Saturday Links: Fighting the Bloat

We’ve all made bad choices over the last few days. Our guts are in states of revolt, and we feel encased in thin layers of booze and butter. It will take weeks of kale and green tea to make this right. Running is necessary, but so awful. Sitting. Sitting and reading is the thing. So here are some items to sit and read while our bodies try and undo the damage we’ve done.

  • If you need to feel better about the amount of wine (and other spirits) you imbibed over the last few days, this little post about James Boswell’s Book of Company and Liquors should do the trick. Boswell is one of this blog’s patron saints, along with Hitchens, Amis, Didion, Faulkner, Baldwin… The man was a spectacular writer and drinker, and an unreconstructed lech. The fact that he recorded what he and his dinner guests drank is not at all surprising, as he basically kept accounts of everything in his life, like Fitzgerald did in his ledgers. But the amount of booze he and his bros drank in a given night is just shocking. How the man made it even to 55 is something scientists should be studying.
  • John Warner’s Just Visiting blog over at The Chronicle of Higher Ed is always worth your time, but his latest post about what to do about the sad state of higher ed is required reading. He echoes a lot of what we’ve been saying on this blog for a long time, but his sense that we should do “nothing” about our schools might rub some people the wrong way, particularly progressives and libertarian technophiles who think that every problem needs an innovative solution. Warner’s “nothing” isn’t nothing though. He’s saying that we need to STOP doing the things that aren’t working, like buying kids iPads, devising “better” tests, and constantly changing our standards. How about we just focus on teaching kids to read, write, and reason? I know, sounds revanchist and crazy. Best to keep innovating, because that’s worked out so well.
  • The 92nd Street Y in New York has hosted an eclectic series of speakers and performers since it opened its doors over a hundred years ago. Now you can watch videos of over 1,000 of these events on their website. This is the kind of digital education we can get behind.
  • Good lord, the art world is shady. If you need further proof, check out the documentaries The Art of the Steal (streaming on Netflix) and Stolen.
  • Thanks to Adam Ted Jacobson for sending me this link to Thomas Frank’s latest dose of truth. Frank is that rare writer who can write a positive review of something while also questioning its entire purpose. This piece might be his most on-point yet.

I’m Not Dead Yet!

A few articles making the rounds this week capture the mixed-upness of our feelings about the “value” of writing in today’s society. According to some people, the novel has been dying for quite some, leading critic Sam Sacks to write that “[t]he vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom.” Most of the people poking the novel’s exquisite corpse well know that plenty of people still read on beaches, in planes, and sitting in armchairs. The novel, then, isn’t dead or even dying; it’s just not novel enough for some critics. It moved out to the suburbs and invested in some durable, comfy pants.

Now, I’m by no means saying that I think enough people are sitting around reading serious fiction. I find it particularly distressing how many young people I’ve come across in the past decade or so of teaching at highly selective colleges who not only haven’t read many seminal and age-appropriate classics (The Sun Also RisesThe Age of InnocenceBlack Boy, etc.), but can’t name a single novel of any kind that they’ve read within the past few years. It seems that many stopped reading for pleasure once they finished the Harry Potter series, and found ways around actually doing the work in their vaunted AP classes. Thanks, SparkNotes.

Obviously, this isn’t the case for all of my students, and I’ve had and continue to have some who read and write for pleasure. And many, when forced to write for or about themselves, produce thoughtful work. But landing a decent job teaching, writing, or writing about literature feels as realistic as becoming a professional athlete these days, so even kids who are passionate about literature end up majoring in something like Business (whatever that actually entails) or, if they’re smart, one of the science fields. Reading and writing are weekend pursuits, if that.

Regardless of their major, most of these young people spend a good chunk of their time on social media (increasingly Instagram and Tumblr over Facebook) and watching streaming videos via one of hundreds of services, most of which I’ve never heard of. This probably explains why when asked to write about about the status of the written word today, they often end up saying something remarkably similar to the point former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch makes in a recent piece over at Real Clear Politics. His argument is a warmed-over mixture of Orwell, Carr, and Postman (who himself parroted a lot of McLuhan), but I liked the following passage, if only for its use of the word “devaluing”:

In the century and a half since [the Civil War], we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.

