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Education: Between Two Cultures

Paul Grobstein's picture

An interesting conversation has broken out, at several different places on Serendip and beyond, among (so far) two scientists, three humanists, and several college students of whom at least one has yet to declare an identity. Among the things that make it interesting, to me at least, is that it isn't actually about the two cultures per se (see also Two Cultures or One?), but rather about experiences teaching and learning in different contexts - with the intriguing suggestion that humanists might have something to learn in this regard from scientists and vice versa.

The shifting locale of the discussion makes it a little hard to keep track of. And new people may find it hard to find the discussion, much less to get involved in it. So I thought I'd provide a bit of a road map here, and encourage current and new participants to continue conversation about education and the two cultures in the on-line forum below.

Common ground for education in science and the humanities?

The Context

A Starting Point

A Longish Branch

A Twig

Current growth points

This is, of course, no more than one person's tentative chart of the terrain explored so far. I trust my colleagues will provide their own maps as they think desireable. I do think the conversations suggest there is rich territory here for further exploration and so a preliminary survey is worthwhile not only for those who have been involved to this point but, even more importantly, to encourage additional people to become involved. Looking forward to seeing where we go next.






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dmazella's picture

the inquiry-driven literature classroom

Hi Folks, hope you all have been well.

 I just completed another semester's teaching, and decided to reflect on my attempts to do inquiry-driven literary studies in this post on my blog at the Long 18th.  Paul and Anne should both recognize my debts to their work and my conversations here.  Thanks to you both, and have a happy new year.

Best wishes,

Dave Mazella

David Mazella's picture

inquiry approach to literature instruction

Hi Paul and Anne, here's the link to the article I co-wrote with a special collections librarian about an inquiry-driven capstone we developed at UH.

This blog's contribution is duly noted, and thanked.

Best wishes,

Dave Mazella

Paul Grobstein's picture

Beyond civility, and power, in education and the world

Apologies if I made it seem there was a disagreement where I don't think there actually is one. Yes, what is understood by "civility" in contemporary discourse has and continues to be used as a "projection of power," to exclude people/points of view from conversation.

No, I don't at all want "to over-idealize how communities actually work," nor to deny communities are shaped "as much by disagreement as by agreement." Far from denying any of the actualities of "communities at this historical moment," my intention was to take these as a starting point and suggest ways to "get it less wrong."

Yes, at the moment, "'abnormal' and 'normal' discourse are not distinguished by their relation to reason, but by their relations to power." And yes, it is indeed time to give up the idea "that there are 'shared values' that can help morally ground communities." What that implies to me is that we should collectively give up not only "abnormal" and "normal" but "power" too as foundational concepts in our thinking (not our thinking about what is but our thinking of might better replace it).

Asserting that "everyone has something useful to contribute to the conversation and so should be ecouraged to do so" was not intended to "ignore the need for those excluded from the conversation to introduce their concerns into discussion" but rather to respond to it. In a way that treats "difference" and "disagreement" not as a hindrance to community (nor as a justification for the use of power within (or between communities)) but rather as a fundamental and desireable feature of communities, one that contributes to their continuing ability to explore new ways of being human.

No, neither communities nor "civility" have that character in the present. And that's exactly why it might make sense to set such an ambition for classrooms in the future?

dmazella's picture

civility and dissensus?

Hi Paul,

I think one of the points where we disagree lies in your account of "civility," which you claim is not "a set of standards used to admit or exclude people from the conversation nor a means of avoiding differences in pursuit of "consensus."  Civility, in other words, is not (should not?) represent a projection of power that shapes our discourse.

Here I'd say that this is exactly how "civility" has functioned historically and continues to function on our hot-button issues.  "Civility" is one of the values  that kept questions about the Iraq war out of the US media "mainstream" for a very long time (it was different elsewhere) and it has been used historically to justify restricting discussion of everything from discrimination against women and gays to Jim Crow. 

So, from my point of view, "civility" is not going to be much help in your project of acknowledging "that everyone has something useful to contribute to the conversation and so should be ecouraged to do so," because it ignores the need for those excluded from the conversation to introduce their concerns into discussion.  (And this still does not answer Trimbur's notion that "abnormal" and "normal" discourse are not distinguished by their relation to reason, but by their relations to power)

So I would argue that civility is an insider's value, not an outsider's, and in many contexts we would be better off using terms like "hegemony" to describe how discourse works. 

At this point in time, I think we need to do without the idea that there are "shared values" that can help morally ground communities, because I think communities at this historical moment are much more complex, fractured, virtual, or scattered than that model would allow. At the very least, I would follow Trimbur by seeing communities as shaped as much by disagreement as by agreement.  And I think that both "community" and "consensus" have to be thought in tandem with the effects of "inequality," "power," and "difference," if we don't want to over-idealize how communities actually work.  After all, what groups are routinely thrown into jail nowadays in the US, who protests, and who attends to those protests?


Paul Grobstein's picture

"civility" and the goal of education

VERY interesting issues, both in the classroom (science or humanities) and beyond. And intriguing indeed to have them set in the "left-wing" critique of Rorty context. I don't think Rorty in fact endorsed "civility" in the sense of "local agreements not to rock the boat .... to hold the conversation together." I do think he is sometimes read that way, in part because he didn't have a compelling model to illustrate the kind of conversation he had in mind. For an effort on my part to rectify that, see Fellow Travelling with Richard Rorty.

"Rather than simply relying on "the tolerance and decency ... of fellow human beings", we should be building communities in which we can count on a shared sense of value in each other, communities in which, as Rorty says, it is being human, "rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters."

The point here is that we should be "building communities in which ..." rather than "relying on" them. And that such communities should be based on "a shared sense of value in each other" rather than "the knowledge of something not merely human." To put it differently, "civility" is not a set of standards used to admit or exclude people from the conversation nor a means of avoiding differences in pursuit of "consensus". Instead, "civility" is an acknowledgement that everyone has something useful to contribute to the conversation and so should be ecouraged to do so.

One deals with "power" by declining to exercise it and encouraging others to do the same. And by accepting that conversation is indeed "dialectical," that the objective is not in fact to "reconcile differences through rational negotiation," but rather to make use of differences and conflict "to conceive what has not yet been and, potentiallly, to bring it into existence." (Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond).

An "unproductive" conflict/conversation is one from which no new ways of thinking arise, and a "productive" conflict/conversation is one from which they do. A "civil" conflict/conversation is one in which all parties are committed to finding, individually and collectively, the new ways of thinking, and to the potential of all involved to contribute to that.

"we are [all] story tellers (see Grobstein, 2007; Rorty, 1999), and that gives us the capacity to conceive what has not yet been and, potentially, to bring it into existence."

In classrooms, and in the world at large?

dmazella's picture

John Trimbur's version of "generative dissensus"

Hi Paul,

I think we're largely in agreement, but I think that this notion of "dissensus" really needs to be fleshed out.  I found a very interesting essay by the rhet/comp person John Trimbur that critiques and extends Rorty's notions of scholarly discourse as "conversation" in a very interesting way.  Here's an apposite quote from Trimbur:

At just the moment Rorty seems to introduce difference and destabilize the conversation, he turns crisis, conflict, and contradiction into homeostatic gestures whose very expression restabilizes the conversation. What remains, once we've removed universal reason, narratives of emancipation, or "permanent neutral frameworks" as the grounds for adjudicating knowledge claims, is civility, the agreement to keep on talking. The "power of strangeness" in abnormal discourse "'to take us out of our old selves" and "to make us into new beings" (Philosophy 360) simply reaffirms our solidarity with the conversation.

Left-wing critics are uncomfortable with this position. They want to interrupt the conversation, to denaturalize its workings, and to talk about the way conver- sation legitimizes itself by its very performance. Left-wing critics worry that Rortyian conversation downplays its own social force and the conflict it gener- ates, the discourses silenced or unheard in the conversation and its representa- tion of itself. They suspect there are other voices to take into account-voices constituted as otherness outside the conversation. For this reason, left-wing critics want to redefine consensus by locating it in the prevailing balance of power, as a marker that sets the boundaries between discourses (608, my emphasis)

In other words, Rorty's anti-foundationalism leaves him with nothing stronger than "civility"--local agreements not to rock the boat or question the status quo--to hold the conversation together.  At the same time, the silences or decorum enforced by civility leave those who have been silenced with no avenue to enter the conversation or alert others to their plight.

Trimbur instead advocates for a dialectical reading of consensus that enables us to see the role of difference and conflict in creating its structures:

Redefining consensus as a matter of conflict suggests, moreover, that consensus does not so much reconcile differences through rational negotiation. Instead, such a redefinition represents consensus as a strategy that structures differences by organizing them in relation to each other. In this sense, consensus cannot be known without its opposite- without the other voices at the periphery of the conversation.

So this raises an important issue: what is the difference between a "productive" and an "unproductive" conflict?  And how do those questions of power, silencing, and discursive peripheriesmake their way into the conversation?


Paul Grobstein's picture

education's goal: replacing univerals with generative dissensus?

the problem in ordinary discourse lies in the unwillingness/inability of most people at any point in time to abide by the skeptical "rules" you've laid down for public discussion

Yep, that's indeed the problem. Which, perhaps, gives us a significant mission as educators? Maybe our most important task, whether scientists or humanists (or anything else), is to cultivate sophisticated, generative skepticism in our students, in ourselves, in human culture generally?

And maybe there is an important reciprocity here between "conceptions of knowledge" and "the politics of knowledge and rational deliberation." To the extent we convey in the classroom an air of dealing with the "universal and unchanging" we contribute to a politics in which there is continuing and acrimonious debate about who can legitimately lay claim to "distinguishing universal from local knowledges."

Maybe to "organize ourselves at broader levels so that meaningful dissent, doubt .... can be heard and collective actions still be undertaken" we need to model that more effectively in classrooms? To make it clear that that "univeral" doesn't exist and that we have to work with is necessarily "dissensus"? And to make it clear that "dissensus" itself is actually a desirable state rather than one to be feared, a state that provides the grist from which new and less wrong possibilities can arise?

dmazella's picture

permanent disagreement and the defense of universals?

Hi Paul,

I wouldn't argue with much that you said in the post above, but this line jumped out at me:

In fact, my guess is that most "universals" are actually asserted not "at the expense of local customs, values, etc" but rather in defense of them.

This is true enough, I suppose, but the problem in ordinary discourse lies in the unwillingness/inability of most people at any point in time to abide by the skeptical "rules" you've laid down for public discussion. 

