when students get their “money’s worth” and other academic clickbait

Without laying this all at the feet of social media, in today’s fast-paced modern world (ahem), the competition in the attention economy appears to push more extreme positions. There’s nothing really new there, as the sensationalism of tabloids attest, but that seemed more avoidable in the past. The modern instantiation of clickbait is far more pervasive, and unlike spam, we pass it around willingly. Indeed we have reached a moment when it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate among actual news, genuine concerns, and clickbait, largely because effective clickbait draws on the other two. There’s a nice article in the Atlantic by Megan Garber called “The Argument Economy” which takes on some of this.

But my point is that this is not just social media. Perhaps you’ve seen (on Facebook, of course) news of the recent bill in Iowa whereby professors whose student evaluations fall below a certain level would be automatically fired. Even more amusing (or at least it would be amusing if it were fiction) is the suggestion that the five worst professors above the minimum line would face being voted off the campus by students in some reality game show fashion. The general sense is that this bill will not become law. As such it might be fair to call this clickbait legislation. And if NPR reports on the matter is that clickbait?

Similarly when the Chronicle, theTelegraph, and the National Review all want to report on American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report of an apparent decline in the requirement of Shakespeare in English majors, do we call that news or clickbait? Is this clickbait curriculum? The promulgation of academic clickbait does not preclude the possibility of more serious conversations about teaching or curriculum. In fact, those conversations are certainly happening, but I imagine they have an effect on those conversations, especially when those participating in the conversation might get most of their information from such outlets.

I see these clickbait offerings as presenting two familiar commonplaces about college education, neither of which is especially helpful. As the NPR article reports, the emphasis on teacher evaluations is ostensibly about ensuring students get their “money’s worth.” This refers, of course, to our concerns about student debt and the cost of college but also to the economic valuation of college degrees as investments in human capital. On the flipside, the cultural conservatism of a group like ACTA and its plea for Shakespeare reflects a competing but equally unhelpful vision of education as the transmission of traditional cultural values.

To be clear, I don’t have any investment in conversations about how to structure a degree in literary studies. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with students viewing their college education in terms of how it might connect to their professional life after college. Indeed these are really both discussions about how to value a college education. Unfortunately the commonplaces of academic clickbait don’t appear to provide much affordance for trying to address this challenge. In their defense, though, that’s not their purpose, so I guess their ok as long as we understand we won’t get anything productive out of this kind of rhetoric.

In all fairness, there should be some standard of expectations to which faculty are held as teachers, even beyond tenure, with the possibility of losing one’s job as a kind of measure of last resort. However, to get there, we’d really have to create a culture of teaching that doesn’t exist. Graduate students in most disciplines receive little or no training as educators. At best, we tend to rely on mentoring. Furthermore, we know teaching is only part of the job, and research productivity is often the primary measure of tenure. We’d have to shift that (at least at some institutions). So, could you imagine your department offering a series of professional development workshops for faculty in the area of teaching and the faculty showing up on a regular basis? If they did, we’d probably have to have some serious conversations about what constitutes good teaching. That would be weird, if not horrifying. That’s how far we are from valuing teaching as a university culture.

If we did have such conversations in an English department, we would probably want to talk about what we teach and why we teach it. Maybe there would be faculty in such a department that would share ACTA’s view of Shakespeare. This commonplace seems to set up a battle among pragmatic pandering to student interests in pop culture to attract numbers, some version of the culture wars over the canon, and a commitment to the traditions of literary studies. Not surprisingly as a rhetorician in an English department, I think staging a conversation about an English major in terms of literary studies is missing the boat. What would it mean to establish a purpose for an English degree that didn’t mention literature at all? Then one might articulate how literary studies might serve that purpose. Of course, there’s likely a disciplinary issue there, as that would require establishing the study of literature as useful to some end other than its own, as designed to do something other than reproduce its own disciplinary paradigm.

As impossible/comical as it is to imagine sitting in a series of teaching workshops with faculty, it’s even more absurd to imagine English departments entertaining the possibility of an English major that was not at least 75% literary studies. Sure, there could be some separate majors or concentrations, but can anyone imagine an English department with a single major where only 50% of the courses addressed literature? It sounds absurd, even though 50% of the jobs in English every year are not in literary studies. They’re rhet/comp, technical writing, creative writing, and so on. It sounds absurd until one remembers that most of what most English departments do, in terms of raw numbers of students served, is teach writing through first-year composition. It’s like having a department that taught BIO 101, but then was otherwise a Chemistry department. Of course we now have biochemistry departments.

