Friday, March 31, 2006

When Public Intellectuals Have Enemies

I know the topic is a little out of vogue now, but I've finished reading David Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, and have a few comments to make about it.

First off, two caveats: I haven't read every word of the book, since most of it is biographies of those afore-mentionted 101 dangerous dudes. I read some closely, skimmed some, and skipped over some altogether, so my comments aren't the result of an extremely close reading. Also, Horowitz sent me a free copy of his book (I'm not really sure why, since I've never met him, and have only exchanged a couple of polite e-mails with him). My opinion wasn't swayed by the surprising gift, but I just thought I ought to disclose that just in case.

The whole "dangerous" rhetoric is a bit silly, and doesn't really meld neatly with the content. In his first e-mail to me (which was apparently a response to this satire I did of his book title), Horowitz distanced himself from the word "dangerous," saying that it was an unfortunate device by the publishers to sell books. He then offered to send me a copy of his book and, being an English professor, I was more than happy to accept it.

As I said before, the bulk of the book is the biographies, and I was surprised by how fair it was. In the biographies I saw, Horowitz doesn't cherrypick the political positions in the profiles; if, for example, the object of the profile publicly broke with the Left one issue or another, he says so. Also, he opens each piece with the professor's credentials, and a list of accolades they have received.

What most struck me, though, was that in every case I read, he was criticizing the professors based on published works or public statements they had made. From the hue and cry around the book, I had been under the impression that he had been going through people's trash or interviewing their ex-wives to dig up dirt on them. This use of public speech leads me to my point here.

When one makes a public statement (like this blog post), one cannot protest if people publically disagree with it. We can protest that people willfully misread it, or misinterpreted it, or critiqued it unfairly, but implicit in the act of making a public statement is the agreement to be publically critiqued. We hope that when we publish papers, for example, that people will be convinced by our arguments and proclaim us geniuses, but we all understand that there will be those who will argue against us.

Many of the people profiled by Horowitz have played openly on their political statements to garner praise from their political allies. It strikes me as unfair for someone to say that you are permitted to praise their public politics, but not to criticize them. If Horowitz had been trotting out private comments made to friends, that would be one thing; calling people to task for their published works and public statements is quite another.

A lot of energy was expended around the idea that Horowitz was "naming names." The names he named, however, we already in the public arena. I expect to receive a lot of scorn from people about this post because they don't like Horowitz, or because they do like someone whom he calls "dangerous." I don't like receiving hate mail, but in publicly posting this to the Wordhoard I am knowingly making myself vulnerable to people criticizing my words. If one does not want one's ideas available for criticism, one should not publish them. If one does not wish to make one's ideas public -- one shouldn't be a professor.

I've got some less-supportive things to say about what Horowitz writes about academic freedom, but I'm out of time. Perhaps next week.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I forbid my wife to be a medievalist!

Given the unintended side effects of attending the annual International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, I forbid my wife to become a medievalist!

Oh, yes, and congratulations to Elisabeth Carnell on the coming bearn.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Recruiting Laplanders as Professors

For all I know, this ranking of European IQs is based on solid science, but you wouldn't know it from the description in the article.

The data makes little sense, and even less sense when interpreted with the quotes. So, with an average IQ of 89, we are to believe that the average Serbian is only about 4 points into the normal range? I don't know a lot of Serbians, but the few I met weren't drooling all over themselves.

Then we get the quotes attributing higher IQs to colder, northerly climates. Fine, except that of the top three countries on the chart are in central Europe, and we've got to go through countries such a Italy before we get down to Norway. Of course, that whole line is a little silly (I hope a misquote or poorly contextualized quote), since it assumes that since people were "early human beings" (which I take to mean "cave men") they haven't really moved from one region to another. I wonder why the Romans built all those roads, since people are such homebodies? And, apparently, anyone with any brains at all immediately moves to a city and starts breeding.

Buried in the article is this little gem: "He found that university students had, at 109, the second-highest undergraduate IQs in the world, beaten only by their US counterparts on 110." My average student has a 110 IQ? Excellent! More homework! Longer assignments! Double up on readings! Hey, they can handle it, since the average American undergrad is apparently three IQ points higher than the average German.

