Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eric Jarosinski Says Nein to Academia


These remarks by Eric Jarosinki, ostensibly about the virtues of Twitter, but ultimately about the vices of academia, resonate with me. I, too, at some point realised that I would not be able to carry off a convincingly academic performance. I didn't want to write that way or talk that way or spend my days working that way. I, too, did not want to pretend to understand what my peers were so earnestly saying they knew. At one point, I even decided I lacked the "moral compass" required to navigate the ambiguities of an ethical, academic life. So I also chose this "alt-acish" career as a coach and, indeed, a social media presence. I'm not as successful as Jarosinski, but I make a decent living, and on most days I enjoy the work.

There's a nagging doubt, however. I'm sure many of us feel a little sadness for the university that Jarosinski left. The university, we think to ourselves, needs him more than he, it seems, needs it. For a long time now I have felt like I abandoned my post. To be sure, I didn't yet have tenure (I don't think he did either), and I must say that I didn't feel like it was being handed to me on a silver platter. Getting the "privilege" to make the contribution to your culture that pretty much everyone around you knows you should be making can be a very humiliating experience. Nonetheless, I feel a bit of shame about not "doing the work". Moreover, I'm vain enough (and have friends and colleagues who nurture this vanity) to think that I would make an excellent professor. From everything I know about Jarosinski, so would he. Students everywhere, let's agree, are poorer for the decisions we have made.

And this raises an interesting question that I will spend some of my summer thinking about. What would a university that people like Jarosinksi and I are qualified to teach at look like? What sort of place would take us "as we are". What, we might say, is the utopia that Jarosinski's negation implies? Specifically, what if our social media presence were all the "publishing" we needed to do? I've considered this question before: imagine a university that hires based on a scholar's contribution and demeanour on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and, say, at Wikipedia. And what if the "culture" we imparted to our students was precisely a matter of shaping their persona in these media, their ability to "be present" there? Sure, an occasional long-form essay and even a book, written at one's leisure, would not be out of place either. But let's stop making academia so unpleasant that people precisely like Eric Jarosinski end up saying NEIN! to it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

400 Paragraphs

Here's a recurring obsession of mine. Posit two 16-week semesters times four years. In other words: an undergraduate degree program. If every student wrote one paragraph for a half hour a day, that's 80 paragraphs a semester in 40 hours of work. Every paragraph presents in prose one thing the student knows—one justified, true belief.

The students would compose themselves for half an hour around one thing they know 160 times a year, 640 times during their program of studies.

Next, posit a norm for a "full course load" at four courses, which could mean, for example, that students will be taking 12 hours of classes every week. Here's the thought I can't get out of my head: let's require the students to actually write those five paragraphs per week, in some controlled environment (perhaps online), at a specific time, giving them exactly 27 minutes to complete each paragraph.

Give them 80 opportunities and require only 50 completed every semester. Let them submit these fifty for grading, in the first instance by a computerized algorithm that approves the (a) originality (i.e., non-plagiary) of the paragraphs, (b) grammaticality (i.e., this is well-formed english prose), (c) quantity (minimum six sentences, maximum 200 words) and (d) academicity (it must include references, perhaps to a list of required readings).

This is not a modest proposal.*

Once they "pass" this filter (we might specify a pass/fail percentage, but since this is done by machines it will be best in any case to have some generous parameters), the computer now selects some number of paragraphs at random for human grading. A judgment is made by a qualified examiner about the quality of the prose, which is held to the standard of work done in the relevant discipline, and of course taking the student's level into consideration. A grade is given (A, B, C, D, F) for each paragraph and an average is calculated. (The graders will read each paragraph in isolation and entirely out of context, not knowing the student, nor even which paragraphs were written by the same student. Each paragraph will be given its own discrete grade.)

This is the students' fifth grade for every semester, accounting for 20% of their GPA.

When they graduate, 20% of their final GPA will come from these 400 paragraphs, these 200 hours (or more) of deliberate work.

I wonder if I have to say more. To me, this idea speaks for itself.

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*[Update: Rereading this post this morning, I realize that it may actually not be as un-ironic as I am pretending. (I can't deny that the irony is unintentional.) After all, it belies the conclusion I reached about my own summer writing project just last week. I am proposing to have students do something that, in my own case, I believe is virtually the opposite of writing, namely, to produce prose that is also, immediately, a public, gradable performance. And I am proposing to make this the dominant experience they have of writing in college: writing as a forced march, both a privation of their resources and an invasion of their privacy. It's not quite dealing with famine by eating our children, but it's no less self-defeating. Something terrible seems to have happened to my capacity for what Roland Barthes called "the pleasure of the text". Or to my faith in its pedagogical value and importance. I appear to have grown bitter. There really is much to think about this summer!]

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Change of Plans

I have decided to abandon my "summer writing project". This is not a change of heart of about the paper itself but about the idea of posting it to the blog one paragraph at a time as I'm writing it. What at first seemed like an interesting demonstration of my approach to writing, is actually something quite different.

Most importantly, I had not considered the enormous difference between the experience of drafting a paper one paragraph at a time in private, to be revised and then shown to select readers and reviewers before publication, and what I was doing—making each half hour's worth of work public as I go. It's a very different mood to write in, and not, I can now report, an especially pleasant one. It's certainly not sustainable over another three weeks or more.