For one thing, how likely is it that any of us would accept someone else's judgment about what is local and contingent and what is universal and unchanging?  This is the problem of any theory of modernization as progress toward (universal) secularization, and so we are left with the messy and uneven historical process whereby technological advances in no way guarantee the adoption of "scientific" attitudes. So I think we are left with the fact of dissensus when it comes to distinguishing universal from local knowledges. And I think any theory of inquiry on the scale of what you're after would have to deal with these kinds of issues of protracted disagreements and permanent dissensus.

In short, I think the problem lies not so much in the forms of skepticism we can individually cultivate inside our own heads (and I think that there are limits even to this as a collective goal, as even Hume acknowledged), but how we can organize ourselves at broader levels so that meaningful dissent, doubt, disagreement, etc. can be heard and collective actions still be undertaken? 

In other words, the problem may not lie so much in our conceptions of knowledge, but in the politics of knowledge and rational deliberation as these are currently practiced.


Paul Grobstein's picture

education, politics, and life: beyond local and global knowledge

As per Anne, I'm pretty sure that Texas is far from the only place where there is a "huge ideological problem." In fact, I suspect, most people in most places don't have to go much beyond their own immediate environment (or perhaps even beyond their own minds) to uncover "the assumption that impersonal standards are somehow truer and more "scientific" than the local, provisional, contingent ones we devise for ourselves."

Several years ago, I was teaching a freshman seminar course in which we read an evolutionary psychology article attempting to explain why human males were more prone to sexual unfaithfulness than females. I asked the class whether they thought males were in fact less faithful than females. About 90% of the class said yes. I then asked how many people personally knew more unfaithful males than females. Less than half the class responded positively to that question. When I expressed puzzlement about why people thought things to be different from their own personal experiences of them, the students explained that they presumed that collective wisdom was more reliable than personal wisdom, that others had observations they didn't have personally.

The point is not only that most people use such a presumption a lot of the time, but that it is not in fact an entirely unreasonable one. There actually is something to be said for more global knowledge, just as there is for more local knowledge (see also The objectivity/subjectivity spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too?), so long as they are both regarded as tentative and subject to future challenge (rather than as candidates for a "luminous, self-sufficient ... synoptic vision"). The deepest ideological problem" isn't actually an inclination to value "collective wisdom" but rather an inclination to take it as "Truth." And that holds equally for "local wisdom". In fact, my guess is that most "universals" are actually asserted not "at the expense of local customs, values, etc" but rather in defense of them.

In short, the enemy isn't "them" but "us." And we are likely to lose not only the immediate battles but the war if we forget this. The arguments we have with others can be better made by recognizing parallel ones within ourselves. And we shouldn''t allow ourselves to be identified with a posture that seems to be trying to dethrone "global knowledge" and put in its place "local knowledge." Its the notion of unchallengeable "Truth," whatever its origins, that needs to be done away with (Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry). And replaced with the kind of skepticism that underlies and motivates continual productive inquiry, one in which there is a continuing interplay between more global and more local knowledge. Both in political discourse and in the classroom. The two contexts are not so different (nor so different from what goes on in our own heads all the time).

And that of course takes us back to the problem of the origins/development of "self-critique, -awareness, etc." Yep, its not "just the individual needs of class members, but the community of inquiry" that is important. And so one does indeed need to take into account "the proximal zone of development," to assure that the collective inquiry is engaging to all involved. At the same time, one needs, like the zen master, to be continually reminding all involved that there is not end to be reached but only an activity to be engaged with. Yep, both in the classroom and in the political arena "a gradual process of acculturation, not something that can be taught in a single class." In fact, of course, something one can/should expect to spend an entire lifetime getting better at by trying it out in an infinite variety of different contexts.

dmazella's picture

local and global knowledges?

Hi Anne,

To keep to your local/global theme, I should note that I'm able to blog this from a hotel lobby in Ft. Lauderdale just before embarking on a brief family vacation.  But I thought your post here deserved an answer, and I've got a brief moment, so here goes:

It makes sense that we both appreciate Taylor, because Taylor represents one of the most important philosophical exponents of both multiculturalism and secularization in modernity, which I think gives his critique of universalism some bite.  When people assume such universals, it's usually (always?) at the expense of local customs, values, etc., but it's also understandable how much pressure a global system of trade puts on local cultures, understandings, etc.  The question is always how these changes get negotiated locally, and who gets to decide how changes play out on the ground. 

But absolutely, yes, having suffered through umpteen "standards" discussions in Texas, and when the same people behind NCLB are now proposing high-stakes standardized testing for higher ed in Texas, performative assessments look like the way to go.  They just need to be better accepted by the people who help fund public education (i.e., taxpayers, etc.)


dmazella's picture

personal modeling versus impersonal standards?


Thanks for the response.  Here are a few thoughts.

1.   The only problem I have with the hard-wiring metaphor for self-critique, -awareness, etc. you mention is the routine inconsistency of its operations, and the difficulty of sustaining it across time or communicating it to others.  We all know about the multifarious ways in which prejudice, blindness, self-deception, etc. operate, not to mention all the ways in which desires and unacknowledged motives influence (or, to pick up a term from an earlier thread, condition) the way in which we think. This is a familiar psychoanalytic critique of consciousness-as-knowledge-of-self, and it is as big a problem for collective operations of thought (political ideologies) as it is for individual ones (prejudice, myopia, etc.).  

But the only remedies for this kind of blindness are culturally-based, context-dependent, etc. habits or dispositions of thought, as taught by the very fallible human representative of accumulated knowledge, the teacher, habits which in turn introduce their own forms of blindness. And blindness, for some reason, seems far easier to communicate to others than insight.

The nice thing about inquiry, however, is the fact that instead of relying on the fantasmic authority of the teacher-as-expert, it draws its power from the capacity and motivation of students to learn, and from the teacher's ability to model the process of acquiring new knowledge.  This alliance, for me, is the core of the "community of inquiry."

Here's the money-quote from an article I've been learning from this summer:

 Thus, when we intend to evoke inquiry in the classroom, we think
not only of nourishing the curiosity of individuals but also, first and foremost, of
fostering classroom communication, with inquiry then conceived not as the sum of individuals' abilities for inquiry but as a nondecomposable feature of the larger
academic community of children
(Zuckerman 204).

So the teacher of inquiry needs to address not just the individual needs of class members, but the community of inquiry whose discussion he wants to feed and sustain throughout the semester.  This, like every other aspect of inquiry teaching/learning, seems very tricky and contingent.

2.  I like the zen? approach you outline, which sounds a lot like my grad school experience.  But I wonder whether this model loses the very real benefits of the "community of inquiry" (what the Vygotskyans call the "proximal zone of development," as well as what we called the medium-range inferences in an earlier thread, which helped to sustain students' interest in a question or problem past the initial difficulties.

3.  I've put some more thought into this problem of standards, and have decided that part of the issue here is the assumption that impersonal standards are somehow truer and more "scientific" than the local, provisional, contingent ones we devise for ourselves. 

This is actually a huge ideological problem in, you guessed, Texas, which helped to foist No Child Left Behind onto the rest of the country.  

Students, however, do need to learn ways to assess their own progress, especially when we are talking about learning skills, and teacher feedback, heuristics, modeling, peer review and discussion, all these play a much more important role than an abstract set of standards kept in a drawer in the principal's office.  But go tell that to my state legislature.  

4.  So learning to do this kind of self-critique in a serious and self-sustained way is a gradual process of acculturation, not something that can be taught in a separate class.  This is why there should not be separate classes in "critical thinking," no matter how important it is.



Anne Dalke's picture

Turning Education Upside Down/Inside Out

Joaquín Torres-García, The Upside-down Map (1943)

I want to speak to the assumption David just flagged, "that impersonal standards are somehow truer and more 'scientific' than the local, provisional, contingent ones we devise for ourselves."

One of the long-term on-going outreach projects here @ Bryn Mawr is a series of summer institutes for K-12 teachers. For several years, I co-offered a version called "Science and a Sense of Place," which arose from a form of pedagogy called "place-based learning." Grounded in local phenomena & students' lived experience, this kind of educating steps off from John Dewey's observation, decades ago, about the great waste of isolating school from a child's experience outside it, in the home and neighborhood. Contemporary scholars like Gregory Smith in "Learning to be Where we Are" and David Gruenewald in A Critical Pedagogy of Place challenge the insistence of schools that students attend to texts, lectures and videos, and so direct their attention away from their own circumstances/full-bodied encounters with the world. (I was shocked to learn, during a discussion in this summer's institute, about the directives by the State of Pennsylvania that prevent students from tasting, touching, even smelling materials. It astonishes me that courses on scientific inquiry have, as their starting point, a series of prohibitions of the use of three of the senses.)

This disconnection has of course been exacerbated by national preoccupation w/ standardized test scores (=generic curricular models). As Smith and Gruenewald argue, pedagogical concerns for local place have been overshadowed by the discourse of economic competitiveness. Current educational reforms are "placeless": to compete in global economy, they seek to standardize the experience of students from diverse places, and so dismiss the idea of place as a primary experiential/educational context.

This intersects very strongly, for me, with your evocation, a while ago, David, of Charles Taylor's idea of "social imaginaries," traces of "specificity, historicity, and therefore non-universality." Erasing such traces, standardized tests thereby diminish students' capacities.

And alternative to such a program would be the sort of pedagogy we practice in the institutes, which conclude with performative assessments: all of the participants create a final performance to demonstrate what they have done. The standards are those they set themselves: where were they when they began? And where have they arrived @ the end of the program?

What's wrong with that picture?

dmazella's picture

assessing inquiry?

Hi Paul,

I absolutely agree with you completely that "assessment is a bugaboo," because it's the aspect of the inquiry process/project that feels least defined, at both the individual and collective level.  This is completely appropriate, but I think it's also what makes it so challenging to pull off.  The open-endedness of inquiry, I think, demands that it take place in a self-sustaining "community of inquiry," and those are not easy to create and maintain, under any circumstances. 

I also agree with you about the potential flow from disciplinary to transdisciplinary to disciplinary understandings back again.  I suppose current academic culture, like current society, is not optimized for such arrangements, but I think that the key would be commitment on the part of the researchers (including students) and appropriate structures/incentives on the part of the administrators.  It would help for everyone to be equally committed to the importance and value of teaching and learning, but that's something for another discussion. 

I think that the previous attempts are indeed relevant, but they certainly do not foreclose future possibilities.  

Now here's a more concrete question about assessment I've been wondering about.  

In at least one version of "critical thinking" (via Richard Paul and an IL librarian, Craig Gibson), I get the following summation of CT pedagogy:

  • Knowledge about anything cannot be given to students
  • Knowledge is an achievement gained only by figuring things out
  • The student must be actively engaged in the learning process
  • Multiple perspectives should be brought to bear upon problems when solving them.

