In today's Academic Minute, David Rosenbaum, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, discusses "precrastination," a term he coined to describe those who jump directly into the task at hand, sometimes to their detriment. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
If your college or university is anything like mine – seeking significantly increased resources to enable all the research, student aid, and facilities development that we would like to support – then perhaps you’ve been watching this summer’s social media phenom of the ALS ice bucket challenge with a sense of envy.
I share in the general pleasure that a worthy charity has enormously increased its finances, which may speed up a cure for a terrible disease. On the tally board of life, this profuse bucketing outbreak goes on the plus side for those of us who’d like to believe that people are basically good and inclined to help others in need.
And I also see the cavils: that this movement is a “slacktivist” fad, an easy and lazy manifestation of commitment; that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is relatively rare, and perhaps less deserving of funding than more prevalent maladies like malaria, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s; and that research funding should be determined by the rational standards of peer review rather than clickbait.
But my own foremost (and self-centered) response to this orgy of charitable energy is: If only I’d thought of it first. We might have a half-dozen new endowed chairs in our department and teaching-free dissertation fellowships for every one of our graduate students. Zadie Smith and Thomas Pynchon would be the featured speakers in our English department lecture series. (Granted, Pynchon’s not very visible on the lecture circuit, but wait until he sees our offer!)
Is our cause sufficiently worthy? Of course it is, and it’s pointless to argue whether higher education or ALS is more deserving: apples and oranges. The suffering of an ALS victim is terrible. The plight of people who cannot maximize their talents, too, is terrible. At my university, where over half our students qualify for Pell Grants and a third are first-generation college students, I see firsthand every day how profoundly meaningful a college education is for those who are marginally able to achieve it, and how fundamentally valuable it would be to extend that margin as much as possible.
So what can we do to connect with the public, to promote our worthy cause, and to set off a chain reaction that will bring along hordes of people jumping onto our bandwagon?
In the meta-analysis of the ice bucket challenge, many have commented on the arbitrariness of charitable giving and of catching the public’s eyes and hearts. But still, is there something we in academe can learn from this? Is this sort of philanthropic enterprise replicable?
Where can I sign up my department to raise millions of dollars? I suppose I’d include the humanities at large – or even more magnanimously, I’ll extend the invitation to academe generally. (Participants from every campus could sport their university T-shirts to identify the recipient of each donation.)
Nearly as important as the cash, it would be extremely rewarding to find ourselves in the thick of a snowballing social movement, like the ALS campaign, that raises national consciousness and unleashes a contagious enthusiasm about what we do in higher education and how deserving our mission is of support.
Probably the appeal of the ice bucket campaign was lucky and unpredictable; if anyone knew exactly what makes a multimillion-hit meme, I imagine there would be consultants charging multimillion-dollar fees to produce them. (Perhaps there actually are such consultants, though I’m not aware of them.) Is it the snazzy visuals of the unexpected? The counterintuitive willingness to ruin an outfit and suffer – however momentarily – what I imagine would be a very unpleasant experience? (I haven’t taken this challenge myself, though I strongly suspect that I will be invited to do so any minute now.)
Honestly, I don’t have any bright ideas about how exactly to stage an academic iteration: a pie in the face? Banana peel pratfalls? Blind man’s bluff into a vat of tomato sauce?
Perhaps we in the academy should aspire to something more dignified, but maybe, presuming that the success of ALS merits attention as a “best practice” ripe for our own adaptation, what draws massive crowds of participants is precisely the unexpected contrast between the seriousness of the problem and the oddly undignified escapism of the momentary “challenge.”
Some kind of slapstick gesture seems necessary: something physical and messy and shocking, involving a very intimately personal – bodily – engagement.
As silly as it is, the ALS Association’s challenge represents a wonderful manifestation of human ambition and determination: curing a debilitating disease seems undoable until it’s doable. With enough resolve, and enough money to throw at the problem, and enough human intelligence (which mainly takes the form, I will note, of academic research), it can be done.
The same goes for a university education. Our scholarship, our teaching, and our community partnerships all contribute to the creation of a better society as measured by myriad qualitative and quantitative metrics. The notion of millions of citizens taking the time and energy to help us out by doing something that affirms our value would vitally reinvigorate our campuses after years of retrenched government funding and skyrocketing student debt. If our campaign were as successful as the ice bucket challenge – and why not dare to dream big? – we could actually mitigate those twin financial catastrophes that have lately taken such a toll on higher education.
I’ve done the hard part here in announcing this challenge to launch our challenge. Now somebody please just send me the YouTube link when you’ve figured out the specifics.
Randy Malamud is Regents’ Professor and chair of the English department at Georgia State University.
Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is standing by her decision to block the hiring of Steven Salaita -- known for his anti-Israel tweets -- to teach in the American Indian studies program. But The News-Gazette reported that in a campus appearance Wednesday she noted "errors" in the process by which appointments are reviewed. For instance, she noted that candidates are offered jobs pending board approval, sometimes teaching before the board has assented. She also said she should have consulted with more people before making the decision.
