An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America

I just read a book “Back to school: Why everyone deserves a second chance at education” by Mike Rose.

Back to School book cover

The students described in this book could be my own and I find that rather refreshing in a book about higher education!

There was something really powerful about reading the words of students like mine in the pages of this small book. It reminded me that our students all have various reasons for being in our classrooms:

To be a role model for my kids. To get a career to support my daughter. I don’t want to work in a crappy job all my life. I want to learn to read and write. I want to have a better life

I teach in the Child Development program. I’ve always thought of my courses as serving both academic and occupational goals, and I have treated both goals equally. We are a career program, and yet the intellectual life of my students is extremely important to me. I want my students to experience many and varied opportunities for cognitive growth in their time here. I also have a higher responsibility to the young children my students will ultimately serve so I work hard to make sure my students understand developmentally appropriate practices in the profession of early childhood education. This book has reminded me of the importance of developing an academic intellectual life, but it has also reminded me of the intelligence of occupational work.

It’s midterm by the way, in case you haven’t noticed! This is the time in the semester when many of us lament that students are unable or seem unwilling to take advantage of the support resources available to them such as office hours, tutoring, and the like. The book helped me to remember that my personal approach to learning in terms of actively seeking information and forcing myself to take charge of my own educational experience by any means necessary can be really different from how students approach my class.

As Rose states,

Many students with privileged educational backgrounds are socialized from day one to seek out resources and engage members of institutions to help them attain their goals. This seems so much like second nature to most academics that we forget that it is a culturally influenced, learned behavior.

…teaching is more than transmitting a body of knowledge and set of skills but also involves providing entry to the knowledge and skills and tricks of the trade necessary for fuller participation in learning.

It’s a quick read, but it has inspired me to think differently about my students and my teaching. I think it’s worth a look. Let me know if you want to borrow it!

Education Reading

In late December, early January there were two separate, superb articles written–one in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Steven Brint (called “The Educational Lottery: On the Four Kinds of Heretics Attacking the Gospel of Education”) and and one in the New York Review of Books by Tony Grafton (called “Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?”) that each covered a range of books on Higher Ed Reform, providing, together, a rather detailed and finely analyzed look at the criticisms and proposed solutions of higher education reform.

Together they cover 12 books and provide a thoughtful look at the primary components of the higher ed conversation taking place nationally all around us.

I was going to put some excerpts up but so much of both is so great that I couldn’t choose. Do yourself a favor and check them both out (HERE and HERE)..



Spring Book Orders Due

I know that some people don’t have quite the same rigamarole that other people have with books, but they were a hot topic early in the year (remember that Beck’s Sponsored, Faculty lunch, featuring about 35 (timed) minutes of ripping on Beck’s and the whole book ordering thing?). Since then, the suit-types upstairs have been working with the book people to try to develop a better system, and the first test is nigh. Book Orders for Spring (from FT Faculty members are due by this coming Wednesday, October 26th:

From your email:

In response to concerns regarding the early deadlines for book orders, we are trying something new.  Full-time faculty will order their books for the spring 2012 semester directly through Beck’s faculty textbook site.  Some departments prefer to have a single point person to handle submission of textbooks.  Please check with your department chair before submitting orders.
Department chairs are responsible for ordering books used by adjuncts.  This can be delegated or shared in a manner that best suits the department.
1. Go to this URL:
2. Create an account if you are new to the Beck’s system, or login if you have used the site before.
3. Enter the textbook and class information.
4. Review your order.
5. Submit.
ACCURACY:  Hector from Beck’s will send weekly reports that will be shared with faculty.   This will be your opportunity to verify the accuracy of your order. Departments should consider compiling a single booklist to reconcile the information being forwarded by Beck’s.  (Not required, but a good suggestion from Domenico Ferri)
ACCOUNTABILITY:  This new process will allow you more time to choose the books for the coming semester.  In the past, extensions for book order submission have been granted.  THERE WILL BE NO EXTENSIONS.  The deadline for submission is a hard deadline.
September 26, 2011 – October 26, 2011
Wednesday, October 26, 2011- 11:59 PM

As an extra bonus, and just out of curiosity, I’d love to know what books other people are teaching. One year I found out, quite by accident, that I was teaching A Room of One’s Own and someone in the English department had just taught it. Another year, the same thing happened with Emerson. Another year, the same thing happened with Ellison (and Larnell and I almost managed to pull off some sort of cross-department collaboration, but couldn’t because I was an organizational failure.

