Crowdsourcing My Seminar on The Crisis of Legitimacy in Higher Education

CampusI’ve foolishly agreed to take on a teaching assignment in the spring semester, but am thrilled at the prospect of teaching a senior honors seminar to our honors program students here at Messiah College. The course is titled: “College, what is it good for?:  Messiah College and the Crisis of Legitimacy in Higher Education.”

I’ve decided to stick my pinkie toe in the crowdsourcing waters just to see what students, faculty, and administrators might make of the course or do with it if they had their way.  So I’d be very interested in any readers of this now nearly moribund blog taking a crack at the course google doc that you can connect with here.  (I’m so uncertain as to what I’m doing that you should please leave me a comment if you find it impossible to get to my google doc).  I’m not going entirely commando with the crowdsourcing idea, sin I’ve obviously created a moderately fleshed out skeleton on the google.doc that I think I would like to pursue.

On the other hand, I’m interested in how students in the course, professors, other administrators, persons outside the academy, might view such a course.  What issues would be taken up, what readings would be required, what case studies should we consider, what assignments would really work??  Etcetera etcetera.  I’m especially interested in ideas about how to make the “gamification” part of the class work effectively.  So I’m open to anything, retaining the right pick and choose what I think are the best ideas to form the course in the end.

The basic description of the course is as follows, with the longer version of my vision of the course available on the google doc.

Students in this class will have an opportunity to reflect on their education at Messiah College in the broader context of higher education as it exists in the United States today.  Especially, we will examine the widespread doubts and concerns about higher education in the United States.  In the United States, social discourse no longer takes a college education to be an obvious and unquestioned social good.  Critics contend that college costs too much, contributes to inequality, relies on old-fashioned technology, does not guarantee students good jobs, undermines patriotism (or religious faith) and in the end does not teach students very much.  Several central questions will focus our seminar, including but not limited to the following:

  • What is the purpose of a college education?
  • How is college represented in American culture, and why?
  • Does a college education contribute to inequality in the United States?
  • Why does a college education cost so much?
  • Do new forms of information technology and educational delivery signal the end of the traditional residential liberal arts college?
  • Do Christian Colleges have unique answers to the problems facing higher education?
  • How does or should Messiah College respond effectively to the crisis of legitimacy in higher education?

If you don’t have any time for a google doc and would just like to leave some suggestions in the comments to the post, that’s great too.

Literacy in the Digital Humanities: Or, a clueless “noob” in digital academe

Today my faculty group focused on the Digital Humanities here at Messiah College had a great session with Ryan Cordell from St. Norbert’s College.  Ryan blogs regularly for ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and holds down the Digital Humanities fort (or perhaps leads the insurgency) at St. Norbert’s.  He’s also especially done some work advising liberal arts colleges on projects in the Digital Humanities, so I thought he’d be a good choice for consulting.  I’m happy with the choice:  Ryan was practical and down-to-earth, while also pointing to really challenging and exciting places we could take some of our nascent ideas.  I think we came away with some good possibilities for next steps that will lead to some concrete action in the next year.  I highly recommend Ryan if your looking for a consultant for starting or managing digital humanities projects in a smaller school setting.

Earlier in the day I had had the good luck to look in on a massive twitter debate that was, unbeknownst to the participants, about or at least precipitated by me and a brief conversation I’d had with Ryan.  I’d told Ryan that one of my biggest concerns was professional development for faculty and getting them over some of the immediate humps of alienation that traditional humanistic scholars feel when confronted with what amounts to an alien DH world.  I mentioned the fact that I  and one of my colleagues, David Pettegrew--who is himself much more versed in technical know-how than I am–went to a THATCamp and spent the first two or three hours feeling completely lost and at sea, unable to fully comprehend half the language that was being used or the tasks that we were being asked to implement. I mentioned to Ryan that I felt that I probably needed to have had a half of a semester of a coding class before I would have gotten everything out of the THATCamp that I should have gotten.  Although that improved as things went along and we got in to concrete projects, and I also found everyone very gracious and the atmosphere enthusiastic,  I was worried that my faculty who were only interested in investigating (and perhaps then only after my pleading) would be discouraged or uninterested in engaging with DH if a THATCamp was their first experience.

