Category Archives: Learning

Academia

Get it done

I’m awfully late to the party, but I just came across Bre Pettis and Kio Stark’s “Cult of Done” manifesto:

1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
3. There is no editing stage.
4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
11. Destruction is a variant of done.
12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
13. Done is the engine of more.

It reminds me of my remix of Fried and Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework. The core message is: When inspired, just start making stuff, get it done and see what happens. I’m not as good at that as I’d like to be. But I’m getting better.

Teaching it

A long time ago, I wrote a post about anthropologist Michael Wesch‘s concept of anti-teaching. Since then, he has been refining it even further while teaching huge “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” classes at Kansas State University. And now he’s written a very worthwhile article [.pdf] explaining the concrete teaching concepts that he has developed.

Wesch is also doing some very interesting work in exploring new ways to integrate social media in teaching:

I was inspired to use Facebook for teaching by something I saw while visiting George Mason University. Like many universities, they were concerned that the library stacks were rarely being accessed by students. Instead of trying to bring students to the stacks, they brought the stacks to the students, placing a small library right in the middle of the food court where students hang out. We can do the same with popular social networking tools like Facebook. Facebook is not only great for expressing your identity, sharing with friends, and planning parties, it also has all the tools necessary to create an online learning community. Students are already frequently visiting Facebook, so we can bring our class discussions to them in a place where they have already invested significant effort in building up their identity, rather than asking them to login to Blackboard or some other course management system where they feel ??faceless? and out of place.

How to write a thesis

Writing a thesis is a difficult undertaking. Before I started writing mine, I hadn’t written any assignment longer than 30 pages (my Bachelor’s essay), and it was quite a step up from that to having to structure a huge complex of data that I’d gathered on my own, analyze it and bring it together in a coherent academic argument.

Luckily, I was well helped along the way by my supervisor, Morten, who really reeled me in from time to time when I was going off in weird and unsustainable directions, which happened fairly regularly. He gave me a lot of pointers, which I have summed up here for anybody about to write a major piece of academic argumentation. It may seem simple enough, but trust me: Once you get involved in it, you lose yourself to the writing, and it is difficult to avoid being overly esoteric with regards to your special niche of interest.

  • Be overly pedagogical! Keep a continuous meta-discourse going to explain to the reader why this bit of information is relevant in the grand scheme of things. It may seem obvious to you, since you know what is coming. But the unaccustomed reader won’t.
  • Use lots of part conclusions! Sum up again and again how each bit of analysis is relevant and necessary to make sense of your overall argument.
  • Focus on readability! Don’t use more than a handful abbreviations that you can reasonably expect the reader to know in advance. Use clear examples to explain difficult terms and processes!
  • Be very careful with descriptive passages. It can easily become either dry or boring or light-weight and irrelevant. Keep your focus on the relevant scientific observations. Those are the ones that you are meant to pursue!
  • Make it perfectly clear to yourself which academic or scientific tradition you aiming to be part of. Are you going for the anthropological insights, or the psychological qualities, or perhaps the computer science bits? There’s no way you can appeal to all, and your thesis will suffer from lack of focus, otherwise.
  • Be analytical: Use quotes or specific data to underline your analyses and conclusions. Hack the data! Fashion surprising and worthwhile points from your empirical descriptions.
  • Write descriptively in order to support your analysis – but don’t write naïvely. The description can be an analysis in its own right if used to expose analytically interesting situations and issues.
  • Use and express clear levels within the text: Who is saying what? When are you being analytical and when are you being descriptive? Use meta-commentary to separate the two, but don’t be judgmental. Try colouring the text so that you can see where you are analyzing and when you are describing. Keep these in separate sections! Otherwise it will confuse the reader!
  • Make clear distinctions between what your informants are saying, and what you are saying: Are you using their metaphors and terms? When are you speaking and when are they speaking? You cannot be reflective and critical when using their terms. Use italics and quotes to signify that you are aware of the difference!
  • Be reflective all the time: Ask: Which implicit assumptions do your informants have that shape their demeanor and convictions? For example: What assumptions are inherent in the idea of the transparency of a computer program? How does this assumption shape relations between people?
  • Focus on the relations between your informants! What does it mean to be part of this group? Is it a group? Where do their shared bonds lie?
  • Pick a theoretical perspective and give it more depth! Illuminate it from different angles through various analytical means. Dig deeper!
  • Use diagrams to illustrate and explain tricky analytical points that you find central. Often, a good diagram will express a thousand words of analysis.
  • Each chapter of the thesis should be a paper in its own right – containing its own analytical focus and conclusion. But at the same time, it should lead on to the next chapter. Ask yourself: How does this chapter lead on to what I discuss in the next chapter? Is there a feeling of natural flow between the analyses?
  • Layout the text as it has to be in the final version. It will make it a lot easier for you to see if you are within the formal word and page limit. Writing too much will require rewriting and cutting, which is arduous and difficult! Better to write it right the first time.
  • Have a draft chapter ready for review for every meeting with your supervisor. Write a letter along with the draft: Describe how the draft fits with the greater whole of the thesis – what function it fulfills. Make it easy for the supervisor to comment it in a way that can help you!

