Friday, October 08, 2010

Twitter, Thomas, and the Tipping Point

I love when my dissertation topic makes news.

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism:

"Um, Sarah? It doesn't mention you or your dissertation anywhere in that article."

I know. Malcolm Gladwell probably has no idea that he's talking about my dissertation topic (or one of them) in the above piece, but he is.

The above is a wonderful explanation of the difference made in social activism by the quality of social ties among participants. "Weak-tie" connections--that is, your acquaintances, casual friends, and those third cousins you only see every couple years at funerals and such--are great resources for the kind of social change that depends on large numbers of people doing very little. When all one is changing is fashion, one only needs large numbers of people to create a tipping point.

The kind of social activism that requires genuine sacrifice, that depends on well-organized and well-trained members, that risks grave danger, that drives substantive, long-term change cannot make use of these "weak-tie" connections. The Civil Rights Movement, Gladwell says, could not have happened without "strong-tie" connections--genuine friendships, the kind that foster trust, mutual encouragement, and solidarity in the face of challenge. The kind of leverage required to "tip" centuries of injustice toward something different does not come from a mass of loosely connected people doing nothing more substantive than throwing their spare change at a problem.

Twitter, Facebook, and other emerging social media cannot create the latter kind of ties, and only where such ties are maintained by many other means can they participate in the strengthening of them. (My parents love seeing pictures of their grandchildren on my personal blog, but if that was all they had of their grandchildren, it would be a severely attenuated relationship.)

Gladwell probably doesn't know it, but he is thinking right along with Thomas Aquinas.

For Thomas, there is a difference between the passions and the virtues. The passions are immediate, pre-rational responses to the world: the instinctive cringe when the hand encounters a hot object, the smiling warmth when a mother sees her beloved children after a day apart, the burning tension when a co-worker's insult is overheard. These passions can be misguided, of course (as when a new neighbor prompts the breathless energy that ought to be reserved for one's wife), but they can also be entirely wholesome and good (as when a stranger's distress prompts an easy gesture of assistance).

Passions are entirely different than virtues, however. Virtues require reasoned intentionality--they are the deliberate and conscious analogues to well-ordered passions. The mother who smiles at her sleeping child is instinctively recognizing the goodness of her offspring; she loves him with all the ease and warmth that the passions inspire. The mother who speaks gently to her tantruming child, who changes the third set of vomit-stained sheets that night, who haunts the cold and impersonal principal's office until the bullying is addressed, who cooks her nine thousandth family meal with the same care she did her first, that mother is loving her child with something more morally significant.

That kind of love is harder. It takes determination; it takes reflection; it takes character. In some cases, it requires intentionally resisting the passions. Only the mother who knows what is good for her child can do it; only the mother who wants to do good for her child will do it; only the mother who consistently chooses to do the good for her child will find herself capable of doing it even when her instinctual responses are to scream, lash out, give up, or chase happiness elsewhere.

That is the difference between the passions and the virtues: the one is easy, immediate, and instinctive; the other is difficult, sustained, and achieved only with deliberate, long-term intentionality.

And friends--real friends, not the kind that "like" your status updates or "follow" your tweets--are a crucial part of the process of forming the virtues. Good friendships with good people struggling to form the same good virtues ease the journey. They commiserate, they correct with gentleness and persistence, they offer concrete assistance, and they gratefully receive one's own offers of assistance.

Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you're sitting out on your front porch every evening so that the drug dealers will stop coming around. Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you file the police report against your corrupt employers. Those are the kinds of friends you want with you when you're trying to find just one more reason not to pick up that needle again. Those are the kinds of friendships you need more of.

"Oh, Sarah, you are so right! I'm going to forward this to all my friends on Facebook!"

Please don't.

Well, okay--yes, do. I like watching my hit count go up.

But then turn off your computer. Go.

