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On not making people happy


“People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.” Joan Didion, On Self-Respect.

I was told to go away and read Bernstein, so that’s what I did. It was a pretty painful experience; he is, frankly, a terrible writer, and there is something migraine-inducing in how his theories add layer upon layer of increasingly complicated mechanisms in an attempt to explain away the contingency, messiness and ultimately unknowable nature of the social world. But I struggled on through my frustration, drawing diagrams and taking notes, but without being really sure why I was persevering. This was the compass I had been given, and so I trusted that this was the route I should follow. I wanted to do what was asked of me and make my teachers happy.

It strikes me that trust is a fundamental element of education. The process of education is inherently unknowable. We don’t know exactly where we are going or how we are going to get there and the journey is different for all of us. The kind of learning in which we can identify a goal, fully understand what it entails to achieve that goal, and know exactly the steps to get there is not particularly meaningful; I might describe it as training rather than education. Gert Biesta describes this as the principle of ‘deconstruction’ in education – it is always open to otherness. And because of this element of unknowability, we put our trust in the process, and particularly our teachers, without quite knowing where it will take us or how we’ll get there.

Those of us who do well at education learn to live with the uncertainty of the journey because we know that sooner – or more likely later – our trust is repaid, and we will end up somewhere interesting and worthwhile. What must it be like for children who just can’t put their trust in the institutions of schooling or feel that they cannot trust those in authority? If you couldn’t trust the process not to leave you feeling worse than when you started, why would you even risk the uncertainty?

But sooner or later we have to start trusting that we’ll find the way ourselves, or at least trust our instincts that  we’re heading in a good direction. Putting our trust entirely in our teachers means we never have to quite take responsibility for what we say; we wait until we have been given permission that we know enough, have met the required standards. We hedge our bets, taking out insurance policies against criticism by waiting for the nod that we have reached our destination and are permitted to speak. But this comes at a high price: which is failing to learn to trust or respect ourselves. This is what I take from Joan Didion’s quote at the beginning of this post. To have self-respect is to put ourselves out there, to take the risk, and, yes, perhaps get it wrong, leave something out or piss people off. To have self-respect is about not waiting for someone to give us permission to speak, speaking only when we are certain that our statements are bomb-proof or editing out any possible offence so our statements are acceptable to all. To have self-respect is to resist fashioning ourselves into a mirror in which everyone sees something agreeable. Though it is easier said than done in a world where our public performances can be tracked, coded, decontextualised and used against us, it’s important to give ourselves permission to say something, to take the risk of being an idiot in public, to invest ourselves without  mortgaging our ideas to our teachers.

Ultimately, I must trust that actually, I do have a pretty good idea of where it is that I’m going. Yes, I have things to learn. Yes, I don’t exactly know what my destination will look like when I get there. But if I put my trust only in my guides and not myself, if I wait for their permission before owning my work then I will not learn to trust my own judgement. To have the kind of self-respect Joan Didion talks about is to risk seeming naïve, to say things I might change my mind about, to trust my own instincts about where I’m going.

Having this kind of self-respect means next time, hopefully I can resist dutifully spending weeks ploughing through interesting but ultimately distracting detours like Bernsteinian theory. Time to take the risk of actually investing myself in this venture, in the full knowledge it might fail. Failing better, all the time.

Thanks to this post at Marginal Utility for bringing the Joan Didion quote to my attention; I am planning a later piece on how we use data about ourselves that draws more substantively on the points made in that article.

The photo of Joan Didion is from here.

Failure, productivity and audience in #acwrimo

Productivity - TDL

Photo credit: koalazymonkey via Flickr

I signed up for Academic Writing Month soon after it started. I hoped that it would help get me into some good writing habits. Plus, I needed to get my MPhil upgrade document written (a 10-15,000 word extended research proposal for my PhD). I promised to spend the first two hours of every morning focused solely on writing tasks (including reading, note-taking and planning) and to write 500 words a day without worrying too much about whether those words were good enough or would make it into my final draft. I went public with this pledge on twitter and on the shared accountability spreadsheet. I was hoping that I would develop some good habits so writing every morning became something I didn’t have to think about, and to get a better idea of how long it really takes me to do something. Because I often find myself flicking between several things at once, it’s hard to know how long any one task would really take me, and as a result I often drastically underestimate it.

I haven’t stuck to my goals – even slightly. And I haven’t participated in the community aspect either. I peer through my fingers at the #acwrimo twitter stream with a mixture of guilt at not participating more, and jealousy of others’ success. Public accountability is a big part of #acwrimo, but because I don’t actually know anyone else involved it doesn’t feel that real: If I don’t keep up my promise, no one except me will know or care. But while public accountability can be incredibly motivating (for some people), having fallen behind with my aims, I feel like I need to achieve something worth sharing before I can start participating again. And with each day that passes, it feels like the something needs to be even bigger to justify my re-entry.

