Category Archives: academics

"To Be Verified": Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.

BCA: BarCampAustin

Will be going to the third edition of BarCampAustin, this coming Saturday. BarCamps are community-led unconferences which tend to focus on technology and creativity. Originally, these “user-generated conferences” sprang up from Tim O’Reilly‘s Foo Camp conferences but BarCamp is now a broad network loosely connecting enthusiasts living in different urban centers around the world. From the long list of past events, one might hope that those gatherings would get some attention.

Thankfully, BarCampAustin is getting some press.

One recent piece of the BCA coverage came in the form of a blog post on a local daily newspaper’s site:

If you don’t have a SXSW Interactive badge… | Statesman Business Blog

My own comment (in case it gets moderated out):

I’ll be at BarCamp and it will be the first time I participate in such an event, even though events like these are rather common in many parts of the world.
In a way, it’s part of a move away from the more restrictive events like FooCamp, TED, WEF, and SXSW. The crowd attracted by free and open events is likely to be more interested in collaboration and thus more in-tune with what is going on than those who limit themselves to closed and expensive conferences. The good thing is, the two types of events can run in parallel, feed on one another, encourage creativity.

I’m actually pretty excited about going. Just thinking about it is stimulating.

Judging from this video, it seems that last year’s unconference was a blast.

I sincerely hope that academics will eventually adopt such an informal model for gatherings which are more than résumé-stuffing and “reading papers at one another.” Many scholars (in Europe, especially) complain that today’s mega-conferences are too much about socialization, schmoozing, mingling, and nametag-spotting. But these  social activities are extremely important for the pursuit of knowledge as these are contexts in which ideas are exchanged,  collaboration projects are planned, and passions for research are rekindled. Having separate, informal events focusing on the creative, human, and social elements would free many academic fields from those strenuous sessions focused on “academic presentations.”

Third Culture Humor

Speaking of Third Culture people sharing some traits, Jordan Weeks’s Blogger profile links to the following page:

American Embassy School / American International School New Delhi, India, AIS/AES Alumni News

It’s one of those Jeff Foxworthy-type humorous lists of traits which might be shared by some group of people. In this case, the list is adapted from a Facebook group about Third Culture children. As it happens to be a group which I joined a while ago, those connections also work for the Small World Effect.

Anyhoo, I kind of like the list itself. Not because it’s unbelievably funny. But because I can relate to many of these things.

For instance, the following traits are quite relevant in my case:

  1. You flew before you could walk.
    • First airplane trip at six months.
  2. You have a passport, but no driver’s license.
    • Actually, I have two passports. And the fact that I don’t have a driver’s license is a matter of much discussion with people who are “unlike me” in this Third Culture sense. Because I dreamt just last night about getting a driver’s license, this item is probably the one which caught my eye and incited me to blog the list.
  3. You feel that multiple passports would be appropriate.
    • I do think multiple passports are appropriate in the current situation. But I do look forward to a post-national world in which citizenships and passports are irrelevant.
  4. Your life story uses the phrase “Then we went to…” five times (or six, or seven times…).
    • Technically, 21 times since December 2000, and several times before that. But I mostly moved alone and during my adult life.
  5. Living out of a suitcase, you find, has it pros.
    • Yeah, I kinda like living in boxes. I also enjoy the fact that this move to Austin might be my last one. Still, I do enjoy the lifestyle of the semi-nomad.
  6. You realize it really is a small world, after all.
  7. You can’t answer the question: “Where are you from?”
    • Well, I can, and my answer doesn’t need to be too complex. But it does get complicated when people actually try to understand who I am.
  8. Once you get home you miss your adopted home and vice versa
    • Oh, yes! It gets silly, actually. The curse of living in different places is that you always miss the other places. This one seems to be a big one for a lot of people.
  9. National Geographic (OR THE TRAVEL CHANNEL) makes you homesick.
    • Maybe not those specific examples, but still. I get homesick about Mali, even though I didn’t spend that much time there. And Mali does get on “exotic tv” fairly often.
  10. Rain on a tile patio – or a corrugated metal roof – is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world.
    • Again, because of Mali.
  11. You got to go home twice a year …that’s if you’re lucky.
    • This one might be very common but it still has been quite true of my life during the past 14 years.
  12. When something unusual happens and it just doesn’t seem to phase you as being something unordinary.
    • This one might just have to do with being an anthropologist. But it was pretty much true when I was a kid (and I associated it with being a “stateless person” («apatride»).
  13. You sort your friends by continent.
    • This one is technically true and kind of funny. But it’s not as relevant as some of the other ones because it’s more of a practical issue.
  14. You don’t think it’s strange that you haven’t talked to your best friend in a while because you know you will always have a unique bond.
    • I don’t even think you need to travel for this to happen but it’s certainly true for me. Though, it does influence my conception of who my BFF might be.
  15. Half of your phone calls are unintelligible to those around you.
    • This one is rather easy as a French-speaker living in Austin. But still.
  16. You are a pro packer, or at least have done it many times.
    • I was thinking about this a little while ago. Not only in terms of moving from one place to the other but also through being a child of divorce going to see his father every other weekend…

