October 17, 2007

October Fatigue Syndrome

It all seems so easy and exciting and then the assignments start coming in and it's almost SSHRC season and students need letters and things pile up....I have several topics in mind that I'd like to write up proper posts on if I had more time and energy, but I'll have to settle for the thumbnail versions for now.
  1. Blogging as a spectator sport. I remain enthusiastic about the potential blogs show for generating scholarly conversation, but now that I follow some blogs fairly regularly I am noticing that those that actually get much discussion going in the comments section are heavily dominated by a fairly small handful of contributors, most of whom seem to know each other very well and thus to be engaged in their own special game of point-counterpoint. I'm not saying that nothing of interest or value goes on, and I'm sure there's no intent to be exclusive and that what I'm seeing is partly the result of the particular blogs I've taken to watching. But it's all a bit claustrophobic in its own way, and off-putting for newcomers, or at least for me. It's kind of clubby, which seems ironic given the medium. Others offer a pretty steady stream of mildly to very interesting comments, reviews, or opinions, but again, not much goes on in the comments sections, although apparently they have hundreds of readers. (I'm not taking into account in these observations blogs that proffer primarily personal anecdote or that mostly collate links from elsewhere, or those that define themselves as literary or bookish, rather than academic, several of which I also now keep an eye on and enjoy. I'm thinking here about blogs that try to realize the idea of academic community idealized in some of the meta-discussions I've read.) All of these blogs are also American, and they reflect a particularly intense interest in relationships between academic work and the American political scene which is, of course, perfectly legitimate but not as compelling a context for people on the outside (following some of these threads has brought back unpleasant flashbacks of some of my own graduate school experiences at Cornell, back when 'culture wars' was not a historical reference...and in my imaginary longer version of this post, I meditate a bit on the differences between Canadian and American universities and wonder why there seem to be so few Canadian academics who blog).
  2. Undergraduate relativism, as discussed, for instance, in this little Chronicle piece. It is true that undergraduates are uneasy having evaluative conversations about art. I challenged my class today to argue for or against the inclusion of Lady Audley's Secret on our syllabus and though there were several remarks about books that are good to read vs. books that are good to study, nobody seemed to have much stomach for saying it just isn't very well written. In the longer (imaginary) version of this post I add a bunch of qualifications about defining "well written" and acknowledge reasons for including things in courses beyond aesthetic or formal ones (historical ones, for instance).
  3. Mark Kingwell's off-hand proposal for a grade-free university at the end of this Globe and Mail article. It's true that plagiarism is in the air (I know of three cases already being pursued in my department alone this term, and no doubt there are more), and for sure he's right that if papers weren't worth marks, there would not be much point in cheating on them, but how exactly he envisions the system working, especially given how fixated students are on credentials, rather than on the substance of their education, I have no idea. He mentions offering exams at the end of term for those who can't do without evaluation. Does he imagine something like a British-style tutorial system the rest of the time? Assignments that we comment on but don't put grades on?

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