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Posted in Diversity

Bringing a bit of mischief to pedagogy

What can we teach and learn only by playing tricks upon one another?

What do we fail to teach and learn when we attempt to forbid mischief?

Posted in PFP14S Tagged

Who gets the goods?


Wharton Study Shows the Shocking Result When Women and Minorities Email Their Professors

According to a segment produced by NPR, researchers led by the Wharton School’s Katherine Milkman emailed 6,500 professors from 89 disciplines at the top 259 schools, pretending to be students. These emails replicated the same message; the only variable was the sender’s name — for example, “Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen” — deliberately crafted in order to test the racial and gender bias in professor response.

The type of student who garnered the most responses? The white male.

As Milkman told NPR, professors “ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males. … We see a 25-percentage-point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities.”

Posted in PFP14S

“Social arts trample liberal arts”

From an article that may interest some of you:


“The women from working-class backgrounds were smart, entrepreneurial, resilient in overcoming obstacles, courageous. They believed what they had been told, that going to a flagship university and being ambitious and investing all these resources was going to pay off. And then they arrived at a place where they were shut down on every dimension. They didn’t get good classes, they didn’t get good advisers, the other students weren’t nice to them, and they had to work a lot of hours just to make ends meet. One young woman ended up not having enough food to eat.”

Although Paying for the Party undeniably takes an oblique approach to diagnosing what is wrong with American higher education, Armstrong argues that it is also an illuminating one: “Most of the other books on the social side of college don’t connect it to the academic core and the stratification process and the status-competitive aspects of it, so they miss the real work that this stuff is doing.”

Posted in PFP14S

What it means to be a faculty member

As a faculty member I intend to generate new knowledge, pedagogical wonder, and discourse in a peer-reviewed and collegial manner.  This will include bridging academic and scholarly traditions and conventions with innovations and breakthroughs in the humanities, social sciences, technical fields, and developing disciplines. Through peer-reviewed forums, I intend to cultivate and support intellectual and scholarly research among students for the future of academic development.  By my labor, I intend to contribute sustenance to the academy while holding myself and others accountable to the liberatory role of research, teaching, and academic service.  As an inheritor of various critical conditions, this will at times include insurgent activities in response to detrimental forms of social, political, ethical, and cultural hegemony.  This includes leaving the academy better than I found it by helping to ameliorate historical injustices and inequities.   By fostering new philosophical, empirical, and technical innovations, faculty can add to the feasible resources useful for improving the quality of human lives and the environments in which we may prosper.

Posted in PFP14S

To MOOC or not to MOOC… who gets to decide? That is the question.

Almost a year ago, faculty in the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State University issued an open letter refusing to sign on to a plan to offer philosophy courses via the MOOC model.  While adminsitrators  partner with edX.  Not only did the faculty reject the plan developed by senior administrators and edX, they addressed the letter in the form of a rebuke aimed at philosophy Michael Sandel.  Sandel, a world famous philosopher, was slated to serve as the lead instructor for the MOOC.

Sandel replied by stating that he hopes no one forces San Jose State’s faculty to use any MOOC content other than that which the faculty choose.  In Sandel’s own words,

The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education … The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.[1]

I have no way to evaluate the sincerity with which Sandel made the comment, but I think he reminds us of a key issue at stake — and often sidelined — in dicussion of MOOC’s: who decides?

I was taught that the pedagogical, academic core of the academy depended on a few specific fundamentals.  One fundamental: faculty — the teachers and researchers providing instruction — decide the content of the curriculum.  When administrators, alumni, bureaucrats, politicians, and those external to the instructional role interfere in content, the core purpose of the academy degrades.  Of course we have all sorts of good reasons to place this principle in check in outlier, obscure situations such as when faculty behave in egregiously derogatory ways and fail to make amends.

If the fundamental basis for the integrity of the academy rests in some large part on faculty control of the curriculum, then so to does it set the circumstances for MOOC’s.  If faculty choose to adopt MOOC’s, so it goes.  If they refuse, for better or worse, that remains their prerogative.  I see no good reason to assign MOOC’s to any special category of privilege or scrutiny.  As a pedagogical resource, instructors may or may not adopt them in various ways.

It will probably benefit those in favor of MOOC’s to do as Sandel has done and refuse to push or prod for institutions to adopt the model.  Instead, MOOC-advocates should similarly advocate for the integrity of the faculty role in deciding curricular content.  Administrators can throw their support behind experiments with MOOC’s, and may even openly advocate for certain changes.  Even so, they need to respect the decisions of faculty while providing information based on informed practices.


