The Allergens Among Us

It appears that the people least likely to develop life-threatening allergies are those who live on farms. Why is that? Farms are full of biota– from the charismatic megafauna Bossie and Fido to the worms in the apples and the fungus in the hay and the bacteria that break down the compost. Not to mention the boll weevils, locusts, ticks and other assorted annoyances. Living in such a place for a few years is great for training the immune system. You develop lots of antibodies and — I would assume — the hormonal equivalent of reflexes that deal quickly with new menaces. Resilience, let’s call it.

A college is (or should be) like a farm. You will run into many taxa there that you didn’t know existed. You will encounter people who think and say that [INSERT NAME OF GROUP THAT YOU BELONG TO] should be expunged from the face of the earth. You will hear that people who [INSERT NAME OF BEHAVIOR THAT YOU SOMETIMES PERFORM] should pay the presumed cost of their activities, even [INSERT NAME OF UNDESIRED OUTCOME, WHETHER DEATH, DISEASE, OR RESIDENCE IN CONCENTRATION CAMP]. You will hear people say that it’s all your fault that [INSERT DESCRIPTION OF THINGS BEING SCREWED UP]. People will try to intimidate you, to make you feel powerless, guilty, and/or small.

And because in college the ground rule is that we use reason, not force, to talk our way through things (this rule may not hold in Texas), you will develop a set of responses to these non-fatal threats. You will reexamine your previous beliefs and discover that when you defend them in public, you need a better reason than the fact that your mother, your priest, your TV role model, or your favorite teacher in high school held those opinions. You may discover that your previous identity-group, rather than being the plucky, heroic and endangered minority you always thought they were, are in many people’s eyes a danger to the public, or just a bunch of silly cranks. You may eventually go back to that group, but it will be on a different basis, because you have been exposed to the outside air. Or you may find a different group for yourself, with whatever degree of continuity with your prior self that you find plausible. If your college did the job it’s supposed to do, you will have developed intellectual resilience, something analogical to the immunity-building powers of life on the farm.

The analogical counterpart to antibiotic soap, to the removal of all threats to identity and belief, is what certain nice people who are basically on the same side as me in substantive matters call “safe spaces.” Patrick Henry College is a safe space for young Republicans. Oral Roberts University is a safe space for young evangelicals. Parents choose and pay for such safe spaces. But those safe spaces are not giving people the experience that I associate with college. They should be given a different name– “incubators” perhaps.

My classroom is a place where people can say stupid things and receive a (somewhat) respectful hearing and response. If you say an intelligent thing, you’ll have to back it up with facts and inference, because we’re not going to learn anything from it if you arrived at that smart remark by chance– we want to be able to reproduce it under other conditions. It is a fact of our life in literature that we must spend a lot of time on texts in which people behave badly– enacting mass murder, rape, cannibalism, incest, etc, and worse yet, uttering justifications for them all. Because I hate to cause pain, even indirectly, I will alert the sensitive to such content, but I can’t guarantee that every potentially troubling detail will be flagged in advance. Sugar-coating the barbarity of human history, or sweeping it under the rug, will only leave you with missing teeth and a lumpy carpet.


The Vienna Circle’s Tangent


On the main marble staircase of the University of Vienna, brass letters set into the floor mark the event. “On 22 June 1936 Moritz Schlick, a leading member of the Vienna Circle, was murdered on this spot. An intellectual climate poisoned by racism and intolerance contributed to the act.”

I had always assumed that Schlick’s assassin was inspired by race hatred. It turns out, though, that the only Jewish thing about Schlick was the philosophical case he made for Einstein’s relativity theory (a piece of “non-Aryan science” according to the Nazi thought leaders). His murderer, a former grad student with a grudge who blamed Schlick for his own failures in love and career, had been stalking him for years. Stalkers will stalk, malingerers will malinger. But it was 1936 in Vienna. The murderer made no attempt to run away. Once arrested, he had his fan club. He claimed to have done the deed to purify the nation of a quasi-Judaic philosophical “decadent.” And with the benefit of a pliant jury and a bit of an insanity defense, he was out of jail within two years.

