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Habit and The Individual Will (A Dialogue)

(The banks of the Moskva river, late on a summer afternoon.  PAVEL sits on a park bench, gazing out over the water.  ANTON approaches.)

Anton:  Hello, professor, you look perplexed!

Pavel:  Ah, hi there Pasha.  Yes, I’ve been reading Alexander Livingston’s new book about the politics of William James, and I’m trying to figure out how his discussion of habit and will relates to my milieu: writing, the writing classroom, you know.

A: James, the American?  What does he say?

P: Well, habit is a key idea for James.  He calls it “the great flywheel of society,” the ultimate “conservative agent.”  These formulations suggest that habit is both omnipresent and restrictive.  Our habits are also not completely our own.  They have been formed over time by communal action.  In a very real sense, something as simple as riding a bicycle contains the combined wisdom of the ages.

A: Fascinating.

P:  I think so too.  For individuals, staying within the bounds of habit is easy.  It doesn’t require conscious thought, and when engaged in habitual behavior our affective state is one of calm, peacefulness.  Habit, it could be said, is a kind of anesthetic.

A:  I know this feeling.  Commuting to work, or moving around the house on a lazy Sunday morning, at these times it’s almost like I feel nothing.

P: Yes.  As Livingston has it, James draws a distinction between the warm embrace of habit and those moments when we are forced to transcend habit.  When we are forced to create our own interpretations of the world and act on those interpretations.  In these moments, we think and act for ourselves.  Our affective state is one of tension.  We feel “keyed up.”  This tension only subsides as our original, thought-intensive action becomes habituated.  As we start, once again, to operate automatically.  Now though our patterns of action are altered.  We’ve added our little contribution to the great mass of communal wisdom which is habit.  James sees great import in these little moments of transcendence.

A:  I think I’m following you.  Let’s see if I can play out an example.  You know I was recently in Australia.  They drive on the opposite side of the road there.  Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission—so shifting with my left hand—was a real challenge.  It took a lot of effort to do everything backwards.  I had to consciously think through what for years I’d been doing unconsciously.

P:  A perfect example.  James would say that in those moments of struggling with the gear shift you were transcending habit.  You were interpreting the world and adjusting your actions accordingly.  No one was thinking or acting for you.  In this sense, you were asserting your will as a sovereign individual.

A:  Hmm…

P: We should note, though, that the assertion of the will for James is not about conquest or mastery.  It’s essential element is not control over people or objects.  Instead, it’s about engaging the singularity of the world and formulating an equally singular response.

A: Interesting idea.  But how does any of this relate to writing?

P: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  It seems that no act of writing can be completely habitual.  Even the writing of a simple narrative can’t be thoughtless in the way that driving a car is thoughtless.  We have to fit communal forms (words, sentences, etc.) to our singular experience.  This requires mentally searching for and selecting those forms—that is by definition thought.

A:  So all writing requires an act of will?

P:  To any extent.  Perhaps it’s more useful, though, to think of it as a continuum.  No act of writing is completely habitual, but some are less habitual than others.  Only some acts of writing, I think its fair to say, allow for transcendence of the type James is envisioning.  Transcendence occurs when we really have to struggle, when the words won’t do what we demand of them.

A: Those knots in a piece of writing, those moments of aporia when the ideas that you are working with just won’t cohere…

P:  Yes.  There’s a sort of dialectic in those moments, isn’t there?  The writer must take opposites and combine them to reach a higher synthesis.  In doing so he moves from a state of tension—of anxiety and uncertainty—to a state of calm.  I think this dynamic is analogous to James’s discussion of habit and will.  In this case, the will manifests in the struggle to overcome the aporia, in the moments of conscious effort that lead up to the resolution of the conflict.  James puts great value on moments such as these.  These are the times we are most attuned to and engaged with the world.

A:  Effort as an end in itself, eh?

P:  Yes, it seems so.  It also seems that the application or creation of new forms is another way we overcome the habitual in writing.  I mean, we typical do things one way.  We use certain genres in certain situations, etc.  To do things another way, to bend certain genres to fit new situations, that’s another way the will can manifest in the act of writing.

A:  Ah, I see!  That’s why you’re writing this blog post in narrative format.

P: Indeed.  I’m not the first to write a philosophical dialogue, of course, but remember, effort is an end in itself.  So James would say that in the struggle to do something new (something I’ve never done before), I am positioning my will against the force of my habits, and against the force of tradition as embodied in my habits.  I’m thus asserting myself as a sovereign agent.

A:  You are acting in response to the situation’s singular demands.  I could see how this process of reading and responding requires a certain “presentness” which could be of intrinsic value.

P:  Indeed…. Well, it’s almost dinner time.  Enough talking.  How about I buy you a kebab?

A:  Only if I can buy us a round of Putinka.

P:  You drive a hard bargain, my friend.  Let us go.

[PAVEL and ANTON exit.]

