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every not so often, helen, trust me

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Helen DeWitt seems to have been trying to defend Alain de Botton yesterday in a couple of posts on her blog. I’ll admit that it’s a little hard for me to see what she’s getting at – seems to me a lot of goalpost shifting going on there, whereas Caleb Crain’s initial review seems to me perfectly clear. DeWitt seems to want to fault Crain for not recognising that there are forms of work that aren’t compensated. I’m pretty sure he’d be on board with that, but it’s not what he’s getting at. He’s getting at the fact that AdB can’t stop condescending and generally sneering at the workers that he interviews / features in a book as they don’t live up to some sort of silkgloved idealisation that he arrives at by looking at work from a distance…. I see the problem, sure, with the first sentence, but that’s not really the point that’s up for grabs, is it? And her implicit argument that somehow Crain is more at fault for not naming Bourdieu (why Bourdieu in particular rather than any of the other many, many theorists of work?) than De Botton is baffling. Anyway, a bit hard to make sense of, all this. But on the other hand, this paragraph of DeWitt’s is easy to make sense of, and not only to make sense of, but to call it out as bullshit:

Every so often an academic reads several hundred examination scripts and is appalled by the ignorance, the tendentiousness, the lack of sophistication – and so tackles the problem by taking a paid sabbatical and writing a book showing what proper treatment of the subject looks like. What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays. Nor does the academic show how his mastery of the material is to be achieved by candidates who are holding down part-time jobs, who can’t buy books, who are kicked out of their halls of residence three times a year to make way for conferences. If one were to give all several hundred candidates a paid sabbatical, and if one were then to permit them to organize treatment of the subject on their own terms, at book length, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. If one simply locked each candidate up with a computer and gave him/her unlimited time to write to a specific word count, a substantially higher number might be expected to achieve respectable results. We don’t do that, so what we see is, unsurprisingly, that a small number of students can both learn under unfavourable conditions and display knowledge coherently under unfavourable conditions.

I understand that this is deployed as some sort of allegorical device, a parallel instance, but… WTF? Hard not to sense a bit of slippage from the footnoted academics mentioned and “the academic” as a generic breed. * But I know, we academics are sooo spoiled. Let me just assure you of a few things, readers:

a) the implied storyline here, despite the fact that DeWitt seems to know of an actual example of this sort of thing happening, is ridiculous. Just to be empirical about it, I’ll knock on my department head’s door today, tell her that I’m still feeling a bit frustrated about the exam scripts I marked a few weeks ago, and ask her if I can take next term off in order to write something that sets the little buggers right about a few things.

b) there are problems with academia, teaching, but the lack of compassion of instructors for students, lack of understanding for the busy lives they lead, is not one that stands out from the bunch. Believe me, we are in solidarity with the students on all of this – it only makes our lives and work harder when they are overworked, bookless, worried about administrative issues, empoverished, and lacking the appropriate amount of time it takes to finish their assignments properly.

c) “What the academic does not do is show how the subject can properly be treated in a 4 45-minute 1000-word essays.” Yes, I don’t spend tons of time writing about that because, in term, I spend oh about 10-15 hours of contact time actually doing that, face to face. And 10-15 hours contact time, as anyone in the business knows, comes along with 20-40 hours non-contact preparation time.

d) We don’t write our books out of frustration with our students. Sorry. I am not sure what was going on where and when DeWitt went to university, and I’m sure the assholery and general poshness runs a bit thicker at the Oxbridge places than elsewhere, but this is simply not the case anywhere I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a lot of places now, very posh and not so posh.

I’m not sure if DeWitt’s going for some sort of complicated performative endorsement of AdB’s blinders-on condescension here, but whatever it is it makes as little sense as either an element of her argument (if there is one… hard to know…) or as an “every so often” bit of jobsite portraiture.

* Where do we find the slippage in question? Note the present tense of the first sentence… and the fact that the two guys mentioned were teaching at the Oxford of yesteryear when they wrote their books, where sure there were poor kids, but probably not the basketcases in bulk needed to make the posh prof / pathetic student body scenario work in the way DeWitt needs it to….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 7, 2009 at 7:43 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Someone or other once said “If I had had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”

    I find that to write an account of an issue which is cogent, spells out all the steps of an argument, adduces appropriate evidence, and eliminates possible misunderstandings, takes quite a lot of time; the less time there is, the harder it is to produce something irreproachable. If the account has to be brief that makes it much harder. If someone asks me for a 300-word review 90% of the time spent on composition goes to getting the thing down from the 1500 words or so that seem the bare minimum to say what needs to be said.

    I have always assumed that this was familiar to most people who write. It’s hard to get something right; it’s harder to get something right in a very short piece; it’s even harder to get something right if one has to work very fast. Reviewers are normally given a word count. Examinations very often (though, of course, not invariably) take place under invigilation, which means that students must write to time, which means they must necessarily write brief essays quickly.

