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More On The MOOC Thing

February 9, 2013 by and tagged ,

After completing my first MOOC (I reported on it here), I decided to go try out the major MOOC platforms out there. The dataviz MOOC I took with the Knight Center on Journalism in the Americas was offered in-house, so, I decided to go look up the big MOOC providers: Coursera, Udacity and EdX. I have signed up for a Coursera course but the start date is TBD. I have also signed up for a course in EdX scheduled to start on 2/20. I also registered for Introduction to Statistics over at Udacity, taught by one of Udacity founders, Sebastian Thrun. I have now completed this course and just started another statistics one there.

So, how is a Udacity course different from the MOOC I have taken with the Knight Center? First of all, it runs continuously. It is self-paced, so, students can jump in and out at any time, take as much time to complete as they want. The course itself is a series of very short Youtube videos (the longest ones are around 2-minutes long) where students are introduced to a series of statistical concepts and have to apply them and answer questions that are instantly marked (correct or not). These bite-sized lectures are a big difference with the Coursera model of putting entire existing college courses online.

At regular intervals, mainly, the end of a logical unit, students have to complete a problem set as well as as optional programming units using Python to program the statistical concepts introduced in the immediately preceding unit.

The lessons themselves are a bit uneven. Some are really easy and then, all of a sudden, you get hit over the head with something brutal. Also beware. A lot of stuff is not standard. The other downside is that there is a gap between the lessons and the problem sets. It is very possible, I think, to complete the lessons without difficulty but get stuck on the problem sets. I got stumped a couple of times simply because the styles of the lecturers (Thrun does the lessons and Adam Sherwin does the problem sets and the final exam) is very different and I could not figure out what I was being asked to do in the problem sets. I also gave up on the programming units (they are optional anyway) after the first few because they required some knowledge of Python that I don’t have. And besides, I was in the middle of learning R and I did not want to confuse myself with learning another computer language at the same time.

Also, I must say that I very much doubt that anyone taking this course for the first time would be able to pass the statistics course in our program. It is not statistics 101. It is a lower level stats course. If you want a real take-down of the course from a statistics expert, read this blog post from someone who also took the course. The population v. sample issue is the one that most jumped at me. Every so often, I would go back to my stats texts for the proper formula and written explanations.

As with all other Udacity courses, there is a wiki to go with it, although there isn’t much there. And then, there are the discussion forums where students can post questions and other students are expected to contribute answers. The course assistant popped in in some to resolve issues with the units themselves.

At the end of the course, there is a final exam consisting of 16 questions, you need 8 correct answers to pass “with proficiency”, but you can take and submit your answers as many times as you want.

As I mentioned, the course runs continuously and is self-paced, so, compared to my previous MOOC, it was a pretty lonely experience because, by definition, you work on your own. Also, it looked like the course had been offered for the first time last Spring/Summer, so, the bulk of the forum activity dated back from that time. As I was going through the course (it took me about a month, total), there was not much activity in the forums. Not only that but, as I perused the forums just to see the kind of questions asked, I realize that the bulk of them were not so much questions as people who already knew the subject and offered feedback on the pedagogy (a better way to understand Bayes theorem!). So, I don’t know if Udacity discloses user statistics but it looked to me that the main population of students (from the forums) was, as in my previous MOOC, composed, not really of college students, but of more advanced (older?) people who already knew statistics and were, like me, getting a taste of the platform and the pedagogy.

One last thing on this. Udacity upgraded its platform in the middle of my taking the course. This was a nice improvement as I initially kept getting error messages and had to constantly refresh the page.

The million-dollar question is this: how often will the course be updated? Some students in the initial version noted a few errors and corrections were placed in the video notes / comments but the videos themselves were not changed. Are these videos recorded once and for all, never to be updated? If that is the case, then, it is pretty ghastly. And though the course does not require a textbook, I would recommend to get one anyway, even something like Statistics for Dummies.

The Udacity course I am taking now is in its first offering but has me chomping at the bit because, even though it is self-paced, they instructors only post one lecture / problem set per week (for 16 weeks, as I understand it) but these first ones, at least, are pretty easy so  I usually complete them on the day they get posted and then, I have to wait a week to get the next one, which seems to be a waste of time for me. Maybe once we are past the initial offering of the whole course, future students will have it truly self-paced.

Maybe this once-a-week format is because it is the first offering of the course is simply because the entire course is not yet ready. If that is the case, then fine. After all, one would not want a repeat of this Coursera fiasco:

“When word spread this weekend that a massive open online course about online education had to be suspended due to technology problems that left many students angry, officials from Coursera and the Georgia Institute of Technology were not available for comment. In interviews Monday, however, officials of both Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the major issue concerned the ability of the 41,000 students to discuss topics in small groups, and that the technology for that feature indeed was not working. The officials also said that they were confident that fixes would be made in a short time period, and that the course would then continue.”

If you want an in-depth, first-person account of what happened in this course, you should read this blog post:

“There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups.”

Who could have guessed that to have thousands of people edit Google docs at the same time would not work out so well. And for once, you can break the Prime Directive of the Internet and read the comments from other students. They are very interesting.

There is a bit of schadenfreude about this when it started bouncing about the Internet. This was the failure we had been waiting for, hadn’t we? The one that would finally get us past the hype and get us a bit more realistic about the format and its possibilities.

But we’re not there yet. MOOCs are still riding high for now and Coursera’s fiasco may be to Udacity’s benefit as it is the platform that seems to have the most wind in its sails right now, especially with recent California deal:

“Now California state universities are set to begin enrolling students in MOOCs for credit. Earlier this month, the president of San Jose State University, Mo Qayoumi, announced that his institution will commence a pilot program: 300 students will receive course credit for online classes in remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics. Qayoumi was joined at the press conference by California Governor Jerry Brown and Sebastian Thrun, the controversial ex-Stanford prof and co-founder of Udacity, which will supply classes for the program at the cost of $150 per customer, er, student.

“This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit,” Thrun “quipped.”

It’s not quite free, as early MOOC proponents began by promising. It is worth mentioning, too, that Udacity is a venture-funded startup, that classes will be supervised not by tenured profs but by Udacity employees, and that Thrun declined to tell the Times how much public money his company will be raking in for this pilot—or what more may have been promised should the pilot prove “successful.”

Okay, fine, but let’s get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California’s education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?

Emphases mine, and good question at the end.

Because, let’s face it, the format is far from being the perfect model for education. First off,  again, from my limited experience, I see a lot more people in there for professional development than strict college education, and yes, a lot of people from developing countries. Also, the completion rates are still atrocious. Isn’t it insane to turn over a lot of money for a format that looks like it has potential but is far, far from proven to be effective.

It also seems that a lot of the course offerings are in maths, computer sciences, STEM more broadly. But there is little outside of the technical fields. Is it because these are easier to automate, with instant, automated grading? When I took the dataviz MOOC with Alberto Cairo, I don’t know how much time he and his assistant spent patrolling the message boards and reviewing projects, but they seemed very hands-on. Take a Udacity course, and you will be likely if you bump into an instructor in the forums. I am sure there are more Humanities / Literature courses out there, I would be curious to see if they just rely on peer-grading and discussion boards.

What bothers me, and that is why I highlighted it in the quote above, is that one could argue that the problems with MOOCs don’t matter because the courses are free (and therefore, you get what you pay for) and they don’t give credits… well, now they might. And the possible trend of pushing undergraduate education online through MOOCs is problematic to me on several levels:

  • it seems that then states abdicate their commitment (financial or otherwise) to public education.
  • It creates an additional form of inequalities: those with the means to do so get themselves an on-campus education and those who cannot just get what they can online (and I am willing to bet that quality control will be problematic because the point will be to save money).
  • MOOCs are, by definition, one-size-fit-all. This does not work for everybody. There is value to interactive education that the Udacity model cannot capture. MOOCs may represent another form of standardization rather than an innovative model. It is actually a very passive way of learning.
  • And again, what becomes of the latest obsession with retention / completion with MOOCs failing so badly at both?

But, in times of administrative bloat, one can see how the model would be attractive to administrators in search of cost savings.

And ultimately, when investors dump $15 million into Udacity, they will want something in return and that “something” will not be some fuzzy, idealistic, “free college education for all”.

Overall, I think there is still a lot that needs to happen to MOOCs for the format to be the real revolution that it is being touted to be. It is not. At least not right now. And I would not be so quick to bury the “old” university model. Every new technological innovation was once touted to be the death of the university from the early correspondence courses in early 20th century to online. None of this has happened. The real, serious fear would be for  short-sighted politicians and clueless administrators to use this as the obvious cost-cutter it seemed to be, but that would be at the expense of the mission of public education. That has to be fought at all costs.

