Monday, October 26, 2015

Grading And The Dreams Of A Frictionless Pedagogy

Cute picture from this site.

I almost didn't get this post done on time because I was too busy grading. If you teach or if you know someone who does, you know that grading is not only massively time-consuming but also one of the least pleasant activities there is. When you're grading, washing the dishes counts as a comparative treat, something you would definitely do in order not to do what you're supposed to be doing, namely, grading.

Actually, I've given a certain amount of thought to the question of why grading is so unpleasant. I like my students. I'm interested in their ideas. Often the work is good. So what's the problem?

I'm sure it varies from person to person, but for me a big part of the answer has to do with the massive decision fatigue -- fatigue that can set in within the first few moments of the first assignment. When I'm grading, my interior monologue is like this:

That sentence is awkward. Is that worth mentioning in the context of the paper as a whole? Should I just say it's awkward or should I explain how its awkwardness affects the meaning? Should I try to say how it could be improved? Is this even worth noticing, given the other problems I should bring to the student's attention? If I give an explanation, will that make the student more or less likely to pay even a second's attention to the comment I've made? Also this part of the paper is unclear. Is it "unclear" like there's a good idea there but it's badly expressed? Is it "unclear" like it's a middling idea that could be improved with specificity? Does the student understand the text they're writing about? Is this unclarity a major issue, affecting the grade? How much?

I don't know how it is for you, but within 45 seconds I'm exhausted and ready to look at some cats on the internet. Too bad though -- there are literally *hours* to go before it's done. 

It's fascinating to me that in all the recent discussion of disruption in pedagogy, grading gets almost no attention. We hear about MOOCs, about flipped classrooms, about whether lectures are evil, but strikingly little about grading. There is, I think, an obvious explanation: while "content delivery" is the kind of thing that *seems* open to radical changes induced by social and technological innovation, grading -- well, grading just isn't.

I guess you could say that in certain areas and for certain subjects, the multiple choice question was a kind of social innovation. But when it comes to things like thinking things through or learning how to write, there is no other way except the massively labor intensive and personalized system we have now: you sit down with a student, or with the student's work, and you discuss with them or write notes to them about the various things they are thinking and writing; you make comments and suggestions, and -- crucially -- you keep in mind the magic ratio of criticism and encouragement, which varies from student to student and moment to moment.

Compared to the pace of other modern activities, it's like being back in the nineteenth century. Success is utterly unpredictable. It takes forever. It is, as we've seen, mentally draining.

The fact that students only learn from certain kinds of actual time-intensive feedback means that whether you teach your course "online" or not doesn't matter much, relative to the question of feedback and how students get it. To make it really work you're always going to need a ton of people spending a ton of time doing a difficult and time-consuming task -- a task, I might add, whose adequate performance has to be preceded by a long and expensive education.

This is, I think, just one among many ways our dreams of a frictionless world are not just inconsistent with our reality, but actually on a radically different track. The dream is connecting to a super-brain and suddenly speaking fourteen languages. The reality is sitting in a classroom being corrected on your verb conjugation and making the same mistake for the tenth time in a row.

Like caring for children, cooking wholesome and delicious food, and helping the people around you feel like life is worth living, grading is slow, personal, often repetitive, having almost nothing to do with modern fetishes like ruthless efficiency, massive scale projects, and problems you can solve with a quick internet-based rethinking of the status quo.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Illusion Of Rational Choice And Its Political Implications

From this ABC news story, 2011
I'm teaching a course this semester on philosophy of social science, and one of the most interesting ideas we've encountered has to do with the idea of people as purposive rational actors,  working to satisfy their own preferences at the least cost possible to themselves, who engage in bargaining and negotiation with one another to get the things they want and need.

It's a pretty fundamental idea to some social science methods -- especially in economics, but also more generally, because it plays a role in helping to figure out what people are doing and why. There are many questions about modelling human behavior through this family of ideas associated with rational choice. For example, as many people have pointed out, it makes morality somewhat obscure. If you keep a commitment to another person because you've promised to do so, or if you do the right thing at a tremendous cost to your own happiness, it seems bizarre to say you've just acted to satisfy your own "preference."

But the issue that came up in our readings, though related to that, was somewhat broader. That week we were talking about the question of whether social science can take up an objective, impartial, scientific stance toward its subject, or whether humanistic interpretation is always necessary to understand human behavior.

In arguing for the latter position in a 1971 paper, Charles Taylor points out that when we understand people as rational bargaining actors -- as he thinks we do in the more scientific approach -- we always risk interpreting them incorrectly.

For one thing, he says, not all societies even have practices that would be obviously analogous to our own practices of bargaining and negotiation. But more deeply, much important human behavior isn't like this. And when we theorize it using this set of concepts, we get it wrong.

There are many kinds of examples, but Taylor gives an interesting one in the analysis of protest movements. He says that theory of rational choice entails that we analyze these movements in terms of individuals' aims, and that in this case we have two possibilities: either protests are "bargaining gambits," or they are simply madness.

