Thursday, August 04, 2016

Antipodes

Last year in a bit of an experiment, without any controls, I used texting with my undergraduate mentee as the main way to communicate and then used email only for long form communication.  The application Messages on the Mac mades= this pretty easy.  If I had to peck out stuff on my phone I probably wouldn't have gone for it.  I also encouraged her to use my first name, something that was suggested at a session for mentors I had attended earlier in the school year.  She readily did this and we had quite a few pretty open conversations.  It's hard for me to say what the value of those discussions were.   The evidence I've been presented with, at that session for mentors that I mentioned, is that the mentees report these relationships matter a lot while mentors don't really see the benefit much at all.  I'm not even sure whether using first names mattered, though seeing her with her phone when we did meet made me feel that texting did matter, quite a bit.

Conditioned by this experience I asked myself whether I should have my (undergraduate) students this fall call me by my first name, where in the past the norm was that they'd refer to me as Professor Arvan while I'd be less formal and refer to them by their first names.   I've had only a few individual students choose to call me by my first name.  Each time it felt odd hearing that, but I did nothing to change the situation, leaving it up to them.  I wondered if it would still feel odd in the future or if because of the experience with my mentee whether I'd become comfortable with it in the classroom.  A day or two ago I decided to keep things the way I've been doing them in this dimension, partly because I have a lot of online content that is identified that way, it would be a headache to set it up again differently, and I thought that giving mixed signals to my students with regards to my name would be a bad thing to do.  Nevertheless, I prize informality and believe you show respect for others through actions rather than through the names you use.  For example, a student who is chronically late with homework submissions and who never makes the effort to inform me about any extenuating circumstances that might justify the tardiness, shows disrespect for me even if I'm always referred to as professor when in communication with the student.

I wonder how my contemporaries, many of whom have adult children, feel about how their kids should address them.  So far my kids have been comfortable calling me dad and calling my wife mom, with no expressed need to show they are adults by calling us by our first names.  They are now each in their early 20's, showing some signs of maturity yet still with many vestiges from adolescence in how they go about addressing things, though the two kids are quite different this way.  In any event, I don't believe that my wife and I are overly prescriptive about the kids behavior, though we are probably much more prescriptive than either kid wants us to be.  Parents are always right, and kids need to become enlightened on the matter, n'est-ce pas?

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The above is just to set the reader's mind on the general issues of authority and respect.  It is good to have those ideas at hand when considering Thomas Edsall's column for today, which argues that Donald Trump supporters tend to be very authoritarian in nature.   I don't doubt the research that shows this, but I was struck by the contrasts used to establish whether someone has an authoritarian leaning.


I asked myself whether in each of the pairs the two contrasting perspectives could be maintained simultaneously.  For the first pairing, I can at least understand how the two can be contrasted.  Respect for elders means following the rules they set and always acceding to their wishes, at least as long as those wishes are consistent with good and ethical behavior.  Respect for elders then suggests there will be a minimum of disagreement and argument.  But there remains a question of what it implies when the elder has made a mistake and what should happen then.  Should the child ignore the error or point it out? Which better shows respect?  This suggests to me a gray zone where it might go either way.  So for this one, I'd prefer there to be a continuum between independence or respect for elders, rather than merely one of the two poles but nothing of the other.

I've written before about when I'd visit my parents' condo in Boca Raton that I'd adjust to their patterns and do what they expected of me.  But that would typically be a few days in Florida, nothing more.  When I got back to Illinois, I was my own boss.  Doesn't this same sort of distinction happen even in the teenage years, when the kid is having dinner with the family, on the one hand, as compared to when playing with other kids at the schoolyard, on the other?  Nowadays, kids probably have more supervised activities.  Hanna Rosin has written about The Overprotected Kid.  Back in the day, we did a lot of ball sports on the street with no adults present.  Does this difference in how recreation time is spent explain the results which found such a strong predilection for respect of elders?

Good manners and curiosity is a puzzling contrast to me as they seem more orthogonal than opposed.  So I will conjecture how they might be considered as opposites.  Good manners may be an example of self-control, behaving according to some externally provided norm.  Curiosity may be one way to express impulse, something that is internally driven.  I don't know if that is what the designers of the research are trying to get at or not.  But since this is being posed to parents, asking them to evaluate what is more important in their children, they may feel that they can instill good manners in their kids through coaching and repeated instruction, while curiosity is harder if not impossible to teach.  Thus, it is less of a parental responsibility.