Posted in Education, Technology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Where The Girls Lead

February 4, 2013 by and tagged ,

Now these are interesting regional patterns in terms science education and gender:

This visual is interactive so go click on the link above. It is interesting to see that the US is not the only Western country where boys score better than girls. Actually most Western European countries are the same category.  On the other hand, see all the yellow dots on the right? Better test scores for girls in Eastern and Southern European countries as well as the Middle East. The same pattern applies to Asia and Pacific Islands.

Actually, it is almost exclusively in Western countries that boys lead over girls in these test scores. So, what’s wrong with Western countries? What is the big secret that Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Pacific Islands have discovered?

Also note the difference in scale between the “boys lead” side of the graph (from 0 to approximately 5 %) and the “girls lead” side of the graph (from 0 to almost 9%).

I am sure the explanation involves a multiplicity of interacting variables but I would still be interested to know whether someone actually did the research on this and figured out these variables and their impact. Unfortunately, the article does not really give an explanation.

Posted in Education, Gender | No Comments »

The MOOC Experience

December 9, 2012 by and tagged ,

So, the MOOC is over. It has been a very interesting six week but I made it. I completed all the projects and I am now waiting for my completion certificate. So, what has this MOOC experience been like?

To recap, the MOOC I took was Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, offered through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, University of Texas at Austin, and taught by Alberto Cairo. I wanted to take a MOOC because it seems to be the thing right now. You can find almost every day an item about MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed. I tend to be skeptical of buzzwords. So, I thought, at the very least, and before passing final judgment in MOOCs, I should take at least one. And I did not want to take a sociology course because *yawn*. I thought I might as well try to learn something in the process of testing out the format. After all, I have already let it be known at my college that I wanted to develop MOOCs there.

So, I randomly bumped into a mention about the data visualization course on Twitter (who said Twitter was useless!) and decided to jump. This turned out to be the most interesting experience I have had in a while and it turned out to be the right decision. Since I had registered early for the course, I decided to read Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, to get a head start. So, by the time the course started, I was ready.

The Course

The course itself was 6-week long, structured week-by-week, increasing in difficulty and complexity as weeks passed. Because it was the first MOOC for the Knight Center, we could tell that a few course corrections were made along the way. Also, since the course was offered in-house (as opposed to through Coursera or Udacity), enrollment was limited to 2,000 students (small number for a MOOC).

Every week, we had some reading to do. All the materials were provided, we didn’t have to buy anything, books or software. We were also provided with video lectures by Alberto Cairo, based largely on his book, as a series of Youtube or Vimeo videos on the specific topic of the week. On weeks 1 and 2, we had to complete quizzes. Those were a bit of a joke, I have to say: 2 quizzes, 5 questions each, 30 minutes to complete. It is probably why those disappeared after week 2. I did not miss them.

In weeks 1 and 2, our work on data visualization was mostly critique. Alberto Cairo gave us infographics and we were supposed to analyze them and determine what worked, what did not, and what we would do to improve it. We were supposed to post our analysis on a message board, and then, post twice more to respond to other students’ analyses. The first week, there was only one message board and that was a mess. I posted early (I think I was second), then waited for other people that I could respond to. Very quickly, I was overwhelmed when the floodgates opened. Not only that but for the late posters, there really wasn’t much left to say about the original infographic. There is only so much critique that can be done. So, I posted my two other responses and left that first discussion board. There was just too much going on there.

The course organizers must have realized that as well because by Week 2, they had created 10 message boards and we could pick whichever we wanted. I picked #10 and stuck with it. I was not the only one because I saw the same names cropping up again week after week (Board 10 FTW!). We are a gregarious species. Apart from that, Week 2 went by pretty much as Week 1 had: readings, video lectures, quiz, infographic critique.

Things got really interested in Week 3 (gone were the quizzes) where we were asked to start designing, even if a basic sketch of an alternative infographic based on some data Alberto Cairo gave us. This was mine (don’t laugh):

Initially, this was truly daunting for me. I had never really done that. But that is where I realized how this course was: a whole bunch of us had to jump in the pool and do something we hadn’t done before. In addition, we had to comment on two other projects from our classmates. Everybody was pretty thoughtful about their comments but, obviously, the skills gap between students was pretty immense. Some people were obviously already professional designers. Others like me are pretty decent with data but less so with the design part. And still others were truly novices at the whole thing.

Weeks 4, 5 and 6 were designed the same way and I have already posted my work on these weeks herehere and here. I will also be posting all my data visualization work, beyond this MOOC, in this Flickr set. So, for these three weeks, most of work was watching the video lectures, project design, and then spend some time in the message board looking at other people’s work and offering comments.  Theses discussions were very stimulating and it was exciting to see other people’s work and ideas, irrespective of skills level. Overall, the project took most of my concentrated time while working on the message board was more scattered. For the last three weeks, I would estimate that I spent about 6 hours a week on this course (including one all-nighter!). I spent less than that in weeks 1 and 2. It was fine, I never felt rushed but I always did want to finish my project work early because of my own full-time job. But it was all very manageable.

The Students

This was a major surprise to me: about 2,000 students, and, according to the Knight Center, people from over 100 different countries. I am not surprised. You could tell, through the discussion boards, that this was an extremely diverse crowd, a lot of  non-native-English speaker people (like me). I don’t think many of them were college students either. It really felt that we were all adults, working professionals in a variety of fields, like journalism, design, academia and non-profits. This was truly a global course and I hope it stays that way because it was fascinating, especially on week 6 where we could pick our own project, to see what topic people selected. The diversity of interests and approaches was breathtaking.

The Instruction

Alberto Cairo was the official instructor for the course and from what I could tell, one or two assistants helped him manage the course, especially the message boards (although I did not notice any trolling or inappropriate behavior at all in there, which is a fear I had read about before… not here, everyone was focused on the work). However, Alberto was in constant contact with us either through general messages and posts or by popping in different message boards and offering feedback and advice. Some of us reached out to him on Twitter and he is very approachable and kind. That certainly helped and will, I’m sure, contribute to making the course a popular one. He initially stated, after Week 2, that he might pulled back a bit but he did not, as far as I could tell.

His video lectures were great and very much reinforced what is in his book. The quality of the Youtube videos was a bit BLEH but that is probably more a Youtube crappy compression format issue than anything else. These videos were pretty short (under 15 minutes), so I would watch a couple at a time at different times of day and week. They pretty much set the “agenda” and focus of the week’s work.

Alberto also provided optional Illustrator lectures. I have not watched them, but I have them saved for later, once I get over my Adobe products phobia (is there a name for that? A support group?).

What Worked

The course itself is more powerful than I ever imagined it could be. I had no idea when I started six weeks ago that I would get all excited about plunging into massive databases (Calc, FTW!) to extract information and that I would learn Tableau, and get all fancy in Piktochart. I still have some learning to do for Tableau and the dreaded Illustrator. Heck, I’m even considering going into R and Python (that’s for later). It would actually be great if Alberto Cairo were to create MOOCs for that too.

But this course really pushed me to just jump in and start working on my own visualizations, no matter how amateurish they look. I think many of us will leave the course with enough skills to start working our own stuff. Those of us who were not designers when we started are still not designers now but we get a little bit of the skills that can help us integrate some design into our regular work. We all learned a lot. A lot.

The atmosphere of the course, especially through the message boards, was relaxed but serious, professional but friendly. As I said above, there was no trolling. Everybody was focused so, I’m sure we all felt confident to share our work, knowing that it would be evaluated thoughtfully. We encouraged each other a lot while providing good critiques.

Six weeks was the perfect duration. Enough to get some depth into our work, but no burnout and no repetitive work. The course objectives were limited as well as the scope of the course. I think this course was perfectly sized in organization, substance and workload.

What Could Be Improved

I have always been ambivalent about using a lot discussion boards and peer review as pedagogical tools. The first week of the course showed that it can quickly get messy and counterproductive. so, sure, you can create a whole bunch of smaller message boards but then you have to manage them all. At the same time, it’s a MOOC, so, you won’t have everybody’s work evaluated and graded by an instructor, so peer review is the main option. It works, I think, when working on skills. It is more difficult when working on more “written” work.

Quite a few students have complained that they were receiving too many emails from the message boards and could not keep up (of course, they could have shut that down) but the point is it is tricky to keep up with a message board activity, even a smaller one.