Still (and later moving) images have been a fundamental tool of personal and group expression dating back to cave paintings. Writing itself is a stylized form of the still image, so the sharp distinction Raasch draws between the two is debatable on first terms. But I get what he means, and I think students sense this too, especially when they tell me that they don’t like writing. Full stop. What they mean is that it’s hard to write well, and given the seeming dominance of visual culture, they aren’t sure if all the work it takes to write good prose is actually worth it. In other words, they aren’t sure how valuable writing actually is and will be going forward.

If you read this this blog, you like reading and writing, and are probably old enough to know that being able to write well actually has tangible benefits in the “real” (“business”) world. It may not make you a millionaire, but it’s a skill that you can pair with other skills (and gobs of charm) to support a decent middle-class life. But it’s hard to see this sometimes, particularly when one is young, and I don’t think that a piece like Raasch’s actually helps make the case for the importance of writing, especially because the idea of writing losing its “value” seems silly when you read about the $2 million advance Knopf recently gave Garth Risk Hallberg for the right publish his first novel, City on Fire. You read that correctly. A guy who hasn’t published a novel yet is getting a solid middle-infielder’s payday. Sure, this sum could be based on future film royalties Knopf hopes to get from an adaptation, but that’s still a hell of a lot of money for 900 pages of words our culture supposedly doesn’t value.

Writing isn’t dying any more than the novel itself is dying. False declarations to this effect do more harm to the written word than Instagram or Netflix ever will. Where and how we read are changing, and the relationship between image and text is more important than ever. It is up to people who appreciate good writing of all kinds to make it clear to young people that writing matters because writing is everywhere and bound up with everything they will do if they want a stimulating career and life.

Just Stop

Jonathan Franzen is the second best essayist of his generation, just behind David Foster Wallace.* Amanda Hess is the 12,067th best essayist of her generation, so you can imagine the tenor and quality of her burn on Franzen over at “XX,” Slate‘s answer to a question Jezebel never asked. Sure, Franzen should get some ribbing for his long, fist-shaking Guardian article about how just about everything sucks now (even though he’s basically right). But that ribbing shouldn’t read like a drunk-text written by a college sophomore three weeks into her first Media Studies class. Hess writes:

Literature’s preeminent dude-bro took out his frustrations at a girl he “decided” not to have sex with (isn’t that how it always happens!) by fantasizing about old women destroying their bodies as they scrounge after his discarded fortunes. Franzen writes that he learned to overcome his youthful anger when he became a novelist, and was moved to empathize with other humans in the service of great literature; “to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not” is the “mental work that fiction fundamentally requires,” he now understands.

But Franzen is less enthused about the prospect of other humans actually responding to his stories—or, God forbid, telling their own stories without the aid of Franzen’s refined literary filter. Since Franzen came into this world in 1959 and human communication promptly went to hell in a handbasket—by the way, does that make Jonathan Franzen one of the horsemen of his own apocalypse?—people who do not look like Jonathan Franzen have leveraged the explosion of literary outlets to publish their own writing, tell their own experiences, and gain voices in the conversation. (Jennifer Weiner has already filed her response to Franzen’s essay in The New Republic, in a piece entitled, “What Jonathan Franzen Misunderstands About Me.”) But Franzen fails to draw any connection between the segregated swimming pools of his youth and his own ability to “find my place” as a writer in the long tail of that old world. Franzen briefly acknowledges the diversity argument just to knock it down. He expresses disappointment with the literary magazine N+1, which he says “denigrates print magazines as terminally ‘male,’ celebrates the internet as ‘female,’ and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.”

If Franzen had published his wistful German train station anecdote today, the “penny-pinching old German woman” could tweet evidence of Franzen’s insufficient tip; the hot girl could tell the world how their interaction really went down in an xoJane IHTM. That doesn’t mean that writers today have lost the ability to seriously explore the human condition. It means that a much wider and diverse group of humans now has the power to inform privileged literary voices like Franzen about what the conditions are actually like on the ground.

