognitive system is well-ordered is really a beautiful and useful thing. But of course, only that one room is lit.

Let’s move on. The paper is ‘about’ Deacon, but more centrally it’s about what Deacon is trying to do in relation to what other people in a more-or-less loose network of more-or-less similar projects are trying to do. This means the network has to be mapped, and the proximities and similarities surveyed. A big middle chunk of the paper does this work, while trying to leave open sockets for the (many, many) network nodes not discussed, i.e. absent, while sampling their range and significance (e.g. the ‘random’ Pirandello reference). Dyke likes Deacon, thinks he’s right about how things work, and therefore thinks that the nodes and projects are both teleodynamically self-organizing and morphodynamically coupled into a larger system with its own dynamics. How would he show this, not just say it? What would we expect to see if this were true? Links, absences, feedbacks, feedforwards, gradients, the usual. A nonlinear, unpointy, inherently incomplete and unclosed text that, like the network it discusses, is multinodal and loops back on itself dynamically, working all the while to create, maintain and singularize itself. Circles that are actually spirals, as he slyly adumbrates under the discussion of the discovery of DNA and the structure of Deacon’s text.

And so, what is Deacon trying to do, and how does it relate to what Dyke is trying to do? The answer, we’re plurally taught to understand, is properly understood as a matter of constraint within complex dynamical systems far from equilibrium. So after a lot of loopy groundwork about situated knowledge and “ecologies of practice” and “investigative ecosystems” and a great deal of loosely, dynamically related detail we get yet another heuristic example, which I’ll let stand in as a ‘point’ for this post:

To move closer to issues of consciousness with another concrete example, why is it, we want to know, that Deacon’s book is so inhumanly tedious? Well, possibly it is so largely because of all the possible objections he can imagine to his theory. He’s probably better at identifying these possibilities than his potential critics are. Many of these possible critics don’t themselves appear as robustly singularized factishes, but only factishes in absentia. The intellectual defenses are waiting in the text to deal with them should they attack, just as the chemical defenses of a plant are on hand ready to deal with threats that never in fact materialize. But their absence is felt. I take it that I’ve just given a possible causal account of an apparent factish: Deacon’s prolixity. At any rate, the hypothesis that most absentials involve the modal characterization of constrained structure seems to me a live one.

A very, very sad story that.

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?

What done sign my name?

Tim Tyson, following the old black spiritual, says it’s blood. Blood Done Sign My Name (2004) centers on the murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, east North Carolina in May, 1970. Marrow was beaten and shot to death by white merchant Robert Teel and his sons, supposedly for chatting up one of the sons’ wife outside their store. The actual tale of the murder takes up a few pages right in the middle of the book, most of which is historian Tyson’s autobiographical attempt to understand the event in context. He was 10 at the time, friends with another of the killer’s sons.

This is a rightly celebrated book (there’s also a movie). Tyson tells tales like someone raised in a rich oral tradition, which as the son and grandson of preachers he was. He’s at his best when he uses multiple narrative strands to frame each other, patiently weaving together stories and perspectives to create a densely layered reconstruction of a surprisingly complex situation. Tyson is not at his best when he gets impatient and steps outside the narrative to attempt more formal analysis. He has the genre’s understandable but unhelpful tendency to substitute moral preening for rigorous investigation, and like any ideology his liberalism and religiosity default to pat answers too quickly and easily.

I’m currently stuck on a section exemplary of both tendencies (I’m about 2/3 through the book, which I picked up in a thrift store and am reading as an homage to my colleague Peter Murray), so I’m kind of live-blogging here a little bit. Starting about p. 180 in the paperback Tyson sets up a lovely narrative contrast between three men, Robert Teel and two Tysons: Tim’s own father Vernon, Methodist pastor of Oxford, and his notorious second cousin Elias, aka ‘the Gator’. It turns out Teel and Vernon grew up a short distance from each other in virtually identical material circumstances; the same could be said for Gator. Yet they turned out very differently. Tim ponders this:

I have often contemplated the differences between my father and Gerald’s father, and how they shaped our lives. Daddy and Teel were within a year of each other in school and grew up only a few miles apart. Neither of them liked school worth a damn. They wore overalls, ate cornbread and beans, drank their iced tea heavily sweetened, and knew what it was to work hard in the tobacco fields from sunup to sundown. Each of them left eastern North Carolina wanting something better, something more.

