Early Summer Reading

My grades have been in for a little over two weeks now. I’ve yet to get a complaint from a student about said grades, so I think it might be safe to call it: summer is here. Now, I realize that for everyone not working in education, summer is just a hotter version of the rest of the year. Maybe there are more weekend cookouts. Maybe more white wine is uncorked. Maybe there’s a pilgrimage to some family homestead. But, dammit, even if you don’t get a real summer (and the truth is that most people working in education don’t really have that much time off either, what with summer teaching, course prep, and assorted kinds of career development), there’s a chance that on a warm summer afternoon, you might find yourself with a little time to read. The following are some suggestions for how to fill that time, though we will have more throughout the summer.

  • Let’s just get this one out of the way first. If you’ve yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” you should carve out about an hour and do so. Coates is acknowledged, even by many of his conservative critics, as a great writer. His blog posts and articles about the Civil War, his trip to France, and being a black man in America are always worth reading. Like many writers, his blog posts can be messy, but they’re always lucid, and his longform, and I’d assume more stringently edited pieces, are good examples of what I wish more academics would produce. That is to say, I wish academics, many of whom allegedly study narrative and rhetoric, would spend less time theorizing, and more time time telling compelling stories about the world as it was, is, and could be. When it comes down to it, glossing Foucault doesn’t do what Coates does in the passage below. The tenure system’s perverse relationship with academic publishing is part of what will eventually be the undoing of many colleges and universities. The places that survive will do so because they understand that teaching and public scholarship, like Coates’ work and that of Yunte Huang (notice that he lists “writer” first), are more important than impenetrable “studies” that no one reads.

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

  • If you’re in the mood for something a little shorter, Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly just nails why people in Los Angeles should sneer at the culture in San Francisco (and not the other way around). Having grown up in the Bay Area, it’s pretty appalling to see what’s happened to the place. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a utopian mindset that makes me glad it was people like Axl Rose taking buses out to LA instead of people like Eric Schmidt. When people in San Francisco are done “disrupting” the world, they should consider the following, per Romero:

It’s the Bay that has become a parody of smug white privilege… The preachiness of a McMansion-dwelling Westsider telling you to conserve energy will never be as annoying as some Silicon Valley trust-funder telling you he’s going to change the world when you know all he really wants to do is change his wallet. One is trying. One is lying. 

  • The New York Review of Books is always on its game, but I especially love when it produces a little gem of an article about something I previously knew almost nothing about. It does this all the time, mostly because, like most people I really don’t know all that much. So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my familiarity with the life of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president and the grandfather of one of America’s weirdest intellectuals, was, uh, lacking. Thanks to Susan Dunn, I now know that JQ Adams had a frustrating marriage, hated slavery, was addicted to politics, knew both Washington and Lincoln, was mocked for lobbying for better education and scientific research, and was a total dick to his children. As Ryan and I like to say, “In America!”
  • Finally, this isn’t strictly a reading recommendation, but a film about a voracious reader and writer seems like an appropriate substitute (famous last words…) Plimpton!, the latest American Masters biopic is  about, wait for it, George Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review and “participatory journalist” who famously tried his hand at many different glamorous professions, mostly within the sporting world. He turned these experiences into big pieces for Sports Illustrated, and sometimes later into books. He also wrote light novels, showed up in movies, and had his own falconry video game for ColecoVision (yes, this was a real thing). But I think Plimpton was most important as a curator of an American literary culture that took itself seriously, but also knew how to have a good time. One that wasn’t so political, whiny, and boring. One that didn’t give two shits about MFA programs or “critical theory.” One that would have laughed at “trigger warnings” (thanks, UCSB) and “splaining.” Oh, I know, he was a rich kid who basically just didn’t screw up his life, but I really don’t care. The guy loved writers and writing in a way that most people (including many writers) don’t, so that earns him a lot of points in my book.



Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.

