What I haven’t had time to say about the Cult of the Amateur

was said pretty well yesterday at Daily Kos.

Keen tends to claim that the participatory web is destroying traditional media at great cost to our culture.  I’ve always thought that the mainstream media has done a great deal to destroy itself.  And I don’t think I can say it better than this:

The media — newspapers, radio, and television — is not made up of reporters running on a sparkling field of journalistic integrity.  Those reporters are instead embedded in a machine intended to do the one thing that Mr. Keen sets as the mark of professionalism — make money.  And the way the media has chosen to make money over the last few decades is, perversely, by devaluing their own product.

I’m not just annoyed by Keen in interviews and panels.  I think his completely uncritical acceptance of the traditional corporate media as a guarantor of quality is destructive to the very discourse he claims to embrace.  “Debate” about the participatory web that is sparked by arguments like Keen’s tends to look like this:

Andew Keen: But the problem is that gatekeepers — the agents, editors, recording engineers — these are the very engineers of talent. Web 2.0’s distintermediated media unstitches the ecosystem that has historically nurtured talent. Web 2.0 misunderstands and romanticizes talent. It’s not about the individual — it’s about the media ecosystem. Writers are only as good as their agents and editors. Movie directors are only as good as their studios and producers. These professional intermediaries are the arbiters of good taste and critical judgment.

David Weinberger: Actually, I’d suggested you take a look at the Top 40 songs. Of course you’re within your rights to cite the New York Times best-sellers list instead, but that’s indicative of the problem with your method. Are you seriously maintaining that pop culture off line is represented by six good books on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction list? Why do you find it so awkward to acknowledge the obvious point that the gatekeepers of commercial publishing and production — the producers of TV shows, magazines, pop music, movies, books — are usually driven not by high cultural standards, but by the need to reach a broad audience? Do I need to remind you that “The Secret” is likely ultimately to outsell all six of those worthy books combined?

Full-Text: Keen vs. Weinberger (WSJ)

Weinberger, or whoever is engaging with Keen-ish arguments can sit there taking home-run swings at Keen’s blind approval of the “media ecosystem” — making the earth-shattering argument that the mainstream media wants to reach a broad audience and make money.  I want to see what Weinberger says when really pushed about the limits and value of the participatory web.  Keen, regrettably given how much attention the media gives him, never provides that push.

And in libraries, the same thing goes on when Michael Gorman writes on these topics – because he has the same kind of un-critical acceptance of traditional scholarly methods as Keen does of mainstream media producers.  We need serious discussion about the implications of the read/write web for scholarly knowledge production, and that can only happen if we turn the same critical eye on traditional practices as we do on the new.  But as long as one can engage with Gorman by saying “peer review isn’t perfect” – that real discussion doesn’t have to happen.

(For an example of what I mean by “real discussion” – the March issue of First Monday is a good start)

(And let me say that I have a lot more sympathy for Gorman than anyone who would make the claim that movie studios these days, minor subsidiaries of corporate conglomerations as they are, have a clearer picture of quality than directors)

I haven’t read the comments on this piece – I don’t usually see Daily Kos because there’s too much discussion there and I know I won’t resist the comment threads even though I can’t keep up – so thanks to Copyfight for the pointer.

Intellectuals are scary.

This is more of a pointing something out post than an in-depth analysis post. I don’t know that I have much to say about this article in yesterday’s L.A. Times, that Jon Wiener didn’t already say in The Nation yesterday evening. But I can’t stop being bothered by it.

No matter how many times I read the article (and I’ve skimmed it a lot of times because I found it hard to really focus – I kept getting annoyed) it seems that the subtext is that being in the same place where ideas are is bad and dangerous. Voluntarily being in a place where there are ideas that challenge your beliefs means you are not to be trusted. And really, that subtext is so close to the surface that it might as well be text. I mean, the article is framed so that the point is the reactions of “Palestinian leaders” but it reads a lot more like “look what Barack Obama did.”

