The Sectarian Review Podcast

image

http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

Well this may be it.

I’ve found myself less and less interested in writing for this medium lately. And a quick perusal of this blog will demonstrate that.

It should also reveal that I’ve been aiming my non-teaching efforts toward podcasting instead. There is something truly rewarding about having live conversations with people about the broad range of topics I’ve tried to cover in the blog. If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to check it out. Here’s the link to our Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/SectarianReview/

Also, I’ve created a dedicated website to the podcast where you can learn more about it and link to all the episodes.

If you do, please let me know what you’re thinking. What makes that thing so much fun is the dialogue with our listeners. Here’s the link to the site:

http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

If you’ve been reading this blog, thanks so much. I hope you’ll listen to Sectarian Review and talk back!

Be well.

On Being a Marxist Professor

The semester has reached the point at which energy reserves are low and no amount of fracking will replenish them.

Thanksgiving is a full month away, and classrooms are filled with tired people staring at one another. When faced with such a dilemma, a teacher has only two choices. Cancel class or hurl a great ball of chaos at his students. Enter Groucho Marx.

English: Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx...

English: Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx, cropped from group photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes his daemonic, chaotic energy is just the thing I need to push through the prison walls of my ivory tower. Case in point.

Today, I decided to drive my students just a bit crazy. In the midst of yet another revision of their visual analysis papers, they showed up to a classroom in which the theme song to Mission: Impossible was blaring. As soon as class started I ran around the room, frantically passing this assignment sheet out:

2014-10-22 10.07.23

Now panicky themselves, my students leaped from their seats, and shouted to each other as if my classroom was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

They ran out of my room and returned 15 minutes later. Out of breath? Sure. But re-engaged with their own educations.

Chaos is beautiful.

Pick Your Poison: Grade Inflation or Administrative Bloat

I typically avoid current controversies. I ran across the phrase “Silence like an interruption” in a Cynthia Ozick book and I’ve adopted it as protection against cultural stupidity. But an article posted by Libby Nelson on VOX today irritated me enough to break Ozick’s rule.

The article, “What Wellesley learned when it stopped giving out so many A’s,” details the findings of a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The authors of the study suggest that the problem of grade inflation (which is certainly an issue worth considering) can be objectively solved by administrative fiat and uses Wellesley as a case study. Appalled that in 2000, the average grade was an A-, Wellesley apparently dictated that all 100-200 level classes have an average grade of no higher than a B+.

I’m sure that this made someone feel very effective and powerful in their pursuit of institutional excellence.

The entire study fills me with personal and professional angst, but let me just touch on a couple of points.

First, the experiment seems to be based solely upon the fact that in 1960 the average grade in college was a C and now it is an A or a B. This reeks of an Andy Rooney “Back In My Day” argument and no apparent attempt has been made to look into WHY this might be the case. The administrative strategy suggests that because this happened, students are being coddled. Left unasked is the question of how much pedagogical practices might have contributed to this shift. Let me be clear: grade inflation is certainly a problem worthy of our attention, but I think it is such a problem that it requires our FULL attention. Let’s not be lazy with our inquiry here.

Second, one of the findings VOX highlights is that professors who follow orders and actually give lower grades get lower “ratings” from students. This makes so much sense that it seems obvious, but how much subsequent pressure is now on said professors to improve their teaching, which will then lead to the higher grades that got them in trouble in the first place? This seems to me like an academic version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

“Dr. Yossarian, we value teaching at this institution, and that means helping students succeed. We expect you to help your students succeed, and if they do, we will assume that you are a poor teacher.”

Finally, the authors of the original study (Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan, and Akila Weerapana) show how black students bear the institutional brunt of this initiative. According to Nelson:

“The researchers put the best possible interpretation on this, suggesting that a more even grading policy among different departments at the college will do a better job of demonstrating which students need help. But grading is an imperfect, subjective science, and the burden appears to have fallen more on black students than on others.”

In other words, the researchers report: “gosh, that’s weird.”

The lack of clarity about this disturbing aspect of the policy opens the door to yet another administrative policy down the road. Oh boy. All in the name of returning to the glory days of 1960, where, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

 

 

 

Professor Anderson’s Goals

Copied from my Introduction to Literature syllabus.
Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to make you miserable.

