Friday, July 20, 2018

The Practical Humanities Failure? The Critique of the Digital Humanities

In my previous post, I tried to argue that limited definitions of the humanities may make those who use who practice them feel good -- à la Stanley Fish, we can say "I engage in a life of pure contemplation" -- but that is a minimal, one-sided, and impoverished conception of what the humanities are and why they are important. My point here is specific: I am not trying to say that Stanley Fish is wrong when he asserts that contemplation (whatever this might mean in practice) is a key part of the humanities. I am trying to say that it is not the only part and, hence, Fish's contention that anything that diverges from pure contemplation is somehow debased relies on an artificial distinction that he himself has, in fact, created. Fish's conception of the humanities is, in other words, not inherent to the humanities themselves. Indeed, I tried to argue that Fish's conception of pure contemplation relies on the very skills -- the very practical values -- that he abhors. Feel free to disagree with me.

In this post, I want to turn away from the humanities in general to what is called the "digital humanities," which are a particularly target of Fish's vindictive. His argument is that the digital humanities are not, in fact, humanistic. And, that they really don't work. They are tools that are used -- to helps with analysis, at best -- but they cannot run by themselves. They require someone to analyse the patterns they discover or someone, in different words, to program the computer. For this reason, they fail.

My problem with this argument is this: who ever said that the digital humanities functioned as a form of AI? Fish is hunting a paper tiger because he is arguing that the digital humanities fail because they have not fulfilled a promise that they, in fact, never made. I don't work in the digital humanities myself -- although I have some ideas that I might start to implement sometime in the future -- but no one who I know ever argued that they living human beings were not part of the process of analysis. I edit a journal called Acadiensis and we have published a couple of pieces in the digital humanities in the past little while in which historians have used computer-assisted analytic tools (specifically with regard to social network analysis). These are good pieces but none of the historians who conducted this analysis ever said that a human being did not actually conduct the analysis. To argue that analysis still requires human thought is not a discover or a damning criticism. It is, in fact, to miss what the digital humanities are, in fact, all about.

There is a lot of this going around, at least in my neck of the woods. I've heard colleagues reject the digital humanities as little more than web page development, where a bunch of primary sources are posted. It does not, in their view, promote any useful skill. I don't believe that the digital humanities are necessarily the future of the humanities. There will always be scholars who reject the very idea of digital humanities and take a measure of pride in their rejection. They might even claim -- like Fish implies -- that they alone are staying true to the inherent and fundamental basis of the humanities.

I'm not at all certain that that perspective is correct. I want to contest it by making several points:

First, think about how much of our lives as scholars has changed in terms of how we conduct our work. I am writing this post, for instance, on computer. It will never see a hard copy.  It will never be written in cursive. I communicate with my students using various means, which include good old fashioned sitting down and talking, but I also semi-look after a Facebook page and I write a lot of emails. Colleagues text me. Acadiensis maintains a vibrant social media engagement connected to other social media institutions in our field. So, whether we like to admit it or not, shifting communications technologies have changed the way we work and how communicate to students, colleagues, and the broader public.

Second, digital humanities is not about simply creating web sites that archive or list primary documents or sources, but these are useful. The ability to access sources more easily should not be something that we shoot down. Indeed, judging from my own experiences (always a dangerous thing, I admit), many of my colleague and a great many of my students become frustrated when they cannot relatively easily access sources. It is a different technology but is this now part of what libraries and archives and museums were (and continue to be!) about. My town has a local library that is well used.  It does a bunch of things (including a children's summer programme), but one of the things that it does it make it easier for people to get hard covers of books that they otherwise would not have access to in Sackville. (Indeed, the digital world of new communications technologies is so prevalent that many people might not remember a day before Amazon and Indigo online sales. Some towns had a local bookstore. Some didn't.) While using the internet as an archival space is not the be-all-and-end-all of digital humanities (and, again, to the best of my knowledge no one ever actually said it was), there is nothing particularly wrong with this use.

In fact, one might go further, some of the larger projects (online exhibitions developed by archives, early Canadiana.org, the CBC's online archive, material made accessible via the NFB, along with a bunch of others), is really useful. A paper recently published in Acadiensis made really effective use of online genealogy sources. The author told me that he could not have written this paper -- at least in its current form -- without these sources.

This ability to store and access information is, then, not a bad thing. It is something we, as a society, have, in fact, been doing for a long time. It is one of the functions of libraries, archives, and museums, and is something that, as with those institutions, requires specialized skills. One does not just pop a bunch of stuff up on a web page and call it a day. There need to be standard approaches, for instance, to searching for materials.

Moreover, the skill needed for such things as a search (if it is not to become a completely over-the-top time consuming type of thing) is something that those of us who teaching in the humanities know about first hand because many of our students often do a pretty poor job of conducting online searches and so end up with weak sources and weaker papers than they could have otherwise written. Learning something about digital literacy does not replace other forms of literacy -- knowing about culture, history, information in general -- because it is consistent with it. It aids what we do and what we are asking our students to do.

This is my point: even in its most basic form -- providing access to information -- the digital humanities are useful, are consistent with what we generally do in the humanities, and can facilitate the very types of skills (assessing information) that is part of what we seek to do in our classes.

Third, this is important because we cannot stick our heads in the sand. Much of the information we access today as a society comes via new communications technologies: aka, the internet. Is the medium the message? I don't know and I don't tend to make that argument. Content, I usually argue, is important regardless of the medium in which it is conveyed. But, more and more of our content comes to use via the internet and so an ability to grasp what that is, search it, assess it, and engage it is important for our jobs. We can, and will, use more traditional technologies. I still go to historic sites and art galleries, libraries and archives and museums. I still read hard cover books. I don't see that changing and no one in the digital humanities is asking for that.

But, are we to ignore the fact that more and more of our journals are online? A good one here in New Brunswick (NB Studies) is online only and I've read about others contemplating going precisely in that direction as well. Conferences are streamed. I still want to be there in person but I do watch the streams (particularly archived versions when I can't make it.) Web archives are also being made accessible by a range of scholars. Should we ignore this information? Would you council a history student to ignore an accessible primary source? Would a student in literature be told to ignore a short story by an author who was central to their honours thesis? Would we suggest that one could study world music and ignore an easy way to hear what that music actually sounded like? And ... well ... you get the point.

