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?

A teacher’s work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congrats to Liz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.

Teaching Latin on an iPad: An experiment at Messiah College

An example of some of the things that Messiah College is trying to do in experimenting with digital technology in the classroom.  My colleague Joseph Huffman is more pessimistic than I about the promise of iPads and e-books, but I’m just glad we have faculty trying to figure it out.  See the full post at the link below.

You might not expect a historian of Medieval and Renaissance Europe to be among the first educators at Messiah College to volunteer to lead a pilot project exploring the impact of mobile technology—in this case, the iPad—on students’ ability to learn. But that’s exactly what happened.Joseph Huffman, distinguished professor of European history, and the eight students in his fall 2011 Intermediate Latin course exchanged their paper textbooks for iPads loaded with the required texts, relevant apps, supplementary PDFs and a Latin-English dictionary. The primary goal was to advance the learning of Latin. The secondary goal was to determine whether the use of the iPad improved, inhibited or did not affect their ability to learn a foreign language.Why Latin?“A Latin course is about as traditional a humanities course as one can find,” Huffman says. Because any foreign language course requires deep and close readings of the texts, studying how student learning and engagement are affected by mobile technology is especially provocative in such a classic course. In addition, Latin fulfills general language course requirements and, therefore, classes are comprised of students from a variety of majors with, perhaps, diverse experiences with mobile technologies like iPads.One aspect of the experiment was to explore whether students would engage the learning process differently with an iPad than a textbook.

The assumption, Huffman admits, is that today’s students likely prefer technology over books.Huffman’s experiences with his Latin 201 course—comprised of five seniors, two sophomores and one junior—challenged that commonly held assumption.

via Messiah College: Messiah News – Messiah College Homepage Features » iPad experiment.

Living in an e-plus world: Students now prefer digital texts when given a choice

A recent blog by Nick DeSantis in the Chronicle points to a survey by the Pearson Foundation that suggests Tablet ownership is on the rise.  That’s not surprising, but more significant is the fact that among tablet users there’s a clear preference for digital texts over the traditional paper codex, something we haven’t seen before even among college students of this wired generation:

One-fourth of the college students surveyed said they owned a tablet, compared with just 7 percent last year. Sixty-three percent of college students believe tablets will replace textbooks in the next five years—a 15 percent increase over last year’s survey. More than a third said they intended to buy a tablet sometime in the next six months.

This year’s poll also found that the respondents preferred digital books over printed ones. It’s a reversal of last year’s results and goes against findings of other recent studies, which concluded that students tend to choose printed textbooks. The new survey found that nearly six in 10 students preferred digital books when reading for class, compared with one-third who said they preferred printed textbooks.

I find this unsurprising as it matches up pretty well with my own experience.  5 years ago I could never imagine doing any significant reading on a tablet.  Now I do all my reading of scholarly journals and long form journalism–i.e The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, The Chronicle Review–on my iPad.  And while I still tend to prefer the codex for the reading of novels and other book length works, the truth is that preference is slowly eroding as well.  As I become more familiar with the forms of e-reading, the notions of its inherent inferiority, like the notions of any unreflective prejudice, gradually fade in the face of familiarity.

And yet I greet the news of this survey with a certain level of panic, not panic that it should happen at all, but panic that the pace of change is quickening and we are hardly prepared, by we I mean we in the humanities here in small colleges and elsewhere.  I’ve blogged on more than one occasion about my doubts about e-books and yet my sense of their inevitable ascendancy.  For instance here on the question of whether e-books are being foisted on students by a cabal of publishers and administrators like myself out to save a buck (or make a buck as the case may be), and here on the nostalgic but still real feeling that I have that print codex forms of books have an irreplaceable individuality and physicality that the mere presence of text in a myriad of e-forms does not suffice to replace.

But though I’ve felt the ascendancy of e-books was inevitable, I think I imagined a 15 or 20 year time span in which print and e-books would mostly live side by side.  Our own librarians here at Messiah College talk about a “print-plus” model for libraries, as if e-book will remain primarily an add on for some time to come.  I wonder.  Just as computing power increases exponentially, it seems to me that the half-life of print books is rapidly diminishing.  I now wonder whether we will have five years before students will expect their books to be in print–all their books, not just their hefty tomes for CHEM 101 that can be more nicely illustrated with iBook Author–but also their books for English and History classes as well.  This is an “e-plus”  world  where print will increasingly not be the norm, but the supplement to fill whatever gaps e-books have not yet bridged, whatever textual landscapes have not yet been digitized.

