Category Archives: education

these parlous times

I read a fair bit of the increasingly panicked College Disgruntlement/Higher Education Futures stuff, and there’s a vast gulf between the Now and what I experienced 50 years ago… and even a pretty deep canyon between the Now and what I retired from a decade ago. In the landscape of cutbacks and Queen Sacrifice I see nothing that evokes hopeful feelings, and much that suggests that the Way, once seemingly so clear, has been lost irredeemably. The latest case in point is John Warner’s The Problem ASU is Solving, which ends thus:

…we should be clear, in a culture of free-market competition, where education is increasingly viewed as a private, rather than public good, and states are moving to divest themselves of the responsibility to support their public institutions, this is the future for those of us who will not be able to afford entry into what we will come to think of as the “legacy[3]” higher education system.

ASU’s moves like the edX initiative, or Starbucks partnership, are absolutely rational, probably even savvy in the culture we have constructed. They will likely be cheered by Wall Street and Silicon Valley because they present more opportunities for markets that can be disrupted and monetized.

That’s what we should be most terrified about.

[3] I use this word to connote multiple meanings, including the notion that only the children of the already educated, the legacies, will likely have access to such places.

Being about to participate in a multi-day 50th Reunion event at which the glories of a (perhaps the…) premier institution will be trumpeted (and alumni contributions solicited), and where symposia on the menu include “The Awakening of Wisdom–How Do We Experience and Practice It?” and “The Challenge of Taking Collective Action–Societal Meaning” … well, I’m struggling to get the whole thing to come into focus. Maybe I’ll encounter some Wise classmates, and surely there are quite a few who still have faith in Collective Action, but I don’t aspire to membership in either category. Best I can do is to resolve to play at participant observation, making notes and gathering data.

a bit from March 2004

I found this grumble I’d written 11 years ago, as I followed links in the hypertext mentioned in the last post. Still find it relevant:

Innovation
at small liberal arts colleges
is all but dead
except for independently/externally funded efforts
and rogue actions.
Administrations have insulated themselves
behind a smokescreen of
‘strategic planning’
which privileges risk avoidance
in the name of ‘management’.
Add more deans,
institute performance reviews,
emphasize assessment of instructional objectives.
Distrust visionaries.
Reduce creativity and experimentation with unpredictable outcomes.
Recline upon past laurels.

Faugh.

Clay Shirky lays it out for you

Clay Shirky summarizes today’s situation eloquently in The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age. A few of the choicest bits:

Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of government and industry, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.

…so long as college remained a source of cheap and effective job credentials, our new sources of support—students with loans, governments with research agendas—were happy to let us regard ourselves as priests instead of service workers.

…Over the decades, though, we’ve behaved like an embezzler who starts by taking only what he means to replace, but ends up extracting so much that embezzlement becomes the system. There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.

…Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million –the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility– are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Oh but I was fortunate to be in when I was, and to exit when I did…

and now some on Reading

Sometimes what I write in the basically 1:1 medium of email needs to be saved where I can find it more easily, and/or seems like it might want to be shared more widely, so I contrive some way to nudge the text into the semi-public medium of the blog. A continuing series of exchanges loosely centered on writing is a current example, and so I’m following up my post on Writing with yesterday’s thoughts tending toward Reading. Don’t know that I’ll ever refine these thoughts, but if I ever want to, I’ll be able to find where I started.

some surly thoughts

Eight years ago (as I was on the final approach to Retirement) I was wrestling with the discontinuity between my visions of Education in the liberal arts context and the gelid realities of liberal arts institutions. At that time I was in the habit of keeping running logs of thoughts and discoveries, and these four seem especially relevant to today’s thoughts:

  • How It Looks at the end of March 2005
  • Endgame (March-August 2005)

    …a place to accumulate odds and ends that have to do with preparing for retirement –ruminations, legacy stuff, things to do and not-do, etc. This is it. To some degree, it’s also a continuation of The Disgruntlement File, but the Watchword is/should be Fuggeddaboudit!, liberally applied, with a dash of Master Kung:

    The Master said, “To learn something and then put it into practise at the right time: is this not a joy?
    To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?
    Not to be upset when one’s merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?”