So, what frequently happened is that people like me posted our work early and we discussed each other’s work. Then, we would wait for other people to start posting, responding mostly to the first ones to post. But then, our own work would sit there, largely ignored as the board postings multiplied and other students started talking to each other. As the week progressed, I would pull back and so, mostly did not respond to latest project postings. Actually, since the boards remained opened after the end of the week, in week 3 and 4, I still received emails from postings from the Week 2 board, but I could not be bothered as that point. I had moved on. In the end, I think a lot of people got their work remain unevaluated. The requirement was for us to evaluate at least two other projects. Maybe that requirement should be increased to 4 or 5.

Maybe there should have been some way to have some ability grouping. But then, I also really enjoyed seeing the work of more expert people so, I don’t know what the right balance is here. In the end, I think diversity should prevail. After all, even novices can offer good critiques from a strict user perspective.

Final Thoughts

I do hope Alberto Cairo offers an Infographics II, especially in interactive graphics. I am so nowhere near that level. I also hope there is a way for “alumni” to stay in touch (although there is a Facebook group but I wonder whether this is the right format). Maybe we could create our own Tumblr to share our dataviz work.

This MOOC, I think, defeats a lot of the negative stereotypes about the format: no one is going to take this MOOC and test out of anything. It is not going to steal students away from colleges and universities. But it certainly has imparted skills to people who wanted and needed them. The fact that the course was not populated by college students should also appease some fears. After all, this was more continuing education than anything else: a bunch a professionals from all over the world (who will not go study at the Knight Center anyway) who wanted a new educational experience who fit their busy schedules and who had access to technology. The course is not a substitute for a full-fledged curriculum on the subject. It is a bite-sized introduction, and a very good one at that, but a limited experience nonetheless.

I don’t even know if this course would work with college-age students. Although it was only for six weeks, this course required some commitment and persistence that not all younger students might have (especially with no credit at the end). I wonder what percentage of the 2,000 class completed the course.

Now, the million dollar question is whether this MOOC is way better than the average MOOC, and now I am completely spoiled and other MOOCs will feel lame and mediocre by comparison.

And I really, REALLY want Alberto Cairo to teach a MOOC on dataviz for social scientists.

But again, this has been a wonderful experience and I will miss it. One of my colleagues (a librarian) will be taking it next time around.

Posted in Dataviz, Education | 9 Comments »

Book Review – Who You Claim

September 22, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , ,

Robert Garot‘s Who You Claim – Performing Gang Identity in School and On The Streets is a great and highly readable account of the life of high school students living in a gang-dominated area (mostly, Bloods and Crips).

The book is based on a study the author conducted while volunteering to tutor students at risk (although a lot of them seemed to be past that point) at a high school of last resort for students who had been expelled from pretty much anywhere else. The study was conducted in waves as Garot came back and met with school administrators, teachers and students over a period of years. While tutoring, he conducted interviews with these people, especially students, asking them about identity and performance (not in those terms) at school and on the streets.

Garot also relied very heavily on a body of sociological literature in which I was up to my eyeballs while writing my doctoral dissertation: Goffman and the whole ethnomethodological / conversational analysis canon. Armed with this literature and his body of interviews, Garot proceeds to shatter and slay some myths about gangs and the relationship between youth and gang identity that are widespread in criminological / media / policy circles.

The result is a rather gripping book that is highly enjoyable to read, although the content might be depressing at times in terms of blocked opportunity and social closure on these youths. The chapter that Garot devotes early in the book on the kind of education the youths receive at the school is a serious indictment of the way the educational system treats at-risk students. It is pathetic and sad and goes a long way towards explaining why so many of them just drop out or disappear. It takes enormous effort for these kids to stick with it (way more effort than at a well-funded, suburban school).

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Garot roots for these students and cares deeply about them and is highly critical of the institutional processes that generate so much alienation and of failed public policy.

So, what is the book all about? The book revolves around the concept of identity not as solid, reified and fixed defining feature of individuals but as a fluid resource that is produced and reproduced in flexible ways and mobilized by social actors (students, in this case) as they go about their business, try to get themselves an education or any other thing they need to do in their gang-dominated neighborhood. One can see why, then, Garot selected Goffman (presentation of self, interaction rituals, impression management) and the EM/CA corpus (“doing gang identity” as much as one “does gender”) for his study (all notations from Kindle edition).

“Through dress, mannerisms, and language, individuals make and dispute claims to identity based in socially recognized categories, and such claims and contestations become the bases for sustaining interaction.” (1).

Through and through, Garot’s study shows how skillful these students are at displaying and using an identity that is both stigmatized and criminalized by society and yet necessary to master if one is to survive in their area. One has to be able to display the proper signals when walking around the neighborhood, the very same signals that are not allowed in school. these signals indicate not simply “I’m in gang” v. “I’m not in a gang”. In reality, Garot shows that there are shades of grey between these two polar opposites. It is a study on the use of stigmatized, practical knowledge that shapes interactions and constitute what John Heritage used to call an architecture of intersubjectivity, despite all sorts of institutional obstacles.

For starters, the concept of “gang” itself is problematic (hence the problem of any social scientific research that uncritically accepts commonsense concepts, as Durkheim taught us long ago).

“Classification of gangs is a daunting task, and with inclusion of other youth collectivities, it is even more so. In addition to diversity and change, youth collectivities come in many forms, which sometimes merge and change in other ways: There are drug gangs, or ‘crews’; ‘wilding’ groups; milling crowds; smaller networks involved in delinquency; ‘tagger crews’; mods, rockers, and soccer hooligans; skinheads and bikers; prison gangs; seemingly ad infinitum.” (4)

More than that, gangs are always reduced to violent and illegal activities, even though, time and again, studies have shown that they provide social services that are otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhood. And, again, once a person is assumed to be a gang member, it is assumed that this person is 100%, 24/7 a gang member. It is based on such essentialist assumptions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies design anti-gang policies. This stance also ignores the fact that one of the major social sites of gang creation is the prison system.

“While gangs on the street may be situated and contingent, perhaps the most lasting and obdurate means by which the state creates gangs is through incarceration.

(…)

Especially remarkable is the lack of discussion of the role of prisons in shaping gangs in much of the gang literature, when one of the strongest findings of prison studies is that incarceration has effects that contradict its supposed purposes, ensuring that convicts will mature in criminal knowledge, contacts, and sophistication.51 Prisons are especially efficacious in ensuring the growth of gangs; depended upon as a source of social control, gangs have become firmly institutionalized there. Many gangs owe their fruition to the prison context,

(…)

Gangs not only maintain order inside prisons but are also integral for meeting prisoners’ needs once they leave. A great deal of recent scholarship has focused on how social institutions are both disinclined and ill prepared to accommodate returning convicts, who typically become concentrated in neighborhoods that already face myriad economic and social disadvantages.” (7)

So, rather than treat gang identity as a reified category that defines someone’s identity once and for all, Garot prefers to treat identity as performance:

“In ecologies where gangs are active, young people may modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing makeup, and hiding or revealing tattoos, playing with markers of embodied identity to obscure, reveal, or provide contradictory signals on a continuum from gang related to non−gang related. Yet few studies of gangs appear hip to these nuances. When it comes to understanding gang membership, most of the gang literature is mired in notions from the 1950s that identity simply is, rather than is artfully created and contingent on circumstances and audience.” (13)

As Garot also puts it (and I wish I could make a poster of it): “dress is how we wear the social.” (45) So, an additional challenge that students have to address is how to dress when one is expected to display some gang insignia in order to navigate the neighborhood while the school requires a dress code.

Garot perfectly illustrates the absurdity of dress codes as such:

“First, a wannabe (see chapter 5) could be fully decked out as a gangster and yet not be recognized as such (at least not by actual gang members) no matter how he dresses. In contrast, a reputable OG (original gangster) doesn’t need to dress in any specific way to please anybody—reputation makes an outward demonstration of allegiances superfluous. Second, the combination of items of clothing, along with accessories, is important for creating the overall gestalt of a “gang member.” A young person may well look like a gang member to an outsider, but if certain key aspects of the ensemble are missing, such as the combination of items of clothing, or of clothing along with a certain haircut or item of jewelry, he or she may well be overlooked by gang members. Third, these characteristic markers are fluid and changing, much too quickly for anyone to regulate. One way of “representing” works in this neighborhood but not the next; one style was vogue last week but not this week. Such changes may even entail ways of subverting changing dress codes, in a potentially infinite, perverse loop between the panoptic gaze of authority and the wily creativity of youth. Fourth, the most important aspect of appearing as a gang member has to do not with the clothes but with how the clothes are worn. How one embodies one’s clothes, by sagging them, or walking with a certain style, or cocking the head just a little bit, is impervious to legal regulation, easily escaping supervision, and is the fundamental way of marking gang membership, no matter what color, style, or brand one is wearing.” (45)

In addition, Garot shows that the enforcement of the dress code by the school was always more a matter of individual discipline and intimidation rather than consistent school policy. Dress codes are presented as matters of student safety when they are actually matters of adult authority. The entire chapter that Garot devotes to dress codes is fascinating.

