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Choices and Constraints: How We Decide

Fall 2008 Working Group On
"Choices and Constraints: How We Decide"

Sponsored by the Center for Science in Society and
The Social Science Center @
Bryn Mawr College, Dalton 212E,
1-2 p.m. on alternate Thursdays
"The desire to have it all and the illusion that we can is one of the
principal sources of torture of modern affluent free and autonomous
thinkers." Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2003)

"Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of human
appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a
creature that could conceive of eating anything (including, notably, other
humans) stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners, and rituals."
Michael Pollen, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Story of Four Meals (2006)

This series of conversations is designed to explore how--
as "free thinkers" with "open-ended human appetites"--
we are making our choices in a world that we may experience as too constrained
and/or too bountiful. Over the course of the semester, Bryn Mawr faculty and staff
will tell stories about constraints they have faced and choices they have made.
What guides our choices? What consequences might those decisions have
for ourselves, for others, for the college, the county, the country, the world?

A continuation of working groups on
Seeing Through Different Eyes
(Spring 2008)
Risk-Taking in the Academy (Fall 2007)

Sept. 11: Mark Lord (Theater)
The Play of Choosing

Sept. 25: Carol Bower (Athletics), Tom Ciaccio (Transporation),
Ibrahim Edwards (Erdman) and Alice Lesnick (Education)

On Choosing to Become Teachers and Students

Oct. 9:
Anne Dalke (English) and Wil Franklin (Biology)
"Choosing Who We Are"


Oct. 23: Sandy Schram (Social Work)

How the Disciplines of Sociology and Economics
(Don't Actually) Think Differently About Choice

Nov. 6: Vanessa Christman (Intercultural Affairs)
and Michelle Manchini (Dean's Office)
Advising Ourselves, Advising Our Students

Nov. 20: Darla Himeles (Staff Education)
and Elizabeth Catanese (Delaware Valley Friends School)

On Writing Choices

Dec. 4: Paul Grobstein (Biology)

Choosing Futures: The Brain's Way


Further Reading
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address
In Personal Finance, Choice can be a Tyranny


Anne Dalke's picture

Collaborative Poetry Writing

Stepping off from our last session, in which Michelle Mancini described the "aesthetic" limits of the sonnet form, Darla and Elizabeth traced the various ways in which limits might "bring forth some freeing stuff."

In a course on Joyce and Beckett @ Haverford some years ago, they collaborated on a paper that opened up new creative and academic possibilities for themselves, a paper in which they explored multiple viewpoints, multiple endpoints. From that point, they have evolved a collaborative poetry writing process, during which they write in silence, finishing one another's sentences. They described the process as "feminist," because open; as "political," because they're listening, not intervening prematurely when another is speaking; and as a revision of the writing process, because it is neither solitary or linear.

After writing contrapuntally, they edit, and title their poem, because they think "naming is important." The product matters to them--they hope to create poems that matter to others--but "it's largely about the process; and meaning-making happens in the revision." They use this process to alter a mood; if one is feeling tired, or discouraged, for instance, the other might say, "Can we just write a poem real quick?" It works like a prayer. Like a song. Like therapy. It can be a way through strain.

Evoking 'the artless art" described in Zen and the Art of Archery-- "when the body is working, let it work. Get out of the way"--Darla and Elizabeth demonstrated their process of collaborative poetry-writing, and then invited the group to pair up and try it out. In doing so, we discovered what it might feel like to "shut off the process" of anticipating the next line, by letting one's partner write it.

For some of us this was a "game," a practice of "stopping, giving it over"; for others, it was more competitive, a one-upman-ship or challenge to the other. It is certainly a way of "working on self-editing," of giving over the need (or possibility) of controlling the outcome. When it works, this can be a process of "getting rid of control," a kind of honesty that "allows things to come that are not preconceived." Perhaps--chemically, physiologically--it involves a kind of "alignment on the inside."

