Thursday, April 4, 2019

How to avoid graduating - a guide for PhD students


Not graduating is relatively easy in the early days of one's education. The student union provides a host of alternative activities which effectively crowds out all attempts at studies. At the PhD level, things become more difficult. The doctoral student will quickly discover that it is no longer socially acceptable to spend evenings at the union pub. He/she has to find other strategies for avoiding reaching the end point of student life, strategies which are both socially acceptable and compatible with his/her conscience. Fortunately, there are a number of such strategies which have been empirically proven to be very effective with regards to avoiding graduating and attaining the title of Dr. The purpose of this writ is to provide examples which can stimulate doctoral students' creativity with regards to self-directed activities in the fascinating field of graduation avoidance.

The safest strategy to avoid graduating is, of course, to ensure that the dissertation work never gets off the ground. Many doctoral students have adopted this strategy with great success. The effectiveness of this strategy depends primarily on how well you choose the alternative activity which will motivate not working on the dissertation. Since education at the PhD level contains a course section, an obvious course of action is to focus extensively on said courses, but given that this section can only be extended so far, it is imperative to not burn through it too quickly. Here, lessons learned from the early days of university life will come in handy.

In order to write a dissertation, a topic has to be chosen. This fact lies at the core of an excellent strategy for postponing graduation. When asked how the dissertation is coming along, the answer "I am currently in the process of choosing a topic" will provide extended cover from further uncomfortable lines of questioning. Much time can be devoted to interviewing different people in the selection process. Every and all suggestions should be carefully considered at great length, before finally (inevitably) being found lacking for this or that reason.

Another effective strategy for avoiding progress is the strategy of "but this is not a suitable thing to include in a dissertation". In short, this strategy consists of consistently refusing to accept that the thing keeping you busy at the moment is of sufficient interest or significance to warrant inclusion into the dissertation. This strategy is especially useful for doctoral students who have happened to be included in a research project. By letting the work pertaining to said project be entirely unrelated from the dissertation work, further progress can be postponed with impunity until the project has run its course.

The Penelope strategy

In the Odyssey, Odysseus' wife Penelope was besieged by a large number of suitors during his absence. She deftly avoided giving an answer one way or another by employing the following strategy. She promised to pick one of the suitors once she had completed the weave she was working on. Since she every night tore up the progress she had made to said weave during the day, she managed to never get closer to finishing it. The doctoral student seeking to avoid graduating have ample reason to see Penelope as a role model. Many of the strategies described below can be seen as variations upon Penelope's original strategy.

Of course, this strategy is difficult to apply literally in the context of a dissertation. To habitually burn the pages written during the day each evening would arouse suspicion. But remember:

No dissertation chapter is so good that it cannot withstand an extensive revision!

In other words, there is great potential for extending the dissertation writing process by constantly revising chapters. Additionally, this strategy can be varied: experiments can be redone (there will always be methodological flaws), and if the dissertation is based on gathered data there is always room for suddenly discovered it has to be replaced with different data, and so on.

Another variant is the "just a little bit more" strategy. That is, to suddenly discover that the dissertation requires just a little more material, a few more experiments, an additional literature review, and so on. This strategy has the distinct disadvantage of becoming less convincing over time.

Live dangerously!

As previously stated, literally burning the pages written during the day is an unconvincing approach. But a doctoral student can, by applying carefully considered systematic carelessness, significantly increase the chances of unfortunate incidents substantially slowing down their dissertation progress. For instance:

A time-honored method (cf the Wonderful Adventures of Nils) is to place the dissertation manuscript near an open window, especially during windy days. With luck, the manuscript can be distributed over a great geographical area using this method.

Briefcases and other bags which include dissertation manuscripts should be brought along everywhere to increase to probability of being lost or stolen.

A comprehensively implemented system of loose sheets significantly increases the chances of important chapters being lost, at least temporarily. Avoid putting labels on binders and floppy disks. This simple step can ensure important texts becomes inaccessible for years and years.

Another important rule, which applies to all above strategies, is to avoid keeping safety copies of the dissertation. This is especially effective when using a computer. A crashed and non-backuped hard drive can delay graduating for several years. If diskettes are used, the older, soft kind is recommended, especially in combination with bad disk readers and copious consumption of coffee.

How to avoid working on your dissertation

One category of strategies has the common trait of avoiding graduating by simply avoiding working on the dissertation altogether.  This category can be divided into two subcategories: manic and depressive strategies. Manic strategies consist of doing as much as possible which is completely unrelated to the dissertation. Depressive strategies consist of doing as little as possible overall. The two kinds of strategies suit different personalities to varying degrees, but there is nothing preventing you to mix and match. Correctly applied, they both amount to the same thing.

Manic strategies, or "Work promotes health and prosperity, and prevents many opportunities for research"

There are, in fact, many alternative activities a doctoral student can engage in to avoid working on the dissertation. These activities can be divided into academic and non-academic.

