personal, philosophy, politics

On gender, bubbles, sociology and prejudice

There’s a fine line between prejudice and sociology.

I can’t remember when I first said that, and I can’t remember if someone else said it first. Google can’t help me with that because the thought somehow got in my head so many years ago. I found an interesting piece on the fine line between profiling and stereotyping, but that was obviously written much later.

That’s not to say I don’t respect sociology. It’s not just an easy major for Duke athletes. In grad school, I learned a lot about identity and explored the intersection of sociology and economics.

Sociology and other academic fields are very good at pointing out who lives in a bubble. We learn about white privilege, male privilege, etc.

Here’s the issue:

We are ALL flawed in our perceptions. We ALL have valid but partial experiences to share.

I emerged from grad school with some skepticism about postmodernism. The theme in some of my classes was that academia and the media had, over the generations or even centuries, typically overlooked the voices of people who were not in places of power. And that’s true. But many academics take this noble idea to an extreme, dismissing expertise in favor of experience, even if that experience only covers a small part of the complexities of a given issue.

The right wing, of course, has hijacked this notion. “Don’t listen to those pointy-headed East Coast elitists talking about global warming and citing stats on economics and crime that refute your perceptions. You live in “real America,” so your viewpoint is more important than theirs.” And in the media, we fall for it — fanning out to understand and empathize with Trump voters even when they’re blaming immigrants and supposedly unneeded government regulation for their economic woes.

We all bring unique flaws to the table. Men can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be a woman, which we realize when we share pictures of ridiculous all-male panels discussing women’s health. We may be too old to understand youth culture. We may be too young to have experience. We may have insecurities that force us to reach for convenient labels to dismiss views that make us uncomfortable.

In short — we all have bubbles.

At the last meeting of one of my grad-school classes, our professor (a sociologist) said she enjoyed teaching our liberal-studies classes more than she enjoyed teaching undergraduate classes because we were more diverse. We weren’t. We were nearly all white NPR listeners. Yes, we had a wider range of ages — some fresh out of undergrad life, some in their 60s — but that’s just one of many metrics.

The perception this professor had was that Duke undergrad students were all ridiculously wealthy, moreso than the people who had spent their own hard-earned money to take these grad-school classes on top of their regular jobs. But I also went to Duke as an undergrad, and that wasn’t my experience.

Duke, being a well-known and often infamous university, spills out into the mainstream at times. New York magazine recently ran something about Duke’s role in the birth of the alt-right. Richard Spencer spent time in grad school there. Stephen Miller had a column at The Chronicle and the good timing to be there when the rape accusations against the lacrosse team turned out to be Exhibit A for identity politics run amok.

That piece included a few comments from Shadee Malaklou, who was also a Chronicle columnist overlapping with Miller’s time. It does not cite Malaklou’s recent piece taking her classmates to task for their letter criticizing Miller as abhorrent to Duke values. Duke shares the blame for Miller, Malaklou argues, because his columns ran in the school newspaper and people didn’t adequately protest against him or controversial statements in the lacrosse case. Those who regularly castigated Miller in the Chronicle’s letters section, or those who remember that Duke punished the lacrosse team so severely that it wound up spending the better part of the last decade in court, may beg to differ.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Malaklou’s perceptions not aligning with mine. I remember her Chronicle columns well. She wrote extensively on Duke’s hookup culture, participating in it but finding it unsatisfying.

As a retired sex kitten, I understand the appeal: The echo of a pounding beat in a dimly lit room, the triumph of a dry hump, the print of rosy lipstick on a frat guy’s cigarette and the sound and fury of college life, a la Old School and Animal House. It’s almost irresistible. until about midway through college.

When it comes to sex, Duke women don’t have much of a choice. It’s either hookup or bust. Duke is not a sexually predatory campus, but in the words of Donna Lisker, director of the Women’s Center, men set Duke’s social rules.

Malaklou’s Duke exists, though I don’t think that many students smoke. But it’s not my Duke. And my Duke also exists, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

On a larger scale, studies show a big gap in perception and reality when it comes to the hookup culture. Like misinformed voters who think the federal government spends most of its money on foreign aid and PBS, we think everyone else is doing it, but the numbers just don’t back that up.

