Thursday, November 29, 2012

Redirecting a Situation

I wrote yesterday that one of the benefits of studying martial arts is that it takes away fear. Here's a concrete example of how that plays out, posted by a martial artist with 30 years' experience whom I greatly admire:
So I gave a man $10 in town. Why? I realize now that he started off trying to mug me. He said: "I need money," as he towered over me.I said: "Whatever's happened?"Then he started telling me that he'd just got out of prison, how tough things were, etc."That sounds terrible."So I took him to a booth at the train station where I bought an iced tea to change a $20 and gave him ten. He thanked me, shook my hand and off he went to catch a bus.
Why do I find this remarkable? There's no fight here, no battle royale, no opportunity for this guy to display his fighting prowess. But this is exactly the outcome that should come about with a true martial arts master.

What's going on here? A big man comes up to mug our protagonist. Because he is not afraid (despite the fellow's size) and because he has half a lifetime's experience thinking about confrontation, cooperation, and how to turn a situation around with a minimum of effort, it doesn't even occur to the martial artist that he is being mugged. He does not react in fear. He is freed, both by his confidence and by his advanced thinking, to response as one human being to another. It's only after the whole transaction is over does it occur to him that the tall guy initially intended it to be a mugging.

This is the transformative power of advanced martial arts. It's not in the ability to "beat people up", but in freeing the practitioner to be the best person they can be, even when others around you aren't. This interaction could easily have turned confrontational, even violent. And likely the master would have "won". But to what end? As it is, he did something nice for a fellow human being, and in the process taught the recently-released ex-con a valuable lesson: that cooperation and kindness really do exist in the world, and that you don't have to get what you need by threatening others.

If you're interested in more of this fellow's writings, you can follow his blog "The Way of Least Resistance" at

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Really, REALLY Excessive Force

I'm a little surprised that this story hasn't attracted more attention. It's a story that I'm sure the NRA would love to have buried and forgotten:
'Chilling' testimony from man who shot intruders
The linked article is difficult to read, but it's important. Here we have a man who has killed two teenagers who broke into his home. He didn't just shoot them; he shot to kill, in both cases firing execution shots to make sure they were dead. I have no doubt that the law will put this man away for a long time - the "self-defense" argument in this case is legally absurd.

I'll say this up front: it is absolutely unfair to use this case to besmirch gun owners in general, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens and decent people. This is clearly an extreme case.

But even as an extreme case, we have to ask how far outside the mainstream this man's thinking - the arguments behind his actions - are. The claim he makes is that he was defending himself, because either or both teens could have been armed. Of course, in both cases he didn't let them get far enough down the stairs to see if they were armed or not (neither was).

And this is where the use of guns for self defense is so problematic. I have written before (here and here) to the effect that I think guns are terrible for defending yourself. This case illustrates one reason why. They encourage - even demand - a shoot-first, ask-questions-later logic. They encourage people to think - not as a last resort, but as matter of first principle - in terms of "it's either him or it's me". They make it easy for people to justify shooting someone in all sorts of circumstances - whether it is actually necessary or not - and easy to carry out that act with a minimum of effort.

And how extreme is this case, really? Yes, the outcome is unusual. But I have heard others express opinions that amount to, "if they set foot in my house I can shoot 'em." This view is, I suspect, more widespread than we might like to think. And some of its adherents raise it to a moral imperative - that you are obligated to shoot someone who invades your property.

In a genuinely dog-eat-dog world, there might be some functional relevance to this view. But as the Harvard psychologist & author Steve Pinker has pointed out, violence is actually radically lower now than it has been throughout human history, and it continues to decline. Especially in the US, we don't live for the most part in a dog-eat-dog world. We live in a civilized society which has come a long way towards living up to universal human ideals that are centuries, if not millenia, old.

In the world we actually live in, "it's either him or me" thinking is both retrograde and dangerous. It pulls us back towards our darker past, and away from (as Pinker puts it) "the better angels of our nature". The more people who think like this shooter did, the poorer we all are for it - not only in lives lost, but in opportunities missed. Yes, the two teens he killed had committed a crime. But he denied them any opportunity to atone for that crime (and others), or to contribute to society. Instead, he destroyed three lives - theirs and his. His was a fundamentally anti-social and destructive act.

This same mindset, even when not put into deadly action, breeds fear, aggression, and confrontation, all of which simply breed more of the same. Unchecked, it can spread like cancer through a community, cutting people off from one another. It provides neither security nor peace, but erodes both.

I hope that this case becomes more widely known, not because I want to push a specific agenda of gun regulations - that's a tired and old conversation that yields far more heat than light. Instead, I hope that seeing this kind of thought put into raw action will help us to stop and think about our own views - about how we relate to each other, how we protect ourselves in a mostly-safe-but-still-sometimes-dangerous world, and how we build a better world together. Even tragedy can yield fruit - but only if we learn from it.

The Benefits of Studying the Martial Arts

The martial arts suffer from a modern problem common to a lot of activities. Studying and practicing martial arts has real value, but that value has been obscured by the obvious fantasies of martial arts movies and the subtle fantasies of the MMA world. Most of what people "know" about the martial arts comes from watching “Karate Kid” and the latest cage match on cable.

