Monthly Archives: May 2008

evaluating community projects

(At Fordham in New York City for the day) Here is a further reflection on the “Tenure Report” from Imagining America, which I summarized on Wednesday. I think if I were involved in campus politics or administration, I might advocate one strategic reform to promote “engagement.” I would argue that projects undertaken in communities ought to be assessed on a par with peer-reviewed publications for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion. Standards for evaluating such projects should be rigorous and stringent, so that most would not be deemed fully successful. Launching a community project is no more commendable than opening Microsoft Word and starting to type; in either case, one is accountable for the quality and impact of what one achieves. An impressive community project should be:

  • Generative: producing a substantial array of performances, events, programs, exhibitions, curricula, experiments, organizations, institutions, policies, maps, research instruments, data, peer-reviewed publications, college courses, and/or graduate student work.
  • Intellectually ambitious: driven by challenging and innovative hypotheses, narratives, or methodologies and designed to test the organizers’ own presumptions and biases.
  • Coherent: capable of being summarized in one story about its purposes, activities, and results. (Although a project should be flexible over time and should include diverse people and agendas, the whole should be worth more than the sum of its parts).
  • Ethically responsible: sustained (no “drive-by scholarship”), accountable to relevant people inside and outside the academy, transparent, including real dialog with all the participants.
  • Effective: demonstrating real outcomes appropriate to its own objectives at a reasonable cost in terms of money, time, and political capital.
  • Methods of assessing the quality of projects will vary, but one should at least consider using portfolios and peer reviews by independent, reliable community members.

    “the buzzy philosophy element”

    I’m spending occasional moments cleaning out my office after 15 years. It’s an excavation into the forgotten past. For example, I had no recollection of this letter from a British editor. The subject is Something to Hide, my novel that was later published by St. Martin’s in the US:

    This started off quite well–or intriguingly at least–with the themes of philosophy and conspiracy nicely built, the characters of Zach and Kate making slow but steady progress and the plot structure being established. Somewhere, though, Levine fucked up and from halfway through this winds down into a rather dull trudge through overly familiar political-thriller scenes, tedious shoot-outs and not nearly enough about the historical conspiracy so nicely hinted at in the early stages. It ends up as dull and routine which was a shame after the promising start.

    I can imagine that this might do something in the US all the same–it has certain parochial characteristics which would normally prevent it being done in the UK but which America seems to like. The buzzy philosophy element would certainly provide an angle in marketing terms and even though it’s dull, the book has a certain charm. I don’t really fancy this for Arrow at all, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if it sold for a quite a lot in the US.

    For the record: there are no shoot-outs, it sold for very little in the US, and I’ll take “dull” but with “a certain charm” as a compliment. It’s better than “dull and charmless.”

    tenure, promotion, and civic engagement

    “Scholarship in Public” (pdf) is a very important new paper published by Imagining America on behalf of a strong group called the Tenure Team that includes the historian Thomas Bender, Dean Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia Journalism School, several college presidents, and many of the smartest people who think about public engagement.

    “Publicly engaged academic work” means various kinds of collaborations between university-based scholars or artists and laypeople in their communities. It generates public products, such as museum exhibitions, radio programs, k-12 curricula (and sometimes even whole schools), databases, maps, and websites–as well as peer-reviewed journal articles and books. It often involves comprehensive projects that generate numerous artifacts for different audiences–in contrast to standard academic work, which tends to produce one publication at a time. These projects create knowledge and understanding that we cannot obtain anywhere else, while strengthening culture, community, and democracy.

    Public engagement also serves some professors’ valid and worthy personal objectives. Craig Calhoun, a Tenure Team member and one of the most insightful people in the business, notes an enthusiasm in our culture today for “making things, …. making and building institutions, rather than only commenting on the institutions.” He says, “You have a lot of the smartest young people trying to build something, and I think that carries over to academia, where people are saying, ‘I want to do that. I want to create.'”

