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Academics as Public Intellectuals: A Problem of Space and Time

James Mulholland sympathizes with the academic push toward a more public engagement. He recognizes that academics are “told to imagine [the public’s] desires and to conjure ways to fulfil them,” and that it “is an important strategy that every academic should pursue.” Indeed, we are meant to remain aware of current social discourses, and allow our interests and research to engage with those conversations. More importantly, we are urged to discover something new. So, Mulholland continues, “we must be allowed to resist this impulse, too. We can’t anticipate what intellectual discoveries will become essential answers to the public’s future questions.” In other words, by trying too hard to be timely we may miss a bigger opportunity in the future–which he highlights with an example of how gender studies scholarship was used in judicial proceedings years after it was produced.

The core of the issue here, as Mulholland puts it, is that “We don’t always know what form public scholarship should take,” and we cannot know what the public is ready to hear or digest. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges an academic faces when trying to take their work into the public domain is not an ego-centric fear to “dumb-down” their work, rather a real-time disparity that develops between public and academic audiences. The inability to know the form the public scholarship should take could, in fact, limit the scholar’s academic scholarship trajectory. That is not to say that the public audience isn’t capable of understanding the academically labored work, but that there is a time and a place for such work to make its way into the public. Like Mulholland, I too would fear that the best time and place to have some debates is not always in the here and now. Again, though, we come back to the long standing problem of finding a balance between the public intellectual and academic laborer within the same central body–can we and should we be both?

Public, Accessible Academics

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It seems that universities’ humanities programs are being marginalized now more than ever. Well, that’s at least what Ian Bogost argues but, doesn’t find that it’s quite the universities faults. “The problem is not the humanities as a discipline… The problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world” (Bogost). I wonder though, isn’t this why the Digital Humanities became something big and real? By incorporating the digital, professors can allow their work to be shown in public formats.

Nicolas Kristoff says academics are walling themselves off from the rest of the world and pleads to professors to not “cloister yourselves like medieval monks.” So, is not publicizing a choice made by professors? Do they not want to move in the direction of the Digital Humanities? I’m sure the response cannot be answered with simultaneous agreement.

Could academic writing be too academic in a publicized environment?  Joshua Rothmam finds “There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic.” Since pop-culture media seems to generate the most traffic, maybe academic writing just needs to find a different outlet rather than journals that only the universities library has a subscription to.

I find issue with this need for professors to be more public and accessible than “before.” Academic writing is indeed quite academic and I worry that issues and ideas could be misconstrued if presented on an outlet like say, Twitter. I don’t find that professor’s work should be accessible for “free.” Their research is time consuming, intricate, and involved. Of course, certain aspects of work could be presented on pop-media as a marketing tool but, I find that the benefits of free publicized information to be detrimental and worth less than it should be.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web.

Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!” The New York Times. 15 Feb. 2014. Web.

Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. 20 Feb. 2014. Web.

*Image courtesy of 3D Issue

Distraction Not Necessarily New

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Living in the Digital Age has opened the doors to constant access to streamed information. Google provides answers and opinions to virtually any question and online magazines and blogs provide entertainment, inspiring self-help, and horoscopes. There has never been another time where humans were exposed to such attainable information. There is also this idea that the internet has incredibly distracting venues and is typically viewed negatively. Pop-up ads at every site, hyperlinks of further exploration, and Facebook is just a tab click away. “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it,” Nicolas Carr mentions in his book The Web Shatters Focus. “There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously.”

Attempting to do work while on a computer can provide easy access to distraction. But is distraction really something that only comes with the internet? Arguably, I think that humans have always been distracted in some form or the other. in “In Praise of Distraction,” Christina Lupton mentions Florence Nightingale’s argumentation of women reading books in 1852 as “no door is ever closed in favour of their seclusion; no protection ever erected to favour their concretion.” There was always outlying factors to enhance distraction like a crying baby or work to do.

Even today, attempting to rid possible distractions people may venture to the library. Other people moving around, talking, or even a slam of a book may stop a train of thought. Singing birds and loud cars driving by typically force myself to look out the window, away from what I am working on. Though, I am not denouncing the Internet for not being distracting; it totally is. I am just thinking that humans have always been around distraction and that it is not a relatively new thing.

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” WIRED Magazine. 24 May 2010. Web.

Lupton, Christina. “In Praise of Distraction.” Avidly. Los Angeles Review of Books, 09 Dec. 2015. Web.

