May 28

 

I'll readily admit that as tech savvy as I like to pretend I am, the one thing that pretty much passed me by is the whole text-messaging craze which is now, well, way beyond the craze stage and into ridiculous fetishism (yeah, go abbreviate that shiznit!).  Initially my objection was basically focused on the interface–watch people try to work on their computers with an instant messenger program up and you'll laugh (or cry) as they get inundated with hundreds of messages from ten, twenty, thirty or more people all asking pretty pointless questions.  I'll admit the multitasking is pretty crazy from these people–I'm not sure how they can keep ten separate conversations in the head going even via written chat, but they're obviously doing it–but still, it's got to be pretty overwhelming.  When I log on I usually don't want to be bothered…but when someone sends a "'sup? :) " message, how do you turn it down (I mean he's smiling at you, for Christ's sake!)?  You guessed it, kids: that pleasant little noise you hear is the sound of productive work getting flushed straight down the toilet.

Still, all of this is about setting boundaries, right?  I can just shut the thing down.  But lots of habitual text-messengers can't or won't do the same–they'd rather leave up crazy away messages ("Listenin' to Floyd, meet you on the dark side of the moon laters") so their friends won't get too freaked out, and as a result we've got bandwidth usage way up and actually getting things done way down.  That too wouldn't bother me if the conversations really made a difference–but for whatever reason, people have conversations online they wouldn't even want to have on the phone:

Cutiegyrl17: 'sup.  Goin later?

PLAYA4LiFe: ya

Cutiegyrl17: what ru doin' now?

PLAYA4LiFe: nothin

Cutiegyrl17: lol, yeah u r 

PLAYA4LiFe:  wtf, no

Cutiegyrl17: :(

I mean it's scintillating, sure, but does it really sing to you? /sarcasmoff

But fine, you say–you're not a college freshman, so don't have conversations like that one.  Talk about absurdist art instead (actually I think Dali would be really into IM convos…or pretend to be, anyway).  But even then, the issue is how easy it is for people to throw away time like it's going out of style on this kind of banter–or worse, how easy it is for people to carry the banter over.  Because it's spreading, my friends, and I have no idea how to stop it.  Never mind E-mails I get from students with ":), ru done with my grde yt?  tnks"–and no, I'm not making that up.  It's gotten to the point where this stuff is showing up in formal papers.  Now I'm not trying to be a stickler, but there is something a trifle offputting about seeing students say Hamlet must be thinking "what's wrong with u?" in the nunnery scene with Ophelia (although an IM conversation with DenMarkPRINCE is an appealing thought).  Confront a student with the, er, inappropriateness of this particular register of speech and you'll normally get a blank stare or, occasionally, an apologetic shrug.  "I'm kind of used to it," one told me.  I can't argue; I'm starting to get used to it myself.  The smiley face in particular is pretty hard to avoid.  Got something rather nasty you want to say but without sounding like too much of an !%@hole?  Just add :) afterwards, and hey presto: instant joke.  (How can you be offended?  She's smiling at you, for Christ's sake!)       

On one level, of course, this is simply part of a linguistic process which has been going on a long, long time.  The simplification of language, when it's not offset by other factors (cultural considerations and identifications, the need to describe and define new things, etc.) is a constant in human history.  And I don't agree with the current conventional wisdom that "young people hate to read and write."  If the text message phenomenon proves anything, it's that the written word is more intriguing and engaging than ever.  The question is what registers of literacy our young people know: can they shift gears from "LOLZ" to "endlessly amusing" without divine intervention?  Can they be as comfortable writing organized analytical essays as they are juggling ten conversations with Cutiegyrl17 and friends?  And, even more importantly, can we figure out how to make them comfortable with the former if we can't understand the latter?

The optimist in me says we can.  The pessimist says Oh Noes.  Stay tuned over the next twenty years for the final verdict.

RewriteReality72: u think?  :) 

PLAYA4LiFe: wtf, whatev

May 3

 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised any more when this happens, but for some reason fights in academic circles still surprise (and amuse…they never fail to amuse!) me.  My regular readers might remember my post a few months back where I talked about the controversy within the Modern Language Association regarding some formal resolutions about political issues.  At the time I wasn't sure anything could top that catfight for sheer ridiculousness.  But they say records are made to be broken, and sure enough, I found out about a doozy this week–this one from the MLA's one time rival, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.

To understand why I say "one time," you'll need a bit of background.  For a long time the MLA has been the most important humanities association in the world, boasting tens of thousands of members…and for a long time it basically served as an advocacy and networking organization (and the sponsor for the hideously boring and/or terrifying annual conventions, but I digress).  But as it entered the weirdness of the sixties and seventies, then staggered into the eighties and the early nineties, it grew increasingly political and driven by ideology…ideology which took away from the business of literary criticism, at least according to some of the old guard.  Eventually the discontent got loud enough that some people decided to do something about it, and in 1994 a group of scholars formed a new organization–the ALSC.  In the beginning the ALSC joined the culture wars in support of the old guard, and so was more or less in opposition to the MLA–often vocally so.  Roger Shattuck, one of the ALSC's most notable members, even got into a big fight with the late Edward Said, former president of the MLA, where words like "pathetic" and "idiotic" got thrown around like they were going out of style.  (Okay, not exactly a street fight, but we're talking about people who think elbow patches are the height of fashion here…)

In the late nineties I was pretty down myself about the MLA's obsession with criticism which didn't rely on weird notions like, you know, actually talking about literature, so I joined the ALSC.  They weren't quite past the march on Washington stage, but they had matured enough that they were starting to create an identity that wasn't all about being not-MLA, and for a while I found a lot of value in their more reasoned approach.  But as time went on I started noticing a change–not only in the tenor of the organization, which went from fiery to, well, flat, but in its mission.  With the end of the culture wars (the only conflict in history where no one outside it knew who won, lost, or even that a fight was going on in the first place) the ALSC seemed to lose its mojo, and the annual conference got to be a pretty depressing affair of white haired white male academics talking about issues which, well, only white haired white male academics cared about.  Even their journal, Literary Imagination, got incredibly self-indulgent.  (One issue was devoted entirely to Saul Bellow.  No, not criticism of Saul Bellow, or work by Saul Bellow, or even interviews of Saul Bellow.  Instead it was about people discussing how much they loved Saul Bellow…really.  How compelling can you get?)  And so an organization dropped from a membership high of about 2500 members to 850 today, with no sign of the drop slowing down any time soon.  Confronted with the stark reality of the numbers, the ALSC had no choice but to rally together and forge ahead.

So instead they decided to eat their young. 

Well, okay, not exactly.  But over the last month the organization has been engaged in a contested election for VP–the first in its history–and boy, has the fur flown.  The problems all started when ALSC elders objected to the VP put forward by the ALSC Council, claiming (more or less) that the candidate was too committed to the current path which was, well, a complete failure, and put forth their own alternative candidate.  No problem; we'll just have an election, right?  Except that the ALSC isn't exactly super efficient when it comes to these sorts of things, and, er, mistakes were made.

