The reckonings of a University Tutor

The end of semester is here and with it comes the final breaths of my tutoring for the year. I have now tutored four units over three semesters in sociology, drama, and mass communications. Over this time I have gotten to know well over a hundred students by name, developed friendships, been dazzled by some and quite distressed by others. Through all of this I can sit here today and say that tutoring is well and truly the best job I have ever had. Indeed, I can say in all honesty that there are times when I would happily pay to do what I do – the fact that I am being payed instead has instilled in me a deep gratitude for life’s beautiful absurdity. That said, be warned that this will be a somewhat personal post, full of uncertainty, worries, and reflections on what I have learned these last twelve months, both professionally and personally. Whatever I say here should thus be treated as the at times trembling, at times sure footed wandering of a young man still finding his footing along his career path. I do not wish to offend with what follows, I just wish to document my very own ‘ness as this point in time.

First, on becoming a tutor. The university I work at gave me no training on how to conduct a tutorial, how to interact with students, or how to grade assignments. No workshop or brief was offered to me, beyond that of a small paper back magazine that could be read cover to cover over lunch. This is a fascinating institutional characteristic. While teachers in other educational sectors receive extensive training, many university tutors (who, yes, I consider to be teachers and, if not that, ring leaders of the tutorial learning circus) are instead bought a coffee by the unit coordinator, given a reader and unit guide, and a time and place. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing, in fact, I worry about the administrative claws of ‘quality assurance’ that will no doubt increasingly press their nails into the heart of university tutoring in the name of standardisation. That said, I imagine that the ‘straight into the wilderness’ approach that is currently in place plays a major role in the professional development of many tutors, who learn about what they know by having to develop their own way of sharing it with others – an opportunity that I am extremely grateful for.

For instance, in each unit I have presented myself differently in an attempt to discover what works. If you ever meet me you’ll likely notice that I express myself in quite a particular way that some people find confusing (funnily enough, perhaps the most relaxed and authentic presentation was in an external unit where the students did not know my age, what I looked like, or how excitedly I can speak), to say the least the main trial was exploring how much of my own ‘ness I can responsibly convey to compliment my teaching method to the benefit of my students and my own self esteem. In some units I have tried to be more serious than I usually am, and then warmer, more assertive, and then less assertive. Now, after this most recent unit, I feel like I am finally coming close to fitting into the role as though it were my own skin – a development I chalk up mostly to experience. At any rate, I was granted this teething period by an institution that trusted me to tutor others, which reaffirms the feeling in my heart that this is one of the places I could flourish in.

On the institutionalisation of my judgement: I often forget how arbitrary many of the habits encouraged at university are. There are particular ways to write that are legitimate, and others that must be changed if they are to be accepted (often when people try to defend these silly rules they do so by appealing to tradition or formal rules, which is a problem for another time). I forget this arbitrariness when in the role of tutor, whereby the difference between a student passing or failing a unit can come down to their work being more than 10% outside of the word limit, an over dependence on unsubstantiated claims, or some other obstruction to, or slight distraction from, the point. Some of these rules are more arbitrary than others (not being able to tell the difference between 1,500 and 2,000 words is different to claiming that all humans naturally desire peace), but they are all significant, given that a fail can result in another six months being added to a degree. Thus, I have reflected a lot (maybe too much – giving students up to 600 words feedback to explain their grade can steal a week from you in no time) on how to be fair.

I justify the way I mark by appealing to formal rationality: the instructions for an assignment are laid out clearly in a couple of short paragraphs on the unit guide, and if a student does not bother to read these paragraphs carefully then they are careless. Simple. I mean, why would you pour however many hours into an assignment only to fail because you auto-piloted over the essay question? In other words, this way of grading is justified because it’s my job. I work at an institution with certain standards and instructions that the student is expected to oblige by. If I ignored them I would not be doing my job, and I’d be better liked by students that will leave university without learning that sometimes you should just read what you’re expected to do before you do it.

