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…


Writing for Readers

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.

Sherlock, Season One

Interesting enough to watch the next season.

My favourite moment of the season was in the first episode when Sherlock, trying to catch a taxi, pauses and pictures a map of the city to figure out how the car will have to move through the one-way streets and then sets off on foot to cut it off. That’s smart.

Deadwood Season Two

The density of language, the intensity of tone, and the paucity of action define Deadwood for me. I’m on edge, missing stuff and yet nothing is happening. This season I realized how much this show is about politics: fighting for and allocating power in a field with multiple independent actors. It is smart, exciting, and exhausting.

Follow Up on Carr

Thinking a bit more about Carr’s point regarding unnecessary communication

Carr notes that realtime communication makes courtesy distracting and annoying insofar as we think of communication in machine terms, i.e. in terms of efficiency. Citing T. Adorno he writes that:

To dispense with courtesy, to treat each other with “familiar indifference,” to send messages “without address or signature”: these are all, Adorno wrote, “random symptoms of a sickness of contact.” Lacking all patience for circuitous conversation, for talk that flows without practical purpose, we assume the view that “the straight line [is] the shortest distance between two people, as if they were points.”

When I first wrote about Carr’s idea, I responded in terms of Yuri Lotman’s notion of an implied audience. Thinking about my family’s chat groups, I suggested that a lack of courtesy can at time imply and, thus, create intimacy rather than distance or efficiency.

Since then I’ve been thinking about other contexts and the way a lack of courtesy can reflect something other than an economic approach to sociality. Specifically, I wonder if part of the issue isn’t that with texts and social networks and even email and various chat protocols, we are writing and we lack the skills and conventions to do so.

In the world before the telephone, correspondence was written to a person but was often understood to be at least potentially public. Letters were shared. They were sometimes saved for later publication in memorial or historical volumes. Writers made letters within these expectations and had forms and language suited to a double-address as simultaneously intimate and formal (and thus acceptable if public). Likewise, they had the language and forms necessary to speak in letters formally to strangers.

We do not have the forms available to use today. Few of us are practiced in writing publicly. We speak, we aim for authenticity and we thus find ourselves standing in the public-square-become-the-internet embarrassing ourselves and annoying others by writing “authentically” and “intimately” before strangers. Or conversely, writing “economically” to intimates.

To rework Carr’s example: the annoying text that says “thanks!” will be annoying to a stranger or mere acquaintances—perhaps as Carr suggests because its is inefficient—but perhaps because it is too intimate. Formality is demanded. But what is the formal expression of “Thank you” in a text message? I don’t have the answer but that is my point: this question of written form is the problem, not the tech. And if “Thanks!” is annoying between friends–and it can be annoying–how much of it is simply chatterboxes will be chatterboxes? Another problem with undeveloped language forms rather than tech.

My point: I think we are unpracticed with writing. We have lost the skill. A generation that didn’t write letters because they could telephone, now have to write and to teach the young how to write and we are lost.

Genre as Director

Last winter as I was watching a lot of crap superhero movies, I wondered what could possibly interest me about them. This spring I had an idea related to genre and my dissertation of all things.

My thinking, sketched out, is that in generic films, everyone knows what to do. The props guy, the editor, the sound people. Everyone already knows what the film should be. So a director, Joss Whedon for example, can just say “I need X” and person A will know what X is without much direction. Whedon–a fan of the genre–can simply enjoy and cheerlead and brainstorm as the people around him make the film. And so, genre manages the production. In a sense, genre is the direction.

So what’s Whedon’s contribution? Writing. He creates the situations that offer and legitimate generic pleasures as enjoyable and again-new.

Thinking about superhero films generally, I think that, for me at least, they foreground this specific writing task and, thus, focus my critical attention. I don’t really care very much about the effects or the situations or whatever. I watch and I am thinking about:

1. the choices made in adapting the source

2. the system of motivation and stakes devised to move the action

3. how effective 1 & 2 are in normalizing the rest of the film’s work

In other words, I think the superhero movie–which I am more or less sick of now–served as a kind of controlled experiment about the topic of my dissertation while I was writing it.