I would probably just be rolling my eyes about the corporate media and thinking about something else, though, if it hadn’t been for the comment thread on the Nation post. There aren’t many comments (at least not now) but there’s a small thread there that seems to be drawing parallels between going to a lecture and… drinking. And not just going to a lecture – going to a lecture by EDWARD SAID.

I don’t care what you think of Orientalism — this is a person whose work has had massive reverberations across a lot of disciplines. His ideas, his work shape how we talk about things, how we think about things. Even those who disagree with those ideas are working within a discourse he played a major role in defining. Said is one of those people who is so important that even if you disagree with every single thing he has ever said ever you should want to understand his thinking because understanding his thinking means understanding something about everyone else’s.

(I’m focusing on Said because that was Wiener’s focus, even if it wasn’t the L.A. Times’, and it was the comments on the Wiener piece that really got me thinking. And because I don’t know Khalidi’s work. I know he has an endowed chair at Columbia and he was at Chicago before that – so some smart people think his ideas are worth notice. I’m certain that many people hate those ideas. And I’m certain that many people love them. But the point isn’t what either of these intellectuals profess, write, argue or believe – it’s whether someone’s willingness to engage with those ideas alone tells us more about what that person believes than the things they profess, write, or argue themselves.)

And that’s why I can’t stop thinking about this story – how did we get to the place where a Presidential candidate attending a lecture by a leading public intellectual is a bad thing? Have we always been in this place? American anti-intellectualism is a well-established theme, but I don’t think we’ve always been here.

I think it has something to do with what Jon Stewart was talking about here, when he got Crossfire booted off CNN:

Because part of what’s going on in this article is the idea that if you believe X you can’t listen to or engage with Y and if you say you believe A and then you talk to someone who believes B –  you’re shifty.  Which I think is entirely connected to the difference between Crossfire debate and what Stewart meant by “debate.”  That goes beyond anti-intellectualism.

Though anti-intellectualism is in play as well.  Which is why all of this does have to do with the same ideas that keep coming up on this blog – how to help students understand academic ideas and engage with them.  How to help students learn from new ideas and new information.  How to help them see the connections between ideas – how one thinker influences another, and another.  How some questions have more than two answers, and how they can fit themselves within that complicated discourse.  It’s important stuff.  Because stuff like this in the L.A. Times – that’s what scares me.

Teaching undergraduates about peer review – how and why, and did I mention how?

Lately I’ve noticed a number of different conversations I’ve been having coalescing around the question of evaluation – how can students evaluate the information they find. Some of the conversations have been versions of your normal standard “information on the web can be bad” and aren’t very interesting, but more of them have been about the much more interesting and much trickier question of — how do students evaluate scholarly information they find on the web when they are neither content experts (like their classroom teachers are) nor format/scholarly communication experts (like librarians are).

Which is why the title of this post jumped out and hit me over the head when I saw it today: Can you tell a good article from a bad based on the abstract and title alone?

(the post is a couple of months old and had quite a bit of discussion in the science blogs, but I haven’t seen much about it in library discussions)

So – what do you think? Can you? I sure can. And can’t. I mean, it depends, right? But when students are looking at something like this — that’s kind of what we’re asking them to do.

typical result list - ebsco

And the thing about the story linked above is that is also shows that the default we sometimes turn to – peer review – isn’t good enough. A lot of the comments on this post and on these related posts at P.Z. Myers and the Nature blogs focus on the suggestion that this paper is written from a creationist/ intelligent design perspective and the implications of this for peer review —

  • The potential that an author can choose/target politically friendly reviewers for a paper
  • The suggestion that this paper’s publications might allow an affirmative answer to the question “can you find one peer reviewed article supporting intelligent design” – and what that might mean for science.

The article was retracted by the journal, not because of its politics but because of plagiairism. Which is also something one would hope would be caught by the peer review process. It seems like it would be the least we should expect.

