15 May 2013

Reading Newspaper Comments on the Internet Can Turn You into an Elitist

You would think that one the internet would do would be separate the knuckle draggers from the somewhat more evolved. After all, one has to be literate and moderately coordinated to type words into a browser. However, a simple perusal of the comments section of the Washington Post articles will disabuse you of that notion rather quickly.

Racism, long vanquished in many quarters to private homes and (homogenous) neighborhood bars, is in full throat in the comments section. It's one thing to have to explain to your integrated co-workers and other parents at your kids' school events and extracurricular activities why you keep a dog-eared copy of The Turner Diaries in your car and a photo of Hitler in your wallet, let alone your swastika tattoo; it's quite another to copy and paste blog posts from Stormfront on some public news forum under an assumed name (hey, I'm not dogging assumed names...I'm just suggesting that it's a bit more comfy being a racist when no one can call you out in person).

Of course, it isn't only racism. If only it were that simple. Conspiracy kooks of the first order hang out on these sites. Look, anything can be true when the burden of proof is that someone saw a youtube video showing how to knock down a building using magnesium shavings filed from a bicycle frame.

You people are morons.

And I'm sick of it.

I'm sick of having to explain the difference between registration and confiscation, and how slippery slope arguments are logical fallacies.

I'm sick of having to demonstrate that you can't compare a Watergate scandal that took two years to develop to impeachment level, with clear paw prints leading straight to the Oval Office, to last week's news, especially when it doesn't lead anywhere yet, and maybe never will. In other words, talk of impeachment is rather premature. Yes, I'm looking at you, George Will.

And I'm damn sick of people posting links to nutcase sites and claiming they "prove" anything other than that the person who posted the link is information illiterate. I spend a good chunk of my time trying to teach students the difference between scholarly sources and junk sources. If you have a link to a site purporting to have the inside scoop on Benghazi, and the site you've linked also has a story about how the moon landing was a hoax and crap about Hitler actually being a leftist, then you've failed the information literacy test.

And while I'm at it, let me talk to my besties on facebook. You may think it's clever to share pictures that match images of Obama with Nixon and claim Nixon was impeached for using the IRS for political ends, but then again you probably think the Civil War was actually a battle over states rights.

And seriously, stop posting twenty picture-slogans in a row. It's damn tedious.

13 May 2013

And now for a new journey into the unexpected.

Somewhere along the lines of fifteen years ago and perhaps more, perhaps 18 years ago, I was approached at my old university about the possibilities of doing an online course.

Online education was in its infancy, at least at major universities (I'm not saying there weren't early adopters, only that there weren't many). Options were extremely limited -- no videos, very little ready-made content from publishers, and a fairly basic chat functionality.

I said no.

The technology was too primitive, and I wasn't sure how to bring a real course to students with such tools. In fact, it was more or less a correspondence course that exchanged email (and file upload and storage) for snail mail.

Things change. I am responsible for helping people teach online as well as being an online teacher myself these days, and of course the tools have changed significantly. Courses are very full featured and can be very rigorous (although just as in traditional classrooms, rigor is not always offered nor sought out). I am still not sure online education is a substitute for traditional education (caveat: studies do show that objective measurements of content learning is comparable in online and traditional classes, but I'm not talking about objective measurements...I'm talking about the co-curricular aspects of a course and college itself), but I am not going to deny that it has opened up possibilities for non-traditional students that were hard to imagine in the years prior to online.

All this as prelude to the fact that for the first time ever I will be attempting to teach a composition course online. I know I'm not the first to teach composition online, but it will be my first time, and therefore, I'm busy with pacing, assignment sequence, and the wonderful logistics of getting students to peer review using the horrible tools Blackboard provides.

I will most likely be posting updates as time goes on this summer.

10 May 2013

MOOCs and Their Discontents, Part 1: Financial Winners and Losers

Anyone who deals with higher education has heard of MOOCs -- pronounced exactly like the ethnic slur, but spelled differently -- and the controversy surrounding their emergence, dissemination, and utilization. The Massive Open Online Course promises at this point to give access to education previously untouchable by the unwashed masses: lectures from Harvard and MIT, for example. Moreover, they promise not only to give access to these courses, but also to provide some form of "credit" for completing the course. Credit is not in scare quotes to undermine the legitimacy of the courses, but rather to indicate that "credit" can mean anything from a printable certificate, to a badge, to actual college credit hours depending on university and course.

