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.

The Words matter: Digital Humanities Vocabulary 101

I always know that if the hits on my blog spike it has less to do with anything I’ve said than with the fact that some good soul or souls out there have bothered to mention me on their own much more well-read and insightful blogs. This has happened several times with the far flung folks in the Digital Humanities who I mostly only know virtually through Twitter and other social media, as well as with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, who I acknowledge both virtually and when I pass him in the hallway. Just today, Rebecca Davis over at NITLE wrote a blog post mentioning me and some of my own floundering engagement as an administrator trying to get my mind around what was happening in this field.

Just a word about Rebecca’s post. She’s begun a very interesting project, partly in response to the floundering of folks like me, designed to provide a glossary of terms to help beginners get a grip on things and begin to navigate the thickets of the Digital Humanities. She ran an experiment at a couple of conferences to get things started:

Normally, academics getting to know a new discipline would read about it before doing it. But, the ethos of doing in digital humanities is so strong, that THATCamps ask beginners to engage in doing digital humanities (more hack, less yack). To that end, at my last workshop (at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts hosted by Oxford College of Emory University), I came up with a strategy to let beginners do and help the digital humanities veterans be sensitive to specialist vocabulary. I asked my workshop participants to write down on a post-it note every term they heard from me or other workshop participants that they didn’t know. Then we added them to our workshop wiki and set about defining them. We accumulated quite a few terms (35 total). Although my co-teacher Sean Lind, Digital Services Librarian at Oxford, ended up contributing most of the definitions, I think the list was still useful as an indicator of terms veterans need to be prepared to define.

I repeated the experiment at THATCamp LAC 2012 by proposing a session on a digital humanities glossary and setting up a google doc for the glossary. I think that session happened, though I didn’t make it. Certainly terms were added to the doc throughout the THATcamp, with a final total of 28 terms.

Looking at this admittedly small sample, let me share some preliminary conclusions. There were only five terms that both lists shared (one of which I had contributed by initiating each list with the acronym DH):

  • Crowdsourcing
  • DH = Digital Humanities
  • Hashtag
  • Open Access (OA)
  • TEI= Text Encoding Initiative
I love this idea, love the activity, and I hope that Rebecca’s idea for a glossary takes off. The lists she’s come up with to start seem about right. I will say I ended my first THATCamp still entirely clueless about what TEI stood for and I’m still not entirely sure I could define “XML” for anyone else, even though I think I know it when I see it. (In my defense, I actually did know what crowd sourcing, hashtag, and open access indicated, although I hadn’t the foggiest how you did any of them).
Regarding hacking and yacking, I am, so far, more of a digital humanities advocate than a digital humanities practitioner, a position necessitated both by my ignorance and my position as an administrator with too little time to read his email, much less pursue digital humanities projects. From this position as a facilitator, I feel a little reluctant to take a position, other than to say words matter. Having the word for something gives you one way to act on the world. I’ve always been deeply moved by the section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X wherein he describes learning to read by reading the dictionary. This seems right. If you want to act in a world learn its words, start to speak its language even if at first you are only stringing nouns together into something that only vaguely resembles a sentence.Words became the necessary means of action. Thus, I think that Rebecca’s project will be a boon to those who are still at the stage of the DH language game where they are mostly pointing and grunting.

I started this post thinking I was going to write about intellectual generosity. How important it is and what it looks like when you find it. That will have to wait, but I will say I have appreciated the large hearted generosity of the many folks in DH who know they are blazing a trail and are willing to lay out signposts and serve as guides to others on the path.

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?

Digital Humanities, “techno-lust”, and the Personal Economy of Professional Development: Ryan Cordell on simplification

It’s a sign of my unsimple and exceedingly overstuffed life that I’ve only now gotten around to reading Ryan Cordell’s ProfHacker piece from last week.  Ryan is moving to a new position at Northeastern (kudos!) and he’s taken the ritual of eliminating the clutter and junk of a household as a metaphor for the need to prioritize and simplify our professional practices and in his own instance to get rid of the techno gadgets and gizmos that curiosity and past necessity have brought his way.