Posted in PFP14S

Can scholars afford not to give?

What happens to philosophical wisdom and scientific knowledge when we treat it as a commodity for sale or for profit?

Can a researcher sell their discoveries and inventions and still  remain a member of a scientific or scholarly community?

Do we still have an intellectual, scholarly community if we move our ideas about the world as a means to profit?  Or do we only have a community of researchers if we make gifts of our scholarly contribution?

In his famous text The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), Lewis Hyde conducts extensive research in an attempt to find a basis for concepts of “gifts” and “property.”  Hyde scours thousands of obscure ancient and modern texts and references, and works across many different disciplines, belief systems in order to help question some of the most basic ideas in western thought.  As a result, his work provokes readers to reconsider whether we understand the consequences of giving and owning.

Why study gifts and property?  Because economies and economic influences can never illuminate right or wrong, good or bad, cruel or healing, Hyde intends to help find a source for thinking about two of the main concepts embedded in economic thought.  If people make the mistake of thinking that property and gift as mere references to objects or activities, we may overlook the consequences of our actions.  Notions of gift and property may seem like simple terms for different ways to exchange, but his research uncovers a more precarious and influential pattern.  Both ideas have deep roots in ancient thought — even if people in the contemporary world sometimes forget these origins.  As Hyde puts it,

If a thing is to have a market value, it must be detachable or alienable so that it can be put on the scale and compared. I mean this in a particular sense: we who do the valuation must be able to stand apart from the thing we are pricing. We have to be able to conceive of separating ourselves from it. […] We are sometimes forced into such judgments, to be sure, but they are stressful precisely because we tend not to assign comparative values to those things to which we are emotionally connected [62].

Gifts and giving foster, nurture, and sustain communal relations.  Property, ownership, and dispassionate transfer risk or foster emotional detachment.   Before you dismiss Hyde as overly sentimental or caught up in sensationalizing the subject matter, consider some of the logic that informs his analysis.

To consider something property, to think of something as properly “mine” and as something I “own,” can only ever refer to a past-tense claim about something that once happened.  No one can really ever claim to own anything in the present, we can only ever argue that we once owned something in the past.  The phrase “I own this” amounts to a falsehood, whereas the phrase “I used to own that” counts as close as we can get to a rational claim about owning some thing as our property.  Why?

Property, ownership, and the idea of rightful (contractual, obligatory) possession require an underlying assumption about the power to dispose of, distribute, transfer, or otherwise expel an object from one’s life.  If you owned a thing, you had the power to possess and dispossess yourself of a thing.  But you only have evidence for your assumption, for your claim about owning, once you have exercised the power.  Only once you dispossess yourself of a thing can you show evidence that you had (emphasis: past-tense) the power to do so.  Only once transferred, traded, dispossessed, or removed from your influence can you count a thing as “formerly owned.”  Until you do so, your claim of ownership — and the belief that you get to call something properly “yours” or “mine” — remains tentative, precarious, and in question.

You may think you own a thing, but at best you can only prove you once used to own a thing.

(We could also forgo Hyde’s version and take the more radical option, going along with scholars such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon by arguing that no such metaphysical conditions exist that allow us to call anything “property.”Smilie: ;)

Hyde thinks people derive some form of erotic excitement from exercising such a power, that we sometimes want to make ourselves aliens, strangers, or uninvolved in our communities and societies [67-68].  The risky situation of dispossessing not just things but also ourselves from our communities gives us some sort of emotional and cognitive (and probably somatic) rush.  The quick-fix of temporary freedom from one another seems attractive now and then.  But, I leave that aside for now.

Gifts differ.  Giving differs.  In giving, Hyde argues, we create “bonds” not so easily dismantled or forgotten.  Gifts foster relationships, interpersonally and communally, in ways property transfers cannot — and specifically in ways that property transfers diminish. And gifts remain in motion, continuously moving through communities of people.  Property stops, stagnates when we act to retain it by fixing it as an object of our alleged ownership.  Indeed, fixations and transfers of things as property tend to erode or degrade everything except for formally contractual obligations.  Sometimes people refuse gifts or opt to not give gifts precisely because giving would create an intimacy or bond that we do not want, for better or for worse [71-73].

If we aim to emotionally detach from our research and scholarship, scientists and humanities researchers alike, then what do we make of our work?

In a chapter titled, “The Gift Community” Hyde uses contemporary research and publication norms among scientists as a case study for his work.  He asks us to think about the implications of treating scientific research as a “gift community” or as a source of commodities.