Here we have one of those grails of explanatory analysis, the divergent effect from seemingly identical causes. Why, given all the common antecedents, did Robert become an angry, violent racist while Vernon became a decent, humane social activist? Here’s Tim:

The difference between them couldn’t be boiled down to socioeconomic class; neither of their families had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, as the saying went. In fact, while Teel had his G.I. Bill educational benefits to pay his way through any school, my father had to borrow and scrounge. But Daddy went to a liberal arts college founded by the Quakers, where he met pacifists, liberals, radicals of various descriptions, and black people far more educated than himself. More important, he had Reverend Jack Tyson for a father. At the heart of our differences, I think, stand the many-sided visions of Jesus that haunt the South. Although eastern North Carolina was awash in Baptist fundamentalism, the Teel clan did not seem to have had the softening influence of the gospel in their lives, at least not the same gospel that Jack Tyson preached.

Hm. I’m sure this is right, and I like the image of ghostly kaleidoscopic Jesus. But among other things we might like to know why Vernon pursued school even without liking it, why he picked the Quaker one and stuck it out despite all the cognitive dissonance, how the family got entrained on the ‘right’ version of the gospel, and so on. Here as usual Tim’s storytelling steps up to do the much heavier lifting.

The first thing that stands out is a rather different home life. Coming after dozens of smoothly flowing pages of the Tysons’ wholesome, affectionate, mutually respecting loviness, Teel’s broken home puts a squeal in the brakes. The missing father, the hardscrabble, woman-centered plan B, and eventually the worshipped stepfather and underage army enlistment all invite armchair psychologizing: arrested development, thwarted masculinity, status anxiety, joining issues. Tim wisely declines the invitation, spraying facts like aerosol and letting them settle into their own pattern. The account of his own father’s upbringing is occasion for some more gratuitous (albeit snarktastic) moral coup-taking, but in the process we find ol’ Grampa Jack actually reading the Bible and thinking about what it says, against rather than with received wisdom, a striking fact that clicks into the matrix of the Tysons’ multi-generational orneriness and disregard for common sense — supported by tale after tale of quixotic deeds — to suggest that bucking the tide is a Tyson thang, of dubious larger significance until conditions align for the greater enablement of such dispositional change agents. We can well imagine the same people becoming Communists or Anabaptists or Lutherans under different ideological conditions, but in the rural American South at mid-century the friendly reading of the gospels was the available conceptual framework for that contrary disposition.

In short, the Tysons are the kind of holy hemorrhoids who are doomed to frustrating irrelevance during normal times, but come into their glory when the poo hits the fan. Another cat who refused to be herded was cousin Gator, the cautionary tale, whose charismatic orneriness did not get channeled into oppositional intellectuality, perhaps slipping through the cracks as the beautiful baby of the family, and who therefore drifted into a highly successful but ultimately self-destructive amoral dissipation of boozing, fighting, gambling and womanizing. Tyson uses Gator to deliver a little homily about original sin. Much more of a herd animal but with no herd of his own or developed sense of how to function in one, Teel had ambition and saw that the main line of acceptance, success and influence ran through material accumulation and status conformity, not intellectual pursuit. He may have shared a dislike of school with Vernon and Gator, but unlike the former he had no positive models of deep thinking and also didn’t see the use of it; and in terms of the locally-dominant aspirational discourse, he was right. No doubt he was religious in the way Weber suggests lots of Protestants are religious, as a networking tool and symbolic guarantee of his trustworthiness in business. And no doubt his racism, clearly a subset of a more generalized anger and violence as stories of his various scrapes show, was motivated directly by the status anxiety of a climber needing backs to climb on, but it also has all the overcooked theatricality of an arriviste trying way too hard without any sense of nuance. It contrasts markedly with the more serene and subtle racism of the town’s old guard, who quietly shut down all the public parks rather than integrate them — probably as much as anything to avoid ugly scenes.

It’s not that Tyson’s religious explanation for the differences among these men is wrong; as Weber told us long ago in rising to the challenge of Marx’s materialism, ideas may often act as ‘switchmen’ among materially possible tracks. But we also want to know how elective affinities, as he called them, are established between particular circumstances, concepts and ideals, and how the particularities of disposition, experience, conditions and possibilities come together to produce actual life courses. I think Tim’s book does that, and it’s interesting for someone as tracked into complex formal analysis as I am to see it happening not in the analysis, but in the stories.

For real-time analysis, my favorite figure so far in the book is Goldie Frinks, who apart from the awesome name was a civil rights activist and former nightclub owner who shows up on p. 150. A shrewd Wittgensteinian, Frinks specialized in seeing situations from multiple perspectives and changing the game to dissolve problems and create opportunities.

As he explained to [Tim] at his home in Edenton two decades later, Frinks understood that Southern whites could hardly present a united front. Few whites truly backed the movement, especially in their own communities, but there were many shades of weak support, moral queasiness, deep misgivings, and reluctant opposition, in addition to the fire-eating racists. “You couldn’t forget that you had some good white folks, and even the other ones wasn’t necessarily all bad…. They were cramped because of the age-old mores of time,” Frinks asserted…. Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argued that such people were often worse than outright opponents. But Frinks saw them as an opportunity. “A lot of the good whites couldn’t just come down here and speak. ‘You’re wrong, Mr. Teel,’ they couldn’t say that, but they had what you might call a silence that I could hear. If you forgot that, you wouldn’t be nowhere. A man like Teel, getting his badge of honor from the murder of a man who had no cause to be put to death, that man was somewhat out of place.”

