Ed Links Addendum

As ever, Ryan has told it like it is. Teaching at the college level (or at any level, frankly) is not something any schmuck off the street can do, but it is something you can learn to do if you are willing to put in the time to understand all that it entails. It also helps if you ignore most things that “education experts” say. Whether they’re in the private sector or running the “Education” programs at most universities,  the odds are good that these folks either haven’t ever taught or haven’t taught a full load of demanding classes (both for the teacher and the students) in a long, long time. Learning how to teach involves observing great teachers, talking to them about how they approach their jobs, mastering the subject matter you will be teaching, staying abreast of developments in both your field and in pop culture (trust me, it’s important), and, above all, being able to take both praise and criticism from more experienced practitioners. Like Ryan, I too am confident in my abilities as a teacher. To paraphrase my colleague, Mike Bunn, I can justifying everything I do in the classroom pedagogically. But in ten years, I won’t be the teacher I am today. I will be better.

But if geniuses like Cathy Davidson at Duke have their way, I may have been replaced by a MOOC and a lab technician by then. I don’t blame the student writing this for the fact that it might be the best (totally unintentional) case yet against techno-fetishism. He’s 21 and has no idea that asking a student who has virtually no understanding of how education and the education system (huge distinction, by the way) work to design “higher education from scratch” is irresponsible. It results in students saying things like this about people who have taught for decades:

When you think about it, burying your head in the sand takes a lot more effort than lifting yourself out of it. It is just that we know what the sand smells, feels, tastes, and looks like. Sameness is comforting. As we approach Week 4 of the MOOC, however, we are asking ourselves to lean into discomfort and aim even higher.

The lack of humility that is clearly being encouraged in this class astounds. Why doesn’t it surprise me that this course is itself a MOOC? Here’s another gem:

We have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to collectively rethink how we can use our resources to design new ways of learning about and systematizing (or not) education. Through crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer learning, online modules, flipped classrooms, and anything else imaginable, we are working not only to reshape how we learn but, even more important, to re-examine why we educate ourselves in the first place.

It’s funny to me how the folks who always seem to be most interested in “disrupting” higher ed are the ones who stand to gain the most when their prestigious degrees look even more AMAZING compared to the “BAs” that Reshaped State U will churn out (again, watch this Harvard grad interview this Yale grad about how we need to improve “access” to public higher ed by essentially getting rid of anything that doesn’t resemble Facebook).

If The Chronicle really cares about higher ed, they will stop publishing this stuff. Encouraging the “creative destruction” of the university should be the job of Silicon Valley. We all know what works best in higher ed: small classes, incredibly high standards, teachers whose focus is teaching, and above all BEING THERE, in every literal and philosophical sense of the phrase. Cathy Davidson knows this (again, she teaches at Duke), yet instead of working to figure out how to make traditional education better and more affordable (it can be done), she’s helping kids diss Stanley Fish. To quote Rushmore:


Presidential Links

We have Austrian guests staying with us right now, and when they asked me about the meaning of Presidents’ Day, I realized that I’d never thought about how bizarre it actually is. At least Washington’s Birthday had a kind of mythical ring to it. But Presidents’ Day now means we’re just celebrating the zenith of our awful bought-and-paid-for political system. Might as well call it Ivy League Worship Day. Still, in honor of the fact that many of you are freed from the shackles of work today (sorry, Adam Ted Jacobson), here is some reading material to make your time off more embiggening.