I’m sort of exaggerating about that, but not really. If the humanities, particularly literature, are to claim any purpose in college, part of that purpose must be to unsettle you, and this requires a bit of misery. Fortunately then, we have Kafka to start us off this semester.

Anyone attending college today has probably been victimized by a happy lie. The lie suggests that you students are powerful beings who only need the magical institutional credential of the college diploma to take the world by storm. In this environment, the courses you take are procedural rungs on the triumphant ladder of progress and achievement. You believe you can fly and we can provide the jetpack. Just Do It, and we’ll give you a fancy piece of paper that proves you did (frame not included).

Even in this course. The objectives outlined above are very good. They give us specific skills to focus on and those skills will unquestionably help you in your economic, post-college lives. And they will help me to assign a grade to your efforts. This, along with some elaborate fonts, boosts the credibility of the wall decoration you get for your four years of effort.

The problem is that none of this really has much to do with education.

Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you.

On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.

Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.

This course on twentieth-century and contemporary literature is an opportunity then. Think of it as a speed bump in the soul-killing progressive-triumphalist superhighway (you may not be able to exit – we’ll read Sartre at the end of the semester – but you might be able to slow down sometimes). Here is a too-rare chance for us (and I purposefully include myself here) to unsettle things that are settled and stale. This literature will not be easy to face because it very often undermines our heroic views of ourselves and our society. This brutality is exactly its value.

I do not wish to change your mind or your worldview. And I certainly don’t want to empower you. I hope to challenge you to confront your mind and your worldview in an effort to perfect them.

This is a burden I look forward to helping you with, but, like all real education, it is ultimately yours alone.

My office hours are listed above.

Final Paper (A Parody)

Final Paper

Have you ever thought about starting your paper with a rhetorical question? It is said that this is a great way to get attention to your topic. Dictionary.com defines attention as “the act or faculty of attending, especially by directing the mind to an object.” Albert Einstein once stated brilliantly “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking” (Brainyquote.com). This is a good quote to use in a paper because it talks about reading and it is a source from a credable person and the paper needs sources because of the assignment. As you already can see, I already have two cites in the paper already and I only need one more to get it to three. It is therefore undeniable that since the dawn of time, writing papers is a thing that is essential to getting the attention of readers. I shall prove that writing good is an incredibly important part of finishing an assignment in which there is a word count minimum that needs sources.

Einstein_tongue

On Smart Phones, Freedom, and Alephs

Aleph

When people ask me what makes something “literary,” I typically say something about how literature reads you even as you read it. Literary art provides an opportunity to think.

The moments at which my job is most satisfying are those in which the stories and poems I’ve assigned point an accusing finger at me and draw back the curtain between the mystical and the “real” in my life. I love it when the book I’m reading seems to know me, and I really love it when it tells me I’m not OK.

I have, like many others, brought my smart phone into numerous aspects of my life. It is communication, entertainment, work, and study; so much of what makes me human has been given over to the machine. There is a certain liberty in this. I am now able to find answers and questions anywhere I am. Wherever I am, the universe is before me in all its complexity, its strangeness, and its dullness. So remarkable is the device, I never stop to ask whether it is me or the phone that’s the tool.

I’ve thought of instruments like my Samsung as a kind of power so liberating I’ve even encouraged my students to wield it, but I wonder if I’ve been living a free life within a prison.

The Aleph (short story collection)

The Aleph (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I taught Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The story is landmark of magical realism, and therefore asks the reader to not only question the distinction between magic and real, but to look for the magic in the real.

The story’s narrator, Borges, has an irritating acquaintance, Carlos Argentino, who is the cousin of Borges’s late love interest, Beatriz Viterbo. Carlos Argentino is a bad poet who, as it turns out, has access to a magical point in the universe in which all other points in the universe can be seen. This is the Aleph, and it gives Argentino direct visual access to all the objects, landscapes, and people about which he writes his terrible poetry.

The story is awe-inspiring as a work of literary art, and the paragraphs in which Borges describes what he finally sees in the Aleph are particularly mesmerizing. In addition, it is an extremely funny story, with Borges’s subtle digs at Carlos Argentino’s ineptness and inflated ego providing the narrative spine of the story. I was therefore a little disappointed that it proved to be a little alienating and difficult for my students to enthusiastically embrace.