    (Leys translation –but see the end of this page for other renderings of the passage)

  • SUMMARY from early June 2005
  • Ruminations on Infospace (10 June-4 August 2005)

In the nearly-eight intervening years my engagement in the scuffles and food fights of Education has waned to almost nothing –I still track some edublogs, but nowadays I don’t usually feel inclined to try to influence anybody (something I used to take pretty seriously) or even to post my thoughts in the quiet backwaters of this blogspace. In the last year or so I’ve watched the buzz about MOOCs go from mumble to frenzy, and I haven’t been provoked to register my own (jaundiced) opinions on this most recent version of The Emperor’s Clothes. Here’s the bit of what Cogdog said that got me started today:

I remain astounded that anyone with a fully functioning neocortex talking seriously about MOOCs being some model of saving educational costs when the word is each course rings up a tab of $250k (edx) or even more. What does an institution get for dropping a quarter of a million per course?

I can tell you what you do not get- an ongoing open sharing of the processes, of what worked, what did not work. Not a Udellian narrating of the process. It’s more like another loaf of pre-packaged Wonderbread off the racks.

And it ties back to what Leslie Madsen-Brooks recently summarized eloquently in using UMW as a case example of innovation on higher education. That’s right, look beyond the Ivies and the Silicon Valley darlings, and you land at a tiny, public liberal arts college in Virginia. Jim Groom writes it all in the title- the Innovation isn’t Technical, It’s Narrative.

I spent 6 months working at UMW thinking they had some magic in the water (did not taste any). But it’s a culture of open sharing, not the final products, but the makings thereof. It’s not a mindset of saying, “Look what we experts hand you like Greek gods”, it’s an ongoing narrative of trying, asking, failing, reflecting, of process, not just product.

Exactly. Ongoing narrative is precisely the Grail to which teachers and learners need to attend, and to which they need to commit themselves. I now think that it’s always been true (though I didn’t discover/realize it myself until maybe 20 years ago, after I made the leap from classroom to library), though we now have tools at our fingertips that make the individual narrative distributable and greatly broaden the possibilities of collaboration as a basic modality of education.

So once again I thank the lucky stars that I got out when I did.

Remembering a teacher, 50 years later

In my freshman year at Harvard I studied Swedish (Scandinavian B –there was no Scandinavian A) under Göran Printz-Påhlson, a pleasant if (as I thought) somewhat lumbering Swedish poet (I particularly remember that he wore leather jackets which creaked when he moved). He was a friendly and generous teacher, though I was too much in awe to actually seek him out and, well, converse. Just today I happened upon an electronic version of his Letters of Blood, and Other Works in English, and learned that he died in 2006. The introductory materials tell me some of what I missed by not, well, conversing.

Poetics is a subject of which I am largely ignorant, but a quick flip through the pages of the prose parts of the book suggests that I might enjoy discovering on some winter night when the snow howls without. And I’m mostly immune to poetry, though sometimes my attention is caught. And caught it is by some bits of Printz-Påhlson’s, like this from My Interview with I.A. Richards

Inversion is a counterfeit experience
there is but one irreversability.
Chestnuts, rabid squirrels, slosh and sleet,
the sullen, birdstained wisdom of John Harvard.

O Fyffes bananas, obscene planks,
the flexes bared to vision like the sinews
in Vessalius. I grope my way
through the intestines of heuristic house.

Last night we heard in Kresge Hall
a lion-vested English poet fulminate
like an under-paid volcano against Science,
applauded by a host of boffins.

Afterwards, a girl called Shirley took my hand
and wished to lead me through the maze
toward the magus posing there as Tannhäuser,
fettered with electric wires in a great maidenform…

and here’s the whole of Songs of Dock Boggs

There are gridiron reverberations
in the hills, sourmash
blandishments bleating
from the sheriff’s office

Ah, the gavroche innocence of a barnyard rape!