It's this last part that has some faculty and administrators nervous. For instance, why should Student A pay $1500 for a 3 credit course in Western Civ from their local college when they can transfer in the credits from passing their free MOOC course in Western Civ? For faculty, the danger is that with fewer courses to teach, fewer faculty members are needed. For administrators, it amounts to roughly the same thing: fewer courses means fewer tuition dollars rolling in. While many administrators delight in the idea of destroying faculty power and reducing the labor costs associated with faculty, the sane ones understand that one can't really burn the village to save it: the administrators only have jobs because of the surplus value they've extracted from faculty labor.

So who benefits from MOOCs?

The first answer would seem to be students. After all, if you can get for free what used to cost you $1500 (and we can extrapolate beyond my one example to let's say, the maximum credits an institution would allow a student to transfer in, we'll pretend it's 30 credits...that's a savings of $15000), then it seems like you benefit. Furthermore, you could argue that perhaps the student is getting better instruction from a MOOC from Harvard than they would be getting from their local college or university. I'll let that point go for now, though: the issue of MOOC quality is another post altogether.

The second answer, I would argue, would be the big name brand universities that produce the MOOCs. Harvard and MIT, along with a few other well-respected universities, are nationally known names that can attract participants (or at least enrollees) in their MOOCs based on name recognition alone. Even the slightly curious might sign up for a Harvard MOOC in The Heroic and Anti-Heroic in Ancient Greek Civilization. The university gets free publicity and good will -- not an entirely bad thing when some segments of society love to hate you -- and perhaps revenue down the road through selling course materials, advertising, and other peripheral products. I would argue, though, that the MOOC revolution will stand or fall based upon its ability to make money.

The losers here seem to be nearly every other college and university. It's hard to see how they make any money accepting transfer credit from MOOCs. Now it's easy to say that they don't make any money now off transfer credits, regardless of where the student took the credit, and that's true. However, it's also true that currently most students are paying for those credits somewhere, and if MOOCs become more accepted for transfer credits, fewer students will be paying community colleges, state schools, and even the small liberal arts colleges for those credits, which means that collectively those schools will lose out on a substantial amount of revenue. More importantly, those students who spend four years at an institution, in other words those students who were taking all or nearly all of their undergraduate credits from your institution, may decide that summertime is better spent getting six free MOOC credits than six paid credits from your summer offerings.

Small schools can't even get in the game in the same way as the big players, although some will try, I'm sure. However, unlike traditional online courses (it feels odd writing "traditional" and "online" together like that), which many small schools have shown are viable forms of outreach for them, these MOOCs do not generate revenue: they are IT resource intensive for a small school and would to a large extent cannibalize the pay-for-credit offerings those schools have already put online.

It's this dynamic, free courses for students and the consequent squeeze-out of the small schools by the big names, that sets the stage for the questions that follow: the pedagogy and the ideology of the MOOC. MOOCs threaten fundamental structural changes in higher education in the way that online education never did: online education has been quickly subsumed into the traditional structure of colleges and universities, either as separate "world campuses" or as another delivery method in the existing continuing education structure. Sure, online education has given rise to diploma mills like the University of Phoenix and Capella, but even that phenomenon isn't new -- it's just easier to get access to, and with student loans as a lucrative revenue stream, it's not going away anytime soon. The MOOC threatens to do away with revenue altogether -- it doesn't just divvy it up differently. As such, it strikes at the core of the current university model.

29 April 2013

Twentieth Century Southern Literature...so many choices but not so many weeks.

I'm putting together a syllabus for 20th Century Southern Literature. I've never been immersed in a heavily concentrated bath of southern angst, depression, and morbid obsession with family honor, but I've read my share of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, so I think I have a decent basis on that end of the spectrum.

Since I'm not allowed to make the course 100% Faulkner, I've been tossing the following around in my head:

1. William Faulkner, Light in August OR Absalom, Absalom!
  • Light in August is more accessible than Absalom, Absalom!, but I get such enjoyment out of the latter book that it might make the blank stares worth it. On the other hand, Reverend Hightower's habits and commentary is absolutely priceless.
2. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Contemporaneous with Faulkner and an interesting counterpoint to his world, this text is so beautifully written I'd like to include it on most all my syllabi. I have better luck with this work than with Jonah's Gourd Vine.
3. Flannery O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
  • I like throwing in a collection of short stories, because that allows me to get more mileage out of the textbook -- we can work on O'Connor over a few classes.
4. Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
  • You can't really have a Southern Lit class without some Tennessee Williams, and I also find that students don't encounter plays very often (unless they're reading Shakespeare or studying the Restoration Era).
5. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
  • Much like Faulkner and Hurston provide a good contrast, so too do Percy and Williams. The New Orleans of Williams simply oozes sex, whereas Percy's maintains restraint.
6. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • Outside of Chuck Palahniuk, no contemporary writer does bizarre so compellingly as McCarthy, but that's about all the two writers have in common.