The academic activities are primarily all forms of institutional work. The major advantage of this kind of work is that engaging in it is highly socially accepted, and in many cases actually ends up being more appreciated than working on the dissertation. This includes teaching low-level courses and taking on various administrative tasks, which tend to be highly prioritized by the powers that be, and often have the additional quality of being in need of doing with brisk swiftness.

Activities relating to the student union and its various social functions (party committees and so forth) are other examples of excellent things to do to prevent dissertation progress. Helping your fellow doctoral students with their dissertations is an excellent activity with high graduation-postponing potential (for the helper, that is). (Conversely, one should of course avoid accepting too much help from other doctoral students, as this might inadvertently lead to making progress, or worse, graduating.)

In the non-academic world, we also find suitable activities: having a job (motivated by the student's economic situation), engagement in civil society, sports, evening courses, and so on. There is also the big Dissertation Delayer, particularly for women, known as the Family. This requires its own section, which is why we won't discuss it further at this point. Instead, we want to highlight romantic affairs as an activity with great potential to delay any and all dissertation-related progress.

Depressive strategies

Here, too, we can find a literary role model: the protagonist of the 19th century Russian author Goncharov's novel Oblomov. Oblomov spent most of his life in bed, meditating over all the nice things he would do once he managed to summon the energy to get up. With this role model in mind, you will surely find much inspiration in your efforts.

A depressive strategy worth its salt should not only prevent dissertation progress under the time it is deployed (if this is the correct term for doing nothing), but also contribute to the doctoral student's general discomfort and overall lack of capacity to perform. Physically moving as little as possible is an excellent principle with a high return on energy invested. (Note the manic corollary to this strategy: do all the sports! Everything that works, works!)

A drawback of going full Oblomov is that it is difficult to combine with having a clear conscience. Therefore, a modified depressive strategy is recommended. This consists of filling your time as inefficiently as possible. Here, there is no end to the possibilities:

Running errands at the bank, post office or other government institution are perfectly socially acceptable activities, which can gobble up a lot of time and effort, and have the additional benefit of having to be performed during office hours - i.e. the time usually spent working on the dissertation. Good planning can increase efficiency significantly. For instance, avoid running more than one errand at a time.

Things in need of repair can fill a lot of time which otherwise would have gone to writing. Especially effective is to employ plumbers or construction workers who do not arrive at the appointed hour.

Appointments to doctors or dentists (not to mention therapists, or better yet psychoanalysts) are excellent opportunities for making zero progress. The ideal is of course to pick practices that lie quite a distance away, scheduling mid-day appointments, so as to maximize the working time spent moving to and fro.


As mentioned above, the Family is an especially important potential dissertation delayer, especially for women. Here are some handy tips for exploiting this opportunity to its fullest extent.

  • The kids should be well-planned and well spaced, such that there will always be two or three toddlers in the house during the critical dissertation years.
  • Daycare centers and other such rational options should be avoided. If it can not be avoided, pick a daycare center committed to radical parental participation and community cooperation. If possible, pick two different daycare centers spaced far apart to increase time in transit. Also keep in mind that kids do not fare well by being more than six hours a day at the daycare! By carefully following this rule, it is possible to reduce efficient working ours per day to about five (or four, with sufficiently long transit times). (Alternatively, it is also possible to break this rule and instead spend the work hours nurturing feeling of guilt about this state of things, which is also an efficient way of reducing productivity). The ideal strategy, though, is to employ the good old play schools, whose three hour schedule make impossible any rational activity on the part of the responsible adult.
  • The non-dissertation writing parent should pick a job where being absent for even a single day is strictly impossible, combined with working hours which make dropping off and picking up of kids wholly the responsibility of the writing parent.
  • Plan your apartment such that secluded work spaces are avoided. The children should have access to as much of the apartment as possible. Placing the dissertation works pace in the shared bedroom is an efficient way of preventing work during night time, which otherwise holds the inherent potential of boosting the making of progress.
  • Pick a partner with little or no understanding of research and the conditions under which it is conducted. A hostile attitude towards research has a very significant potential for dissertation delayage, especially if it is combined with general dudebro machoism. Naturally, the kids too can be taught to hamper progress at every turn.
  • The strategy of living dangerously (see above) can be effectively applied at home too. Small children are particularly effective at destroying manuscripts and diskettes, if given the opportunity. Pets are viable substitutes for children. A cat, for instance, has a high probability of acting out on a strategically places manuscript pile.

How to best manage your adviser

The adviser is many times an obstacle facing a doctoral student wanting to avoid graduating. A lot is won by choosing the "correct" adviser (although this is sometimes as difficult as choosing correct parents). By "correct" we mean an adviser who either (i) leave the student alone, or (ii) participates, but whose input is sufficiently destructive to not accidentally contribute too much to the process.

To have the biggest chance to get an advisor of type (i), the following traits should be sought out: (a) senile, (b) alcoholic, (c) ignorant of the dissertation topic (if applicable, see above), and (d) disinterested in general. Fortunately, many universities boast a hearty supply of such persons.

Choosing an adviser of type (ii) is risky, since their destructive capacity sometimes affect the student in unpredictable ways. Properly handled, however, a type (ii) adviser can be efficiently employed in the dissertation delaying efforts. Especially if he (it's usually a he) can be used to cultivate a low sense of self-esteem (more on this later).