So, what is the upshot of all this research? Universities should try to recruit male Laplander professors, especially those who got their undergraduate degrees from American schools. Since in war "the side with the highest IQ normally wins," the US military should start recruiting more Inuit soldiers.

And Santa Claus, of course, must be absolutely brilliant, with a skull the size of Brainiac from the planet Zolton.

As Promised...

I mentioned that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog to a few of our English majors today, who knew nothing of it. I've stuck it over there on the blogroll now for all to see.

By the way, Geoffrey Chaucer also hath t-shirts for sale on his blog.

Googling "Medieval blogs"

Thanks to some traffic I got today, I realized that I'm the number one hit on Google for the phrase "medieval blogs."

While I'm generally unconcerned about the quantity of traffic, this is pretty gratifying. Perhaps I need to consider doing more linking without comment to posts on other sites in order to direct traffic where it deserves.

Monday, March 27, 2006

PCA/ACA this year

I've gotten a couple of e-mails asking me about the Popular Culture Association conference, and whether I am going this year. Yes, I will be attending the conference this year in Atlanta, and I'll be presenting a paper entitled "Old English and Samwise Gamgee's Genealogy: Eden and the Unfallen Hobbit" on Friday, April 14th. The truth is that the whole thing is pre-written in my mind; I just have to find the free time from editing Global Perspectives on Medieval Literature and Culture to type the thing up.

I was initially planning simply to drive in on the 14th and drive out the same day, but I've had so many people ask to get together that I'm considering staying one night, or at least driving in the next Saturday.

PCA, for those who haven't been, can be a menagerie, everything from dense scholarly counting of angels on pinheads to fanboy/girl pieces. As a result, some years I find it deeply rewarding, and some years a total waste of my time and energy. With this in mind, I go whenever it is in a convenient location, or when specifically recruited. This year, it is in Atlanta AND I was recruited to organize a session (my own), so I'll be there with every expectation of having a good time. If you go, I can't make promises about the conference as a whole (it depends on what sessions you attend), but I can promise that the other papers in my session, Jim Davis's "Peter Jackson's Visions of Industrialization" and Glen Gill's "Metaphor and Cosmology in The Lord of the Rings" will be worth your time.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Plagiarism Bad

I'm sick today, and therefore grumpy too, so I haven't the energy to say much about this story except: Plagiarism bad. Don't do.

Maybe in my next anti-plagiarism screed I'll include the example of Ben Domenech, with such witty comments as "I wonder if he'll endorse Joe Biden?" I just don't have the energy to work up a good enough anti-plagiarism froth today.

In an unrelated note,let me just add in my grumpiness that I've heard/read the two phrases "wisdom of crowds" and "speak truth to power" too many times this week. The next person who says either phrase to me is risking an eye gouge.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bloggers' Dark Cabal

Ancrene Wiseass is putting together The First Annual Kalamazoo Bloggers' Guild Meeting. I plan to be there; you should be too. Pop over to her site and let her know if you're coming.

In an unrelated note, for some reason I can't add comments to my own site today. Weird.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Medieval Blogosphere Discourse

By the way, folks, see what I'm talking about in terms of medievalists linking to one another? I'm suddenly seeing here (and on other blogs) an uptick in comments and other activity. Good, thoughtful posts are popping up elsewhere, with folks like Jeff Hodges, Jeff of Quid Nomen Illius, Ancrene Wiseass, Heo Cwaeth, New Kid, Gillian, and Bardiac participating (sorry if I've missed anyone).

By the way, who all is going to the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo this May? If you're a blogospherian and can make it, don't forget about Elizabeth Carnell's session entitled "Weblogs and the Academy: Internet Presence and Professional Discourse among Medievalists (A Roundtable)." I'll be there, as well as Michael Drout, H.D. Miller, Lisa Spangenberg, Michael Tinkler, and Alison Tara Walker. Since the session is 3:30 on Saturday, we might be able to get together for dinner and/or libations later.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lenin dated me

No, not in the romantic sense of dating -- in the sense of "I'm gettin' old" dating. I was re-working a paragraph in this article I'm writing, and I noticed how old the phrase "Leninist critique of Marxism" sounded. Except for Marxists, who today even remembers anything about the Lenin's critique of Marxism? Just Marxists and a few old farts like me.

