Thinking Forests and Resistance

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I spent some quality times over the past month with Eduardo Kohn’s brilliant How Forests Think. I’ll admit that little in my training as a historian or Mediterranean archaeologist prepared my to deal with the ideas that he introduced. My buddy Dimitri Nakassis pointed the book out to me and I think he discovered it either through a long interview with Kohn over at the Savage Minds blog, or through his interest in agency.

It’s difficult for me to describe the book in a way that doesn’t make its ideas seem overly simple, so I’ll leave careful, critical readings of the work to anthropologists who are more comfortable with some of his basic discursive formations. In short, Kohn’s book comes from his field work in the rainforest of Andean Ecuador.  In one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, he explores about the limits of human culture and understanding the role that other living things plays in our understanding of the world. He recognizes other living things as capable of producing their own symbolic sense by drawing on Charles Peirce’s semiotic theories. By recognizing all life as producing symbols he explores the place of these symbols in human relational systems. For Kohn, these non-human symbolic systems do not necessarily function according to the rules of human language, but are functioning systems nonetheless. This is where it got heavy. He recognized the role that these other systems played in how we understand the world. As such, culture, that most human of way of understanding the world, emerges, at least in part, from our relationship between various dissimilar symbolic systems within the world.

Obviously, this 200 word effort to summarize a complex and nuanced book does not do justice (or even represent in a completely accurate way) to Kohn’s work. At the same time, one can understand how Kohn’s work challenges some prevailing efforts to understand non-human agency.  For example, Kohn draws on Peirce’s semiotics to argue for the existence of systems not grounded in the rules of human language. Efforts to understand material agency, however, tends to rely on human language to articulate agency in the material world. The world of living things, however, functions according to its own logic and rules, that are both consistent and outside of the structures that we’ve built to articulate culture. 

The potential of Kohn’s ideas to influencing archaeological work – at least how it is currently construed in the Mediterranean – has less to do, in my mind, with the role of non-human living things in the construction of the ancient world, but as a reminder of our tendency to limit who we recognize as agents within the production of culture. I immediately thought of my own – largely unconvincing – efforts to identify resistance in the archaeology of the Late Roman Corinthia. I tried to argue that the existing monuments of culture preserved evidence for another discourse that runs counter to the prevailing message of elite power. The key to recognizing these counter arguments goes beyond simply inverting the message of an object in an effort to discern its opposite, but to expect and understand messages that are fundamentally incompatible with the language and discourse of elite authority. Like the language of the forest, articulating resistance needn’t adhere to the rules established by our monolithic views of elite culture, but perhaps derives its power by functioning completely outside this system. 

(As an irreverent aside, I found Kohn’s book almost completely unhelpful in figuring out what our new dog wants. I do, however, think more carefully about what, when, and why he dreams!)

 

Teaching, Learning, and Resistance

March 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

This morning we were supposed to meet to discuss more of M. Weiner’s Learner-Centered Teaching. Revised Edition 2013, but a little blizzard has interrupted our regularly scheduled program. Since blogging headquarters remains unaffected by the trivialities of weather, the show must go on!

If I recall correctly, we were planning to talk a bit about resistance to learner-centered approaches. As readers of this blog know, I’m pretty interested in resistance in the student ranks and Weiner’s book provides a short survey of the causes of resistance to “innovation” in teaching. 

To my mind, resistance occurs in three different ways, and much of this happens because of the tendency in contemporary academic life to displace the relationship between knowledge and learning. My observations here do not, necessarily, undermine the validity or effectiveness of these various displacements, but they do, I think, shed light on occasions where students resistance is likely to happen and perhaps even elucidate its causes. 

I’ll explain more below.  

First, students resist bodies of knowledge that they see as unimportant. This is painfully obvious to anyone who has taught an introductory level history course.  We regularly confront students who find the idea of learning history intrinsically unimportant for their future as managers, occupational therapists, engineers, or nurses. On the one hand, we can’t blame them for this critique; it is ubiquitous in the media. Many question the values of the liberal arts in our contemporary economy.

Faculty play into this, of course, by explaining to our students that history might not be their thing, but it does help them develop “transferable skills”, “critical thinking”, and “information literacy.” In this context, a series of rather bankrupt catch phrases for “education” displaces the disciplinary knowledge foundational to history. It is hardly a shock that students find this ruse disingenuous no matter how much passion faculty muster for the elegance of a transferred skill or a critical thought. We might even go so far to present the old cherry that “we’re teaching you for jobs that haven’t been invented yet” or rattle off a series of well-known figures with history backgrounds. Students are justified in resisting this disjuncture between disciplinary knowledge, educational goals, and their future plans. If history is merely a vessel for these other kinds of skills, then students should have a say over the medium in which learning happens. The displacement of empty learning goals for disciplinary knowledge authorizes this critique and mocks our pained attempts to reduce disciplinary knowledge to mere method. 