Well, I’m sure this seems like pretty self-evident advice, but it is still hard to remember when you’re getting carried away writing about your very favourite obscure detail about the history of the Unix operating system. And you know it has to go, the moment you finished it…

Spending a morning as an anthropologist

This morning I sat in on a seminar about research and anthropology intended to get Danish high school students interested in anthropology. My mother, who is high school teacher, brought her students from Aarhus to Copenhagen on a couple of days of excursion, and in-between seeing the parliament, the foreign ministry and bunches of other important stuff, they also had time to swing by and hear more about what social science research is all about.

The reason that the anthropologists are interested in having these students visit is that with the new Danish high school reform, a new inter-disciplinary subject called “Cultural Analysis and Understanding” has appeared, and this opens up the anthropological project to a new group of potentially interested students.

Some of the researchers at the department of anthropology are writing a textbook for the new subject and naturally, they’d like to write about cultural issues that may interest the pupils. So, naturally, they took this opportunity not only to tell about anthropology, but also ask the students to answer the question “how can anthropology be interesting for high school students?”

It is always fun to hear anthropologists explain what anthropology is. And I think the three chosen anthropologists, Kirsten Becker (whom the department have hired as a “development consultant” to engage in exactly this kind of activities, promoting anthropology not only to prospective students, but also to businesses of various sorts), Cecilie Rubow and Mikkel Rytter, did a decent job explaining.

So what does an anthropological researcher do?

She can examine just about anything, just as long as she looks at it with regards to social relations and cultural values. It is in some way the quintessential cross-disciplinary subject, since any research field that is based on social relations and cultural values (whether directly or indirectly) can be studied anthropologically. It all emanates from a basic sense of wonder: “What ARE they doing?”

The central element of anthropology is operationalizing that wonder into questions that can be asked and answered through specific methods, and the creativity of the anthropological practice is closely related to inventing good questions to ask and finding creative ways of answering them. The central anthropological methods is participant observation – the tricky position of both being distant, observing and taking notes while actively participating and learning.

It requires living with and among the groups of people that you want to study. As Mikkel Rytter put it: “You develop and answer the questions you’ve asked yourself by hanging out and hanging on.” You attempt to “stick” to the group of people you’re interested in.

And he told the story of how he had heard about a wedding in the community of Pakistani immigrants in Denmark (the group he was studying), but since he didn’t know the lucky couple well enough to receive an invitation, he then had to ask his friends to invite him to the wedding.

So basically he invited himself, and that’s what anthropologists do all the time. We are, as somebody once quite elegantly put it, “professional strangers.”

Rytter also had fun elevating the stereotype of the annoyingly inquisitive child to a hero figure for anthropologists. Constantly asking “why is this?” “why would you do that?” “how would you prefer it to be it?” “when was this?” “can you help me understand?” is quite characteristic of the anthropologist. In essence, we are extremely rude though we try to avoid appearing that way. That’s what anthropologists mean when they talk about strategy: “how can I present myself in such a way that will allow me to ask tons of questions without getting kicked out for being nosy?”

With this semi-brief introduction to the subject, the anthropologists asked the students to go into smaller groups to perform the first three steps of anthropology: Wonder, question, and fret about methods.

They did so under the cool guidance of the three anthropologists, each with their special theme: Ritual and religion (Rubow), Integration (Rytter) and the Body (Becker). And each group would then turn in a coloured piece of paper containing their wonder and ideas on how to use it.