In case you’re already thinking it, yes, I know that makes me a square. The contract students enter into by attending university and work integrity aside, the fact is that many students don’t follow these instructions. A tutor who marks down based on something like a missing reference list, word count, or some other black and white instruction is more likely to be seen as petty than diligent, or unsympathetic than critical by some. I base this on the fact that all the way through my undergraduate degree, I heard such things as: ‘they don’t want you to be a free thinker. They want you to jump through hoops’. I even encouraged my friends in their criticisms at the time, because I was an intellectually dishonest, enabling and good friend. I don’t expect that humanities students have changed that much in two years. And, of course, they’re right in some regard, it does suck that your wings can be clipped if you fly through the hoop wrong due simply to some arbitrary rule. I totally get it. However, now that I’ve marked hundreds of assignments I’ve seen something of a bigger picture and, to say the least, I’m worried.

I’m worried because I see students three years into their degree who haven’t learnt anything, or massively misunderstand important ideas because someone treated what they did wrong as being right. I see what Richard Hil describes as a ‘the customer is always right’ culture, in which higher education shifts from a collaborative and challenging learning environment into a business where students are customers, good grades the product, and tutors the checkout. Too often I have seen this culture turn tutors from fellow thinkers to converse with into scratching poles to distract from the student’s inability to get off facebook. What’s worse, I see the most irresponsible (and therefore, quite liked) tutors being treated as the standard against which other tutors are judged – which is incredibly disheartening. To wax lyrical for a moment, the whole thing reminds me of the instances that abound in the world around us of people selling out the future for simplicity in the present. This isn’t global warming or some other horrible catastrophe; it’s the boosting of a fail to a pass and a pass to a credit, as students increasingly know less and less and demand more and more.

And yet… I feel bad every time I fail a student.
Every. Time.
It upsets me.
Call it growing pains.

On cold waters: The key example from these last six months is a shy student who showed time and time again, through visits to my office and dozens of emails, that he was committed to the unit. However, he came from a degree that had next to no essay writing and, as a result, did not have the writing skills required to succeed in a second year unit, let alone the third year unit I was tutoring him in. His first essay did not come close to passing, and his second assignment failed too, making him unable to pass the unit before the semester was even half way through. If he failed the unit he’d have to come back next semester, rather than graduating this year. He was clearly dedicated and well meaning, not a slacker or some other example of ‘don’t-care-anymore-itis’. So what to do? Were I to give him another shot? Other students who had come from degrees with essay writing had failed, what about them? Is a student’s dedication reason enough to pass them, regardless of (even in spite of) the quality of their work? How would I navigate this situation? A gut wrenching situation to say the least. In the end I worked together with the unit coordinator to come to a decision, which I shan’t reveal here. The point I want to make is that the context of students and the wrenching of guts does play a role in the the grading process, no matter what you’ve heard. Integrity, decency, and consistency can each mean very different things in the personal and professional realms. In fact, at times it can seem that all they have in common are sleepless nights.

I’ve prattled on long enough, this place is going to close and my battery is making death threats. I’m exhausted and ready. For now, let me tie it up by saying that with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Reference correctly.

Sociyolo.20131111-185725.jpg

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Power, Revolution, Russell Brand, and Subtlety

On October 2013, in an interview between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman, I saw one discourse trying to dominate another, and attempt to exclude it when this failed. Brand had been offered the role of guest editor for the political magazine New Statesman. For Paxman, someone who had never voted in an election lacked the legitimacy to adopt a position of authority in the political media landscape. Paxman seemed to be suggesting that one needs to participate in the current system for their comments to be taken seriously: one has to be inside the box to describe its dimensions. Right from the start, then, this could be seen as a matter of power, with one discourse being dismissed by another through appeals to appropriate manner, questions of legitimacy, ridicule, and ad-hominem. For this post, I’d like to look at some of the subtle ways in which discourse and power functioned within this interview. While it is not the only route I could take, I’ll be treating Paxman as the ‘legitimate force’, in that he is to a greater extent representing the system currently in place, which Brand is critiquing, in terms of profession, education, and his role as interviewer. The point of this is to demonstrate how different discourses and the conditions for discussion they lay down can influence how we interact with people, arguments, and their perceived effects.

