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J.A.A. Purves

What is 21st Century Education?

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NBooth   

I'm probably in over my head here--and it's certainly a bit to the side--but I'm curious about the way you lump globalism, global orientation, and late capitalism into the same category. I know it's fairly standard to view globalization as the logical outcome of late capitalism, and [for whatever my two cents are worth] I can get behind that as far as it goes. But I'm wondering if having a "global orientation" is necessarily the same thing; i.e. can you have a global orientation without buying into late capitalism? I can imagine one scenario--a radical Marxist or socialist global anticapitalism, but that scenario seems a bit dated at this point. Perhaps a fusion of communitarianism and cosmopolitanism (I, for example, am happily a Southerner, but I'm not interested in being only a Southerner, and I certainly don't want my community to be unimpacted by--or fail to impact--other communities on the other side of the globe. Though perhaps I'm misreading the idea of "community" here). In any case, what I'm trying to get at is this: does it necessarily follow that a global orientation will fall into the late capitalist habit of reducing people to data points, or can we imagine an alternative situation? [And now that I look over this comment again, it looks like I'm largely rephrasing some stuff you've already said. Apologies.]

For that matter--is a "pure" globalist or a "pure" communitarian perspective possible? Why would purity even be desirable?

Now I'm rambling.

More to the point, this bit confuses me a little:

I'm concerned that we can't necessarily escape having a "global orientation" to our language and our profession because of current material conditions -- concerned because, as Berry writes, the idea of a "global community" or "global village" is a metaphor that could (should!) never actually exist. This may result in a rejection of "imagined communities" at a conceptual level (even though we should certainly allow students to be motivated by their own desires).

--do you mean accepting Berry might result in rejecting the idea of nations as imagined communities (I only know the phrase from Anderson) or that the inability to escape "global orientation" will lead to this rejection? And is this rejection a positive or negative shift?

[EDIT: I should add--I don't mean any of this in the form of argument; I'm not even sure it's coherent. I agree that a viewpoint that views students as money-making machines and primes them accordingly is problematic.]

[EDIT EDIT: Ok, I've re-read the original post and I think I better understand what you're getting at. The ESL thing is an interesting problem, particularly if you add Berry into the mix. I hope my comments above aren't too off-topic]

Edited by NBooth

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Joel   

You're not off-base at all -- I am being loosey-goosey with some terms, and others I'm using in ways that are probably peculiar to my specialization. (Which I'm sure Berry wouldn't be down with. But hey, he doesn't even have a computer.) But I appreciate any discussion of this in a more general way also, about education, literacy, teaching of writing, etc. I'm still trying to figure out what I think about it.

So: yes, I'm lumping together all terms like late capitalism, neoliberalism, global capitalism, etc. into one big thing. I could probably be clearer about this if I knew the theory better. I'm basically taking Berry's idea -- which I think is that the world is now set up to benefit corporations and governments and big cities, and screw rural people who have resources that would have otherwise benefitted them in the actual places where they live -- for granted. Maybe he's wrong, though.

When I talk about a "global orientation" I'm talking about education being gung ho about a discourse that says we need to educate students to be "global citizens," to cultivate skills that will allow them to succeed in a globalized, digitized workforce, and so on. This isn't a terrible idea, but there's a sense of what we (and maybe others?) call "instrumental motivation" there -- education is primarily to make us into people who function in the current economic order, or what have you. People certainly kick against this, but there's a sense -- I think I alluded to this earlier -- that there is a great good in educating people to be this imaginary cosmopolitan "global citizen." This is kind of troubling because I think this kind of person can become unmoored from things that matter. I think this because I notice it about myself.

I'm also specifically talking about "English as an international language" ideology, or English language teachers promoting English as a 'global language' rather than getting specific about local language practices and needs*. English is an international language, but it's also an elitist one, which leads to some problems.

Imagined communities here come into ESL, though it could be applicable to any studies of education and identity. Some years ago, we in ESL appropriated ICs from Anderson (actually via one of my professors here at UBC) and used them as a way to describe students' "investment" in language learning. Students would learn to the extent that they felt their identities as members of certain communities -- and even if not recognized by others as legitimate, and hence 'imagined' -- were affirmed in classroom or institutional practices. An engineer from the Ukraine comes to Canada, but has to get a job as a janitor and is treated like 'a janitor' in her ESL class, for example. There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but again I think it gets connected to this idealized 'English-using global citizen' that I find troubling for some reason. (Probably because access to and facility with English is an enormous source of inequality in many places.)

So what I think I mean, and thank you for asking for this clarification, is that I think if we use Berry we might reject this imagined neoliberal 'global citizen' identity that I think is sometimes unthinkingly promoted in education. (Then again, I just finished writing a job application where I kind of disregarded all of this. Like I said, I'm still thinking about it.)

* I should say that actually some of the ESL teachers most attuned with the local in this way are evangelical missionaries, which is a whole other discussion probably.

Edited by Joel

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NBooth   

So: yes, I'm lumping together all terms like late capitalism, neoliberalism, global capitalism, etc. into one big thing. I could probably be clearer about this if I knew the theory better. I'm basically taking Berry's idea -- which I think is that the world is now set up to benefit corporations and governments and big cities, and screw rural people who have resources that would have otherwise benefitted them in the actual places where they live -- for granted. Maybe he's wrong, though.

Not wrong, I think, though his thesis could be complicated (and this is something of which I'm sure you're aware) by the demonstrable good that does accrue to rural people as the result of globalism (I'm thinking projects to get fresh water and medical care to isolated villages, increased opportunity, etc). Globalization seems to me to be a pretty mixed bag, all things considered.

