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English major – The Salt-Box http://www.jbj.wordherders.net "A man needn't go far to find a subject, if he's ready with his salt-box."--Uncle Pumblechook Thu, 09 May 2013 17:06:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 Graff & curricular mixed messages in English depts http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2009 02:59:28 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/ Continue reading ]]> Mark Bauerlein posted over the weekend about Gerald Graff’s presidential address (some scrolling required) to the MLA.  The argument will be familiar to anyone who’s read Graff’s Clueless in Academe: The default attitude of many professors is a kind of pedagogical libertarianism, whereby we all agree not to look too closely at what goes on in one another’s classrooms.  In part this arises from our differing specializations (esp. if you’re not at a research school, you might well be the only person in your field in your department), and in part it arises from the real difficulties of evaluating teaching.  Here’s Bauerlein summarizing Graff:

 Graff focuses on the end point, that is, how it comes off to students. They get “curricular mixed messages,” he says, “clashing stories . . . from the faculty.” In the episode above, the student received from Graff and the other teacher contrary assignments, and he was confused. One teacher seemed to “undercut” the other, forcing the student into what may have seemed senseless adjustments from morning to afternoon (“relativists at 10 o’clock and universalists after lunch”).

I tend to agree with Graff and Bauerlein that this is a real problem–not because there should be One True Approach to literary/cultural studies, but because conflicts between approaches are too often buried or unacknowledged.

We can probably turn the screw a notch tighter here:  Part of the difficulty is that we often claim to be teaching the same skill, when in fact the methods involved are worlds apart.

For example: It absolutely kills me anytime I hear or read people say things like, “well, no matter what, we all value close reading.”  That’s either untrue, or what is meant by “close reading” is something so general that it can only mean something like “being prepared for class.”  Most of the time this isn’t that big a deal–if you’re sufficiently upfront about how you’re using a term in your assignments, then students will catch on pretty quickly.  (I will say that this is one of the reasons I call one of my regular assignments an “explication paper,” rather than a “response paper.”)  Sometimes, though, it’s more frustrating: I believe at least some graduate students have had their prospectuses held up partly because of differing assumptions about what “close reading” would mean, or about what it means to apply a theoretical model to a literary text.

This isn’t a point about theory/non-theory approaches.    (Remember, although I play a sane person on my blog, I’m secretly a card-carrying [well, button-sporting] Lacanian . . . ! )  I’d say, instead, that it’s simply worth remembering that the fact that “everyone knows” a term or skill doesn’t mean that everyone knows the same thing about it, or deploys it in the same way.  Ask any 5 psychoanalysts about the death drive, say, or about the interpretation of dreams, if you want an example from another field.

In lieu of an ending, a couple of disconnected points:

  • This infra-disciplinary variousness makes assessment . . . let’s say a challenge.  Say, for example, a department wants to assess how its graduates “read closely.”  Good luck with that!
  • This is probably an argument for prolix assignments/prompts.  I don’t think there’s any reason to think that a rising junior or senior, asked for a close reading of a literary text, will know what that means, because it means too many different things.
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Should MLA members be experts in electronic environments? http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/02/15/should-mla-members-be-experts-in-electronic-environments/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/02/15/should-mla-members-be-experts-in-electronic-environments/#respond Sun, 15 Feb 2009 16:30:02 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/02/15/should-mla-members-be-experts-in-electronic-environments/ Continue reading ]]> Alex Reid has a typically thoughtful post this morning on the MLA’s recent white paper on the undergraduate major in language and literature.  There is something a bit embarrassing about the MLA’s assertion that competencies in reading and writing translate easily across different media and domains of discourse, and Reid does a good job unpacking this without devolving into snark.

I do think he lets MLA members off too easily, though:

And I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the fact that MLA members are not experts in electronic environments. MLA members don’t need to have a special interest or facility with electronic environments. That’s not what we hire them for and it’s not what we educate them to do in graduate school. Some might have these interests; obviously I think the study of media networks ought to be a part of English studies; but it ought not to be a requirement of everyone! Nor should every MLA scholar or MLA in general necessarily think that their work needs to meet this goal of networked media literacy.

It is true that it would be overkill for everyone to take media networks as the object of their research.  And it’s also true that, right now, we don’t train people to do this in graduate school.  But I think it would also be fair to say faculty members and graduate students need to be far more adept than they generally are at using networked media as part of their research and teaching.  Jo Guldi’s recent meditations on what a networked scholarly journal might look like are relevant:

In going web 2.0, journals have the ability to mesh their publications with tools that will allow readers to better integrate journal essays with the rest of their research. A scholar using zotero and jstor can download the article pdf and the citation, ready for use in footnote. Web 2.0 journals will go further into this zone: a scholar using zotero, jstor, google scholar, and delicious can instantaneously find other scholars’ opinions of a particular article, the names of the disciplines and sub-disciplines they think it applies to best, and other articles of similar note to that particular scholar.

Think about how far we still have to go to get a critical mass of faculty and graduate students who can read this paragraph.  Zotero and delicious are well beyond the range of reference of most people I talk to, for instance. And yet, I would argue that if one’s not familiar with tools such as these, then it will only get harder to do research–no matter what your area of expertise. It’s not that I think everyone must use *these* tools in particular (maybe you’re all about Diigo), but the process of figuring out what they offer, and whether you can better achieve those goals with something else, seems critical.

Likewise with teaching.  I don’t think every single class *must* have a wiki, blog, and SIMILE-backed timeline–if they did, for instance, I’d have to find a different way to differentiate myself, which would seem like work.  But I do think that faculty should be rejecting these tools, when they do, for reasons other than, “oh, I don’t understand that.”  Or, “that’s not supported in Blackboard.”  Pedagogical literacy anymore demands that faculty have a certain expertise with technology so that they can make informed decisions about how best to organize and run their classes–even when those classes don’t have a technology component.

People are busy, so I’m not really suggesting that faculty members should retrain.  (Although maybe they should!  It’s not hard to learn Zotero, or wikis, or whatever.)  But looking forward, it seems clear that both undergraduate and graduate education need to reflect in a more sophisticated way about the varying kinds of technologies we use (or don’t).

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