So far, so good.  This all seems unobjectionable, given the discussions we've had about inquiry over the past summer.  it's the last two bullets that gave me pause:

  • Students should learn standards for assessing the quality of their own thinking.
  • Self-awareness and self-critique are attitudes at the very heart of critical thinking.

[From Craig Gibson, "Critical Thinking: Implications for Instruction" RQ 35.1 (1995): 31]

I think that from our very earliest discussions, we have been in agreement about the need in inquiry for the student to engage in a recursive process of successive observations/interpretations to learn how to revise their "stories" (what you call getting it "progressively less wrong."  So far so good.

But I suppose my question, influenced by R. Paul etc., is how do students in such a revision-process learn to recognize the need to revise their stories?  How do they gain that "self-awareness" or the capacity to "self-critique"?  Is it simply by modeling the kinds of questions asked by the instructor?  So the very notion of an external, pre-existing "standard" is one of the things that Inquiry asks us to abandon in teaching? 

I understand perfectly well that a non-foundational practice would not assume the existence of timeless, universal standards of thought, and would treat any such norms, criteria, procedures of testing, etc. as provisional, etc.   So how does the inquiry process, using your notion of letting assessment follow rather than determine what you need to do, allow the student develop this kind of self-awareness and capacity for self-critique?

Though this is a very basic question, I think it has some bearing on the large-scale questions we've been developing this summer . . . . . 

Thanks in advance,


Paul Grobstein's picture

Zen? and the art of teaching

Basic questions can't help but bear on everything else, and these are good ones. Let's start with where "self-reflection" and "self-critique" might come from. My hunch is that there are inherent in brain organization rather than needing to be taught de novo, but education (and parenting) can certainly help strengthen them (or suppress them).

Yes, I think modelling is terribly important. Teachers/parents who can't/don't self-critique shouldn't expect students/kids to do it. But I'm also increasingly attracted to a Zen approach (more accurately, what I believe is a Zen approach). The master asks the student a "what is the sound of one hand clapping" sort of question, ie one for which a number of different answers might be imagined. The student goes away, thinks about it, and returns with an answer. The master explains to the student a problem with that answer and sends him away again. This is repeated until the student returns with an answer that the master hasn't heard before and hence can't immediately conceive something wrong with that answer. At that point, the master says not "you're right" but rather "you've done well; here's another question." Over time, the student comes to recognize (among other things) that unless and until one has both succceeded in surprising oneself and has looked around enough to have some possible chance of surprising the master, there's no point in going back. THAT takes serious self-reflection and self-critique.

I actually think there is in this also an approach to the question of how one assesses inquiry education. Ask students to pose questions about whatever subject an educational experience is about before it starts. Ask them again to pose questions after the class is over. One can then assess the performance of student and teacher by comparing the sophistication of the two sets of questions.

dmazella's picture

universalizing inquiry and the example of critical thinking?


I think that the big question in any discussion of a quasi-universal notion of "inquiry"resides with the question of collective testing.  How would all the different fields that it could encompass provide it with specific content?  Which "communities of inquiry" or disciplines would do the testing, and how many different forms of testing would it require, to make it more than an empty term?

The reason why I'm urging you to reflect upon the move toward universalizing inquiry is the sad history of "critical thinking" in pedagogical thought since Dewey.  

I've been working on this question because of my research into information literacy this summer, and what I've found is that the push to universalize critical thinking as chiefly a "predisciplinary" aspect of education has rendered it almost opaque and useless, and almost exclusively the preserve of educators rather than philosophers, social scientists, and others who presumably might be interested in it. 

The Bailin piece I cited earlier shows the degree of controversy that still exists surrounding this term, but in fact it seems to me that there are lots of questions we could put to "critical thinking" as it is currently practiced, that would show how unexamined many of its premises and assumptions are.  Even those who believe in the existence of this term argue that there is a "strong sense" (meaning genuine) critical thinking to be distinguished from a "weak sense" version, but I don't think (contra Paul and others) there are good, universally recognized warrants, standards, or criteria to draw those distinctions, especially in all the fields it could potentially encompass. 

So the biggest danger of a premature universalization of inquiry would be taking the concept away from the questioning, testing, and refining procedures that the disciplines provide.  This is precisely what I'd argue has happened to the "critical thinking movement."  By institutionalizing itself in this way, it seems to have lost almost all its potential interlocutors, besides university administrators.




Paul Grobstein's picture

touché: the history of trandisciplinarity/non-foundationalism

Assessment/"testing" is a real bugaboo, but I'm disinclined to let it be the driver of intellectual activity/education. My feeling is that appropriate forms of assessment should follow from rather than constrain what one thinks one should be trying to do.

I very much agree though that the history and current status of efforts to achieve a viable transdisciplinary/non-foundational culture of inquiry are less than encouraging, and think that is very much worth talking more about. Here, I gather, we're on your professional turf and so I'd be delighted to have learn more from that.

My own amateur explorations along these lines have largely to do with the history of pragmatism (Menand's The Metaphysical Club) and of the "unified science" movement (Reisch's How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science), together with some even more inchoate thoughts about the persistent outsider status (in the US at least) of non-Platonic thinkers in general (eg Nietzsche, the existentialists, Rorty, Derrida, Delueze).

I tend to read these as cautionary notes, stories to learn from, rather than definitive demonstrations that a viable transdisciplinary culture of inquiry isn't achievable. Among the lessons I take from them is that one should not attempt a general theory of inquiry in any closed or final form ("good, universally recognized warrants, standards, or criteria"), nor try to develop a theory of inquiry/education that is isolated from "the questioning, testing, and refining procedures that the disciplines provide". I'd add that it shouldn't be isolated from the "questioning, testing, and refining procedures" that are provided by the non-academic world either.

To put it differently, a viable transdisciplinary culture of inquiry needs to acknowledge and make use of more specialized forms of inquiry, return to them suggestions for new directions of exploration that prove useful to them, and continually question and revise its own understandings (the "fuschia dot" function of Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity and Beyond). Yes, there should be no "premature universalization of inquiry," but that's not to say that candidate and revisable generalizations across fields of inquiry (like candidate and revisable generalizations within them) can't be useful.

My intuition though is that the biggest barrier to a viable transdisciplinary culture of inquiry is actually not its "transdisciplinary" character but rather the attention it calls to the essential revisability not only of local understandings but of human understanding itself. We all, I think, suspect, deep down inside, that we're skating on thin ice, that the edifices we construct to make sense of the world always have the potential to collapse under our feet. And we all, in various ways and to various degrees, try to make ourselves feel more secure. Among the ways we do so is to confine our inquires to smaller and more manageable territories, and to share them primarily with others with whom we are more or less in agreement about what is and is not to be explored and how.

A viable transdisciplinary/non-foundational culture of inquiry challenges us all (not only academics by any means) to recognize that inquiry is not in fact a source of security, that it is at least as likely to challenge our deepest understandings as it is to support them. And that has been/continues to be a hard pill to swallow for many people. On the flip side, a transdisciplinary/non-foundational culture of inquiry provides an opportunity to acknowledge and share the uncertainties that are one of the deepest features of humanness, and to learn to use those uncertainties as well as both our similarities and our differences to expand our potentials as human beings.

Yep, the history is very relevant. Can it legitimately be read along these lines, as opening a future possibility for a broader culture of inquiry rather than closing that off?


Anne Dalke's picture

From Touché to Cliché: A Cautionary Tale

I was, on first reading, amused by the tumble of clichés here--the quick metaphoric shifts from "thin ice" to "small territories" to "hard pills." I found myself wondering what's going on, more generally, when we pile up clichés (especially in cartloads like these): what might provoke such an evocation of the conventional? My first thought was that could mean that we are indeed on thin ice, trying to reinforce what we think we know with certainty--but acknowledging thereby that we don't...

But then I had a second and (I think!) a much "better" thought. I was very struck by the suggestion that "the biggest barrier to a viable transdisciplinary culture of inquiry is...the attention it calls to the essential revisability...of human understanding," by the claim that "inquiry is not...a source of security," but "at least as likely to challenge our deepest understandings as it is to support them."

I think this is right/right-on. It gives a special added punch (and for me, understanding) to the conventional dismissal of transdisciplinary work as not going "deep enough" or "far enough"--as skating across the surface. In other words, transdisciplinarity recalls us to an awareness that we are, indeed, always on the surface, unable to go all the way down, unable to arrive at foundations. Insecure, and liable to break through the ice.

dmazella's picture

foundationless observations and the community of inquiry?

Hi Anne,

I took the succession of metaphors here as a sign that we are getting closer to a really difficult problem in the practice of inquiry: if inquiry is about working without secure foundations of knowledge, how to sustain the collective questioning, testing, and refining procedures that the disciplines provide.  The explanatory power of a discipline is its ability to bring many different observers to bear upon a question. 

Transdisciplinary inquiries, by their nature, will be much more sporadic, much more idiosyncratic, I think. Vygotsky, at any rate, developed his notion of the "community of inquiry" for this very reason.  The foundationless nature of inquiry, and the demand it makes for individuals to assess the adequacy of their observations with additional observations, make it a very difficult enterprise to convince others to join in. This is why the community of inquiry was developed, I think, to permit at least a provisional version of the community and its local standards to serve as a pedagogical model. 

In the absence of such a community, it is hard for me to see how inquirers receive much feedback about their observations or intuitions.  How else does one test (and further revise) one's observations, without such a backdrop of understanding that comes from others?

From my point of view, the metaphors here should be temporal, about sustaining questioning and revisions over time among a group, rather than spatial or depth-oriented.  It's not a matter of how deep we dig, but how long we can keep the ball in the air.


Paul Grobstein's picture

defragmenting academia/education?

Again we seem to be spilling over a bit, with active threads here as well as here and here and here and here (at least) and a pretty diverse array of contributors, including college students, K12 teachers, and college/university faculty from several different disciplines. All of which is to say the conversation seems to touch on the interests of a lot of different sorts of people for a lot of different sorts of reasons. And is perhaps itself illustrative of the potentialities and problems of trandisciplinary inquiry? Maybe transciplinarity itself spawns disciplinarity which in turn spawns transdisciplinarity? In any case, I feel a bit of a need to see where we are for myself. And offer it as one guide for anyone newly joining the conversation, as well as anyone else interested.

What intrigues me is the possibility that we might actually be able to enunciate a theory of inquiry that draws from but is not constrained by any particular disciplinary perspective, indeed perhaps one that could draw from without being constrained by the "academic" perspective. And from that might, in turn, might come a theory of education that would more effectively and productively engage all of us, students and teachers alike?


