Majoring in the Extreme Humanities

Playing Scrabble the other day I looked up the word “selvages” online and in the process discovered the sport of extreme scrap quilting.  I still don’t have my mind around the concept since I thought that scrap quilting was by its nature designed to be the opposite of extreme, but apparently it is a “thing” since it calls up 750000 hits on google in one form or another.  I can’t quite figure out the difference between extreme scrap quilting and regular scrap quilting, but I’m sure that if its important to my happiness someone will let me know.  Or even it’s not.

I take it that extreme scrap quilting is on the order of extreme eating, extreme couponing, extreme makeovers, and extreme other things.  Indeed, it appears that in order to be noticed as something special and different it is important that it become extreme, unusual, and call attention to itself.

I’ve concluded that this is one of the problems with the Humanities. We are not extreme enough.  We need to shake off the image of the sedate professors in elbow patches and figure out new ways to make our disciplines sufficiently life threatening to attract interest. If we were more extreme we could have sexier advertisement in college brochures and more positive coverage in the national press.

I struggled to come up with a few examples, but I wonder if others could come up with more.

“Extreme Hemingway 101”–Read Hemingway on a safari to Africa.  You will be injected with a form of gangrene and a rescue plane will fly you in to the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.  If you make it out alive your grand prize will be a a year for two in an isolated cabin in Idaho.  By the end of this course you will truly understand what it meant to be Ernest Hemingway.  Because we will spend so much time flying around the world, we will only have the time for the one short story.  But lots and lots and lots of experiential learning.

“Extreme Poetry 302”–competitors will rack up debt and be given jobs as baristas.  The competitor who is willing to go without health benefits and adequate housing the longest will be rewarded with a publishing contract with 2000.00 subvention fees for the cover art. [Oh, wait….we already do that one for real].

“Extreme History 291”–Students will be put out in sod houses on the Kansas Prairie without electricity, food or running water in order to relive America’s westward expansion. Students from the extreme archery team will provide realistic attacks on settlers in an effort to help students better understand the responses of the colonized to their colonizers.  [I think this was actually some kind of television show already, but why not steal a good idea]

“Extreme Philosophy 479”– an extreme version of Aristotle’s peripatetic school, students will be required to run a marathon on a treadmill while wearing specially designed headsets that allow them to watch all Slavoj Zizek videos currently posted on Youtube [because we realize students are not professional marathoners, we believe there will be sufficient time to actually accomplish this assignment].  Final exam focused on actually reading Zizek is optional.

I’m sure there must be other possibilities.  I’d love to hear of them.

[True story, in writing this blog post just now I googled “extreme humanities” and came up with several Indian sites for hair weaves made of real human hair;  I kid you not. Judging from the web site I looked at, it appears there’s an unnerving desire for “virgin human hair.”  I had not really realized this was a consideration in the baldness management industry.   “Extreme Higher Education”, more grimly, starts out with several pages of mostly news stories focusing on extreme cuts to Higher education]

Is it irresponsible to advise undergraduates to major in the Humanities?

I am not usually given to screeds about the press.  I advised the newspaper here at Messiah College for several years, I sponsored a recent overhaul of our journalism curriculum, and I continue to have broad if now somewhat indirect responsibility for student media here at the college.  And, secretly, in my heart of hearts I think we need a lot more professors in the humanities looking for how to have second careers in journalism, communicating directly with the public in accessible terms about the thorny difficulties of their work.  So I appreciate journalists, thinking they have a hard job that is mostly under appreciated.  The only world that is worse than a world with a free press is a world without one.

That having been said, today’s piece in the NY Times by Frank Bruni is opinion, and it strikes me as thoughtless opinion, mostly just sounding the cant notes about a liberal arts education that are increasingly becoming the common nonsense of the American public at large.  Although I agree with Bruni that a great deal needs to be done to address the job prospects and job preparation of American College students, the wisdom in his prescriptions is scant and would likely result in an educational program less helpful to students not more.  Says Bruni after lamenting the job prospects of anthropology and philosophy majors (there are hordes of them out there, have you noticed):

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

via The Imperiled Promise of College – NYTimes.com.

I can’t get past the irony that Bruni was an English major in college and has a degree in journalism.  Real growth industries.  I realize the ad hominem, but frankly, Frank ought to know better.

My overriding concern is that these bromides about channeling students in to areas where there supposedly will be jobs rests on multiple assumed grounds that are shaky at best, sand at worst.