When I talk about a "global orientation" I'm talking about education being gung ho about a discourse that says we need to educate students to be "global citizens," to cultivate skills that will allow them to succeed in a globalized, digitized workforce, and so on. This isn't a terrible idea, but there's a sense of what we (and maybe others?) call "instrumental motivation" there -- education is primarily to make us into people who function in the current economic order, or what have you. People certainly kick against this, but there's a sense -- I think I alluded to this earlier -- that there is a great good in educating people to be this imaginary cosmopolitan "global citizen." This is kind of troubling because I think this kind of person can become unmoored from things that matter. I think this because I notice it about myself.

I'm also specifically talking about "English as an international language" ideology, or English language teachers promoting English as a 'global language' rather than getting specific about local language practices and needs*. English is an international language, but it's also an elitist one, which leads to some problems.

[nods]

Imagined communities here come into ESL, though it could be applicable to any studies of education and identity. Some years ago, we in ESL appropriated ICs from Anderson (actually via one of my professors here at UBC) and used them as a way to describe students' "investment" in language learning. Students would learn to the extent that they felt their identities as members of certain communities -- and even if not recognized by others as legitimate, and hence 'imagined' -- were affirmed in classroom or institutional practices. An engineer from the Ukraine comes to Canada, but has to get a job as a janitor and is treated like 'a janitor' in her ESL class, for example. There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but again I think it gets connected to this idealized 'English-using global citizen' that I find troubling for some reason. (Probably because access to and facility with English is an enormous source of inequality in many places.)

This is helpful. I tend to think of Anderson in terms of nation-formation and the resultant literary/cultural constructs that make up the "imagined community" of, say, the US (with the understanding that "imagined" doesn't mean "unreal"). So seeing how IC is used in ESL is useful.

So what I think I mean, and thank you for asking for this clarification, is that I think if we use Berry we might reject this imagined neoliberal 'global citizen' identity that I think is sometimes unthinkingly promoted in education.

Gotcha. If I understand you correctly (and forgive me if I'm painfully restating the obvious; I'm not an ESL person, so trying to wrap my head around the implications is a bit of a stretch) the problem here not that the community is imagined (since all communities that aren't based on immediate kinship-ties are in some ways imagined--though I'm probably doing violence to Anderson here), but that the imagined communities seem to be formed [a] around English as a kind of lingua franca, and around the idea of earning-power as constitutive of identity. Or have I missed the boat?

What would a community-based ESL project look like? Presumably it would involve things like giving back to the local community, maintaining ties to the homeland, etc--right? Although you still have the specter of English-as-a-way-to-increase-earning-potential even then, although the focus has shifted from the individual as defined by earning potential to the individual as helping/maintaining community, no? [secondary question: would these concerns operate in reverse? For instance, an English speaker learning Spanish or Mandarin Chinese in order to increase his/her marketability on the global scale. I think it's becoming clear that one or both of these languages will in the next fifty years or so become essential to native English speakers if they want to compete in the global marketplace.] The question seems to be: are there any non-market reasons for teaching English [or Spanish or Mandarin Chinese] and, if so, how can they be defended in a world that increasingly views the bottom-line as the sine qua non of all education?

[i should note that, as a literature person, I feel these same pressures--albeit in very different ways, since with literature the question isn't just "are there alternative ways of framing the education" but "can this sort of study be framed in such a way that does promise market-based rewards?" So I find myself having to discover market-based justifications for studying literature while at the same time negating them because that's not what literature is about.]

Edited by NBooth

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I don't know if I could blame the global economy for increased specialization and advanced vocational training in education. Industrialization and capitalism combined with progressive and utilitarian thinking are all to blame for tossing out the old curriculum long before there was all this talk about globalization. Dorothy Sayers was trying to combat the replacement of the trivium with isolated "subjects" back in 1947. Progressive reformers were arguing that classical education was indulgent and impractical in the early 1900s. Business influence was encouraging schools to begin teaching "useful" subjects like Accounting and Management in the late 1800s. During the early 1800s, the Romantic poets were decrying the destruction of local community by industrialization.

Look to Robert M. Hutchins's for more on this; some of the drastic changes he made to the University of Chicago for his brief term as chancellor were rooted in decades worth of abuse for classical curriculum. "Vocationalism" has been seeping into higher education since land-grant universities started popping up in the 1800s, but I think one major event that really changed everything was the G.I. Bill. This led to the multiversity (as Clark Kerr would call it) and — though many good things came out colleges trying to be everything to everyone — led to a lot of problems we're seeing now.

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Joel   

Maybe, but I think the opposite is also likely to happen, as long as allegedly progressive people seem to think that you can basically get a college education by watching TED talks. There seems to be a further move toward global networks and online learning: distance education, MOOCs, the aggressive internationalization of universities (international students = $$), etc

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Our discipline is saturated in 'global village' thinking and I have a lot of reservations about that ... I'm interested in both our view of the English language and what it means to teach/learn it, and how we can teach students in a way that doesn't encourage a view of humanity based on economic value.

If you keep studying this, I would bet that your "reservations" will eventually solidify and organize themselves into passionate convictions. Market thinking, global or technological or otherwise, is not the basis upon which education should be organized, let alone the teaching of language. English, and literature, have never historically been improved upon by economic or business models. I haven't the foggiest why on earth global economic forces should change the method of properly teaching the English language. As I understand it, the teaching of language is best oriented towards human nature. Those who understand human nature best are going to teach language best. Yes, citizens who can express themselves clearly and creatively in good English prose are going to be more useful in the business world than those who can't. But that applies to everything. As far as how teachers ought to teach language, global economic forces should have nothing to do with it.

