This Academic Life
Last night I went to a minor-league baseball game with my family. Decent game; the carnival atmosphere of minor-league baseball is always a fascinating slice of Americana, from the bad off-key rendition of the national anthem to get things rolling, to the cheezy giveaways and contests between innings, to the overpriced concessions and the locally-sponsored mascots (including the big red toothbrush who helped sweep the field during the 7th inning stretch). Quite an experience.

After the game there were fireworks. Since I was in Europe during this Fourth of July, and since most municipal laws prevent setting off fireworks except for designated holidays, I hadn't gotten to see any fireworks this summer. There's something very powerful and awe-inspiring about a good fireworks display: the loud cracks and bangs as things explode, the bursts of color filling the sky, the anticipation of watching something streak heavenward, then burn out its launch colors and continue moving almost invisibly until BANG trails of fire abruptly stream forth, shine brightly for a moment, and then fade almost as quickly. The kids loved it; I don't think my daughter had ever seen a fireworks display before, and I doubt that my son remembered any that he had seen in person. Part of the fun, of course, was watching their stunned and rapt expressions as the display unfolded.

I have several personal associations with fireworks, associations that are invoked when I watch a good display:

1) my dad used to set off fireworks on the Fourth on our street, before the laws became more restrictive about those kinds of things. We'd play with sparklers and light "snakes" while he got ready, and then rockets would launch into the air. I don't even really remember what the bursts looked like, but I do remember the excitement and the sounds.

2) the small town I lived in during my middle school years had a bizarre tradition of not having fireworks on the Fourth, but instead waiting until town "jubilee days" a few weeks later. But they made up for the inconvenience by hiring someone really good to do the display. The whole town (there were only about 5000 people total, less than the attendance of the game last night) would gather on the hill behind the high school and watch and cheer. Fireworks away from anything resembling city lights are a whole different thing, let me tell you: brighter, crisper, more dramatic.

3) 1985, National Boy Scout Jamboree, Fort A. P. Hill, Virginia. The closing ceremonies featured a dual fireworks display in which things were alternately launched from a site to the left of the main stage and a site to the right; a friend and I started playing a silly game where we'd compliment one another on the fireworks that came from the other person's side. Again, I hardly remember the actual color bursts, but the noise and the game I remember vividly.

4) one year my wife and I went to South Street Seaport in Manhattan to watch the display set off each year on the Fourth from boats in the river. We had forgotten to bring playing cards, so I went in search of some while she held our seats; by the time I had found some the police had closed off the area and were refusing to let me back in. I begged, pleaded, almost cried -- and one cop let me pass. The display was fantastic, although we were downwind of the launch site so the smoke blew right into our faces after a while. Afterwards, the police shepherded everyone through the streets to the subway stations; it felt like something out of a disaster movie, with large crowds walking through darkened city streets cleared of traffic. And the subway ride back home, crammed into a car with about a hundred too many people…The moral of the story: always bring playing cards :-)

5) once -- and only once -- my wife and I went down to the National Mall to watch the "national" display on the Fourth. Sitting in the hot sun for hours was not fun, and the display itself was pretty pathetic. I'd much rather have a smaller display that I could get closer to.

Why do I mention all of these things? Obviously most of you weren't there, and reminiscing with people you don't know is a somewhat bizarre activity. But I'll bet that many of you have experiences that display "family resemblances" to these -- many of you Americans, at any rate. "Fireworks on the Fourth" are woven into the tapestry of the common life of the United States of America, as is minor-league baseball (although that not so much any more, with the replacement of baseball by football, basketball, and -- shudder -- NASCAR racing as the everyday American sports of choice). It's a commonplace in the literal sense: a (weakly) shared social space within which experiences take place. And to the extent (which is an empirical question) that those commonplaces are in fact common to a group of people, their individual experiences are never wholly their own -- even as they are also entirely personal. Both at once, neither account serving to exhaust the phenomenon.

Experiences, inexhaustible in themselves, are nonetheless shaped and structured by their participation in a series of commonplaces like this one. Can you really describe the experience of a fireworks display? (Wittgenstein asks at one point in Philosophical Investigations: Describe the aroma of coffee. This is not an invitation to wax poetic, though, but one of those classically Wittgensteinian observations that brings language to a standstill -- you can't do it. All you can do is to evoke the experience, and hope that you have pulled sufficient threads of our communal form of life so that those to whom you speak understand what you mean.) Can I really describe spending an evening with my family at a baseball game topped off by fireworks? No. Not fully. In one of her songs, Dar Williams comments that "sometimes your family just makes sense"; the "sense" in question is something inexpressible, though, something beyond language and hence nonsensical. But, nonetheless, actual.

