One of the things I like to do when designing a course is to view the syllabus as a kind of plot or outline of a story. The story may end up as the basis of a book, but mainly it provides structure to the experience of the students taking the course. Structure at this level is important because it provides a cognitive scaffolding for students when they are trying to ingest the content of the course as a whole.
Now, in general, there are two cognitive models one may use to present material to students in a way that maximizes the ability of the students to retain the information: the historical and the logical (or perhaps “structural”). The sciences, of course, tend to be logical, for obvious reasons — ideas build on themselves in a way that requires going from the simple to the complex. (Sometimes this order matches historical development, but not necessarily; often the work of simplification occurs late in the stage of the development of a theory.) The humanities, on the other hand, tend to be historical, or some variant thereof (such as reverse chronological order.) The human sciences tend to be somewhere in the middle, which raises the point of this blog entry.
In a course I am designing now — the Anthropology of the Information Society — I found myself being unable to decide between the two. An historical approach would be easy, and in fact I have used it in the past. But I think it is a bit plodding: begin with the Cybernetic moment, in both the commercial and academic spheres, and march one’s way through to the current posthumanist era of the web and commercialized cyberspace. Additionally, one easily falls into the traps of teleology and the ever-dreaded metanarrative (the fear of which is itself part of what we are studying). On the other hand, a purely structural approach — say, along the lines of a traditional ethnography, where various institutions are studied in succession (religion, politics, economics, kinship and the family, etc.) has it’s problems too: such divisions, although not as artificial as some may argue, nonetheless they prevent an organic understanding of their relations — in anthropology especially, one wants to talk about religion, politics and economics at the same time.
My solution has been to adopt a rhetorical device that seems to combine the historical (that is, the sequential) with the structural into what might be thought of as a temporal structure: the figure of chiasmus. We know this as the familiar pattern A B B’ A’, as in the following:
“Love is the irresistible desire to be desired irresistibly .”
Rhetoricians and poets have though the ages used this device to structure units of discourse from simple one or two-liners (like this example) to entire poems and stories, such as Chretien de Troye’s Lancelot. The subtitle of The Hobbit expresses this logic: “There and Back Again.”
Chiasmus at the larger units of discourse (such as a course) is useful, I think, because it provides a temporal, historical frame that is easy to follow, but which, by the doubling back that defines its character, exposes structure as well. I think this is best presented by example.
In my course, I expect to discuss the role of the computer as both a symbol and artifact that both structures and is structured by the social institutions in which it is embedded. The major institutions in play are the political and the economic, along with a more diffuse and pervasive one I call ideology, which includes religious and ontological beliefs of all kinds (following the thinking of many anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas and Louis Dumont). Now to present this, I could, as I mention above, proceed historically or structurally. Historically, I could begin with the diffusion of the computer, or computerization, as ideology in the 1950s, where the ideas of information, communication and control dominate the human and biological sciences, and even anthropology itself. I could then move onto the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of information-driven economies and economic organizations (such as, notably, international corporations). Finally, I could conclude with the effects on the political sphere (rights, privacy, community) with the emergence of the blogosphere and the rise of yet another model of the surveillance state.
The problem with this approach, though, is that it doesn’t provide an opportunity to show the effects of each phase on the previously discussed levels — what happens to the symbolics of the computer as it becomes more overtly enmeshed in the dynamics of political communication? Also, the succession of ideology, economics, and politics, which I had not noticed upon first teaching the course, raises the larger question of how these social dimensions are related. I do not want to imply a simple causal hierarchy in which ideas influence infrastructure which in turn constrains politics. At the largest level, there is a structural point to be made about these dimensions, which argues for discussing them in isolation from their historical sequence.
This is where chiasmus comes in: I plan to organize the course in the following manner:
WIth this structure, I can march my way through history, and then double back and make the structural points that are really the point of the course, linking economics, politics and ideology together as a conflicted yet organic whole. And notice how each dimension is structurally privileged: Ideology encompasses, whereas the political is at the center; and economics mediates and bridges.
Anyway, the structure has already proved useful in organizing my thoughts and materials, regardless of the merits of my arguments for it
[Note: this is a republishing of an entry I wrote for Dickinson’s local blog on teaching and learning.]