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“against the grain”: on critical perversity

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At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:

Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.

But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy  of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.

So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”

Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.

But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal?  Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?

In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)

I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.

Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.

It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.

Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.

We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.

In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of  reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.


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January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

MOOCs and my discontents

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Massively mixed feelings about the rise of “MOOCs,” as featured this weekend in articles in both the New York Times and the Washington PostWhat are MOOCs? As the Post describes:

“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).

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November 4, 2012 at 3:02 pm

new college of the humanities: bound to fail

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This New College of the Humanities news is something else. People, of course, are right to be upset about it – especially for a reason that I’ll get to below. But I think there’s also some real reason for hope… In short, from the point of view of someone actually deeply involved in the work that goes into running a first class humanities department, this plan looks absurd, impracticable, and more or less bound to crash and burn. A few points:

1. The money doesn’t work out correctly. I reckon – just adding this up in my head, very roughly – that if you figure out my economic value to the university in terms of the students that I’m directly responsible for in terms of advising etc, I bring in about £120,000 per annum. I get paid roughly a third of that – the rest goes to overhead and the like. And of course the humanities are, as of now, still “subsidized” by the university as a whole, at least where I am. If the faculty / student ratio is 10/1 at the NCH, and students pay / are charitably subsidized to $18,000, that means each teacher will bring in on average £180,000.

Now, a quick review of the listed teachers indicates that the numbers don’t really work out that well. I’m… not exactly in the Christopher Ricks-range of salary at this point, and the NCH’s overhead might be marginally lower or higher – it’s hard to say. But that’d give each of these superstars an average salary of approximately £60,000. Pretty good, sure, but not for the likes of them.

And especially not for the likes of them if, as implied on the website, these stars are actually going to be doing all of the teaching on these courses. (Really? Christopher Ricks is going to teach most or all of this?) And if they’re not going to be doing all of the teaching on the courses – if the NCH is going to hire a boatload of hourly-wagers and the like – I’d imagine the institution is going to end up with a whole lot of extremely fucked-off and probably (given the backgrounds they’re likely to draw in) litigious students on their hands. Given the ad pitch involved here, they’re going to have a hell of a time pulling the classic adjunct bait-and-switch. But I simply can’t imagine any other way they’re going to do it.

Obviously this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff that I’m doing here, but I simply don’t see how this is going to work. Let alone, given it’s for-profit status, send any cheques to its shareholders… But it’s all coated in the scent of ivy-coated Enron, really…

2. Horrifying to think that the superstars involved in setting this up might well be so distant from the actual drudgery involved in running an academic programme that they actually think that this “All-Star” Model will work. University departments are complex ecosystems. Some end up stars with big books and media exposure, some become worker-bees who keep the show running, lots end up somewhere in the middle. Some departments are disasters of hierarchy, others incredibly egalitarian in workload distribution. (Luckily mine falls into the latter group). But whatever they are, teachers end up taking on different roles at different times in their careers. And the mix is healthy – one learns very quickly, say, as a PhD student that becoming close with a junior lecturer mired in the drudgery of keeping their job and writing their first book can be valuable in a way that one’s relationship with Academic Star Advisor X isn’t.

Are these types really ready to second-mark boring first year scripts, handle admissions, write the shitload of letters of reference they’ve been paid for, handle “pastoral care,” set reading lists and the like? They’ve hired a few course conveners – it’s pretty horrifying to think what these people’s lives will be like as they take up as much of the slack as they can.

3. Even Boris Johnson, displaying the gravitas we’ve come to expect from him, gets it right: this will be – and more importantly look like – Reject’s College, Oxbridge. No one in their right mind would throw over a place at an elite university to attend this place… Those “namebrands” are namebrands for a reason – and one imagines that the sort of students that this place is targeting are just a bit brand conscious. However bright a student may or may not be, in attending NCH she or he would be opening themselves to a diploma marked with the stink of class privilege and lack of open competition. Whatever we feel about the current state (and as WBM might say “use” or “symbolic efficacy”) of meritocracy in universities, it remains a selling point to be able for potential employers and the like to know that you’ve competed against something even vaguely resembling the “best” or at least the “good” whatever their class background.

At any rate, to my mind this thing is a non-starter and I heartily look forward to watching it fail under its own ill-conceived architecture. The only thing that I’m still worried about is that, in a sort of reverse News Corp argument, publically-funded universities will start to claim that state regulation is distorting the market and that if the NCH is allowed to charge £18,000 / annum, we should be able to too…

UPDATE: Ooops, as has been pointed out to me, it looks like I – like many of the prospective students I imagine – didn’t read the fine print on the NCH website:

Our Professors will advise on curricula and quality, and will all give lectures at New College.
The curricula will be delivered by our team of permanent academic staff, with each subject area headed by a Subject Convener and assisted by one or more Senior Lecturers. They will be supported by a fully qualified academic staff.
So… you’ll hear a lecture or two from some of these famous types… but the actual teaching will, it seems, be done by someone else. I think much of the above still applies so I’ll leave it. The profit model still seems to me unlikely to work, even if the above now renders it too complex for me to speculate on..