russell-brand-v-jeremey-paxman-newsnight-2013

First I’ll deal with an attitude I’ve come across countless times, represented here in Paxman’s attempt to trivialise Brand’s criticisms based on the fact that they weren’t followed with specific suggestions. As though social or political criticism is only worth voicing if it’s coupled with a potential solution. To take such an attitude is to discourage acknowledging the world around us. If we were limited to only ever acknowledging faults in the current system on the condition that we have a suggestion in mind, critical discussion would be stifled. To get to the point where one can offer the solution to a complex social problem, one usually has to acknowledge it, discuss it, and critically reflect on it. I can’t comment on the extent to which Brand had done these things, but the mere fact that he hasn’t come up with a solution is not a fair reason to cut off his pointing finger. What’s more, why does it have to be the person expressing whatever issue that comes up with whatever solution? To argue for this condition would be to treat people as private agents alone in a solitary system, rather than collaborative and conflicting communicative social critters.

The next point is to do with the classism that pervades the discussion. First, Brand made an excellent sociological assertion regarding how different people feel comfortable in different environments. This is to suppose that one is more likely to feel welcome in an environment similar in design to that which they’ve grown up in. Brand used the example of buildings of centralised political activity being designed in a similar manner to Cambridge University. This kind of environment would be very familiar to a certain sort, and quite alien to others (the sheer majority of others, in fact). The point Brand was getting at here is that this can lead to a sense that the physical places associated with the government, which (in Brand’s opinion) should represent the people, can have something of a ‘you don’t belong here’ effect on those intended to participate in the democratic process.

The third point is linked to class in a far more subtle way. You can catch a glimpse of it in criticisms that Brand was ‘dancing around a point’, or that his manner was ‘not constructive’. This criticism requires a certain amount of selective listening, as it is clear that Brand makes many points quite clearly (the one in the last paragraph being a prime example). It thus becomes a matter of making the ‘wrong points’ – there is a particular way to discuss politics, and attempts to do so in a different manner is not proper. Don’t make a point about the buildings political debate take place in; make a point about the debates. Don’t make a point about how a certain class perceives the political process; make a point about a policy. These are all subtle though potent ways to limit discussion and can therefore be seen as instances of one discourse setting the parameters for what counts as legitimate. This is most evident in Brand’s humour and broad strokes, which may well have clicked more with many viewers who usually glaze over such discussions, due to lack of exposure to such discourses, differences in education, or whatever other reasons. Of course, these are the wrong viewers, and appealing to them counts as a strike.

The fourth point has to do with the ‘effects’ of the interview, and other ‘awareness raising’ sensations like it. One of the more prominent criticisms I hear regarding these sensations is that at the end of the day they don’t actually do anything. Brand may well have been charming, and raised some points worth talking about, but in a month or two people will have forgotten about it and moved on. I find that this assertion doesn’t take into account the more subtle and far reaching effects that such events can have. To demonstrate this, I’ll use the star attraction of the examples line up: Occupy Wall Street.

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I remember the excitement a lot of people were expressing when Occupy Wall Street was happening. Now, with the 99% still being the same old 99%, there is a sense that not much has changed, the ‘potential revolution’ flopped, and disillusionment has set in. But consider this: before Occupy Wall Street, much of the younger generations did not have a relatable attempted ‘revolution’ in their lived history. Now they do. Likewise, many people didn’t have something similar to the ‘look at the failure of X revolution’ in their lived history. Now they do. They have a massive mobilisation of people for social change to refer to, and while it failed and resulted in perhaps a deeper sense of hopelessness in many, it brought such events out of the realm of parental anecdotes from days before their birth and into the modern world. The discussions regarding class which had come close to flat lining with the so called Generation-Y were revitalised with the idea of the 99%. Moreover, I have witnessed how the ‘failure of Occupy Wall Street’ reference has made many discussions become that much more critical – the ‘revolution is easy’ attitude is harder to get away with now thanks to a real world occurrence from recent memory. Thus, while on the face of things, Occupy Wall Street was forgotten by many within a few months, its contribution to how we think and communicate about the society we live in will likely last for years to come. I will not yet speculate on whatever lasting effects the interview being discussed will have (it’s early and they’re subtle), but I encourage the use of the sociological gaze before taking the ‘pointlessness’ of such events for granted.

