Monthly Archives: April 2009

Irreplaceable Authority Of Print Media

The Wall Street Journal (cue the ominous organ chords) ran an article the other day that made me feel even more insignificant than I started out feeling; they claimed that nearly a half million Americans make their living from their blogs, and a pretty good living too! I was suspicious (though that might have been the ressentiment of an unpaid blogger who writes carefully and sometimes even thoughtfully), but hey — it’s the WSJ! If anyone knows economic statistics, it should be the financial paper of record, right?
Clay Shirky not only felt suspicious, but he followed it up with some analysis (at BoingBoing’s invitation). It turns out that “the median income for all bloggers running ad-supported weblogs is (wait for it)…
…$200. A year.”
(I feel better about my ad-free not-for-profit blog, although not so very much better that I wouldn’t entertain sponsorship offers.)
Shirky’s analysis eviscerates the nonsense that the prestigious print medium represented as a matter of fact. So the next time someone emphasizes the unique importance of carefully-edited, fact-checked, professional journalism — as the Apostle saith — think on these things.
But I really wanted to post about this to capture and re-quote the line Clay cites from Kevin Marks: “Any anecdote times a made-up number can be a big number.” That belongs in a compendium of quotations somewhere.

Doing Better Than Universities

A number of concerned citizens called my attention to Mark C Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times about “The end of the university as we know it.” (When did he move to Columbia? I wasn’t looking.) Speaking as a minor-league educational radical, I’m pleased that Taylor called the world’s attention to the possibility that higher education might be thinkable on some basis other than that which prevails in the U.S., that we have exported to the rest of the world.
Yes, but. Community College Dean presents a sensible pushback to Taylor’s somewhat err-atic expostulation. I hear CCD’s objections too, and they make a great deal of sense, institutionally speaking. What I suspect we need is someone who’s willing to imagine as widely as Taylor, but with a little more of a view to the wider networks from which our teaching and learning derive their meaning and find their value. So, in partial response to CCD, I would point out that many aspects of academic life are grossly over-managed, and Taylor’s apparently adminstration-free modules would represent a more congenial environment for learning about stuff than does the regimented, micromanaged Fordist education industry (to be fair, CCD also decries “seat-time-based measures” of educationl progress). How do we move away from commodified classes without the airy unreality of being a major in “Space”? (Who said one needs a “major” anyway?) How do we un-logjam faculties ossified by tenure without sacrificing one of the most improbable victories of academic workers?
I’ve talked and written about this before, but the most promising alternative curriculum that preserves to some extent the current infrastructure of education would shift our studies away from a grid of requirements satisfied by “seat-time-based measures” and toward a more Oxbridgean system of lectures, seminars, and tutorials, culminating in assessment based on demonstrable accomplishment. One could preserve a bulwark of academic freedom while at the same time reforming tenure by offering multi-year contracts on a rolling basis (guaranteeing senior faculty a generous number of years in which to look for another job if they are to be terminated) (I don’t like talking about alternatives to tenure, but I’m inclined to think it best for faculty to come clean about dysfunction in this particular system and come up with a better alternative before educational middle-managers force one down our throats). As faculties attain fluency i expressing themselves in non-print media, they’ll be in a position to receive assignments (and ecnourage advanced work) in other media — but heaven help us, not before then.
There’s lots to be said and done on this front, but Taylor has mostly just stirred the pot, and CCD has pulled out some stones and twigs that had been masquerading as nutrients. Let’s keep trying. We can do better; we owe that much to the world for supporting us. (And then let’s talk about what that “supporting” looks like — however bad the educational process has gotten, I don’t see us as having caused as horrible a disruption in the culture or economy as did brokers, bankers, and managers who were paid ten times what we are.)