The experience, however, has of course been worthwhile for the insight it has given me into the experience of writing. (It has been very different from the usual levity with which I have composed blog posts in the past.) I'm going to be reflecting on it for some time, no doubt. Sometime next week I'm probably going to write a final post about the experiment as part of my meta-commentary over at Jonathan's blog.* But the experiment is, in any case, hereby officially over.

Instead, I'm going to do what I would normally have done at this time. I'm going to take a break from blogging until mid-August. The rest will do me good. I wish you all a great summer.

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*Update: the post is now up.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

§11

[§10 here.]

The crisis of representation has been felt most directly in composition studies in arguments to abandon “the rhetoric of assertion”. Gary Olson (1999), for example, has argued that one of the consequences of postmodernism must be that we stop thinking of writing as a process to be “mastered”. Drawing on Haraway and Lyotard, he argues that instead of writing to assert and represent, we should write—and therefore teach students to write—in order subvert and resist. At about the same time, Stephen Yarbrough (1999) has argued that composition studies is grounded in an outdated theory of meaning that is dependent on the notion of reference, i.e., on the existence of things in the world to which words refers, facts that make sentences true. Following Michel Meyer, he takes the very existence of fiction to belie this conception of meaning, since, in the real world, saying that “Hester Prynne has a daughter named Pearl” is no more true than saying that “Captain Ahab has a daughter named Pearl.” It is a fundamental attack on the notion that linguistic meaning is grounded in the truth of factual propositions. Olson aligns himself with the “post-process” movement in composition studies, while Yarbrough’s view can be described as “post-rhetorical”. Both are proposals to abandon the classical Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as the attempt to persuade an audience that something is true.

(231 words -- that's too many)
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[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

§10

[§9 here.]

One way of understanding what Lyotard (1979) called “the postmodern condition” is as a crisis of representation. The “modern world”, on this view, was populated by subjects that were able to speak for each other and talk about the facts as a matter of course. Lawyers represented their clients, sales representatives (so aptly named) represented their companies, union leaders represented their workers, and presidents represented their people. Likewise, scientists were able to represent the world—that strangely enormous object Wittgenstein described simply as “everything” that is the case. Here physicists spoke for the atoms, biologists for the cells, and meteorologists for the weather. They were able to do their jobs well or badly, of course; we might say they were able to be politically or scientifically “correct” about the people or things they were speaking for. “Modern” conditions stipulated only that such representatives should know what they were talking about, that they had formed “justified, true beliefs” about it. By and large, we trusted them. Sometime around 1968, however, philosophers radically raised the stakes by suggesting that representation implicated us in the fundamental “indignity of speaking for others” (Deleuze and Foucault 1972). The crisis was on.

(200 words)
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[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]

Monday, June 08, 2015

§9

[§8 here.]

In the field of composition and rhetoric, postmodernism is sometimes understood in terms of the emergence of a number of “textualist epistemologies” (Aitchison and Lee 2006: 266). Simplifying somewhat, we can say that in the early-twentieth-century knowledge was generally approached as some sort of exalted state of mind, in which the knowing subject stands in a privileged relationship to the empirical world. Then, with the rise of both structuralism and positivism (the so-called “linguistic turn” in both anthropology and philosophy of science), knowing became a particular linguistic ability. Post-structuralist thinking was thereafter informed by the conspicuous role of writing in contemporary, and especially, of course, academic culture. Thinkers like Barthes and Foucault subjected the privileged position of “the author” to what has become a very influential critique, and Derrida would declare that there is nothing “outside the text” for our writing to refer to. Composition scholars took these developments on board, and by the mid-1990s a “post-process” movement was emerging, which, to some, meant abandoning the “rhetoric of assertion”. Indeed, there were even some who argued that one of the consequences of the new textuality should be to rethink our traditional views of plagiarism.

(200 words)
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[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]

Friday, June 05, 2015

§8

[§7 here.]

A great deal of pedagogical thinking, it seems to me, derives simply from this embarrassment about “academic” authority. It is almost as though teachers, and the pedagogues who think about what they should be doing, are against the very idea of school. I think that part of the problem lies in our having forgotten that school implies leisure. (”Greek scholastes meant ‘one who lives at ease.’”) Perhaps this is not something we have forgotten, but something we have repressed out of shame. When Bourdieu reminds us of it, he seems to mean it almost like a jab at the serious pretensions of “homo academicus”. Austin, he says,
does not realize that what makes possible this view which is indifferent to context and practical ends, this distant and distinctive relation to words and things, is nothing other than skholè. This time liberated from practical occupations and preoccupations, of which the school organizes a privileged form, studious leisure, is the precondition for scholastic exercises and activities removed from immediate necessity, such as sport, play, the production and contemplation of works of art and all forms of gratuitous speculation with no other end than themselves. (Bourdieu 2000: 13)
But thinking of school as a leisure activity can also be a positive spin on the “disinterestedness” of academic experience. It means merely that school learning occurs under conditions of freedom.

(242 words, including large block quote)
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[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]