The following items are probably less relevant but they do fit, to a certain extent.

  1. You start to keep your experiences overseas to yourself because people look at you as though you are spoiled for having the opportunity to indulge in a new culture… sad.
    • The anthro’s curse.
  2. A friend talks about their dreams of traveling to across the world to a secluded country and you can give them all the best restaurants and places to visit. You’re like the traveler guidebook.
    • I enjoy doing it when I can, even just for the jetsetter factor, but I don’t do it much (because of the jetsetter factor).
  3. You have little or no contact with the locals but are best friends with people across the globe.
    • Pretty true in Austin so far, but it doesn’t look like it’ll remain the case for very long.
  4. You wake up in one country thinking you are in another.
    • Less frequent, nowadays. It tended to happen more frequently, earlier in life, because I wasn’t as used to moving.
  5. You don’t know where home is.
    • Not really accurate but there is this sense of disenfranchisement on the way back.
  6. You don’t feel at home at home anymore.
    • Sure. But temporary.
  7. When you start introducing yourself followed by your country of origin….
    • Because of my accent in English, this one is a given. And vice-versa: because of this “quirk,” I enjoy keeping my accent intact.
  8. You literally have real friends (not facebook friends) from different schools all over the nation on your friends list.
    • Depends which nation and it has more to do with being an academic.
  9. You have best friends in 5 different countries.
    • See BFF issue above but it’s still kind of true. At least for four countries on three continents.
  10. When you return to the States you are overwhelmed with the number of choices in a grocery store.
    • A Midwesterner friend of mine alerted me about this one, a few years ago and I did experience it in Canada on my way back from Mali or even from Canada to the United States. But it’s not that durable.
  11. You live at school, work in the tropics, and go home for vacation.
    • One of those common things for academics.
  12. You speak two (or more) languages but can’t spell in any of them.
    • I’m not too bad a speller, actually.
  13. You automatically take off your shoes as soon as you get home.
    • Is that supposed to be unusual?
  14. You think VISA is a document stamped in your passport, and not a plastic card you carry in your wallet.
    • In many contexts, sure.
  15. You hate subtitles because you know there is someone that can make an accurate translation.. you!
    • Any bilingual feels this, I’m sure. And it does spill over to languages you don’t in fact know, as you know the feeling too strongly not to get it elsewhere. For instance, in this interview with Larry Lessig on Danish TV.
  16. You watch a movie set in a ‘foreign country’, and you know what the nationals are really saying into the camera.
    • Pretty much the same idea, but with the added exoticism of the “National Geographic eye.”
  17. You have a time zone map next to your telephone.
    • Not really but, like many others, I do have to memorize some timezones.
  18. Your second major is in a foreign language you already speak.
    • Not really the case for me. But I did end up using English as one of my foreign language requirements in graduate school and the other one is also related to my Ph.D. minor.
  19. Your wardrobe can only handle two seasons: wet and dry.
    • This one might happen here in Austin, actually. But I might just end up wearing the same clothes yearlong.
  20. You speak with authority on the quality of airline travel.
    • Kind of similar to the jetsetter factor above. Although, I do enjoy talking about differences in airplane food.
  21. When you carry converters because you actually realize there are different types of outlets.
    • Don’t we all realize this?
  22. You don’t even bother to change your watch when traveling.
    • Well, I do bother changing it but I wish there were more devices which automatically switch.
  23. When you were in middle school you could walk into a bar and order a drink without being questioned.
    • France was like that when I spent time there but I’ve never really lived there for an extended period of time.
  24. You are afraid to go back to visit your school because you know no one will be there whom you used to know, they all moved.
    • Actually, in my case, it was more about being surprized that people still lived there.
  25. You have the opportunity to intern at your Embassy/High Commission without any qualifications.
    • Not really close but I did think about doing it and it seemed like there might be ways to make it work.
  26. You got sick a lot and often had food poisoning.
    • Actually, I might have avoided food poisoning because of a diverse diet. But I did get sick for months while in Mali. Not really sure what it was, though. Might not have been the food after all.

