Sunday, August 26, 2012

Magic and violence in South Africa

Susan Njanji, in an August 25, 2012 Mail and Guardian article called "Lonmin tragedy lays bare violent inter-union rivalry in SA," begins by discussing the extent to which the violent strike at the Lonmin platinum mine grew out of a conflict between two unions. That's certainly worrying, but the strangest feature of her article comes at the end. Under the heading "black juju" she reports:
Belief in black juju has also taken root and was partly blamed for the workers' defiance during a standoff with police before 34 of them were gunned down.
Local media report that a video report shot by the police from a helicopter during the strike, showed naked men lining up to be rubbed with herbs that were believed would make them bullet-proof.
"The use of muti has become so institutionalised in everything they (unions) do," said [Crispen] Chinguno [described as "an industrial relations researcher at the University of Witwatersrand"].
He said some of the 17 000 workers sacked and later reinstated at Impala [another platinum mine where a "violent strike" took place earlier in 2012] believed they regained their jobs thanks to juju.
Chinguno might be mistaken. The local media report about the police video might too. But the Mail and Guardian is, I believe, a quite reliable news source, and so I think it is quite likely these reports are at least in good part correct. Though it is not often discussed, my impression is that belief in magic or witchcraft remains an important feature of South African culture.

It is, of course, a risky business to discuss anyone's religious or cultural practices. None of us can really be sure of the answers to the ultimate questions; there's a long and nasty history of Western condescension towards African beliefs in particular; and of course there are many mainstream Western beliefs that nonbelievers might see as bizarre.

But equally it is a mistake to attempt to understand people's choices and actions while deliberately disregarding beliefs that they themselves hold dear.

So this at least should be said: if South African strikers are now embracing magic as a source of invulnerability to weapons, then they will be less deterred from violence in the future, because they will believe themselves protected from the risks of retaliation. And if union leaders or politicians find it in their interests to fuel violence as a strategy, then they will have reason to ally with the purveyors of magic so as to encourage their followers. Perhaps the terrible shootings at Lonmin will short-circuit this process, but believers quite often seem capable of withstanding empirical refutation of their beliefs. Finally, this: if there is a gathering storm of believers in magic and violence, that is a frightening prospect for South Africa. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The impact of scholarship on teaching -- not much!

I've just encountered a very nicely executed and insightful study by Ben Barton of the University of Tennessee College of Law, on the question: "Is There a Correlation between Law Professor Publication Counts, Law Review Citation Counts, and Teaching Evaluations? An Empirical Study." It's available for download on SSRN and was published in 2008 in the Journal of Empirical Studies.

Barton studied the scholarly productivity and impact, and the teaching evaluations received from students, for every tenured or tenure track faculty member at a diverse group of 19 law schools in the United States -- 623 faculty members in total. I'm no statistician, but my impression is that his statistical analysis is done with care, and with a recognition of the many imperfections of all the data -- which nonetheless remain the data that we have. The result is a finding that "there is either no correlation between teaching evaluations and these measures of scholarly output, or a very slight positive correlation" (16). Moreover, this finding appears to be quite consistent with the results of studies elsewhere in higher education (which Barton summarizes at 2-3), and his data appear to cast doubt on one much smaller study of law school teachers that had found a greater positive impact (described at 3; for Barton's contrasting analysis, see 18).

What should we make of this finding? Barton points out that his results are inconsistent with two quite opposite hypotheses, each with its adherents. (19) One group presumed that the impact of scholarship on teaching would be positive, on the theory that it is through scholarly work that teachers master their subject. But the impact was at most slight. The other group believed that the impact of scholarship on teaching would be negative, because the time required for doing scholarship would inevitably take away from the time a professor could devote to improving his or her teaching. But this effect also turns out to be absent.

This pair of results is actually quite odd. Scholars do learn about their subject as they write about it, or at least they feel they do (I personally feel I do) and it would make sense that they would. But this increased learning has little impact on their teaching. At the same time, scholarship takes time, and time is scarce, yet this substantial claim on scholars' time doesn't turn out to demonstrably impair scholars' teaching.

One possibility is that both hypotheses are right, and that they are mostly invisible in the data because they cancel each other out. That is, scholarship does enhance scholars' knowledge, and it does take away time from their work on their teaching -- and so what is gained on the one hand is mostly lost on the other, with the net result (this is what Barton's data say) that productive scholars are at most only slightly better teachers than their nonproductive colleagues.

But what if actually both hypotheses are wrong? In that case the reason that scholarship has little impact on teaching would be that (a) scholars don't learn that much from their scholarly work that can help them in their teaching and (b) the time scholars spend on their scholarship doesn't much impair their efforts to be good teachers. So again the two effects, or rather non-effects, balance each other out. Could these two propositions be correct?

As to the first, it might be argued that although scholars do learn about their subjects as they write about them, they don't learn much that they would want to convey to their students. If most scholars today are engaged in various forms of esoteric theory, then it might indeed be the case that while they learn a lot from their writing, what they learn is not what they teach. In fact, Barton finds some evidence that "practice-oriented scholarship" has the greatest impact on teaching evaluations (15) -- an ironic result, since the kinds of scholarship Barton quite reasonably appraises (see 8) as the most practice-oriented (treatises, casebooks, and "practitioner article[s] or chapter[s]") are probably not those viewed as most prestigious among scholars today.