Schlick’s murder set other members of the Vienna Circle on their path out of Austria. Carnap came to Chicago, and another story began.

A climate of hatred and violence: it not only precipitates murder, but retrospectively justifies it. The university is right to call this to the attention of everyone going up and down the stair.


Rat Productivity

The earliest recorded behavioral experiment with rats took place around 250 BC.

            Li Si was a native of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth he served as a petty clerk in the province. In the privy of the clerks’ quarters he saw how the rats ate the filth and how, when people or dogs came near, they were frequently alarmed and terrified. And when he entered the storehouse he saw how the rats in the storehouse ate the heaps of grain and lived under a big roof, never having to worry about people or dogs. Li Si sighed and said, ‘Whether a man turns out to be worthy or good-for-nothing is like the rats—it all depends on the surroundings he chooses for himself!’ (Sima Qian, Shi ji, translated by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 1, Qin Dynasty [New York: Columbia University Press, 2002], p. 179.)

We who teach in colleges are generally lucky rats in Li Si’s terms, especially if tenured. But measures of well-being do not correlate with an absolute or static level of comfort; beyond a certain level, the marginal utility of increased income tapers off. What makes academics happy is engagement, participation in discovery, and a sense of control.

In a global health organization I work with, we have found in many resource-poor settings that the effect of salary raises on the subjective well-being of clinicians is negligible compared to the effect of giving doctors and nurses the tools they need to do their work well. And doctors and nurses who are satisfied with their work conditions are better at helping their patients. This strategy of enhancing effectiveness has been notably useful in counteracting brain drain among medical personnel in poor countries.

Li Si forgot to compare the productivity of the two groups of rats (in his defense, it’s hard to see what a measure of rat productivity would be). But any academic behaviorist can. The best times in my career have been when I’ve had a strong posse of like-minded people working with me to expand a frontier of knowledge or teaching; the worst have been years when colleagues wasted each other’s time with bickering, squabbling over shrinking resources, defending positions or undercutting each other. And when I think back over the causes, I note that the main factors creating a negative climate for the “life of the mind” have been, ultimately, administrative. If someone wanted to “disrupt” (in the old sense of the word) teaching and research in a certain sector, there is no easier way than to institute a competition for shrinking resources. That will hinder new projects from developing, reward non-cooperative behavior by actors who are less affected by the diminished resources, and reduce commitment by those who have other outlets for their energies, not to mention distracting attention from the things that brought us here in the first place. And if the resources are shrunk in an abrupt, startling, non-transparent way, without discussion of alternative scenarios or opportunities to cooperate in managing scarcity, you’ll have some disturbed rats.


Slow Tracks and Safe Spaces

Someone must have pointed out that Justice Scalia’s suggestion that black students would be happier in “slower-track” schools is a segregationist’s version of the theory that minority students need “safe spaces” where they won’t have to confront the racism and classism of majority culture. It would be obtuse to oppose Scalia to social-justice campaigners in this regard; in some way they want the same things, only they want them for different people (Scalia being, manifestly, in search of a paternalistic rationalization for preserving the University of Texas as a “safe space” for well-heeled white youth). Let’s not miss the point.

The point has to do with different kinds of space: public, private, the space where you test your claims against the best available resources of critique and rebuttal versus the space where you have only to explain what it’s like to be yourself. Indeed, if I may universalize for a moment, everybody needs a space where they can decompress, put their burdens down, explain why they sense themselves as outcasts. For us all to do so successfully, we need those spaces to be safe, in the sense of not being exposed to hostile attention. As Jonathan Holloway points out, though, the omnipresence of social media, making snitches of us all, renders the formerly operative distinction between private conversation and public speech blurry at best, moot at worst.