But, Taylor says, sometimes a protest is neither of those things. Taylor sees around him a profound dissatisfaction with the way things are, an alienation, a sense that things are deeply not what they should be. A protest borne of this sense would not be correctly analyzed as a bargaining gambit: it may be utterly unclear what the possibilities are. And if things are not what they should be, it would not be correctly analyzed as madness.

Though Taylor wrote this in 1971, when I read it I immediately thought of the Occupy movement, and especially of the deafening chorus that met that movement, where everyone was shouting, "But what are your demands?! If you haven't got specific demands, your protest makes no sense!"

Many people said in response that it wasn't about demands, that wasn't the point. Of course the movement had many strands and ideas, but I don't think it's farfetched to say that among these was the thought that things are deeply not what they should be.

Interpretation through the lens of rational choice and bargaining makes it impossible to arrive at this conclusion about the social meaning of the protests. But that interpretation has become so ingrained in our culture, we almost can't interpret it any other way.

I don't know how and when exactly this happened, but somewhere along the way the idea that humans are basically purposive rational actors working to satisfy their own preferences at the least cost possible to themselves became so entrenched in our thinking and talking, it's hard to even frame the alternatives. It's become almost like a tautology: well, you chose that thing, so either you preferred it and acted wisely, or you preferred something else and acted stupidly.

I think one reason this idea of people as rational actors is so hard to challenge is that if you're just looking at behavior, data, all those things we've embraced in the modern world as alternatives to old-fashioned listening and literature, the theory of people as rational actors is almost impossible to really falsify. As is often pointed out, any behavior can be made to come out as rational: you just have to attribute to the person a preference for the outcome, and voilà!

But behavior that doesn't fit -- and especially behavior that seem to signify that things are deeply not what they should be -- is everywhere, not just in the modern world but as part of the human condition. When things get bad and someone can't see their way out, they freak out: they become enraged, or riddled with anxiety, or they just decide to do something, anything, to derail the situation. It's a very human response.

Whether you're talking about an unhappy marriage or the state of the modern world, this kind of "protest" behavior is common and well-known. But with our theory of human behavior, we can't even see it for what it is, because we're stuck in the bargaining gambit theory of the world.

I think Taylor is right when he says that the problem goes beyond a "mistake" and gets into the category of "illusion": the version we see looks totally normal to us, even though it is the version reflected in a fun house mirror.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Female Super-Slenderness Beauty Norms: WTF?

I often find myself thinking about the role of super-slenderness in female beauty norms and thinking, WTF?

When I say "female super-slenderness beauty norms," I don't really mean the general thing that women are constantly evaluated on the basis of their appearance, where those evaluations often track sex appeal as the main important thing -- so that a woman's worth is tied up with her looks.

That is interesting and complicated too, but I feel like there are a lot of useful concepts out there already to analyze it -- having to do with the patriarchical roots of our modern social situation and things like that.

What gives me the WTF feeling has to do more with the specific thing, having to do with being really really really slender. There is something mystifying about this particular thing that I think transcends the general analysis about the relation between women's worth and appearance, and definitely transcends the women-valued-for-sex-appeal business.

For starters, as is often noted, what people find sexually attractive in a woman's appearance is very often not super slender. It's not a straightforward thing to measure, and obviously there's no "one thing," but wouldn't you agree that on balance, the shape of a woman in pornography is very different from size zero shape of a woman in fashion? Even in a wide range of pornography types? So I think that while there are obvious relations and overlap areas, the "super-slender" norm is not a sexiness norm.

It'd be one thing if the super-slender norm had to do only with high couture or fashion-fantasy or something -- but that is so completely not the case. The norm of super-slender is associated with high status in such a deep and pervasive way. Women in movies have to be super-slender, almost regardless of role. A person looking for a girlfriend who reads as "high status" has to date a super slender woman. Even in business, the more slender, the more professional.

In many clothing brands, I wear a size ten -- and I'd guess overall I'm near average size for women in North America. And yet if I go into Banana Republic or Ann Taylor -- stores that sell professional clothing for women -- there are literally no clothes there that fit me. They're cut in a way that no matter what the official size, they are seriously too small somewhere. It's crazy.

Somehow, this "status" norm which is not a sexiness norm has become engrained in people's attitudes. What I don't get, though, and what I think needs deeper and further analysis, is why, exactly? Why this?

People talk about the problem being the fashion industry and how they use so many super-slender models. That's certainly a thing -- but do you think that is a sufficient explanation? Like, if tomorrow morning Vogue had people of different sizes and shapes that would change things?

Much as I'd love to see the fashion industry change, I find it hard to believe that they are the main movers behind this status trend. Many of the people most invested in it -- like businessmen with high-status super-slender wives -- don't even seem like they would encounter fashion magazines.

It's often said, and certainly it's true, that beauty norms reflect what-money-can-buy, so for instance when there's not a lot of food around, bigness is more appreciated. In this way of looking at the problem, it's because money can buy you slenderness that slenderness seems attractive.

Again -- does this really seem like a sufficient explanation? For one thing, for many people slenderness -- and especially super-slenderness -- are not things money can buy. They're just things you're born with a tendency to. It's seems more like slenderness is rewarded with money than that money buys slenderness.