From now on, I'll try only to refer to ideas found in People magazine, and never an issue from longer than three months ago. I'm going to replace the phrase "Leninist critique of Marxism" with "Nicole Richie's critique of debutantism."

Monday, March 20, 2006

On Literary Canonization

Because of a sick child we are suddenly NOT going to the beach today, so I find I have time to write a more complete response to HeoCwaeth's post about canonization of medieval women writers. If you haven't read it (or the rest of her blog), you should, as she's quite thoughtful. I hope to meet her at K'zoo this year, though as she's a pseudonymous blogger, I might not know I'm meeting her (or, perhaps I already know her and just don't know it)!

I think the crux of our disagreement can be found about midway through her post, when she writes:
There are a number of reasons I consider women writers of the medieval period necessary to any study of the literature, regardless of their ability to write "beautifully."

Here I see a set of assumptions that practically demand HeoCwaeth and I disagree. She sees the inclusion of medieval women writers into the Canon as the central issue, whereas I see the inclusion of works by said writers into the Canon as the central issue.

In shorthand, we often refer to works by their author's names, so we might say generally "Shakespeare" is in the Canon, though, in fact, that's simply our own (meaning mine too) sloppy usage. What we mean is Hamlet, King Lear, etc are in the Canon. I like Coriolanus a lot (it is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays), it would be a real stretch to say that Coriolanus is in the Canon.

Why make the distinction between the author and the work? Several reasons, I think. One reason is that the identity politics in play in the statement "what was let in the canon was almost always literature of the men, by the men, and for the men" seems to me to be the same old Intentional Fallacy, played out in the cultural Marxist milieu. Now, the study of authorial intention has a long and noble tradition, and so if you hold that meaning and value are held in the author, rather than the work, I'm just going to have to disagree with you.

Another reason, I think, is the concerns of literature rather than the concerns of history. Since I don't know HeoCwaeth, I'm not certain whether she is on the literary side of the historical side (or one of the children of the marriage of the two in historicism), but when she writes "The most important is my desire for as much information as I can get from the age, and differing voices may give me that information," I hear the concerns of a historian, not a literary scholar. Bede's account of the poet Caedmon makes clear that all the others there who also sang and composed songs. Now, while I would be interested from a scholarly perspective to see some of their compositions, I recognize that their work was ignored because it was not of the same quality as Caedmon's hymn. My job is not to present a fair cross section of medieval writing ... my job is to present a fair cross section of GOOD medieval writing. Perhaps others will disagree, but I recognize my own mortality and feel cheated when I have to read something that I don't find very good. When HeoCwaeth "was, at first, a little astonished that any mention of medieval women writers (pro or con) would come up in a post about a medieval woman warrior," I think we see a fundamental difference in our assumptions. Someone says "medieval women" and I immediately think of medieval women writers, since I'm a lit guy. To a historian, that must seem a non sequitur, but to lit folks, it should seem the natural association.

HeoCwaeth also raises some points about how we determine what is "beautiful" writing. That's not just a whole other can of worms -- that's a huge barrel of worms too large to include in this already over-sized post. If any non-academic readers want to know more about that issue, we call the study of beauty "aesthetics." Academic readers familiar with issues in aesthetics will understand why I'm skipping over this important issue.

The last important issue she raises is of one of universality. I've got to confess, after re-reading that section several times I'm still not clear on what side of the fence she lands, so my apologies in advance if I misrepresent her position.
If I understand her position, she seems to suggest that works can never be universal, only particular, and so we hit on as many particulars as possible to speak to as many students as possible.