In the unfortunate case of getting an ambitious adviser with a constructive attitude towards dissertation writing, all hope is not lost: there is a wide range of strategies to employ to get around this. We will detail them below.

Defensive strategies: how to avoid your adviser

In order to satisfy the demands of the social setting and conscience, a doctoral student should seek out their adviser at least once per semester. Generally, dates which are not immediately connected to the deadline for student grant applications should be chosen, to avoid giving off the wrong (correct) impression. However: seeking out your adviser is not the same as actually meeting them. A careful study of their habits makes it possible to strategically pick times to call or knock when they are not available. Upon subsequent questioning of why you haven't talked to them, you can with a clear conscience refer back to your frequent failed attempts at communication - "I've been trying to get a hold of you all week, but you're never here". Another strategy is to refer to how busy they are, and how you didn't want to be a bother or intrude. A slightly ruder variant is to claim that you've previously made a deal that they would initiate contact.

It is of course sometimes necessary to avoid the general campus area, if the risk of bumping into them is too large. Upon chance encounters, it is advisable to have some other reason to be there, which can be used to deflect the question of how the dissertation is going.

If you have made an appointment, it is usually a good tactic to be there at exactly the appointed hour. Should the adviser be ever so slightly late, you can with a clear conscience claim to have been there (preferable leaving right after having placed a passive-aggressive post-it note on their door).

Offensive strategies: a good offense is the best defense

Some of the strategies in the previous section contained aspects of being on the offense, but it is always possible to go all in. The core principle of an offensive strategy is to disarm your adviser by placing them in a morally disadvantageous position, normally by instilling within them feelings of guilt. Here are some handy phrases to use when your adviser expresses displeasure at your rate of progress with the dissertation:

  • But you never read what I write anyway.
  • You only had bad things to say about the last draft.
  • When was the last time you wrote an article?
  • You are only going to use my results for your own ends.
  • Why haven't I received my funding?
  • There is no point in graduating, there are no jobs to be had anyway.
A strategy that is hard to counter is the upbeat strategy. It consists of happily denying any and all problems. Here are some variations:
  •  Sure thing, you will have the draft by tomorrow!
  • Yeah, it's been slow going, but now I'm really getting into it!
  • I suppose I could send in the chapter now, but I have so many great ideas, so I have to write them out as well!
A simultaneously offensive and divertive strategy might be called a social strategy. By, for instance, asking your adviser out to dinner just as they are about to launch into a serious discussion about your progress, you can get them off balance to such an extent that things do not progress further than that. More advanced variants of this strategy are left to the reader's imagination.

"Not today, but soon...": some ways of justifying why you have not finished the promised dissertation chapter

My ink ribbon snapped
(slightly more modern variant: my printer toner expired)
My mother in law turned 70
My son had a math test
My cat had kittens
I have to get the car to the repair shop
The metro is on strike
I'm waiting for an article from overseas
I'm waiting for a printout from the computer central
I'm waiting for comments from [insert name here]
I found a math error, so now I have to redo everything
I haven't been inspired
I'm in love
I have a cold
Was I really supposed to hand it in today?
I forgot the manuscript at home
My husband promised to post the manuscript, haven't you received it?

How to handle your extended social situation

Your adviser is not the only obstacle you will face in your effort to prolong your studies. Any long-term dissertation delaying stratagem has to include ways of deflecting questions and attacks from your extended social situation. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, and (lest we forget) colleagues and other doctoral students often tend to show a non-zero amount of interest in how you're doing and when you plan on graduating. You can, of course, employ the same strategies as have been outlined above. You also have the option of blaming your setbacks ("setbacks") on the incompetence or malignancy of your adviser (see the section on "Strategic paranoia" below). When it comes to non-academic relatives, the opportunities to strategically bamboozle abound, since they often do not know the specifics of what writing a dissertation actually entails.

The possibly most difficult proposition is to keep your fellow doctoral students out of the loop. They know the specifics of what writing a dissertation actually entails! But the experienced dissertation delayer knows no fear, and finds solutions to every situation. For instance, the Chutzpah-strategy can usually be gainfully employed, but requires having the personality to back it up. It simply consists of, at every possible opportune moment, declaring that the dissertation is almost 100% complete and that you're ready to defend it this very instant, would it be possible. Which it won't, because reasons, possible adviser-related. A slightly milder variant is the general boasting strategy, where you namedrop the prestigious persons who have read your manuscript and glimpsed the bright future to come.

Oftentimes, even simpler strategies can be successfully employed. Younger doctoral students will often find themselves distracted should you ask them a sufficiently specific question about this or that author.