Finally, digital humanities, I should say, are not a singular thing. I've focused on one particular type -- archiving -- because it struck me that much of the discussion I hear about it is misguided. Again: it is not the answer to the future of the humanities but it is not inconsistent with what we are doing in the humanities either. Other forms of digital humanities, as I've indicated above, use tools to help conduct analysis. These tools -- say, specific software packages or search analytics -- don't work by themselves. But, learning how to use them can help with the data we will have in our times, with data that is already being and has been digitized, it can help ask questions that we might otherwise ask of sources.

I read a piece a couple of years ago that made use of qualitative analysis software to assess the frequency with which certain key words were used in federal publications for newcomers who wanted to become citizens (or, more simply, in citizenship guides). To be sure, the analysis did not tell me anything that I did not already suspect, but it caught a few things -- say, inconsistencies in the use of certain words -- that I might otherwise have missed. The authors still had to do the analysis but the tools they used enriched and that has been my experience in history. Digital tools don't replace historical research but they can facilitate it. And, looked at in this light, the digital humanities are something other than a failure.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Future of the Humanities, or why there is none is not really a good answer Stanley Fish

I just finished reading Stanley Fish's latest admonition in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities, Arguments that they're useful are wrong, anti-humanistic, and sure to backfire." A friend sent it to me, not because he liked it but because we were exchanging links about the humanities and post-secondary education. Fish has always been a bit of an odd analytic bird but this piece is so far over the top that it goes no where. In it, Fish attempts to refute all current arguments about the practical utility of the humanities, singling out the digital humanities for special condemnation. He recognizes that the humanities are in the midst of something some people are calling a crisis and also that his own arguments against the humanities' usefulness leave it no place to stand. In fact, if the humanities were on trial, Fish, one of its better-known authorities, recognizes that he has just written a brief for the prosecution. Other than forcing students to take humanities courses, he writes, something that he implies will not go over well, he "can't think of a plan that would return the humanities to the prominence they once enjoyed. If my fellow humanists can come up with something, they should speak now, or they may be forever holding their peace whether they want to or not. If things proceed as they have been, in the end we'll all go the way of Stevens Point," where the humanities have been, more or less, axed.

This is an odd conclusion for someone to reach after they have concluded that they reject every argument that has been made in support of the humanities and the very oddness of it captures something of the dilemma in which the humanities now find themselves.  What is clear is that Fish thinks "selling" the humanities is just plain bad and that they need to be accepted on their own terms or, in his view, not at all. He has, in this sense, issued this statement: my way or the highway. I find it odd that he is surprised that some people have said "OK,  the highway" and quietly shown him the way to the road and helped hike his thumb in the air. Fish's answer -- that any concession to practicality compromises the fundamental and foundational principles of the humanities - is, in fact, wrong. There is, to be sure, something unseemly about grubbing for money, but explaining to people who fund universities (whether the state, private donors, or students through their tuition) why the humanities are good, and good for you, and can even help you get a job, is not a bad thing. And, to think that it is, is the worst type of ivory tower isolationism. It is, in fact, the definition of ivory tower, in its negative sense. It artificially limits a discussion of the humanities and post-secondary education, creating a binary opposition (this way or not at all), when it would be far more useful to wider ranging discussion.

Let me explain and offer part of a defence of the humanities, or at least part one of a defence. I'll leave the issue of the digital humanities off to another post since it seems to require a special topic.

First, Fish doesn't just set a high bar for the humanities in post-secondary education. He sets a near impossible one: "The question then is to what internal purpose should a university be true, a question that requires us to identify the university's core activity. Aristotle named it in the 10th book of his Nicomachean Ethics. It is contemplation. 'This activity would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating,' as opposed to 'practical activities' which are measured by their effects. Contemplation -- turning matters over and then turning them over again -- is 'superior in serious worth' because 'it aim[s] at no end beyond itself, and [has] a pleasure proper to itself.'"

You can see the problem immediately. Fish spends the rest of his editorial explaining why practical arguments in favour of the humanities don't work but he has, in fact, already cut the ground out from underneath practicality at the very beginning of his discussion. In fact, he could have ended his discussion at this point and we would have been none the worse for it because this captures the substance of his critique.

Yet, who is Fish to set this bar?  Does he actually think Aristotle was talking about the modern multiversity or even the modern liberal arts college? A reference to Aristotle is no guarantee that one is right and surely to contend that the joy of contemplation is the only acceptable argument one can make in defence of the humanities is to cut off debate precisely at the point that we should be having a debate. It is even odder noting the context in which Fish is writing. As countries build walls, engage in twitter diplomacy, treat "alternative facts" as if they were real, etc., surely arguing that anything but a self-absorbed contemplation is a not the provenance of the humanities seems a bit ... well ... not humanistic at all.  In fact, it seems a bit hedonistic.

I'm not saying that contemplation is bad or that contemplation by itself is hedonistic. What I am saying is that the idea that the humanities and the university have only one legitimate activity is (a) wrong, (b) disengaged from the problems of the world around us, and (c) anti-democratic because it limits debate shrinking the voices that can be heard as part of a conversation about post-secondary education.

In place of Fish's assertion that there is only one legitimate activity for the university and for the humanities, I would argue that there are, in fact, many. Historians, for instance, don't write about the rise of fascism purely for the joy of contemplating the rise of fascism. They write as part of an engaged effort to understand the character and dynamics of the past that led to genocide and war. OK, that is one example, someone might say, and an easy one. What others might you have? We study policy history to understand the character and operation of the state, how good ideas became bad policies, or the diverse ways in which public policy is made. We study the growth of the women's moment, as an example, to see how processes of democratization enriched society (and why some people resisted democratization). The TRC recommended the study of Indigenous history because they believed, and I think rightly, that the more Canadians know about First Peoples, the greater the chances for meaningful reconciliation are. We teach Indigenous novels, philosophers, poetry, for precisely these same reasons as well.

Ah, someone might say, those are all basically historical examples. What about other branches of the humanities? Well, yes, they are but  ... actually so were Fish's and so I chose to counter him on that ground. But, OK, let's broaden the framework of analysis. Do students study the languages just for the joy of contemplation or to communicate? Do they study musicology for themselves or is it also placed in the service of performance? Are ethics or -- in this day and age of LGBTQi+ issues -- the philosophy of the subject irrelevant? Do our courts, for example, make decisions with no regard for ethical considerations? Does the law, in other words, ignore ethics?