Anne Dalke's picture

Reading Culture: A Nudge

Turns out I have many experiences--and from them, many thoughts--about literacy and the web. Too much for here. See Reading Culture: A Nudge.
dmazella's picture

transdisciplinary inquiry for everyone?

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the comments and the NYTimes cite.  I've been thinking about this article and its implications, too, though I agree with you that the repercussions of the new literacies (and I'd put information literacy up there too with computer literacy) are a lot less dismal than the NYTimes writer thought.  Frankly, I thought this piece by Caleb Crain in the NYer was a lot more thoughtful, along with his followup.

The question is really whether the kinds of laterally-organized, associational skimming-behavior that the internet encourages approximates transdisciplinary reading, at least by disciplined readers. I think there are similarities and differences, but I do think that training matters, and in fact matters even more when the sources and quantities of information are growing larger and more diverse hourly.

I know that I learn a tremendous amount by searching JSTOR, which is an interdisciplinary database, but even then some kind of concentrated process of information-assimilation has to take place for me.  I also know that my students will go to the same web that I do, or search the same databases that I do, and their abilities to find what they want or retain anything are dramatically less than mine.  This is what disciplinary training is supposed to do.  So even undergrad education needs to impart to students the need to focus and select from the array of potential information sources.

Frankly, I don't think disciplines, like the nation-state, are going away any time soon because they are part of the way that we organize information for use.  And I think the hardest and most interesting problem is institutionalizing the places for discussion in which transdisciplinary talk can be developed and shared with wider publics, and additional information integrated into the problem.  

Finally, I probably do agree with you that at some level of abstraction, all inquiry is one, but that kind of insight is at such a high level of abstraction that it doesn't help the literary critic and rhetorician and librarian see the commonalties, even when they read the same books.  This is because they are making different uses of the "same" material.  So I think the most interesting questions are about the concrete encounters between and among disciplines, on real and specific problems that probably do exceed the grasp of a single discipline.

Paul Grobstein's picture

disciplinary inquiry for everyone?

I think we're converging on some useful perspectives here (to me, and from my point of view, at least). I too "don't think disciplines ... are going away any time soon." In fact, I don't think they will/should ever go away. Transdisciplinary activity, in my mind, is not a replacement for disciplinary activity but rather an essential adjunct to it, one that has meaning in it own right but also both depends on and invigorates disciplinary activity (see Exploring Interdisciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity and Beyond). My interest is not in persuading everyone to become a transdiciplinarian but rather to see that an academic and educational enterprise that is currently heavily dominated by the disciplines is loosened up a bit so as to encourage transdisciplinary options for those who might reasonably and usefully aspire to them.

I also share your sense that our business as educators (in a broad sense) is to help people sharpen their ability "to focus and select from the array of information sources" (in my terms, to become better at making observations, telling generative stories about them, making new observations, revising the stories). I also agree that many of us became better at doing that via disciplinary training.

Where all of this convergence may bring us is to a sharper focus on whether disciplinary training is the ONLY way to become better at that array of abilities. My own sense is that it isn't, that one could equally well help students (at all levels, including the professional) pick from "laterally-organized, associational skimming" their own concentration/focus, and use that as the basis for developing inquiry skills. That is, in fact, what I think actually happens in effective "transdisciplinary discussion." And what could be used more effectively throughout the educational system, effectively preventing students from ever developing a feeling that what they are learning is "academic," ie something they have to learn to get to something else but having to take on faith that the preparation will be worthwhile.

Perhaps the key question here is whether is it is necessarily the case that "real and specific problems" are necessarily only those defined within single disciplines, or whether there is a host of such problems that are simply ignored, at any given time, by the ensemble of disciplines, defined as they are in part for historical and socio-cultural rather than intellectual reasons?


Paul Grobstein's picture

education and cultures: braiding some threads

"So what makes the difference between the isolated transdisciplinary intuition and the transdisciplinary intuition that really resonates?"

Very thoughtful/important question, one that I think helps to highlight a significant distinction between the intellectual and the social functions of a discpline. "Collective attention to certain problems" is indeed an intellectual advantage of disciplinary work. But disciplines are also social/political groups, and tend to enforce group cohesion whether or not it is of actual intellectual benefit. Good trandisciplinary work in the present environment pretty much depends on being willing and able to forego, at least for a time, both the intellectual and the social/political benefits of a disciplinary group. With some luck, one can then find/create new communities with whom one's own particular interests "strike a chord." Which in turn can yield the desireable intellectual benefits and, perhaps, social/political ones as well.

"I wonder whether trying to address this fragmentation with student-level inquiry will only distance students from the actual problems pursued by researchers in those disciplines? It seems to me that the difficulties of actual research problems are a powerful reality-check for both teachers and students, and keep the process of inquiry honestly openended. "

I agree very much that "the difficulties of actual research problems" are not only a powerful reality-check for both teachers and students" but an essential part of teaching inquiry. I'm less certain that "the actual problems pursued by reserchers" are the only "research problems" that one can use, or even necessarily the best ones in an educational context. Here too the issue is the nature of a discipline, and of "professional" research. Professionals tend to look for their problems within a discipline, which means the problems tend to be ones that require years of training to appreciate, much less address. They also tend to be ones that lots of other people are already working on, and that require narrow focus rather than breadth. It seems to me better in classrooms to use research problems that are more generally understandable, and for which a diversity of perspectives is more likely to be useful. In addition, my own experience is that research along these lines has at least as much chance of generating something actually interesting for the teacher as does hacking away at discipllinary problems. Again, though, there is a price to pay for taking off the disciplinary coat, both for the teacher and in some cases for students.

"On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends."

"On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.

Quotes are from a NYTimes article yesterday that seems relevant as per Literacy and the Web. My guess is that students are themselves learning to engage in transdisciplinary inquiry. If we can't learn to do it ourselves, we'll find ourselves learning it from them.

"Maybe some of our problems with understanding the relation between sciences, humanities, etc have to do with the relations being evolving ones? How about the following as a way to bring things together, both in terms of objective and in terms of time?"

A continuation of the thinking here and in our summer institute and minisymposium, with a suggestion about "classical" art, humanities, social sciences, sciences, and how one might trace their ongoing evolution into a future arts/humanities/social sciences/sciences? A future not without disciplines but with a more recognized niche for transdisciplinarians (with attendent intellectual and social/political benefits?).

"I think that the biggest obstacle to inquiry education is not instructors, but the current prevalence of high-stakes testing and Back to Basics in K-12, only somewhat dampened by the unpopularity of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). This is one place where the education community has never successfully communicated to the public the difficulties with these models of teaching-as-testing."

There is indeed a problem here and I like your inclination to attribute it at least in part to ourselves ("the education community has never successfully communicated ..."). If we are actually going to play a constructive role in cultural development (as opposed to reacting to it/bemoaning it) we indeed need to get better at engaging with/educating/encouraging inquiry in the "public." See Knowing about something and using it are different things . For all of us, a radically different education?


dmazella's picture

can inquiry and content be separated into a before and after?

I think that this is right: begin with questions that students find relevant, or better yet, are already curious about.  Teach them inquiry by modeling it in one's own follow-up questions, and let them try to develop their own questions, so that this questioning can be extended into a systematic and continuous process of investigation (another phrase for disciplinary understanding). 

I don't know if they need to know that they are participating in a discipline.  That may be less important than the questioning they engage in.  But I think that the teacher needs to be very aware of their questioning's relation to a discipline's structures, to keep up the momentum of the discoveries, and to give them a direction.  So disciplines provide certain models of continuity and connection for students, with the aid of the teacher, to rise from one level of observation/abstraction to another.  

On the other hand, articles like this one from George Hillocks, Jr. on Inquiry and the composing process would argue that the process of composing is inextricably part the investigation process. (writing is one of the things that the arts and sciences both do, believe it or not, and would constitute another one of the commonalties that Paul is looking for). 

So the goal, I think, is for the investigator in training to integrate her tasks into some self-generated, self-reflexive, continuous process, not to master one thing, then another and another.  When I drive my car, I'm not focused on when, precisely, I need to use my hand-brake or check the odometer.

As for getting it backwards, I think that the biggest obstacle to inquiry education is not instructors, but the current prevalence of high-stakes testing and Back to Basics in K-12, only somewhat dampened by the unpopularity of NCLB (No Child Left Behind).  This is one place where the education community has never successfully communicated to the public the difficulties with these models of teaching-as-testing.


dmazella's picture

more on the community of inquiry

Thanks, Paul, I've been following your K-16 discussion with great interest.  But, as usual, I'm still left with some questions:

1.  If the "community of inquiry" helps to test the observations/interpretations of the isolated researcher, at what point in the process does the interdisciplinary perspective need to get "tested" by others' discussion, observation, hypotheses?  If others do not pick up and extend my particular reconfiguration, say, of history, philosophy, and literary studies, for example, where does that leave my intuition of their intrinsic connections?  (This is something I spent a lot of time reflecting on while doing my Cynic book) 

This is only to say that interdisciplinarity looks and feels different when viewed from an individual scholarly perspective, as opposed to more collective models of collaboration, institutionalization, long-term historical reception, etc.  So from my point of view the major benefit of disciplinary conversation is sustained, focused yet collective attention to certain problems, a quality that can only be replicated in interdisciplinary conversation if it "strikes a chord" and really resonates among a larger group of researchers.  So what makes the difference between the isolated transdisciplinary intuition and the transdisciplinary intuition that really resonates?

2.  There seems to be a lot of discussion of using inquiry to "heal" the fragmentation of the actual research practices of humanists and scientists, and the curriculum they have helped to create.  But I wonder whether trying to address this fragmentation with student-level inquiry will only distance students from the actual problems pursued by researchers in those disciplines?  It seems to me that the difficulties of actual research problems are a powerful reality-check for both teachers and students, and keep the process of inquiry honestly openended. 

In other words, I see a contradiction between the pedagogical goal of presenting students with genuine problems, and the impulse to unify historically divergent perspectives (e.g., "two cultures" etc. etc.) 



jrlewis's picture

A Radically Different Education

Students start out with questions that are relevant to themselves.  They are interested in obtaining answers.  My inclination is to begin by educating students about inquiry as a means for investigation.  To assist students in their search, the teacher can introduce discipline specific knowledge as useful tools.  Students will choose to internalize the content and problem-solving strategies that they find helpful.  To continue on this path, they can choose to participate in a discipline. 

