What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

Patrick J. Deneen on the WalMart-ification of Higher Education

Patrick Deneen at the Chronicle Review has a persuasive case to make that the educational and economic thrust of higher education is toward bigger is better, and that mass produced standardization is being preferred over local educational cultures, with the result that “local cultures”–i.e. smaller mid-range colleges of almost every ilk, are being squeezed out of the educational system in the same way that family farms have been squeezed out by Monsanto and the local hardware store has been squeezed out by Home Depot.

Colleges and universities are like the once-ubiquitous department stores in every city—Filene’s in Boston, G. Fox in Hartford, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington—which, while enjoying distinct locations and histories, became increasingly similar. When consumers grew to value uniformity over a local market culture, those local stores were susceptible to the challenge from a truly universal competitor that could offer the same wares, produced cheaply, at low, low prices. Those stores are all now out of business. MOOCs are the Wal-Mart of higher education.

Perhaps most interesting in Deneen’s anlysis is his general sense that faculty are complicit in this process. MOOCs are the logical out come of an educational system that produces faculty interested in narrowly conceived academic specialities and with more allegiance to their disciplines than to the institutions and local cultures that support their existence.

Deneen mostly predicts that the Walmartification of higher education will continue unabated. Smaller institutions that simply try to replicate the standard model of education will inevitably be destroyed by an economy of scale. However, Daneen finds hope in the possible revival of local “artisinal” educational models that emphasize the uniqueness of a local institution in its immediate geographical setting.

Think of Providence or Belmont Abbey among Roman Catholic institutions, or St. Olaf or Baylor among Protestant ones—all rightly anticipating that nondescript and indistinguishable institutions will be easy victims of the logic of standardization. This artisanal direction requires hiring faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education. Consider Hillsdale College, with its traditionalist emphasis on core curriculum and Western civilization, and a growing number of institutions that combine a liberal-arts education with some training in “trades” or manual labor, such as Deep Springs College, in California. (Try to teach baling hay via MOOC.)

I think there’s something to this. I’m not sure I agree with the example of Baylor, but I do agree that institutions–or programs within larger institutions–that have a strong shared distinctive quality or cultural identity that can be communicated effectively are going to be more likely players in the future than those that try a version of me-tooism. There will always be a larger and cheaper version of what you are offering, and so playing that game is likely to mean you are inevitably swallowed by the sharks you swim with.

Nevertheless, Deneen doesn’t give much guidance for how smaller institutions might get there. Distinctive “artisanal” educational cultures can’t be built up overnight through a PR department. They usually develop over decades. In addition to the schools that Daneen mentions (Side note but I’m interested in how many of them are religious schools), I think of places like Warren Wilson College with their integration of work and standard academics, or Bennington College with its work terms and open curriculum, or EverGreen State College with its emphasis on an integrated environmentalism in an open curriculum. These were all places my son applied to for College and I think he applied precisely because they had this “artisinal” educational outlook that resisted a standardized model of education. (He will attend Bennington in 2014 after a gap year). All of these places struggle, but they might have a fighting chance of enduring precisely because they choose to be different and distinctive rather than struggling to be distinguished amongst the mass that are offering more or less the same thing.

But these places and others like them didn’t develop their “family farm” versions of higher education at the drop of the hat. It’s unclear how a local educational culture develops where one doesn’t exist. How do they begin? How are they imagined? Why do they endure? How can you get one? Any ideas?

Humanities For Humanities Sake?

In a recent Inside Higher Ed post, Scott Jasick discussed Going Global, and international higher education conference in Dubai.  According to Jasick, whose post is title “Humanities Besieged, Worldwide,”  the plight of the humanities is not that much different anywhere else in the world than it is in the United States.  Indeed it may possibly be worse elsewhere since in the United States the importance of the humanities is sustained in some fashion through its predominant place in core liberal arts curricula, a tradition not common to other forms of education in the world but de rigueur in the United States. Jasick quotes Jo Beall from the British Council.

Beall described going to university websites in Britain and finding the humanities “positioned in very functional or utilitarian terms.” She found many references to how students gain from taking humanities courses “because it will help them do well in science and technology.” In other cases, departments describe how much employers value the “transferable skills” that one picks up in humanities courses.