Second, students resist approaches to teaching that they see as trivializing learning. Much of learner-centered teaching involves slight of hand. Faculty engage the students in co-authoring their learning environments with the hope that such coauthoring will help the students master a set of faculty-dictated learning goals that invariably include methods, processes, and content. Again we see a strategic displacement. The course goals and teaching methods are set by a faculty member who then, within rigorously defined limits, allows students pick their own path through the course. Student resistance tends to occur along the seam of displacement where the more clever students refuse to choose their own “punishment” and defer to the teacher. The most common example of this comes in the simple question from the student to the teacher: “what options would you choose?”

This subversion of learning-centered teaching approach both announces to the teacher that the limits of student authority are known, and questions the legitimacy of a technique designed to obscure authority in order to co-opt student energy for the goals of the class.

Finally, students resist approaches that run counter to the practice of deskilling faculty and disciplinary knowledge. Over the past two decades, academia has embraced whole-heartedly “audit culture” as a tool to deskilling the academic workforce and undermining the primacy of disciplinary knowledge. From the standpoint of management, this turn against disciplinary knowledge parallels the rise in Taylorism and scientific management principles. The goal is to transform faculty from engine that drives higher eduction, to interchangeable cogs in a machine. By emphasizing the universal character of teaching and learning, faculty become interchangeable and the university trades disciplinary knowledge for the teaching of skills as I have argued in point one. In other words the displacement of authority grounded in disciplinary knowledge to that grounded in terms of employment authorizes students to act as consumers and to defend their rights. We’ve all experienced this kind of resistance as faculty members.

In this context, student resistance represents both a recognition of their authority in the classroom as well as the displacement of faculty authority from particular, specialized knowledge to teaching skill. In this place, student resistance supports the growing power of the assessocracy and metadisciplines like SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning). While I am tempted, in my most cynical moments, to see student resistance in this context as anti-faculty, when I critically reflect, I tend to see student behavior as part of the larger transformation of higher education away from artisnal practice and toward a model of 20th century efficiency. For my blog post today, I am more interested in recognizing that student resistance developed along the rifts created by the displacement of authority grounded in disciplinary, academic knowledge for that grounded in our position – however tenuous – on the assembly line.

The goal of my post today is to identify the location of student resistance within our discourse of practice in teaching and learning. Resistance seems most likely to occur in places of weakness where our imagining of the world has flaws and inconsistencies. I identify these were moments of displacement where we say one thing and do something else or have a foot planted, none-to-firmly, in two mutually exclusive discourses of authority.  

Some Fragments on Time and Place in the Bakken

March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had the real pleasure of listening to my colleague Sebastian Braun present some of his research in the Bakken last night. His paper looked at the complex relationship between global capital, extractive industries, and local (and, particularly, indigenous) communities in the Bakken. The talk was good and well attended. The conversation afterward was thought provoking.

Since this is stuff that I’ve been working on lately, I thought I’d write down some of my ideas in as straightforward a way as possible here.

It was particularly useful to hear Sebastian talk about the relationship between the Bakken oil play, the frontier, and the local experience. This has become one of the more vexing issues in my recent efforts to articulate the impact of workforce housing (i.e. man camps) on the region and our understanding of global trends in settlement in the 21st century. 

So far, I’ve argued, like Sebastian, that the Bakken represents both a historical and a contemporary frontier. Historically, Western North Dakota – a semi-arid grassland – never supported a large population, had limited resources available for commodification, and stood well away from established centers of population, industry, and commerce.  This remains true even today. Last night, Sebastian made the interesting point that the contemporary frontier may be as much beneath the ground as across its surface with hydraulic fracturing representing the newest way to commodify natural resources in the region.

Any argument for the Bakken’s peripheral location implies the perspective of the core, but in the 21st century localizing the core is not at all easy to do or clear. The old national cores of the 19th and early 20th century or of the first wave of globalizing capitalism have largely receded from immediate importance (although the Bakken is peripheral to these locations as well). In their place, we have the oddly decentered (and dislocated) cores presented by transnational corporations and their myriad (often obscured) subsidiaries. In short, the core is no longer a particular place, but a concentration of authority, capital, and technology that can be deployed in the periphery very quickly. 

