Science / Engineering / Mathematics

Attention Must Be Paid

This morning I learned -- among other things -- that I have been given a Ph.D.

Actually looking at the e-mail would no doubt have informed me that it was a matter of paying a modest fee to some enterprising soul, probably in the Cayman Islands. Instead, I deleted this message on the basis of the subject line alone, along with a dozen other such communications. Meanwhile, my eyeballs were unwittingly drawn to a video loop of a woman screaming in terror – horrified at high credit card interest rates, which she could reduce via a company that advertises with my e-mail provider.

Then my cell phone emitted a short burst of music, announcing that someone had just left a text message.

All par for the course, of course. (At least I wasn’t driving.) The demands on our attention have now become a matter for professional expertise: An organization for specialists, the Information Overload Research Group, was formally incorporated as a nonprofit this summer and held its first conference in August. A substantial technical literature on interruption now exists. And one recent consideration of the world economic crisis suggests it has been exacerbated by all the data now sloshing around the globe: “We have far too much information today and that impedes our decision-making abilities and throttles our ability to resolve crises.”

The weak link in the information age seems to be our human hard-wiring. So one gathers from The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (Oxford University Press) by Torkel Klingberg, who is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the Stockholm Brain Institute. A review of recent research on how attention and memory actually function within our gray matter, it is a work of scientific popularization rather than a handbook on how to minimize the cognitive drain of distraction.

But there may be some advantage to knowing how the systems in our heads actually operate – and it is Klingberg’s contention that, in spite of everything, those systems may actually benefit from the sometimes excessive demands our environments now place on our capacity to process the data flux. The human brain itself has not changed much in either anatomy or volume over the past 40,000 years. So at one level it seems natural that we should experience a cognitive bottleneck in handling the masses of information being hurled at us daily.

To simplify Klingberg’s already pared-down analysis, we can distinguish between two kinds of attention. One is controlled attention: the directed effort to apply one’s concentration to a particular task. The other is stimulus-driven attention, which is an involuntary response to something happening in the environment. (You can tune out the conversations going on around you in a restaurant. But if a waiter drops a tray full of dishes, it is going to impose itself on your awareness.)

But it’s not as if these forms of attention are – as it may seem – different manifestations of the same state of consciousness: researchers have found from tests that the controlled and stimulus-driven attention “seem fairly independent of one another,” says Klingberg, which may mean “that there are different parts of the brain, or different brain processes” involved in them.

Likewise, there is a distinction between the kind of memory that allows you to recall an event from five years ago and a set of information connected with a problem you are trying to solve. Your recollections of yesteryear are part of long-term memory, which can be mysteriously capacious. By contrast, there are definite limitations on how much task-oriented data can be held in your “working memory.” (Evidently there are grounds for debate among researchers over whether or not this is the same as “short-term memory,” but we’ll just stick to Klingberg’s preferred usage.)

As with the forms of attention, the distinction between long-term and working memory corresponds to different processes within the brain, occurring within different parts of its geography. But there is evidence that (as you might expect) working memory and controlled attention are closely related. People who score lower on tests for the ability to retain information in their working memory tend to have more difficulty in focusing attention on a complex task. “It might not come as too much of a surprise,” says Klingberg, “to find that working memory capacity correlates highly with reading comprehension.”

Klingberg reports that a two-year study in his lab showed that it was possible to increase working-memory capacity: “children who had done a certain type of computerized memory task, such as remembering positions in a four-by-four grid and clicking a mouse button, improved at other, noncomputerized types of working memory too.... We had shown that the systems are not static and that the limits of working memory capacity can be stretched.”

Further study suggested that this improvement also corresponded to increased problem-solving skills. Our brains may still have many of the same fundamental limitations as the Cro-Magnon model, but there is also some degree of plasticity in how we can use and develop it.

Which brings us to Klingberg’s most surprising and even counterintuitive suggestion. Multitasking often threatens to overload the working memory. But at the same time, it’s clear that we can actually manage it, at least to some degree – reading a newspaper while walking on a treadmill, for example, and occasionally glancing up at the TV screen to see what’s breaking on CNN.

“There is, fortunately, no research suggesting that exposure to mentally more demanding or challenging situations impairs our powers of concentration,” writes Klingberg. “Indeed, there is much that points to the contrary: it is in situations that push the boundaries of our abilities that we train our brains the most.”

But even if our basic ability to process information is increasing, a growing “discrepancy between demand and capacity” may account for the common sense of losing focus.

