The purpose of intellectual work in a democracy–Tony Judt

I discovered Tony Judt very late, only really attending to his astonishing mind a year or so before he was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He is a man much further to the left than am I, but I was convicted by his conviction and convinced by his belief that the intellectual life should serve a purpose larger than itself–what might have once been quaintly called something like the realization of the Good Republic.  The most recent NYRB has an excerpt from his new book, Thinking the Twentieth Century.  What I admire in the excerpt is the recognition that “democracy” is not a word that signifies an inherent good.  Like all things human,  “democracy” may be used for good or ill, may work to enhance human decency and community, or may work to corrupt it.  Most recently, in my own view, I think we have seen the ways in which our “democracy” in both its electoral and legislative practices, debases rather than enhances our sense of our humanity.   In a succinct summary from Judt:  “Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.”

Given this fact, Judt is suspicious of intellectual work that aligns itself in favor of grand abstractions like “democracy” or “freedom”, favoring instead a concrete and particularistic practice of nurturing and protecting the institutions and practices that make democracy possible:

I see the present century as one of growing insecurity brought about partly by excessive economic freedom, using the word in a very specific sense, and growing insecurity also brought about by climate change and unpredictable states. We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones. And that’s a slightly different sort of situation, where the kind of intellectual who draws big pictures of idealized, improvable situations may not be the person who is most worth listening to.

We may find ourselves asking how we can defend established legal or constitutional or human rights, norms, freedoms, institutions, and so on. We will not be asking whether the Iraq war was a good or not good way to bring democracy, freedom, liberty, the market, etc. to the Middle East; but rather, was it a prudent undertaking even if it achieved its objectives? Recall the opportunity costs: the lost potential to achieve other things with limited resources.

All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most.

This seems to me to be true in cultural life as a whole, not only in our politics in a democratic society.  What are those institutions and practices that are most worth defending and nurturing that speak to our best efforts to incarnate large abstractions like “goodness”, “justice”, and “beauty”?

Grading the Crowd

Can the wisdom of crowds apply to grading student papers, or to evaluation of culture more generally?  What about the quality of a theological argument, or a decision about foreign policy?  We’re taken a lot with the idea of crowds and collaboration lately, and not without good reason.  I think there’s a great deal to be said about getting beyond the notion of the isolated individual at work in his study;  especially in the humanities I think we need to learn something from our colleagues in the sciences and think through what collaborative engagement as a team of scholars might look like as a norm rather than an exception.  At the same time, is there a limit to collective learning and understanding?  Can we detect the difference between the wisdom of the crowd and the rather mindless preferences of a clique, or a mob.  I found myself thinking about these things again this evening as I read Cathy Davidson’s latest piece in The Chronicle Review, “Please Give Me Your Divided Attention: Transforming Learning for the Digital Age.”

Cathy Davidson, "Now You See It"

I wrote about Davidson a couple of days ago–she’s around a lot lately, as authors tend to be when a new book comes out that a publisher has decided to push—and I feel almost bad at taking up  only my crabbiest reactions to her recent work.  First, let me say that I briefly crossed paths with Davidson at Duke where she was hired the year I was finished my doctorate in English.  She seemed like a breath of fresh and genuine air in a department that could sometime choke on its collective self-importance, and the enthusiasm and generosity and love of teaching that Davidson evinces in this essay was evident then as well, though I never had her for class.  And, as this comment suggests, I think there’s a lot in this essay that’s really important to grapple with.  First, her suggestions of the ways that she and some of her colleagues at Duke trusted students with an experiment in iPod pedagogy paid off in so many unexpected ways, and we now know a good bit of that was far ahead of its time.  Moreover, she paints a wonderful picture of students as collaborative teachers in the learning process in her course on the way neuroscience is changing everything.  Still, as with a lot of these things that focus on student-centeredness, I find that promising insights are blinded by what amounts to a kind of ideology that may not be as deeply informed about human action as it really ought to be.  I felt this way in Davidson’s discussion of grading.