When I talk about a "global orientation" I'm talking about education being gung ho about a discourse that says we need to educate students to be "global citizens," to cultivate skills that will allow them to succeed in a globalized, digitized workforce, and so on. This isn't a terrible idea, but there's a sense of what we (and maybe others?) call "instrumental motivation" there -- education is primarily to make us into people who function in the current economic order, or what have you.

To say that education should have students develop skills to succeed in life is to be completely and utterly redundant. There is nothing original or new here. To say that the global economy or technological invention has changed how human beings learn is, in my opinion, complete nonsense. There is another name for this point of view that you are struggling with, actually. It's called Utilitarianism. The global digital cheerleaders advocating to replacing real teaching with what is supposed to be more "useful" teaching are mere updated equivalents of Jeremy Betham and John Dewey.

The question seems to be: are there any non-market reasons for teaching English [or Spanish or Mandarin Chinese] and, if so, how can they be defended in a world that increasingly views the bottom-line as the sine qua non of all education?

[i should note that, as a literature person, I feel these same pressures--albeit in very different ways, since with literature the question isn't just "are there alternative ways of framing the education" but "can this sort of study be framed in such a way that does promise market-based rewards?" So I find myself having to discover market-based justifications for studying literature while at the same time negating them because that's not what literature is about.]

I think the answer to your question is to be found in the presuppositions on which the trivium and quadrivium classical educational model was based. Utility is not the basis upon which we learn something like literature. To argue that it ought to be is to argue a reductionist view of human nature. To think that we ought to "frame" or "justify" the teaching of literature in a different way so that it has better market-based rewards is an idea that Socrates would have shredded with pleasure. It's amazing how different the consequences are when education is viewed as the means to acquire marketable qualifications you need to get a job instead of viewed as the cultivation of the learning tools that can be critically applied to everything else besides only the economic world. Remembering some of our past discussions, I will say that many conservatives are just as guilty of encouraging the market-based utilitarian approach to education as liberals are of encouraging the 20th century progressive reforms in education. Both have the same consequence of devaluing and decreasing the teaching of Homer, Shakespeare & company.

Look to Robert M. Hutchins's for more on this; some of the drastic changes he made to the University of Chicago for his brief term as chancellor were rooted in decades worth of abuse for classical curriculum. "Vocationalism" has been seeping into higher education since land-grant universities started popping up in the 1800s, but I think one major event that really changed everything was the G.I. Bill. This led to the multiversity (as Clark Kerr would call it) and — though many good things came out colleges trying to be everything to everyone — led to a lot of problems we're seeing now.

It's funny you should mention Hutchins because I was just reading about him and Mortimer J. Adler in Russell Jacoby's book, Dogmatic Wisdom. It sounds to me like Hutchins did understand a few things that modern education was getting wrong. A core curriculum can be of far greater value than an elective system of classes. When the free market system is introduced into university education so that the demand of students as consumers determines which classes and subjects are supplied by the university, then there is no such thing as a core curriculum. Since students who haven't received a university education yet are not going to necessarily know what the best university education is, allowing them to determine what it is by mere supply and demand is not going to solve anything.

Jacoby's comments on the topic are interesting because he explains this conflict, and then explains how Hutchins' and Adler's "Great Books" idea eventually became commercialized and controlled by market forces itself.

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It's funny you should mention Hutchins because I was just reading about him and Mortimer J. Adler in Russell Jacoby's book, Dogmatic Wisdom. It sounds to me like Hutchins did understand a few things that modern education was getting wrong. A core curriculum can be of far greater value than an elective system of classes. When the free market system is introduced into university education so that the demand of students as consumers determines which classes and subjects are supplied by the university, then there is no such thing as a core curriculum. Since students who haven't received a university education yet are not going to necessarily know what the best university education is, allowing them to determine what it is by mere supply and demand is not going to solve anything.

I'd really recommend Hutchins's The Higher Learning in America; it's a short, challenging read, and has a lot of good ideas. The more I study higher education, the more I understand how infinitely complex some of the problems are with higher learning. Hutchins touches on some of the key issues at heart, though. (As does John Henry Newman, and some others.)

The institution that employees me has a core humanities program that serves as skeleton for the rest of the programs (12 credits of humanities, with 9 required and 3 chosen from a small elective pool; plus 9 credits of Old/New Testament courses). Worst case scenario: we have a large number of students that just grumble and complain that they have this lame hurdle between them and their degree (which, to them, just means "job"). Best case scenario: students see how the humanities/Bible core tie into every class in their majors, and really "get it." I'm thankful the second scenario happens a fair bit, though seeing the first scenario in action (and it is, always) is really discouraging.

And yes, Jacoby is right: I think there's a lot to applaud about a classical education, but I'm often skeptical of the colleges that currently utilize the model.

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NBooth   

The question seems to be: are there any non-market reasons for teaching English [or Spanish or Mandarin Chinese] and, if so, how can they be defended in a world that increasingly views the bottom-line as the sine qua non of all education?

[i should note that, as a literature person, I feel these same pressures--albeit in very different ways, since with literature the question isn't just "are there alternative ways of framing the education" but "can this sort of study be framed in such a way that does promise market-based rewards?" So I find myself having to discover market-based justifications for studying literature while at the same time negating them because that's not what literature is about.]

