Blog Post

What Justice Ginsburg's Tribute to Justice Scalia Teaches Us #HASTAC #collaboration by difference

HASTAC is founded on a principle we call "collaboration by difference" which comes from open source coders and many others and says that, unless you are open to many competing points of view, you never get to the real argument.  Unless you see from the other side, you don't really see your own.  (Eric Raymond said, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow": meaning, with different people looking in different ways, you can see through even the worst coding problems and solve them; it's a mixed metaphor but apt.)


You cannot understand the scope of any problem and therefore solve the real problem unless you take in all the different perspectives.  Without opposition, you also cannot express the solution in the best way to the most people. It's that gorilla experiment again: you cannot see your own blindspots.

I now structure collaboration by difference into all of my classes, structuring opportunities for oppositional voices that (we have the research) don't emerge fully or consistently from unstructured discussion sessions.  If you do not structure a way for each voice to be heard--quite literally--only about twenty percent of the people in any class really contribute and as little as 5-10% control 95% of the dialogue.  There is significant research on this.  Nor are the silent ones usually the ones with least to contribute and the least prepared. 

There are personal, cultural, learning, and social reasons people don't speak up in class.  Students of color and women of all races, introverts, the non-conventional thinkers, those from poor previous educational backgrounds, returning or "nontraditional students," and those from cultures where speaking out is considered rude not participatory are all likely to be silent in a class where collaboration by difference is not structured as a principle of pedagogy and organization and design.   Who loses?  Everyone.  Arguments that are smart and valuable and can change a whole conversation get lost in silence and, sometimes, shame.  When that happens, we don't really have discussion or collaboration.  We have group think--and that is why we all lose.

This memorial tribute by the most liberal SCOTUS Judge Ginsburg to her friend and opponent the most conservative SCOTUS Judge Scalia is all about being open to tough, hard dissent.  In fact, they counted on it from one another to make their own arguments better.   Her deep respect for his ability to poke holes in her argument helped her to send out final versions of her SCOTUS arguments without holes. 

That's how openness to opposition works best.  It's the opposite of what we see so often in all modes of poliical dissent and commentary where you just recite your own fondest pieties over and over and over, louder and louder, more and more passionately to your supporters---or to and about your opponents, denouncing them rather than hearing what might be more useful to your position.  And, heaven forbid, what might actually help you change your position.

Active listening.  Deep listening.  In a classroom you need to structure it or it will not happen. 

The classroom was designed for repetition of information: that's why its traditional architecture has desks nailed to the floor, all facing forward at the blackboard and the teacher. The classroom was not designed for critical dialogic contestation and exchange from having to listen critically to an argument by someone else. Our modes of assessment and evaluation rarely take into consideration how an argument evolves, only that the "right answer" has been reached.  

Even rewarding class participation supports systems of inequality and status quo rather than active intervention, collaboration, creative exchange and change. So much classroom time is spent waiting for the other person to finish speaking so you can say what you have to say, as if the first person never spoke at all but was simply a pause on the way to your self-expression:  what a loss of a potentially invaluable face-to-face group experience.

What Judge Ginsburg teaches us is how to value the person whose views we vehemently disagree with, even despise.   Openness is necessary. Plus humanity.  Plus friendship.  Plus respect. 

We need push-back (not just feedback) to make us smarter and more eloquent than we would be on our own.  That's collaboration by difference.

Here's her tribute:


1 comment

Hi Cathy,


I totally agree that accepting open dissent is crucial to learning, both in and out of  university.  When we were, as a budding American democracy, considering representational, Republic rule, John Stuart Mills wrote a lot about how we could go about discoursing—number one was to not to yell and listen.  In this week's readings for our class, Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1967) wrote that he was too angry to write, "these truths were a fire in me then. Now I can tell them without being burned...I do not trust fervor."  Some realities are very, very difficult to accept, and there will be anger from displacement, from nostalgia, from a unitary-subject ideal, from utopian visions that end in rapture:).

Can we learn not to be accepting, but to be facillitating of a dissent that burns, and sometimes burns itself into suicide, personal, professional, social?  Sorry, I've been thinking about friends, in the Pacific,  I've lost over the years, becoming dead to their own pasts and then becoming the undead in presents that required them to live as zombies (the living dead), and in a free society that cannot find a way to facillitate social dissent to American colonialism, let alone slavery.  And sometimes those friends are just dead—suicide; and, then, here's me, being happy for them and sad for myself for their loss.  It's not just culture or personal psyche (e.g. I'm a total introvert who comes from a never-speak-out culture who became a teacher!) that silences.  And Ginsburg could never suffer financially/professionally, nor have her family and friends turn from her for her dissent to Scalia, Sameen