A New Critical Pedagogy

By most objectives measures, democratic governance is in retreat all around the world.  In the US, extreme political polarization has resulted in legislative paralysis, as well as the rise of politicians whose ideas, attitudes and tactics are unacceptable to many people.  Many writing teachers, myself included, are upset by this dynamic.  What is to be done?  I think the answer is clear: a recommitment to pedagogy that helps prepare young people for democratic participation.  In short, we need new politically progressive teaching methods, specifically tailored to the world our students now face.  This involves, inevitably, rethinking what makes a pedagogy progressive.

The maintenance of a healthy public sphere has often been listed among rhetoric and composition’s many goals.  In the 1980s, the field saw the rise of so-called “critical pedagogy.”  Largely influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy is overtly political.  Through a variety of methods, critical pedagogues seek to help students achieve “emancipation” and “empowerment,” hoping to ultimately spur positive social change.  Of late, some scholars have argued that critical pedagogy, as such, has run its course.  This is not to say that overtly political pedagogies are out of fashion: one of the most lauded rhet-comp books of recent years (by the chair of Cs, no less) presents an overtly political writing pedagogy.  I do think, though, that ideas about what makes a pedagogy “political” or “politically progressive” have grown somewhat sedimented.

What’s the current progressive consensus?  Approaches vary, of course, but I think we can safely imagine a generic progressive classroom.  First, efforts are made to decentralize authority, to give students (relatively more) control over what and how they learn.  Second, students are taught to recognize and interrogate power structures.  It is assumed that we know what we know, and do what we do, not sui generis, but because of larger forces within society.  These forces create hierarchies that advantage / disadvantage certain groups.  With proper instruction (which often involves an introduction to critical theory), students can be taught to recognize and challenge these hierarchies.

The justification for the consensus approach is two-fold.  First, by gaining knowledge of power structures, students will be a better able to operate within them.  They will become more self-conscious and contextually aware writers.  Second, they will see that these structures are often unfair.  In turn, they’ll seek to challenge them.  Advantaged groups will realize that they need to “renounce their privilege” and embrace “allyship,” while disadvantaged groups will realize it’s “not their fault” and “by working together, we can change things.”  A combination of these factors (increased writerly agency + increased political awareness) are what makes these pedagogies “progressive.”

Now, I don’t want to completely dismiss the consensus approach; many teachers likely feel it works well.  Identifying and challenging power structures makes their teaching meaningful.  This is fine.  I highly suspect, though, that given the fact that regressive political elements now control all three branches of the US government, many teachers feel that current progressive approaches are not working.  For whatever reason, our efforts are not having optimal impact.  If this is the case (which I think it is) we need new forms of critical pedagogy.

Where should a progressive rethink start?  Well, for one, we can start by examining texts outside the conventional canon of Marxist-inspired social analysis.  I find that much progressive pedagogy (and honestly, much of rhet-comp in general) is painfully blind to how individuals actually think, feel and act.  In short, for too long we’ve focused too heavily on systems (networks, discourses, etc.) and not enough on human behavior within systems.  How can we correct this?  Well, one approach is to learn from those who study human behavior.  It seems to me that behavioral psychology can be particularly useful.

As noted, I believe that a progressive pedagogy should help prepare students for democratic participation.  This includes providing “knowledge of” (power structures, etc) and “knowledge how” (to formulate and evaluate arguments, etc).  Behavioral psychology, however, reminds us to take a more holistic view.  It suggests that a functioning democratic system requires not just that individuals have knowledge and skills, but certain dispositions.  Citizens, or a large portion of them anyway, must be inclined to act in certain ways.  In other words, if we want to promote liberal democratic values, we have to promote liberal democratic ways of being.

Now, to an extent, critical pedagogy recognizes the importance of cultivating certain ways of being.  Teachers relinquish power, for example, in order to demonstrate (and hence promote) egalitarian behaviors.  So how can behavioral psychology further such efforts?  Well, psychologists generally hold that behavioral tendencies occur together, thus allowing for the categorization of dispositions.  They also hold that certain dispositions are correlated to certain political attitudes.  For our purposes, the most relevant dispositional factor is one’s “openness to experience.”  Simply put, people who rate highly in openness are willing to accept that which is new or different.  As such, they tend towards creativity, intelligence and empathy.  In the political sphere, they resist authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and systems of dominance.  Tellingly, research also indicates that democracy is more likely to work in relatively open societies.

From the above, we can conclude that to promote openness to experience is to promote liberal democracy.  We want our students to embrace, rather than run from that which is new or different.  To promote this dispositional tendency—which will manifest in patterns of behavior over a multitude of contexts and over a student’s entire life—is as important, I believe, as teaching context-specific knowledges or skills.

So how can we teach openness to experience?  This is a hard question.  It seems, though, that our first step should involve critiquing our current practices in light on this new goal.  Is it possible that anything we are doing is working to make students less generous towards others, less creative, less sensitive to beauty, or their own or others’ subjective states (all traits associated with high openness)?

