The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

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Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U

It’s a sign of the fast changing times in higher education that I just finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and it already feels just a little bit dated–not terribly so, since it is a kind of futurist fiction about higher education written in 2010–and I feel frustrated at the notion that great new ideas and books to consider are solving yesterdays problems by the time I get around to them.  The shelf life for this kind of thing seems to be about a year and 2010 seems like an eon ago in both publishing and in higher education.  This is too bad because I actually think there is some important ethical thinking about higher education going on in the book that gets obscured both by the speed of the author and the speed with which the educational times are leaving even this book behind.

A few examples: the term MOOC, all the rage since the new cooperative ventures of Harvard, MIT YAle, Stanford and others, is barely mentioned as such–there are a couple of notes about it, but the notion that Ivy League schools would start en-mass to give their educational content away for free isn’t given much attention in this book (indeed, institutions of higher education seem largely to be the problem rather than a part of innovative solutions in Kamenetz’s view).  Similarly, the recent scandals and shennanigans in the for-profit sector barely rate a mention in for Kamenetz, and yet their pervasiveness at the present moment casts an inespcapable pall over the idea that that the for-profits are the best or even a good way forward.  Kamenetz offers a few gestures of critique at the for-profit educational industry, but seems more enamored of the innovations they can offer.  I’m less sanguine about the creative destruction of capitalism when it comes to education, and that shades my own reception of the book.

Overall I liked this book a great deal, but I do think the rosy and largely uncritical view of the present suggests a few problems.  The book catalogues the florid variety of things going on in higher education, championing every change or possibility that’s out there on an equal plane without too much discrimination.  There are a few gestures here and there toward critical thinking about these new possibilities, but mostly things fall into the following rough equations:

Current higher education system = exclusionary + hierarchical + expensive + tradition centered = bad

Anything new = good (or at least potential good)

On some level this strikes me as a convert’s story.  Kamenetz went to Yale College, for goodness sake, not Kaplan University.  So it may be that she is a kind of Martin Luther, or at least his publicist.  One well imagines Kamenetz in the reformation glorifying every sect that came down the pike as good because it wasn’t the catholic church and was returning power to the people.  Or the believer who wakes one morning to realize she believes nothing that her parents church believes, and so is fascinated and wildly attracted to the notion that some people out there worship turnips.

Not sure if anyone actually worships turnips, but you get the point;  its difficult in the midst of a reformation to discriminate and figure out who is Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Calvin, or William Tyndale, and who is just a the latest crackpot televangelist hocking his wares.  Moreover, it takes a lot of discrimination–and probably more distance than we can afford right now–to figure out which parts of Luther, Simons, Calvin and Tyndale were the things worth keeping and which were, well, more like the crackpot televangelists of their own day.  Are Phoenix, Kaplan, and other for profits really helping poorer students in a way that the bad and exclusive traditional university is not, or are they really fleecing most of them in the name of hope and prosperity–something a good many televangelists and other American Hucksters are well known for?

This book is not where we’ll get that kind of analysis and considered attention about what we really ought to do next, where we ought to put what weight and influence we have.  And I admit, to some degree that’s asking this book to be something it isn’t We need books like this that are more provocations and manifestos than reflective analyses.  We also have to have someone that writes the revolution from the inside with all the enthusiasms that entails.

But that means this is a fast book, subject to the strengths and weaknesses that speed provides, one weakness being a little bit of factual sloppiness and a penchant for hasty and oversimplified analysis that sells well to the journalistic ear.  For instance Kamenetz uses a recurrent metaphor of the higher educational institution being a church that the contemporary world increasingly doesn’t need, and she draws an analogy by saying that statistics show that church attendance has dropped from 40 to 25 percent.  The problem is that the article she cites actually says that regular church attendance has remained consistently at 25 percent for the past couple of decades and has declined only slightly since 1950.  Other studies peg that number at 40 percent.  No study I know of (I’m not an expert)–and certainly not the one that Kamenetz cites–suggests its dropped from 40 to 25 percent.