So… I can somehow relate to about half of the 83 traits listed in the “International School” I’m taking these from. Yet my life hasn’t been that of an International School student. Or, really, that of a typical “Third Culture kid.” But as a “stateless person” («apatride») since childhood, as someone who did get to travel intercontinentally early on, as an anthropologist, and as an academic, I can relate to many of these traits.

I guess there’s a few I might add (though not phrased as elegantly):

  1. You often thought you might have recognized someone until you realized that this person is unlikely to have travelled along with you.
  2. You start a casual conversation with someone you knew years ago to realize after ten minutes that the last time you met was in a completely different part of the world.
  3. You actually don’t mind being told that you have an accent (including in your native language).
  4. You’ve had conversations in three languages or more, including situations in which you only understood one of the languages spoken.
  5. (Corollary of previous item) You’re fine with not understanding what people around you are saying.
  6. You don’t remember exactly where some aspect of your behavior might have been deemed normal.
  7. Members of a local community you just entered find you more “normal” than local people.
  8. You’re surprized when a flight takes less than six hours.
  9. You find National Geographic too exoticizing but you find mainstream media quite foreign.
  10. While moving to a new city, you get multiple “flashbacks” from very disparate places.
  11. You don’t really know what’s exotic to whom, anymore.
  12. You can’t remember what was the main language of a dream you’ve just had.
  13. You know exactly that feeling described in L’auberge espagnole of the unfamiliar rapidly becoming familiar when you move to a new place. (You know, the Urquinaona and Mandelieu section.)
  14. You don’t get impressed by well-traveled people.
  15. You never need to take on an act because you’re never completely sure who you are anyway.
  16. You’ve made friends in places where newcomers aren’t welcome.
  17. You actually don’t care so much about where you live but you do care quite a bit about how you live.
  18. You have a hard time acting like a tourist. Except in your hometown.
  19. You prefer meeting new people to seeing well-known landmarks.
  20. You can quickly find your way around any city, sometimes more easily than locals would.
  21. You spent your honeymoon visiting half a dozen places yet you didn’t spend a single night in a hotel room or in a campground.
  22. You get a Chowhound’s sense of what’s the best thing to eat at almost any place you visit.
  23. You don’t need a garage but you do need a guest room.
  24. You’ve presented the wrong passport to a border officer.
  25. You’re fluent in a number of varieties of your native language and this “quirk” carries on to your second or third language.
  26. You make a point not to spend too much time with people who “come from the same place” as you yet you do enjoy their company on occasion.
  27. You wonder why people around you find unacceptable something you thought was pretty commonplace.
  28. You’ve been back-and-forth enough that you’ve noticed a lot of changes in places wherre you’ve been yet you’re actually pretty neutral about these changes.
  29. Homesickness, nostalgia, saudade, “sweet sorrow” all refer to things you know so well that you’re sure you’d miss them. Yup, you might get nostalgic about nostalgia.
  30. You feel at home just about anywhere. Everywhere you go, you just fit. But, in a way, you don’t exactly remember what it feels like to be home.