While not disagreeing that the humanities can help in those ways, Beall noted that many scholars are “very uncomfortable with this marketing of the humanities” and lament that it is no longer possible to argue for the value of “art for art’s sake.” Instead, the humanities end up “as co-dependent” to other programs, she said.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/07/educators-consider-struggles-humanities-worldwide#ixzz2N3bmjfg1
Inside Higher Ed

I do think this gets an important conundrum that Humanities scholars face.  Rooted in a tradition that emphasizes learning for its own sake, we have never grown comfortable with a discourse of usefulness.  But is this a legacy of the liberal arts, or is it a legacy of romanticism in its idealistic but finally inadequate protest against the economic systems in which it was embedded and by which it was sustained.  The liberal arts were never envisioned in antiquity as being anti-utilitarian in a ontological sense.  Study was always to some purpose and their functions were quite explicit in giving the “free” or “liberal” person equipment for living appropriate to his (usually his) station in life.  Similarly, in later periods what has come to be known as the humanities served similar useful purposes as usefulness was determined by the various cultures in which they were existing;  useful for growing closer to God, for instance, or preparing for ministry, or for some other functioning with in the clerisy

It seems fruitless to me to continue a romantic protest against economic systems and economic gain per se from within the systems that sustain us since the humanities as an institutional entity will simply disappear if that is all we can say about them.  We act in bad faith with our students if we ask them to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and then rule out the question of whether they will be able to pay off their loans once they graduate.

Administration in the Wilderness: Academic and spiritual leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of spirituality in professional life, and especially in the life of an administrator.  Because I work at a faith-based institution, it might seem natural to assume that we talk a lot about the spiritual aspects of what it means to be an organizational leader, a department chair or dean, or that we are regularly conducting conversations about the role faith plays in how we organize our lives together.  In fact, like any other organization or institution of higher education it is extremely easy to be caught up in the grinding day to day, to be focused on how I’m going to get the next e-mail (or 100 e-mails, no lie) answered, or fret about how late I am to the next meeting or whether I have too many priorities for my school or too few and whether they are the right ones and whether I have any budget to have any priorities at all.

While we expect our faculty to be able to understand and articulate a cognitive relationship between faith and their disciplines, and while we have learning objectives for students that are related to character and Christian life, and while I think our educational program does a pretty good job or reaching these expectations, we don’t often pause to think about what role spirituality might have in the mundane business of meeting or cutting budgets, organizing and running meetings, setting policy, formulating workloads, and the like.  In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.

I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.

But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job.  Beyond this,  some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others.  Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.”  My caps :-).  This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.

I think this must have meant many different things to every person in the room at the MLE. For it to have any useful meaning to the diversity of religious and spiritual experience represented in the room and in higher education generally, Bolman’s understanding of spirituality was capacious enough to cover about everything from those of use who were Christians in a traditional sense of embracing the Apostle’s Creed to a more generic and Tillichian sense of having an Ultimate Concern that centers one’s being and sense of self in the world, however secular or divine that Ultimate Concern might be.

Regardless,  it focused me in a new way that I had and have some kind of spiritual responsibility for the health of my institution and the people in it, and that I needed to be sure my own spiritual house was in some state of repair.  Moreover, it meant to me that I have to figure out ways that spirituality is something that imbues what I do as an administrator and how I understand the issues that I and others in my school or facing, and to encourage a spiritual sense in our life together, rather than assuming we should mostly draw our spiritual life from elsewhere and deplete it during the days (and too many nights) of administrative and educational labor.

I’m still, to be frank, not exactly sure what this looks like.  One small step I’ve taken is that I’ve renewed my practice of the Daily Office for Individuals and Families found in the Book of Common Prayer, my home tradition now being among that ragtag group, the Episcopalians.  The Daily Office happens throughout the day and requires only a few minutes of prayer, meditation, and reading, leaving me almost guilt-free about the time I am taking away from the latest policy memo or the letter of evaluation I should be writing.

It’s a small thing, but the pause that it entails refocused my mind and heart, and reminds me simultaneously that email is a small thing, but that even the small things we do need to be of God.  A Buddhist colleague at another institution once told me that Buddhists believed attentive states of awareness could and should be achieved in the most mundane of settings, even in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  If that’s true, it may be possible, strange as it seems to say it, to experience and live out one’s sense of spiritual vitality in the midst of a department meeting or in the reading of a policy memo.

I am not sure, right now, where else to go with this.  To be sure, I think this kind of spiritual attentiveness is not something an administrator could mandate in others, however much it could be encouraged.  That, in itself, could become destructive and oppressive.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that in the crises that are facing higher education, and that so many of us are feeling in our workaday lives, that we actually need more of this kind of thing and not less.