It seems to me that the current education system has it backwards.  We are putting the cart before the horse by teaching students content sooner than inquiry.  This installs artificial distinctions in the continuum of knowledge or content.  Consider such interdisciplinary fields as biochemistry and quantum mechanics, which have become their own discipline.  

dmazella's picture

how to continue a conversation?

Hi Paul,

I think that, true to my usual practice of questioning others' metaphors, I would probably describe "education" as a practice that involves the continual, mutual refinement of the language of one's training rather than simply "outgrowing" it.  With a more sophisticated understanding, we can identify the "scaffolding" concepts we used to climb up to the level of certain abstractions, and recognized those scaffolding concepts to be preliminary or naive rather than inaccurate.

So I think that the purpose of this kind of conversation is to enrich and refine one's own discipline, perhaps even to the point where it can communicate effectively to the public and to the other disciplines.

The key here is the community of inquiry, no matter how broadly or narrowly defined, and whether it picks up on one's observations and extends them further.  Isn't that how validation is supposed to work in the sciences and the humanities?


Paul Grobstein's picture

education/cultures: continuing the conversation, and expanding i

Yep, a "community of inquiry" rather than a collection of warring tribes. But maybe then we think not of "validation" but rather as testing "scaffolding" to see how useful it is in generating new perspectives/stories? With the understanding that all scaffolding should be expected to be not only "inaccurate" but also "preliminary" and "naive"? And all there actually is is "outgrowing'?

Along which lines, see Sciences and Humanities Education: Learning From Each Other? The conversation you started is not only continuing but expanding, with some interesting observations both on and from K12 teachers. Thanks for that.

Paul Grobstein's picture

education and the two cultures: continuing the conversation

Conversations on Serendip wax and wane (like conversations anywhere?). I doubt this one has "petered out" but even if it were to, it has already left its mark elsewhere. See Science and Humanities Education: Learning From Each Other?

Of relevance of course is the idea that "the commonalities between scientific and humanistic learning ... exist more at the level of practice than of 'doctrine'". Maybe indeed in the context of education we can all learn to outgrow the various "doctrines" we acquired as academics.

Maybe the notion that the "outside public" is more threatening to scientists than to humanists is one of those doctrines that could go by the board? Galileo, to cite just one example, was condemned not so much for his science as for his insistence in writing about it in the vernacular, for making his observations/interpretations accessible to the public. And it actually seems to me in general that scientists are less contented with hermeneutic understandings than are humanists. Whether so or not, we could all commit ourselves anew to telling stories in publicly accessible ways, letting them become a part of the public conversation (for more on the specific case of evolution, see above and Science Matters ... How?).

"strategic decontextualizations have historically produced knowledge for science, while contextualizations have become one of the major vehicles for furthering knowledge in the humanities"

Yep, and maybe its time for both to ourgrow both, as per the recent above?

Seems to me that far from petering out, we're making some progress here. Maybe we should try and orchestrate a larger gathering on these themes?

dmazella's picture

metaphors and mutual learning between "two cultures"?

Hi everyone,

I sense that the discussion is petering out, because people have taken from it whatever they were looking for, but I wanted to bring forward a few points  before it shut down completely.

1.  Despite the well-known difficulties of communicating across disciplinary boundaries, I would probably question the usefulness of the "two cultures" story at this point, because it limits us to binary, mutually exclusive definitions of activities that in fact have many developing points of contact and intersection, as this blog tries to show.  My preference would be for a open-ended, multiple "publics" model along the lines described by Robbins, with each discipline addressing a virtual public that contains all the other disciplines, along with all the smaller "publics."  Important in this regard would also be Michael Warner's updating of Robbins's story, in his article and book on "Publics and counterpublics." But I suspect that scientists would have a much harder time accepting the notion that an outside public must accept their findings than humanists, because it opens the door to all sorts of notions of Creationism, pseudo-science, etc. 

2.  When scientific and humanities disciplines do learn from one another, the process is conducted at the level of metaphorical exchange, with a kind of intuitive, self-reflective learning-via-translation-and-accommodation that is officially accepted in humanistic discourse but not necessarily in scientific fields that historically defined and legitimated themselves by the radically decontextualized "objectivity" of their observations.  Elements like language, narrative, rhetoric, history, context, conditioning, the role of the individual subject as observer, all these things are interpreted very differently when these fields produce their knowledge, and cannot be treated as incidental to the stories generated.  So any possible translation from one field to the next will be affected by the fact that strategic decontextualizations have historically produced knowledge for science, while contextualizations have become one of the major vehicles for furthering knowledge in the humanities.

3.  As I have learned, some of the most interesting commonalities between scientific and humanistic learning occur at the level of teaching, when instructors are trying to enlist the curiosity of the entry-level learner, in the devising of activities capable of suggesting to learners the fundamental concepts of a field, and in the re-learning of one's own discipline under the pressure of teaching it to others.  So the commonalities, as usual, exist more at the level of practice than of "doctrine."

dmazella's picture

observing compulsion/freedom

Hi Anne,

I suppose that what I was trying to say, in too offhand a way, is that the freedom/compulsion binary becomes impossible to determine once we make it a matter of self-observation or -reflection.  This collapse of self-reflection at certain tasks seems to be a fundamental assumption for Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis, right? (that is why we pay psychoanalysts to listen to us) but it also seems implicit in the explanations offered by the kinds of brain science that Warner feels so ambivalent about.  So under certain conditions this semantic opposition (and the knowledge it would uphold) seems to fall apart, in ways that I (and I think Warner, too) find ethically troubling.  Do we medicate the "mouse," or remove him from his cage?


Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and freedom/agency

Sorry to be a little late in weighing in on this very interesting conversation. Yes, was "off teaching about Brain and Behavior". And that is, of course, relevant.

Serious attention to the brain implies that there are alternatives for the mouse other than medication or removal from his cage, at least if the mouse is a human. Particularly relevant along these lines is a capacity for self-reflection and self-renewal, a capacity that rests on important architectural features of the brain and that can be enhanced by various procedures, including education and psychotherapy. Because of this capacity, we are trapped neither by genes nor by environment, nor by the combination of the two. However one feels at any given time, "one is never trapped, there are always ways to get it less wrong".

does one side of this cultural divide we're trying to bridge allow for more free will or agency? I too am inclined to doubt that "the two cultures scheme really captures what's at stake with this issue". Yes, there are those who doubt the genuine existence of agency and "free will", but they exist on both sides of the divide and, for that matter, have always existed. Its an incommensurable for which brain science may indeed be able to add some new and relevant observations.

Anne Dalke's picture

Freedom from compulsion?

Several interesting tendrils/directions here, David--

the one that intrigues me/has me puzzling the most is your using Turner's repetitive painting of sublimity as a test case for your title query: is compulsion a form of freedom or its opposite?

Several years ago, Serendip sponsored quite a lively series of dialogues under the rubric of "Writing Descartes," which played in multiple different registers with the notion that freedom involves choice ("I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"). Compulsion, by that light, doesn't look (or more importantly, feel) like freedom: one cannot help oneself. It's like Warner's depressed mouse, compelled to swim, only the compulsion, the sense of being under "another's" power, comes from within. I too would be interested in what brain science might add to this felt sense (Paul? out there teaching about Brain and Behavior? want to weigh in?).

Am also thinking what else history and literature--all those compulsives from Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina forward--might add, all those characters determined to do what they feel compelled to do, determined to claim their "freedom" to do it, but unable to free themselves from the compulsion itself.


dmazella's picture

is compulsion a form of freedom, or its opposite?

Hi Anne,

I suppose that in my view there are many, many versions of the "free-will/determinism" binary, which take the forms of historical, scientific, theological, etc. impasses, and that my training has conditioned me to think of these versions as incommensurable with one another.   

Your question about Turner, though, is interesting, because his career seems to unite two qualities, sublimity and repetition, that are not usually associated with one another, yet seem to have some independent relation to the determinism/free-will binary.  In this respect, there seems to be some kind of Freudian "compulsion" going on that repeatedly brings him to the same kinds of awesome scenes.  (And I'd treat psychoanalysis as part of that modernist matrix of scientific/humanistic determinism that included your fictional "Turing" and "Godel")

I have to say that I don't find much "freedom" in the semiabstractions of Turner's painting, because I don't see him as breaking away from conventions so much as submitting himself to a certain kind of experience and recording the results with obsessive care.  Something was let loose in those paintings, to be sure, but it was not Turner.  So perhaps we should talk about a constitutive tension between freedom and compulsion in his art.

I also wonder if we need to set aside the special case of the artist, and restore the social or collective dimension to this discussion of freedom and compulsion?  Frankly, what arrested me in the Warner essay was not the cheery discussion of an advancing brain science, but this near-parable about how distinct psychological states can be "produced" by a truly crappy situation:

I learned that you can make a mouse “depressed” by dunking it repeatedly in cold water, by giving it electrical shocks over and over again, by subjecting it to “chronic forced swimming,” or making it experience “social defeat,” by putting a mean mouse in its cage. The latter method is the best way to test antidepressants, because after such a negative social experience it takes a mouse three weeks of drug therapy to recover, an interval that neatly parallels the amount of time antidepressants take to reach their optimal effectiveness in humans.

[Am I the only one who feels that this description makes the experiments sound like an Abu Ghraib-like situation in miniature?]

What this "story" suggests to me, perhaps against the grain of Warner's conscious intentions, perhaps not, is that when we look for the causation for "depression," for example, the place to look may not be "neurons, dendrites, action potentials, the localization of function, visual perception and transcranial magnetic stimulation," but the fact that the clinical subject is under another's power, unable to resist what is being done.  What does brain science add to such an observation?


Anne Dalke's picture

Public-Making (and The Freedom to Kill Oneself?)

I, too, find this pair of lists very useful. I especially appreciate the rhetorical decision to replace monolithic "science" with the plurality of "sciences"--a nice compliment to the "humanities," which are so multiple, and also a good caution against identifying any particular practice or practitioner as "typical" or "exemplary."

Noting also/wanting to take up the invitation to the folks in my neck of the woods to look beyond the level of the cultural, I want to step off from this list/try out its usefulness by looping back (like David) to our earlier discussion about "public-making."

I've just finished Janna Levin's 2006 novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, a not-entirely successful "mash-up" of the lives of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. Both men were geniuses, outcasts, "otherworldly," social agnostics. (One telling example: when Gödel arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s, he was asked by another, distressed, expatriate how things were in Austria. His reply: "The coffee is wretched.") As Levin tells the story, both Gödel and Turing exhibited a nearly "total misunderstanding of ordinary human interactions." Suffering from paranoia and depression, neither of them--in our terms here--were able to engage in any deliberative acts of "public-making."