So on the one hand, you have the science blogs – you have someone reading the title and abstract for this article, seeing some red flags, using the dynamic web to point them out. This generates discussion, which spreads to other dynamic sites and eventually results in the article in question being pulled down. On the other hand, you have the peer reviewers, working in isolation, who didn’t seem to catch any of the red flags. On one level, it reads like a fairly straightforward Web 2.0 Makes Good story.

But on another level, what does this mean for students, especially undergraduate students? Here’s the sentence that raised the red flags for most of these scholars:

These data are presented with other novel proteomics evidence to disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis of mitochondrial evolution that is replaced in this work by a more realistic alternative.

I can’t say this raises the same questions for me. “Novel… evidence” might be a little odd, and “a more realistic alternative” is an interesting turn of phrase. But the thing is, you have to know something about the “endosymbiotic hypothesis” to be able to contextualize, or criticize, the idea expressed here. How many students are going to have the content knowledge to do either of those things? And the other thing is – if this had become the one peer reviewed article supporting intelligent design, there’s a really good chance that even my beginning composition students would come across it.

I don’t have any really good answers for how to help students make sense of this – except I don’t think librarians and composition instructors can do this alone. And I don’t think we can make any decent stab at figuring out an answer to this question without engaging with the question of what the participatory web means for scholarship – and engaging with the related question of what the limitations of traditional peer review are as well.

And this is where the “wisdom of crowds” vs. “cult of the amateur” story that gets played out so much in the popular media really fails us. Because if this story shows anything, it shows that we still need experts to help us evaluate, contextualize and make sense of information. And at the same time it shows that trusting those experts blindly doesn’t work out so well. Adding the transparency of the participatory web to the opaque processes of traditional scholarly publication – I think part of the answer is in that grey area somewhere.

A long post at the Bench Marks blog examines the question of Why Web 2.0 is failing in Biology. It would make this too crazy long to engage with everything there today, but I do want to pull out a bit from the end. After talking about how life scientists aren’t reading or contributing content to blogs, he does look at the end at who is reading science blogs and what that might mean.

Two of the groups he pulls out are really relevant here I think — science journalists and non-scientists. If blogging is a good way to get scientific ideas out there to a more general public — people who aren’t reading the scholarly journals or going to the conferences — then they’re a way that that general public can get access to the kind of experts who can help them make sense of the research literature. More on this later, maybe.

Full disclosure – some of this thinking is to prepare for this presentation.

why am I thinking about feminism and standardized testing at the same time?

Because that’s what I do – I think about things at the same time.  And then I think about why.

So this one is inspired by Sandra Lee, the host of Semi-Homemade Cooking on the Food Network — the one whose outfits always match her kitchen.  No one who knows me would be particularly surprised that I can’t stand Sandra Lee’s show; from the food to the look I hate every single thing about it.

But in the last few days this generalized anti-Semi-Homemade revulsion has somehow grown into a need to know more about the person and the "semi-homemade" brand to try and understand why I hate it so much. 

It started when I accidentally saw the beginning of the episode called, "Family Dinner."  I was doing something boring so I needed something to watch at the same time and I was looking at the dish network guide thingy, so the show was still showing in that little box on the top corner of the screen.  Sandra said that she really wanted to make a special dinner for her niece, to celebrate her first big day of standardized testing at school.

To celebrate her first big day of standardized testing at school.


This was one of those moments where I realize that the gulf between me and someone or something else is more than just taste or preference.  That we’re really talking about an entirely different world view.  There’s that line in High Fidelity where Rob Gordon says that what we like is more important than what we are like.  And it seems like that is true a lot of the time.  Why else would people spend so much time working on their Facebook profiles? (Or why would I be so sure to tell you that I wasn’t watching Semi-Homemade Cooking on purpose?) 