I think the answer to your question is to be found in the presuppositions on which the trivium and quadrivium classical educational model was based.

That's quite a leap. For one thing, it presumes that the "classical education" model is a superior model (which hasn't been established); for another, it supposes that classical education has been abandoned outright. It hasn't, at least not at the college level. I just spent two class sections lecturing my students on the Rhetorical Triangle--a hoary old device that dates back to Aristotle. This isn't an innovation on my part; it's standard in composition classes across my university (and, I presume, others). The fact that we don't do things the same way doesn't imply [a] that we do them worse, or that we've totally and utterly abandoned everything before Dewey. From what I can see, the structure was abandoned, but much of the content has pretty much been re-absorbed by other disciplines.

(This comment has nothing to do with high school education, of which I know nothing).

Utility is not the basis upon which we learn something like literature. To argue that it ought to be is to argue a reductionist view of human nature. To think that we ought to "frame" or "justify" the teaching of literature in a different way so that it has better market-based rewards is an idea that Socrates would have shredded with pleasure. It's amazing how different the consequences are when education is viewed as the means to acquire marketable qualifications you need to get a job instead of viewed as the cultivation of the learning tools that can be critically applied to everything else besides only the economic world.

I think you're reading my "is" as an "ought." It's not that I think we should be justifying things based on market-based rewards. That's just the demand made. And no amount of citing Socrates (or Hegel or Heidegger or Marx or Zizek) will change the problem that in the world of brute facts that's a situation we do face. This isn't a question of getting the "theory" right--not for me, and I suspect not for most educators/educators-to-be on this board. It's a question of navigating a set of real-world demands while maintaining what we all consider to be essential in the education we offer.

Remembering some of our past discussions, I will say that many conservatives are just as guilty of encouraging the market-based utilitarian approach to education as liberals are of encouraging the 20th century progressive reforms in education. Both have the same consequence of devaluing and decreasing the teaching of Homer, Shakespeare & company.

Hold on, now. Are we talking at the college level? Because I'm pretty certain it's hard to get through the USian education system without reading some Shakespeare (or, at least, being asked to). Heck, at UA I've personally witnessed an American Lit. I course that required students to read The Tempest. Homer, maybe not so much--although the way curriculums (curricula?) are set up, students are required to take at least one humanities course, so the chance of them getting some Homer is pretty good, too. The problem often has to do (as Jason points out) with the attitude of the students. And that's outside our control. But that's where the problem of "justification" comes in. Educators are in a peculiar position w/r/t students (and the parents of students!) Students have come to expect certain social/economic rewards for education, and so they [quite rightly] ask what reading Shakespeare has to do with those rewards, if they're never going to "use" it. Responding "Oh, it'll make you a good person" is actually less helpful than one would think (see: Eagleton, Terry). Pointing out the skills it will give them in the real world might seem like a safer bet, but it really isn't. Thus the double-bind I outlined: arguing at the same time that "oh, this will help you in x, y, and z material ways" and "you shouldn't think of education like that." Think of it as a honey-trap.

EDIT: BTW, what college is it that's eliminated the core curriculum? California? Because every college I've ever looked at has a core of some sort. UA has a core.It allows for a lot of pick-and-choose, but it's also pretty structured. Same with the Community College system in Alabama. Same with Covenant College. This terrible "free market for students" thing hasn't existed in any educational system I've looked at; they allow for some choice (i.e. "take three humanities courses out of this list") but the core certainly has to be filled. [This news story suggests that core curriculum are vanishing...in 1996. Apparently Texas has a new core that's a bit simpler and based on employer expectations--but it ain't being implemented by educators, liberal or conservative; instead, it comes from the co-ordinating board of the state of Texas. So we can't blame poor Dewey for that. CUNY is having some issues with its core right now. But, again, the question is not "should there be a core?" but "what kind of core is it?" Which is a political question, not a theoretical one, one which that no amount of wistful remembrance of the golden age of the trivium will address. Again, the question is "how do we navigate the waters in which we find ourselves," not "wouldn't it be nice if we could go back in time and punch Dewey [metaphorically] in the nose?"]

EDIT EDIT: I should emphasize--I do object to the monetizing of education's value--particularly when it comes to the Humanities. I do think it's a problem when literature courses/language instruction is modified to re-orient to be more "practical." But I don't think sweeping generalizations about how evil Dewey was or how much better a so-called "classical" education was do much to help the key issue, which is one of mechanics: how do we as educators navigate the world we're in? How much can we adapt before the adaptation becomes a betrayal of our core values?

I suspect the answer would be different for every instructor. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

On a slightly different note, the Chronicle of Higher Education links to a report on instructors' views w/r/t technology in the classroom. Quoth the Chronicle:

“There is little or no indication that innovative pedagogy motivates technological use in the classroom, which sort of flies in the face of how the use of information-based instructional technologies is usually presented,” said David R. Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Georgia and the study’s author.

Instead, the report suggests, technology is more often used by professors for managerial reasons, such as to help with the demands of growing class sizes. While Mr. Johnson said most college administrators are not yet requiring professors to use instructional technologies, the pressure of teaching more than 300 students at once, for example, leads faculty members to adopt technology in ways unrelated to improving learning.

