01/17/13

More on MOOCs

Apparently, by the way (according to a colleague who works in the field), they’re pronounced “mooks.” Which seems like a mistake.

A good piece today in the IHE. First paragraph captures some of the difficulty I have with the concept as it is currently being put into practice, namely its reliance on the stupidity of a certain kind of administrator and its alignment with an anti-intellectual critique of higher education:

The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.

01/15/13

China, Middlebrow to Highbrow

My first foray into tweener literary criticism has just been published by Public Books.

Fun quote:

What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?

These questions are too important to be left to the Chicken Littles and überpatriots on both sides who anticipate them being answered by military action, trade wars, or mutual exchange and indoctrination via soft power.

01/15/13

Look, yes, there are things wrong with conferences

…but you don’t have to be a dick about it. (Though at times honestly it’s not clear whether the object of derision is the narrator or the people he describes; nonetheless, since it’s the Chronicle, which specializes in columns about academia by unhappy academics, often playing to the anti-intellectualism of some crowd of people who the editors of the Chronicle presumably wish had liked them more in high school (none of whom actually read the Chronicle, naturally), I am inclined toward a harsher judgment.)

I agree that the conference paper format in literary and cultural studies ought to be rethought (as at ACL(x), here). In fact I would pay for an outright ban on the following:

  1. Going over your time limit.
  2. Reading aloud from your Powerpoint slide (unless it’s a quotation that you’re addressing

I personally no longer read written remarks aloud, either for conference papers or for 45-minute talks. I have discovered that I am not a good reader of my own work. What happens is that I get bored while I’m reading, since I already know what I’ve written; then I start worrying that the audience is bored; then I start reading faster and faster because I’m afraid it’s terrible.

So instead I extemporize from handwritten notes or hand-drawn Powerpoint slides. The adrenaline rush I get from being close to running out of things to say keeps me fully engaged with the presentation, and the energy level is as a result much better. The result looks a lot like my teaching (and has the same strengths and weaknesses–more on this below!).

But I have heard excellent readers (Homi Bhabha and Jane Gallop both read very well, for very different reasons). And I have heard lots of perfectly fine readers. I don’t think that, in general, listening to three people read papers is the best way to spend an hour, but it’s hard to see what the alternatives would be in a world where not everyone has an iPad. (In a world with universal iPads, one solution: everyone who walks into the room gets a copy of the papers, and everyone reads silently for 30 minutes; at the end of 30 minutes, discussion begins… voila! You’ve flipped the balance from 90 percent listening, 10 percent dialogue, to 40 percent reading, 60 percent dialogue… This is one way to take advantage of the fact that everyone’s in the room.)

In fact that little bit in parentheses expresses pretty clearly the ideologies of my preference, namely that if you’re going to get people in a room, then you ought to take advantage of that fact. One way to do so involves giving a fully embodied presentation (something more “live” than reading aloud something written to be read silently), and another involves maximizing discussion. So we should be thinking about ways to do both of those things.

****

p.s. On strengths and weaknesses: I strongly recommend that anyone trying to extemporize a full talk really work hard on two things:

  1. the first few sentences and
  2. the last paragraph

There’s an absolute ton of rhetorical pressure on both moments. When my extemporaneous talks go poorly it’s almost always because I screw up the ending.

When you’re teaching this is easier because you have about a 7-minute window at the end of class and so if you are feeling your way towards a close you can manage the problem either by quitting early or by adding another two minutes’ worth of stuff and finishing a bit late (that is, you’re managing the feel and tone, and judging your own finish relative to the crowd’s mood; the point is to call it quits at the right moment or to realize you need to do more before you can call it quits).

With talks the time pressure and the window (especially on the back end, where you don’t want to go over; when you extemporize everyone expects you to, so it’s imperative not to do so) is much tighter. The answer is to make sure that you have something that you can read at the very end (or, better, have something that you’ve rehearsed, so that you avoid the awkward transition to reading) so that you handle the close well. Otherwise you just trail off into a weird kind of blather (“…and so that’s all I have to say about that”), or, slightly less awkwardly, you end up producing a finish that would work if you had realized, as you were saying it, that it was a finish, but since you didn’t you didn’t give it the right inflection and so you end up having to do another paragraph at a moment when you don’t have too much to say.

The open is less crucial; as a result, you can usually just swing it with the right kind of energy, but it does sometimes help to have it written out.

01/14/13

LARB discussion of Toby Miller’s “Blow Up the Humanities”

Well worth reading, here. Miller’s response here.

Here is the thing: I’ve always liked Toby Miller, ever since he gave a talk when I was in grad school and bet that no one in the room had seen Demolition Man, which of course Ted and I had (and had loved; if you haven’t seen it, you really must).

But you see in his response that trying to be Christopher Hitchens doesn’t work, I think, for most people, including Christopher Hitchens, because at some point the macho insouciance outweighs the cleverness and people begin to suspect that, rhetorically at least, you’re just kind of an asshole. (Cases in point: Walter Benn Michaels, about whom more soon, and Stanley Fish.)

That said I probably also disagree with the book, so take my reading with salt. Consider this post another placeholder for a future post on the future of the humanities, which along with my much-awaited humanities PhD and MOOC posts will finally set the world aright, when (and if, if) it arrives.

01/14/13

The doldrums

Back after the break, and my life isn’t really that hard these days. Nonetheless I and everyone around me seem exhausted. No one knows what to blame; it feels, over the days, most like a collection of small things: the weather, the death of a not-very-well-known colleague’s son, the shorter-than-usual break, the MLA, 10 days without daycare, a lack of exercise, two job searches, one of which turned out to be emotionally very difficult.