For my final point I’d like to briefly state why I am wary of the word ‘revolution’, which Paxman dropped with: “You want a revolution, don’t you?” This word can just as easily evoke images of thin ice as it can green pastures – which is to say that it is about as far from a neutral word that you can get. I find that its use often involves not mentioning or ignoring the fact that some of the most terrible periods of the last few hundred years have followed revolution. People deplore war as a terrible reality and celebrate revolution as an abstract ideal, without considering the horrors of revolution (over a hundred million deaths following three revolutions alone are dismissed so easily). This is often done by the easy move of placing revolution in a box, far removed from its true to life consequences – all the other revolutions of human history were just ‘done wrong’. Of course, this could just be me trying to trivialise the new wave of political idealism by appealing to history – though perhaps I’m right in doing so.

Careful Now

Sociyolo.

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Socialisation and cultural trade offs

To start this post it’s appropriate to briefly and broadly describe what I mean by ‘socialisation’. ‘Socialisation’ refers to the ongoing processes of learning and enacting, more or less successfully, the countless rules that make up social life – the sociological imagination involves learning to spot and inspect these rules, as if picking up and inspecting shells on a beach. Usually, socialisation is implicit, such as when we learn how to correctly address people, when it’s okay to stare at something, and when to hide or reveal ignorance. Think of it in terms of how you come to share a similar sense of humour with people: you don’t sit down and discuss what should and should not count as funny, you just kind of balance out after a while, hopefully. In this sense, socialisation tends to go without saying. However, as the French sociologist, Bourdieu, said (more elaborately, less concisely): there are things that ‘go without saying’ simply because they ‘come without saying’. By talking about socialisation, the sociologist (or me, what’s in a name?) tries to catch the things that go without saying in order to turn them into a paste with which to paint different ‘interpretations’ of how society rolls. These interpretations make up a lot of ‘sociological analysis’ – I’ll talk about what else this bulk consists of in another post.

Being successfully socialised is thus crucial when it comes to ‘blending in’ or ‘standing out’. When enough of a population has been socialised to the extent that their peculiar habits and rituals become ‘common’, they are on the road to what we often describe as a culture. Alternatively, you can talk about culture as food or the arts – for the time being, however, let’s calls a spade a sociological spade. Now that the tools for the discussion have been charged and sharpened, it’s time for some cultural engineering.

I’ve been finding myself in Northbridge a lot lately. It’s a place across the tracks from Perth city, where the promise of attracting a mate blooms like flame tree/is violently rebirthed every weekend. It’s a place where physical conflict can become a very real consequence for anyone who challenges the patriarchal convenience of the ‘winner stays on’ two dollar pool law. It’s also a place where thoughtful people can share their ideas in the comfort of an open bar (http://nonknowledge.net/). Basically, Northbridge is a whole bunch of places, a trait it shares with everywhere else. What is of interest here, however, is that Northbridge in particular (along with other party city centrals like it) provides an excellent example of a place where ‘cultural engineering’ – a term I use here very loosely to refer to a form of socialisation that is explicitly asserted – abounds. In contrast to the implicit socialisation discussed above, this socialisation involves an institution ‘getting behind the wheel’ on the road to culture, and as such is often heavy handed and restrictive in its peculiar habits. I’m not saying that the city of Northbridge engages in social engineering as though the city were some collective mother brain. Rather, Northbridge is dotted with instances of social engineering, like lights in a nightscape viewed on high.

The example which got me thinking about this is the clubbing scene. This is a scene characterised by (among other things) selective dress codes, selective soundtracks, and selective selectiveness. Of course, such selectivity has its functions: last time I was in Northbridge I saw a guy with face flaked knuckles refused entry to a club because the collar on his jacket did not count as wearing a collar ‘because it was on a jacket’. He didn’t seem so drunk to be refused, and he could speak enough sense to reason with the unreasonable men (given their explicit reasons) at the door. Nevertheless, the doormen obviously remembered him from some previous offence and used the dress code as a legitimate trump card. In this sense dress codes can prove very useful (a less convincing argument is that the dress code is used to attract a particular kind of public… as if the public doesn’t know where to buy cheap collared shirts and fake leather shoes). Once the public has gone from being told what to wear, to wearing it and being let in, they enter a very specific soundscape filled with lyrics everyone knows not to take too seriously, while they’re telling you to drink and live for the weekend for however many hours straight – before anyone calls ‘fickle’ or ‘thinking too much’, I call sociyology. Y’all call it a moment, I call it life.

