Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sarah Lawrence Surprise

We were talking to a friend about daughter Endub's search for the right college. She wants a place that is intense and serious about study, but lighthearted and friendly in tone. Our friend suggested that the distinctive teaching pattern of Sarah Lawrence College might suit Endub very well. So, since we were in the Northeast anyway, we made a quick trip to Bronxville, NY.

At Sarah Lawrence, students take three year-long seminars. That is the full load. The seminars are capped at 15 students. Students and professors interview one another in the registration period to make sure that they have a real match with one another, since they are commiting quite a bit of their teaching and learning time to each other. Then, on top of the seminar, each student meets individually with the professor to work on an intensive project that is related in some way, or at least inspired in some sense, by the seminar topic. This individual project lets students go deep on something of interest to them. Endub really liked that part.

On the other hand, the nice young people who acted as tour guides had to admit that the stereotypes about Sarah Lawrence students were not, um, convivial and fun. One emblem of the campus are the ubiquitous black squirrels. There is even a campus eatery named for them. The campus joke is that Sarah Lawrence students are like the squirrels: contentious, aggressive, and always dressed in black.

The jury is out, but she remains intrigued.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Why We Need to Hear Everyone

Diverse groups can reach good decisions, but only if they can bring that diversity to bear. James Surowiecki tells the cautionary tale of how NASA failed to listen to its own internal warnings about the shuttle Columbia while it was in the air, and before it blew up on re-entry, because its groups were run by the boss, who only asked for the information she has already decided she wanted to hear. (She reminded our family of the officious toady Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter stories.) The group had the right diversity of experience available, but shut it off. It may seem bogus, but going around the room and soliciting dissent really is useful to the whole group. Sometimes it even saves lives.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Diversity and Judgment

James Surowiecki's argument about the remarkable Wisdom of Crowds depends on the crowds being diverse. The kind of diversity that matters is that the members have a variety of experiences. That way, the errors made by some individuals with certain kinds of experiences are cancelled out by the errors of other kinds of individuals with different kinds of experiences. The result, by Providence I think, is likely to be more accurate than the judgment of any one group -- even the experts.

The diversity that counts is a diversity of experience. Crowds that merely look different, but think alike, don't count.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds

We are reading a fascinating study, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. He makes the counter-intuitive argument that if you pool the judgments of a diverse crowd, you will get an average answer that is likely to be good. In fact, it is likely to be better than the judgment of experts, and better than the judgment of any one member of the crowd.

To take a famous kind of puzzle, if you ask a crowd to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, a few individuals in the group will be close to the right answer -- but the crowd as a whole is likely to be closer. Moreover, if you repeat the process with different sizes and shapes of the jars, the good individual guessers from the first jar are not likely to be the best individual guessers of the later jars -- but the crowd is likely to be close to right every time.

This is mysterious and interesting for anyone, but is especially intriguing for a sociologist. More as Surowiecki's argument unfolds.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Theory Camp Reflections

Theory Camp was a good idea. Rather than working with one student all summer on a research project, I spent two weeks with five students working through one substantial book, Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. This is a great fat book, about 1000 pages altogether, and we were zipping through parts of it to read it all in two weeks. Still, for a group to set aside that amount of time to work through one idea is a rich experience.

We ate together outside of camp at the beginning, in the end, and several times in the middle, to talk about all manner of things. The core task, though, was to read an assigned hunk of Collins each night, then discuss it for two and a half hours each morning. Naturally, we met the the coffee house. I enjoyed the buzz of life around us as we talked, but then enjoying the buzz of life is one of the things that makes people become sociologists in the first place.

Collins' theory, as I have been detailing in recent posts, is that the greatest moments of creativity come when a small number of competing networks gather around a common problem and push one another to argue through to a richer solution. He says that for this competition to be fruitful, there need to be a minimum of three, and a maximum of about six positions gathered around the "attention space." It occured to me several times as the six of us gathered around the table, with Collins' fat volume in the center, that we were enacting this idea in miniature. Except that we weren't really competing. And we didn't have fully differentiated arguments, much less networks, backing us up.

Still, the students brought their thoughtful selves to the discussion. We each had done enough different substantial things to bring a body of experience to think with to the table. We didn't have shouting matches like some that we read about -- Centre is not that kind of place. But we did seriously bring our somewhat varied experiences to bear on understanding and using Collins' rich argument.

At our last celebratory meal we thought about what should be added to theory camp in the future. The biggest idea that came through was that each participants should write a "main point" statement to bring to each session. This might be simply the main point that they took away from that night's reading, or the main idea they had thought of while reading it of how to use that day's concepts. As usual, Centre students rose to the challenge, and thought of ways that the project can be made more challenging.

I am looking forward to theory camp next year. The likely book: Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Are Abstraction and Reflexivity Bad for Scriptural Faith?

Randall Collins concludes The Sociology of Philosophies with a strong pattern: the general trend of intellectual creativity is toward greater abstraction and greater reflexivity. Abstraction is the more familiar concept - the intellectuals considering a problem think of it in more general and encompassing terms. Reflexivity means that the way a problem is organized now is increasingly shaped by the way previous intellectuals have reshaped the problem in the past.

A few days ago I blogged about the coincidence of philosophical Idealism and the secularization of universities. A helpful reader pointed out, correctly, that I left the impression that Idealism was not really a response to intellectual problems of predecessor philosophies, but was caused by the structural conditions of secularization. This would not be correct. Idealism is a serious philosophical position with much to recommend it. It is true, though, that most idealisms (and not just the Christian-related ones) abstract from the specific scriptures and historical precedents that gave rise to them.

Collins suggests that instead the philosophy of scripture and traditional practice is often developed reluctantly by scriptural traditionalists. They are forced to become intellectuals about the faith because rationalist believers in their own tradition force them to in reaction. The very people who most believe the particulars of sacred scripture and faithful practice are obliged to defend those particulars in abstract terms. Over time, these abstract defenses of particularity become reflexive -- they shape how new generations of believers understand what scripture and tradition mean.

Collins is more concerned with the development of (secular) philosophy than he is of the religious faiths from which most philosophies are developed. It seems to me, though, that the logic of his argument means that the competitive process of intellectual creativity would tend to undermine traditional faith, even when the intellectuals are creating a defense of that faith.