    It would surprise me if more than a handful of examiners have written an article or book as a direct response to poor examination scripts. The constraints of the circumstances of assessment, though, do seem to me to have a way of becoming invisible. I once met a French graduate student who had done a first degree in France; if I remember this correctly, his examination there had lasted 5 hours, and he had been asked to answer only one question. He could not believe that anyone could seriously be asked to write 4 essays in 3 hours as a method of assessing what they knew about a subject. The constraints of length and time for composition affect rich and poor alike (though students who have been to independent schools may have had more training in examination skills); students with a great deal of knowledge about the subject, or a belief that rigorous argument requires one to substantiate all claims and spell out each stage of the argument, will be at a disadvantage for reasons that have nothing to do with their financial position.

    To the best of my knowledge, it has always been standard practice to require students in university accommodation to vacate their rooms outside term; I was under the impression that this was the origin of the term “vacation”. Again, this is disruptive however much money one has; it affects the extent to which a student can engage with the subject rather than with the practicalities of moving. To the extent that students go home to their families at these times, their access to scholarly literature depends partly on their ability to buy books, partly on what they can borrow from the university library, partly (these days) on whether they have good Internet access in the home.

    My impression is that, because student funding is so much worse now than it used to be, the position of students in the time of the full maintenance grant and the right to sign on looks better than it was. Michael Crawley says 30 is a reasonable sample size, and I must admit I don’t have that; I can certainly think of 9 or 10 women who were expected to get first and didn’t, where it turned out that A was going to London to turn tricks on weekends, B was writing for Mills and Boon, C was selling drugs, D had to go home to a father who beat the shit out of her – the particular financial constraints, and the way they dealt with them, came out a long time later, because they weren’t the sort of thing the students were happy to talk about. (I realise, as I say, that this is not a good sample size; it seemed likely to me that more were doing things they would rather not talk about and successfully kept their circumstances to themselves. That may, of course, not have been the case.) I do understand that correlation is not proof of causation; given that these were near misses, it did not seem unreasonable to think that financial circumstances affected academic performance.

    It seems to me that most academics (not just a handful) do draw a distinction between the kind of intellectual work they can do while teaching and the work they can outside of term. Certain sorts of task can be done concurrently with teaching – it’s manageable, for instance, to translate an article, because it can be done sentence by sentence, the work does not require uninterrupted concentration. It’s harder to get an overview of a subject, or to get a handle on issues that are really complex. A student who is engaging with a subject for the first time would seem to need blocks of time for uninterrupted concentration, coincident with access to relevant literature; most don’t get this and never did.

    I am sure I shall not be able to make good all the shortcomings of a blog post in a comment on another blog. If one of these was to seem to imply, though, that most academics do not put in a lot of work to try to teach their students well, I don’t like to have something I think self-evidently false floating around the text; thought “every so often” worked as a limiting quantifier, but should clearly have looked for something better.

    Helen DeWitt

    July 8, 2009 at 1:21 am

  2. Helen,

    Thanks so much for your response. I do understand the structural / temporal limitations of book reviewing and other forms for writing – especially student writing. I still wish I understood what it was that you found objectionable about Crain’s review…. It sounds like there’s something that you don’t like beyond the fact that Crain didn’t do a PhD in labor theory / set off on a four year junket visiting worksites around the world.

    At any rate, I agree with much of what you’re saying here about students. I just took issue with what I sensed was an implication that the primary problem that they face is a lack of sympathy on behalf of their instructors. If polled, I’m sure 99 percent of academics would line-up behind any proposal that would give our students the ability to take whatever time they like or need to do their work. There’s not much more that we can do on this front.

    Something interesting to add to all of this: at some point early on in my career as a teacher, someone convinced me of the importance of not taking “personal circumstances” into account while marking. The reasoning behind this was simple: true to your examples, it’s very difficult to know for certain which of your students are having a hard time. If you try to take “hard times” into account, you’ll only get at the ones who are particularly vocal about it. Of course, this isn’t a response to you – I assume we basically agree on the fact that structural reform is the issue, not the practices of the individual examiner that would make a huge difference in this regard. But it is an interesting issue that one faces, and of course whatever the policy one takes onboard, one makes exceptions all the time….

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    July 8, 2009 at 9:56 am

  3. Oh, and just for the enlightenment of an American who only vaguely understands the way these things used to work. Why did the women that you knew have to do things like sell drugs / sell themselves while they were at university. Tuition was free, right? Cost of living…

    It’s just that American kids do this sort of thing, and it’s understandable when in some cases you’re facing 6 figures of debt upon graduation etc. But why did they have to do things as bleak as that? I’m sure there’d be all sorts of reasons, understandable ones, but I’d just be interested to hear….

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    July 8, 2009 at 9:59 am


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