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Recommendations for December 4, 2012

A small crop this week, as things have been crazy and, in any case, end-of-year list season is beginning, and that means there will be much to write about in the next few weeks.
Article: “The Professor: Jill Lepore’s Fatal Flaw” by Rachel Shteir
I am recommending this primarily as a kind of self-corrective. I really like Jill Lepore’s work, both her journalism and her scholarship, and I tend to assume she can do no wrong. This is quite a negative review of her new book, which I have not yet read, though I have read some of the essays it contains. I am willing to bet that this review is at least a little unfair, in part because I know that Lepore does not in fact have the kind of vendetta against popular historians that Shteir attributes to her here, and in part because I have read her book about the Tea Party, and it is quite woefully mischaracterized here. Still, I think it is important to hear criticism of the people whose ideas we find most appealing, lest we fall into the trap of defending them, personally, rather than what they have to say and how they say it. 
Blog Post: “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy” by Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky is someone I am a bit wary of; he seems to me to have a tendency to declare things to be harbingers of radical change far before there is good evidence for that kind of statement. That could very well go for this piece as well, but I still think the argument is interesting. Shirky makes a comparison between Napster and file sharing, on the one hand, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) on the other. A MOOC is an internet-based class that is open to anyone, and more and more of the most prestigious universities in the country are offering them. I tend to see this as a very positive development— more access to reliable information is always a good thing— but not something that will have a huge effect on higher education more generally. Shirky argues otherwise, and he makes several good points. He notes that our idea of what a good college course “should” be like is based on the small, elite, liberal arts college, and so does not reflect the experience of the vast majority of students, most of whom attend “the schools you’ve never heard of.” He also suggests that the recent rate of increase in the costs of attending college is unsustainable, and that, while those few who attend the elite universities like Harvard that basically guarantee success will still find it worth the price, the majority who do not will increasingly see the price as too high for a degree that gets them less and less. With that last point in mind, he says:

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

Shirky’s underlying argument is that MOOCs have let the genie out of the bottle for higher education in the same way that Napster did for the music industry, and that universities can learn from the utter dumbness of the music industry and adapt to the change these courses represent, or they can follow that industry’s downward spiral. This won’t, again, hurt all colleges: 

Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine, and Stanford, and Swarthmore, and Duke. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.

That last one, especially, is certainly nothing to mourn, but if Shirky is even partly correct, it is worth thinking through what the world of higher education would look like if it were made up of mostly MOOCs, run by a few elite institutions, who then educate the same small proportion of the population in the old fashioned way.  
Article: “Hatchet Jobs: When Bad Reviewers Go Good “ by Drew Johnson
This piece starts out being about negative reviews, and when they are interesting and useful as opposed to being simply mean. But it ends up being a kind of review essay on Geoff Dyer’s Zona and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling, two short books about single movies, and what it is that makes them interesting and useful. Ultimately, it’s a piece about what criticism can do, when it is done well— which is a favorite topic of mine— and in particular about the ways in which fictional narratives, whether written or filmed, teach us about empathy by requiring us to identify with the characters. It cannot be taken for granted, Johnson suggests, that we as “readers” (in a broad sense) necessarily know how to do this, and for any and every narrative; good criticism, or at least criticism of a certain kinds, illustrates the process by which the critic achieves empathy— or, more simply, finds a way to engage with a work— and so teaches us about how to do it ourselves. This has to be about more than “liking,” more than appreciating, and so necessarily will sometimes result in negative reviews; but those, too, can have the same kinds of effects.

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