I suspect that these films may offer a similar focus to other viewers interested in other things.

Introvert Words

Word list made while reading Quiet.

  • unambitious
  • quiet
  • too influenced by the people around you
  • pleaser
  • always got a book
  • The choice between reading and living

Three calls to action:

  1. stop madness of constant group work
  2. unplug and get in your own head more often

Summer Movie Catch Up

Not much to say about the movies I’ve seen in the past few months. The worst of the lot were just loud and shiny, exhausting. Logging them in a batch.



The Best of the Lot

Hannah Arendt

A film dealing with a non-dramatic but fierce intellectual conflict. How do you represent a fight that happens in writing between people who compose their words sitting alone and still in their homes? The film doesn’t shy away from showing the stillness. The actress creates intellectual depths. The dialogue offers exposition deftly without condescending. An exciting movie.

Man of Steel (first twenty minutes)

The opening segment of this movie—which offers up a completely imagined alien world ripe with imagery and symbolism and is wonderfully free of geek-dream, Marvel Universe-style exposition—is pretty much the best thing I saw all summer. It is also better than most of the science fiction movies I have seen these past few years. The view-screen technology was interesting and new. Better still, the mammalian insect mount—a live animal, a biological presence in a highly advanced technological culture—and the way the ships echoed this biological model suggested an entire way of life in miniature. Quite an achievement.


Completely Good

Louis Cyr

The ellipses make the narrative work. A scenic biography that moves confidently through the life. 

World War Z

An old-fashioned quest narrative. The narration could have tracked travel using the map device from The Raiders of the Lost Ark without ruining the tone. CGI and frantic violence were there at the beginning but the movie kept toning the noise down after that, finding drama and tension in slowness and silence. The best blockbuster of the summer. (Book log here.)

Children of Men

Beautifully shot and moving vision of a near-future apocalypse. A nice companion piece for teaching The Road.


Completely Okay

The Kings of Summer

This film is about the moustaches. The mystical snake-charming coming of age moment—save the girl!—feels off key but actually shows the movie’s cards. This hour and a half is a wish: “please please please make me an old-fashioned man, tough, competent, primitive and unemotional. So my dad will love me.”


…sur fils plutôt que père.

The Man of Steel (Everything after the young Clark saves the bus)

This movie slowly descends into the mud of too-loud sound design and pointless CGI stupidity. There is plenty here that, I suppose, looks cool—if cool is determined in your belly and scrotum and is pronounced “Awesome”—but nothing makes sense. How much does Superman weigh? Because in this movie, his Mass x Speed = enough force to destroy a mountain. Cool? Maybe but it doesn’t make sense. He takes off in flight and leaves a crater beneath him every single time. Cool? Maybe, but who wants a local hero that destroys your streets every time he moves from one place to another?

In other words, the already exaggerated-out-of-all-reasonable-proportions source story is being even further exaggerated until the whole exercise—and it becomes an exercise in sound and animation—becomes self-defeating. The “realistic” special effects create a completely non-sensical image of our world that is so unreal that you can’t care. Worse, it makes judgment—and important part of narrative—impossible: in what universe does it make sense for a woman looking at a city reduced to cinders (literally) say “he saved us”? I mean what exactly has been saved? And what happened to heroes who prevented damage? There was a time when they did that.

Thought of in another way, the movie suffers from the increasingly common problem a filmmaker setting up a strong opening, that either establishes a sense of place or a strong character or a particular mood, but then has no idea where to go from there. To often, sensation and excess are offered up as if they amounted to narrative resolution.

People laugh about the obligatory happy ending in Classical film, but I’m a bit nostalgic. Today, Hollywood has no idea how to end movies.


Time Wasters (Unless Seen on hot day to have air-conditioning)

The Great Gatsby

Iron Man 3

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Keynes: Know Thyself

…We need by an effort of the mind to elucidate our own feelings. At present our sympathy and our judgement are liable to be on different sides, which is a painful and paralysing state of mind. … We need a new set of convictions which spring naturally from a candid examination of our own inner feelings in relation to the outside facts.

–John Maynard Keynes