Go take your extra zucchini to your neighbors. Or call your mother. Or have coffee with your college roommate. Or make cookies for your children or your co-workers or your grandmother. Or make cookies with your children or your co-workers or your grandmother.

Go do stuff with real human beings. The cyber-beings you've been hanging out with lately won't hold your hand while you're facing down real trouble. Go find the ones that will.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


An actual in-class exchange:

"These prophets are pictured as giving counsel, advice, or correction to the king. So, you have Nathan rebuking David over the affair with Uriah, Elijah pronouncing judgment on Ahab for . . . everything, and Huldah counseling Josiah when-- Anybody notice the prophetess in our reading for today? Huldah, the prophetess, one of the instigators of Josiah's reform?"

"I noticed her, Mrs. Sours."


"Yeah. I read it and noticed that you always make us read the stories that have women in them."

"Sneaky, aren't I?"

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Pace Stanley Fish, who is always worth reading, even when he's wrong, plagiarism is a big moral deal.

Fish offers several cogent arguments to the contrary in his recent "Opinionator" piece, "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal," the most insightful of which is that professional standards are not the same as moral imperatives.

This resembles the principle that appears in legal theory as the difference between mala prohibita and mala in se: that is, the difference between merely procedural crimes (e.g., driving down the wrong side of the road) and crimes that are morally objectionable in themselves (e.g., murder).

In the latter case, the law recognizes acts of moral significance. In the former case, moral significance (if there is any) is the creation of the law--if there were no traffic law, there would be no moral significance in choosing which side of the road to drive down. This is part of why traffic violations that result in no harm to person or property are minimally punished. They're not a big deal. We punish them only because having a system of traffic regulation is, overall, a good thing, not because there is an eternal moral imperative to drive on the right side of the road.

Fish wants us to view plagiarism as something like a malum prohibitum: something that violates the merely procedural dictates of a self-contained community.

But my language begins to betray me already.

Fish does not use the word "community" in reference to academia--only in reference to golfers. Academia is "our house," a "guild," a "context of practice," a language game which students must learn to play.

It is no accident that Fish does not call academia a community. A community is more morally weighty than a guild or a "context of practice."

Fish's overall point, by the way, is not that plagiarism shouldn't be punished--it is that there is no philosophical warrant for valuing originality. And in this, he is correct.

But codes against plagiarism are not about protecting original work. Standards of proper citation do not exist to protect the originator of an idea. That's the difference between plagiarism codes and copyright law.

Standards of proper citation exist to cultivate habits of worthy discourse within the academic community. (And, yes, I am just silly enough to pretend that something called "the academic community" exists, or at least could.) They exist to train us to participate in the tradition of academic discussion.

Proper citation trains us in courtesy--we acknowledge our intellectual debts both for the sake of our intellectual parents and for the sake of our current conversation partners. In the former sense, our intellectual parents may have a stake in the conversation in which we are quoting them; proper citation courteously invites them into that conversation, as it were. In the latter sense, citing our sources allows our current conversation partners to understand most fully what we are saying. We do our conversation partners the courtesy of aiding their investigation into our arguments.

Proper citation trains us in truth-telling. As the previous point suggests, when we acknowledge our intellectual debts, we allow for the fullest possible understanding of our claims and arguments. This transparency may make our arguments vulnerable; perhaps the scholar whose phrasing we found so felicitous was known for eliding fact and assertion, or perhaps the "varied" studies we are marshaling to prove our points were all funded by the same super-conglomerate. Proper citation is a kind of full disclosure, the kind of openness that is necessary for excellent discourse.

Proper citation trains us in respect. Acknowledging our intellectual debts is a kind of justice--giving someone her due, as Thomas Aquinas put it (more or less, somewhere-or-other). If we have been taught, our teacher has earned something from us--not the recognition of his originality, but the recognition of his generosity in teaching us (however remote or impersonal the mode of teaching).