I don't actually agree with this.   I think curiosity and creativity can be encouraged by the games we teach our kids.  In my family wordplay was very important.  My parents would regularly play anagrams with me as an adult entertainment activity and alternative to bridge.  In turn, I've encouraged my kids to make puns and now both do it fairly often.  In order to make a pun you have to search for possibilities and ask, will that work?  To me, this search for possibility is getting pretty close to what we mean by being curious.

There is something else going on here though, which I think is also worth considering.  This is about whether the person cares about looking bad when making a bad pun, when doing it themselves, or cares about their kids looking bad, when they give it a shot.  Here I'm not talking about making somebody else groan.  That can actually be quite enjoyable to the creator, especially if there is some history between the two people on this score.  I mean making a pun that doesn't generate any reaction whatsoever in the other person, because the connection at the heart of the pun is not apparent to the other person.  In order to make puns reasonably well, you need a long set of earlier failures of this sort.  So the parenting question is whether there is encouragement straight through, realizing the mediocrity is a necessary stepping stone, or if the parent turns off the spigot early on once the kid is presumed not to have comedic talent, because the presumption by then is that such encouragement would come to naught. 

Comedy itself may demand irreverence by the performer, because one of the necessary elements with humor is surprise and strict conformity to social norms is incapable of producing that.  What happens when the performance is over?  Does the performer revert to more ordinary behavior or remain always on?  Now let's transfer this question to the parent-child relationship where it is the child who is the performer and the parent is in the audience.  A preference by the parent for the kid to be well mannered might be interpreted as a preference to not need to monitor the kid very much and to reasonably expect that the kid won't be a source of embarrassment when in a social setting.  In other words, the parent projects behavior onto the kid so the parent doesn't look bad.  But the parent might not feel that insecure if the parent has been something of a joker himself or herself yet in spite of that can be well behaved when the situation calls for it.

I suppose that because I'm a teacher now and was a former scholar and later an administrator, I believe that showing respect is quite different from blind acceptance.  I instruct my students to remain skeptical, including being skeptical of things I say in class.  I am most pleased with a student when the student poses a good question or offers up an interesting opinion based on the student's actual experience.

Last spring I wrote a blog post after attending a lecture by Harry Boyte, in which he gave a model of undergraduate education based on being a good citizen.   Good citizens participate vigorously and have agency, meaning they act under the belief that their efforts can produce good consequence and experience then shows those beliefs are sensible, not delusional.  If you watch the movie Inherit the Wind, the character Bertram Cates (the fictionalized version of John Thomas Scopes) broke the law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his classroom, which then brought on the famous Monkey Trial.  But in every social setting thereafter, including in the courtroom, he was well mannered and polite, not at all braggadocio nor disruptive in his demeanor.  Bertram Cates was a good citizen, all the while defying the precepts of his community, which would not tolerate anything but a literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible.

Let me wrap this up by making reference to a different movie, A Few Good Men, which I believe is emblematic of Argyris and Schon's model of single loop learning and contrast that with Argyris and Schon's model of double loop learning.   The Marines in A Few Good Men chose to live by a code, embraced honor as their life's guiding principle, and followed rigid adherence to the chain of command.  The picture painted about life in the Marines is about as authoritarian as one can get.  Yet even with that, the crux of the story is that the two soldiers on trial should have questioned Colonel Jessup's order to give a "code red" to the under performing Marine, William Santiago, because Santiago was deserving of their protection in spite of, or perhaps even more so because of, his poor performance.

This questioning of assumptions is what double loop learning is about.  In that world showing respect and exercising independent judgment can happen in concert.  It is only where respect gets reinterpreted as blind obedience that it then stands at one pole, with independent judgment at the other.  The angry White males who have these authoritarian inclinations and are now supporting Trump might be able to get over it if they could be placed in some situations where they were not so powerless to see that they indeed dohave agency in those settings.  Then they could be educated the way Boyte suggests.  This would be a slow process, to be sure, but it is what we need to do so we don't continue to relive this present morass as some infinite do loop.   

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