May 10, 2007

From the comments

Posted in Academia, Blogging at 4:22 am by ndsmith

I recently got a comment on an old post of mine from Thorin (is there a name for this kind of thing?). This post was shortly after starting my blog. I feel like I’ve gone through so many phases in my view of my blog that it was interesting to see an old post. What I had to say related to my thoughts on education.

I had quoted from an small piece, written by a Professor John Dolan and published with his obituary in the proceedings of the APA. I did not know and still don’t know anything about John Dolan or his philosophical leanings, running across the article by chance. Anyway, Thorin provides some really interesting insight into Dolan as a teacher. It seems that sometimes the thought can be enlightened while the disposition may sometimes be otherwise.

He also got me thinking about Douglas Hofstadter, which was cool. I remember that discovering Gödel, Escher, Bach in college felt like the opening sequence of The Never Ending Story: as if I walked into a kind of esoteric fairy tale. The argument is interesting and the book is written extremely well. At the time I was an undergraduate obsessed with Derrida and I remember becoming bored with Hofstadter’s focus on was foundations; and I just didn’t buy the AI suggestions.


March 6, 2007

Against the Philosophical Gourmet

Posted in Academia at 11:14 pm by ndsmith

Though Brian Leiter‘s ranking of PhD programs in philosophy is a useful tool, it would be nice to have other sorts of “relatively objective” methods for determining the credentials of various faculty of philosophy. The Leiter report is based on a survey of about 250 faculty who are largely from the “top” Universities. As I understand it, the survey asks these scholars to rate various departments on the basis of the qualifications of the faculty there. So there is clearly a question of the tool itself being self-reinforced by an unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, as one very respected scholar once told me, “It’s the only game in town.”

Given the nature of the twentieth century distinction between what was termed “analytic philosophy” and everything else (which by default came to be called “continental philosophy,” in contradistinction to what was being done at Oxford and Cambridge, though admittedly there was an important strand of analytic philosophy in Vienna and Germany), I think one ought to be careful when appealing to samples of faculty members–there is good reason to suspect prevalent biases in any selective population. There must be better methods available to rank PhD faculty. And since I think it would be panglossian in the extreme to dream of a world without college rankings. Shouldn’t we employ these?

For instance, I just googled DePaul University–a well-respected school specializing in the History of Philosophy and Continental philosophy. The second option, after the university’s main page, is the philosophy department. I wonder how many other schools are known for their philosophy departments, at least as far as the set of google users extends (which is probably a pretty large sampling)? Another possible candidate for survey would be the selectivity of admissions. And I have always wondered if there could be some automated ranking of the number of times a scholar is cited in a selected sample of contemporary publications as a function of contemporary scholars.

December 27, 2006

Tenure and Professional Academics

Posted in Academia at 6:53 pm by ndsmith

Scott McLemmee’s commentary in Inside Higher Ed this week is very interesting because it tackles two issues that are potentially closely linked but typically distinguished: the practice of academic writing (in this case literary criticism) and the tenure process.

In the column, Scott interviews Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, who has recently published a book called The Character of Criticism (Routledge). A number of things emerge in the interview, in part because Scott does not shy away from some difficult questions and in part because Harpham has an interesting perspective on academia, professional (University sanctioned) academic work, publication and the tenure-process.

In short, Harpham advances a thesis about literary criticism that understands the practice as a personal investment, an engagement of one’s “character” with the text. In other words, on Harpham’s view, literary criticism is a deeply personal activity that calls upon the kind of knowledge that can only be developed through experience involving good judgment. Nonetheless, Harpham resists the view that literary criticism is, at heart, a vocation for the “amatuer”; instead, the whole task of publishing and producing work in the genre is necessarily sanctioned by the University institution–which brings us to questions of tenure. I quote from a section of the interview where Harpham addresses his experience at Tulane, acting as a member of a committee on faculty evaluations and rewards:

What I found over the course of that year and a half was that the contemporary debate on tenure was being driven by a variety of forces, including state legislatures hostile to academia in general, conservative academics hostile to elite institutions, high-powered researchers at those very elite institutions, and a great many ordinary academics who were doing lots of committee work and teaching and wanted to be recognized, with promotions and salary increases, just like those who were publishing regularly. “Flexibility” was the key phrase: universities were encouraged to reward flexibility, as individuals realized themselves in their various ways. Our committee found several problems associated with “flexibility,” each one of which we considered insurmountable….

In principle, I was not opposed to “flexible” rewards for faculty, but I thought that each institution had to decide what it wanted to be, and how its faculty should be expected to think of themselves. At the top research universities, flexibility is a very bad idea: All faculty should be seen as having jumped over the same bars. At flagship state institutions, it’s still a bad idea. But from there on down — and at Tulane, one of the questions we had to face was exactly where we stood — the issue was not so clearcut. Many colleges and universities may wish to reward superb teaching or loyal service to the institution with rank and salary increases….

Each institution has to come to a rough understanding of itself, leaving enough room for anomalous individuals to be judged on terms appropriate to their contribution. I’m afraid there is no substitute for the act of judgment exercised case by case by people who are presumed to be competent. Though that presumption can be challenged in individual instances, it must be maintained, because it and it alone ensures faculty governance.