Another annoying instance is a recurrent statement that administrators of higher education institutions are committed to maintaining the status quo.  This is spoken like someone who never actually talked to an administrator, or perhaps is only speaking about Yale College which for the most part really doesn’t need to change.  Nearly every administrator I know of or have talked to is thinking furiously, sometimes frantically, and sometimes creatively, about how our institutions can change to meet the challenges we face and better serve the public with our various educational missions.  Unless it is the case that Kamenetz is arguing that institutions are simply for the status quo because they are institutions and unwilling to pass quietly in to the night.  But this would jejune.  It sounds good to the anti-institutional American ear, but its doubtful policy for advances in higher education.

These kinds of issues individually are small, but collectively they are annoying and to someone who is involved in the institutional side of higher education and is informed about the issues, they are glaring.  What it might mean is that the book won’t get the kind of attention in higher education institutions that it deserves.

Which is too bad since I think the book ought to be required reading for administrators, if only to debate its urgency.  What the book lacks in critical discrimination it makes up for with passionate and detailed pronouncement–a good sermon can be good for the academic soul.  For one thing, it might help us realize that the way things have always been done isn’t even the way things are being done now for an increasingly larger and larger share of the population.  Just as churches change–however slowly–in the face of historical movements and transformations, higher education is and will be changing as well.  Many of the ideas detailed in Kamenetz’s book help us see the extent to which those changes are occurring and lend new urgency to the question of what those changes mean for us in higher education.  There’s even a good deal available that could help us to think about how to best reform our own practices to meet our current highest ideals, rather than seeing this as a war of good and evil over the minds of the next generation.

I was especially drawn to Kamenetz’s notion of a community of practice–something she drew from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger:

Such communities  are defined by shared engagement in a task and shared understanding of goals and means to reach them.  In the classic progression of a community of practice, an appentice presents herself to the community and takes on simple beginning tasks at the elbow of an expert.  Everyone is participating in real-world tasks, not academic exercises., so the learner’s actions have consequences right away.  This stage is known as “legitimate peripheral participation.’  As she progresses she continuosly reinforces her learning by teaching others as well.  In a community of practice it is understood that youare just as likely to learn from the mistakes of fellow beginners, or from people with just slightly more experience, as from wizened elders.  Virtual communities of practice are thriving on the internet, among bloggers, gamers, designers and programmers.  These groups have little choice but to teach each other–information technology has been changing so fast for the past few decades that traditional schools and curricula can’t keep up.”

This last, of course, if very true.  I think the question of time for learning and play in higher education is a big problem, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.  But even given that, I’m struck by the ways what she describes seems characteristic of the practice already of Digital Humanists as I understand the basics of this particular practice. Something like theHomer Multitext project that includes students from first year Greek classes to fourth year Greek majors is one instance of this.

Beyond this, I am struck by the ethical impulses entailed here and in much of Kamenetz’s work.  She points out that the original meanings of words we associate with universities had to do with something like this notion of community–university and college pointing to the notion of guild or community, a gathering of like-minded people pursuing a common vocation.

This ethical impulse in Kamenetz’s work is what I find most attractive and most usable.  She connects her manifesto to the work of Paul Freire and other catholic priest/intellectuals who were deeply invested in the notion of universal active and engaged education for what my church growing up called “the least of these.”  This is a notion that faculty at my faith-based institution can root themselves in and catch a vision for, and one that I think many other public-minded intellectuals could embrace regardless of the particulars of their beliefs.

What would it mean for us to take advantage of the latest innovations in technology, not because it could take save the institution money and not because it could save faculty time, but what if we could imagine it as a way of taking what we have to those who have need of it?

What if the world were really our classroom, not just the 30 students in front of us who can afford (or not afford) to be there?

What difference would it make to our practice, our politics, our thinking, teaching, and scholarship?

Dreaming of Sleep: Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep

It’s a pleasure to pick up a novel and know from the first lines that it will be worth the read. We usually have to give more of ourselves over to novels than to other forms of writing–a problem in our frantic clickable age. With stuff that I remand to my Instapaper account, I can glance through the first paragraph and decide if I want to keep reading, and if I read three or four paragraphs and am not convinced it’s worth the time, there’s no point in agonizing about whether to keep on going. Same with a book of poetry: If I read the first three or four poems and there’s nothing there other than the authors reputation, I mostly put it aside–though I might admit that it is my failing and not the poets.