"Get married, get divorced, join a club or something"

The heading is a quote from an old Hasse&Tage skit which makes fun of the kinds of vapid relationship advice put on offer in tabloids. It just so happens that these very same vapid pieces of advice work marvelously as strategies for delaying your dissertation. The basic principle is that any and all life changes draw time and energy away from the dissertation, and thus fulfill the objective of delaying it. The general strategy can be formulated as "Change", where the thing to be changed can be chosen arbitrarily. For instance:

  • Change partner
  • Change place of residence
  • Change job
  • Change car
  • Change adviser
  • Change computer
  • Change word processor
That last change is particularly effective. It takes a lot of time to learn the new program, and even more time to convert all the old files to the new format. The biggest, most classic change you can pull is
  • Change dissertation topic
It is very possible to apply this strategy iteratively (which is to say, several times). Over time it tends to lose effectiveness and become a source of annoyance among your peers in general, and with your adviser in general. Your chances of success increase if you can back it up with reference to someone else already doing what you were doing, or better yet if someone else has already done it.

How to cultivate low self-esteem

A genuinely abysmal self-esteem is an invaluable resource for a disputation delayer. The challenge is to cultivate it in the desired direction, without accidentally allowing constructive input from your peers to hamper the process.

The core of the bad self-esteem is a hypothesis about reality, specifically that you as a person is insufficient. In this context, it can be formulated thusly:
  • I will never be able to complete this dissertation
The philosophers of science tell us that hypotheses can be "immunized" against falsification. This is an important strategic moment for doctoral students. They have to learn to deal with any and all information contradicting the big hypothesis and find smaller, supporting hypotheses that help explain it all away. For instance: if your adviser praises a dissertation chapter, you can make one of the following assumptions which remove the validity of the positive information:
  • They're just saying that to make me not drop out
  • They haven't read it correctly
  • They don't understand any of this anyway
  • (if applicable) They probably just want to seduce me
Another strategy is of course to completely avoid situations wherein one might be exposed to positive information. For instance by avoiding to hand in your manuscript for evaluation. It is also important to avoid giving seminars and other presentations, especially at conferences, where you might (woe betide) become famous outside your own university.

Strategic paranoia

A paranoid outlook on life can also be an asset for an intrepid dissertation delayer. One advantage is that it removes the necessity of a negative self-image (which can be quite painful to carry around with you), by placing the blame for one's failures to the (supposedly) hostile situation at large. The core principle for the paranoid explanatory model is that "it won't even matter if I try, since everyone is going to actively try to undermine my efforts, due to p", where p is a proposition about the world at large. We will now exemplify some possible values for p.

  • I am an immigrant
  • I am a woman (or, of applicable, a man)
  • I am working class (or, if applicable, upper class)

Sexual harassment
  • My adviser wants to get revenge on me because I rejected their advances

  • My adviser is jealous because I am smarter than them

Wrong paradigm
  • Everyone at this university follows the X school of thought, while I follow the Y school 

Creative paralysis

 A true dissertation delayer have to master the subtle art of placing themselves in a state of creative paralysis. This state can be achieved in a multitude of ways. A primary set of strategies consists of making further progress contingent on some factor or event outside your direct control. You might, for instance, ask the most busy, least cooperative technician at the shop to come fix your computer. Whilst awaiting said computer to be fixed (whilst also not being too hasty in reminding said technician to come fix it), it simply is not possible to continue working. Similarly, it is fair game to await a colleague's response to the current draft, to await a statistician to double-check the data, and so on and so forth.

Another variant is to have some problem which one really ought to tackle, but which for some reason or other is too much effort to do right this instant. Bibliographical references is an excellent example. You find a reference in a bibliography to a book that is not in your local library, and then spend several depressive weeks gathering energy to go to the one other nearby library where you know for sure the book awaits. (To be sure, there are interlibrary loans, but those take a long time. Also, where even are the forms to fill out for such loans anyway?) Even better is of course to have a reference to a work which 100% most certainly contains information absolutely essential to the dissertation, but which can not be sought out. Such a state of things can delay progress for years on end.

Shorter bursts of creative paralysis can be of use, too. "There is too little time left to do anything meaningful anyway" is a particularly effective method in this context.

Let us conclude this summary of useful avoidance strategies by reminding you, dear reader, of a number of distractions which can be employed to interrupt of delay a working session:
  • Computer games
  • Beautiful weather outside
  • Major sporting events on TV
  • Phone calls
  • Cleaning your desk
  • Water the flowers
  • Visit the loo
  • Check your mail


Appendix: schedule for two typical days of a doctoral student 

The following work schedules are representative cases based on empirical studies which will be presented in my upcoming dissertation (Ask, forthcoming). The most important finding of these investigations is that the effective working time per day for doctoral students of all personality types trends asymptotically towards a period of time which I refer to as Ask's constant, which equals to exactly 29 minutes.