Fragments of Pascal’s Fragments: On the “Pensées”

In one of his letters, Wallace Stevens claims, “I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so” (1).  He admits dipping into a “little philosophy” sometimes—no “serious contact . . . because I have not the memory”—”in the spirit” of a friend who had renounced studied, interpretive reading in favor of “read[ing] it as a substitute for fiction,” as though Locke and Nietzsche were vagrant storytellers (2).

That is probably a useful way for poets to approach any discourse that systematizes, abstracts, or otherwise tries to theorize the mess of lived experience into some conceptual framework. Poets are into a different kind of human record-keeping. Whatever philosophizing they do is only one part of a congeries of effects: sound, syntax, image, rhythm, form, metaphor, allusion, association, narrative, intuition, characterization. Philosophy is salt in the soup, too much and it tastes wretched. “I am sorry that a poem . . . has to contain any ideas at all,” Stevens apologized elsewhere, “because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it” (3).

Most philosophy bores the shit out of me. Or rather, while the practice of philosophy is great, I dislike most of the texts I encountered in classrooms. This is shameful and lazy, I know. I tried my best in college, taking seminars on Eighteenth-Century Empiricism, and again during graduate school, where I pretended to care about the philosophers and theorists I was then reading. I still enjoy Plato (from what I recall) on matters of the soul; Nietzsche can be funny, and J.S. Mill is tidy; cribbing from George Scialabba’s essays is a pleasure; and I can definitely get behind indeterminate weirdos like Gaston Bachelard. Oh, and Blaise Pascal. Love Pascal.

The Pensées were not published during Pascal’s life (1623-1662). He didn’t even leave a title, because there was no book yet, only a mass of lapidary fragments, some comprising a few paragraphs, many just a sentence or two. Some are probably close to the form they would have been published in. Many are rougher. But Pascal was a fine prose stylist and a mensch, so they’re all engaging. After his death, friends and family assembled the material into what is essentially the text we have today. I use the Oxford paperback translation, the introduction to which will tell you more than I can (4).

I like fragmentary texts (5). The preference probably has something to do with my disorganized poet brain (6). More importantly though, such works seem true to what life is actually like. This resonance becomes even stronger when a text is literally unfinished, fragmentary because of some event in the writer’s life (usually his death). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, meant to be a unified theory of modern life but scuttled when the Nazis drove him to suicide, is an example. You could throw in some classical Greek or Roman poets if you want to talk lost texts.

Texts can also be fragmented—or at least rhetorically, aesthetically, and philosophically jumbled—by design or genre convention. Think of shaggy dogs like Tristram Shandy, Gothic encyclopedias in the vein of Moby-Dick, total jumbos like Bleak House, a book about paper and bureaucracy. Writers’ journals are great, too: Pepys, Kafka, Woolf, Boswell (an Enlightenment satyr with radar for strong drink), Cheever, Plath (more stuff about cookbooks and good housekeeping than you’d imagine). Jules Renard: man, that guy is awesome. Many letter collections rock, particularly the letters of poets—get Lord Byron’s when you can. Then there is table talk and other types of recorded conversation, such as Faulkner in the University. Plus epigrams like Martial’s.

Samuel Coleridge wins the fragment gold medal. Not only did he leave behind unfinished poems, unfinished lectures, unfinished letters, an unfinished critical behemoth (the Biographia Literaria), and sterling table talk (“Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory” [7]), he also kept a notebook of midnight hashings: “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments, and, as it were, representations of all preceding and embryos of all future thought, lie compact in any one moment! . . . and yet the whole a means to nothing—ends everywhere, and yet an end nowhere” (8).

Anyway, where was I. The Pensées. It is/they are fantastic. You can wander for hours in this thing. You might set it aside for months, only to open it at random when the urge strikes, and it probably will. Reading a bit of Pascal leads to more Pascal. He intended this material to be a religious treatise, but its humanism is of such breadth and warmth that you can set the Christian apparatus aside, or at least make it share space with other approaches (9).

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the "Dance of Death" series (1549)

Hans Holbein, woodcut from the “Dance of Death” series (1549)

Within it all, one question: How do we spend our time before we don’t have any more time? That’s Death above, jumping out on a medieval bro.

