Making and Breaking: Research and Engagement in the Neo-Liberal Economy

In the neo-liberal political economy, government resources get diverted from looking after people’s welfare and infrastructure to pay for tax cuts for the very wealthy, subsidies for enterprise zones , public/private partnerships and privatized services (such as prisons), free-trade arrangements, and restoration measures when “creative destruction” and speculative financialization crashes, all the while subject to profits being accumulated increasingly outside the jurisdiction of nation states. Public universities steadily increase fees as state funding is squeezed yet continue to uphold the value of public education and community-engaged research. Faculty are exhorted to become academic entrepeneurs, to take charge of making and taking opportunities—or accept that they have to do more for less while universities divert funds to areas that might bring in grants, secure patents, and attract investors. For the increasing proportion of contingent faculty, “opportunities” look more like piecework than investment in their future. The students we teach also have to make their work and lives in this context, to be entrepeneurial and generate products–including themselves as employable products. For now, when they are not working to pay for their tuition, rent, and digital devices—perhaps even for food and clothes as well!—they might take in that message about the future from the stars of TED talks, IDEAS Boston, exponents of the innovation economy and social entrepeneurship, and elsewhere. The corresponding neo-liberal subjectivity, as Giddens, Walkerdine and others have noted, requires a person to sustain the self without traditional ties that tell them who they are or what they can expect from others, accept the imposition of trying to “be anything you choose to be,” and be resilient when failing or floundering for lack of support.

This picture of the political economy and psychology of the present era is surely incomplete, but aspects may well resonate with faculty members who look up from the line of inquiry in which they have built their competency and career, try to make sense of the wider changing context, and wonder about where they are—or should be—headed. How do we navigate the shifting seas in which we work and live, teach and do research, engage and try to influence? As noted by characters in the 1985 novel of the cultural analyst, Raymond Williams, Loyalties: Given the “powerful forces” that shape social… change, we can “in intelligence” grapple with them “by such means as we can find” and take a deliberate path of action, but “none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong” (p. 357-8). [I]f we “go on saying the things we learned to say and it will be just strange talk, in a strange land” (p. 161).

(The above is the prospectus for a Spring 2015 faculty seminar at UMass Boston, .  Additional UMass participants and comments from others are welcome.)

Critical thinking, Creative thinking & Gender

A. Consider this schema that I used to discuss the idea of creativity in context:
It is clearly complex: Many strands, many cross-connections, many things going on in addition to the focal outcome.

Now consider this simpler image, where the light bulb stands for an idea or inspiration that a creative brain comes up with:

Even that additional elements of this logo from the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program present a simple image:

B. The contrast between the first schema and the simpler images speaks to my sense of critical thinking as thinking that depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. We understand things better when we have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives (Taylor 1995, cited in Taylor 2001).

C. Now consider the following three levels of analysis of gender in relation to knowledge-making (based on previous post [originally made 3/3/13 on a blog for a course Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology ])

    #1. Under-representation of women in research areas and in technological design.
    Obstacles to and under-recognition of their contributions.
    Possibilities for women’s standpoint to address aspects of the world under-recognized by men.

    #2. Biases in knowledge and technologies [and language] that claim to represent progress, efficiency, or other universal interests,
    but in practice promote the unequal social status of men over women.

    #3. The pervasiveness of gender-like dualisms in which one category is subordinate to the other and complex spectra are purified into dichotomies.
    The suppression of overlapping ranges, multiplicities and hybrids that trouble these conceptual schemes.

D. These three levels provide a set of tensions on which to build critical thinking. For example, if we observe under-recognition of contributions of women, we might look for places where women’s contributions are recognized and compare the two situations. Moreover, the set of tensions as a whole exists in tension with a fourth level, namely:

    #4. The contribution of gendered resources among the heterogeneous resources that knowledge-makers link together over time as they construct and reconstruct established knowledge and reliable technologies.