Like forgetting to let the membership know who the other candidate was.

Oops.

In fairness, this isn't what everyone says went down.  The Council–specifically the President and the Ssecretary-Treasurer (that's your problem right there…never give someone the power to both write AND cash checks!)–claimed it never got the information to send out about both candidates, and so instead sent a very cursory description of the "challenger," while the Council's own choice got plenty of print.  But this was obviously just an oversight, right?  Pheh, and I bet you buy ideas about bullets that take left turns in mid-air, you credulous fools!  For in truth–as the membership were told by the challengers via E-mail a couple of weeks ago–the President and Secretary-Treasurer lied to the people putting up an alternative candidate about deadlines and procedures, and by the time anyone figured out what was going on the election was already in full swing.  The challengers called foul and demanded a new election, and so the President immediately acted to resolve the dispute in a fair and equitable manner.

……….

Uh, no, actually, not so much.  Instead the President (a guy named Christopher Ricks, who had already sent a letter–on ALSC stationery, no less–to everyone explaining why it would be a bad idea to elect the challenger candidate) sent out an E-mail to the membership accusing the challengers of "bullying" and "lying" and indicating that there would be no new election of any kind.  In a rambling thirty-plus page diatribe (and "rambling" is probably a little kind), Ricks laid out the "truth" as he understood it, with plenty of sarcasm left over for the people who wanted to challenge the status quo.  (Hey, the culture wars are back, woohoo!)  The challengers fired back with their own response, laying out counter accusations and charges, and the battle was on.  And just yesterday we got the "official" result of the election from the Secretary-Treasurer…who made it clear that there would be no redo of the election forthcoming.  I figure the next step is to bring in a juicy sex scandal, just to fire up the troops.

Why do I bring all of this up?  Because all of this back-and-forth, this virtual jousting, is being done for the benefit of a grand total of eight hundred members.  That's it.  Eight hundred.  Of that eight hundred, about four hundred voted. (And this ain't Sparta, so I don't want to hear how cool a few hundred people can be when you put them in armor.)  So all of the vitriol, all of the claims of the ALSC's destruction at the hands of this or that party, is being waged for an organization one fortieth the size, if that, of the MLA it was once designed to oppose.  This is like fighting the Trojan War, uh, now.  (I know Helen was hot, but seriously, a couple of millennia ought to do it for the sex appeal, right?)  A simple question: what is the point?  And more importantly, who the hell is minding the store while this world-class bitchfest continues?  Answer: none, and no one.  And yet rather than putting aside the absurd spectacle of grown men and women fighting over the vestiges of a rapidly dying organization, both parties seem quite content to keep the war going…a war of small resources and limited impact, the only effect of which will be to further shrink what's left of the once scrappy upstart.

(You know, though, the biggest reason I love Saul Bellow is…) 

The point here isn't to wax philosophical about how worthless academic organizations are.  Some of them are important, and they've hardly got a moratorium on pointless conventions anyway.  But I just can't fathom why academics, who are constantly accused of being out of touch with the majority of society, love this movie so much, or why they feel excited to play the same performances over and over again.  The culture wars ended ten years ago, folks, and no one really "won" as much as got tired of fighting.  And if there's one thing we all should have learned from that fiasco, it's that when we fight we ought to make sure we get a cause worth fighting for.  A VP election for an eight hundred-person strong organization just isn't one of them.  If you're really interested in making an impact for a group you care about, you just might start by trying to pull together: circle the wagons, do some soul searching, and come out swinging…but do it collectively, not separately and mutually opposed.  

Ultimately, of course, those of you not in academics, or in the ALSC, might not even care about this whole business–and that is, of course, really the big issue here.  Until we figure out how to get people to care about what we do, we're destined to end up relegated to the back pages and quirky blogs of the Internet…and when that happens, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.  

Of course, there will always be Saul Bellow.  And I really dig that guy.

Mar 29

Making the grade…AGAIN.

Posted by A Writer

 

My regular readers will notice that I've been absent for a while, and there's good reason for it:  I've been buried up to my neck in grading.  In fact I'm still buried up to my neck in it, and I'm taking a break.  Okay, in fact, I'm procrastinating right now from doing more of it.  Happy now?

Sorry, I'm a bit cranky.  Don't get me wrong: being a college professor is great (and it is, seriously.  If/when my music or writing careers take off, I'll reevaluate…but teaching is great nonetheless.).  I actually enjoy (usually) going to conferences, the research (in moderation) doesn't bother me, and the teaching is almost always a positive experience (even the prep isn't that bad).  I'm a long way from a millionaire, but I'm not poverty-stricken, and having a flexible schedule is a big plus.  Hell, I don't even mind committee meetings (so long as there are donuts.  Never trust a committee chair who doesn't think a meeting needs donuts.  It does, I promise.).  In fact I spend the first half of every semester pinching myself: "I get paid for this?  Seriously?  To talk about literature?  With people who have to listen?!?!?"  Ah, the heady days of September/February.

Then the papers start coming in.

Now I've been at this a while, and you would think by now that I'd have the process down to a science.  And in fairness, I have picked up some tips over the years to speed things up…even if most of them have to do with grading less.  (In my first class I decided I would permit any amount of revisions a student wanted on any paper.  Now I allow ONE revision on ONE paper and that's it.  Ever.  I also carry a crossbow now in case of emergencies.)  And I'm all about the experimentation, kids: I've tried spreading out the grading ("five papers every day for two weeks and I'll be done, WOO!"), setting aside a day for it ("sorry, honey, I'll be locked in the office for the next twelve hours…please slide a granola bar under the door at four hour intervals"), all-nighters (and Mountain Dew just isn't getting the job done for me the way it used to in college), staggering assignments among classes, group work, self-evaluation, you name it.  But I'm always left with the same problem: at the end of the day (or really every month of the semester…I hate the "end of the day" business) there's only so much you can streamline, and reading and commenting on papers just takes time.

And it sucks.

No, it really does.  I'm not joking.  I've actually heard some teachers try to make the ridiculous claim that grading is a positive thing: "I'm so happy to get to know my students better!!!!!"  (This is usually followed up by a slight giggle.  They're so cute at that age.)  But once the fresh-faced upstart has grown up a bit, he/she starts realizing that you get to know your students much better in the classroom.  Oh, sure, the quiet ones are more difficult, and their writing can surprise you.  But you could get just as "surprised" by meeting them one on one during office hours, or reading written responses that you didn't have to grade.  The need to comment meaningfully, to give suggestions on how to get better, to explain what the student needs to elaborate on–and especially to explain why you're giving the student a C instead of a B–that's the pain in the ass part.  And it's not a step you can reasonably skip if you're going to do your job properly.  I've often dreamed of creating the ScanTron paper grading system–just run the paper through the scanner while it looks for phrases like "objective correlative" and "at the end of the day," and out pops the graded paper on the other side–but the truth is it ain't happening.  Like it or not, I've just got to keep slogging through.

