Saturday, September 09, 2006

interdisciplines and the anti-disciplinary

Is it an interdiscipline yet?

Once upon a time I aspired to creating with others a collective field "feminism and writing technologies." This was before cyberculture studies or new media or humanities computing or digital culture. It was still in the world (if not the exact time) of the maverick radical pedagogies and the individual researches/teaching we called "interdisciplinary" in the 60s and 70s.

The formation "women's studies" (larger, much larger indeed than an "interdiscipline," I'm still not sure what it is actually. Interdisciplinary field is inadequate -- it's not a single field at all. Anyway, that thing) -- "women's studies" was in formation then, an emergent field in the proper sense of emergent: self-organizing, multi-institutionalized, its very many structures "learning" at a level not located with individual humans. That thing. Pedagogically driven but not service defined.

So I imagined "feminism and writing technologies" as another, maybe smaller, emergent field. All those energies that have gone into the other new media thingies I imagined, not wholly taken with feminism and writing technologies maybe, but at least hailing it.

And some of that has happened. Individually.

I never noticed then and only have over the last not-quite-a-decade, the birth of the "interdiscipline."

When I first became a professor in women's studies, a junior assistant professor, I was constantly asked what was my "field" -- a question for which "women's studies" was not the proper answer. Actually what folks wanted was the name of a discipline: history, sociology, anthropology, literature (more than English), that sort of thing. I said "feminism and writing technologies." Since this was before these other new media studies this was literally unintelligible to those asking such questions.

"No, REALLY, what did you get your PhD in?" "The History of Consciousness." This usually stopped the questions. I'm not sure how properly.

After a while folks started prompting me: "What is it? Cultural Studies?" That was the most acceptable "field" for me to reference. At first I repudiated it, but shortly came to feel allied with cultural studies (broadly conceived, perhaps many kinds of studies of "culture"), although not defined by it. I tried out at other times such phrases as "feminist theory." When I came up for tenure my chair was required to attend a campus committee reviewing my case to explain to them what "feminist theory" was. Apparently she was eloquently able to satisfy them, because I did get tenure in women's studies.

Over the course of almost a decade I was working on a book on feminism and writing technologies. It kept morphing into more and different things and still does I guess. But at one pivotal point I broke it into several smaller projects and offered one of them to a press. I was told up front, just looking at the title including "feminism and writing technologies," that the word "feminism" was no longer a title term that would be taken seriously. Presumably not sell, a negative flash point for publishers.

Quite a difference from the moment in which my first book was published. Feminism was apparently a new market then. And a woman editor perhaps wanted to open it. Wider?

At another point a reader, after saying many nice things about this particular project, indeed one might say enthusiastic about the connections made in it, gave it nonetheless the kiss of death. Despite its goodnesses of various sorts, the reader argued it wouldn't sell because it covered too many areas. No substantive constituency of readers existed for it already and folks would have to be interested in many more things than readerships actually are. The suggestion was to dramatically reshape it to be of interest to some particular interdiscipline, say "media studies."

I had started to perceive the makings of "interdisciplines" by now. These attempts to discipline me into them had continued, and I had come to see this as benign, maybe even something I aspired to myself, or at least, as a measure of a legitimation of interdisciplinary work in the academy. I thought of this as a friendly shift, as I thought of the institutionalization of women's studies, to the point of PhD programs and such.

So I was taken aback to be disadvantaged by such formation. I had thought it was an advantage for my work, and I had thought that making broad connections would be perceived as valuable. And I had assumed that "valuable" entailed "salable."

Even though I was writing about "niche marketing" then, I actually thought this work was both valuable within niches and also valuable within ideas of "broad interest." By which I understood, many readers would find "something" of interest which would cajole them into new interests and connections not yet cultivated. A matter of appealing to curiosity and the excitements of making unfamiliar connections. The unfamiliar being then a positive point of value, both intellectually and commercially.

I still wonder about this. I still aspire to make community with others who share an excitement in unfamiliar stuff newly connected across emerging abstractions of material importance in new literalizations. Who like new words, new thoughts, new syntheses.

I had thought that interdisciplines were evidences of such valuations and curiosities.

And are they?

Or are they more and more ways of managing and disciplining new knowledges. Bracketing them within older structures so they will not play out "emergently" -- ie. uncontrollably at the level of academic institutionalization.

I've loved Julie Thompson Klein's work on interdisciplinarity, but all along I was very uncomfortable with the overwhelming emphasis on collective evaluation that she forefronts. I put this down to her location as a policy person of sorts -- consulting with and creating academic units under economic and other restructurings.

I had thought she seemed oblivious to interdisciplinarity at the level of individual research projects which only sometimes combine with other collaborations. My own teachers I thought of as such models: doing both at various times, but very often those maverick types: Gregory Bateson, Norman O. Brown, Harry Berger, Jr.; maybe also Shelly Errington, Donna Haraway.

Only when I was pushed to revalue the "post-disciplinary," a term I'd disliked in favor of interdisciplinary on the model of an emergent "women's studies," did I come to rehistoricize what I was experiencing.

