Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why Spelling's higher education reform spells disaster for the American undergrad

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to reform higher education by creating and delivering tests to measure the performance of students around the nation's universities.  Standardized testing is supposed to combat the perceived decline of the American university (its over expansion or its decline?).  But the effects of standardized testing go well beyond mere sorting of data, into the sorting and assimilating of the humans who compose institutions.  As anyone familiar with the public school system knows already, that sorting can be deadly to the very kinds of serendipity and creativity that nurture the talents of the best students or foster hope in the fallers-behind.  Standardized testing standardizes: it lays waste the creative teacher; it creates universal patterns of education where the least requirement becomes the standard. 

First, a personal anecdote.  The SAT is the universal American standardized test required for undergraduate admissions; the eight subject GRE's measure learning and performance of undergraduate achievement, and are universally used for graduate school admission, and, in many systems, ranking funding.  Now, as anyone who has read my blog knows, I represent perfect genius with words.  I got a nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT (go me).  Then I went to Harvard, where I studied Latin, Greek, French, and German.  I wrote stacks of essays every week for four years, and turned in a required, and then lauded, honors thesis of a hundred pages for the Comparative Literature department.   By all accounts, my familiarity with language should have improved.

And then I took the GRE, where my scores were disastrous.  My language skills had, by the account of the test, plummetted in four years from the 99th percentile to the seventy-fifth.  One of two things could have happened. One, four years of advanced education actually reduced my command and control of language relative to other educated individuals. Two, four years of advanced education had reoriented my understanding of what was important, and trained me to think rather than perform, to innovate rather than to regurgitate; and both of those tendencies show up, in the standardized test, as a failure.

Did it matter?  Fortunately I had good letters of recommendation, and for the particular departments to which I applied, these mattered far more than the standardized scores. The universities and major funding bodies, however, largely base their financing of graduate students on GRE scores, which allows them to report to their shareholders that they are doing an objective and merit-based job of dispersing funds. As a result, I spent my first years of graduate school teaching heavy undergraduate loads and applying heavily to external funding bodies. The GRE did matter, and it didn't like me.

Standardized testing, as historian Nicholas Lemann
pointed out in his marvelous study of the SAT's uses and origins, has
long been a tool of governments to reassure and comfort with promises
of equality and prosperity, whilst subtly picking and shading a ruling
class who look and think exactly alike, and exorcising the demons of
creative thought and serendipitous learning from the institutions of

There's a lot of valid worry about what the universal requirement of higher education means in America.  The decline of public education and the postwar GI Act combined to launch a generation with virtually universal expectations of benefitting from the university system.  Once a high school degree was enough to launch a young person into a lifetime of entrepreneurship, citizenship, and self-improvement; now an undergraduate degree is recommended even for those applying to be grocery checkers at Trader Joe's. 

The shift in awareness has had real effects on institutions: the plurality of new state auxiliary university campuses; the extention of graduate school from three to six or ten year degrees in order to supply an advanced corps of professors for these colleges; the trade in online and continuing education degrees online and through the community college system.  Anecdotally the system spells the prolonging of adolescence.  The financial burden of this higher education system, unlike the system of the public schools, falls mainly onto parents. 

Spelling's plan would pitch the universities into exactly the same quandaries that now plague the public schools, without extending the benefits of the university to more bodies.  The problem is not a want of teachers.  There are thousands upon thousands of overeducated PhDs currently unable to find suitable jobs in the education system; unwilling to downgrade the years of their training to become a professional at the local community college.  These PhDs are overtrained, eager for posts in any serious department of their colleagues, prepared to dedicate an entire lifetime to educating 18-year-olds.  All that they need are departments and university structures willing to pay them to be serious scholars.  This is a problem not in the teaching or the curriculum, but only in the structure of university administration itself.  Correct balances of revenue and expenditure, of research and hiring, can only be solved through entrepreneurial action among university administrators. 

In the best possible case, a secretary of education could nurture that entrepreneurial mindset among the deans of higher education, through seminars, conferences, training programs.  In the worst possible case, a secretary of education could, instead, disband the whole reason for higher education in the first place.  The solution cannot be to treat the most overeducated and underpaid class of professionals in the world with punitive reforms, as if they were sleepy box-packers, as if they needed management to come in, as if mere rating and reproval would increase their output. 