First, it is terribly misguided to believe that what a student thinks they want when they are 17–or what we think they ought to want–is an adequate index of what they will want or what they will succeed at.  College is first and foremost a time of exploration and development, a time of discovery.  Most students change their major after entering college, most end up doing something after college that is not directly related to their fields of study, and most will change fields and go in different directions during the course of their lives.  When I was 17 I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and possibly go in to politics;  I began as a major in History and Political Science, then shifted to English because I enjoyed the classes more.  I had a conversion experience at the hands of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Joe McClatchey–not the poet, the Victorianist at Wheaton College where I did my undergraduate work, the best teacher I ever had–and decided to go for a degree in creative writing in the hopes that I would be the next Walker Percy.  It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I decided I loved higher education and wanted a PhD, and it wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that I decided administration could be a noble calling. (Others still doubt).  A long way from my early dream of being a congressman or a Senator, a long way from the dream of being a William Faulkner or a Hemingway.

It is secondarily irresponsible to believe that we can know what the hot jobs will be in the 2020, much less 2030 or 2040, despite our prognostications.  Five years ago Finance majors were littering the coffeeshops of Camp Hill (ok, there’s only one), having graduated from the best colleges only to be back home living with their parents.  In my own case, I am very sure that whatever the hot jobs were in the 1970s, novelist and Senator were not among them. But whatever we thought they were, I’m sure they aren’t all that hot any more. We do not, in fact, know what turns the economy will take, though we can know that we need students who are broadly educated, in whom creativity has been inculated and encouraged, and who possess the flexibility and the skills that can be adapted to a rapidly changing job environment.  There’s nothing about majoring in philosophy or anthropology that prevents students from having that kind of “portfolio”–indeed, their majors do much to produce the skills they will need, and in combination with a general education and elective choices that can develop their skills and knowledge base in technical field or in business, such a student could be extremely desirable for a wide range of jobs in the economy of the future.

Thirdly, WHY PICK ON PHILOSOPHY?  It makes up less than one half of one percent of all college majors in the country and anthropology majors not too many more.  Does Bruni really believe this is a solution to our economic difficulties?  GET RID OF PHILOSOPHY MAJORS.  There’s a political slogan with legs and an economic program with brio.  Why even pick on humanities majors as a whole–depending on which set of majors you take up, they make up between 8 and 12 percent of the nationwide student population and have for a very long time.  Their unemployment rates are somewhat higher that the nation as a whole–though not so drastic as the doom sayers suggest–but there are so many fewer of us it is laughable to believe that the unemployment problem is going to be solved by getting those who remain to drop what they are doing and become unhappy engineers.  Bruni was an English major so I will forgive his weaknesses with statistics.

Finally, is it really healthy for the nation to believe that we are going to be better off creating an educational system in which all students are wedged in to jobs for which they are ill suited, for which they have no personal gifts or desires, and through which they have fewer and fewer options.   Is this really what education for a free society will look like?  When I was young, we descried the fact that the Soviet Union forced students into narrow frames of life in the names of the Soviet five year plans.  We now do this in the name of markets and call it “incentivizing.”

It is not irresponsible to believe that colleges should do more to prepare students for the job market that will await them, but it is irresponsible to believe we will solve the problems facing students by forcing them all in to preprofessional or technical majors.  Indeed, if I can be forgiven one more point, it is bizarre that Bruni thinks a student’s portfolio is made up of his or her college major.  A student brings or ought to bring an entire panoply of experiences associated with college life, in and outside the classroom, and through internships and other forms of learning as well.  Believing that we can solve students’ problems by channeling them in to a major demonstrates a poor understanding of both how education works and how the job market works.

We need to do better, but doing what Bruni suggests will be doing disaster, not doing better.  We need to remember, first, to paraphrase Andy Chan down at Wake Forest, that we are in the education business not the job placement business, even if students getting jobs is important.  We are not a job shop, we are a culture and community that touches the whole of student lives–including their preparations for a career after college.  When we are at our best that is for their individual good and their individual portfolios, but also for the good of the nation as a whole–not just its economy.  That is what responsible education looks like.

Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

Coming out of the NITLE seminar on Undergraduate Research in Digital Humanities, my title question was one of the more interesting questions on my mind.  Janis Chinn, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, posed this question as a motivation for her research on shifts in linguistic register on Twitter.  I’m a recent convert to Twitter and see it as an interesting communication tool, but also an information network aggregator.  I don’t really worry about whether twitter is eroding my ability to write traditional academic prose, but then, I’ve inhabited that prose for so long its more the case that I can’t easily adapt to the more restrictive conventions of twitter.  And while I do think students are putting twitterisms in their papers, I don’t take this as specifically different than the tendency of students to use speech patterns as the basis for constructing their papers, and not recognizing the different conventions of academic prose.  So twitter poses some interesting issues, but not issues that strike me as different in kind from other kinds of language uses.

I gather from the website for her project that Janis is only at the beginning of her research and hasn’t developed her findings yet, but it looks like a fascinating study.  Part of her description of the work is as follows:

Speakers shift linguistic register all the time without conscious thought. One register is used to talk to professors, another for friends, another for close family, another for one’s grandparents. Linguistic register is the variety of language a speaker uses in a given situation. For example, one would not use the same kind of language to talk to one’s grandmother as to your friends. One avoids the use of slang and vulgar language in an academic setting, and the language used in a formal presentation is not the language used in conversation. This is not just a phenomenon in English, of course; in languages like Japanese there are special verbs only used in honorific or humble situations and different structures which can increase or decrease the politeness of a sentence to suit any situation. This sort of shift takes place effortlessly most of the time, but relatively new forms of communication such as Twitter and other social media sites may be blocking this process somehow.

In response to informal claims that the current generation’s language is negatively affected by modern communication tools likeTwitter, Mark Liberman undertook a brief analysis comparing the inaugural addresses of various Presidents. This analysis can be found on University of Pennsylvania‘s popular linguistics blog “Language Log”. Remarkably, he found a significant trend of shortening sentence and word lengths over the last 200 years. My research, while not addressing this directly, will demonstrate whether using these services affects a user’s ability to shift linguistic registers to match the situation as they would normally be expected to.

Fascinating question in and of itself. I think on some level I’ve always been deeply aware of these kinds of shifts.  As I kid when my parents were missionaries in New Guinea, I would speak with an Aussie accent while I was with kids at the school across the valley, which shifting back in to my Okie brogue on the mission field and in my house.  And as I made my way in to academe my southern and southwesternisms gradually dropped away with a very few exceptions–aware as I was that my accent somehow did not signal intelligence and accomplishment.  Mockery of southern white speech remains a last bastion of prejudice in the academy generally.  I don’t think these are the kinds of register shifts Janis is looking at, but same territory.

I’m also more interested in the general motive questions.  If we could prove that Twitter inhibited the ability to shift registers, would that count as destroying or damaging the language in some sense?  If we could demonstrate that Twitter was leading people to use shorter and shorter sentences–or to be less and less able to comprehend sentences longer than 160 characters.  Would this signal an erosion in the language.  We must have some notion that language can be used in more effective and less effective ways since we are all very aware that communication can fail abysmally or succeed beyond our hopes, and usually ends up somewhere in-between.  Does the restricted nature of Twitter limit or disable some forms of effective communication, while simultaneously enabling others.  These are interesting questions.  I’m sure more intelligent people than I am are working on them.

Takeaways–NITLE Seminar: Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research

Yesterday afternoon at 3:00 about 30 Messiah College humanities faculty and undergraduates gathered to listen in on and virtually participate in the NITLE Seminar focusing on Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research.  A number of our faculty and students were tweeting the event, and a Storify version with our contributions can be found here.I am amazed and gratified to have such a showing late on a Friday afternoon.  Students and faculty alike were engaged and interested by the possibilities they saw being pursued in undergraduate programs across the country, and our own conversation afterwards extended for more than a half hour beyond the seminar itself. Although most of us freely admit that we are only at the beginning and feeling our way, there was a broad agreement that undergraduate research and participation in Digital Humanities work was something we needed to keep pushing on.

