Behind “business,” the most popular major at my school is accounting. This is because it seems to lead to a medium-status profession directly following a degree. No student I know has a passion for accounting. It is simply a series of rules to memorize that will lead to the correct representation of a person or organization’s financial status. There is no connection between accounting and other fields of study. As a result, the students view everything else they have to study as baffling impediments to their degrees. They struggle with writing assignments that assume that they know about other areas of knowledge or share the background of the instructor.

We are turning out a generation of these students, student who do not know what they are missing or understand that there was once another way to be a student.

For about the past two years, I have done what I could to bring my students — learning-disabled, low-income, low English proficiency — back into contact with my decades-old way of doing things, the way that I “believed, taught, and confessed.” That seems to be coming to an end, with the de-funding of my institution’s “learning center.” It’s unclear what I will do next. I have been thinking about volunteering my hours there, to try to keep some of what I have done alive. I can ill afford it, but if it is a choice between being unemployed and helping students while unemployed, the logic is not so foreign.

All I can say is that without the alternative I and my colleagues had to offer, we will see a long line of unhappy, single-minded accounting majors stretching into the future like Banquo’s descendants. They will view being taught by computer as a relief.



Liberation Philology*

“The modern spirit, that is, rationalism, criticism, liberalism, was founded the same day philology was founded. The founders of the modern spirit are the philologists.

We must consider the revolution philology has wrought; we must examine what the human intellect was before the advent of philological culture, what it has become since it felt this influence of this culture… And it seems to me that… the most important revolutions of thought have been brought about by those men whom we should call littérateurs or philologists.”

— Ernest Renan, The Future of Science: Ideas of 1848 (1890; Eng. trans. Albert D. Vandam and C. B. Pitman, 1891).

* I heard this phrase in a talk by Sheldon Pollock, and was jealous. I’ll use it here as a catchall for quotations from the heroic period, when text-based disciplines ruled the earth, or seemed about to.


Trading Babies Are Not Enough…

…to bring us to Milton Friedman’s promised land.

(Before I get started: I find the baby ads (from E-Trade) obnoxious, partly because they suggest (not despite but because of the humor) a kind of distant limit for the absolute financialization of everyday life, from birth to death, the final dream of which is the end of the welfare state and the incorporation of human beings (thereby neatly reversing Mitt Romney’s canard).)

The title of this post derives from new research by Roger Farmer, who shows (or purports to–I’m not qualified to judge) that efficient market hypotheses fail because no market system can include investment choices made by the as-yet-unborn:

Steve Davis and Till von Wachter (2011) have shown that the present value of lifetime income of new entrants to the labour market can differ substantially depending on whether their first job occurs in a boom or a recession. In our model, the lifetime income of the young can differ by as much as 20% across booms and slumps.

Given the choice, the young agents in our model would prefer to avoid the risk of a 20% variation in lifetime wealth. There is a feasible way of allocating resources that would insure them against this risk, but financial markets cannot achieve this allocation, except by chance. The inability of our children to trade in prenatal financial markets is sufficient to invalidate the first welfare theorem of economics.

As Farmer goes on to say, the research has “Keynsian policy implications” (I had figured it might).


Modifiers in English

“President celebrates swearing in for second term with first lady” — The Guardian.
Glad she gave you a renewal, Barack. What did you do?


Pardon Me if I Drone On

Your correspondent, who did not make it to Washington DC or even to a bar with a TV for the second inauguration of President Obama, is pleased at the second term but still furious about Guantánamo, drones, the kill list, warrantless spying, TBTF, and the unreasonable rate of imprisonment. So far, so predictable.

But a couple of further thoughts. Yes, I do wish the guy who we thought was Our Guy would raise an executive arm and do whatever lies in his power to blot out those blotches on our democracy. But some of the issues extend past the reach of the executive branch and some of them are hurled forward by the inertia of the office, the polity, existing commitments, the place of the US in the world. To desire that one man stand up and change everything does sound like attributing a dictatorial or messianic role to this president– to recall a discomfort about Obamaism I first heard expressed in the summer of 2008.