Each teacher needs to perform her own analysis, but I do wonder if the current progressive emphasis on power structures might be working to make students more “closed.”  Perhaps well-meaning members of advantaged groups, eager not to oppress by “asserting their privilege,” are being incentivized to engage in less personal or meaningful contact with members of disadvantaged groups.  Likewise, members of disadvantaged groups, schooled in the ways of “microaggressions,” might be quicker to derive negative affect from otherwise benign encounters.  Indeed, reports indicate that cultural segregation—the clustering of same with same—is becoming more common on college campuses.  Overall, this line of analysis indicates that supposedly progressive ideas might be shutting down, rather than opening up, students’ willingness to engage with (and hence learn to accept) difference.  If so, behavioral psychology tells us that such pedagogies might be working against democratic ideals.

To close, I will say that the above is not an argument against the progressive consensus.  Instead, it is a call to take into account the whole person when theorizing how progressive political ends might be achieved.  Focusing more on dispositions, or patterns of behavior, can help us achieve a broader perspective.  What we will then see is uncertain.

Talking to Yourself: Online Writing, Restricted Code & Social Fragmentation

Why is online communication so toxic?  Why does it often feel like different groups are talking past each other?  One reason might be the type of writing digital spaces encourage.  Simply put, much digital discourse—on blogs, news platforms, social media, etc.—is marked by the use of restricted (rather than elaborated) codes centered around emotionally laden, community-specific keywords.  As we’ll see, digital space incentivizes this sort of writing.  Indeed, restricted codes are often an efficient means of communication.  But (and this is important) they are not well-suited for communication between groups.  Therefore, the use of restricted codes may contribute to the sense of disconnection we often experience online.

The distinction between restricted and elaborated codes comes from sociolinguistics.  In a restricted code, certain words act as a form of shorthand—pointing to an entire complex of ideas.  This allows meaning to be conveyed with fewer words.  Such writing can be used when the communicating parties share a set of assumptions or experiences.  Elaborated codes, on the other hand, are more explicit.  Terms are defined and the connections between ideas articulated.  The text, in other words, provides more direction as to how it should be interpreted, thus allowing similar meanings to be made by people with different sets of assumptions.

Digital writing is often highly restricted.  This makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, reading on a screen is hard.  It’s physically taxing (compared to print) and within the digital environment, there’s a lot of other stuff vying for our attention.  The writer, therefore, to get read, needs to condense meaning.  It also takes time and energy to make a text more elaborated.  Digital texts are often produced quickly; both tech platforms and the current media environment push writers to emphasize quantity over quality.  Once again, this equals more restricted texts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that in the digital world, venue increasingly helps determine meaning.  As noted, restricted codes work when the writer and reader share a set of assumptions.  In a world where each reader controls her information flow, the mere selection of a venue should equate, roughly, to a defined set of assumptions.  If I’m an urban liberal, for example, I’m probably not going to read Brietbart.  A Brietbart writer, in turn, because he doesn’t need to “speak to the other,” can use a more restricted code.  A sort of feedback loop develops.  As the Brietbart code becomes more restricted, it becomes less likely that liberals will choose to read the Brietbart text.  The Brietbart writer is thus free to make his code even more restricted, and so on and so on.

From the above analysis, we can see why, when trying to communicate online, different groups might seem to be talking past each other.  As noted, an elaborated code can “stand on its own”—it contains all the information a reader needs to make meaning.  To understand a restricted code, on the other hand, a reader needs to hold a certain set of assumptions.  If she doesn’t, the text can only be read with great cognitive effort and/or is more likely to be misinterpreted.

Let’s take a look at how the above ideas play out in practice.  Twitter missives are perhaps the ultimate example of a restricted code.  Consider this tweet:

Untitled

This tweet received over 800 likes, indicating it successfully conveyed meaning to its audience.  The nature of this meaning, though, is not apparent on the face of the text.  This is because apart from the seemingly illogical “on the contrary,” no direct guidance is given as to how to connect the tweet’s two sentences.  A shared definition of the term “toxic masculinity” is needed to establish this connection and make the message coherent.  The tweet’s intended audience, or many of them anyway, can access such a definition.  For them, the tweet reads something like:

It’s so sad to see [a societal demand that men not show emotion] destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: [displays of emotion such as] kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

Understood in this way, the tweet makes a coherent claim.  Integrally, though, if a reader doesn’t have access to the shared definition—if they are operating with another set of assumptions towards the emotionally charged keyword “toxic masculinity”—they will not have access to this claim.  The message will likely appear illogical or as a cliched “attack on men.”  In other words, because of the highly restricted nature of the code, only readers who already basically agree with the writer can grasp her meaning.  As such, this sort of writing acts as a barrier to communication between groups.