My Duke, the one Malaklou and my grad-school professor may have missed, included a bunch of people on financial aid with work-study jobs. It included Muslims and Christians whose religious views weren’t compatible with getting drunk and getting laid. It included all the people in my artsy coed dorm (or The Chronicle) who dated each other, in some cases leading to happy marriages.

Today’s Chronicle neatly captures Duke’s diversity. One column is a fond but slightly cynical look at the “secret society” that pops up to do weird things at the end of the school year. Another is written “to the sorority girls I never talked to.”

None of this means Malaklou’s experience is invalid. (And thankfully, she’s a much better writer than most academics.) It’s merely incomplete.

And that brings me to a a long PDF file on “emotional labor,” shared by a wonderful senior at a California college who has the intellect and idealism to make a difference in this world, for which we should all be grateful.

The rough definition, according the first paragraph, is “the work of caring.” But not just caring — it’s also figuring out what to do to make caring work.

The assumption here is that women do this “work” and “figuring out,” while men do not. Ouch. And it depicts a lot of would-be male feminists as the femi-bros in the great SNL sketch with Cecily Strong at the bar.)

The experiences shared, mostly complaints and realizations that women are expected to carry more of the “emotional labor” burden in our society, are valid. But as with everyone else in this discussion (and in the real world), it’s prone to bubble-thought.

I can counter one post with my own experience. A woman says that her husband who always took their daughter to ballet got “pity or adulation from women for doing this stuff.” I can relate to a point — I do most of the pickups at school and other activities. But I didn’t get pity or adulation. For a while, I got a lot of standoff-ish body language, as if I shouldn’t be there. After a couple of years, people got used to me, and I’m generally more accepted. I’m still not pitied, and any adulation I get comes from the fact that I have a reputation as a “dog whisperer.” It’s still not easy for me to start or maintain conversations with women at school pickup — I’m often ignored and frequently interrupted by other women on the assumption that their conversation is going to be more important than whatever I was saying.

I’m the one in our family who keeps up a lot of social contact — and frankly, it’s sometimes awkward. I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable setting up a playdate with a friend’s mom — not because I’m unwilling to do the emotional labor, but because I sometimes get the sense that the mom is creeped out by this conversation with a heterosexual married man.

And there are a lot of specific examples from which you simply can’t draw a general conclusion. One example: A woman frets that her husband was mad that she wasn’t sending birthday cards to all of his relatives. I’d argue that guy isn’t that way simply because he’s a guy. He’s just a jerk.

My fear in this case is that men — all men — are simply the scapegoat here. She married a bad guy, and she doesn’t want to ponder the possibility that she made a mistake. If she’s able to chalk up her man’s faults as an issue that all men share, then voila, she couldn’t have done better. Men are labeled as the faceless, dehumanized “other.”

Again — this discussion has plenty of valid points, and no, I’m not empathizing here with the whiny “men’s rights” movement. Women are under tremendous pressure to be the workers in the emotional labor force. And it’s a pressure I can never fully appreciate, just as I can’t fully appreciate what it’s like to pulled over for Driving While Black or to struggle with gender and sexual identity issues. Having an identity forced on you seems like a really terrible experience to me, but that’s about the extent of what I can say about it, because I haven’t lived it first-hand. And I have to accept that limitation and just try to empathize as best I can.

But we ALL have to do this. AND we have to recognize that the people with whom we’re empathizing are as error-prone as we are.

Should we listen to people who voted for Trump out of economic fear? Absolutely. Should we accept their scapegoating of immigrants and others? No. It’s not even the empathetic thing to do. They’re actually voting against their own self-interest because they think government programs benefit federal workers and lazy “others,” failing to realize how much those programs do for them and their neighbors.

Should we listen to the sorority girls and fraternity boys? Sure.

Should we listen to the academic left, which is so underrepresented in modern life that we actually consider Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “liberal”? Yes.

And should we listen to middle-aged white dudes who are laden with all sorts of guilt (I’m Anglican, which gives me some residual Roman Catholic guilt as well as the knowledge that we basically broke away so Henry VIII could marry someone else, and I’m descended from Confederate officers) and would like to contribute to any discussion that makes us more enlightened? I hope so.

Not that everyone deserves a platform. I wouldn’t invite Ann Coulter or Richard Spencer to speak at my campus. I also objected when some Duke students promoted a speech by an African-American man who was a little less than enlightened about Jews.