I suggest that we start pioneering a dual mode of conversation in universities (since it’s universities that have been the main testing grounds for communicative inventions since the Middle Ages). Let’s mark the classroom as the place where any kind of argument, no matter how stupid or counter-intuitive, is allowed to appear, on condition of being debated and rebutted and put in a larger frame of discourse.* If you want to advocate for offensive Halloween costumes, by all means do it, but you’ll have to stay to listen to the reasons and stories of the very people who would be offended by them. (I am assuming, of course, that the classroom is available and welcoming to the people who would be offended– not kept outside the gates by discrimination or discouragement. That is in fact a condition of educating the thoughtless: bringing them into direct contact with people who will say, “Do you realize what that means to me?”) The classroom is the space for a public that has accepted certain procedures as shaping discussion and its consequences (e.g., lots of logic and evidence, no intimidation or retaliation). In other corridors, let us ask and give consent to say what is on our minds, as in a therapy session or a conversation among trusted friends, with everyone ready to agree that what is said in such rooms goes no further.

Thus two kinds of “safe space” would be instituted in an institution of learning. The classroom is a safe space for the exercise of communitarian deliberative reason; the other kind of room (let’s call it the green room) a safe space for the expression of community-disrupting feelings like anger, resentment, disappointment. The whole campus can’t be a greenroom, unless we are all assumed to have exactly the same point of view on everything– which we don’t and shouldn’t. Those who want the campus to be identical with a greenroom are in fact dallying with Scalia’s model of college life. If universities want students to do well without repressing themselves, they need to offer both kinds of space, both kinds of deal.

And the quad? The street? These are liminal spaces between the university (which we’re differentiating into two kinds of discursive space) and the world (where certain general laws and customs apply, under the proviso that people can change them). If you perform a public expression of the greenroom set of feelings, I guess you are ready to deal with the often ignorant and uncomprehending reception of those feelings. Knowing that there’s a greenroom where you won’t be called to account has to help you in that often lonely and frustrating place.

* And, once they had been through the mill, adequately rebutted stupid ideas would stay out of the sphere of possible discourse (all right, now you see, dear reader, my helplessly utopian commitments).


Loyalty Oath

A little over two decades ago, I signed a loyalty oath. In exchange for employment by the University of California, I pledged to “protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The loyalty oath was a relic of the McCarthy era, and there is an entirely unpleasant episode in University of California history, from 1949-1951, in which non-signers were dismissed. It was entirely clear to me that to HR, the oath was a formality I was supposed to sign in an instant and hand over. But I thought for a long time about whether I could sign it in good faith, “without mental reservation.” In the end, I signed. Allegiance to a Constitution is allegiance to a principle, although I did not foresee the possibility of future amendments with which I might disagree. Allegiance to a flag is trickier — we are taught to pledge it every morning of our elementary school life, although I suspect for many children it is just a succession of syllables that one has gotten right if one has mastered the intonation. (I think Messaien, who notated birdsong, could have gotten a creditable piece out of the raw pitches of the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Loyalty to a flag is the subject of a kerfuffle at my alma mater. Some students in UCI student government patched together and passed a very poorly written piece of legislation removing all flags, but pointedly that of the United States, from a display area. What seemed like an enunciation of principle to them was anathema to others; I think that high in the minds of administrators was the awful prospect of being a Fox News headline for weeks or months. The Chancellor wrote the only letter he could have written, castigating the students and promising more and better flags at UCI “before too long.” Fox News approved. Unfortunately, its viewers did not get the message, and are now threatening the students with death.

Obviously, the students had their principles, enunciated them, and could do so freely — although their bill, once passed, was vetoed by another committee. But the question I have is counterintuitive: by choosing to go to a public university, did the students incur any obligation, however small, of loyalty to the institution, the State, or its symbols? If that obligation existed, was it large enough to be given any place in their thinking? Or was their attending UC a consumer choice, like selecting Levis jeans over Wranglers, and where one doesn’t give the jeans a second thought unless one has an unusually positive experience? Is attending a state school — the only Federal colleges and universities are military — any different in its requirements on the conscience than attending a private school?