    If other people can relate to the same set of things, maybe I’m not as weird as I’ve been told I am.

    One thing I feel weird about is that some of these traits sound self-aggrandizing. I kind of “left my humility at the door when I came in” but I still feel that associating myself with some of these things may make me sound like a self-serving snob.

    Ah, well…

    "Let's Wilson It"

    Was listening to the podcast version of CBC’s Quirks and Quirks science program. The latest episode has some interesting segments, two of which are with men called D. Wilson. Just a coincidence, I’m sure, but it’s kind of funny. Especially since one of those Wilsons’ homepage mentions another Wilson: E.O. Wilson (who gave a TEDtalk recently).

    Hence my cryptic title. Kind of a way to put things together in an apparently arbitrary fashion. Fun!

    With these science shows, I guess attitude is everything. The first Wilson interview was with biological anthropologist Daniel H. Wilson, a roboticist whose Where’s My Jetpack? book sounds like a fascinating look at mid-20th C. futurism in the current context. Apart from the content of that interview, I truly enjoyed DHW’s cheeriness. While listening to him, I thought about blogging just about that. He sounds like a humanist, a technology enthusiast, and a critical thinker all wrapped into one person. IOW, he just sounded like an interesting and well-rounded person. Neat! I’m somewhat jealous of the fact that he makes a living writing non-fiction books, but who knows where life will be leading me in the next few years. 😉
    The second Wilson interview was with David Sloan Wilson about his book Evolution for Everyone. Now, as a culturalist, I had some apprehensions when I heard the description of the book by the Q&Q host. In ethnographic disciplines, we’re extremely wary of the application of ideas from biological evolution to cultural phenomena. Many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to evolutionary claims on culture. Not because we want to protect culture. But because we typically find those theories reductive and simplistic. Add to this wariness the intricacies of the nurture/nature debate on the disciplinary level and you’re likely to get tensions between evolutionary biologists and culturalists on those issues. IOW, I was prepared for the worst but I thought I should listen to the interview anyway.

    And I’m glad I did. Not that there was a lot of new ideas in what DSW said. But he sounded open-minded enough that his explanations didn’t rub too hard against my skin. In fact, I found a few things about which I can easily agree with him, including the fact that people should pay attention to both genetics and culture. Interestingly enough, DSW’s harsher words were directed at his colleagues in biological fields, especially Richard Dawkins.

    Those idea with which I most readily agreed in the DSW interview were quite similar to what I got from music and cognition researcher Ian Cross. Simply put, biologically-savvy people seem to agree with us (culturalists) that human culture is adaptive. Where we differ has more to do with issues of causality and determinism than with the basic phenomena. It makes it easy to “set aside our differences” and talk about the actual relationships between culture and adaptation without reacting viscerally.

    As is often the case with more biologically-oriented scholars, David Sloan Wilson’s concept of culture sounds fairly limited in scope or even sophistication. In the interview, he mentioned music and other things listed by the Q&Q host and then mostly talked about religion. It would have been useful if DSW had defined his concept of culture anthropologically but I’m not surprised that he didn’t do so on a science show. The reason I care is that I’m thinking about using this segment in some future cultural anthropology courses and I don’t want students to think that culture is limited to what we usually call “superstructure.”