Martial arts is also a business – one that has almost no barriers to entry. Anybody can set up a studio or school. And there’s a lot of (usually obscure and petty) politics in the world of martial arts, such that schools are constantly breaking away and starting new lines. The result of all of this is that if you want to study a martial art, you have a wealth of options – but in that crowded field there’s lots of hype, fantastic promises, and fluff as schools try to grab a marketing edge over their competitors.

In all of this, the value of studying martial arts tends to get lost. People who have been on the path for a while often understand – although there is always more to learn – but we do a lousy job of explaining this stuff to laypeople who aren’t already committed. Those who do try to answer the “what are martial arts good for?” question are usually selling something.

In the interest of full disclosure: I run a branch of a martial arts school, and I would love to have more students. But I don’t expect very many prospective students to read this, since most of my blog posts get a few dozen readers at best. Moreover, I do believe in the value of martial arts study – I don't teach it to make money, but because I’m passionate about it and think it’s worth sharing. So here’s my attempt to answer the question, Why should you consider studying martial arts? What value is there in it?

• Discipline

Lots of martial arts schools talk about “teaching discipline”. This is one of the things that seems to have sunk into the public consciousness. I’ve seen many parents bring kids into martial arts schools, or consider signing them up for lessons, in the hopes that their kids will learn to be more disciplined. These parents are often frustrated when karate class doesn’t turn their child into an angel (though transformations have been known to occur, they are rare).

The reality is more complex and unfortunately disappointing to some. Tools of “traditional” Asian discipline – negative feedback, often accompanied by physical punishment to some degree – have largely been abandoned in the martial arts world, which is a good thing. Those tools didn’t teach discipline anyway – they just teach behavior modification, often with unintended consequences.

The truth is that discipline is, and always must be, cultivated from within. It is the virtue of doing something over and over again with focus and determination, towards the achievement of a future goal. As an instructor, I can only do two things: I can demonstrate discipline, and I can give you the opportunity to practice it. These things most martial arts schools do accomplish – with some caveats.

Studying a traditional martial art is a structured activity. That structure of basic movements gives students the opportunity to cultivate and practice discipline. Lots of other activities do the same thing – the study of a musical instrument, or practice in another sport, or pursuit of the arts. If what you are looking for is simply a chance to practice discipline, the opportunities are nearly endless.

With its ranks of promotion (a modern invention of Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi), modern traditional martial arts offer students a means to gauge their progress – and thereby a means of rewarding discipline. But this only works if promotion is tied to actually achieving what is required of a given level. Schools that promote on the basis of “time in the program” – and there are many such “belt factories” – destroy the value of martial arts as an exercise in discipline, because there is no link between discipline and achievement. If I’m going to get the next belt anyway, why work hard?

So if you are looking to develop discipline in yourself or in your child, by all means give martial arts a try. But discipline only comes from your efforts – the martial arts merely provide the medium. If that medium does not otherwise appeal to you, it probably won’t work.

• Physical Fitness

Unlike playing clarinet or painting, martial arts is a physical activity. And in order to develop as a martial artist, most people need to improve their physical condition to some degree – to develop balance, stamina, coordination, and strength. Some schools place more emphasis on physical conditioning, others less. Some traditional arts, like taijiquan (or Tai Chi), do very little for your cardiovascular fitness or limb strength, but are great for balance. Like any other form of physical exercise, you should match your activity with your goals. If your goal is to develop a muscle-bound, Arnold Schwarzenegger body, martial arts isn’t what you want. But if you’re looking for a good combination of strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, and balance, martial arts can get you there.

If you want to get a good workout, find a school or a class that will give you that. Watch a class or two to get a sense of the level of physical activity demanded. As with discipline, martial arts provides an opportunity for physical fitness. Whether you actually get that benefit or not depends in part on how hard you work at it, and also in part on whether that’s a part of what the school emphasizes.

• Self-Confidence

A lot of parents enroll their kids in karate or tae kwon do classes because they want their child to become more confident. This is one area in which martial arts really is a good choice. If you successfully pursue martial arts, you will gain self-confidence in a couple of different ways.

First, practicing martial arts gives most people confidence in their own physical self – that they can, if called upon, defend themselves (more on this below). This is important for both children and adults, but probably more so for kids. Even though in most neighborhoods and schools actual violence between children is a vanishingly rare thing, most kids don’t really understand that yet. There will always be other kids who trash-talk, bully, or otherwise intimidate by threatening to “beat somebody up”. Just knowing that you’re not helpless in that situation can be a huge confidence-booster.

This is true for adults as well. Although it’s even more rare for adults to run into confrontations that have any possibility of escalating to violence, most untrained and unpracticed adults are very much afraid of such situations. They assume that an aggressive person has probably been in fights before, whereas most people (because schools and neighborhoods are so safe) haven’t. Obviously there are exceptions, and there are adults who are already quite confident in their ability to stand up for themselves. But they are a minority. The rest of us tend to be afraid of even the mildest forms of violence – and so we often lack the confidence needed to defuse a tense or aggressive situation. As with kids, some experience and some practice can really help take the edge off that fear.

More broadly, the structure of traditional martial arts (with a defined curriculum of skills and standards and a visible system of promotion) encourages the development of self-confidence more broadly. Everybody comes in to the martial arts as a neophyte, and at first everything seems strange. Many people at the white belt stage will watch what advanced belts are doing and think, “there’s no way I could ever do that.” But as people advance up through the ranks, and are rewarded for their efforts with new belts and certificates, they learn that they can do things they never thought possible. Achievement – especially the achievement of goals that seemed insurmountably difficult – is the greatest self-confidence builder there is. Indeed, concrete achievement is the only source of self-confidence that will stand the test of time.