The solution cannot be to treat higher education professionals as if they were public school teachers.  Perhaps the solution might be to treat public school teachers as if they were higher education professionals. 

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

“Depressed?…It might be political.”

I've just been reading Lauren Berlant's essay, “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture.”   I got here by following the literature on emotionology.  The history of emotions has been getting a lot of academic press of late.  It’s a fascinating field (did happiness then mean the same as happiness now?), but most fascinating to me, it overlaps greatly with the literature on the city, every-day objects, and material culture. 

Berlant’s own work is on the emotion of every-day experience.  She has written, for example, on how  Hawthorne uses the close reading of everyday visual objects in his text (the American eagle in the “Custom House,”  the scarlet letter in that novel) to deconstruct the nationalist utopianism they seamlessly symbolize. 

In this essay, she wants to argue for the compatibility of critical inquiry and phenomenology.  For Berlant, analysis of the every-day leads perhaps most intimately to the unpacking of unconsciously accepted frameworks.  Focusing on the everyday is focusing on the purely social and personal, rather the disciplinary or governmental: 

“To talk about the senses is to involve oneself in a discussion of the optimism of attachment, the sociability of persons across things, spaces, and practices.  It represents a turn to the human without resurrecting, necessarily, a metaphysical subject, for sensual experiences and emotions are usually thought about, these days, in contexts of enunciation and experience – the nation, the law, the family, religion, mass culture, or aesthetic ambition, for example.” 448

She wants to validate two paradoxical impulses in the scholarship:
  • de-universalizing the senses – the tendency of Miriam Hansen’s work on vernacular modernism and cinema --- which is about historicizing perception to a specific place and time
  • the affirmative character of criticism, which depends on trusting the senses to convey some objective reality, referred to by Herbert Marcuse as “affirmative culture”.  Thus utopian, avant-garde, or even merely difficult art that seeks to slow down and thus interfere with culture rarely overturns anything, because it reinforces the absorption and consumption of the bourgeois subject.  She’s not the first to have noticed how much twentieth-century criticism depends upon replicating the very distanced, male gaze that it was trying to tear down.  She summarizes the problem deftly: critical theorists experience an “anxiety over critical theory’s own optimism.”

According to Berlant, the way out of this legitimate anxiety is to focus back on the every day, the human, the emotional.  And then to ask questions about the origins of those emotions, of those attachments to material things.  Where did they come from?  What to they mean?  How exactly is the scarlet letter A with its overwhelming, instantaneous message bound up with a world-view or a theology or a sense of individual worth that we as a society have already discarded?

Berlant’s practical solution, then, is to launch a series of feminist cells throughout American cities, where artists and academics come to talk about being depressed, being happy, and how many of those feelings are structured by participation in social forms that they'd rather avoid.

Her “feel tank” investigates “political depression” as an exit strategy to the collective guilt of voting without hope.  By focusing on negative and suppressed emotions like this guilt, they aim to identify and jettison public feelings that don’t belong to them. 

Conclusion #1: think out your depression.  Where's it coming from? Your depression probably *is* political.  All emotions are, even as language is. 

Conclusion #2: If the big, big gaze from the prospect only helps you see what everybody else is seeing, looking closely at the world around you might be the best way out.  The "close reading" practice of literature scholars is embraced as the first step to the "negative dialectic" of unravelling the norms of one's own culture.  For Berlant and her peers, the close reading needs to start not merely in the text but also in the material world. The material object leads all the way back into the world of emotions, repressions, social expectations.  Look at stuff.  Wonder how it got there.  Write about it.  Your material world is structured by the same forces that structure your emotional life. 

Read more:
Google Scholar search on Lauren Berlant

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Apologies to anyone whom I've been neglecting... the last chapter (all 168 pages) is finally in draft form, so I've been in a semi-reclusive sate for the last several weeks.  Returning to the living any moment now.  Hopefully you'll hear from me if you want to; if you feel neglected, feel free to ping away. 