  • Ryan was rightly appalled to hear that I was reading something on Politico the other day. But the chance to read bits of Richard Nixon’s love letters was simply too compelling. I often find myself embarrassed that the lone president the Los Angeles area has given the country is the most reviled one in history. And he’s rightly hated, as the “Southern strategy” his campaigns employed is a big part of the reason our politics are still so racially divided. His letters make him seem pathetic and insecure at times, which makes sense given the paranoia he displayed while in office. But like all people, Nixon contained multitudes, and one of the Nixons buried within him was a maudlin romantic who was obsessed with his wife, Pat. So on this Presidents’ Day, give old Tricky Dick a new reading. It won’t change your opinion of him as a president, but it’s a good reminder that what we know of our leaders even now is incredibly limited.
  • Don’t look now, but us writing teachers have some competition. Not really, but I am sure Anya Kamenetz (with whom I had a slightly heated debate on Twitter a couple weeks back) would love to find a way to replace us with “Hemingway.” No, not the writer, but an app that analyzes prose for “boldness and clarity.” The app is obviously kind of a joke, as some of Hemingway’s best prose  (Ian Crouch’s New Yorker piece uses an excerpt from “The End of Something”) is deemed not bold or clear enough. Still, this is the kind of thing that Silicon Valley “education experts” would no doubt love to see replace actual classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. It doesn’t matter that the app has no way of analyzing the content of one’s prose or the logic of one’s assertions. It gives us analytics that can be crunched and quantified!
  • Speaking of The New Yorker, I’m not telling anyone reading this site something they don’t already know when I say that James Wood is one of the best contemporary literary critics. His prose is lucid and his references are always appropriate. He is exactly the kind of public intellectual Nicholas Kristof is right to say we need more of these days. Kristof writes: “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.” While Kristof’s take isn’t original (like most Times op-eds, this one casts something folks have been saying for years as a new and profound insight), it is worth repeating: academic prose is mostly awful, the subjects many academics study are unimportant and narrow to the point of comedy, and the tenure system doesn’t reward people for doing work that real people (not other academics) enjoy. James Wood is an exception to this unfortunate rule, and his latest essay in the London Review of Books is a good example of what all academics in the humanities should be trying to do. Woods is a better prose stylist than most novelists, so I don’t expect professors to match him on that front, but his unabashed love of storytelling (as opposed to politics, -isms, and theory) makes his work something that “regular” people can engage with. If we want to have any kind of real reading culture (of, hell, even a smart digital media culture) going forward, we need academics to work for the masses, not for each other.

Sunday Links: Land of Little Rain

Driving up to Santa Barbara the other day, I was stunned by how dry everything was. The hills cutting through Calabasas weren’t just brown, they were radiantly brown. It was as if they were screaming. I’m not sure if their screams were taunts (“we’ll be bringing you some fire real soon, you bet”) or pleas, but this drought we’ve been experiencing here is unnerving. While the rest of the country has been dealing with polar vortices and abominable snowmen, California is just drying up. It’s a less obvious and romantic way to go, but it’s happening nonetheless.

But we’re soldiering on here at TGR, bringing you prose straight from the land of little rain. So for your no-football Sunday pleasure (relax, it will be back next week, and hey, there’s always the NBA), we present the following:

  • Slate‘s “Photo Blog” is one of their better regular features, and the current offering is particularly good. David Galjaard’s series of photos of Soviet-era Albanian bunkers is an important reminder that while the Iron Curtain might have fallen a couple decades ago, the terror it brought to the people and the land is still influencing events on a global and local level. I am currently reading Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, his impressionistic study of Soviet crimes, and the death and torment it details is so vast and sadistic that it begins to blur. These Albanian bunkers though are decaying physical monuments to tyranny, a word used too often in American politics to describe minor squabbles about 2% variations in marginal tax rates. Koba knew tyranny, folks. Neither Barack Obama nor Paul Ryan are it.
  • And, right on cue, here’s a great example of defining tyranny down: an Atlantic piece called “The Tyranny of the College Major.” I’m pretty sure the author, Humboldt State philosophy professor J.W. Powell, didn’t write the headline, so I’ll give him a pass, but come on, Atlantic. That faux pas aside, the article is a pitch for basically inverting higher ed: instead of having a common major and a grab bag of GEs, a school would have a common “Great Books” style core, and then students would undertake 3 minor-load fields of study. I find this idea appealing, but it’s a pipe dream for all of the reasons Powell lays out in the piece. Still, I am all for making college harder and less obviously utilitarian. Maybe then big businesses would stop using universities as free (free to them, that is) job training, and our economy could be a place where folks who don’t want to go to college but who are still totally fit for white-collar work aren’t doomed.
  • I have been writing some film criticism lately, so I was pleased to stumble across (or Twitter across?) this short Richard Brody post on The New Yorker‘s website about the role of the film critic now that more information about more films is readily available to anyone with Internet access (so most people who’d want to read film criticism). I particularly like the following observation: “The rise of independent filmmaking has given rise to its own downside: the writer-director, in that order. Many of the worst independent films are marked by the sense that the filmmakers, who wrote their own scripts, became directors largely to protect their scripts and to transmit their content to the screen as purely as possible. In classic Hollywood, it was the producer who kept directors bound to scripts, and the great Hollywood directors were always those who—regardless of what the credits say—had a great deal of input in the scripts and even changed them on the set, in spite of possible resistance from producers. In the decadent form of independent filmmaking, such constraints are self-imposed.”
  • Sarah Kendzior, whom Ryan has written about before, is a fantastic writer. I don’t always agree with her, and I get the impression that her politics are more radical than my own, but her latest post for Chronicle Vitae is spot on. The role of academic publishing in the higher ed labor market is not talked about enough, especially in light of the fact that it seems to exist solely to prop up the tenure system at this point. Most academics aren’t making money off of their UP monographs, and they usually end up getting read by maybe a dozen people. Meanwhile, activities like blogging, creative writing, popular press publishing, and journalism often don’t count towards tenure and promotions. Higher ed needs to undergo a lot of pretty fundamental transformations in relation to how it allocates money, but another major change that needs to happen is within departments themselves: they need to encourage their faculty to think of themselves as teachers first, as public writers second, and as academic researchers (a very distant) third. Crazy, I know. This kind of thinking is probably why I’m not on the tenure track. Frankly, I’m happy not to be.