In any case, academic clickbait isn’t doing us any favors in terms of opening some productive dialogue about the values driving higher education. All it likely does is create reactionary positions by espousing extreme views.

the humanities’ nonhuman electrate future

Earlier this week, Gregory Ulmer spoke on campus. I was happy for the opportunity to see him speak, as I hadn’t met him before and his work, especially Heuretics, has been important to my own since my first semester in my doctoral program. His talk focused on his work with the Florida Research Ensemble creating artistic interventions, which he terms Konsults, into Superfund sites. However, more broadly, Ulmer’s work continues to address the challenge of imagining electracy (n.b. for those who don’t know, electracy is to the digital world what literacy is/was to the print world). I’ve discussed Ulmer’s work many times here, so today my interest is in discussing it in terms of the Bérubé talk I saw last week.

In the Bérubé talk (see my last post), humanities’ focus emerged from dealing with the promises and challenges of modernity and Enlightenment.  Freedom, justice, equality, rationality: they all offer tremendous promise as universals and yet also seem unreachable and treacherous. So the humanities must play this role in the indeterminable pursuit of judgment. In this discourse of right/wrong it supplants religion, though obviously religion continues on, where the humanities is perhaps less willing to settle on an answer than religion often seems to be.

Ulmer offers a different perspective. To the binaries of right/wrong (religion) and true/false (science), he offers pain/pleasure (aesthetics). As he notes this third segment comes from Kant as well but is only realizable as an analog to the first two in an electrate society, with the first being the product of oral cultures and the second the product of literate ones. He makes an interesting point in relation to Superfund sites and climate change more generally where we are largely able to recognize that destroying our climate is wrong and we are able to establish the scientific truth of climate change, but we appear to need to feel it as well.

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gravity’s rhetoric and the value of the humanities

I attended a talk today at UB by Michael Bérubé on “The value and values of the humanities.” Without rehearsing the entirety of his argument, the main theme regarded how the notion of the human gets defined and struggles in the humanities over universal values. So while we largely critique the idea of universalism, we also seek to expand notions of humans and human rights in universal ways (in particular the talk focused on queer theory and disability studies, but one could go many ways with that), though even that encounters some limits (as when people raise concerns over whether Western values about equality should be fostered in non-Western cultures). The talk is part of a larger conference on the role of the humanities in the university and part of Bérubé’s point is that the intellectual project of the humanities, which he characterized as this ongoing, perhaps never-ending, struggle over humanness, continues to be a vibrant project and should not be confused with whatever economic, institutional, bureaucratic, political crisis is happening with the humanities in higher education.

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against close reading

Close reading is often touted as the offering sacrificed at the alters of both short attention spans and the digital humanities (though for probably different reasons). Take for example this piece in The New Rambler by Jonathan Freedman which is ostensibly a review of Moretti’s Distant Reading but manages to hit many of the commonplaces on the subject of digital literacy, including laments about declining numbers of English majors: “fed on a diet of instant messages and twitter feeds, [students today] seem to be worldlier than students past—than I and my generation were—but to find nuance, complexity, or just plain length of literary texts less to their liking than we did.” But it’s not just students, it’s colleagues as well: the distant and surface readers, for example.

In the end though, Freedman’s argument is less against distant reading than it is for close reading: “distant reading doesn’t just have a guilty, complicitous secret-sharer relation to soi-disant close reading: it depends on it.  Drawing on the techniques of intrinsic analysis of literary texts becomes all the more necessary if we are to keep from drowning in the sea of undifferentiated and undifferentiable data.” And as far as I can tell, the distant and surface readers do not really make arguments against close reading in principle. They may critique particular close reading methods in order to argue for the value of their own methods, but that’s a different matter.

So I’ll take up the task of arguing against close reading, just so there’s actually an argument that defenders of close reading can push up against if they want.

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Does it matter where you go to college?

By now this is a familiar commonplace in our discussions about the crisis of higher education.  Here’s one recent example by Derek Thompson from the Atlantic that essentially argues that it’s less important that you get accepted into a great college than that you be the kind of person who might get accepted. However, as is painfully evident, the whole upper-middle class desperation of “helicopter parents” and “tiger moms” and whatnot to get their kids into elite schools and away from the state university systems that they’ve helped to defund through their voting patterns creates a great deal of ugliness. I’m assuming there’s no news for you there.

Personally I am in the midst of this situation. My daughter is a junior and we’ll be headed to some campus visits next week during her spring break. Her SATs put here in the 99.7 percentile of test takers and the rest of her academic record reflects that as she looks to pursue some combination of math, physics, and possibly computer science. We live in a school system with a significant community of ambitious students (and families), where the top of the high school class regularly heads out to the Ivies.  I’m sure it’s not as intense as the environment of elite private schools in NYC but it’s palpable.  This also has me thinking back to when I was headed out to college, as a smart kid (“class bookworm” as my yearbook will evidence) in an unremarkable high school, first-generation college grad going to a state university, coming out of a family that had its financial struggles until my mom remarried when I was a teenager. I don’t mean to offer that as a sob story (because it isn’t) but only that my own background gives me a lot of misgivings about the value and faith we put in this race to get into elite colleges.