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I had fun at Burning Man

Originally uploaded by alchang.
Yes I did.
Click on the photo to see more wonderful pics from the great Al Chang.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Longevity map of the US

NPR has just published a piece on Charles Murray's findings that link longevity with income and where you live in the US.

The study maybe isn't so surprising, considering that we've long known that different patterns of income, nutrition, and community life are associated with different American geographies.  According, for instance, to the "nine nations" theory of Joel Garreau (or historicized in the book Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer), the different areas were settled in vastly different cultural epochs, and since have attracted extremely very different streams from the great pool of immigrants.  We know this is true: travel across America even today, and you pass through a string of different cultures, widely varied according to their politics, house-building, community structure, sense of appropriate gender roles, and religious expression.

Murray's research emphasizes a crucial point: longevity is linked to community structure.  We live longer when we live in sustainable communities, surrounded by strong social ties. 

He cites American Indians as another example. Those who don't live on
or near reservations in the West have life expectancies similar to that
of whites.

Similar research has been borne out in European studies of happiness and longevity. 

But why, then, in the text that accompanied map, did the NPR article emphasize not
culture and geography but race?  The findings compare Asian-American women in New Jersey (averaging 91 years) with Native American men in South Dakota (averaging 58 years).  The parallels that came to the author were equally racial as geographical: "That's like comparing women in wealthy Japan with those in poverty-ridden Nicaragua."  Race creeps in to the narrative, no matter how much the research itself emphasizes community structure (and history as embedded in geography) as the real causation. 

The risk here is that it becomes very easy for public health experts to emphasize how implicit and beyond control the factors governing longevity are: they have to do with individual choice (did you leave the reservation?) or inborne racial makeup (beyond your control) -- both of which are beyond the bounds of the appropriate sphere for public intervention.

Historians like me know enough to get good at imagining the nightmare scenario.  So take health insurance and this research and its implicit racial analysis masked as health concern to its logical implication.  Project twenty years into the future.  There you are before your health care provider.  Oh, you made the wrong choice about where to live.  You left the reservation to get a higher education.  Let's double the rate of insurance payments.  Or better yet: look, I'm sorry; you turn out to be an African American from the poor South.  That means you'll probably contract diabetes and die young.  Double the insurance payments for you. 

This is how the logic of public health works now. Make the wrong choice about where to live and the burden is yours.  Be cursed as the victim of a race that has suffered social inequality, and the burden of pulling up your physical health by your bootstraps is yours as well. 

So it should be interesting to see what sort of policy debate comes in reaction to Murray's research, with its problematic ellision of community, geography, choice of residence, and race.   Murray concludes with a call for government intervention.  We would do well to wonder what sort of government intervention he would call for:

"If I were living in parts of the country with those sorts of life
expectancies, I would want ... to be asking my local officials or state
officials or my congressman, 'Why is this?"'

This more
precise measure of health disparities will allow federal officials to
better target efforts to battle inequalities, said Dr. Wayne Giles of
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helped fund
Murray's work.

I have sketched out some of the grim legislative alternatives: recognizing the highest risk areas (which are implicitly defined by race) and leaving them to their own futures.

The other alternative -- which i doubt will be taken -- would be to emphasize community.  Community is the environment that determines the most about your happiness or longevity.  A far-sighted public health-centered approach, whether undertaken by private insurance or public government -- might emphasize the good that could be done by emphasizing the social strengths of each community and propagating them:  propagating religious, social, educational, community, arts-centered, charity-centered programs across communities, with great geographically, ethnically, and culturally specific variety. 

Imagine if all American communities had the social and cultural bounty and support of Reservation communities and New Jersey Chinese immigrants, with their community care for the elderly, ritualized calendars, and strong family structures?  How much more of a physically and mentally healthy America might we be then? 

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blogosphere as Populist Revolution? Not true. Not yet.

Is the blogosphere really going to usher in an era of open dialogue, truly grassroots politics, and representative democracy, overturning the age of elites in party politics? Thomas Frank Thinks So. But his argument is disturbingly dishonest.

Thomas Frank's article of September 1, Rendezvous with Oblivion, argues that the Democrats have abandoned their base by emphasizinbg plutocracy, knowledge workers, and their administrative correlate: free trade. 