In Pascal’s writing this often leads to the problem of boredom. We get bored easily. This anxiety bubbles inside his ruminations on classical authors, political power, Scripture, paganism, wine drinking (the gist: moderation), aesthetics, labor, sports, Montaigne, social ritual, spiritual hierarchies, and other human pastimes. Why would any of us be bored? For him, only the contemplation of God’s love would scratch the itch; for many of you general readers, I suspect, such faith is no longer something to grasp, even though we’ve still got all the itching—in forms like boredom—to which Christianity is one response.

Here are some choice bits arranged at random, in the spirit of the Pensées. Like a true #failedintellectual, I’ve cited them by page and fragment number in the Oxford English translation; slashes indicate paragraph-ish breaks within the fragments. You’ll find it all downright modern. Pascal would have understood iPhones and Twitter.

Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety (10, his italics).

I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. [. . .] That is why we like noise and activity so much. That is why imprisonment is such a horrific punishment. That is why the pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible. That is, in fact, the main joy of the condition of kingship, because people are constantly trying to amuse kings and provide them with all sorts of distraction.—The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to entertain him and prevent him from thinking about himself. King though he may be, he is unhappy if he thinks about it (11).

The feeling of the inauthenticity of present pleasures and our ignorance of the emptiness of absent pleasures causes inconstancy (12).

The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion. We think about either our present afflictions or our future ones. Even when we think we are protected on every side, boredom with its own authority does not shrink from appearing from the heart’s depths, where it has its roots, to poison the mind (13).

It is not good to be too free. / It is not good to have everything necessary (14).

We are so unhappy that we can only take pleasure in something on condition that we should be allowed to become angry if it goes wrong (15).

It is unfair that anyone should be devoted to me, although it can happen with pleasure, and freely. I should mislead those in whom I quickened this feeling, because I am no one’s ultimate end, and cannot satisfy them. Am I not near death? So the object of their attachment will die (16).

When we read too quickly or too slowly we understand nothing (17).

Descartes useless and uncertain (18).

Anybody who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. / And so who does not see it, apart from the young who are preoccupied with bustle, distractions, and plans for the future? / But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom. / Then they feel their hollowness without understanding it, because it is indeed depressing to be in a state of unbearable sadness as soon as you are reduced to contemplating yourself, and without distraction from doing so (19).

Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. A tree does not recognize its own wretchedness. So it is wretched to know one is wretched, but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness (20).

The parrot’s beak, which it wipes even though it is clean (21).

Paul Valéry thought that most texts are never finished, only abandoned. Since you can extend this to the unwritten work of most lives, I’m with Pascal: “I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish” (22). This life thing does bewilder you sometimes, provoking all sorts of bootless cries. “Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?” (23).

1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 636.
2. For what it’s worth, your critic considers much of Stevens’s corpus a lyric parody of philosophical discourse, one meant to tantalize readers of a certain bent with the notion that a poem contains a quantum of Meaning that can be deracinated and subjected to interpretation.
3. Letters of Wallace Stevens, 251.
4. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 2008).
5. That is, if it’s good fragmentary stuff. Not something like Rev. Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies” project in Middlemarch. Everyone hated Casaubon.
6. As Robert Frost claims in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” scholars and poets both “work from knowledge,” but whereas “scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic,” poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Excellent point. See “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), in Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier, 1968), 20.
7. Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 464. It’s true, my home library’s Coleridge is a paperback from 1951. What? You gotta economize.
8. Ibid., 476-477.
9. One can do the same with George Herbert’s poetry and Graham Greene’s novels.
10. Pensées, pp. 36-37, fragment 146. Pascal’s italics.
11. pp. 44-45, frag. 168.
12. p. 107, frag. 107.
13. p. 46, frag. 168.
14. p. 22, frag. 90.
15. p. 22, frag. 89.
16.  p. 7, frag. 15.
17. p. 16, frag. 75.
18. p. 105, frag. 445.
19. p. 16, frag. 70.
20. pp. 36-37, frag. 146.
21. p. 35, frag. 139.
22. p. 8, frag. 24.
23. p. 26, frag. 102.