And proper citation trains us in diligence. Students and scholars who plagiarize are not, in general, trying to claim false credit for original thoughts--they are trying to get out of doing hard work. Charitable description, thoughtful analysis, and persuasive rhetoric are difficult practices to master; proper citation is itself, as Fish acknowledges, a kind of skill that one must master. Anti-plagiarism codes are designed to identify and, yes, even weed out those who do not care to do that work, to learn those skills.

Respect, truth-telling, courtesy, diligence--these are all morally weighty terms. If Fish is right that originality is not a terribly interesting or valuable thing, he misses that it is the least of the things proper citation is designed to cultivate.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Why is "exclusive" a positive adjective when applied to celebrity wedding locations, clubs, parties, and educational institutions, but not religions?

Even where one suspects that privacy might be a reasonable desire--a wedding, say--no one troubles to be troubled by the substitution of the word "exclusive." A private wedding and an exclusive wedding are two very different things.

Exclusivity in this sense depends on the deliberate cultivation of the desire to be included. That is, it's not an exclusive wedding if no one but the invitees wants to come. It's not an exclusive college if no one applies. Exclusivity requires desirability. One must constantly and conscientiously widen the circle of people who want to be included, even as one narrows the circle of those who are.

Exclusivity in this sense also depends on the opacity and difficulty of the entrance requirements. If it were clear how to dress to get the bouncer's approval, everyone could do it, and then it wouldn't be an exclusive club.

Race, family heritage (often conceived either in ethnic or religious terms), and income level are among the most effective inclusion requirements, because they are easy to evaluate and difficult or impossible to change.

Social connectedness is less straightforward, and it works just as effectively for exactly that reason. If no one with sufficient standing within the community is willing to vouch for a newcomer, he remains on the outside. But "sufficient standing within the community" comes from a complex computation of largely unarticulated factors. Who knows how to become an Important Person, important enough that one's coattails are worth riding?

All of this is frankly disturbing.

But no one is disturbed.

To become a Christian, all one has to do is want to become a Christian. To become an acknowledged member of the Body of Christ, all one has to do is declare oneself willing to follow its head, the Crucified and Risen One, and willing to be called upon to live up to that public commitment.

Christianity is the only "exclusive" group whose standard and method of inclusion is so clear, so straightforward, and so entirely in the hands of the person desiring membership.

And yet its brand of exclusivity is the most vilified.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores

Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores

The title of the above article is completely misleading and false, so ignore it. A better title might have been "Access to Computers Not a Cure-All; May Even Cause Harm."

The findings of the study are interesting: children from disadvantaged homes who gained access to computers performed measurably worse on end-of-state testing than children from disadvantaged homes who had no computers.

Not only is access to technology not a panacea, it actually exacerbates the educational disadvantage. The researchers were appropriately modest in their conclusions--"In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children's computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes"--but I think one could reasonably draw several stronger inferences from the study.

1. Parents matter most. Again and again, failed educational reforms and scientific studies have shown that parental involvement is the one factor that can never be ruled out. Any educational reform (I would even expand this and say any reform, because I'm an ethicist and we like to sensationalize like that) that doesn't involve strengthening the family will probably fail.

2. Parenting well requires setting limits. Presumably, the children in the disadvantaged households used the computers as they saw fit. They were wrong. Children do not have infallible instincts for what they need, what is good for them, what will bring them safely to adulthood. Children need parents who guide them not only through positive modeling and suggestions but also through limit-setting. Saying yes to what's good is vital, and parents do well to phrase things as positively as possible. ("Oh, sure, you can play that game--just as soon as your homework is done." "Umm . . . let's find a more appropriate show to watch." "Well, let's make a date for you to play x-box with your friends on Saturday instead of today.") But saying no to what's bad is just as vital. ("You must never, ever surf the internet when I'm not at home.")