It might be that the answer has something to do with imperialism and racism. Like, the body that becomes the status body is the one that is highly correlated with life in western colonizing hegemony: thus white, blond, and thin.

This, I think, is among the most promising explanatory directions, but it leaves a lot still unexplained. Why, for example, do we have the current trend, away from the size six models of the 1980s, and toward the size zero ones of today?  Why are models often so thin they have to be airbrushed to remove signs of ribs and bones? And this while the actual bodies of the western imperialist countries are getting bigger and bigger?

I think there are deep things here about femininity, and differentiation from men, and power, all linked up with the the other matters already mentioned. In my darkest moments, I think it seems like a hatred of femaleness itself. But really, I don't know.

Since I can't shop at Ann Taylor I often go to LOFT which is owned by Ann Taylor but creates clothing with a different cut -- a cut that happens to fit me. More than once I've been told by salespeople that the relationship between the stories is that Ann Taylor is more "upscale," more elegant, dressier, while LOFT is casual. And I'm always like, "How does having a certain body type translate directly into not being "upscale"? 

It's a seriously strange situation.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Addyi, Desire, And The Social Control Of Women's Sexuality

This week I'm writing about Addyi, which I realize makes me like two months behind the targeted moment for writing about things, but what can I say? Speed is not the philosopher's main strong point.

Addyi, of course, is the libido pill for women, the "female Viagra." You don't need to explain why the particulars are likely to make it less than a blockbuster. As the NYT says, "In one trial, women who took the drug had an average of 4.4 “satisfying sexual experiences a month” compared with 3.7 for women given a placebo." On average it might increase the number from 2-3 per month to 3-4.

No one is more in favor of one more satisfying sexual event per month than I am, and if that were the end of the story, I'd be like, Great, knock yourselves out. But Addyi comes with serious potential side effects, including severely low blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Plus, you're not supposed to take it while drinking alcohol. And on top of everything else? You have to take it every day, at a cost -- to someone anyway -- of 400 dollars per month.

As I understand it, for some women the drug is much more effective than "one more per month" and overall it's good news that women will have the option of taking this drug. But so much about the way this drug is described, promoted, and understood is annoying.

First, there's this constant reference to "libido," "desire," and "sex drive." As is frequently pointed out, Viagra doesn't directly cause desire: it just enables more blood flow to the penis so a man can get an erection. Addyi targets the brain, the aim being to create an effect of desire. The implication is that lack of desire is the problem.

But many women don't experience sexual desire as a drive, a hunger from nowhere. They experience it in response to things. This is called "responsive desire" -- as opposed to "spontaneous desire" -- and there's nothing wrong with it at all. Unless, of course, you think the way men do things is the only appropriate way to do them.

Second, this point about desire really brings home the weirdness of measuring success in terms of "satisfying sexual encounters." In women with responsive desire, this makes it seem like the success of the drug is basically that you get to skip the activities that cause responsive desire -- like, I don't know, talking quietly, snuggling, foreplay, clean sheets, whatever -- and get straight to the action. 

This reminds me of Rachel Maines' great book The Technology of Orgasm. Maines tells an astonishing story about how vibrators were introduced as labor-saving devices for physicians to treat female hysteria: instead of having to repetitively rub their hands between a woman's legs for ever and ever -- so boring! -- doctors could use the vibrator. Voilà! Hysteria cured in minutes. I think Haines describes the vibrator as doing "the job that no one else wanted."

Speaking of vibrators, does "satisfying sexual encounters" include masturbation? I don't know.

Finally, I don't know if you read this article by Daniel Bergner in the New York Times a couple of years ago. It's about the ongoing search for the female Viagra. And much of the article fits with what I've already said: women seeking out out the drug in clinical trials describe feeling deficient because, while they have responsive desire and pleasure in sex, they don't have spontaneous desire -- that "drive" associated with the masculine pattern of lust.

Bergner has a fascinating discussion of the interplay of issues having to do with long-term monogamy and the drive of lust, pointing out that empirically, while women and men both tend to experience this drive at the start of a new relationship, that drive fades for women much faster than for men: a new partner is often something that reignites that feeling of spontaneous desire for women.

As an aside here: it kills me how these facts are not interpreted as challenging the standard socio-biology idea of women as naturally monogamous and are taken instead to prove that men's drive is just that much stronger overall. Your theory predicts P and the evidence says not-P, and you're like, Well, P anyway, just something else is going on. Obviously, social investment in the natural monogamy of women is intense.

Toward the end, Bergner talks about social views of women's sexuality, and how they affect development of these drugs. Basically, the aim is for the effects to be "good but not too good." Bergner describes one researcher being "a bit stunned by the entrenched mores that lay within what he’d heard" in discussions, concluding that "there’s a bias against -- a fear of creating the sexually aggressive woman."

One day, you're mechanizing the process of treating hysteria by rubbing women between the legs in doctors offices. A few years later you're psychopharmasizing to get the perfect female desire: not too much, not too little, not for the wrong people, and not requiring time consuming interventions like conversation, attention, and a light sense of touch.

Plus ça change.