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academic capitalism: futures of humanities graduate education

Yesterday I attended a roundtable on this topic on my campus. These things interest me both because I have the same concerns as most of us do about these issues and because I am interested in the ways faculty in the humanities discuss these matters. So here are few observations, starting with things that were said that I agree with:

  1. The larger forces of neoliberal capitalism cause problems for higher education and the humanities in particular.
  2. There is a perception of humanistic education as lacking value which needs to be corrected.
  3. We need to take care with any changes we make.

Certainly it’s the case that broader cultural and economic conditions shape, though do not determine, what is possible in higher education and the humanities. This has always been the case. When we invented the dissertation, the monograph, and tenure as we experience them today (which was roughly in the early-mid 20th century), there were cultural-economic conditions that framed that. It’s important to recognize that graduate education is part of a larger network and ecology of relations, that you probably can’t just change it without changing other things.

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regarding “invidious distinctions between critique and production”

I’m working at a tangent from my book manuscript today, preparing a presentation for a local conference on “Structures of Digital Feeling.” If you have the (mis)fortune to be in Buffalo in March, I invite you to come by. Anyway, my 15 minutes of fame here involve wresting Williams’ “structure of feeling” concept from its idealist ontological anchors, imagining what real structures of feeling might be, and then putting that to work in discussing “debates” around the digital humanities.

Fortunately, Richard Grusin offers the perfect opening for this conversation as he is already discussing “structures of academic feeling” at the MLA conference in his juxtaposition of panels about the “crisis” in the humanities with the more positive outlook of DH panels. (I haven’t been to MLA in a few years so I wonder if this distinction still holds.) The quoted phrase in the title of this post comes from his Differences article on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” (a reformulation of the panel presentation of the same title). It’s a response to the familiar DH refrain of “less yack, more hack.”

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reading Alex Galloway’s “Cybernetic Hypothesis”

This is an article that came out last year in Differences (25.1), but my library doesn’t have access to the most recent issues, so I’m catching up. I’m writing here about it in part because it connects with my recent post on reading practices, as well as more generally with interest in digital matters. In the past I’ve certainly taken some issue with some of Galloway’s arguments, though I regularly use his Gaming book in my course on video games. Here, I think my overall reception of his argument is more balanced.

Galloway begins by noting that in the contemporary humanities one finds a wide range of methods: “methodology today is often more a question of appropriateness than existential fit, more a question of personal style than universal context, more a question of pragmatism than unwavering conviction.” He applies this observation equally to quantitative investigation and ethnographic interviews as he does to the “instrumentalized strains of hermeneutics such as the Marxist reading, the feminist reading, or the psychoanalytic reading.” However, “such liberalism nevertheless simultaneously enshrines the law of positivistic efficiency, for what could be more efficient than infinite customization?” I think he has a point here, but it’s a curious one.  On the one hand, there’s the defense of academic freedom that insists on allowing for this “liberal ecumenicalism” as he terms it, but then perhaps also the realization that such a position might undermine the critical-oppositional effect one might hope to have. I think Galloway is accurately pinpointing a site of consternation for many humanists here, but let me bookmark that thought for a moment.

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rhetorical organization and Latourian modes of existence

Organization is a common topic of discussion in writing instruction. Often, students are asked to produce “well-organized” essays and organization is a familiar criteria for assessment. Organization generally refers to the rhetorical cannon of arrangement, but somehow it makes more sense to say to students that their essays should be well-organized instead of well-arranged. Organization also implies a denser connection, stratification, and perhaps even hierarchy than arrangement.

But that’s what I want to get after here.

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improving digital literacy: the Horizon Report’s “solvable” challenge

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the annual Horizon Report, put out by EduCause and the New Media Consortium, but the 2015 report recently came out. There’s a lot of interesting information in there, but I want to speak to one particular issue, digital literacy. Basically, the report identifies three categories–trends, challenges, and technological developments–and focuses on six items in each category. So there are 18 different items in the report, and I’m talking about one of them here.

The report identifies “improving digital literacy” as a significant but solvable challenge, one “that we understand and know how to solve.” I guess I’m glad to hear that. I suppose this might be a semantic matter. What do we mean by “improving”?  And what do we mean by “digital literacy”? In terms of the latter, the Report has an ambitious if vague definition.

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