"You are very possibly 10 percent better at talking on the phone while erasing spam today than you were three years ago. On the other hand, the number of e-mails you receive per day has probably shot up about 200 percent. There is, therefore, no contradiction between the feeling that your abilities are inadequate and the improvement of those abilities.”

Well, that is some comfort – if not much. It’s been said that the scarcest resource in an information society is not information but attention. Klingberg’s book, interesting as it is, does not leave the reader with any way around that. In any case, a great deal of the “information” (such as my Ph.D. offer this morning) turns out to be noise, rather than anything meaningful. It’s necessary to pay just enough attention to decide not to pay any more attention – a kind of catch-22.

Which is why it sometimes feels like one’s brain is being nibbled by carnivorous gnats. It would be good if Dr. Klingberg and his colleagues would apply themselves to finding a salve. Or better yet, a repellent.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

A Guide to Administrators

Professor I. M. Sari, a senior sociologist at U of All People, has recently published a study of administrators in higher education, a somewhat baffling enterprise for a researcher who claimed in his two-year grant from the Farquhar Foundation that he’d be addressing the effects of group dynamics in urban crowds. The Dean of Humanities is currently looking into whether Professor Sari can be penalized for blatantly disregarding the terms of his four-paragraph grant proposal back in 2006.

Meanwhile, what Sari has produced, in his recent article in Sociology: Not So Hard Science, is a detailed taxonomy of types, from chancellor to assistant chair. Below are some of his categories.

The Pushover: Usually occupying a lower rank, Pushovers will grant almost anything anytime, from extra travel funds to sabbatical requests, whether or not they have the authority to do so. Pushovers have an intense desire to be liked, and are popular until the faculty figures out what little power they have, after which they are routinely ignored in favor of more efficacious administrators.

The Naysayer: Occupying any level, the Naysayer is the opposite of the Pushover, categorically denying all requests on the assumption that faculty beg only for frivolous items and are not to be trusted. Naysayers tend to relish their negative roles, for which most faculty see them as having almost unlimited power, another benefit of refusing that third request for an office chair to go with the desk.

The Underling: Also known as toadies, Underlings are always deferring to the person who got them into office, usually a provost or, in the case of an Underling Provost, a Chancellor or President. As deans or chairs, Underlings may even be people of high integrity -- except when it comes to voting on that referendum against the president’s pet building project, at which point they become oddly silent.

The Quid Pro Quo Type: Usually at the level of a chair or dean, the Quid Pro Quo Type embodies the Latin phrase “what for what.” In return for a new office allocation, for example, the Quid Pro Quo Type may stipulate that the faculty member teach a section of Bio 101, or trade a new computer for extra committee work. Also known as wheeler-dealers, Quid Pro Quo Types pride themselves on their so-called fairness.

The Academic Turned Administrator: These types publicly feel for the faculty, continually reminding everyone that they, too, were once academics. They claim to anyone who’ll listen that they long for a return to teaching and research, until someone calls their bluff, remembering what lousy teachers they were and how little they published.

The Mother of All Administrators: Usually a woman but not always, the Mother of All Administrators is not necessarily the mightiest dean but rather a maternal presence who nurtures the faculty, sometimes in embarrassing ways. How else to explain the matching pen and pencil sets for all faculty in the political science department?

The Business Model: Perpetually talking about the bottom line, Business Model types hew strictly to economics, whether the topic is class size or parking. “Cost efficient” is their mantra -- until it’s time to talk about their $200,000 salary.

The Paper Pusher: a charmingly antique term, dating from the days before e-mail and texting, when faculty mailboxes would be clogged with flyers about arcane lectures and insurance benefit reminders. Nowadays, the Paper Pusher has morphed into a large-scale electronic disseminator, issuing everything from listserv memos to giant PDF’s that require five minutes to download.

The Philosopher King: originally a term from Plato’s Republic, the Philosopher King is an intelligent person who does not wish to serve but does so anyway out of a misguided sense of duty. Disliking responsibility, Philosophers rule with a light hand, unless they find that they start to like the job, at which point they become tyrants.