Academics often get wrapped up in what we can say, what we can use language to do. Our livelihood depends on it, and we're generally pretty good at it. But we can all-too-easily forget that the analytical worlds that we produce are "objective illusions," momentary ideal-typifications of processes and relations that are always in flux. It is good to be reminded that there are forms of sense that spill over the boundaries of those ideal-types, and experiences that evade and elude even the most brilliant accounts of them. And it is good to sometimes just sit and watch the fireworks with your son on your lap and your wife and daughter at your side, oohing and ahhing as bursts of color fill the skies.

[Posted with ecto]
  The job and the calling
There's a curious ambiguity about the English word "vocation." On one hand, it refers quite literally to a "calling," and thus implies that there is something trans-personal about the occupation to which it is applied. To work in a calling, to have a calling, means in some sense to be beholden to a force outside of one's conscious control: one is called, and the choice is either to answer the call or to ignore it. But in any event, having or working in a vocation is something quite different than simply working at an occupation for money.

On the other hand, a "vocation" is just a career, as in "vocational training" -- which is all about getting a (often low-skill, low-paying) job. "Vocation" becomes a synonym for "occupation" in this case, and simply answers the question "how do you make your living?" where "living" means "the money that you need to pay your bills." The etymology of the term vanishes into the social structuring of the situation.

The same ambiguity -- job/calling -- exists in German, signaled by the term "Beruf." This is the term that Weber uses in his famous lectures on science and politics, which is why translating them as "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation" is one of the only things that I really like about the existing English versions of the lectures. [One day I'll do my own translations and stop bitching.] And Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the 'Spirit' of Capitalism is all about how that ambiguity was produced and the effects that it had: the rise of innerworldly asceticism, the relative quietism of formally free laborers, the notion that diligent work was God's will for each and every individual. So the conflation should be no surprise.

But analytically, we can still distinguish between the "job" and "calling" aspects of a particular vocation. By "analytically" here I mean "in accordance with my own peculiar value-orientation," of course. The "job" part of academia involves the social patterning of professorial ranks (Adjunct, Assistant, Associate, Full, and the numerous variations and extensions that one finds to the basic scheme -- including the increasing prominence of "temporary" faculty ranks in many departments), the quasi-market procedures through which available jobs are allocated, and the criteria that are used to evaluate particular individuals occupying a professorial position. This last one usually consists of the basic trinity of "teaching, research, and service," understood slightly differently from university to university.

All of this is "job" rather than "calling" in that it is a more or less tangible set of social arrangements that exist in the world as it is at the moment. Being an academic means having to deal with the job market, the ranking scheme, and teaching-research-service trinity. It is these aspects that administrators get involved in, either to facilitate the performance of the tasks indicated or to judge whether or not someone has done so effectively. And it is these aspects of things that those of my colleagues who do not have a calling for academia tend to focus on rather excessively. And why not? They are, after all, the tangible aspects of the vocation, and the immediate issues with which one has to deal on a daily basis.

[Yes, there are many academics who do not have a calling for academia, for whom "being an academic" is much more a simple job than it is any kind of vocation. I sometimes envy my colleagues who are like this; their lives are relatively unconflicted, their path relatively clear, and their professional issues almost entirely technical ones -- not having enough articles published or good enough teaching evaluation scores. But I only envy them a little bit; I then wonder where they find fulfillment, if not from their chosen career -- and if they are not finding fulfillment in the academic environment, why are they staying in it? It's not like the pay and benefits are all that great in comparison to other careers.]

So what is the "calling" aspect of academia? As someone who has faith that I do, in fact, have a calling for academia, what aspects of things do I think of as the most important ones?

