Saturday, August 28, 2010


There is much media attention being given to yet another rally going on in DC.

I do not lend much credence to the idea that coincidence has anything to do with what is going on.

We are not yet at a point where we act as though we believe that all people are created equal, despite the pretensions to that effect voiced by some. Nor are we at a point where we believe that it is the content of our characters that should judge us.

Not one of us would truly stand up to the scrutiny.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Just a brief note today:

While I am sad to see this article, there is some strange comfort in knowing that it is not only teachers whose "real" jobs are being screwed with...

Saturday, August 7, 2010


My daily reading brought me to this article today. In it, Bob Herbert laments the decline in the United States' relative standing among the college-educated. In it also, he twice cites Lady Gaga as evidence of the brain-drain that he asserts is taking place in the US (he also lumps in Lohan and Snooki).

I am not fond of Lady Gaga (or the other two--hell, I'm not even sure who "Snooki" is). And I do think that Herbert's comment that the United States "often holds intellectual achievement in contempt" is fairly accurate, as I think I have discussed (here, here, and here, among others). Even so, I find that I have questions about Herbert's article.

One of them regards the very issue of relative standing. He writes that the College Board tells us that the US, "once the world's leader in the percentage of young people with college degrees, has fallen to 12th among 36 developed nations." Assuming that this is true (and I am not contesting the factual basis), there remains the question of what the percentages are. If the percentage of US young people with college degrees has remained constant, but eleven other countries' percentages rose markedly, that would create the change that Herbert notes without there being any actual drop in the percentage of US students who get their funny little pieces of paper.

I would be interested in seeing the College Board's report for myself.

Another question I have is why Herbert expresses such vitriol towards pop-culture figures as he does. As I note above, I am not terribly fond of the people Herbert references; I think them execrable, in fact, and am greatly annoyed that they are able to make as much money as they do for contributing little. But I am also convinced that they are no worse than the schlock of any previous generation--and there has been quite a bit of it in every time. Much of Milton is nigh-unreadable. Not all of Shakespeare is good. Even Chaucer had bad days. And they are held up as the trifecta of superior English literature.

Given this, can we really be surprised that people like crap?

I do agree with Herbert's general thrust, that the people of the United States as a whole do not adequately intellectually engage with the world around them. I see it repeatedly in every class I teach. In each, there are students who are already engaged, there are others who are willing to engage, but there are always some who simply want to get the credit and move on, doing as little as possible and caring not one whit for what they do. And while I believe that it is too much to expect that all of the students who come into my classroom will have the same love of learning as I do, or the same regard for the subject matter, there are always those who are not even open to the possibility that there is something worthwhile in opening the mind and accepting challenges to it.

The simple truth is that it is not easy to wrestle with concepts and ideas. It is not easy to train the mind to be able to question itself and its assumptions. It requires continuous effort applied to all things, and that does tend to be an uncomfortable thing; there is a certain peace in simple belief, and intellectual engagement necessarily involves questioning assumptions and testing their validity,* and that destroys the comfort of acceptance, at least in the short term. While I'll not go so far as to say that the work of the mind in such things is as tiring as is the work of the body in the day-to-day tasks involved in preserving the material aspects of American culture (digging ditches is hard, dammit), it is taxing, and it is hard to blame those who spend their days engaged in labor for not spending their free time working at a different difficult task.

It certainly can be done, but it is just as certainly considerably demanding.

Part of the problem lies, I believe, in the idea that easy is good. It is a natural outgrowth of increasing technology that the necessary amount of work on the part of people tends to decrease; automation of production by using robots in factories is one prominent example, with the immensely increased ability to access information provided by the Internet another. As work becomes less necessary, less is done, which has the effect of making less able to be done; this is analogous to the development of muscle tissue, which loses its strength if it is not regularly exercised. As less becomes doable, more becomes subject to the sour grapes phenomenon (again, why study the old stuff?); because it cannot be done, people tend to salve their own chagrin at demonstrated incapability by labeling that which cannot be done as not worth doing.

That phenomenon, I am sure, contributes to my disdain for a lot of popular performers. I am also sure that it contributes to the devaluing of intellectual achievement in the United States. And I do not know how to fight it.

*As the Good Doctor remarks in "Belief," the very postulates from which any line of reasoning must proceed are themselves articles of faith, so that there is no way to avoid blind acceptance at some level.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Plagiarism has been much on my mind lately, as I think I may have noted. As I have spoken with my colleagues, I have found that many of them are reporting things similar to my experience; students are doing things that we call "cheating" openly and in many cases unabashedly. And that is not a comfortable situation for anyone--instructors are placed in a position to have to confront students, and students are forced either to admit their errors (not a bad thing, but not an easy one for any of us) or contest the instructor's judgment (which, since many of us use Google as well as did the student who cheated, is usually not an easy thing to do).

It was with some interest, then, that I read this article, in which Trip Gabriel discusses the increased incidence of plagiaristic behavior at even the higher levels of undergraduate academia. Perhaps I am something of a romantic, but it seems to me that there is something gravely wrong when top-notch institutions--whose students are supposedly academically socialized to a great extent--suffer from the same sort of rash of cut-and-paste, get-it-done-easily-and-move-on-quickly mentality that is found at other institutions where such a production-based mindset is more expected.

Leaving aside the problems inherent in the idea that there are institutions of higher learning where "getting done" is the accepted method of progress (and the hierarchical academia that idea entails), I cannot help but wonder if the reliance, in papers as well as "creative" works, on "sampling" does not point to some degree of stultification. I well realize that my wondering smacks of curmudgeonly in-my-dayism, that it falls firmly in line with the traditional "kids these days" complaint. But there is something worrying about the idea that the "remix" is an independent creative product.

I admit, though, that I am very much a product of my upbringing and education, both of which have been very much in keeping with the "traditional" American idea of white-middle-class-as-norm.

I admit also that the idea of the remix is an old one. Medieval English literature, for example, is replete with examples of recastings of older stories. Indeed, the focal work of my current research, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, is in most of its text an adaptation of other sources--where it is not an outright copy-over of them (as is pointed out by Vinaver, among others). Chaucer, the veritable parent of English literature, recasts stories in several of his more famous pieces (Troilus and Boece come to mind). And there is the old adage that Shakespeare himself was an inveterate plagiarist (to which I append for my students, "When you write as well as Shakespeare, you, too, may plagiarize. Not an instant before."). Their evidence asserts that copying is not a barrier to artistry, even enduringly high artistic achievement. And it follows that it may not be a barrier to serious academic inquiry.


Even if a number of older, respected artists (and scholars, no doubt) made their way by taking freely from what they found before them, they did more than simply regurgitate it wholesale. Malory, who keeps lines of his sources intact, often writes of "the frenssh booke," and where he fails to, he nonetheless recasts language and events in such a way as to significantly alter the thrust of the stories he relates. Chaucer acts similarly, freshening his re-settings by casting them into different verse-forms. And Shakespeare's contributions are too numerous for me to list.

Who among the samplers, remixers, and plagiarists at work now do so much with what they take up?

Works Cited
~Malory, Thomas. Malory: Complete Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. New York, Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
~Vinaver, Eugène. Introduction. Malory: Complete Works. By Thomas Malory. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. v-x. Print.