The Resourceful Type: This species, able to propose a workable agenda, cohere a divided department, or run a smooth meeting, operates both upfront and behind the scenes for the betterment of almost everyone, yet manages to preserve integrity and respect. Unfortunately, the last sighting of the Resourceful Type was spotted at U of All People in 1955 and is now thought to be extinct.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

Gown-Town

When U of All People was founded back in 1970 (briefly losted in the foreclosure of 1987), little thought was given to its surroundings, the sleepy hamlet of Ennyville -- primarily because there was no Ennyville. The university itself emerged on 150 acres of reclaimed swampland, a federal land grant only in the sense that the government wanted to distance itself from a toxic sludge event that at the time was termed “accident at the plant.” But as the university grew from pontoons and quonset huts to potholed paths and faux Gothic halls in dire need of repair, the blind forces of capitalism have seen to the birth and growth of the town.

Ennyville started in 1975 with Sleep Here, a forty-room flea lodge built to accommodate the families of graduating students, campus guests, and sordid trysts. From there, it was a short series of steps to enterprises such as Mart’s Fuel Mart (“We’ll give you gas”) and Main Street Movie Theater (now Main Event, a performance space whose latest show was devoted to foot flogging, linked to the university art department). For obvious reasons, Ennyville has a close relationship to U of All People, or, as biology professor Jen Edix describes it, “the parasitism that exists between a nematode and the human intestine.” Other faculty have been less kind in their assessments. Yet Ennyville is careful to preserve a traditional college town air, if only to attract those at U of All People who consider themselves traditional or collegiate.

The Down Home Diner, housed in an authentic old railway car, remains a bit of a mystery, since no train service exists within 100 miles of Ennyville. Affectionately termed “the Roach Coach” by its clientele, Down Home has survived countless code violations, ranging from clogged grease traps to rodent droppings in the pantry. But the diner remains a favorite university hangout, particularly because so few options exist. And Down Home serves breakfast all day, especially for students whose idea of morning fare is French fries and gravy.

Perhaps in reaction to the dining venues on and off the campus, an upscale café called the Purple Plum does a brisk business in muffins, coffee, herbal tea, and more muffins. The school’s seven student vegans dine here. A 2003 foray into lunch business -- stuffed muffins with a choice of three fillings -- didn’t succeed, and now the Purple Plum is back to what it does best.

Charming Boutique #3 is the third incarnation of a candle and scented soap shop, whose owner in 1985 moved to the graveyard off Route 17. Chloe Retro, a recent graduate at the time, bought the business and turned it into Groovy Antiques, featuring items from the Sixties, such as giraffe-shaped bongs and peace signs made from barbed wire. Under new ownership after a drug raid, the store is now back to soap and candles, with a sideline in wobbly ceramics.

Wrecks-All Drugstore near Fraternity Row stocks what its customers need most, including a dozen brands of condoms and over-the-counter sedatives. Pharmacist “Pops” Popper aims to please, as he has for over twenty-five years, and also does a brisk backdoor business in what he vaguely refers to as “secondhand Rx.”

Boo Briar is the friendly proprietor of Boo’s, a liquor store that deals mainly in pint bottles. Open late, Boo’s has been deemed responsible for a large percentage of the DWI incidents around campus, but as Boo likes to joke, “Alcohol don’t kill people. It preserves ’em.”

Five houses of worship anchor the town, including the First Presbyterian church and two close Seconds. The Catholic church, Our Lady of Groaning, merges spiritual consolation with tutoring aid. “Haven’t got a prayer of passing the test?” reads the marquee sign. “We can help.” The Interfaith Chapel, recognizable by its defaced outdoor sculpture, is visited by no one.

The Swampland Bank (the name a nod to the college’s roots), offered free checking in the days when students still wrote checks, but now demands a minimum balance of $500 (with a creative option, still pending in court, for the equivalent in goods and services). The card slot in the ATM has been repeatedly jammed with super-glue since 2007, but the smashed security camera has shown nothing.

Of course, Ennyville does more than just cater to the buying patterns of students. The town boasted a population of 1,713 in the 2010 census and has learned to be self-sufficient (except in June, July, and August). The buildings around town house three second-rate doctors, an insurance-real estate-tax accountancy-law-and-carpentry firm, a nail salon staffed by illegal immigrants — even semi-affordable housing in a development called Kollege Rowe. In reciprocity, U of All People has reached out to Ennyville, offering a senior-citizen course-credit discount that amounts to $15.99, as well as free access to campus cultural events like Museum Night. The school also rents its 15,000-seat football stadium to local meetings of the Kiwanis Club.