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Joel   

Forgive me for continuing to shoehorn my own speciality into this discussion, but several things have popped up in the last few days that have made me think more about this, and think that a critique of 'cosmopolitanism' (the current buzzword, I think) is necessary. First, there's this: "Toward a Critical Multilingualism in Canadian Classrooms: Making Local Inroads into a Cosmopolitan Identity":

Drawing on recent work on cosmopolitanism, global citizenship, and critical applied linguistics, this article examines the concept of cosmopolitanism as a viable goal in education in Canada. Particular attention is paid to the inclusion of global citizenship objectives in K-12 language programs in general and in heritage language (HL) curricula in particular. I make a case for consideration of the concept of cosmopolitanism as a key guiding principle at diverse levels of education in formal, non-formal, and informal settings. I argue that in the Canadian context, multilingual education could play a more prominent role in educational agendas as it has the potential to promote cosmopolitan ideals. I conclude that in the framework of official bilingualism and multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism can fruitfully add to discussions about the role of education in the emergence of a Canadian identity.

And this new book, Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations:

Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations introduces a new way of looking at the use of English within a global context. Challenging traditional approaches in second language acquisition and English language teaching, this book incorporates recent advances in multilingual studies, sociolinguistics, and new literacy studies to articulate a new perspective on this area. Canagarajah argues that multilinguals merge their own languages and values into English, which opens up various negotiation strategies that help them decode other unique varieties of English and construct new norms.

I respect both of these authors and agree with some of their ideas, but I still want to suggest that there is more to be said about promoting rootedness and place and that there can be a pushback against 'cosmopolitanism'. Actually, I think Canagarajah is more likely to promote "the local" within the ideas he's describing, but I haven't had a chance to read this book yet.

Edited by Joel

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NBooth   

I respect both of these authors and agree with some of their ideas, but I still want to suggest that there is more to be said about promoting rootedness and place and that there can be a pushback against 'cosmopolitanism'. Actually, I think Canagarajah is more likely to promote "the local" within the ideas he's describing, but I haven't had a chance to read this book yet.

Bolding mine, obviously. This is where my rambling comments above seem to find a sharper point (in my mind, anyway): I'm not sure it's helpful to argue that our choice is either cosmopolitanism or rootedness; it seems to me that the two feed off each other. You can't really be very cosmopolitan if you're shedding whatever rooted identity you had to begin with (and this is besides the kind fact that one has to be rooted somewhere. It's not like we can blithely shrug off all local ties, even if we leave our homeland. Humans aren't built that way); and, increasingly, you can't really be local in a "pure" sense at all. There's always going to be something not-local tugging at you, changing the local itself (and, I would submit, an unchanging local is an undesirable locale).

[i guess, put as a question, I would ask whether your objection is to cosmopolitanism qua cosmopolitanism, or to a kind of "pure" cosmopolitanism? In which case--does such a thing exist outside of theory--and I don't mean that to sound as teeth-bared as it looks; I'm just thinking of the ways in which, for instance, English has changed over the years as the result of people adding to and dropping bits of the local--as well as moving under the pressure of social change, etc]

___________________

On another note, Big Think asks whether Big Research Institutions are the ideal learning environment for undergrads--and then goes off in an interesting direction:

The “undergraduate research” model may make some sense in the “hard sciences,” but it distorts the social sciences and the humanities in ways that might actually undermine the singular claims of liberal arts colleges. I asked a fine biology professor here at my college about the ten best books in his field. He responded: There really aren’t any books, but I can tell you about the ten best “papers.” That means, of course, that the sciences aren’t really oriented by the achievements of the past—by Aristotle or Newton or whomever—but mainly build on the assumptions of the reigning “paradigm,” which they believe they have good reasons to believe is superior to its predecessors.

But to treat, say, political science as a science in that way is a profound disservice to students. They come to believe that the road to the cutting edge doesn’t require the careful mastery of a huge number of great or at least “real books,” and they come to specialize too quickly in order to a “research contribution” too easily. What they’re bypassing, of course, is “liberal education”—which means Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Tocqueville, The Federalist, and such. (This bypassing tendency is even found in what should be in the more traditional discipline of "Englilsh" or literature. Being on the cutting edge means being in touch with the latest form of critical theory--with, say, Derrida. But Derrida himself wrote read Aristotle for ten years and Nietzsche than another ten, then you might be ready to really benefit from reading me.)

[snip]

This dissing of liberal education ends up feeding off itself. Students go on to grad school too eager to get right down to publishing without knowing all that much. They return to liberal arts colleges hyper-specialized and without the broad knowledge that comes through broad reading. So they want to teach their specialization and little more to undergrads, and they want them to their students to be competent little researchers like themselves That means, in fact, that our professors and students know more and more about less and less, and they become progressively less equipped to prepare students and anyone else they might influence to become anything more than “specialists without heart.”

Edited by NBooth

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Joel   

Bolding mine, obviously. This is where my rambling comments above seem to find a sharper point (in my mind, anyway): I'm not sure it's helpful to argue that our choice is either cosmopolitanism or rootedness; it seems to me that the two feed off each other. You can't really be very cosmopolitan if you're shedding whatever rooted identity you had to begin with (and this is besides the kind fact that one has to be rooted somewhere. It's not like we can blithely shrug off all local ties, even if we leave our homeland. Humans aren't built that way); and, increasingly, you can't really be local in a "pure" sense at all. There's always going to be something not-local tugging at you, changing the local itself (and, I would submit, an unchanging local is an undesirable locale).