The University of California has done its best to make the relationship between it and its students purely commercial. Its financial exactions on students are so great that there can be no reservoir of good will out of which loyalty might spring. Instead, students hand over their money (whether their own or the banks’), wash their hands, and move on. In exchange, say the Governor and the President, they will get a meal ticket to capitalist society. It is a quid pro quo transaction all the way; I can foresee a time when you can buy that meal ticket directly without the hindering formalities of professors and classes. As for the human emotion of loyalty, if it should still exist, the University has subcontracted its handling to its athletic department and its alumni association, both of which are here to extract still more money from students.

Because of this economic relation, which stunts the emotional relation, where can one find loyalty? In a world where the Presidentially lauded STEM disciplines do not, in fact, lead to jobs as a certainty — think of engineers after the “peace dividend,” or computer programmers deracinated and displaced by hungry H1-B visa-holders — is there really even an economic contract between student and university?

So, I think that there is a generational gap between me and the drafters of the anti-flag bill. Even before I signed the loyalty oath, I had a sense that the University had given more to me than I could possibly give it in return. If the United States and the State of California made it possible, I owed something to them. Despite the idealism of the drafters of the flag bill, I don’t think they felt they owed anything to the University, the State, or the United States. Thanks to institutional greed and governmental defunding, the drafters felt themselves to be free agents. That is a heady jumping off point from which to mount a critique — one from which it is too easy to fall.



Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.


An Unlikely Solution for an Impossible Problem

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of rape accusations on college campuses, and some significant muddying of the waters by the colleges themselves, by journalists, and by people passionately taking one side or the other; and also a lack of will on the part of law students and faculty to spend much time considering the judicial treatment of such egregious offenses as rape. I’m fortunate not to be in an administrative role that requires me to be making decisions about such matters, but I can’t help feeling that the present means for dealing with sexual offenses on campuses aren’t working.

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The King of Copycats

This article by Michel Charles tells of his pursuit, with wide eye and raised brow, of Professor R.-L. Etienne Barnett, a shadowy individual most of whose contributions to major humanities journals turn out to be lightly rewritten reprintings of articles by other scholars, or sometimes re-reprintings of articles he’d already appropriated from others. (English summary here.) I read manuscripts for several editorial boards, and while I can pick out a bad argument or a sloppy paragraph, I’m not always alert to the possibility of plagiarism; for that, I would have had to read and remember a monstrous amount of writing in an ever-expanding world of publications. Will editors start google-checking every manuscript, or feeding them through Turnitin as if authors were undergraduates? Michel Charles fingers the ultimate culprit: the pursuit, by individuals and institutions, of the highest possible “impact factor,” calculated automatically.

And speaking of impact factors, I wonder if you will get negative points by contributing to the following:


Call for Papers for a Special Issue of Neohelicon: Discourse of Madness
(Special volume of Neohelicon [43, 2016]. Guest-Editor: R.-L. Etienne Barnett)


Contributions on any aspect of madness in (of, and) textuality are welcome for consideration. Possible areas of focus, among a plethora of other options: literary representations of the alienated mind; mad protagonists or mad writers; madness as a vehicle of exile, as a form of marginalization, of dissipation, of disintegration, of revelation or self-revelation; interpretations of madness as a manifestation of structure, style, rhetoric, narrative; madness as a reflection of cultural assumptions, values, prohibitions; madness, as prophetic or dionysiac, poetic, or other; the esthetics of madness; philosophical, ethical, ontological, epistemological, hermeneutic and esthetic implications of the discourse/narrative of madness..

From an alternative vantage point, one might question: how does the deviant mind-set of authorial figures and/or fictional characters determine the organization of time, space and plot in the narrative? How does the representation of delusional worlds differ from the representation of other “non-mad” mental acts (dreams, fantasies, aspirations) and from other fictional worlds (magic, imaginings, phantoms) — if it does? Contributors are welcome to address these and other questions in a specific work, in a group of works, or in a more general/theoretical reflection, in and across any national tradition(s), literary movement(s) or œuvre(s).


