Some Thoughts on Educational Failure

Many years ago I was a TA for a class called Communication in Everyday Life. The course was taught by a long time sessional at Simon Fraser’s School of Communication. In some ways it was a good class to teach because I learnt a lot very quickly. But it was chaotic. The instructor was a genius, and perhaps one of the most captivating lecturers I have had the great pleasure to work for. We have become good friends since then. Still, his mind meant that the class was a whirlwind tour of deconstructivist linguistics and then its subsequent application to power and beliefs like sciences, medicines, religions and politics. The course hinged on Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It well-suited the instructor’s teaching personality.

Still, many of the students would come to this class thinking it was something altogether different. To the uninitiated, the apparently generic title certainly did not give any indication of post war French thought. (In fairness the course description was fairly clear, but then again most students don’t speak this theoretical vernacular, and because of its particular institutional designation the course was, and still is, a bridge which most undergrads had to cross to advance in the program.) These lectures about differance caused many students to lock down with fear. Indeed, the instructor enjoyed some confusion, because confusion and ambivalence was an indication of minds confronting the long chain of significant associations until they traced the apparent limits of action and agency. Against this background, I thought it my job to provide assurance to students that it ‘made sense,’ and give confidence that I could guide them through the mid-terms, exams, and essays.

At this stage I was hardly the best TA. I had moved from South African to Western Canada for graduate studies and was still learning the local educational culture, trying to figure out the discrepancy between what students did and did not know and what they were expected to know. In the meantime I had to rely upon the tradition I came from which was one of relative distance and formality, a tradition that was antithetical to my new location. So despite my efforts I came across as gruff, callous, indifferent: This hampered my self-set goals. And by the time I realized, it was too late for that term.

In any case, between the instructor’s lecturing style, the material, and my TA abilities, the fear of failure was never far from students’ minds. This was doubly so when asked to write papers on self-selected topics without much direction from the stage. While the ‘A students’ always wrote ‘A papers,’ the vast majority of students were befuddled and some took to recycling papers from other courses just to try get by. We caught a fair number of those. (Once I was marking with a friend, and she read a paper that was so garbled and convoluted she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. An hour later I read her a paper that made no sense to me. She jumped up, rumbled through her stack, and pulled out the earlier paper. It was the same nonsensical paper submitted to two different classes.) Still, almost all the papers were sincerely concerned with and made vague allusions to technology as a general category being an accelerating force of social life. These papers walked a tightrope trying to exonerate the inventors and system which produced technology, while hand waving at the potential rate of social change. I spent a good portion of my time and energy trying to encourage students to consider the role of ideology. But sadly, for a course that spent so much time concerned with beliefs, there was little to be found in the papers themselves. Aside from a lack of passion, or desire to look beyond the given, there was little genuine understanding of class, politics, or larger overarching inter-generational projects. And indeed the instructor did little to clear the issue, for from his vantage social change to take one example was but another “grand narrative” that had to be binned, for as much as Marx bore the honorific ‘master of suspicion,’ substantive method was nevertheless replaced by iconoclastic cliché.

To be honest, I was a failure, most of those papers were failures, and the course was a failure. And in the instructor’s mind, this made it a success, apparently because the entire course was a performative exercise in deconstructing the educational institution and undermining traditional forms of authority, the lectern included. This didn’t sit well with me, and is still unsettling. This is not because of traces that have decentered my understanding of the classroom, but because I think of it specifically as an ethical lapse, where students’ good will is squandered. I saw the difference between students walking into and out of that class. Too many had become cynical with university and less interested in intellectual life. So as far as I was concerned, it was an unnecessary failure of our educational mission.

Initial Thoughts about the Mueller Report (Social Inequality Edition)

As I’m working my way through the Mueller Report a few things stand out to me. The first is how firmly our deep mediatization era is characterized by plutocrats like Prigozhim (of IRA fame) using their wealth to try shape discursive micro-realities.* Murdoch may have started this kind of process with broadcasting, but with platforms and personalized streams it seems clear now that in this iteration everyone who can afford to play will play.

Another is the extent to which transnational capitalists and their agents explicitly barter and bargain territory. (ex. Manafort and Kilimnik, Prince and Dmitriev,  Flynn and Kislyak meetings.)

* True, Sides, Vavreck, and Tesler (2018) do show that the IRA had little measurable impact on the 2016 US election, while Howard et el (2018) show that most of the IRA efforts were poorly executed memes and clickbait content. Still, my thinking here is that it may just a matter of time before someone ‘does get it right.’ Granted, depending on the kind of exercise the the chance of success doesn’t always always increase as the attempts accumulate, but at the moment I don’t think the shaping of discursive micro-realities is principally that kind of problem.

Sides, John, Vavreck, Lynn, and Tesler, Michael (2018) Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Howard, Philip N., Ganesh, Bharath, Liotsiou, Dimitra., Kelly, John, and François, Camille (2018) The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018. Working Paper 2018.2. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.


Making Friends

I am halfway through David Harvey’s Marx, Capital and The Madness of Economic Reason. It is really good. I don’t think I’ve encountered a better ‘advanced-introductory’ text, especially one that gives attention to all three volumes of Capital. He uses a motif of ‘valorization, realization, and distribution’ to explain the different books, and links that to class, race/gender, and factionalism respectfully. I think this is helpful, insofar that it is a text that wants to make friends with others, something I can certainly be better at doing. An added bonus is that periodically Harvey breaks from theory to explain/critique the successes and failures of recent left organizing, which helps support the case that Marx remains relevant.