I disagree. A LOT. Literature is always set in the particular, but the particular should give access to the universal. I've never been a god, nor am I ever likely to be unless my theology is really out of whack, but I still tap into the beauty of the Popol Vuh. I've never been a Japanese courtier, but The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon still makes me laugh out loud at socially unacceptable moments. I've never been an exile, but Deor and The Wanderer both make me want to weep with their nearly-tangible lonliness. In other words, I've never been a woman, a very old man, a prince, a god, a barnyard animal, or an anthropomorphic rood, but I've experienced joy, disappointment, fear, desire, hatred, love, etc. If I believed that my students or I were more likely to experience those things when they were written by people who fall into arbitrarily-chosen demographic categories similar to them, I wouldn't be a student of medieval literature -- I'd be a student of contemporary American literature written by fat, bald guys.

Of course, there are other poor reasons works get canonized: Jean de Meun's tiresome continuation of the Romance of the Rose only gets pulled along behind the star of The Book of the City of Ladies. Alain de Lille's Plaint of Nature was once canonized only because of its connection to Chaucer, and now has been de-canonized for its homophobia, both rather silly reasons to include/remove it. I doubt we'd much read Cleanness and Patience if they weren't in the Pearl manuscript.

One last note on the anecdote from HeoCwaeth's undergraduate years: It is a shame that she was so poorly served by that professor, though given the quality of her thinking, he doesn't appear to have done much damage. She relates the story this way:
I'll never forget the expression on his face when I feigned epic upset at having to eliminate all those volumes of battle poetry produced at a time when only men wrote and fought from my reading list. All the political writing that centered on the upper classes had to go, too. My God, I said, even The Sorrows of Young Werther is no good because it is all about a man in love, women will never be men in love. The argument ended there.

If the professor could not claim that the literature on his syllabus did "speak to the human experience in its entirity," then he should never have included it. Literature written by men (or, more commonly in the medieval setting, anonymous literature) should be ignored if only the men "get it." I don't have time in my mortal life to read mediocre works by men, women, or anonymous authors -- and students should not have their time wasted by professors who assemble syllabi without justification. I had a similar experience in undergrad (though in that case it was a medieval lit prof who was unable to justify the study of non-contemporary lit when confronted by a frustrated student), and it still makes me angry that he was wasting our time without thinking it through.

By the way, I've never been forced to teach Salinger, and as she has, HeoCwaeth and her students have my sympathy. *shudder*

[Updated to fix a spelling error. There are probably more, but I'm too lazy to fix 'em all]

Sunday, March 19, 2006

At least I didn't slight Tolkien

HeoCwaeth is peeved about my comment that too many medieval women writers are canonized because they are women, not because they are good -- peeved enough, in fact, that she wrote a pretty long response to that aside here, followed by some "You go, girl!" comments by some of the best female medieval bloggers out there.

I'm out the door in five minutes, so I don't have time to respond, except to say that I did not, as her post title implies, suggest that women medieval women writers do not belong in the Canon. Instead, I suggested that some are in the Canon because they are women, not because of their writing. I think a fair reading of my post would also reveal that I think that some women writers deserve to be in the Canon regardless of whether they are women or not.

Of course, this angry response is nothing like the heat of wrath I felt when I mentioned, in an aside, that I found the Silmarillion boring. I still fear for my life over that one.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I stand corrected...

In my post about the non-existence of Harvard, I mentioned that the Harvard endowment is about $20 billion. This article in Inside Higher Ed puts the figure at $25 billion.

My apologies to any Harvard folks who were offended by my under-estimation of their endowment. I did not mean to imply that Harvard is scrounging. By the way, the article's argument that the Ivies need to enroll more low-income students rather misses the point -- Harvard didn't get a $25 billion endowment by admitting the poor.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia

Heocwaeth (which means "she says" in Old English, for those who don't know the language) has a profile of Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia that's worth a read.

As many of you know, I'm a real curmudgeon when it comes to medieval women writers -- I think too many are canonized because they are women (*cough* Julian of Norwich *cough*), not because they are particularly good like Christine de Pisan (who is, indisputably, super-awesome).

This isn't to say that I don't admire some women in the medieval world, and one of the most admirable is Aethelflaed. One of the interesting side effects of the West Saxon laws forbidding women from ruling is that all the royal daughters got married off to neighboring kingdoms were sometimes, like Aethelflaed, they blossomed into full power.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, Medieval Warrior Princess.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Rant on Medieval Blogs and Links

If, like me, you are someone who is prejudiced against blogging about blogging, or if (also like me), you just don't like rants, you may want to skip what follows. Consider, though, that this post is written by someone who is prejudiced in the same way...