 There are many ways of crowdsourcing, and mine was simply to extend the concept of peer leadership to grading. The blogosphere was convinced that either I or my students would be pulling a fast one if the grading were crowdsourced and students had a role in it. That says to me that we don’t believe people can learn unless they are forced to, unless they know it will “count on the test.” As an educator, I find that very depressing. As a student of the Internet, I also find it implausible. If you give people the means to self-publish—whether it’s a photo from their iPhone or a blog—they do so. They seem to love learning and sharing what they know with others. But much of our emphasis on grading is based on the assumption that learning is like cod-liver oil: It is good for you, even though it tastes horrible going down. And much of our educational emphasis is on getting one answer right on one test—as if that says something about the quality of what you have learned or the likelihood that you will remember it after the test is over.

Grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence. If we crowdsource grading, we are suggesting that young people without credentials are fit to judge quality and value. Welcome to the Internet, where everyone’s a critic and anyone can express a view about the new iPhone, restaurant, or quarterback. That democratizing of who can pass judgment is digital thinking. As I found out, it is quite unsettling to people stuck in top-down models of formal education and authority.

Davidson’s last minute veering into ad hominem covers over the fact that she doesn’t provide any actual evidence for the superiority of her method, offers a cultural fact for a substantive good—if this is how things are done in the age of digital thinking, it must be good, you old fogies—seems to crassly assume that any theory of judgment that does not rely on the intuitions of 20 year olds is necessarily anti-democratic and authoritarian, and glibly overlooks the social grounding within which her own experiment was even possible.  All of this does sound like a lot of stuff that comes out of graduate departments in English, Duke not least of all, but I wonder if the judgment is really warranted.

An alternate example would be a class I occasionally teach, when I have any time to teach at all any more, on book reviewing.  In the spirit of democratizing the classroom, I usually set this course up as a kind of book contest in which students choose books to review and on the basis of those reviews, books proceed through a process of winnowing, until at last, with two books left, we write reviews of the finalists and then vote for our book of the year.  The wisdom of the crowd does triumph in some sense because through a process of persuasion students have to convince their classmates what books are worth reading next.  The class is partly about the craft of book reviewing, partly about the business of book publishing, and partly about theories of value and evaluation.  We spend time not only thinking about how to write effective book reviews for different markets, we discuss how theorists from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Barbara Herrnstein Smith discuss the nature of value, all in an effort to think through what we are saying when we finally sit down and say one thing is better than another thing.

The first two times I taught this class, I gave the students different lists of books.  One list included books that were short listed for book awards, one list included first time authors, and one list included other books from notable publishers that I had collected during the previous year.  I told them that to begin the class they had to choose three books to read and review from the lists that I had provided, and that at least one book had to be from a writer of color (my field of expertise being Ethnic literature of the U.S., I reserved the right).  They could also choose one book simply through their own research to substitute for a book on one of my lists.  Debates are always spirited, and the reading is always interesting.  Students sometimes tell me that this was one of their favorite classes.

The most recent time I taught the class, I decided to take the steps in democratizing one step further by allowing the students to choose three books entirely on their own accord.  Before class began I told them how to go about finding books through the use of major industry organs like Publishers Weekly, as well as how to use search engines on Amazon and elsewhere—which, their digital knowledge notwithstanding, students are often surprised at what you can do on a search engine.  The only other guidance was students would ultimately have to justify their choices by defending in their reviews why they liked the books and thought they could be described as good works of literature, leaving open what we meant by terms like “good” and “literature” since that was part of the purpose of the course.

The results were probably predictable but left me disheartened nonetheless.  Only one book out of fifty some books in the first round was by a writer of color.  A predictable problem, but one I had kept my fingers crossed would not occur.  More than half the books chosen by my students were from romance, mystery, fantasy lit, and science fiction genres.  Strictly speaking I didn’t have a problem with that since I think great works of fiction can be written in all kinds of genres, and most works of what we call literary fiction bear the fingerprints of their less reputable cousins (especially mystery writing, in my view, but that’s another post).  I thought there might be a chance that there would be some undiscovered gem in the midst.  I do not have the time to read all fifty books, of course, but rely on students to winnow for me and then try to read every book that gets to the round of eight.  It’s fair to say that in my personal authoritarian aesthetic, none of the books that fell in to that generic category could have been called a great work of fiction, though several of them were decent enough reads.  Still, I was happy to go with this and see where things would take us, relatively sure that as things went on and we had to grapple with what it meant to evaluate prose, we would probably still come out with some pretty good choices.