Now, as always and never not, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this dressing up of people and singing them the neo-liberal zeitgeist while they go about their business is necessarily a bad thing (remember, it takes two to whatever). What’s more, I think that the owners of such places simply follow suit with other successful places, like bricks in a wall. Nothing malign there. Nevertheless, I find it really interesting that these places have been so effective in engineering a culture, where so many other institutions fail miserably. It could just be a carrot and a stick thing, with the carrot being a place filled with potential sexual partners, drink, etc. Or maybe it’s the fact that these places permit the kind of behaviour that is usually seen as vulgar almost everywhere else… that is, they strip back conventional socialisation (don’t swear, punch, bump, vomit, make sexist comments, reward sexist comments) and replace it with new versions. A trade that people, perhaps rightly so, are happy to make.

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Sociyolo.

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The Soul and Nature of Man, and other unrefined musings.

“You brute! You coward!” from an anonymous artist’s illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not long ago I gave a friend a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. After reading it she started asking the kinds of questions I was hoping the essay would encourage. However, almost inevitably, these questions had to contend with the usual assumptions and arguments that often surround alternative ideas for society. By assumptions I mean speculation on ‘human nature’. By arguments I mean the tunes that are composed within such speculative scales. Here’s an example of how it generally goes:

  1. Socialism (of a Wilde kind) cannot work because authoritative hierarchies are inevitable
  2. Inevitable because people desire power, often in a greedy, wretched way
  3. Thus such socialism goes against human nature and cannot work

This waltz has many variations, some simple, others more complex, some more convincing because they’re recited by authorities, others more alluring because they’re put to a groovy beat. Some people just can’t perform. Whatever the quality, I’ve always found these ‘human nature’ arguments interesting.

In spite of this interest, I have learnt to avoid allowing speculations on human nature (whatever that means) into tutorial discussions. This is because it often warps the conversation into an abomination in which egos go to war beneath a sky of blanket statements. I mean, what else is there to do when you’re discussing hypotheticals that go for everybody everywhere always? This is made worse when the countless idiosyncrasies that make up day to day life are rendered irrelevant to such a grand agenda:

‘Most family units usually get on quite well without greed or power plays’ – ‘yeah but, that’s peoples families’

‘I know an abstinent pacifist who grows his own vegies’ – ‘yeah but he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make that choice if the safeguards against the uglier sides of human nature weren’t already in place’  

‘Where does lining up in centrelink fit into human nature?’ – ‘Now you’re just being stupid’ 

Of course, some times it can’t be helped. If you want to discuss macro theories, such as those associated with Marx, then you have to objectify human action as a macro ‘thing’ that has certain tendencies. These tendencies then become ‘innate’ parts of our collective character that hide behind the scenes of our agency: the way you’d ‘really’ behave if things were only slightly different, try to deny it as you might. The sharp edges of this necessity can be smoothed by replacing the word ‘humanity’ with ‘society’, which can then become the more responsible ‘societies’, which can then be studied in the humanities – but the hard object of our nature remains.

Now, I admit that none of this should be taken too seriously. But, at the same time (look leftright), I feel that it is often not taken seriously enough. The result is that the human nature card gets played in conversations, but is rarely reflected on. This means that (what I believe to be) worthwhile, exciting, and stimulating ideas (such as in Oscar Wilde’s essay) get rejected as fantastical before they are given a chance by arguments that are obviously troubled if only given a bit of thought.

But, for the rest of this break, let’s play with the idea that there is something of a human nature. Hell! Let’s even play with the idea that there are two!

  1. Human beings are born noble and corrupted by society
  2. Human beings are born wicked and tamed by society

I like this dichotomy for a few reasons, not least because it’s romantic.

  1. This idea bodes well for the soul of man. Rather than being greedy by nature, maybe the society we live in somehow encourages the desire for a false sense of security by way of having a whole bunch of things. Maybe, this society has corrupted us so much that we find it hard to find any alternative realistic. So we implicitly elect to live in isolated units, selling the only life we’ll ever have day by day, living under the massive pressure to perform based on perverted measurements of success, wealth, fame, and the need to complete the unending tide of forms and bills that we never asked for and hate. We know there’s something wrong with this, but the corruption occupies our consciousness to the point that we’d sooner scoff at such social critiques as being ‘ungrateful’, ‘against our nature’, or ‘outside of the real world’, or better yet, accept that ‘life’s like that’. But, in spite of this thick oppressive cement of the current state of things, our nobility grows out through the cracks, and we pursue knowledge, and kindness, and love. We create things without incentives and reject many of the incentives offered to us out of care for decency. Unfortunately, however, a broken system all too often breaks the spirit.
  2. Humans have had all of history to prove that we’re naturally decent. Nevertheless, no civilisation in any part of the world has ever succeeded in this proof. People are very quick to point out that whatever small culture has done fine without money, or misogyny, or whatever suits their agenda, but if you listen closely you’ll notice that they’ll never say a culture has made it without bloodshed, domination, and at least some kind of cruelty. This is because wherever there are people, given enough time, wickedness will pop up. To deny this is to deny the suffering of every victim of human hands there ever was (which would be very insensitive and a tad selfish too). In fact, I’m willing to bet that, if you knew you wouldn’t get in trouble for it, you probably would have hurt someone by now, you almost certainly would have been hurt – assuming, of course, that such things haven’t already happened, rules and all! Thus, to live in relative security, we have to give up a bit of our freedom (ie: become tame): ‘I’ll give up my right to steal, rape, hurt, etc, if you (the state, king, whatever) force others to do the same (by way of punishment, indoctrination, etc.)’.

Of course, it remains (like the elegant sheet of music after my hideous recital) that there have been others out there that have articulated something resembling these ideas so well that they suddenly seem immediately evident. Maybe such authorities on the subject would regret that there are people such as me to filter their ideas through such vulgar dichotomies. After all, as always, there are nuances to consider. For instance, just because some people are cruel, it doesn’t mean humanity as a whole is cruel – that said, a room of 9 noble people can still be slaughtered by 1 wicked person, so the Hobbesian contract only needs a few bad eggs to seem like a good idea, and thus doesn’t really need to speak of human nature (though this doesn’t stop enthusiastic lay-Hobbesians).

What do you think about the role of these dichotomies? Do you encourage people to think about the nature of the nature we all love to hate.

For now I’ll leave these musings open, though I recommend a quick google of Wilde’s essay, if only to mow over what’s been said here whilst treating yourself to an excellent piece of human reckonings.

Sociyolo.

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Things I believe #1: Auto-pilot, I’m not alone, sociology and brackets

I believe that the state I’ve termed ‘auto-pilot’ is common and okay. Eat a meal without any presence. Go to work for eight hours, come home a few moments later. Partake in a long and witty conversation without a single thought. Have a night out with friends and miss it. Max Weber called this state the ‘inarticulate half-consciousness’ – I think it is very human, and thus very social. He described it like this (Economy and Society, 21-2):

Max Weber: I know that face

Max Weber: I know that face

‘In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to “be aware” of it in a vague sense than he is to “know” what he is doing or be explicitly conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit. Only occasionally and in the uniform action of large numbers . . . is the subjective meaning of the action, whether rational or irrational, brought clearly into consciousness. The ideal type of meaningful action where the meaning is fully conscious and explicit is a marginal case.’

This is why story telling can be a beautiful constant if you’re with a partner that insists on constantly knowing your thoughts (if you don’t tell a story, they’ll likely tell themselves one). It’s also why you should never completely believe that intentions can be ‘deciphered’ through actions. More specifically, it’s why sociology can never truly do what so many undergrads, laymen and chatterers think it can: provide us with a grand method for analysing (and *gasp* accurately and consistently predicting) social action in all its forms (still… we do what we can).

Now, let’s deal with a criticism some readers (in my mind at least) will probably make:

‘But Christian, the phrase “half-consciousness” implicitly suggests that there is such a thing as a “whole-consciousness”. I’m reading what you’re not saying, and that seems like a positivist claim if ever there was one – and, as everyone knows, positivism is derp.’

First of all, dear reader, that’s a mighty sharp brain you have there. This is why I coined the less positivist term ‘auto-pilot’ (because it’s all in the language, right?). But even if I didn’t, it can be wasteful to throw out ideas simply because they come packaged in a disagreeable argument. Passing statements like “I don’t agree with X”, or “Such and such thinker is an idiot” often take what could be any number of insights or observations and pin them to a single object – be it a school, discipline, or human body – which can then easily be rejected. While this can be useful as conversational shorthand, it can develop into a habit that stunts intellectual development. Besides, even if it is a positivist claim, does that mean you can’t relate at all to the state I’m talking about?

At any rate, I know that this state is certainly a real thing for me, in that it is a corner in the court of my lived experience. The fact that Weber, a German from way back, possibly thought along the same lines makes me think that I am not alone in this (thank goodness for books saying what friends and family won’t!). Is it just Weber and I, or have you been there (kind of) too?

Sociyolo.

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Talking about passion

For anyone who has binged on a show to the point of minor health scares, this may sound familiar. A few years ago I got into a manga and anime series called Naruto in a big way. I’ve now read over 600 copies and watched more episodes (mostly flashbacks) than I expected Masashi Kishimoto and his team to make. Time has been spent reading up on the trivia and visiting the numerous encyclopedias on the series, and in so doing I have developed in depth opinions on events that have never even taken place. To say the least, my knowledge of the Naruto world is impressive – if only such things could be impressive. I don’t think this is a rare thing. The knowledge some people have of their favorite bands could easily be considered ‘expert’ level. It’s the same deal with cinema buffs that can fill whatever films duration with fun facts and few breaths. Genuine interest abounds.

Keeping a finger on that page, while picking up a different book (alt-tab) for a moment, it seems to be more or less old news that every job or vocation contributes to identity like herbs to a stew. This is why questions like ‘so, what do you do?’ are hard to say without the niggling feeling that you lack imagination and conversational flare (while we’re here, it seems to me that the word ‘so’ is often used as a preamble to conversations where the speaker doesn’t really know what to say… but I digress). It’s fortunate then that a new, more exciting question has replaced the old stock. A question that not only shows much more apparent interest, but also helps to uncover (and hopefully fill) the existential hole at the center of our bellies:

‘What’s your passion?’

I’ve had this question playing trash can drums in my head for a long time now. This was made even worse when Ted.com seemed to take it as a central theme. All of a sudden it seems to be an entirely legitimate question, along with its variants ‘have you discovered your passion (yet)?’ or ‘do you have a passion?’ (notice that it’s rarely plural). Think about it, somewhere, deep inside of you, there is a passion waiting to be discovered: a diamond in the rough that is everything else in the world. Have you found it yet?

Congratulations! / Why not?

The high social capital that finding and doing ones passion commands is very desirable. It is certainly better to have one than to not have one (common sense, I know). But this is precisely why I worry about this new fetish for passion. I think that in the effort to keep up human contact we say all kinds of stuff, it doesn’t even matter if what is being discussed is worthwhile; we often make up, embellish or downplay feelings, understanding of our ‘selves’, tastes, dislikes, beliefs or whatever for the point of conversation (with others and ourselves). I don’t think this is a bad thing. Though I certainly do think it’s a thing. Unlike tastes and dislikes, however, passion is often presented as an existential compass: ‘find your passion and then do it, no matter what! (and if you don’t have a passion, find something you enjoy or are good at, call it your passion, and then do that!)’ Whatever you find you enjoy, and then get bored of and then want to leave (as people do), will be that much harder to walk away from once you’ve gone through the matrimonial ceremony of calling it your passion.