What is a “resource” and what makes one “gendered”? A: “[R]esearchers establish knowledge and develop their practices through diverse and often modest practical choices, which is the same as saying they are involved in contingent and on-going mobilizing of materials, tools, people, [themes] and other resources into webs of interconnected resources” (Taylor 2005, 225). A gendered resource is, therefore, some material, tool, group of people, theme, and so on that is associated with one gender more than another (as in #1) or biases against women hidden underneath what is supposedly universal (as in #2) or viewing the world in dualisms that resonate with the preceding (as in #3). Lest this sound too negative, a very significant source of resources has been the existence of a feminist movement(s) that provides solidarity and support around efforts to contest the inequalities.

A further tension (for critical thinking) is that people talk about angles #1-3 as if they have weight on their own, not as part of the complexity of #4. Yet another tension is seeing such talk as a resource, among others, in the heterogeneous construction.

E. Look back at the initial schema. The *’s denote multiple points of engagement. Using the critical thinking tensions above can be a way to insert gender into the intersection of strands (or heterogeneous construction). No engagement on its own suffices to change the focal outcome; they need to be linked together and even then there is no guarantee that the outcome will shift the way intended. Linking engagements together means collaborating with others given that each person’s position, skills, and resources prepares them only for a subset of possible engagements.

F. The idea of collaboration in linking multiple, partial engagements within intersecting strands that do not guarantee an outcome recalls a metaphor from my paper, “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge“: “One’s development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on.”

This picture is different from the view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims. And from critical as judgement and finding fault according to some standards. Journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.

G. This picture of critical thinking parallels the picture of creative thinking as a process in context that led me to adapt a schema for the heterogeneous construction of knowledge into the original schema in this post:

Each of us navigates the distributed complexity in part by trying to impart order according to our sense of our self—our identity, aspirations or goals, and will to choose among goals and move towards them.
We achieve some goals and then have greater capacity, knowledge, skills, plans, and direction to keep moving and developing.
We also have setbacks and revise our goals.  Indeed, our self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.
Yet relationships with others are a source of resources and support (material, emotional, etc.) from outside ourselves, which help shape how far and in what directions our movement and development happens.
Relationships are also a source of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.
Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.

H. In one sense this picture is about the complexity of angle #4 on gender in relation to knowledge-making. In another sense — a sense in tension with that — the picture reminds us of a simple theme often associated with feminist analyses: interdependency and interrelatedness is the foundation for our existence — from the single celled zygote to the newborn and onwards.

I.  Two parting questions, repeated from the previous post:  a) What case studies and situations in the material world to engage in in order to complement the abstraction of A-H?  b) How does this all translate into the terms used by feminist teachers now and in previous decades?

Taylor, Peter J. (2001) “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,”
—- (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

PBL & feminist pedagogy

(A post I made 3/3/13 on a blog for a course Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology )
A. For the purposes of this activity, let me define feminism in relation to science and technology (following the theory linked to the syllabus) as a conversation between the following four angles on gender in relation to science and technology. (Equivalent angles can be articulated for differences that refer to race, ethnicity, or European descent vs. other othernesses.)

1) Under-representation of women in science and in technological design; Obstacles to and underrecognition of their contributions; Possibilities for women’s standpoint to address aspects of the world underrecognized by men.

2) Biases in knowledge and technologies that claim to represent progress, efficiency, or other universal interests, but in practice promote the unequal social status of men over women.

3) The pervasiveness of gender-like dualisms in which one category is subordinate to the other and complex spectra are purified into dichotomies; The suppression of ways these conceptual schemes are troubled by multiplicities and hybrids.

4) The contribution of gendered resources among the heterogeneous resources that knowledge-makers link together over time as they construct and reconstruct established knowledge and reliable technologies. A very significant source of resources has been the existence of a feminist movement(s) based on a broader set of social and personal concerns, which continues to bring attention to issues about science and technology from the previous three angles (e.g., Keller 2001).

B.  The PBL course process is intended to exemplify such a theoretical “quadrangulation” as students address the tension between, on one hand, disciplined knowledge/analysis/inquiry and action that often invokes a limited set of themes to orient us as we move forward and, on the other hand, the more open (transdisciplinary, gender-bending?) engagements with the unruly contexts in which knowing and acting are always already embedded.

C.  To support such quadrangulation, “scaffolding” is needed.  From,

Scaffolding has a set of associations, thereby inviting an aspiration of development from the first in the set towards the last.