Each man (presumably) decided to commit suicide, but only after contributing decisively, fitfully, paradoxically, and somewhat oppositionally to the making of the public world in which we all live now. What is interesting to me is the very different story each man told (in Levin's fictionalized account) about what he was doing as he faced death.

In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus argued that "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living....All other questions follow from that." Levin's Gödel puts a spin on this idea, when explains to his one remaining friend his decision to starve himself to death:

"I am making real choices...a demonstration of freedom...a proof of free will....I haven't eaten in over a week....Every force in the universe drives us into these seemingly inescapable cycles...I am choosing to disobey these forces, to react differently than they instruct."

Turing, on the other hand, who died by eating a cyanide-poisoned apple, reflects (again, in Levin's words) on "How all the events in the universe, big and small, collude to make the world exactly as it is. How all of his ideas and actions, big and small, are necessary steps in an even bigger mechanism....he couldn't have made any choices different from the ones he made, because there is no such thing as free will. The world is exactly as it is."

Looping back from the paired suicides of these philosopher-scientists, re-told in fiction, to our discussions here about what the sciences and the humanities can learn from one another, here's my question for further discussion: does one side of this cultural divide we're trying to bridge allow for more free will or agency? Or (dis)encourage the illusion of such? Does the attention the humanities pay to "foundational" texts (for instance) encourage or discourage an illusion of freedom? Does the sciences' attending more to time and space and creation beyond the human scale encourage or discourage that belief? Or are there particular varieties of the practices of both the humanities and the sciences which (dis)allow such freedom?
dmazella's picture

freedom and determinism

Hi Anne,

 On the one hand, the consistent interest among humanities scholars about "conditioning" would argue for one version of determinism (though this usually gets mitigated in more or less theoretical or pragmatic ways by individual scholars).  But I tend to think that the best work in the humanities takes advantage of this kind of tension between determinist and free-will impulses (I actually wrote an article about this issue once, about Hobbes)

On the other hand, scientists (at least some scientists, and perhaps most of all social scientists) seem fond of their own determinist or reductionist schemes to describe and explain human behavior or interactions.  And they have their own critics, internal and external.  But controversies like the "Bell Curve" demonstrate to me why the best allies scientists could have in these instances would be people who know a thing or two about language and history and ideology.

So I'm not sure the two cultures scheme really captures what's at stake with this issue.  I just think that modernism in the early 20th century (the period in which the novel is set) made us think that these were the only options.  And perhaps we no longer share that assumption with "Turing" and "Godel."


Anne Dalke's picture


I am struck by David's suggestion that the freewill/determinism binary was a modernist thing, now past--esp. since so much contemporary science seems to have re-opened the debate. I'm thinking especially of all the new work on indeterminism, as well as the recent report from Judith Warner in the NYTimes that

rather than being born with insufficiently developed neural pathways, babies are actually born with too many circuits, and normal development, in part, consists of winnowing them down. “There are too many wires – it’s as though the brain has been wired for too many contingencies, and they get whittled down over time,” said Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. “It’s as though we’re wired for what we could be.”

How differently do the sciences and the humanities describe (and by describing, alter) this winnowing? If familiarity with contemporary science raises questions of indeterminism at many scales, how might knowledge of contemporary work in the humanities affect our outlook? (As evocation, I open and close this posting with images from the current Turner exhibit @ the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC: a 19th-century presaging of abstract expressionism...)

What was determined, what free in Turner's process of making?
In ours of interpreting?
How is what seems "free" determined?
How is what is "determined" freed?

dmazella's picture

observations and interpretations, and the return of the public

Hi Paul,

Your suggestions here make a lot of sense to me, though I'm beginning to think that there's more to the observations/interpretations distinction that needs to be unpacked: for example, could it be a disciplinary split wherein the sciences rely much more heavily on observation, and the humanities on interpretation for their respective forms of inquiry, though both dimensions are present to some extent in both?

 I also suspect that some of the newer, more interdisciplinary fields like geography do take in some of the time-scales you're talking about here.  In history, particularly, Annales-style reflections certain parts of the globe, like the Mediterranean or Atlantic "worlds," might partake of this spirit.

So perhaps some of this is happening already, at least at an academic level.

The other aspect of this is about what remains to be done: and here I'd point the discussion back to Robbins's point about the constitutive incompleteness of the public addressed by each of the disciplines. 

Part of the issue is the fantasy of self-sufficiency fostered by each disciplinary vocabulary for what it does, its assumption that it can, all by itself, adequately represent the world.  (this is the sticking point for any strong notion of interdisciplinarity: each discipline represents a strong claim for its own perspective, so what do they give up when they interact?)  So how do scientists, for example, address a public that is only vaguely aware of the difference between evolutionary thought and creationism?  One potential answer is that the "public" consists not only of the non-scientist part of the population, but all the other disciplines and their perspectives on evolution, for example.  What do you make of such a claim?



Paul Grobstein's picture

observations/interpretations/stories: addressing the public

"the sciences rely much more heavily on observation, and the humanities on interpretation for their respective forms of inquiry, though both dimensions are present to some extent in both?"

Yep, both in both. And that's precisely where I think each could learn something from the other by being clearer about the relation between observations and interpretations. Yes, I think this "needs to be unpacked" more, by both scientists and humanists.

Scientists tend to ignore or downplay the degree to which the personal/historical/cultural context influences observations, to regard observations as foundational and context-free with arguments having only to do with their interpretation. Scientists need to more clearly recognize that observations are never context-free, that the observations themselves are always made in the context of pre-existing interpretations. This is most apparent when the observations end up surprising the scientists, by challenging the pre-existing interpretations, but it is of course the case regardless. And so the relationship between observation and interpretation is bidirectional, with neither being foundational. One can (and should) in science regard observations as legitimately challengeable (why were these particular ones made, as opposed to other possible ones? what presumptions were involved in making them?) just as interpretations are.

On the flip side, my sense is that humanists could learn from scientists to make better use of an operational distinction between observations and interpretations. In the professional discourse of science, "observations" are those things that it is presumed need to be accounted for, and "interpretations" are understood to be the ways one attempts to account for them. This segregation (yes one that should always be understood to be tentative) facilitates conversation and further inquiry by helping to clarify where disagreements exist (the appropriateness of observations, the relevance of observations, the degree to which a particular set of observations does or does not eliminate particular interpretations, favor others). My sense is that humanists frequently end up disagreeing without its being entirely clear what the disagreement is about, and that disagreements would be more generative if, as in science, more attention was paid to distinguishing clearly between what is, at any given time, to be accounted for ("observations") and how one proposes to account for it ("interpretations" or "stories").

The other important issue raised here is the disciplinary "fantasy of self-sufficiency." And I very much agree that needs to be given up, by both scientists and humanists, for the sake of the disciplines as well as public discourse. For my own efforts along these lines, see, among other things, Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution and Revisiting Science in Culture (and What is Science?). There is indeed a matter of rhetoric here, but also explicit attention to distinguishing observations from interpretations ("stories"). The latter is, I think, essential to making the scientific stories (including that of evolution) something that others can engage with in terms of their own observations/interpretations, both other academics and the "non-scientist part of the population" at large. Perhaps the same is true of the stories of humanists?
dmazella's picture

Can we distinguish between observations and interpretations?

Hi Paul,

You raise some fascinating issues here, and I feel somewhat unqualified to be arguing the science side of this, but at least our dialogue might provide some additional texture to the set of contrasts/similarities between science and humanities you've been developing. 

Here are my questions/responses to your last, and forgive me if these seem very basic:

1.   The "operational distinction" between observations and interpretations in humanities scholarship.  At first I thought that the distinction was fuzzy, but only in the humanities, since so much of our work involves reading, interpretation, historical reconstruction, constructions of meaning, etc.  Even "descriptive" projects like scholarly editions of canonical texts are now held to be interpretive, because of the process of selection and elaboration involved in annotation, choice of copy text, etc.  So I am unsure what a rock-bottom, basic "observation" would look like in my field.  Something like: "Here is a book.  The title, apparently, is Ulysses.  It says James Joyce on the cover." So it seems to me very hard to separate these two activities if we are describing any kind of construction of meaning for visual or verbal representations.  And I think that assuming the derivative nature of interpretations from observations invites us to assume that interpretations are somehow secondary when they are not, at least not in any simplistic way.  So the limitations of this "interpretations derived from observations" story seem important, and need to be explored further, especially when it is recommended for non-scientific fields as a model to be followed. 

2.  How would scholarly discussion in the humanities use such a distinction to achieve better dialogue? The difficulties of maintaining this separation are hard enough to imagine at the level of the individual observer, but they get compounded when we think about the complex issues of real, generative debates in the humanities.  Does Gulliver's Travels, for example, satirize misogyny, or does it itself stand as an example of such attitude?  Or both?  And what does that mean, if we find other aspects of the book that are worthy of our attention?  Where is the observation, where the interpretation in such a complex debate over aesthetic and moral values?

Ultimately, I think, the value-laden dimension of these debates makes it unlikely that any side in a real, generative argument will consent to someone else's rhetorical framing of the issue. (this is why one historian of rhetoric has compared rhetorical practice to a game of chess where the meaning of every piece, and every move, was negotiated between the two players, while the game was being played).  My point is that the problem of rhetoric here is not ornamental or external to the discussion, but it is precisely the only mode we have in which participants' values can be expressed to one another and debate pursued in some public space.

3.   The story/rhetoric distinction here, if it really does map onto observation/interpretation distinction as your last paragraph suggests, shows one of the difficulties of this communicative model: recognizing the distinction between observation and interpretation demands up front the very agreement that you hope it will produce among the heterogeneous participants of the discussion.  If all the participants in such a mixed space could agree about which part of the discussion was essentially unarguable (and warranted) and which part debatable, then there would be no need for discussion.  So this kind of prior consent to the scientific segregation (or, better yet, rhetorical framing) of the argument seems unlikely to me, at least in value-laden debates like creationism.


Paul Grobstein's picture

reciprocal learning at the science/humanities interface

Some further thoughts re

Suggestions from the sciences for the humanities

  • Distinguish more deliberately/clearly between what are, at any given time, observations as opposed to interpretations.
  • Recognize the uses of rational/analytic processes as well their limitations.
  • Pay more attention to time and space scales beyond the typically human (individual, cultural, historical).
  • Pay more attention to phenomena that are not creations of human beings but are of significance in their own right as well as the necessary underpinnings of all human creations.
  • Become more concerned with the generative capabilities of individual human beings as opposed to social/cultural constructs and products.
  • Develop more interactive modes of product creation and presentation.

