Monday, August 30, 2010

"Generation Text" - or, Even in Higher Ed, Shallow Hysteria Reigns.

I was in the middle of a good Breaking Bad, and someone had to go and put something horrific in front of my face, so you might notice I'm in a foul mood.  I really hope Carlin Romano wrote this piece for the money, and doesn't actually believe that today's college and high-school age kids are "the most distracted generation in history."  Because, really, if a professor of . . . well, of anything, really, believes that Twitter constitutes a greater threat to a generation's ability to sustain interest in an entire book than did, say, pneumonia epidemics, the lack of indoor plumbing, mass migrations, two World Wars, and the Dark Ages . . . let's just say it's fitting how little responsibility the article places with instructors and administrators.

Technophobic hysteria is just as pathetic as techno-utopianism, and both are that much worse when we get our facts wrong, as Romano does when he alludes to declining book sales - they increased by 1 percent in 2008 and dropped 2 percent last year, a period in which unemployment rose by roughly 100%.  This is pretty much the opposite of apocalyptic, and shows just how big a reality gap Romano is wrestling with.  His sociology is just about as loose as his statistics, as he piggybacks on observations by Robert Darnton (and, of course, many unnamed co-conspirators) that these kids today do not have the "concentration, endurance, the ability to disconnect from other connections" required to really read books.

I'm not going to argue with this observation.  Young people today ARE a distractable, lazy, shiftless lot.  But Romano and Darnton alike make a terrible, terrible mistake when they blame this on technology, or in fact on anything other than human nature. Young people are distractable, lazy, and shiftless by nature, in general, and while I don't have the hard data ready to hand, I'd be willing to bet they've been so pretty much throughout history.  Oh, except for whenever Ramano and Darnton were growing up, since every one of their classmates went on to write at least one influential essay for Harper's.  Right?

What has changed isn't that kids are stupider. What has changed is that more people are going to college, and not all of them are inherently interested in the stuff humanities professors love to teach, and there are also more humanities professors without the drive, energy, or ability to cultivate that interest (though some of them apparently have leftover time in which to write articles and books blaming society for their failure to do their jobs).  To try and paint a picture of a society in decline based on a comparison between the average level of today's students and of those of the past would be absurd even IF those past universities really had been idyllic havens of seriousness.  Which would require that Romano and Darnton hadn't based their implicit cultural history on Dead Poet's Society.

The discipline and effort required to think in a sustained and engaged way has always and will always be hard-won.  If it weren't, there wouldn't be millenia-long traditions of mental discipline rooted across the globe, and there wouldn't be such respect, even reverence, reserved for those who master and refine them.  If it weren't, we wouldn't need either of the two European versions of the struggle for self-cultivation - if we were anything other than a bunch of foot-tapping monkeys who nonetheless aspired to greater things, neither the church nor the university would have any place.  This is the most disturbing part of Romano's little traipse: while he skillfully dances between taking a technophobic stance and merely documenting and summarizing the technophobia of others, he makes absolutely no connection between the "cultural condition" he purports to diagnose and the mission of the university and college instructors who make up his audience.  By talking about "Generation Text" so neutrally in a forum like the Chronicle,  he is helping to create them.  By cynically giving students a generational pass on caring, he's helping rob them of the sense of worldly responsibility that will (eventually, I swear it happens) turn them into adults.

Some of the greatest literature and philosophy of the last two centuries was written by people who only owned one suit of clothes, lived in squalid tenements, and/or were slowing losing their minds to syphilis.  There has never been a time in human history when we were more able to comfort and support students and scholars.  I don't personally agree with the premise that our children, is they not learning? But if I'm wrong and Romano's right - if from all of this plenty coming generations prove unable to better or match their forbears in serious engagement with art and thought - we will need to look for an explanation deeper, and likely more disturbing, than Facebook.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Photo Tour: Nantoka Fes 2010

I don't have much to say right now about last weekend's Nantoka Fes, so I'm going to limit myself to a selection of images.  If you're curious for context and commentary, stay tuned to this space. Several more pics after the jump.

