Category Archives: Normalcy

Higher Education in crisis

I am currently doing a certificate in academic practice at Durham University. My two projects for the certificate have focused on the intrusion of neoliberal values into higher education in the US and the UK. Put as succinctly as possible, one project focused on the challenges I face (as a result of these values) as a researcher-educator and the other on finding out if students have internalized these values (they have).

The crisis in the US has been emerging for quite some time. Having served on several hiring/tenure review/grant committees and gaining insights into what colleagues find of value in a CV (b/c that is what you are at application), I have become increasingly nonplussed at what counts as value: money first and pubs second but with enough money, pubs are assumed to come after (often doesn’t happen because they are busy writing next grant). What about teaching? The same is true now in the UK despite the upcoming TEF. Unis are firing staff/faculty (or inviting them to apply for voluntary redundancy–Durham, Manchester, anyone else?). Decisions are made on the REF-line and accountability is taking over the real job of the uni–education first, research second.

Since when do scholars have to fund the university? Is this a new vanity biz?  Oli Mould tweeted about a gig economy for HE recently and Lorna Richardson suggested Lecturoo. While it sounds funny to think about academics biking about with big packs of books and teaching supplies on their backs for a quick lecture, maybe it isn’t too far from the truth given the value of teaching in HE right now.

If you have a stack of grants, your output and teaching record are secondary, if at all, considerations. But, consider this, grants are not peer reviewed by more than a handful of people in the field (who may even have a vested interest in what you propose to do). Publications are not only peer-reviewed but then open to the public (see scihub for almost anything behind a firewall)–a lasting record. With grants, there is no endorsement of quality by the community writ broad. At the end of your career, will you be remembered as that scholar who pulled in 2 million, 5 million, 10 million a year but are you someone who changed things, advanced knowledge, broke a mold, caused a paradigm shift, shook the world (or at least those into your area of research)? History has proven the latter are remembered regardless of where they are and what they have had funded. Will the future leaving parties of retiring profs be a read-out of the numbers they have brought in? And, we say goodbye to Prof X who raised 80 million in her career. Doing what? No one cares anymore.

The words you write and those they reach are at the heart of the enterprise. Basic research has its place but without a voice–a person–to communicate it, it loses value. The future of our universities in the US and the UK are terrifying. IN the UK, the REF has inculcated a terror in my colleagues worse than the terror some US scholars feel with tenure–keep your head down and get your REF-able work out and your REF-grants in and focus on the bottom line…of the budget.

What happened to supporting and celebrating the best minds? Actually, I think there is more celebration and support for creative thinkers and scholars in various industry outlets–at least there the neoliberal values are apparent and expected.

The Titanic is sinking.

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Filed under Career, critical thinking, Ignorance, Normalcy, Science

Evolutionary Process and Normalcy

This is perhaps more of a heuristic extension of natural process to culture and draws together a disparate group of ideas about human tendency (both as products of environment and natural selection and as cultural products and producers). That caveat stated, I wanted to think about modernity and conformity but place it within a frame of evolutionary process on the macro scale of what Darwin called incipient species.

There are many ways to view incipient species in the modern academic and scientific arena. In The Origin of Species, Darwin described certain species as having very wide geographical ranges such that at the extreme margins of these ranges, local mating groups were semi-isolated from other marginal groups. He called these incipient species because polar opposite subgroups who are likely to not interbreed due to distance may accumulate enough differences over time to distinguish them from their ancestral parent group. This is particularly true if the geographic range of the group transects a diversity of environments to which local adaptations may be increasingly the result of specific natural selection. This idea that greater isolation occurs at the margins of a species’ range has fueled ideas of the process of speciation. Colin Groves (among others) counter-argues that the speciation is taking place in the center of the region. This debate is beyond the idea that I want to discuss so I will leave that discussion there.