Despite warnings, we aren’t yet ready for an e-plus world.  Not only do we not know how to operate the apps that make these books available, we don’t even know how to critically study books in tablet form.  Yet learning what forms of critical engagement are possible and necessary will be required.  I suspect, frankly, that our current methods developed out of a what was made possible by the forms that texts took, rather than forms following our methodological urgencies.  This means that the look of critical study in the classroom will change radically in the next ten years.  What will it look like?

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.

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

Ok, so “Book, the First” sounds pretentious and sooo nineteenth century, but given that my summer is going to be devoted to downing, devouring, deciphering, and otherwise drowning in 19th century Russian depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seemed somhow vaguely appropriate.

(Sidenote, somehow I feel that it must be incumbent on me to make some comment on the fact that I HAVEN’T POSTED A WORD IN FOUR MONTHS, but I guess that I have arrived at the conclusion that, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll go dark if  I want to.  Not that anyone has missed me enough to so much as send a single note asking after my health and well-being.  For all any of you knew I had finally passed away of the heart attack that I must so richly deserve since I spend my days eating donuts and sitting at a computer rather than sweating off my sins like a materialist Puritan.  Ok, enough chastisement of my readers–who are apparently non-existent–for their obvious disinterest in my silent spring.  Back to Dostoevsky.)

Why?  you ask.  Why? Let’s say I ask that myself.  I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a guy on a beach being arrested for reading Dostoevsky, evidence of inappropriate summer time reading. (Yes, it is available on the web--check here;  I wonder if the New Yorker will send me a free subscription for all the traffic I will be sending their way.  I am not wondering too hard.)  Seriously though, I had a lot of things on my agenda this summer, and it looks like reading the gray russian will get in the way.  Among other things, it would be nice to go to the opera in Italy, or parasailing in Florida, or learning to kayak in the Alaskan hinterlands.  Who am I kidding, it would also be also be nice to get a massage at the Y and sleep through the night.  These things being mostly impossible or embarrassing, I do have longings to read.  I’ve wanted to spend a summer reading Vonnegut, or, since my late great hero John Updike died, maybe reading all of Updike never gave myself time to get to.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger, or Joyce Carol Oates, or the latest by Toni Morrison.  Instead I am stuck with Dostoevsky, the grey one, whose novelistic worlds i imagine in shades of black and white.

This verb, “stuck,” is, I realize, something of a heresy, isn’t it.  I feel that I should be a good example of a devoted reader, or at least an English prof–not always the case that these two go together.  Isn’t admitting that as the summer starts I can imagine pleasanter things to do with my days than Dostoevsky a little gauche, something like a gourmand or the food critic admitting that he could do without a weekly repast at Sardi’s, and maybe, just maybe, would be Ok with something a little more middle class like Chili’s or TGI Fridays.  Well, summer is for slumming, and reading Dostoevsky in June is a bit like working for a company that insists on dark suits and ties all summer.  Seriousness.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question.  The basic answer to the question posed is that I am directing an honors project for a worthy student who wants to go to graduate school, and will do well.  What he doesn’t yet know is that graduate school will quickly turn reading and all the intellectual and imaginative excitement that he feels for the world of books in to what Dostoevsky is for me, first and foremost: work, an act of labor, a responsiblity, something that must be done.

To be sure, it is always a great and guilty pleasure to get new books, especially when I can get someone else to pay for them since I am, after all, fulfilling the responsibilities of my position. I’ve taken great joy in the many packages that have arrived over the past couple of weeks bearing those weighty Dostoevskian tomes.  A bunch of Everyman’s library editions, and then other editions for those books no one felt were good enough to be canonized.  Among other things, who knew Dostoevsky wrote so much?  The Brothers K and Crime and Punishment.  The canon within the canon.  That should be enough for anyone, and could take a summer in themselves, but the list is almost endless.

And in order to know Dostoevsky, of course, I must read them all.  I have not yet started counting pages, though there are thousands.  I am like the bird in the old story around the campfire at church camp.  I fly and remove a single grain of sand from the highest mountain in the world, flying to the other side of the world to deposit it in my nest, returning trip after trip for a single grain of sand.  When the mountain has been leveled to  a plain, a single day of eternity shall have passed.

Dostoevsky, my summer’s mountain;  my summer’s eternity.