• Self Defense

Many people come in to the martial arts specifically because they want to learn how to defend themselves. Some of these folks have been victims in the past; others are simply worried about being victims in the future. Next to firearms sales (a topic I’ve dealt with before), martial arts is the most common and visible “product” marketed for self-defense purposes.

There are lengthy debates within the martial arts community about how effective traditional martial arts are for self-defense, and which style or techniques are best. These debates will probably always continue, but they are of very little interest to outsiders. The layman walking in the door wants to know: if I do this, will I be better equipped to defend myself?

The answer, in general, is Yes. Martial arts practice does increase people’s ability to escape a dangerous situation unharmed. It’s not a panacea – there are always folks (often, I’ve found, 10 year old boys) who want to play “what if”: “But what if he does this, or what if he has a knife, or what if there are four of them, or …?” The truth is that there is nothing in the world – not mastery of a martial art, or a gun, or body armor, or anything else – that can protect you in all situations. It’s all a question of relative risk; if I can defend myself against the most common attacks that constitute 80% to 90% of the assaults I’m likely to face, that’s a lot better than 0%.

Unfortunately, this is another area in which school (not so much style, but school) matters. Every style of martial arts is rooted in practicality, else it would never have been developed in the first place. Some schools make sure that those roots are still strong, and include practical applications as a part of their curriculum. Others are more interested in the artistry of traditional forms, or in sport fighting applications (Olympic Tae Kwon Do comes to mind), that are further removed from “street” applications. If self-defense is important to you, find a school that includes practical application as a part of their curriculum. I guarantee that you can find such a school, probably pretty close by, if you look.

• Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: Body and Mind Together

To this point, the argument for studying martial arts looks OK but not radically exciting. It’s an opportunity to develop discipline and get in shape – but so are lots of other things. It’s a good way to boost self-confidence. It’s a means of learning self-defense – if you go to the right school. These are all good things, but they are mostly things that can be obtained elsewhere.

So why martial arts? What’s special about this arena? It’s tempting for those of us “on the inside”, who have already travelled some way down the path, to say “you have to experience it to understand. Trust us – you’ll Get It once you get far enough into it.” As a marketing approach, that’s lousy. And I think it’s not unreasonable that somebody thinking about starting something new and strange should expect those already in it to be able to articulate why this is such a good idea.

So here’s my take: the truest benefit of studying martial arts isn’t found in any individual thing, like fitness or self-defense skill. The gift that the founders of traditional martial arts have given us is that the martial arts, practiced as a whole system, are a means of bringing together our bodies and our minds into a coherent, balanced unity. Learning and developing as a martial artist is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. The farther you go in practice and development as a martial artist, the more you have to learn about yourself; the more you have to think about other people, and how you relate to them; the more you see how thin the boundaries are between the practical and the aesthetic. The best martial artists have mastered not only a set of physical skills, but abilities in thinking philosophically, morally, socially, spatially. Becoming a good martial artist requires focus, discipline, drive, stamina, and confidence. In a phrase, it pushes you to become a better version of you.

It has been argued that studying martial arts makes you better at everything you do. This sounds bombastic, but it is in fact true. I would not argue that it is the only discipline in the world that has this result; it may be that mastering any number of other things will have the same effect. But I can say, from personal experience as well as meetings and relationships with many martial artists at varying levels, that they are all better people for walking the path.

So here, finally, is the real benefit of studying the martial arts: not to make you a different person, but to improve yourself in who you are and who you can be. And that, it seems to me, is a pursuit well worth the effort.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Another Pissing Contest in Academia

I've blogged before about incidences in higher education in which people take conflicts over small things and turn them into big knock-down, drag-out fights. Today's Chronicle offers another example of what looks like a small issue blown up into a big one:
Appalachian State Chancellor Defends Discipline of Professor Who Showed Film About Porn
The involvement of pornography here is largely a red herring - though it makes for a more attention-grabbing headline. What's most glaring is what's missing from this story - any indication of the administration, the faculty leadership, and the faculty member in question sitting down to try to work out a mutually-agreeable solution. Instead, everybody wants to hide behind high-minded principles and the high dudgeon of "appropriate due process".

Don't get me wrong - principles like academic freedom matter. And due process is an important thing. But if you have allowed a case that involves a professor making a few disparaging comments about athletes in class to escalate to the point where you're talking about due process and the legal ramifications of various decisions - you missed the boat somewhere. And if you've gotten to the point where the Chancellor is overruling faculty panel recommendations, it's gotten WAY out of hand. This is no longer a conflict between a faculty member and some of her students - it's a fight between the faculty as a whole and the administration. And that's just stupid.

There's mention in the article that all of this could have been resolved earlier if the professor had had a conversation with the offended students. That's true. But how about the Chancellor having a conversation with the offended faculty? How is it that they (in this case, the faculty panel) could recommend that there should have been a direct conversation to resolve the issue, but refuse to take their own advice? And is this another case of a high-handed administrator who can't be bothered to talk things out like an adult, but who makes Decisions by Edict?