Weekend Beats: Wealthiest Gentlemen Only

I’m at home on this Saturday night watching the Warriors-Pelicans game and working on a few writing projects that just don’t want to get done. Maybe that’s someone’s version of the American Dream, but as an Angeleno, I often feel like I’m letting the city down on nights like these. I’m supposed to be out getting bottle service at some art gallery opening, or discovering a terrifyingly authentic taco joint in a sketchy corner of Echo Park run by tatted teenagers, right? But no, I am making breakfast burritos and cursing at the Warriors’s bench as it appears determined to blow a 10-point lead.

And that’s fine. I’m still a young man in America. “Indeed there will be time” for partaaaaying. Or there won’t be, and my halcyon days are behind me (or never were). In any case, the Internet can bring at least a piece of the hip life to my modestly appointed (read: mostly second-hand furniture, books as a decorating scheme, too many unframed posters on the walls) apartment. Classixx have long been one of my favorite DJ teams, and I’ve had the good fortune of seeing them perform a couple different times when I wasn’t expecting it. Their music is, simply, cool. It doesn’t try too hard to convince you that the dudes making it are virtuosos with record collections built to intimidate regular people. It realizes that people go to the party to have a good time, not worship the DJs.

And yet these guys are damn good. Few DJ acts hold up over the course of a whole album, but Classixx’s first full studio release, 2013’s Hanging Gardens, does. So if you’re at home dreaming of your misspent disco youth, I offer you Hanging Gardens and the song that first made me a Classixx fan, their Miami Vice-sleaze remix of Phoenix’s “Lisztomania.” Hell, maybe it’ll even inspire you (or me?) to go out into the night and stir it up!

Weekend Beats: Another Gentleman Loser

Steely Dan might be the weirdest rock band ever. Their music isn’t prog rock; it’s not precisely jazz rock; and it’s definitely not rock rock. It’s telling that no hipster band sounds much like them. I doubt anyone with the technical chops to do so also possesses the literate weirdness to write some of Fagen and Becker’s lyrics, like these from my favorite Steely Dan song, “Deacon Blues”:

My back to the wall
A victim of laughing chance
This is for me
The essence of true romance
Sharing the things we know and love
With those of my kind
That stagger the mind

I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet
I’ll rise when the sun goes down
Cover every game in town
A world of my own
I’ll make it my home sweet home

And here’e where we come back to Ryan’s previous post about bachelor television. Steely Dan’s music is some of the most technically polished and esoteric in rock history, while their lyrics often reveal anxieties about aging, not being able to really connect with the people around you (especially women), and driving for the sake of driving. It’s rock that stinks of bach, but not the professional kind Hefner was selling in Chicago, or the suntan oil crisped kind he hawked after moving his operation to the westside of Los Angeles. Instead, it’s inebriated insecurity where you can never really cut loose. You’re drunk but know it, and think everyone is laughing at your shirt that doesn’t really fit well, your cheap haircut, your bookishness. There’s so little swagger in a chorus like this:

Tell me where are you driving
Midnight cruiser
Where is your bounty
Of fortune and fame
I am another
Gentlemen loser
Drive me to Harlem
Or somewhere the same

That’s bach that disappears into the night assuming it won’t end in glory. It’s a perpetual motion machine that spins in circles, gaining more momentum in its death spiral. And yet it’s funny as hell. It knows enough to be in on the joke, to in fact make it before anyone else can, a central philosophical point in perhaps the greatest bachelor novel ever written, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.* I’d never claim Steely Dan as my favorite band, but damn if they don’t make a ton of sense. So enjoy their first album on me.


*I hope to write a longer post about this incredible novel in the near future.