I'm finally starting to get this, after doing some reading about cosmopolitanism (like Canagarajah's "The Possibility of a Community of Difference"). I've been reading so much Berry, and he is so relentless in his bashing of transnationalism and his promotion of people being farmers and knowing their neighbors, that I've been wary of any notion related to globalization. (The first article above actually does a lot of really good work defining terms like transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, etc.) But I'm starting to make peace with cosmopolitanism, even if I might ultimately argue that it is less necessary as a value in education than, say, a concept like 'neighborliness' or something like that.

The argument against specialization in the article you quoted is really interesting. I think that most of us are wary of the pull toward specialization even as we see the way the academic job market allegedly demands it.

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Joel   

Can't remember if we've talked about this: MOOCs have a 90% dropout rate, but this article briefly suggests it's necessary to investigate why people sign up (and why some of them finish, I suppose) in the first place.

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The argument against specialization in the article you quoted is really interesting. I think that most of us are wary of the pull toward specialization even as we see the way the academic job market allegedly demands it.

Here's a good little story I recently heard on NPR that suggests the market isn't necessarily demanding it.

On another note, some of my conservative friends are freaking out about the new "student tracking database" being implemented over at the Department of Education. Michelle Malkin writes how it is being promoted and funded by both liberals and conservatives. The main criticism it's receiving is that it violates privacy and is an increase in Big Brother's ability to collect data about our lives. I find this criticism unconvincing. However, Joy Pullman quotes the DOE's lingo, and it's full of nonsense:

The department recommends schools start tracking and teaching kids not just boring old knowledge but also "21st Century Competencies" – "recognizing bias in sources," "flexibility," "cultural awareness and competence," "appreciation for diversity," "collaboration, teamwork, cooperation," "empathy," "perspective taking, trust, service orientation," and "social influence with others."

This is the sort of thinking that is useless. But then:

The report suggests researching how to measure and monitor these student attributes using "data mining" techniques and even functional magnetic resonance imaging, although it concedes "devices that measure EEG and skin conductance may not be practical for use in the classroom." It delightedly discusses experiments on how kids respond to computer tutors, using cameras to judge facial expressions, an electronic seat that judges posture, a pressure-sensitive computer mouse and a biometric wrap on kids' wrists.

Really? This is what we're spending money on right now? The main criticism against this isn't that it's Orwellian, but that it's a huge waste of time and resources on something that only science fiction fans, divorced from the real world, would think actually useful in the classroom. Anyone remotely connected with the state of our current education system should know that "electronic seats" and "biometric wraps" are not what we need to be financing in our schools or paying tens of thousands of dollars to research right now.

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Really? This is what we're spending money on right now? The main criticism against this isn't that it's Orwellian, but that it's a huge waste of time and resources on something that only science fiction fans, divorced from the real world, would think actually useful in the classroom. Anyone remotely connected with the state of our current education system should know that "electronic seats" and "biometric wraps" are not what we need to be financing in our schools or paying tens of thousands of dollars to research right now.

Knowing some of the more bureaucratically minded people at my institution, I don't agree with the last sentence. The amount of money (often simply in the form of wasted time) devoted to webinars and "new initiatives that might increase enrollment!" is absurd. It's not a huge leap to, well, the nonsense above.

Edited by Jason Panella

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NBooth   

The argument against specialization in the article you quoted is really interesting. I think that most of us are wary of the pull toward specialization even as we see the way the academic job market allegedly demands it.

Here's a good little story I recently heard on NPR that suggests the market isn't necessarily demanding it.

From where I sit, it's kind of a double-bind: specialization is good, but not too much. For all the "liberal academia" jargon, it seems to me that the field is actually very conservative--you can be interested in (just f'rinstance) American Genre Fiction of the 20s and 30s, but writing a dissertation on it could get you in a position where no one wants to hire you precisely because you're too specialized in a field no one else really cares about. So you have to make a pitch that includes accepted/established areas of study (and Women's Studies and African American studies are pretty much part of the Established Order of Things, pace Epstein--not young upstarts anymore, these fields are the Old Guard). So it's a tightrope that has to be walked (tightropes are not bad, but they're tight. And they're ropes).

As far as undergrads--we've been making the case for ages that a good education in the Liberal Arts is more helpful than specialization; I remember Covenant making the case when I was starting my own undergraduate career [admittedly not that long ago, although it feels much longer ago than it really is]--the idea being this: generalize at the B.A. level, specialize at the M.A. (and, actually, some professors in my current institution even suggest generalizing at the M.A. level and not really specializing until Ph.D). Employers have been saying it; educators have been saying it; it may not be the market itself that demands specialization for undergrads, but the general cultural feeling (and the general culture runs on feelings) is that students should do something "practical" and not waste time focusing on the Humanities. I suspect it has less to do with the market and more to do with [in the U.S. at least] a historic anti-intellectual streak that goes right back to the nation's founding, running right alongside the Founders' affection for science and philosophy (the French Romantics, I think, were very disappointed that the newly-founded U.S. was so concerned with practicality as opposed to fine feeling or any of that stuff. And, of course, the prototypical American figure is Brother Jonathan--shrewd, savvy, not an intellectual but keen in the way of making money). Whether or not we can generalize that out to Late Capitalism on a global scale is, I suppose, an open question.

