Category: Polemics

The Grammar Girl on Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” Video

I wasn’t surprised to discover today that the venerable Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. the “Grammar Girl,” beat me to the presses by a few days with her take on “Weird Al” Yankovich’s linguistic prescriptivism. “The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes,” she writes, “and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.” Co-signed.

At the very least, Fogarty’s critique of Weird Al’s “call to feel superior” should give pause to those of us who teach reading and writing, and more generally to those of us who love language not as an ideal form, but as a dynamic, imperfect, human practice.

Hey, Weird Al: Congratulations on Not Having a Language Disorder!

Oh boy. It’s no fun to be The Guy Who Takes Umbrage at a Novelty Song. So let me start by saying that, all things considered, I couldn’t be happier about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s recent viral resurgence. “Tacky,” his upgrade of Pharrell’s cloying “Happy,” is blue-chip parody pop: lively, goofy, subtly acerbic. (Subtext: you know what’s really tacky? Songs like “Happy.”)

But among my language-wonk friends–i.e., most of my friends–one song has risen to the top of this week’s Weird Al heap. “Word Crimes,” a spoof of “Blurred Lines” that decries common language abuses, has been shared on my Facebook feed, Tweeted at me, praised all over the Internet, and forwarded to me by elderly family members. “You’re an English teacher! You’ll love this!” And I almost did love it. Whoops.

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The Problem with Competency-Based Education

Time + co-presence = community.

An oversimplification, sure. But this equation captures a trait of classroom learning that I find essential, and that I fear is being overlooked in the chatter about “competency-based education.”

(A précis of the chatter: Department of Education, neoliberal as ever under the leadership of President Obama’s pick-up basketball partner Arne Duncan, has been pushing post-secondary institutions to adopt competency-based strategies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted $2.3 million to the cause. Southern New Hampshire University has been hawking its College for America, which features no faculty and no courses and yet awards degrees to students who demonstrate mastery of certain competencies. Politicians are stoked. Administrators are stoked. Businesspeople are stoked. You know who isn’t stoked? I’ll give you one guess.)

My objection is simple. Education, especially but not only in the humanities, is about more than the accumulation of standardized competencies. It’s about more than the attainment of “learning outcomes.”

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Richard Moser Lights 21st-Century Higher Ed on Fire

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education, an explanation of how the new academic labor system corrodes learning, teaching, and research in American universities. Much of what Richard Moser says here has been said before, but rarely so lucidly and succinctly.

Badass extract #1: “The search for truth, critical thinking, intellectual creativity, academic standards, scientific invention, and the ideals of citizenship have been discounted in favor of maximizing profits, vocational training, career success, applied research, and bottom-line considerations.”

Badass extract #2: “What lessons are being taught to aspiring young academics when they realize that all of their foundational courses are being delivered by people who earn what they did at their summer jobs? What values are being learned when those who teach and research – who esteem the intellect and hold high the values of citizenship – are apparently held in low regard by society and by the university community itself?”

Shoulder Devil / Shoulder Angel

How appropriate that these two articles were published on the same day:

  1. The Amazon of Higher Education: How Tiny, Struggling Southern New Hampshire University Has Become a Behemoth,” Slate (January 2, 2014)
  2. Full-Time, Structured Program at CUNY Yields More Community-College Grads,” Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2, 2014)

Once a small liberal arts school, Southern New Hampshire University recently found success by expanding and corporatizing its online division, and by taking advantage of its non-profit status to undercut for-profit degree mills like the University of Phoenix.

The focus is on graduating students, not on educating them. Instruction is carried out by what Slate calls “a small army of adjuncts hired for as little as $2,200 a class.” These adjuncts aren’t expected to facilitate learning, to shepherd their students toward knowledge of self and other. No, their main task is to “swoop in” when SNHU’s digital watchdog pings them and reports that one of their charges hasn’t logged in lately. “The instructor is just there to deliver the content,” explained the head of the online division to Slate. He apparently did not go on to say, “I know that’s messed up.”

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On Rage, Smarm, and the Academic Labor Debates

In the many posts and tweets about the late-December dust-up between Rebecca (pan kisses kafka) Schuman and Claire (Tenured Radical) Potter, no one, as far as I know, has brought up Tom Scocca’s Gawker manifesto, “On Smarm.” But I see a number of suggestive parallels.

First, though, a recap of the beef. (If you are overfamiliar with this background, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.) On her personal blog, Schuman “named and shamed” a UC Riverside English search committee for deciding to notify applicants about interviews only five days before the MLA Convention. She called this move “elitist and out of touch” and encouraged readers to email the SC chair and express their dismay. In an Inside Higher Ed article, UCR representatives said that the committee had fallen behind on reading  applications. They also promised that applicants unable to attend MLA would be offered Skype interviews (which they did not do until the story blew up).

In the midst of this controversy, Potter posted a rumination on the discourse of anger, using Schuman’s takedown of UCR as an example of “chronic rage” in online academic culture. Potter voiced concern about “the ways that digital media now allows us to express our rage without having to deal with actual people,” and chided Schuman for going public before getting UCR’s version of events. “Anger can be healthy,” Potter concluded, but “it can also be a real problem in a colleague if it is a chronic response to insecurity, or if it is a way to refuse the resolution of past harm.”

Spoiler alert: People got angry at Potter; Potter got angry at them; things fell apart; the center did not hold.

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An Ethics of the Seminar Table

I have a lot to learn. I’m not an expert, and maybe never will be; I’m sure my views will change. But right now, I don’t like what’s happening to teaching and learning in higher education.

Public funding is drying up. Tuition is rising. The tenure track is disappearing. And corporations, backed by venture capital, have smelled blood.

In the past couple of years, Coursera and edX and Udacity have partnered with wealthy institutions and begun to develop MOOCs (massive open online courses), which they are now licensing to less wealthy institutions as cheap replacements for homegrown courses. The end-game: lower instructional costs at public universities, fewer tenured professors, higher percentages of contingent faculty.

Like many other academics, I see this kind of corporatization as a threat to college classrooms. Students without the resources to attend a private school should be able to take courses designed specifically for them – courses conceived and delivered by full-time, on-site researchers and instructors.

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