Archive for January, 2012

Digital futures

Some good stuff on das internet this week.

First, Larry Summers made some bold but also weirdly plausible claims about the future of higher education, the central point being that even though we’ve been teaching people more or less the same way for the past fifty years (with semesters, classrooms, and other increasingly obsolete fixtures), there are plenty of other ways that we might teach things and those (other ways)  might be better. My favorite part is when he speculates that students of the future will all listen to podcasts of the world’s elite lecturers, while all the rest of the teachers everywhere just answer questions and lead discussions and grade papers. That sounds good in some ways (except for those of us who love to lecture), but it also sounds a little like 99% of PhDs of the future are going to be adjuncts. Which, I guess, how is that any different from the way things already are?.

Then, Stanley Fish posted yet another article in a series of columns which have (1.) explained what the “Digital Humanities” are* and (2.) suggested that they are in fact the future–the Next Big Thing–in literary criticism and theory. There must have been some confusion here (I know I’ve been confused), because Fish has written several increasingly specific columns on the subject, of which the latest is by far the best because it includes a Practical Demonstration of Fish Fishing around in Milton’s Areopagitica. It’s a persuasive and a fun essay about why computers will Change Everything, and why the people who are concerned by that possibility (Philistines who want to preserve the integrity of interpretation**) should stop worrying and learn to love the internet.

All of which he says better than I can: “whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.” Apparently, it’s the death of the author all over again.

*Which has been helpful for me because I don’t really know anything about the field, although I did attend a very interesting presentation by Franco Moretti in which he retold the story of Hamlet through diagrams like this:

and talked about what happens when you try “mapping” the story rather than “reading” it. I should add that these maps are also great for graduate seminars and classroom presentations, because you can put them up on the projector and give everybody something to look at. It has always been my suspicion that computers will serve much the same purpose in scholarship as they have elsewhere: entertainment.  You can read some more of Moretti’s work on this subject, including a very excellent essay called Network Theory, Plot Analysis in the New Review, but only if you have access through a University or through your very own private subscription. Or if you just want to shell out a stupid amount of money◊.

**My words, not his.

◊Not surprisingly, there are some who have speculated (just last week) that the internet has the answer to this problem, too.

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Online education

Like many humanities graduates, I am at the moment what you might call fiscally challenged (a temporary state of affairs, I’m pretty sure; I’m just waiting until advertisers notice my blog and decide to pay me for it. I believe that is what happens). Anyway, to augment my income, I recently took up work as a part-time teaching assistant at one of the larger For-Profit online universities. For a negligible sum, I spend ten or so hours weekly grading papers and providing feedback on written assignments in introductory English courses. My students are people who haven’t written an essay or even a paragraph in years: those who finished high school a long time ago or never finished it at all. They have big dreams, and the dedicated ones make big progress over the duration of the class. The unmotivated (and by this I mean about a quarter of each class) tend to drop out or fade away without ever having done the reading or turning in a complete assignment.

As you may be aware, the whole for-profit online education thing has lately been (to put it lightly) subject to a certain amount of controversy. Apparently it’s very easy to lure in the desperate and undereducated with far-fetched promises of a bright new career made possible by an online degree. In some cases, I have no doubt, those promises actually materialize. For all I know, an online degree in “Entrepreneurship” or “Service Management” may carry a great deal of cachet within certain industries. And while these classes aren’t cheap, they also cost far less than a traditional degree, and can be completed on a part-time basis from the comfort of your own home.**

Since I am a lowly teacher’s assistant (the teacher himself communicates semi-regularly via email, and has never given me cause to doubt his competence or dedication), my work does not tend to expose me directly to the ethically problematic areas of recruitment and tuition financing. As most humanities teachers will agree, though (I think), the grader’s duties are always fraught with minor ethical crises. My peers in more advanced programs complain about the dumbing down of courses, the constant lowering of standards, and the mandates from administration to always coddle the students (in fact, I know several teachers of the previously mentioned introductory-level undergraduate courses who claim they are permitted to run classes more or less however they please, and can get away with doing within reason pretty much anything except give a harsh grade for a badly written essay).