The basic standard here seems to be clear: if you wind up in a Chronicle article airing your university's dirty laundry, you've failed. This is pointless escalation over tiny stakes - a classic failing in higher education. I've no doubt that there are lawyers in North Carolina preparing to make some mortgage payments over this as we speak. We'll see if the university can pull itself back from the brink before gobs of money are wasted on further pointless escalation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Odd Conjunction of Interests: Politics & Self-Defense

I've been resisting the urge to blog further on politics in the aftermath of the election, if for no other reason than that pretty much everything worth saying has been said. I've been sorry to see many in the GOP make fools of themselves post-election, but I hope that this is a temporary condition and that the party will manage to pull itself together and forge a new coalition in the future. It would certainly beat further whining about the "new divide" between "takers" and "makers".

So why go back to this well? I was alerted to a very odd conjunction that brings together two interests of mine - politics and self defense. (H/t to my friend Erin Jenne for finding the original story.) The conjunction emerges from a post-mortem story by CBS News in the immediate aftermath of the election:
Advisor: Romney "Shellshocked" By Loss
The particular bit that got my attention was this:
"There's nothing worse than when you think you're going to win, and you don't," said another adviser. "It was like a sucker punch."
Here's the thing about "sucker punches" - the sucker is the guy who got punched. In the world of self defense, the "sucker punch" is the attack that you should have seen coming but didn't. There's all kinds of excellent advice out there for how to be prepared - see here for one excellent discussion. But the common denominator is that "sucker punches" are thrown by people who are in plain sight. They are different from sneak attacks or other kinds of things that you really didn't or couldn't see coming.

Why bother with this particular phrase, which the unnamed Romney advisor was probably using without thought? Because I think it's unintentionally emblematic. Lots of folks (Nate Silver being the most famous, but hardly the only one) accurately predicted the election well ahead of time, using nothing but publicly-available polling data and some mathematical smarts. All of this was easily available to the GOP - they chose not to avail themselves of it. Just as there is plenty of knowledge about how to defend myself, or even to avoid or evade confrontations altogether - so if I get "sucker punched," I chose not to take advantage of those opportunities.

This, I think, is a key lesson that either will or won't be learned. Not everything is predictable, but many things are - and a lot of very smart people have spent a lot of time and effort coming up with good ways to make those predictions. If you choose not to avail yourselves of those, you are choosing to get sucker punched the next time.

Right now the GOP is (to borrow Karl Rove's phrase) at a crossroads. It can choose to learn the lesson and avail itself of knowledge and understanding it apparently lacks at present. Or it can choose to retreat into what it thinks it knows, and get sucker punched again in the future. I really hope they choose the former. As a previous Republican standard-bearer once tried (but failed) to say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Am I Teaching the Wrong Way?

I've been teaching in higher education now for about 15 years. Like most academics, I'm pretty comfortable with my "style", and since I am now teaching a rotation of courses I've taught before I tend to take the easy road and do what I did before. That's not to say that I don't put a good bit of passion into my teaching - I still find the material fascinating, and I hope that comes across in class. But like many of my mid-career tenured colleagues, it's easier to stick with the well-worn grooves.

Exhortations to "keep things fresh" and "keep adapting" are important, but often not enough. Re-thinking what and how we teach is a very time-consuming exercise, and unless you're gunning for Professor of the Year the rewards for doing so are pretty thin. In most departments, as long as you're meeting your teaching obligations and your students are happy, you can keep doing the same thing for years.

In my field the emphasis has tended to be on learning ideas. We make students read things (textbooks or, better still, original intellectual works), we make them write about the ideas therein, we lecture in class about those ideas, we discuss them. Although we don't like to think of it in these terms, at its core there's a rote-learning heart to this approach. I gauge the success of an Intro to International Relations class, for example, by seeing whether students understand what anarchy is, can identify sovereign states, or can write an essay using concepts like levels of analysis or realist theory. Success is defined, on exams and in papers, by answering the questions "What did they learn?" or "What do they know?"

I am increasingly wondering whether this is the right approach - or, at least, whether it is the only right approach. This is partly in response to a growing conversation about critical thinking and learning outcomes (see this article from today's Chronicle for example). This is one of the responses we in higher education have put forward to the "is college worth it?" question - that we teach students "how to think", even if we don't have a really clear notion of how to measure that.

But a big part of my shift in thinking has come from my experience teaching in the completely different field of martial arts. When you teach a karate class, the focus ultimately is not on what students know; it's on what they can do. We do ask them to learn some facts along the way - usually, foreign terminology or particular traditions. But, at least in the tradition I've come up through, we don't teach these things by telling and then quizzing; we simply use the terms and do the traditions and over time, students pick them up. We expect students to know these things as they advance, but memorizing isn't the focus. We don't test them to see if they can count to ten in Japanese or Korean.

There's an element of this that can't apply in higher education - time. In studying martial arts, everyone learns at their own pace. Someone else may take a year to master something it takes me three years to be able to do. That's fine, since ultimately the emphasis is on the journey and how long it takes to get through the ranks can be different from person to person. That doesn't work in higher education, where we have defined time frames (quarters or semesters) and a lot of expectations about everybody finishing within (more or less) the same amount of time.

But maybe the focus on what you can do would be a useful shift. If I taught with an eye on skills and abilities rather than knowledge and facts, what might that look like? Maybe I'd play more games in class. Maybe I'd have to invent drills. Maybe I should go watch some math teachers, who may know more about this than I do (no one says, "do you know the math?" It's always, "can you do the math?")

