Wet Spaghetti

At the Harman Writer-in-Residence lecture at Baruch College on March 24, George Packer, who became well known through his reporting for the New Yorker on the invasion of Iraq, spoke of turning his focus to this country. We’re living through a period of remarkable change, he said — political change, economic change, cultural change — and he doesn’t want to miss the story.

Everywhere I look, and, it seems, in everything I read, folks are trying to understand, articulate, or make their mark upon these changes. The “change” we’re living through is much deeper than the promises put forth by Barack Obama in the construction of a positive message for his campaign. Packer spoke of a “tectonic shift” that’s impacting every area of American life.

Journalism is transforming before our eyes. Newspaper after newspaper is folding, altering its processes, or drastically reducing its staff and, as a result, the depth and quality of its coverage.  Newsrooms everywhere are being forced by executives and bean counters to do “more with less.”  Yet as David Simon and others have noted, the notion that you can possibly do “more with less” is, for want of a better term, bullshit.  You do “less with less.”

From Boston.com

Unused newspaper racks clutter a storage yard in San Francisco, California. From Boston.com; image taken March 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

As stark and clear as that point may seem, some legitimately see opportunity in the restructuring of American newsrooms. “Crowd-sourcing” and “citizen journalism” seek to take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies to tap into existing pools of knowledge to generate and disseminate information. Journalists — those still in the business — break into camps that are either horrified or energized by the prospect of outsourcing society’s news gathering responsibilities. The most serious of them struggle through the implications of such a direction, asking what will be lost, what will be gained, and what professionalization means in an era that empowers the voice of the amateur.

Clay Shirky recently published a much-discussed blog post about the state of newspapers, comparing our moment to the moment when the printing press was invented, and focusing on the chaotic nature of the transition from one world to another.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen…

Shirky concludes that we don’t know, and won’t know for some time, what the future of journalism is going to look like.  The most important thing is that “we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’.”  Then, “the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’”  What we need is lots of spaghetti against the wall, for “any experiment designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.”  He acknowledges what’s lost by the death of newspapers, allows us space to mourn, but ultimately settles on the point that what matters most is journalism, not the form that it takes.  He also lays the lie to those who, in the name of entrepreneurship, self-servingly claim that they have a crystal ball rather than a handful of wet spaghetti.

Journalism is not the only realm in American life that’s standing upon shifting ground; higher education is also in the midst of a wrenching transition.  In The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that the humanities professor many readers of this blog aspire to become is going the way of the newspaper, swept into the dustbin of history by the market forces and corporatization that increasingly restrict the choices available to well-meaning university administrators. He argues that the humanities aren’t in crisis; this would imply some future return to normalcy. Rather, a liberal arts education as a requisite component in the formation of an informed citizen, and the celebration of the university as the location where that process takes place, with the professor as a central figure, is dead.  A liberal arts education will increasingly become a luxury rather than the norm, replaced by vocational training and the transfer of skills that have only direct and measurable correlations to bottom lines.

Stanley Fish posted a reaction to Donaghue’s book in January, highlighing the rising percentages of undergraduate courses taught by part-time labor and the ascendancy of the “for profit” university, where information delivery is all that matters.  An earlier blog post from Fish glibly dismissed the value of studying the humanities altogether.  Doing so is its own argument, he says, providing or needing no external justification.  If the study of the humanities instilled in one the desire to learn the great moral lessons of the ages, Fish lamely argues, “the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts… as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.”

Fish finishes his meditation on The Last Professor with the observation that, thank goodness, he was born at the right time.  “Just lucky, I guess.”  Fish’s landing ultimately on his own good fortune contains none of the perspective evident in Shirky’s post. The possibility never dawns upon him that he might actually be in a position, from his lofty perch nestled just off the front page of the New York Times website and his influential provenance at two universities, to highlight or even demand an alternative trajectory in higher education.  He doesn’t seem to want one or think one is necessary.  He accepts the notion that the humanities has little “value added,” and returns to his study, satisfied by his ability to find support for his arguments in the schmuck-like behavior of some of his colleagues.

Does the sea change pinpointed by Packer and Shirky have relevance to the university of the future?  If Donaghue and Fish are correct, that future has been written, and those of us who’ve chosen to make our life studying and helping others study the humanities are just plain out of luck.

There’s ample evidence however that something similar to the revolution in journalism is happening in academia, though perhaps not so publicly and at a pace that’s less compressed.  This week the University of Michigan Press announced that it was going digital, a move that has consequences for the intense and troubled world of academic publishing.  Also, Mark Bauerlein, whose work on “kids these days” I have significant problems with, wrote a provocative paper about the future of higher education in which he argues “the coverage project is complete,” and that graduate schools and P&T committees should be putting more of an emphasis on good teaching.  I disagree with the first argument (admittedly, his statement was about literature and not history, which is my field, and which hasn’t been “covered”); but I concur wholeheartedly with the second.  Donaghue argues something similar when he notes that the culture of the professoriate, to its own detriment, has integrated an emphasis on competitive achievement and productivity that internalizes the values of the very market forces external to the university that find no use for the liberal arts.  Ultimately, Fish’s “I got mine” conclusions are frustrating because this is a moment when humanists should be reasserting the value of their disciplines to the intellectual life of the nation and, like Bauerlein attempts, proposing directions for the university of the future.

Implicit in the distributed community of educational technologists that I’m a part of — some have called us “edupunks,” but I no longer think that term is big or sufficient enough — is the sense that we are all together involved in shaping the best model of the future university.  I’ve long felt that the most compelling aspect of the 1960s — for all the positive and negative legacies that decade has bequeathed us — was the broadly dispersed sense that the future was up for grabs, and that one’s actions could help shape that future.

I see some of that same energy in the work of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason and the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center, which are creating new tools and paths for us to collectively look upon the past with fresh eyes.  I see it in HASTAC, which is fostering collaboration between academics, librarians, and scientists around innovative uses of technology.  I see it in Matt Gold’s brilliant multi-campus exploration of Walt Whitman’s career, which allows students and researchers across the country to better understand both this writer and the relationship between art and the context in which it is produced. I see it in the proliferation of campuses, like ours, that are exploring open source alternatives to the proprietary courseware model, propelled by the argument that local administration and support for teaching and learning with technology better serves the academic community.

Each of the above examples is student-centered, yet also allows space for the researcher to grapple with and reflect upon large questions. They benefit from supportive administrations that recognize the importance of giving scholars the opportunity to explore and develop new ways of thinking, learning, teaching, and connecting. They don’t necessarily attack the university of the past, but rather imagine a future where participants break out of restrictive silos of departmental politics and disciplines and the campus as we knew it to explore relationships with the world that are, at their core, humanistic.  These, it seems, must be core components of any vision of the future of the humanities.

Then again, maybe Fish and Donaghue are spot on, and those of us creating new courses, constructing new modes of learning in and across our disciplines, and digging through archives are punchlines in some cosmic joke.  I acknowledge that these examples offer no direct answer to Fish and Donaghue’s argument that the humanities won’t be valued and funded because they don’t contribute in obvious ways to the creation of wealth and, like it or leave it, our society prioritizes that question.  Yet the continued broad exploration of the humanities, like  journalism, is absolutely crucial if our society is going to strive towards a better version of itself.

Shirky’s articulation of our moment as a transitional and perhaps revolutionary one reminds us that the future is yet to be written. We all have a profound stake in working towards our vision.  We all need to pick up some wet spaghetti.