Here is my point, the university -- and the humanities -- have no one single core activity. I may have some I like more than others. I may have some I am more adept at than others but the fact that one brings concerns and desires other than pure contemplation to the table in one's teaching or learning or research or the diffusion of knowledge does not mean that one is abandoning the humanities. The opposite: one is illustrating their importance by saying that we believe a knowledge of history, philosophy, language, culture, etc., can help us make better decisions as a society, enhance the meaningfulness and beauty of artistic expression, reach decisions that are more fair.  The implications of Fish's argument is that we should surrender this ground because it is a subversion on our true purpose. I will confess, I am not so sure. I might feel that the exact opposite is true.

Second, Fish is quick to dismiss other practical activities that are part of a good education in the humanities: writing (or, communication) and analysis. These are part of what he says is a "skills"-oriented justification for the humanities that is connected to market value, something he rejects. He accepts the idea that students in the humanities gain important skills, but calls the entire effort to explain these a PR "gambit" that is not "a serious effort at justification." Why? because the issue for the humanities, he says, is not about writing or analysis but writing about specific things (say, restoration poetry) and the same for analysis. Hence, the argument is, in his word, "strained." Even more troubling for Fish, this argument is part of a series of arguments that rest on exterior evaluation: they defend the humanities not on their own terms but by accepting someone else's logic and terms.

Hmmm ... I don't necessarily see why good communication and analysis is not part of the humanities' own terms. I've already said that I find Fish's singular justification so narrow that it verges on anti-democratic and ignores or misplaces the idea that there can be more than one legitimate reason to engage the humanities. Likewise, I think there can be a range of different subjects that interest students. Some will study restoration poetry; others the contemporary museum; others Indigenous literature, etc. But, good analysis and communications skills are not incidental to any of these subjects. Moreover, their sheer diversity and breadth require specific skills. For instance, they require that we be attuned to someone else's voice. Think about what they are trying to express or communicate, figure out how we can convey our thoughts effectively so that someone else will understand them, make one's case in a logical way, communicate to an audience that will not necessarily share one's perspective, and ... I could go on but you see the point. Communication, analysis, understanding context, logic of argument, etc., are not incidental the humanities. They are part and parcel of it. The fact that they also have a market logic -- that people in the labour market are interested in hiring people with these skills -- should not put us off.

In fact, I would go much further than Fish seems willing to go and argue that it is these very things that make Fish's conception of contemplation for its own sake possible. Even if one were only engaged in a self-oriented contemplative activity, would that be possible without understanding context? or without logic, or without attention to the voice of the other? I'd argue that without these things contemplation would, in fact, not really be contemplation but merely hazy passing thoughts that lacked form and rigour.

My point here, I want to say, is not really to go point-for-point against Fish. I am interested in his argument against the usefulness of the humanities in order make the argument that the humanities are useful, that they have more than one purpose, that there is nothing wrong with explaining their uses to prospective students or donors or the state, and that things that he dismisses (skills) are actually, in fact, preconditions of the very justification he seeks to maintain for the humanities.

I've run long and there is more to say but, for now, we can conclude on this point: the humanities may or may not be in crisis. I'd need to think about what that actually means before quickly accepting current discourses. What I would say, however, is that Fish illustrates a process by which the humanities become, in fact, their own worst enemy. By using surprisingly narrow definitions of what the humanities are, ignoring the multiple reasons people study and learn the humanities, rejecting out of hand practical uses (which exist in policy fields, communications, performance, etc.) as somehow market tainted and hence debased, proponents of the humanities -- such as Fish -- argue themselves into a corner. They make the argument for those who would cut the humanities and end up, interestingly, begging for someone to make a better argument. In the process, they ignore the very skills on which the humanities rely -- even on their own definition of them.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Same Old Same Old: Or, the Politics of a Stalled Modernity

Doug Ford is now premier of Ontario and wants to roll back sex ed, limit education on Indigenous issues, and enhance the development of the northern Ontario natural resources industry. Donald Trump's popularity does not seem to be on the wane. We are having some sort of semi-debate about Canada's role in the world ... but not really. The US government wants allies to increase military spending and is, at least from the headlines, worried about Russian influence in Europe. A trade war looms, is averted, looms again ....

Have we seen this all before? As I watched the PC media guy stick to his talking points on the news and listened to Ford explain that he was ditching cap and trade so as to put money back in people's wallets, the idea that we have heard all this before -- that we have had these debates before -- was nearly complete. Said differently, our politics have become stalled, or at least ... sort of. What does this stalled politics tell us?

It likely tells us several things but let's try to keep focused on a few issues rather than a bunch that can confuse the matter by drawing examples from all over the place. Let's also do our best to limit our geography. I'm not convinced that the issues are precisely the same in, say, Hungary as they are in the United States, as they are in Canada. There are similarities, to be sure, but there also seem to be several different processes at work. Moreover, as I've said in other blogs, the approach I like to take is one of trying to understand verses trying to castigate. A progressive politics, it seems to me, cannot simply content itself with a point and shout approach, a matter I'll address in the future. Instead, it needs to understand and respond. It either has something to offer that will make things better or it does not. We can think about what those things might be another time. For now, let us assume that it does, a big assumption, I recognize for those who reject progressive thinking and politics. Explaining why there is progress, however, is something that requires much more time that I have in this blog.

So, what does the stall of contemporary politics tell us? To begin, let me highlight two interrelated points:

First, it tells us that a great number of people were never reconciled to the equality politics of the last generation.  It tells us that they rejected things like racialized equality, Indigenous rights, gender equality, and acceptance of LGBTQi identities and subjectivities.  We can likely narrow this down and speculate about the demographics of those who have not reconciled to equality politics, but I don't have the data at hand. What we can see from the political discourse, however, is that equality politics is often presented by those who oppose it as a huge waste of money. Environmental protection is the seen in the same way.

Is this simply ignorance? Is it bigotry? Is it an economic squeeze on the middle and working classes?  Likely all of these factors play some sort of role in this but there also seems to be a role for socialization, as well.  Why do I say this: because the idea that equality politics has (a) failed and (b) produced perverse effects, and (c) costs too much ...  is treated as simply a matter of fact. It is something that requires no proof and no evidence. In fact, while the opponents of equality spend a great deal of time talking about its failures and its costs, they often provide only anecdotal evidence and offer no costing.  The PC's failure in Ontario, for example, to cost their policies in the run-up the election is a case in point.