Generally, the students came up with big questions over big areas, and there was a clear tendency to be as inclusive as possible: as many age groups, as much geographical diversity, as broad a context as possible. And it became the task of the anthropologists to show the students how the empirical ambition of this wondering could be tuned down by focusing the questions a bit more and still keep most of the wonder.

Naturally, most of the questions the students came up with were close to questions and experiences that they themselves have had and considered.
Most of the groups discussing religion had focused on the conflict around secularity and religion, and how it seems that most young Danes today are semi-atheist, yet still go through confirmation. How does tradition and faith interact? What does it mean to believe in something? What about creationism – how can you believe in that?

The groups discussing the body asked questions which very much related to themselves: How do people start smoking? Why do some people work out all the time? What kind of bodily ideal do they have? What meanings do people attach to body hair? Is that another generational thing considering how “all our parents found it cool to be totally hairy”? How does body hair affect sexuality? How does the way we play as children affect how we act when we grow up?

The groups discussing integration found themes containing no small matter of reflexivity: What does material possessions and their influence of quality of life mean to immigrants in Denmark? How does Danish party culture segregate immigrants from the ethnically Danish youth? When are you Danish? Is it possible to be “well-integrated” in Denmark while keeping your cultural and religious roots? And what does integration even mean?

The anthropologists then asked counter-questions in order to show how trickily complex the anthropological undertaking can be: How would you study Danes’ relationship to body hair? Study them at the pool? It is actually difficult to go up and initiate a conversation with people when you’re swimming or showering. How would you figure out what role secularization plays between first and second generation Muslim immigrants in Denmark? Do you have hypothesis that you want to confirm? If so, you better make that clear in advance as well.

Curiously enough, the three anthropologists were so caught up with all the wonder, the questions and the methods that they almost completely forgot to talk about the analysis and the knowledge that they actually produce. Maybe that is the less sexy part which the students will have to figure out for themselves…

Thesis writing

I met with thesis advisor (or supervisor – I’m not really sure about the proper English terminology here. I think advisor sounds more precise) yesterday to discuss the outline of my thesis.

As I had figured, he agreed that it was a good idea to design each chapter as independent essays with their own argument and conclusion which I could then connect into an overall argument by writing a “meta-text” into the main text referring to points made in other chapters where appropriate.

Our main discussion this time was on how to best build up a good structure to give the reader all the necessary pieces to understand the highly technical and specialized field the thesis is about. He demanded that I didn’t take too much for granted, not about the reader’s empirical or technical knowledge of the field, nor about the reader’s grasp of the anthropological theories I plan to use.

As he said, “most anthropologists like Bruno Latour and the concept of Actor-Network Theory for completely different reasons than most other academics: We find most of his points about the social construction of technology as blindingly obvious, but we do like the succinctness and stringence of his arguments. On the other hand, we aren’t too fond of his methods which seem crude to say the least. Other academics find his basic premise of socially constructed technology mind-blowing and stick to his methods as at least some way of dealing with this (to them) new way of perceiving the world.”

As it is, the relationship between the social and the technical will at the very centre of my thesis, but he warned me not to become too overenthusiastic about Latour and use him as a basis for discussion rather than as a conclusion in its own right. I find this exceptionally clever, especially since I was leaning towards doing this anyway, and it will only make my analysis so much clearer and sharper.

The main challenge of writing such a big lump of text like this thesis – it will end up at around 30.000 words – is getting them all in the right order. Building the argument in such a way that the reader will always read whatever seems most amazingly curious and interesting at that point. When writing chapter one, I have to find out what do the reader needs to know in order to read chapter 2? What framework do I build to make it as straightforward and accessible as possible?

So far, I’ve sought to develop each chapter around specific empirical cases to make the conflicts and theoretical issues at hand as concrete as possible. My advisor has kept telling me: Use the best cases! The ones you like the best! You will be delving into these and the more exciting and curious you find them, the better analyses you will write about them in the end!

So that’s where I’m at now. I’m starting out writing a chapter (what is going to be the third of six) with a solid overall structure in mind, and hopefully it won’t change too much in the meanwhile.

Changing teaching

What now feels like a long time ago, I wrote on anti-teaching and my curiosity towards the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Well, as chance would have it, I got the book for Christmas, and now I have had my curiosity sated. Well, actually more like whetted.