We speculated about the degree to which this process exemplified "theory of mind"--the ability to imagine that another has thoughts different than oneself (as well as the ability to anticipate what those thoughts might be, what the other is going to do). This process is akin to that of being a poet who anticipates what a reader might think about one's writing; it is a form of collaborative criticism. It is reminiscent of the collaborative exercise of drawing a "chimera" (in which several  children are each invited to draw a portion of an animal's body, without seeing what the other portions look like).

We also imagined what it might be like to do "collaborative" architecture on this model, with one person drawing a plan, and others successively "adding a wing," etc. Other possible areas of application include therapy, and workshops in the Social Justice Pilot program.

In this process, one discovers that what "appears to be an ending" might actually constitute a new beginning. Rather than writing lines that might "close down the poem," one learns to write those that might be generative for another. This process demonstrates not only the large number of connections among us, but also one way to find them.


Paul Grobstein's picture

choosing and advising

I find myself increasingly declining to "advise" students and, instead, trying to figure out what I can do to un-block them. The underlying idea here is that choice is actually a lot easier than we often feel it to be when we think about it. Students (and others) most frequently have trouble making choices because they can think of one thing or another wrong with everything they have thought of. And frequently are most helped by someone either giving permission to ignore something they think is wrong or suggesting additional alternatives that hadn't occured to them. The problem in general isn't too many choices but not enough "good" ones, where "good" means opening up a future that has intriguing possibilities in it, one that one looks forward to exploring.

Along these lines, I'm inclined to argue that one should think of any current situation not in terms of "limitations" or '"constraints" but rather in terms of what opportunities it makes available. The former presumes one knows where one is trying to get to; the latter offers the option of instead looking forward to further exploring. My guess is that, given the genuine option, people will generally choose the latter.

Alice Lesnick's picture

about advice

One thing, among many, that stays with me from today's so interesting discussion (thanks, Michelle, Vanessa, and Anne) is the question whether students can ever learn from good advice or only by trying things (such as putting unrealistic grade pressure on themselves) out and seeing what works and what doesn't. One problem is that trying it out doesn't always lead to seeing. Sometimes seeing is blocked. Also, can it be that dialogue with a good advisor can be a matter of doing, not just of telling/being told to? In terms of the framing of today's session, when can listening/engaging with another itself be a choice, a [wonderfu] enrichment/extension of self and of self-knowledge?

Another thing I am thinking about is attention. How if one's attention is taken up with all of the matter of a big (relative term, I know) house, one can't give as much attention to other things. So: if I pay attention to the fashion of my cutlery, how much does that draw away from my attention to someone else, or to how words sound, or to world politics? Or, is attention not finite in this way?

Anne Dalke's picture

Choosing our Limits

Our discussion opened with a discussion of the work of Andrea Zittel, who has experimented extensively with the creation of compact "live-work" spaces, in accord with the notion that "What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves." To choose limits, it was suggested, is to be invested in those possibilities.

Discussion ranged from the sonnet form (a thinking about limitations rooted in aesthetics) through choices about what we eat (being vegetarian), how we get around (being carless), to decisions about where to go to college, where to work, whether to have children or health insurace--as well as some questions about the implications of being privileged enough to choose voluntary poverty.

The conversation then turned to what it might mean to advise our students about learning to limit their choices--and how that might differ from asking them to "step back" and consider their choices from a larger perspective. How careful must we be in the messages we give, as we model our lives for our students?
Coming to a women's college, they have chosen--some more consciously than others--a whole set of constraints. How useful is it to talk with them about the "roadblocks" ("checkpoints"? "tollbooths"?) the college sets up: those moments of assessment that are required of them, against which they might chafe? It may be helpful to get them to see that they are making choices even when they don't perceive that they are--that they are participating in constraints they may see as imposed. For example, it is not the case that "they don't have the time"; rather, they (and we) are choosing to "find" or "make" the time to do some things and not others. What happens if--having brought all our resources to guiding them--they "mis-choose," make choices that are ill-advised or even harmful? If they don't choose the necessary restraints, should we choose for them? And what of the fine line between embracing our constraints and being resigned to them?