Theoretical or applied contributions focused upon “discourses of madness” in the literary “arena” are invited and will be accorded full and serious consideration.

Manuscripts in English, French German or Italian — not to exceed twenty (25) double-spaced pages, including notes, bibliography and appendices, where applicable — are welcome. Contributions written in any but one’s first (or native) language must be scrupulously reviewed, edited and proofed by a “native” specialist prior to submission.

Format and submission requirements: Papers must prepared in strict accordance with APA (not MLA) guidelines and are to be accompanied by an abstract and 6-8 key words or expressions in English. (A second abstract and set of key words in the language of the article, if not in English, is strongly recommended.)

Submit via email in the form of a WORD document (attachment) to: R.-L. Etienne Barnett (Guest-Editor) at: RL_Barnett@msn.com (primary submission address) with a second copy to RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (secondary submission address).


Prof. R.-L. Etienne Barnett
RL_Barnett@msn.com (Primary Email)
RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (Secondary Email)
Email: rl_barnett@msn.com (primary email)
Visit the website at http://www.springer.com/education+%26+language/linguistics/journal/11059


Then again, if you like windy administrative nonsense, this one is pretty good too.


Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.


The Unspeakable

Let’s talk about something that makes us uneasy. Retirement.

To raise the question is almost automatically to send each hearer into a private zone of calculation. Prisoner’s dilemma, self-constructed. For if I signal that I am ready to think about retirement, I am virtually abdicating my role in an institution, and I’m embarking on some risky financial and other calculations for which I’m perhaps not entirely prepared– so of course I don’t feel like making public my thoughts on the matter. (And I’m not, here: for the aficionados of the use/mention distinction, I am talking about what it would mean to talk about retiring, not talking about it.)

Another thing that makes it hard to talk about retirement is the awareness that when we go, the place we occupied is likely to go too. All right, if the Shakespearean on your campus departs, there will have to be another Shakespearean to step up into the role. But the less popular your field, or the more individual and experimental your way of doing scholarship, the less likely it is that your career will be prologue to another person’s comparable career. For people who spend a lot of time in the future (planning classes, writing books that somebody someday is supposed to read, wondering where the discipline is going), this is painful to contemplate, and I suspect that some of us who are old enough and wealthy enough to retire without disadvantage stay on because that’s the only guarantee that Etruscan philology or whatever will go on being taught.

Conversely, one of the powerful encouragements to pass the baton is the idea that somebody will be there to pick it up. And that idea is poorly supported just now. (I know why; you don’t have to tell me.)

Watching my own students throw themselves against the implacably locked door of the job market year after year, I wonder whether a collective agreement among senior faculty to move on, conditioned on an understanding that something tantamount to “replacement” will occur thereafter, wouldn’t moderate some of the pain and frustration. But that’s asking for the economically impossible: a future engagement on the part of a disaggregated (and internally competitive) group of employers to do something on behalf of people who, by the act of asking for this concession, are giving up whatever leverage they had. So we’re left with short-term calculations and actuarial endpoints.


Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today


Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.


Critical Distance and the Crisis in Criticism (2007)

One of the things I want to do sometimes is to repost stuff from Printculture’s archives, because it tends to be hard to find. Here is a series of discussions on the topic of something I called “leverage,” by which I meant, as Mark McGurl pointed out in the comments, “critical distance.” The conversation that ensues sees the two of us thinking through and explaining some of the things that motivated The Program Era and The Hypothetical Mandarin. The entire conversation series of posts (which are combined below) dates from October 2007. I will also say that one of the weird things about rereading this stuff is realizing how old some of my ideas are; I swear I’ve repeated some of the things I say below in the last couple of years as though they’d just occurred to me.