I have confessed before my appreciation for Henry David Thoreau—an odd thinker, perhaps, for a ProfHacker to esteem. Nevertheless, I think Thoreau can be a useful antidote to unbridled techno-lust. As I wrote in that earlier post, “I want to use gadgets and software that will help me do things I already wanted to do—but better, or more efficiently, or with more impact.” I don’t want to acumulate things for their own sake.

…..

I relate this not to brag, but to start a conversation about necessity. We talk about tech all the time here at ProfHacker. We are, most of us at least, intrigued by gadgets and gizmos. But there comes a time to simplify: to hold a garage sale, sell used gadgets on Gazelle, or donate to Goodwill.

via Simplify, Simplify! – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ryan’s post comes as I’ve been thinking a lot about the personal economy that we all must bring to the question of our working lives, our sense of personal balance, and our personal desire for professional development and fulfillment.  As I have been pushing hard for faculty in my school to get more engaged with issues surrounding digital pedagogy and to consider working with students to develop projects in digital humanities, I have been extremely aware that the biggest challenge is not faculty resistance or a lack of faculty curiosity–though there is sometimes that.  The biggest challenge is the simple fact of a lack of faculty time.  At a small teaching college our lives are full, and not always in a good way.  There is extremely little bandwidth to imagine or think through new possibilities, much less experiment with them.

At our end of the year school meeting I posed to faculty the question of what they had found to be the biggest challenge in the past year so that we could think through what to do about it in the future.  Amy, my faculty member who may be the most passionate about trying out the potential of technology in the classroom responded “No time to play.”  Amy indicated that she had bought ten new apps for her iPad that year, but had not had any time to just sit around and experiment with them in order to figure out everything that they could do and imagine new possibilities for her classroom and the rest of her work.  The need for space, the need for play, is necessary for the imagination, for learning, and for change.

It is necessary for excellence, but it is easily the thing we value least in higher education.

Discussing this same issue with my department chairs, one of them said that she didn’t really care how much extra money I would give them to do work on digital humanities and pedagogy, what she really needed was extra time.

This is, I think, a deep problem generally and a very deep problem at a teaching college with a heavy teaching load and restricted budgets.  (At the same time, I do admit that I recognize some of the biggest innovations in digital pedagogy have come from community colleges with far higher teaching loads than ours).  I think, frankly, that this is at the root of some of the slow pace of change in higher education generally. Faculty are busy people despite the stereotype of the professor with endless time to just sit around mooning about nothing.  And books are….simple.  We know how to use them, they work pretty well, they are standardized in terms of their technical specifications, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we buy one.

Not so with the gadgets, gizmos, and applications that we accumulate rapidly with what Ryan describes as “techno-lust”. (I have not yet been accused of having this, but I am sure someone will use it on me now).  Unless driven by a personal passion, I think most faculty and administrators make an implicit and not irrational decision–“This is potentially interesting, but it would be just one more thing to do.”  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the changes in technology seem to speed up and diversify rather than slow down and focus.  Technology doesn’t seem to simplify our lives or make them easier despite claims to greater efficiency.  Indeed, in the initial effort to just get familiar or figure out possibilities, technology just seems to add to the clutter.

I do not know a good way around this problem:  the need for play in an overstuffed and frantic educational world that so many of us inhabit.  One answer–just leave it alone and not push for innovation–doesn’t strike me as plausible in the least.  The world of higher education and learning is shifting rapidly under all of our feet, and the failure to take steps to address that change creatively will only confirm the stereotype of higher education as a dinosaur unable to respond to the educational needs of a public.

I’m working with the Provost so see if I can pilot a program that would give a course release to a faculty member to develop his or her abilities in technology in order to redevelop a class or develop a project with a student.  But this is a very small drop in the midst of a very big bucket of need.  And given the frantic pace of perpetual change that seems to be characteristic of contemporary technology, it seems like the need for space to play, and the lack of it, is going to be a perpetual characteristic of our personal professional economies for a very long time to come.

Any good ideas?  How can could I make space for professional play in the lives of faculty? Or for that matter in my own? How could faculty do it for themselves?  Is there a means of decluttering our professional lives to make genuine space for something new?