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June 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

Posted in academia

pay as you go

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Things just keep getting better and better in the UK Higher Ed sector.

Universities could be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of UK undergraduates who are able pay their tuition fees upfront under plans being considered by the coalition government.

The idea, which Times Higher Education understands is likely to be explored in the upcoming White Paper on higher education reforms, would remove students who do not take out state-funded loans from an institution’s cap on numbers.

Currently, about 14 per cent of home students do not take out a fee loan. But if they are undergraduates taking a first degree, they still count towards the limit on numbers for universities, which is imposed to ensure that public spending is controlled.

However, with ministers keen for ways to allow universities to expand without additional costs to the Treasury, it is understood that the White Paper may be used to float the idea of removing self-funding students from the cap.

This at least puts to final rest any sense that the “reforms” currently happening here are part of a process of “Americanizing” British universities. Whatever the other problems with them, all but a tiny handful of US universities run “need blind” admissions systems. The UK seems to be heading toward a very much “need wealth aware” system. And just in case you might be thinking that this will be a minor, top-up sort of change: my university, a very very good one, is currently doing everything it can to increase overseas enrollment, often at the expense of home students even when they will be paying the new £9000 fee.

And to think that when I decided to take a job here I was proud to be joining a more egalitarian system than the one that I’d come from…. Here’s more:

The “off-quota” proposal was raised by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in a speech to Universities UK’s spring conference earlier this year.

He asked how it could be achieved in a “needs-blind” and “socially progressive” way, although the precise detail of what he was referring to was not mentioned.

Well, the precise detail wasn’t mentioned because it’s actually in fact absolutely impossible. Nonetheless, the BBC this morning (reading apparently from some spin-doctored lie-sheet government press release) headlined the news as a progressive move, designed somehow to “free up publicly subsidised university places for poorer students.” Jesus….

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May 10, 2011 at 10:21 am

Posted in academia

interminable revision / how literature means (or doesn’t)

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As always, the big question at play with this massive thing that I am forever revising is a question about the argument and its reach. In the last draft, I kept the “wider claims” very quiet, almost inaudible. I notice something – something quite important – about a certain set of texts, label it as important, but don’t quite say why. * I am commended by my reader for noticing this something, but urged to articulate more fully what exactly I think it means. Which is what I am trying to do right now… but without tilting into the perilously tempting stance of massively overstating the case, making my finding mean something politically or even philosophically that it can’t (possibly / quite) mean. And so a seemingly endless practice of revising my revision, trying to get the line of the claims just and square.

Literature is really funny in the way that it means. You can’t quite argue “Well, this really does give us a whiff of something, but it’s hard to say just what…” But that, to my mind, is basically what it does. But it can’t simply be something like that as the argument of an academic monograph.

* I constantly tell my students, when I basically take them back through the principles that I learned as a half-time teaching of composition as I was finishing my PhD, that I am absolutely not being condescending to them when I reexplain concepts like motive, argument, structure, and the like. I always tell them that the selfsame issues are what at stake in my own work, and that I am constantly failing to fulfill these basic rhetorical rules and premises. I’m not sure they always believe me, but it is absolutely positively true. These things are what bring meaning to work, given the fact that meaning is difficult, they are what make writing of this sort (any sort?) difficult.

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April 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Posted in academia, everyday

princeton suicide

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Hard to know what to make of this, because the university’s not being forthright about it, but very, very disturbing…

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April 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

Posted in academia

taking its course

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From Glen Newey at the LRB blog:

Last week, Keele University announced plans to shut down its philosophy programme, in the name of ‘efficiency’ savings. It’s beside the point here that the methodology underlying the calculations is flawed and its specific application to philosophy very suspect. The 27-page document presented for consideration by the Senate on 23 March is a fully fledged statement of the post-Brownean credo, apart from the latter’s insistence on student demand as a touchstone of academic worth. Philosophy at Keele doesn’t enrol enough students to make money; but then, it is subject to a cap imposed by the government: there are fewer than 60 places this year. You break somebody’s legs then complain that they can’t keep up.

“You break somebody’s legs then complain that they can’t keep up.” Yes… Just about every internal political and bureaucratic wrangle I’m involved in at the moment follows the selfsame logic. Take what is fit, starve or mangle it for a bit, set it back into the wild, watch it struggle, watch it starve… then deliver with a shrug the aperçu about the wonders of natural selection, the sublimity of nature taking its course, that you had prepared well before the start of the entire process.

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March 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm