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learning from Robert’s Rules?

I have never been good at Robert’s Rules of Order, even though decades ago I was the president of a student government that supposedly used them. Looking at the by-laws of incorporated boards and bodies that I serve on now, I see that several include language like this: “Except as may be modified by resolution, Robert’s Rules of Order (current edition) shall govern the conduct of [association] proceedings when not in conflict with [state] law or these By-Laws.” Indeed, I’ve found an estimate that “approximately 95% of the organizations in the U.S. prescribe Robert’s as their parliamentary authority.” However, lots of important but informal groups don’t have by-laws, and those that do often seem to pay little attention to their own provisions about Robert’s Rules.

I probably wouldn’t advocate applying Robert’s Rules much more widely than they are used now. Learning–or recalling–the Rules can be burdensome; depending on them can shift power to people who happen to know them already; and they may conflict with contemporary cultures. After all, they were written by a US Army officer in 1876.

Actually, Brig. Gen. Roberts was an abolitionist Southerner who fought on the Union side and did other worthy things, so he may deserve some consideration. In any event, his Rules embody wisdom, and all groups that make decisions should find ways to accomplish some of their fundamental goals. As Roberts wrote in the first edition of his Rules, it was “really not of so great importance” whether his own processes were the best. What was–and remains–important is to adopt transparent ways of operating in order to avoid “the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members.”

That lesson has been re-learned in very different contexts. By 1970, the feminist activist Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, had become frustrated by the emphasis on “leaderless, structureless groups” in the women’s liberation movement. She acknowledged that women were reacting “against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.”

However, Freeman claimed that all groups have structure, and when they purport to be leaderless and free, it just means that the authority is opaque and therefore unaccountable.

She wrote, “At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom.” Those in the core of an informal group “will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively [to each other], and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the ‘outs’ whose approval is not necessary for making a decision.”

Freeman saw supposedly leaderless groups as tyrannical. “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.”

Specifically, groups need explicit rules for delegating authority, sharing information, rotating responsibility, making clear commitments, and holding their own decision-makers accountable. These are the very purposes of Robert’s Rules. If we don’t want to use that document, we need alternatives.

I observe the following deficits in many informal groups’ discussions. First, groups are often not clear about what they have promised, so that members and others can know what to expect. An approved resolution is a commitment. If your group doesn’t vote on resolutions per Robert’s Rules, you need other ways to make clear and official commitments.

Second, it is often unclear what the group is doing at a given moment. Is it discussing a choice prior to making a collective decision? Are individuals giving advice to a person or small team who will make the decision? Are members sharing information with each other? Is the group exchanging perspectives on the overall situation and values? Is the task to identify problems and brainstorm options?

These are all valid activities, but they need to be distinguished. Robert’s Rules does so by allowing any member to offer a motion, which (if seconded) becomes the sole topic until it is resolved. A motion must be stated in such a way that it can be adopted or rejected by a vote. Thus, when a motion is on the table, the group’s task is to discuss it in order to inform the individuals’ votes, not to canvass individuals’ advice or share information. A different motion can be offered next, but it must wait its turn.

Informal groups waste precious time and energy–and become frustrated–when they are not clear on what they are doing. In the absence of rules of order, a moderator can keep people on track, but moderation is an advanced skill, and the power can be abused. Some groups develop other approaches, such as writing the current task on a flip chart. One way or another, it’s essential to clarify what is being done now and to allow people to propose doing something different next.

Third, groups need moments when everyone has equal power, even if they choose to empower some individuals for specific tasks. Robert’s Rules mandates voting on an equitable basis. It allows every member to introduce motions. It forbids anyone from speaking twice on a motion unless everyone has had a chance to speak once.

This kind of equality is purchased at the cost of formality. That is actually a familiar tradeoff. Official elections give each citizen one vote, and that requires ballots, voting dates or periods, and myriad other rules. Courtrooms are rife with procedures designed to equalize rights and powers.