I had a similar experience a couple of years ago in one of my courses. As I was discussing gendered inequality and its contemporary patterns, a number of male students objected to this discussion and claimed that there was no such thing as gendered inequality. I pointed to evidence from Stats Canada, showing income inequality and found that the students completely rejected it.

Years ago, I had a similar experience in a similar type of situation. Much has changed, of course, in terms of patterns of gendered relations in twenty years, but I recall a male student explaining that he simply did not accept the idea. I asked him, I recall, what evidence I could provide that would allow him to accept the idea that there was inequality and that gender was an important axes of understanding. My goal might have been overconfident but my intention was to provide that evidence and then move on to the discussion at hand so as to not slow down the class. He replied "none." And, then stated that he simply did not believe it be the case. I recall then, as in the more recent case, that I did not know what to say. I had university level students in front of me who were so certain of their views that they told me nothing -- no evidence -- could dissuade them of their views.

In the US, this rejection of equality politics takes on different forms than Canada. It takes on opposition to groups like, say, Black Lives Matters, and the politicized distortion of their message or support for a wall across the southern US border. In Canada, its politics are less evident than in the US, but is notable in Islamophobia, opposition to Indigenous/Settler reconciliation, and concerns about sex education in the schools in Ontario which are supposedly blamed for ... what? I don't know but there is some sort of idea that having kids learn about sex, about sexual differences, and about LGBTQi issues will somehow be bad and is an infringement on parents right to control what their kids learn.

And this, just about, bring us full circle. I would be surprised if this were an accident: that what people object to is an education that teaches that sexual diversity is OK. They object, I think, to both the idea of teaching this and the idea that someone other than they themselves will educate their kids on this matter.

Likewise, the canceling of education programs regarding reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canada is seen as too expensive. Or, a waste of money. In effect, this position states that we will not provide an education to kids on this issue but leave it up to processes of socialization (among family, friends, peer groups, churches) to educate on this issue.

Second, in terms of demographics, we need to be clear that this view is not the majority view. It speaks in the name of the majority, but isn't. After his election, Doug Ford, or someone close to him, said something like "we have reclaimed our province." This statement says a lot. It says that it views the proponent of non-conservative politics as illegitimate and, in particular, it views itself as the rightful "owners" of the province. Claims made by others -- diversity groups, for example -- are seen as alien or foreign, illegitimate. Clearly this is a violation of a basic principle of democracy but it speaks to a demographic that views itself as the people who rightly "own" a province or a country.

I suspect something similar goes on with Trump's supporters south of the border or with the anti-EU vote in Britain. In Canada, the key point is that majorities are hard to come by. The question, then, is how does a group of people who are not the majority gain political power? Trump and Ford supporters seem to have an answer, even if they don't come out and stay it: conspiracy, deep state, corruption.  In the US, this was what fuelled the "crooked Hilary" discourse. The idea that a liberal-minded woman could potentially be elected was so disturbing to some people that they issued a pre-emptive strike: the only way she could win was by corruption. The birther campaign against Obama is another example.  The supposed reclaiming of Ontario is another.

I want to clear: I don't think a progressive mirror image of this view gets our analysis very far. The "Russia conspiracy" is an example, I think (even if I think I understand the politics behind it). But, it does not help advance our understanding of the issues at play. In the US, for instance, Trump was elected with one of the most significant minorities in American history. In Canada, the single member plurality system has long been know to distort politics. One needs secure only about 40% of the vote to win and perhaps not even that.

In conclusion: we can put these two points together. The first thing that the stalled politics of modernity tells us is that a sizeable body of contemporary society has never reconciled to the politics of equality and that this group views itself -- and you can see the tie to the opposition to equality -- as the legitimate "owners" of public life. They continue to exercise appreciable political power and their leaders are looking to find ways to roll back, as it were, time.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

"A Better Loss": Updated Thoughts on the Jays

With due credit to Tom Dakers at BlueBirdBanter for the headline.  One thing I like about Dakers reporting is that he continually searches for an upside. We need that because, well, there has not been a lot of upside to the Jays, at least this last month. People might recall that I was optimistic at the start of the year. I thought that the Jays upper management had done a good job letting salary clear and keeping prospects. I thought they had done a good job piecing together a low cost team that could be in the hunt -- winning somewhere between 78 and 86 games, putting the Jays on the margins of the playoff race -- while not taking on any further longer-term salary commitments. There were "ifs" in my equation and things started out well and then .... So, what do we make of what is going on with the Jays right now? Is there reason to change my assessment?

No ... the Jays may not be in the playoff hunt but I don't see any reason that they cannot look to a .500 season. Right now they are playing horrible ball -- and some of their problems are telling -- but the team, overall, is still OK. Injuries have hurt, as has age, and this is one of the reasons I continue to be optimistic about this season: the Jays may not win but we know more about what the future might hold with each passing day.  How so?

Well, we know that Devon Travis has been seriously harmed by three years of injuries. I feel bad for him. Three years ago, he was 24 years old (perhaps a bit older than we would like a guy who was basically a AA player becoming a rookie) but when in the lineup he played well. His defence was better than average, he seemed like he could swipe 20 bags a year given the chance (that is, he seemed like an intelligent baserunner even if he was not blessed, say, with Pillar's speed), and his offence seemed to have a real upside. Three injury-plagued seasons later, he is struggling, and struggling is generous. Eyeballing him, he seems to have trouble getting to balls, he never walked a lot but he is not walking *at all.* No walks + truly horrible batting average = an on-base percentage so low that it makes one ill. Again, I feel bad for him. He seems like a really nice guy who works hard and his current situation is not his fault. It is made worse, however, by the fact that he does not have a lot of versatility.  It seems unlikely, in other words, that he could become a utility player to keep his job.  With a number of good looking middle infielders in the minors, he will be pressed for playing time by September, if not before.  He's got his job back only because the roster madness and tryout like approach at short after Diaz went down did not allow anyone to take control of the job.

So, what do we know: we know Travis is not our second baseman of the future. Knowing that is good because it allows the Jays to think about who is (Biggio, Bichette?)