The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t

In a rearguard action titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum contends that a humanist education helps one learn to “judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them” (26). This critical radar isn’t the province of history and philosophy alone, either. One can develop the capacity for simultaneous skepticism and empathy by reading literature, and I don’t just mean texts like Julius Caesar or All the King’s Men, whose plots entail overtly political entanglements. Witnessing the psychological, sexual, and then legal bind that Dmitri Karamazov gets himself into will also give you a vivid sense of how “making the Right Choice” is sometimes impossible.

Last week, UC Irvine announced that Barack Obama would give this June’s commencement speech. UCI estimates that the logistical complexity of a presidential visit will add around $1 million to the event’s costs; and if you live in northern Orange County, have fun with your weekend driving! That said, I admit that it is pretty cool to get the President for your graduation ceremony instead of some actor or a retired senator.

But if you have spent much time on the General Reader, you know that the editors do not support Mr. Obama’s education policies, particularly his administration’s daft conception of how higher learning (i.e. College) works in theory or in American historical practice. You can read some of our grumblings here and here and here and here.

To be fair, President Obama inherited an education system that, from the pre-K level up to graduate programs, has been terribly damaged by the same forces that are eating away at our whole democracy. His administration didn’t create the preference of state legislatures for spending more on prisons than schools and food stamps; or the metastasis of a sumptuously compensated managerial class that isn’t very good at managing; or the cynical neoliberal reliance on part-time contract labor; or the strange popular faith that a form of magic called Technology will solve all forms of human suffering and lack; or the indifference of citizens who would rather be babysat by their screens than read anything about how their nation operates, because, hey, Candy Crush; or the shifting of financial risks and burdens onto individuals (like the students who acquire debt that will accrue interest at more than twice the Fed prime rate); or the creepy, spreading belief—nourished by a scum-tide of corporate money—that since radically defunded public institutions have a hard time functioning, then we must privatize them and trust that the market will take care of us.

Further, Mr. Obama has had to confront the hysterical wreckage of the Republican Party, an “opposition” that is little more than a proudly irrational mob with an awesome media team. When your opponents’ reaction to literally everything you say or do is UMMDURRRR NAW NO WAY BADMAN, it is difficult to accomplish much. In many respects all the President can do is talk intelligently and patiently.

Luckily, commencements are all about talking. Most speakers go in for pious abstractions about The Value of an Education/Hard Work/Economic Competitiveness. Is it too much to ask that Obama, a man lauded for his eloquence, reject the standard rhetorical fare? After all, most of the the students he is addressing voted for him.

A President’s capacity to persuade the public is limited; if the bully pulpit were still bully, then the Affordable Care Act would have a 90% approval rating and we’d be taxing carbon. But were Mr. Obama to start speaking honestly and in concrete terms about why American higher ed is such a mess, surely the debate over what to do will grow at least slightly more intelligent. His rhetorical support alone would make more room for education reformers who are actually teachers and students, not standardized-testing corporations, textbook publishers, Silicon Valley tech pimps, cornball privateers, or New York Times columnists.

With that in mind, here are some notes to help the President draft his speech. Mr. Obama, if you need more advice, hit me up on Twitter.