I think that the "calling" part of academia -- academia as a calling -- relies on three aspects that in a sense underlie or sustain the three parts of the basic job-trinity. (The job market is a necessary evil -- necessary under the current arrangement of things. And I have no great objection to professorial ranks, although I abhor the increasing tendency to turn to temporary faculty positions, and am not convinced that the way that some departments handle tenure decisions makes much sense. Going from a tenure-tracked Assistant to a tenured Associate should not be as bureaucratic a process as it often is; but on the other hand, I wouldn't want to introduce too much more room for arbitrariness into such decisions. Tweaking the criteria a bit might help, especially on the "teaching" point; evaluation scores provided by students at the end of a course are, in my opinion, pretty useless -- and I say this even though my scores on such evaluations are generally quite good, even excellent.) I am aware of the dangers of using such a procedure -- a kind of philosophical abduction -- to get at the "calling" part of the vocation, but as long as we keep in mind that I am not saying that these aspects are somehow more fundamental or deeper than the "job" aspects of the vocation, we should be fine. Academia-as-job and academia-as-calling are parallel tracks, as it were, or different views of the same things. I experience academia-as-job as a place to (imperfectly) exercise academia-as-calling; not sure if others do (but I do know that some of my colleagues don't experience academia-as-calling in the first place, so…).

Enough preliminaries. If academia-as-job has teaching, research, and service as its three points of evaluation, academia-as-calling has pedagogy, thinking, and management as the three equiprimordial constituents of its form. I arrived at these by the following considerations: "teaching" does not always, or even mostly, take place in the classroom; what we publish as "research" is only one part of the activity of working through puzzles and problems that occupies much of our time; and the kind of committee-work and participation in campus life that often gets labeled as "service" has a purpose that is not in my opinion adequately captured by the existing terminology. [Universities like mine, which have the bizarre tendency to regard media appearances and other public performances as "service," need to have their collective heads examined. When I appear on television or on the radio to talk about the upcoming presidential elections, which I will, I am not functioning as an academic any more; I am functioning as a commentator or as a public intellectual. Worthy endeavors? Yes. Central to academia-as-calling the way that I understand it? No. Capable of distracting people from the calling aspect, and also from the job aspect if they get too wrapped up in it -- just like overmuch "consulting" with NGOs and the like? Abso-freakin'-lutely.]

What do I mean by these three replacement aspects?

By "thinking" I mean the more or less systematic working-out of a line of reasoning. Thinking in this sense is not a purely cognitive function, but more of something that arises from one's being: the way that one is in the world, the way that the world worlds for one, is the ground and the limit of thinking. So far, so Heideggerian; but I would argue that worlds are characterized by considerably more ambiguity and discrepancy and contingency than often appears in Heidegger's philosophy. But in any event, thinking is less a cognitive operation and more of an operation, so to speak, of the soul: arising from the most basic way that one is at a given moment in time. [By "soul" I mean something emergent, not something exogenous to the social world; "self" would be an equivalent expression. As a friend pointed out, this is a very Buddhist conception: self as sandstorm. Keep that image in mind as we go further.]

By "pedagogy" I mean, in effect, Heidegger's definition of teaching: letting learn. Pedagogy is all about letting things happen, opening spaces where people can confront issues, be challenged, explore individually and collectively: argue, wrestle, experiment, grapple, play. In short, think: pedagogy is, in the last instance, about enabling other people to think. Teaching -- classroom teaching -- is only one part of that, and often not even the most important one. This past summer in Poland I was engaged in pedagogy pretty much at all hours of the day, which was fantastic; it can be done in other kind of living/learning situations as well. Pedagogy is the polar opposite of "getting the material across," i.e. skills training or the imparting of facts; these latter are something different, a use of the classroom space not for pedagogy but for the production of some kind of functional outcome.

If thinking arises from the soul -- and I am again speaking broadly here, since thinking in the sense I mean it here need not culminate in any published written product at all -- then pedagogy arises, I'd argue, from the spirit. The distinction is a subtle but important one. Spirit, according to certain heretical interpretations of Christian doctrine (and other metaphysical / theological sources, not least among them being Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), is not the basic constituent of the person, but the animating force that makes the person move. The breath, so to speak, or the faculty of discernment -- often inaccurately shoe-horned into "the emotions" or "the intuition," I think.

Why spirit and pedagogy? I can only give an experiential testimony: when I am in a pedagogical situation, if I think too much things get out of control. If, on the other hand, I react to the subtle flows of attention and energy and awareness that students are participating in, and kind of feel my way along to the crux of whatever matters they are discussing, the session goes much much better. Pedagogy in this sense is a spiritual activity, distinct from thinking and from the soul that gives rise to it -- although good pedagogy, in some sense, risks your soul and that of everyone else in the session by opening the possibility that everyone will begin to world differently and collectively. You put your soul on the line when you teach with the spirit.

If the soul is a sandstorm, the spirit is the wind blowing the grains of sand around. Pedagogy is an effort to release that wind and see where it takes you.