    Ah, well…

    There's a Whole World Out There

    The effect of finding out that there’s a wealth of information that is openly available:

    To me, this was a little like the first human sighting of the Antarctic land mass in 1820: proof that a huge terra incognita existed just over the horizon, awaiting exploration.(Peter Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, 11/2/06
    )

    This is an important feeling (and an important issue). As the Gershwins had it:

    I know how Columbus felt

    Finding another world

    The first time I recall feeling this way was at the end of the year, in elementary school. We had been using this math textbook with exercises for every chapter. It’s only during the last week of classes that I noticed that answers to the exercises could be found at the end of the book. Finding those answers was a revelation to me and I seek this discovery feeling. It’s one that I get from fiction (books, television shows, etc.). You find the key and everything falls into place.

    What’s the connection, here?

    Well, maybe I’m going on a limb. But I see a connection between Open Access, textbooks, and discovery. In fact, it runs through what I was trying to present this past week at the Spirit of Inquiry conference.

    Sure, we all know about information overload and many of us would like authoritative filters for information. But the real point is about getting awestruck by the amount of work that has already been done. Sure, it’s intimidating when you take a look at the dusty shelves of a good size library. But we can also focus on doing something with all this information. Sure, the Encyclopedia of Life is bigger than any library, as many people keep reminding us, these days. But we can still start from access to published texts, can’t we?

    Newton’s “shoulders of giants” and all that. The opposite of the forbidden library in Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Regardless of opposing views about what should be done with information, most people agree that there’s something empowering about anybody getting access to valuable information.

    Some academics are “immunized” to the awe-inspiration from seeing the amount of information available. Some of them simply focus on a tiny parcel of knowledge-land they can call their own. Others insist that most information is completely relevant. Yet others think about knowledge in less of an information-processing model.

    That’s why I think that making resources openly and publicly available is more important for students than for tenured professors.

    Yes, I do care about students.

    Professors and Online Ethnography

    Fellow anthropologist Michael Wesch (of The Machine Is Us/ing Us fame) posted about a video that the The Chronicle of Higher Education has released about his own digital ethnography projects.

    For those who don’t know, The Chronicle is a well-known U.S. publication aimed primarily at university and college professors. It contains news and job announcements irrespective of disciplinary boundaries. A bit like the CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin here in Canada.

    The video itself is journalistic in tone and does pay lipservice to the challenges of online research. I like the fact that we get to hear one of Wesch’s students, known as ThePoasm on YouTube. But, overall, the video does little to give voice to the people involved, apart from Wesch himself. The lack of student focus is unsurprising as The Chronicle is mostly concerned with faculty members. But there could have been more talk about the academic, disciplinary, institutional, and pedagogical implications of Wesch’s projects.

    Maybe I’m just jealous of Wesch for being able to undertake those projects in the first place. Anyone wants to podcast/vidcast with me? 😉

    Getting Things Done: Messy Edition

    Recent book (authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman) on the possible benefits of not maintaining a strictly organised working space.

    Have a Messy Desk? Congrats, Youre More Productive

    Yet messy people are often cast in a negative light. In one study cited by [National Association of Professional Organizers], two-thirds of respondents believed workers with messy desks were seen as less career-driven than their neater colleagues.

    Haven’t read the book and, as academics, we should probably be wary of “research findings” by NAPO or by Abrahamson and Freedman. But that Reuters piece does make some insightful points about people, like me, who find alternative ways to organise their lives.

    As per the quote above, there is a stigma about us. At least, there is a stigma in the “general population.” There is plenty of stigmatisation of “messy people” in advertisement, among office workers, and in popular books. The whole “reflection of your inner self” ideology. “You can’t organise your life if your desk is cluttered.” “Clear your mind by putting things in neatly labeled boxes.” “You’ll never be able to finish any project if you have such a mess on your hands.”

    But such a stigma is much less prevalent among academics or, even, among many members of the “geek crowd.” Those of us who handle most of our work-related material through computers (either on hard drives or online) know that it’s extremely easy to find information very quickly without the need of folder hierarchies. Hence Spotlight in Mac OS X and Google Desktop Search on Windows XP and Vista.