What we should be doing is convincing the citizens, one by one, that these things are scandalous and will end up doing us great harm. At present these policies must benefit from indifference or a short-sighted cost-benefit calculation. Just to focus on drones: they kill without putting any of our young people in direct danger, they are touted as efficient and surgical means of doing in “bad guys,” they have massive high-tech appeal: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that drones are more popular than the Congress among the people of this country. The arguments against them are stronger, in my opinion: they create global resentment precisely because they kill from a distance with expensive high-tech, they sidestep basic personal protections that have been on the books since Magna Carta, and sooner or later our enemies will get them too, so we get to experience them from the other end.

Similar arguments can and must be made about the other ugly aspects of Barack Obama’s legacy, whether or not they are inherited from earlier administrations. And yes, we need to recognize the good things these four years have brought, for some of us at least.

But it would be more democratic to build up a groundswell of opposition, rather than to concentrate on lobbying a Leader who may not care all that much about listening as long as we are a slender sliver of opinion represented more typically in law faculties than in all-night diners.

All right. You’re free. Go party.


Get Your Doom & Gloom From a Reputable Supplier

Like you, probably, I had seven or eight copies of a recent Atlantic article forwarded to me. Each time, the note accompanying the attachment said no more than “Duh” or “Sad but true.” The article, you’ll remember, was the one called “Being Married Helps Professors Get Ahead, But Only If They’re Male.”

I agree that this is worth an “aargh.” But worth an “AAAAARRRGGGHHH!”? Not so sure. And this is not because I have any doubts about the intellectual equality of men and women, or about the fact that the American university system is far from manifesting that equality in its practices. But because, c’mon people, it’s an article in the Atlantic, fergodssakes.  Continue reading


Song lyrics of the day: Upupa epops

Upupa epops (to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”)
Well, I see it in the tree with a feather crown,
Or by its lonesome foraging on the ground,
[Oop!] The male sings, looking for some good lovemakin’,
The female chills, wings spread, mad sunbathin’…
[Hoopoe!] Epops, epops
It’s king of the birds in Aristophanes,
Eatin’ bugs and reptiles and sometimes berries,
Hey, it’s the only extant member of its family,
And listed as not kosher in Deuteronomy…
[Hoopoe!] Epops, epops
Epops, he pops, a we pops
I pops, you pops, a they pops
Epops bebops a pu pops
Epops, he pops, a we pops
I pops, you pops, a they pops
Epops epops, Upupa epops
Oh, Upupa epops
Hey, hey I hear it in branches going oop-oop-oop
Sounds a lot like a Himalayan cuckoo
[Oop!] Revered by Minoans, on tombs in Crete,
Digs out mole crickets with it’s freaky strong feet
[Hoopoe!] Epops, epops
Epops, he pops, a we pops
I pops, you pops, a they pops
Epops bebops a pu pops
Epops, he pops, a we pops
I pops, you pops, a they pops
Epops epops, Upupa epops
Oh, Upupa epops



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.


Application Season

Are people at Hampshire College or UC-Santa Cruz ever haunted by the impression that their non-graded “narrative evaluations” of students are vague and infantilizing? I have read hundreds of these, and I can never completely block a tone of patronizing faint praise. (Of course I have learned to compensate for this reaction and do my best to give the student a fair shake.) Even when the work described is hard and there is evidence of achievement, the report seems to be telling me how nicely the kindergartner lines up blocks of different colors. “Evan had not taken a course in philosophy before, but showed increasing mastery of phenomenology over the duration of the quarter. His report on Being and Time adroitly compared ‘Dasein’ and ‘das Man.’ His final project on ‘Weltlosigkeit’ was, in the opinion of the other students, insightful.”

Understand, please, that I am not complaining that the teachers are snarky– it’s the format that imprints snark on whatever praise you try to push through it.


Read To Me 2: The One Who Claws At His Names

The wonderful Cabinet magazine hosted a performed bestiary one recent afternoon at the New Museum. For 4.5 hours, a small group of writers, artists, professors, curators, and others talked about a series of creatures in order from smallest (ant) to largest (whale). We each had 10 minutes. It was an absolute blast.

To represent my creature, the phoenix, I wrote and read a short story based on the birds featured in a 19th century text about Mongolian drugs. The key here is to try to shift the way you’re seeing the pages of the text: the words and names and images all become part of a common landscape. Try to see the words not as descriptions, but as a living part of this tiny cosmos. The images are crucial.

It’s a love story, and I’ve read it for you here:



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.


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.


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.


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.