To combat moments moments like this, I’ve developed a little bag of teaching tricks, and I pulled one of them out during our discussion of “The Aleph.” The internet has given us tools for live polling via text messaging and Tweeting. When I have difficulty getting students to pose questions or make observations in class, I will from time to time project one of these live polling environments to the screen in our class. Often, this will jump-start conversation by providing students with a concrete statement or question to respond to.

In this particular case, however, our retractable white screen was as silent as my students. This was slightly disappointing, but I was mostly irritated by the fact that the vast majority of the class were clearly typing things into their smartphones. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but even I could deduce that I was merely providing them cover while they mentally exited my classroom and entered the intoxicating liberation of cyberspace.

Eventually, I squeezed a little water from stone and we had a decent conversation about the story. One moment in particular seemed to draw some interest. After Borges has experienced the majestic, God-like view the Aleph offers, he stumbles into the street and makes the following observation:

In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again.

This puzzling moment was productive for us. It raised questions about the value of mystery, wonder, and imagination. Carlos Argentino had endless, literal access to everything in the universe and his poetry suffered for it (though he ironically garners acclaim from the publishing industry – another hilarious cultural critique Borges offers). His direct, instant access reduced his poetry to pale, mimetic description. His poetry was strangled by the brutish hands of fact and the oxygen of imagination was cut off.

The fear that Borges experiences then is a powerful one, and the relief his forgetfulness brings is tangible. The overwhelming clarity of the Aleph threatened to sap the very joy from life, which lies in encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it.

After class, I wandered back to my office and noticed just how readily and enthusiastically students slip into the black mirrors of their smartphones at any opportunity. Like Carlos Argentino scurrying under his basement steps to submit to the easy immediacy of the Aleph, we compulsively reach for our devices to connect us to our digitized universe. And this is by no means exclusive to the young. At playgrounds, restaurants, and school assemblies all over the industrialized world, people of all ages, myself included, shun the profound, magical surprise of the street, the stairs, and the subway for the pale titillation of the virtual.

What to ultimately do about this new reality is unclear to me. Until I figure it out, I will leave my phone in the car when I go out to eat with my family. Perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected things children say.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Twitterati and the Limits of Christian Charity

What would I be capable of if I weren’t bound by the ethics of Christian charity?

Let’s see. I might write something like this.

Earlier this week, from seemingly nowhere, I was attacked on Twitter by a complete stranger. I woke up, checked my email, and saw that some (I suppose we should call him a) person had responded to six or eight of my recent tweets in a most hostile manner.

Now let’s bear in mind the origins of these tweets of mine. Most of them were online articles I had posted links to, and the rest were little jokes forwarded from my Facebook page, ephemeral quips like:

Twitter   Interactions 1 (Internet is boring)

Nothing world-shattering here, merely me obviously ready for beddy-time.

Nonetheless, our hero-from-the-Twittersphere apparently took great offense to this.

Twitter   Interactions 2 (Internet is boring response)

Well.

First, while we’re on the topic of mirrors, let’s just say the blurring feature I’ve used here has done the world a great favor. But to my larger concern, what could provoke such disproportionate hostility?

One might, if one were so inclined, assume that the lets-call-him-a-man who composed the response falls into the ever-useful category of “nerd.” The particular variety of geek I’m thinking of is that which so-wanted Second Life to make it big because their Actual Life was lonely and pathetic. Days spent lusting over this or that animated woman, nights occupied with online message-board arguments over authentic translations of Klingon. What have you.

The argument for this assumption is simple: the personage responsible for the Tweet seemingly has no life outside its Linux-based operating system, so it must desperately cling to the mechanisms of its tenuous relationship with what passes for social. The internet is the best option for such a …

See now here is where I get confused. I can’t quite get myself to refer to the Tweet-consciousness as a person. This is why I reject the “nerd hypothesis” I just outlined. I kind of like nerds and find them to be extremely human.

Instead, I honestly think that this… I guess for simplicity’s sake, we should call him a person… person conceives of himself as a “brand.” A product habitating a cyberspace where social awkwardness is rewarded with “followers” and body odor is irrelevant. The Onion recently captured the essence of such an individual.