Written in 1969 by two former high school teachers turned professors of education, it remains a very thought-provoking book, seeking to tear down some of the fundamentals of the school system as we know it and rebuild it with a different focus.

Their starting point is that that the degree of social and technological change itself has changed through the 20th century:

… we’ve reached the stage where change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, an patterns of behaviour that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

Based on this observation on the increased pace of change, which we can only confirm for the last 35 years since the book was written, Postman and Weingartner seeks to identify the central values necessary to prepare students for life in a world of constant change.

They argue that in such a situation, you can’t teach textbook material, because the text books will be outdated by the time the students graduate, instead they find it most relevant to teach the students to reflect and and make up their own minds on the changes around them. To think for themselves:

We are talking about the schools’ cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture, and at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

This intellectual instrument they call a “crap detector”, borrowing a term from Hemingway describing the single most important characteristic necessary to become a great writer.

Having stated their goal as the development of fully functional crap detectors, they commit the rest of the book to discussing which changes will be necessary in the school system to accommodate such a change of focus.

Heavily inspired by Marshall McLuhan, they go on to state that with teaching, too, “the medium is the message.” Which implies that that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs. They connect this John Dewey‘s maxim “learning by doing”, arguing that you only learn what you do, and if learning consists of sitting quietly, passively absorbing, remembering and regurgitating information as required that’s also what you’re going to learn to do.

As an alternative to this sort of traditional schooling, Postman and Weingartner roll out a long list of suggestions all focusing on changing the dynamics in the classroom to help the students define and shape their education in ways that they can take an interest in. Most central is the Inquiry Method of teaching which they sum as the following:

– The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks.
– Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question.
– He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction, generally avoids acting as a mediator or judging the quality of ideas expressed.
– He rarely summarizes the positions taken by students on the learnings that occur. He recognizes that the act of summary or “closure” tends to have the effect of ending further thought.
– His lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined “logical” structure
– Generally, each of his lessons pose a problem for students.

It will be too much to go into detail about these points here since these points pretty much make up the bulk of the book, but a really good example is Frank Miceli’s essay “Education and Reality” which is included in the book. It doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else, so I’m tempted to scan it in and make it available here.

What is more interesting for me is to compare these ideas, written well before I was born, to the schooling that I have received over the past 20 years. And I find that my first ten years of school did heed much of this advice quite well, and I guess I have my wonderful grade school teacher to thank for that.

But after that, as I went through high school (Gymnasium) and my first years at university, I can see what I didn’t realize at the time: All of the good skills that I had learned asking questions, wondering and engaging with what interested me slowly withered while my head filled with facts that I couldn’t place or find good use for, yet I was told would be relevant for me to learn (as I wouldn’t be the best judge of that?)

Slowly I resurfaced. Found my own way and learned stuff that interested me, though often in spite of my teachers rather than because of them. And now, as I embark on my thesis, I feel like I’m back where I started with my advisor asking me to only focus on the stuff that really interests me, asking me hard questions and not offering any closure. Asking for my anthropological reflections to be my guide.

And I’ve missed it. That honest interest in me. In what I want to do. Not that impersonal distance of “I am just here to present the facts. I can’t make you learn it” as if you can separate the activity of “teaching” from the students “learning”.

It’s funny to see now, that many of the ideas that Postman and Weingartner suggested now have been integrated into the big Danish high school reform that was initiated last year. Now, 10 years after I began high school, my little brother is in his first year there, experiencing the reform first hand with all of its many inter-subject projects and redefined subjects. And he does work very hard at it, learning German, maths and all the other relevant things on offer.

And while what is learned may be much the same as before, the teachers feel overworked, stressed and haunted by bureaucracy, trying to adjust to the new inter-disciplinary projects and the new wide-open directions each lesson suddenly can take as the students ask unexpected questions. In a recent opinion piece in the Danish newspaper Politiken, four high school teachers illustrate some of these issues.

For instance how students are unable to learn new languages such as Spanish, French or Italian at any decent level because of the new inter-disciplinary project courses which take up to 6 weeks where the students won’t receive any language training and most likely will forget most of what they’ve learned already, forcing the teacher to start over with refreshing and rehashing old lessons before moving on.