Do scientists and scholars of all disciplines expect that economies, free-market or otherwise, can preserve the dignity of their research?

As Hyde remarks,

A gift community puts certain constraints on its members, yes, but these constraints assure the freedom of the gift.  ‘Academic freedom,’ as the term is used in the debate over commercial science, refers to the freedom of ideas, not the freedom of individuals.  Or perhaps we should say that it refers to the freedom of individuals to have their ideas treated as gifts contributed to the group mind and therefore the freedom to participate in that mind [82].

He understands quite well that business interests will contract with scientists and researchers to move scholarly research about the world.  But the contexts for creation and invention and discovery  — the relationships fundamentally necessary for science and philosophy — do not thrive on the basis of property and contracts.  Indeed, scientists lose the integrity of their scholarly community if they attempt to trade one for the other at the eventual expense of both.

Does science work this way?  Hyde admits that scholarship in the contemporary academy fosters skepticism and angst about the matter of scholarly gifts:

It is true that many people in science will scoff if you try to tell them about a scientific community in which ideas treated as gifts. This has not been their experience at all. They will tell you a story about a stolen idea. So-and-so invented the famous such and such but the man down the hall hurried out and got the patent. Or so-and-so used to discuss his research with his lab partner but then the sneaky fellow went and published the ideas without giving proper credit. He did it because he’s competitive, they say, because he needed to secure his degree, because he had to publish to get tenure — and all of this is to be expected of departmentalized science in capitalist universities dominated by contractual research for industry and the military [79].

However, since science does not endure as science without a gift community and, therefore, scientific researchers lose their protections and freedoms.  Scholars make ourselves instruments when we diminish the sources of our gifts: the bonds of giving.  Some important aspect of scholarship resides in what Hyde calls matters of the heart.  “Contracts of the heart lie outside the law, and the circle of the gift is narrowed, therefore, whenever such contracts are converted to legal relationships” [88].

If we sell with disregard for our collegial relationships, acting as if we invented our careers, data, theories, and discoveries out of thin air, then what becomes of the freedom necessary to practice science and philosophy and all sorts of scholarship?

I leave you with a final quote from Hyde:

Scientists claim and receive credit for the ideas they have contributed to science, but to the degree that they are members of the scientific community, such credit does not get expressed through fees. […] A researcher paid by the hour is a technician, a servant, not a member of the scientific community [78].


  • Hyde, Lewis. 1983. The gift : imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Random House.
  • Proudhon, P. J., Donald R. Kelley, and Bonnie G. Smith. 1994. What is property?, Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. Cambridge England ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Posted in PFP14S

Wrongdoing: punishment, reparations, and restoration?

Practices of conventional retributive justice, the dominant cultural and institutional strategy in industrialized countries, primarily favor punishment of wrongdoing.  Procedural actions in this vein of thought generally rely on assumptions about blame, accountability, responsibility, and fault.  More specifically, procedural models of retributive justice depend on the belief that justice works best that balances out some hypothetical scales or, to put it more commonly, when the punishment fits the crime.

Arguably, retributive justice has a goal of redistributing divisibles such as wealth, status, or benefits unfairly gained through deception.  In cases where indivisibles such as dignity, pain, and trust come into question, many believe that retributive models punish wrongdoing with indignity — one must suffer as much as more more than the suffering one has caused.

In the case summaries provided by ORI, it appears that the retributive model holds as the dominant norm.  In most cases, the “final action” taken involves eliminating, restricting, or scrutinizing the practices of researchers who have falsified research or engaged in other misconduct.  For instance, in the case of Jian Ma the administrative actions required strict scrutiny and peer supervision of any future research projects.  Similarly, in the case of Pratima Karnik, the researcher was required to exclude herself from certain research activities and involvement in specific boards and committees as well as from consulting projects.  In most cases the punitive decisions involve requirements not just for the individual researcher, but also require adherence on the part of any institution employing or partnering with the individual in question.

Do the punitive, retributive methods provide for the best outcomes?

In the most strict versions of retributive justice, those who violate basic rules, norms, and trust of a community wind up perpetual outcasts — permanently excluded from sharing in the benefits and burdens of their discipline.

More moderate retributive codes require, as I think evident in the ORI cases, that individuals demonstrate good faith efforts to conduct future research under the scrutiny of peers for a period of time.  This, it seems, allows researchers to pursue their work as credible contributors while leaving their character in question as if to say, “You may produce quality research in the future, but you remain suspect as an untrustworthy character.”  I suspect most people would agree that violations of trust raise suspicions and doubts about future behaviors.