It was suggested that much of what people do is constrained internally (if one elects to take one's own life, is that a choice?). Why might two siblings, from the same modest background, make very different choices--one living as a maximalist, the other as a minimalist--in the ways they live their lives? Is there another way to conceptualize choice than as denying oneself the "huge basket of goods" that is life, and so "choosing impoverishment"? Perhaps by thinking about each choice we make as opening up a range of possibilities, rather than closing off others? This would be choice not as denial, but as openness. Think, for example, of the honesty of wedding vows with "no endpoint," but an open-ended commitment to learning with another. Mention was also made of the "beggar's bowl," of "liking to work with little," of "radical dependence," of "coming to college with only an empty pillowcase" and what it could hold--and seeing how far you could go with that.

We need to learn to see as choices the things we think are necessities. (How about re-writing "when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary...." in terms of making a choice?) When students feel they have no alternatives, we need to advise them that they always have some, resisting the tendency to use the lack of alternatives as a justification for (non) action.

Anne Dalke's picture

Behavior Economics Makes the News

Your Brain's Secret Ballot (from NYTimes, 10/27/08):
decision-making is thought to involve two parts, gathering evidence and committing to a choice...Inherent to this process is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. Commit early and you can get on with your life. Take more time and you might make a wiser or more accurate decision....

(Re: those still-undecided voters)

Anne Dalke's picture

"For all practical purposes"

Sandy initiated our conversation today by describing the work he has been doing with caseworkers and for-profit contractors, who are collaborating on welfare to work in Florida; this project is framed in terms of institutional and social economics.

He explained that Herbert Simon, a professor of public administration and a polymath who also contributed to work on artificial intelligence, received the Nobel prize in Economics in the 1980s for work he had done on Adminstrative Behavior in 1947: his argument was that people "satisficed," rather than "maximizing." Being constrained in the choices they made, they relied not on "perfect" but "bounded rationality." Simon's work drew on the "new field of social psychology" in making decision models more realistic, because reflective of actual perception, cognition, and behavior.

This led to a "new experimental economics," which replaced classical economic models--that had asked what the rational decision would be, if one had perfect information--with a recognition of the limits of both time and information. These ideas have since been widely applied; recent work on web usability, for instance, references "satisficing": rather than reading web pages all the way down, surfers are likely to "satisfice" with the first link they find.

Sandy contrasted "rational comprehensive decision-making" (a form of planning that presumes universal rationality, with all goals surveyed and weighed in order to maximize objectives) with "incrementalism" (which advocates "taking the next step," in an attempt to improve on what has been done, but without setting long-term goals). Several apt jokes were evoked @ this point: Simon's "marriage rule" (rather than making a comprehensive survey of all candidates for potential soul mates, we prepare to marry by "sampling the market and chosing the next best thing that comes along") was followed by a story, told by Arthur C. Clarke, of a room in which women line up on one side, men on the other. Each group moves, again and again, across 1/2 the distance which separates them. Zeno's paradox is operating here: they never actually reach each other, but do get close enough "for all practical purposes."

Such stories, it was claimed, are insignificant except in light of the concept of "perfect information": without the implied comparison of a perfect world, "good enough for all practical purposes" becomes "just everyday life." This led to considerable discussion. Habermas's ideal speech act was evoked, as an important regulative ideal: we should evaluate our actions based on what we might agree to if we could get "outside of" power relations, even if such positions are not achievable. The science of physics was also invoked: none of Newton's three laws are "true" in real life, but only work in a laboratory where all variables are eliminated. Such idealizing enables us to come up with useful information, and Newton influenced economists such as Adam Smith.

So, we asked ourselves: which is better? A "vacuum, friction-free" model of markets, or a more behavioral one? In the abstract, such a question may be unanswerable. Ideal laws are useful, if they can be adjusted for perturbations, and to individual cases. But perfect information is a fiction, and economics has moved away from predictive models to richer, more contextual ones. The operative premise here needs to be Einstein's: we must "never mistake the ways we have of making sense of things for the things themselves"; there is no ready corespondence between models and the things being modeled. Only the concept of an ideal world makes either the joke about the marriage rule or the one "for all practical purposes" funny.

