“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have caught fire in academia. They offer, at no charge to anyone with Internet access, what was until now exclusive to those who earn college admission and pay tuition. Thirty-three prominent schools, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland, have enlisted to provide classes via Coursera.
For his seven-week course — which covers advanced math and statistics in the context of public health and biomedical sciences — [Brian Cafo, who teaches public-health at Johns Hopkins] posts video lectures, gives quizzes and homework, and monitors a student discussion forum. On the first day, the forum lit up with greetings from around the world. Heady stuff for a 39-year-old associate professor who is accomplished in his field but hardly a global academic celebrity.
In other words, these systems allow universities to create web-based versions of the courses that they teach their paying students. In general, these MOOCs has thus far been free to take: a sort of public-service cum branding operation for the universities (largely elite) who participate.
Ignoring for a minute all of the limitations on what’s happening (especially in terms of credential-distribution and also the probability that the companies that run these systems will eventually start extracting profit from them), these MOOCs seem to be a version of exactly what we want: the (albeit incremental, limited) expansion of access to educational facilities to anyone who would like to use them.
It’d be, at least from one angle, massively hypocritical for someone to gleefully feel that the ability to suck down so much of what I want from the internet, even or especially in evasion of the copyright rules in play, represents a sort of technologically-inevitable communization of media and information, but on the other hand to hold that that the communization of the commodities that I distribute should somehow be exempt from such liberation.
So of course there are reasons to be pleased by the development of these courses and systems. It is a cheering thought that some kid without access to great teaching is sitting in her bedroom doing MIT engineering courses in her spare time. And why shouldn’t anyone be able, if only virtually, wander into my lecture hall and hear what I have to say about this novel or that movement? There’s no way that I or anyone else should be able to dismiss that possibility with a shrug.
But on the other hand: as often is the case when capitalist enterprises (or non-capitalist enterprises stuck within a surrounding capitalist system, like publicly-funded or not-for-profit private universities) take up utopian and even pseudo-communist aspirations, we should know by know to check that our wallets are still in our pockets.
First of all, there’s the issue of academic labor. It’s not as if these institutions, under the guidances of the consultants who swarm their corridors, haven’t been at work on a decades-long experiment in reducing staffing costs. As of yet, that experiment has focused on the casualization of academic labour: the replacement of tenure-track and tenured staff with contingent lecturers and cheap graduate students. It’s hard not to imagine that the development of MOOCs isn’t a sort of sandbox in which universities play with the possibility of even further reductions in staffing. If you could, for instance, record my lectures and then somehow throw me off the payroll (or, as is more likely, simply not hire another me now that I can literally appear in more than one lecture room at the same time), while simultaneously sticking far more students in my now-virtual lecture hall, well, what’s to stop that?
If you think I’m being paranoid, check out the attention to the issue of marking in both articles. According to the one in the Times:
Assignments that can’t be scored by an automated grader are pushing MOOC providers to get creative, especially in courses that involve writing and analysis. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five people grade it; in turn, you grade five assignments.
But what if someone is a horrible grader? Coursera studied the peer grading of 2,500 student submissions for a Princeton sociology MOOC by having them graded a second time by Princeton instructors — yes, the professors hand-graded all 2,500 assignments — and found comparable results. Still, Coursera is developing software to flag those who assign very inaccurate grades to give their assessment less weight.
Ah – just as the airlines have passed the work of checking yourself into your flight and getting your bags on the conveyor belt to the consumer (in order to find themselves massive savings on payroll), now students will mark themselves, thus saving universities the cost of employing actual human beings to do such things. Never mind that marking and commenting on students work is actually what I consider the aspect of my job that requires the most expertise (anyone can read a lecture aloud, while knowing how to fix problems with students’ writing is an art) – the students in aggregate can achieve enough accuracy in clicking the “like” button or not underneath their peers essays that people like me with the red pen in hand late at night are no longer necessary!
(By the way, those of you that think of the credentialing aspect of universities as merely some sort of half-and-half mixture of a tyrannical ISA and a class confirmation machine, should remember that the less grades have to do with things the more other metrics will take over. “Everyone gets an A” in the US system, sure, but that simply means that out of all those students with the same marks, the ones who went to the most elite schools or have the most hookup are those that get to proceed to the next level. In other words, strict meritocracy is deeply suspect, but it is also better than its utter absence… While of course I understand the very obvious problems with it, marking fairly and accurately still seems to me an essential part of higher education and my place within it. Sure, eliminate marks, degree classifications and the like – it will only make it all the more likely than it already is, and it’s already plenty likely, that the kid whose parents go to the right cocktail parties will get the opportunities that should have gone to a more deserving candidate…)
Secondly, beyond the issue of academic labor, and very much true to the direction that higher education is rapidly moving in the UK due to the recent and massive government cuts, these MOOCs seem like a precursor step towards the further “consolidation” of the higher education sector. Notice who, for the most part, is involved in these schemes: elite universities. If they could find a way to credential the students who take them, who’s to say that a free or cheap “Harvard Extension Degree” for those who never once pass through the gates of the campus wouldn’t be seen as “better value for money” that a regular (and state-funded) degree at UMASS-Boston down the road? Why even bother continuing to fund the non-elite universities, where there’s a perfectly good and exquisitely branded degree available at low-cost and in a radically scalable way right there on everyone’s home computer or mobile device?