But how could it be that the time spent on scholarship -- if it's not a positive benefit to teaching -- doesn't wind up actually impairing teaching by taking time away from scholars' focus on it? Two possibilities immediately suggest themselves. One is that the tenured and tenure-track people who don't do scholarship also don't spend much time on their teaching -- so the scholars are as attentive to their teaching as the nonscholars. The other, a much happier possibility, is that although the scholars spend less time on their teaching than they otherwise could, they (and their less productive colleagues) still spend enough time to do a good job. It may well be that tenured and tenure-track law faculty -- busy as they may feel at times -- in fact have so much time to devote to their teaching, even after they finish their research, that they can and do prepare themselves well for teaching.

I'm inclined, however, to reject all of these explanations, or rather to say that they are all unproven. I wonder if what we are seeing is a different phenomenon at work. There surely are better and worse law teachers, but I'm inclined to think we do not yet know much about how to describe who the better and worse teachers are, or about how to convey to less effective teachers the skills that will make them better. The result, I suspect, is that we cannot really measure the impact of scholarly work on teaching, because we are still at such an early stage in developing ways to improve our teaching.

One last point is important to make. Barton studied only tenured and tenure-track law faculty, because (at least usually) only they are expected, as part of their jobs, to produce scholarship. We know even less, therefore, about the impact of scholarship on the teaching of those faculty who aren't required to write, but choose to do so nonetheless. We also don't know very much about the impact of scholarship on the teaching of those faculty whose principal teaching responsibilities are in "lawyering skills" rather than in legal doctrine, since skills teachers are probably still much less likely to be tenured or on tenure-track than their doctrinal colleagues.

In short, there's a lot we don't know. I wouldn't take Barton's study as demonstrating that scholarship is without value to teaching -- though it does demonstrate that scholarship has little demonstrable impact on teaching. Instead, I would urge that we focus most directly on what seem to me to be the central uncertainties: how to be, and how to help others to become, better teachers. If we can work on these issues, I think we can safely put to one side for now (and probably for the foreseeable future) the seeming tensions between scholarship and teaching.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The shootings in South Africa

Last week's killings in Marikana, South Africa -- "34 dead and 78 wounded in the bloodiest day of protest since apartheid," as an article in South Africa's Mail and Guardian summed it up -- are appalling, and that may be the most important thing to say about them. Who would have believed, in 1994, that some years down the road the police of post-apartheid Africa would shoot into a crowd of striking workers and leave dead and wounded strewn across the ground? A ghastly event.

But what can we make of it? One answer surely is that the police were not well trained. But while the exact events that led to the shootings remain to be clarified, it's been reported by Devon Maylie in the online Wall Street Journal that:
Police said they fired live ammunition into the crowd, after a group of protesters shot at and charged them. The police said they had tried to disperse the crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, to no avail.
The same article says that in the course of the ongoing industrial dispute that led to the shootings, 10 other lives had also been lost -- 8 employees and 2 police officers. Another Mail and Guardian article, by Kwanele Sosibo, reports that:
A man found lying in crucifixion position on the edge of the koppie on Tuesday with his head split open and stab wounds to the torso, had apparently committed the cardinal sin of "fishing for information". His lifeless body was left on display the entire day as a warning to non strikers.
Though the police were not well trained enough to deal with it -- and plainly they weren't -- still this was no easy crowd control situation.

How did such a situation ever arise in post-apartheid South Africa? One answer is that the workers who went on strike were deeply frustrated by the ANC's failure to redress the ferocious economic injustices that remained even after apartheid ended. No doubt this is true, but by itself it is not illuminating. What did the ANC's "failure" consist of? Was it a failure to move towards a more truly redistributive state (and would other policies have better negotiated the tension between domestic need and world economic pressures)? Or was it a failure to keep moral faith with the people of the country, as leaders came to seem more interested in their own power and privilege than in the grinding suffering of millions of South Africans?

The ANC's failings certainly must have contributed to the violent frustrations on display at the Lonmin platinum mine. But this explanation also misses some of what makes this situation so troubling. The workers at the mine reportedly sought a wage hike from 4000 Rands per month to 12,500 per month, or roughly from $484 to $1513 per month. (Perhaps the wage hike was somewhat smaller; I've seen multiple figures.) These are not generous salaries, viewed from an American perspective, and it may well be that they should simply be described as exploitative. But $1513 per month, or $18,156 annually, would appear to be well above the gross domestic product per capita of South Africa, estimated at $11,100 in 2011 according to the CIA World Fact Book. There are a lot of people in South Africa poorer than these workers. In fact, in a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 24.9 % (also according to the CIA's World Fact Book), these unionized workers might even be described as relatively privileged -- which is not to deny how hard their work evidently was, or how bad their living conditions reportedly are.

There is one more deeply depressing feature of this situation. I mentioned just now that the workers were unionized, but that was an oversimplification. What seems to have happened at this mine is that workers became dissatisfied with what had been their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). NUM was an important contributor to the struggle against apartheid, but apparently it has lost the faith of many of the workers it represented, and Sosibo, in the Mail and Guardian, reports  that a new and more militant union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), now has the allegiance of many employees -- 21 %, according to a management representative.  Much of the violence, in turn, appears to have been between different groups of workers. Sosibo writes that after alleged sniper killings by people wearing NUM T-shirts, other workers "embarked on a retaliation campaign." Perhaps some of the violence was also simply labor militancy in the service of the strike; Sosibo cites a doctoral candidate "studying patterns of violence in platinum mines in the Rustenburg area," who says that "violence had become routine in strikes in the region."

So the violence is part of a pattern of labor struggles with management, and of internecine struggles among workers and unions. It is also, the same doctoral student suggests, a result of
the fact that workers have become more fragmented than before. Some are residing in informal settlements outside of the mines, some still live in hostels and some black workers occupy more skilled positions than others. Violence is used as a way of enforcing solidarity.
At this point the passions and divisions of South African society begin to seem intractably deep. I very much hope that that is not in fact the case.