Friday, March 31, 2006

Interdisciplinarity, sub-disciplinarity, and inter-topicality

I attended the kickoff event to a conference on interdisciplinarity at my Big State-Supported But Increasingly Privately-Funded university last night. This was an event of keen interest to me, as I consider myself "interdisciplinary" in several different senses and I wondered how the presenters would define and interpret and value interdisciplinarity themselves.

Why do I call myself "interdisciplinary"? First, I have earned degrees in several different "disciplines". I have a Bachelor's and Master's in "computer science," I have a second Master's in "liberal studies," and I have a hybrid Ph.D. in both "history of technology" and "human geography" (I was a member of both departments during my graduate study). Some might say this is a "multidisciplinary" background, not an "interdisciplinary" one. My response would be that if I wrote LISP code on Monday, engaged in discourse analysis on Tuesday, did some history work on Wednesday, and acted like a geographer on Thursday, you could accurately call me "multidisciplinary". But since I combine different aspects of the different disciplines I was trained in throughout my week and work, I call myself "interdisciplinary".

Really, though, each of these disciplines is sort of a subdiscipline itself of a larger set of what many might consider more "fundamental" disciplinary domains. Obviously, "history of technology" is a "history of ..." just like other history specialties which focus on a single era, a single region, a single population, or a single social issue. Similarly, "human geography" competes with the "geography of ..." cast in several different ways. The field of "liberal studies" might not even be considered by many to be a real discipline, though I think of it as a subfield of American Studies these days (I didn't when I was earning the degree). And even "computer science" may be a sort of subfield of "computer engineering" (from the point of view of the engineers) or a subfield of "information science" (from the point of view of the information scientists).

A trickier question might be trying to specify what makes these sub-disciplines -- or their parent domains -- "disciplines" in the first place. Many choose a topic-focused definition: computer science is the study of computer software; liberal studies is the study of ideas within liberal societies; history of technology the study of technological change; and human geography the study of human patterns of settlement. But I think the real key to conceptualizing a discipline is to consider not the topic under study, but the "ways of knowing" (methods, standards, and norms of value production) involved in that discipline. In computer science, the production of efficient, effective, even elegant "code" was proof of expertise. Liberal studies demanded quick facility with the texual analysis of works in history, literature, and policy. History relies upon the discovery, analysis, and organization of primary and archival source material. And geography demands conceptions of space, time, and scale, in both absolute and relative senses, and the ability to use these conceptions to demonstrably inform the core of one's work. Practitioners in different disciplines don't just investigate different things -- they see those things in entirely different ways.

This splitting apart claims about "ways of knowing" (methodologies, concepts, theories, epistemologies) from claims concerning "things worth knowing about" (topics of study) is important enough to warrant an additional set of terms beyond "interdisciplinarity," I think, for those of us who foolishly attempt to know about more than one thing at a time. Maybe academics who research several different topics independent of each other should be called "multi-topicial"? And maybe the research of two or more different topics in an integrated, intertwined way should be called "inter-topicality?" Myself, I claim to study both information/communication technologies and the human labors that emerge and adapt in concert with these technologies. The fact that I claim a special relationship between the two topics makes me "inter-topical" rather than "multi-topical," I think. And the fact that I study this inter-topical relationship from multiple ways of knowing -- crucially, trying to relate those ways of knowing together rather than applying them separately or in sequence -- makes me an "interdisciplinary inter-topical" researcher rather than a "multidisciplinary inter-topical" researcher.

If you're still with me, I appreciate it, because all this was actually leading up to something.

That interdisciplinarity conference I mentioned started off with a mini history of several longstanding interdisciplinary programs on our campus -- one dealt with environmental studies, another with poverty studies, a third with women's studies, and a fourth with international studies. All were described as organizational arrangements meant to focus on a single problem through the use of teams of scholars, each of whom came from a different discipline. This is a couple of steps away from the plight I find myself in, as a single scholar who studies multiple problems together from multiple disciplines at once.

But it gets worse (or better). I also happened to be employed in two departments at once (the two different "disciplines" of "information studies" and "communication studies"), each of which could itself be seen as an "interdisciplinary" program in its own right (single problem, many scholars each from different home disciplines).

You can see now why maybe I was hoping to find some answers from this two-hour session I attended. Alas, answers don't come that easily anywhere in academia. But the session helped me generate a new set of questions that I want to articulate here before I forget them. The questions deal with that relationship between the production of "interdisciplinary (and single-topic) centers" (like a science/technology studies department hiring many faculty each trained in a different discipline) and the production of "interdisciplinary (and multi-topic) scholars" (like me). Does the funding of one lead (through generations of research collaboration and graduate student training) to the production of the other? Are interdisciplinary or inter-topical academics more likely to be hired by interdisciplinary units on campus, or are they now coveted by (or targeted toward) "traditional" disciplinary departments which need to be "diversified"? What are the power relations at work when "disciplinary" and "interdisciplinary" scholars must fight for a zero-sum-game of decreasing funding as states pull resources from universities? Do these power relations play out differently within "interdisciplinary" units versus "disciplinary" departments? And finally -- what do we do about the real contradictions that emerge in this system, such as when departments such as mine (or scholars such as myself) find themselves sometimes claiming "disciplinary" tradition, and other times claiming "interdiscipilnary" innovation?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The myths of "merit" in information labor?