I’m quite convinced of this because of the full context of our exchanges.

In addition to his defiant defense of the internet, I awoke to a barrage of insightful commentary about what he kept referring to as my “techno-phobia.” I assume from his use of this term that he thinks I’m against recognizing marriages between blenders and the iPhone 3. I’m not really sure what else it could mean.

At any rate, I had, recently posted a few links to articles that were certainly critical of techno-utopianism. What’s-his-face, however, drew some starling conclusions from these posts, and his reactions were severe. For instance, I posted a link to an article that calls attention to some of the destructiveness of Silicon Valley. It’s an illuminating piece that offers a fair critique of the Sean Parker wedding. The brand responded with:

Twitter   Interactions 3

For some reason, I decided to jab back.

Twitter   Interactions 4

Alright, I’m immature. I know this already. Move on.

This wasn’t the end of his assault, either. I had also linked (at some point) to an article about attention spans and internet writing.

Here is the offending Tweet:

Twitter   Interactions 5

His response was actually a fair one, if dogmatic and defensive:

Twitter   Interactions 6

This all took place, mind you before I woke up in the morning. Without a single peep from me, our friend from the fantasy land of microchips and no girls went off:

Twitter   Interactions 7

Well, I never.

I decided to fire a shot across the bows.

Twitter   Interactions 8

My accusation, I maintain, was spot on. I took a look at his Twitter activity and it’s pretty clear that he is driven by an attention-seeking mechanism worthy of Paris Hilton, Rasputin, and the Naked Cowboy of Times Square. A large percentage of his tweets are, like the ones he aimed at me, inflammatory, un-invited, and focused on absolute strangers. He, in fact, is a troll, looking to start fights so as to establish his “brand” as an “influencer” in the social mediasphere. When he lures someone into his acne-ridden web he responds like this:

Twitter   Interactions 9

Checkmate. A pathetic gesture that brings back memories of junior high, when the geek (usually me) guilted a moderately attractive girl to couple-skate down at the rink at 7:30 on a Friday night.

This is all on Twitter, so I can only speculate about what our friend sounds like in real life, but I imagine it’s like this:

And yes, I decided he would get nothing. And like it.

Only by nothing, I mean pushback against his egocentric techno-mania.

His witticism regarding my troll comment:

Twitter   Interactions 10

And then…

Twitter   Interactions 11

Again, I know. Immature. Youbetcha.

Then he got nasty (in the way you’d expect from someone who cuddles up to his Ewok Pillow Pet each night):

Twitter   Interactions 12

I’m having a little fun here, but I do want to make a serious point. As the conversation (if such a thing is possible on Twitter) progressed, the shallowness of his reasoning, and more importantly his worldview, revealed itself. As if he forgot his own dig at the humanities, he threw out a quote from a …gulp…novelist, Isaac Asimov. The subsequent responses are telling:

Twitter   Interactions 13

First of all, yes. His name is apparently Julian. Let it go. Focus instead on his lack of response when I brought up the specific implications of his quotation. This silence demonstrates to me that he basically found an isolated quote that, out of context, supports his narrow worldview. There is no attempt to struggle with the complications his “source” introduces in the conversation. In my freshman composition class, this merits a major point deduction.

This is the root of my caution when it comes to messianic visions of technology. The world is not written in binary code. It is impressionistic at its most clear.

The English nerd that I am, I also scolded the logic of some of his rhetoric:

Twitter   Interactions 14

…and so here we are.

There was no immediate response, nor has there been a delayed one. The troll is never interested in depth, only the ignorant defense of ill-considered dogma — and the acquisition of “followers.” Well I will not follow a fool down a blind alley.

Despite this fellow’s assessment of me, I am not against technology. Case in point, I’ve employed it in the composition of this post and I use it in the classroom each day. I am, however, cautious about it. As a tool, it is wonderful. As a philosophy in and of itself? Not so fast. Just look what it has done to our poor troll’s ability to think.

Fortunately, I am bound by notions of Christian charity, so I would never write such a mean-spirited, vengeful thing as this.

Oops. Dang.

As always, I’m ever-dependent upon Grace.

Ashamed of myself,

d