It seems that indeed the issue of “character” is paramount not only for individual academics as they engage in their specific research interests but also for departments and faculties as a whole as they determine the goals and directions of their departments. Perhaps this is not an entirely satisfactory response, especially for a young academic seeking tenure at a research institution, but what it lacks in clarity and prescriptive precision, it gains in response to the real conditions of scholarship.

December 4, 2006

Something Lighter

Posted in Academia at 6:43 pm by ndsmith

Sometimes blogging feels like putting on a warm pair of slippers.

I recently came across a meme, through two sources, that quite simple warmed my heart. Scott McLemee and Adam Rosi-Kessel seemed to have independently discovered this vaguely “scientific” experiment on the speed of meme dispersion through the internet. Apparently, the results will be shared at the MLA–if that’s considered a suitably scientific organization. The researcher wants to quantify the rate and means of distribution of “memes” on the internet. He is tracking links to his blog entry via Technorati. The hypothesis is driven by the suggestion that widespread content on the internet is often generated in low traffic blogs, but then gets picked up by some higher traffic blogs before spreading across the internet and winding up at many different low-traffic blogs. Since I am sure that I am late to pick up on this and that I am a very low-traffic blog, I probably support his hypothesis.

In the meantime, I discovered a wonderful little story that reflects the experience of writing a dissertation (what I am supposed to be doing right now) better than I could have ever expressed it. The bit is called “Disadventure” and is written in the style of one of those old computer adventure games. What I love is the disembodied feature of the experience: user writes command “work on dissertation” over and over again, while computer responds with a variety of procrastination techniques. Nothing expresses the complete loss of willpower associated with the dissertation-writing task like this futile exercise.

Follow-up AA

Posted in Academia, Politics at 6:25 pm by ndsmith

So, the Supreme  Court is hearing arguments today in a case that could overturn Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, residents of Louisville, KY. are complaining that their children aren’t able to attend the schools of their choice because of that state’s efforts to racially integrate schools. NPR’s Nina Totenberg has her usual balanced and in-depth report on the issue.

In reality, this is not identical to the “affirmative action” issue in Michigan, but it is certainly of the same genre. Perhaps on practical grounds, racial integration at the primary and secondary school level creates a burden upon families that outweighs the benefits of forced integration. But have we, as a society, really reached the level of race consciousness that would allows us to reasonably return to the “separate but equal” standard of Plessy v. Ferguson without in fact increasing racial inequality? Some argue that is the case. I don’t need to remind anyone of the recent racial slurs of Michael Richards, but perhaps we need to be reminded of that LA police officers are again in the news for issues concerning racially motivated use of excessive force. Up for debate is the introduction of mandatory cameras on police cars to monitor use of force. This following some disturbing videos put on You Tube. Consider this one of a student being tasered for not carrying a library card.

Of course, these are separate issues, but they highlight the lack of race consciousness acrossed society and the need to continue to guard against our inherent prejudices. It seems that rolling back Brown v. Board of Education is premature.

November 13, 2006

MCRI passes

Posted in Academia, Politics at 4:45 pm by ndsmith

Michigan voters choose to follow California in banning affirmative action practices at state Universities. It seems that, when put to a vote, the simplistic opposition of equality vs. discrimination wins out over evidence of the benefits to socially and racially diverse classrooms. Inside Higher Ed has all the relevant info.

June 15, 2006

What to do with wiki

Posted in Academia at 9:36 pm by ndsmith

Another shameless referal to previous post, High-tech cheaters. Scott McLemee's recent article in Inside Higher Ed makes points to a related issue: wikipedia. I think Mclemee is all to deferential in his article. Of course we should contribute to wikipedia. Wiki's capture something essential about the internet. And all caveats apply. Wikipedia is only exactly as quick and easy to use as it is potentially misleading: as it is with most things.

Also, check out McLemee's blog. I love the bit on referrals:

My favorite search leading anyone here (at least in recent memory) was one someone did for "hot girls reading heidegger."

Lord knows I searched for them myself, once upon a time, but that was in the dark ages, long before the Internet. Good luck, whoever you are.

But avoid "hot girls reading kristeva." More trouble than it's worth. Trust me on this.

Another interesting link emerging from the McLemee article is to Jaron Lanier's article "Digital Maoism". Lanier's argument is detailed and interesting. He attempts to take on the question of whether or not the "collective" cognitive capacity that is represented by wiki's is really destined toward some improvement.

A couple of things: Lanier is wrong that

"Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure." 

The Bible is what it is because these various writers and editors spanned a long period of time when it was very hard to record anything. So what was saved was certainly not the work of one person, was sometimes contradictory, but certainly withstood the test of time. Wikipedia is the opposite.

Second, I'm not sure by what standard Lanier is measuring wiki. He uses such concepts as "voice" and "personality" to criticize wiki entries. I don't think anyone is looking for the hundred monkeys in a room with typewriters who produced Shakespeare. We're looking for something much more dry: some decent facts, good links, a beginning to a research project.

Finally, I don't see a necessary connection between buying into the wiki and buying into the "race to the most meta." For one, there is no necessary gradation in wiki entries, we do not accend a hierarchy of being, or gain logical generality through the internet. Instead we gain, mainly random, horizontal webs of interconnection, links. It's not the Tower of Babel, its more like algea on the surface of a pond. Which reminds me, even if "collective" thinking is roughly random, given enough time and adequate energy sources, randomness has proven itself in the past.