3. Technology is rarely the answer. Technology cannot fix injustice, historical or actual; it cannot redress wrongs; it cannot make us more moral people. If we are not already the kind of people who will raise our children conscientiously, who are intellectually curious, who have self-discipline, who are generous with the needy, who will pay a just wage, technological advances will at best fail to alleviate--and will sometimes positively exaggerate--our social failings.

4. This particular piece of technology--computers--comes pre-programmed, as it were, with a tendency toward harm. The irony is too delicious not to enjoy: information technologies tend to make us less intelligent. Absent some sort of external, imposed structure (a parent's insistence that we finish our homework first, a determination to balance our checkbooks by hand anyway, a conviction that "some things just shouldn't be blogged"), we are worse off with computers than without. It behooves us, then, to develop and pursue practices of restraint with regard to their use and proliferation.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Builders In Ministry

I've just become a contributor to Southwestern College's Builders In Ministry blog--a blog that celebrates and discusses the ministries of friends of Southwestern.

Feel free to pop over just to view my post, or to see what various ministries Builders are involved in!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Anorexia and Autonomy

Rudolph Bell's book Holy Anorexia is an important example of the fruitfulness of cross-disciplinary study in religion.

His study probes the theological, historical, and psychological meaning of extreme fasting behaviors in medieval women whose asceticism was usually seen as evidence of holiness. Avoiding the facile ascription of mental illness to these women ("Oh, they must've been, like, anorexic or something!"), he nonetheless takes his cue from current psychiatric evaluations and treatments of (modern) anorexia nervosa.

Anorectic behavior comes about in response to an intricate yet convoluted web of signals a modern girl (anorexia generally arises in females and during adolescence) receives in regard to her appearance. Thinness (and physical beauty more broadly) is one of a few traits consistently approved and rewarded in young females, yet the steps that a girl might take to achieve those rewards may prompt correction, disapproval, or intervention from parents or such other authorities as educators or medical caregivers. The twin incentives of societal approval and parental opposition feed the anorexic girl’s choice to control her own body through self-starvation—all the more so as her successes in weight loss and self-assertion mount.

Analogously, a medieval woman had fewer avenues of expressing or embodying holiness than were available to men, and the ascetic practices which might identify a woman as holy could just as easily have been viewed as evidence of heresy or demon possession as of beatitude. The “holy anorexic” is confirmed in her path of self-starvation both by the ascription of holiness conferred on account of her suffering and by the suspicion aroused by her extreme practices of asceticism, especially where that suspicion is allayed or countered through divine intervention.

The struggle for autonomy looms large in Bell’s renarration of these saints’ vitae. While his efforts to offer a psychoanalytic reading of these women are unimpressive—particularly in the absence of any serious or consistent engagement with the problem of collaborative authorship present in virtually all of these texts—his identification of the persistence of themes of self-assertion in the face of parental, religious, or social conflict is helpful.

When one is obliged to suffer the removal of one’s autonomy—whether in the form of a forced marriage, opposition to taking religious orders, or physical or sexual abuse—choosing another form of suffering—starvation, disfigurement, isolation—functions as a reassertion of one’s autonomy. The relationship between suffering and consent is inverted, transforming utterly the meaning and experience of them both. In the first case, the injury is all but identical with the removal of choice; in the second, the retrieval of autonomy is identical with the (chosen) injury. That the chosen suffering is further rewarded by its association with otherworldliness, whether of the divine or demonic sort, only amplifies the sense of transformation.

Despite his misstep in attempting to psychoanalyze historical figures with fragmentary, consciously scripted, and/or heavily edited literary works as his only evidence, Bell's work is enormously important for his having probed this intersection of autonomy and suffering. Many modern discussions of suffering (and its relief) are dependent on inchoate assumptions about exactly this relationship, and any work that prompts a more intentional examination of the topic is worth a read.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A College Instructor's Advice To Parents of Middle and High Schoolers




That's the one thing my kids just don't do. (My college kids. Not MY kids. I punish MY kids by taking away their books. And it, like, works.) Undergrads just don't read.