Suggestions from the humanities for the sciences

  • Become more clear about the reciprocal dependence of observations and interpretations.
  • Recognize the limitations of rational/analytic processes as well their uses.
  • Pay more attention to human time and space scales (individual, cultural, historical).
  • Pay more attention to phenomena that are creations of human beings.
  • Become more concerned with the generative capabilities of individual human beings as opposed to social/cultural constructs and products.
  • Develop more esthetically appealing modes of product creation and presentation.
Paul Grobstein's picture

storytelling and story telling, in education and beyond

"storytelling is how we as teachers translate the materials and practices of a discipline into a form whereby the beginner can take them up for herself"

Interesting/highly relevant here that I had a similar conversation with a colleague in the sciences who also thought of storytelling as "an accomodation of the message to the audience." And its for that reason that I make a point of talking about "story telling" as opposed to "storytelling" (see Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?).

Its an ad hoc and idiosyncratic use of words but a distinction that I think is important. By "storytelling" I understand, as I think most people do, the practice of taking something that may or may not be itself engaging to an audience by dressing it up with connections, metaphors, and perhaps a narrative structure intended to make it more entertaining/amusing/accessible. As an educational practice this can sometimes work, but it has problems (such as the misleading messages inherent in "anthropomorphizing"). And it certainly is not "unhierarchical or pluralistic," which means it doesn't, for me, advance the cause of helping students become better inquirers themselves.

"Story telling," as I use it, means something quite different, something more akin to "The truth about stories is that that's all we are" (Thomas Young, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative). Stories are the way we all, whether academics or not, summarize observations in order to make sense of the world. They may be anthropomorphic or not, they may be cast in narrative form or not, but they have important features in common regardless. They are always context dependent, ie they reflect a restricted set of observations and so have an "authorial perspective." And they are, for the same reasons, always revisable, subject to change given new observations.

My point, of course, is that I don't see the products of disciplines as something separate from stories, something that needs to be dressed us by "story telling" to make it more palatable. The products of science are themselves stories, both context dependent and revisable. So too, in my terms, are, of course, the products of inquiries into 18th century literature, of economics, of political science, of philosophy, and so on. "Story telling" in the classroom is not, for me, replacing "the actual practices of the discipline" but is instead acknowledging/revealing the deepest part of those practices - the part that is most significant , useful, and engaging to students irrespective of whether they do or do not want to become practitioners of the particular discipline being taught. Finding out that its all "story" and learning something about the distinctive perspectives and observations represented by particular stories serves what seems to me my overriding obligation as an educator: to help students become more sophisticated inquirers.

Perhaps that sets a context for some further discussion, in at least two directions? One has to do with "disciplinary practices" and the degree of obligation we do (or do not) feel to prepare students to participate in the community of discourse we were outselves trained in and may continue to engage with. Should we, as educators, feel/act out of such an obligation? Or are we as educators (and perhaps as inquirers) better off working in a broader discourse community?

The second, related direction which I imagine would generate some useful further conversation has to do with how one generates/facilitates "broader discourse communities." My sense is that they must necessarily be "unhierarchical or pluralistic", and so the educational problem boils down to the question of how to position expertise (disciplinary or otherwise) in a pluralistic, non-hierarchical exchange. Part of the solution of that problem, I think, is not to translate expertise into stories but rather to acknowledge that it is already a story. The remaining problems have to do with how to tell disciplinary stories (or stories based on any sort of expertise) in a way that makes them accessible/useful/interesting to people in the discourse community who haven't been acculturated to a common story telling style (that's where the issues of "medium-range inferences" and whether "students need to feel they are grasping one things before they can grasp multiple things" becomes relevant). My sense is that learning to tell stories for a broader community would prove not only to make us better educators but probably better inquirers as well (even within our own disciplines).

dmazella's picture

"storytelling" vs. "story telling": same difference?

Hi Paul,

As a humanist, I'm not sure I'm getting the distinction you claim between these two modes of scholarly communication, "storytelling" and "story telling." 

They each seem to involve two distinct audiences (expert vs. non-expert) and distinct  purposes.  But I think that both modes here are rhetorical to the extent that the speaker accommodates her language and explanations to suit the intended audience's understanding, even if this accommodation is largely tacit and unconscious in the case of disciplinary conversations. 

So here's "storytelling," which seems to consist of the instructor's overtly rhetorical and pedagogical (post hoc?) explanations of disciplinary subject matter:

By "storytelling" I understand, as I think most people do, the practice of taking something that may or may not be itself engaging to an audience by dressing it up with connections, metaphors, and perhaps a narrative structure intended to make it more entertaining/amusing/accessible. As an educational practice this can sometimes work, but it has problems (such as the misleading messages inherent in "anthropomorphizing")

The interesting paradox I see here is that it is the "entertaining" and "narrative" dimension of the teacher's language that you find somewhat suspicious, even while you are celebrating your master-trope of "story," as in "story telling," which it turns out may not involve any narrative at all (see below). 

Metaphors, of course, can always "mislead" or "create problems" (rhetoric is tricky in the way it operates), but the fantasy of a transparent, perfectly dependable language free of figuration or rhetoric has been a recurring fantasy of scientific discourse since the days of Sprat and the Royal Society.  But how much control does the language user, even the scientist as language user, have over the meanings of her own metaphors?  Scientists, after all, must use language as they find it, and have no more control over their own and others' language than other kinds of users.

Your counter-term, "story telling" seems to involve disciplinary conversations but your description of them as "stories" even when they are non-narrative, visual, statistical, etc., indicates that you have transformed "story" into a metaphor for scholarly communications generally, in whatever forms these exchanges might take:

Stories are the way we all, whether academics or not, summarize observations in order to make sense of the world. They may be anthropomorphic or not, they may be cast in narrative form or not, but they have important features in common regardless. They are always context dependent, ie they reflect a restricted set of observations and so have an "authorial perspective." And they are, for the same reasons, always revisable, subject to change given new observations.

Now, once again, I have no problem with such a metaphor, which is both illuminating and partial in the way that all well-chosen metaphors are.  And there is no rhetorical point to be gained by trying to refute someone else's metaphor. 

But what I would ask you about would be the "unconceived alternative" of your figure of "story," the blindness produced by its insight, which to me is the relation of your supercharged notion of scholarly "story" to collective, scholarly, or disciplinary procedures of argument, debate, assessments, judgments, etc.?  In what ways does "story" include or not include this process of collective expert deliberation, argument, and judgment? 

The flat-out relativist position, which I don't think you would accept, would say that we all have stories, and one is as good as another.  If a high school biology teacher in a public school wants to teach Creationism as a "theory" alongside other "theories," then fine.  This is the "anything goes," position, a position that represents science simply as a matter of persuasion (not rhetoric), and lacking any basis in fact, evidence, or reasoned argument.

If we assume, however, that knowledge in different disciplines is produced by very specific linguistic frameworks of discussion, deliberation, evidence, argumentation, etc., then we can begin to articulate the kinds of linguistic bridges that might allow the different expert communities to communicate with one another, advance and revise each others' understandings, and to address (or build) the publics which might find their knowledge relevant or helpful.

Paul Grobstein's picture

"storytelling" and "story telling": more on the difference

Thanks for the challenges to the story story, the encouragement for some revisions ...

"Story," in my mind, is nothing more and nothing less than a "summary of observations," a way of making sense of the world one finds oneself in. In this sense, we are all, "academics or not," story tellers. Yes, as per the "flat-out relativist position ... we all have stories."

The distinction, in my mind, between "storytelling" and "story telling" is not one between two "modes of scholarly communication, nor one of "two distinct audiences (expert and non-expert)." It is much more general. Outside the scholarly realm, for example, I would regard much of advertising as "storytelling," and at least better journalists as engaged in "story telling." The audiences in these two cases may well be the same, as they could be for scholars engaged in "storytelling" or "story telling." The difference is in how one engages with that audience, which in turn follows from, yes, "distinct purposes" underlying the engagement.

Story tellers have a message to convey, and measure their success by their effectiveness in conveying it. For whatever reason (economic, moral, intellectual), they start with something they regard (consciously or unconsciously) as absolute, as not "story", and make a story out of it, dress it up for presentation in whatever way they think will make it palatable to their audience. The purpose of "storytelling" is to transmit something that is not a story, something that derives (perhaps) from "fact, evidence, or reasoned argument" (at least in the mind of the story teller).

"Story tellers," on the other hand, start from the premise (again conscious or unconscious) that what they have to convey is itself a story, that their audience consists also of story tellers who have their own stories, and that the point is not to convey a not-story message but rather to share stories with the expectation that doing so will result in story revisions, by the story teller a well as the audience. "Fact, evidence, and reasoned argument" may well play a role in the story told by the story teller (as in the minds of audience members). They do not, however, settle the issue (whatever it is). The purpose of "story telling" isn't in fact to settle anything in the present but rather to raise new questions, suggest new possibilities to be explored in the future (questions and possibilities that may well differ in the minds of the different story tellers involved).

What's different in the professional or disciplinary context from the "public" context is the relative homogeneity of the audience and their stories. In terms of professional or disciplinary work, this can be an asset, allowing participants to presume a lot of shared story elements and so move more quickly to issues where new questions and new possibilities seem likely to arise. Much of professional/disciplinary training is aimed at establishing that set of assumptions. What it doesn't do is well equip people with the story sharing skills needed to work with more heterogeneous audiences, either those needed to listen to/entertain alternate assumptions nor those needed to effectively convey the origins of one's own.

I'm all in favor of working "to articulate the kinds of linguistic bridges that might allow ... different expert communities to communicate with one another," but I see that challenge as a specific case of a more general one, and the requirement as more than "linguistic." What it seems to me is needed "to address (or build) the publics" is the same thing that is needed for effective interdisciplinary conversation: a willingness of at least some of us to lay down the mantle of the "expert" and become good story tellers - to recognize that what we have to bring to the table is a distinctive story reflecting distinctive experiences and ways of making sense of them, a story that could generate an interaction with the stories of others in a way that would be "relevant or helpful" to everyone, ourselves included.

Yes, of course, "story telling" is a metaphor (or "story") and hence should be expected to be "both illuminating and partial," to have associated with it "blindness produced by its own insight." But no, I don't think it is the same as "anything goes" (the rest of the "flat out relativism position") nor is it blind to "collective ... deliberation, argument and judgement." One could look in other places for its blindness (it ignores the possibility that someone, somewhere, actually has or might find the Truth?). Alternatively, one could take it as a given that all metaphors/stories have blindnesses (as this story of story itself acknowledges) and instead of searching for a blindness ask rather of this story (as of any other story) of what use is it today? What problems does it highlight that might be fixed because of it? Actually, of course, asking about usefulness and asking about blindness are not alternatives but complements, different routes to a similar end: the opening of new directions in the ongoing explorations of what it is to alive and to be human.
dmazella's picture

Should student grasp one thing or multiple things?