Along these lines, I concluded our school meeting with a meditation on Psalm 81, the evening Psalm in today’s lectionary, a privilege afforded me in my location at a faith-based institution:

Sing aloud to God our strength
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I found this passage unusually helpful today.  The people of Israel in this poem of are told to worship, not because they felt good, not because their budgets were flush, and not because they had everything that they wanted.  Indeed, quite the opposite, they are told to worship as they leave the land of Egypt….and set out in to the wilderness for forty years as the story goes, subsisting on manna, beset by enemies, and lost to uncertainty, until most of them had died in the desert.  (I also especially like this passage because although my reading of the daily office has waxed and waned over the years, and more often waned than waxed, my spiritual life has been sustained by singing and my very deep conviction with St. Francis that he who sings prays twice.)  Although the commandment to worship in the midst of difficulty seems perverse, it rings true to my sense that in the midst of difficulty, we are sustained and healed when we understand those difficulties in relation to and connection with a reality larger than ourselves.  In pausing to remember that there is no thing beyond the care of the Creator, we are sustained in the effort to care for one another.

As I say, I think we may need more of this in higher education and not less, whatever the framework of our own spirituality may be. Along with our depleted budgets, we need to be wary of our depleted spirits, since the greatest policies and the most well-conceived programs will only live as fully as the people who live in to them.

On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Higher Education

In a specific sense I am an unabashed advocate of what has come to be called the applied humanities, roughly and broadly speaking the effort to connect the study of the humanities to identifiable and practical social goods.  For me, in addition it includes the effort to develop humanities programs that take seriously that we are responsible (at least in significant part) for preparing our students for productive lives after college, preparation that I think really should be embedded within humanities curricula, advising, cocurricular programming, and the general ethos and rhetoric that we use to inculcate in our students what it means to be a humanist.

In several respects this conviction lies at the root of my advocacy for both digital humanities programs and for career planning and programming for liberal arts students, as different as these two areas seem to be on the surface.  I have little room left any more for the idea that “real learning” or intellectual work pulls up its skirts to avoid the taint of the marketplace or the hurly-burly of political arenas and that we demonstrate the transcendent value of what we do over and above professional programs by repeatedly demonstrating our irrelevance.  Far from diminishing the humanities, an insistence that what we do has direct and indirect, obvious and not so obvious connections to social value enhances the humanities.  It’s not just a selling point to a doubting public.  As I said yesterday, the only good idea is the idea that can be implemented.  We ought to be proud of the fact that we can show directly how our students succeed in life, how they apply the things they’ve learned, how they find practical ways of making meaningful connections between their academic study and the world of work.

At the same time, I will admit that some versions of this argument leave me cold.  It risks saying that the only thing that is really valuable about the humanities is what is practically relevant to the marketplace. I greet this effort to make Wordsworth a useful version of a management seminar with a queasy stomach.

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

That is precisely the claim of Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, who believes the writer can be viewed as a “management guru” for the 21st century.

Since 2007, the scholar has taken students down into caves and out on canoes to the island on Grasmere once visited by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to places where many of the former’s greatest works were written, for what he called “practical exercises linked to the themes of Wordsworth’s poetry.”

Such walks, which also have been incorporated into development days for individual firms, are now being offered as a stand-alone option for local and social entrepreneurs at a rate of £175 ($274) a day.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/09/businesses-pay-british-professor-teach-them-about-wordsworth#ixzz236bQaECf 
Inside Higher Ed 

I do not find the insight here wrong so much as sad.  If the only reason we can get people to read Wordsworth is because he will enhance their management skills, we have somehow misplaced a priority, and misunderstood the role that being a manager ought to play in our lives and in the social and economic life of our society.  It is the apparent reduction of all things and all meaning to the marketplace that is to be objected to and which every educational institution worthy of the name ought to furiously resist, not the fact of marketplaces themselves.

I was lucky enough this summer to attend the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education.  To be honest, I went thinking I was going to get all kinds of advice on things like how to organize projects, how to manage budgets, how to promote programs, how to supervise personnel.  There was some of that to be sure, but what struck me most was that the Institute, under the leadership of Bob Kegan, put a high, even principal, priority on the notion that managers have to first take care of who they are as human beings if they are to be the best people they can be for their colleagues and their institutions.  You have to know your own faults and weakness, your own strengths, your dreams, and you have to have the imagination and strength of mind and heart (and body) to learn to attend to the gifts, and faults and dreams and nightmares of others before or at least simultaneously with your own.  In other words, being a better manager is first and foremost about becoming a healthier, more humane, fuller human being.