A new book by Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier entitled "Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich," argues that "what we're calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual's social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry." For Guinier, the notion of "merit" needs to be problematized because, paradoxically, we rely on it as the litmus test for entrance into the one institution which is designed to allow people of different cultural backgrounds, socio-economic power positions, and ideological beliefs to enhance and demonstrate their "merit" by acquiring professional skills, wrestling with complex ideas, and building a record of scholarly achievement: higher education in the form of prestigious public and private colleges and universities. Guinier explains:

I became interested in the 1990s as a result of looking at the performance of women in law school. A student and I became interested in the disparity between the grades that men and women at an Ivy League law school were receiving. Working with Michelle Fein and Jean Belan, we found that male and female students were coming in with basically the same credentials. The minor difference was that the women tended to have entered with slightly higher undergraduate grades and the men with higher LSATs.

The assumption at that time was that incoming credentials predicted how you would perform. Relying on things like the LSAT allowed law school officials to say they were determining admission based on merit. So several colleagues told me to look at the LSAT scores because they were confident that I might find something to explain the significant differences in performance. But we found that, surprisingly, the LSAT was actually a very poor predictor of performance for both men and women, that this "objective" marker which determined who could even gain access was actually not accomplishing its ostensible mandate.

I then became interested in studying meritocracy because of the attacks poor and working class whites were waging against affirmative action. People were arguing that they were rejected from positions because less qualified people of color were taking their spots. I began to question what determines who is qualified. Then, the more research I did, the more I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant's parents' and even grandparents' wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit.

One of Guinier's goals in writing this book is to complicate arguments about affirmative action in higher education, showing that while much of the rhetoric is about race-based preference thwarting an idealized "meritocracy," in reality many admissions formulas premised on merit are actually discriminating on the basis of class even before questions of race and ethnicity enter the picture:

Sheryl Hopwood was a white working-class woman who applied to the University of Texas Law School and was denied admission. In 1996, she sued the university for racial discrimination, arguing that less-qualified blacks and Latinos had taken her spot. Thirty-nine years after Central, she sued in the district court and then in the Fifth Circuit and won, but the problem with the court's analysis was that they did not look behind the school's claim that all slots, except for those bestowed through affirmative action, were distributed based on merit.

It actually turns out that the school's own formula for determining merit disadvantaged Sheryl Hopwood. She went to a community college and the University of Texas Law weighted her LSAT scores with those of other applicants from her school and graduating year. Because her community college drew from a working-class population, Hopwood's own LSAT score was negatively weighted. So Hopwood's chance of attending the University of Texas was diminished because of class status not because of her race.

Such systems are reproduced in part because of another information indicator, according to Guinier, since "schools are so committed to the annual issue of U.S. News and World Report that ranks educational institutions according to the their students' standardized test scores." The "merit" of the institution (a problematic measure itself when reduced to a single-number ranking) is drawn not only from the "merit" of its faculty and staff, but from the "merit" of its incoming class. The result, Guinier argues, is that " Education is becoming about providing credentials to obtain high-paying jobs rather than training people for a thriving democracy."

More details of Guinier's book can be found in this interview with the author posted on AlterNet. This whole debate initially struck me as interesting because I'm wrestling with my own professional understanding of how "merit" calculations are devised, defended, and deconstructed at all levels of the university, from awarding student scholarships to recommending faculty raises. The democratic, egalitarian, and open nature of university decision-making paradoxically makes "merit" a more contentious issue than it might be in a more closed or hierarchical or autocratic corporate setting. Yet I, like many of my peers, I imagine, have benefitted from a system where "merit" has in recent history been defined with SAT, ACT, and GRE scores on standardized tests.

But more than this, I feel like this is an opening to ask what might seem to be an obvious question: how in an "information economy," the production and reproduction of "merit" may be -- should be? -- increasingly entwined with the consumption and production of knowledge. In trying to measure and quantify merit, we are processing and valuing information. In trying to define and demonstrate merit, we value the accumulating and manipulating of information. But if different ways of knowing are contradictory or incommensurable -- different epistemologies, worldviews, or definitions of "rationality" itself -- then aren't measures of merit similarly at odds? Can we analyze some of the debates over risk and reward in our society in these terms, alongside terms of (say) class, race, age, and gender?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Information organizations that profit from information ignorance?