Interestingly, the same keywords often circulate among different communities, where they have different, but equally implicit definitions.  Consider a recent Fox News article entitled “This Father’s Day let’s call toxic masculinity what it is.”  Though longer than the above tweet, this piece is also written in restricted code.  And again, it is almost incomprehensible to an outsider.  The author’s primary claim is/seems to be that the conventional ideal of manliness is good, needed and under attack.  The discussion turns around the term “toxic masculinity.”  The academic left accuses manly men of having “toxic masculinity.” They insinuate that manliness is to blame for the actions of sexist workplace monsters.  Apart from this “they insinuate” there is no further attempt to define what “toxic masculinity” might mean to the writer or his opponents.  Again, I’d argue, an explicit definition is unnecessary.  The article’s intended readers, by virtue of having chosen to read a Fox News op-ed about toxic masculinity, can be assumed to share an implicit definition of the term.  A simple reference to it invokes an entire complex of ideas, emotions and identities (undoubtedly negative), which the writer can then work against.

The tribal nature of behavior online has long been noted.  The above analysis indicates that the very language we use might be fueling this tribalism.  As noted, the use of highly restricted codes is driven by structural incentives.  That means that for people (like me) interested in curbing social conflict, there is no easy solution.  It does seem, though, that a general recognition that certain types of language are more likely to be ignored or misinterpreted by those different than us is an important first step.  Perhaps our best option is to learn to read our own texts better—to recognize the implicit definitions and missing connections—and start to take pride in being (more widely) understood.

Notes Towards a Production-Based Assessment Model For First-Year Composition

I’m currently reading Asao Inoue’s award-winning Antiracist Assessment Ecologies (which happens to be available for free from the WAC Clearinghouse).  There’s a lot to this book, some of which I challenge.  On one point, though, Inoue has me totally sold: the importance of evaluating student writing based on energy expended rather than adherence to some standard of quality.  Inoue frames his argument in terms of “labor,” and lays out an elaborate system by which, via grading contracts, students cooperate to set the conditions of their labor.  Though, as noted, I don’t agree with Inoue on every point, his argument got me thinking about how I would go about transitioning from a quality-based to a labor-based assessment system in my own writing class.  Here are some notes towards that end.

Let’s say we have a typical required freshman writing class in the University of Pittsburgh format (Pitt is where I got my PhD and the system with which I am most familiar).  In such a class, I would probably assign four essays (plus drafts and revisions), 10 or so short writings or blog posts, and a presentation or multimedia project.  Pitt encourages portfolio grading, so rather than grades for each assignment, students get a preliminary grade mid-term and another, final grade, at the end of the course.  Grades are to be based on the student’s progress towards the English department’s course goals for FYC.  These goals are:

  1. Engage in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry.
  2. Compose thoughtfully crafted essays that position your ideas among other views.
  3. Write with precision, nuance, and awareness of textual conventions.
  4. Revise writing by rethinking the assumptions, aims, and effects of prior drafts.

I think these are pretty progressive grading criteria.  They stress revision and writing-to-learn, and don’t place undue emphasis on formal correctness.  Inoue’s claim, though, is that even enlightened grading criteria like these disadvantage users of non-dominant discourses and in general cause lots of problems.  As noted, he wants to assign grades (his model assumes we can’t escape grading altogether), based on the amount of time a student spends laboring for the class.  He proposes to keep track of this labor through journals, self-reflective writings and other modes of self-reporting.  For him, whether the product of the student’s labors shows traces of “engaging in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry” simply doesn’t matter.  It’s the process he cares about, not the product.

I too care about process.  I should note, though, that unlike Inoue, I don’t see all discourses as equal, value-wise.  While I won’t go into detail about it here, I do think some types of writing and thinking are better than others, in that they help their users engage with the world in more generous and flexible ways.  Simply put, I have ideas (undoubtedly culturally inflected) about what makes for good writing.  I use these ideas to guide my teaching activities.  And I don’t want to stop doing this.

That said, I agree with Inoue that it might not be particularly fair or effective to grade students based on how well they emulate my ideal discourse.  My goal, above and beyond any sort of specific product, is to help students increase their meaning-making abilities.  Increase in meaning-making ability, I’ve found, comes about primarily through practice.  Students need to read, write, revise, and in general, engage with the ideas of others.  I want my grading system to incentivize these activities.  It seems that Inoue’s labor-based grading methods might excel in this regard.

So how would I go about applying a labor-based assessment program within the Pitt system?  Following Inoue, I think a good place to start is to assume that if a certain amount of work is completed a certain grade is to be assigned.  If all 10 blogs posts and four essays are completed, for example, the student receives a B.  In Inoue’s model, students can achieve an A by writing longer papers.  In my model, I would take a similar approach; students can “level up” by completing a fifth essay after the required four.

Though I want to adopt Inoue’s principal of labor in a general way, I feel the need to make some changes.  One of his key insights, I think, is the importance of conceiving of the writing assessment environment as an ecology.  This means that all the parts of a writing course—and how texts are judged within that course—should be seen as mutually sustaining.  Assigning grades based on labor expended works in his classroom because of the intricate groundwork he lays for such a program (discussions of what “labor” might mean, activities to keep track of that labor, etc.).  Because I have different students and different scholarly interests, I need to allot my resources differently.  I therefore can’t lay the groundwork necessary to sustain a pure labor-based model.