Somewhat out of place is a beautiful way to think about a guy like Teel, perceptive and without moral patness. Nor does it make Teel any less destructive or any less the queasifying instrument of a system of domination, which Frinks actively fought. But it’s a lovely reminder that giving people a sense of place is an important tactic and purpose of humanist activism, just like rudely displacing people and requiring heroic saintliness of them is not a promising strategy for positive change.

How many times must I tell you?

I noticed myself doing something interesting today. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach three sections of introductory World History back to back to back. We were doing a document analysis using my critical reading rubric. Inevitably I end up providing some of the same guidance from section to section, so that by the third section, from my perspective I’m saying the same thing for the third time.

I share a common prejudice that people who need things repeated to them three times might not be all that bright. (Actually, since I had the students divided up into smaller work groups among which I circulated, I said some of the same things way more than three times.) I know there can be reasons repetition might be needed that have nothing to do with intelligence, so I can usually intercept my first reflex reaction. But the point here, of course, is that I was not repeating myself to the same people; it just felt that way by the end of a long day. And as a result I noticed myself reflexively feeling as if the third section might be a little dim – when in fact they picked up the task and performed it every bit as well as the earlier sections.

It’s interesting to think what kinds of effects might accumulate over a long semester, or career, of letting this dynamic play out. Just a little more impatience in my body language, a little less care in explaining the ‘third’ time, or conversely the kind of elaborate patient overexplanation one may lavish on the slow. How much difference do such subtleties actually make?

Existential infinity

I suspect that the ‘infinity standard’ is a dead, beaten and buried horse, but for my own amusement I have a ribbon to wrap it in. Consider this post collateral damage from a long commute alone with my thoughts during an NPR pledge drive.

To recap for convenience, in comments on the first post of the thread Kvond perceptively noted that “the Common Sense digestion of the guilt people feel for ‘not doing enough’ probably has very [little] to do with… an Infinity Standard. It probably has to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).”

I agreed that the subjective experience of an infinity standard was properly understood not as the product of a top-down logical argument from principles, but of a bottom-up accumulation of local obligations and their affective baggage. I think that’s how morals actually work; as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu show in their various ways, systematic moral philosophies range from attempts to universalize local practices to reports on the fantasies of their authors. The feeling of infinity comes when the local claims on one’s moral action overload the buffer on one’s attention and energy, producing a paralyzing system crash. As I metaphorized it later in the thread, the resulting guilt effect is like “the shrapnel of moral artillery being fired by various competing communities tear[ing] into those of us with a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves but no stable sense of what that might be.”

The key point is the locality of effective standards and obligations. Kvond reports feeling those local claims as dispiriting straight-jackets. Seen this way, the abstraction of infinity offers a liberating expansion of possibility. For any of us who grew up in tight-knit families, small towns or other relatively insular communities this argument is immediately evocative. Over-regulation can be a problem (corresponding to the “dualism/received knowledge” positions in Perry’s cognitive/ethical development schema).

But abstract infinity is only abstractly liberating, just as Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question” that abstract liberty is only abstractly liberating. In practice, Durkheim said, one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals, otherwise ‘it’s all good’ and ‘it’s all bad’ become equally available and equally unavoidable as floating judgments (corresponding to the “multiplicity/subjective knowledge” positions in Perry). Goffman’s warning against the tyranny of diffuse aims is on point here: when it’s not clear what the standards are, it can’t be clear what counts as accomplishment and an infinity of judgment is enabled.

We’re probably alright as long as we remain focused on personal liberation from a specific set of restrictive local morals, because they remain regulative even in their negation. Infinity looks like possibility from this vantage. The harrowing moment comes when we decenter our own locality and fully enter a world of multiple other local moral systems and agendas, each with equally coherent and valid claims on our attention and effort. Here the over-regulation is not coming from narrowness, but from overwhelming saturation. The syndrome is not claustrophobia, but agoraphobia.

As Neddy Merrill put it recently in quite a different context,

if we follow the ‘do the most good’ thought wherever it leads, we end up having really robust obligations that don’t leave room for our projects and commitments, e.g. friendships, hobbies, and so on. Or, in another version, the ‘do the most good’ thought leaves us alienated or estranged from our projects because of the way it prompts us to think of their value from the impartial point of view.