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to how to answer the omnipresent question “Where you from” that people in this neighborhood have to be ready to answer at all times. It is a skill that might save one’s life or at least prevent a beating. This is a question that always comes from a gang member as a way of proving toughness. And, of course, it is an interaction ritual in which one must skillfully determine how to present one’s self. Students know that they might have to answer that question on their way to and from school. This question is a question about gang identity and affiliation.

This ritual always involves an instigator (the one asking the question or “banging on” or “hitting up” or “sweating”) from a respondent in a public place. Being hit up implies three assumptions:

  1. the instigator is a gang member;
  2. the instigator is willing to engage in violence;
  3. the instigator implies that the respondent will understand what is at stake.

To answer “nowhere” is to show weakness and assume an inferior status (“ranker”) and leaves the instigator in a superior position. To claim a gang, on the other hand, carries risk but so does ranking out when one does belong to a gang. Young people then (those most likely to be hit up) have to know where to go to avoid being hit up, know how to dress, know what to say and what kind of emotions to display (if any at all).

The question is also often asked as a form of harassment and intimidation, but also as a physical challenge where the instigator expects it will lead to a physical fight.

This means that living in such areas carries many risks that young people have been socialized to know how to face at a young age and that no one up the social ladder ever has to face. It is always amusing to hear commentators on TV blather on as to how people who have become successful are those who took risks. The real risk-takers are those teenagers who have to carefully think about their every move on the street (whether they are gang members or not) from the moment they leave the house in the morning (if they do) to go to school or to work as every step they take will carry real physical risks to their safety and lives. It is not comparable to the risk of losing money in the failed business venture. It is an absolute privilege to never be asked “where you from” in one’s life.

Garot also devotes some space to the idea of fluidity in gangs by showing that (1) there are a number of groups that are often defined as gangs where they are in reality forms of sporadic social groups (such as cliques, crews, cowbangers, or taggers), and (2) membership in a gang covers diverse realities. Garot goes into more details in the group life of tagging crews and the amount of ritualization that shapes the activities of the group and the behavior of individual members:

“Taggers pride themselves on “can control”: being able to achieve a smooth coat of paint with a minimum of drips. Taggers often have idiosyncratic and stylized ways of holding their cans. They may push the button with their middle finger, index finger, or thumb. They also must find a way to carry the can as they run between tagging sites so that the “little ball” inside will not bounce too much. One consultant found that the back of his pants under his waistband was the best place to manage this.

Taggers take solace in such skills in order to manage the considerable and obvious risks. Of course, tagging is illegal, and especially with the rise of “broken windows” policing, emphasizing the façade of public order over all else, taggers break numerous public ordinances, including trespassing, defacement of public property, and violation of curfew.10 While both fast and slow taggers take pride in the mere act of tagging, these are far from the only skills involved. Management skills are necessary to attract and organize members, maintain a group, and strategically plan “bombing runs.” Skills in shoplifting are important, as many taggers steal their materials. The possibilities for self-expression and action are potentially infinite, expanding far beyond the basic act of tagging.

Some might say that taggers are simply thrill seekers, but such an explanation is far from sufficient, since tagging involves many nuanced skills. One of the most exciting aspects of tagging involves imagining the expressive possibilities, but nothing compares to the thrill of running the streets under cover of darkness, dealing with whatever may come, whether enemies, angry property owners, or the police, and showing others the tag at a later date, a mnemonic for the good times that were had.

Leaders of crews will monitor walls to ensure that younger members are “putting in work.” If not, the leader may assign them a mission. If the younger member does not perform the mission adequately, he may be disciplined (punched) by the leader. The more work put in, the more prestige a tagger has in his crew. Work that is especially dangerous, such as tagging freeway signs or the outside of the girders of bridges over freeways (referred to as “heavens”), is especially valued.

A tagging crew must have enemies. Enemies are created through “beefs.” In exploring “beefs,” we begin to see the highly structured and ritualized nature of some inner-city conflict, as well as the indigenous ways to resolve it. A beef can be created in a number of ways. The most common way is for one crew to “cross out” another crew’s tags. Leaders will often explain, “We gotta go down [i.e., fight] with them because they crossed us out.” Another way is through disrespect or fights that may erupt between members of rival crews. Once two crews “have a beef,” members must fight their rivals on sight. This is why taggers may “hit up” strangers by demanding, “What you write.” If the stranger claims a rival crew, the two must “go at it,” usually only with fists.

(…)

After a beef has endured for a fair amount of time, leaders may decide to “squash the beef.” To do so, the crews must “battle.” Rival crews become quite excited about a battle, as it channels action into a highly structured ritual, combining the thrill and chance of a gamble with the rules and formality of a sport.” (98 – 9)

Garot also creates a typology of gang involvement, which is not an all or nothing affair.

  • Wannabee or hook: someone who claims a gang without having been formally accepted by it. Wannabees are those who are most likely to show off the most gang signals. To be called a wannabee is a pejorative designation.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang without being member: this allows to get all the social perks of being part of a gang without paying the price for it, especially participation in violence.
  • Still in a gang – no longer gangbanging: these are usually individuals who have acquired enough status to no longer have to prove themselves through dangerous activities.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang, still caught up in violence: those are individuals who may be close to aging out of a gang.
  • “Kicking it” but with difficulty managing it: especially individuals whose gang identity conflict with other identities they have (family, for instance); being member of one gang but having to live in an area dominated by another.
  • Banging to the fullest: that one is pretty much self-explanatory although even the youth at that end of the continuum are more nuanced and three-dimensional than most gang studies show. Rival gangs can come together for a common cause (some sort of charitable work).

And there is always the possibility of avoiding gang membership altogether even though these youths might still wear gang insignia.

When it comes to violence though, Goffman’s insights on face and face-saving behavior are very much operative. And when Garot’s consultants (as he called the students he interviewed) avoid violence, they often provide not only elaborate strategies for doing so (such as talking one’s way out of a fight) but also clear rationalizations that point to the fact that they did not do so out of cowardice:

  • the odds were too unequal;
  • potential negative consequences (being expelled from school or putting others in danger);
  • the reason for the fight (a game of basketball, for instance) wasn’t worth it;
  • the potential opponent was too weak (or a woman).

[This is very reminiscent of Tilly’s work, Why?.]

In addition, Garot also shows the enormous (and exhausting, I would add) amount of face-work and emotional management these youths have to do in their day-to-day interactions with school officials, instigators, gang members, etc.

“Aside from a few remarkable exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked the emotional dynamics of disputes. In the literature on emotion management, on the other hand, much of the richest data focuses on how workers intrapersonally manage disputes. Arlie Russell Hochschild developed the notion of emotion management to reveal how individuals attune themselves through “surface acting” and “deep acting” to the rules and ideologies of private and public life. Hochschild was especially concerned with the emotive dissonance and alienation wrought when emotional labor is compelled by an employer, and one must attune one’s feelings, like it or not, to the demands of the workplace. This chapter, on the other hand, focuses on how emotive dissonance may also result from the everyday phenomenon of emotion work, when young people must restrict their desire to retaliate because of structural constraints. Such emotion work involves considerable skills to manage a dangerous situation. Young people struggle to attune their actions and emotions to the demands of social structure by “lumping it,” or in local terms “sucking it up,” even as they express the fantastic desire to indulge in righteous retaliation.” (144)

Emphasis mine. 

Garot also shows that things are actually more complicated and nuanced than what Elijah Anderson depicted in The Code of The Street (that book actually takes quite a beating in Garot’s study):

“Despite dicta that one cannot back down from a conflict without losing respect, it is important that we consider seriously what members take as circumstances that mitigate the necessity of such measures. An “affront” or “insult” in itself is not sufficient to inspire retaliation. Rather, individuals take into account the effect of violence on their social ties before responding, and they learn to exercise skills at emotion management in order to remain in control.” (159)

In the end then, Garot argues for reclaiming gangs from criminology and treat these groups as they should:

“Studying gangs as a social movement constitutes an important step away from the discourse of gangs as pathology. Such a perspective, long overdue in the gang literature, recognizes structural, marginalizing conditions but shows that gang members are far from mere victims of circumstance.” (180)

And this involves adopting a soft version of identity (as opposed to the hard, reified, essentialist version) that treats it as a produced accomplishment contingent on a variety of contextual factors, and also as a resource that actors can tap into as the need arises, such as being hit up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I should add that it is highly readable at undergraduate levels. One could even extract a couple of chapters for students to read and study. The amount of debunking it does will be an eye-opener to a lot of people. They should make it mandatory reading for criminologists and law enforcement members. Hopefully, this book can find its way to where it should be read.