It wouldn't bother me so much, I think, if I felt that the comments I made really got used.  But students tend to react very specifically to comments–all I have to do is "fix" every part with a comment, he/she reasons, and I'll be into the A range without a problem.  The fact that I specifically say that my comments reflect a trend in the paper, or that one misinterpreted quote leads to lots of problems in the paper as a whole, is irrelevant.  What I really need is a rubber stamp which says SEE ABOVE.  I've actually had a student show me a paper with a hugely misspelled mess of a concluding paragraph–after ten previous paragraphs, equally bad, marked to hell pointing out the same mistakes–asking "what's wrong with this part?"

Why, nothing, oh charmingly precocious one!

In truth, it's not all the students' fault either.  They've been broken down by years of teachers viciously slashing and burning their work with red pen marks galore, and the experiences are traumatic.  So they've learned to look very carefully for every stray pen mark and "do something" with it…even if they don't know exactly what to do.  The pen mark is a danger sign, a shot across the bow, the "Where's Waldo" of academia: figure the answer out or give up the ship.  The idea of striking out on their own–of revising things of their own volition–has been so beaten out of my students by the time they arrive in my classroom that I'm lucky if I can get them to look for and correct a certain kind of mistake without holding their hands to get there.  And even worse, many of the things I comment on aren't concrete to begin with; it's probably relatively simple to tell a student how to fix a quadratic equation (relatively simple…there's a reason I teach literature), but asking him/her to expand on the analysis in a paper is a whole different kettle of man-eating fish.  No wonder I get the "I thought I said everything anyone can say about Hamlet!" response once in a while.  (Maybe they're right…there is a hell of a lot of babbling about that guy out there.) 

And so the dance goes on, my encouraging students to see the patterns in their analysis, them digging for the secret treasure map to a better grade, both of us tugging over the always charged interaction between student and teacher.  Maybe there's nothing at all the matter here; maybe this is all part of the equation that makes the process work, and helps some students become better writers and thinkers by the time they leave my classroom.  Maybe the hours of tedious commentary do add up to better educated, more well-rounded kids.

But at the moment, I'd rather just wallow in my sorrows for a couple more hours before heading back to fight the good fight.  Anyone up for a few  completely pointless games of poker?  If you're lucky, I might even give you an A when it's all over.

Feb 2

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has struck again with another of its first person columns this week.  When these columns first started (perhaps ten years ago now) I used to enjoy reading them for their often intriguing insights into a world which I in my naive graduate student mind believed to be beyond my ken (or Barbie, actually.  I was still confused by radical feminism and how many Judith Butlers could dance on the head of a pin in those days.).  But two things changed as the years progressed: I grew older and theoretically wiser, at least in terms of the academic world, and the columns grew younger and definitely more juvenile.  That's perhaps a bit harsh–there are still some interesting ideas which get bandied about in the first person columns from time to time, and certainly the writers usually intend to be helpful to their readers.  But for the most part the subject matter of the columns has grown progressively less relevant to actual academic life.  Exhibit A: Thomas William Pannapacker Benton's account of fashion in academia.  With book recommendations.

Now that you've had a chance to pick your jaws up off the floor, I'll continue.  Yes, Benton (the pseudonym for William Pannapacker–I don't know why the guy decided to maintain his pseudonym after he revealed his real one, but maybe he likes getting to wear two name tags at conferences), who's come under fire before for some rather odd opinions he's expressed in his column on "academic culture," decided this time around to take a look at the fashion sense of academics.  Some of this is expressed with the appropriate amount of deadpan humor (or what passes for it: "Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college.  And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate–at least until I received tenure.  Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill."  Bentapacker may not have been aware that "casual" did not mean "ZZ Top.")…but a lot of it seems to be trying to strike a serious tone:

"…I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment…I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with 'Dear Professor' instead of 'Hey.'" 

And he wraps up his survey of academic attire by proclaiming that "the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit…Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day–like superman in a phone booth–as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again."

Well, that's a relief.  I used to wonder why I always got in trouble for wearing my snorkeling outfit to my committee meetings.

Sarcasm aside, I'm genuinely puzzled how Boilermaker (I know, and I have the nerve to call other people juvenile!) believes these platitudes about the dress code to represent some kind of revelation to people within the academic field.  All academics do is think about situational context, often to a crushingly boring degree.  And it's not just academics; if you're told that you have casual Fridays, and the rest of the time need to dress "in accordance with company decorum," it's a pretty damn good bet the default outfit isn't jeans and a T-shirt (not even the classy kind with a different colored collar).  Test it out for yourself if you're feeling lucky.  Is this something which is seriously in dispute?  Someone somewhere was about to walk into a classroom wearing a "Joss Whedon is my master now" shirt and was stopped by ThomWill's warning just in time?

Boy, I hope not.  Now don't get me wrong: there's no doubt that some academics' vision of appropriate attire can be a bit blurry at times.  The Paper Chase world of elbow patches and well worn tweed coats is still alive and well at many institutions of higher learning to this day, springing about equally from positions of defiance and desperation; some professors wear their suit pant/sneaker look with the appropriate amount of Vietnam protest pride, and others just didn't have a plan B after the bell bottom era.  But in the majority of these cases the person in question is well aware that his/her outfit isn't quite blending in with the baggy jean/baseball cap look of his/her students, and would probably nod sheepishly and a touch helplessly (or angrily) if the subject was brought up.  For those of us who straddle generations, neither world is particularly foreign; we can enjoy hanging out with friends in soccer jerseys and jeans on Friday evening and comfortably show up for work in suit pants and button down shirt and tie the following Monday. 

But we also don't stress quite so much about the implications, and I think this is pseudo-Packer's biggest problem: he reads far too much into what should be second nature and forgets what's really important in the process.  I myself begin every semester with a vest, tie, pocket watch, formal pressed pants, the works.  In part this is to portray the image of confidence and establish a certain educational distance which my manner and behavior will constantly reduce (I'm not a big fan of the massive "lecturing for lecture's sake" theory of instruction); the more competent and confident I can appear early on, the easier it will be throughout the course of the semester to pull back, when necessary, on the discipline and straight-ahead approach.  My default teaching outfit, meanwhile, is a button down shirt and business-quality pants, no tie: comfortable but appropriate.  Clothes may be a "complex negotiation," but I think mine send a simple message: I take the class seriously, but have enough levity to have a fighting shot at relating to my students who won't think I'm cool just because I wear no belt and a backwards baseball cap.  Where my class will ultimately be won over, though, is in the attitude I express–humorous, light, but also serious and disciplined–which signals to my students that they're worth the challenges I'm giving them.  Benton/Pannapacker, on the other hand, seems to want to rely on pressed clothing and "French cuffs" as the backbone of his instructional paradigm, and you'll excuse me if I find that approach a bit…limiting.