Leverage as a function of critical capability and interest

It occurred to me the other day — and in fact I may have already bored one or two Printculture readers with this — that it would be useful to think about why so much academic work on contemporary material isn’t very good. But perhaps the premises bear repeating: (1) a higher percentage of literary critical or cultural analysis of contemporary material — fiction, poetry, film, the culture in general — says, by my standards, completely predictable things (than does work on material removed from us in time) and (2) is therefore no good. I have no data to back the first part of this up; it’s merely an impression. For the movement from the first to the second premise, I rely on my belief that literary critical analysis should, in general, aim to teach us things we don’t already know about the world.

The question I’m setting out to answer here is why this is true. Why, that is, does work on contemporary material so often simply tell me what I (feel like I) already know.

The answer has to do, I think, with leverage. By leverage I mean to indicate the degree to which my ability to tell you something about X that X doesn’t already know about itself and isn’t obviously saying to anyone who’s paying attention, depends to a very large extent on the difference I am able to generate between myself, and what I know or see, and what X knows or sees on its own.

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And the MOOC revolution seems to be over

At least according to this reading of a Chronicle story by Chris Newfield. Short version that both faculty and university presidents agree that MOOCs will have a negative impact on higher ed, and that this opinion is held by people who nonetheless seem open to technological innovation and other kinds of innovation in teaching (so it’s not just a thoughtless resistance to change).

And yet, the problem is that for about 18 months state legislatures were allowed to pretend (or pretended to pretend) that the MOOC would allow for further cutting of state support for higher education…

In other words, when universities lose MOOCs as a budget solution, they lose the main source of hope that state politicians had for a free fix of the college cost problem for a less affluent, not wonderfully educated younger generation.  MOOCs were the austerity solution to the mass quality problem.  Without them, tempers will flare, fingers will point, and funding will not be restored. In the meantime, faculty are going to have to lead higher ed innovation anyway, and the good news is that post-MOOC-as-cure-all faculty don’t need to focus on the technology to the exclusion of the “human side” of teaching and learning.

Now that the MOOC seems to be a non-viable solution, we can look forward to the rapid restoration of that missing funding.


How Someone Ends Up Working in Disability Studies…

… or at least thinking about it.

Those of you who know me and my family know that our son, Jules, was born with a very rare genetic disability (known as 9p deletion syndrome). He’s fine, at least medically, though it was no fun for the first three weeks of his life and has on various occasions been a little less fun than it otherwise might have been (cleft palate surgery, some ongoing concerns, now faded, about his heart). Cognitively, we know less about the future than we might, partly because the syndrome is so rare (maybe 150 cases in the United States), partly because it produces such a wide range of outcomes, and partly because the treatment of the disabled has changed so radically in the United States in the last 60 years that evidence gathered on the basis of a 30-, 40-, or 50-year-old 9p deletion person does you little to no good, since that person lived through a radically different set of approaches to disability than will any child born ten or twenty or thirty years later.

I know less than I should about how disabled people are treated in the United States. More than I used to know, of course, before Jules was born, before he spent 2.5 of his first 3 years in an amazing day care facility, in which he was fully integrated with the other kids (a process known as “mainstreaming,” now the normal thing to do in the United States), and to which state-provided therapists (occupational, physical, speech, developmental) showed up for 7 hours a week to help Jules catch up with his peers.

The idea behind mainstreaming and the therapy (which is known generally as “early intervention”) is simple and twofold: first, that the earlier you can work with disabled (or even potentially disabled) children, the better you can help them reach their maximum genetic potential (I know that’s a fuzzy concept, but let’s use it loosely here to express something like the maximal cognitive capacity someone can reach, all other things being equal); and, second, that surrounding (potentially) disabled children with other children who are developmentally “ahead” of them actually encourages the (potentially) disabled children to rise to the level of their peers. In this mainstreaming takes advantage of two well-established developmental facts: that early and frequent intervention produces better developmental outcomes, and that peer effects are powerful social, physical, and cognitive motivators (for good and ill–just ask someone who chooses to live in a frat house).