Ryan mentioned this in a tweet yesterday.

All-twitter-hell broke loose.

Well, not really.  In fact it was a really fascinating and intellectually complex conversation–one I wouldn’t have thought could happen via Twitter.  I won’t try to completely replicate that conversation here.  You could go to Ryan’s twitter feed and find the essentials for yourself.  It was clear, though, that Ryan’s tweet had touched what amounted to a raw digital nerve.  Some twitterers were flabbergasted that anyone would find a THATCamp too daunting or that it could ever be alienating.  Others assumed that the problem definitely must have been with me, that I was too shy to ask for help.  Ultimately the conversation turned to a pretty serious engagement with the question of whether there were genuinely insider and exclusive groups and hierarchies within DH.

As a “noob”–which I discovered in the course of the twitter conversation yesterday is what I am–I am here to say without a hint of condemnation, “Yes, yes, yes there are.”

For me, this is not a moral or even a political statement, though it was very clear to me that for many people in the conversation this was a moral or political concern.  To admit to hierarchies and exclusivity was  a betrayal of the collaborative and radically democratic spirit that many feel is at the heart of DH work.  I will say that these collaborative aspects are part of what most attracts me to what’s going on in DH–as little as I actually do know;  I see it as a superb fit for some of the commitments my school has to the public humanities and to public service more generally, besides moving students in to more collaborative learning environments that will be useful to them in the world they are entering.

However, any academic discourse that is imaginable, maybe any discourse that is imaginable at all, operates by exclusion and inclusion simply given the facts that there are those who know the language and those who do not, there are those who are literate in the language and those who are not, there are those who are fluent in the language and those who are not, and there are those who are creators in with and of the language and there are those who are not.  It is impossible for me to imagine how this could be otherwise.

The reason DH can be difficult and alienating for beginners like me is because we don’t know enough of the language to even know what to ask for. I will say I mused over the question of whether I had just been too shy to ask for help at the THATCamp.  Being a fainting violet is not really a quality that will get you terribly far in administration, so I doubt it, but it may be that I could have asked for more help.  The problem was, I felt so lost that I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of help to ask for.  This is a basic function of discourse, to understand the parameters of the language games you are playing, to know what questions to ask, what moves to make and when, and where to go for the vocabulary you need.  Its why you need consultants like Ryan, or teachers who are in the know.  Its the rationale for the title of my post referencing Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe.  DH is obviously a part of academe, even in its alt-academic forms, and it is increasingly central to academic work in the humanities, and there are an awful lot of people who are clueless about where to begin.

There is nothing morally or politically wrong with this or with being a part of an in group.  To say there is would be to say there is something morally or politically wrong with being alive.  Hyper-Calvinists aside, I don’t think this is a tenable position.

The problem, however, from an administrators point of view–and I speak in to this conversation primarily as an administrator who is trying to facilitate the work of others and promote the well-being of our students–is the pathways toward accessing the language and practices of this world aren’t always terribly clear.  Indeed, ironically, I think some of the laudable democratic ethos in DH work and culture may contribute to this obscurity.  Because a THATCamp–and so much other DH work–is so democratically organized, it means that one experience, conference or workshop may in fact really work well for rank beginners, while another may really require attendees to be a little more versed in the basics before attending.

For me as a person and as a thinker, that’s fine.  I actually look forward to going to another THATCamp someday, even if I am just as lost as I was the first time around. My tenure no longer depends upon it–which gives me a freedom my junior faculty do not have.

However, as an administrator, that democratic quality is a disaster as I consider what kinds of professional development efforts to try to support with my faculty.  I would not be able to tell whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a rank beginner who is hesitantly interested or at least willing to give this a try.  Alternatively, I wouldn’t be able to know ahead of time whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a more advanced colleague who might go and get an iteration of the basics she already knows.  My ability to manage my budgets in a responsible fashion is hampered by my inability to gauge what kinds of professional development experiences I should pursue or promote with my colleagues who are at very different places in their experience of and expertise in DH methodologies and practices.