[And Oy! Lay off the s.f. fans. Remember, it was Jules Verne who predicted submarine warfare. Dreaming impossible futures is the secret to making them possible. Though in this case I agree--these biometric gadgets are the equivalent of the food pills s.f. authors like Asimov were predicting in the Fifties]

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As far as undergrads--we've been making the case for ages that a good education in the Liberal Arts is more helpful than specialization; I remember Covenant making the case when I was starting my own undergraduate career [admittedly not that long ago, although it feels much longer ago than it really is]--the idea being this: generalize at the B.A. level, specialize at the M.A. (and, actually, some professors in my current institution even suggest generalizing at the M.A. level and not really specializing until Ph.D). Employers have been saying it; educators have been saying it; it may not be the market itself that demands specialization for undergrads, but the general cultural feeling (and the general culture runs on feelings) is that students should do something "practical" and not waste time focusing on the Humanities. I suspect it has less to do with the market and more to do with [in the U.S. at least] a historic anti-intellectual streak that goes right back to the nation's founding, running right alongside the Founders' affection for science and philosophy (the French Romantics

Oh boy, what you said. I'll even add that — at least in my experience — there's a mindset (in the general public as well as in college administration) that "generalization" = business degree. Because, they reason, you can get a job with that...and do that artsy stuff on the side, if you want to have your hobbies. That said, it varies from institution to institution, community to community. I live in a very blue collar area that's feared them high-fallutin' intellectuals for generations, and the mindset has been absorbed by the the very people who should be combating it. I apologize if I keep harping on "businessmen" or whathaveyou, but it's sometimes hard for me to turn off the part of my brain that makes me froth at the mouth over this.

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NBooth   

I can appreciate this bit:

With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said.

It's true. I have a fairly small number of students (UA keeps composition courses limited to 24 students apiece), but even that number makes it difficult to read and comment on assignments. The idea that a computer could run the grades is very tempting.

On the other hand, I'm really curious about how well this system measures development of ideas. Students come in expecting to be drilled in grammar, but the focus is really on effective construction of arguments and utilization of sources. I can imagine that some sort of self-teaching computer program would be able to evaluate ideas, but I don't think (then again, I'm no computer person) that we've reached that level of sophistication. So the danger is that we'll turn out a number of perfectly-composing and absolutely empty students--which is the very opposite of what's supposed to be going on at the college level, right?

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Another point to consider is that composition writing is supposed to be a skill mastered in secondary school.

I think every professor wishes that their students' writing was better, but this has always been an issue in higher education (the first-year composition requirement dates back centuries due to students "poor writing"). But I think your statement has two troubling notions: that composition writing, or any type of writing, is just a "skill;" and that this kind of writing can be mastered.

Edited by Jason Panella

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NBooth   

I think every professor wishes that their students' writing was better, but this has always been an issue in higher education (the first-year composition requirement dates back centuries due to students "poor writing").

Good point.

But I think your statement has two troubling notions: that composition writing, or any type of writing, is just a "skill;" and that this kind of writing can be mastered.

I've developed mixed feelings about this over the past year or so. On the one hand--no amount of drilling or what-have-you will prepare students to write on the level of, say, a Nabokov or a Chesterton or a Vidal. Or even on the level of a college senior. That takes practice and close attention that (frankly) many of them aren't able or willing to give at this point. On the other hand, there is something purely mechanical about writing that can be mastered as a kind of skill. To take a banal example, getting subjects and verbs to agree isn't an opaque concept that requires years of studied attention; it takes a five second check.

Similarly (though at a different level), a student may not be able to construct sophisticated [oh, there's another buzzword I'm beginning to hate!] arguments just because s/he has memorized some rules for argumentation. But, at its core, an argument is a pretty mechanical thing (at least, the way it's taught at the freshman level, and I would be willing to argue even beyond that), and slotting the bits and pieces into place does require a kind of "mastery" of a "skill." Balancing this understanding of writing with a less mechanistic one has been one of my own personal pedagogical challenges in my first year of teaching composition, and I've not found the right trade-off yet.

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I've developed mixed feelings about this over the past year or so. On the one hand--no amount of drilling or what-have-you will prepare students to write on the level of, say, a Nabokov or a Chesterton or a Vidal. Or even on the level of a college senior. That takes practice and close attention that (frankly) many of them aren't able or willing to give at this point. On the other hand, there is something purely mechanical about writing that can be mastered as a kind of skill. To take a banal example, getting subjects and verbs to agree isn't an opaque concept that requires years of studied attention; it takes a five second check.

Similarly (though at a different level), a student may not be able to construct sophisticated [oh, there's another buzzword I'm beginning to hate!] arguments just because s/he has memorized some rules for argumentation. But, at its core, an argument is a pretty mechanical thing (at least, the way it's taught at the freshman level, and I would be willing to argue even beyond that), and slotting the bits and pieces into place does require a kind of "mastery" of a "skill." Balancing this understanding of writing with a less mechanistic one has been one of my own personal pedagogical challenges in my first year of teaching composition, and I've not found the right trade-off yet.

These are all good points, Nathaniel, and I don't disagree. With my "just a skill" comment, I would liken it to how many people consider higher education to be just a business, and faculty just employees. They are (or should be, in my opinion!) something more. There is a skill-related aspect to writing, but I think it's a lot more, too.

I'm neck-deep in the transcription process for my graduate capstone project, which is focusing on best practices for the evaluation of student writing at my institution. The basic, innate mechanics of writing ("grammar 1," as Patrick Hartwell called it) are things you can and should learn, and things many college students tend to flub. But I think the mastery of composition writing — or maybe more accurately the mastery of response essay writing — is something some students take too far. So far that they try to shoehorn their mastery into other forms of academic writing, much to the chagrin of professors from non-humanities disciplines.