Flipping the kept page back open with another alt-tab, suppose that my genuine interest in knowing every little scrap of knowledge about Naruto is a passion. Same goes for your possible love of The Walking Dead. Or some other readers desire to constantly be seen and admired. Why are these answers rarely given to the question of passion? Why are they less legitimate than photography, playing the sax or perfecting the art of cooking cakes? One answer could be that the search for a ‘true’ passion is in fact a pretty deep political act that we negotiate in terms of what is asked of us, what we are actually capable of (a loaded ‘actually’ if there ever was one), what friends we keep, what friends we want to keep, and the context in which the parent/employer/beautiful stranger asks us the glittering question. I’ll leave such considerations open, though drop the buzz words of utility, prestige, social currency, utility (again) and (just to be sexy) indoctrination. I do not doubt that some people out there (like the strapping young lads on Ted.com) have found what they could currently call a passion – though that says little of the diamond to block the existential drain. If only I desired to google successful business models, classical literature or post modern poets instead of Japanese Manga. Another time, I guess.

yourpurpose-copy

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Academia, 2012 – still here

To begin, this:

http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

 

I came across this article in early 2012, over a Hong Kong breakfast and beneath dark clouds. Having just completed my first class honours, I was taking a year off from studying to work at Hong Kong University, learn new things (like juggling and charm), read Milan Kundera and reflect on that thing I am. The article seemed to grab my innards and squeeze. Being an academic (or, to be more specific, a ‘lecturer’) was the only job I had ever found attractive. I had worked in public services (disability), been raised around those living arty, and most of my friends are tradies. Throughout my life, when people asked what I wanted to be I’d make something up and then convince myself that’s what I wanted. But academia seemed to wrap itself around me like the waters of a warm bath – I didn’t so much make up this ambition, but suddenly lifted a finger to see that I was dripping in it.

 

But this article was a warning. It was an experienced, thoughtful person crying ‘stop!’ as others so much more experienced than myself nodded along in the comments box. This review of the current climate struck me harder than any ludicrous 2012 predictions and sparked an interest in the grim and likely. I had decided to do my PhD during my undergrad and was relieved when my honours year didn’t change my mind (though I gave it every opportunity to). But now, the PhD didn’t seem so much as a step along the path, but more a wilderness that would take 3+ years to cross in the direction of what may well be a gingerbread house. 

 

And then the rationalisations kick in: you’ve got a scholarship, you’re young, you get to keep doing what you’re doing, maybe you’re different, just don’t think about it (ah, the mightiest rationalisation of them all!). Now, I know that ‘rationalisations’ is generally a bad thing, often occurring in the presence of people avoiding blame, justifying clumsiness or quitting smoking. But before I fall into this basket (if I may avoid blame), some words from my favorite sociologist, Max Weber:

“a thing is never irrational in itself, but only from a particular . . . point of view. For the unbeliever every religious way of life is irrational, for the hedonist every ascetic standard”

Yes, it is irrational for me to expect tenure after my PhD. Yes, it is irrational for me to do a PhD in spite of this. And yes, it is irrational for me to rationalise the spending of my life points with the idea of youth (which in fact is more like a down-payment anyway). But it’s also irrational (depending on what sort you are and what day it is) to put down what I have grown to love in order to pursue things that I don’t. At this point in my life, and at every point leading up to it, I have known that the tradie life is not for me. After 5 years in a job I enjoyed some days and dreaded on others I’ve learned that the public services aren’t either. I probably wouldn’t make it in Hollywood anyways. The point is, I guess (apologies in advance for the disappointing ‘tadah!’), that if I align my life with career prospects so completely that I may as well be a trolley on a hill I’ll likely end up an angry old man that can’t help but whine in company. To the same extent, while I take the information offered in the links provided and on the many like them very, very seriously (and I know that I am not ‘different’), this doesn’t take away from the fact that ‘that thing I am’ is a studying thing. It is a thing that will insist that those close to me think that little bit deeper and hope from the core that they will do they same. Of course, all this is subject to change – if I were to meet myself from 10 years ago we’d both think each other equally wanky.

 

By the way, the article provided ends with these words:

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.’

Guess what my thesis topic is.

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