Digital Humanities as Culture Difference: Adeline Koh on Hacking and Yacking

My colleague Bernardo Michael in the History department here has been pressing me to understand that properly understood Digital Humanities should be deeply connected to our College-wide efforts to address questions of diversity and what the AAC&U calls inclusive excellence.  (Bernardo also serves as the special assistant to the President for Diversity affairs).  At first blush I will admit that this has seemed counter-intuitive to me and I have struggled to articulate the priority between my interest in developing new efforts in Digital Humanities that I tie to our college’s technology plan and my simultaneous concerns with furthering our institutions diversity plan (besides just a general ethical interest, my primary field of study over the past 20 years has been multicultural American Literature).

Nevertheless, I’ve started seeing more and more of Bernardo’s point as I’ve engaged in the efforts to get things started in Digital Humanities.  For one thing, the practices and personages of the digital world are talked about in cultural terms:  We use language like “digital natives” and “digital culture” and “netizens”–cultural terms that attempt to articulate new forms of social and cultural being.  In the practical terms of trying to create lift-off for some of these efforts, an administrator faces the negotiation of multiple institutional cultures, and the challenging effort to get faculty–not unreasonably happy and proud about their achievements within their own cultural practices–to see that they actually need to become conversant in the languages and practices of an entirely different and digital culture.

Thus I increasingly see that Bernardo is right;  just as we need to acclimate ourselves and become familiar with other kinds of cultural differences in the classroom, and just as our teaching needs to begin to reflect the values of diversity and global engagement, our teaching practices also need to engage students as digital natives.  Using technology in the classroom or working collaboratively with students on digital projects isn’t simply instrumental–i.e. it isn’t simply about getting students familiar with things they will need for a job.  It is, in many ways, about cultural engagement, respect, and awareness.  How must our own cultures within academe adjust and change to engage with a new and increasingly not so new culture–one that is increasingly central and dominant to all of our cultural practices?

Adeline Koh over at Richard Stockton College (and this fall at Duke, I think), has a sharp post on these kinds of issues, focusing more on the divide between theory and practice or yacking and hacking in Digital Humanities.  Adeline has more theory hope than I do, but I like what she’s probing in her piece and I especially like where she ends up:

If computation is, as Cathy N. Davidson (@cathyndavidson) and Dan Rowinski have been arguing, the fourth “R” of 21st century literacy, we very much need to treat it the way we already do existing human languages: as modes of knowledge which unwittingly create cultural valences and systems of privilege and oppression. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a civilization.”  As Digital Humanists, we have the responsibility to interrogate and to understand what kind of world, and what kind of civilization, our computational languages and forms create for us. Critical Code Studies is an important step in this direction. But it’s important not to stop there, but to continue to try to expand upon how computation and the digital humanities are underwritten by theoretical suppositions which still remain invisible.

More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities | Adeline Koh
http://www.adelinekoh.org/blog/2012/05/21/more-hack-less-yack-modularity-theory-and-habitus-in-the-digital-humanities/

I suspect that Bernardo and Adeline would have a lot to say to each other.

Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

I do not recommend becoming chair of the accreditation team at your college if you value your mental health.  I do, however, recommend it if you want to understand the multitude of cultures that make up your own institution and to think through how they all fit together, or not, in the common educational enterprise.  Like all academics living it seems, we are grappling with various levels of success with the assessment tsunami that has hit higher education in the past decade or so.  One feature that’s very evident is that different parts of campus have different attitudes toward assessment and its virtues or evils.  Among we humanists, there’s still a large contingent that believes that what we do is unassessable, that our value can’t be assessed but that at the same time it should be obvious to everyone.

I think this approach is mostly self-defeating;  it seems to me that it mostly invokes a mystification that, if taken literally, means that we can’t even know ourselves what we mean when we say the humanities have a value that should be recognized by the institutions in which they live and move and have their being.  I do think there is a truth to which this mystification speaks.  Some of the most important moments in learning, perhaps the most crucial moments in learning, in the humanities are unreplicable and so unmeasurable. The fact that reading Soren Kierkegaard changed my life in some fundamental sense and filled me with a love for the life of the mind that has never since been expended is not a fact that means Kierkegaard should be required reading for everyone, as if reading SK were like learning an algebraic equation.