But just like Laura tricks Rob into liking a couple who have a Tina Turner album, it’s not totally true. Taste by itself doesn’t matter.  Usually, we’re assuming that it’s not just taste by itself, but that shared taste indicates something more.  So long as I was considering the difference between Sandra Lee and me on the "cornbread mix vs. cornbread from scratch" level it didn’t matter.  But the thought that anyone could think of standardized testing day as some kind of new rite of passage to be celebrated, instead of as a symptom of everything that is wrong with public education … 

So for those who don’t know – here’s Sandra Lee’s publicist on Sandra Lee:

With her trademark 70/30 philosophy, which combines 70% ready-made
products with 30% fresh and creative touches – Sandra has become the
advocate for the over-extended homemaker. She creates the foundation
and supplies the information that allows anyone and everyone (from
students to parents to working professionals) to take 100% of the
credit for something that looks, feels or tastes as if it were made
completely from scratch.

What I’ve decided after talking with Shaun about this for two solid days is that, at its root, Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade philosophy suggests that we shouldn’t try to change anything, interrogate anything, or critically analyze anything. Instead, we should accept what is and if what is is bad – well, then we should focus on spending as little time and energy on it as possible.   Unless we can figure out a way to exploit it.

I’m going to try not to spend any time talking about how awful semi-homemade food is because that’s an easy target, and others have done it before me and better than I would.  And while it’s fun to talk about the gross, it don’t think by itself the fact that the food is nasty is all that important.  But what she’s saying about women is important.

When Sandra talks about semi-homemade this and semi-homemade that, she’s all about the women.  Women are too busy to cook like their grandmothers did, women need semi-homemade shortcuts so they can spend more time with their friends and family.  While she occasionally says "people" need shortcuts, the demographic she’s identified as hers is clearly made up of female homemakers, juggling lots of different responsibilities, who still feel that food, decor and special occasions are their responsibility.  It’s up to the women to create special foods, special environments and special occasions for their loved ones.

And I’m sure that saying you can do all that without a lot of time, money or effort sounds great to a lot of women who find themselves doing that on top of all of their other responsibilities. Especially if they don’t really like cooking, or setting tables.  But shouldn’t we be interrogating that underlying assumption instead of finding ways to make things marginally easier?  As the New York Times author in the article linked above says – since when do we have to cook alone?  To take that farther – what is the law that says that only women can do domestic chores, and that said women must do them in isolation?

It would be the same law that governs television advertising.  Essentially, the semi-homemade disciple accepts uncritically the picture of domesticity we see in ads.  Watch any major network for any period of time and count the number of examples of men doing indoor domestic work without irony.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if you counted exactly zero examples. 

For a while I thought that I was being overly sensitive to this, given that I live in a house where my male partner does way more than half of the domestic work in any given week, but in "Working Hard or Hardly Working," too many authors to list here in-text worked together to find out that, in fact, men really aren’t pulling their weight in commercials.  Of the 477 commercials they analyzed in a given week, men only did domestic work at all in 1/3.  And when they did do some work – the men in the ads did it badly.  In 1/5 of the commercials, someone’s performance of domestic work was used to make a joke – those were the ads where men were much more likely to be the ones doing the work.*   

Sandra Lee says she’s empowering women with Bisquick and Cool Whip so they can whip through those domestic responsibilities, but she’s entirely accepting the patriarchal structures that say these things are women’s responsibility in the first place.  Those ads where the woman uses paper plates so she doesn’t have to wash up – giving her time to join her family on game night?  That’s the order of things that Sandra Lee is protecting. Semi-homemade cooking is a way to keep that picture viable even when mom is busy.  Dad and the kids can go crazy with the Battleship and the Connect Four every night – cooking, cleaning and washing up is never their concern.

To make things worse, she reacts to her critics by accusing them of attacking women themselves.  This became really clear in her Food Network Chefography (not my word), which we watched as part of a whole Chefography marathon on New Year’s Eve Eve.

(We didn’t go into this thinking we’d watch the Sandra Lee story – it
was just on, and then we wanted to know why the Barefoot Contessa is
called that when she is neither barefoot nor a contessa**.)