The idea of incipient species, whether in the center or the margins of the geographic range, is appealing above and beyond its evolutionary implications (on the macro and micro scale). This idea is what I want to take forward in thinking about normalcy. The idea of normalcy is an undercurrent in human history. Does normalcy describe the state of a society at the center, where the population is most dense, and abnormality as variable states of society at the margins (incipient cultural norms rather than incipient species?).

What is normal and how is it created? Is normal the mean for the population on a bell curve or the data midpoint? In either case, the norm would be described by an area delineating the statistically greatest density along the continuum. This can and may be problematic if we take those data to describe a normal trait or behavior. Take fidelity. There are many discussions and statistics available on the subject. In this one, the views on what constitutes fidelity are extremely variable (from sexual intercourse to holding hands with someone else). Even if we limit infidelity to having sexual acts outside the primary relationship, the average (normal) behavior may well describe someone who is unfaithful. But, these are statistics and may be disparate with culturally norms such that most societies define parameters of fidelity and find those who stray to be abnormal (even if the behavior to stray is more common than not). Thus, statistics often exist outside cultural values of normalcy, even if they sometimes intersect with these concepts. Cultural normalcy often describes not what people do but what they ought to do. .

In the context of conformity and modernity, we use the word normal as a goal. Normal is a reachable goal for which we all have potential to achieve. It is normal to seek this goal and so the goal, or reaching that social ideal, eventually becomes normal (even if the ‘average’ person fails to achieve it). This idealization of certain behaviors creates a set of expectations for those in the public eye, certainly politicians and religious figures. But, it also places pressure on every member of society to conform to this image as well.

At this point, we are dangerously close to ideal type, an outdated concept in biology popularized in the 19th century that, when led to the practice of typology, categorizing based on relationship to ideal type. The ideal type describes a few things. It could be the perfect specimen in a class of specimens or a specimen statistically created from a n average of traits (whether skull shape and size or sexual norms) from a reference population. All new specimens are categorized based on their relationship to ideal type. We can assume that the farther you are from the ideal, the less normal you are, the more pathological you are.

Anneli Rufus describes this in her book, The Loner’s Manifesto. She argues that people rejected by society, people who want to belong but are not socially accepted are mistakenly called loners. For her (and she presents a strong argument), the term loner actually refers to people who enjoy and prefer their solitude despite the fact that they may be welcomed into society and may have friends who yearn for their company and want to see more of them. A recent misuse of the term is related to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Seung-Hui Cho, the killer, is called a loner, but is he? He was shunned much of his life due to a variety of reasons so his ‘alone’ status is not necessarily the result of a desire to be alone. He was a loner because society made him a loner by rejecting. This is a semantic debate that explores a class of people who are not normal with regards to sociability. We are social animals and anyone who is not social is not normal and to be feared. There is no distinction made between those who shun most society of their own volition and those who are rejected by society and may harbor malice as a result. Both are viewed as equally pathological.

There are many examples sliding scales of when an abnormality becomes pathological or dangerous to the health of the individual or the health of others: eating disorders, autism, schizophrenia, OCD, and so on. The appeal for many people to continue in psychology as a major field of study is finding out what is “wrong” with themselves. But, the “average” person has many things “wrong.” This is because there isn’t anyone that is statistically normal. Literature and media have spoofed this idea time and time again.

There is a tremendous danger in fitting oneself, one’s children–any individual in society–to the normal curve, within one standard deviation. Why? Because this practice seeks to eliminate variation, variation which is the cornerstone of survival. To return to the incipient species idea, this variation is what ensures survival of the species. Without variation, a species is too specifically adapted to a set of conditions. So, if those conditions change drastically, that species is now no longer fit and will not survive (wherein fitness is relative and refers to net reproductive success, having offspring that have offspring).

Again, I do not intend to extend evolutionary process to cultural patterns except as heuristic device, a useful analogy for advocating a revised view of norms that includes the dangers of adhering to closely to achieving them as a society. I would argue that the construction and practice of normalcy are increasingly and fatally under-considered in our society, where conformity is more important than critical thinking about what constitutes the standards to which we conform.

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Filed under Anthropology and Evolution, Mental Illness, Normalcy