Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

It was a rueful day, a remorseful day, when behaviorism began to dominate psychological discourse. The fashion of reductivism found in neopositivism gave it birth, the form of industrial production gave it growth, the politics of fascism gave it mastery. The interwar vehicles of perceiving human consciousness as driven by elemental biologies had its symbolic life in eugenics and its political desires in colonialism. It took over workplaces from factories to universities, and around 1989, in my experience, it spawned an instrument of social and pedagogic control in higher education called the student course evaluation.

In part a response to the transparent lack of accountability of the university to any wider social context, in part a bone thrown to students whose tuition costs were beginning to skyrocket, these ‘instruments’, so-called in an appeal to scientistic objectivism, these ‘metrics’, these ‘rubrics’, solicited student responses to a variety of experiences. Their main internal task was to document the feelings of the audience, the reviews of the emerging clientele – indeed, such instruments were part of the story of how students began to perceive of themselves as clients, consumers, buyers, rather than apprentices or even interested onlookers – but their latent function, the cleverness of their design and their very presence, was to pit faculty and students against one another in light of previous decades of university unrest which often saw these two groups allied forcefully against administration and government. They were a minor, obscure child of the abrupt turn toward a neo-conservative politics in the 1980s, brought on mostly by economic shifts that saw women in the workplace and public life on the brighter side, overall wage earning down and an inward seeking sensibility that attempted an escape from the public life of the polis on the darker. Sectarianism, the opportunistic politics of millennial ‘redemption’ and civil religion, the erosion of the middle class, an explosion in the arms race and its determined calculation of annihilation were the hallmarks of this period.

And calculation is the essence of reductive behaviorism. To generate a number, a ‘score’, by way of some dubious battery – dubious in the light of human science methodology and epistemology, dubious in the light of art, of the poetics of teaching, dubious in the shape of the transgressor of the love of learning, a red death irruptive to the masque of classroom drama –  was the mirror of this essence. Scores may be compared to one another, of course. A hierarchy of the good may be constructed. Ratiocination accepts this manipulation, but what do the scores represent? To what to do they refer? We are good or bad with reference to the scores. The battery of tests is said to mirror student concerns. What of the unasked questions? What are the sources of the concerns? Why are psychometric variables claimed to be the most important to students? Why do young persons demand control, organization, structure, information, predictability, skill, and timeless unthought from their mentors and their teachers? How have these forms of life taken their vaunted place in the consciousness of youth?

Certainly the world around us is unpredictable. Human life is by nature finite, uncertain, both inside of itself and in its projections, be these metaphysical – is there more to life than life itself? – and in its objects – entropy, decay, deliberate erasure, as in the concentration camps and asylum systems, as well as the leading but blunted edge of our political memories. No doubt, from the very first, humans have sought to control and manipulate the environments they found themselves inhabiting. Our skill in doing so is one of the greatest virtues of humanity, one of our ‘identity statements’, as it were. It defines us as unique, without respect to the great diversity of ways one can both subsist and exist as human in the world.

Of late, the sense that the world around us must be controlled has taken on a more desperate ardor. It has about it the aura of anxiety, even of neurosis. We feel we must know, and not merely hope or think. We must predict and not predicate, we would rather act than contemplate. When someone asks us, ‘How did I do?’ – the range covers everything from first dates to teaching a course to killing each other legally or illegally – we find it more comfortable to respond with ratios. The scores of the ‘kill ratio’ in times of war are of great import to training and tactics. The scores of student course evaluations influence career outcomes, wages, and personnel decisions. They excite the population of ‘teaching centers’, drive aspects of the ideologies of faculties of education, assuage students that their presence and voice ‘counts’ for something, and keep academics – notoriously unmanageable relative to other kinds of workers – looking over their shoulders. Most importantly, however, such ‘instruments’ push scholars to communicate the work of consciousness in a manner that befits bourgeois production and sentiment. Quantity with the gloss of quality, something that tastes good but arrives quickly, that has a similar effect as the dizzy-knee heroin of Disney heroines, and something that can be consumed with reference to social climbing – the accreditation of the middle classes originally aped their betters, starting around 1830 such new classes began to have the leisure time and wealth to become ‘cultured’ – such are the characteristics of transmissive models of education and the levels of their curricula in today’s university.