We also know that Russ Martin's career is truly over, baring some sort of Devine intervention.  One of Martin's appreciable strengths is that he takes a lot of walks and so, theoretically, gets on base, but this is compromised by another truly horrible batting average. And, his defence behind the plate remains slightly -- just slightly -- better than average.  The Jays seem to be looking for a way to keep him the lineup, although exactly why has confused a variety of commentators (the guys on Blue Jays Central claim to not be able to figure out what is going on). Martin has started at 3rd, short, and left field this year as well as at Catcher. My view is that he is done and both he and the Jays know it. They are not trying to transition him to a utility player (although there might be more merit in this than one might think if one reconstructed the lineup), but instead letting him engage in a bit of a swan song before he steps aside.

It would be great if he did step aside. The Jays should give him an office job -- a consultant, roving ambassador, bullpen coach or catcher or something like that. Keep him in the public eye because he's a good face for the Jays: he speaks well, gets along with reporters, seems to really love and respect the fans and that Canadian thing means he is popular with the fans. I don't lament that his career is done. I think it Joe Siddall (on Blue Jays Central) said that the Jays knew this was coming when they signed him as a free agent 3+ years ago. They knew they were going to eat salary on the back end of his contract and were paying him anyway as the price of getting to the playoffs. That was my thinking, too. The chickens have now come home to roost. Pay the man and see who the future catcher is.

It ain't Luke Maile either but he might be the back up. The way the Jays construct their roster creates problems with call ups -- as we have seen -- but we will likely see Danny Jansen after the all-star break (or, earlier if the "right" injury occurs). I read some dingbat saying that they thought Max Pentacost was major-league ready!! He ain't (and I feel bad for him too because this is another story of injuries).  Keep expectations on Jansen limited. He's having a good year AAA and he is only 23, but his record this year is significantly better than his overall minor league record. Remember, this is a guy who spent three full years at various levels of A ball and who, last year, started the season at the A level (admittedly advanced A) and then just hit everything going for the first time in his pro career.  In other words, I hope he is good (for both him and the Jays), but don't over expect. Still, on the what do we know front ... we know Martin is on his way out, Maile is likely the back up of the future, and we will likely see Jansen as a starter this year.

We also know that Morales is done. The Jays will likely cut him this year. His offensive and defensive WAR (wins above replacement, a measure of how a player performs relative to an average replacement player) are both negative. This means that simply replacing Morales with an average player, say from AAA, will make the Jays better. Morales has really tried this year. He's gotten glasses and lost weight. I suspect age is the key factor so he might get on a hot streak, but don't be confused. We know the future and he is not in it.

There are some other things but I'd like to move on to a couple of less optimistic points:

Point #1:, we know there is a lot of pressure on the Jays to elevate Guerrero, Jr. More on this in another blog. I think rushing the kid to the majors would be a mistake, even though I think we should see him this year.

Point #2:  I think we now know why Teoscar Hernandez did not have a major league job. The guy can hit. In less than 400 major league at bats, he's whacked 20 HR and has a +.800 OPS. OPS is a measure of power and ability to get on base. +.800 is all star territory. But, his defence is ... well ... horribly horrible.  I can't say this for sure, but the Jays coaches don't seem to be doing anything about it either. They seem to be letting him to try to work the matter out. The commentary on him notes that he takes bad routes to balls and misplays balls he should be able to catch. It is just a subjective opinion, but my eyeballing of games tells me that he gives up on balls too easily, gets frustrated, and then gets distracted by his own frustration.  Maybe he could be moved to DH (replacing Morales). We do have outfielders (Smith, Alford, Pompey) in the minors or on the bench.

Finally, and I'll end this blog on this point, I think Gibby has lost the team. The number of mistakes they are making is truly outstanding. There is more to say on this point but the Jays are just not playing good baseball. This is frustrating because, in my view, some of their problems could be addressed through coaching.

Do I remain optimistic? Yes, in the long term. We finding things out and that is what this season, I think, was really all about.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Journalist Ethics and Alt-Right Wannabes: Trying to Create What Just Ain't There

It turns out that one newspaper set out to intentionally try to create division in the run up to an election and to portray Ontario (and by extension Canada) as in the midst of a US-style "culture war." Here is the information: here. This raises a number of questions and highlights the importance that media plays in representing politics. Why would anyone want to create divisions in society? What would they gain from it? How can, or should, this news source be trusted after its plot has been exposed? What does this tell us about the state of Canadian journalism?

I can't answer all these questions and, frankly, I am a bit ... well ... like others, I am a bit shocked. The fact of media bias is not news to most people, but an overt plan to manipulate people to promote extremist alt-right politics is something a bit over line of what we are used to. When we study media bias, most of us think about things like stories that are ignored, the need to pacify advertisers, connections between reporters and certain sectors of society, etc., that frame common worldviews. We don't think in terms of someone -- or, a group of people -- setting out to inflame public opinion, target minority groups to more vehement hatred, intentionally disrupt national unity, and the like. I want to argue that there are both good and bad implications to this plot. 

The bad are likely more self-evident. Some might argue that it challenges the idea of journalistic "objectivity" and if I were a journalist I would be deeply disturbed by this. In scholarship, however, most of us are aware that journalistic "objectivity" is a bit of a rhetorical buzzword that does not touch down in reality. Journalists are biased and that bias affects how they report on certain issues. But, what this shows is a potentially deepening division between different styles of journalism that is, frankly and without prejudice, far more advanced in the US.  It is the journalism of alternative facts where all reporting becomes politicized and the political lessons are determined well in advance of the story actually being written. In the US we can see this clearly in the increasing division between how different news outlets report stories. I won't get into this, and some do a better job of fact-checking than others, but if you've watched, say, Fox News lately, you can tell that they promote certain political positions come what may. The don't really worry too much about the facts of the matter and have been caught, say by Jon Stewart, actually swapping in archival footage for supposed footage of ongoing events when what actually happened did not suit their bill. They don't really report so much as they offer political slogans under the guise of reporting. 