But novels are a different horse. A lot of novels require 50 pages and sometime more before we can get fully immersed in the writer’s imaginative world, feeling our way in to the nuances and recesses of possibility, caring enough about the characters or events or language or ideas (and preferably all four) to let the writer land us like netted fish. I think I’ve written before about the experience of reading yet one more chapter, still hoping and believing in the premise or the scenario or the author’s reputation. I’ve finished books that disappointed me, though my persistence was more like a teenaged boy fixed up on a date with with the best girl in school, pretending until the evening clicks to a close that he isn’t really bored to tears, things just haven’t gotten started yet.

But Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep didn’t make me wait. I bought the book on reputation and topic. I loved Bell’s All Souls Rising, but got derailed by the follow-ups in his Haitian trilogy, never quite losing myself in the Caribbean madness that made the first book the deserved winner of an array of awards. Thus disappointed, I hadn’t really picked up Bell’s work since, though I vaguely felt I ought to. From the first sentences of the novel, his first, I was under the spell. The choice of words is purposeful since the book is about a hypnotherapist who, while helping others solve all manner of problems and difficulties through his particular gift at putting them under, cannot neither solve his own problems or put himself to sleep: He suffers from a crippling case of insomnia.

Like any good novel, the meanings are thickly layered. In some respects I found myself thinking of the Apostle Paul’s dictum that wretched man that he was, he knew what he should do, and he wanted to do it, but he could not do the very thing he knew to do, and, indeed, the very thing he did not want to do this was the very thing he did. The tale of all things human, the disjunction between knowledge and will, between thought and desire and act. The main character’s skills as a hypnotist are deeply related to his metaphysical wanderings amidst the mystics and heretics of the past, most particularly Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake because he claimed the church sought to promote good through force rather than through love. Ironically, the main character knows all this, knows in his head that love is the great mystic unity of which the mystics speak, and yet turns away from love in to abstraction, failing to love women because he cannot see them as human beings to whom he might be joined, seeing them instead as mystic abstractions through which he wants to escape the world.

In the end, accepting love means accepting death, which means accepting sleep–something that seems so natural to so many, but if you have suffered from insomnia as I do, you realize that surrendering to sleep is a strange act of grace, one that cannot be willed, but can only be received.

I think in some ways to there’s a lot of reflection in this book on the power of words and stories, their ability to put us under. So, perhaps inevitably, it is a book about writing and reading on some very deep level. Adrian, Doctor Sleep, takes people on a journey in to their unconscious through words, and his patients surrender to him willingly. Indeed, Adrian believes, with most hypnotists, that only those who want to be hypnotized actually can be. This is not so far from the notion of T.S. Eliot’s regarding the willing suspension of disbelief. I do not believe Adrian’s metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but for the space of the novel I believe it utterly. We readers want to be caught. We want to lose ourselves at least for that space and that time, so that reading becomes a little like the gift of sleep, a waking dream.

Under the spell of writing we allow Bell to take us in to another world that is, surprisingly, like our own, one in which we see our own abstractedness, our own anxieties, our own petty crimes and misdemeanors, our own failures to love.

Carmen McCain on the Politics of the Happy African Story

Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them.  I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust.  Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

via The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.

I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans.  During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting.  This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is.  I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change.  I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on.  Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen.  It may do as much to invite boredom.  Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Eloquent

(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)

Andrew Delbanco–What are the virtues of a college education?

I’ve begun reading Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, impressed by an essay in the Chronicle Review derived from the book.  I’ve only made my way through the first chapter, but there are a several things to note immediately.

First, Delbanco dances a little bit with question of what college was. He  shows how all of our current debates and lamentations about college life–students are too often debauched, professors teach too little and too poorly, and the college curriculum isn’t focused well enough on getting students jobs–are all of very long-standing, common to our public discourse as equally in 1776 as in 1976 and on to today.  At the same time he shows how in some very real ways colleges have already abandoned and are ever more quickly fleeing from ideals that they once embodied, however imperfectly.

For Delbanco, the genius of college–as opposed to the professionally oriented university–is primarily to be found in an ethical imperative rather than an economic motive.  It’s main value is to establish a kind of personhood that is necessary for citizenship.  It’s qualities include the following:

1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.

2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.

4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.