1. Typical workday for depressive doctoral student
10.00 Wakes up
10.00-10.30 Meditates over the perils and hardships of being a doctoral student
10.30-10.45 Gets dressed
10.45-11.30 Eats breakfast and reads the newspaper
11.30-12.00 Looks for a lost article
12.00 Leaves home
12.10 Misses the bus; the next bus arrives in half an hour
12.10-12.40 Awaits the next bus
12.40-13.00 In transit to university
13.00-13.15 Discusses the perils and hardships of being a doctoral student with a peer
13.15-14.10 Lunch
14.10 Finds all reading spots in the library already taken; goes to cafeteria
14.40 Returns to library; finds reading spot; claims it
14.45-14.55 Queues to retrieve a book
14.55-14.59 Sharpens pencil
14.59-15.04 Visits the loo
15.35-15.50 Smoke break
15.51 Returns to reading spot
15.52 Realizes that today is the last day to pay the rent, and that the bank closes half past four
15.53 Leaves the reading spot
15.54-17.30 Miscellaneous errands
17.30 Returns home; tired to the bone
17.30-18.00 Reads the evening news
18.00-18.30 Prepares an evening meal
18.30-19.15 Eats the evening meal
19.15-19.30 Does the dishes
19.30-20.00 Watches the national news on television
20.00-22.00 Really ought to do more dissertation work, but gets stuck watching a movie on TV
22.00 Falls into bed, exhausted
Effective dissertation work time: 29 minutes. (=Ask's constant)

2. Typical workday for manic doctoral student
07.00 Wakes up, immediately arises and gets dressed
07.10-07-40 Morning gymnastics
07.40-07.50 Breakfast, reads the news
07.50-08.10 Bikes to campus
08.10-09.00 Prepares for teaching
09.00-10.30 Teaches
10.30-10.40 Drinks coffee
11.00-11.55 Meeting with student union
11.55-12.30 Lunch
12.30-14.00 Substitutes for sick guidance counsellor
14.00-14.45 Meeting with the faculty work group for increasing graduation rates among doctoral students
14.45-15.45 Plays badminton
15.45-15.50 Drinks coffee
16.00-17.00 Listens to guest lecture
17.00-18.00 Prepares post-lecture seminar (buys wine)
18.00-21.00 Participates in post-lecture seminar, engages in conversation with the guest speaker 
21.00-21.20 Bikes home
21.20-22.00 Grades essays
22.00 Falls into bed, exhausted
Effective dissertation work time: 29 minutes. (=Ask's constant)

Translator's note

This is a translation of Sam Ask's seminal work. The version upon which this translation is based can be found here. Some things have been changed to make sense to an international audience; others have been left intentionally inexplicable, as reminders of a time when things were different.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What does it mean to have achieved a learning objective?

[Introductory notice: this is one of the papers I wrote during my sociology master, which I suspect shines through in patches (e.g. the the first paragraph, and the frequent use of Calhoun et al 2012). Nevertheless, I reckon these words might be more useful in a published state, rather than merely collecting entropy on a hard drive somewhere. Enjoy.]

The learning objectives state that the student shall display an “in-depth knowledge of classic sociological theories, concepts, and topics”. This might seem a straightforward enough proposition at a glance – there is a verb and a noun, and the relationship between the two is possible to parse grammatically. Upon closer inspection, particularly through the lens of the theories put forth by the thinkers categorized under the rubric of ‘classic social theorists’, matters become ever so slightly more complex. As we shall see, “knowledge” is situated in the social context at a more general level, rather than in any particular individual. This makes the notion of an individual “displaying” knowledge somewhat disingenuous, since it masks the necessarily social dimension of being in the know. An individual is not possible outside of the social, just as the social is not possible without individuals. They are mutually constitutive, meaning that – as Sinatra did sing – you can’t have one without the other.

Kant (2012|1949), for instance, wrote of the difference between private and public reason. “Private” here refers to a situation wherein a particular person acts in a particular circumstance, such as when employed to perform some clerical or administrative function. In such a situation, there is no room for argument or reasoned disobedience – the taxes have to be collected, the legitimately given orders obeyed, the functions of state performed as written. Private reason is particular, situated. Public reason, on the other hand, addresses a more generalized audience (“the entire reading public” [p 51]), using all available arguments and evidence to make the best, most reasoned case possible. Public reason is not concerned with the specifics of how the arguments laid forth inconvenience or embarrass the powers that be – it merely seeks the truth for its own sake, based on the available and through logic sustainable lines of argument put forth in previous applications of public reason. Later on, Matthew Arnold (1864) would phrase public reason in terms of using “the best possible knowledge” (with the added probabilistic observation that the likelihood that we already possess this knowledge is low, and that we thus should be on perpetual lookout for it).

From this one distinction alone, the issue of displaying knowledge becomes a question of just what kind of reason is sought after. Are students asked to display an apt performance of private reason, thus showing that they are fit for this or that employment or some other particular niche contingency relevant to the university at hand? Or are the students asked to perform a more generally applicable form of reason, regardless of whether it is relevant to the private situation of anyone involved?

To be sure, learning objective number six states that students shall act in a critical and independent manner, which at a glance would suggest a preference for public reason. It is, however, possible to be critical and independent in the application of private reason as well – many a philosopher (Hegel, Heidegger, take your pick) have found themselves justifying what the state apparatus would have done anyway, albeit with less scripture to fall back on. Add to this the ever mounting pressure to self-regulate in all domains of life, rather than to merely conform to previously given decrees, and we are back to asking whether private or public reason is the order of the day.