Honestly, I don’t even think Hess knows what she’s trying to say here. Cliched “he’s a bad tipper” Reddit posts and the just pathetic “please, somebody validate me” tripe of the reality TV/blogging/vlogging/TVlogging-sphere are not “conditions on the ground.” They are cries for help from people who can’t deal with the fact that the world hasn’t recognized how special they are, not literary criticism. Jonathan Franzen couldn’t care less about folks tweeting at him, let alone second-rate pop-feminist blogs saying that he does. But as Jennifer Wiener has made clear, there are second careers to be had griping in Franzen’s wake.

*For the record, I think Joan Didion is probably the greatest essayist of any generation.

We Should be Concerned

Peyton Manning’s 7 TD, 450-yard passing performance the other night leads me to believe that this NFL season will be one of the best yet, as the league’s talent level among both players and coaches has never been higher. That’s a statement that could get me hissed at by some old people who think the game peaked with Johnny Unitas or Dan Marino, but I stand by it. But the recent massive settlement the NFL reached with former players about the still-not-totally understood ramifications of football-related concussions reveals that all’s not well in the NFL, and watching the first game the other night was enough to make me queasy: heads snapping back and forth after guys took massive hits; knees bending the wrong way as three-hundred-pound men undercut other three-hundred-pound men; and subtler blows on every play that could be stripping these men of the ability to function later in life. Football is a nasty, awful sport that no kid of mine will play. And, of course, I’ll watch every game I can this year. Call me a hypocrite. It fits.

I have no time for people who hate on sports or act like they aren’t a significant part of what constitutes a culture. You’re allowed to be uninterested, but not dismissive. In general, Americans love sports, and in this way we’re not unlike people in other countries. However, our relationship with sports is uniquely screwed up. In a short and smart “Daily Comment” over at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert thinks about the ramifications of the fact that sports play such a central role at many American high schools. She writes:

…I was watching my fourteen-year-old twins play soccer. It was the day before school began, but they had already been going to J.V. soccer practice two hours a day for nearly two weeks. I wondered what would have happened if their math teacher had tried to call them in two weeks before school started to hold two-hour drill sessions. My sons would have been livid, as would every other kid in their class. Perhaps even more significant, I suspect that parents would have complained. What was the math teacher doing, trying to ruin the kids’ summer? And why should they have to make a special trip to the high school so their kids could study trig identities?

As she makes clear, we miss the point when we worry about or praise the effect of playing sports on a kid’s academic performance. What we should be concerned about is the messages we send when we make sports seem like a stitch that holds the fabric of education together. It isn’t true. In other countries, people who are excellent at sports are paid from young ages to train and entertain. And other kids either throw pickup games together. In the U.S., kids are taught to do it for their schools. For free. Who cares if the schools they’re doing it for aren’t giving them rigorous educations? FOOTBALL!

Obviously, this problem continues on past high school into higher education, where it gets even smarmier. Major college football and basketball programs serve as de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA, and small college programs exist to entice alums to donate money. There’s nothing essential to the educational mission of a university about a football program sending hundreds of people on chartered flights to go give concussions to kids at another school. And yet today I’m sure I will find myself watching several college football games . Again, hypocrite. Meanwhile:

Poland is a surprising educational success story: in the course of less than a decade, the country raised students’ test scores from significantly below average for the developed world to significantly above it; Polish kids now outscore American kids in math and science, even though Poland spends, on average, less than half as much per student as the United States does. One of the most striking differences between the high school Tom attended in Gettysburg and the one he ends up at in Wroclaw is that the latter has no football team, or, for that matter, teams of any kind.

Nothing to see here, folks. Enjoy the games.



Et tu, Obama?