The traditional life of a humanist academic is elitist in its own obvious ways with its own arcana and exclusionary practices. But the pathway toward access to its languages is fairly well marked, even if it is now increasingly travelled successfully by the very lucky very few.  I could tell junior faculty members 10 years ago that if they wanted to succeed at my college they needed to do three or four things, and I could outline how they should go about doing them.  I don’t sense that kind of pathway to DH work, yet, so while I am wanting mightily to get my faculty more involved with some of these efforts, I’m also aware that without a clearer path for their own professional development, I may be as likely to facilitate confusion as I am to promote professional development.

This problem may simply disappear as DH becomes more and more central to the humanist enterprise, but I suspect as it does become more and more central that the pathways to access will have to become more and more clearly marked.  This means the development of disciplinary (or quasi-disciplinary–I am aware of the angst over thinking of DH as a discipline) protocols and expectations, and as importantly the expected means by which those elements of professional life are effectively accessed by beginners.

This means the recognition of certain gateways and the appointment of their gatekeepers, which all smacks a little bit of hierarchy and exclusion.  However, while it’s true that roadmaps undemocratically dominate a landscape, they also get you where you need to go.  And while gateways mark a boundary, they also let you in.

Ink Spilled, and spilled, and spilled

From Frank Donoghue in the April 10, 2010 Chronicle Review.

“Deborah L. Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford University, in her book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture, notes a study showing that only 2 percent of published scholarship in the humanities is ever cited.”

Looking back on our own age in academe, I suspect that archeologists of knowledge may remark that there has never been so much sweat and strain on the part of the many–academics that is–for the profit of so few.

Scott McClemee on Rene Girard on Reading and Writing

Scott McLemee cites the following from Rene Girard

“And yet our cultural world is a far cry from Elizabethan England or la cour et la ville in seventeenth-century France. There is a reason for this, so simple and yet so obvious that no one ever mentions it. At the time of Elizabeth and Louis, one percent, perhaps, of the educated people were producers, and ninety-nine percent were consumers. With us, the proportion is curiously reversed. We are supposed to live in a world of consumerism, but in the university there are only producers. We are under a strict obligation to write, and therefore we hardly have the time to read one another’s work. It is very nice, when you give a lecture, to encounter someone who is not publishing, because perhaps that person has not only enough curiosity but enough time to read your books.”

Yes, I think this is right, and perhaps not only in academe.  I’ve mentioned before that I get a fair number of students who are interested in writing stories or poems, but don’t have much interest in reading anything.  How this comes to pass is beyond me, and it seems vaguely narcissistic.  We want desperately to express ourselves–and thus the triumph of blogging–but we have little interest in the expression of others.

Justified by Fish Alone

In his most recent essay for the New York Times, Stanley Fish takes up the much exercised question of whether the study of the humanities can be justified. His answer, predictable for anyone who has followed his work, is “No, and it’s a good thing too.” Of late Fish’s growing irritation with literary and other humanistic disciplines has focused on the fruitless politicization of these disciplines, fruitless because such politicization seeks to change the world in ways that are demonstrably ineffective and that debase the professional status of the humanities in the bargain. Fish is always singular, but to some degree he is one of a large group of cranky elder statesmen who are none too happy with what the literary academy has become in the hands of their academic children and grandchildren. Men—and it is mostly men—like Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, and , to a somewhat less cranky degree, Gerald Graff. Fish’s argument in the Times concludes as follows:

Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Fish followers will recognize the argument Stanley has been flogging for nigh on two decades. The professionalization of any discipline is it’s own justification. And in so many ways this is Fish at his inimitable best. Lucid and engaging, persuasive by the force of well-rendered prose alone. (Full disclosure, I had Stanley in a graduate seminar on Milton at Duke; I was and still am so intimidated that I will only call him “Stanley” in prose I am pretty sure he will never read. Professor Fish, always and forever). And there’s so much I want to agree with in Fish’s continuing obsession with this problem. The idea that literature or the study of literature could best be justified by the way it contributes to the revolution has increasingly struck me as excruciatingly reductive, this despite the fact that I’ve written one book and am nearly finished with another that examines literature from a political perspective.