Or for instance how the new Antiquity Studies subject (which deals with “long and short lines of European culture”) now allows connecting Plato with American Psycho or relating Woody Allen’s Match Point with Sophocles’ King Oedipus which puts such a strain on the teacher to familiarize himself with more than 2500 years of history in order to confidently draw such parallels.

These concerns are genuine, and shows that many of these high school teachers simply aren’t prepared for such a reform as advocated by Postman and Weingartner and to some degree implemented by the Danish Ministry of Education.

The central idea behind this is that it should be the concerns, interests and ideas of the students that should be central to the education, not the whatever curriculum the individual teacher has decided upon beforehand.

Most of the people I know from university can’t remember much of their beginner language from high school, mostly because they learned it, but never since have had active need for it. A high school language teacher should seize the opportunity to make intensive inter-disciplinary language courses, ending up with a field trip to a country where that language is actually spoken so that the students can become interested and make actual use of it.

No student would expect their teacher to know all of 2500 years of history by heart. But that is also beside the point. The Inquiry Method is based on the teacher and the students learning together. There is no need to have all the answers beforehand. Most people in real life don’t – why should teachers be any different?

The central problem seems to be that most high school teachers (and generally all university teachers) are deeply in love with their own subject and their own interests which makes it extremely difficult for them to engage themselves in what might interest their students. To teach is no longer simply to dispense facts on your favourite subject, but to go on a journey of discovery and to learn with your students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers will have to do away with idea that students can’t teach them anything. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.”

Making the most of your education

Students always complain about their teachers. Teachers often complain about their students. But you know things are turning worse when students are complaining about their fellow students. But that is just what this American graduate student is doing in this letter:

Consumerism as ideology manifests itself in the academy, an unfortunate development that I hear professors griping about on a regular basis. In my personal experience, for example, my students fill out “class evaluations” at the end of every semester, offering critiques of the class they have taken. You wouldn’t believe how many of them view education as a commercial transaction, saying that they don’t believe that they “should pay money to attend this required class (science, history, whatever in the core curriculum) that has nothing to do with my major.” They seem to think that college is like Burger King — Get It Your Way!

The letter contains a lot of remarks like this, and sparked a lively debate in the comments. A commenter monikered peBird posted a list of advice to students to help them understand what getting an education is all about. I’ve taken the liberty to cherrypick from that list (leaving out advice on golf and horseback riding):

Try this:

  • Don’t expect anything of value from the administration except bullshit.
  • You can’t avoid smelling it, but don’t swallow.
  • Read more than you ever thought you could.
  • Learn a foreign language. Or two.
  • Read about the history of slavery in the US.
  • Turn off the iPod.
  • Learn to work.
  • No body cares what degree you got or what courses you took – just that you had the endurance to get one.
  • Network with students to build relationships beyond school.
  • Remember there is no crystal ball; your parents raised you for a world that no longer exists.

This may sound conceitedly cranky and bitter, but I find myself agreeing with most of this. The essence of this list is that education is not about “Getting it your way” but about “Making it yours”:

Don’t think that education is just a commodity – just a step on the way to your career. Going to school is about exposing yourself to all the ideas, theories and possibilities imaginable and finding out for yourself what you would like to pursue. It never becomes simply a matter of acquiring skills. It is always about finding yourself in what you learn.

Think for yourself. Find out how you can use what you’ve learned and seek new knowledge that interests you. Learn to work. Work to learn.

Make it yours!

Anti-teaching and open teaching

There are some very interesting posts about teaching over at the Savage Minds anthropology group blog. Michael Wesch is introducing his concept of “anti-teaching” and trying to engage his students in new ways to make basic anthropological theory more accessible. It sounds extremely intriguing.

Furthermore, anthropologist Christopher Kelty has introduced the Connexions project which he has been working with at Rice University. It is a knowledge base built on Open Source principles where everyone can request an account and add their own modules and nuggets of academic thought and teaching.

Both of these initiatives are leading the way in rethinking the way education and teaching works, and having spent most of my life being taught, this is the sort of thing that I’ve been missing all along. Wesch talks about being inspired by the book “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” – I’ll have to look out for that one..