Even the latest Omicron Upsilon prank, involving a gallon of sheep’s blood and the Interfaith Chapel, hasn’t done much to sour town-gown relations, after the fraternity paid an unnamed sum in restitution. As head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Len Meesum, puts it,“The love just keeps on coming.”

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

Praise But No Cash

I’ll start with the good.

Hearing the words “community college” spoken in the White House by the President of the United States? And spoken again by the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers? In my lifetime? Until yesterday, I would not even have dreamed. Or that I’d be standing beneath the chandeliers in the East Room, seeing and hearing this myself.

“These colleges are the unsung heroes of the American education system,” President Obama told the audience of 120 community college leaders, three Cabinet secretaries, one member of Congress, and eight other administration senior officials in the noon opening session.

With a red tag on a chrome neck chain that I had to return, from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. yesterday, I was a temp in the White House press corps. I’ll get this out of the way now: for an obscure columnist, going to the White House is a blast. As I promised a friend, I’d write “I.F. Stone” in my notebook (see quote here), and not fall for the glamor.

Now back to my job here as a columnist. This column is a tough one. The day had good and not-so-good. The administration has taken massive action for higher education, including more than doubling funding from $16 to $34 billion for Pell Grants, the major aid for students like those at community colleges.

Attention is not funding, but I admit that the White House today sent word of what community colleges can do throughout the land. Jill Biden, professor at Northern Virginia Community College and wife of the vice president, said as she has before that community colleges are “the best-kept secret” in the United States. Introducing President Obama, Dr. Biden said, “With the President of the United States shining the light on community colleges, I think that secret is out.” I agree. Do community colleges, who know most about their problems, have an agenda President Obama and Secretary Duncan can back?

Day in the Sun
For more on the summit,
see our news coverage.

At the summit, no one I heard asked for the money back. That’s the $12 billion for community colleges that vaporized out of budget legislation this year, shortchanging the nation’s 1,200 community colleges and six million students, half the nation’s undergraduates.

Walter Bumphus, president-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges, was at the summit. I asked him how much funding he planned to ask for in his presidency, which begins in January. Premature for him to reply, he told me. What of the cloud circling the Summit, people saying that a White House meeting was a sop to community colleges, for cutting the AGI?

“I prefer to see the glass as half-full and focus on this emphasis on community colleges,” Bumphus said. “I appreciate the spotlight that the White House is putting on community colleges and the opportunity to have discussions at the highest levels.” The recurring theme of low completion rates at community colleges was a summit topic. Given the complexity of the issues community colleges face, what should the completion rate be? He replied that this was a good question. Oh, well. (Disclosure: In a June column, I applied to be AACC president.).

When the community college situation fogs up for me, I turn to students and faculty. In my 7 a.m. College Writing I class Monday at Bunker Hill Community College, I asked what I could find out for them at the Summit. A Navy veteran, who had served in Iraq, said he needed to know more about learning skills for a civilian career. His Navy skills, he said, were not marketable. Another student stopped me after class. He had spent five years in federal prison. “My skills aren’t really transferable,” he said. Where could he get some advice? I have no new answers for either of them.

The day began with a familiar tale. I stopped at Marvelous Market, a bakery and deli near the Inside Higher Ed offices. I asked the women serving me if they went to community college. “My sister, Sonia, does,” Lilian Ramos told me. “She’s going to Prince George’s Community College, studying to be a registered nurse. She has a scholarship from the federal government that’s taking a long time to process. She started school more than three months ago. She still doesn’t have the money. Now she has to pay from her own pocket until she’s reimbursed. But the courses are good.”

Lilian herself? “I am just 21. I have to give my mother’s information for financial aid. She works two jobs and we both work, so we make too much money for the federal scholarship,” she said. Lilian told me she works 60 hours a week. Forty at the bakery and another 20 as a supervisor at a cleaning company. The company where her mother worked closed. “Now, we make less money, so I think I can qualify for the federal scholarship.” A breakout session at the Summit did cover the need to continue simplifying federal financial aid and broadening eligibility. So, I have an answer for Lilian.

I was the pool reporter for “The Importance of Community Colleges to Veterans and Military Families,” one of the six breakout sessions. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listened for most of the first half of the meeting. He then took an active role, asking again and again what the military can do to help the transition to college. His worry is that troops just focus on the end date of their service. Getting their attention on important matters that await them after leaving the service is more difficult.

Mullen said that throughout his career, he asked those leaving the military who say they will go to college, “Do you really mean that? Or are you just saying that because you know I’ll like the answer, and we can end this conversation?”

