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.

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:


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

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.

Happy accidents

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Battle of the sexes

I was already thinking a thought about sexes when I happened upon some help from the most excellent Hoyden About Town, writing about a newish dating service that thinks sex is more complicated than one from column A and one from column B. Well hallelujah, brothers, sisters and friends, let’s run with that for a moment.

Much of third-wave feminism has been about troubling the categories of the body, by taking seriously the huge variety of human experiences of embodiment and in particular, of gender/sex/sexuality. Morals and practices are often quite narrow and rigid about these things, but vary dramatically from place to place and from time to time. Grappling with these differences in what parochially seem to be fundamental categories of our existence is now one of the ordinary requirements of a liberal education, which is my biz.

A favorite resource for me as a teacher lodged in history is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur shows that in Europe well into the early modern period, and supported by close anatomical study, the dominant understanding of sex was that there was only one. Basically, they thought that everyone was a male but either an innie or an outie; depending on the body’s heat the goodies either got pushed out or retained inside. Ovaries are retained testicles, vaginas are inverted penises, and so on. (I’m simplifying Laqueur’s rich discussion quite a bit and he simplifies a rich history filled with a variety of understandings to make his point. See Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture for a far more nuanced and comprehensive analysis.)

There were some interesting corollaries to this view, including the ones where both partners (obviously) had to orgasm for conception to take place, and women were (obviously) the natural sexual aggressors because they wanted to incorporate men’s heat, aka precious bodily fluids:

Laqueur shows that in this as in so many other ways the modern advances of knowledge and civilization of the 19th century were a load of crap for women, who went from being second-class but sexually empowered to being second-class and sexually repressed. More than this, he shows how our ‘readings’ of the body are always mixed up in our cultural preconceptions and political agendas. (A neat parallel discussion about weight and dieting is at Savage Minds.)

So, to boil this down even further, it used to seem obvious to educated European persons that there is one sex. Now it seems obvious to educated Euro-American persons that there are two. History and anthropology show that a three-sex model is not at all uncommon. This is all by people living within, looking at and thinking about ‘the same’ physical bodies.

It’s all very well to play with the wrong wacko theories of other deluded folks, but fortunately we now have things properly sorted out and there are two sexes, no more no less, right?… except I can’t see any final reason to believe this, even if we take a very strict scientific view. Science went from one to two before, and science does not deal in settled truths, it deals in robust theories (e.g. two sexes, evolution, laws of thermodynamics) subject to new findings. It may well turn out that there are biologically three sexes, or six, or forty-two, with all sorts of surprising consequences for getting the pairings wrong.

Let’s say there are six. There are various ways this could work. The above-mentioned dating service points to one. Protein, hormone or immune-system variances may turn out to sort into sexualizing packages one through six, such that ones and fours are well-mated but ones and fives are not. It could be that twos and sixes can only work with help from a three or four. Could something like this explain reproductive difficulties? Was Henry VIII a three looking for his six but foolishly marrying one five after another? Maybe he ought to have smelt their pee more carefully….

How about if it turns out that the gender continuum — ultra-masculine to ultra-feminine — actually contains sexualizing thresholds, creating natural sex/gender composites? So the six sexes might be: masculine male, neutral male, feminine male; masculine female, neutral female, feminine female. Who knows how this is written into the genes, I’m speculating here. Sexuality might still have little to do with any of this, as is the case with the current two-sex theory. Or it might turn out to run most smoothly through the ‘gender’ component of the sex composite (masculine to feminine, with neutrals most open to anything), with conflict inherent at the extremes. Or it might turn out that same-to-same works best. Although this version of the hypothesis obviously feeds off of a lot of old stereotypical gender garbage, it would certainly naturalize, explain and demarginalize a lot of things about transgendering and transsexuality, as well as a variety of familiar failures in normative hetero/homo relationships.

One thing’s for sure. We don’t know the full truth of these matters yet; or rather, we know a variety of mutually-inconsistent truths about them. And maybe, given how people abuse the truths they have, it’s better that we don’t. My vote is for Burkean existentialism.