Image by Yoshi Sodeoka

Being and Text

Texts have been physical entities for a very long time. For centuries the written word has been physically represented on a surface, something to hold the text that the reader then interacts with to gather meaning from the words. Michael Witmore, in “Text: A Massively Addressable Object,” addresses—no pun intended—the sea change in textual representation that digitizing has ushered into the world and this change’s effect on textual “ontological status” (Witmore 1).

The “massive flexibility in levels of address” is an intriguing way to look at texts and the codes of language that allow for this “provisional unity” of the argument (1). Down to single letters, and as large as entire genre’s, these unities, give texts this “susceptibility to varying levels of address” at the heart of Witmore’s concept (1). In other words, digitization has brought new thought toward the reader’s function and the process of textual engagement, and whether or not that reader is human seems to be beside the point.

As we’ve written about previously in this blog, the human brain functions astonishingly during the act of reading: the speed of what Witmore terms the “continual redisposition of levels of address” as well as the mind’s imaginative force (1). Witmore writes of utilizing the computer’s ability to parse, to divide, to “address” texts by what they are programmed to recognize, and, in turn, uses this to study textual and linguistic structure. One aspect of language is its malleability. Conceptually, the composition and creation of physical texts can be understood in mathematic terms, much in the way a computer understands one or a thousand texts, or words or letters and numbers for that matter. But, how can we benefit from more than just pattern recognition and text mining? How can we pose ontological questions to texts and to ourselves as human beings seeing text in much the same ways only on smaller scales? Thought experiments involving text are one of digitizing’s byproducts that may be the future of the humanities.

Works Cited

Witmore, Michael. “Text: A Massively Addressable Object.” Print.

*image courtesy of successimg.com

Connection vs. Critique and the Confusion Between

As is likely the case with many literature study majors, I felt a deep connection to literature from a young age. Remember reading through every Grimms’ fairy tale that I could get my hands on at age 7. From there my love for literature only grew and I consumed any text I could get my hands on from ancient myths to modern novels. As my love for literature grew throughout high school, I began to consider careers that would allow me to pursue that passion and professorship seemed like the natural path to take. After an undergrad in English I went on to work for a masters in English Literature and embark upon the next step in a lifelong dream.

And then something happened. I realized that English academia wasn’t what I expected. I hoped for a community passionately engaged in the things that literature can do for students, how it can impact lives and inspire personal revelation. I found a community dedicated to impartial analysis, approaching literature in a surgical light. While I can see a value in the work of criticism, it wasn’t what I expected or desired. And while I had never seen the film until I began graduate school, maybe I was happily disillusioned with a Dead Poet’s Society ideal.

With these things in mind, I was interested to read “The Discipline Today” in Ellie Chamber’s and Marshall Gregory’s Teaching and Learning English Literature. Without dismissing theory Chambers and Gregory champion the idea that, “an education in literature provides the supplementary knowledge – supplementary to life itself – that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun, no human circumstance that has not been faced by someone, somewhere, and that despite the real possibility of failure and defeat in life, good luck and victory are also possible. To study literature from the perspective of existential issues makes it live for students of all ages and circumstances” (23-24). This is the passion I have for teaching, seeing students connect their personal experience to a much broader human experience and encountering a personal edification.

So, how do we reconcile a divide between personal impact and theoretical approach, between connection and critique? While Chambers and Gregory address this problem later, they cannot reach a conclusive approach, perhaps because this issue may never reach a conclusion. Is it possible for scholars to foster both an appreciation, enjoyment, and internalization of literature while applying theoretical frameworks or must the two be compartmentalized? And should students be introduced to theory, or should we focus wholly on the personal development they can gain from studying literature? All of these are questions that I continue to mediate throughout my graduate program.

Works Cited

Chambers, Ellie and Marshall Gregory. “The Discipline Today.” Teaching and Learning English Literature. Sage Publications, 2006. Online.

As a child I knew nothing about ‘staying in the lines.’ My sister had to pull me aside and explain to me why the other kid’s coloring books looked the way they did and why the lines existed and the reason why I couldn’t just color the entire page red or purple. In the spirit of everyone daring to color outside those dictatorial lines, Lynda Barry created Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. The theory is unique, yet it moves against our natural desire for order and compartmentalization. Barry instructs her students to keep a composition notebook for what she calls “the ephemera of your daily life” (Barry 62). Barry’s idea, that of a true journal, including those things that can’t be expressed through words, makes for an animated read. It is also fertile ground for those needing to spark their imaginations to possibly motivate others. Barry finds wonder in having adults who haven’t drawn since childhood draw something. And the book deals primarily with image and text and how these two means of expression are sometimes one in the same. Her concept of the ‘written image’ allows for a new take on writing and ‘different thinking,’ another of Barry’s themes in Syllabus.

