Archive for the ‘the university’ Category

I am a member of the faculty at UC Davis, and my campus has been roiled these past few days by violent actions taken by the campus police, directed at non-violently protesting students. The video of campus police pepper-spraying students has been seen ’round the world, and letters of protest, outrage and demands have been blowing up my email inbox all weekend.


On Sunday, just as I was catching up on Friday’s events, I was also set to present at a panel at the American Academy of Religion Conference, in San Francisco.  The panel was convened by the good people behind Freq.uenci.es, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” and a website to which I’ve contributed.  I prepared some remarks, but I felt impelled to preface them by saying how weird it felt to talk about spirituality life on my campus — for my students, colleagues and friends — had changed irrevocably.  I opened with some comments about feeling that tension, and then went on with the show.  I explained that I was having a hard time reconciling these two things, but that I was okay to live with that unreconciled tension.


This morning, on my way to participate in the General Assembly at UC Davis, a friend told me about another video.  A second video – not of police and protesters, but of the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, being walked to her car, following an on campus meeting Saturday night.  In the video, you see Katehi walking down a road, flanked by hundreds of silent, standing students, making their protest as loudly as possible by not saying a thing. 


All you hear are her heels click-clacking on the asphalt.

That video, not the one of the cops, speaks to the power of these students that this community.  And the sound of her heels amidst the crowd of hundreds of students express perfectly the potential in this moment.  Potential that is political, and dare I say: spiritual, too.



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How did the humanities lose out to neuroscience in making culture seem interesting?

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR and podcasts lately. I’ve given my historical favorites a little break (sorry, This American Life and Sound Opinions), and I’ve been listening more and more to Planet Money and Radiolab (as podcasts), and to the usual NPR fare that airs while I do dishes or cook dinner: All Things Considered, Marketplace, and of course: Fresh Air.

What I’ve noticed is how often scientists and economists show up on theses shows to talk about things I thought were the main interests of humanists and social scientists. Questions like the how restaurants work, whether or not race matters, why certain songs get stuck in our heads, how people calculate the value of things or make decisions they know are not in their best interests, and so on.

These are the questions to which I have long sought answers by looking at culture and its various expressions, and in which my field of American Studies has long been interested (albeit in different forms, over time).

Yet somehow, every time I turn on the radio, I find one or another neuroscientist (or, often enough, Jonah Lehrer) talking about precisely these same questions, and about how the pathways of neurons and synapses can answer questions art or love or whatever.

So here’s my question to my colleagues: how did we become so untouchable or so uninteresting to mainstream media? How come the good people at NPR (and, presumably, their listeners) find neuroscientists and economists more interesting and more capable of talking about these questions that we are? How did they become the go-to academics for understanding how and why people do what they do? Social scientists and humanists look at those phenomena, too, but somehow, we have become generally less interesting than our colleagues.

This is not the neuroscientists’ fault: they are good at what they do, and their creativity in asking profound questions that teeter on the line between culture and biology ought to be encouraged. Similarly, it’s not the fault of the radio programmers; they are looking for the most intelligent, engaging guests they can find. And they’re finding them in neuroscience and economics, not in the Humanities.

Why is everyone else talking about culture but us? Are we that boring? Have we grown so adept at gazing at our own navels that we can’t talk about other things? Does “the public” think that so-called “hard” science is really the only arbiter of actualities in the world?

How have we become so irrelevant even on topics that are ostensibly our areas of expertise and scholarly interest?

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Whenever someone (often on the internet, but not always) wants to emphasize how smart the collective masses are, or point to the effectiveness of the “hive mind,” they always end up looking at Wikipedia.

But why hold Wikipedia up as a bastion of either mass-generated wisdom or productivity? Why make Wikipedia the pinnacle of the possibilities of collective action?

Yes, its Wikipedia is both a tremendous source of information and an example of the possibilities of a kind of open-ended collaborative effort to tap the massive labors of folks around the world who would, historically, have been shut out of the process of knowledge production. And that opening-up of access is a good thing, generally speaking. However, the price of such opening-up might be a more generally accurate account, but its a less curious, less inspiring and ultimately, less informative product.

Wikipedia gives us information but beyond that, I’m not sure it gives us very much.

Pointing to Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britanica as the best of a culture’s intellectual output makes about as much sense as looking to sausage for the best of a culture’s protein sources. Both are collections of abstract and often reductive information — no matter how extensive that information is. Rendered, often, in the authoritative prose of clumsy journalism, both sources are and remain locations for fact checking and the collection of surface level information. They’re useful, and (to extend the sausage metaphor), they might even be a little useful, but they are hardly the finest examples of intellectual production to which we can point. Wikipedia is great for checking dates of major events or grabbing thumb-nail sketches of historical figures, but it is not a terribly productive location for fostering curiosity or encouraging complex intellectual investigation.

Wikipedia offers information at its most basic and banal. It does not signal the “death of the expert,” but its eternal life. And I don’t mean the good kind of expert, either. I mean the niggling, nit-picking kind of expert who treasures the firmness of facts over the flexibility or rigor of intellectual labor.

Wikipedia is great at presenting gross information, but it is much worse at presenting nuanced argument. Encyclopedia Britanica is not much better, for that matter, but what the continual stoking of the Wikipedia v. Britanica debate suggests not the triumph of the collective mind over the individual brain. Nor does it indicate the death of the expert. Instead, it illustrates the embrace of the middle by the mass — which doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and which is exactly where Wikipedia belongs.

Coming Soon: The Death of the Death of the Expert

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When the Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, declared recently that state colleges and universities had no legal right to ban employment discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation, we were reminded once again of the fragility of our basic civil and human rights. Enshrined in national scripture may be the words “all men are created equal” but we have known since the very moment those words were written how simultaneously world-changing and meaningless they are. One election, one decision by a B-list politician, and poof…gone.