I've just gotten done updating my links. By "updating" I mean getting rid of some and adding others. My totally unofficial policy (often disregarded) regarding linking is that I will link to nearly anyone who fulfills one of the following conditions:

If I already know the blogger personally (and it isn't a diary blog).
If the blog links to my blog.
If the blogger regularly posts on medieval matters.
If the blogger regularly posts on literary matters.
If the blogger regularly posts on academic matters.
If the blog updates regularly (at least once per month)

That's it. You've just got to fulfill ONE of those conditions, though, to be fair, I'll sometimes remove blogs on literary or academic matters if they don't interest me for long enough.

Now, here comes the rant part: Why is it that so few medieval blogs link to one another? People act as if they expect Owlfish to do all the work for them.

You might think this is blegging for links here; it isn't. I plan to gripe about this issue at the K'zoo panel this year, too. At first I thought that medievalists and others just weren't interested in my blog. Then I discovered that people were coming to my site, posting comments, commenting on my posts on their sites, etc -- yet still had not set up a permanent link here. Eventually it dawned on me that a lot of medievalists don't have any permanent links AT ALL.

Why is this important? Because as our links go up, our status on Google searches goes up, as does our ranking on such sites as The Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem. By raising our collective status, we ensure that people looking for information find us more easily, and don't have to wade through an electronic bog of lame freshman essays on The Canterbury Tales to do it. In other words, links don't just promote particular posts and particular blogs; they promote the entire discipline.

I want to urge other medieval bloggers (and, frankly, other academic bloggers) to help raise the profile of this community. The best thing you can do is create a Blogroll for your site. A blogroll is a set of permanent links to other blogs that can be set to tell you when the other blog has been updated (if you look to my blogroll on the right, you'll see that some blogs have the word "Unlocked!" in front of them ... I've set that up to indicate that the blog has been updated in the last 24 hours). By the way, this can also draw more traffic to your OWN blog if you let Blogrolling know when you've just made a new post. Blogrolling is ridiculously easy to use, as demonstrated by the fact that a dolt like me uses it.

Don't want to use a blogroll? Fine -- then please create a set of permanent links. Even if you don't have your own blog, you can create a set of links on your academic page to raise the profile of the community.

If you want to move beyond these basics, use a few tracking techniques (like Tracksy, Sitemeter, or Technorati) periodically to see who has been sending traffic your way. If their site is not objectionable, consider adding it to your own permanent links. Also, I don't think it is bad form to e-mail people to let them know you've added their site, since it is flattering and gives them a chance to return the favor.

Beyond permanent links, of course, there are the issues of links to specific posts, trackbacks, etc. Those are all important issues too, but let's take babysteps first.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Owning Authors

Last week, I received an e-mail from an old friend telling me that she had had a conversation with someone in which they told her that CS Lewis was anti-Catholic (my friend is an adult convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, and very interested in Catholic issues). She wrote to ask me if it was true. I responded that it was true, though given the compatability of Lewis with Catholic thought, I thought it had more to do with an anti-Irish Catholic sentiment than anything else. Curious, I asked in what context the conversation had taken. She replied:
The original topic was actually Harry Potter and someone said that Rowling was
another Tolkien or Lewis---personally, I don't think so, but to each his (or in
this case, her) own. Someone tried to defend Rowling by saying that Lewis was
anticatholic and we could therefore say that he was not appropriate to read (for
Catholics anyway) either. I don't like Harry Potter for many reasons, mostly the
poor writing and there is just much better literature out there. It seems
to me that some of Lewis' theology (through his writing) is Very Catholic, even
if he had reservations/social issues with the Catholic faith.

I've been thinking about the subtext of my friend's conversation over the weekend. The interlocutor (I don't know who it was), seems to have two basic points: Catholics should not read writing by anti-Catholics, and the Rowling is appropriate reading (in part) because she is not anti-Catholic.