  • Since you are speaking at a branch of the greatest public-university system ever built, tell us about the people and ideologies threatening to destroy it. Instead of merely scolding colleges and universities for their tuition rates, you could call out the state legislatures that have spent forty years abdicating their commitment to citizens and thereby driving up those rates. The UC’s present woes did not result from geological forces that nobody could resist; they are the result of actual decisions made by actual people under the influence of a privatization fetish that remains ascendant in the United States. As such these decisions and people can be countered by other decisions and other people who aren’t so dim. Treating “fiscal crises” and “budget cuts” like tectonic shift does nothing but disguise existing problems and create new ones. Just be honest.
  • Many of the students you are addressing have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. The people in the audience who just finished their PhDs? Oh, they have debt, too. This is a great time to demonstrate that you have the stones to support Elizabeth Warren’s proposition that we cut student-loan interest rates in half. And if you really want to show us some Change we can Believe in, announce that you would like to see all student loans become interest-free. People who earned BAs and graduate degrees want to pay off their debts, but artificially elevated interest rates make it hard to do so, especially for those of us who did what you are always asking young people to do, and went into public service. Just be honest.
  • Explain how a return to robust public funding of state universities would ensure that any student able to handle college-level brain work can get an education as good as the ones you and the First Lady received at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. It is fine that you attended private school, but you should commit to ensuring that the public/private distinction has nothing to do with baseline educational quality. Just be honest.
  • Smaller classes, smaller classes, smaller classes. Also, smaller classes. This is what works. You know that, having been educated in small classes at excellent schools. You will send your daughters to colleges that prize small classes. Schools that do not rely primarily on courses with fewer than 25 students should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • You are speaking to an audience from a university that, like almost all American universities, relies heavily on teachers who have little job security. This is bad for the teachers (duh) and their students. Even intimate seminars cannot accomplish much if they are not taught by people who have advanced degrees in their subjects and the material security to develop their pedagogical skills. For the millionth damn time: We cannot depend on adjuncts. America cannot educate its children using temps, no matter how good the temps are; and we are very good. Schools that do not primarily employ full-time, tenure-track teachers should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal.  (As with the bullet point above, a model based on this commitment has already been formulated by Robert Samuels, who teaches in the UC and leads its biggest faculty union. You could totally call him up.) No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • Point out that American schools spend too much money on amenities like sports programs (especially basketball and football programs) and elegant dorms. These financial habits are killing them. Yeah, I had fun filling out my NCAA bracket, too. But if colleges are cheating and stupefying their students by offering them new fitness centers so they won’t care too much about taking classes in overcrowded, crumbling rooms, then fuck our brackets. Just be honest.
  • Remind the administrators in attendance that “retention” targets and quantitative enrollment goals can never be more important than maintaining (or re-establishing) academic rigor. If college classes are not demanding, if they do not ask their participants to read, think, and write a great deal, then GPAs swell up while intellects languish. This hobbles a democracy. Just be honest.
  • You should praise UC upper-management for recently (finally) signing a humane labor deal with the union that represents the system’s poorest employees, and emphasize that income inequality, which you have declared “the defining challenge of our time,” will only lessen if we encourage new unionization and support existing labor groups. For fuck’s sake, don’t crow about trade deals, stock markets, or mortgage-based tax breaks that mainly help rich people. Just be honest.
  • Don’t say anything about T/technology. Everyone knows T/technology, whatever it is, is great. Half the audience is texting right now. T/technology can go an hour without being petted. Just be honest.
  • You don’t need to tell the audience about how education helps people get jobs. They know. Since kindergarten most of the graduating seniors have heard about little besides the instrumental value of a degree. In fact, by now too many of them see the past four or five years as job training that involved parties but had damn well better to lead to a healthy bank balance, end of story. Why don’t you take the time to broach other topics, like the Jeffersonian business about education preparing the entire self to be a reflective citizen? Not too much, mind you, because you must avoid windy abstractions, especially when a sizable chunk of your audience is hungover, but if you keep it short, reminding your listeners that college does more than equip a person to earn money couldn’t hurt. History classes, pianos, poetry readings, overheated front-stoop squabbles over politics, and art museums really aren’t that bad. Just be honest.
  • OK, so maybe you leave the granular, street-by-street humanities-defending to people like Martha Nussbaum. (I know you dislike art history, until you don’t dislike it because disliking it makes people dislike you.) Perhaps you could talk about a larger cognitive practice, one that facilitates individual growth as well as aggregate material expansion in a post-industrial economy where organizations must be able to articulate, exchange, and evaluate complex ideas. I don’t mean science and math, which, like most politicians, you frequently commend. (As you should, because science and math are beautiful.) I mean that other support-beam of civilization: writing. Mr. President, your facility with language is the basis of your success. Were it not for that keynote address you gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, you aren’t President in 2014; if the English language, a glory when handled with love and concentration, did not suffuse your entire being, you wouldn’t have been able to write that speech in the first place. Science, math, and writing (and its twin, reading) are meaningless without one another. But rarely does a public figure speak up for writing. Maybe you could. Tell the people how you got here. Just be honest.