Sunday Links

Sorry it’s been a little while since I last posted. The eating and lazing about of the holidays were really taxing. If you’re still recovering from that kind of exertion, you can at least exercise your brain by reading some of the following pieces:

  • Many of the pundits on my Twitter feed are still discussing/making fun of David Brooks’ editorial about how his teenage pot use made him wary of the successful movements in Colorado and Washington to at least decriminalize the possession of a plant. This comes not too long after another Brooks piece caused Twitter to get all twitterpated because he frankly trounced Tom Scocca in the snark/smarm debate. His pot piece is evocative, but it’s also nicely illustrative of the blind spot many middle-class white Americans have about weed laws: for one segment of society, marijuana possession has been de facto legal for a long, long time. They take for granted that the worst results of smoking dope are productivity losses and “moral decay” (clutch your pearls, America), ignoring that the poor and non-whites have to worry about doing hard time for getting high. David Brooks is the voice of the people whose biggest concern is embarrassing themselves during a class presentation, and putting that perspective on display is a useful reminder that paternalism is the default political mode of both the rich right and left.
  • Noah Millman, the liberal art and culture critic on the staff of The American Conservative, has done something fun for the start of the new year. Instead of giving us “25 Movies to Look Forward to in 2014,” as so many other publications have done, he’s asking us to look back, and not just at 2013, which was an amazing year for film. His list of films to see again is almost all gems, but more importantly it accords with how most of us consume media now. The new is often too expensive, especially when so much of the old is available at the press of a button and for pennies a view. And art changes as we age. Every year I read The Great Gatsby to understand what my values and priorities are and how they are shifting. It’s a slightly new book each time, because I am a slightly new man with each passing year. One film I intend to revisit this year is Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which I probably haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan, but I remember simultaneously enjoying and not totally understanding this move when I saw it at 21. Maybe now’s the time. What movies will you re-watch in 2014? Tell us in the comments section, or on Twitter!
  • Ryan and I have probably expended too much virtual ink on the subject of what’s wrong with higher ed, but a couple recent pieces are worth noting, as they both compare the bleak future of university education to mass retail culture. Timothy Pratt’s Atlantic article on the ways in which credentialism is fundamentally changing the bachelor’s degree isn’t terribly original, but it contains a money quote from Boston College’s Karen Arnold: “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate.” Not to be outdone, Gabriel Kahn at Slate dubs Southern New Hampshire University “the Amazon of higher education,” where students are customers, and where online degree students prop up what was once a failing brick and mortar college. If you’ve been reading TGR for the past few months, you know what my rather un-PC prescription is for this ailment: we need to radically overhaul K-12 to make it much more rigorous so that going to college isn’t necessary for people who have no interest in doing so. At 18, you should be able to go out in to the “business world” and get a job that will eventually lead you to a comfortable life if you work hard. You shouldn’t have to take online or in-person classes that you don’t care about in order to be middle class. It’s a waste of your money and time, and it takes away resources from people who actually do want to be in college. In a saner, more egalitarian economy, we’d have many fewer colleges, many fewer college professors, many fewer grad students and adjuncts, and many fewer college graduates, because people would have the freedom to pursue what actually interests them. I’m aware that none of this will happen, but I’m sick of watching Silicon Valley, Washington DC, Wall Street, state governments, and university administrators like the guy at SNHU (though he’s hardly unique) destroy traditional education and drive young people deeper and deeper into debt and despair for degrees that aren’t worth the virtual paper they’re not written on.
  • Finally, a bit of shameless plugging. I wrote a review of James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for Southern Spaces. Read it if you like. I am also currently working on a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave for the same publication, so stay tuned!

Keep the Post-Christmas Depression at Bay

I’m always struck by how few Christmas movies are broadcast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You basically have to watch A Christmas Story (according to Twitter, I might be the only person who still likes that movie) twelve times or go without. So I probably should have posted this before Christmas so that folks could have supplemented what was a pretty boring slate of basketball games (the teams in New York should be ashamed) with my favorite Christmas movie from childhood, A Muppet Family Christmas.

Muppets, the Sesame Street gang, AND the Fraggles? It’s like a supergroup that doesn’t suck (probably because it doesn’t feature Ted Nugent). Unfortunately, this version of the movie doesn’t feature the original commercials from the television broadcast, but it’s still a good reminder that Christmas specials don’t need to have special guest appearances by reality TV “personalities” or country music stars. They can just tell simple stories about people (or strange talking animals and things) who want to hang out and sing. Happy Boxing Day!