Many groups understandably dislike formality, which seems to undermine spontaneous friendship. Yet, as Freeman observed in the women’s movement, informality breeds inequality. Groups must be able to shift to formal processes that protect equality at decisive moments.

Fourth, groups spend too much of the precious resource of time discussing matters that should delegated to individuals or small teams. A whole group is usually too large to function effectively. Many tasks do not present controversial issues that require broad discussion and participation; someone should simply do the work. At the same time, it is important to clarify what has been delegated to whom, to hold the responsible people accountable, and to give them explicit recognition for their service. Robert’s Rules accomplishes those purposes by allowing groups to elect officers for fixed terms, to establish committees, and to delegate specific tasks to committees. Again, there may be other ways to accomplish these purposes, but they cannot be ignored.

See also: a flowchart for collective decision-making in democratic small groups; civic education and the science of associationfriendship and politicsneeded: pragmatists for utopian experiments; and du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

symposium: civic education in the 21st century

This is the video from a recent colloquium entitled “What Should Civic Education Become in the 21st Century?” at the Ohio State Center for Ethics and Human Values (CEHV). Law professor Angela Banks (Arizona State University) and I presented, and the moderator was Ohio State philosopher of education Winston Thompson. The blurb from CEHV says:

Democracies, in their essence, require the engaged participation of their citizens working towards articulating and pursuing shared goals. Arguably, these practices require a degree of skill and preparation such that the value of civic education cannot be overstated as a core component of a successful democracy. But how should societies understand the complexities of civic education in the current age? How should civic education respond to growing calls for justice as voiced through emergent social movements? Amidst rising patterns of immigration and globalized loyalties, can traditional approaches to civic education satisfy the needs of our democracy?

Angela Banks discussed how schools should address citizenship when rights to entry and residency and full legal citizenship are contested, and when many students do not have those rights. I presented a general framework for civic engagement that does not put the nation-state at the center. Winston Thompson, who had envisioned and organized this symposium, asked us good questions.

Percentage of US adults who read a newspaper "every day" declines from 69% in 1972 to 20% in 2021

the decline of the daily newspaper and public knowledge of politics

A city or town newspaper was nicely designed to keep people informed about their own elected representatives. Traditionally, it appeared on your doorstep, offering a mix of features that might encourage you to open it up. Election news would often appear above the fold on the main page. Elections in your own community would be emphasized. You didn’t have to be curious about politics to receive the most relevant political news.

As the chart with this post shows, most Americans (69.3%) claimed they read a newspaper “every day” in 1972, but that proportion has been around 20% since 2016, mirroring a 50% decline in the number of paid journalists. People still consume news, but cable television is national, local television tends to skip politics, and online sources require you to seek them out. (They mainly reach those with prior interests.) Besides, very few people are paid to report factual information about local politics.

I wish I could test whether the decline in daily newspaper journalism and readership explains current low levels of political knowledge. Perhaps that can be shown, but I have not found a long-lasting survey that asks about both news consumption and political knowledge in consistent ways.

The American National Election Survey (ANES) did ask individuals how often they read the newspaper and whether they recalled the names of the congressional candidates in their district. That series lasted from 1984 to 2000. Each year, just about twice as many of the regular newspaper readers recalled the candidates’ names correctly. For instance, in 2000, 51.8% of the regular readers and 24.2% of non-readers got that knowledge question right.

I’d conjecture that if these survey questions had continued, the proportion of news readers would have fallen in the ANES, and with it, knowledge of people’s own local political candidates. But I can’t quite prove it.

color-blindness makes it to an art museum

I am color-blind. I have the common red/green type sometimes called Daltonism.

I do not mind. In fact, I don’t think I would accept a permanent “cure,” if there were one. I might like to experience the colors that most sighted people see, but I wouldn’t want to leave the world I know on a one-way journey. I love what I experience.

