Wednesday, February 18, 2015

College, Poetry and Purpose. From NYT.

by Frank Bruni

Over four decades at two universities, Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like A’s. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place.

But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What’s the highest calling of higher education?

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and ...” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

She has qualms about the way a university now markets campus amenities to students and marvels at “how many sites there are for feeding them.” The increased weight given to the evaluations that they fill out can be a disincentive for professors to be rigorous.

“The student became the customer who’s always right,” she said.


THE WHOLE MISERY.

13 comments:

  1. Be careful judging a class by its title. Sometimes dramatic titles are there just to spark interest from students, but the material is still the same scholarly approach. But I am unclear why some of the examples are problems. What's wrong with studying women in Chaucer??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She wants a `50s course full of thick books and speaking Anglo-Saxon aloud and Middle English recitations; not the `80-`90s course with AV aides.

      Delete
    2. O Captain! My Captain!!!!!!1111!!!

      Delete
    3. Nothing is wrong with studying women in Chaucer, but if all the courses are that specialized or more so, and there are few to no survey courses, people outside your field may get the impression your thinking is overspecialized. Making fun of academics because their thinking is overspecialized is nothing new, of course: Swift did it.

      Delete
    4. I've heard survey courses made fun of as "a mile wide and an inch deep." While I did take the introductory courses in economics and comp lit (where I actually read many of those great books of the Western canon such as "Paradise Lost" since I had a massive crush on the proffie), I wish I'd taken the survey courses in history and philosophy, since much of what I think I know about them lacks context. Maybe it's just my physics bias, since we require students to take general physics before taking astrophysics or high-energy physics or field theory. (Good thing too, since these specialized courses would be nigh-on impossible to follow without it.) Recently I picked up some context by reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy": shocking, I know. (Yes, I know Bertrand was sometimes inaccurate and often "editorialized," but I rather liked that. It's fun to watch him rip into Aristotle or Aquinas, because he was smarter than they were!)

      Delete
    5. What I think I know about geology definitely lacks context. For some reason, I was permitted to take the planetary geology course, without having taken any other geology courses, and for some bizarre reason, I managed to get an A. The consequence is that now, whenever I hang out with geologists, they regard what I know to be rare and exotic, namely, meteorites and impact cratering. Most geologists spend most of their time doing things that are useful, such as finding water or oil. The consequence is that not much of what they know helps me, and not much of what I know helps them. Can't we do better than this?

      Delete
    6. Finding oil, maybe even water, on another planet would be useful.

      Delete
    7. It's been done. Titan has seas of hydrocarbons. Europa and Enceladus both have liquid water, and of course, where there's water, speculations of life naturally follow. (They're all moons, not planets, of course.)

      Delete
    8. Of course I should have known that.

      Delete
  2. I'm just a circle-sitting humanities boob, you know, singing Kumbaya and killing an hour between STEM classes, but to find oil on another planet, can't we just, like, use Google Street View and drive around Mars until we see, like, an Exxon?

    Namaste.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good idea, Hiram, but burning the oil or any gasoline you may get from it will be a problem, with so little oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars. See what I mean about the value of survey courses? They provide context.

      Delete
  3. MA&M is right about the marketing angle (because, you know, it's a good idea to pit departments against each other in putting bodies in seats. Markets, people! Everything works better when it's a market!). There are some pretty good classes out there (narrow or broad) with some pretty silly titles.

    Also, themes can help unify surveys that are even more in danger of the mile wide/inch deep phenomenon because they're trying to be more representative than the traditional "dead white men" approach; that explains some of the "[Dead white man] and" titles (yes, let's read some Chaucer or Shakespeare, but let's read some of their female contemporaries as well, or at least notice how they portrayed women). And surveys are really hard to teach to students who often read slowly and with difficulty (it was always difficult to decide when to do excerpts and when to do whole works; it's only getting harder).

    Finally, there's the argument for inch wide/mile deep gen ed classes: since we're never going to introduce students to even a representative sampling of all the literature written in a particular language in the one-semester class we're allowed in most gen ed curricula, and since the purpose of gen ed classes is, at least in part, to introduce students to how various disciplines work, and to transferable critical-thinking skills, it may not matter so much what students read, as how they read/analyze it.

    I'd rather not have to choose between substantial practice of skills and providing context (and I realize that's not entirely a necessary choice), and I'm a fan of surveys myself (even though I've taught very few), but there's a context here (changes not only in the discipline, but in who teaches these courses, and the pressures on them) that I think the author is ignoring (she mentions the "please the customer" tendency, but not some of its origins, even though she's a "lecturer" herself, albeit at a very selective institution).

    ReplyDelete