Perhaps there is no important paradox here, but simply the need to acknowledge the distinction between theory and practice ("physicists try to understand, engineers get the job done"). Classic decision-making models have not worked, when applied to government, because they aren't realistic enough; government reform has been naive in its failure to take politics into account. Anthony Appiah developed a similar argument during his lectures @ Bryn Mawr two years ago: philosophy and ethics have become too abstract.

Alternatively, instead of complaiing that models are unrealistic, because they don't work in specific cases, we might instead recognize that all models are imperfect, and engage in incrementalism: noting failings, improving the models as best we can. Criticism of abstraction arises from the same foundation that gives rise to abstraction itself: a belief in the possibility of perfect information. Never expect a model to be applicable in all cases: it is never an end, but can be used instead as an initial step in a continuing process.

There's a difference between mechanical actions and those of people, who have consciousness, and can keep on revising what they do. Steve Toulman's Return to Reason was invoked: this is a critique of abstract rationality--a form of science foisted on social scientists--that requires the balance of "situated reasoning." We closed with some musings about the ways in which the ideal world functions as the source of judgments made in this one.

Anne Dalke's picture

On the use-value of rules?

So, Sandy (having now written up our conversation and spent some time reflecting on it), here's what I can't quite make sense of: the tension between your

  • advocating for a kind of "bounded rationality," in the form of more realistic decision models, reflective of actual perception, cognition, and behavior--and
  • evoking Habermas's ideal speech act as an important regulative ideal, a touchstone for evaluating our actions, based on what we might agree to if we could get "outside of" power relations, even if such positions are not achievable.

In the first case, you construct a critique of classic decision-making models, which haven't worked because they aren't realistic enough; in the second, you are advocating for the appropriateness of using an abstract ideal to guide our behavior in the real world.

Is there a consistency here I'm missing?
Or a way to make sense of the inconsistency?

Anne Dalke's picture

Core and Periphery: Re-locating Ourselves @ the Center

Alice initiated our conversation by asking why we chose the role of teacher and learning (through the Teaching and Learning Initiative or elsewhere): What (understandings? skills? challenges and difficulties? questions? changes) come about as a result of this choice?

Ibraham, Carol and Tom all spoke to those questions, describing the learning that has taken place outside the classroom as they work one-on-one with students: realizing how easy it is "to forget what I was told, and asking to be told again"; of learning to adjust to radically different time schedules; of moving from the perimeter (where one sees a different perspective, "looking in") to the center of campus, where others might be walking by; of "getting away from the intellectual" and "going into the domain of the physical"; of the "remedial work of getting back into our bodies"; of incorporating a "whole philosophy that goes on here, that I don't understand"; of "learning outside the instructions you are given"; of the "gift exchange" that initiates a TLI; of being invited to different events on campus, and realizing all the ways in which we might be connected with one another. Many of these stories were about "not finishing," not "going as far as we wanted to"; they were "stories of incompleteness, where the outcome was in doubt."

Discussion began with the question of whether, given these descriptions of a different kind of relational learning, "we actually need the books and classes part" of Bryn Mawr. Do we really need to master the classics before developing our own stuff, stepping off from what has been done and expanding on it? How important is it for a teacher to ask students what they are looking for, to find out where people are before starting a program of study with them? Conversation turned to the phenomenon of students saying they "don't know how they are doing" (if they aren't given grades), the likelihood that--unless we center in our own journeys--we will all continue to think that (because of age, training, location in the college hierarchy) we are on the periphery. No one thinks they are @ the center.

This may be particularly true for our students, for whom so many key choices have been made by others. As time goes on, we hope they can become increasingly independent, and able to choose for themselves what it is they seek, and pursue it. If they are not centered in this way, they will feel overwhelmed by, and have no way to distinguish among, the available choices. There may be a correlation between knowing oneself and the ability to choose. Being disassociated from ourselves affects how we perceive our choices.