5. A sense of ethical responsibility.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 138-148). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

For Delbanco, these qualities are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  He puts this most succinctly and eloquently, I thought, in his adaptation for the Chronicle Review, referencing Matthew Arnold and saying, “Knowledge of the past, in other words, helps citizens develop the capacity to think critically about the present–an indispensable attribute of a healthy democracy.”  Amen and a mane.

The problem, and Delbanco is, of course, aware of it, is that what college is, and is fast exclusively becoming, is a commodity that is purchased by and delivered to student customers.  The economic metaphors for college life are triumphant, and no more clearly so than in our discourse about whether a college education is “worth it.”  The question of whether a college education is “worth it” is posed and answered these days in almost exclusively monetary terms.  How much does it cost, and how much will you get for the investment?

Over and against this rather ruthless bottom line, Delbanco’s descriptions seem noble, but I’m a little afraid that it is so much tilting at windmills (I reserve judgement until I’ve actually finished the book).  Only today I was discussing these matters with several of my faculty who are going to be attending the conference at Wake Forest, Rethinking Success:  From the liberal arts to careers in the 21st century.  Our career development director described to me parents who come to her asking for job statistics for their children as they chose between our small Christian college and other more well-known universities.  The fundamental decisions are not related so much to the the quality of education we could provide, not the kind of transformative potential that her child might realize in an environment at Messiah College devoted to the development and integration of an intellectual, spiritual and ethical life, but whether in fact our graduates get jobs as readily and whether those jobs pay as much as her child’s other options.  The difficulty for a College less well known than the Ivies Delbanco focuses on, is to find a rhetoric and an educational program that holds up the flame of the education Delbanco imagines, while also speaking frankly and less idealistically to the ways in which that education can pay off in material ways.

It’s not that these are poor questions for parents to be asking;  its just that these questions are unrelated to the kinds of things Delbanco is saying College is for and that many of us have believed that it is for.  Delbanco, of course, is trying to intervene in useful way to alter the national discourse about what college ought to be about.  Without a shift in that discourse, its impossible to imagine College being for what Delbanco says it should be for, except somewhere in the hidden and secret recesses of the academic heart.

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Grading the Crowd

Can the wisdom of crowds apply to grading student papers, or to evaluation of culture more generally?  What about the quality of a theological argument, or a decision about foreign policy?  We’re taken a lot with the idea of crowds and collaboration lately, and not without good reason.  I think there’s a great deal to be said about getting beyond the notion of the isolated individual at work in his study;  especially in the humanities I think we need to learn something from our colleagues in the sciences and think through what collaborative engagement as a team of scholars might look like as a norm rather than an exception.  At the same time, is there a limit to collective learning and understanding?  Can we detect the difference between the wisdom of the crowd and the rather mindless preferences of a clique, or a mob.  I found myself thinking about these things again this evening as I read Cathy Davidson’s latest piece in The Chronicle Review, “Please Give Me Your Divided Attention: Transforming Learning for the Digital Age.”

Cathy Davidson, "Now You See It"

I wrote about Davidson a couple of days ago–she’s around a lot lately, as authors tend to be when a new book comes out that a publisher has decided to push—and I feel almost bad at taking up  only my crabbiest reactions to her recent work.  First, let me say that I briefly crossed paths with Davidson at Duke where she was hired the year I was finished my doctorate in English.  She seemed like a breath of fresh and genuine air in a department that could sometime choke on its collective self-importance, and the enthusiasm and generosity and love of teaching that Davidson evinces in this essay was evident then as well, though I never had her for class.  And, as this comment suggests, I think there’s a lot in this essay that’s really important to grapple with.  First, her suggestions of the ways that she and some of her colleagues at Duke trusted students with an experiment in iPod pedagogy paid off in so many unexpected ways, and we now know a good bit of that was far ahead of its time.  Moreover, she paints a wonderful picture of students as collaborative teachers in the learning process in her course on the way neuroscience is changing everything.  Still, as with a lot of these things that focus on student-centeredness, I find that promising insights are blinded by what amounts to a kind of ideology that may not be as deeply informed about human action as it really ought to be.  I felt this way in Davidson’s discussion of grading.