In Memoriam: Peter Zuurbier

It is with great sadness that I learnt that one of my SFU grad school friends, Peter Zuubier passed away this weekend. Tragically he was 2 months away from completing his PhD. The above photo was taken at Malones, a pub near SFU Habour Centre we used to frequent, right after I defended my dissertation. As you can see, smiles came easy to him.

**As more details come through, so I will update this page.

Great Paragraphs

The truth is that truth has always been a contested idea. As a student of history, at Cambridge, I learned at an early age that some things were “basic facts”—that is, unarguable events, such as that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or that the American Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. But the creation of a historical fact was the result of a particular meaning being ascribed to an event. Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon is a historical fact. But many other people have crossed that river, and their actions are not of interest to history. Those crossings are not, in this sense, facts. Also the passage of time often changes the meaning of a fact. During the British Empire, the military revolt of 1857 was known as the Indian Mutiny, and, because a mutiny is a rebellion against the proper authorities, that name, and therefore the meaning of that fact, placed the “mutinying” Indians in the wrong. Indian historians today refer to this event as the Indian Uprising, which makes it an entirely different sort of fact, which means a different thing. The past is constantly revised according to the attitudes of the present.

Can Austerity Bring a “Better Future for All?”

This coming Wednesday, Levi Gaham and I have organized a public symposium on Austerity in Trinidad and Tobago, and we are very excited to build a platform for so many excellent scholars, public figures, students, and activists to share their thoughts. The goal is for presentations to be  punchy and provocative with the ultimate aim of giving pause to thought. Here are the details:

Can Austerity Bring a “Better Future for All?”
18th April, 6-8pm, TLC LTD
Organized by Dr. Scott Timcke (LCCS) and Dr. Levi Gahman (Geography and IGDS)

Responding to recession conditions and fiscal contraction in early 2018, Prime Minister Keith Rowley’s “Address to the Nation” set out the case for austerity. If Rowley’s assessment is correct, soon the people of Trinidad and Tobago will suffer under the burdens of sovereign debt, international bailouts, cuts in public spending, and high levels of personal destitution. We cannot take these austerity-induced categorical inequalities as a fait accompli. The possibility of a prolonged period of economic, social, and political insecurity in Trinidad and Tobago is very real, and the implications of such high instability should not be underestimated. A deeper and more strident analysis of what austerity concretely produces for people, society, and the environment is needed. As is a dialogue about alternatives. This panel will provide just that: a nuanced critique of the policies and politics of austerity, with a particular focus on what it means for Trinidad and Tobago.

Contributors from several different academic disciplines will offer overviews of what austerity actually is, what inequalities it may alleviate or worsen, and what alternatives there are to it. The panel will thereby provide attendees a panoramic analysis of the current fiscal crisis, as well as offer insights as to what created it. More specifically, participants will speak about issues related to oil sector dependency; social disparity and class stratification; environmental degradation and climate disaster; gender relations and repressive cultural norms; housing and property relations; and partisan politics and political brokerage. The overall aim of the panel is to demonstrate that only through an analysis of the historical origins and multiple guises of austerity can we move towards proposals for cultural change that enables human flourishing, environmental sustainability, and more solidaristic social relations.

6:00 Seating
6:05 Welcome & Opening Remarks Dr. Scott Timcke & Dr. Levi Gahman
6:15 Political Economy Cluster Dr. Daren Conrad & Ms. Sunity Maharaj
6:30 Society & Culture Cluster Dr. Dylan Kerrigan, Ms. Meghan Cleghorn, and Dr. Anne Marie Pouchet
6:55 Social Inequality Cluster Dr. Cheryl-Ann Boodram & Mr. Ian Dhanoolal
7:10 Ecological Justice Cluster Dr. Trina Halfhide & Ms. Adaeze Greenridge
7:25 Question & Answer Session Dr. Scott Timcke
7:55 Closing Remarks Dr. Levi Gahman

We have organized participants into 4 thematic clusters. These clusters seek to frame panelist’s unique insights and knowledge with a little didactic coherence to help the audience keep track of the overall message of the event. We have structured the program to provide a broad narrative arc to the event, that being how large scale developments like austerity shape the situated lived experience of people in Trinidad and Tobago.

Given the range of panelists, we anticipate that this narrative will be intersectional, even if any one person cannot cover all bases in their allotted time. Most importantly, each panelist will have approximately 7-8 minutes to present their take and analysis of causes and consequences of austerity in Trinidad and Tobago.

Hope to see you there.

Revisions Required

I have a short blog post out at The Sociological Review. In it, I am trying to think about how to be a more organized scholar. Here is an except:

I had found myself constantly responding to issues, this time around I wanted to set and follow an agenda that anticipated developments before they arose. My thinking here is informed by the expectation that if The UWI wants its tenure track faculty to set an academic agenda, this must be matched on my end by a proactive administrative agenda that protects time to rise to the occasion.

Thanks are due to Mark Carrigan for shepherding this piece.