Most of the works that I would have considered literary were knocked out by the second round, though it is the case that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom made it all the way to the finals, paired against Lisa Unger’s entry from 2010, whose title I can’t even remember now.  In the end the class split almost down the middle, but chose Unger’s book as the best book they had read during the course of the semester.  Not that I thought it was a terrible book. It was a nice enough read and Unger is a decent enough mystery writer.  But being asked to remember the book is a little like being asked to remember my last trip to MacDonalds.  One doesn’t go there for memorable dining experience, and one doesn’t read Lisa Unger in order come up with books that we will care to remember several weeks after having set them down.  But what was perhaps most intriguing to me was that after an hour long discussion of the two books in which students offered spirited defenses of each writer, I asked them that if they could project themselves in to the year 2020 and had to choose only one book to include on a syllabus in a course on the best books of 2010, which book would it be.  Without exception the students voted for Franzen’s book.  When I asked the students who changed their votes why this would be, they said “We think that Franzen is more important, we just liked reading Unger more.”

This is the nub.  Can the wisdom of crowds decide what is most important?  To that, the answer can only be “sometimes”.  As often crowds choose what is conveniently at hand, satisfies a sweet tooth, or even the desire for revenge. Is there a distinction between what is important or what is true and what is merely popular?  Collaboration can lead us past blindnesses, but it is not clear that the subjectivity of a crowd is anything but blind (in my original draft I typed “bling”, a telling typographical slip and one that may be truer and more interesting than “blind.”  It is not clear that they can consistently be relied upon by their intuition to decide what ought to last. This may not be digital thinking, but at least it is thinking, something crowds cannot be always relied upon to do.

If we could really rely on crowds to make our choices, we would discover that there is really very little to choose between almost anything.  Going on Amazon, what is amazing is that four stars is the average score for all of the 100,000s of thousands of books that are catalogued.  And popularity trumps everything:  Lisa Scottoline scores higher in a lot of cases than Jane Austen.  Literally everything is above average and worth my time.  This is because in the world of the crowd, people mostly choose to be with those crowds that are most like themselves and read those things that are most likely to reinforce the sense they have that they are in the right crowd to begin with.  This is true as even elementary studies of internet usage have pointed out.  Liberals read other liberals, and delight in their wisdom and the folly of conservatives.  Conservatives read other conservatives and do likewise.  This too is digital thinking, and in this case it is quite easily seen that crowds can become authoritarian over and against the voice of the marginalized.  My students choices to not read students of color unless I tell them to is only one small reminder of that.

Which leads to one last observation.  I wonder, indeed, whether it is not the case that this experiment worked so well at Duke because students at Duke already know what it takes to get an A.  That is, in some sense Davidson is not really crowdsourcing at all but is relying on the certain educational processes that will deliver students well-attuned to certain forms of cultural excellence,  able to create effectively and “challenge” the status quot because they are already deeply embedded within those forms of culture excellence and all the assumptions they entail.  That is, as with many pedagogical theories offered by folks at research institutions, Davidson isn’t theorizing from the crowd but from a tiny elite and extremely accomplished sample.  As Gerald Graff points out, most of us most want to teach the students that don’t need us, that means most of us want to teach at places where none of the students actually need us.  Davidson’s lauding of her students in the fact that they don’t’ really need her to learn may merely be an index of their privilege, not the inherent wisdom of crowds or the superiority of her pedagogical method.   Her students have already demonstrated that they know what it takes to get A’s in almost everything because they have them—and massively high test scores besides—or they are unusually gifted in other ways or they wouldn’t be at Duke.  These are the students who not only read all their AP reading list the summer before class started, they also read all the books related to the AP reading list and  have attended tutoring sessions to learn to write about them besides.

Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their being accomplished.  On some level, I was one of them in having gone to good private colleges and elite graduate programs.  But it is a mistake to assume that the well-learned practices of the elite, the cultural context that reinforces those practices, and the habits of mind that enable the kinds of things that Davidson accomplished actual form the basis for a democratizing pedagogy for everyone.  Pierre Bourdieu 101.