The Thesis Whisperer describes her concerns about #acwrimo feeding in to an academic culture built on an unhealthy obsession with urgency, productivity and performance metrics that can leave many burnt out. What changed her mind is the ability to set her own goals and targets around her own working patterns – so to write for a period of time rather than produce a set number of words. And PhD2Published, heroically coordinating the twitter chat, emphasise that it should be about finding and extending each individual’s personal best way of writing, not adding to the burden of stress:

Nevertheless, we do seem to consistently compare our negative feelings about low productivity and participation to the seemingly easy positivity we can find on the twitter stream. As Explorations of Style points out, this comparison of our internal feelings to others’ external projections is not just unhelpful but inaccurate, and as academics we should know better. But how do we join in when we feel we haven’t achieved enough to earn our place in the conversation?

It is hard not to focus on numbers of words as the main focus of productivity. They are the visible, almost tangible, evidence that we have accomplished something. Kathleen Fitzpatrick talks about academics’ need for outward and visible signs of productivity, or even stress, as indicators of a state of grace. In a conscious nod to the Catholic church’s description of the sacraments, she describes how the signs of busyness we display come to be equated with our academic moral worth. If you have time for leisure – or sitting around thinking – well then you can’t be busy enough!


Photo credit: Dave Makes via Flickr

This made me think more about how “productivity” potentially requires an audience. To really feel productive, perhaps we need to have our productivity seen by others, and in order to display our productivity, we need tangible things like word counts or other outward and visible signs of busyness. But productivity isn’t the same as work, study or thought. One of the reasons #acwrimo hasn’t worked so well for me this time is I’m just not ready to churn out the words.  I’ve been distracted by organising events at work, I’ve been getting to grips with (and getting lost in) a new theoretical perspective I’m still fairly ambivalent about, and it’s been a tough time personally for reasons I won’t go into here.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not making important progress. I need time to read and think, and this is harder to display. I also need time to find a way to think about my work and writing in a way that is more meaningful to me than it has been for a while. The pressure of productivity can mean that this important phase can feel unimportant or lead to guilt about the time it takes – this guilt is inevitably counter-productive because without these foundations, efforts towards productivity remain meaningless and subject to high-risk failures. I’ve also started writing this blog, which could become a source of procrastination, but actually feels important as part of a process of finding a voice and a way of speaking that feels right. The blog title says it all, really: I will continue to fail, as we all will, and that doesn’t really matter. The trick is in carrying on and sometimes managing to fail a bit better. This process I hope will mean that the words that I do write, when I write them, will be words that I think are worth saying.

The wisdom of Bristol crowds


Last night I exercised my civic duty and voted in Bristol’s first mayoral election. I hadn’t decided exactly who I was going to vote for until I got to the polling station, and so I was thinking about how people make their minds up who to vote for. I was also thinking about how we imagine democracy – government by the people – to work, and what kinds of expressions of political will we think are legitimate.

All this follows hard on the heels of an obsessive following of the US elections in my house. One of the more bizarre rhetorics following Barack Obama’s win is the claim that he ‘bought’ the election by offering ‘gifts (Romney wants to you read the word ‘bribes’ here) to African American, Hispanic and young voters. These gifts are of course not brown envelopes full of cash handed over in a clandestine meeting on a park bench, but policies designed to help relatively hard-up groups of society. The idea that it is somehow illegitimate to offer sections of the population a better life in return for their vote represents a particularly twisted idea of democracy. Surely if Obama can win more votes by offering popular measures then he does – by definition – represent the majority view of the American population?

But what does this tell us about how we imagine democracy to work? It implies a kind of ‘wisdom of the crowds‘ model where every individual might not be able to see the big picture, but in aggregate, the sum of non-expert guesses amounts to a better result than any expertise could provide (this is also the logic behind the use of betting markets as pretty accurate predictors of elections.) So do we imagine that we all vote in our own individual self-interest but that the aggregated sum of our narcissism adds up to a good representation of the interests of society as a whole?

In practice, one problem with this view is that some people are more likely to vote than others, and those who are living in the poorest areas, the young and those who do not speak English well are less likely to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Hence, in Bristol, the Labour campaign focused on ‘getting the vote out’:

But do we really think that the act of voting works like the invisible hand of the market – that we all act as rational, self-interested consumers ultimately producing the most efficient outcome? Some of the rhetoric and discourse about elections, particularly in the US where we saw detailed targeting and demographic segmentation of the electorate, seems to promote this view. For me at least, I was trying to choose between two candidates for my second vote (I voted Green Party first): George Ferguson (Independent) and Marvin Rees (Labour). I think Ferguson would be more likely to make immediate changes to Bristol that would positively affect my life, but Rees clearly made his main priority the needs of people worse off than I am and had a vision of a more equal Bristol.  Representing the voice of a city turns out, for me at least, to be about a bigger social vision than simply the sum of self-interests.* Well of course I do believe there is such a thing as society after all.

Social science is currently enamoured of what analyses of ‘Big Data‘ can tell us, and elections represent one of the biggest and most established big data sets around. This is now supplemented by many, many polls, betting markets and algorithmic engines that attempt to predict the result of elections, to the extent that these samples of public opinion come to be seen to be as almost as valid representations of the public voice as the election itself and the election as simply another data point in the series. But voting itself is a strange, almost mystical, act – especially for a nation such as the US with a strong founding myth of democracy. And the act of voting always carries with it uncertainty. If it were not uncertain – if polls and algorithms could transparently deliver the voice of the people – then there would be no need for an actual election at all. The accuracy of polling data and algorithms have to be measured against the thing itself – the actual election.  Some have been extraordinarily effective at this, with Nate Silver’s data crunching in the US election being seen as some kind of voodoo prophecy:

But without the actual election, the polls and predictions would be meaningless. It still takes the act of voting to express a voice; data cannot replace this act, however clever its sampling and crunching methods.

How else do we, as the public, express our voice to the government? In the UK and many other countries, democracy is not direct but representative. We occasionally have referenda, but most decisions are taken on our behalf by our representative. When we are dissatisfied with our representatives we can choose more direct forms of making our voices heard – from petitions to demonstrations and direct action. Sarah Wanenchek argues that the relationship between government and citizens instantiated in the right to petition is embedded in the communications technology that allow people to not just understand what various candidates are offering, but to actually speak back directly to government. Polls and petitions both offer (partial) reflections of public opinion that governments should heed if they are to maintain legitimacy as governing in the name of the populace. But whereas polls rely on aggregation and questions devised by pollsters, petitions include the wording of people themselves and a means by which people can directly participate in political debate within the public sphere. It is worrying, then, that these more direct forms of democratic engagement may be characterised as unrepresentative lobbying and biased partisanship and less likely to influence government than the supposedly transparent results of polls.

As I write, the votes for the Bristol mayoral election are still being counted, though the low turnout in poorer areas in the south and east of the city, and the collapse of conservative and lib dem votes in the affluent north look likely to favour the independent candidate, George Ferguson. Bristol is a unique city that prides itself on doing things differently. We were the only city to vote for a mayor – largely seen as an expression of exasperation with the city council and local party politics. It makes sense that people would follow through and vote for the independent candidate who has stood on a platform of Bristol over party politics.  I can certainly live with that.

* I still have big reservations about Rees’s integration with the local and national Labour machine, by no means do I think Ferguson would be a disaster for minorities and the poor, and it remains to be seen how much power anyone has to actually get anything done.

I love your low self-esteem

Keep-fit class in the gym, c1981

In the gym, I hear music that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else. At home I listen to the radio (Radio 6 or Radio 4, sometimes Radio 3, can’t bear radio adverts so it’s BBC all the way) or I listen to CDs or Spotify (though less so since I ditched the premium subscription and have to hear their adverts).

At the weekend, in the ‘Ladies Toning Room’ – which is where they keep the machines for lifting weights with your thighs, giant inflatable balls and floor mats for ab crunches – they normally play Kiss FM. In the other weights room they usually play something more ‘urban‘ or Kerrang.

Two songs I heard both focused on girl’s low self-esteem and especially body image (in the gym! yes!). Both were love songs, sung by boys to the female object of their affections, unfortunately I didn’t get the names of the artists or songs. Both basically said ‘even though you think you look crap, I still love you’. Touching? But there was no suggestion of “hey, you shouldn’t bother thinking you look crap because really that’s boring and irrelevant”. The songs were *expecting* that girls think they look crap, and awww, aren’t they sweet and lovable for it, the silly little things. In the song-world it seems normal, and in fact desirable, for girls to say they look crap. The girls’ low self-esteem is not just unfortunate, their vulnerability is in fact desirable. And the solution to this low self-esteem and negative body image? It’s not to realise that in fact what you look like is really not the most important thing in the whole world, but for a guy to convince you that you are in fact beautiful. Because you can only believe you’re beautiful if you’re beautiful in his eyes, and until you are beautiful in his eyes, you’d better profess that you look crap or you won’t be attractive in the first place.

I am so glad I’m not a teenager any more.