I hope I can find the time to experiment with this in my next class (which just so happens to be Diplomacy & Negotiation). Will I be able to figure out how to assess students' abilities, or even what skills I want them to learn? I don't know. But for all our talk about helping our students become "critical thinkers" and "problem solvers", maybe we should start rethinking the way we teach. Or, at least, maybe I should.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Whinging Secessionists

Like my colleague Steve Saideman, with whom I have written stuff about secessionist movements, I feel the need to comment on the spate of secessionist petitions drawn up in the wake of Obama's election victory last week. Prior to the election I predicted that there would be plenty of whinging (as the Brits put it) and gnashing of teeth by whichever side lost, and I have not been disappointed.

That the whinging should take the form of calls from various groups to secede from the union should not surprise us very much. These efforts - to the extent that there is much effort at all involved - are laughably silly, but they also raise some significant questions about the American body politic.

The laughable part is easy. As Steve points out, the amount of actual energy behind these petitions is almost immeasurably small. They are a testament to the fact that the internet can trivialize anything - just type your name and click a button and presto! you've signed a petition. That these signatures require nothing more strenuous than leaving Facebook for a minute or two, and entail absolutely no risk, gives us a pretty good indication as to how likely any actual secessions are.

The numbers involved are also ridiculously small. But the sentiment behind those tiny numbers is interesting. These are people who are essentially expressing a kindergarten view of politics: if I don't get my way, I'm gonna take my ball and go home. It's the same sentiment behind the "Obama is not my President" bumper sticker, rendered ironic when occasionally paired with an "America: Love It Or Leave It" sticker on the same car.

Now, normally I'm very sympathetic to secessionist movements. I cheer when the East Timorese, or the South Sudanese, or the Kosovar Albanians, finally get to have their own country which they have fought long and hard for. I think that, for all the trouble it's caused, Woodrow Wilson was onto something with his call for national self-determination. People should be governed by folks within their own tribe or clan or nation, not by foreigners - if for no other reason than the foreigners will always be distrusted, which leads to lousy government (was there ever good colonial rule?)

But the folks signing these online secessionist petitions have a problem. They don't have a nation or a tribe on which to base a real polity. They are no different from the rest of us - they speak the same language, wear the same clothes, attend the same range of churches, eat the same foods. Their history is our history. There's no nation here - just a bunch of whiny, pissed-off people who lost an election.

And this is where there's a kernel of a dangerous idea floating around inside this otherwise-silly sewage. The problem is not that we are in danger of breaking up into separate nations - we have too much in common and no enough to base genuinely separate identities on. The problem is that these petitions represent an attack on the core of pluralistic politics in a democracy.

Under pluralism, you win some and you lose some. If your response to losing is to either escalate or leave, the system isn't going to last very long - pretty soon we'll have a million different tiny little municipalities, each populated by four or five people who agree with each other. Worse, you'll get a "winner-take-all" politics where the only response to losing is to escalate the fight.

In the real world, grown-ups learn how to work out their differences and get things done through a combination of compromise, accommodation, ongoing dialogue, and occasionally just tolerating each other's existence. Sometimes there are vociferous arguments, and sometimes people lose those arguments. Sometimes they even change their minds.

A part of me would love to let these little pockets go. Like the Montana Freemen, let them set up their own independent Peoplelikeusistans. Put up customs checkpoints at the borders, make them produce passports to get in to our country, and negotiate trade agreements that include tariffs and taxes on cross-border trade. Also, make sure that they take their share of the national debt with them. That's likely to be a short-lived experiment. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with trying to build a country together.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Things I Hope Are True

Over the last couple of election cycles, "hope" has become more of an epithet than a virtue. Hilary Clinton, trying to blunt Barack Obama's mighty machine in the 2008 primaries, famously chanted that "hope is not a strategy". Since then, there have been countless knock-offs of the red-and-blue Obama "Hope" poster - some funny and clever, some merely cynical and negative.

But hope is an important part of the human condition. Whatever the level of cynicism, hope draws people in. We need to have hope in something. Maybe it isn't our politicians, or our government, or the other party. But we need to hope that something in the future will look better than it does today.

In that spirit, here are a few things that I hope might be true in light of last night's election results. I don't know if any of these things are true. I'm not even sure if I believe that they are true or not, because the evidence isn't conclusive yet. But there is enough evidence for hope - and that's a start.

1) I hope that we are seeing the limits of money in electoral politics. Much ink was spilled about Citizens United, and I stand with those who think that calling corporations "people" and giving them the same free speech rights as actual citizens is a perversion of both the Constitution and basic Enlightenment notions of personhood and citizenship. But that said - there was a LOT of "outside" money spent in this campaign, at both the national and state levels, and a lot of it lost. Some Senate candidates got tremendous outside support and yet went down in flames. We don't yet know why - maybe Americans' cynicism has inured us from the temptations of negative campaign ads. Maybe campaign ads just don't work at all. But whatever the case, apparently money by itself can't buy elections. And if that's true, that's a very good thing.

2) I hope that we have discovered that strategies based on suppressing votes rather than persuading them, in the end, don't work. My colleague Steve Saideman has written eloquently about what he calls "voterfraudfraud", and penned this today:
My biggest concern: would resentment against voterfraudfraud efforts compensate for successful voter suppression.  It seems that it did.
There was a lot of concern, and very legitimately so, about efforts to make it harder to vote - particularly where those efforts seemed to be aimed obviously (or even openly) at supporters of one side. But in the end, it didn't work. Those efforts lost both in the courts and at the ballot box.

