Where Two (Or Three)

Margaret and I agree that if you look at the web page of a scholarly association’s job openings listings more often, then more jobs ought to turn up. And just so’s you know, we’re doing our part.

Semester-Starting Stromateis

  • Inside Higher Education features a list of ten technological innovations to watch out for in 2009 (at least one of which I was advocating in 1999).
  • IHE also reports on a session at the American Historical Association meeting, which discussed the possible value of rejiggering the grad-school curriculum. The premise makes sense to me; to the extent that PhD programs think their main job requires them to infuse content-knowledge into students, they’ll produce graduates (or non-graduates) with expertise at perpetuating what they were taught, but without as strong a capacity for functioning as a critical participant in constructive discourses. This premise paradoxically applies all the more forcefully to second-tier (or lower) programs, where students arrive without as ample a familiarity with the subject field. That which they need in order to move into strong participation is not so much acquaintance with someone’s list of Great Works as it is the capacities to recognize and analyze problems, to develop reasons for approaching those problems in particular ways, and to communicate that analysis and those reasons clearly and persuasively. Student who have exchanged a little bit of grad-field surveying for a course that heightens their skills in analysis, reasoning, and communication will come out way, way ahead.
  • Sign me up for Ada Lovelace Day. Just remind me as that day approaches.
  • One more thing — Alfred Shaheen, the entrepreneur who popularized the Hawaiian shirt, has died.

Pictures From Our Semester Break

Our semester break began with a curious incident at the home of some friends. While they’re on vacation, we’re watching their mousetrap, taking in their mail, and so on — and, as it turns out, calling the police, nailing up plywood, and meeting the insurance adjuster:

Neighbors' Porch

It seems that a car was rear-ended and rolled up onto their lawn, smacking into the front porch and knocking the brick support of the porch in. Luckily, the house itself and the water pipes were not seriously damaged.
Our semester break ended with a trip to Baltimore, where we enjoyed a (premature) Twelfth Night get-together at the Fowls’ house, visited with Margaret’s housemate, and dropped off books at Margaret’s faculty office:

Margaret's Nameplate

Now, back to teaching!

Duly Noted

Joey linked to an interview that Branford Marsalis gave, in which he submits that “all [students] want to hear how good they are and how talented they are. Most of them aren’t really willing to work to the degree to live up to that.”
Without disrespect to Marsalis (or Accordion Guy), I’d want to note that I’ve had opportunities to teach such students — but that I’ve also had opportunities to teach eager, hard-working, diligent students. I sympathize with Marsalis’s frustration at trying to suggest to complacent students that they had a lot further to go, that they do not in fact already have a handle on everything they need to know. That’s a perilous claim; it’s not formally different from saying, “I disregard everything you have learned so far, and will now instruct you on how to be more like me.” Critics justly denounce the effrontery of simply writing off students’ previous experience; we know of too many pedagogical narcissists, who operate on the premise that “if you didn’t learn it from me, it doesn’t count.”
And yet — Branford Marsalis can demonstrate a track record of significant accomplishment to back up his harsh assessment of his students’ attitude. Whatever one may think about his bluntness, he has put in the hard work and shown the capacity for excellence that back up his words. And it’s certainly possible — as it always has been — that some proportion of students approaches their education as though they were in a position to dictate the terms of what must be taught, what may be expected.
No easy answers. Parts of the difficulty lie in an educational culture that, like the financial culture that has so dramatically collapsed around us, has in instances tended to confuse hypothetical (aspirational, sentimental) benchmarks for actual accomplishments. If I read Marsalis charitably, he may be indicting an educational culture that awards As for effort, for niceness, on the principle that “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” That much, I dare say, constitutes a genuine problem that teachers should take quite seriously — at the same time that they’re showing earnest respect for what students actually have learned, understood, accomplished.

Best of 2008

I’ve been putting off the canonical obligation for a blogger to write retrospectively about the year past, partly because my family and I felt the weight of a particularly bleak year (in several regards), and I don’t want to bellyache. I’m heartened by the prospect of an Obama administration, but I don’t expect much of any political figure. So the past year as a whole didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth.
Instead of reviewing the year, I can identify my favorite records of the year. That’s easier, although it involves challenges of its own. As each year passes, the accumulated delights of the world of music grows greater, which means I’m decreasingly ardent about listening to brand new releases. I’ve accumulated plenty of recordings from 2008 (thank you, eMusic and Amazon), but I haven’t listened to most of them often enough to identify favorites.
Among the albums that have caught my attention, two in particular stand out: Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, about which I’ve blogged before, and the Wood Brothers’ Loaded. Loaded arrive from out of left field, as Ways Not To Lose did, but I appreciate the direction that the Wood Brothers have taken their songs and arrangements. I love “Postcards From Hell,” and the cover versions of “Angel” and “Buckets of Rain” show that the Wood Brothers’ treatment illuminate old favorites in unexpected ways. On a similar note, I enjoyed the She & Him album (congratulations on your engagement, Zoey!). I was inclined to write this off as a movie star’s overblown sense of her own capacities, but the album works quite well.
The cool kids are all raving about the Fleet Foxes album (on special at Amazon at the moment!), and I have a double reason to like it (since Robin Pecknold is the brother of a former student of mine, a semi-former colleague of Margaret’s, Chad Pecknold). It just didn’t catch my ear, though; if they stick around, I’ll look forward to recognizing my folly at some later date. Among other albums that the critics liked but that I didn’t latch onto, we may count the new David Byrne/Brian Eno album, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Vampire Weekend, this year’s Death Cab album Narrow Stairs, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida (slipped past me even with the controversy over its relation to Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly”), and numerous others. The R.E.M. album disappointed me. Margaret was charmed by Thao Nguyen‘s album, but (again) it didn’t elbow its way into my attention. I like the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire,” but I can’t think of anything else from the new album. The Magnetic Fields, John Legend, the Vivian Girls, Kanye West, the Streets, Amy Ray, the Raconteurs — if their 2008 albums were especially good, I will have to learn that later (which would be fitting, given my long-standing insistence that time-of-release critical judgments frequently don’t hold up, and that we should instead review works that we’ve had some years to assess reflectively).
I enjoyed the spirit of the Flight of the Conchords album (I haven’t seen the TV series), and I’m working my way into Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!. I expect that Nick Cave’s latest will turn out to be a favorite of 2008, and I’m looking forward to hearing Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift of Screws (it hasn’t turned up on eMusic, and I haven’t fired up to download it from Amazon or iTunes yet), and I haven’t spent much time with Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight, but it made a good first impression. What I’ve noticed from the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive sounded good to me, but it doesn’t stand out from the crowd of their very good music yet.
All told, and despite my harder-rocking tendencies, the albums that won my attention this year were by Welcome Wagon and the Wood Brothers.
Oh, and we liked the harrowing Dark Knight and the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. I don’t remember if we’ve even seen any other 2008 movie releases.
(I know, not all the links are correct — I’ll fix them later)