The tendency of some applied humanities programs to show the relevance of poetry by showing that it has insights in to management techniques, or the relevance of philosophy because it will help you write a better project proposal, is to misplace causes and to turn the human work of another imagination (in this case Wordsworth) into an instrumental opportunity.  The reason for reading Wordsworth, first and foremost, is because Wordsworth is worth reading, and simultaneously because the encounter with Wordsworth will give you the opportunity to be a fuller, more imaginative, more thoughtful human being than you were before.

If you become that, you will have a chance to be a better manager.  But even if you don’t become a better manager, or if you lose your job because your company is overtaken by Bain capital or because students no longer choose to afford your pricey education, you will, nonetheless, be richer.

The Gladwell Effect: A brief review of Outliers

One of my least attractive features as I grow older, I am sure, is that I have an increasingly jaundiced view of intellectual and academic celebrity in American life.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers did little to cure me of this vice.  While on vacation in Burlington Vermont, I picked up Outliers in a bookstore and read the first 10 or 20 pages. I wasn’t exactly hooked, but I had heard of Gladwell’s work, had read the requisite New Yorker articles, and thought I’d give it a try. I’ve been interested for a while in how and why creative ideas happen, why some great ideas evolve and flourish and have staying power while other ideas that seem important at the moment later look ridiculous, or even worse still really look good many years later and yet never seem to have really taken hold and made a difference.  (All of my ideas fall in to one of these latter two categories).  Admittedly there was some degree of autobiographical intention here since as an administrator I’ve been concerned with how to foster good ideas and innovation in my school, but even more importantly, how to get some of those good ideas to take hold and make a difference for the long haul.  The only really good idea is the idea that can be implemented.

Gladwell’s book isn’t exactly about that, but it’s in the general territory.  He’s examining how and why some people achieve extraordinary success in life while some others, who appear equally talented, do not achieve the same level of unusual accomplishment.  Gladwell calls the extraordinarily successful–the Steve Jobs, the Michael Jordans, the Bill Gates, the Warren Buffetts–outliers.  According to Gladwell’s website, outliers are “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”

It is probably not a great sign that, given this definition, Gladwell’s last chapter is focused on…Gladwell.  Gladwell is certainly a success, but is he so accomplished, so extraordinary, and so outside my ordinary experience that I find him puzzling?  Alas, no.  And the suggestion that he might be suggests a level of venality that is startling even for writers.  Indeed, what is striking about Outliers is its utter ordinariness.  In saying this I don’t mean to suggest that it is dreadfully bad;  it simply doesn’t doesn’t live up to the Entertainment Weekly blurb which describes it as “Explosively entertaining….riveting science, self-help, and entertainment, all in one book.”  (Why one might think this is a recommendation is another story).

There is one basic idea in this book.  Americans believe extraordinarily successful people are successful because they are extraordinary individuals, gifted beyond measure.  In fact, their extraordinary success depends upon a combination of hard work and a series of fortuitous events including their family heritage, the particular period into which they were born, their geographical location, teachers they had in college, mentors they met along the way.

One must pause for several seconds to let this sink in.  And not much longer.  Once it has sunk in one must also pause and ask how it is that Gladwell got paid so handsomely for stating an idea that he hardly originated, and he did not even bother to state it with a prose that sparks and leaps from the page.  This, finally, was the disappointment of the book.  Not that what he said was not worth saying; its just that this idea alone and the rather ordinary prose that Gladwell uses to pursue is not worth the 285 pages he decided to expend on the effort.  There are enough good ideas and enough good examples of those ideas in the book to justify a lengthy New Yorker article, which, as one pauses to think about it, is where much of this book actually originated.

In turning an article’s worth of ideas and insights in to a nearly 300 page book, Gladwell exemplifies at a distance what too often happens in the pursuit of intellectual insight within academe, and so perhaps it is just a feature of American intellectual life generally:  the average dissertation is one good idea bloated to a size that seems to justify a reasonably good job at a college or university.  Even worse, its also characteristic of too many intellectual and academic celebrities who seem to churn out the same idea under different cover art, under the grand name of producing knowledge; one wonders a little too quickly whether it isn’t partially about reproducing themselves. (Remember, I began this blog post with an understanding that I am becoming old, jaundiced and cranky)

One begins to wonder, just a bit, whether or not a game is afoot, and whether something about a book that purports to be an act of intelligence but gets its most ravishing blurb from Entertainment Weekly isn’t maybe just a little bit akin to that other great American type, the carny salesman, the PT Barnums, Melville’s confidence man, the Wizard of Oz.  There’s not much there there, but I paid my 16.99 and kept reading to the end, like the sucker throwing good money after bad.