But when we tally up all the issues in modern society, we rarely find that we’re listening too much. We don’t have to accept everything outside our safe space, but we should at least take a peek.


Philosophy majors will destroy ISIS

At the very least, if we could get you engineering types to study some dadgum humanities, you might not view life in binary:

Martin Rose of the British Council blames the “engineering mindset” for why scientists and engineers make for such good ISIS fodder—students with a technical background might tend to see the world as a fundamentally rational machine that can be repaired like any non-abstract mechanism and exists in an array of binary states, like “on or off” or, say, “Halal or Haram.” There’s typically a right answer or more efficient route in the sciences, as opposed to the deliberate uncertainty and endless perspectives of the humanities.

Source: Study: More Useless Liberal Arts Majors Could Destroy ISIS


Academia getting serious about talking to the rest of us?

At Duke, I wrote a column shredding academic-ese. Maybe I was foreshadowing my USA TODAY career, urging academics to write more concisely. (A poli sci professor read my column and told his class he would shorten the length requirement on their upcoming papers, which might be the most influence I’ve ever had with anything I’ve written.)

In an era in which we take ignorant voices seriously, academics HAVE to bridge the gap. Now more than ever. They need to engage with the public in a way we can understand. A handful of people (think Neil deGrasse Tyson, picking up Carl Sagan’s quest to share astronomy with the masses) get it. Most don’t.

Some Australians apparently agreed with the importance of bridging that gap, and they launched a site called The Conversation in 2011. That site has expanded to the USA, and a Duke scientist has co-written a manifesto of sorts for them: Here’s why academics should write for the public.

Good luck. And we should keep an eye on them.

education, personal, philosophy

The value of a four-year college

Three weeks into my symbolic logic class, I realized I didn’t belong.

It certainly seemed like a good idea to take it. I was a philosophy major, and I had aced logic. Loved it. Breezed through it.

I slowly realized that my classmates were all math majors and engineers. Somehow, word had gotten out that this was essentially a math class masquerading as a philosophy class that they could take to fill that social sciences requirement.

The professor would stop, apologize and talk very slowly when he mentioned something philosophical. “OK, this is what Immanuel Kant said about logic — that’s Kant, K … A … N … T.” Then he surveyed the class to make sure we all were familiar with mathematical induction. A couple of us said we weren’t.


So here it is:

\forall P.\,[[P(0) \land \forall (k \in \mathbb{N}).\,[P(k) \Rightarrow P(k+1)]] \Rightarrow \forall (n \in \mathbb{N}).\,P(n)]

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been there. But it was too late to drop the class. I had to muddle through, knowing I had as much chance of getting correct answers as Chris Farley on a Japanese game show in that SNL sketch that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise awful season.


I somehow made it out of there with a C+, which was either divine intervention or a “gentleman’s C.”

So when people question the worth of a four-year residential college experience, I sometimes look back upon this class and wonder what I gained from the experience. Did my advisers and the Duke course catalog fail me? Should I have known better? Or was it good for me in the long run?

Perhaps I would’ve been better prepared if I had taken another class. But after acing calculus in high school, I placed into Calculus II at Duke. My instructor struggled with English, and he didn’t take us through all the material that wound up on the exam. Got a C in that one, too.

The same semester I struggled with symbolic logic, I followed some advisers’ recommendations and took philosophy of law. I wasn’t officially pre-law — at Duke, you didn’t really declare such a thing — but I was taking classes that would, in the view of the pre-law advice folks, prepare me for law school. I was cruising to a B or B+ in that class until I spent all my time at the end of the semester trying to teach myself enough symbolic logic to pass that class. I wound up with a B-.

So these classes pretty much stopped my late surge to graduate cum laude. Yes, I was close, despite all those nasty classes and my ill-advised decision to take an art history class that met right after my PE class. I somehow finished just above the middle of my class. Perhaps it was because I was sober.

(Friday night, in fact, I thought of the supposedly mandatory “alcohol survival” session attended by me and tens of my freshman classmates, as if I needed tips on dealing with the effects of the wine at church. I was thinking of it because I was in a supposedly mandatory coaches’ meeting, along with at least 20% of the other coaches. I never learn.)

The bigger impact of that philosophy of law class, though, was that it convinced me not to go to law school. I was bored to tears.

