Archive for the specialization and trade in the 21st century Category

Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.


Sometimes you just, well, lose it.

The other night we went over to our neighbors’ house for dinner.  As always there was much interesting conversation.  As we came to dessert, the conversation moved to the needs of higher education in general, and the needs of Luther in particular.

I was trying to explain the need for niche marketing and what strategies niche marketing might require of the college.  I claimed that, no matter how much I might agree with him about the college being a place of “high quality liberal arts education,” success in the 21st century would not come by selling it as such.  That just being high quality was not enough for a school operating under the limitations imposed by a middle-tier endowment.

And I simply could not get my points across.  And, eventually, passion got the better of me.  My volume rose, with the tone of my tone increasingly reflecting my frustrations.  Oh, I didn’t start throwing things and leave in a fit of rage.  There was no screaming, no gratuitous ad hominem attacks.  We parted on the usual good terms, neither of us unhappy or angry, our friendship unaffected.

But the experience got me thinking, because the last few weeks have been one of those periods in my intellectual life where I’ve seemed to have more trouble than usual getting people to listen.  More trouble getting people to see what I’m really saying, whether it is in regard to marketing, to higher education, to the future of organizations I’m devoted to, like Luther or of the Green Bay Packers, or in regard to the listening paradigm in general.

I expect it’s a kind of period that everyone goes through from time to time, a period when everyone seems particularly dense and no one seems persuadable.  When no one seems willing to listen to things worth listening to.

And when the non-listening has nothing to do with secret agendas, or bad people who don’t care about what we have to say, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re too dense to listen to reason.  None of those apply to my neighbors.   Not generally, and not last night. They aren’t that kind of people.  They weren’t being bad or stupid or dense last night.  And nor, come to think of it, have been most of the people who have been frustrating me of late.

And it my inability to persuade isn’t because I’m making bad arguments or because I’m not providing evidence they value.  It’s not because I’m wrong or because I’m stupid or because I’m dense/

No, there’s something else happening.  Something else happening preventing persuasion.  Something else preventing full listening.

And that something else?  It’s a kind of faith.

Oh, not capital-F Faith in the manner of Christians believing in salvation through Jesus.

Not even small-f faith in the manner of economists believing in the value of “everything else the same” assumptions when talking about demand.

But it is faith.  A subscript-f kind of faith.

One (or more) of those unacknowledged (and sometimes unacknowledgable) deep triggers that shape our thinking in fundamental ways.

I’ve always liked the Habermas term, “pre-judging.”  It gives part of the flavor, and avoids at least part of the negative connotation that goes with words like “prejudice” and “bias.”  We come to places of our disagreement — be they political places, intellectual places, moral places, whatever — with pre-existing conclusions already shaping our practices of speaking and listening.   Deep triggers that shape not just our conclusions, but the manner of our thinking itself.

Yet these prejudgings, whether erroneous or not, being deep underneath, are extremely hard to get a handle on.  Unlike the garden variety biases that come from secret agendas, stupidity, and such, are very difficult to even ackowledge, because they’re very, very hard to see.  We, and those seeking to persuade us, are all in the position of the sightless person trying to perceive the difference between royal blue and aqua, of the deaf person trying to perceive the difference between a dog’s growl and a cat’s meow.

These are the most deeply buried of our faiths.  Capital-F Faiths are easy to see, as easy to feel, as the cross I wear around my neck.  Small-f faiths are easy to pull out in reasoned discussion with bright and earnest people willing to point out “hidden assumptions” and the like.

But subscript-f faiths?  Subscript-f faiths aren’t.

Subscript-f faiths go to why my neighbor doesn’t understand the criteria of marketers.

Why my non-economic colleagues persistently look at the same empirical evidence that I look at, but cannot see the value of placing emphasis on economic growth as I would have them do.

Why *I* can’t stop myself from letting my passion and frustrations get the better of me.

Subscript-f faiths go to why some people — students, colleagues, clients, good people — don’t listen to our ideas as we want them to.

No matter how good our ideas.

So, how do we get each other past the barriers of our subscript-f faith?