If we can accept that the core is a “non-place” (that is outside of any clearly understandable spatial relationships; a shinny office tower in Houston can be for a company incorporated in Delaware), then the periphery becomes merely the area or field in which the core articulates its authority. Peripheries become non-places too. We have noticed this “on the ground” in the Bakken as Type 1 man camps tend to be nondescript modular units that are as at home on the North Dakota prairie as in anywhere in the world (or are equally alien in all places). The same might be said for the massive drill rigs that can be disassembled, shipped around the world, and reassembled for their task and operated by the same crew. 

The collapse of place is vexing for the archaeologist who assume that social relations occupy recognizable spatial perimeters and transform “space” (which is empty) into “place” which has meaning. The place making exercise also has a temporal dimension in that it relies on time to deny the contemporaneity of object in order to make it accessible for study. This temporal displacement is typically the first step in the historical or archaeological project. We have to recognize something as an object of study and “space” must become place (that is, instilled with social, historical, temporal or other relations) to be knowable.

Traditionally, the work of the nation played a central role in creating places even if it was the nation as refracted through local agents. And the disciplines of archaeology and history developed in parallel (and in collusion with) the nation and emphasized and contributed to similar place-making activities. In other words, history and archaeology are very good at making meaning from place, but not as good at understanding the transnational non-places at the contemporary periphery.

This is where Sebastian’s talk last night really got my attention. When I asked something along these lines, he pointed out that people still worked, lived, loved, and played in the Bakken. These individuals have agency within a world that struggles against the commodification of everything and the alienating spread of the new core. So the ongoing lives of people in the Bakken – from the contingent workforce to the longtime residents – present a desperate strategy to stability their own places. 

Student Resistance

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

It’s grading time, and like most college faculty members, my mind turns to attempting to understand how students engaged the course material, assignments, and class structure. There is the inevitable frustration at shortcomings and misunderstanding, and the slight feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing a class performing to specification on an assignment. I’d be lying if I said that the latter offsets the former. Mostly, I spend time pondering how and why students did what they did.

(For those regular readers of this blog, I have posted on this topic before here and here with links further back into the mists of time…)

Of course, this is not unique to me or to higher education at this moment in time. American higher education, prone to self-doubt and external and internal critique even as it became the model for much of the world, is enduring a particularly virulent bout of critical scrutiny right now. Assaulted by MOOCs, moves toward alternative forms of credentialing, and substantial funding cuts, higher education has pushed hard to be more accountable, transparent, and rationalized. To do this, universities have employed a growing number of assessocrats, administrators, and quality experts to promote the virtues of efficiency and to bring the diverse traditions of American higher education into line with both one another and the expectations of a range of stakeholders ranging from idealistic and detached critics on the left to short-sighted commentators on the right.

Students understand this and have endured the growing move to an industrial model of higher education with a certain amount of grace. Beset by a growing number of requirements, assessment tools, and regimentation, students have become adept at navigating a system which despite being under constant critique, nevertheless demands of their allegiance and confidence. When students struggle to wrap their head around what it happening in the classroom or on their transcript, we as faculty alternate between near-resignation (typified by the long “sigh”)and moralizing. The former is relatively harmless  as long as it produces understanding and a willingness to compromise. 

The latter – moral judgment – is frustrating to watch. There is nothing quite like the end of the semester to bring forth faculty complaints that students are “lazy”, “unmotivated”, or “clueless”. At the same time, faculty desperately attempt to concoct new strategies to prevent what they see as students’  willful misunderstandings of assignment or subversion of course “learning objectives.” The holidays become a time to rearm to enter the classroom in January with a new set of strategies, tactics, and approaches to bringing students into line. Pedagogy is transformed into a battle. 

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to convince colleagues to take seriously the idea that students are agents (and in some cases allies) in the struggles against the long term industrialization of higher education. While they might not articulate their resistance in this way, they nevertheless behave in ways that undermine the regimentation of university life.

1. Due Dates. I’ve long given up on this battle. Even with the more dire warning or appeals to shared humanity, students refuse to turn in papers on time. Over the past few years, the excuses have become more half-hearted and my willingness to penalize students has diminished. While the semester’s end would seem to present a firm deadline on student work, even that has appeared increasingly negotiable in student eyes. 