So by the summer of 2013 Jules barely qualified to continue in the state-provided program that provided the 7 hours of extra attention per week that he had been getting since he was four months old. He had made amazing progress, and was catching up to his peers on a number of levels that the state measures to determine eligiblity for its programs (gross motor, fine motor, speech, social/psychological maturity, etc.). But we were thrilled that he was qualified because we knew that the more help he got, the better off he’d be in the long run. (None of this stuff means he’ll stay caught up with his peers, which is why this early intervention is so important.)

And then we decided to move to Germany for the academic year.

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The Future of the University: A Vision

Some people think MOOCs are bad, some people think they’re good (though I know almost none of the latter). But what you really need to know is: what’s going to happen to the university in the next twenty years as a result of innovations in content delivery?

Luckily for you I have had a vision of the future. I don’t like some of it, but I think it’s accurate. If I were a dean or a university or college president I would be thinking about what I could do right now to respond to the changes that are coming. And if you teach in a university, or attend one, or plan on having friends or children who do, then you need to know what’s coming, because it will affect (and indeed transform) the entire institutional structure of higher education in the United States (and probably worldwide). I’ve put it all in an eay-to-read Q&A format, so no excuses for not following along.

As a bonus at the end I’ll tell you what’s happening to public education at the K-12 level, and offer some suggestions on how to keep the most disastrous vision of the future from coming true. Continue reading


Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

Continue reading


Cuisine for Peripatetic Academics, Episode 1

Cuisine for Peripatetic Academics, Episode 1: 20 April 2013, United Airlines flight from RDU to ORD
Today’s afternoon flight is just slightly over two hours, so no on-board purchasable snack box satisfaction for me. This afternoon’s meal is thus:
– 1 Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar from the newsstand outside Gate D5
– 1 bottle of Fiji water, also from the newsstand outside Gate D5 (I always get this brand in airports because I like the petite size and feel of the bottle in the palm. It makes me feel like, Wow, I am powerful with impressively large woman-hands.)
– 1 plastic bottle of La Maridelle Sauvignon Blanc purchased onboard the flight. (The flight attendant also offered me a Chardonnay. I looked at her with my disaffected “Really? Chardonnay?” eyes. She quietly closed the wine drawer and moved on.)
Tasting notes:
– There’s no year indicated on the bottle of wine. Fabulous. Let’s do this.
– Notes of waxed-cardboard-juicebox apple juice. Hints of airplane upholstery. (Realized while sipping that I don’t know how to spell “upholstery.” Used manual spellcheck. Felt dirty. Took another sip.)
– Suggested pairings: any episode of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites. (I choose the recent “Blindside Time” episode.) Let’s also give the Clif Bar a whirl to see what this does to the wine.
[Side note: Good job, Self, moving up a row in this highly-non-full flight to have a double-tray-table-situation that enables *both* Clif Bar wine picnic and laptop to coexist. The couple originally sitting next to me abandoned a First Class seat and the warm nuts that inevitably accompanied it (the man actually used the phrase “warm nuts” to describe what was left behind) in order to sit together in economy. Fie on your forsaking of the warm nuts, people behind me! I love my husband but would not forsake the warm nuts, and he would understand. Work on your relationship and your cultivation of each other’s opportunities for autonomy and independent growth, ye forsakers of the warm first class nuts.]
– Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar brings out notes of dough and chalk in the wine. I also get hints of mud.
[Side note: in the future, do not choose a Survivor episode that features a merging of the tribes, because there will be a feast, and that will make you bitter if there are no snack boxes available on the flight.]
[munching and then sipping]
– While watching scenes of islandy-landscapey-background, it’s possible to imagine that this peanut butter wine combination is a form of Thai food. Very, very undercooked leftover Thai food from right out of the fridge and eaten with a plastic spoon because it’s the only form of cutlery you have on hand, because you travel too much.
[Side note: Fantastic. I had to choose the one episode of Survivor that involves an immunity challenge devoted to eating disgusting foodstuffs. Stop smiling at me, Andrea-the-blond-smiling-Survivor-“Favorite.”]
[Side note: why did I not take the Chardonnay when offered? Oh, the folly of youth!)
[munching and sipping and munching]
They are eating beetle larvae on laptop-tv.I am getting undercooked cold Thai food with notes of larvae. Now they’re eating balut. [How do I know how to spell “balut” without any problems, but not “upholstery”?] Nice job choosing televised entertainment, Me.
And it’s Cochran and Malcolm in the finals. Pig brains.
And we’ve come to the final descent.
The Final Evaluation: Slightly more palatable than the worst Thai food you’ve ever had. Get the red wine, take a flight that’s three hours or longer to avoid the no-snackbox-situation, and stay away from Survivor episodes while you eat.
The Scholarly Recap: The sensorium is shaped by one’s perceptive environment. Observation of images and narratives effects a transformation of other aspects of affective experience and in turn generates new bodily sense-objects by materializing new networks of relationships.