For the sake of argument, let's give the assumptions: Lewis=anti-Catholic, Rowling=pro-Catholic. Yes, I'm very skeptical of these assumptions (and apparently so is the Pope, whom I've heard is somewhat of an authority on Catholic matters), but I'll grant them here so we can move on to the point.

Here we have someone struggling with an interesting question: collective ownership of an author. Ignoring Lewis's non-fiction writing (I assume they were comparing fantasy fiction -- if they were jumping genres, I've got no idea what they were thinking), I can't see any way that The Narnia Chronicles could be considered anti-Catholic; indeed, that does not even seem to be the argument. Instead, the interlocutor is saying that the author was himself anti-Catholic, and therefore all of his writings are to be avoided. Since Lewis is dead, this doesn't sound like a drive to send a message through boycott. It sounds more like they are saying that we can't claim ownership fo the author, and therefore we can't claim his ideas.

Rowling, on the other hand, can be owned by Catholics. Again, the interlocutor does not attempt to defend the ideas presented in the books, but rather the identity of the author as being pro-Catholic (or at least non-anti-Catholic). So long as the author can be at least nominally identified with the group, she can (should?) be read.

I'm trying to think of other examples of this phenomenon -- people judging the merits of works by the identities of the author -- and outside of the occasional hometown author or political writer, I can't think of any. You've got the occasional Henry James (who abandoned America for British citizenship), but I see Americans and Brits both claiming him. If James were in this mode, Americans would reject him as "not one of us."

Surely this must happen all the time. Why can't I think of any other examples?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Battlestar Galactica Season Finale

It looks like I got the Dido storyline backwards in this post, when I wrote:
By the way, following the Aeneid storyline, the trailer for the season
finale looks like the fleet is going to find Carthage (a habitable planet) and
be tempted to stay. The real question is who will stay behind on Carthage, who
will go on to Rome (Earth), and who will be Dido (whom I predict will die in a
nuclear blast visible to the questors in space as they are leaving)?

The writers inverted the Aeneid story, with Dido (the Pegasus Six) burning herself on the pyre (suicide by nuke) as the refugees went to Carthage (New Caprica), and the pyre (radiation signature) being visible from the sea (past the ion field) by the Cylons, not the humans heading off to Earth.

So, frustrated that you're going to have to wait until fall for the new season? Channel those frustrations into reading Virgil's Aeneid, and get some clues as to where the writers are taking us.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Most Important Story You Know Nothing About

About a month ago, somewhere between the Olympics and the Superbowl, squashed under wall-to-wall kvetching about Muhammad cartoons, the most important academic story since possibly the GI Bill flew right under the radar. I missed it, and from my search through the archives of both Old Media and New Media stories from that time, nearly everyone else missed it too. Those who noticed it didn't understand what they were seeing.

Tucked away deep in Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (S 1932) was a provision ending the 50/50 rule for online education. The 50/50 rule was a rule that was designed to discourage online diploma mills by insisting that schools could have no more than 50% of their students learning through distance-learning or online courses. This put some limits on the general headlong rush toward online education among legitimate schools.

That provision is now dead and gone. By my (inexpert) reading of the law, as long as the school can keep their accreditation they have have as many of their students online as they wish. Online education is very alluring to administrators, since it is dirt cheap to provide (almost no overhead relative to traditional classrooms), and can be provided by cheap labor (adjuncts who can be located anywhere there is internet access, often paid by the head).

Naturally, quality control is a serious issue. In my own experience, I find the students who have taken the prerequisites online are even less prepared than those who transferred the credits from community colleges. It is tempting for cyber-adjuncts to load up on classes, signing up for impossible loads at multiple schools, then doing the bare minimum possible to avoid being fired. I've heard rumors of cyber-adjuncts pulling down six figures through playing the system at multiple schools, but I cannot confirm these stories. Of course, adjuncts could always abuse the system, but given the limitations of time and geography, they have traditionally been the recipients of abuse.