“I don’t know how much [those leaving the service] know about community colleges. That’s on us,” Mullen said. At Bunker Hill, I work with veterans every day. That the Summit attracted this attention from Mullen was my high point for the day.

In the East Room, I asked a White House press corps regular how the event ranked, one to ten, in terms of stops the White House could pull out. "A five," he said, though "you didn't hear it from me." The East Room wasn't set up for cramming in as many people as possible. "Half-day event, all day spin. The Big Man isn't going to the wrap up. That's definitely a five." We press were roped off in the back third of the East Room, and the 100 or so of us didn't fill the space.

I counted four empty seats among the guests. (Among the guests, unlike my community college classes, no piercings other than earlobes. No Jordans. No Nikes.) As a matter of proportionality, the President of the United States has the whole world and parts of outer space in his hands, and he showed up to speak, not wave. The White House is The White House is The White House. Five out of ten? Plenty generous for community colleges.

For urgency at community colleges, veterans leads all other issues. As a matter of focus and priority, having the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs devote an hour in a breakout session is 100 on a 1-10 scale. Thank you, Mr. President.

What, then, do I know after a day at the White House? I still prefer cash to spotlights and buzz. Thanks to the White House, community colleges had unprecedented attention from President Obama and in the national press. That’s great. I’ll take it with a jump for joy. What will community colleges do in this spotlight? Well, I’ll hope for unprecedented action, no excuses.

That I.F. Stone quote, to get me through the day? “You've really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk.” I’m in the clear. The White House had bag lunches for guests and officials, not the press.

Oh, I learned that some parts of the White House have no cell phone signal, and I missed a call. My mother, 86, left a message. She sounded upset. I called back. “Where are you?” she asked. When does a son get this chance? I told her. “A lighthouse? What are you doing at a lighthouse?” Back to earth and community college.

Author/s: 
Wick Sloane
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Land-Grant Livin'

If you plotted our town on one of those vintage maps that show important products, we’d be an ear of corn, a fat green soybean, and a little black mortarboard. Even within the perimeter of the campus, we have farms for teaching and research. On one of these, a dairy farm of 200 cows, we are living out our destiny as a land-grant institution.

Land-grant institutions, you will remember, came into being under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Tracts of land were granted to loyal states; the state could sell the acreage to raise funds to establish a university. Land-grant universities were required to teach mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and, in a nod to the desperate reality of the Civil War, military tactics.

In the early days of our university, the student brigade rolled out its cannon and practiced artillery on the central quadrangle. When called to the Somme, they went. And now, once again, in our sleepy town, you can hear the booming sound of cannon fire.

The first night the booms woke me I figured that I had been reading too much nineteenth-century French history and had a very bad case of Napoleon on the brain. Once he settles in, he’s a bear to get rid of. But my husband grumpily assured me that I hadn’t imagined it. Someone was firing a large gun on our campus.

The neighbors had theories:

(1) Frat boys setting off fireworks. The originator of this theory grew up here, which is why he assumes that any nighttime phenomenon that can’t be otherwise explained must be caused by fraternities.

But frat boys, although they do operate inside a highly structured and hierarchical institution, don’t set off their fireworks at regular intervals.

(2) “Firing to get rid of the Canada geese,” my husband theorized. “There are too many of them around the ponds.” But weren’t the Canada geese sleeping at night?

At a dinner party that night our host admitted he was exhausted. Early in the morning he had finally called 911 and complained.

We all leaned forward. So what is it?

His eyes twinkled. “You know all those cows? And think of all the methane they produce… .” The university, the 911 operator had explained, responsibly trying to keep all that hot methane out of the biosphere, had installed a machine that processed the methane with a loud bang. Unfortunately the timer had malfunctioned and that was why it had gone off all night rather than during the day.

“University flatulence,” he chuckled. “We should have known.”

I liked all these theories. I pictured the frat boys setting off fireworks at timed intervals (they would probably have an app on their cellphones to keep track), the geese going elsewhere (good riddance!), and the methane from the dairy cows exploding with a bang. But like many appealing theories of ordinary life, all three were wrong.

The university once again has a cannon. And on that modest dairy farm, our land grant mission, our very destiny -- agriculture, military tactics, and engineering -- has finally come together to defend our land-granted soil. And just in time, too. The enemy is massed all around, lined up on the wires, waiting to attack. Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?