Ultimately, of course, clothes don't really make the man (or woman), and TWPB may simply want to suggest a few good books on academic fashion to get those of us who still love paisley out of the psychedelic age.  Fair enough.  But I think his take says much more about what academics too often value–appearance, outward show, and projected image–than it does about some fresh new look at the classroom environment.  As for me, I'll stick with my vest and pocket watch to button down shirt and dress pants transition.  And if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ever does decide to give me the full makeover treatment, I've got this awesome Joss Whedon T-shirt that would be a sweet addition to any classroom outfit.  Hey, man, I hear they're just ahead of the trend!

Jan 26

Technology is your friend!

Posted by A Writer

 

As you may have noticed (I hope), I've been AWOL the last few days for several reasons–one of which is the beginning of a new semester, with its excitement, nervous energy, and idealistic visions of a better tomorrow.  (And its committee meetings, and faculty meetings, and…sigh.  You get the idea.)  And as usual, the new crop of students looks both promising and hopeless, depending I think on changes in the moon.  (This is a leap year, right?)  All seems to be routine in the college world.  But on my way into class today I noticed some changes around my institution's campus–a few new mysterious towers, a couple of vans bristling with ladders and wires parked outside two of the major classroom buildings, some folks in hard hats and carrying clipboards wandering the halls; and within my classrooms, brand spanking new projectors.  Digital zoom, Dolby surround system…nice.  This'll be sweet for the Super Bowl.

Except, of course, that you don't watch the Super Bowl in a classroom.  You might talk about the economics of the game there, and maybe discuss injuries in a sports science class.  But watching the game itself?  Nope.  You're not going to play Madden '08 there either (more's the pity, I suppose), or check out Law and Order in HD.  No, this is an educational setting…though you might start to wonder about that if you wander around campus a bit.  Brand new computers in all the rooms, high-tech podiums with built in DVD players, VCRs, iPod docks…yep, it's a veritable sea of tech, and my school hasn't been shy in advertising that fact.  Top 200 Most Wired Campuses, Top 200 Most Wireless Campuses (the lists weren't in the same article, though it would have been fun to watch them fight it out if they were), in partnership with major technology corporations, developing new technology programs–it's a brave new world, and we're leading the charge right into it.

But hey, I like technology.  I have an mp3 player and a cool smartphone myself, to say nothing of my DVR and flat-screen HDTV with HDMI inputs.  When I watch the Super Bowl on that bad boy, let me tell you, I'm going to…um…

Wait a minute.  How did I get off the subject of education again?

Because you see, that's the real problem here.  My college is so hot and bothered about its technological profile it's almost funny…but what's getting lost in the shuffle is the educational side of things.  How are all these wires, gadgets and doodads (I love that I was able to use "doodads" in a 2008 post) actually helping the learning process?  My college, and many others, claims that adopting all this technology is just getting us in "sync" with the younger generations, that we will either adapt to the IM / iPod mindset or perish in our overwhelming irrelevance.  To a degree I understand this argument; a lot of professors are fiercely anti-tech, and whether they realize it or not that stand certainly isn't helping them reach a new crop of 18-22 year olds in their classrooms every year.  (They probably don't realize it.  The same view of the world that makes them look at a computer as Satan's child and pop music as Perry Como's domain generally doesn't allow for very insightful self-assessments.)  But there are two major issues here: first, just having cool whiz-bang technology sitting in a classroom won't help students absorb the professor's (hence the subject's) coolness through osmosis and further the educational mission.  In fact, most institutions are lousy in explaining what the hell they're really using the "Web-rific Powerpoint Enhancer 2008" for, since, well, they don't really know.  Someone like IBM or Apple has sold some poor innocent VP for Technological Advancement on vague promises of how the Projector 2020 will enhance student learning a hundredfold, and the next thing you know they're showing up in every classroom to the bewilderment of professors who never asked for and will probably never use them in the way they're intended.  Not only this is a waste of resources (but that's the capitalist way, right?), it can detract from the classroom, particularly if an overzealous Dean decides that his school is going to be the most techy place in America no matter what it takes.  All of a sudden professors start seeing memos about portfolios and running student chat rooms, and that's when we know that we've started down that long, steep hill.

But most of us are used to resisting or deflecting institutional pressures; it's a lot easier to smile and nod beatifically and then do what we want in our classes than it is to confront the dragons head on.  The second issue is the really bad one: students see through this ridiculous charade.  Contrary to the mass media's opinion, the younger generation is not reachable only by technology; it's reachable by accessible, meaningful and challenging work.  I'm continually amused by a lot of college professors' obsession with Powerpoint, which is generally used to produce a bunch of boring slides while people look through the Xeroxed handouts–of the exact same slides–just in case the program breaks down.  (Now that's a brave new world, baby!)  It's certainly "technological," but who cares?  You could have gotten the same result with a standard slide projector and a good old reliable set of handouts.  And students immediately recognize this problem; you can force-feed technology into a lesson all you want, but if the lesson itself feels like it was pulled from Ferris Bueller it's not going to matter if you can send the knowledge right into the students' brains.  Students resent being patronized, and this is patronization of the highest order.  Beyond that, it's a hopeless chase; academics have only now started to hear about what a "podcast" is, and by the time they start integrating it into their classrooms the students will already be on to "text-casting" or something similar.  Chasing the sun would be an easier proposition.

So what's the answer, then?  Should we just bail out on all things tech and head back to chalk and notebook for our exclusive educational diet?  Well, no–technology can be useful, so long as it's used to enhance a lesson which could have stood on its own.  I can tell my students all I want about Greek drama, but when I can play a film with period costumes and acting techniques I can really heighten their understanding.  I can explain the creative process, but if I show examples of different takes on the same song, for instance, using a combination of YouTube, mp3s and websites, I can give them multiple ways to access their own understanding.  Technology is indeed your friend, but no one likes a friend who never gets the message that it's time to leave.  The sooner school administrators get that message and stop bringing that friend along to every party, the sooner we'll be able to get back to the real business of educating our students–even when we aren't using something with a computer chip to do it.    

Jan 19

 

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Absolute Write about the newest plagiarism scandal to rock the romance world.  I admit to being a bit late to this topic, since romance novels and I have kind of a hate-hate relationship (which is really understating the case; nothing says "supermarket line" quite like a Fabio cover).  Anyway, apparently the fine folks at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books (the subtitle is even better: "Come for the Dominican Bitches, Stay for the Man Titty") have outed one of the most popular romance writers in America (i.e. another person I've never heard of), Cassie Edwards, showing how she plagiarized large portions of Luther Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle and an article by Defenders of Wildlife for her book Shadow Bear.  The evidence does seem pretty damning:

1.  From Spotted Eagle: "There was no kneeling, no words were spoken, and no hands were raised, but in every heart was just a thought of a tribute. No assembly ceremonies were held in the morning, each and every person on his own account holding his moment of worship."