2. Attendance. Students vote with their feet. My upper level classes tend toward the boring. I know that. At the same time, I make ever effort to present material in each class that helps students to succeed in the course. They still don’t come to class. This behavior does not come just from “poor” performers, but from “decent” (C to B) students as well.

3. Basic grammatical rules. When I first encountered the unwillingness to avoid contractions, follow the rules of capitalization, and to use punctuation like the semicolon correctly (I even banned the semicolon in my classes as an effort to curtail its abuse!), I was quick to bemoan the declining standards of literacy. I then moved on to seeing it as the changing nature of our language. Now, I recognize it for what it is. Students refuse to follow basic rules like “do not use contractions” and “do not use the semicolon” not out of ignorance or laziness, but as an effort to resist faculty control over their modes of expression.

4. Paper length and formatting. Students’ tendency to read paper lengths literally and produce papers that are not one line or one word longer than required demonstrates a playful engagement with the kind of arbitrary rules that structure their assignments.

These four behaviors are simply the most obvious forms of student resistance to the industrial requirements of higher education. They all demonstrate efforts to subvert the regimented character of higher education and the aspects of learning that conform most narrowly to expectations of capitalism. Performing to specification, arriving and doing work on time, and ceding their time and workflow to external control are all standards closely associated with industrial modes of production. Moreover, these easily evaluated criteria for “student success” share some basic similarities with the most formal methods that the assessocracy uses to track student and faculty performance through time. Contact hours, quantity of work, and the ability to perform consistently to specification is not merely standard for students, but also key structuring elements for faculty work as well.

Chances are that we’ll continue to make efforts to enforce the rules of academy no matter how arbitrary some of them are. At the same time, I wonder whether we need to shift the nature of the dialog a bit from critiques of student performance that tend toward the moralizing (and, frankly, condescending) toward those that recognize student behaviors as legitimate forms of resistance against a system that is flawed and dehumanizing. Perhaps we can find a better way to meet our students half way because I think we’ll discover that they’re fighting the same battle as we are.

Ambivalent Landscapes of Early Christian Corinth: Final Draft

October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked on a series of papers on the role of Early Christian basilicas in constructing new forms of authority in Greece. They form the rough outline of a book (or at least a dissertation) that I never had the time, focus, or energy to write. A few years ago I have a rather adventurous (and perhaps in places ill-considered) paper at the Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality conference held at the University of Texas. This paper reflected on how Early Christian churches around Corinth could provide evidence for resistance and accommodation in the 6th century Corinthia. 

Here is the full citation: W. R. Caraher, “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City,” in Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality. S. James, S. Friesen, and D. Schowalter eds. Brill: Leiden 2014.

Here is a draft of this article and here are some of my thoughts leading up to that draft.

And, here’s the article:

Civility and Student Resistance

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the end of the semester any conscientious teacher is invariably confronted with a series of challenging moral and ethical decisions. Students are panicking, feeling significant pressure, and everything is due (almost by definition) at the same time. The scenes are the same all over the country. Stressed, exhausted, panicked, and flailing students arrive during office hours and ask for some kind of hope. For the better students, hope comes in the way of reassurance that we recognize their hard work and it will produce desired results. For students who have struggled, however, the negotiations become more complex and invariably desperate.

Recently, some of my colleagues and I have noticed that the more desperate negotiations have increasingly deviated from that most slippery quality of truthiness. In fact, in a number of cases, students have just lied to us. As often, students over promise and under deliver in ways that are clearly tactical. The end of the semester, then, brings about a series of wholly unpleasant interactions with our students and can sour the memory of an otherwise good learning and teaching experience (for both parties). 

To mitigate the unpleasant endgame negotiations faculty seem to take two approaches. I have tended to use increasingly soft deadlines for my courses to discourage students from turning in “late” papers by making it more difficult for a paper to be actually late. The only firm deadline is the end of the semester and that is non-negotiable, but the responsibility for the ending date of the semester is beyond my control shifting the responsibility for due-dates from me to the rather less personal institution. The other approach, which is perhaps more common, is to be inflexible about deadlines and enforce increasingly draconian penalties for their violation. 

Both approaches seem to me to be a response to the break down of any sense of community in the classroom and at the university. The air of desperation at the end at the end among students assumes a certain degree of inflexibility on the part of faculty. At the same time, the willingness of students to connive to get extra time acknowledges that the very limited opportunities for real conversations about the root causes of missing due dates, performing poorly on assignments, and end of the semester panics, and the lack of confidence in faculty taking these issues seriously.