In light of the above, I propose that I assign grades based on assignments completed rather than “labor” in the sense of hours worked.  This gets rid of one potential problem (students being deceptive about how much they actually worked), but adds a new problem: students who complete assignments only in the most perfunctory way.  What if a student spends only minutes on an essay and hands in nonsensical drivel?  Is it fair that he gets a B like everyone else?  It does not seem fair.  To guard against this, in my production model there would have to be explicit guidelines for what each product must contain.  The trick, of course, would be to establish guidelines without going too far and forcing adherence to a dominant standard.  This is difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible.  I think we can ask that student writing contain certain features while still being true to the spirit of Inoue’s argument.

How might we do this?  Let’s consider the types of activities required in an FYC class at Pitt.  First, for drafts there’s really not much of an issue: any student who submits a set amount of words on a set date receives full credit.  Likewise, blog posts or other informal writings can be judged by a similar standard.  Essays are a more complicated matter.  To see how we might set non-oppressive guidelines, let’s consider the four essay sequence I teach at Pitt.  It typically looks something like this:

  1. Personal narrative regarding the student’s experience with a conflict of their choosing (with “conflict” described as any situation where there’s no easy answer);
  2. Application of a course reading to the conflict;
  3. Outside research regarding the conflict and application of these ideas to the personal experience of the student;
  4. Synthesis which combines and expands on the ideas in the previous three essays.

As noted, in a typical quality-based assessment environment grades are assigned based on the degree to which student writing aligns with an ideal standard (at Pitt, the standard is captured in the course goals).  In my adapted labor environment, production is key.  If the student does the work, she gets full credit.  But how do we judge if one “did the work” rather than just filled up the page with gibberish?  It seems to me that the answer is to establish, for each document, a clear set of required formal features.  These features should be “objective” enough that there can be little debate as to whether they are present.  Obviously, this requires a radical simplification of our assessment criteria.  Let’s take the first essay in the above sequence as an example. To get full credit for this assignment, we could ask that an essay contain:

  1. A certain number of words;
  2. Some description of events presented in chronological order (this feature marks a narrative);
  3. Use of the pronoun “I” (this feature marks a personal narrative);
  4. Some description of two or more options or choices for some person or group of people (this feature marks a conflict).

If a piece of student writing can be arguably said to possess these four features, the student receives full credit for the first essay, no questions asked.  Formal features relevant to the second essay might include reference to a course reading and at least two quotations.  For the third essay, we might increase the number of sources referenced to three and the number of quotations to five.  The key point is that whatever features we demand, the criteria must be explicit.  The student must be able to judge for himself (and know for certain) whether the assignment will receive full credit.  In this way, I’d argue, the power to “give” grades is largely taken out of the teacher’s hands.  At the same time, though, because they must adhere to basic standards, students are held to account.

So what’s the point of all this?  What might we gain by moving from a system in which the teacher’s subjective interpretation of quality is paramount, to a production-based system in which assessment criteria are equally available to both teacher and student?  What might we lose?  Let’s take the latter question first.  What we obviously lose is the ability to use grades as a motivational tool.  Let’s me be clear: I will still comment on my students’ essays and those comments will still be designed to move my students towards the type of writing and thinking I like and value.  The only difference is that now, my words won’t be backed by the force of a grade book.  I honestly don’t know what the results of this might be.  Even without grades, it seems, the teacher-student relationship will still be marked by an uneven power dynamic: my students may still try to suss out and emulate what they think I want.  It does seem, though, that without the pressure to please the teacher for a grade, students may be more likely to take chances, to engage in the type of writing they like and value.  This, in turn, might increase their investment in the writing process.

In particular, I can think of two types of students who might benefit from my production-based model. The first group consists of users of non-dominant discourses (these are the students that Inoue is primarily concerned with).  Because matters of usage, language, etc. are no longer part of the grading framework, students formerly penalized for such matters might be newly empowered.  Any student willing to produce the pages, no matter their facility with the dominant discourse, after all, can get an A.  The other group that stands to benefit, it seems to me, are highly motivated, slightly neurotic students.  These are the ones who approach you on the first day of class and announce that they must absolutely get an A.  In pursuit of top scores, they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to do exactly what the teacher wants (and worrying that they have failed).  It seems that with their grades assured, this type of student can direct their mental resources towards more productive and self-determined ends.  They might be able to relax a bit, which very well might lead to better, more sophisticated writing.

As noted in my first paragraph, this post represents merely notes towards a labor-based assessment paradigm.  My thoughts at this point are undoubtedly fragmentary.  I am excited, though, to apply some of Professor Inoue’s labor-based principles in my classroom.  Ultimately, practice will reveal the best path to take.