 There are many ways of crowdsourcing, and mine was simply to extend the concept of peer leadership to grading. The blogosphere was convinced that either I or my students would be pulling a fast one if the grading were crowdsourced and students had a role in it. That says to me that we don’t believe people can learn unless they are forced to, unless they know it will “count on the test.” As an educator, I find that very depressing. As a student of the Internet, I also find it implausible. If you give people the means to self-publish—whether it’s a photo from their iPhone or a blog—they do so. They seem to love learning and sharing what they know with others. But much of our emphasis on grading is based on the assumption that learning is like cod-liver oil: It is good for you, even though it tastes horrible going down. And much of our educational emphasis is on getting one answer right on one test—as if that says something about the quality of what you have learned or the likelihood that you will remember it after the test is over.

Grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence. If we crowdsource grading, we are suggesting that young people without credentials are fit to judge quality and value. Welcome to the Internet, where everyone’s a critic and anyone can express a view about the new iPhone, restaurant, or quarterback. That democratizing of who can pass judgment is digital thinking. As I found out, it is quite unsettling to people stuck in top-down models of formal education and authority.

Davidson’s last minute veering into ad hominem covers over the fact that she doesn’t provide any actual evidence for the superiority of her method, offers a cultural fact for a substantive good—if this is how things are done in the age of digital thinking, it must be good, you old fogies—seems to crassly assume that any theory of judgment that does not rely on the intuitions of 20 year olds is necessarily anti-democratic and authoritarian, and glibly overlooks the social grounding within which her own experiment was even possible.  All of this does sound like a lot of stuff that comes out of graduate departments in English, Duke not least of all, but I wonder if the judgment is really warranted.

An alternate example would be a class I occasionally teach, when I have any time to teach at all any more, on book reviewing.  In the spirit of democratizing the classroom, I usually set this course up as a kind of book contest in which students choose books to review and on the basis of those reviews, books proceed through a process of winnowing, until at last, with two books left, we write reviews of the finalists and then vote for our book of the year.  The wisdom of the crowd does triumph in some sense because through a process of persuasion students have to convince their classmates what books are worth reading next.  The class is partly about the craft of book reviewing, partly about the business of book publishing, and partly about theories of value and evaluation.  We spend time not only thinking about how to write effective book reviews for different markets, we discuss how theorists from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Barbara Herrnstein Smith discuss the nature of value, all in an effort to think through what we are saying when we finally sit down and say one thing is better than another thing.

The first two times I taught this class, I gave the students different lists of books.  One list included books that were short listed for book awards, one list included first time authors, and one list included other books from notable publishers that I had collected during the previous year.  I told them that to begin the class they had to choose three books to read and review from the lists that I had provided, and that at least one book had to be from a writer of color (my field of expertise being Ethnic literature of the U.S., I reserved the right).  They could also choose one book simply through their own research to substitute for a book on one of my lists.  Debates are always spirited, and the reading is always interesting.  Students sometimes tell me that this was one of their favorite classes.

The most recent time I taught the class, I decided to take the steps in democratizing one step further by allowing the students to choose three books entirely on their own accord.  Before class began I told them how to go about finding books through the use of major industry organs like Publishers Weekly, as well as how to use search engines on Amazon and elsewhere—which, their digital knowledge notwithstanding, students are often surprised at what you can do on a search engine.  The only other guidance was students would ultimately have to justify their choices by defending in their reviews why they liked the books and thought they could be described as good works of literature, leaving open what we meant by terms like “good” and “literature” since that was part of the purpose of the course.

The results were probably predictable but left me disheartened nonetheless.  Only one book out of fifty some books in the first round was by a writer of color.  A predictable problem, but one I had kept my fingers crossed would not occur.  More than half the books chosen by my students were from romance, mystery, fantasy lit, and science fiction genres.  Strictly speaking I didn’t have a problem with that since I think great works of fiction can be written in all kinds of genres, and most works of what we call literary fiction bear the fingerprints of their less reputable cousins (especially mystery writing, in my view, but that’s another post).  I thought there might be a chance that there would be some undiscovered gem in the midst.  I do not have the time to read all fifty books, of course, but rely on students to winnow for me and then try to read every book that gets to the round of eight.  It’s fair to say that in my personal authoritarian aesthetic, none of the books that fell in to that generic category could have been called a great work of fiction, though several of them were decent enough reads.  Still, I was happy to go with this and see where things would take us, relatively sure that as things went on and we had to grapple with what it meant to evaluate prose, we would probably still come out with some pretty good choices.