And it's the one thing that covers over a multitude of intellectual gaps.

They may hate history, but if they read historical novels, they'll pick up a little of it. They may hate Shakespeare, but if they read history, they can get a sense of who he was and how he was important. They may hate philosophy or ethics, but if they read Sci-Fi, they'll get a little taste of political and social theory. They may hate grammar, but if they read, they'll see it in action and they'll absorb some of it. They may hate doing science experiments, but if they read about science, they'll at least keep up with scientific advances and they'll know what a scientific argument sounds like.

Reading, reading, reading.

Are you worried about preparing your kids for college? What classes they take matters, yes. Extra-curricular activities aren't a bad idea. Test prep matters more than it should. But the most effective preparation is reading.

Let them read. Make them read. Pay them to read. (I'm serious. It appears to work.) Fiction. History. Sci Fi. The newspaper. Time, or the Economist. Just. read. something.

Thinking about what they read is the other thing my students don't do. They don't know how, because they don't even know how to summarize what they've read. And summarizing is the first step to analyzing. Having to organize your thoughts enough to tell someone else about it (verbally or in writing) is the first step to thinking, really thinking, about it.

So make your kids write about what they read. Pay them for their reading, only after they've written for you a basic summary of the book. Have them start a blog expressly for writing about their reading. Or have a family blog where you all talk about what you read!

Teach them the difference between formal and informal writing, if you have time. The blog format is good for that, too. You can make them use correct grammar, even in an informal style. And then whenever they're writing a formal assignment, you can say, "Well, that would be perfect on your blog, but in formal writing, you should . . . "

Honestly, if you do those two things, reading and writing, you are setting them up for permanent, lifelong success, no matter what your scope and sequence look like, no matter what high school they go to, no matter what their test scores are.

They will not fail to get into a good college if they are widely read and if they can construct sentences with basic grammar and if they can chain sentences together into coherent thoughts.

And even if they don't go to college, they'll be better at EVERYTHING they do than people who don't read. They'll read their mortgage contracts with more intelligence. They'll recognize specious political arguments (unless all they read is specious political theory). They'll persuade their bosses and co-workers more effectively. They'll sound more intelligent in interviews.

They won't be able NOT to.

Trust me. I'm seeing what your kids do when they leave your house.

I can tell the readers. I really can.

(I can also tell the ones that had to do chores when they were growing up. But that's a matter for another blog entry.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Disaster Relief

I do enough ragging on United Methodists in this space that I feel it worthwhile to brag on them when they get something right.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is a good example of Methodists getting something decidedly right.

UMCOR is a surprisingly effective and efficient organization for mobilizing disaster relief, largely due to its commitment to using 100% of directed donations for the projects the donor designates.

Administrative and overhead costs are entirely funded through a one-day denomination-wide offering (One Great Hour of Sharing), expressly for the purpose of eliminating the need to fund these costs through directed donations. UMCOR also does little advertising outside of the denomination--a double-edged sword, allowing it to funnel more money to where it's needed, but preventing them from gaining the widespread recognition of the American Red Cross, UNICEF, or World Vision.

It also emphasizes indigenous Methodist-affiliated churches as centers of relief distribution and coordination. (As Gustavo Guttierez has famously said, if you want to know how best to help the poor, try asking the poor. If you want to know how best to help victims of disaster, try letting them coordinate and distribute things.)

If you attend a United Methodist church, please consider giving generously to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering this March. It will keep UMCOR nimble, active, and ready for the disasters and emergencies that will strike, that will always strike this side of the eschaton.

And if today's news--the photos, the reports, the desperate, urgent need--moves you to contribute to disaster relief in Haiti, please consider donating through UMCOR. There is already an UMCOR field office in Haiti, and The United Methodist Church has a long-standing relationship with churches and organizations there through which relief aid will be coordinated and distributed.

And, as always, pray. Pray while you're writing the check, to be sure! But do not neglect to pray.