Here is an interview with Robert Garot. Part 1:

And part 2:

Posted in Book Reviews, Education, Gender, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – A Sociology of Gifted Children

August 25, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”)  is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.

The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.

At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.

Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.

So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.

Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.

Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.

Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.

For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).

So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.

Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.

And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.

The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.

Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement  and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.

Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their  children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.

But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.

The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.

As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.

And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.

Part 1


Entretien Wilfried Lignier (1ère partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 2:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (2ème partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 3:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (3ème partie) by contretempsweb2

And here too:


Wilfried Lignier – La petite noblesse de… by Librairie_Mollat

Posted in Book Reviews, Education, Socialization, Sociology | No Comments »

Death By A Thousand Buzzwords

August 16, 2012 by and tagged ,

So, my workplace has three convocation days before the beginning of the term. Or, as I call them, “three days of doing nothing useful” where most of us would like it much better to be finalizing our preparations for the classes we will meet on Monday. During these days, we get exposed, courtesy of our multiplying administrators, to the latest trends in corporatizing public education. Today was not exception. We got a keynote speaker who was supposed to enlighten us on the latest trends in innovation and networks as related to higher ed. I should have made a bingo card with all the buzzwords flying around:

  • MOOCs – check! (never mind that deliver no credits, people will take the course and test out of credit classes that way)
  • flipped classrooms – check! (you mean we don’t lecture ALL the time?)
  • obligatory and laudatory references to the Gates Foundation and TED talks – check! (again just read this)
  • unquestioned mention of the greatness of the Khan Academy – check! (never mind this)
  • Awesome generational generalizations – check! (The Millenials, they like the technology, you know, and you have to entertain in 5 minutes increments)

Although, frankly, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of references to black swans and long tails.

Also, please update your vocabulary: data are now called analytics. That sounds much cooler. And technology will save education… but not from the technocrats, I’m afraid. And beware of the cave people (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything, how clever) – a label I will proudly claim – and the true believers (those who embrace all the latest trends… our speaker saw no irony here).

The other irony is that our speaker spoke of the use of these technologies to increase critical thinking on the part of our students, without a shred of critical analysis on his part. I suspect these kinds of talks are proliferating across the higher education world and they are highly problematic. Here is why.

Generational generalizations

I have already blogged about this. These presentations are usually based on “how the millenials” behave, how they use technology, etc. But speakers like these are not talking about millenials as an age cohort. They are talking about a category of individuals who have money to keep up with the latest devices and technologies (such as gaming platforms), and the time to spend online. This involves a certain level of affluence. In this context, generation substitutes for class and actually allows for the elision of class altogether.

It has been successful in fueling some political divide and conquer where it’s all the Boomers fault (the current US campaign is full of it) :

Why?

Because to reintroduce class would involve asking some disturbing questions and looking back as decades of sociological research on social stratification in general and within the education world in particular. That means talking about student debt and for-profit racketeering operations. In our talk today, inequalities were only mention to indicate that higher education was the only social ladder available in the context – another one of my pet peeves – of education reduced to job training.

But generations are not homogeneous groups. They are socially-constructed categories of analysis that push other to the back ground, not only class, but also race and gender. For instance, our speaker discussed gaming as educational strategy. No mention of the fact that even though women represent 47% of gamers, they have to deal with an enormous amount of misogyny and men and women do not entirely game the same. Some nuance beyond the “wow… 47% of gamers are women” stats would have been useful.

At the same time, once generations have been produced as category of analysis, they are then reified into a set of traits that apparently cannot be changed so we might as well adjust to them.

Salvation by networking technology

This one goes beyond education and is at the heart of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of the cyber-utopians. Founders of technology companies see social problems as problems that can all be solved by technology. That is the essence of TED talks. If we unleashed social networking technologies across societies, with the right hardware / software / tech skills, solutions are at hand. Technocracy, buzzwords and hype go together. Give every child an iPad.

It seems absurd when I put it that way, it is amazing how easily accepted this has become.

But there is a bigger problem, I think.

None of this is politically neutral or benign

Because these trends in innovation are rooted in technology and analytics, they are presented to us as objective and neutral. This neatly depoliticizes them. TED talks have that approach as well, which is why they canned a talk on social inequalities as too political and controversial.

Most of these trends in education / higher education talks avoid any discussion of social class, inequalities, stratification, gender and race. Instead, they reduce students to either the networked individual who should receive a customized education or the upper middle class generational archetype who is intensely tuned to latest trends in information technologies. Issues of costs are reduced to technological discussions (e-books can be rented for cheap, MOOCs are free, etc.). Online classes, in this view, are populated by the neoliberally-imagined student as consumer who knows exactly what she is doing and wants, has a clear educational plan and an instrumental / consumerist approach to education-as-job-training.

And you can what / who is neatly disappeared from the stage. Yeah. That is never really mentioned clearly but that is what is at the root of so much technological innovation supposed to salvage education.

There is also no mention of the different ways in which all these technologies require extensive surveillance processes and data mining on the students. But the students don’t mind, we have been told. They love it. After all, they post pictures of themselves drunk on Facebook, so, it’s all good.

And the bottom line of the speech was one power point slide after another (after the speaker had promised no death by power point) of corporate logos of a range of products that have already made the rounds for those of us who keep track of that, including non-critical mention of a certain site that where students can anonymously rate professors which should have ended the credibility of our speaker right there. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Selling brands.

The speech gimmicks

The speech techniques that such speakers deploy are themselves problematic. Here again, you could have a bingo card of items you are guaranteed to get in such speech: the little interactive activity to ensure everybody is paying attention, except you couch making people clap their hands and cross their fingers in neuroscientific terms and it sounds a lot cooler than just “clap your hands”.

Somewhere, you are going to have the amusing yet insightful anecdote about the speaker’s children which will lead to a generalizing from “kids these days” to something about the Millenials and how cool it is that they get stuff on the Internet where we had to trudge to the library and use typed cards and microfiche (how quaint).

Then, you will also get the sad and moving story that will pull at your heart strings, usually at the end so you leave the speech with an emotional high so you’ll forget that a whole lot of stuff you heard was nonsense.

And then, today, we got something that was disturbing. somewhere earlier in the speech, the speaker asked those of us who were using mobile devices (yours truly, guilty as charged) to give it or swap with the person next to you. The point was to show how attached we are to these devices and how long it would take before we all freaked out and started yelling “gimme back my iPhone”. To amuse the crowd, the speaker told us a little story of how he had done this exercise with another group and a young man went pale when he had to pass his device to the person next to him. Turns out the person next to him was his boss that everybody had nicknamed ‘Satan” because he was vile and mean. How amusing! The speaker thought the young man was totally addicted to his device when in fact, it had to do with something else entirely!

And the something else entirely is what is also always missing from these talks: power. The little, seemingly innocent exercise would lead to pretty nasty consequences in the context of power differentials. But in the world of these speakers, power dynamics do not exist. Networks have erased them. The professor now uses technology that erase his presence in the context of “content delivery” (as opposed to teaching). It’s as if colleges and universities are not ruled by strict hierarchies overlaid over class, race and gender stratification.

One would think that the Satan incident would have put an end to this activity, but apparently not since we had to do it this morning. Fortunately for me, I was seated next to a friend.

Posted in Corporatism, Education | 1 Comment »

Richard Sennett on Public Issues as Personal Problem

July 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

In the Guardian, as part of the “graduate without a future” series:

“But at a personal level, what should a kid do? One answer I’ve explored with my students is emigration. There are in fact plenty of jobs for British graduates in the Far East and in Latin America, where British degrees are in demand. As always, emigration carries a high personal human cost – loss of connection with family and friends, the risk that life may move on and you may not be able to return. Since I teach a rarified subject – social theory – I put the issue to my own students like this: do you care so much about your work that you would abandon home? Increasingly, many are willing.

A less drastic answer involves dealing with “flexible” labour markets – “flexible” means short-term work with no job security and few prospects for advancement; if the current government has its way and employers are able to fire on a whim, labour will become even more flexible on these terms. One way my students deal with this is to make unstable day jobs tolerable by night work of a more sustained, personally meaningful kind, like writing a book or doing voluntary service. This, however, is a solution only for highly motivated, inner-driven kids, and it requires a thick psychological hide; daytime stress, insecurity and depression can dislodge the night anchor.