As is usually the case in these matters, I agree with everything Ryan wrote the other day about President Obama’s farcical plan to “win the future” by devising a federal rating system for colleges and universities. No doubt the President and his mandarins will be able to create a totally ungameable system that will not encourage waste, fraud, and abuse, the holy trinity of government cliches. University administrators will definitely see it as an opportunity to invest in high quality undergraduate education, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Obama’s doubling down on the kind of systematic education policies of the Bush administration is right up there on his list of follies with his failure to close Guantanamo and his fulsome embrace of the surveillance state. And, like Ryan, I say this as someone who voted for the guy twice, and who thinks he’s done some helpful things in the face of unprecedented opposition. But good grief, whenever he opens his mouth and talks about higher education, I cringe. Like Jonathan Chait, Obama appears to think universities should be like factories where “skills” are fastened onto students like lasers onto toy robots. I doubt his own college career at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard bore much resemblance to the melange of MOOCs, huge classes taught by adjuncts, and standardized tests his new gold-plated system will inspire. We’re well on our way there already.

I know we’ve said it a thousand times, you guys, but if the politicians and pundits who profess to care about college and college students so much actually did, they would sit back and think about what made their own college experiences so helpful: difficult, small courses taught by secure faculty members; a focus on cultivating critical thinking skills by making students read and write about hard texts, some even written a long time ago; universities that actually thought of themselves as universities, not mini-hedge funds; and an administrative class that didn’t wag the dog, or at least that was staffed by people who cared about undergraduates.

The President should work on fixing our broken economy so that people who don’t actually have any interest in going to college don’t feel like they have to take out huge loans to enroll in online classes that are basically just cut and pasted from Wikipedia and a few out of date textbooks. If our choices in life are college or McDonald’s, we’re no superpower. Or he could start pressuring states to fix our criminally mismanaged K-12 systems. Or (here comes the pipe dream), he could start talking about the virtues of higher education being difficult and not for everyone. He could use the bully pulpit to make Plato, trigonometry, James Baldwin, coding, and Spanish, seem like things worth working hard to understand because they will help you lead a more interesting life and figure out a way to make decent money because you’re a well-rounded, savvy, likable person. He could talk about these things. But he won’t.

Summer Reading

This list from BuzzFeed of the 65 books (why 65?) you should read in your 20s is a few months old at this point, but I thought it worth sharing. I have been out of my 20s for over a year now, and the end of that decade did coincide with some pretty big events in my life (finished grad school at 29, got engaged at 30), but I don’t think this had much to do with my 20s winding down. It’s just how it happened to play out. Being 31 doesn’t feel intrinsically different from being 28, so I’m not sure why this list is limited the way it is. Perhaps they actually mean that you should read these books in your early 20s, but even that is dubious. The point is that books change as we age, and this is why rereading is important. Not a radical idea, but maybe you only first realize this in your 20s because you’re finally starting to make decisions on your own. And all of this is predicated on being privileged enough to avoid having your adult life start at like 16 in a coal mine. The ennui of the college-educated is gross, but it’s something a lot of BuzzFeed readers (myself included) know well, so I guess that’s what this list is really about.

But for god’s sake, if you’re going to make of list of what post-college drifting 20-somethings should read, how can leave off the greatest post-college drifter novel of all time? I’ll simply give you a telling passage:

“You two start on home, Daisy,” said Tom. “In Mr. Gatsby’s car.”

She looked at Tom, alarmed now, but he insisted with magnanimous scorn.

“Go on. He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous
little flirtation is over.”

They were gone, without a word, snapped out, made accidental, isolated,
like ghosts even from our pity.

After a moment Tom got up and began wrapping the unopened bottle of
whiskey in the towel.

“Want any of this stuff? Jordan? . . . Nick?”

I didn’t answer.

“Nick?” He asked again.


“Want any?”

“No . . . I just remembered that today’s my birthday.”

I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a
new decade.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some great and surprising picks on this list. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is incredible and wildly underread. If more people read it because of this listicle (such a gross term), I am fine with it.

So I guess I’ll throw out a question: What books do you think are missing from this BuzzFeed list?

