Fish on Tech Driven Education Reform

Just a few notes for now about “The Two Cultures of Educational Reform” by Stanley Fish. He’s responding to Higher Education in America by Derek Bok. Fish’s allusion to C. P. Snow’s two cultures–the sciences and the humanities–shows his cards right off the bat: education reform must (but has yet to) confront a division between measurable and unmeasurable qualities. This is a winning hand because the distinction is real and epistemological. Upgrading a pencil to a laptop to a tablet has nothing to do with it.

Fish’s tone says a lot though: he is uncharacteristically journalistic. Very Bak says, but then he says and so on with his point being that the “but then”‘s reveal the emperor’s naked and should be deal breakers. But he never makes the argument forcefully ending instead with a reference to an obscure movie from the nineties about “da kids today” and how disconnected they are. Is he just working out his ideas or is the reform discourse something he’s heard before, perhaps in the theory that flaunted its own contradictions without ever having to own them. If the latter, then his tone is a concession–this is going to happen–and also a warning: batten the hatches, keep your head down, hold on.

…the alternative tone would say, grab this beast, turn it, tame it, make it pull the plow.

A Classroom Wiki Project

After two years, this blog project and the personal wiki that grew from it have born something other than private fruit: I have installed pmwiki on a server and will use it to run a large-scale class project this coming semester. The course will be a basic college literature course. Because the course is for non-majors, composition and writing skills are an important aspect of the curriculum and are the basis for the project.

My Initial Goals

These are quite small. I hope to:

  • naturalize the process of revision in composition by setting it beside the constant development and change of online materials;
  • to offer students some sense that they are writing to communicate to an audience rather than writing assignments for me to grade;
  • teach basic web literacy, which here means a familiarity with content/format separation and the use of markup syntax.

An Observation About these Goals

Only the last of these is specifically about teaching composition as transformed by the internet. The others are really about using the Internet to spice up or interpret established course material. This is something to track over the term because web-composition would be worth addressing more substantially. But doing that this first go around just seems like too much to bite off all at the same time. I mean, this will also be the first time that I manage a class project where every aspect of the tech–the server, the installation, basic site management, the tech-help for students, everything–will be done by me. And I’ll be doing it as I teach the course. So web-composition: track, keep notes, and maybe next time.

One Last Thought

Increasingly students read about assigned texts online rather than reading the text itself. Those who do must later rely on internet sources for the content of the essays, and so, plagiarism is becoming a huge problem. I explain every semester that reading texts is required and that copying text off the internet is not acceptable but I hear Peppermint Patty’s teacher’s voice in my head as I do. I say, “Read! It’s worth it!” and I suspect students hear “All teachers hate the internet. You should waste time doing pointless busy work because back in the day, uphill both ways, carrying a log for the fire, etc.”

My pie-in-the-sky hope is that the wiki project will elicit some buy-in to the course materials by:

  • acknowledging online materials exist and are often useful;
  • providing a forum for these materials to be cited, linked to and discussed;
  • teaching and demanding some technical engagement with web-based writing (i.e. teaching students to write in ways that make the web rather than simply use it);
  • demonstrating that discourse is about norms rather than rules by having two different written discourses developing in class: one online in the wiki, the other offline through traditional essays.

More to come…


A quest is often, among other things, an extended bout of inspired madness.

–Michael Chabon

From this post on Paul Krugman’s blog:

Keynes’s General Theory is a famously difficult book — but it opens with three sparkling chapters, a sort of book within the book, that gives readers a very good sense of where he’s going and why it matters.

What every economist, and for that matter every writer on any subject, needs to realize is that unless you are a powerful person and people are looking for clues about what you’ll do next, nobody has to read what you write — and lecturing them about what they’re missing doesn’t help. You have to provide the hook, the pitch, whatever you want to call it, that pulls them in. It’s part of the job.

Maple and Spring

Buds then flowers then leaves


A spider dropping then climbing then swinging
Then dropping then rising,
Making a web.

A wasp in flight through silk.
The spider falls,


Maple flowers fall
In a wide circle under new leaves
A green noonday shadow.


The sky comes down and wrings out her hair on the grass,
Laughing at the men running for shelter,
Splashing their trousers with her windy feet.


A wasp
Between a curtain and the sun,
Confounded by the blunt reality of glass.

Life of Pi

Life of PiAfter watching Ang Li’s adaptation, I decided to read the book. It was enlightening because I realized how much of what I liked about the movie was Li’s invention. What stood out for me: the spirituality of the movie, which seemed so extreme, is actually a renunciation of the even more extreme religiosity of the novel, and one that foregrounds the human agency of the story.

I got halfway through this book and stopped reading. It is well written, but the adaptation is so close that I was reading for the bits that weren’t in the film…and those bits were obnoxious to me.

(This is too harsh a comment on the book which really is quite good…but not for me.)


“The Essayification of Everything”

Some References relating to the essay:

  • The Wayward Essay
  • Phillip Lopate’s reflections on the relationship between essay and doubt
  • Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live
  • An edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time

The Clippings File:

Essayism is predicated on at least three things: personal stability, technocratic stability and societal instability.

Below the author equates established print culture to todays emerging electronic media. I think he confuses ubiquity with stability. He writes:

Regarding technocracy, the maturation of print culture during the Renaissance meant that the great texts of Antiquity and newer philosophical, literary and scientific materials could reach a wider audience, albeit mainly composed of people of privilege. The experts of science and technology at that time siphoned some of the power that had been monopolized by the church and the crown. We could draw a similar analogy today: Silicon Valley and the technocratic business class still force the church and the state to share much of their cultural power. The essay thrives under these conditions.

I’m not sure that “essayistic” foundations are established on the interwebs. There are texts, yes. Blogs, tweets, status updates. But on the internet, the essay resides in the links, not the words.

Finally, essay and meditation:

I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.

Gay Video Releases

A couple gay films to consider for the next LGBT class screening list.

Private Romeo

An adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that sets it in a military academy. The cadets not taken along for a long weekend–they’ve failed to qualify in some vaguely established way–must continue their classes, which means continuing to read through the play in English class. The film then shifts: the cadets begin using the language of the play outside of class and the story plays out between two cadets. 

As a whole, the adaptation doesn’t work. There’s no real place for the family conflict to rest in the academy setting, for example. And death is not an option, much less four of them.

But this adaptation is ultimately about an attempt and about moments, and the iconic moments work incredibly well. The first meeting at the party is especially good, capturing the hesitations of first love and the anger provoked by that love.

Children of God

Set in the Bahamas and humbly ambitious. There are four or five interconnecting narratives here, all well handled. As the movie shuffles between them the characters and their struggles come alive despite some awkwardness. Ultimately though this movie is not about the individuals per se. It is about the sources, methods and consequences of homophobia. The various narratives weave together into a portrait of how people are defined by the publicly circulating ideas, what we call “culture.” Worth a second look.