Yesterday I ordered another one of those “Complete Idiots” Guides  (this one to “project managment”), and it got me wondering again about just what an outlier I am in my book purchase patterns.  Oh, I’ve known for some time I buy far more books than the “average person”.  But my wondering today is less about the total quantity of all books purchased than about its distribution.

So I thought I’d throw a quick survey out there.  How many readers of Iterations have purchased any of these “Complete Idiots” or “Dummies” guides over the years?  And how many have/do you purchased?

It’s not scientific.  I just don’t have time right now to add another detailed scholarly project to my plate .  (Washed out from a bout with the stomach flu, I used yesterday to do one of those “personal planning” exercises, and made a conservative estimate of my time demands between now and my return to the classroom in August, and I find that I’m at least 500 hours short. Ahem.)  But I think the rise of guides like these might be empirical evidence on some key paradoxes about the information economy.

Here’s one quick example.  Read the Amazon reviews for just about any of these books and you are pretty much certain to find some disagreement about the “basic” quality of the book.  Some will laud the book for being “just right” for “beginners”.  Others will complain about the book not providing anything beyond the “basics for someone new to” whatever the book is about.

As a purchaser of books, these contradictory reviews are annoying. By definition, these are supposed to be books at least in part for beginners.  And certainly I only contemplate their purchase when I see myself struggling with questions I see as “beginner ones”.

Even if I don’t really consider myself a beginner.  I’ve bought more than one Idiots/Dummies book even though I’ve moved a fair distance along the learning curve.  Oh, I’ve never bought one in economics or history. (I’ve never even checked on which ones might exist in these two fundamental disciplines of my life.)  But I have bought a number in, for example, marketing and technology subjects, and I’ve done so after having read and thought about the subjects in question for some time.

It happens when I’m having one of those journeyman moments.  One of those moments on the road to (hopeful) eventual mastery of whatever where something of fundamental importance to practice of that whatever has assumed the qualities of Jello.  A moment where I used to be quite confident of my understanding and now feel as lost as a beginning apprentice might when first shown the master’s tools.

Now I don’t buy all Idiots/Dummies books under such conditions.  I sometimes buy them because, well because I don’t know a darn thing about the subject.  For example, I’ve just bought a new software program and the vaunted “online documentation” proves to be its typical worthless stuff.

So the guides are trying to straddle two separate niches.  The reason you see those two kinds of reviews is that there are two kinds of buyers being courted.  The people seeking beginner info at their “journeyman moments” and the people seeking beginner info at the beginning.

But add in the number of these guides that the average buyer buys, and a more complex story develops.   Read more of those product reviews and you find lots of reviewers citing how many of the things they’ve bought/reviewed/considered.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think it’s one of the primary unconscious ways Idiots/Dummies Guide reviewers go about claiming their expertise as reviewers.

But if you think about it, it’s grounds for expertise only in a world where the virtues of “specialization” have morphed.

Traditionally an expert was someone who has specialized and got lots of education and experience in the field specialized.   If you’re old enough, or were a weird Thomas Macaulay- or Thomas Jefferson-type polymath, you might develop multiple areas of expertise, but otherwise you weren’t going to be having a lot of journeyman moments.  You simply didn’t have the time for them.  (And if you were a polymath, you didn’t have many of them either because, well, you were a polymath.)

If you were looking at a beginner book, it was because you were a true beginner.  You were just starting in your field.  Or you needed a reference for another field that you had no need (or desire) to go beyond beginner-dom in.

You weren’t an apprentice.  You were trying a new hobby.  You were a DIYer.  You wanted to find out if you really needed one of those expensive master whatevers to help you.

In that old world, reviews complaining of not going deep enough would be oddities.  They wouldn’t be found virtually across the board.  They wouldn’t be found over and over again even in the bestsellers.

I guess what I’m trying to suggest is that “beginner” knowledge has a new social niche.  In today’s world, moving to mastery means moving through the journeyman moment over and over again, each time in a different subject or even discipline.

What was the old phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none”?  Does 2009 demand a re-writing?

Jack of all trades.  Or master of none.

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