Picture 056

Picture 068

Picture 086

Avatar Links

Mostly for my own benefit, I'm throwing up a few links here to very good pieces (written, of course, several months ago) about Avatar.  Hopefully I'll be able to use them for the panel discussion about technology I've got coming up.

Avatar and the American Man-Child

Avatar: The Density of Being

Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology, and Hope

Panthea vs. the Capitalist War Machine

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch: "I want to argue that . . ."

Today I was reminded of another huge pet peeve of mine - academics who preface what they're about to say with "I want to argue that . . ."  It's a problem with two parts - it's both obviously annoying and, more subtly, anti-intellectual.

Like "In particular ways," "I want to argue that . . ." is completely unnecessary verbage that gets in the way of the meat of a statement.  If you cut the phrase out of any sentence that it begins, the thrust of the sentence doesn't change.  To wit:

  • "I want to argue that Avatar provides a completely unearned and politically counterproductive catharsis for white, Western guilt over colonialism and racist exploitation."
  • "Avatar provides a completely unearned and politically counterproductive catharsis for white, Western guilt over colonialism and racist exploitation."

The comparison makes clear that while "I want to argue that . . ." adds nothing to the content of the first sentence, it does have a function - to make the claim seem more cautious and hedged.  It's the academic equivalent of "Well, this is just my opinion, but . . ."  The problem is that if you want to be a responsible academic, you can't hedge, soft-pedal or whisper.  You have to stand behind your claims, and "I want to argue that . . ." signals that you're unwilling to fully commit.  In short, the phrase is a way for intellectual cowards to shirk responsibility for the words that dribble out of their mouths and pens.

Doubts about Open Peer Review

The NYT published a piece on Monday about prospective changes to the peer-review process.  The core idea being floated here - and being put into practice by The Shakespeare Quarterly - is something roughly like crowdsourcing the peer review process.  The SQ filled an issue with pieces constructed by posting drafts online, then submitting them to comment from a wide circle of registered users, whose feedback was posted under their real names.  Having recently completed a really long, grueling trip through the conventional review process, I'm certainly primed to see the good in these new models, and there's a good bit of it.  In particular, open sharing of ideas and fast turnover both seem like good ideals to strive for.  On the other hand, it seems to me there are at least some potentially serious drawbacks to this sort of process:

-Reducing Negative Comments - I'm personally not afraid to publish negative feedback under my own name, but I know that many are, and such comments are arguably the most important part of the process.  My first attempt at submitting my manuscript was met with pretty harsh feedback, and it provided me the motivation to take a serious second look at the piece and subject it to aggressive revisions that made it better.  Some argue that we should be looking for a more supportive and less aggressive model for the academy, and non-blind review would support that, but I personally don't think coddling people's feelings should be even an unintended consequence of change - we need higher standards, not lower.

-Collective (Ir)Responsibility: How much work will participants be willing to put in if both the responsibility and the recognition for service are spread among 350 people?  Academics, fairly or not, constantly complain about overwork and not being able to find time for their own research.  If there's even the thought in their mind that 'someone else will do it,' won't we have a tragedy of the commons situation?  On the other hand, some reviewers in the current system are apparently not all that conscientious - but at least in theory, editors and the community at large eventually figure out who those people are.  It's much more difficult to spot the shirkers in an open structure.

I'll be interested to see how this sort of experiment develops, but I think the key to correcting problems is a much more fundamental recognition that not everyone in the academy is capable of turning out meaningful, original research.  As soon as we readjust our expectations and provide options for people to prove their worth to institutions in other ways, at least one of the problems that Open Peer Review are designed to solve - for all the talk about sharing, they're also about addressing the problem of overloaded reviewers - will fade, as the process gets less clogged with sub-par work from uninterested researchers who are churning stuff out out of professional obligation rather than actual creative drive.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brian Eno on Warp Records

I don't have much to say about this, but it's worth a look.