Who’s Afraid of China?

I’ll be giving a keyonte at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s first annual Asian Studies Undergraduate Research Conference, title “Who’s Afraid of China?” One of the pleasures of writing the talk was the opportunity to go back to these sentences, which I wrote in 2002, whose context was the shift caused by 9/11, in which we went from potentially being enemies of China (you’ll remember the Belgrade embassy bombing of 1999 and the spy plane controversy of 2001) to being allies in the war on Muslim terror.

The insistence on Chineseness as a particularly odd combination of ancient past and scientific future has clearly demonstrated its ability to resurface when needed. Should the geopolitics change again, we will find ourselves right back in the middle of more “coming conflict” literature, perhaps this time forced to work against it in the face of events that will make its predictions seem all the more prescient.

I don’t make predictions much, but this one has come delightfully and perfectly true, so I feel obliged to brag about it. Of course, no one since 1600 would have ever lost money betting on the eventual appearance of anti-Chinese Yellow Perilist sentiment, which will make my back-patting fairly mild.


When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams

Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012’s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.


Imagining a New University

When I was younger I used to pass long car rides from home to college (7 hours, much of it on the PA turnpike) by doing two things (well, three if you count the constant masturbation, but who does?): narrating imaginary golf tournaments to myself (why? I have no idea… I’ve never actually played golf) and imagining the structure of a new university, to be funded by me after I won some enormous lottery jackpot.

(Reader, you are forgiven if, after reading this list, you said to yourself, “so, I guess really just one thing after all.”)

That is why I was delighted to read Lawrence Weschler’s piece imagining a new university in Public Books, which you should also go read. Here’s his vision for the core curriculum:

Hence the core, to be titled Play/Ground—a yearlong course that would take up at least half of the students’ (and the participating faculty’s) workload that first year. Every year, twelve members of the faculty would be peeled off to run the core (a different twelve each year, in a general four-year rotation), chosen to reflect the widest possible range of disciplines: a musicologist, say, and a physicist, a political theorist, a climatologist, a classicist, a microbiologist, a historian of Islam, a sculptor, an information scientist, an economist, and so forth. All the students and faculty in the core would gather together in a large lecture hall every Monday morning for a sequence of three-week minicourses offered, one after the next in turn, by each of the participating faculty, in which said teacher (the musicologist for three weeks, and then the physicist, the political theorist, and so forth) would be expected to take the class on a concentrated tour of one aspect or issue or controversy in their discipline. For the rest of the week, to further explore themes raised by that three-week series of lectures (and then the next and then the next), the class would be broken up into twelve seminars of ten to twelve students, each led by one of the participating faculty (groupings that would meet two or three times a week and stay together through the entire year). Key here would be the fact that in most cases, the faculty leader wouldn’t necessarily be any more conversant with the topic in question than his or her charges: he or she would just have a better sense of how to use the library, how to read, how to hone questions, et cetera. (Though one might imagine a parallel seminar in which the participating faculty themselves would meet on a weekly basis to receive added instruction and compare notes on how the course was proceeding.)