An article today in the New York Times about a state-backed lawsuit against a well-known consumer tax-preparation service firm has got me thinking:

H&R Block, the nation's largest tax-preparation service, was accused yesterday of selling inappropriate savings plans to hundreds of thousands of income tax filers, in the latest attack on the company's push to offer other financial services.

The New York attorney general said in a lawsuit filed yesterday that the company steered clients, many of them low income, into individual retirement accounts that were "virtually guaranteed to lose money" because of low interest rates and high fees. The suit also contended that H&R Block did not fully disclose its fees.

"The conduct described in today's complaint is particularly appalling because many of those hardest hit were working families who struggle to save," Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, said in a statement.

The company said it would defend itself against the allegations.

The firm has had similar legal troubles in other states, related to other "services" it offers to its clients:

[L]ast month, the company was accused by the California attorney general of illegally marketing and selling high-cost loans as "instant" tax refunds. The company agreed late last year to pay $62.5 million to settle four class-action lawsuits related to refund-anticipation loans.

Additionally, the law firm of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins filed a class-action lawsuit in Kansas City, Mo., against H&R Block yesterday, citing similar accusations.

As I understand it, this firm's brand image is based around the idea of selling professional information labor -- knowledge of tax laws, expertise in bureaucratic government procedures, and facility with mathematics -- to two market segments: (1) household and small-business consumers who feel they lack such information knowledge and skill to the degree that they are either unable or unwilling to complete their government-mandated tax forms themselves; and (2) household and small-business consumers who feel they _could_ prepare their own taxes, but trust the expertise of the firm to bring them greater savings on their taxes than they themselves would be able to reap.

In light of the lawsuits, it seems to me that this firm is, in a way, exploiting the "information ignorance" of its clients (not the best term, but bear with me) in two ways: first, it relies on clients who don't feel competent or comfortable in preparing their tax forms on their own; and second, it relies on clients who won't question the fine print of "instant refund" and "long-term savings" plans which, according to the lawsuits, are little more than high-interest and high-fee loan-sharking schemes.

This line of analysis got me to thinking about some of the other organizations and institutions in our political-economy which rely on, profit from, and perhaps even work to reproduce, this "information ignorance" in its various forms -- not just lack of information about and familiarity with legal and bureaucratic knowledge and procedures, but various fundamental "illiteracies" such as mathematical illiteracy, print illiteracy, media illiteracy, computer illiteracy, scientific illiteracy, and the like. For example, for all their talk about being part of the "entertainment" industry, I believe that gambling/gaming firms (and state-backed lotteries as well) require a certain amount of mathematical illiteracy among their markets in order to entice consumers to give over their money to a "house" which nearly always wins. Ponzi schemes, "multi-level marketing" firms, and get-rich-quick "informational seminars" of all sorts rely upon mathematical illiteracy of a different sort.

More than the fringes of the economy such as loan-sharking, gambling, and pyramid schemes are implicated here, though. Sometimes profiting from "information ignorance" might mean engaging in the organized concealment of product and price information from consumers, such as in efforts of the real-estate industry to keep the "multiple listing service" operating as a closed system (perhaps akin to the failed defense of closed systems of travel agents and stock brokers a decade ago). Multinational corporations like Wal-Mart or McDonald's which rely on an advertising image of "home town connection" have no interest in revealing the true global nature of their commodity, labor, and profit flows; neither do they work reveal the conditions under which their products are produced, marketing instead the single-minded benefits of "low price" or "great taste" to their consumers. In other words, "commodity fetishism" is in itself a form of information ignorance -- ignorance of the space and time, material and labor, conditions of production of commodities.

Once we extend the definition of "information ignorance" in these ways, though, certainly such profit-seeking firms aren't the only ones to blame. Ignorance can perhaps be a willful state to exist in on the part of consumers, or a convenient condition to foster on the part of the state. I like to think that our institutions of education -- from mandatory public schools to competitive private unversities -- have as their core mission the elimination of such ignorance, not only among their immediate clients (students), but throughout the societies in which they operate. Other civic institutions, like public libraries and public media, seem to share such values. Private information agencies and media outlets depend on the existence of the particular market segments that they target, so may be in a more contradictory position. Some might reap increased revenues from an audience hungry for knowledge; others might depend for their revenues on an audience deprived of experience.

In all of this analysis, however, I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with the terms "ignorance" and "illiteracy". They seem too monovocal -- "you are ignorant if you don't know what I know, or believe what I believe, or make decisions in the way I make decisions" and all that. But if there's a new and useful way to connect disparate forms of "information prodution" and "information consumption" together through an analysis of the power position of both the producers and the consumers -- getting beyond "owning the means of production" vs. "willing to pay for products and services" and instead delving into the specific conditions for knowledge valuation, production, and reproduction in society -- then I'm willing to play with those ideas for a while to see where they lead.