The problem is not objectivity. The problem is that there is an increasing divisions between those journalists who -- however biased they might be -- still subscribe to an idea of some sort of professional ethics and those who see their job as promoting a particular political perspective. Those professional ethics -- to say this again -- do not amount to objectivity but they do amount to something that may have some merits: the idea that there are facts and those facts can be checked, that journalists should have a commitment to accuracy, that centralized control of journalists' storylines is intensely problematic and subverts accuracy and and fact checking, that overt partisanship is a deep challenge to journalistic accuracy, a certain amount of humility is not a bad thing because it allows for the idea that there are other sides to any particular story, and that one should strive for fairness and balance in public statements. The views of reporters can have a place in journalism, but that is in the editorial. If journalists want to state their views, they can, but they should do so in a way that is distinct and recognizable, that separates reportage from opinion. 

Overtly politicized journalism, by contrast, ditches these principles in favour of something else. It determines on the basis of its reading of often current history that there is a right perspective and a wrong perspective. Events are, then, read through this prism. The weight of historical perspectives and a correct ideological perspective outweighs the need to investigate issues in a thorough way or check facts deeply because the weight of perspective is on one's side (said differently, the precise facts are irrelevant as long as the general framework of discussion is OK.) Centralized direction is OK because it is an owner's or editor's right to determine what his or her media outset does. After all, it is their property and because it is their property they can do with it what they will. This right to property trumps journalists' commitment to some sort of impartiality or balance and those journalists that do not like this view can look elsewhere for work. Everything is politics and so must be treated as such, even if it seems, say, heartless to not sympathize with those who have suffered a tragedy. The other political side distorts journalism as well and so for anyone to be critical of politicized reporting ... well, that is just hypocrisy. 

Once upon a time -- back in the day, as it were -- all journalism involved some degree of political bias. In Canada, for instance, it was not unusual for different towns to have more than one newspaper, each reporting the news from a particular perspective. Is today's politicized journalism a return to this older approach? 

Not really. The politicized journalism of, say, the nineteenth century, went to great lengths to engage in dialogue. It was honest about its politics, which it went to great lengths to defend. Long essays laid out the philosophical and empirical basis for conclusions. Thus, the goal of reporting was to link current events to broader perspectives, on say, trade or foreign policy, by explaining the philosophical basis for that. Its goal was not to start a "culture war" but to provide an ethical and philosophic basis upon which citizens could support particular policy choices. 

What this means is that the overt, politicized journalism of the Canadian proponents of culture wars, is something new, facilitated, I suspect by social media, and a range of other factors.  But, what is most interesting about it is an oddity, and potentially contradictory, relationship to accuracy. On the one hand, it needs the very idea of journalistic objectivity for it to lay a claim to truth. Otherwise, it would simply be a perspective that lacked any connection to reality. What do I mean? 

This: politicized journalism may not view accuracy as particularly important to its reporting but it needs to at least claim to be accurate ... otherwise, no one would believe. Consider, for instance, one of those FB comments that made the rounds a while ago. It said something like "don't change the national anthem" in response to the federal government's minor alteration of the national anthem to introduce gender-neutral language into it. That story had to make a claim to accuracy or it would have been viewed as comedy, a stunt, silliness, etc., something not to be taken seriously. So, it had to claim that there was (a) something unusual about changing the words of the national anthem, and (b) that there was something wrong -- a-traditional -- about introducing gender-neutral language. Without these claims, there was no story. Thus, this overtly politicized journalism relies on standards of accuracy and a claim to be accurate even if it violated its own standards (the national anthem has been changed many times in Canadian history and its original language was gender neutral). Otherwise, without this claim, the post simply said "we're sexist and want to keep on being sexist and we think key Canadian icons should reflect our sexism and screw anyone who believes differently." Obviously, this is something that would not be treated seriously. It is the claim to accuracy that attracts attention.

The other odd characteristic is that, in my experience, the supporters of this overtly politicized journalism don't seem to really want to engage in facts or argument. For instance, on a very minor level, I know people who dismiss what I am saying right now as so much "liberal" twaddle. The fact that it is not "liberal" does not seem to bother them. In other words, there is an element of certainty among the supporters of overtly politicized journalism that transcends the need to investigate issues or logic them out. They believe fundamentally in what they say and, in my experience, little amount of evidence or logic will alter their views. 

The good news is that I don't actually think this group is particularly large. They are larger than I might have imagined and potentially growing but I don't think they are anywhere close to a majority of the population. They might represent, say, 20% of the population, which gives them tremendous political import if they vote. But, I suspect that the ideal (even if it is not the reality) of journalistic neutrality I described represents an aspiration for most journalists and general public.  Ultimately, then, The Sun failed because someone leaked their plans. That will not stop them again and I doubt their readers really care if they contrived a culture war. They will still argue that there is one. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Nobility of Right, or why discrimination and bigotry suck as rights

Somewhere, and I forget where, Joseph Heath mentioned a concept which he called something like "the nobility of right". It was not a key concept in his thinking but I want to argue that it should be. The idea is that rights reach their fullest potential and greatest effect when they are used to defend and promote noble principles and ideas. For example, rights become noble when they extend democracy, address marginalization, provide security, end bigotry. These is a nobility in working to promote a good cause that enhances life for citizens: that creates the circumstances in which an individual can live a fuller and more meaningful life. Conversely, rights lose their nobility if they are used to defend and promote the opposite of noble causes: if one uses rights to marginalize, deny equality, oppress or harm. Heath suggested, if I am remembering what he said correctly, that this distinction, in fact, might help us in determining whether we felt the articulation of a particular right was a good idea or not.

The ways in which some people have recently been using religious freedom to defend their bigotry against the LGBTQ community is an example of the un-nobility of right. In other words, it is a misuse of rights because it impoverishes the very idea and concept of rights. It is an instance where rights are being used not to advance equality but to limit it; not to promote inclusion in the body politics but to exclude from; not to ensure the security of the person but to endanger it.

A good example of this comes from south of the border: the Trump administration's initiative to allow medical practitioners to deny care -- that is to refuse treatment -- to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. What is upsetting about this is not that there people who want to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I knew that already and I strongly suspect you did as well. What upsets me is that they are doing so by using a noble right -- freedom of religion -- to try to argue that their bigotry is just an exercise of their rights. As a Christians, I might pause to ask WWJD in this instance and I'd urge anyone considering denying service to the same thing. In other words, I'd argue that denial of service is not a defence of Christian beliefs but a contradiction of them -- but we can save that discussion for another day. Here, I want to address the issue of rights and whether or not we have a right to deny medical services (a dangerous step, to be sure) to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I am arguing no. There is no such right, in an ethical and moral sense and, moreover, this ethics has implications for other debates that surround freedom of religion.