“A Natural Breather Time”

Looks like San Jose State’s outsourced MOOC adventure is off to a bright start. In fact, things are going so well that the school is going to do what American University already has, and just chill for a bit.

Translation from provost-speak to English: “Umm, we decided to do this, and facts aren’t going to change that now. Move along. As soon as you people stop paying attention to what we’re doing, we can go back to doing it.”

Strange Bedfellows

As Ryan has pointed out, it’s hard for us to not comment a lot about the state of higher education because we both have a vested interest in seeing it not completely destroy itself. It’s a topic that makes for strange bedfellows and challenges the political categories we all too easily apply to ourselves and others. For instance, Bob Samuels is the president of UC-AFT (the union that represents non-tenured faculty in the University of California system), while Alan Jacobs teaches at Baylor University and writes for The American Conservative. By conventional metrics, one is a progressive and one is a traditionalist Christian conservative, but both have written a lot about how the push toward eliminating small classes in favor of MOOCs is a terrible idea for students. Both Samuels and Jacobs are educational conservationists. These aren’t people opposed to making meaningful changes to the way universities are run (everyone but administrators admit that administrative bloat must be reversed), but rather people who want to conserve what higher education does best:  introducing students to new ideas and people through lectures, personal instruction, debates, and meaningful face-to-face social interaction. Having to share space with someone and their ideas is a really powerful thing. As anyone who reads internet comment boards knows, the web specializes in letting us (and training us to) talk past one another because the other person isn’t actually there to respond. This is one of the reasons why segregation, whether written into the law, de facto, by choice, or via technology is so awful: it prevents us from doing the messy work of having to argue with others, defend our own positions, and think on the fly. There is no lag-time in real life, and no substitute for having to look someone in the eye and treat him as a real, valid human being, even as he says things that challenge your sense of how the world works. That’s an education, and the kind that will benefit one in almost any career.

Similarly, the folks running down traditional educational models and/or pimping MOOCmania are also an eclectic bunch. From Ivy League-educated “libertarians,” to the virtuous conservative Bill Bennett, to the mostly Democratic mandarins of Silicon Valley, the crew trying to tell us how traditional models of education are outdated is hard to pin down politically. So, to borrow a term from one of our favorites here at TRG, Evgeny Morozov, these folks can best be understood as “solutionists.” They see a problem (and as Ryan and I have made clear, there are tons of problems in higher ed that have nothing to do with MOOCs), and their first instinct is to blow things up. They also love blaming professors, as if professors run universities (or even university systems) anymore. There are reformers who aren’t “solutionists,” like Vance Fried, and while I don’t agree with some of his ideas (consolidating all of the humanities into one major is dumb, and he seemingly thinks teaching 5 writing-intensive classes is the same as teaching 5 sections of algebra), I at least get the sense that he understands that education is about much more than the transmission of information. People of good faith can disagree about how to fix things, but they must sincerely be interested in fixing things in order for the conversations to be productive.

The latest smart take from the “hey, maybe we should be a bit more critical of MOOCs and the people who are pushing them” camp comes from Scott L. Newstok, a professor at Rhodes College. His basic thesis is so simple and obvious that I am amazed that it hadn’t occurred to me:

The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level “training.” But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.

Newstok’s entire piece is worth reading, as is Alan Jacobs’ response, wherein he reminds us to spend less time listening to the solutionists, and more time observing them:

If physical presence is as important in education as the technologists’s actions say it is, then perhaps their energies are misapplied. Instead of looking for ways to eliminate or bypass brick-and-mortar schools — and, not incidentally, making a hefty profit for themselves in doing so — maybe they should bend their considerable intellectual powers to the more challenging, less destructive, and far more meaningful challenge of making college education more affordable for everyone who can truly benefit from it.

And lest you think that conservationists are simply trying to prop up traditional learning models in order to line their own pockets, and are therefore no different from the Silicon Valley folks trying to tear these models down, keep this in mind: 75% of people teaching at American universities aren’t tenure-track, will never make salaries comparable to what people in the tech sector make at mid-career, and could actually probably make a lot more money by jumping on the MOOC train now.