As per Paul's suggestion, I'm going to follow up on one of the points Alice and I discussed, which I began to wonder about as soon as I saw it in print:

Students need to feel that they are grasping one thing before they can grasp multiple things. This is why storytelling is so important, because it sets up hierarchies and priorities that are easily intelligible to even the beginning student.

This to me is intuitively true, as I think about my own teaching experience.  The beginning student is like the stranger who is new to an area and wants to know how to get to the highway.  Should you give this person a range of options and possibilities, or the single easiest or most direct route?

My gut feeling is that good storytelling exhibits the pedagogical effectiveness and memorability it does because it is hierarchical, because it lands within what Paul was calling the range of medium-range inferences, because it anticipates and responds to students' demands for answers to the essential questions (what happened? who did it? why did it happen? where did it take place? etc.)

So I know this technique works, and why it works, in terms of accommodation of the message to the audience. 

But (and forgive me if this seems obvious) what I don't see is how this kind of storytelling is inherently unhierarchical or pluralistic, which is a major theme characterizing much of the posting on this site.  I don't mind the stratified nature of this kind of teaching, but it seems that others here do.  So how does this circle get squared? Are hierarchized stories simply the precondition for independent inquiry?

In other words, storytelling is how we as teachers translate the materials and practices of a discipline into a form whereby the beginner can take them up for herself for her own independent inquiry, but it doesn't constitute the actual practices of the discipline, since practitioners don't need such frameworks.  But I think this emphasis on the mediation of storytelling takes us further away from actual disciplinary practices, the conversations that take place among experts.  Am I correct?


Anne Dalke's picture

Antidote to expertise: on-going conversation

Okay so now this is REALLY getting interesting....
...and I think actually "getting some place"?
(at least it feels like it's getting me someplace new....)

I didn't know Robbins' Social Text piece on "Interdisciplinarity in Public"
before, but having just read it now, I found it making a solid contribution, on three different counts, to our conversation here about education "between two cultures." The first has to do with using the concept of "rhetoric" to articulate a structure we can use to speak "from" a discipline "to" a larger public.

* Robbins argues that historically, entering into a discipline has meant adopting "the undemocratic exclusiveness" of "disciplinary specialization," and so entering into exile from the public sphere.

* He then suggests that we might re-construct a public sphere within the private domain of scholarship "by building a bridge between fields, one that "names a common discourse" that will "speak the language of its hearers."

I actually think that's how Serendip works (when it works best) to facilitate open-ended conversation: declining an authoritative posture and using widely accessible language in order to promote on-going (rather than trying to end) discussion.

...Which brings me to relevant-point-#2: Robbins' observation that "'quality' or value has always been a criterion of literature": The rhetoric common to all the disciplines of the humanities, he argues, is the rhetoric of praise and blame, which gives rise to "awkward," "absurd," "untenable" oppositions (like Bathes' "writerly" vs."readerly" texts, or Bakhtin's contrast between "monological" poetry and "dialogical" prose). Robbins goes so far as to claim that this "urge to generate differential value" appears "for the moment to be a disciplinary necessity"--which suggests to me that building interdisciplinary bridges might be a very effective way of challenging the necessity of such judgments, by moving the conversation to a different "inbetween" place where judgment (and the stopping of conversation that entails) isn't primary--or even possible.

The third and-also-related point may be a delight mostly to me (and mayhaps to my co-authors of "Metaphor and Metonymy, Synecdoche and Surprise"): it's Robbins' evocation of a rhetorical framework of "four tropes--metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony" as defining the "deep structure of the historical imagination." Compare our schematic of the intellectual exchange between two individuals in a cross-disciplinary conversation, each traversing their own metaphoric and metonymic levels,


which is, in turn, a re-working of the semiotic square
first designed by Algirdas Greimas:

What I notice in this sequence of revisions is Jameson's suggestion that "Not S2, the negation of the always the most critical position," "the one that remains open or empty for the longest time"--and the absence of irony (on both counts) in our own scheme. By keeping the conversation open, keeping the ideas in play, we never arrive @ the space of absolute contradiction--and stalemate.

Which may return us to both of what Robbins calls the "rival" definitions of rhetoric: as a "perpetually destabilizing figuration" and as "practical, public speech...which links its indeterminacy not to language...but to the contingencies of action."

Anybody else following this....or have I gone "too" far?

dmazella's picture

rhetoric, interdisciplinarity, and public-making

Hi Anne,

I, too, think that Robbins offers a way forward on a number of fronts. 

But I would also like to preserve a distinction between rhetoric and conversation, because, as Robbins points out, this latest return to rhetoric is about how disciplines might contingently negotiate their own authority and relations with one another, not the creation of a totalizing interdisciplinary rhetoric (or conversation) that would stand apart from the disciplines and judge them in the name of the public (cf. 115). 

Such a permanent subordination of the disciplines to an all-encompassing, monolithic public would ultimately be anti-rhetorical.  Rhetoric is what leaves open the possibility of the upending of hierarchies, the weaker (argument) defeating the stronger.

Here is a key formulation in Robbins's argument:

[Rhetoric] has offered its tools of analysis to other, more authoritative
disciplines beginning to problematize their own rhetoric, and it has
claimed a central place in politically-charged interdisciplinary projects
like "cultural studies," whose collapsing of the elite/popular divide and
democratizing of subject matter give it a self-evident claim to public
responsiveness (104).

So the crucial move for Robbins, I think, lies in his conceptualization of the multiple, constitutively incomplete publics and disciplines that address and inform one another.  His term for this revisionist rhetorical practice is "public-making":

This task could be described as "public-making": making public or visible, opening to a variety of perspectives and judgments, but also the interdisciplinary fashioning of new publics, new instances of judgment, new collective viewpoints (116).

So how do we reconcile this notion of public-making (and its "new instances of judgment") with what we already know about education and inquiry?


Paul Grobstein's picture

"public-making," inquiry, and education?

My guess too, now avowedly out of BOTH skepticism and cynicism, is that "a totalizing interdisciplinary rhetoric" is not a possible or even desireable direction. Hesse's Bead Game borrowed from and intersected the disciplines; it neither replaced them nor judged them "in the name of the public". It served as a generative activity in its own right, a specialized activity of its own that both derived from and fed back to science, humanities, performing arts, crafts, and all other aspects of human life.

"Public-making" seems to me an important objective, but not one that everyone can/should engage in. The situation has, I think, an exact parallel in biological systems. The heart does a better job of pushing blood around because it doesn't also have to be organized to to clean the blood; the latter is the kidney's problem, which it does better not having to also push blood the entire body. The brain, not having to be organized to do either of those jobs, can instead be organized to coordinate, to collect information from a lot of different places, integrate it, and redistribute it. "Public making" is a specialized job, just like pumping blood or cleaning it. For more along these lines, see Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond: The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization.

So "how do we concile this notion of public-making with ... education and inquiry"? My sense is that we don't so much "reconcile" them, as recognize some irreconcilable differences and work from there. The starting point, it seems to me, is the need to acknowledge that the kind of training that has evolved (presumably adaptively) to produce scholars in the disciplines really does not produce either good teachers or good "public-makers." The latter, probably the same thing or closely related, requires distinctive abilities/perspectives, including an inclination and ability to listen to and hear the stories of people with different backgrounds and the related inclination/ability to tell stories in ways that are engaging to people with different backgrounds.

At the moment, academia does nothing to encourage that set of skills/perspectives in anyone. Maybe, if it is serious about education in the modern world, academia needs to create a niche/career path for such people, in both the sciences and the humanities? Not a niche/career path for "educators" but one for inquirers who work in an interdisciplinary and public mode and so have/acquire perspectives/skills needed for education? And, in the meanwhile, those of who us inclined in that direction need to pursue it, out of our own inclinations as well as to provide a model for directions of academic evolution?

David Mazella's picture

Cynics and the objects of science and humanities?

Thanks, Anne, for giving the book a read. I hope you found it useful in some way.

As I was writing it, my unconscious metaphor for the Ancient Cynics was indeed the blogosphere, especially in its tactical incivilities and willingness to challenge local understandings and moralities. Part of this derived from the practice of Cynic preaching, which was conducted in the open by the Cynic philosopher, who exposed himself (in every sense of the word) to the vagaries of homelessness and exile, and the derision of crowds, to live an "other" life, a truly philosophical (meaning anti-conventional) life.

Hence, the stories of Diogenes (written by others, since he was too busy living to record his own life) became an important counter-history to the official philosophical histories of Plato etc., because it demanded action, emulation, story-telling and a harmonization of word and deed, rather than philosophical doctrine, or a merely verbal philosophy. And so Diogenes gets progressively written out of the philosophical histories between the era of Bayle and Hegel. But that's another story, for another argument.

When it comes to the objects of our analysis, I agree that the distinction between first-hand observation and culturally embedded phenomena blurs when we consider the cultural conditioning of our acts of observation. So no argument about that. (But how, exactly, does one "observe" one's social conditioning at first-hand, except by retrospection, observation of others, and awareness of their historical conditioning?)

But I think the "two cultures" typically divide about the existence of such conditioning and how this kind of awareness should be incorporated back into one's research-process. Scientists, if we look at the Sokal affair and its reception by the press and the scientific establishment, were (for the most part) thrilled at Sokal's supposed humiliation of the "relativists" and "postmoderns." (I saw PG's response, but this to me still seemed a minority voice) And while the humanists weren't thrilled at Social Text's editorial sloppiness, I haven't seen any retreat from the notion of cultural (meaning historical, ideological, social) conditioning in their own and others' research.

I think that the recent public debates about environmental science, creationism and intelligent design in the public schools, and the current regime's politicization of both science and religion has alerted not just humanists but also scientists to the need to address and persuade its publics, to gain support against these kinds of incursions.

This means that scientists will need to drop their reliance upon their supposed authority as expert representatives of an apolitical knowledge, and the humanities need to address wider publics and rethink their own forms of mandarin insiderese. In a word, both cultures may need to rethink their attitudes toward the public, and how they address it in a media environment that no longer takes their structures of authority for granted. But both of these gestures constitute a rethinking of the denial of rhetoric that created the two culture divide in the first place. For a nice take on this, see Bruce Robbins' piece on the Rhetoric of Rhetoric, published, of course, in Social Text:

[sorry Paul, about the paste-ins]

So here's my thousand dollar question: to what extent does Robbins's (and others') proposed revisiting of rhetoric dissolve the two cultures divide?