Nate Silver and his ilk knew where yesterday's election was going, but pundits from David Brooks to Joe Scarborough apparently didn't - they all wanted us to believe that it was a "nail-biter", in which any little thing could shift the outcome. Turns out that wasn't true. Were there efforts to suppress votes and lower turnout for Obama? Absolutely. But those efforts came to naught, buried under a blizzard of both legal losses and people willing to stand in line for hours to vote. I hope this serves as a signal to all parties in the future: you can't win by restricting the franchise.

3) I hope that this becomes a real turning point for the Republican party. I say this not out of any trace of schadenfreude, but because the American two-party system works best when it has two well-functioning parties. Right now, one of those parties - the GOP - appears to be coming apart at the seams. It has been at war with itself for years, and barely managed to grit its collective teeth and paper over those differences for this last election. The only unifying force in the party in 2012 was "we don't like Obama". Behind that is a fractious coalition of increasingly intense social conservatives (who are slowly losing the fights they care about most), frustrated fiscal conservatives (dealing with the reality that Nixon was right - we really are all Keynesians now), libertarians (some of who still supported Ron Paul even yesterday), and some leftover neocon hawks and defense-first types (who kept a low profile and hide behind "Support the Troops!") These groups have nothing in common, and in fact contradict each other on many of their most important issues. This isn't a political party, it's a bar fight.

This isn't good for American governance. There are important ideas in all of those factions that need to be heard. But the Republican party of today is a lousy vehicle for giving voice to any of them. Romney himself is almost perfectly symbolic - in trying to be everything to everybody, he was little to anybody. Even David Brooks, the NYT's designated right-hander whose job it is to pull for the GOP, complained about the many faces of Mitt.

One of two things needs to happen. Either we need to get just enough of a shift in American electoral rules to allow for the creation of third parties - which would permit the GOP to split into its organic components and allow those components to grow or shrink on their own - or the party needs a new paradigm, a new center around which some voices can gather. The latter is probably more likely, but it will mean that some - most likely, those on the losing side of demographic and social changes - will get left out in the cold. That's unfortunate, but probably ultimately necessary. Shrinking minorities can't be allowed to hold the rest of the system hostage - in any form of democratic republic, at some point you lose the fight and move on.

I don't know if any of these things is true, or if any of them will come to pass. Unlike Silver and his fellow econometricians, I don't have the data to confidently predict where the future is going. But on this post-election morning, I do find some reasons to hope - and hope is good start to the day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Are We Losing a Shared Faith in the Process?

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm too young to remember pre-2000 elections well enough. Maybe I'm just old enough that my memory is starting to go. So I'm not all that confident in what I'm about to say.

But my impression is that there is more and more doubt about the legitimacy of our electoral system - which is a very dangerous thing. It seems, based on decidedly non-scientific observations of the state of political discourse, that there's a lot less trust in two things about our elections process: the validity of the process itself, and each other in the context of elections.

The validity of the process, of course, was famously called into question in 2000 by the "butterfly ballot" debacle. But nobody makes butterfly ballots anymore, and with the advent of electronic voting machines the problem of hanging chads (and pregnant chads, and detached chads, and dimpled chads...) has gone the way of the IBM Selectric typewriter - we still have a few hanging around, but they don't matter very much.

Yet in this cycle, we see increasingly panicked vigilance on both sides for process monitoring. Voices raising questions about the fundamentals of the system have gotten mainstream traction. The first story about an electronic machine supposedly tampering with a vote came out within hours of the polls first opening. People have set up "action hot lines", not just to defend their voting rights (which is entirely appropriate) but to report on the smallest bits of suspicious activity. I can guarantee that, whichever side wins, some of the losing side's supporters will be muttering darkly tomorrow about the election having been "stolen".

More to the point, we don't trust the people involved in the process - in particular, we don't trust the people on the other side. There's been so much frothing and fuming about "voter fraud" and polling-site manipulation that it's hard to believe we might actually be living in a functional democracy. Stories about poll workers wearing candidates' hats and shirts, or about busses of mentally ill folks being taken to polling stations and told how to vote, are rampant. The dead rise to vote, fistfights break out in polling places - it's pandemonium (if stories are to be believed). To those promulgating these stories, there is apparently no level of vile trickery to which the other side will not stoop.

About these sorts of claims (that partisans on one side or the other are actively engaged in "dirty tricks" to steal the election), one of three things must be true:

1) These stories are pure fantasy, delusions brought on by the feverish paranoia that often goes along with partisanship run amok (a condition that should be added to the DSM V when it comes out.)

2) There are isolated and sporadic attempts by individuals or small groups to engage in ad hoc manipulation, but they are small-scale and as such highly unlikely to affect the outcome of the election.

3) There exist widespread conspiracies within one or both parties, involving large numbers of people, that are attempting to subvert the electoral process and insure the victory of "their man" at all costs.

Neither of the first two is particularly problematic. #1 is just an issue of manic partisanship, suggesting that the rest of us should take these poor, deluded souls out for a nice cup of tea and help them calm down. #2 is only modestly troubling, like discovering that there is in fact a crime rate in most cities. We know there are criminals among us, and we do our best to stop them, but we don't think that the existence of those few threatens our way of life.