If you are interested in reviewing the entire seminar, including chat room questions and the like, you can connect through this link.  I had to download webex in order to participate in the seminar, so you may need to do the same, even though the instructions I received said I wouldn’t need to.  My own takeaways from the seminar were as follows:

  • Undergraduates are scholars, not scholars in waiting.  If original scholarship is defined as increasing the fund of human knowledge, discovering and categorizing and interpreting data that helps us better understand human events and artifacts, developing tools that can be employed by other scholars who can explore and confirm or disconfirm or further your findings, these young people are scholars by any definition.
  • Digital Humanities research extends (and, to be sure, modifies) our traditional ways of doing humanities work;  it does not oppose it.  None of these young scholars felt inordinate tensions between their traditional humanities training and their digital humanities research.  A student who reviewed a database of 1000 Russian folks tales extended and modified her understanding arrived at by the close reading of a dozen.  Digital Humanities tools enable closer reading and better contextual understanding of the poet Agha Shahid Ali, rather than pushing students away in to extraneous material.
  • Many or most of these students learned their tools as they went along, within the context of what they were trying to achieve.  I was especially fascinated that a couple of the students had had no exposure to Digital Humanities work prior to their honors projects, and they learned the coding and digital savvy they needed as they went along.  Learning tools within the context of how they are needed seems to make more and more sense to me.  You would not teach a person how to use a hammer simply by giving them a board and nails, at least not if you don’t want them to get bored.  Rather, give them something to build, and show or have them figure out how the hammer and nails will help them get there.

I’m looking forward to the Places We’ll Go.

More Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

This afternoon the School of the Humanities at Messiah College will be connecting to the NITLE Symposium on Undergraduate work in the digital Humanities. Messiah College is currently considering making the development of undergraduate research, and especially collaborative research between faculty and students, a central theme of our next strategic plan.  Like many colleges and universities across the country, we are seeing undergraduate research as a way of deepening student learning outcomes and engagement with their education, while also providing more and better skills for life after college.

The push toward student research has some detractors–Andrew DelBanco and Geoffrey Galt Harpham among them–but I’ll blog at some other time about my disagreement with them on liberal arts grounds.  I’ve been on record before as to how I think Digital Humanities is a (or THE) way to go with this effort within my own disciplines.  I was glad to receive the video below from Adeline Koh at Richard Stockton College, chronicling the achievements of the RE:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  A nice overview of the conference.  If you look closely and don’t blink there’s a couple of shots of my colleagues, Larry Lake, and one of me apparently typing away distractedly on my iPad.  Although perhaps I was tweeting and achieving a transcendent level of attention and interaction without really having to listen.  🙂

This afternoon, the School of the Humanities here at Messiah College is going to consider some more whether and how Digital Humanities might be applicable to our situation by participating in the NITLE symposium on this topic at 3:00.

Education is for…passing tests

I asked my son if there was anything unique or interesting about school today (I admit I feel like the Dad in the old Crackerjack Commercial).  He said, “No, not really.  PSSA’s.”  I think generally speaking his view of hell these days is an afterlife spent in school taking PSSA tests. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rant again….Except to say that the view of schooling this regimen seems to imply stands in contrast to the kinds of things I took up earlier today in thinking about the kinds of personal investments we make and personal rewards we gain from the highly individual and completely compelling journeys that we get to go on with our students over the years.  This transformative relationship that is born in a mutual journey in learning is missed in our current obsession with standardized measurements.

Let me hasten to say that this doesn’t mean we have to be against assessment.  I happen to be the chair of our steering committee for our Middle States accreditation (Oh, Happy, Happy Day!), and I am a firm believer in assessing what we are doing and evaluating how well our students are learning.  On the other hand, our methods should be as subtle as the human hearts and minds whose stock we are taking.  Such subtlety takes time and, not incidentally, money–something in short supply in both educational systems and their monitors.  The result is standardized tests that result in…well, standardized expectations and standardized students, producing students who are good at taking tests.  Is this what an education is for?

As it happens, I ran across another article by Diane Ravitch.  Ravitch seems to be in the air when I have these conversations with my son.  She says it better than I do anyway:

The Problem Is Bigger Than a Pineapple – Bridging Differences – Education Week

At present, the standardized tests are used inappropriately. There should be no stakes attached to them. Decisions about teacher evaluation should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about bonuses should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about closing schools should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about retaining students should not be tied to student scores. All of these are weighty decisions that should be made by experienced professionals, taking into consideration a variety of factors specific to the child, the teacher, and the school.

Tests are a tool, not a goal. We should use them as needed, not let them use us. Their misuse has turned them into a weapon to narrow the curriculum, incentivize cheating, promote gaming the system, and control teachers. The more we rely on high-stakes standardized tests, the more we destroy students’ creativity, ingenuity, and willingness to think differently, and the more we demoralize teachers. The important decisions that each of us will face in our lives cannot be narrowed to one of four bubbles. We must prepare students to live in the world, not to comply on command.