Most of the works that I would have considered literary were knocked out by the second round, though it is the case that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom made it all the way to the finals, paired against Lisa Unger’s entry from 2010, whose title I can’t even remember now.  In the end the class split almost down the middle, but chose Unger’s book as the best book they had read during the course of the semester.  Not that I thought it was a terrible book. It was a nice enough read and Unger is a decent enough mystery writer.  But being asked to remember the book is a little like being asked to remember my last trip to MacDonalds.  One doesn’t go there for memorable dining experience, and one doesn’t read Lisa Unger in order come up with books that we will care to remember several weeks after having set them down.  But what was perhaps most intriguing to me was that after an hour long discussion of the two books in which students offered spirited defenses of each writer, I asked them that if they could project themselves in to the year 2020 and had to choose only one book to include on a syllabus in a course on the best books of 2010, which book would it be.  Without exception the students voted for Franzen’s book.  When I asked the students who changed their votes why this would be, they said “We think that Franzen is more important, we just liked reading Unger more.”

This is the nub.  Can the wisdom of crowds decide what is most important?  To that, the answer can only be “sometimes”.  As often crowds choose what is conveniently at hand, satisfies a sweet tooth, or even the desire for revenge. Is there a distinction between what is important or what is true and what is merely popular?  Collaboration can lead us past blindnesses, but it is not clear that the subjectivity of a crowd is anything but blind (in my original draft I typed “bling”, a telling typographical slip and one that may be truer and more interesting than “blind.”  It is not clear that they can consistently be relied upon by their intuition to decide what ought to last. This may not be digital thinking, but at least it is thinking, something crowds cannot be always relied upon to do.

If we could really rely on crowds to make our choices, we would discover that there is really very little to choose between almost anything.  Going on Amazon, what is amazing is that four stars is the average score for all of the 100,000s of thousands of books that are catalogued.  And popularity trumps everything:  Lisa Scottoline scores higher in a lot of cases than Jane Austen.  Literally everything is above average and worth my time.  This is because in the world of the crowd, people mostly choose to be with those crowds that are most like themselves and read those things that are most likely to reinforce the sense they have that they are in the right crowd to begin with.  This is true as even elementary studies of internet usage have pointed out.  Liberals read other liberals, and delight in their wisdom and the folly of conservatives.  Conservatives read other conservatives and do likewise.  This too is digital thinking, and in this case it is quite easily seen that crowds can become authoritarian over and against the voice of the marginalized.  My students choices to not read students of color unless I tell them to is only one small reminder of that.

Which leads to one last observation.  I wonder, indeed, whether it is not the case that this experiment worked so well at Duke because students at Duke already know what it takes to get an A.  That is, in some sense Davidson is not really crowdsourcing at all but is relying on the certain educational processes that will deliver students well-attuned to certain forms of cultural excellence,  able to create effectively and “challenge” the status quot because they are already deeply embedded within those forms of culture excellence and all the assumptions they entail.  That is, as with many pedagogical theories offered by folks at research institutions, Davidson isn’t theorizing from the crowd but from a tiny elite and extremely accomplished sample.  As Gerald Graff points out, most of us most want to teach the students that don’t need us, that means most of us want to teach at places where none of the students actually need us.  Davidson’s lauding of her students in the fact that they don’t’ really need her to learn may merely be an index of their privilege, not the inherent wisdom of crowds or the superiority of her pedagogical method.   Her students have already demonstrated that they know what it takes to get A’s in almost everything because they have them—and massively high test scores besides—or they are unusually gifted in other ways or they wouldn’t be at Duke.  These are the students who not only read all their AP reading list the summer before class started, they also read all the books related to the AP reading list and  have attended tutoring sessions to learn to write about them besides.

Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their being accomplished.  On some level, I was one of them in having gone to good private colleges and elite graduate programs.  But it is a mistake to assume that the well-learned practices of the elite, the cultural context that reinforces those practices, and the habits of mind that enable the kinds of things that Davidson accomplished actual form the basis for a democratizing pedagogy for everyone.  Pierre Bourdieu 101.