    From Shadow Bear: "'That is because there is no kneeling, nor words spoken, nor hands raised, but in every Lakota heart there is just a thought of tribute,' Shadow Bear proudly explained. He turned to her so that their eyes met. 'You will learn that no assembly of our people is required for that tribute, either. Each and every person, on his own account, holds his own moment of worship.'"

Hmm.  Well, maybe just a harmless mistake, right?

2.  From Defenders Magazine: "Ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets clamp a suffocation bite on their sleeping prey — an impressive feat, considering that the two species are about the same weight."   

    From Shadow Bear: "'I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight,' Shiona said, shivering at the thought, for to her one animal was as cute and precious as the next."

Uh…

3.  From Spotted Eagle: "So the sunflower and the buffalo were two beloved symbols of the Lakota. So first, last, and throughout existence, the Lakota knew that the sun was essential to health and to all life. In spring, summer, and winter its rays were welcome. In the spring its warmth brought forth new grass; in the summer its heat cured the skins, dried the meat, and preserved food for storage…"

    From Shadow Bear: "She paused, swallowed hard, then said, 'The sunflower and buffalo are two beloved symbols of our Lakota people. The sun is essential to all health and life. In spring, summer, and winter, rays are welcome. In the spring, its warmth brings forth new grass; in summer its heat cures the skins, dries the meat, and preserves food for storage.'

Okay–what the hell!?

I've been teaching long enough to know that this is flat out plagiarism from the word go, and not particularly artful plagiarism at that.  If I had an example like this from one of my students (and I have), the paper would get a zero and the student put on notice in my class and in the department that one more such case would result in immediate failure of the course and the student referred to the Dean.  In the world of publishing, of course, the situation is a little different, and the consequences ought to be worse.  You would assume that Ms. Edwards would release a public apology, the book would be pulled from the shelves, and some settlement made to the authors who had their work blatantly stolen.  Maybe she could become an advocate for truth in writing from this point forward…giving seminars, talking to aspiring writers about what she's learned…right?

Nope, not so much.  Not only did her publisher (Signet) not apologize for the plagiarism, it actually claimed she had done nothing wrong

"Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors.  But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong.

The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original. Also, anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain. Ms. Edwards’s researched historical novels are precisely the kinds of original, creative works that this copyright policy promotes.

Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."

Buhhhwhattt??

Leaving aside the not-so-subtle shot at academics in the last paragraph (although you jackasses may waste your time asking permission to use other people's work, we're too busy making money and don't have to put up with that crap.  Stealing stuff is what we're all about.  Run along now and play in your ivory tower.), this is perhaps the most ass-backwards explanation of plagiarism I've ever heard.  "The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original"?  Uh–no, no it doesn't.  First of all, fair use applies to the educational arena (you know, where us naive academics like to play) and specifically non-profit and/or public good purposes.  I promise you that if I start quoting Robert Jordan like it's going out of style in my next novel Tor isn't going to smile beatifically as I start cashing checks.  Second, do any of those examples I just cited strike you as "reasonable"?  Particularly when half of what Edwards is plagiarizing is from an actual Native American!?  The resulting outcry from this ridiculous answer apparently caused Signet to reconsider, releasing a second statement that they now "believe the situation deserves further review."  Uh-huh.  As does their legal team's initial advice, no doubt.

But surely this is just the money-grubbing publisher's issue; Ms. Edwards, who claims to be sensitive to Native American causes and culture, obviously feels terrible about the whole business, right? 

"Hi, Lisa,

I just got on My Space and I found your wonderful encouraging letter. Thank you for believing in me, for I have done nothing wrong. My publisher is standing behind me 100%, for they know my work better than anyone, and they know that all romance authors who use research for historicals have to use reference books to do this. My readers love this accurate material about the Indians. And if I couldn’t use this material my books would not be worth anything to my readers who depend on me.

The sad thing is that I am writing these books now in a way to honor our Native Americans, past, present and in the future. And I am honoring my great grandmother who was a full blood Cheyenne. She would be so proud of me if she could read what I am writing about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long. And do you know? I feel picked on now as our Native American Indians have always been picked on throughout history. I am trying to spread the word about them and what do I get? Spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way.

Right now I am getting hit from all sides….CNN, The New York Times, AP, everyone who those women could think of to contact. And what is also sad is that a fellow author, has spoken up and condemned me.

Thanks again for your support. When I am feeling stronger I plan to write a bulletin on My Space, but right now I am totally drained of energy from what has been done to me. I hope that you will tell your friends, who are so much also mine, the wrong that has been done to me, and tell them that I will get through this. I will be found innocent and vendicated of any wrong.

For now, it’s all too raw and horrible, but I will be alright.
Love, Cassie" 

Surprised

(The "fellow author" who condemned her, by the way, is Nora Roberts, who I have heard of and who knows something about plagiarism issues.) That's right, kids: not only does Edwards not want to apologize, she thinks she is the victim…and not only the victim, but a victim just like the Native Americans were.  

Let's just let that sink in for a minute.  (As one of the commenters put it: "Pointing out copy-pasted paragraphs of statistical information about ferrets: the smallpox blankets of the twenty-first century.")  

I'm not sure what I find more stunning–her breathtaking defiance of the evidence right in front of her ("Sure I was holding the ax which was in her head, and naturally I was yelling at her, and of course I had told all my friends and family I was going to kill her with an ax, but I didn't do anything wrong!!!!") or the almost obscene reversal of blame she engages in ("you know, no one ever thinks about the murderer's feelings!").  It's Patriots Videogate redux–I'm just the criminal, man, don't blame me.  But however you want to slice it, it's apparent from her reaction and that of a lot of her fans that something's getting lost in the translation here: either she doesn't get it (which would imply a level of ignorance from a bestselling author so staggering I can't freaking deal with the possibility), or she does get it and is involved in one of the most disingenuous and reprehensible campaigns of "screw you, stop attacking me, I'm a big time author, bitches!" I've ever seen.  Neither option is particularly appealing, especially concerning a woman who claims to be honoring Native Americans while referring to them as "Indians" in the same breath.

In a way none of this should be surprising.  Teachers routinely ignore blatant examples of plagiarism in their classrooms because they just don't want to take the time to track down the relevant material, and as a result a number of students sail through their educational careers merrily stealing and robbing other people's intellectual property without once being slapped down for the practice.  The result?  They get out into the "real" world (well, pseudo-real in the case of publishing) and do the exact same thing they learned would get them places earlier–steal like mad and angrily deny culpability if and when they get caught.  Does anyone think that Cassie Edwards never did this before?  She never wrote, say, some tenth grade paper on Moby Dick using something other than her own, er, rapier-like wit and silky smooth prose?