For myself, the concern is with grading time. The papers I read aren’t essays so much as disaster zones; I consider myself lucky if I get two grammatically correct sentences on a page. In fact, even if I had the time and energy to go through the essays and correct them thoroughly, I’m encouraged not to do so (although after three years working as an editor it was not so easy to stop). The theory is that a surplus of commentary will only discourage the student, and a discouraged student might never write again (or worse! remember Keats before the critics!). However, the stock phrases (most of my comments are cut and pasted from a database, to increase efficiency), lax grading standards (most assignments effectively get a score of 80% just for being turned in on time), and mandated overly positive responses (again, you don’t want the students to get discouraged) do sometimes make me wonder just what kind of machine I’ve been plugged into.

I can tell you, in brief, that it is a machine that carefully cultivates the illusion of personal connections, while making any actual such connections very difficult. With forty student papers to grade in a two to three day period, and no other real basis for student-TA interaction–not even a face to go with the name (unless you want to get all creepy and internet-stalker-y like I sometimes do)–the essays become so much bad writing to be processed, stamped with assorted relevant comments, and returned to sender. It is also an extremely lenient machine, one which (dare I say it?) might be more interested in the happiness of its students than in their education.** Everybody passes the class, so long as they at least turn in the majority of their assignments. The students get their degrees, I get paid, and the university continues to run. Maybe that’s all we ever really asked of it in the first place.

*Besides, student debt is what’s cool right now. Everybody’s doing it.

**Because except in the cases of the most dedicated students, getting educated doesn’t make you happy; feeling educated does. And actually learning things doesn’t make you feel smart at all. It makes you feel stupid, because–and I guess this is the point–learning is the process of discovering how much you  don’t know. It’s supposed to be painful and upsetting.

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Because it’s all a numbers game. Emphasis on game.

As a somewhat jaded veteran of many grad school applications, I think I know a little bit about the process. When applying for doctoral programs in the humanities, acceptance hinges upon a number of factors: your undergraduate GPA, your recommendations, your GRE Subject test, and probably especially your statement of purpose and writing sample. Those top two are supposed to say something important about your abilities and ambitions and also just about who you are; what your style is. As such, they are very difficult to evaluate objectively (unless you have a lot of misspellings or something, and I doubt that even that would be fatal).

As a package, your application is designed to give the admissions committee an impression that you will “fit” in their program. Sure, being a super genius doesn’t hurt, but when it’s common for graduate programs to receive 500 applications and accept 10 students, it takes more than impressive statistics or even impressive writing to be admitted. Instead, your success depends on whether the department wants to work with you, whether there are faculty members in these relatively small and often-underfunded humanities departments who not only think you show promise as a scholar, but also want to be their scholar.

The subjectivity of the process entails a great deal of work on the applicant’s part. Some schools want a 25 page paper, some want twenty pages, and some bastards will actually ask for two ten-pagers. Different schools will also want different things from your statement of purpose, and they actually mean it when they ask you to talk about your goals, or your leadership experience, or whatever random thing they come up with. One or two ask for both a statement of purpose and a personal statement, meaning you need to take that well-crafted statement that you labored over for weeks and dissect it, dividing it into its component parts and building new essays like Frankenstein’s Monster from the pieces (UC Berkeley is particularly notorious for its statements, I believe, though I’ve always preferred to spend my time and money applying to LA and Irvine).

In the end, with PhD applications, the odds are absurdly against you, it’s difficult to understand what is expected, and mostly all applications end in pain and disappointment–for two years running, in my case, although I did get a good MA as a consolation prize.

After a particularly humiliating round of rejections last March (not entirely attributable to matters of fit, I suspect; my sample on Oscar Wilde’s Salome was a little undercooked at the time of its submission), I decided to try something new and apply to law school.  Law School! The last refuge of directionless humanities students. The place where you can study for just three years, get a respected degree, and then go out and use that degree to get a real job (with paychecks and everything)!

I was feeling particularly optimistic about my odds of admission because I happened to have in my files a (if I may say so) pretty excellent 25 page paper which used legal theorist Robert Cover’s concept of jurisgenerative communities to explore the (spoiler alert!) death of Ralph Marvel in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. It would, I thought, make a great writing sample to go with my applications.