Condition #3, if true, would represent a serious threat to democracy. It is also, given the difficulty of keeping secrets known by large masses of people, vanishingly unlikely. It is the kind of extraordinary claim that, as scientists will point out, requires extraordinary evidence. One or two shaky cell-phone pictures don't establish a nationwide conspiracy any more than grainy footage of possibly moving lights in the sky proves that there are UFOs.

But what bothers me most about the ongoing claims about the subversion of democracy "right under our noses" is that making these claims in public does real damage to our political process. The more we hear paranoid fantasies, the more we start to listen. We trust each other less. We listen less. And when the time comes not to campaign but to govern, we don't do it very well - because neither side trusts the other enough to bargain, or even talk, in good faith.

There are still bumper stickers hanging around from 2008 proclaiming that "Barack Obama is not MY President". The more we question the legitimacy of elections, the more we call into question the legitimacy of the government itself. And as every political scientist will tell you, legitimacy is the primary strength of every government. Lose it, and all you have are soldiers, guns, prisons, and state-controlled media. You become North Korea.

So to those inclined to throw around wild stories on this election day, and for those who will want in the coming days to blame your side's loss on the cheating of the other side: shut up. By telling these stories, you are doing far more harm to American democracy than any politician can. Because ultimately, it is we the people who have the power. If we act like we live in a (basically) functioning democracy, critiquing it vigorously where necessary and accepting the rules we've agreed to, then that's what we get. If we act like we live in a dictatorship-on-the-cusp, and everything is going to hell in a hand basket - and if we get enough people to believe it - it will be true.

In a different context and a long time ago, Walt Kelly said it best: We have met the enemy, and he is us. We will see - not today, but tomorrow and in the next week - whether we can pull back from being our own worst enemy, or whether we will continue to dump trash and toxic sludge on our body politic.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Quick Note on Shared Governance & Cost in Higher Ed

This morning's Chronicle report will, I have no doubt, generate a lot of talk in higher ed circles for a while. The report centers around a working paper by a couple of economists who wanted to look at the impact of the ratio between administrators and faculty on the cost of running a university. Briefly, does having too many administrators drive up the cost of higher ed?

The short answer, according to the paper, is "yes". You can download the paper yourself here; I have, but I haven't read it yet, so I'll refrain from commenting on it until I've read it in detail. The headline claim of an optimal 3:1 (faculty:administrators) ratio is an interesting one, but I'll have to read the analysis to see if it makes sense.

One thing did strike me, however, especially in light of a conversation I had with a faculty colleague about staffing faculty committees. One of the standard conclusions that arguments like this draw is that universities need more "shared governance" - that is, more faculty say in priorities and how resources are spent. As a friend of mine put it, faculty don't hire administrators, administrators hire faculty - which is why we have too many administrators and not enough faculty.

I'm all for more shared governance. I think faculty should have a significant say in how universities are run and what they do with their resources - although in my experience many faculty, even when given the opportunity, decline to participate. Not for nothing is "Service" considered the least interesting part of the standard Teaching/Research/Service promotion & tenure triad - a great many faculty will avoid as much of it as they can.

But here's where things get interesting. If the answer is shared governance, what stands in the way of that? Some administrations certainly do resist sharing power, it's true - but not all. A colleague of mine pointed out that part of the problem may be faculty themselves - in particular, the politics within faculty of different ranks.

In the standard tenure-and-promotion system, assistant professors aspire to tenure & promotion while associates aspire to promotion to full. These processes invariably run through committees of other faculty of higher rank - meaning that faculty on the lower and middle rungs must be careful about what service they take on and how they perform it, lest they annoy or anger some higher-ranking colleague who may one day sit in judgment of their dossier. Only full professors really have the run of the place, because there's not much danger that any of their colleagues will derail their careers.

My colleague and I were discussing staffing committees for program review, but the logic holds for pretty much any committee of significant service. If it's dangerous to put junior and mid-level faculty on committees that might pass judgment on other programs, it is surely equally as dangerous to put them on committees that make decisions about budgets and resource allocations.

So herein lies the rub. We hear lots of cries of "more shared governance!" But if I am not yet a full professor, what is to guarantee that if I participate in that shared governance process I won't tick off some more senior faculty somewhere in ways that come back to bite me? As Sayre's Law reminds us, academic politics are bitter precisely because the stakes are so low.

I don't know that there's an easy solution to this. But I do know that the standard "blame the administration/stick it to the man" narrative that many faculty cling proudly to doesn't tell the whole story. The tenure and promotion system creates a lot of incentive for faculty to avoid precisely the kinds of difficult conversations that real shared governance demands. There aren't nearly enough full professors to carry the load by themselves. If you want better shared governance, therefore, look for ways to protect the faculty willing to give it a try - or else most of them will not.

Higher Ed, the Amherst Crisis, and the Unspoken Issue of Men

In this presidential and congressional election year, we've heard some pretty wacky things said on the issue of rape. We can thank Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and others for inadvertently bringing the issue of rape to the fore while trying to fight a culture war on abortion that they have long since lost.

But as important as those debates are, the candidates fighting them are up at 50,000 feet. Down in the trenches, and therefore somewhat farther from the center of the media spotlight, is the current Amherst Crisis. You can read the student letter that brought the issue to prominence (written by a rape victim/survivor who left Amherst College), as well as summaries in the New York Times and today's Chronicle.