There's this cool bridge I know, see, and there's a big sale going on…

The point is that mindsets of this kind develop early, and it's incumbent on all the "first responders," if you will, to change that mindset as soon as possible, despite the tearful pleas and the furious denials.  You do your students, children, or reprobate authors no favors by looking the other way for a minor infraction.  Because the longer you wait, the more you let go, the stronger the suspicion becomes that there are no consequences for wrongdoing, and stealing really isn't that big a deal, and "everyone does it anyway" so who really gives a damn?  And that, my friends, is where the Cassie Edwards of the world start to pop up.  This certainly isn't the first time plagiarism has reared its ugly head; it's happening all over the place, in fact.  But unless we stand up and say something now, we're going to have a hard time slowing it down.

So kudos to the Smart Bitches for the revelation.  As I've often said, never was so much owed by so many to so few.

What do you mean that sounds familiar?

Jan 10

When Academics Attack!

Posted by A Writer

 

I haven't been to the Modern Language Association's Convention in two years now, owing to a lack of interviews (I already have a good gig, and it would only make sense to shift if the job was better…so I'm down to sending out between five and eight applications a year now to places with a serious level of competition) and a total lack of interest in attending an event which its organizers has decided would be best placed between Christmas and New Year's–when academics are pining for the joy of meeting other academics rather than getting to see their families and actually relax for a couple of days.  The MLA has finally seen the light and is shifting the date to after January 1st (after years of being told by its members that this is an absolute necessity) though it won't actually happen until 2009.  Moral: academics take a long time to decide about things which ought to be self-evident.

I had heard from friends who went to this conference in Chicago that I hadn't missed anything (as usual), and so had happily forgotten all about it–when what should I stumble upon but this little gem from Inside Higher Ed.  That's right, kids; apparently there was a full out dust-up at the annual meeting, and I missed it.  (If you knew and didn't tell me, I forgive you.  Reluctantly.)  Evidently there were two major issues at the heart of the battle royale–the second one, which involved the ever-controversial Ward Churchill (the professor fired from his tenured position at the University of Colorado at Boulder either for "research misconduct" or for calling some of the 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," depending on whose side you're on), I have to reluctantly save for another day so I can concentrate on issue one: the support for those who criticize Zionism. 

Yep, that's basically the request.  And I'm not really oversimplifying it: the resolution, originally drafted by the MLA's Radical Caucus (I love that name…would be cooler if they replaced "radical" with "revolutionary," but one freedom fight at a time, I suppose), called for the MLA to "defend academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel."  As the article in Inside Higher Ed points out, there is no mention made in the resolution of defending the rights of faculty and invited speakers to, say, support Zionism and Israel, or criticize Hamas.  This is strictly about supporting the right of academics to criticize Israel.  But this is obviously an oversight, you say.  They want to support everyone's right to speak…they were just talking about a specific issue which involved Israel this time around.  Right?

Er…no, actually.

As it turns out, there isn't one specific precipitating factor for this resolution.  It's just a general "lots of people who don't like Israel aren't getting to say so and that sucks" proclamation.  And while I'm all in favor of proclamations (we really don't have enough of them these days, right?), I'm having a hard time seeing how this one would be either helpful or fair.  And I'm not the only one; Cary Nelson (who ironically enough wrote a book called Manifesto of a Tenured Radical…which either means he's mellowing or selling out, again depending on your point of view) found the first resolution "incredibly divisive and quite destructive" and wrote an alternate resolution suggesting in part that it was "essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue," which passed in lieu of the original one by a two to one margin.  Problem solved, right?  Well, not entirely…because according to Inside Higher Ed, the people who supported the first resolution thought Nelson's version was too "even-handed."

Come again?

Yep.  Apparently the "facts on the ground" indicate that this isn't a "50-50 situation"; in other words, there isn't more than one side to the issue.  Israel is the problem, and their supporters already "meddle on campuses."  So supporting the right of someone to support Israel publicly, or criticize those who would discriminate against the supporters, doesn't work.  We need, in the words of Dr. Barbara Foley, to "talk about what's real here."  Real being, apparently, that Israel can take care of itself.

And it's through the looking glass we go, boys and girls!

I'm not sure where to start here.  First of all, I am on face deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to have the absolute and definitive answer to a subject who is unwilling to answer questions and face scrutiny concerning that answer…particularly when the subject is as deeply complex as the situation in the Middle East.  There is no question that Israel has made many, many mistakes, and often carried itself with a sense of arrogance and entitlement (to say nothing of its violent overreactions) which has made things worse.  There's also no question that speaking to dedicated Israelites is often difficult–I have many friends who are perfectly rational people on all other subjects, but mention Israel and their eyes glaze over (for them this isn't a rational calculus but an emotional one, and I respect the difference).  But the idea that Israel is solely responsible for the problems in the Middle East, given the fractured and often violent behavior of the Palestinian establishment, is as absurd as the idea that Israel is wholly blameless.  If it's not 50/50 (it's up to you to decide what the exact ratio is), there's certainly plenty of blame to go around.

But all of this is really irrelevant because of the second point: even if Israel were responsible for everything bad in the world and sent its avatars around to kick puppies (those heartless bastards!), the original resolution is such a caricature of true academic freedom it's breathtaking.  Let me get this straight: we should get external agents the hell out of our internal academic affairs, and demand that we defend the free consciences of our fellow faculty members, just so long as they feel like taking a shot at Israel.  If those fellow faculty members choose to defend Israel, though, forget about the free conscience and pass the gag.  We certainly wouldn't want to be "even-handed." 

Have we gone mad?

The point of academic freedom is that professors should have the right to espouse whatever theories, ideas and beliefs they choose (so long as they do not require their students to agree with them in the case of subjective opinions, which has its own problems) without fear of retribution.  That's all.  It doesn't allow for exceptions, like "you can't support Israel openly."  Uh-uh.  It stands for everyone or no one; that's how it works.  Thus far I assume most of you are probably nodding your heads rather impatiently.  Obviously free speech means "free."  What's the controversy here?

But that's just the problem: for some reason, the moderate and fair approach ultimately taken by the MLA here (something which has not always been true in the past) is being seen in many quarters as cowardly and driven by political correctness, not a reasonable sense of fair play.  "Shame on the MLA for insisting on the masquerade that they are being even handed by protecting the rights of all.  The fact of the matter is that they are siding with entrenched power while turning a blind eye to the one sided silencing of dissidents," proclaims Levon Chorbajian, a professor of sociology.  "This is not moderation but cowardice with the MLA repeating the past history of their predecessors and the Screen Writers Guild in the McCarthy era," says the appropriately named "Viper."  Siding with entrenched power, no doubt, because of the MLA's misguided belief that freedom means what it says: free.