And what of the third facet, "management"? What I mean by that is the physical arrangement of resources (time, tables and chairs, computers, etc.) so as to achieve a desired effect. Classroom management is about producing space for and enabling and supporting pedagogy. Curriculum management crafts a lifecourse through which students can participate in pedagogy and thus do some thinking of their own along the way. That's what university committee service is supposed to be about: making pedagogy and thinking possible. If we lose sight of the goal it becomes mere "service work," an infringement on things that we'd rather be doing with our limited time.

These are just initial reflections. In future entries I plan to elaborate. Come, think with me about this.

[Posted with ecto]
  Mix methodology
Recently I have re-acquired an old habit: the assembly of songs to form personalized albums and sequences. Back in the day -- this was about 1985 -- such an endeavor involved sitting on the floor in front of my stereo surrounded by piles of cassette tapes (we didn't have CDs back then, kids) with a piece of paper and a stopwatch, trying desperately to figure out how to squeeze 0:15 more from the blank tape in deck 2 because the last song was running a little longer than I had estimated before beginning to dub, and if it didn't fit the WHOLE DAMN SIDE OF THE TAPE was ruined and had to be redone…

These days we have better technology for such things: iTunes. The handy "total time" indicator at the bottom of the playlist screen ensures that things will all fit (a single 700 mb CDR can hold 1.3 hours of music under normal circumstances); SoundCheck will harmonize the levels of the tracks so that they are not wildly different from one another in loudness (but this comes at a cost, in that quiet tracks sometimes get distorted; manual adjustments of the volume level work better, but take more time); and, perhaps best of all, it's all real-time and non-linear so you can put a group of songs together, listen to it, see if it "works," and then make on-the-fly adjustments. Almost nothing quite as depressing as recording a mix tape, listening to it, and then deciding that song 2 and song 7 need to be swapped, and song 5 doesn't really belong on the tape at all -- but iTunes makes this a very simple process.

Yes, I am aware that there are other programs out there that do all of these things. But iTunes is, IMHO, the gold standard.

There are several types of personalized albums or song sequences (I'm grasping for a neutral term to describe a whole class of objects; "mix" doesn't work for reasons that will become apparent in a moment). The simplest is a "playlist," which is just a collection of stuff selected pretty much at random. iTunes allows you to create "smart playlists" that automagically update as you add to and subtract songs from your library; I have one called "(live)" that collects every song that I label as a live track by appending "(live)" to the end of the title of the song when I first add it to my collection. Indeed, you can produce playlists that incorporate a variety of criteria by tweaking the selection principles a bit: a little, some 80s pop, one song with a length shorter than 20 minutes from one of Spock's Beard's studio albums other than Snow, and something off of the "not recently played" playlist -- i.e. something I haven't listened to in a while. And keep the total length under two hours.

(20 points for your House if you can see where I'm going with this yet.)

Now, a playlist is just a collection of songs selected more or less at random, or at any rate selected for "external" reasons -- not because the songs go together in any more profound sense. If attention is paid to how the songs cohere, we move from a playlist to a "mix," regardless of the criteria used to evaluate the coherence of those songs. It could be how the whole thing sounds; it could be the theme that the songs are all playing with; it could be whether the songs produce a good sampler that nonetheless sounds good on its own. The trick here is that a mix is an entity in its own right in a way that a playlist isn't yet.

Mixes can start out life as playlists. I generally produce playlists to run to, and then modify them after a run to get them to flow better. The playlists are on their way to becoming mixes. Also, a good DJ strives to produce something other than a mere playlist when she or he is spinning.

(15 points for your House if you get the point yet. Look at the blog entry title again.)

Mixes cohere to some extent, but some mixes are more coherent than others. At a certain point we pass beyond a series of songs that simply work together in an indefinite sense (generally sonically, I think: mixes have to sound good, but nothing more) and enter a realm where the songs in the mix start to work off of one another, echoing themes and concepts and compositional styles, complementing one another and producing, ever so subtly, something emergent and novel. Call these mixes "blends." Like a good mixed drink or a fine meal, the variants among the component pieces are harnessed so as to produce an effect that the individual pieces wouldn't exercise individually. A song evokes a certain sentiment or implies a particular train of thought; when paired with another one its flavor alters in minor but important ways. In a way, a blend is like a fine wine or a good shot of Becherovka: complex, stretched out over a temporal axis such that it has to unfold rather than simply being quaffed (and if you do simply quaff it, it finishes out in unexpected ways -- part of the fun of it).