If you have any interest or concern at all in these issues, these stories - especially the letter from Ms. Epifano - are well worth the time to read them. Her story is both heartbreaking and, most importantly, not unique - either at Amherst or in higher education in general.

I suppose all of this hits home for me in part because the epicenter of the crisis is at Amherst, which is the (evil) twin to my own alma mater. Whatever happens there could easily happen at Williams, and I hope that folks in the Purple Valley (and at Wesleyan, Swarthmore, and dozens of other such institutions) are taking this opportunity to do some serious soul-searching. From this point forward, any institution that gets caught mishandling these kinds of cases gets what it deserves - there's no excuse anymore (not that there ever was much of an excuse to begin with).

But I think the real impact of reading these stories comes, paradoxically, because I'm male. As important as all of this coverage is, the voices that are being heard, the stories told, and the pictures taken are almost all of women. The Chronicle story is indicative - every person quoted save one is a woman, and the pictures are overwhelmingly of women.

In one sense, this is appropriate. A big part of the problem of rape has been silence - women not being able to tell their stories, to give voice to their pain and frustration and anger. Being able to speak is powerful, and I would not want any of these voices to be silenced or dimmed.

But men must be part of this conversation as well. I note how quickly the terminology has changed - we've gone from talking about "rape" to discussing "sexual respect". In some ways that's probably appropriate, because it broadens the range of what we should be thinking about. But there's also a euphemistic quality here that makes me a little uneasy.

While acknowledging that there are sexual assaults committed by women against men (or women), the plain truth is that the bulk of the issue here is men using power to force themselves on women. As important as it is to give women voices as both recovering victims and to strengthen their ability to defend themselves against such assaults, we've got to get men into the conversation here - because (to put it bluntly) men are the problem.

As soon as you put it that way, the defensive chorus begins. In an earlier story I heard (anonymous) male Amherst students complaining that some of the anger is unfair, because "it paints us all with the same brush". "I'm not a rapist," many men will say. "It's those other guys. Leave me alone - I didn't do anything."

Sorry, guys - welcome to the world of group politics. In this world, what some group members do reflects on the group as a whole, for better or for worse. Ask women, African-Americans, Jews, Latinos, and a host of others how this works. Is it fair? Probably not. But there's a lot in this world that isn't fair. Get over it.

So what's really at issue here? What kind of conversation do men (especially young, college-aged men) need to have? First, call a spade a spade - some among us are rapists. And many of those are otherwise "nice guys" - they don't have "rapist" tattooed on their forehead, they don't go around hiding in bushes wearing dirty trenchcoats with nothing underneath, or torturing small animals in their spare time. They're the guys we hung out with in college - or, for you younger guys, the ones you still do. Let's at least acknowledge that they exist.

The next step is to do something you would think is obvious, but is anything but: label this behavior as unacceptably evil. And because rape doesn't exist in its own universe but is connected to all sorts of other behaviors and ideas about sex and relations between men and women, let's get serious about examining those attitudes and behaviors.

Let's face it - there is still a lot of misogyny (perpetuated by both men and women) in the college environment. The Chronicle story mentions a T-shirt with a picture of a nearly-naked woman being roasted over a spit. Some years ago, I had to stop my college's chapter of Habitat for Humanity from printing T-shirts that said "Habitat for Humanity: We Hammer. We Nail. We Screw." Fascinatingly, the people most upset by my decision to pull the plug on that particular project were the women in the group. But the guys were just as enthusiastic.

I applaud and support the conversations, public and private, that women are having about appropriate boundaries, respecting themselves, and being smart in self-protection. What we need along side those are men's conversations: what is appropriate sexual behavior? What does "respect" mean? What other kinds of attitudes and expectations do we carry around that, let loose in the atmosphere, encourage some men to push (and, ultimately, violate) those boundaries? And when guys do violate those boundaries, what do we do about it? (The answer to that last, historically, as been "nothing". That needs to stop.)

Finally, a part of what made the Epifano story hard for me to read were her accounts of college administrators' responses. I recognize in them the Due Process logic that defines so much of what I and my administrator brethren do. Due Process is a great thing, and it should be valued and upheld. But there are times - and this may be one of them - when upholding due process makes the problem worse, that in defending the rights of the accused we are trampling on the victim.

I've heard some (again anonymous) male voices complaining that without those due process protections, they would be vulnerable to false charges of rape that could be seriously damaging. There a bunch of lacrosse players at Duke who can speak to that problem quite eloquently - although that was less about due process and more about a media feeding frenzy that assumed guilt until innocence was established (a problem for another time).

On the other hand, what would happen if there were a little less due process protection? College men would have to be a little more careful about what they do and who they do it with, so as to not put themselves in a position to be accused. They would have to be much more careful about who they took home at night, and why. They would have to think through their actions first. That kind of thoughtfulness is what is needed. I don't know that doing away with due process is the way to get it - but I think the thought experiment shows us something that is currently missing, which is sufficient incentive (or cultural expectation) to get men to think through the consequences of their choices ahead of time.

I don't expect any of this to change anytime soon. The Chronicle article talks about Amherst's goal of "changing campus culture" - something that, it is pointed out, must be done "with students at the center". I hope that Amherst students and students at colleges across the country will take this opportunity to have real and serious conversations about sex, sexual relations, and the cultural expectations we hold. Because it's fairly clear that the current culture isn't working very well, and is causing a lot of damage.