Tag Archives: public intellectuals

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Ethnic Diversity and Post-Nationalism

I normally don’t enjoy Quora. But I was just asked an anonymous question there which made me react. It’s close to the kind of question I get in my intro-level courses in sociology or anthropology, so I like to “do my job” of elucidating these issues.

Here’s the question:

Can there be such a thing as too much diversity?
Up until recently the rule for all immigrants was “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” This appears to have been replaced by “We’re not going to integrate but live as we did back home.”

Is it possible that at some point diversity becomes a detriment that divides society? Just look at how segregated some cities have become

Here’s my answer:

Funnily enough, I’m preparing an exam on material where this very issue appears. Unfortunately, this material isn’t online.
One of sociology’s core perspectives, functionalism, had “extreme diversity” among the conditions under which social order breaks down. The idea, there, was that it went against society’s integration, since the model was based on well-delimited groups.
That theory has been challenged multiple times. For one thing, very few groups have been that well-integrated. The modern notion of “what The Romans were” comes from a biased view and a limited understanding of what went on at the time. In fact, an episode of the Entitled Opinions podcast contains useful discussions of the very issue.

Same thing can be said about a number of other societies, including contemporary ones.
And this is where things get interesting. We’re probably living a transition from a period marked by the Nation-State (19th and 20th Centuries) to a period marked by fluid groupings, including social networks.
In the Nation-State (contemporary Somalia and Japan, along with the fiction of 19th Century France and possibly a short period of time in Ancient Rome), ethnic homogeneity is presumed and ethnicity is managed through a very complex bureaucratic system related to citizenship. The way ethnic groups are treated then is based on what Benedict Anderson called “Imagined Communities”.
In more fluid systems, which include most of human history, diversity is taken for granted and social integration comes from other dimensions of social life.
In the current context, we have an unusual mixture of rigid Nation-State identities in parallel with the reality of transnationalism, postnationalism, Globalization, and blurred boundaries.
So, to answer the question: is it so clear what the limits of the group are? If so, what are those limits based on? If not, why would diversity be a problem?

For those interested in fluid boundaries, a classic work is Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth’s “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries”.

Dangers of Academic Blogging

A-list blogger and fellow Ph.D.  candidate danah boyd comments on the reaction to one of her blog entries.

I think some folks misinterpreted this piece as an academic article. No doubt this is based on my observations from the field, but this is by no means an academic article. I did add some methodological footnotes in the piece so that folks would at least know where the data was coming from. But I didn’t situate or theorize or contextualize this at all. It’s more like publicizing field observations. There’s much work to be done before this can be anything resembling an academic article. The “citation” note at the top of my pieces also confuses this. That was meant for when people picked it up and stole it whole from my page or when people got to it indirectly. I put that as a standard for my blog essays a while back because of this issue. I guess I see my blog as a space to work out half-formed ideas. I just didn’t expect 90K people to read it. Blog essays to me are thoughts in progress, blog entries that are too long to be blog entries. But I can see where there’s confusion.

apophenia: woah…. omg. reflections on mega-viewership

The same could be said about a lot of online texts. Taken out of context, they are often thought to be more serious than they were meant to be. Examples from The Onion abound as readers often send links to friends without pointing out that the site is parody. I quite like the fact that online humour may force people to adopt critical thinking.

But Boyd’s case is a bit different. The difference isn’t simply in terms of serious vs. non-serious (or between fully-researched and off-the-cuff). It’s between reflections by an academic and actual academic writing.

The issue here isn’t that people aren’t trained to distinguish academic writing from personal thoughts. Many people can and do distinguish the two. IMHO, the issue is that an academic will often sound academic even when writing from a personal perspective. Kind of an occupational hazard.

Then, there’s the combined issue of prestige, trust, and authoritative voice.  Very common in U.S. academia and U.S. media. Somewhat similar to what happens with public intellectuals elsewhere but with a political twist.

It will certainly be fascinating to see what comes out of this situation in Boyd’s academic life.

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. ;-)

Islam and "Western Imagination"

[Update: I forgot to thank Djemaa Maazouzi for sending that link to a seminar mailing-list... So, thank you Djemaa! Sorry for the delay...]

Thinking about Lila Abu-Lughod‘s powerful Eurozine “Lettre” The Muslim Woman. The Power of Images and the Danger of Pity.

In the common Western imagination, the image of the veiled Muslim woman stands for oppression in the Muslim world. This makes it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, sets up an “us” and “them” relationship with Muslim women, and ignores the variety of ways of life practiced by women in different parts of the Muslim world. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod emphasizes that veiling should not be confused with a lack of agency or even traditionalism. Western feminists who take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of oppressed Muslim women assume that individual desire and social convention are inherently at odds: something not borne out by the experience of Islamic society.

Though it uses veiling as a starting point, Abu-Lughod’s insightful piece reaches to several important issues of religious tolerance, global policy, cultural awareness, secularism, liberalism, and thoughtful respect and consideration for human beings. This piece is in fact so powerful and thoughtful that it seems irrelevant to add much to its content.

Let us wish that more people will grow their understanding of both Islam and “The West” through a careful reflection on those issues.

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