Lattuca's creating interdisciplinarity book was pivotal, as was Slaughter and Leslie on academic capitalism, and also new representations of women's studies I started to see around me.

When someone I respected publicly represented "the" history of women's studies as the history of disciplines self-consciously working in appreciative collaboration with their valued daughter, women's studies, to do both their work and more, the women's studies PhD, I started literally quaking with anxiety, disagreement, horror and rage. I lost it.

I incoherently and excitedly broke in, making a public scene, saying that another history of women's studies existed too: one in which women's studies was created from the critique of the disciplines, deliberately dismantling their foundations and creating something new out of the rubble. (I wasn't nearly as eloquent as this, however inadequate it still is.)

The anti-disciplinary.

I had never thought of myself as strictly anti-disciplinary. I've always loved to learn how disciplines see worlds and are worlds: figuring out how argument and things are made in disciplines (and interdisciplines), not in competition but in a kind of honoring appreciation that is also denaturalizing.

I assume that denaturalizing is not the same as deauthorizing or dishonoring. I kept trying to communicate this ethic to students, colleagues and, at times, myself.

But now I felt pushed, polarized, dis-allied, dis-identified, repudiated -- and my response was to do all back! And to reclaim the history of such polarizing reactions -- even though my own history was usually worked in all the inbetween places.

Now I have come to see the interdisciplinary as no longer friendly. As the essentialization of corporate academy -- emphasis on word "corporate" playing between the corporations of capital and the corporate of collective. Essentialization here being both my own "error" of such reactive polarization of a new set of institutionalizations, and also the coming-into-being of something I feel myself defining myself against.

Is this wise?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Honor of Donna Haraway, Primate Vision, Eating Fruits and Nectar, and Proximity to Sharp Eyed Species

Op-Ed Contributor
Snakes on the Brain

Published: September 3, 2006
Davis, Calif.

SNAKES hit a nerve in people. How else to explain why the movie “Snakes on a Plane” became an Internet sensation months before it was released in theaters? The very idea was all it took to rouse attention.

That humans have been afraid of snakes for a long time is not a fresh observation; that this fear may be entwined with our development as a species is. New anthropological evidence suggests that snakes, as predators, may have figured prominently in the evolution of primate vision — the ability, shared by humans, apes and monkeys, to see the world in crisp, three-dimensional living color.

The snake-detection hypothesis has grown, as scientific theories so often do, out of attempts to grapple with the flaws in earlier ideas about why primates have better vision than any other mammals. (Cats, dogs and horses can see objects well enough, but they lack the depth perception it takes to, say, perform brain surgery, or the visual acuity we humans use to read the fine print on a legal contract.)

Back in the early 1900’s, scientists thought that natural selection may have favored sharp eyes in ancestral primates because these animals were presumed to have lived in the canopies of tropical trees, and would have needed excellent vision to negotiate that environment without falling.

This “arboreal theory” held sway for 50 years until, in the early 70’s, scientists pointed out that plenty of mammals without such great vision live in trees — tree squirrels, for example. More likely, they said, primates developed their vision because they ate insects. It would have been important to see well, according to this “visual predation hypothesis,” in order to stalk and grab prey as primates do. But as one can see from observing insect-eating primates today, these animals are quite capable of finding their prey using their ears or noses alone.

Other ideas came along in the 1990’s, including one all-encompassing theory suggesting that primates needed good vision to eat insects, find fruit and spot the best branches to leap to. All the theories worked off the assumption that primates’ superior vision evolved as a strategy to help them get food. But natural selection can also work to improve an animal’s ability to protect itself.

Recently, comparative studies of primate brains have shown that the part of the primate visual system that has expanded most is not the part that’s used for visually guided grasping and reaching —it’s the part that’s given primates keen vision and forward-facing eyes, both useful for distinguishing nearby objects from their backgrounds and for finding camouflaged objects. Needless to say, these are good skills to have if one wants to avoid stepping on a snake.
How did this happen? About 90 million years ago, some mammals adopted diets that set them on an evolutionary path to becoming primates: They began to eat fruits and nectar.

This change from a wholly insectivorous diet to a sugary diet of very sweet-smelling foods made it possible for their brains to evolve in such a way as to give greater priority to vision and less to the sense of smell. (Animals that needed to sniff out faint scents — as hedgehogs find earthworms or rodents track down seeds — could not afford to let vision become more important than olfaction.) So the visual parts of primate brains were allowed to expand and become more complex.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that other creatures began eating fruit, too — tree shrews and neotropical fruit bats, for example — and that these animals did not develop great eyesight. It follows, then, that there had to be some further incentive for primates to develop their superior vision. My contention is that the push may have come from snakes. I base this on multiple observations, two of which I will mention here.