Anyway, on the show Sandra Lee exclaimed that she was offended by "food purists" who criticized her methods — because those fundamentalists were insulting every woman in America.  When you’re done blinking at the hyperbole, think about what she’s doing here.  If you think semi-homemade food is gross, then you are attacking every overburdened woman out there who is just trying to get by by mixing some herbs and spices into a jar of Ragu.  In that, Sandra Lee is not only refusing to interrogate her assumptions about domestic work and responsibility, but she’s saying others are wrong for trying to do so.  And for me, that means she’s leaping over the line between annoying and destructive.

And that’s where it comes back to standardized testing.  I’m not saying that Sandra Lee is all "standardized testing yay" because she’s thought about the issues concerned and decided she believes in the value of the practice.  I expect that she has never bothered interrogating the practice or standardized testing, and that she probably hasn’t considered what kind of impact these testing days are having on her niece’s education.  Maybe not, I’m extrapolating here on some pretty flimsy evidence. 

But when it comes to cooking, food and the domestic sphere, and what those things mean for our lives and our culture, her refusal to interrogate some problematic things can be documented easily.  There are real evils in the way food, especially processed food, is produced and consumed in this culture. I’m not going to make that argument, because it’s big and others have made it well, and recently.  The food purists who attack the semi-homemade way are sometimes simply saying the resulting food is nasty and they don’t want to eat it, but sometimes they are addressing this bigger picture.

I don’t have any idea what Sandra Lee thinks about processed, disposable food production because even though in her recipes and in her "philosophy" she clearly takes a side on the question – she never addresses it.  Instead, she deflects criticism by pretending that the rest of the women in America have to share it with her.  No thanks.

Because the difference in worldview that I am talking about here cuts deeper than Cool Whip vs. Whipped Cream.  It cuts deeper than processed food vs. locally grown and fresh.  It gets all the way down to a basic question of — do we look at the world around us with a critical eye?  Or do we accept what’s there as there and try to get by or exploit the structures we inherit?

So it’s not really the domestic shortcuts that bother me about the semi-homemade philosophy so much as the shortcuts Sandra Lee takes in her, for lack of a better phrase, critical thinking. And looking beyond her own issues, the fact remains that her entire reason for being is to give other people a set of excuses for why they don’t have to think hard about difficult questions either.  According to her, we’re all too busy to think about where our food comes from, or how we can equitably share responsibility for domestic work.  Which, at least, means now I understand why I despise this show so much — as a librarian I work hard to give people the tools they need to question their assumptions about the world, and to make that world better.  Her horrible food is making that work harder.


*Erica Scharrer, D. Daniel Kim, Ke-Ming Lin, Zixu Liu (2006).
Working Hard or Hardly Working? Gender, Humor, and the Performance of
Domestic Chores in Television Commercials. Mass Communication & Society, 9(2), 215-238.

**It was the name of the specialty food shop she bought in the Hamptons when she got bored of advising the President on nuclear policy.  Really.

more metathinking

Continuing from yesterday….. as I said then, I was really taken by the discussion of the connection between reading and thinking.  Then I was on YouTube the other day looking for something very serious and work-related when I thought "Hey! I bet they have debate videos on youtube now.  I will go look for some." 

Weirdly, they really don’t.  I mean there are some videos up there but really hardly any and even those that are there are very rarely showing actual competitive debates.  Which is interesting – why would that be?  It’s a pretty visual thing, and the people engaged in it are pretty much standing in one place and indoors so it would be easy to film.  Are there concerns about cheating?  About giving your opponent an unfair advantage?  Is the idea that debate is somewhat ephemeral or in the moment – that what you say in a round will to some extent stay in the round an inherent part of the culture?  I mean, the idea of instant replays in debate sounds pretty horrible to me – debaters’ capacity to relive the same round over and over again without video is pretty frightening.  I can’t imagine that any round would ever feel truly over if you had the capacity to let armchair critics revisit and re-judge it over and over again. 