Deep Bubbles: How Personalized Media Fragments Reality

As someone interested in healthy political discourse, I’m glad to see that social media “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” have become a focus of empirical research.  In a recent blog post, Cristian Vaccari summarizes this research and presents some findings of his own.  Drawing on online surveys of internet users in Germany, Italy and the UK, he calculates how often people agree and disagree with political statements encountered online, offline and via the mass media.  He finds that 1) social media users encounter more opposing than supportive opinions online, and 2) more opposing opinions online compared to face-to-face political conversations.  From this, he concludes that ideological filter bubbles aren’t as prevalent as media accounts have indicated.

Now, I don’t dispute Vaccari’s findings: I suspect he successfully measured what he set out to measure.  I’d like to argue, though, that such findings alone don’t indicate that media personalization isn’t a problem.  Instead, they suggest that we need a more nuanced conception of what the filter bubble effect might involve.  Particularly, we need to realize that filter bubbles aren’t just (or even primarily) about the political opinions one encounters.  Instead, they’re about the fragmentation of the background knowledge out of which we form our political opinions.

I’ll use an example to explain what I mean.  In an effort to escape my particular left-leaning bubble, over the past few months I’ve been reading the Fox News website.  Of course, in doing so, I encounter political opinions with which I disagree.  For example, there might be an op-ed piece arguing for increased military spending.  This policy position is in direct opposition to what I believe should occur.  It is thus the type of encounter Vaccari set out to measure.

Now, while such direct opposing claims exist on the Fox News website, the overwhelming majority of information on the site does not consist of such claims.  Instead, it consists of simple “factual” reporting.  And this is where things get strange.  In short, the world presented by Fox News, I’ve found, is completely different than the one presented by CNN or the New York Times.  Whereas the latter will be covering perceived turmoil in the Trump White House, for example, the former will feature three articles in a row about crimes committed by illegal aliens.  Integrally, neither set of stories are “fake news” nor “political opinions” of the kind Vaccari attended to.  Instead, they are the raw materials out of which we form our political opinions.  Exposed to talk of White House turmoil (background), you may conclude that Trump should not be president (opinion).  Exposed to talk of illegal immigrants and crime (background), you may conclude that the US needs a tougher immigrant policy (opinion).

So different news outlets put different spins on the day’s news.  Of course.  But how does this relate to social media?  The connection, I would suggest, lies in the logic which animates both Fox News, and Facebook, Twitter, etc.  In short, Fox News is perhaps the greatest manifestation on the mass media-level of what we can call the “consumer impulse.”  Fox is particularly adept at providing its viewers with the kind of content that will drive repeated engagement, at “giving customers what they want,” in other words.  And what they want, like most humans, is information which confirms (or at least does not contradict) their existing beliefs and inclinations.  Hence, a non-stop stream of stories about treacherous immigrants and “good guys with guns.”

Moving from mass media to social media, we can see how a similar dynamic exists when information is shared within social networks.  If you are the type of person who often reads, likes or comments upon articles about crimes committed by illegal immigrants, social media platforms—in line with your wishes as a consumer—will show you more information about that topic.  They will also suggest that you connect with people who share similar engagement patterns.  Information will be exchanged about your topic of shared interest.  The beliefs and inclinations you started with will thus be confirmed and intensified.  Integrally, this often occurs without the exchange of overt political messages.  It’s simply like-minded people sharing information about “how the world is.”

Let’s look at an example of the type of information exchange I’m talking about.  Consider the following:

Facebook on the Budget

Though from an obviously politically-invested source, this message, on its face, contains very little that could be classified as a political opinion (ICE likely wouldn’t call their database “invasive,” but may very well agree with the facts of the case).  If I like, share or comment upon this post, I will likely be exposed to more content which emphasizes the perils of the surveillance state.  If my followers “like” my shared content they will, in turn, also be exposed to additional anti-surveillance content.  At the same time, I will be encouraged to share more such content (because I want social approval in the form of likes).  The end result is that all parties in a network—sorted by their original consumer preference (EG, an inclination to worry about surveillance)—will be exposed to an increasingly intense stream of information about the dangers of surveillance.  This will, in turn, lead to the formation and/or sedimentation of anti-surveillance beliefs.

Keep in mind that there’s no “fake news” or overt political opinions involved in the above process.  There really are, out in the world, problems associated with state surveillance.  Because of the consumer impulse, though, the narrative which dominates within any network will tend to highlight only one part of a much more complex story.  This is because those who prefer other narratives (that state surveillance is necessary, say) will, through the same process of sharing and liking, create their own networks around the same topic (or, as is perhaps more common, ignore the topic all together).  As a result of this segregation process, certain problems and issues will loom large in the imaginations of certain segments of the population.  And barely register in other segments.  The result is widely divergent ideas about the state of the world and in turn, what political opinions are valid.

