Weekend Reading, 8/26/2011

So there was a modest, but positive response to last week’s “Weekend Reading” post, enough encouragement for me to try to make this a regular feature. Without further ado then, here are links to a few of the more interesting articles I came across this week.

“Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful” by LynNell Hancock in Smithsonian: Profile of the Finnish educational system which over the past 20-30 years has become one of the best in the world. Happily, only scant mention of technology in the classroom; emphasis is elsewhere.

“Print vs. Online” by Jack Shafer at Slate: An anecdotal endorsement of print reading’s advantages over digital with a study or two thrown in.

“Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?” (Part One and Part Two and Part Three) Henry Jenkins interviews Sherry Turkle at Aca-Fan: Three part interview with Turkle, MIT professor and author most recently of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Jenkins himself is a highly regarded scholar of new media and popular culture.

“Reading is Elemental” by Helen Vendler in Harvard Magazine: Ostensibly an unlikely plan for reforming elementary education, but, in fact, an impassioned commendation of reading and the humanities. “Without reading, there can be no learning. The humanities are essentially a reading practice.”

“Literature Brings the Physical Past to Life” by Scott Herring at The Chronicle of Higher Education: Professor encourages his colleagues to view literature as an opportunity to rediscover the materiality of the past. “Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept.” Told in part through a moving personal anecdote.

“Team Bonding Suffers in Tech Age” by Adrian Dater in Sports Illustrated: A look at the impact of social media and smart phones in on sports teams. Some advantages noted, but also contributing to the erosion of team chemistry and camaraderie. (h/t: Mr. Bailey)


Disclaimer: Unless it’s clear from my brief comments, passing on these links should not necessarily be taken as an endorsement.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Reading, 8/26/2011

  1. The Herring article is interesting, though I think he is a bit too harsh in blaming deconstruction for the humanities crisis (he sounds a lot like Dinesh D’Souza or Roger Kimball, particularly in his singling out of a hypothetical course title involving queer theory). Certainly, some people take deconstruction to a point where it becomes an exercise in absurdism. But the rise of theories like Darwinian lit crit are symptomatic of another impulse within the academy that has added to the “crisis” – the impulse to be scientific and thus rigorous, as though one must be scientific to be rigorous, as though hermeneutics are frivolous and useless. I would say that the humanities devaluation of previous forms of rigor has done just as much damage as deconstruction has.

    More so than his ideas about rigor and the evils of deconstruction, I think what I struggle with is his assessment of the potential of literature to give us an accurate picture of history, its potential historicity, and the value of what he seems to be looking for. I liked his story and I think it’s interesting what he found out, but I wonder why figuring out why Depression-era Americans feared the desert, or what effect Depression-era vehicles had on the great migration, is valued more highly than examining more “political” realities we can find in texts, like social conditions and mores surrounding gender, race, class, and sexuality. How is one more useful than the other to, as he says, “ordinary people”? Who are these ordinary people? I tend to use my partner as my test of what ordinary people might think, and my partner wouldn’t care even a tiny bit about either approach or the conclusions (this is particularly ordinary, since most people in the US don’t read books, let alone analyze them – I’m not trying to say that condescendingly, just being realistic given what I’ve read about leisure reading habits in the US).

    There is also the problem that the majority of literature (I cringe even as I type this mass generalization, but I’m making it anyway) that has traditionally been considered worthy of study (canonical) in the US academy has been written from a certain perspective, that of upper or middle class white men from the US or UK. Certainly, we can get an excellent picture of history and material reality if those men wrote about men like them, but it is a white history, a male history, and an upper or middle class history (also, usually a heterosexual history). Surely, some of those writers may have done research to try to replicate the conditions of other subject positions, particularly writers involved in social reform (Sir Conan Doyle did a particularly good job of this, I think, though he wasn’t involved in social reform to my knowledge, though I could be mistaken), but like Steinbeck, some of those writers still exaggerated here and there, or perhaps omitted certain realistic reactions or realities because they simply didn’t know them. I do think we can get a good picture of dominant social discourses (dominant ideologies surrounding gender and gender roles, class, race, sexuality, etc.) and upper and middle class material realities, but I wonder how accurately those writers could portray realities that were outside of their own, especially material realities wherein we tend to take for granted that what we have, everyone has (for example, recently I’ve run into many professors who are requiring quick turn-around online posting for their courses, just assuming that their students have ready access to a computer and the internet so that they can respond to the professor’s questions within hours of their original posting). I suppose Herring wouldn’t approve of most of my objections, though, as I think he may say I have been indoctrinated by the very deconstructionists and French theorists he objects to.

    I agree with him that we need to find a way to make universities understand that the humanities are both relevant and important. However, it seems like the humanities (well, literature departments in particular) continue to try to make themselves into other departments. We try to be sociologists with cultural studies. We try to be historians with new historicism. We try to be scientists with things like Darwinian criticism. Perhaps we try to be like philosophers with deconstruction. And now Herring is trying to be, it seems to me, a cultural anthropologist. I’m all for interdisciplinarity, but I wonder if continuing to try to justify our studies and interpretations, the very existence of lit departments, by claiming legitimacy through reference to other disciplines is an effective strategy. It hasn’t seemed to have worked well for us.