Being convinced that all our choices have consequences can also make us feel stressed. It would be great if we could engage in more of the sort of choosing Mark described two weeks ago--making choices without thinking about the consequences: choices that feel more "embodied" than compelled by our reflecting on them. There is a difference between learning that is externally motivated by what others tell us we "should" know, and choosing to learn what we want. Students have "not chosen the barometer that measures how they do"; they go through cycles of "exploding choices," then narrowing them down.

Books are a relatively recent invention; learning went on before they existed, and has gone on since without them. Perhaps they negatively influence our sense of how we are doing. When we are making something material, or performing something physical, "how we are doing is evident in what we are doing"; but in book work, what we know might not be so clear. "We don't know what we don't know." This might be key to our shared sense that we are "all on the periphery": the idea that "someone else has to be the judge of our progress," and books may well contribute to that sort of judgment. A "good job" then becomes relative to what others do, and we are inhibited from thinking of ourselves as teachers; we assume that we are only learners.

Perhaps there is a difference, in self-reliance, between those children whose parents "smile @ them because they get it right," and those whose parents smile "because they really enjoy the kid." We can also learn, however, by "brushing up against one another" (think of what Religious Life might learn this year, by sharing their space on Cambrian Row with the Theater Program--and vice versa).

We are failing, so long as our students look to us to know "how they are doing." Giving too many instructions--or offering a review of what is "great"--can have this effect. There are at least two standards here: how much one can learn, vs. looking for others' judgment of where one is, in relation to others. The process is incremental: classroom teachers should be inviting students to make free choices, and students should know that they will not be judged by the choices they make, which should be personalized in their own terms.

However: grades matter. They represent our ability to do work, to produce, to think. Perhaps we need to make a different kind of success--that which is inherent in the performance itself, rather than in others' judgment of it--more modal. Or perhaps that analogy, of winning and losing, doesn't really work, either: faculty can't "win" @ the work they do, for instance; they must keep on struggling.

Anne Dalke's picture


Mark began our discussion by noting the date--September 11--and remembering the conversations which took place on campus and on-line seven years ago: conversations held "in the spirit of asking, of our not knowing." He hoped to evoke the same spirit in our conversation today.

Americans often identify choice as "our triumphant, transcendent virtue": "pro-choice" is a crucial political position for many of us; most of us--as consumers, residents, democrats--think that it's good to have choices, and think of ourselves as free because we have so many options (so many channels?) to choose among. But our lives are complexified by choice. Following Sartre--who said, famously, that we "are condemned to freedom," inauthentic if we foist our moment-to-moment choices off onto obligation--Mark highlighted the weary-ness of this process of continuously taking responsibility for choosing, acknowledging that "what we do is what we are." For example, as gender becomes increasingly "unfixed," we may recognize that we are responsible for choosing, every moment, where we locate ourselves on a spectrum. It can take a lot of effort, every day being "a big drag to pass."

This sort of existential responsibility may seem to differ from the sort of dilemmas Barry Schwartz describes in The Paradox of Choice, which--beginning with the problem of chosing the right jeans--contrasts the unhappy attitude of "maximizers," who feel they must make the best choice, with that of "satificers," who are more content, over time, with the choices they make. And yet the process of shopping that Schwartz describes is "not just about the object"; these choices are so weighted because they are really about who we perceive ourselves to be: what class we belong to, what we deserve to have, what (technological?) replacements we might find for friendships we don't have.

And yet: we might tell ourselves another story than this one about valuing our freedom and being in control of the choices we make. This could be a story about "choicelessness," about those moments when things fall into place without our seeming to select them, when "the path just seems to unfurl before us": those times when our life's work or life's partner present themselves to us, when we start a new job or relationship, feeling that we can continue to know and grow there; or conversely, when we decide to acknowledge that such an arrangement has come to an end, and there is a feeling of inevitability about what has happened.