For the last two years flocks of crows have swooped down and pecked through the enormous rolls of corn stored in heavy plastic, causing rot and spoilage. Storing the feed corn for the coming year in giant plastic rolls is efficient and economical. Each plastic roll holds the equivalent of a sixty-foot silo and needs no maintenance. The farm tried netting over the plastic but the crows pecked through it. They tried poisoning, but neighbors complained about the crows keeling over in their yards, and the cruelty. So this year they have purchased a propane-powered nuisance cannon. At intervals it sets off a sonic boom of over one hundred decibels. Normally it goes off at random, regular intervals all day long. It went off all that sleepless night because someone forgot to turn it off.

Napoleon said that it was with artillery that you wage war and win battles. How he would have loved the university’s 21st-century weapon, the propane cannon. So portable! Blue and yellow plastic, a lightweight tripod, and 17,000 detonations from one small tank of fuel. Its only projectile is that now-familiar sonic boom. At least for now, the crows are in retreat.

Author/s: 
Carol Spindel
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Carol Spindel is an instructor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

That's Offensive!

Late last month, following a protest by House G.O.P. leader John Boehner and the Catholic League president William Donohue over its imagery of ants swarming over a crucifix, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video called “A Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition. (See this report in IHE.) Over the past week, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted over a mural it had commissioned from an artist named Blu; the mural showed rows of coffins draped in dollar bills. MOCA explained that the work was “inappropriate” given its proximity to a VA hospital and a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers, but has invited the muralist to come back and try again.

All of this in the wake of last spring's furor over the cartoon series South Park’s satirical depiction of Muhammad (or rather, its flirtation with that depiction). I didn’t pay all that much attention to the controversy as it was occurring, since I was still getting angry e-mail messages from Hindus who objected to a scholarly book for its impiety towards their gods. It felt like I had absorbed enough indignation to last a good long time. But there’s always plenty more where that came from. People feel aggrieved even during the holiday season. Actually, just calling it “the holiday season” is bound to upset somebody.

So it may not make sense to use the word “timely” to describe Stefan Collini’s new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (published by Seagull and distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic seems perennial.

A professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, Collini is also the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008), both from Oxford University Press. His latest volume is part of a new series, “Manifestos for the 21st Century,” published in association with the internationally renowned journal Index on Censorship. As with his other recent work, it takes as its starting point the question of how criticism functions within a society.

The word “criticism” has a double meaning. There is the ordinary-usage sense of it to mean “fault-finding,” which implies an offended response almost by definition. Less obviously tending to provoke anger and defensiveness is criticism as, in Collini’s words, “the general public activity of bringing some matter under reasoned or dispassionate scrutiny.” Someone may find it absurd or perverse that there are critics who think Milton made Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost, but I doubt this interpretation has made anyone really unhappy, at least within recent memory.

Alas, this distinction is not really so hard and fast, since even the most dispassionate criticism often involves “a broader analysis of the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices.” And it is sometimes easier to distinguish this from fault-finding in theory than in practice. “Such analysis,” writes Collini, “will frequently be conducted in terms other than those which the proponents of a claim or the devotees of a practice are happy to accept as self-descriptions, and this divergence of descriptive languages then becomes a source of offense in itself.”

Not to accept a self-description implies that it is somehow inadequate, even self-delusional. This rarely goes over well. An artist showing coffins draped with dollar bills, rather than flags, is making a polemical point -- in ways that a scholar analyzing the psychosexual dimension of religious narratives probably isn’t. But offense will be taken either way.

Such conflicts are intense enough when the exchange is taking place within a given society. When questions about “the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices” are posed across cultural divides, the possibilities for outrage multiply -- and the problem arises of whether critique amounts to an act of aggression.

Let me simply recommend Collini’s book, rather than try to synopsize his argument on that score. But it seems like a good antidote to both clash-of-civilizationists and identity-politicians.

“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others,” he writes, “but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”

As a corollary, this implies cultivating a willingness to listen to critiques of our own deeply embedded self-descriptions. No easy thing -- for "so natural to mankind," in the words of John Stuart Mill, "is intolerance to what it really cares about." Amen to that.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

CCAS 46th Annual Meeting

Date: 
Wed, 11/02/2011 to Sat, 11/05/2011

Location

Montreal,
Canada

66th Annual Meeting

Date: 
Fri, 07/29/2011 to Mon, 08/01/2011

Location

Wheaton, Illinois
United States

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