As it turns out, however, law schools don’t really care about your ability to write a publication-length academic paper. There is no writing sample in a law school application. In fact, the only items that really seem to matter to most top schools are your undergraduate GPA  and your LSAT score. Personal statements, recommendations, and extracurricular activities might be used as tiebreaker items. Pretty much nobody even cares what you write about in your personal statement. The prompt is, more or less, “tell us something about yourself in 1200 words” (which is, admittedly, probably somewhat equivalent to an invitation to shoot yourself in the foot).

A word on the LSAT: This test is a difficult test, but it’s also extremely easy to study for. About a million people take it each year, which means that there are about a million copies of actual LSAT exams available for purchase on the internet. I have nine or ten LSAT books (some loaned to me and not returned, some bought online) sitting in my room, and each has hundreds of actual test questions. For comparison, there were exactly Two sample tests for the GRE Subject Test in Literature when I took that exam, meaning nobody had the slightest idea what to expect**. When you take the LSAT, if you’re at all serious as a test taker (and man, I get into my test prep), you know to within six or seven points how well you’ll do before you ever sit down.

Next, three weeks later, when you get your test scores, you have to decide where to apply. Is it like literature, in which only one in sixty applicants is accepted? No It Is Not. In law school, everybody and their mother applies everywhere, and many of them post their statistics and results online. That means you can go to websites like lawschoolnumbers.com and get an extremely good idea of how likely you are to get admitted to a particular school. There are even websites that will do the work for you; just type in your scores, and they’ll tell you whether to bother applying. Since applications cost a hundred dollars a pop, this means that you don’t have to spend your fortune (as I have many times in the past) applying to ten schools that won’t accept you. You can pick safety schools that are actually safety schools (I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as safety in literature). You can forego schools at which you really don’t have a shot in hell, because you know how many people with numbers more or less exactly like yours made that shot and missed (yeah, a part of me wanted to apply to Yale anyway. But NO! I resisted! I’m spending that money on new shoes instead!).

This is where the game part comes in. You can screw around with different statistics, play the odds, and start mapping out your future based on the numbers. If you get ambitious, you can even create an excel spreadsheet, like I did in one of my more idle and obsessive afternoons, using assorted methods to determine your probability of success at assorted schools (how many people with my scores got in last year? How many people with lower scores were still accepted? What percentile are my statistics?)◊.  It breeds compulsive behavior, but it’s really fantastic.

I thought this numbers addiction would pass once I finished submitting my applications, but if anything it’s gotten worse. While you’re waiting for a response, you can go and see whether other applicants have heard back yet, and whether their results were favorable. You can toy with hypothetical scenarios (if School X and School Y accept me, do I go the the one with the higher US News Ranking or the one that gets more Supreme Court clerkships?). I’ll remain on the edge of my seat, I expect, trying to guess the answers (with science!) until they arrive (which, according to my calculations, should be in early March for the majority of schools).

Oh, also, on a separate note: Tonight’s wine is Santa Ema Carmenère, and it is really pretty great. Dark garnet color ◊◊, and dark fruity flavors like maybe cherries and something heavier. Chocolate, it says on the label. I get chocolate. And a strong taste of pitch (in a good way!). Plus I could afford it, so you know it’s cheap as hell.

* I mean this as no denigration of English programs, by the way. The study of literature is not a hard science (and my friends in physics tell me that at a high enough level even the hard sciences get a little squishy), and any effort to make admissions to literature programs rigorously quantifiable would be both counterproductive and impossible. Moreover, many of my very good friends are PhDs and PhD students, and all of them are among the smartest people I know (well, for a large enough list of smart people, I mean. They’re all in the top 30%, I guess I could say). Clearly, these departments are doing something right.

**Though, to be fair, the GRE Lit test is a stupid exam and I’m pretty sure most admissions committees must know that. It’s my strong suspicion that they only require you to take it in order to weed out the uncommitted.

◊According to my only half-scientific methodology, odds of acceptance are about 70% at Columbia, 70% at Chicago, and 35% at the Big H here in Boston. Thus far, my spreadsheet has been validated by one (extremely fast) acceptance from NYU, where I gave myself a 90% chance of admission. I haven’t however been able to predict my chances at UCBrkly, because it seems to be one of the few schools that actually does care about what you’re like as an individual. Curse them!

◊◊That’s right, I’m using words like “garnet” in my descriptions. Give me a glass or two, and I get pretentious as hell.