Our masters celebrate the entrepreneur, and for a few of my students the startup is an option so long as they do not fear failure. About 60% of small businesses fail in their first year, and 76%-80% in three years, principally for lack of capital. I’ve students of Kant who have set up a co-operative food network, and a Hegel student who has organised a lesbian dating service (what would The Master say?); better, they think, to fail than to regret – but this is no long-term recipe for a whole generation. What galls me about the current situation is that a structural problem of capitalism has been dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem; even though emigration, the night anchor, and the startup can help some, the system remains intact.”

What he describes here is a trend he himself, along with Zygmunt Bauman, have analyzed for the past 20 years: the idea that system creates contradictions and conundra that have to be solved by individuals with no social assistance. No more salvation by society. Be your own entrepreneur, uproot and leave, or embrace the flexible and thoroughly precarized lifestyle. Of course, one can try any of these (although they do take a bit of social privilege to start with, in terms of economic, social or cultural capital; the underprivileged are already fully precarized with no access to capital to start a business, no means of easy – and legal – emigration). These solutions are the individualized decisions to be made when one lives in the risk society. One is one’s own business project.

To extend on Sennett’s points, I think precarized individualization is what is really going on with the “I’m busy” trend from the privileged corners that has been much discussed after the publication of this article:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

Being busy and keeping busy, besides being a puritan injunction against shiftlessness, has more to do with continuously working on one’s own self-project (and continuous improvement is a corporate mantra foisted upon a lot of organizations, public and private, as a way of increasing administrative bloat and control as well as shaking the system permanently and generating greater insecurity).

While you’re not busy, someone might be getting a new certificate in the latest social networking platform or ICT. And the more insecure and precarized life is, the busier one must look (without looking tired, hence the increase in plastic surgery for the corporate class, men and women). And as the article mentions, keeping busy is applied to children as well. One has to fill resumes with truckloads of extra-curricular activities, especially now that one might compete with a lot of other students with similar degrees.

And since one must always make a virtue of a necessity, the busyness of Americans is heralded as a mark of superiority over countries with more paid vacations (even less vacation does not translate into greater productivity).

To claim to be busy then is a claim that one is constantly working on oneself as productive project.

Back to Sennett, what solutions does he advocate?

  • Job-sharing
  • Apprenticeships (real ones, not the ever-expanding unpaid internships)… real ones
  • Getting rid of the idea (and practice) that universities should be just vocational centers (a pet peeve of mine):

“Perhaps surprisingly in this regard, I’d like to see universities stop preparing young people for the work world, at least as they now attempt to do. Part of the problem is misplaced specificity: if you have a BA in hotel catering management and there are no jobs for hotel caterers you are, as it were, in the soup. Moreover, universities have expanded massively the numbers of students taking supposedly practical courses, making the problem of scarcity only worse; this year in Britain thousands of students will graduate with MBA’s to then compete for a relatively scant number of jobs. We would do much better to provide young people with intellectual challenge and depth – which is what universities are properly about. The number of jobs would not thereby increase; the integrity of the academic enterprise would.”

A-bloody-men to that.

Of course, this is not the direction of the increasingly corporate-driven higher education where there is a growing “get them in and out quickly with a certificate” trend, thanks to the growing ranks of administrators with no understanding of education.

And this:

“If young people today prove a lost generation, it is only because government, business and academia have failed them. There are remedies to prevent this failure, but Britain has radically to revise its beliefs and labour practices to take this medicine. So far, instead, we’ve made finding one’s place in the work world a personal problem.”

And one that they are expected to solve on their own, in the name of personal responsibility.

Posted in Education, Labor, Precarization, Public Policy, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Visualizing Decline

May 14, 2012 by and tagged

Through higher education:

As the article notes:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the US led the world on college enrollment. In fact, since the passing of the GI bill in 1944, America had been forging a path. That bill led to 2.2 million American infantrymen attending university in the 12 years in was in effect.

But a generation later, the US hasn’t changed at all, while the rest of the developed world has more or less caught up with it – and some of its key competitors have overtaken it.

The country could once boast the best educated workforce in the world. No longer.”

Posted in Education | 2 Comments »

Neil Gross Does Some Nice Debunking in the NYT

March 4, 2012 by and tagged ,

I know, I know, exposing Rick Santorum as hack, a hypocrite, and a pompous know-nothing is like shooting fish in a barrel but some people seem to believe he makes sense but the whole myth that commie college professors brainwash their students (if only!) and turn them into liberal socialo-feminazi zombies is so widespread that it is still worth debunking. It is a dirty job and someone has to do it. Neil Gross does it today:

First, the facts:

“But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.

Similarly, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker analyzed data from a survey that tracked the political attitudes of about 1,000 high school students through their college years and into middle age. Their research found that the tendency of college graduates to be more liberal reflects to a large extent the fact that more liberal students are more likely to go to college in the first place.

Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. The sociologists Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found that Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.””

Then, the explanation:

“Conservatives have been criticizing academia for many decades. Yet only once the McCarthy era passed did this criticism begin to be cast primarily in anti-elitist tones: charges of Communist subversion gave way to charges of liberal elitism in the writings of William F. Buckley Jr. and others. The idea that professors are snobs looking down their noses at ordinary Americans, trying to push the country in directions it does not wish to go, soon became an established conservative trope, taking its place alongside criticism of the liberal press and the liberal judiciary.

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.”

Of course, none of this analysis will matter to an audience that listens to words as emotional triggers rather than parts of logical arguments, which is why the Republican audience seems to be doing. Which is why it is somewhat pointless to think that points are scored every time a lie gets debunked as the truth has become irrelevant. Truth is what makes them feel good and righteous. And these feelings are sustained by activating anger and resentment not through facts (the Tea Party people belong to privileged demographics) but through emotional trigger points, as when Senator Kyl told a while back that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion. It was easy enough to debunk and Kyl quickly admitted that he did not mean the statement to be factual. And on that he was right. The statement was an emotional trigger. It worked. That is the way we should interpret Republican rhetoric.

This is why, again, it is pointless to think points have been scored by showing the truth to be, well, not conservative. It is important to do it for the record and, hopefully, for public discourse (the mainstream media are rather hopeless in that department, I am afraid). But no one in the conservative side will change their minds based on a logically constructed argument supported by facts.

Posted in Education, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

January 9, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  ”ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Capital, Culture, Education, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Cash Transfer Programs for The Poor Work

September 5, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Hey kids, remember when I reviewed Just Give Money to the Poor, a book that analyzes the different cash transfer programs in the Global South, their modalities, consequences, limitations, and more importantly, their successes. These programs almost completely obliterate the stereotypes conservatives have regarding the poor and their supposed irresponsibility and laziness.

Well well:

“Conditional cash payments to poor families with children in Argentina “have had a very positive impact”, says an enthusiastic Graciela Dulcich, the principal of a primary school in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“Once the kids are enrolled in school, the responsibility is ours, and if they miss class for more than three days, we have to move heaven and earth to find out what’s going on, and to make them start coming again,” she explained.

For the past 35 years, Dulcich has worked in public schools in low-income neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital, such as school number 34, which she currently heads in San Isidro, a Buenos Aires district marked by strong social contrasts.

In late 2009, the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández introduced the Universal Child Allowance (AUH), which now grants 220 pesos ($53) a month for each child under 18, up to a maximum of five, to parents who are unemployed or work in the informal sector of the economy.

In the case of disabled children, the monthly allowance is four times that. The AUH was later expanded to the children of domestics, pregnant women, and low-earning members of co-operatives.

The cash transfer, which is now received by the families of more than 3.6 million children and adolescents, is conditional on school attendance and keeping up to date on vaccines and health checkups.

Independent studies show that the AUH has led to a drastic – between 55% and 70% – reduction in extreme poverty, as well as a less significant drop in the levels of poverty and inequality.

But the impact has not only been felt by the families who have been helped out of poverty thanks to the monthly cash payment that tops off the income they are able to make by working. The effects have also been felt in schools, especially at the primary level, where the AUH has led to a big jump in enrolment.

And, according to Dulcich, “once the school got the kids to come in, it won them back – in other words, even if they skip school one week out of three, they are in the system, and are followed up on.

“We do all sorts of things to get them to attend class,” from cheering and applauding every day for the ones who show up, to phoning or even visiting the homes of the children who miss class, the principal said.

She explained that the education ministry requires monthly reports on attendance. “If I report to the ministry that there are kids who have dropped out, or that many have repeated the year, they reprimand me and ask for detailed reports. This is the pressure we face, which is why everything possible must be done to make sure the kids come to class,” Dulcich said.

Primary schools can also refer children to psychologists or social workers, and offer the families guidance on medical or dental questions, as well as advice on different problems.