Let's start with some basics. The key point here is that Heath is trying to disaggregate the concept of rights. Rights talk, for a very long time, has set up the concept of rights as absolutes. A right is a right is a right and, in fact, that is what makes them rights. This approach to rights may have been created for good reasons: because the prevailing view, back in the day, was that not everyone had, or deserved, rights. Women, for instance, or racialized minorities, it was argued, were incapable of full citizenship and so they could not be accorded equality with white men (nor the poor with the rich, etc.). In an effort to guard against this, I suspect, the idea of rights as an absolute developed. You either got 'em or you don't.

In more recent times, as Michael Ignatieff noted, rights talk has come to dominate public discourse. Ignatieff is not sure this is good, not because he opposes rights -- indeed, it would be a deep disservice to him to suggest that he did -- but because he believe that as a society we have substituted the language of rights for other languages that are more apt. We can leave off that discussion, too, except to note that it in no way lessens the significance of rights but instead points to a confusion of language. Things that people might want to do or wonder about or whathaveyou, come to described as rights when they are really something else.

Heath's point is that we need to look at rights and without minimizing their importance recognize that rights are not a monolithic category. We often hear about conflicts of rights (say, individual versus collective, freedom of religion versus gender equality) when this is not really what rights are all about. There is, for instance, I explain to my students, a difference between a law that is *intended* to promote equality and a law that is *intended* to maintain discrimination. Intentions, in other words matter.

Don't believe me ... why do people apologize? Because we understand that intentions matter: a mistake is something different from an intentional act. My daughter, when she was 2 or 3 took something -- a small bottle of shampoo -- from a store. It looked cute and she had not idea what stores we all about. She was not thrown in jail because intentions matter. It is, in fact, a basic element of law: a crime (excepting negligence) consist of two parts: intention and action.  We all know that intentions matter and I'd go so far as to suggest that it is the opposite point -- that intentions do not matter -- that should be under scrutiny. What does it take to argue such a point? I don't agree with this but is this not what each officer involved in the shooting of a young Black man in the US has argued: it was not *my fault* that I shot him.

One can agree or disagree with the law. That is another discussion. For example, consider a law that is intended to promote equality. One can argue about its efficacy, its morality, its usefulness, etc. These can all be valid discussions to have. But, we cannot suggest that the promotion of equality is the same thing maintaining inequality, we cannot say that one's intent does not matter. They differ intent and effect (inclusion, equality v exclusivity and inequality).  To use an example: getting rid of racism is not the same as racism.

I make this point because some disturbing things are disguised by their association with rights. If someone says "I have a right to my freedom of religion," we tend to agree because control over one's spirituality is an important thing.  When we think of freedom of religion, we think of the need for it: for protection of religious minorities against oppression. Jews in Nazi Germany is an example that comes quickly to people's minds but we can with some thought all think of other examples: of places where "heretics" are executed or the Padlock law or the Inquisition. Freedom of religion was put in place in liberal societies in order to protect individuals and allow the free expression of spiritual beliefs, the association connected with it, and the assembly (getting together) that it required.

I want to be quite clear on this: freedom of religion was never about hate. It was not about refusing to help people. It was never about denial of care, that is turning one's back on someone in need. It was a positive right that allowed people to address something that is good about humanity: spirituality. Its recent recasting as a negative right -- as in, I have right to hate, to ignore, to leave in harm's way -- is a disturbing trend not simply because it, in effect, it says "some people are worth saving and helping and others are not" and claims that the right to make that decision falls not on reasoned dialogue or collective agreement but on an individual and his or her prejudices. It is a disturbing trend because it involves the recasting of rights as something that can be used to oppress and marginalize, to maintain biases, as opposed to circumventing them.

This is, I suspect, why even the alt-right is shy about saying precisely what they mean. No one, for instance, talks about the right to hate. Instead they say things like "the government should not tell me what to think." But, this is a bit disingenuous. The point of rights is precisely *not* to tell someone what to think but to guarantee protection, security, etc., the right to think. This policy of Trump's -- along with his policies viz the military -- say, in effect, you have the right to ignore a person in need if you don't like them. The reason most people -- excepting extremists -- don't talk about "I hate" because they recognize that they will sound horrible.  They sound horrible because their religion is about love (love of God, love of your neighbour) and because there is no right to hate. You might hate somebody or something. That is your business, but is this how you want to define yourself: as a hater?

In Canada, the situation is not nearly as grave but much of the evangelical opposition to the Trudeau Liberals is coming very close. There is more to say on this point but some evangelical Christians have argued that their rights are being infringed because they cannot use state funds to organize anti LGBTQ and anti-abortion programs or policies or institutes or campaigns or whatever it actually is.

What we can note is the same process. No one is saying "I want money from the government to promote inequality, to harm and marginalize, to recreate the conditions in which, say, gay bashing was normal." There is a reason why they don't say that: no one would be one their side. Instead, they say "I have a right to my views." You do, but is that the same thing as getting paid to subvert and endanger someone else?

I would argue it is not. A person will think what they will think. But, you do not have a right to get paid (or, to pay others) to subvert someone else's equality or safety.

Let me return to religion. I lament this recent turn in evangelical politics for another reason: it makes Christians look bad. We are not -- or, should not be -- about hate. We should not be about trying to find a way for the state to pay us to force gays and lesbians back in the closet. We should not be looking for the state to protect anyone's bigotry. Imagine the alternative: would you be OK if a secular group were funded to run an anti-Christian organization? I really hope freedom of religion has not been reduced to the right to hate because if it is ... the battle is already lost.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thought Police and Post-Secondary Education

The argument I have been trying to make so far is that the equation of "political correctness" with thought policing is misplaced. This can be qualified. There are people on every point on the political spectrum who are not particularly interested in open mindedness. But, that can be taken for granted. What I am interested in is demonstrating that the idea that asking people to think again about something is not wrong. I tried to argue that most of do this all the time. It is a normal part of conversation because we often talk to others about things about which we disagree. There is nothing wrong with saying to someone, you know, I thought X and here is why. Far from being thought policing, it is a normal part of discourse. It is the way we carry on conversations. Likewise with politics. Democracy requires people changing their mind. No mind changing ... no democracy.  Suggesting to someone, then, that they can and should look at an issue (the economy, health care, the environment, it does not matter what) in a different way is hardly thought policing. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with suggestion to someone that bigotry or insulting someone is wrong.