Mr. Obama, you are one of the most articulate, cerebral men who has ever held the White House. Your presidency provides some evidence that mass democracy doesn’t always reward scoundrels and grifters. So come June, walk onto the stage in Anaheim and tell the people some concrete, grown-up truths.

Just be honest. A democratic nation that gives up on its public schools is no longer a democracy, or even a nation.

We’re All Neoliberals Now

Yesterday, I came across a tweet proclaiming that this year’s freshman admits to UCSB have an average high school GPA of 4.15. Think about that for a second. On a 4.0-scale, the kids who have been let in to the fourth or fifth-best public university in the state of California don’t just have above-average grades, but above-perfect grades. Imagine the grades of the students admitted to Cal or UCLA!

“But, Dan,” you say, “how is it possible for students to be more than perfect?”

Well, it’s not. That gaudy GPA is just another example of why the current trends in higher education make a lot of sense given what has been going on for years at the K-12 level. The College Board is a nominally-not-for-profit organization that, among other things, administers “Advanced Placement” high school classes culminating in high-stakes standardized tests. Some high schools and many college admissions boards give students a GPA-bump for taking an AP course, thus making a 3.0 (B) student look like a 4.0 (A) student, or a 3.33 (B+) student look like a 4.33 (A++++++++++++++++++++++++) student. And did I mention that students pay $89 per AP exam? No? Well, they do.

In theory, AP classes are supposed to be college-level courses, but as most of my students have told me, very little of the writing that goes on in any of the humanities AP courses (English literature, US History, English Language, etc.) prepares them for the writing they do in college. Most of the essays assigned in these courses are timed, short, in-class affairs designed to help them beat the test at the end of the term. Individual teachers can assign other kinds of essays, but given that students are paying to take the AP exams, it makes sense that these courses often become semester-long test prep. Call it the Kaplanification of high school.

Now, I love UCSB students. I taught hundreds of them in my time there. But touting this inflated GPA does nothing but make the difference between what the College Board claims as college-level work and and actual college courses more difficult for students to accept. Many, and this is true of students at all schools where I’ve taught, feel lied to. They wonder why they paid for these classes that stressed them out but didn’t really prepare them for college. I can see the value in some of the higher AP math courses offered, but many AP classes are just content-dumps that can’t teach critical thinking and clear writing, two skills a student needs to be successful in and after college. And please understand: none of this is the fault of the teachers leading these classes. They’re doing the best they can to give kids a decent education in a system that is constantly being tweaked by administrators and private interests.

Meanwhile, as LAUSD continues on with its disastrous (and possibly illegal) “iPads for Everyone!” plan, Finland quietly builds a functional public education system by de-emphasizing drill and kill testing which, as this intrepid young American reminds us around the 2:40 mark, doesn’t actually lead to knowledge retention. Please note that nowhere in this Atlantic interview does Krista Kiuru,  the Finnish minister of education and science, mention classroom technology, partnering with private corporations, or using analytics to assess teacher and student performance. No, she uses crazy words like “equality,” “trust,” and “support.”

So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

This shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but we’re trending in the exact opposite direction in the US at both the K-12 and college levels. A few weeks back, I criticized Duke’s Cathy Davidson’s “Remake Higher Education from the Ground Up” MOOC, as well as The Chronicle for giving one of her students a platform to rag on Stanley Fish. Well, the MOOC is done, and Davidson has now written her own piece about the experience. She says that going into the class, she had “so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that [she] wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for [her], away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria.” Fair enough. It continues in a good direction when she says that “as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising costs at American universities today.” Well, thank you, Dr. Davidson, for acknowledging what many of us “hysterics” have been saying for some time. Might we be on the same page? I doubt it.