Why haven't we heard more about this? One reason is that there were a lot of sexier stories at the time -- I suspect any headline containing the words "Budget Reconciliation Bill" isn't going to sell a lot of papers. I think the Chronicle of Higher Education deserves some criticism, though, since the serve a community deeply affected by all this. I read the Chronicle pretty regularly, and didn't notice it. I did a search, and couldn't find the story, but a friend of mine was finally able to find a single story on February 3rd in the Chronicle (subscriber only, sorry) entitled "Rule Change May Spark Online Boom for Colleges." That headline is akin to covering Hurricane Katrina with a single story headlined "New Ocean-front Property in New Orleans May Spark Construction Boom for Louisiana."

What are the implications? Here are some semi-prognostications, meaning that I think the following are realistic effects, not that they will necessarily happen in this way. The truth is, no one really knows:
  • Community colleges could die out. Can't afford to move to go to school? Why get a diploma from Local-Yokol Community College when you could get one from Big-Name-Far-Away University? Given the fact that the cyber-adjuncts don't have to live there, you are probably just as likely to get the same quality instruction regardless.
  • Instructor and traditional adjunct jobs could die out, further tightening the entry-level opportunities for the professorate. If I'm an administrator, why hire an instructor at $25k per year to teach eight courses when I can hire eight adjuncts at $1500 per course? In the past this abuse of adjuncts was bad enough, but it was limited by the size of the adjunct pool. Now, the adjunct pool is the same nationwide.
  • Since we don't really know the size of the workforce, it is also possible that if classroom adjuncts are eliminated, cyber-adjunct pay will rise. Without geographic limitations, adjuncts will be able to work for the highest bidder, not just the highest bidder within driving distance. If, however, the number of potential cyber-adjuncts is greater than the market for them, pay might stay the same.
  • Recruitment of grad students might change. Grad students TAs might cost slightly more than adjuncts at the moment, but that extra cost is justified by recruiting. If the need for TAs to teach classes is essentiall eliminated, grad students might be recruited with other jobs -- for example, working on the staff of the department, working as true research assistants to professors, or working on the editorial staff of the local academic journal.
  • Campuses might become showcases. Why hire three new assistant professors at $40k each when you can pay one big-name professor $100k and get cyber-adjuncts to fill in the gaps? Sports and other public events may become more emphasized, campuses may become more beautiful, with the architecture of buildings focused more on aesthetics than utility (what will look good on the website?), and statues of famous thinkers everywhere.
  • Alumni giving may drop. Ah, yes, I remember all the fine times I had at the alma mater -- I guess I'll pledge $100. Is anyone really going to think that for a school they attended entirely online?
  • Teaching schools may emphasize research more on campus. Courseloads for traditional professors may drop just as numbers of jobs rise. Pay may also rise for the traditional professors as money from online courses pours in. Schools beyond the Ivies may get into bidding wars for the Big Names. By the same token, online courses might be "taught" by Big Names but graded by an army of adjuncts (i.e. the lecture series is podcast, but the professor in the podcast never sees the assignments).
...etc, etc. Obviously, the above is not exhaustive, and some of the potential outcomes are mutually exclusive with other outcomes. Nevertheless, unless someone intervenes (like the accrediting agencies take a much harder line with online courses), this signals serious dangers and potential opportunities for traditional universities.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Baudrillard's Geography

When reading Deogolwulf's curmudgeonly proclamation that "No fair-minded man could damn me for suspecting that Professor Baudrillard finds it impossible to say something banal when he has the narrowest opportunity to say something absurd," I was reminded of the time I was assigned to read Baudrillard's America in graduate school.

America was so frivolous that Baudrillard's name became a joke in and of itself in that cultural studies course (a bit like saying "Buttafuoco" was). One of my great triumphs in grad school was that I drew a map of "America according to Baudrillard," which had the general outline of the country, two-thirds of which was dominated by a giant Las Vegas and a giant Disney World.

Incidentally, I was talking to an old friend from grad school about Bernard-Henri Lévy's book American Vertigo (which he had read and I have not), and asked if it was worth-while to read it. In response, he brought up my "America according to Baudrillard" map.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Myths and Legends: Harvard

With the exile of Larry Summers, it seems that everyone in the country is required by federal law to have a strong opinion about the state of affairs at Harvard. Having carefully studied the various proclamations about Harvard made by faculty both there and elsewhere, I've come to an unavoidable conclusion: Harvard University does not exist.