But those aren’t actually the questions I wanted to ask here.  I did find a few videos – and this one was a little bit interesting.

That’s the final of the 2004 NDT – Michigan State over Berkeley.  A result I have to give you because the video itself isn’t all that good and cuts off right before the winner is announced. Clearly, it’s not interesting because of the video itself; what got my attention was the comments.  First, that there even are 100+ comments on a mediocre video about an arcane activity like academic debate.  But more than that the tenor of the comments – mostly those that are displaying on the first page.

As someone who was on the fringes of collegiate debate for a long time (my own experience came in high school where I was pretty successful but not really technically skilled) I have certainly heard these types of reactions to the very technical, very fast debate shown here.  But when I read these in the context of the many discussions Shaun and I have had recently about the need for liberal education, the conversations Kate and Sara and I have had about the thinking/ learning connection in the context of research and writing, and the thinking/ reading discussion I was having in my own head yesterday — these really struck me.

First we have edfehrman — its too bad that "debate" has become much less about making a good argument and the strength of your reasoning as has now become more about who can unleash the greatest volume of words, regardless of their content. No wonder logical discussion is in such short supply in our culture.

Now this really isn’t too bad.  I would probably counter that competitive debate has never been about making a good argument so much as it has been about making a winning argument.  But at the same time, I don’t really think those things can be separated.  To do so would suggest that one could make an objectively "good" argument totally separate from its intent, and its impact on the audience.  These video debaters are making their arguments in front of an audience they know well, in a way that is familiar, expected, and valued by that audience.  But still, my knee doesn’t jerk when I read this comment.  Probably, I’ve heard it too many times in my life for it to have much of an impact.

That brings us to sixlbs9oz
who says — "I agree with daytraderaz– this kind of debate doesn’t have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments and compelling rhetoric– this kind of debate is called "speed and spread" by debate teams (not all of whom do this kind of debate exclusively). I guess it’s interesting as an academic exercise, but it seems like an Ivory Tower hobby to me."

Again, this starts out totally familiar.  As if this kind of debate even wants to have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments.  As if watertight arguments alone are enough to persuade normal people of anything.  As if there is an objective standard of watertightness that we can use to decide whether or not we normal people are persuaded.  As if – all of that. 

No, what I find really interesting here, and a little bit depressing, is that last part of the statement.  That this is just an "ivory tower hobby"  – what does that even mean?  Because sixlbs9oz seems to understand a few things — s/he seems to understand that these debaters ARE performing for an audience.  And s/he gets that this specific audience both has the overt power to decide how effective this rhetoric is by giving a win or a loss in the round – and that this specific audience likes this kind of debate.  S/he seems to understand that this performance is built upon a ton of work, and that there’s some thinking going on there.  And yet, it’s just an ivory tower hobby.   The cognitive, rhetorical, critical thinking skills – these apparently won’t matter at all outside of the academy. 

Thanks to the reverse chronological order of YouTube comments, we only now come to  daytraderaz
comment — Only academics could come up with a system that if [sic] absolutely no use in the practical world.

Now, there’s been a lot of fights in debate over the years.  Actually, that’s not entirely accurate.  It’s more like there’s been the same fight and it’s happened a lot of times.  People worry that excessively technical debate – most of the time "excessively technical" can be read to mean "excessively fast" — is moving the activity too far away from practical skills. and that the activity should place a higher premium on a persuasive vocal style and the ability to turn a moving phrase.  Rules are changed, new leagues are built, new forms of debate are adopted.  Eventually, the debaters start to push at the new rules, and the argument begins again.   

And I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that this idea of debate having value only if it teaches transferable "real-world" skills is not just an us against them thing — debate people do this too.  Sometimes it is because they see something they value being lost in the activity.  But sometimes, I think it is because they take the daytraderaz’s of the world a little bit too seriously.  If the activity becomes so specialized or technical that the average person can’t see the value of it – then there must not be any value to see.