I'm sorry to say it, but break it all down and you begin to see the real problem here: academia, never known for its close connection to reality, has grown so out of touch that it now believes that positions like ones in which people assert that one-sidedness is virtue and fair-mindedness vice are reasonable ones to have.  In no other arena could the statement "this is too even-handed" be made without getting laughed out of the room.  I despise David Horowitz and his perverse appeal to open-mindedness in college classrooms (an appeal which relies on closed-mindedness from outside of them) largely because that appeal is so disingenuous…but how is this any different?  Because we're beating up Israel instead of Bush?  Sorry, that doesn't wash.  Either we support the rights of those on all sides of the issue to discuss it freely, without fear of censure, and let the famous marketplace of ideas do its work, or we shut the whole damn marketplace down and throw free expression out the window in the process. 

Ultimately, of course, there aren't too many people in the general population who give a damn or even know much about the MLA, except maybe as those folks who put out that book that shows how to do a Works Cited page for high school English.  But it's interesting both that the MLA tried to be relevant and fair minded for a change, and now is getting hammered for its trouble.  I can't wait for the sequel: When Academics Attack–The Unrated Version.  Now that should make for some fun holiday entertainment.

Dec 27

Yo hablo diversity, I swear.

Posted by A Writer

 

If there's anything the holidays are great at, it's giving you the chance to reconnect with loved ones, friends and family…

…even if they're bigots.

Well, not bigots, exactly.  Actually my family is pretty cool by and large, compassionate, caring, and smart.  It's probably because my family is all those things that I find the dinner table exchanges that often happen a little tough to take.  Let's take an example, shall we?

Cousin:  The problem is that you don't have any standards any more.  Anyone can just do whatever they want.  I mean, the deli I go to every day for lunch, I can't even order a sandwich anymore.  They installed this system where you order your food through a computer thing.  You know why?

Me:  Why?

Cousin:  So they could hire people who can't speak English.

Me:  Uh…

Cousin:  That way they don't have to pay benefits.  And the immigrants there, they don't have to pay Social Security taxes or anything.

Me:  But that's not true–Social Security gets taken out of their checks before they get them.  And if they're illegal immigrants, they can't collect Social Security, because they can't register for it.

Cousin:  Oh.  [Pause]  Still, though, why can't they freaking speak English when they come here?

Me [getting up]:  Oh, look, the ham's ready!  

This is pretty much the extent of a conversation I had with a family member during Christmas, and on the drive home (after I got over being horrified) I started thinking about what would cause this kind of an attitude.  This is the kind of guy who would–in fact, who has–helped a total stranger whose car had rolled over get out, helped get his kid out, and stayed with him until the police arrived…and gave him his cell phone number in case he needed a place to stay that night.  And the kicker?  The guy was Hispanic, with a heavy Spanish accent.  

What the hell?

Assuming my cousin isn't a lunatic, or hasn't watched Sybil one too many times, there's got to be some explanation for this disconnect.  What causes him to be a private Samaritan and a public Know-Nothing?  Because it is that private/public split, I think, which is at the root of the illegal immigration debate which has reached such a fever pitch in this country.  Show me a Republican candidate who wants to fire off a new salvo against the country's porous borders, and the way immigrant labor is destroying our economic and moral authority in the world (I think this might have more to do with that second issue, but I digress), and I'll show you a Republican candidate who employs more than one of these on his staff.  The dirty little secret no one wants to discuss, of course, is that immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, currently makes up much of the workforce for those jobs which we'd rather forget need to get done.  It's fine to claim that American workers are just falling all over themselves to get these low-paying jobs, but the truth tells a different story: for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, the immigrant population (which has been largely excluded from other positions) has been more willing to take the jobs the rest of us haven't.  

But I don't think this really gets to the crux of the matter.  No, beyond economics, beyond resentment for perceived wrongs, beyond just plain old simple racism, I think what really underlies this issue is what my cousin was suggesting while passing the mashed potatoes and gravy: they don't speak English.  Now that was fine, I think, so long as it was a problem confined to the border areas; hell, we all like Tex-Mex food, right (sure, even my cousin)?  But when non-native English speakers began showing up in the Midwest, Northeast, and other areas previously considered bastions of, er, the "America for Americans" attitude, all of a sudden everyone became fascinated in keeping the English language safe for democracy, or something.

Now on one level I can't object to this phenomenon: I teach English in college, I'm a writer, this whole freaking blog is about "literature, language and life rewritten," so obviously I like English.  I even like the English.  And on a basic level, I do think it's important that people who plan to be here long term work to learn the English language during their time here, for their sakes as much as anyone else's.  But my objection to the "English NOW!" people is a much more complex one:

1.  English is an exceedingly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.  Its rules are constantly subject to exception, it's (see what I mean?  Smile) forever adopting and assimilating words, phrases, even rules from other languages, and it often doesn't read the way it's spoken…all of which makes it a lot harder to pick up than just sitting in a couple of classes or listening to a few tapes.  In other words, it takes time, far more time than we're generally willing to give.  Add that to the problem of having to culturally adapt to a new environment, which foreigners who come here are often much better at doing than we are when going elsewhere, and you can see that the "why can't they speak freaking English" theory isn't a particularly good one.  And speaking of the ugly American

2. …we really have very, very little right to say anything about anyone else's ability to adapt to us.  If you've ever traveled and been embarrassed by an American tourist loudly complaining about the lack of English speakers–in Greece–you'll understand what I mean.  As with other aspects of our foreign policy, we could use some serious humility lessons before we get all hot and bothered about having ATMs give options in Spanish.

3.  There is something particularly hypocritical, and mean-spirited, about the anti-immigrant, pro-English crowd who are themselves all immigrants or descended from same.  I'll leave for now the point that none of us are native Americans except for, well, Native Americans.  But what about the immigrants whose families themselves showed up here a hundred years or fewer ago?  What about the O'Malleys, the Santorellis, the Kaplans, the Beauchamps?  Do any of those people, whose fathers and grandfathers fought their way through the mistrust and suspicion of those who thought they were taking their jobs, stealing their women, speaking strange languages (hmm, why does this sound familiar?), have any right whatsoever to slam the country club door shut now?

An admittedly rhetorical question, with an admittedly clear answer: no.

Now none of this is to suggest that schools should drop English courses and just teach languages based upon regional conditions.  For many reasons, simplicity among them, it just makes sense that English should remain the dominant language of a country which still mostly speaks it.  But demanding that every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. must immediately drop everything and sit in language classes until they "get it" is not only unrealistic but ineffective and, frankly, hypocritical in the extreme.  And given America's sorry history of treating those it views to be different as very, very different, it would seem to me we ought to be especially careful handling the situation now.  In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through those bizarre holiday dinners the best we can.  If worse comes to worst, I guess we can all just talk sports instead.

Hey, at least we'll be getting to what really matters!