Of course, the reasons for this lack of confidence may stem from a kind of classroom “tragedy of the commons” where students have used opportunities to negotiate and shape the course to undermine the pedagogical intent of the course. The failure to recognize and respect the course structure and how it creates an environment best suited to student learning suggests that there is a disjuncture between student and faculty expectations. In this context, negotiations for extra time or exceptional treatment are not compromises between an accepted and appreciated pedagogy and the recognized realities of student life, but something entirely more desperate and misunderstood. Students feel willing to subvert the intent of the class because they don’t accept that the course serves their purposes.  In this context, faculty look to reinforce deadlines using stricter penalties that reinforce the power differential between student and faculty. This then leads to the idea that the class structure serves as a basis for faculty power and the classroom and the interaction between faculty and students becomes an arena for student resistance

Monumentality in Early Christian Architecture

March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

In May, I am going to a conference on the topic of monumentality in archaeology. When invited, I fired off a rather superficial abstract that talked about how Early Christian church architecture in Greece both used existing, earlier forms of urban and domestic architecture to communicate the new status of the Christian religious elite, but also subverted these forms by establishing new relationship between donor, visitors, and the social structures that informed traditional elite architecture.

This week, I’ve slowly turned my attention to this paper after completing a revised draft of the historical conclusion to the PKAP Survey Volume.

To begin, I re-read Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”. The fictional narrator of the (obviously fictional) story considers the construction of the Great Wall of China and tells of how it was built piecemeal across China to preserve the moral of the workers. According to the narrator, the very enormity of the task ran the risk alienating the labor of the individual worker by reducing it to something inconsequential by comparison. To combat this, the workers built a single section of the wall – often in a remote location – and returned home for a time of recovery before heading out again like departing heroes to build another section. Thus the wall came to represent the entire community of China – and the narrator himself who hailed from the south, not the north where the wall stood – could take tremendous pride in its construction even though the purpose and extent remained as obscure and paradoxical as the body of the Emperor himself who called for the Wall’s construction. In Kafka’s story (hardly the only one in his oeuvre that featured architecture), the Wall represented the enormity of the Empire, the incomprehensibility of the Emperor, and the tension between the fragile individual and abyss of time, space, and power that surrounds human existence. (And I have to assume that the story means many other more significant, literary, and existential things!). Monumentality formed the delicate link between the individual and things much larger, more abstract, and more remote.

This story contributed to my larger meditation of monumentality in the discourse of Late Antiquity (or the Early Christian period). Shifting attitudes toward monumental architecture has represented a key indicator in social, religious, political, economic, and cultural change in the ancient world. Indeed, scholars often argue that the end of the ancient world came with the neglect and sometimes destruction of the pagan temple and the construction of Early Christian basilica style churches in their place. The widespread abandonment of basilica style churches, in turn, marks the end of the transitional period between ancient and “Medieval” or “Byzantine” forms of architecture, and scholars have neatly synced the transformation of architectural styles with political, economic, and social changes.

The link between architecture and social change often comes through the study of patronage practices. If we understand the social practices that led to the construction of Early Christian architecture to be largely identical to those that produced earlier forms of monumental architecture, then we can argue that these shift in building types is largely stylistic or a matter of taste or practice.  In other words, we can see monumental architecture as evidence for continuity between the ancient world and Late Antiquity. If we see different social mechanisms producing the Early Christian monumental building boom, then it becomes easier to claim that the shift in large scale building practices represents a shift in the organization of society on a more profound level. Along these lines, scholars have seen Early Christian architecture as evidence for discontinuity between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The issue is, of course, that we still do not understand the mechanisms that produced the boom in Early Christian architecture and how these intersect with, say, changing attitudes toward the poor among the same group of people (and the study of Late Antique attitudes toward poverty is a particularly fertile ground for recent study).

The flip side of this concern with patronage, of course, is how these buildings were understood by their audiences across the Late Antique world. Not only are did these building represent a point of contact between massive and abstract institutions like the church and the bodies of individuals living throughout the Early Christian world, but they also represent a place of critique around which community responses to new forms of religious or social organization could cohere.

As Kafka articulated in a fictional context, monumental architecture had the potential for alienating the individuals responsible for their construction as the tension between their massively concrete appearance comes all too close to the abstract entities, institutions, and ideologies which they represent. This alienation provides fertile ground of critique inscribed on the monuments themselves, on the bodies of the laborers who produced them, and in the attitudes toward the buildings in broader social discourse.

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