The list isn't complete, but these are the definite starters. I'm looking for a few more books to fill out the schedule, and I'm looking hardest right now at Alice Walker, contemplating Robert Penn Warren, and putting some outside money on John Kennedy Toole (just to keep up the New Orleans theme, which, by the way, is also another argument for Absalom, Absalom!). Hell, maybe I'll do both of those Faulkner novels.

24 April 2013

Novels You Shouldn't Teach in Introductory Literature Courses, Vol 1: Melville's The Confidence-Man

A little while ago I decided I would mix things up and get away from the tried and true Benito Cereno in my American literature survey. Benito Cereno is an eminently teachable text, with its 3rd person limited omniscient narrator keeping us interested in Amasa Delano's perceptions, fooling us with Delano's own excuses. Students can sink their teeth into the desperation of slavery and the transfer of power from a declining to a rising empire. It's a relatively short read, too.

However, it's also heavily anthologized and therefore one tends to see heavily repetitive essays that can be traced to such centers of scholarly learning as sparknotes and shmoop. Besides, I have never been interested in teaching the same collection of texts semester after semester.

So I decided that I would go for The Confidence-Man, a novel I read in graduate school and really enjoyed, probably for the very reasons that make it so unfit for an introductory undergraduate literature course.

By the time he wrote The Confidence-Man (1857), Melville was a bit pissed at the publishing industry and America in general. Despite early success with his novels of the South Pacific, Melville saw both popular and critical appreciation for his work decline as he produced the works that would become the cornerstone of his posthumous revival and reputation. Moby-Dick (1851) for instance, such a totemic novel that it has become synonymous with The Great American Novel and shorthand for massively serious literate society, was all but dismissed by Melville's contemporary critics.

The Confidence-Man was Melville's last novel and critics received it much as one might receive a flaming pile of dog shit on your front porch. Of course, in a sense, that's exactly what it was, because Melville was providing them with an acerbic and decidedly mean-spirited prank, published precisely on April 1, 1857. It's a fantastic novel that skewers American consumer culture, lampoons provincial attitudes, and questions all manner of trust or confidence, while at the same time it ignores the "beginning, middle, and end" of traditional plots, fails to have any identifiable central characters, and undercuts coherent narrative every chance it gets. It's a terrible novel to teach to undergraduates encountering college-level literature for the first time.

In a nutshell, the novel follows a riverboat along the Mississippi during the course of a single day. Passengers come and go at each stop and it's unclear if one or several confidence men are working the boat in the narrative...we as readers are never let in definitively on the identity of the con artist(s) touching the marks. It lends itself to rich readings in a few post-structural veins (performative identity, to name one), but it does not give the novice reader much to hang his or her hat on: no compelling characters to follow, no plot to unwind (the mystery of the confidence man/men is never really presented as a mystery and in any case there's never a resolution as to the motives or identity of the confidence man or men), and nothing to follow more than conversations among passengers. To make matters worse, Melville sprinkles numerous references to contemporary political, economic, and cultural events throughout, putting those who haven't had a good dose of Emerson, for instance, at a severe disadvantage (and I mean a good dose...not a poem or an essay, but an extended exposure).

I dearly love this novel, but I am seriously considering the less imposing Typee or the intimidatingly iconic, but much more teachable, Moby-Dick for the next go-round.

23 April 2013

Hello, Old Friend, Once Again.

I have taken a break, more or less, from blogging over the past few years. Sure, I had some spurts of energy where I blogged for a month or two on a fairly regular basis, but nothing sustained beyond that...I couldn't even get terribly fired up for the general election last fall.

(Look, Mitt, it really wasn't your fault. You were a complete bonehead and your pandering did set me off, so you did your part, but I couldn't hold up my end of the bargain. I simply didn't care, given that the best you could muster in the polls was a dead cat bounce.)

Do you know I posted all of five times in 2012? Five times.  

Life's been busy. I have a garden to tend. I have classes to teach. I have kids to shepherd around. I tend to regard blogging the same way I regard going to the gym...you have to make a commitment and once you've decided you're too tired or busy to hit the machines one day, well, you might as well tear up the gym membership, because next thing you know you've paid for three months simply to say you're a member.

It's spring. Let's give it another chance.