From here, it might be fruitful to jump over to Benjamin (2012|1969) and the tendency of modern fascism to incorporate public reason into its private functioning. Or, in his terms, the tendency of fascism to reproduce any work of art in such quantities as to render its qualities irrelevant. No matter how egalitarian or progressive a work might have been upon creation, once it has been incorporated within the fascist aesthetic the work is subsumed to whatever teleology professed by the state. Not necessarily due to flawed efforts on the part of the artist, but due to how the mass production of art distorts and affects artworks: the endless repetition of a unified aesthetic reduces any particular element of it to merely a component, a replaceable part of an ideological machine. Whatever the conditions of an artwork’s production, its reproduction into a new context renders it moot. Context trumps content.

The challenge presented by Benjamin is to create works which nevertheless resist this reduction. While he does not go as far as Adorno & Horkheimer (2012|2002), who claim that the entirety of what is produced by the culture industry (which is to say, anything an ordinary person can reasonably expect to encounter by means of purchase) is a rigged game, Benjamin does acknowledge the difficulty of being genuine whilst also being widely distributed. A painting – existing in singular – invites viewers to partake of its particular aura and peculiar circumstance. A poster – existing in multitudes – invites a very different mode of engagement. The former has the potential to move viewers, while the latter is more prone to mobilize them. The aim is to foster appreciation of the few paintings that remain their own contexts, whilst not falling for the lure of producing too many posters whilst trying to make a living.

This is, I reckon, a more contemporary version of Kant’s distinction between private and public reason. There is no small irony in the fact that the mass-produced, ubiquitous forms of art that are available to everyone, and thus present in everyone’s private homes, while the manifestations of public reasoning have become rare and hard to come by. More so as universities are under pressure to become relevant to the job market – to subsume their commitment to public reasoning to private interests, in all senses of the word.

In all this, it becomes difficult for a student to know how to proceed in order to fulfil the learning objectives. On the one hand, an overt commitment to public reason is unlikely to be rejected on explicit or ideological grounds – these are, after all, the values enshrined into academia by virtue of hundreds of years of tradition and continual practice. On the other hand, there is – as Merton (2012|1949) pointed out – a need to distinguish between manifest and latent functions of social practices. The stated goals of an organization might not be the entire story of what this organization is actually doing, sociologically speaking, and merely identifying the manifest function in ideological terms does not provide the full picture of what needs to be learnt in order for the objectives to be deemed fulfilled. Merely knowing the official story means knowing nothing at all, which – Socrates notwithstanding – is not a comfortable situation to find oneself in[1].

Again we are confronted with the vagaries involved with the individual display of knowledge. There are, as it were, two kinds of knowledge in circulation, both of which have to be present in equal measure for the display to be valid. There is the obvious, explicit knowledge of what different authors wrote and how their ideas interact with each other. And then there is the implicit familiarity with the tradition of the discipline, the injokes, the informal sentiments, the recurring themes, and other ephemeral yet foundational aspects of a body of knowledge. Displaying one form of knowledge without the other would not pass muster; the display would be found lacking in either substance or soul.

Here, it is illuminating to view the educational process as a gradual initiation into a community, rather than as a series of tests to be undergone and passed. To be sure, undergoing the tests is still an integral part of the project, but their latent function is to ever so gradually become more socialized into the discipline and its customs. Being a sociologist – or indeed belonging to any academic discipline – is more akin to possessing an attitude or a worldview than anything else, and can not be reduced to knowing the contents of a discrete set of foundational texts. As rigorous and systematic as the evaluation criteria might wish to appear, a core part of determining whether an education has succeeded comes down to whether a student gets it or not. Or, to return to Benjamin: the quality sought is made plain in the difference between appreciating a painting and plastering a poster.

These are not qualities that exist as independent measurable variables which can be isolated and controlled for using ever so systematic metrics and procedures. Rather, they are constitutive of and inherent to the very situation the education takes place in. What is evaluated is not whether the student knows this or that, but whether they manage to comport themselves in such a manner that the conversation keeps flowing without interruption.[2] To invoke Bakhtin (1986), it is more important to be aware of genre (defined as a series of social expectations on frequently recurring situations) than to know exactly which year a particular author published their seminal work. A student gets more mileage out of gesturing towards a shared exhaustion from reading a particularly painstaking introduction, than they derive from paraphrasing it with unerring accuracy.

A pragmatic student would apply Mead (2012|1934) to this dynamic. Mead differentiates between the “I” and the “me”. The “I” is the stream of impressions, thoughts and emotions that occur in any given moment. The “me”, in contrast, is a gestalt self-image which takes into account all aspects of one’s place in a local and global social context. The “I” uses whatever information is retained in/of the “me” to orient itself and plan its upcoming course of actions. Our imaginary pragmatic student would shift the goal of the educational process from the I to the me – rather than seeing it as an individualistic trait that can be summoned or performed at any given moment, it is rather a characteristic of the social situation they happen to find themselves in upon nearing the completion of their education. Rather than hitting the books, they would seek out social gatherings in which to gain insight into the social processes at work within their field, and possibly wherein they could get recognition as belonging to the very same community. To pun: the important thing is not whether I know this or that, bur whether they know me.