Anthropology and the Muhammed cartoons

Last night, I went to attend a debate at the Department of Anthropology on the much-discussed Mohammed-cartoons. It focused on the anthropological perspective of the reactions and counter-reactions to the drawings and how anthropological theories can help win broader understanding in the current situation.

Now this is a rare thing. In all my time at Copenhagen University, I can’t remember more than one similar meeting that sought to discuss current affairs in an anthropological perspective (that was September 11th). And it was immediately clear that this is the sort of thing that really brings out the Danish anthropologists. The lecture hall was packed with anthropologists and anthro students – with the usual 8 women for every man present, underlining to just what degree anthropology is a women’s field these days.

For this occasion, there were 5 anthropologists (all doing working at the department) who had prepared short presentations on which the discussion were to be based.

First up was Inger Sjørslev who discussed how language is determining the value and sacredness of certain topics. And she went on to discuss how there are things which are sacred outside of the religious sphere of things. And how this silence surrounding things perceived as sacred creates even greater tension when it is broken.

Second presentation was by Morten Axel Pedersen (my advisor!) who argued that what he called “classic” globalization theory such as the idea of five “-Scapes” (ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes) as expounded by Arjun Appadurai aren’t capable of describing or containing a situation as the one we’re facing now, where a crisis has made a jump of scale from a local to a global scale. He argues that we need new theories of globalization to describe this new phenomena of jump of scale (in Danish “Skalahop”).
He argued that this crisis has led to a collapse of not only foreign and interior Danish politics but also in anthropology: There is only one big global field – but that field contains several scales, levels and horizons – much like the segmentary tribe structure described by Evans-Pritchard.

He then called for research into the way that these jumps of scale occur and how the different sides of the conflict are constructing themselves and their opponents. He referred to an article by Ole Wæver, a Danish professor of Political Science, who have argued that this is not so much a clash of civilizations and religions as it is a clash between a secular and religious fundamentalism. And he ended by problematizing the fact that we as secular anthropologists only represent one half of this debate.

Third up was Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen who has done fieldwork in Egypt and actually was in Egypt as the cartoon case grew around him in late January and early February. His presentation was the other extreme of anthropological discourse compared to Morten’s very theoretical and abstract talk. HC talked in anecdotes, small situational references to discussions he’d had with his informants as the crisis grew. And he gave a sense of how these cartoons grew to be the central topic of discussion within a week, propelled by media and the Friday prayer. He also noted that most Egyptians were shocked but not stupid: They all called for the need for good manners in this kind meeting of cultures.

Fourth was Anja Kublitz who’ve been doing fieldwork among Palestinians in Denmark since September last year when the cartoons were published for the first time. She talked about that last week of September as being a really bad week for her informants:
– first: there was the presentation of the Danish ministry of culture’s new culture canon which was introduced in such a hostile tone (one of the central arguments for this canon was that it was central to mark certain values as Danish in order to counter the tendency of “another Denmark” with its muslim ways). Anja’s informants quickly began calling this initiative for the “culture cannon” to reflect this war-like rhetoric.
– second: there was the case of Louise Frevert, MP for the semi-rascist Danish People’s Party, who had published clearly rascist texts on her personal webpage. She denied this, and the whole thing turned farcical when she excused herself by blaming her webmaster, a retired navy colonel.
– third: the Mohammed cartoons themselves. Which Anja’s informants found to be just the last element in a long row of Danish discriminatory initiatives against muslims in general.

What was worse was that all of these things took place during the muslim holy month of Ramadan – which neither Louise Frevert, Danish minister of culture Brian Mikkelsen, nor Arts editor of Jyllands-Posten had been aware of. It was basically like dissing Jesus on Christmas eve – at the point in time when people of a given religion are at their most religious.

Still, the muslims in Denmark wanted to show that even though they’d been hurt by all of this, they were still very much willing to live in Denmark, to work towards reconciliation. They arranged a demonstration for peace and for tolerance which ended at the central square in Copenhagen where they had a prayer for peace.
The people arranging the demonstration had been very concerned that the demonstration would be looked upon as something aggressive and had made sure that only 3000 people attended – even though they could have mustered maybe 10000. They didn’t want to intimidate the Danes. The demonstration took up only one lane of traffic and even stopped at all the red lights in order to create as little inconvenience as possible. Yet, even so – Danish media and Danish passersby managed to mis-interpret the entire thing.

The slogan for the demonstration was “Islam er fred” (Islam is peace), but because not all of the participants spoke fluent Danish, some misheard this as “Islam er vred” (Islam is angry). A very unfortunate misunderstanding. Further, the demonstration ended with a prayer for peace – because, as the muslims reasoned, “a prayer is the most peaceful thing imaginable”. Yet most of the Danes misunderstood this public act of faith, and one passersby even asked: “Are you going to war?” As the whole act of prayer seemed so demonstrative and foreign to him.

In general, the Palestinian informants don’t see the cartoons as something especially bad – but they’re simply a symptom of the bad climate for understanding that there is in Denmark today.

Finally, the was Mikkel Rytter who talked about how this situation has come about in Denmark. He created a timeline beginning in 1991 with the fall of the iron curtain and how US foreign policy now needed a new enemy to focus on. They chose islamic terrorism which was supported by the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.
In Denmark, nationalism rose to a new high in 1992 with the referendum against the Maastricht treaty and the victory in European football Championships that summer.
In 1995, the Danish People’s Party was founded to capitalize on those currents of nationalism and localized fear, and it was well-supported by the 1997 campaign called “the Strangers” which ran in the Danish tabloid daily Ekstra Bladet.
Rytter argued that we in this way can see the effect of the globalization in Denmark: As a negative and scary effect resulting in an unknown inner enemy – the muslim immigrants – as seen by a majority of the population whose only contact with these immigrants is through the media. The positive effect of globalization as seen and experienced by the cultural elite is less in focus in this period.

This polarization becomes central in Danish interior politics. The liberal-conservative government that is elected in 2001 uses the warlike rhetoric of a “battle of values” and a “battle of culture” while Danish People’s Party compares their struggle against immigration to the Danish resistance in WWII. This results in a basic dichotomy between modernity and traditionality, betweeen Danes and muslims (disregarding the fact that many of these muslims are in fact Danish citizens).
Rytter argued that many Danes look upon the muslims as an anachronism – and he suggests that we challenge this dichotomy through solid ethnography – to explode these notions.

***

Based on all of this, a discussion ensued which had a fair few interesting insights and few more anthropological anecdotes. Especially the questions of how to study and represent religion, how, whether and if anthropologists should take part in the public debate on the matter, and how this would impact the anthropological field as such. A conclusion was that is more important than ever to study nationalism and religion – things that are easily exotic to us cosmopolitan anthropologists – not only abroad but also in Denmark. And that is also relevant to study how virtual media and telecommunications play part in the escalation and “scale jumping” of crises like the current one.

The Ideal University?

Over at the Apophenia Blog the local resident, Danah, is pondering how she would spend a billion dollars to design a university. If you had the money and the opportunity, how would you design your dream institution of higher education?

I think this is a fascinating question, and one that more people should consider. It is not enough to simply complain about how education works today, but also offer constructive (though maybe rather idealistic) ideas and input.

I wrote an article about the problems of the Danish university system, though it was turned down by the one newspaper I ended up sending it to. To me, the central problem of education is that we have divided up into three seperate sections that hardly seem to be coordinated or even share the goals.

In Denmark, we have the basic school from age 6 to 15 or 16 (ten years). Then we have the Gymnasium (or some other “youth education”) – age ~15-16 to 19-20 (3 years), and on top of that the university or some other “professional training” which can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on how you prioritize your time.

My article was inspired by another couple of articles which had discussed both the basic shool and the gymnasium, and I meant to follow up on that and discuss the problems of Danish education and the Danish university system in particular.

I was quite inspired by the American writer and anarchist, Paul Goodman whose book Compulsory Miseducation I had just read. The book was originally published in 1964, even before the student rebellion of the late 60’s, but even so, Goodman’s arguments seem fresh and inspired even today. His main point is exactly that you can’t divide education into different institutions and sectors, because the way these institutions educate, form and even raise children will affect their further path through the system.

His solutions generally work toward making school less like school and more like real life. If you are sheltered away from everything until you’re 20 or 30 – how much would you know about anything apart from studying?

This situation may be very special in Denmark with our generous SU-system (free, tax-paid grants for all students for up to 6 years of study), but the general basis remains.

Here‘s my article, and here‘s one of the articles which inspired it – both are in Danish.