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This post brought to you by several glasses of an unremembered pinot noir* (it had a horse on the label) and champagne (or rather, some less illustrious bubbly) served at dinner, with toasts, by the much-beloved K____, and also a few beers, bought me by my brother at some overloud bar in Pacific Beach. My ears are still ringing.

Just another few quick notes about the desert, and about desert people.

When I arrived in Ridgecrest, I had a few hours of time to kill before my dad got off work. I spent the first hour taking a nap in my car, and the second exploring the neighborhood. Ridgecrest, I noticed, is something a little outside of my usual experience. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s the exact opposite of Boston. For one thing, instead of being filled with college students (my people!) Ridgecrest’s character is defined primarily by the China Lake military base. They are a different kind of folk (at one point, I met a guy who flies F-16 fighters for a living. I’m pretty sure that’s right below Astronaut and Pirate Captain in the ranking of awesome jobs).

They have more gun shops, more churches (well, fewer Catholic churches than Boston, but more churches overall), and more fast food restaurants. In the center of town, the local country music radio station has a set of speakers on a high pole, and they broadcast slow twangy songs over the mostly empty streets, so that as you walk around you feel like you’re participating in a nostalgic western movie.

Ridgecrest is a sprawling town in the high desert, which boasts such amenities as a Wal Mart, a K-Mart, and (soon) a Big!Lots. The cost of property is such that new businesses often prefer to erect their own structure on a new location rather than acquiring a previously-occupied building, so the neighborhoods are dotted with vacant buildings and vacant parking lots, sun-bleached but weirdly preserved (mummified) by the desert’s still dryness. I tried to persuade dad to go ignite illegal fireworks with me in one of these vacant lots, but was not successful.

Everything is extremely clean, which was surprising to me, since the sage that edges the 395 highway is generally coated in a thick enough layer of discarded plastic and aluminum to kill any weaker plant. I am not sure if the neighborhood is clean because the people care for it, or because the winds that blow through the valley simply sweep away all detritus.

While exploring downtown, I stopped in at the Red Rock bookstore, which was apparently the only secular bookstore in the city. It is a belief of mine that you can learn a lot about the character of an area by taking a look at its bookstores. Red Rock was surprisingly extensive, with both used and new books and a large collection of classical and contemporary literature. It also, however, had its fun idiosyncrasies. For instance, there was a hefty “survival” section, which featured books on what plants are edible and how to find water in the desert and also a large book titled something like “The Complete Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse,” which had detailed and practical advice, coupled with black-and-white illustrations, on how to shore up your food supply, how to create effective camouflage, and how to set up lines of sight (ie. where to put the guns) when defending your home against the roving hordes of the hungry/desperate/undead. All of this written with just enough seriousness to make it more than a little bit creepy.

I should note that the survival section was not the largest in the bookstore. The largest section was the “Star Trek” section, which featured at least four Very Long shelves full of Star Trek novelizations and spin-offs. I had no idea that so many Star Trek books even existed.

The desert can, of course, be a refuge for people who just don’t fit in with regular society–too liberal, too conservative, or very often just too nuts. I think the big skies and weird loneliness of the desert would make it a good place to write a novel, or to escape into some other big daunting project. Now, Ridgecrest’s military presence and relatively large population might be sufficient to prevent the kind of monomania that inspires triumphs like the Desert View Tower, but then, there were so many star trek books.

When I lived in Spain, one professor referenced a folk-belief that windy locations make not-entirely-salubrious places of residence, as they lead to frequent instances of madness. When you’re alone out in the middle of the desert, I guess the idea is, with nothing but the silence and the sound of the wind, your grasp on reality can sometimes get blown right out of your head. We’ll be watching dad for the signs.

*While I have no intention of making this blog a chronicle of functional (or, as my unreviewed grammar and frequent neologisms may prove, unfunctional) alcoholism, I do think the drinks are useful for setting a kind of context here. Where is the blogger at the time of his blog, and what is his mental state? Also, I feel like the intro establishes a sort of after-party tone, so that you know I’m ready to let my guard down and talk frankly with you about personal matters and not hold back because of any inhibitions which might sometimes trouble my soberer self. Plus, the booze, she can be fun, and this is a funblog.