Growin’ Up

Remember the movie scenes wherein prospective parents generate fantasies about their hypothetical children? “When she grows up, she’ll be an all-star softball player!” “When he grows up, he’ll be a ballet dancer!” I don’t think Margaret and I ever stated this explicitly in our newlywed conversations, but we both have upheld an unstated vow to make sure our children know that we love them very much and that we admire and respect their accomplishments — even when that makes them roll their eyes and shuffle their feet. Well, the last week has crowned all of Margaret’s and my parental fantasies with radiant affirmation.
As I said yesterday, on Saturday Josiah successfully defended his senior project at Marlboro College (his “Plan,” in Marlboro-speak; it always sounds to me as though they’re preparing tomorrow’s Hannibal Smiths). Yesterday, we got an email from the Interlochen Arts Academy, offering Pippa admission in their visual arts program, starting in the fall of this year. Today, Nate will defend his pre-dissertation exams in the University of Michigan doctoral program in music theory.
Anyone who has read here more often than occasionally has seen me marvel at our children’s accomplishments; I’m especially captivated at the convergence of these developments. Margaret and I may be in a difficult spot right now, maybe for a year, maybe more, maybe not at all — but we will brook no impediment to our children’s learning to soar to the limit of their capacities (“and beyond!” adds Buzz Lightyear).
I chose the headline title not because Nate and Si and Pippa are moving on to adult estate, but because I realize this morning that I am gradually moving out of my active role as “father-of-children,” and that’s OK, that’s what happens when families grow up. Thanks Nate, and Si, and Pippa, and Jennifer; thanks, Margaret my sweetheart. I’m so proud of you all.

AKMA walking into the sunset

Beginning Of The New Beginning

On Saturday, Josiah performed and defended his Senior Plan at Marlboro. Margaret took the train up from Baltimore and reports that the performance was “fab”; evidently his examiners agreed, because his Plan has been approved. He’s now set for graduation in May, and his commencement ceremony will conclude with a valediction from a homeless theologian (last Friday, Marlboro’s president asked me to say the concluding non-prayer-thing). After that, it’ll be time for him to marry Laura (finally) in June.
I’m not sure how long everyone will be in Chicago to celebrate the wedding, but some of our friends and relations may want to check out this exhibition.

Lend a Hand

We’re not precisely in a position to make a financial contribution at the moment, but the very least I can do for David and the folks at St Pat’s is to pass along the video:

David’s a dear friend and a former student, and he and the congregation are making progress — but they need a hand. Plus, they use a Proclaimers song in the soundtrack!

How To Tell

Are you living with a teenager? Here’s one clue: when she comes downstairs and, without asking, changes the radio station from the NPR morning news to the music station she wants to listen to — that’s a teenager. I’m not complaining; she fried an egg and made (fake) bacon for me. If only she’d change the channel back to NPR when she leaves the kitchen.

As It Is Written

The Letter to the Ephesians says, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” Yesterday, one of the jobs for which there was a faint trace of a chance that I might be hired was foreclosed to my disadvantage, for reasons that provoke in me a seething fury. It’s a good thing I have another ten or twelve hours till sundown.

Early Bird Catches A Cup Of Coffee

I woke up early and put on my jacket and tie, so as to arrive on campus in plenty of time for the beginning of the Duke Symposium on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media — at which I’m giving a response to Mark Goodacre’s presentation (1, 2, 3) — when I noticed that the symposium doesn’t begin until 1:00.
So I’ll have plenty of time to walk the dog, polish my response, and work on a couple of late-breaking job applications after all.

The Google Settlement

I hope that more than just a few people are paying attention to the Google settlement, a legal decision that portends serious consequences for those who relish an open environment for the cultural commons. Certainly, a number of noteworthy observers have published caveats about the implications of this possible enclosure of the public domain: Pamela Samuelson, Robert Darnton, James Grimmelmann, and now Miracle Jones (special thanks to David Weinberger for vigilant attention and links).
The Google settlement looms especially ominously since, as Steven Johnson observes, we stand at the very beginning of a radical transformation of the ways we read. Since we have evidence to sugget that a great many living authors will resist the rising digital tide (Canute’s courtiers, anyone?), the ultimately irresistible force that will crack open the digital production and distribution of texts will come from works in the public domain — from Shakespeare and the Bible to Twain, Dickens, Austen, and innumerable other comparable works. If someone prepares attractive, usable electronic versions of these acknowledged classics, they can cultivate the (very sound) presumption among readers that all books might be available in easily used, easily read, transferable formats. It looks from here as though the Google settlement attenuates the possibility that such a presumption might take root and blossom. I admire Google, and I trust all the Googlepolitans whom I know, but this settlement has an ugly subtext; I’m on the Internet Archive’s side in this fight.
As an author, as a reader, as a technologist, as an editor, in every facet of my capacities and expertise, I urge readers and authors — and above all, Google — to work to ensure maximal freedom relative to the distribution and appreciation of published works. Honest, it’s in our own interest.