    But public engagement must be done well. Even ambitious, well-intentioned, and labor-intensive projects can fail, just as books and lab experiments can fail. Public engagement can also be superficial or trivial. I know departments in which some scholars labor hard in the library or lab in the hopes of being able to make presentations at international scholarly conferences. Others give occasional lectures–which they might also present to their own undergraduates–at local churches or civic groups. These local lectures or performances may be covered in the local press, but they are not scholarship. Rewarding such superficial projects with promotion, tenure, and other awards is unfair. Worse, it submerges the much more difficult and ambitious work that deserves the name of “public scholarship” or “public art.”

    As Calhoun says, “This is about making scholarship better, making knowledge better. It is not about concessions in the quality of scholarship and knowledge.” That means that public scholarship must be critically assessed, not given a pass because it is well-intentioned. Critical assessment will require new techniques, and the report suggests several: use community partners as peer-reviewers; evaluate projects rather than individual publications; allow professors to assemble portfolios; develop plans for projects and evaluation when new professors are hired.

    The report also tackles a sensitive and important issue within this field, which is the role of minority professors. Obviously, academics who are African American, Native American, or Latino may want to pursue highly academic and theoretical research. But a disproportionate number of minority scholars are involved in community-engaged work, because they tend to be motivated to change society; they often have roots and networks outside academia; and they may have cultural skills that allow them to “cross over” effectively. If these scholars work in partnerships with laypeople, and such work is not rewarded, their careers suffer. This is also a problem for whites, but scholars of color face an extra layer of obstacles. The negative stereotypes that persist against them in academia often take the form of an assumption that it is just to hire a person of color even if his or her academic work is weaker. That’s highly patronizing to the individual scholar. And if a minority professor’s work takes the form of community projects, then the stereotype about minorities reinforces the stereotype about civic engagement, and vice-versa, adding up to an almost insurmountable barrier to success.

    The solution, again, is to create rigorous, independent, tough measures of quality for civic engagement. Then any professor, including a scholar of color, can choose to try public projects, and the ambitious and successful ones will bring just rewards.

    my favorite book

    I first read Middlemarch when I was 17. It was assigned in the Telluride Association Summer Program at Cornell, and I think I loved it because it was the first time that I had read any book in a seminar, with real college professors and many hours spent on a single text. It was my first experience with close reading and with the application of challenging theory to literature. Gradually, as the years passed, I forgot most of the content of the novel–even the plot. I used to joke that it had retired undefeated as my favorite novel. But then, about a month ago, I opened it casually to remind myself of something near the beginning, and I found myself unable to put it down. I finished the very same copy that I had read almost a quarter century ago.

    What is Middlemarch? It is a great feminist text, an indictment of the structure of relations between men and women that is not an indictment of the men as individuals. Patriarchy stunts the lives of male and female characters alike; and women often actively promote it. (Mrs. Garth, for example, is consciously raising her son Ben to be superior to her daughter Letty, and she is able to do that because she has such strong ideas and such control of her household that her husband could not object.) The “imperfect social state” of patriarchy prevents Dorothea from achieving public greatness and reduces her to “liv[ing] faithfully a hidden life.”

    It is a superbly constructed story. Henry James denied that Middlemarch was “an organized, moulded, balanced composition, gratifying the reader with a sense of design and construction.” It was, he wrote, “a treasure-house of details, but … an indifferent whole.” That was nonsense, and I suspect he was jealous. Five or six plots are carried throughout, intertwining and building pressure on the characters until the denouement reveals Dorothea’s true heroism. Although the novel is not overburdened with coincidences or artifice, one could spend months finding careful symmetries and parallels. Take, for example, the brief visit of Dorothea to Rosamond’s house that opens Book V. This is the first time that two major story lines intersect. The women are foils, different in class, character, and appearance. Their first encounter, in the presence of a man who becomes an object of jealousy, causes all three to see themselves differently, in ways that reverberate until the end. This episode is just one example of how skillfully the whole work is constructed.

    It is a grown-up’s novel. “Marriage,” says the narrator, “has been the bourne of so many narratives.” A bourne is a brook, and many romantic stories are streams flowing toward the inevitable wedding, when the ingenues, having overcome obstacles to their love, are united in a timeless happily-ever-after. In Middlemarch, however, two of the three essential weddings come near the beginning, and then the plot really begins. The novel is not cynical about marriage, nor critical of it. But it refuses to dwell only on the moment of falling in love or becoming united. Lives go on, and going on is hard.