Might both these stories be true? Consider the history of modern art, sometimes told as a move from "taking commissions to making decisions" (for example, Duchamp's 1914 found-art piece, "Fountain," a urinal declared a work of art, not because he made or moved it, but because he chose it). Theater has followed the same trajectory, if a little more slowly. Mark described three modes of theater-watching:

1) conventional Aristotelian theater, in which the audience is "seduced," invited into an empathic relation with the characters, into a story designed by the playwright and selected by the director. The role of the audience is only to enjoy the experience, as they might a fine meal. Swept up by the narration, they make no choices of their own, but follow the point of view that has been chosen for them.

2) Brechtian theater challenges the "outrage" of the conventional model by refusing to allow the audience to accept, uncritically, what happens. In Marxist theater, which insists that the play--and the world--can be changed, actors less embody characters than demonstrate possible actions; the mechanics of design, lighting and scenery are revealed; and the audience is forced to discuss what happens next, to engage in critical dialogue about social events, to "root for ideas in production." Brecht argued that this sort of theater--and its adjuncts, such as his "epic smoking theater"--would be more enjoyable than conventional drama; he was interested in his audience's taking positions, in their making coherent, logical arguments for their choices.

3) A postmodern theater of connection and engagement (the sort Mark attempts to practice) aims to invite the audience to enter instead into intuitive, active, engaged and playful relation with the thing before us. It "brings the theater towards the audience," highlighting the activities in which not all the choices are made by the playwright. Instead of letting the play "stay on other side of the proscenium," it might (for instance) give audience members a multiplicity of things to attend to, and a a choice of where to stand in relation to them. Mark gave the example of a recent Live Arts dance performance, which used a South Philadelphia neighborhood for its "formal staging value," inviting thereby a complexity of social relations, as paying audience members were joined by neighborhood children.

In the discussion which followed, it was suggested that conventional theater might also be described as an attempt at communication, and that conventional classrooms--which don't insist impose on all students the necessity of participating in a conversation--might actually allow them more choices. Mention was also made of the soliloquies of Hamlet, who wants to "be in a state of choicelessness", and so ready for any opportunity.

What was the relationship between where Mark started and "where he came out," between the yearnings after choice and choicelessness which he described so vividly, and his own aspirations as an artistic director? We realized in conversation that there are "different kinds of choices," and no necessity of conflict between them. Sensing that "the fundamental economy of art is impoverished," Mark attempts to make the act of choosing playful and fun for his audiences, structuring situations in which there is "no cost for selecting one option over another." Mark recalled one production in which selected audiences of one "felt too much pressure to appreciate and honor all that was presented to them"; he would like to create dramas, like "Wandering Alice" (also just performed at the Live Arts Festival) where there is an "unceasing delight in play, discovery, recognition, connectedness"

...and choicelessness, understood as meaning either that the "alternatives don't really matter," or--if they do--that the audience is making them "without anticipating the negatives." Such choices "are not dominated by thinking about the consequences"; they "take place only in present time." We might call these "unconscious choices" in which we can revel and take pleasure. They are very different from the Brechtian emphasis on conscious choice. (Challenged once with doing something "in clear violation of his theory," Brecht replied, "I'll decide when we use a theory around here.")

Mark was also asked about his "romantic representation" of the children who attended the Live Arts dance performance; it was suggested that they were "no more free of boundaries" than were the adults who paid for the tickets, though they may have been making different choices. Granting that "engagement has more strands in it than delight," how might "responsibility and politics" come into play in postmodern theater? Mark suggested that they might lie in a "willingness to form community," and a recognition that it might take many forms of expression. In the Headlong Dance Theater production of "Cell," for instance, not all audience members who want to dance can; "hobbled by life," they may need to have their limits acknowledged, and yet be able to "move out in lots of directions."

In two weeks, Alice Lesnick will facilitate the second of the discussions in this series, as members of the Bryn Mawr staff talk about " Choosing to Become a Teacher and a Student."

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