And this is where I get sad, and worried, because don’t you feel this happening in higher education?  A lot?  I think we frequently work under the assumption that the average person sees one value to a college education – and that value is all tied up in the ability to get a good job.   And I’m not saying that’s not a valid assumption.  At the very least, a whole lot of our students seem to come to us with the idea that the good job is the carrot they’re chasing.  But when we try to shift our focus to that value alone – to inculcating only those skills and characteristics that point directly (and measurably) to the "good job" — then we risk losing a lot. 

Because of course there’s more going on in academic debate than meets the eye.  I don’t think anyone would deny that the most obvious physical skills needed to win the NDT – the ability to flip a pen around one’s thumb and to talk really, really, super fast — don’t have a lot of real-world utility.

(Though I have gotten through a lot of awkward small talk situations because of the pen thing.  I’m just saying.)

But I don’t know many people involved in debate, even those who were not exceptionally successful, who think they got nothing out of the activity beyond an ivory tower hobby.  Instead, they argue that while the actual debates themselves might have been jargon-filled and specific to that context, the skills gained by doing the activity translate to almost every other context.

As a former female debater, I still take note of women who succeed in this very patriarchial activity, so I know that Greta Stahl – the woman in the video above – was not only a national champion debater, but she was also an honors student, and a Marshall Scholarship winner.  I’m guessing that some of the same skills that led to success in the debate venue helped her out in international relations?  I’m guessing that her ability to analyze, to research, to build an argument, to evaluate information, to find new ways to approach and attack a problem …. even practical things like controlling nervousness during public speaking …. that all of those things might have been honed and sharpened during academic debates.  And that they might have helped her succeed in all those other venues.  I don’t know Greta Stahl at all – but I still feel comfortable guessing that because those things are true of most of the academic debaters I know. 

And I have long thought, even though I was not a technically skilled debater myself and I would have benefited greatly from arbitrary rules set up to prevent others from using their technical skills against me, that debate as a whole should focus on all of those benefits instead of trying to turn the activity into something that a "normal" person can understand.  Because those under-the-hood skills are not just useful, they have actually been far more important to me in life than any practical public-speaking skills I developed.

And college too, is about so much more than measurable skills that employers say they want.  If that’s our goal – guaranteeing employability — we’re just measuring our students by someone else’s standard.  And by a standard that would call everything about college that doesn’t directly and obviously and measurably point to a good job nothing more than an "ivory tower hobby."

And that really, really scares me.  When the kinds of things that are not obvious, that happen behind the curtain of the academic performance — critical thinking, analysis, evaluation, creativity — become something that only a particular class of people get to do, when thinking itself is something that only those ivory tower freaks get to play at – we’re obviously the worse for it.   

Note:  if you want to look like a very cool debater, don’t start with the talking fast thing.  Start here:

reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

I don’t often envy my friend Matt his Harvard education, except for on days like today.  After skimming through my RSS feeds and finding not one, not two, but three links to the same New Yorker article – I remembered why occasionally I think Harvard wouldn’t have sucked.  Because Matt went to school with Caleb Crain.

And if you want to know why, just read Caleb Crain’s latest article in the New Yorker – Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?

I’ve read enough apocalyptic, end-of-knowledge type discussions of how the kids today, they just don’t read that as soon as I hear there’s another article on the topic I get twitchy.  And since the NEH report (To Read or Not to Read) hit the airwaves the number of simplistic mass media treatments of the topic have about made me crazy.  When I read this morning on Cliopatria that Caleb Crain had written about reading my spirits — they noticeably lifted.  Noticeably!

And he doesn’t disappoint —

He considers history.  So many critics worry so much about losing the habits of now that they forget that the now is a relatively short blip on the epistemological radar screen.  While the ideas of text, of authority, or single authorship hold a lot of power over us now it wasn’t that long ago that that’s just not how we knew things. 

"Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be
explained but the fact that we read at all."

I just can’t take criticism seriously, no matter how serious it is, when it has no historical perspective.  And those who don’t recognize that ideas like the author’s voice, or even intellectual property itself are historically and culturally situated — no matter how insightful or intelligent their criticism is, I can’t treat it as such.  While I do think that we have something to lose if we stop reading, if we stop arguing, and if we stop communicating as we do now – I don’t necessarily think that we also have nothing to gain if those things go away. 

History is change – but the changes are the result of real people making real choices and at any point things could go a lot of ways.  Now isn’t inherently better than then, and tomorrow won’t be inherently better than now.  Just as a step away from now isn’t a step away from progress, the right path, the best way.  I don’t know what it is that we might gain, but I do know that we just don’t know.

Looking at Walter Ong and especially Maryanne Wolf, Crain looks seriously at what we knew pre-reading – how those brains differed from our post-reading brains.  When he says that if the movement away from reading continues in our culture "the world will feel different, even to those who still read" you believe that by "different," he means "different" — not "way worse OMG".  Western reading, western epistemology aren’t just the result of some inevitable progressive march towards perfection – it’s what happened, it’s not what obviously had to happen.  And that means if it changes, then the impact of those changes aren’t inherently good or inherently bad – they just are.

Which isn’t to say that they’re value-neutral or that there’s nothing there to value.  But this kind of examination is a necessary first step to any real, meaningful reflection on what it is we might want to preserve about what is.  What we might want to fight for.  Because we can’t pull out the act of reading itself and assign it inherent value and bemoan its lack — it’s not the number of words or pages that we read that we need to think about – it’s something else.  In higher ed, a lot of the people I know have come to call it "critical reading" — by which I think they’re getting at our students’ ability (or inability) to learn from what they read. 

Citing Wolf, Crain talks about how fluent readers have enough free brain time while they are reading — during the process of reading — that they can think about what they read.  They can reflect, synthesize, anaylze, criticize and evaluate. 

"The efficient reading brain, quite literally has more
time to think."

— and —

"The secret at the heart of reading, is "the
time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came

This resonates because I think we’ve all felt sometimes that some of our students are so focused on the act of reading that they forget about the thinking.  Or worse, that they’ve never really been taught that thinking is part of the process.  One of my colleagues in graduate school used to tell her students that "you can’t read without a pen in your hand."  Reading with thinking is an interactive process – the reader and writer both engaged, both creating, both thinking.   That’s the piece that we want to preserve — or to create — students who can engage with a text and learn from it.  That’s far more important than their page counts.

Crain talks at length, in part because Wolf talks at length, about television and other visual media.  The overarching theme is that exposure to visual media threatens out ability to think, to understand.  We lose grade levels if we watch too much tv.  But even here, Crain’s treatment shows that the picture is more complex than "tv makes us dumber."  Some tv for younger children is good, Sesame Street raises grade levels, older teens can’t watch much without damage…

When I read these types of arguments I wonder a couple of things.  One relates to what I was talking about above – is it really fair to use the ability to read and engage with text as our only or primary measure of the impact of our students’ engagement with visual media?  Or is that focusing on what’s lost, without considering what might be gained?  Beyond this, but still connected, is the idea of creativity.  Does it change the equation if our students are engaging with media interactively, if they are creating, if they are thinking while they do it.  Is there a media fluency that can free the brain up to think and read and consider and analyze and evaluate?  I don’t think that all kids today are doing this, because I’m not crazy.  But I’d love to see someone examine the question of is there a difference – is there a difference between people actively engaged in the creative production on visual media and those who only consume?

Anyway, read this – pass it along – this is the kind of smart, complex criticism we need to really think about how we can help our students learn today.  Reifying the past without criticism means we won’t get there – articles like this one make me think we can.

Note: Karen Munro points out another good article on the reading question.