He offers a smile, mild
as pick-axe handles a
mile wide which kindles
the hide of rutabaga;
their red necks swabbed
by cool, pale blue grass
in the abstracted stare of poverty
Bushwacking the melodies of God
for the breakdown of bushfires
he nurtures illustrious health
with the grating pap
of pink indulgence,
plucking the lure of life
from the audible mouchoir moment
when distant authority suppurates
the blueridge landscapes of childhood.

Raw death: a clodhopper shovel
smack in the kisser.

and from The Lyndon Baines Johnson Lavatory Seat Refurbishing Rightwinding Leftbranching Recursive Selfperpetuating Paradox Memorial

Here I sit thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Here I sit, waiting for the end, entertaining a friend, bridging a loan, blowing my horn, sucking my stick, flexing my prick, farting through my ring, sticking my middle in, smoking some grass, scratching my ass, thinking: Aw, shit, think how great our country is.

Thanks Dave

Sometimes I enjoy Dave Winer’s perspectives on stuff, and sometimes I get annoyed and toy with just deleting his blog from my RSS feed (I’ve even done it a couple of times, but then gone back). I’m glad to be in a reading-Dave phase now, since it yielded a nice piece of autobiographical writing today (I’m glad I went to college). Here’s his last paragraph:

The thing is, you don’t know in advance if going to college is going to be worth it, so you don’t know if you should or shouldn’t go. Like I said, everyone has to decide for themselves. But for me, not only was it worth it, but it gave me the life I wanted. I wanted to be creative. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted people to know me, and I wanted to be self-sufficient. I didn’t like what the adults were doing, and I still don’t like what most of them do. But some of them were looking out for me, and I was lucky enough to find them when I needed them.

This inspires a silent but heartfelt thank you to those adults who looked out for me, all of them now gone…

In praise of Gardner

I’m ALWAYS interested in what Gardner Campbell has to say, even when it’s in a realm of which I’m largely ignorant (e.g., Miltonics) or one where I have a different and possibly complementary take on the subject (viz musics). Gardner has a way of putting things that piques and niggles and provokes hmmmmmm, and my chief regret is that my responses don’t see the light of blogging day more often. Today’s case in point is his post on the origins and prospective utility of the RFC. Vintage Gardner, riffing like the bass player he [also] is:

  • begin with a pointer to something one might could have already known about but, well, didn’t (in this case, John Naughton’s A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime),
  • extract an essential nubbin of metastuff (here it’s the tale of the origin of the Request For Comment, an essential integral to the evolution of ARPANET, instantiated by Steve Crocker) and labelling it memorably (“a new genre of professional writing”),
  • summarize the intellectual linkages and broader significance in a few trenchant phrases (“a praxis of intellectual discourse”) and offer cogent linkages to familiar domains

    You can see the similarity to blogging right away. At least two primary Network Working Groups are involved: that of all the other people in the world (let’s call that civilization), and that of the network that constitutes one’s own cognition and the resulting “strange loop,” to use Douglas Hofstadter’s language…

  • and then challenge, in the nicest way possible, all of us to rethink what we do and how we’re doing it:

    Why would we not want to produce such a record within the academy and share it with the public? Or are we content with the ordinary, forgotten, and non-riveting so long as the business model holds up?

  • and then close with a rumination on self:

    I yearn for documentation conventions that will produce an extraordinary record of thought in action, with the production shared by all who work within a community of learning. And I wonder if I’m capable of Crocker’s humility or wisdom, and answerable to his invitation. I want to be.

My admiration for Gardner’s Way is unbounded and perpetually renewed with each post at Gardner Writes. AND the bookshelves chez my splendid otium are incremented when the Brown Trucks roll to bring me the volume he’s mentioned…

Apocalypso

I dunno how healthy it is to read a lot of ‘dystopian’ fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter), though I guess I’m pretty much guilty of participation in that schadenfreudian excess. Stefan Raets’ review of Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse catches the poignancy very well:

The real sadness of Soft Apocalypse is seeing normal people operating under the illusion that life will still go back to what it used to be. They try to hold down a job or complete a post-grad degree, and even though the world falls apart around them, the changes are too gradual for them to lose hope completely. It’s like watching rats in a maze, unaware that their paths are slowly being closed off around them and the maze is starting to catch fire at the edges. A soft apocalypse, indeed.