I would hazard a guess that a musical blend needs liner notes of some kind, since "coherence" is not an intrinsic property of the songs themselves. Listeners need to be shown how the songs cohere, so that they can (metaphorically, if not literally) borrow someone else's ears to listen to the sequence. Not that the coherence of a blend is somehow traceable to the subjective motivations of an author; once a blend has been produced, coherence can be discovered by listeners in all sorts of surprising ways. But if I am making a blend for someone I generally want to communicate a point, and to aid in that endeavor -- and because of the intensely personal character of the meaning that people attribute to songs, which makes it more than likely that they will go spinning off in their own direction when I accidently put a song in the blend that reminds them of their first love and the fiery break-up of that relationship, or something like that -- I generally find liner notes useful. These can be written, or you can simply listen to the blend with the intended recipient, explaining as you go, and perhaps discussing the themes expressed or whatever is raised by the communal listening experience.

(10 points for your House if you get it now. What goes on when two or more people listen to a blend and wrestle with it?)

And then there are the superior blends, the ones that work so well that one can no longer listen to the individual songs in the blend again without thinking of the blend and its specific and unique favor. The song has been constitutively altered, and no longer stands alone in the same respect at all. Call these blends "alloys." I'm thinking of white gold here: something that is immeasurably more precious than the sum of its parts, but that remains in a fundamental sense a union of initially diverse things. Alloys aren't "naturally occurring," which doesn't mean that they aren't natural, but does mean that they require deliberate social effort to (re)produce. I prefer to think of alloys as fictional rather than as "artificial," since the former term means "something made" but doesn't need to carry the strong normative connotation of the latter term. (And Durkheim's opposition of organic and mechanical solidarity doesn't work for me for the same reason; both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are equally "fictional" in this sense. Or, as Clifford Geertz put it, the real is just as imagined as the imaginary. But I digress -- or do I?)

A good concept album is an alloy. I mean, really, the songs on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon are good individually, but when you put them all together, how much better do they sound? Ditto for Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Spock's Beard's Snow. Each piece implies the whole of which it is a part, even if you listen to it in isolation (which is why the running playlist that I mentioned above excludes Snow). And if you've only heard "Time" or "Money" in isolation, and then first hear them in their correct album sequence, and understand how they proceed from "Speak to Me / Breathe" and lead up to "Any Colour You Like / Brain Damage," the whole thing changes, the whole world of which these songs are a part changes. (If you don't know The Dark Side of the Moon, all I can say is, you should; it's one of the best albums ever recorded by anyone, I'd argue.)

Indeed, a good alloy works at the level of world-constitution, changing the sense of the whole (like a Heideggerian "mood," or Wittgenstein's comment that the world of the happy man is different than the world of a sad man, even if all of the facts remain unaltered) in ways that cannot be captured by rational language. Individual songs do this too -- that's part of the mysterious appeal of music -- but a good alloy does it even better, in a way that goes beyond the haphazard lurching characteristic of, say, unformatted radio.

(5 points for your House if you get it now. Hang on, the punchline's coming.)

So this morning it occurred to me that the process of assembling sequences of songs is very much like the process of engaging in methodological self-reflection. In both cases, one uses bits and pieces that are floating around in the social environment and puts them together so as to open the world in a specific way. And one can do this in a variety of ways, depending on the kind of effort and forethought that one puts into the process. We all know of works in our various disciplines that have playlist-methodologies, especially those whose coherence is only explicable in the following way: "well, persons X, Y, and Z were on her or his committee, so this is there for X, and this is there for Y…" Result: incoherent, incomprehensible mess. Mixes also exist, in which the author/researcher makes at least some effort to fit the pieces together to achieve a pleasing effect as opposed to basic cacophonic discord. "Mixed methodology" work in the social sciences reads like this, although the combinations are often strange and jarring -- and generally betray a dominant theme with various subordinate helper-techniques. So it's a mix, yes, but that's all.

Better, but rarer, are blends and alloys. Methodological alloys are what we should be aiming for in our theory chapters and sections; if we fall short we still end up with blends, which are a damn sight better than mere mixes and playlists. Alloys and blends do take longer, more nuanced and subtle discussions. but they are worth it in terms of the overall effect (aesthetic, intellectual, moral -- all the same thing, in the end, aren't they?) that they produce. Which would you rather listen to? What kind of world would you rather live in?

Good research is implementing a set of methodological principles. Producing those principles -- forging the tools -- is all about creating a coherent blend or, at best, a transformative alloy. And that's what science as a vocation is all about.

[Posted with ecto]
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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