    In my case, a messy desktop has often been my “workspace” while folders were mostly meant as archives. The same applies to my online accounts these days. Gmail as a centralised location for some of my important data. Browser tabs as “modes.” Search replacing “filing cabinets.” Outlining as a second step after note-taking/brainstorming.

    Like many others, I have “a lot of things going on at the same time” and am solely responsible for all of these “projects.” Project management strategies typically make little sense to my individual work though they can work really well for collaboration with others. In other words, I need my “desk” to be messy so that I can do the kind of work I do well.

    This all relates to Jess’s points about social bookmarking, of course. I’m also reminded of Edward T. Hall’s ideas about “polychronic time” in Dance of Life. As it so happens, DoL is one of the first books I have read that was written by an anthropologist. Hall has been known for a few things in the field of cultural anthropology (mostly to do with gestural behaviour) but he has always been something of a maverick. Not that I want to rehabilitate his work but I do think there’s some valuable insight to be found in this specific book. Hall has been one of relatively few anthropologists of the time to think about the perception of time, something which many people are doing now using Schutz has their basis. It might well be that a “polychronic time” may be quite compatible with the current tendency for a “multi-tasking mode,” among human beings. In such a mode, neat organisation may be less desirable.

    Academics, Gender, and Beer Cred

    Psychology professor Diane Catanzaro has been named Beer Drinker of the Year by the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, CO. Dr. Catanzaro’s comments about beer culture are in itself quite interesting and, personally, I’m quite glad that this year’s winner is both an academic and a woman.

    Still looking forward to investigate beer culture further, as an academic pursuit. One important dimension of beer culture, as observed by some participants in the North American craft beer scene, is that beer tends to become a gender-specific beverage in North America. Similarly, wine is often seen as more sophisticated than beer (even though, in terms of biochemistry, beer is arguably more complex than wine). Catanzaro’s victory might help dispel some preconceptions about beer.

    Catanzaro isn’t the first woman to win the Beerdrinker of the Year award. Cornelia Corey won it in 2001.  Craft beer has probably become more prominent in the last six years. At the time, Corey had linked to an article about beer marketing and gender. Not sure things have changed much since then, but beer marketing itself has slowly but surely been changing.

    Good things may come.

    Higher Education in a New Era

    Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

    I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

    According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

    One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

    An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

    This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

    It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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    French «Intellectuels» (draft)

    [Old draft of a post that I never finished writing… Started it in late February.]

    Been thinking about intellectuals, especially French ones. It might have been a long-standing issue for me. To this French-speaking North American academic, the theme is obvious.

    More specifically, though.

    Was listening to a podcast with French journalist Daniel Schneidermann who, among other things, is a blogger. During the podcast, Schneidermann made a simple yet interesting comment about validation by readers. As a journalist, he has an obligationto adopt strict standards, verify sources, etc. As a blogger, he knows that if something that he says is inaccurate, blog readers will quickly point out the mistake. Again, dead simple. One of the basic things people have understood about online communication since at least 1994. But some journalists have typically been slow to understand the implications, perhaps because it causes a sea change in their practise. So Scheidermann’s comment was relatively “refreshing” in such a context.

    Wanted to blog on that issue. Went to Scheidermann’s blog and read a few things. Noticed one about a Wikipedia entry on Schneidermann. While the blogger understands the value of reader validation, he seems to be uneasy with the fact that his Wikipedia entry was, when he first read it, disproportionally devoted to some specific issues in his life. Which leads me to the intellectuel thing.