The learning objectives, however, remain on the level of individual assessment. The student, singular, shall display their acumen through individual effort. The goals are framed in such a way that the knowledge is situated within the student, as so many crates in a warehouse, rather than as a more general proficiency to draw upon the collective fount of shared resources, references and reflections. There is an inherent contradiction between the praxis of performing academics and the stated learning objectives. The former heavily emphasizes surveying the collective state of the field, of surveying the literature and probing the limits of established disciplinary achievement. The latter collapses all of that into a single unit of performance, and applies a single value to it. The student either knows or does not know – a binary solution to a complex social dynamic.

This contradiction might seem a subtle point, but it manifests very directly in everyday educational situations. The most overt example is when a student asks whether some concept or theorist is going to be on the exam. From the point of view of being introduced to the discipline’s traditions and tools, this is the least interesting (and most parochial) question that could possibly exist – an entire history of knowledge is reduced to a single social situation in the near future. From the point of view of the student, who sees that the only thing they need to do is to perform the learning objectives, this is a rational inquiry which could provide useful information upon which to structure their efforts. If a theorist appears on the exam, then being able to reiterate the general outline of their thoughts is a demonstrably good thing; if said theorist is not on the exam, then focusing on the theorists that do appear is a more rational option. It is a far cry from engaging in public reason, but it achieves the learning objectives. Why appreciate a painting when plastering a poster does the job just fine?

Here, the reader might object that a student asking whether something appears on an exam or not is an indication that they lack the proper insight into what the point of higher learning is. Which is fair as far as it goes, but it does highlight that this very point ultimately boils down to whether or not the student gets it, in the manner discussed above. Too direct and explicit focus on the process of passing the educational obstacles and jumping through all the hoops draws attention away from the very goal to be achieved. Learning objectives and learning outcomes diverge, despite their grammatical similarity.

This is, of course, not a new observation. Quintilian (1987|95) noted that every educational situation is a unique context with its own dynamics, wherein the values and virtues to be inculcated have to be reaffirmed anew, lest the pupils learn something else. The reasons for learning something are as important as learning the thing in itself. Quintilian uses memorization of literary passages as an example of this dynamic. The desired outcome is not that the pupils can regurgitate the selected passage on command, but to show them that being able to access a wide range of literary sources will help guide them in their efforts at living a good life, where everyday occurrences are connected to greater themes and thus possible to analyze as parts of a whole, rather than as individual incidents. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the goal of a Quintilian education is to ever so gently point towards the greater picture.

Dewey (2005), in slightly more contemporary terms, made the same observation when he noted that pupils only ever learn what they are interested in, and that education is only as effective as it is capable of capturing this interest. An explanatory lecture on the finer points of algebra might be effective in conveying information pertaining to math, but it might also be a fine opportunity to practice falling asleep whilst sitting in a room with various degrees of directed noise. The latter is motivated by a very clear and directly applicable use value, while the former requires a higher degree of contextual introduction to come to pass. Both outcomes are equally likely, and both learners are equally motivated.

A way to rectify the situation would be to punish those who are not interested. Or, rather, those who fail to learn. This would introduce a very clear motivation to be interested in the topic at hand, and very concrete reasons to perform the tasks laid out. It would also, with equal clarity, reframe the situation as being about avoiding punishment, rather than as ultimately striving to reach some sort of more refined worldview with access to the tools of reason and rationality. At best, it would be an inefficient didactic methodology. At worst, it would be an attempt to force individuals to freely participate in public reasoning, a proposition quite contrary to what Kant envisioned.

The overarching project in de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (2011) is to underscore all the ways in which women – historically and at present – have been formally and informally barred from participating in public reason. By describing in detail every aspect of women’s lives – youth, menstruation, marriage, sex, rape, pregnancy, housework, prostitution – she also describes what makes women other when compared to men, the implicit default. These aspects are peculiar, particular and personal.  More specifically, they create a different starting point from which to engage the world, a different social and epistemic staging ground from which to launch any attempt at participation, be it in politics or public reason. There are men, the universal subject who tackles universal issues with the tools of rationality and reason, and there are women, who tackles the particular, emotional and utterly local. Men are constructed as universal, women are constructed as other.

The efforts of McDonald (2004) are indicative of this state of affairs. Her ambition to gather and introduce female social theorists is not motivated by trying to justify women’s peculiar or different contributions over the centuries. Rather, it is an attempt to draw attention to how these contributions follow the same developmental lines as male theorists, using the same tools and more often than not the same lines of arguments. There are not two differing historical tracks, male and female, which never interacted with each other as time passed. Rather, theorists from both genders engaged in lively and fruitful debate where the results were a better understanding of the contemporary social and political situation. To quote: “[t]he problem, after all, is not that the women founders of the social sciences failed to publish but that the scholarly world failed to recognize their work” (p 242).