    It is a novel that is remarkably clear-sighted about economics. “I will learn what everything costs,” Dorothea exclaims at a crucial moment. Debts and inheritances figure strongly in the plot. There is an important auction. People confuse “use value” with “exchange value” (what things are really worth versus what they capture in a market). Because of the social structure of a market, it is not easy to be moral. “Spending money so as not to injure one’s neighbours” is a challenge.

    It is a novel about a large network. I wish I had marked each significant character on a piece of paper and drawn a line between them whenever they had some “connection” (which is an important word in the text). The result would be a complex web with at least 50 nodes and hundreds of connections, which often link the gentry to the riffraff in just a few steps. News and gossip travel with fateful effects along this network. In many cases, the parties who are linked directly do not understand one another. In fact ….

    It is a novel about misunderstanding other people; and the misunderstandings arise for a huge variety of moral, psychological, and social reasons. People misread others out of vanity, fear, naivete, and even because of admirable faith. Middlemarch would be one kind of novel if the omniscient narrator patronized these characters for their all-to-human failure to know one another. But the third-person omniscient narrative voice is occasionally broken by a first-person acknowledgment of uncertainty. The narrator will remark that he (or she?) doesn’t know what a particular character was thinking. This must be a deliberate reminder that understanding other human beings is never possible.

    The narrator also occasionally expresses an explicit judgment or even interrupts the narration irritably. These outbursts are comic surprises because the rest of the narration is so objective. For instance, I love this beginning of chapter XXIX: “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea–but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect.”

    Perhaps the most prevalent reason for misunderstanding in Middlemarch is egoism, which comes in many forms, some contemptible and some fully excusable. Egoism is relevant to the idea of a network, because any node can be taken as the center and all the other nodes can be seen as arrayed around it in various degrees of separation. There is a famous and very rich passage in Middlemarch about our propensity to see ourselves as the central node:

    An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass [mirror] or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

    The narrator supplies a heartbreaking reason that we must place ourselves at the center of the network, act egoistically, and fail to understand one another fully. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Our “stupidity” is essential for our survival; none of us could bear to comprehend the suffering of everyone else.

    Finally, Middlemarch is, I suppose, a comedy. It has jokes, a lightness of tone, and a satisfying conclusion that I would not call tragic. Most of the loose ends are tied up. And yet there is a powerful sense of the weight of norms and the inertia of history. We are left with a deep question: whether Dorothea’s life has turned out to be a good one.

    [Spoiler warning: I can’t address this question without giving away the conclusion.]

    Continue reading

    the big story about developing countries’ debt

    The Washington Post ran a story on Saturday about the declining significance of the International Monetary Fund. The lead was a decision by Ghana to reject loan conditions proposed by the IMF. Ghana could negotiate from strength because it has a growing economy and other options for borrowing. “That decision underscores the changing role of the IMF as developing economies have roared to life in recent years, with the fund increasingly becoming more adviser than lender.”

    The tone of the article was somewhat critical, focusing on challenges for the IMF as an institution. Indeed, there are plans to cut the Fund’s staff by 13 percent to reflect a shrinking portfolio. But of course the story could have been told very positively; the headline could have been, “IMF Succeeds.” Someone I know at the Fund told me the following story:

    In the 1980s, developing nations were burdened by enormous debts, often run up by dictators. This was a huge problem, morally and practically. Admitting that the loans should never have been made in the first place was too embarrassing for the lending countries. The IMF and World Bank literally didn’t have the cash to write off their loans. Forgiving debts can create a moral hazard (encouraging more borrowing). Yet the debt was a plague on the poorest people of the world.

    This problem has been very substantially reduced through a combination of debt forgiveness and economic growth. Perhaps the process was far too slow or too costly for the poor countries–I don’t know. What is important right now is that we have passed through the debt crisis to a large extent. The following graph, which I generated using the IMF’s interactive website, shows foreign debt per GDP for Subsaharan Africa and for Ghana (the focus of the Post article). The decline since the 1990s is striking and highly positive. The debate can now be about how to develop, not how to manage debt.