    A little over ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu was on Schneidermann’s television set for a show about television. Bourdieu had been thinking and writing about television’s social impact. The context in which Schneidermann invited Bourdieu was a series of political and social events centering on an important strike with which Bourdieu had been associated. By participating in the show, Bourdieu had the (secret) intention of demonstrating television’s incapacity at taking distance from itself. Bourdieu had participated in another television show a few years prior and apparently saw his presence on a television set as an occasion to experiment with some important issues having to do with the media’s channeling of dialogue. Didn’t see the show but had heard about the events that followed without following it. A brief summary, from very limited evidence.After appearing on the show, Bourdieu published a short piece in Le Monde diplomatique (Schneidermann was a journalist at Le Monde). That piece was strongly-worded but can be seen as a fairly typical media analysis by a social scientist or other scholar. Not Bourdieu’s most memorable work, maybe, but clear and simple, if a bit watered down at times. In fact, the analysis looked more Barthes-type semiotics than Bourdieu’s more, erm, “socially confrontational” work.

    Schneidermann’s response to Bourdieu’s analysis looks more like a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived as personal attacks. Kind of sad, really. In fact, the introduction to that response points out the relevance of Bourdieu’s interrogations.

    At any rate, one aspect of Schneidermann’s response which is pretty telling in context is the repeated use of the term intellectuel at key points in that text. It’s not so much about the term itself, although it does easily become a loaded term. An intellectual could simply be…

    [Google: define intellectual…]:

    a person who uses his or her intellect to study, reflect, or speculate on a variety of different ideas

    [ Thank you, Wikipedia! 😉 ]

    But, in context, repeated use of the term, along with repeated mentions of Collège de France (a prestigious yet unusual academic institution) may give the impression that Schneidermann was reacting less to Bourdieu as former guest than to the actions of an intellectuel. Obligatory Prévert citation:

    Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes.

    (Intellectuals shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches.)

    Now, second stream of thought on intellectuels. Was teaching an ethnomusicology course at an anthropology department. A frequent reaction by students was that we were intellectualizing music too much. Understandable reaction. Music isn’t just an intellectual object. But, after all, isn’t the role of academia to understand life intellectually?

    Those comments tended to come in reaction to some of the more difficult readings. To be fair, other reactions included students who point out that an author’s analysis isn’t going beyond some of the more obvious statements and yet others are cherishing the intellectual dimensions of our perspective on music. Altogether the class went extremely well, but the intellectual character of some of the content was clearly surprising to some.

    The third strand or stream of thought on intellectuels came on February 27 in a television show with Jacques Attali. His was a typical attitude of confidence in being a “jack of all trades” who didn’t hesitate to take part in politics, public service, and commercial initiatives. I personally have been influenced by some of Jacques Attali’s work and, though I may disagree with several of his ideas, I have nothing but respect for his carreer. His is a refreshingly unapologetic form of intellectualism. Not exclusion of non-intellectuals. Just an attempt at living peacefully with everyone while thinking about as many issues as possible. He isn’t my hero but he deserves my respect, along with people like Yoro Sidibe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Armstrong, Boris Vian, Jan Garbarek, Georges Brassens, Steven Feld, Roland Barthes, James Brown, and Serge Gainsbourg.

    A fourth thread came in a departmental conference at Université de Montréal’s Department of Anthropology. Much discussion of the involvement of anthropologists in social life. And the visit of two public intellectuals who happen to be anthropological provocateurs, here in Quebec: Serge Bouchard and Bernard Arcand.. . .

    Never finished this draft.

    Should really follow on these threads. They have been haunting me for almost a year. And connect with multiple issues that I tend to think about.

    My attitude now is that through blogs, mailing-lists, online forums, classes, lectures, conferences, informal and formal discussions, I’m able to help people think about a large set of different issues, whether or not they agree with me on any single point. Not because I’m somehow better than others: I’m clearly not. Not because my ideas are better than those cherished by others: they clearly aren’t. Possibly because I’m extremely talkative. And enthusiastic about talking to just about anyone. There’s even a slight chance that I may have understood something important about my “role in life,” my “calling.” If so, great. If not, I’m having fun anyway and I don’t mind being (called) an intellectual. 😉