But we do have another option in the form of restorative justice, the modes of thought that encourage making amends and working for restoration.  In a restorative model, retribution has no moral or practical foundation.  Morally, retributive ideologies assume that some universal scale of justice exists and that a new harm to a criminal balances out an old harm a criminal once committed.  Practically, retribution requires the assumption that adding further harms, constraints, punishments, etc. into a community or practice improves the conditions for everyone involved.

As proponents of restorative justice argue, we do better to dismiss the idea of punishments and retribution in favor of two specific priorities: making an apology and making amends (reparations that benefit the future).

By making an apology, a person who has committed a crime or caused harm openly acknowledges the consequences of their actions.  Moreover, they learn to understand and explain how their actions compromise the integrity of anyone directly and indirectly involved (including communities, disciplines, etc.).

By making amends, a person who has caused harm or wrongdoing commits to working proactively to prevent future harms.  This differs greatly from retributive models that aim, quite irrationally, at retroactively balancing out a non-existent scale of justice.  The good a person can do will benefit the future and in making amends by working to reduce future problems thereby redresses past harms, errors, wrongs, etc.  Retribution falsely promises to work backward, restoration undeniably works forward.

Do ORI practices, as well as general practices of sanctioning researchers, provide for restorative options?

Do the sanctions foster apologies and amends, or merely foster obedience and rule-following?  —  that is, does punishment decrease the probability of violations by other researchers in the future, or does it merely require obedience and rule-following by a wrong-doer?

Do the ORI sanctions involve some aspects of both retribution and restoration?  If so, does this model make good sense?

What would research ethics look like overall if restorative justice functioned as the dominant norm? And what does it say about contemporary researchers if we find it difficult to even imagine that as feasible? (or to paraphrase Archbishop Desmond Tutu, what has happened to us that we might so voraciously and persistently refuse to consider forgiveness and restoration so quickly?)


Posted in PFP14S

Triggered by trigger warnings? What about mandatory changes to course syllabi?

Withing the last few years some users of social media have begun to post with the header “trigger warning” when they have concerns that posted content might provoke readers to have emotional reactions.

Proponents of trigger warnings (TWs) argue that the comment provides compassionate, fair notice to people who may have a personal history of trauma related to the posted content.

Opponents of TWs argue the practice patronizes readers, presumes the inability to adapt, projects certain abilities and limitations onto readers, and even that TWs censor or limit productive discourses.

The trend has now moved out of the realm of social media into the classroom as some proponents assert that academic course syllabi should contain TWs — and not just as optional, but as mandatory. 

Consider the following article on the topic: “Trigger Happy: the “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes Can it be stopped?”

Conduct a web search for the phrase “trigger warning” and you’ll find extensive opinion pieces and heated debates on the topic.

Do you think TWs belong in course syllabi?

Full disclosure: I side pretty strongly with opponents who argue against TWs, though I still want to know more about the arguments in favor.

Posted in PFP14S

Change without: whether to foster change “work within” institutional systems

I admit, what follows counts mostly as “external processing” following some political work locally and statewide.

In case this is news to anyone, large public institutions can both reflect the derogatory and discriminatory facets of cultures and society, as well as proactively initiate change in broader culture and society.  But sometimes, people from “outside” educational institutions have to pose challenges that people “within” have not made priorities.

As conversations about institutional equity, fairness, non-discrimination, diversity, and social justice take more prominence here, I tread the line between working as an activist to “challenge the system” and working as a colleague “within the system.”

My research allows me to explore liberatory work — challenges to the dominant cultural and political facets of society.  At the same time, I have to navigate the practical realities of the institution: most people do not quite realize how deeply institutional inequities cost everyone, not just some.

While I try to work with those who have more moderate and recalcitrant dispositions, I often hear the phrase “work within the system.”

It troubles me.

I don’t consider the idea of “work within the system” an affront on it’s own, in the abstract. I take issue with the times people assert “work within the system” as if it ever can “work” without those who take risks to put liberatory pressures from “outside.” I take issue with the forgetting that happens when those working “inside” gain some advantages while those “outside” keep working.

I want to work with people who want to “work within” administrative processes, and I want to work “outside” with those who provoke and demand.  They both deserve attention.

For a research university to achieve a comprehensive research and educational mission, sometimes external pressures provide the necessary catalyst.  Maybe those pressures come from corporate/private employers who refuse to hire from an institution with inadequate policies and practices.  Or maybe activists with pickets signs call attention to the deficiencies and need for action.

“Working within” does not work without “outsiders.”

Posted in PFP14S