Subjective, not arbitrary.

25 08 2009

Thanks to the AHA Blog, I was reading the first fifteen pages or so of Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think. Again, my initial reaction was something along the lines of “tell me something I don’t know.” Consider this key sentence:

“It may be possible to determine the fairness of particular decisions, but it is impossible to reach a definitive, evidence-based conclusion concerning the system as a whole.”

Presumably then you study academic decision-making then so that one discipline could understand what another is thinking and they can all come together and sing Christmas Carols. I’m not against interdisciplinary peace. I’m just not entirely sure it’s possible.

But then then the intro goes downhill from there. Here’s the precise paragraph where she lost me:

“Despite all the uncertainties about academic judgment, I am to combat intellectual cynicism. Post-structuralism has led large numbers of academics to view notions of truth and reality as highly arbitrary. Yet many still care deeply about “excellence” and remain strongly committed to identifying and rewarding it, though they may not define it the same way.”

If I am having a cross-disciplinary argument about excellence, it is my responsibility to explain my criteria for judging that standard and then convince others to join me. It is not my responsibility to understand where the other side is coming from and meet their definition. I want to bring them to my side.

The key here is the difference between arbitrary and subjective. Any criteria of excellence is going to be subjective, but if I can explain it well it is not arbitrary. I say let the best criteria win! Anything else is just nihilism to me.


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2 11 2011
Square peg, meet round hole. « More or Less Bunk

[…] The problem is that assessing whether students have those skills is inherently subjective: not arbitrary, just subjective. The vast majority of the tools that I’ve seen designed to measuring the effectiveness of […]

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