This is the question in relation to the trivially narrow yuppie quandary of whether to give money to Harvard University, and already it’s oversaturated. If we open the discussion up to all the possible wrongs that could be addressed by all the possible rights, any particular course of action recommended by one compelling standard becomes not just hopelessly inadequate by the plurality of standards but actively pernicious by other compelling standards. There are a lot of goalposts, they’re all a-wiggle, and the holder may not be on our team.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

As wonderful as the internet and the world of blogging are for increasing our interaction density and enabling liberation from narrow, constraining provincialisms of practice, thought and ethic, that very same decentering dynamic potentially exposes us to an overwhelming multiplicity of compelling claims on our attention and energy, and potential judgments of our practice. The internet is just the most richly interactive of many modern media that not only delocalize us but then relocalize us in a much larger, more kaleidoscopic field of effective standards and obligations. Closing off or artificially limiting this paralyzing legion of ‘trolls’ and ‘grey vampires’, as a number of bloggers have done recently, is certainly one coherent coping strategy, and could suggest a relativist or perhaps merely multiplicity/subjectivist position in Perry’s old cognitive/ethical schema.

Perry suggests instead that we move to what he called “commitment:” “An affirmation, choice, or decision … made in the awareness of relativism (distinct from commitments never questioned). Agency is experienced as within the individual with a fully internalized and coherent value structure.” Yes, I end up saying, there are many other good things one might do, but this is the one I’m doing. Or as Weber said in his famous speech on politics as a vocation,

it is immensely moving when a mature man [sic]… is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’.

The trick, I guess, is to be open to other people’s projects and even their criticisms of one’s own, without getting diverted into the swamps of Shoulds and What Ifs. It’s an infinitely open question where to draw that line.

Infinity and the 'total institution'

The reference was tickling the edge of my brain so I tracked it down. OK, cool – here’s what I meant:

Each official goal lets loose a doctrine, with its own inquisitors and its own martyrs, and within institutions there seems to be no natural check on the license of easy interpretation that results. Every institution must not only make some effort to realize its official aims but must also be protected, somehow, from the tyranny of a diffuse pursuit of them, lest the exercise of authority be turned into a witch hunt. — Erving Goffman, Asylums (1961)

The temptation is to look at this and say, Yeesh! Those dang institutions. Goffman’s more subtle point is always that these are things we do to ourselves.

You and me, and baby makes infinity

(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.

There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.

The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.

Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?

The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.

Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.

Careful not to oversauce.

Careful not to oversauce.

Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)

There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.

The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.

To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.

The infinity standard

The infinity standard will be familiar to anyone who is interested in doing good in their work. It goes something like this. 1.) In the work of doing good, effort causes good. 2.) All possible good should be done, and 3.) all foregone effort is foregone good. 4.) In principle, there is no condition one can be in where slightly more effort is not possible. 5.) With infinite effort, infinite good can be done. 6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.

Usually when outsiders have helpful thoughts for folks in the good-doing activities, they have something like this model in mind, stopping at 4 and not thinking it through to the apparent conclusion at 6. So the infinity standard may not be immediately visible in these interactions. Each suggestion is just one more little thing, one slight retool, what’s the big deal? Responsible do-gooders have generally thought or at least felt it through to 6, but like the Helpy Helpertons miss the real conclusion at 7, this is an absurdity, until it’s too late. Making do-gooders feel guilty that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing it wrong is like shooting ducks in a bucket. In the short run it can even get more effort out of them.

Get to work!

Get to work!

Rachel and I talk a lot about things I could do to improve my teaching. She’s on board with course blogs, for example, as I probably will be before too long. It can be exciting to add new tricks to the bag, as I regularly do, as long as infinity isn’t the standard. Rachel herself is a cautionary tale. For a year she worked with at-risk high school students in rural Maine who had been kicked out of every available public school and finally alighted in her chronically underfunded specialized private school. Rachel poured her heart into it and did buckets of good by devoting most of her waking moments to figuring out a whole series of creative ways to engage and enlighten these kids. She found their interests, bonded with them, reimagined the curriculum to leverage their strengths against their weaknesses, and really got through to quite a few of them. One even graduated high school and got a job at Walmart. The rest continued to get pregnant and arrested, but they had a much better general view of their own possibilities as thinking persons.

As a result of this experience Rachel has no particular interest in teaching ever again. Which is really a shame, because she was great at it. But she burnt out, one of two classic outcomes of the infinity standard. The other is bitter disillusionment. We all know some of each.

Nothing makes me see red like the infinity standard. There’s much about how good is done that can and should be changed, sooner preferably, and there’s always more good to be done. But gifted teachers and other do-gooders do not grow on trees, so to eject or degrade them with the infinity standard is shortsighted and self-defeating. This just hits the reset button, as often as not with someone less gifted and responsible. I’m in favor of a more realistic standard and a more sustainable rate of good-delivery. Sometimes, Helpy, it’s not that we’re dragging our feet but that we’re pacing ourselves.