With regard to the families of children who habitually miss class, and “who do not have a culture of regular school attendance”, a bigger effort is made in terms of following up on their situation, Dulcich explained. Many of these families make a living by sorting garbage on the street for sellable recyclable materials like paper and cardboard – they are known as “cartoneros” in Argentina – work that the children often do alongside their parents.

“But for the mothers who never give up, the ones who ask us if they can give the address and phone number of the school as a reference when they go to look for a job, the AUH is highly appreciated,” she said.”

This perfectly illustrates the importance of not just giving money but also not overburden with conditionality (like making mothers attend tons of workshop) and focus on one or two very specific conditions and help parents meet those with adapted services. This is the way poor families can escape the poverty trap: if having a child in school brings income to the parents, then that child no longer has to beg on the streets or sort garbage with her parents. It embeds education and healthcare into family subcultures. It makes life less uncertain, precarious and risky for these people and therefore helps them make longer-term plans rather than just survive on a day by day basis.

And no, this is not a magic bullet against poverty. It should be one program among others, one that has proven its success though. And yes, maybe a few will take advantage of it. But that, in itself, does not invalidate the value of a particular public policy. But let’s not forget that Western countries, especially in Western Europe, have massively use cash transfer programs in building up their middle and working classes, with success. On top of it: these programs are not that costly, especially considering the social benefits.

Posted in Development, Education, Poverty, Precarization, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Would The Members of The Precariat Please Stand up?

September 4, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is another installment in a series of posts (herehere and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is the composition of the precariat and the consequences of such categories for society as a whole, in terms of social integration and social solidarity (how very durkheimian).

So, who is in the precariat?

“One answer is ‘everybody, actually’. Falling into the precariat could happen to most of us, if accidents occurred or a shock wiped out the trappings of security many have come to rely on. That said, we must remember that the precariat does not just comprise victims; some members enter the precariat because they do not want the available alternatives, some because it suits their particular circumstances at the time. In short, there are varieties of precariat.

Some enter the precariat due to mishaps, some are driven in it, some enter hoping it will be a stepping stone to something else, even if it does not offer a direct route, some choose to be in it instrumentally – including old agers and students simply wishing to obtain a little money or experience – and some combine a precariat activity with something else, as is increasingly common in Japan. Others find that what they have been doing for years, or what they were training to do, becomes part of an insecure precariat existence.” (59)

Standing then distinguishes between two categories within the precariat: the grinners (those who enter the precariat more or less voluntarily, such as students taking casual jobs and expect that to be temporary) and the groaners (those pushed into the precariat). Every demographic category of the precariat has its grinners and groaners. Among old agers, the grinners are those with decent pensions and benefits who get temporary jobs for the extra money or to fund some leisure activity. The groaners are those deprived of such benefits and who have to work for a living. For women, the grinners are those who have a partner with a solid and well-paying job in the salariat and who take jobs also for the extra money and treat them as a sideline. The groaners are those who have no such flexibility and need to work full-time.

Indeed, there is a major gender aspect to the precariat. The feminization of labor and of globalization has pushed more women into the workforce, often in a precarized fashion. Export processing zones are home to a generation of young women. Interestingly, the precariat has long been the norm for women in the workforce while it is relatively new for men (who were the ones who got the stable, unionized and well-paying jobs of the post-War period of expansion). The precariat becomes an major issue when it affects more men. As the ‘family wage’ (a feature of the industrial age, a man’s wage) has been more and more replaced with the individualized wage, women have seen their obligations multiply: forget about Arlie Hochschild’s second shit, enters Standing’s triple burden (paid work, housework / child care and eldercare)… these are the same women that experts in development have charged with meeting the MDGs (shall we consider that the quadruple burden).

So, let’s compare and contrast: women, who get a greater share of precariat jobs have to deal with the triple burden (and a host of other issues such as abusive bosses, horrendous working conditions, and the violence they are more likely to experience… see Juarez); as Standing shows, men, on the other hand, pushed into the precariat, have to adjust to the blow to their masculinity. Allow me to not feel too bad. Downward mobility is never fun but the ledger is still a lot longer on women’s side.

The youth are another major category of the precariat. The Global South has very large young cohorts but the same cohorts in the Global North, while smaller in numbers, do not have it easy either. And part of the reason for that is something that really is at the heart of the precariat: the commodification of education. Standing does not mince his words or mask his contempt for the promoters of education-as-business:

“The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.

Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed to the margins.

The education system is being globalised. It is brashly depicted as an industry, as a source of profits and export earnings, a zone of competitiveness, with countries, universities and schools ranked by performance indicators. It is hard to parody what is happening. Administrators have taken over schools and universities, imposing a ‘business model’ geared to the market. Although its standards have plunged abysmally,  the leader of the global ‘industry’ is the United States. Universities tend to compete not by better teaching but by offering a ‘luxury model’ – nice dormitories, fancy sports and dancing facilities, and the appeal of celebrity academic, celebrated for their non-teaching achievements.

Symbolising the loss of Enlightenment values, in the United Kingdom in 2009, responsibility for universities was transferred from the education department to the department for business. The then business minister, Lord Mandelson, justified the transfer as follows: ‘I want the universities to focus more on commercialising the fruits of their endeavour… business has to be central’.

Commercialisation of schooling at all levels is global. A successful Swedish commercial company is exporting a standardised schooling system that minimises direct contact between teachers and pupils and electronically monitors both. In higher education, teacher-less teaching and ‘teacher-less classrooms’ are proliferating (Giridharadas, 2009). The Masschusetts Institute of Technology has launched Open Courseware Consortium, enlisting universities around the world to post courses online free of charge, including professors’ notes, videos and exams. The iTunes portal offers lectures from Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere. The University of the People. founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free (tuition-less) bachelor degrees, through what it calls ‘peer-to-peer teaching’ – students learning not from teachers but from fellow students, trading questions and answers online.

Commercialisers claim it is about ‘putting the consumers in charge’. Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems and an investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online, argued that teachers should re-position themselves as ‘coaches, not content creators’, customising materials to students while piping in others’ superior teaching. This commodification and standardisation is cheapening education, denuding the profession of its integrity and eroding the passing on of informal knowledge. It is strengthening winner-take-all markets and accelerating the dismantling of an occupational community. A market in human capital will increase emphasis on celebrity teachers and universities, and favour norms and conventional wisdom. The Philistines are not at the gates; they are inside them.” (68-9)

And further:

“This commodification of education is a societal sickness. There is a price to pay. If education is sold as an investment good, if there is an unlimited supply of certificates and if these do not yield the promised return, in terms of access to good jobs and high income with which to pay off debts incurred because they were nudged to buy more of the commodity, more entering the precariat will be angry and bitter. The market for lemons comes to mind. As does the old Soviet joke, in which the workers said, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The education variant should be as follows: ‘They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn’. Infantilising the mind is part of the process, not for the elite but for the majority. Courses are made easier, so that pass rates can be maximised. Academics must conform.” (71-2)

And so, community colleges and their multitudes of vocational, narrow certificates are declared the wave of the future. This commercialisation of education is coupled with two precarity traps: (1) a debt trap and therefore, (2) low-income trap in order to pay these debts. And that is on top of the internship explosion I have discussed elsewhere. Interns are part of the precariat and they may be grinners (if they are the privileged few who can afford to NOT work and get a prestigious internship) or groaners (if they have to work and intern at the same time, for degree requirements).

The precariatization of the youth puts them also in competition with another generation: the elderly (or, to use the British phrase, the old agers). And on this, Standing’s predictions are rather gloomy:

“It is the idea of retirement that will fade, along with the pension, which was suited to an industrial age. The reaction to the fiscal crisis has been to roll back early retirement schemes and age-related incapacity benefits, to lower state pensions, to push back the age at which people can claim a state pension and the age at which they can claim a full state pension. Contribution rates have been climbing and the age at which people can receive a pension has gone up, more for women than for men to approach equality. The number of years of contributions to gain entitlement to a state pension has gone up, with the number required to receive a full pension increasing even more. In some countries, notably in Scandinavia, the legal retirement age for eligibility for a state pension is now pegged to life expectancy, so that access to a pension will recede as people on average live longer and will recede with each medical breakthrough.

This amounts to tearing up the old social compact. But the picture is even more complex, for while governments are convinced that they are in a fiscal hole with pensions, they are worried about the effect of ageing on labour supply. Bizarre though it may seem in the midst of recession, governments are looking for ways of keeping older workers in the labour force rather than relying on pensions because they think there will be a shortage of workers. What better way to overcome this than to make it easier for old agers to be in the precariat.” (81)

And it is a double whammy: since more jobs are in the precariat, old agers are more likely to be placed in them (because they might not need a full income from a full time job, for instance, or they are no longer concerned with building a career), and because there are more old agers around, more jobs are created in the precariat. As a result, old agers employment rate did not decline with the 2008 recession.