After much outcry across the state, including by many staff, faculty, and students at the University of Virginia (my employer), Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a surprisingly robust rebuke to his attorney general. In a publicly released statement, the governor overruled his AG, and asserted, “Employment discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated by this Administration.” In one passage, he even declared:

The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination without a rational basis against any class of persons. Discrimination based on factors such as one’s sexual orientation or parental status violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

When this arrived in my inbox I was flabbergasted. Did this graduate of Pat Roberston’s Regent University just state that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution? Though Virginia continues to maintain one of the most hostile legal environments for gays and lesbians in the country, this strikes me as a hugely significant development, and the basis for much potential good with sweeping implications for all sorts of matters, including marriage equality. But it’s not yet law. This was just a public statement from the governor, and the state legislature has still refused to enact anti-discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation into law. Our rights are precious, fragile things.

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Today’s NPR story on the relationship between weight loss, emotions, and hormones called leptin revealed how far we have come in our understanding of food and our bodies–and how far we still have to go.  In “Rational or Emotional? Your Brain on Food,” Columbia University Medical Center researchers reveal that weight loss can cause both a slower metabolism (which can make it harder to burn calories) and lowered levels of leptin–a hormone that works to control appetite.  It turns out that when people who have lost weight are given injections of leptin they have more activity in their brains in areas “associated with conscious decisions.”  While the study isn’t definitive, the report suggests that increasing these hormone levels may help people who have lost weight make better decisions to keep that weight off in the future.

Who wouldn’t be excited about an injection that could enhance will power, especially in keeping off that hard fought few pounds?  But will it, really?  For this we have to look at the method.  Researchers measured people’s will power by giving them an MRI and then showing them various plastic containers of foods–gummy worms, candies, cookies, bell peppers–and measuring brain activity as they contemplated the yumminess (or lackthereof) in the items.  But how many of us confront that moment of food choice (bell peppers or gummy worms, hmm…) while laying in a scanner staring at slow-moving food separated in plastic bins?  Aren’t we in fact making food choices in precisely the opposite conditions–standing in chaotic fast food lines, ordering from menus with one hand on the iphone, managing crying children or chatty friends, just after breaking up with girlfriends, while walking the aisles with hundreds of brightly packaged jumbled munchies vying for our attention?

Studies like the one at Columbia are essential if we want to understand the complex ways in which our bodies react to appetite stimulation, and we should.  Still, we need to see them for what they are: questions asked and answered in a vacuum.  The reporter herself acknowledges this when she opens the piece recalling the overwhelming smell of peanuts sold by a street vendor that challenge her calorie resolve, even in the midst of the story.  Would those peanuts have impacted her the same way in the MRI tube with a set of researchers well aware of “good food choices” watching her reactions?  We live in a complex culture and it is there that our food choices are made.  We can isolate the data in the lab and come up with technological solutions, but these are only going to address part of the problem.  And they may make new problems all their own.  We need to study food where we eat it–in the real world. For that we need scholars trained in socio-cultural aspects of food production and food choice, and scientists ready to bring them on board.

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To wit: This week’s “Education Life” Section of the NY Times, where the cover article is called: “Making College ‘Relevant‘” I appreciate the quotation marks in the title, but the article seems to focus primarily on how to translate a BA into a J-O-B. This is a question that those of us in the humanities and social sciences get with some frequency. And our response is often couched in terms of “critical thinking skills” or “cultural analysis” or “nuance,” “subtlety,” “tensions,” or “cultural politics.”

But the question isn’t really if what we do is relevant, but rather why the job hunt and the endless pursuit of wealth and “practical knowledge” seems to have controlled the conversation about “relevance.” Why are those of us so gifted at cultural analysis often so poor at explaining its “relevance” to our students? Or, maybe more importantly: why is it such a challenge to provide frameworks for our students to recognize the relevance of what we’re doing on their own? Surely, relevance isn’t only about capitalizing on skills you can market through your “personal brand.”

Frankly, if relevance were judged by making money, the NYTimes would be in worse trouble than our universities.

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The UCD Sustainable Pen

There’s something troubling about this artifact.  What appears at first to be another of the hundreds of variations on “spirit pens,” this UC Davis implement is something else entirely.  It is actually a plastic pen–perhaps of the bic variety?–wrapped with a thin layer of cardboard onto which the UCD logo is affixed (and a note indicating that it is “recycled material” is added).  Topping off this creation is a popsicle-stick like clip that is attached directly to the plastic pen top and can, one assumes, enable the user to affix the pen to the interior of a pocket–a scenario in which only the popsicle stick would protrude.

I don’t believe the UC Davis gurus of promotional products mean this to be funny.  Jokes that pass plastics off as good for the environment products don’t tend to get a laugh these days.  It’s possible that this is a sign that our sales and marketing team is losing their edge–certainly this is not a great product on several levels.  Green washing has to go right alongside peeling cardboard, cracking popsicle sticks, and depleted ink on the list of “poor design qualities.”

Yet let’s imagine just for a moment that we might need to take this pen seriously as what it claims to be: a symbol of our university.  That’s when things get scary.

In the day of business plans and bottom lines, is it too much of a stretch to imagine that this pen symbolizes the precarious nature of knowledge itself in the modern research university?  With class sizes growing and the pressure to “make something” and “bring in funding” (even in the humanities) we may find ourselves teaching students who never get deeper than superficial concepts and producing work that looks neat but has little there there, ultimately.  Maybe we are becoming the professorial equivalent of cardboard plastic pens stating our “recycled material.”

and that is definitely not funny.

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