Barry’s concept of free reign and constructive creativity can be best summed up in the Ian McGilchrist quote next to a black water-colored winter tree, just budding blue against a grey backdrop. “The most fundamental difference between hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give the world” (qtd. in Barry 154). Barry’s Syllabus steps over the arbitrary lines that exist between image and text and, in doing so, allows the human communication at the heart of both to be understood in a powerful way.

Works Cited
Barry, Lynda. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Drawn & Quarterly, 2015. Print.

The Theory of Student Involvement for the Information Age

The Digital Humanities have a distinctive bearing on traditional pedagogical theories. This comes as no surprise. However, one specific theory, one that serves as a kind of amalgam of others while adding a crucial component, benefits from sharing the same general philosophy behind many of the DH community’s endeavors. Alexander W. Astin’s 1984 article, “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education” places student involvement with educational materials, institutions, and educators before teaching technique and approaches like the “black box,” or subject-matter theory. It is this “involvement” that has changed since Astin’s article was first published, and as DHers understand, these changes must be adapted to promote academia.

Astin’s simplistic theory is comprised of total, or as close as a student can realistically become, immersion in the collegiate, if not academic, life. The Theory of Student Involvement sees “student effort and investment of energy” as aspects that must be fostered by engaging students in learning (Astin 522). The traditional pedagogical theories of finding the right material to spark interest, or tailoring an education to fit students’  needs, all have inherent flaws. While Astin cites living on-campus and extracurricular activities as steps toward gaining students’ full involvement, internet technology adds another social level to the college experience that educators need to take advantage of. Astin states that “boredom…implying a lack of involvement” is a common reason given for dropping out of college (524). While this may be part of a student’s make-up, or due to simple disinterest in a certain discipline, the traditional ‘lecture’ approach has to claim some of the blame, especially in the information age where everything moves at the speed of thought.

The Theory of Student Involvement is not complex by any means: students that immerse themselves in all a college or university has to offer become more invested in their own educations and are more likely to complete their degrees. According to Astin, contact with the university, be it with professors, classmates, or other officials is directly related to student success. This immersion in response to boredom or tired pedagogy shares the spirit of the Digital Humanities: creating or piquing the interest of the fully connected modern student.

Works Cited
Astin, Alexander W. “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education.” Journal of College Student Development 40.5 (1999): 518-529. Print.

Thoughts on Alexander W. Astin’s “Student Involvement”

In the article “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education” Alexander W. Astin effectively outlines what he considers to be the most effective ways for students to gain the most from the academic environments they inhabit. The notion of “student involvement” is a good one. The premise here is that those students who participate in various on campus activities are more engaged with the overall experience of college, and tend to perform better.

Astin criticizes “traditional pedagogical theories” like “the subject-matter theory,” “the resource theory,” and “the individualized (ecelectic) theory” (519-21). For his own theory of “student involvement” he claims that “the factors that contributed to the student’s remaining in college suggested involvement, whereas this that contributed to the student’s dropping out implied a lack of involvement” (523). While I can agree with a student’s need for attachment to a school and a full range of experiences associated with that school contributing to their overall success as students, I find it problematic as a pedagogical exploration to rely so heavily on what the students do with their time on campus. I would argue, however, that the most important involvement that a student might experience on campus is directly related to the courses they take.

This other type of engaged involvement functions in a two-fold process. That is to say, the instructor’s involvement is directly related to the ways in which the students engage a particular course-it folds over on them. Astin writes “the most important application of the student involvement theory to teaching is that it encourages the instructor to focus less on content and teaching techniques and more on what students are actually doing” (526). He follows this immediately with the assertion that “[t]eaching is a complex art…which may suffer if the artist focuses too much on technique” (526). From a pedagogical frame, this seems ill informed. Sure, teaching is an art form- it’s multi-modal-it’s performance, it’s idea generation, it’s application, and it is hyper-aware of audience engagement that makes it real. What Astin’s article seems to be fundamentally lacking is the necessity for an instructor’s involvement in their own topic, in their own class, or in their own work-whether that is their research or their teaching is irrelevant. What is relevant is that students do not inherently know how to navigate a university. Students do not automatically know how to want to be involved. Students learn these things through their experience, and the most important experience that they have is what they get inside the classroom. It is the involved instructor who brings that energy into that space and transfers it to their students.

Astin, Alexander W. “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education.” Journal of College Student Development 1999: 40.5. Print.

 

 

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