Anyway, if you’re teaching something cool, or something for the first time, I’m sure we’d all love to know about it. Either way, make sure you get that order in to Beck’s by Wednesday…

Distant Reading

Speaking of reading, this is an interesting look at the new kinds of research going on in the Humanities at places like the Stanford Literary Lab:

As its name suggests, the Lit Lab tackles literary problems by scientific means: hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis. Similar efforts are currently proliferating under the broad rubric of “digital humanities,” but Moretti’s approach is among the more radical. He advocates what he terms “distant reading”: understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of “Jude the Obscure,” become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England — to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

Check out the rest HERE.

Closing the Book on Borders

Hi gang. If you’ve been sleepin’ in your hammock for that past few days, then this is news for you. Otherwise, y’all are aware of the liquidation sale goin’ on at all the Borders book stores around town.

The day the fire sale started I was somewhat surprised to see so many folks fill the stores in earnest lookin’ for a good deal. At that moment I thoughts to myself, where were all these good folks when the store was open for regular business? Then I was intrigued ’cause the liquidators had slashed prices by only 10%. Sos I thoughts again to myself, why didn’t Borders simply reduce its prices in order to stay in business?

I know Borders did what it could to survive in this economic mess. One reporter argues management did the wrong thing at the wrong time and the company only has itself to blame. But that ain’t the focus of this post.

Curiosity gots me thinkin’. Are we buyin’ these books ’cause we see the words LIQUIDATION in the windows and impulsively head inside? If so, will we get around to readin’ these books? Are we really a nation that reads? If so, then why is it that I am always challenged to get my students to open their textbooks? Every semester.

What’s goin’ on? Do we really care about books or do we just care about sales?

How do you feel about these store closings? Will you miss your local Borders bookstore? What effect will this have on our students? Will they still have easy access to books?

More Book Reviews

Three education books reviewed in the same column!

Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings:

If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, “What should we be reading, and how?,” the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: “Why bother?” The commenters’ hate registered a broader structural truth about a crisis in the humanities. News items have been bouncing around academic Facebook pages and Chronicle of Higher Education links throughout the last year: furloughs; steep declines in academic hiring; bankrupt state governments; ever more fiendishly impossible demands for humanists to justify their existence. Meanwhile, in the UK, the managerial talent of New Labour made enormous strides in making their vision of cost efficiency take on flesh: departments and high-profile professorships vanished, it seemed, each week. American administrators looked with envy at the audacity of British budget-slashers. The accelerated dismantling of humanities programs across the world demanded a response from the professors. So the call went round the 
academic-professional world: Comrades, to the barricades!

Which means, academic talent being what it is, to manifestos. And so there emerged, as the last academic year staggered to a close, a series of counterstrikes. Two are of particular note, since they come from Louis Menand and Martha Nussbaum, academics whose professional accomplishments within humanistic disciplines (English and philosophy, respectively) are coupled with effective public voices. Writers of lean, flexible prose, they offer distinct kinds of humanistic styles: Menand, the historicist, reminding us of how we got here (and the attendant ironies); Nussbaum, the ethicist, telling us where we should want to go (and the attendant dangers). Both books are short, concise answers to the call to defend and rearticulate the mission of the humanities in an age of neoliberal resentment…

If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better — something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle’s The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d’esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.

Check out the whole thing and then order one up for Spring Break!

A GREAT Book Review

On some new publishing of David Foster Wallace’s work.

Here it is.

Don’t believe me? Check this section out:

In the wake of the fame these works brought him, Wallace was asked in 2005 to give Kenyon College’s commencement address. He again focused on free will, but this time he took a radically different approach. The speech—also recently published, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life—is a masterpiece. It is friendly, fond and very, very funny. In his 2004 essay on lobsters, Wallace had expressed his concern “not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is more like confused.” There, in his speech, and elsewhere his confusion is expressed with rare lucidity. He did not write with what George Steiner once called “the serene malice of age and work done.” He wrote, instead, with the feverish curiosity of youth and of work to be done.

The tone of the address is, as all such addresses must be, avuncular, but the voice is that of the uncle who gets high with you, the uncle who says that your father loves you but that when he was your age he made lots of mistakes and is still to this day a whole lot less sure about things than he lets on. Though Wallace was nearly twice as old as 2005’s graduates, he spoke on their level; he cares and communicates that care. The speech is jocular, disarming, and open; its attitude is you-might-think-I’m-just-a-ridiculous-old-loser-for-saying-this-but-I-actually-believe-it-so-here-goes.

Wallace’s argument—for he has one—is that the goal of undergraduate education, and of all education, is free will. He holds that education’s greatest benefit consists in “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” The reason he gives is simple and absolutely typical: “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Much of his address is thus advice on how not to get totally hosed, which is to say on how to be happy, which is to say, ethics. From Aristotle onward ethics has been about how not to get totally hosed—on the highest level. Learning this is the most desirable thing of all. It is what another great essayist of the twentieth century, Guy Davenport, called “the inviolable privacy” of the mind.