1. Someone starts with a final structure in mind and provide the workers (or students) a safe scaffolding they use to complete the structure (or students come to understand the ideas and be proficient in the practices)…

[The familiar educators’ use of the term fits in here.  In that vein, students would be helped to move from the first to the fourth angles on feminism and science-tech in A.  This might take the form of a historical survey of the development of feminism, especially in relation to science-tech.]

2. Someone starts with a structure already in place and provides a secure scaffolding (base) for the workers (students, mentee, “coach-ee”) to renovate (innovate, re-narrate) so as to modify that structure (in education: “private universes“, Taking Yourself Seriously).

3. Someone (or someones) has (have) a synergistic cooperative or collaborative situation in mind—drawn from past experience and current understanding—and provides scaffolding to more than one group of workers (potential cooperators) to lead them towards a place where, if and when the groups meet, their interaction creates more than the sum of the parts. That is, like two sides of a bridge joining in a stable arch, the resulting situation is something no group could provide for itself (see strategic participatory planning)

4. Like in tissue engineering, someone provides a matrix or scaffold and seeds it with “cells” that then grow in interaction with the matrix— perhaps dissolving the matrix—and eventually in interaction with other groups of cells to form a situation—the “tissue”—that is a dynamic structure—not something that can insert itself (or be inserted) into in a larger context or dynamic structure—the “body”—and generate possibilities not present in the matrix, the cells, the groups of cells, or the larger context into which the new structure is inserted.

5. Like the maintenance of our bones, a dynamic structure has components that are constantly replenished with new components in a way that maintains its integrity as a structure, but adapts to changes in its contexts (like new stresses strengthening bones or, as for astronauts, weakening them) and in turn, generating possibilities (innovations/renovations), not seen or experienced before.

D.  Sounds intriguing, even attractive, but the question is how, in practice, does one scaffold the “development from the first in the set [of associations of scaffolding in C] towards the last”?  See a) the 2001 online article on “Challenges for the teacher/facilitator,” but also b) which raises and begins to address the question: “How can we avoid the trap of developing a theory of everything, in which scaffolding adds nothing special and we reinvent the wheel?”

E.  Another question: What, if anything,  is distinctly feminist about scaffolding?  The answer might be that, in any activity related to scaffolding, any individual’s actions to gain voice against the noise of white patriarchy should be accompanied by action to raise the voice of others.  This recalls the principles that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and “Freedom is merely privilege extended, unless enjoyed by one and all,” and mutual aid.  But saying that leads to another question:  What, if anything,  is distinctly feminist about mutual aid?

F.  Two parting questions:  a) What cases studies and situations in the material world to engage in in order to complement the abstraction of A-E?  b) How does this all translate into the terms used by feminist teachers now and in previous decades?

Critical thinking and gender stereotypes

Elbow’s paragraph below (source) seems believable until I start to ask how to move beyond it. Then I doubt that the implication that men should strive for more believing activities and women for more doubting activities.
Read more of this post

Critical and creative thinking as training to become a “better chooser”?

The passage below, from a review by moral philosopher Jeremy Waldron of books on “nudging” by policy theorist and sometimes practitioner, Cass Sunstein, made me wonder if critical and creative thinking could be the training Waldron laments missing out on. He wishes that he could be a “better chooser” rather than someone who needs to be nudged by policy-making authorities or goods-selling marketers. Read more of this post

A riddle (aka philosophy by children)

At Thanksgiving a ten-year old friend, L_, tested out his latest riddles on the assembled adults: “Imagine you were in a closed metal box.  How would you get out?”  After a few wrong guesses from the group, I quipped, “Think outside the box.”  That was not the answer, but it led me to suggest a few seconds later, “Stop imagining.”

Not only was that the answer to the riddle, but it would seem to be an appropriate answer by analogy to many philosophical puzzles, such as the trolley problem, which is pretty much dissolved once one declines to imagine ever being in that situation.

OK, imagine you were in a room full of philosophers and ethicists discussing the trolley problem.  How would you get them to escape from that discussion…?

Critical thinking in an arena of abundant information

Here is the start of a list of themes for critical thinking in an arena of abundant information, namely, the internet: Read more of this post


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