Shall we question the modes of production and consumption that give rise to the anxieties concerning certainty and predictability? Shall we question the sources of an anxiety that desires to control both itself and others? Shall we interrogate the battery of instrumental design that questions any attempts to lose itself in the compassion for human uncertainty, the facts of finitude, the breath exhaled by the dying?

In the gas chambers, the cyanide was pumped in through vents in the ceiling. Even so, the victims struggled upwards, for this was the only visible opening and ventilation. They died in a writhing naked pile of themselves, their children at the bottom. Their scores were poor. They had failed the test of a better humanity. They had not evolved, or socially climbed, high enough to avoid their ‘deserved’ fate. Thus they were in the way of ‘progress’. They represented the uncertainty, the undertones, the subterranean presence of what ratiocinated anxiety demands become absent. They were anthropological alterities, their afterlives to be avoided, their after-effects to be extinguished. Such a presence, containing its own non-presence unnerving and surreal seen in the light of the fascism of numeric nothingness, can only be overcome by an even more uncanny response that in fact makes evil what was before merely uncontrollable and unavoidable difference.

Before teaching to the demands of organization, structure, control, lightheaded language and heavy-set hierarchy; before testing your abilities as pedagogues through the use of instruments designed to celebrate specific and narrow sets of outcomes; before committing your own creativity and that of your students to a premature burial under the sediment of psychometrics and the sentiment of a greeting card, consider dispensing with quantifiable evaluations of all kinds. Ask your community of learners to write about their experiences and how they have shaped their perception of the world and of themselves. If such responses have a place in managing professors, we will be better able to understand why what we attempt to do in the classroom and elsewhere has some serious meaning.

Wandering with One’s Shadow

Wandering with One’s Shadow

Each of us possesses a darker side. We try, through the norms of civility, to simply not be possessed by it. But these attempts, mostly successful both as persons and within a society at large, do not prohibit us from being possessed of our own shadow. We wander alongside it, as Nietzsche famously commented upon, yet never wholly within it. If the shadow itself has a penumbra, then it is us who dwell more or less comfortably in its shade. But every now and again we step more fully into the shadows that tarry along by our side. Recognizing this is neither a matter of psychopathology nor a shill for therapy of any kind. Rather, it is simply to understand part of ourselves, an aspect of our own humanity which in every case is already and always my own.

Anger and fear are the usual suspects when we try to identify the reasons why we ‘stray’ into the twilit aegis of such an altered state. These themselves have long been identified with our animal background. But is a mere animal the same thing as a beast? Both terms have collected much metaphoric baggage over the millennia. Such connotations were also routinely extended to certain non-Western versions of ourselves, ‘savages’ either noble or ignoble. But the imperial distanciation of otherness in Western consciousness had also more recently been interpreted as an acknowledgement that what we hold within us, however civilized the veneer, is no different in kind from that of the lowest forms of life. The fin de siècle period of recent European history bears witness to this shock of recognition, from Conrad to Freud and beyond. Along with the unutterable dread of savage thought came the unbearable sense that repression was the only possible response. The great efflorescence of psychopathology during this period is hardly a coincidence.

These days, we take a more pragmatic approach to dealing with our ‘inner demons’. A combination of concise legal boundaries and self-esteem seminars is generally enough to deter the beast within. Indeed, such a thing, if it may be said to exist elsewise from ourselves, is relegated to its own shadows, as if the penumbra of personhood had its own Doppelgänger that lay in wait to shock us out of our complacency. None of this really makes any sense other than within the frisson of dubious fiction. What we can work with is the idea that norms are there for a reason, and people can’t do what they desire to do at all times, in all places, and with all others. That norms concede their territory based on the lowest common denominator, especially those that have to do with legal contexts, can’t really be helped. We also know, that alongside ourselves and our own shadow, stroll the shadows of all the others, intimate and strange both, wandering along with us and, we might imagine, always at the ready to trespass against us. It’s better not to ‘start something’, as the colloquialism has it, for unless you are prepared and skilled enough to dispose of the body afterwards, then the game is not worth the price.