In addition, the whole pension system is now being individualized through another risk shit as pension schemes are being replaced with individual 401k-type plans where individuals bear all the risk. This move, of course, was pushed for by governments in the Western countries and this has resulted in putting two generations in competition and the odds are not in favor of the young. Governments have been instrumental in three ways, according to Standing, in fostering this intergenerational competition:

  1. Governments have subsidized investments in private pension plans with tax incentives, which is guaranteed to increase inequalities as only those who have enough disposable income can afford to properly fund a 401k or an IRA or any of such kind of plans. And those old agers who have access to pensions can then afford to take jobs that have low wages, thereby exercising a downward pressure on wages.
  2. Governments, such as in Japan, actively encourage firms to retain older employees or recruit them back, again using tax schemes and subsidies, at low status, no seniority.
  3. The anti-discrimination protections for old agers and other forms of anti-age discrimination actually work to maintain old agers in the workforce.

And, of course, old agers do not require maternity leaves, child care arrangements, and other benefits that younger workers might need. The lower costs of older workers erode the bargaining power of younger workers.

And then, there is one last category in the precariat (migrants and other minorities are discussed later in the book): the incarcerated masses.

“The precariat is being fed by an extraordinary number of people who have been criminalised in one way or another. There are more of them than ever. A feature of globalisation has been the growth of incarceration. Increasing numbers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, becoming denizens, without vital rights, mostly limited to a precariat existence. This has had much to do with the revival of utilitarianism and a zeal for penalising offenders, coupled with the technical capacity of the surveillance state and the privatisation of security services, prisons and related activities.

(…)

Criminalisation condemns people to a precariat existence of insecure career-less jobs, and a degraded ability to hold to a long-term course of stable living. There is double jeopardy at almost every point, since beyond being punished for whatever crime they have committed, they will find that punishment is accentuated by barriers to their normal involvement in society.

However, there is also growth of a precariat inside prisons. We consider how China has resorted to prison labour in chapter 4.  But countries as dissimilar as the United States, United Kingdom and India are moving in similar directions. India’s largest prison complex outside Delhi, privatised, of course, is using prisoners to produce a wide range of products, many sold online, with the cheapest labour to be found, working eight-hour shifts for six days a week. Prisoners with degrees can earn about US$1 a day, others a little less. In 2010 the new UK justice minister announced that prison labour would be extended, saying he wanted prisoners to work a 40-hour week. Prison work for a pittance has long been common in the United States. The precariat outside will no doubt welcome the competition.” (88)

This is very reminiscent of Loic Wacquant’s thesis of the neoliberal combination of workfare + prisonfare.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Corporatism, Education, Gender, Globalism, Globalization, Ideologies, Labor, Poverty, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Stratification, Sociology, Structural Violence | 1 Comment »

In Which Sociology Rules (But We Already Knew That)

August 16, 2011 by and tagged ,

No, really (via Lisa Wade), which disciplines improve cognitive skills and critical thinking (read the whole thing for methodology and controls before screaming other variables)?

“The gains came in clusters. At the top was sociology, with an average gain of just over 0.6 standard deviations. Then came multi- and interdisciplinary studies, foreign languages, physical education, math, and business with gains of 0.50 SDs or more.

The large middle cluster included (in descending order) education, health-related fields, computer and information sciences, history, psychology, law enforcement, English, political science, biological sciences, and liberal and general studies.

Behind them, with gains between 0.30 and 0.49 SDs, came communications (speech, journalism, television, radio etc.), physical sciences, nursing, engineering, and economics. The smallest gain (less than 0.01 standard deviations) was in architecture.

The list seemed counterintuitive to me when I first studied it, just as the Kalamazoo data had. In each case, ostensibly rigorous disciples, including most of the STEM disciplines (the exception was math) had disappointing results. Once again the foreign languages shone, while most other humanistic disciplines cohabited with unfamiliar bedfellows such as computer science and law enforcement. Social scientific fields scattered widely, from sociology at the very top to economics close to the bottom.

When one looks at these data, one thing is immediately clear. The fields that show the greatest gains in critical thinking are not the fields that produce the highest salaries for their graduates. On the contrary, engineers may show only small gains in critical thinking, but they often command salaries of over $100,000. Economists may lag as well, but not at salary time, when, according to “What’s It Worth” their graduates enjoy median salaries of $70,000. At the other end majors in sociology and French, German and other commonly taught foreign languages may show impressive gains, but they have to be content with median salaries of $45,000.

Also, entertain yourself by reading the comments where people from other disciplines get all defensive and “not true… We’re too smart too!”.

Posted in Education, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Adventures in College Teaching – Plagiarism… Again

July 18, 2011 by and tagged , ,

(Via) You must read this disheartening and dispiriting account by Panos Ipeirotis on his discovery that over 20% of his students plagiarized. Bottom line? He busted them, but that took an enormous amount of time (45 hours… which incidentally is the number of hours of instruction in my classes for a 3-credit class). It got him lower scores on his student evaluations (duh, you must them, they make you pay for it, but where I work, student evaluations are critical for promotion and tenure, and essential for adjunct faculty), which hurt his salary and not much support from his administrators.

“When 1 out of 5 students in the class being involved in a cheating case, the lectures and class discussions became awkward. For the rest of the semester there was a palpable anxiousness in class. Instead of having friendly discussions, the discussions became contentious. Not a pleasant environment.

This, of course, had a direct effect to my teaching evaluations. Instead of the usual evaluations that were in the region of 6.0 to 6.5 out of seven, this time my ratings went down by almost a point: 5.3 out of 7.0. Instead of being a teacher in the upper percentiles, I was now below average.

The Dean’s office and my chair “expressed their appreciation” for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my “teaching evaluations took a hit this year”.”

His chasing down the cheaters also destroyed class morale and atmosphere:

“Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Not only I paid a significant financial penalty for “doing the right thing” (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I “should change slightly my assignments from year to year”. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.)

Suggestions to change completely the assignments from year to year are appealing on the first sight but they cause others types of problems: It is very difficult to know in advance if an assignment is going to be too easy, too hard, or too ambiguous. Even small-scale testing with TA’s and other faculty does not help. You need to “test” the new assignment by giving it to students. If it is a good one, you want to keep it. If it is a bad one, you just gave to the students a useless exercise.

I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of “me-against-them” as opposed to the much more pleasant “these things that we are learning are really cool!”"

Will I pursue cheating cases in the future? Never, ever again!”

I may have mentioned it before, but where I work, plagiarism is epidemic. So, in a way, I am somewhat “glad” to realize that it’s not “my” students. It’s all over the place. Why? A variety of cultural and institutional reasons.

Degradation of the meaning of education and higher education not only in the culture in general but from within academia itself, where college president and administrators are all about the bottom line: boost enrollment, high retention, maximize tuition, education as job training, a bunch of hoops students should jump through to get that degree (or even better, that vocational certificate… takes less time, costs less money) for higher income.

In that context, there is limited interest in education as, you know, education. Certainly, all colleges and universities have student codes of conduct, but the actual enforcement is just trivial. Administrators usually dislike doing that kind of work and institutional sanctions tend to be of the “slap-on-the-wrist” kind.

As Ipeirotis’s account shows, chasing down cheaters leads to one thing: one major headache and time-sink for the faculty. And I agree that the ” me-against-them” mentality that necessarily develops makes teaching difficult and painful as some basic trust between faculty and students has been broken. A mistrustful environment is not conducive to good teaching or learning as assignments become designed not necessarily to achieve some specific educational goal but to be cheating-proof (not that these two things are necessarily incompatible).

So, is the solution NOT to chase down cheaters? Personally, I think that any student who cheats takes me for an idiot, cheapens the institution I work for and debases the knowledge of the discipline I work hard to convey to them. They should not be rewarded with academic credit. And, of course, every grade not earned contributes to grade inflation.

I should also note that plagiarism also seems to ride the wave of online instruction with their standardized courses, but these generate so much money that there is no real concern about the amount of plagiarism going on there. After all, which college of university would accept a lowering in enrollment as it tightens its standards? Would parents accept to have their children thrown out when caught plagiarizing?

I would have to say that, right now, the cultural climate favors cheating and its tolerance.

Posted in Academia, Culture, Education | 2 Comments »

Book Review – Chavs

July 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Education, Ideologies, Politics, Power, Precarization, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Mobility, Social Privilege, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

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