(via Instapaper)

I am happy that I have had many students that did not comply on command and could not be defined by the bubbles they filled out.  It must be some kind of testimony to the human spirit that they survived the education we have foisted on them in the name of achievement.

A teacher’s work

As professors we often make the mistake of asking each other in the hallway whether we are getting time “for our own work,”  as if whatever it is that we are doing everyday in class and in our offices is not our own work but some alien thing forced upon us that belongs to others.  Our identities get wrapped in the books we’ve written or fantasized about, or the books we’d like to read, and we forget that our real work is the minds and hearts of the human beings in front of us every day.  I’ve been really blessed with some amazing students over the years, and it is especially gratifying to me this week to be seeing so many of them doing so well, and getting notice for their achievements.  A brief sample.

First Liz Laribee, who could not finish an assignment on time to save her life, (and I think there were several that she never finished) but is one of my favorite student ever.  Liz has gone on to become a community organizer, an impresario for the arts at the Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg,  and a fine artist with a growing reputation in her own right.  I’m happy to say that I and my family are the proud owners of three Laribee originals.  Liz and her work were just recognized in Harrisburg magazine. A brief taste of the interview:

Q. What kind of thing would you like to do but have no idea how to accomplish it? What would it be like, and what would people say about it?

I love Harrisburg. I talk about this city more than I talk about men, and that makes my mom really sad. Harrisburg

The only people for me are the mad ones--Liz Laribee, commissioned for Colin Powers.

has continued to feel like my home more than any other place in the world. But this a home in the process of redefining itself. Frankly, to live and work here is to understand the depths and limitations of this geography, these people, this government, and what entropy looks like on the ground. Our current situation is the kind that gets covered by NPR. In varied and

diverse ways, I have seen that act as breeding ground for a changed sociology. As a member of the artistic community here, I find myself surrounded by truly innovative, collaborative people who are committed to bettering this reality. More than anything I’d like to help give Harrisburg a process to funnel its energy into innovation and collaboration: an incubator for the culture being formed in its basement studios. This is the best town on the planet, and I would like to see us live up to our potential. I would love to find a way to help Harrisburg tell a story worthy of its citizens.

via Harrisburg Magazine : Recovering/Uncovering: the Art of Liz Laribee.

Congrats to Liz.

On Saturday, Kimi Cunningham Grant will be giving a reading at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore from her new book, Silver Like Dust: One Family’s Story of Japanese Internment (Open Road Media, 2012).    I just found out about this, so I haven’t had a chance to read Kimi’s book, but the publicity materials describe it as follows:

The poignant story of a Japanese American woman’s journey through one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

Sipping tea by the fire, preparing sushi for the family, or indulgently listening to her husband tell the same story for the hundredth time, Kimi Grant’s grandmother, Obaachan, was a missing link to Kimi’s Japanese heritage, something she had had a mixed relationship with all her life. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, all Kimi ever wanted to do was fit in, spurning traditional Japanese cuisine and her grandfather’s attempts to teach her the language.

But there was one part of Obaachan’s life that had fascinated and haunted Kimi ever since the age of eleven—her gentle yet proud Obaachan had once been a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what had really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?

Obaachan would meet her husband in the camps and watch her mother die there, too. From the turmoil, racism, and paranoia that sprang up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrifying train ride to Heart Mountain, to the false promise of V-J Day, Silver Like Dust captures a vital chapter of the Japanese American experience through the journey of one remarkable woman.

Her story is one of thousands, yet is a powerful testament to the enduring bonds of family and an unusual look at the American dream.

I was lucky enough to have Kimi as an advisee and am thrilled to read her book over the next few days.

And these are only two.  I think of Carmen McCain, writing so courageously and passionately in Nigeria.  Of Debbie DeGeorge who had another play produced this past year.  Both of whom I was lucky enough to work with on honors projects in their senior year.  Of Janel Atlas, who has done so much for mothers who have experienced the loss of still birth.  And Shawn Smucker, traveling across the country in a bus, his kids in tow.  And Sarah Ginolfi, on her way to ordination.  And Louie Marven.  And Paul Gee, and Jonathan Scovner, and Jonathan Felton. And John Francis, traveling the world with guitar in hand. And Morgan Lee–whose honors projects on the politics of memoir I was honored to listen in on today.  And Elena Casey, whose work I will hear on Monday.  And on and on.

And all the many, many, many others, too many to name, every one of them in their own way.

This is our real work.  When we forget that, we forget them, we forget ourselves.