Finally, from inside the whale, there is something ominous about how these developments are being pushed on us from within the university, the rhetoric that’s used to push it, that sets off very clear alarms. Someone came in to one of our recent department meetings to preach to us the virtues of the recording of lectures and their eventual mass distribution. He let us know that this is on it’s way and we had better get used to it. When I asked, given that I might disagree with his list of virtues, or at least formulate my own list of non-virtues, why I “had better get used to it,” why we “had” to do it, he informed me that it was because it was “already happening elsewhere,” and that if we didn’t do it, we would be “left behind by other universities.” Right. If there’s one way not to go about convincing me to do something, this is the way to do it. After all, from austerity outward, this is the mode of collective and mindless non-decision making that basically rules and systematically fucks up our world on a day-to-day but ever intensifying basis. Just as “if we don’t impose austerity measures the same or deeper than nation X, the banks will destroy us” is basically the trumping argument at play in the wider world, the deployment of the argument “Harvard is doing this, and if we don’t follow suit, whatever the possible consequences” is to me a sign that we are probably about to set sail into the lowering tide that sinks all boats.The way things have generally been going, it’s hard for me to imagine that it doesn’t end somewhere the looks more like the following than the system that we have now. (Go to 3:48 on the video).
I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this, but thought I’d pass along my favourite paragraph from Marjorie Perloff’s indignant response to Mary Beard in the LRB just after 9/11.
I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!
LOLZ. God bless America, a land where we hardly ever beat our gardeners for addressing us by the first name! You can find both the Beard and the whole Perloff here. What is interesting to me now, looking back at this piece after so many years, is the way that Perloff, in constructing her trumping concluding paragraph, so perfectly takes up the Clintonian * trope that goes something like “I met an ordinary woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she shared her story with me, I hugged her, and I felt her pain.” You know, the old argumentum ex I know ordinary folks, this sort of thing (wish I had time to find a better example). These are sorts of performative utterances: they signify by being said or being able to be said as much as by what they actually say. It’s funny that Perloff, in the heights of anger, decided to construct her argument according to this extremely liberal “I might not be of the people, but I’ve met some of them… especially those in my employ” structure.
Anyway, was quite a moment. If I recall correctly, both Beard and Perloff had visiting appointments at Princeton in 2002 – people were anxious / excited at the prospect of seeing them take it off the letters pages and onto the quad.
It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:
But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.
It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.
Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.
In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, ”we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.
It would seem best to take the list of things, the bullet points, that the editor wrote and address them one by one and cross them off as he goes. That way, he would know where he is, what is left to be done, and most importantly, will know that he’s done when he’s done.
Listening to music helped in the past. As only half of whales’ brains fall asleep, since the sea is not a bed, so is it better for only half of his brain to be awake, because this work is not more easily done while entirely awake.
It would seem best to make of a list of things to do each day, including (especially!) the banal things that he always seems to forget to do. It would start with a time to wake, some early exercise (a run and then some sit-ups seems a good way to start), shower, breakfast and a certain number of newspapers (not all of them – only the essential ones) and then dressing and heading into his office. It would detail the work to be done each day and the time periods during which he would do each element of it, as well as time for reading. He wouldn’t list times to smoke, though that might help too, but he would list lunch and where to obtain it. It would end with writing a list for the next day, checking the list for the time that he is to wake the next day, setting the alarm on his phone for the time that he is to wake the next day, and then going to sleep.
New forms of semi-synchronous communication are invented and then adopted only to make things worse.
Teach the child to follow rules that are suspended on a promise of reward and punishment, I mean teach him to really follow those rules, and the child will likely grow into a man who still follows rules despite the fact that the structures of reward and punishment have changed but then, if something happens, and the structures of reward and punishment recede or disappear entirely, the child, now long since a man, will lose the track of the rules and reward and punishment and only be able to simulate vaguely the motions of obedience, self-protection, and self-promotion. Like the proverbial chicken less her head, like the robot that’s been dismembered in the movie, the unemployed pater familias who nonetheless besuitedly drives down the driveway each morning on his way to nowhere – his limbs twitch reflexively but the concertedness is not there. The cohesion of forward, purposeful movement is missing.