None of these amounts to anything on its own. In a list they together don’t amount to much either.

This is the shape of a first-world, rich-person problem, I know. Too mild to be depression, it’s why the Cheever characters swim through strangers’ pools, why everyone on Mad Men is perpetually lubricated, why I am feeling snappish and dull.

First step: get back to writing and working. The communists were at least right about that, for me.

12/13/12

Jameson’s similes

This is a list of most of the similes using “like” in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism.

The prestige of these great streamlined shapes can be measured by their metaphorical presence in Le Corbusier’s buildings, vast Utopian structures which ride like so many gigantic steamship liners upon the urban scenery of an older fallen earth. (36)

It strikes one then, in that spirit, that neofigurative painting today is very much that extraordinary space through which all the images and icons of the culture spill and float, haphazard, like a logjam of the visual, bearing off with them everything . (176; love the echo of the last line of Gatsby!)

Only an old-fashioned communism and an old-fashioned psychoanalysis stood out upon the agrarian landscape like immense and ugly foreign bodies, history itself (equally old- fashioned  in those days) being very effectively consigned to the dusty ash can of “scholarship.” (183-84)

I think we now have to talk about the relief of the postmodern generally, a thunderous unblocking of logjams and a release of new productivity that was somehow tensed up and frozen, locked like cramped muscles, at the latter end of the …(313)

Like the three wishes in the fairy tale, or the devil’s promises, this prognosis has been fully realized, with only the slightest of modifications that make it unrecognizable. (320)

…at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (356; this one especially good because it’s such a surprise, and doesn’t explain itself)

inward conceptual defense mechanisms, and in particular the rationalizations of privilege and the well-nigh natural formations (like extraordinary crystalline structures or coral formations excreted over millennia) of narcissism and self-love…(358)

It would now seem that, far from becoming extinct, the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself… (371)

We have all those things, indeed, but we jog afterward to refresh the constitution, while by the same token computers relieve us of the terrible obligation to distend the memory like a swollen bladder retaining all these encyclopedia references. (383)

And here is my favorite Jamesonian simile of all, from The Political Unconscious:

Only Marxism can give us an account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and once more allowed to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. (383)

12/4/12

Sitcoms of yesteryear

Among the more popular premises for a sitcom is the fish out of water. Under this general rubric you will find many of the long-running shows of the last fifty years, often organized around the classic social situations: race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Race: The Jeffersons, which was an offshoot of one of the original fish-out-of-water scenes, the loosely veiled but still basically racial All in the Family, whose theme song (“guys like us we had it made… those were the days. … do you remember way back when, girls were girls and men were men… those were the days”) made it clear that Archie Bunker’s biggest problem was that he was a fish out of time — but of course for white folks to be out of time is always to be out of “race” as well. (If you have six minutes watch this amazing clip where Archie, late in the show’s run, takes on the KKK and calls himself “black”.) (Also in this category: Family Matters.)

Class: Two Broke Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (not Roseanne; I’m talking about sitcoms where the basic premise is that someone is out of joint);  Sexuality/Gender: Three’s Company comes to mind (but not Will & Grace). Something like Modern Family seems to be trying to wrap all of these up in a single package (which is interesting, because it has to produce wholeness out of that incongruous mix, but of course, that’s the point.)

But none of these categories quite capture the strangeness of the science fictional sitcom, in which the fish is an alien and the new swimming pool is the planet Earth. It’s so strange I think it’s easy to forget that through the 70s 80s and 90s the alien-on-Earth was a basic premise for television comedy. Mork & Mindy for the 70s, ALF for the 80s; and Third Rock from the Sun for the 90s. (There was also Small Wonder (amazing!! theme song), but that was about a robot.)

I have almost nothing to say about this but to that the other night as I fell asleep I was overcome with the marvel of this kind of sitcom. Aliens yes, but aliens and comedy just doesn’t seem plausible. I mean, what a crazy thing, no? It seems totally unimaginable that such a show would be on television today. And so I found myself wondering what kind of culture we are that used to allow these shows, and now doesn’t. It could all just be random noise, of course, but the critical, close readerly demand for total necessity leaves me wanting more.

12/2/12

Republicans on Copyright

A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?

11/28/12

Administrators and Professors

This piece in Bloomberg is disappointingly short. Money quote:

At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities.

Again, the piece overall is a bit short. Would be nice to see some serious thinking about the causes of this shift (other than the aortic one).

11/27/12

More on MOOCs

Siva Vaidhyanathan on MOOCs, just to keep the discussion going.

If we support the MOOC experiment it would be foolish to do so without confronting the serious incentive problems MOOCs present to teachers, students, and institutions of higher education. These are not reasons to quit MOOCs. They are reasons to take them seriously and strive to maximize the rewards of MOOCs while curbing the perverse incentives.

We should offer MOOCs that aim for many levels of expertise and in many languages. We should not reward universities or faculty based on initial, inflated enrollment. We should question the “O” as in “open” because a flood of trolls is about to show up in MOOC discussions, threatening to ruin everyone’s best efforts. We should ask why universities are not hosting and launching their own homegrown MOOCs when the software is simple and the talent is all in-house. Why engage with private companies that have completely different missions and demands than universities do?

The piece as a whole reminds me of how difficult it is to have a conversation about teaching (or education more generally) that doesn’t immediately suck in all sorts of related problems (technological fundamentalism, corporatization, the adjunct problem, administrative bloat) that make universities today so complicated.

11/27/12

Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”