Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Great American Cultural Revolution in the University?: Statement by the Indiana University Bloomington Provost on the "Benton Murals"

(Woodburn Hall Indiana University;  Pix Credit)

Every civilization undergoes great periods of cultural revolution at some in point their history. These points of cultural revolution can either destroy or substantially change the civilization within which it is unleashed. In either case, the society--its law, politics, economics, culture and religion--emerges quite different at the end of the period of cultural revolution. Cultural revolution upends structures of privilege (the moral underpinning of the social and cultural order) and its hierarchies (its political manifestation). Cultural revolution transforms the core notions that serve as the glue that holds a civilization together, that provides its coherent netting of premises and outlooks from which its realities are shaped and its decisions are made to seem "right", "moral" "legitimate" and "fair"--all terms that derive their meaning from the core premises that cobble a civilization together as a self referencing and legitimacy enhancing whole.

Cultural Revolution tends to be marked by a trigger event. In the case of the Christianification of Rome (and its transition from ancient and pagan to medieval and Abrahamic) it might have been the suppression of paganism in the reign of Theodosius. The Protestant Reformation was another, as was the Iconoclasm of early Byzantium.  In each of those case, and there are others, art expressed the material incarnation of the transformation, and it was to the destruction or reshaping of art, and its meaning, that substantial attention was devoted by a society in the midst of often violent morphing (e.g., here, and here). These are cultural revolutions that are profound and that leave lasting marks on societies that cannot thereafter return to the status quo ante. They are to be distinguished from important but essentially political factional contests (no less violent in the short run) with no lasting effect.  Thus, for example, it is still too early to tell whether the so called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (c. 1966-76) in China constituted a period of profound and permanent change or merely marked a period of intense and violent factional fighting around ideological markers.

Now appears to be a time of cultural revolution in the United States at least a century or more in the amking. Its symptoms tend to center on images as well--from the logos of athletic teams, to statues, to works of art. Every society tends to see itself in its symbolic (especially plastic) expression and it is in times of change that work that was "invisible" becomes increasingly intolerable to a society whose image of itself is in transition. Where that transition is hotly challenged, the direction and permanence of shifting approaches to specific symbolic expression can be quite volatile and sometimes violent. 

It is with this brief context in mind that one might appreciate the difficulties and context of a statement recently released by Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost and Val Nolan Professor of Law at the Indiana University-- Bloomington campus with reference to a mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1933, the realities of which have now been subsumed by the great cultural and societal shifts (including shifts in the interpretation of meaning) in contemporary society.


That this had been a long time in coming does not change the importance of the tipping point that this year appears to portend.  The Provost's well crafted statement evidences the difficulties for institutions where the societies they serve are in transition (even if only partially and uncertainly so).  Those transitions, when expressed in engagement with symbolic expression--especially the arts--produce a communicative challenge as the cultural markers of meaning making in one age give way to anther set that invariably produces a different context within which the construction of meaning can be undertaken.  That conundrum is well evidenced in the  statement, as is its fragile solution. But more importantly, it acknowledges the strength and ultimately the legitimacy of that great cultural revolution and the passing of the prior stage of cultural meaning.  What is left, then, is little more than the preservation of artifacts that can be understood only by specialists--the specialty of museums and the university. In these circumstances, the preservation of the art (or other plastic expression) of a prior age in the face of the structures of meaning making (and cultural significance) in the next may prove an increasingly delicate task.

The statement is reproduced below without further comment. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Internationalization and Engagement: How Foreign Students May be Reshaping What is Taught at Global Universities

The re-imaging of history and the ideology behind definitive narratives has been much in the news.  The Western taste for statue topping is merely an out sized manifestation of a more fundamental conversation going on about the nature of knowledge and its politics.  This is a particularly sensitive issue within the university.  Where once consensus about the ideology of narrative produced a robust set of assumptions and techniques for producing and disseminating knowledge, the current taste for pluralism and the politicization of knowledge as a valuable commodity of distinct communities has complicated both the production of knowledge and its dissemination in new ways.  In the absence of a new narrative orthodoxy, and for risk averse institutions--especially universities--that may mean assuming a passive position in the politics of knowledge. 