Miguel Fructuoso, Maria Sanchez and Miguel Angel Tornero are established Spanish artists. Although Fructuoso was born in 1971, he was recently diagnosed with Daltonism. I am curious about that story. Adults realized that I was color-blind when I was still a little kid. Fructuoso is a painter, and he has the same physical condition I do. I am not sure how he remained undiagnosed for half a century. It has been suggested, but not widely accepted, that the English landscape painter Constable was color-blind at a time before that condition was recognized.

In any case, Fructuoso’s realization “initiated an intense collaboration” with Sanchez and Tornero, who have co-produced works as “formal exercises” that help them to explore “empathy and exclusion, the rare and the common, individualism and the collectivity.”

They have created several such works for the Centro Jose Guerrero in Granada. Guerrero was born here in 1914, spent a considerable portion of his life as an abstract expressionist painter in New York City, and died in Barcelona in 1991. He was known for vivid color. That makes his eponymous museum a perfect location for an exhibition about color-blindness.

The photo (above) that illustrates this post shows a painting by Guerrero from ca. 1970 (I think), copied by the three contemporary artists, with color-blind “Bill” choosing the paints. Yes, the two images look very similar to me, except along the top band.

Below is the result when many people with red/green color-blindness were offered a large selection of paints and asked to paint a line of a single color around the room in the Centro Jose Guerrero. Yes, I perceive a green line going all the way around.

Installation in the Centro Jose Guererro (Granada) showing a line painted by many color-blind people. Many would perceive it as changing color,

And here, the artists have reproduced the standard tests for color-blindness as gallery works in paint and print. (No, I cannot see any numbers, but I do like these images.)

Color blindness test reproduced as a paining for the show Daltons at Centro Jose Guererro, Granada

Since I have not felt mistreated as a result of color-blindness, I was not deeply moved by the exhibition’s message of empathy and inclusion, although it’s certainly benign. And I suppose I am sympathetic to Fructuoso, although he has done very well in a conceptual/expressionist mode.

I find aesthetic questions about color-blindness interesting. For example, how might we compare the art that I see (and love) to what most of you see? Does it matter that I don’t see what was intended? And how should I feel, as a person with Daltonism, about monochrome art, expressionist art that is meant to look different from the real world, or impressionist works that reproduce nature’s colors for me even though both the paintings and their objects look different to you?

propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2023

Proposals for sessions at the annual Frontiers of Democracy conference are due by March 31. You can propose a session here.
You are also encouraged to register and purchase tickets soon since space is limited.
Proposals are welcome on any topic at the “frontiers of democracy”—for instance, political reform, organizing and social movements, dialogue and deliberation, journalism and media, civic education from K-12 to college or community settings, nonviolent resistance, collaborative governance, social entrepreneurship, democratic theory, online forums and tools, issues such as climate change or racial justice, engaged research methods, democracy in any region of the world, and more. Many formats are welcome with a preference for interactive designs over pure presentations.
The last face-to-face Frontiers conference before COVID-19 drew about 140 people, of whom 30% were nonprofit staff, 25% were scholars/researchers, 15% were educators, 5% were community-organizers, and the rest came from many fields, including the arts, philanthropy, business, and government. Most came from beyond the Boston area and a few from overseas.
Most proposals for 2023 are not expected to address the special theme: religious pluralism and robust democracy in multiracial societies. That theme will mainly be a topic for two of the plenary sessions, which will be panel discussions involving Cornell William BrooksBrandon Thomas CrowleyDiana EckAndrew HanauerAminta Kilawan-NarineEric LiuCristina MoonSimran Jeet SinghMichael Wear, and others to be named. Some conference participants may be interested in considering connections between religion and your proposed topic, but you do not have to mention religion in your proposal.
The submission form for a session requires a title and description for the conference agenda, some thoughts about your format and audience, and the contact information of confirmed collaborators.
This year’s conference will be in-person, not hybrid. However, session organizers may propose to include remote people in their own sessions.

Time and location: July 13 (5 – 7 PM) to July 15 (noon) on Tufts University’s Medford, MA campus near the Medford/Tufts Station on the Boston Green Line.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on July 13, breakfast and lunch on July 14, and breakfast and lunch on July 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.