In retrospect, law would’ve been a better career for me than journalism. But I was lucky that things worked out to some extent. I’ve been to four Olympics and a Women’s World Cup. I’ve met famous people and even befriended a couple of them. And I met terrific co-workers, one of whom I married. That might not have happened had I gone to law school or, as the music faculty would’ve loved, gone to grad school in music, where I was making good grades and getting pegged as the next PDQ Bach. (He’s kind of the Weird Al of classical.)

I should say Duke didn’t really help me, career-wise. The university launched a Career Center during my time there, and I duly stopped by to talk about my decision to go into journalism.

So I’m planning to send clips out to various newspapers.

Oh … great! Yeah … um … that sounds like a good idea.

Thanks, dude.

Late in my senior year, when I realized I had no employment lined up and had been passed up a couple of internships, I learned that some information on journalism careers was stored in the political science department. A small box of index cards had contact information that, in the pre-Web days, was not otherwise available. Great.

So I’d have to say Duke let me down on several levels. But I have to take some of the blame myself. I was perfectly content to take an intellectual buffet.

To some extent, that should be encouraged. Young adults need some freedom to explore.

But I wonder if universities have erred too far toward freedom. Maybe a few more classes should be required, not just the horrid writing course Duke requires in the first semester. (That was my lowest grade — C-. The next semester, I purposefully forgot everything that grad student tried to tell me, went back to my old writing style and made an A in an English seminar. I still think I should dedicate one of my books to that teacher.)

Duke science majors made fun of some of classes like “Chemistry and Society,” a chemistry class geared toward humanities and social science majors. But I took that class, and it was terrific. I got a broad overview, not the details you get in the general chemistry classes. Besides — we all did chemistry in high school. Once you get past that, there’s little reason to put future engineers and future political scientists in the same class.

Meanwhile, math and science majors fulfilled their “social science” obligation in the aforementioned symbolic logic, a math class with a philosophy label.

And responsibility for such things really does fall back onto the school. I had no way of knowing I’d be beating my head against the wall in symbolic logic. I should’ve been told statistics would be much more practical than a second semester of calculus.

I can’t say any class is a total waste of time. I like to think of my education as “batting weights for the brain.” Wrestling with difficult concepts and abstractions can make the typical day-to-day work problems seem simple by comparison.

But a few more practicalities wouldn’t hurt. Maybe offer more broad survey courses to fill field of study requirements — a general history of philosophy rather than something specific, economics for personal and political literacy rather than future policy wonks.

Short of a curriculum overhaul, let’s get back to the question I’ve danced around long enough: Was it worth it?


Even with today’s technology, what else would I do? Stay at home for another couple of years and take classes online?

College is supposed to broaden the mind. You meet people who are a little different. You explore. You try new things, and they don’t have to be alcohol-related.

Before I went to Duke, I had never met a gay person (that I knew of — in retrospect, yes I had) or a Muslim. I had stereotypes that needed deflating.

I met great people — and learned how to deal with some obnoxious ones. I tested my intellectual limits. I had the best journalistic experience of my life, running a good daily newspaper with smart people I both loved and couldn’t stand (sometimes the same people).

In this day and age, where people hide behind anonymous online personas and fail to relate to each other, shouldn’t more people have this sort of experience.

So let’s fix the advising and maybe the curriculum. Let’s make it affordable. Maybe encourage exchanges for one year so people can diversify their experiences.

And move “symbolic logic” to the math department. Doesn’t matter if Kant and company had interesting thoughts on it. Greek philosophers invented a lot of mathematical concepts, too. Must have had a good college experience. They had togas, after all.


The humanities are important — really!

A solid case here from Duke’s Peter Burian, though I’m not sure it’s going to persuade many people outside the converted:

What we must do is insist — loudly and repeatedly — that liberal education aspires to make people not merely successful but also fulfilled, not merely autonomous thinkers but also contributing citizens, engaged and creative participants in the community. We must show how grounding in the humanities can put political and social issues into perspective and provide new perspectives on our values and beliefs.

via Essay on how to defend the humanities | Inside Higher Ed.

The problem is you’ll still have computer programmers who insist they know everything, laboring under the mistaken belief that computer code requires more brain power than philosophy. I still haven’t figured out the best way to persuade them otherwise — probably because I was always better at computer programming than philosophy, even though I majored in the latter.

Maybe we could start an ad campaign …