Two additional features of this sorting process are of note.  First, is the importance of repetition.  Exposure to one or even a few articles about a topic doesn’t necessarily shape your opinion.  Instead, it is the relentless drumbeat of similar missives.  Social media is particularly insidious because of its ability to deliver many different messages, over a long period of time, tilted in one direction.  The exposure process is also highly automated.  In a high-stimulation environment like a Facebook page, consumers can’t consciously register most of what they see.  As such, unless we’re particularly committed to a topic, articles and comments about surveillance or criminal immigrants structure our thinking without us even knowing.  Certain views suddenly just appear obvious or “commonsense.”

To summarize, the filter bubble concept must be understood to include not just the expression of overt political opinions, but the background information out of which opinions are formed.  Many different, yet not necessarily contradictory narratives are in circulation.  Media personalization, which reaches its zenith in the form of social media, allows us to choose the narratives we like.  It then works to reinforce our choices.  Any understanding of “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” must take this dynamic into account.

Digital Media Literacy & Writing Instruction

As discussed in a previous post, this semester I’m thinking about digital media literacy and its relation to writing instruction.  James Potter’s Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach is my starting point.  So, if we follow Potter, what might digital media literacy entail?  How might it relate to the writing classroom?  In this post, I’d like to posit some tentative answers.

First, to define digital media literacy, we need to specify our goals.  What are we trying to do?  At what level of the media ecology are we seeking to intervene?  Potter, as the title of his book indicates, works at the level of individual.*  “The primary responsibility for increasing media literacy,” he writes, “resides with the individual person” (65).  As I see it, his claim here is that we (as scholars, educators or policy-makers) can’t force anyone to do anything.  Individuals, as media consumers, are the ultimate decision-makers.  This means that literacy promotion must be inherently rhetorical—we have to convince people of the benefits (to them) of certain ways of thinking and being.

Relatedly, Potter puts great emphasis on tracing the effects of media consumption.  “Any theory of media literacy,” he writes, “must at its core be a theory about how people are affected by the media” (66).  I think this is an important insight.  It reminds us to focus on the real-life consequences of our media consumption habits.  The underlying idea is that individuals are impacted by both the form and content of the media they consume.  We should seek to trace the nature of this impact.  Such inquiry, Potter believes, will reveal that some ways of watching TV or using your phone, say, are better than others, in that they lead to more desirable personal and social consequences.  Media literacy scholars should seek to identity and promote best practices.

So Potter urges us to study (and try to influence) individual media consumption habits.  Now, the question arises, how does this relate to writing instruction?  Some would argue that it does not.  They believe that writing instruction should focus on the production, rather than the consumption of texts.  The type of text to be produced varies, but the key point is that those in this camp devalue interpretation.  I take the opposite approach.  As I see it, the primary move at the heart of all writing instruction—whether teaching academic writing, creative writing or digital media—is the enhancement of the student’s meaning-making ability.  And meaning is never made in a vacuum.  Instead, we write and think using resources we draw from the world.  Writing, as Thomas Kent argues, is intractably hermeneutic.  It presupposes interpretation.

If we assume that all writing involves interpretation, we start to see how media literacy might intersect with writing instruction.  Our goal is to enhance meaning-making ability.  To do so, we must hone interpretive skills.  Media literacy theory, I’d argue, can provide guidance to this end.  In particular, the concept of filtering seems key.  According to Potter, interpretation involves not just how we understand what comes into our field of view, but the practices and habits by which we decide what comes into view in the first place.  These habits of attention are engrained in us through media exposure.  Taking this to be true, it’s only reasonable to assume that these engrained habits impact how students read and write.  Undoubtedly students spend more time texting and on Facebook than they do writing essays or creative non-fiction.  The practices learned in the former very likely shape the latter, both as to form (how we write) and content (what we write about).  Media consumption habits must thus be a concern for writing teachers.

So to summarize, the goal, when thinking about media literacy, is to identify and promote healthier media consumption habits.  For purposes of rhetoric and composition, “healthier” equals those habits which allow students to construct more expansive meanings.  And what might these habits be?  This is complex question, but I think more attention to our filtering practices is important.  What have we been trained not to see?  How can we engage with Facebook and Netflix in ways which gives us a more complex and complete repertoire of facts and ideas with which to write and think?  To promote media literacy, writing teachers will have to devise strategies to help students ask and answer these questions.  Potter’s ideas provide some guidance, but there is obviously much work to be done.


*Some complain that media literacy education of the type Potter promotes, by emphasizing individual choice, ignores the determinative effects of larger social structures.  They argue that media literacy should entail elucidating these structures and engaging in collective action to change them.  While I’m all for change, I’d argue that this work—while important—isn’t the work of writing teachers.  Simply put, in the writing classroom our primary goal is not/should not be to shape policy at a national level.  Instead, it is to help our students (as individuals, necessarily) survive and thrive in the current discursive environment.  Of course, it’s not an either/or choice.  As Potter shows, intervention at the individual level can and will promote broader change.  We just have to be satisfied working from the “bottom up.”