McDonald (2004) notes that the omission of female theorists from the canon of social thinkers has had the unfortunate consequence that many contemporary social theorists have felt as if they started from scratch, and based their approaches to the social sciences on this premise. Rather than being able to draw upon the rich tradition of female authors discussing women’s issues – in the broadest possible use of the term – these efforts have been hampered by a lack of theoretical underpinning and a sense of methodological commitment to qualitative approaches. Given that all social theorists presented in the canonical works are men, women had to carve out a niche for themselves, theoretically as well as institutionally.

Needless to say, this redoubling of otherness, as described by de Beauvoir, has not done the study of women’s issues (or women’s studies) any favors. It has framed the feminist approach as somehow optional, something to do above and beyond the real work, an excursion into private reason only allowed once the appropriate work has been performed with regards to public reason. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, it creates a dichotomy which is nigh impossible to overcome: there are public intellectuals, and there are women.

Neither has it done any favors to individual women, who – to gain access to positions in academia, and thus the right to participate in the conversation – have had to read through an extensive amount of theory which only marginally concern a large portion of their lived experience. Which is not to say that this theory is irrelevant or inapplicable, but it introduces something of a delay to getting started with the actual work. There is a lot of universal theory to power through before being allowed to proceed with the particulars, where every step of the way has to be retraced to theories which do not take the lived experience of women into account[3]. The barrier to entry into public reason consists of a non-trivial amount of hoops, some more onerous than others.

Given this state of affairs, we could use Simmel’s (2012|1971) theory of group dynamics to predict that feminist scholars in different fields will have an easier time of collaborating with each other than would non-feminists. According to Simmel, one group functions more or less like any other group, despite their overt differences. Thus, performing the work necessary to maintain some particular function in one group creates a kinship with those who perform the same work in other groups, by virtue of a shared range of experiences and skills. Applied to feminist scholars, who (regardless of field) have had to struggle for the inclusion of actually existing women into the historical canon, there is bound to be a rich potential for interdisciplinary cooperation to draw upon in future efforts.

To return to the question of learning objectives, this places objectives 1 and 2 in a precarious position. On the one hand, women have been excluded from the canonical writs of the history of sociology to such an extent that the official history has become almost exclusively male; any effort to accurately describe the historiography of the field must take this social fact into account. On the other hand, efforts to include female authors are under way at present, and part of these efforts is the inclusion of these very same authors in new rewritings of the same history. The question then becomes whether to report on the history of sociology as written, or to give an account which includes actually existing social thinkers who have not yet been labelled as sociological. Both courses of action follow from the learning objectives as they stand.

Of course, contextual evidence suggest that the second approach is to be preferred (such as the inclusion of McDonald 2004 in the syllabus), but this bounces us straight back to informal knowledge guiding the process of adhering to formally stated goals. What is asked for is not knowledge of the history of sociology in general, but a very specific subset of a very specific categorization of history of sociology with a local emphasis. History is indeed, as Cannadine (2011) noted, a situated activity in the present.

An attentive reader will have noted the parallels between the global and the local, the state of the field and the state of the syllabus. Sociological theory is not a static thing that can either be known or not known; rather, it is a dynamic and ever changing ethos formed as much by tradition as by propositional statements made by individual theorists. Thus, evaluating whether a student knows sociological theory or not becomes a somewhat extracurricular activity. To be sure, knowing one’s Weber and Durkheim is important, but it is equally important to know them for the right reasons[4]. As Quintilian pointed out, merely going through the motions is insufficient; a successful education will have had the student approach the subject matter in an appropriate manner, the manner being of greater import than the matter. The same applies to the teaching of sociological theory, mutatis mutandis.

This frame of reference is rather far removed from the contemporary tendency of envisioning education as a series of boxes to tick off, where the educational aims have been achieved in full once each and every aspect has been individually fulfilled. I reckon that Merton’s distinction between manifest and latent functions is very much at play in this tendency. We can not take the learning objectives at their words – that would be akin to analyzing rain dances only with regards to their efficacy at making it rain. There are far more interesting social processes at work, and it is very fortunate that we as sociologists are uniquely positioned to analyze these processes using the traditional tools of our trade. They only need to be applied appropriately.

[1] The same goes for reading syllabi. As Wahlström (2015) points out, these documents are situated in a political, institutional, ideological and sometimes didactical context, where the specific content is determined by a number of competing forces vying for influence. And, I might add, merely reading the syllabi, words on a page, does not translate into knowing what transpires in classrooms or seminars.
[2] Bourdieu (1990) describes this process, and points out that students from middle and upper class backgrounds have an advantage over their fellow students from working class backgrounds. Where the former carry a habitus suitable for performing academics (albeit still with a need to be socialized into a particular discipline), the latter have to pull double duty of both reading the required literature and relearning their way of being in the social world. They have to learn to be middle class as well as mastering the subject matter, as it were.
[3] Being behind Rawl’s veil of ignorance takes on a substantially different quality should you happen to be pregnant.
[4] Weber wrote extensively on 19th century economics, and Durkheim famously made reference to phrenology as a legitimate scientific method. Building an argument on these two historically accurate propositions is not likely to garner favor in the contemporary sociological community, however; it would be an inappropriate approach.


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