A word of advice, the New Yorker articles are more finely wrought, and shorter.  And they are all online.  You can get all the Gladwell you need for free.  Then if you feel guilty go buy the book and put it on your shelf.  It will make a good conversation starter at cocktail parties, conversations you will be able to command because you read the website.

The Blog Apology: A Genre

Having been away from this blog for awhile, I am struck by my vaguely perceived need to offer explanations, as if I needed excuses for beginning again or for stopping in the first place.  And it was also evident to me that I found this impulse, unresisted, littering blogs across the web.  The blog of my friend and former student, Carmen McCain, is rife with repeated apologies for her inconsistent blogging.  Another friend and former student, Liz Laribee, also seems to apologize for not blogging about as often as she does blog.  I know that in the past when I’ve gone on unexplained hiatus, I’ve begun again with an apology.  Just for grins I did a quick Google search for “apologize for not blogging more” and got 16,600 hits for that exact combination.  Apparently we are legion and we are a sorry lot.

There seem to be several versions of this particular literary genre.  In one variety the blogger abjectly denounces herself for moral turpitude, admitting to various venal weaknesses like preferring Facebook or watching television rather than keeping to the rough moral discipline of the keyboard.  Others beg busyness, or grovel repentantly in admitting they were only sick and surely could have opened up the lap top.  Some seek remission of their sins by requesting the reader’s empathy, including long and engrossing lists of ills and misfortunes that make the travails of the biblical Job look like a trip to the gym with a particularly rigorous drill instructor.  My particular favorite is the blogger who apologizes but lets the reader know that he was really up to much more important or much more interesting things and that we are lucky he is back at all.  In some instances it seems that people spend a good deal of their blogging time ruminating about how they should be blogging more, much as I talk about how little time I have for exercise while I am sitting on my couch in the evening.

Many such blog posts recognize that they are enacting an internet cliche by apologizing, but do so anyway.  I’m intrigued.  What does this apology signify about blogging as a form of writing, about the kind of audience the author imagines, about the relationship with that audience.  Novelists do not apologize for the years or decades between novels, nor for that matter do essayists, short story writers, or poets.  It seems more important to have something worth saying than to say something with great regularity. While such writers may flog themselves for not writing, they do so privately or to their editors and fellow writers–readers be damned. Newspaper columnists will announce their absence for a sabbatical, without apology I might add, but mostly they go on vacation without comment other than the dry, italicized editorial note that “[Insert opinionated name here] will return in September after his vacation to the Bahamas where he is working on a book and enjoying his family.”

Only bloggers bother to apologize for not writing.

As if their readers really cared.

I suspect this has something to do with the illusion of intimacy that is made possible by interactivity.  I have come to “know” a number of people through my blog or through twitter and Facebook, and since this electronic transmission is the sum total of our human experience together it is a little bit akin to having kept up a loose friendship by phone and then having not phoned for a good long time.  On the other hand, I suspect too that it has something to do with the fact that bloggers suffer from the anxiety of silence.  The writer who publishes in the New York Times knows that her work will have readers.  The writer for the Podunk Times knows they had at least one reader who thought their work was worthwhile since an editor decided to publish it.

The blogger, on the other hand, flings words into space like dust.

The apology has the appearance of a statement intended to right a wrong I the blogger have done to you the reader by not blessing you with my words and wisdom these last two some odd months and days.

In fact, the apology is a bloggers plea. Hear me now.  Confirm my existence as a writer of some sort or another by clicking on my blog anew.  While I may truly have ignored you if I know you or, more likely, while I may truly have no idea on earth who you are, I need you nonetheless.  To drive up my blog stats.  To share me on Facebook.  To “like” my post and so like me.  To “follow” my blog to the ends of the earth even when there is nothing there to follow. Though I am bloggus absconditus, wait for me like the ancients waited for the gods.  Make me matter.

And so I am back.  For today, with no promise for tomorrow.  Without apology.