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I don't understand how composition writing is now equated with "writing," if only to argue that because one cannot master writing, then one cannot master composition writing. Composition writing is not very difficult to master. You have a set of introductory paragraphs leading to your thesis statement, a body of paragraphs which explain each supporting point of your thesis statement, and a set of ending paragraphs which recapitulate your thesis statement and offer something more, such as further points for discussion. There may be different patterns of composition (comparison and contrast, etc.), and there may be more specialized forms (such as the term paper), but the main outline (introduction with thesis, body of evidence, conclusion) is generally followed.

Whether you agree with it or not, composition studies (as in, composition writing is more than a Mad Libs formula where you fill in the blanks with some other discipline's raw matter) have been a thing in higher education since the 1970s in the United States. Though, judging from some of your word choices, I'm guessing you're not from the US?

That said, yes, basic writing skills should be grasped early on. And yes, a frustrating number of college first-year students seem to lack the ability to string several thoughts together on paper. But as the writing across the curriculum movement gains a bigger foothold, maybe they should just drop the basic comp model? Especially if different disciplines are just having students re-learn how to write within that academic tradition.

Edited by Jason Panella

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Joel   

[before I write whatever I'm going to write here, FYI, my field is second language writing, which is heavily informed by composition studies.]

I'm not quite grasping the discussion of "composition writing" here either. Sure, students learn to write ye olde five paragraph essay in high school, or should. (Thought I'm told that longer writing assignments are increasingly rare in high school -- "nothing longer than a page" is something I've heard from some high school teachers.) But the writing students are required to do by their professors in college is qualitatively not the same kind of writing they learn in secondary school. There is some problem with articulation between the two, yes, but the reason first-year composition courses or something like them are taught at every university in North America is that students need training in crafting sustained arguments, understanding different academic genres, judiciously using sources (this is really important, and very few people starting college are aware of the expectations), etc.

I do a lot of work with students who have trained for years to write short, pithy argumentative essays in responses to prompts for standardized tests (TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, etc). They can write nearly flawless "compositions" as defined by Ralfy, but they are utterly lost when writing a beginning arts or social sciences course paper.

Several things mentioned above are really interesting to me as an applied linguist/comp person, because I come from a perspective that pretty aggressively approaches academic writing as a practice that needs to be more or less mastered (or at least, something people need to be socialized into) in order to allow people to move through their academic careers successfully. (I get why you're not cool with calling writing "just a skill," Jason, but I think I also get that you're not saying it's not a skill.) I majored in English lit and creative writing as an undergrad, but the linking of college writing or FYC with the humanities or 'creative' writing actually feels kind of bizarre to me now.

In general, in the wider discussion about the teaching of writing in any educational context, I want to see more people getting into the nitty gritty of what we mean when we say "writing," because we have vastly different traditions that all have some claim on the teaching of some form of writing. Writing in universities can be taught by people who predominately have training in any one of the areas of literature, creative writing, rhet/comp, and (applied) linguistics. Those fields are all in some way related to "English" but I think we are trained in different things, we have different opinions of what writing is and should do, and why students should learn how to do it, and what we are training them to be able to do. That's one reason it's almost impossible to talk to anyone about what "good writing" is unless you really narrow down exactly what kind of writing you're talking about.

Tim Mayers' book (Re)Writing Craft gets at this a little bit, but I'm still looking for more discussion of differing perspectives on writing.

(PS, Would love to hear more about your project, Jason, though perhaps in another venue if it would sidetrack things here.)

Edited by Joel

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I'm not quite grasping the discussion of "composition writing" here either. Sure, students learn to write ye olde five paragraph essay in high school, or should. (Thought I'm told that longer writing assignments are increasingly rare in high school -- "nothing longer than a page" is something I've heard from some high school teachers.) But the writing students are required to do by their professors in college is qualitatively not the same kind of writing they learn in secondary school. There is some problem with articulation between the two, yes, but the reason first-year composition courses or something like them are taught at every university in North America is that students need training in crafting sustained arguments, understanding different academic genres, judiciously using sources (this is really important, and very few people starting college are aware of the expectations), etc.

I think I'm fumbling about in my argument here because I'm still learning a lot, especially the history of composition studies and practices in American higher ed. My background is primarily creative writing with a heavy dose of journalism, and I'm capping off a masters in higher education with a teaching focus. I think I can summarize my project without sidetracking things any more than they've already been. I'm looking at the student writing evaluation best practices of faculty from diverse disciplines at my institution. It's hard to focus on this, though, without the project sprawling somewhat into WAC/comp studies/ESL. (This is also where the challenge is: keeping the original focus without the paper becoming something else.)

I've heard several things repeated by the faculty I've interviewed (faculty who, by the way, are from the more humanities-related departments, but also the hard sciences, business, and others). One comment that I've heard from several different professors is that the composition writing "mastery" (as described by ralfy) is often a hindrance to specific areas, especially when the students think of themselves as paper-writing champs. Certain disciplines require certain types of writing, and often these requirements don't mesh with the thesis-body-conclusion "service." Sometimes students get this and adapt quickly, others just keep trying to shoehorn this approach to the chagrin of the professors. The English 101 comp classes at my institution do a nice job of sidestepping grammatical nitpicking or rehashing of the "composition" model we're talking about; instead, they try to hammer home the importance of clarity in writing (no matter what kind) and how compositions of any kind can help students wrestle with topics in their fields and think critically.

Is composition writing a skill? I don't know, really. I think it might come down to how you define skill. And I certainly don't think it's like a cookie cutter that you can press down on different academic fields to get the same-shaped engineering and nursing and history-flavored treats.

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