Still, this is mostly an argument about justification that Fish can make largely because he is no longer a dean or department chair having to make justifications. Perhaps he now resents all the years he had to do all that justifying of something that appeared so obviously to him as the ultimate rendering of “The Good.” Indeed, Stanley Fish the institution needs no further justification. He is his own good.

However, Fish’s argument rests on a faulty assumption. When Fish says “Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance,” and that “The humanities are their own good” one imagines that he lives in a metaphysical bubble. This is because, in fact, performance of any activity always depends in some shape or form on things outside its own performance. When I read a book, that personal and cultural good does not exist in an ether of its own making or its own perpetuation. It is made possible by an economy of other personal and cultural goods and other cultural and personal activities. To read the book I take time away from my kids. I refuse to be with my students for at least a spell. I depend on the destruction of trees or the electronic production of pixels, which means I depend upon an economy of human labor and leisure. I also live within the frame of an inevitable personal economy. If only by the fact that I am one body and not many, I do not participate in other demonstrable cultural and personal goods such as the effort to alleviate hunger or to heal the sick.

Any single one of these, of course, need not be the determinative activity that says my decision to read a book is justified or unjustified. But it does suggest that our activities absolutely never exist in a sphere where their own performance is all that counts. In short, the humanities exist within the world already and therefore have effects by the fact of their performance, even if only to the extent that pursuing them must take place within a human economy of means and ends. To “justify” then is simply to give an account of why this cultural good is worth pursuing in light of the world we live in. In the academy this takes the very obvious shape of places within curricula and claims upon the financial well-being of students and their parents. Why is the time and money necessary for a course in literature (or film or philosophy or history) justified? To say that the humanities are their own good is to imagine a humanities without students; indeed, a discipline without human beings. To imagine it so is, from one perspective, self-indulgent. From another it is to imagine nothing at all since there is no world in which such a humanities could possibly be pursued.

The other limitation of Fish’s argument is that he seems to assume justification is only achieved by a transcendental logic. That is, I must point to a foundational reason that will make the humanities (or the simple reading of my book) justifiable. Because I can’t come up with that foundational reason that is beyond dispute, it must be the case that my activity cannot be justified from a perspective outside itself. This is a fairly common deconstructive form of attack on almost anything. However, as Fish surely well knows, many theories of justified beliefs hardly take this form of transcendental logic. More typically, justification is not a form of transcendental logic, but a pragmatic form of argument, or even a network of stories demonstrating use and consequence. In other words, justification is usually much more like the kinds of arguments you have to make to a dean to justify new expenditures. No transcendent logic will work, but a series of stories demonstrating the connection of my activities with the logic and practice of other activities can be very compelling indeed. This justification is what the performance of my own humanistic endeavors depend upon. Why else would a college care to spend a lot of money to let me read books if I couldn’t justify the expense.

Fish’s persistent sense that there is simply no evidence of the usefulness of the humanities is, in fact, demonstrably false if we see each one of these reasons not as an absolute reason but as a thread in a network of argument, a scene in the story of the humanities.

One small example. This week The Guardian reported on the development of a new form of therapy called bibliotherapy. Reading books actually seems to play a role in helping the psychically damaged or depressed to begin a process of managing and even repairing their emotional problems. Brain studies demonstrate that the reading of poetry enlivens parts of the brain that reading non-fictional prose or watching TV does not. Studies in composition and rhetoric demonstrate the deep connection between reading facility and writing ability. Graduate schools in fields as diverse as Business, psychology, and law, repeatedly cite the study of English as a form of preparation. None of these things are exactly the same thing as talking about the deep meaning—or lack thereof—that can be found in literary works (and who, after all, said that this was the only performance that the discipline of literary studies could pursue). But it’s not quite clear that they are completely separate from these activities and many others. These performances are interpenetrating and mutually reinforcing.

We are not our own performance. We dance together or we die alone.