Faculty members and administrators in Idaho have been protesting a new law permitting concealed carry on campus. On Tuesday, an instructor with a concealed carry permit accidentally shot himself in the foot, in a classroom with others present, The Idaho State Journalreported. The gun was in the instructor's pocket when it went off.
In today's Academic Minute, Scott Hanson-Easey, a public health researcher at Australia’s University of Adelaide, discusses his research on how subtly racist language permeates the media. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
It's taken a while, but we’ve made a little progress on the mathesis universalis that Leibniz envisioned 300 or so years ago – a mathematical language describing the world so perfectly that any question could be answered by performing the appropriate calculations.
Aware that the computations would be demanding, Leibniz also had in mind a machine to do them rapidly. On that score things are very much farther along than he could ever have imagined. And while the mathesis universalis itself seems destined to remain only the most beautiful dream of rationalist philosophy, there’s no question that Leibniz would appreciate the incredible power to store and retrieve information that we’ve come to take for granted. (Besides being a polymathic genius, he was a librarian.)
Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, published by Harvard University Press, focuses in part on the capacity of maps, charts, diagrams, and other modes of display to encode and organize information. But only in part: while Drucker’s claims for the power of visual language are less extravagantly ambitious than Leibniz’s for mathematical symbols, it is a matter of degree and not of kind. (The author is professor of bibliographical studies at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles.)
“The complexity of visual means of knowledge production,” she writes, “is matched by the sophistication of our cognitive processing. Visual knowledge is as dependent on lived, embodied, specific knowledge as any other field of human endeavor, and integrates other sense data as part of cognition. Not only do we process complex representations, but we are imbued with cultural training that allows us to understand them as knowledge, communicated and consensual, in spite of the fact that we have no ‘language’ of graphics or rules governing their use.”
Forget the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. Drucker’s claim is not about pictorial imagery, as such. A drawing or painting may communicate information about how a person or place looks, but the forms she has in mind (bar graphs, for example, or Venn diagrams) perform a more complex operation. They convert information into something visually apprehended.
We learn to understand and use these visual forms so readily that they seem almost self-evident. Some people know how to read a map better than others -- but all of us can at least recognize one when we see it. Likewise with tables, graphs, calendars, and family trees. In each case we intuitively understand how the data are organized, if not what they mean.
But the pages of Graphesis teem with color reproductions of 5,000 years’ worth of various modes of visually rendered knowledge – showing how they have emerged and developed over time, growing familiar but also defining or reinforcing ways to apprehend information.
A good example is the mode of plotting information on a grid. Drucker reproduces a chart of planetary movements in that form from 10th-century edition of Macrobius. But the idea didn’t catch on: “The idea of graphical plotting either did not occur, or required too much of an abstraction to conceptualize.” The necessary leap came only in the early 17th century, when Descartes reinvented the grid in developing analytical geometry. His mathematical tool “combined with intensifying interest in empirical measurements,” writes Drucker, “but they were only slowly brought together into graphic form. Instruments adequate for gathering ‘data’ in repeatable metrics came into play … but the intellectual means for putting such information into statistical graphs only appeared in fits and starts.”
And in the 1780s, a political economist invented a variation on the form by depicting the quantity of various exports and imports of Scotland as bars on a graph – an arresting presentation, in that it shows one product being almost twice as heavily traded as any other. (The print is too small for me to determine what it was.) The advantages of the bar graph in rendering information to striking effect seem obvious, but it, too, was slow to enter common use.
“We can easily overlook the leap necessary to abstract data and then give form to its complexities,” writes Drucker. And once the leap is made, it becomes almost impossible to conceive such data without the familiar visual tools.
If the author ever defines her title term, I failed to mark the passage, but graphesis would presumably entail a comprehensive understanding of the available and potential means to record and synthesize knowledge, of whatever kind, in visual form. Drucker method is in large measure inductive: She examines a range of methods of presenting information to the eye and determines how the elements embed logical concepts into images.
While art history and film studies (especially work on editing and montage) are relevant to some degree, Drucker’s project is very much one of exploration and invention. Leibniz’s mathesis was totalizing and deductive; once established, his mathematical language would give final and definitive answers. By contrast, graphesis would entail the regular creation of new visual tools in keeping with the appearance of new kinds of knowledge, and new media for transmitting it.
“The ability to think in and with the tools of computational and digital environments,” the author warns, “will only evolve as quickly as our ability to articulate the metalanguages of our engagement.”
That passage, which is typical, is some indication of why Graphesis will cull its audience pretty quickly. Some readers will want to join her effort; many more will have some difficulty in imagining quite what it is. Deepening the project's fascination, for those drawn to it, is Drucker's recognition of an issue so new that it still requires a name: What happens to the structuring of knowledge when maps, charts, etc. appear not just on a screen, but one responsive to touch? The difficulties that Graphesis presents are only incidentally matters of diction; the issues themselves are difficult. I suspect Graphesis may prove to be an important book, for reasons we'll fully understand only somewhere down the line.