Post-secondary education is one ares where people are often accused of being PC. If you follow the logic of my argument, this will not come as a surprise because post-secondary education is about thinking differently. If it was not ... would it be education? I periodically hear this from critics of PC: "Professor So-and-So said that something I fundamentally believe was wrong and wants me to change my mind. That is so PC." If you are one of those people who has said that, can I ask: what were you paying for when you paid your tuition? Imagine a situation where you paid your tuition and spent the entire year being told only things you already knew. How would you feel. At the end of the year, you knew precisely and exactly and only the things you already knew at the start of the year. No one had challenged your thinking. No one presented data that refocused your attention. No one suggested a different methodology that might yield different results. Would you believe that your tuition was money well spent?

Education can and should be about many things. It should be about skill acquisition. It should be about some measure of cultural literacy. It should be about empirical knowledge. There is, in other words, not a single thing that higher education -- or any form of education -- is about. In my view, for instance, it should be about something we've called in the past "habits of mind": how you look at and think about how you will think about issue and interact with others and knowledge. But, if you completed your university degree and your views on anything that is important were never challenged, regardless of your political perspective, would you say that your education was complete?

Post-secondary education places a premium on critical thinking. To be sure, that can be -- and is -- defined in different ways. To be sure, what that means is approached through different research methods. And, to be sure, faculty hold different political perspectives. On my floor (which houses three different academic units), at Mount A, for instance, just about every perspective on the political spectrum (with the exception of the extreme ends) is represented.  [BTW: It might surprise people to know what we professors, in fact, spend shockingly little time talking about politics. We talk about it, perhaps more than other people in other jobs (I've never held a job where politics was not a subject of discussion at some point in the working day), but we spend the vast majority of our time talking about other things ... like our jobs (teaching strategies that worked or did not work, attendance issues, students who are struggling, departmental budgets, professional development, research) or .... ordinary life things like kids and household repairs and movies we like.] This is my point: despite these differences, we all get along. No one accuses someone else of being the thought police because we share a commitment to an ideal of post-secondary education that does many things: builds knowledge, conveys facts, promotes skills, and sustains different perspectives on the events or issues in question.

I want to be clear on this point: different faculty take different approaches to challenging student thinking. I had a colleague years ago who played devil's advocate, intentionally adopting the opposite perspective of his students. Most of us don't do that and can't really do that, say if you are lecturing to 100 students. What you can do is explain certain perspectives and challenge conventional thinking as a way to spur thought. In my classes, for instance, I ask students to think about what the mistreatment of First Peoples tells us about Canada or what we should think of contradictory tendencies in foreign policy or why we take wilderness icons for emblems of nationhood but produce so much pollution. Sometimes, I will confess, I don't have answers to these problems. I have my own views -- and this blog is a place where I articulate them -- but I don't have the answer to every issue or every problem that perplexes national public life.

But ... what if I did have answers? Well, it turns out that there are some things on which I do have some things that I think I can contribute to the general discussion. Most faculty are this way.  There are issues about which I have been teaching, or which I have been researching, for some time. I'm getting close to twenty years at Mount Allison, which means that some of my current students were not alive when I started here. I've done more reading on some subjects than my students and, in some cases, a great deal more reading. Where one of my students might have spent, say, hours reading about a subject they find interesting, I might now have spent 100 times that. I'm not bragging, just doing math. I've seen the evolution of scholarship over time (where students are often coming in half way through a story; not their fault, this is simply a product of age). I've see policies that have begun with much promise but resulted in failure. In other words, it is possible that I know more about something than one of my students and I might have ways of thinking about some matters that can help them. I do lecture in some of my courses and I lecture because I can use that forum to get students "up to speed" on an issue quicker than sending them away to read the dozen or several dozen books (let alone scholarly papers) that I have read on the same subject.

So, knowing that, what should be my approach as an instructor? As a faculty member, I am paid for many reasons. I am paid to teach classes, to administer an academic program, to provide effective collegial governance, to research, to edit, to advise. But, surely one of the reasons students pay to sit in my class is that they have something that they think they can learn from everything I've just wrote in the previous paragraph.

This is not arrogance. To be sure: some faculty are arrogant but arrogance has no single political home. It is not the sole provenance of the politically correct. And, in my view, the issue is not arrogance. We all agree that it is not a good mix with teaching. There is, though, a difference between arrogance and knowing something or having certain skills. My plumber knows a lot more about plumbing than I do. Is that arrogance on his part? My mechanic knows a great deal more about car engines than I do ... is he arrogant when he fixes my car? You see the point and the oddity of some of the accusations of thought policing or PC. When a faculty member corrects a mistake a student makes ... are they arrogant? Some people -- particularly but not exclusively, I suspect -- those in the anti-PC camp come very close to arguing that this is the case. But, imagine a different situation. What if I spotted a mistake and did not correct it? Would I be doing my job?

These are something more than rhetorical questions. What I am saying is that a reasonable conception of education involves thinking, changing your mind, learning new things and we expect instructors to guide us in that process. We don't expect them to sit on the sidelines while errors are made and ignore those so as to avoid becoming "thought police." The fact that someone who knows more about a subject than I do corrects me is not a horrible thing. It is not an insult to me, or a challenge to my moral worth or identity, as a human being. It is simple that: a correction.

Let me conclude: if you wondered why so much politically correct discourse (pro and con) is on campus, at universities, it is not an accident. It is not some sort of left wing academia. It is a product of the nature of the higher educational enterprise. Challenging people's thinking, correcting mistakes, asking people to look again at an issue, and recognizing that there are people who know more because that is their job, is not horrible. Yet, in hoopla that surrounds PC on campus, I think we have lost sight of those simple facts. The goal of education is *not* to remain the same. That is why we go to school: to develop, to change, to become better. If we assume that anyone who seeks to change us is involved in some sort of nefarious conspiracy or is some agent of the thought police, we are, in fact, condemning the very idea and purpose of education.

The Practical Humanities Failure? The Critique of the Digital Humanities

In my previous post, I tried to argue that limited definitions of the humanities may make those who use who practice them feel good -- à la ...