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Death Valley

Tonight’s post is brought to you by Mirassou Pinot Noir (2009), which an unknown guest left at my mother’s housewarming party earlier this week. Tasting notes: tart (bordering on sour), über-sweet, fruity, with hints of–nope, no hints of anything. This is not a subtle vintage. I’ll bet it would make a nice punch.

Last weekend I completed yet another rite of manhood and rented a car, which I drove up the 395 highway to visit my dad. There is much to be said about that visit, and about the town of Ridgecrest, which sprawls from street to empty street but is still dwarfed by the surrounding scenery (the majority of which is part of the China Lake military base, site of many implied explosions), but for the moment I’ll suffice it to mention that we put an extra 300 miles and more onto the rental car’s odometer and violated certain terms of the rental agreement pertaining to the use of the vehicle for off-road driving and for transporting contraband materials* while passing over several mountain ranges and across several desolate valleys to visit Death Valley National Park.

The valley of the shadow. Taken at Dante’s Point.

This trip was a reminder of the extremes that make the desert appealing: the vastness of the sky, the painted colors of the hills, and the sheer presence of the bare land which is so easy to forget on the forested east coast. The silence of the place is incredible and lonely, and the size of it all has a way of making you aware of your own insignificance. I, at least, always find myself spending an inordinate amount of time imagining how easy it would be to get lost (in this valley, with its crisscross of highways and steady stream of tourists, it might be slightly less easy), and how long I might survive unaided and what unpleasant but impressive eat-grasshoppers-and-drink-your-own-piss-ish feats I might be driven to perform before I emerged from the wilderness weeks later, lean and wild-eyed like an old testament prophet.

Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much the plot of 127 Hours. It’s no wonder I liked that movie so much.

While there, we stood on the salt deposits of Badwater, the lowest spot in the nation. The ground was blindingly white, and the dry lakebed (which you can see in the above picture), spans about five miles. Although I knew Death Valley to be the lowest spot in the nation, I was not formerly aware of the fact that it is ringed by snow-capped 5000-11000 ft. peaks (in contrast, San Jacinto rises about 10400 ft from Palm Springs–although it looms much closer to the viewer than Death Valley’s Panamint Range). I guess I’d never thought that the “valley” aspect would be so at all times apparent.

Additionally, the trip was an opportunity to do some hiking, which I have sorely missed this year. The trails we walked** were stenciled onto dry washes, and barren hillsides, and skirted past the ominous black holes of long-abandoned borax mines (come in under the shadow of this red rock), made more ominous by the steel bars that crossed them and the warning signs*** interspersed along the trail. There was no sign of plant life on the trails, which struck me as strange.  Even in a place where the summer rises to over 130 degrees, the complete lack of vegetation was weird (some of the surrounding hills, at least, were studded with the type of thorny shrubs that are able to claw out a living in such conditions). Apparently, the valley is aptly named. Nothing lives there except Japanese tourists and roving packs of motorcyclists.

The one-day expedition was a great way to finish 2011, and a more than pleasant vacation from my winter vacation. Now I have one more week to enjoy the still-75 degree temperatures of southern California before I fly back to Boston. Winter over there will be an adventure of an entirely different sort.

*Dad’s Christmas present from my brother was an impressive and diverse collection of highly illegal fireworks, which he was far too nervous to ignite within the possible range of human habitation. As such, we waited until late at night on our drive home, and then pulled over alongside the highway in the middle of the Panamint valley. There, far far away from any town, we launched a brief but very exciting show that would have been visible to anyone within a thirty mile radius. Judging by the lack of headlights in the hills, though, I suspect it had an audience of exactly two.

**The largest fraction of our time was spent on the Golden Canyon trail, which circles the area near Zabriskie point, for those of you acquainted with the valley. Our appreciation of the area was somewhat heightened by knowledge of the eponymous film, which neither of us has ever seen in full, but it is apparently a cult-classic filled with hallucinations, rock n roll, and teen angst. Make of that what you will.

***The perils of abandoned mines, according to the signs, include (but are not limited to) unmarked pits, abandoned explosives, collapsing floors and roofs, accumulations of poisonous gas, and wild animals (mostly rattlesnakes). Doesn’t sound so bad.

****These days, I’m big on the annotations. What other symbols can I use aside from asterisks? Is there a way to make numbered footnotes in wordpress? Or better yet, like pop-up boxes that appear when you hover your mouse over a word? I’ll look into it, and report back.

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