On top of this, there is the internalized template of social norms with which almost all of us must deal. We call it one’s conscience. There’s nothing otherworldly about it. Indeed, it is solely based on the relationships we have, and most of us feel, we must maintain in this world as it presents itself. Since we neither have our personal beginnings within the ambit of the origin of the world, nor do we die with it – even nuclear annihilation might in some far future epoch be overcome by different forms of life on earth – the world is manifestly not our own. This is important. It is one of the key features of maturity and one of the things that all children must learn, the sooner the better for the rest of us, in order to matriculate to adulthood. Of course, such a lesson is hardly one that takes hold overnight. For males, especially in the West, it seems that it can take up to sixty years or so, for females, perhaps forty. Yet in one sense it is not only a key lesson, but the most important thing. Otherwise, we dimly understand that human life would be unlivable and that our private worlds, extant only within our heads, would constantly and often violently collide with those of others. That we prevaricate this at the level of the nation-state is a sad enough commentary on our inability to mature as a species at a more responsible pace, but it is also something of a safety valve that permits individuals to maintain social relationships outside of the shadows that attend to them at every turn. It may seem rather pathetic to say that tribalism – the sense that we as citizens should ‘stick together’ if only in the face of external threat – has a positive social function. But given our knowledge of our own history, we prefer today than yesterday, and are rightly suspicious of anyone or any group that desires to retrogress. Perversions of neo-colonialism as these movements may be, nevertheless they remain perverse.

And perversion is the term we often favour to bestow upon any and all who deviate from socially sanctioned norms and codes, whether the law, the policies of workplace or school, or for some still, the tenets of a religion. Though we go to war over resource competition and social control of transient populations etc., we do attempt to recognize the general depravity of war. It has become, at worst, a necessary evil. (It is sage to note that not all governments think this way, and the West is thus placed at a disadvantage because it has, after Nuremberg, mostly lost the stomach to make war for any cause). Since outright violence can be arrested only by a further violence, we imagine that only with the correct rationalization can we forgive ourselves afterwards and state starkly that ‘we did what had to be done’. We rejected this defense at Nuremberg, but still routinely use it for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which remain two trenchant and billowing shadows that must walk alongside our sense of both our Western and our technical personas. They walk with us simply due to the fact that we maintain these kinds of weapons today. No society keeps a tool unless they think they will use it.

Which is why, for instance, I don’t own a gun. I can’t truly trust myself not to use it. Anger, fear, or even an aghast propriety might be the motivation. I know my own shadow well enough after walking with it and indeed, sometimes within it, over a half century of human life. It’s as much who I am as the norms that prevent it from seeking too permanent an ascendancy. And each of us might say as much. To understand the interest in personal weapons is to understand something of the shadow-being with whom we box. It is usually a friendly enough bout because it is about aspects of the unique being that is always my own. I am not fighting an ‘urge’, or yet a ‘perversion’. It is not deviant to desire the death of the Other, conceptually, only that of specific others. But there’s the rub, as is said: unless we have come to know another in the slightest fashion, he or she is bounded by the problem of generalized otherness that is in fact the most threatening thing of all.

I recently watched a documentary on Reinhard Tristan Haydrich, billed as Hitler’s successor before Churchill manufactured a successful assassination plot. He was by far the most intelligent of an otherwise sadly dimwitted lot of executives, and Churchill with his usual insight got him murdered before his skills hit the ground running. But not merely his skills; his ideas were far more dangerous. This because they represented what most of us feel in times of crisis to be the ideal way of dealing with conflict: destroy the other before he destroys me. As I watched I found, to my chagrin, a growing empathy for ‘the blond beast’, as his peers nicknamed him. By contrast, the documentary sub-title referred to him as the ‘god of death’.

And we’re right back where we began. The beast within us, the fear of death. Of all history’s recent villains and heroes, and it is also sage to note that this label changes over time according to our contemporary druthers – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Malcolm X and Ché Guevara all bear popular culture testament to this – I had to admit to myself that I admired Haydrich the most when I felt the pressing presence of my own shadow. This presence always provokes a moment of utter honesty in oneself. As a thinker, my duty is to the truth of things, whether scientific, historical, or personal. But there are also, beyond all of these, ethical truths, the combined weight of which reminds us that there is no simple truth that would unburden us of the task of being human, which includes that of historical consciousness. No one, even the most versed and insightful thinker, can claim to know the truth of things.

Given this, we must turn, or be turned, towards an other and in turn demand of him or her to aid in the project of coming to know each other as simply another. Another human being on much the same road as ourselves. Another consciousness who also has their shadow not so different in scope than mine, and finally, another upon whom we should be able to rely to defy alongside us the gravity of our mortal coil, not only for the time of personal being, but for the sake of the human future itself.