Some of you out there will no doubt scoff at my claim. "Oh my," you protest, "of course Harvard exists. It's right next to Atlantis and El Dorado."

No, Harvard does not exist outside of legend. The evidence is clear. If Harvard really existed, there would be some consistency to the various descriptions of it. In fact, there is far more consistency to depictions of the Loch Ness Monster than Harvard. Everyone agrees that Nessie is a large, saurian aquatic animal with a long slender neck. No one can seem to agree on what Harvard is like: some say it is the flagship school of the country, others that it is the arbiter of high culture, others that it is a cesspool of self-important faculty floating in muck, others that it is a sanctuary for tenured plagiarists, and still others that it is the elephant graveyard for faculty -- the place old professors go to die. No, if Harvard were real, we would be able to find at least a few descriptions that were similar to one another.

"But," you protest, "I've been there." Oh, you have, have you? Well, I've "been" there too, and all I saw were a bunch of buildings stuck in the middle of Boston. I saw a pagoda at the Epcot Center, too -- does that mean I've been to Japan? I saw a pyramid in Las Vegas, but I wasn't dumb enough to think I was in Egypt. So, someone showed you a building and said, "This is Harvard." Do me a favor, and come to this swampland I own -- I'll tell you, "This is valuable beachfront property!"

Still, you persist. "But I went to school there!" Sure you did. I'll bet you were at Woodstock, too. And I'll bet when you were in high school you really did have a model/girlfriend who was in college two states away and couldn't seem to schedule your school dances into the time between her photo shoots. I'll bet you really are a blackbelt, you really have lived in Europe (not just taken a ten-day-long guided tour), and you really don't think that dress makes your girlfriend look fat. Pu-leeze. I wasn't born yesterday.

No, if Harvard were a real place, people wouldn't invoke its name mystically, and make silly claims that the rest of academe follows its lead. If I remember right, Harvard supposedly has about $20 billion (yes, with a "b") in its foundation, and let's just say that the letter "b" doesn't appear anywhere in most universities' spreadsheets. The idea that we are somehow following Harvard's lead is a bit like suggesting the weather on Venus is affected by events on Neptune. We're worlds away; they have nothing to do with us.

So, please, stop asking me what I think of Larry Summers. I have no opinion: I've never met him, see no reason that I would ever want to meet him, and doubt he much wishes he could meet me. Besides, since we all know Harvard doesn't exist, Larry Summers might not exist either.

Monday, March 06, 2006

One Sic Puppy

Anyone who has ever edited academic prose or plowed through writing samples from job applicants knows exactly what Weir is getting at with the establishment of Sic Puppy.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Beowulf Hobbyists of the World, Unite!

I found this site about Beowulf via Language Hat, and it opens with this charming paragraph:
These pages present work done by translators of Old English, and Beowulf
scholars. I am a Beowulf hobbyist (how nerdy can you get!) and not an expert on
Anglo-Saxon literature or translation. But I do own about 140 books on Beowulf
and related topics, and I have tried to present information that will help
others to get started in their studying of the poem.

I've got to admit, this is the first time I've heard of a "Beowulf hobbyist," but it is a trend I'd like to encourage. The only part of this that makes me hesitate is the professional hazard of history professors, who often complain that they find themselves accosted by history hobbyists with conversations running like this:

Hobbyist: What is it you do?
Prof: I'm a history professor at Local University.
Hobbyist: Really? That's great! I happen to be a bit of a history buff
Prof: (Uh oh)
Hobbyist: What do you think about Major Doe's decision to charge at the
Battle of Whatever against the orders of General Roe?
Prof: I don't really know anything about that.
Hobbyist: Come on, you can level with me. My great-granddaddy was in that
charge. I've studied every detail of that decision.
Prof: Really, I don't know much about it. I'm not a Civil War
Hobbyist (with disgust): You don't have an opinion on Major Doe's Charge?
And you call yourself a history professor?

I'm just afraid that one day I'll run into Syd Allan on a flight, and he'll ask my opinion of the translation of a particular hapax legomenon.