Dec 22

 

There's an interesting discussion going on at the Chronicle of Higher Education's forums (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment, ain't I?) about parents who won't be able to mortgage their homes to help pay for their children's education because of the current mortgage crisis.  The original poster (who seems even less sensitive to academic egos than I accidentally was last week…apparently we're a growing breed Innocent) finds the idea that this is somehow "bad" for colleges and parents "ridiculous," and follows that sentiment up in a later post by telling people not to "buy into the myth that you need to send your kids to college.  Let them sort their own lives out and pay for it when they are ready, IF they want to go."

Hmm.

As usual where higher education is concerned, this kind of statement immediately throws me off–because I couldn't agree more, and less, with the sentiment behind it.  And I think my own ambivalence to the whole subject mirrors a larger ambivalence in higher education generally.  Politically, those who make up the academy are generally much farther left than the general population (don't fret, Bob Jones and Hillsdale, you keep on fighting the, er, "good fight" out there, y'hear?), and that means that academics tend to be down with (hip language alert: this means "like" or "appreciate," or so my students tell me…I don't think they have a reason to lie) the working class, lower income families who reject the privileged lives led by us ivory tower types (if you could only taste the caviar I eat every morning!  Ah, and the Puligny Montrachet…but I digress (from reality, actually)).  But this is a problem, because despite the dripping sarcasm at the end of the last sentence, I am politically associated with the working class and economically associated with the upper middle class.  

In other words, I'm philosophically democratic and personally elitist…or so goes the argument.  In truth, of course, I'm neither one of those things exactly.  I'm certainly liberal, and I think democracy is a pretty swell thing ("swell" might be a little strong, but I guess I've bought into Churchill's idea about the subject), but I also believe in the benefits of a meritocracy–actually the necessity of a meritocracy, which actually really isn't that debatable if you think about it.  Consider the alternatives to a system where the best people for a job are the ones doing it…Okay, stop considering them, you're starting to freak me out too.  A meritocracy on some level is almost a requirement for anything to get done–but there is obviously a tension between that system and a democracy, where everyone's opinion, theoretically, counts equally.  

And this leads us back to the original thread from the Chronicle.  The sentiments expressed there are, of course, nothing new; for many years people have argued that a college degree isn't necessary, that there's no need for this kind of "elitism" in our culture, and so on and so on.  But there are a couple of problems with the argument–even with the terms of the argument.  What do we mean by "necessary"?  To be a good person?  Obviously not.  To be an important person?  Clearly not.  But statistically speaking, the opportunities afforded those with college degrees are significantly greater than what is afforded those without such degrees…which is why college enrollment is up across the board, and why the market for professors is better than is often claimed (counter to the "glut of Ph.D.s" garbage, which you can read more about here).  It's an economic fact that the high school diploma of the late 1960s has become the college degree of 2007; to be on an equal footing, then, it is "necessary" to get some kind of post-secondary degree.  I'm aware of the exceptions, but nine times out of ten the "exceptions" had a lot of other advantages that don't get covered in the "Bill Gates was a college dropout and look where it got him" stories.  And beyond the practical reasons, there is a kind of broadening of perspective that a college education provides–something which (though certainly possible) isn't nearly as easy to come by outside of the college environment.  By and large, you're better off with a college degree than without one (from where is a separate and not nearly as important a discussion).

But the problem with this, of course, is that it's based on the premise of affordability–and the truth is that many families can't afford the ridiculous (and they really are "ridiculous") costs of college.  The institution where I went (in part because of expense) was public, and since I was in-state I had reasonable tuition–$1500 a semester, I believe.  When I moved on campus for my final two years at the school the number shot up since I was paying room and board, but the cost was still under 10K a year–and even that was only possible because of a modest sum of money my grandmother had left me when she passed away (so much for the Montrachet, I guess).  I incurred a significant amount of debt going through graduate school, which I'm still paying off…but I managed, somehow, to make it through.  Here we had a partnership–my parents paid what they could, I paid what I had to, and it ultimately worked out.  If my parents had paid everything, I'd like to think I would have worked as hard, have taken it as seriously, have cared as much.  But it's hard to say for sure…I certainly knew my share of kids who were on a full ride from Mommy and Daddy and didn't give a damn about college.  Then again, I don't think they would have given a damn about anything–and I don't know if that was because of Mommy and Daddy or not.  All I know is that if I had to do it entirely by myself…well, I wouldn't have been able to, probably then or ever.

Sacrilege! cry the democrats.  Let the kids sort it out, you elitist fraud!  If you really cared about it enough, you should have paid for it! 

But see, here's the problem with the argument: to pay for it, I would have had to have enough money without the college degree, and that would have been exceedingly difficult.  Why?  Because I would only have been able to work at the jobs I could get without a college degree, and only advance as far in that job as I could without said degree; and thus, I would have had less money to pay for that degree.  No problem, you say; you save until you're ready.  Sure–if I was willing to wait four, five, six, ten years, I probably could have saved enough…though while trying to save over that span, the college costs would have continued to soar.  But even if I eventually had the money, would I have been able to go at age 25, 26, 30?  Or would I, like all of my friends, have been married by that time, or have kids, or be involved in various community activities, or something else which would make the prospect of a college degree unlikely?  My strong guess is that something else would have arisen by that time, and made my college chances slim at best.

But so what?  In that situation I would have had another life outside of college and been fine.  Well, sure; but what I did instead was to go to college, gain the benefits I've already mentioned, and then go on to those other things.  Saying that I wouldn't have missed something I never experienced doesn't change the fact that I missed it, and reduced the potential scope of my life in the process–and all because, in the original poster's scenario, my parents hadn't bought into the "myth" that they needed to send me to college.  The argument is a simple one: after college I could choose to do what I wanted with all potential paths available, including going on forums and calling college-sending parents believers in myths; before/without college I wouldn't have that same range of options. Ultimately, then, if democracy really is about preserving choice, then this merit-oriented, allegedly elitist idea–that college is beneficial–is actually the most pro-democratic belief of all in this entire debate.

Well, I'll be damned.  Maybe meritocracy and democracy can co-exist.  Almost makes you want to start buying into myths again, doesn't it?

Dec 19

 

Only time for a short post today as I'm catching up on stuff I couldn't do while I was wrapping up my end of semester grading, and so I thought I would update a previous post.  My stated policy is to avoid posting things which refer only to me, but since this is an update I think the situation is a little different.  And so:

1.  My laptop is fixed.  Really.  I've been looking at the perfectly functioning machine for hours and giggling in delight every so often.  (Not really, but I love the visual.)

2.  I still haven't heard about the book chapter, but have heard good news on another writing front–which I'll have more to say about in a couple of days.

3.  My band has gotten…well, no, it hasn't gotten its new player.  The waiting continues there.

But the overall message is that some of the logjams have begun to clear…and that may presage roaring floods to come.  But I'll take a flood over a logjam any day, especially if I've complained about the logjam before. Cool