The following paragraph is the most important in the piece:

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

As far as I know, no one has argued that MOOCs caused our crisis in higher ed. That would be silly. However, this distinction between MOOCs as a manifestation of the problems of neoliberalism and the cause allows Davidson to gush for several paragraphs about how her MOOC could be the start of a “movement.” And she may be right, if by “movement” she means a movement toward more MOOCs and less funding for public education. By working within the logic of neoliberalism, Davidson’s MOOC does neoliberalism’s bidding. Her project isn’t radical, like the simultaneously conservative and socialist Finnish education system. It’s using the master’s tools to build up his house while telling yourself you’re tearing it down. Anya Kamenetz makes the same mistake when she assumes that the ideas in her “$10K BA” won’t be used as an excuse to kill public education once and for all by cutting funding to the bone. While I have to assume good will on the parts of both Davidson and Kamenetz, the fact that they seem more interested in exploring “stirring, rich” MOOC environments than fighting for smaller class sizes, increased teacher autonomy and compensation, fewer standardized tests, and student and parent accountability is disheartening. Neoliberalism is winning, folks. Most Americans are losing.

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.

Baby Steps: Recent Higher-Ed News That Isn’t Entirely Depressing

Among the many trends in higher education that TGR bemoans, perhaps none is more personally galling than the persistent, Joe Biden-endorsed myth that faculty salaries are the reason college costs so much. Those tenured professors in their new Priuses and ivy-coddled homes, with their twenty-hour work weeks. But slowly, slowly, the glacier of ignorance seems to be melting a little around the edges. People besides readers of Inside Higher Ed, alt-academic blogs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education are beginning to embrace the material reality of things at actual schools on the planet Earth in this foul year of our Lord, 2014.

Over at Changing Universities, Robert Samuels reports that Congress (well, the Democratic Party’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce) has awoken to the fact that most American college professors work under conditions that range from Consistently Inadequate to Slough of Despond. And just after that document dropped, along came another study that adds to the Mount Whitney of evidence that administrative bloat, overspending on amenities, and the cheapskatery of state legislatures are why Americans are choking on student-loan debt. The report in question is from the renowned Delta Cost Project, which has been tracking university finances since the 1980s. Allow me to summarize: Blaming teachers for enormous tuition bills is like blaming the price of a new flatscreen TV on the wages of delivery drivers, or faulting the tellers at Wells Fargo for the 2008 financial catastrophe.

Now, given that one of the post-Goldwater conservative movement’s greatest achievements was getting Americans to distrust labor unions; given that anti-intellectualism is a national tradition (“My son had to read about GAY IMMIGRANT BLACK HOMO *SOCIALISTS* in history class!”); given that it is easier for the already powerful (provosts, not profs) to maintain the status quo than it is for the underclasses to change it; and given that Americans have many other distressing things on their plates, like the near-jobless post-Bush recovery; I’m not wildly optimistic that unionization and other forms of activist organizing among faculty are going to achieve much. Still, if anyone has a decent chance at reviving the labor tradition that helped create the twentieth-century middle class, it might be college teachers. Besides having the sort of intellectual capital (superb communication and research skills) that could sustain a broad movement, people with PhDs also tend to have more social capital than their dilapidated cars would suggest. That is, many of us know lots of other smart people who weren’t silly enough to become teachers, and instead ended up in law, government, medicine, and other places of relevant affluence and influence. Our brothers and sisters in unions like SEIU are starting much farther back.

For now, here is what I tell my students: If you have younger siblings who are shopping for schools (and thus parents who are likely worried about family finances), then on every visit to every campus, brother/sister should keep asking “What percentage of your undergraduate courses are taught by full-time faculty?” until they get an answer, then follow up with “And what percentage of your total budget goes directly to undergraduate instruction?” Rebecca Schuman is right: The managers of American schools will begin caring about undergraduate education (as opposed to undergraduate gyms and stadiums) real goddamn fast if their customers start refusing to pay for cynical, rickety, adjunct-dependent bullshit.