It’s nothing like the intimate, infinite negotiations with god during puberty. This is something else entirely.
A basic absence of a certain creative or at least chaotic element in his make up that might be necessary in order to fulfill certain aspirations, like the creation of artistic works or falling in love. His own dawning sense (when?) of the basic absence of those elements or faculties. Dumb notions that they can be externally triggered. The possibility that the desire to fulfill those aspirations (that is to say, the fact that they are aspirations at all) is perversely though not-unsurprisingly given what we know fueled by his very sense of the impossibility of fulfilling them due to the fact that his is missing certain faculties. Above all, the haunting sense that those faculties are possessed by no one anywhere and that they are just a comforting / explicatory myth that people have repeated and in repeating endorsed over the many years of human existence.
A dull cough. Sputum. A buzzing numbness all over that he used to feel was anxiety but now worries is a blood sugar level issue but on the other hand he is continually unsure of whether he hasn’t always in fact felt this buzzing numbness and just attributed it to something else. Things like hypocritical rage at his situation, other people, etc.
Phrases occur. “Like a football player with amazing straight-ahead speed but who lumbers laterally…” A pleasure in phrase making coupled with a disappointment at himself as these aren’t the phrases that he is supposed to be making. But pleasure enough to keep making them, especially when they stack like the dummy text, the pig latin, that lines the boxes where you put the corrected copy.
And then of course there is history. The drama of subjectivation (historical, personal). The sons burning the father to the ground again and again and again and the totem pole too but only this time getting it right in the aftermath. Learning to divide the sisters and mothers up logically, in accordance with sort preternaturally sophisticated system of eugenics that some now call attraction. Also book learning and savings accounts. Ships that leave the port and actually return again, a few years later, filled with different things. The sons draw up a train schedule, build a garden suburb, play in a local adult basketball league.
Once a month the sons go to the pub and – only in jest, never for serious or keeps – hit on the girls and mothers that are left, the ones they forgot to divide or held out just for the sake of keeping the old rituals alive.
Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.
First, Self describes finding inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.
In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.
Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.
In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.
Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself. In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.
Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. [...] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.
So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.
Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.
I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.
Related to the conversation that spawned my previous post, someone told me that he thought Zadie Smith’s new story (paywall, sorry) in The New Yorker was the best thing that she’s done so far. I’ve just read it, and I agree.
It’s written in an elliptical form, as a series of short numbered paragraphs, and this, I think, is part of what permits Smith to sidestep some of the problems of her previous works. Smith discusses her use of this form, which she calls a “sectional form,” here:
Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice.
To put what she’s getting at (I think) about “time” and “how it feels to be in time” into my own words: Whether the novelist wants to or not, conventional narration gives itself not just continuity but (somewhat but not really) paradoxically, the failure of continuity, the emergence of the ostensibly new. That is to say, narrative continuity provides itself in order to be broken, to serve as the staging grown for the discontinuous event. And then one day, something unforeseen happened…
The story plays from the start with the idea of events and eventfulness. The first lines read:
There had been an event. To speak of it required the pluperfect. Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, the protagonists in the event, were four-year-old children.
Now, discontinuous events of this sort – and in general – and the changes that they inaugurate in the line of their stories, are often sites of ideological mystification disguised as romantic aesthetics. (If you want to read someone playing expertly with this, take a look at David Lurie’s speech to his academic bosses in Disgrace. “Eros entered. After that I was not the same.” The “event” is the alibi that is meant to explain away – or refuse to explain away – all else that has happened, the presence of motive, etc…)
And in the case of Smith’s story, the “sectional” form of the narrative opens it by the end (not going to give it away) to a fundamental revision – a revision both of the story, the nature of its central character, and the romantic ideology that is serving as a blind for the cold determinism running underneath. It as if the story says to its own protagonist:
You had the sense that you were living life in accordance with the patterns and principles of romantically-tinged romantic fictions, complete with those moments of coup de foudre in which one position as if magically, but at least spontaneously, gives way to another. That is to say, you believed that your live was structured by events: you randomly meet this person, that happens, you meet another person, and so on. This ideology is the elipsis that haunts even the most conventional of narratives. But it was not so: a logic – the logic of comparison that is at base the logic of capitalism – was running the show, your show, all along.
At any rate, I’m interested to see how this all works in the novel from which this story is extracted. As she says in the passage I quoted above, this form only comes in at the end of the book. What would it mean for a novel to evolve or devolve into this?