This instability now acquires transnational dimensions within globally committed universities, especially where they become dependent on the willingness of foreign students to matriculate and absorb their local curricula.  Indeed, the trend within global universities suggests that the traditional parochialism of universities--everywhere--may now be giving way to a more nuanced approach to knowledge narratives as foreign students become more influential participants in its construction. Universities with a global reputation may no longer be able to indulge mere naitonal conversaitons about the way that knowledge is understood and presented.  Increasingly, global universities will have to develop a more nuanced set of sensitivities to the way that knowledge is presented if they mean to keep and expand their stake in the business of global education. But that challenge affects not merely the way that "things" are taught to students (on the basis of the offense and clash of knowledge ideologies approaches). It will likely also affect the sort of societal censorship that shapes the scope within which academics feel safe in producing knowledge for the consumption of students (specifically) and society (in general to produce the data bits of reputation necessary to draw fee paying or high status students).  

More brutally put: if universities fail to provide students (and their parents) what they think they want to learn, and in the way they think they want to learn it, then the university will lose both market share and its reputational rank will be threatened as students (and their parents' money) go elsewhere. How is this equation affected where the students are foreign and the pressure comes from foreign states? This post considers the way these issues are now exploding on the academic scene in Australia. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

AALS Statement of Good Practices on Gender Identity and Gender Expression

There has been much attention paid recently to issues around gender identity and gender expression in all aspects of social interactions.  The American Association of Law Schools has recently also sought to develop a position with respect to those issue sin law school operation. This post includes the AALS Statement of Good Practices on Gender Identity and Gender Expression.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Revoking PhDs: Questions But No Answers Around the Value of Transparency, Robust Research Communities, and the Construction of Culpability for Senior Researchers

It was reported that a "U of Arizona professor’s Ph.D. is withdrawn after her findings on violent video games are questioned. Some wonder why her mentor and co-author, a senior scholar, has not shared the blame." Colleen Flaherty, "Revoking a Doctorate," Inside Higher Education (September 1, 2017). Ms. Flaherty reports:
Ohio State University took the extraordinary step of revoking a graduate’s doctorate last week. Now her future at the University of Arizona, where she is an assistant professor of communication, is unclear. Jodi Whitaker’s problems started in 2015, after scholars in two countries noticed irregularities in the data in her 2012 paper on video games. The study in Communication Research, called “‘Boom, Headshot!’ Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy,” found that playing a violent video game improved real-life shooting skills. Initially, it was something of a boon for both Whitaker, then still a graduate student at Ohio State, and her co-author and dissertation committee chair, Brad J. Bushman, the Margaret Hall and Robert Randal Rinehart Chair of Mass Communication there. That’s because Bushman served on President Obama’s committee on gun violence and his research challenges what he calls myths about violence, including that violent media have a trivial effect on aggression.

But Patrick Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University -- whose own findings on video games clash with Bushman’s -- soon challenged the paper, as did Malte Elson, a postdoctoral researcher in educational psychology at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. Together they alerted the Committee of Initial Inquiry at Ohio State to what they called irregularities in some of the variables of the data set. The values of questioned variables could not be confirmed because the original research records were unavailable, according to Communication Research, which in 2016 decided that a retraction was warranted.

Bushman was cleared of wrongdoing by Ohio State, but he agreed to the retraction. He also agreed to the retraction of another paper in which Whitaker was not involved -- one finding that watching violent cartoons inhibits children's learning -- earlier this year, as reported by Retraction Watch. Data on a second 2016 paper by Whitaker and Bushman (on which Bushman was the lead) also have been corrected; that study found that "catharsis beliefs" attract people to violent video games.

But Whitaker, the 2012 paper’s lead author, was found responsible for the errors. And Ohio State’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to revoke her doctorate, granted in 2013.
With the strong caveat that I am not privy to the evidence adduced nor to the proceedings, here are some initial thoughts on potentially important implications that may flow from this altogether sad events: