digital ethics in a jobless future

What would/will the world look like when people don’t need to work or at least need to work far less? Derek Thompson explores this question in a recent Atlantic article, “The World Without Work.” It’s an interesting read, so I recommend it to you. Obviously it’s a complex question, and I’m only taking up a small part of it here. Really my interest here is not on the politics or economics of how this would happen, but on the shift in values that it would require.

As Thompson points out, to be jobless in America today is as psychologically damaging as it is economically painful. Our culture more so than that of other industrialized nations is built on the value of hard work. We tend to define ourselves by our work and our careers. Though we have this work hard/play hard image of ourselves but we actually have a hard time with leisure, spending much of our time surfing the web, watching tv, or sleeping. If joblessness leads to depression then that makes sense, I suppose. In a jobless or less-job future, we will need to modify that ethos somehow.  Thompson explores some of the extant manifestations of joblessness: makerspaces, the part-time work of Uber drivers and such, and the possibility of a digital age Works Progress Administration. As he remarks, in some respects its a return to pre-industrial, 19th-century values of community, artisanal work, and occasional paid labor. And it also means recognizing the value of other unpaid work such as caring for children or elders. In each case, not “working” is not equated with not being productive or valuable.

It’s easy to wax utopian about such a world, and it’s just as easy to spin a dystopian tale. Both have been done many times over. There is certainly a fear that the increasing precarization of work will only serve to further exacerbate social inequality. Industrialization required unions and laws to protect workers.  How do we imagine a world where most of the work is done by robots and computers, but people are still able to live their lives? I won’t pretend to be able to answer that question. However, I do know that it starts with valuing people and our communities for more than their capacity to work.

I suppose we can look to socialism or religion or gift economies or something else from the past as providing a replacement set of values. I would be concerned though that these would offer similar problems to our current values in adapting to a less-job future.

Oddly enough, academia offers a curious possibility. In the purest sense, the tenured academic as a scholar is expected to pursue his/her intellectual interests and be productive. S/he is free to define those interests as s/he might, but the products of those pursuits are freely accessible to the community. In the less-job future I wonder if we might create a more general analog of that arrangement, where there is an expectation of contribution but freedom to define that contribution.

Of course it could all go horribly wrong and probably will.

On the other hand, if we are unwilling to accept a horrible fate, then we might try to begin understanding and inventing possibilities for organizing ourselves differently. Once again, one might say that rhetoricians and other humanists might be helpful in this regard. Not because we are more “ethical,” but because we have good tools and methods for thinking through these matters.

 

 

hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

The song refers to the nation, of course, and I’m thinking of a discipline where perhaps we are not so quiet.

Here’s two tangentially related articles and both are tangentially related to English, so many tangents here. First, an article in Inside Higher Ed about UC Irvine’s rethinking of how they will fund their humanities phd programs: a 5+2 model where the last two years are a postdoctoral teaching fellowship. Irvine’s English hasn’t adopted it (maybe they will in the future), but it is an effort to address generally the challenges of humanities graduate education that many disciplines, including our own, face. In the second article, an editorial really in The Chronicle, Eric Johnson argues against the perception (and reality) that college should be a site of workforce training. It is, in other words, an argument for the liberal arts but it is also an argument for more foundational (i.e. less applied, commercial) scientific research.

These concerns interlock over the demand for more liberal arts education and the resulting job market it creates to relieve some of the pressure on humanities graduate programs.

Here’s a kind of third argument. Let’s accept the argument that specialized professionalizing undergraduate degrees are unfair to students. They place all the risk on the students who have to hope that their particular niche is in demand when they graduate, and, in fact, that it stays in demand. In this regard I think Johnson makes an argument that everyone (except perhaps the corporations that are profiting) should agree with: that corporations should bear some of the risk/cost of specialized on-the-job-training, since they too are clearly profiting.

Maybe we can apply some of that logic to humanities graduate programs and academic job markets. I realize there’s a difference between undergraduate and graduate degrees, and that the latter are intended to professionalize. But does that professionalization have to be so hyper-specialized to meet the requirements of the job market? I realize that from the job search side, it makes it easier to narrow the field of applicants that way. And since there are so many job seekers out there, it makes sense to demand specific skills. That’s why corporations do it. I suppose you can assume it’s a meritocratic system, but we don’t really think that, do we? If we reimagined what a humanities doctoral degree looked like, students could easily finish one in 3 or 4 years. No, they wouldn’t be hyper-specialized, and yes, they would require on-the-job-training. But didn’t we just finish saying that employers should take on some of that burden?

Here’s the other piece… even if one accepts the argument (and I do) that undergrads should not be compelled to pursue specialized professionalizing degrees, it does not logically follow that they should instead pursue a liberal arts education that remains entrenched in the last century.

In my view, rather than creating more hyper-specialized humanities phds, all with the hope that their special brand of specialness will be hot at the right time so that they can get tenure-track jobs where they are primed to research and teach in their narrow areas of expertise, we should produce more flexible intellectuals: not “generalists” mind you, but adaptive thinkers and actors. Certainly we already know that professors often teach outside of their specializations, in introductory courses and other service courses in a department. All of that is still designed to produce a disciplinary identity. This new version of doctoral students would have been fashioned by a mini-me pedagogy; they wouldn’t identify with a discipline that requires reproducing.