What (Exactly) Is Neoliberalism?

Dissent magazine is currently hosting a forum on the meaning of neoliberalism—an oft-abused term in leftist circles. Historian Daniel Rodgers kicks off the discussion by arguing that the term is an unproductive conflation of disparate forces.  As variously used, it may represent: i) a description of the global economic situation; ii) a strain of economic theory; iii) the machinations of so-called disaster capitalists; or iv) an all-embracing cultural logic.  Rodgers opposes this conceptual indeterminacy because, he claims, it makes it more difficult to identify potential avenues of resistance.  Of course, what “neoliberalism” means will depend on the context in which it is deployed.  I want to suggest, though, that for those in the humanities (like myself) the term is useful precisely because it is all-encompassing.  In short, it’s a concept capable of tying together the global and the local, the economic (definitions i, ii & iii) and the cultural (definition iv).  As such, it’s useful for reminding us of our embeddedness.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to present some empirical observations.  All of the following points, I’d argue, represent verifiable facts about the nature of life in Western society.  What’s the connection?

  1. In 1950 there were 2,500 private, in-ground swimming pools in the United States.  In 2009 there were 5.2 million (see City Observatory).
  2. When I first enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1998, my tuition was about $1200 a year.  As of 2016, tuition at KU was about $11,000.
  3. Throughout the 20th century, marijuana, gambling and pornography were all, to varying degrees, prohibited by law in the United States.  As of 2018, all these “vices” are tolerated, if not outright legal.
  4. Throughout the 20th century, by and large, claims that a person had the right or privilege to select their own gender were met with hostility or derision.  As of 2018, a wide segment of the US population believes that people do—or at least should—have such a right.
  5. Throughout the 20th century, it was possible for a criminal defendant to escape incarceration on the grounds that he or she was not guilty “by reason of insanity.”  As of 2018, this defense is rarely successfully.  If a defendant is held to be insane, the result is typically long-term commitment indistinguishable from incarceration.

At first glance these observations might seem like a jumble, devoid of any pattern that can be charted.  To make sense of them, we need a meta-category, a cultural logic.  This is what neoliberalism provides. It’s a thread we can use to unite changes in physical environs (1), resources allocation (2), law and policy (3 & 5), and values and mores (4).

So what’s the connection?  Following Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, I understand neoliberalism as the interjection of the market into every facet of the lifeworld.  Under neoliberalism, people are conceived of as rational economic actors.  They are expected to weigh cost and benefits, to become profit-maximizing “entrepreneurs of the self.”  To facilitate profit maximization, control is decentralized.  Normativity is less strictly enforced as to allow each private entrepreneur to seek profit opportunities invisible to the “powers that be.”  In such a world, if you want to swim, you need to build the pool.  If you want a college education, you need to pay (a lot) for it.  If you have the funds, though, there are more socially valid consumption choices than ever before (weed, porn).  Identity categories also proliferate.  If you feel like a woman, or a transwoman, or a Hijra, you can become one, because, of course, the customer is always right.  Just don’t step out of line.  As a (supposed) profit-maximizer, you will be held responsible for your actions, whether structurally disadvantaged (E.G. insane) or not.

Rodgers would likely criticize my understanding of “neoliberalism” as lacking precision.  He identifies neoliberalism-as-cultural-logic as “the saddest and most totalizing scenario… in which the horizons of all other meanings and purposes shrink and submit to those of market capitalism.”  He sees this way of thinking as leading to despair.  I simply disagree.  Yes, market logic and the demands of global finance dominate our lifeworld.  No, this doesn’t mean human flourishing is foreclosed.

Rodgers, like many on the left, seems to view a binary sort of resistance to the demands of capital as the highest ethical impulse.  For him, the idea that the market structures our ever move is depressing because we can only do good at a remove from market forces.  My claim, I suppose, is that there is no remove.  We are all (human) capital.  And that’s OK.  An objective assessment of the past fifty years indicates both obstacles to human flourishing (the dismantling of the welfare state in the US and UK, no more public pools) and massive progress (a billion Chinese peasants lifted out of poverty, gay rights).  Neoliberalism as an all-encompassing cultural logic allows us to capture this duality.  In doing so, it helps us to better understand ourselves.  It asks us to consider whether, from a perch as an emeritus professor at Princeton, for example, we can really be said to oppose market logic.  Or whether, all along, we’ve just been working within the system to mitigate its worse tendencies.

So, while noting Rodgers concerns, I will keep using “neoliberalism” in an expansive sense.  Yes, mine is an admittedly reductive narrative, and of course you could identify cultural currents which contradict the story I tell.  I think, though, as a writer and teacher (and human) it’s useful to have a broad cultural narrative within which to frame one’s existence.  It doesn’t directly answer any questions, but it allows you to better go about answering questions in your particular domain.  And if broad enough, in a way, it keeps you honest.  It reminds you that however much you want to be, you are almost certainly not outside the system.