There are pictures of the most beautiful boxed set of a single album I've ever seen.  If labels want to learn about how to make physical albums lustworthy, must-buy items again, look no further.  And the inclusion of CD, vinyl, and download versions of the album in one package is exactly what real music fans want, and will pay through the nose for.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fujiwara's 'The Dignity of The Nation': "Shrill rant" . . . or something more?

Five years after its initial publication, and three years after its translation and publication in English, I've finally read Masahiko Fujiwara's (藤原雅彦) Dignity of the Nation [Kokka no Hinkaku], and I've been both surprised and disappointed.  Surprised, mainly, by the book itself, which is good-humored, even-tempered, and thoughtful.  Disappointed, retrospectively, by Western reads, including this summary from Time and a Financial Times article excerpted here that characterize it in terms usually reserved for Japan's reactionary, old guard far-right.  One can't always trust an author's own protestations, but Fujiwara's condemnation of nationalism as "sordid," a "foul philosophy that everyone should steer clear of,"  is actually held up by the book as a whole.  While it's clear that he has some views that I'd consider beyond the pale (for instance, his reference in the FT interview to differences between Japanese and non-Japanese brains), these don't surface often in Kokka.  What emerges instead is a clearly conservative stance, but one that's quite in line with a lot of enlightened contemporary thinkers on nation and politics (And who can hate a book that contains such a vociferous advocacy for reading?).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Global Voices

I've recently discovered this international blog aggregator, Global Voices.  It's not just an aggregator, though, as those are too often automatic and, for a globally-oriented site, wouldn't be that useful.  Instead, each page is edited and translated by hand.  Obviously, I'm particularly interested in the Japanese portion of the site, which offers a lot of really interesting stories about culture and politics.  Best of all, they are presented in side-by-side translation, which, when paired with a browser plugin like Rikaichan, provides a really good platform for brushing up on your kanji and grammar.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tokyo Journal: Memory and Forgiveness

IMG_0585 Tomorrow is August 15th - the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.  It is still a massively significant day here (the photo to the right is of some of the chaos I witnessed on the anniversary in 2008), and I had a really powerful conversation today that illuminates why that is. I met the mother of the man who owns the hostel I’ve been staying at, a very outgoing and incredibly warm 73 year old Japanese woman. Her son, who I’d say is in his fifties, is an amazing guy – an ambitious but principled businessman who runs several really fantastic traveler’s hotels and short-term residences in Tokyo and beyond (you can read about his Indonesian vacation spot here). Of course, he’s an individual first and foremost, but I can’t help thinking of him as an ethical model for the path Japanese society can and should take in its social attitudes towards difference. This is a guy who has built his livelihood on the ideal that people from different parts of the world can get to know one another, and grow from that. Part of what has made my friend so interesting, without a doubt, was his upbringing, which involved about ten years living in Saudi Arabia because of his father’s work – predictably, Japanese who grow up in international or unusual contexts tend to have more cosmopolitan perspectives.

Talking to his mother, though, really highlighted some of the potential difficulties of Japan as a society traveling a like path.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fake expertise by pleading (occasional) ignorance

The nice man from Tokyo Gas came today to turn on the stove and hot water at the place I'll be staying for the next two weeks or so.  I used one of my patented tricks on him, something that works every time to convince Japanese people that I am Wonder Gaijin, capable of linguistic feats that absolutely transcend the humanly possible.  This is also, importantly, a method that can be applied in a wide variety of situations, and which speaks to some deep function of human intersubjectivity.