Whereas Wallace’s senior thesis aimed to explain the rightness of something that we knew was right from the outset, the commencement address aimed to explain the necessity of something we think either does not exist or we have long since acquired. He argues that if this ultimate goal of a liberal arts education has been reached, “if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention,” you will have unparalleled freedom. He then broaches the central topics of the novel he had been at work on for several years and was never to finish (The Pale King, to be published in fragmentary form in April): boredom, tedium, and alienation. “It will actually be within your power,” he continues in his Kenyon address:

to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.

As we might expect, the goal of such freedom is not personal pleasure, not merely “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,” but what Wallace calls “real freedom”:

the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

That is to say, freedom is not about having as few fetters as possible; it is about leading an examined life. Freedom is being a good person, choosing to be a good person, every day.

See? Told you. Read the rest…

Social Science and David Brooks

David Brooks has written another column on Social Science research of all sorts, to go along with his new book, The Social Animal.

I like these columns of his and like to read the research, so I was mildly interested in his book and thinking about getting it until I read reviews of it by a scientist and by a philosopher. They were, shall we say, less than delighted with his work, which is good because I have a shelf full of books already…

True or False?

Check it:

Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. The evidence for this phenomenon is not far to seek. Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah’s reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. The common reader—by which I don’t mean the figure evoked by Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf, but the person toting a book on the train or loading one into his iPad or Kindle—the contemporary common reader reads for pleasure, and easy pleasure at that. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.

Read the rest, if you like, and discuss

End of the Year List Time

I love it when people start publishing lists–100 Notable Books, Ten Best Books, Ten Great Bands You Didn’t Hear on The Radio This Year, Ten Best Plays…all of that.

It encourages me to make a bunch of my own lists (and sometimes lists of lists), which then get thrown in piles of paper scattered in the various spaces of my life to be re-discovered months or years down the road, which feels like finding money in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn in a long time.

So, I’ll post them as I see them, and if you see any, post ’em for the rest of us list makers.

~Selected New Books on Higher Education

~New York Times Ten Best Books of 2010 (Look for the link to their list of 100 Notable Books from 2010, while you’re there)



BookTalk: Franzen’s Freedom

Lots of hype and controversy out there about Jonathan Franzen’s new book Freedom. You may have seen his picture  on the cover of last week’s Time Magazine, not to mention the accompanying article (rare enough to see a serious literary artist profiled in the mass media), but there’s much, much more. Franzen’s new book is getting rave reviews (as here and here), but not everyone is happy about it.

I read THIS fascinating piece on the NPR web site last week (there’s a link for listening, too), highlighting my favorite new word of the year: Franzenfreude. It was linked to from another lit related piece in the Chicago Reader that was enjoyable in its own right, though it has little to do with Franzen. If anyone is reading it, let us know. And if you read it, write us a review and send it to me for posting…I’m not allowed to buy any books until I get down to five shelves of unread ones, so it will be awhile for me.

Book Troubles

Seriously, is anyone else having the troubles that my department is having with our book purveyor? Missing classes, missing books, late orders, short orders, high mark-ups and all this after having sent in the list earlier than ever.

Do any of you have students renting books (as our bookstore promised students would be able to do last spring)? I am more frustrated than ever with them. These people, who are working on the open source textbook project, don’t have to do any preaching to get me on their side…between the book store and the book publishers, I’m ready to jump off the textbook train and try something else…anything, just about.

Distinguished Visitor

In case you missed it. LOOK who dropped in…and had nice things to say, too. And if you don’t know much about Ms. Dreifus, check out the info on this site about her and her co-author or check out her faculty bio page here. And this one is really impressive and includes a video, too.

Flattery always works with me–so I hereby propose that we use Higher Education? as our first book for a Monthly, Friday faculty reading group/book club (unless CAST already has something in the works).

Who’s with me?

Additions to the Library Collection

Check it out. New books in the Harold Washington College library, from suggestions gathered from students by Todd Heldt:

Books Ordered in 2010:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Three Slovak Women
Lisa A. Alzo

Collected Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges

Traditional Slovak Folktales (Folklore and Folk Cultures of Eastern Europe)
David Cooper

The Best of Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal
Jared M. Diamond

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Mircea Eliade

Winds of Change
Ivan Franko

From Heart to Heart : Selected Prose Fiction
by Hrytsko Hryhorenko and Lesya Ukrainka (Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature Vol. IV)

To Live: A Novel
Yu Hua

Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must
Kalle Lasn

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction (Italian Literature and Thought)
Mr. Massimo Riva

Mihai Eminescu – Eternal Longing, Impossible Love
Adrian G Sahlean

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith

The Sirens of Titan: A Novel
Kurt Vonnegut

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!: A Novel
Kurt Vonnegut

Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity
Ytasha L. Womack