On the other hand, the fact of these transformative experiences, and most academics have such liminal experience or they wouldn’t be academics, shouldn’t lead us to say that no thing is measurable in what we do, or that because the things that we can measure are not the liminal experiences that made us who we are they are therefore not worth assessing at all.  This would be like saying that because the really crucial things in music are things like Verdi’s Othello or Handel’s Messiah, we shouldn’t bother to see if a music teacher’s methods are helping students to learn to play Bach two-part inventions effectively. It’s less sexy, but if students can’t do analogous things reasonably well, they won’t ever be in a position to have the kinds of transformative experiences with humanistic work that we ourselves value and recognize as fundamental to who we are and who we hope our students will become.

Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a very good blog on assessment and the humanities  where he points to the need to develop forms of knowledge that help us get at things that will lead to useful change, and points out that doing this well is related to our oft-professed desire to be pursuing work that makes a difference in the world:

This is why, when it comes to assessment, I always ask “What kind of knowledge would we require in order to make a substantive change?” That question asks not only about the specific knowledge statement but the process by which the knowledge is constructed. Anecdotes are not strong enough. And my concern for the humanities is that it doesn’t believe that any knowledge is strong enough to make such decisions. This, of course, does not mean that curriculum doesn’t happen or that changes don’t occur. It simply means that we deny ourselves the opportunity to produce knowledge that is strong enough to inform decision-making. Instead we are left with individual feelings, opinions, and beliefs and whatever they amount to. A skeptic might say that this is all that humanistic knowledge has ever been. 

But I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. If we believe that as humanists we cannot produce knowledge of real value with the strength to make changes in the world, then what would we be doing as teachers or scholars? We would be engaged in some kind of self-pleasuring activity, perhaps with the idea that our performances might instill in others (through some quasi-magical, sympathetic incantation) a similar practice of finding self-pleasure (or aesthetic appreciation) through a purely subjective/cultural/discursive encounter with the objects we study. No doubt there is a strong strand of such thinking in the humanities, especially in English, that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold (though in his case the self-pleasure was imbuded with a chaste religiosity rather than the psycho-sexual implications one probably sees here). However, no one would imagine self-pleasure as the sole goal of humanistic study. We must be able to produce knowledge that has the strength to make changes. And that requires an understanding of how knowledge is constructed and operates in a world that isn’t divided into natural, social, and discursive realms. And this is as true for our research and teaching as it is for assessment.

via digital digs: constructing academic knowledge.

Reid points out that over and against this, we are usually driven by classroom lore, anecdotes about our students that seems to identify problems and lead to certain forms of common knowledge, but that never actually rise to the level of knowledge that can make a difference.  This is what we ought to be seeking in the humanities.  Knowledge that will make a difference in our students lives.  Because we clearly can’t replicate those magical moments that all of us have had with books and culture, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attending to those more mundane items that are the ground through which that magic happens.  And so we need to figure out basic questions like the following:

  • Have our students established a fundamental level of disciplinary literacy such that they are able to make connections across the discipline and find connections for their work in other disciplines?
  • Do our students understand how to enter in to a disciplinary conversation through effective research, the development of an argument with a point of view and a broad grasp (appropriate to an undergraduate) of the issues that are at stake for the argument in the discipline or in the culture at large.
  • Do our students understand logical fallacies, the appropriate use of evidence, and the nature of different rhetorical situations?
  • Can our students effectively discuss the application of their humanistic knowledge to non-academic areas of life, and can they effectively articulate the relationship of the skills and abilities they’ve developed to the world of work and careers following college?  (An outcome I realize not everyone may embrace, but which I have come to think of as fundamental following the Rethinking Success conference of a few weeks ago).

There are probably others, maybe many others that are more important, but these would be a start, and we ought to be willing to work to find the tools that will effectively measure such things even though none of these speak to the magical moments we and our students have when we are seized anew by an idea.

What are the public responsibilities of private education?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.

Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/05/02/interview-author-new-book-past-and-future-higher-education

If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

(via Instapaper)

I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions

[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]