It works like this.  The gas guy (or any given Japanese person) is talking a blue streak at me, which usually happens pretty quickly after I greet them with a reasonably confident "Konichi wa" and explain to them that "I don't speak much Japanese" in decent Japanese.  I do not understand much, if any, of the specifics of what he's explaining to me.  But about halfway through the chat I pick out a word - you can pick out pretty much any word, you don't understand any of them, remember - and stopped him, puzzled.  I repeated the word a couple of times, then went to grab my dictionary.  I figured out what the word was, made a slight "o" of recognition while nodding gently, then looked at him, cueing him to continue.  I then proceeded to not understand the bulk of what followed.

As he was leaving, the mechanic told me that in the entire time he'd been working the job, I was the best Japanese-speaking foreigner he'd met.  At least, I think that's what he said.

The lesson here is pretty simple.  If you make a big, ostentatious deal out of not understanding one very specific element of a conversation, presentation, or what have you, then your interlocutor is likely to assume that you understood everything else that they said.  It's a misdirection, a slight-of-tongue, a gaslighting - the one point of misunderstanding effectively distracts from even the possibility that you didn't understand anything else being said, either.  This could be an effective tool/weapon in, say, a graduate classroom ("What exactly do you mean by gradation?") or a boardroom ("I'm not sure I'm following your point about ISO ratings.").  I hope all of you use this insight responsibly, but I'm more concerned with the deeper structure we're encountering here . . . in precisely what way does a protestation of ignorance make your erstwhile silence seem like comprehension?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Going Legit: Jessica Hopper vs. Academia

I heard Jessica Hopper yesterday on NPR, reviewing the new Kelis album. I first encountered Hopper more than seven years ago, when I was working a semi-shitty desk job and started obsessively reading her blog, Tiny Lucky Genius. She was acerbic, funny, and obscene, with a no-caps, off-the-cuff style that has come to represent something like the punk rock of the blogosphere. I've honestly never seen a picture of her, but after reading one particular anecdote, I couldn't help but imagine her in dirty-blonde pigtails and kneesocks, roller skating down a grocery aisle pulling cereal off the shelves. Naturally, I had more than a slight crush on her digital ghost.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hidden Arts: Non-Academic Journals Giving Intellectualism a Good Name

I've written before about my impatience with academic writing, from details of style to the institutional structures that guide writers. But what are the alternatives? There are a variety of journals – magazines, really – fiercely holding on to the terrain most famously staked by the Paris Review. These are, in academic jargon, “interdisciplinary” - or, to speak a less flutey language, they are intellectual. They are thoughtful, without the bombast, jargon, and self-importance that so often cripples the academic journals. They are historically, contextually minded, often well-produced and formatted, including things like full-color photographs that no academic journal could afford. I think those of us writing for the journals could really benefit from looking to these extra-academic sources for guidance in combining intellectual rigor with emotional heft and readability. Here's a sampling of exemplars I've found:

The Consequences of Indulging the Deficit Hawks: Deflation and Disaster

The Wall Street Journal today has findings threatening deflation. While a lot of people are familiar with the spectacular collapses of countries like Zimbabwe due to hyperinflation, and the right does a great job of playing up the threat of moderate inflation as a way to sell gold bullion, deflation is the real nightmare scenario - a death spiral of falling prices and wages that can dig the economy into a hole that's nearly impossible to escape. The story, naturally, makes no mention of the inconvenient political context - that even as deflation looms, the Right for which the Journal is a (relatively sane) mouthpiece is still banging the drum for deficit reduction, when Keynesian deficit spending is exactly what the economy needs in its current state.

Sometimes I feel that the average liberal regards the stupidest gestures of the right as charming quirks. This is obviously what's happened with Sarah Palin - liberals follow her tweets and joke about her because they regard her as about as consequential as a Troll doll, a mere piece of entertainment. In her case, that may ultimately be true, but when it comes to the ignoramuses shouting for deficit cuts in the middle of a recession/tentative recovery, we can't afford to indulgently laugh at these strange people who apparently have forgotten the biggest lesson of Hoover's fiscal policy and its consequences. When you understand a few things about how the world works, it may be far too easy to remember that some people don't have a clue, but still have the power to act on their ignorance.