Writes Frank, Democrats aren't progressives -- they aren't concerned with representing the people, they aren't concerned with access to public goods or equality; they're nineteenth-century liberals writ large, protecting the economy at any expense. 
When you view the world from the satisfied environs of Washington - a place where lawyers outnumber machinists 27 to 1 and where five suburban counties rank among the seven wealthiest in the nation - the fantasies of postindustrial liberalism make perfect sense. The reign of the "knowledge workers" seems noble.

Seen from almost anywhere else, however, these are lousy times. The latest data confirms that as the productivity of workers has increased, the ones reaping the benefits are stockholders. Census data tells us that the only reason family income is keeping up with inflation is that more family members are working.

The thriving American economy of knowledge-workers and aggressive liberalism boils down to the exploitation of families: particularly families of immigrants and racial minorities. 

Right on, Thomas Frank.

But then he takes a little detour.

The essay takes a little turn of exhultation in favor of the bloggers.  What the Dems need, if they're going to be real progressives, if they're really going to open their hearts, is to listen to the bloggers.

This is a strange and significant jump.  From "knowledge workers aren't machinists; machinists need representation" to "bloggers represent grassroots, yay bloggers."  

Certainly Kos and the would-be-radical-left would love to posit themselves as the more legitimate representatives of the people.  Indeed their ideas may be, from time to time, more radical, more populist, and more progressive.  As a rhetorical strategy, they're welcome to it, and I honestly wish it will help them wage a legitimate campaign for reform.
But there's something dangerous, even dishonest, about claiming that the blogosphere is more representative of grassroots politics. 

I mean far be it from me to diss the blogosphere, and yay it *is* more geographically and educationally diverse than the DNC by a long shot, but I'm gonna feel uncomfortable with the idea that bloggers represent the unemployed and the mechanic, at least until we start putting laptops in every inner city school and black pentacostalist church.

Now *there's* a project I want the church to get behind.  :)

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Globalization and the factory town

My friend Vivian Kleiman's film, Maquilopolis, or "Factory Town," is screening in San Francisco.  I can't wait.  Read on...

We're thrilled to announce the San Francisco Bay Area premiere of
a film by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre

Two days at the MadCat Women's International Film Festival:
Thursday Sept 21
Oakland's Grand Lake Theater, 7:30 pm
This screening is co-sponsored by Global Exchange and the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.  Proceeds go to benefit these organizations. 
Filmmakers and Film Subjects in Person

**A piercing look at globalization through the eyes of Mexican factory workers.**

Making explicit the slogan "knowledge equals power,"
MAQUILAPOLIS is the rare activist documentary
that really does empower the individual
women at the heart of its story.
--Jay Weissberg, Variety

Sunday September 24, 7:30pm
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Please spread the word to your Bay Area friends, family and colleagues.
We hope to see you on  September 21!

Grand Lake Theater
3200 Grand Avenue in Oakland
Thurs, Sept 21, 7:30 pm Tix: $10.
Advance tickets available by calling (415) 255-7296
Mastercard and visa accepted only in advance of the screening.
Cash or Debit at the door.
(510) 452-3556,

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission St. @ Third in San Francisco
Sun, Sept 24, 7:30 pm Tix: $9. Cash or Credit Cards.
Tix available in advance or at the door.
(415) 978-2700,

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Post-Burning Man Phone Call with Mother

(by email)

Jo to Mom : So you know how I told you that I was so bummed because all my friends were going to Burning Man which is sooo stupid and notoriously all about free love and drugs and being dumb?  

Ok.... I didn't get your voicemail because I was at Burning Man and I was too embarrassed to tell you that I'd gone... great time...  It was really much more about five-story-tall fire-breathing robots than sex and drugs...  

Ok, if you forgive me, want to give me a call?  I'm sorry?


(by phone)

Mom to Jo : hey Jo.  thanks for the email
J : no problem!
M : yeah, I figured you weren't calling because you were at Burning Man.
J : ???
M : so who did you go with?
J : um, this guy?
M : you mean that guy?
J : oh yes, him!  how did you know?
M : did he behave himself?
J : a perfect gentleman.  Hey, how did you know?

Conclusion: Jo's mom is psychic.  Never try to hide anything from her.