So what kind of curriculum would such faculty produce? It’s hard to say exactly. But hopefully one that would make more sense to more students than what is currently on offer. One that would offer more direct preparation for a professional life after college without narrowly preparing students for a single job title. In turn, doctoral education could shift to prepare future faculty for this work rather than the 20th-century labors it currently addresses. I can imagine that many humanists might find such a shift anti-intellectual, because, when it comes down to it, they might imagine they have cornered the market on being intellectual. Perhaps they’re right. On the other hand, if being intellectual leaves one cognitively hamstrung and incapable of change, a hyper-specialized hothouse flower, then in the end its no more desirable than the other forms of professionalization that we are criticizing.

It turns out that the Internet is a big place

I suppose this is coincidentally a follow-up of sorts on my last post. It might also be “a web-based argument for the humanities” of a sort. We’ll see.

On The Daily Beast, Ben Collins asks the musical question “How Long Can the Internet Run on Hate?” One might first be inclined to answer, “I don’t know, but we’re likely to find out.” However, on reflection, one might take pause: hold on, does the Internet run on hate? I don’t think I need to summarize Collins’ argument, as we all know what he’s on about here. If one wasn’t sure, then the comments following the article would at least give one a taste.

So a couple observations.

1. The Internet cannot be separated all that easily from the rest of culture. One might as well ask how long can civilization run on hate (the answer? apparently a good long while). Obviously the Internet did not invent hate. Does it make us hate more? Or does it simply shine a light in the dark corners of humanity’s hatred? Probably both.

Continue reading It turns out that the Internet is a big place

expression is not communication

I’ve been struck with a patch of Internet curmudgeon syndrome of late: spending too much time on Facebook probably. One of the ongoing themes of my work as a digital rhetorician is the observation that we do not know how to behave in digital media ecologies. That observation is not a starting point for a lesson on manners (though we certainly get enough of those too!). Instead, it’s a recognition of the struggle we face in developing digital-rhetorical practices.

Those of us who were online in the 90s (or earlier) certainly remember flame wars on message boards and email lists. This was the start of trolling, a familiar behavior to us all which in some respects I think has mutated and become monetized as clickbait. Of course trolls are just looking to get a rise out of you. It may be hard to tell the difference from the outside, but some of these incendiary conversations were genuine disagreements. I know I was part of some very heated exchanges as a grad student on our department email list. Eventually you realize that you’re not in a communication situation but instead you’re part of a performance where the purpose is not to convince the person you’re putatively speaking to but to make that person look foolish in front of a silent audience who has been subjected to your crap by being trapped on the same email list with you. That changes one’s entire rhetorical approach, especially when you realize that the bulk of that captive audience isn’t captive at all but simply deleting emails.

Continue reading expression is not communication

writing in the post-disciplines

Or, the disorientation of rhetoric toward English Studies…

In her 2014 PMLA article “Composition, English, and the University,” Jean Ferguson Carr makes a strong argument for the value of rhetoric and composition for literary studies in building the future of English Studies. She pays particular attention to composition’s interests in “reading and revising student writing,” “public writing,” “making or doing,” and using “literacy as a frame.” As I discussed in a recent post, there’s a long history of making these arguments for the value of composition in English, an argument whose proponents one assumes would welcome MLA’s recent gestures toward inclusiveness. Of course the necessity of these arguments, including Carr’s, stems from the fact that mostly the answer to the question “what is the value of composition to English?” has been answered as “nothing” or “not much,” at least beyond the pragmatic value of providing TAships for literary studies Phd students.

I’m more interested in the opposite question though, “what’s the use of literary studies to rhetoric/composition?” It’s not a question Carr really concerns herself with, mentioning only in passing that “a more intentional and articulated relationship between composition and English is still mutually beneficial,” though she doesn’t offer much evidence for this. Presumably she (rightly) identifies her audience as literary scholars for whom this question would likely never arise. However, I think the answer might be similar: nothing, or not much, at least beyond the pragmatic value that the institutional security of an established English department might provide. And with that security wavering, well…

Continue reading writing in the post-disciplines

what to do when a professional organization tries to embrace you

Yesterday, at least in my disciplinary corner of the online world, there was a fair amount of discussion about the Chronicle of Higher Education report of the Modern Language Association’s upcoming officer elections, which will ultimately result in someone from the field of rhetoric becoming MLA president. I was interviewed and briefly quoted for the article, so I thought I’d be a little more expansive here.

In the most cynical-pragmatic terms, one imagines that MLA can see that rhetoric faculty are underrepresented among its members, so they are an obvious potential market. One can hardly blame an organization for trying to grow its membership, so what does it have to do to appeal to those potential consumers?  In more generous terms, MLA might view itself as having some professional-ethical obligation to better represent all of the faculty it lays claim to when it asserts itself as representing “English.” It specifically names “writing studies” in its mission, though not rhetoric or composition. Of course it is always a happy coincidence when the pragmatic and the ethical are in harmony.

Continue reading what to do when a professional organization tries to embrace you

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.

Continue reading the humanities’ nonhuman electrate future

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.

Continue reading against close reading