First, all animals have early-warning networks, neurological wiring that tells them they’re in danger. These networks, however, are more hard-wired to the visual system in primates than they are in other vertebrates. What’s more, there is evidence that, over time, the visual component of the primate warning system has grown more than it has in other creatures.
Second, the monkeys with the sharpest eyesight tend to be those who live in greatest proximity to venomous snakes. About 60 million years ago, primates had branched into two groups: the Old World monkeys and apes (including us) and the lemurs of Madagascar. Around the same time, venomous — as opposed to constricting — snakes appeared in Africa and Asia. (Of all the predators of modern primates, snakes were the first to appear, about 100 million years ago.)
The Old World monkeys then branched again about 35 million years ago, when some went to South America and became the New World monkeys. The Old World monkeys and apes were the ones most exposed to venomous snakes, and of the three major primate groups, the Old World monkeys and apes have the best vision.

You might chalk this up to coincidence, but what if you learned that the Malagasy lemurs have the least complex visual systems of the primates, and that venomous snakes have never lived in Madagascar? New World monkeys, in the meantime, have been exposed to venomous snakes on and off and on again for the past 60 million years, and the quality of their eyesight is better than that of lemurs but more variable than that of Old World monkeys and apes.

And so the idea that the need to detect and avoid snakes contributed to the evolution of our vision fits into a rather neat picture. The hypothesis draws further support from what we know about the evolution of raptors: Eagles that specialize in eating snakes have larger eyes — resulting in greater visual acuity — than eagles that don’t.

The snake detection hypothesis also explains why New World and Malagasy monkeys are not nearly as terrified of snakes as their Old World counterparts. Consider the observations made nearly 100 years ago by the British scientists P. Chalmers Mitchell and R. I. Pocock, when they carried writhing snakes into a roomful of caged monkeys and lemurs. The lemurs were unperturbed, and the South American monkeys showed some fear. But the Old World monkeys “bolted panic-stricken, chattering loudly and retreating to their boxes or as high up as possible in the larger cages.” The baboons jumped back, and the chimpanzees began to scream, “all keeping their eyes fixed on the snakes.”

No wonder “Snakes on a Plane” hit a nerve. (Not to mention the story of Eve and the Serpent.) There’s a deep connection between snakes and primates, one that may have shaped who we are — and how we see — today.

Lynne A. Isbell is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Details of implementing the token system

To do the token system, I give students small sheets of paper, where they they record their name, group number, assignment number, and then members's names other than their own. They write down how many tokens they want to give each member. Typically, I do this after the assignment is due at the end of class time.

I collect those papers from them, so I have a written record. This is a necessity, because I can make errors and input grades on blackboard, so they can see them. I try to do quick turn around time in posting their grades at blackboard. It has a spread sheet, so I can see the grades but they can only see their own, when they log in.

Typically, students distribute the tokens equally; the system provides an incentive for cooperation and a sense of fair play. Mostly, they know what they're getting and receiving from each other.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Student Collaboration and the Token System of Grading

Collaboration and the Token System of Grading

For the past three years, I’ve altered my pedagogy in all my courses, trying to work my way out of a role that seems to be disappearing before my eyes anyway, that of the professor. I realized that lecturing was not good pedagogy, that it reinforced the passivity in my students I wanted to subvert, and that I was bored out of my mind with teaching. Simultaneously, a professor from Melbourne University had been hired to promote faculty teaching with colleagues and students overseas. He conceptualized this process as global learning with the expectation that students would come to understand their own and others cultural assumptions through working together and reflecting on that process. Online technologies such as our campus online learning environment, videoconferencing, email, are all means for enabling the process of what he calls “cage painting.”

While my colleague saw himself as the conceptualizer of global learning, I saw global learning as something that could be disassembled and reassembled. As his student, I engaged him with his own cultural assumptions including assumptions about what constituted “culture,” and whether “culture” could do the work of “unlearning” I wanted my students to do in relationship to their Palestinian counterparts, etc. I enthusiastically jumped in and started breaking his toy apart. One piece that I use is the token system of grading, which is a very powerful way of encouraging collaboration among students, because it requires students to assess each other. Their assessment modifies mine.

Example: 20 pt. assignment

My grade for group x, Assignment #2=17 out of 20
Number of tokens to distribute is determined by group size (i.e. 4 members=15; 5=20; 6=25):


Here’s the math for how I modify my grade by the tokens:
Name tokens rec/tokens poss frac % % x pts. instr. assigns group
Mary 20/20 1.0 or 100% 1.00x17=17
Sue 20/20 1.0 or 100% 1.00x17=17
Diana 15/20 .75 75% .75 x17=12.75
Kathy 24/20 1.0 100% 1.00x17=17
Linda 19/20 .95 95% .95x17=16.15

From the tokens, it seems that Diana’s participation was lacking, as reflected by the fact that she ended up with fewer tokens. Kathy seemed to have overcompensated for Sue and maybe Linda’s performance, but since no one can receive more than 100% of pts., Kathy got the full percentage of my grade but no more for maybe rescuing the group’s performance. Each group members total points earned on that assignment reflects that reality. The token system is designed to discourage both slacking and rescuing.