    Again, thanks for posting these articles (even if I only have time to read one of them)!

    1. That’s an excellent observation about English department chasing a certain legitimacy by mimicking the standards, tools, criteria, etc. of other disciplines. One almost wants to resurrect the old art for arts sake slogan. There does seem to be a certain loss of confidence in literature, and while I agree that Herring lays the theory bashing on a bit thick, I do wonder theory has not distanced us a bit from the act of reading and perhaps even its aesthetic dimension.

      Incidentally, I should say that while my program has been housed in the English Dept. (as of this summer that is not even the case anymore), I do consider myself an amateur in literary theory, my main interests lying in other directions. But it has been part of the vocabulary that I’ve picked up and theory has been a key component of my reading over the last two year or so. (By the way, I still do need to respond to your comment in last weekend’s post, but probably won’t get to that tonight, semester is back in session).

      That being said and back to the article, I think you raised just the right questions. In particular, I too wondered whilst reading the article how well material conditions outside the author’s experience could be portrayed. Although, as you note some may take the time and effort necessary to gain some insight into the worlds they create.

      The principle reason this article caught my attention is that it overlapped with my own interests in the history of technology and the need to pay attention to the stuff that shapes our lives by its pervasive presence all about us. Its the sort of stuff that I think ends up shaping our thinking and being. Our experience consists in a loop comprising our bodies, our minds, and the world, but our tools insert themselves into that loop altering and shaping it according to their own logic. In a way, its the old line from Marx, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

      Again, great point in your last paragraph, and I’m wondering how you would envision a department that resisted the temptation to follow after the rules and goals of another discipline. Oh, and also, I was curious about what you had in mind when you early on mentioned other forms of rigor devalued by the humanities.

      1. I agree that the article is really interesting to think about in terms of how technology and material realities shape our ways of thinking and modes of being. Technology changes how we relate to the world around us, and it’s interesting to think about how vehicles in the 20s, which were supposed to help to make long-distance travel easy and fast, weren’t always up to the task and didn’t always deliver on that promise. Makes me wonder what certain technologies are supposed to do today and whether they are actually delivering on that promise (such as whether social media, which you’ve written about before on here, actually help us engage with others, or whether they are more isolating). Of course, our different responses to the article is also an interesting reflection on how one’s knowledge base and particular interests shape our responses to texts.

        In terms of my utopian vision of an English department (or really, any department), it would involve a lot of Keats’ negative capability. Realizing that there are multiple theoretical approaches to each issue, each text, and that they can co-exist, that we do not need one “true” totalizing theory. It shouldn’t be a question of which theoretical paradigm should win out. Different approaches produce interesting interpretations, and there is room for a multiplicity of interpretations. I’m not saying that all interpretations are valid, but interpretations that use close analysis and respect whatever text they interpret (be it a literary text or looking at society as a text) are usually valid and can produce interesting and useful interpretations.

        The past forms of rigor comment is just about the history of the discipline (at least, so far as I understand it based on my reading). The department started as Classics, where only the study of Latin and Greek philosophical texts and plays was considered rigorous. Then came Linguistics, which asserted its rigor over Classics (which then became a different department). Then people started studying English and the Romance languages, which wasn’t considered rigorous until Linguistics was relegated to its own department. They were doing humanistic interpretation (big/”universal” themes), which was considered rigorous until semiotics and structuralism came in and was considered “the new rigor.” That was followed by the various other forms of theory, each new theory eventually gaining the coveted label of “rigor” until it was replaced by a new theory. Thus we come to the present, where New Historicism (heavily influenced by Foucault), which is what Herring seems to be doing in his piece (focusing on how literature can illuminate material history as well as social history), has recently gained the title of “most rigorous” and other still flourishing modes of criticism (queer theory, feminist theory, deconstruction, ecocriticism, cultural studies, etc.) are demonized as “not rigorous.” It’s a vicious cycle that seems to mainly generate hostility (thus Herring’s comment about how courses studying comics through a queer theory paradigm are ridiculous – they are ridiculous because they aren’t considered rigorous or serious by those who don’t practice cultural studies or queer theory). Herring also mentions Darwinian criticism, which is up-and-coming, and scientific criticism is poised to possibly become “the new rigor” in the next decade.

        Apologies for this overly long response to your questions. Pieces like Herring’s get me fired up.

        1. I’m sorry I’ve been really slow to respond, but you know the feeling, one week into the semester and you’re behind already. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to post this paragraph from Donna Haraway in response to a comment you made an earlier post; not so much in response, I suppose, but our exchange regarding theory and phenomenology called this paragraph to mind (I realize this isn’t directly related to that question, nonetheless):

          “So, I think my problem and ‘our’ problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.”


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