Category Archives: Higher Ed

Baffle Me This

To the Editors, The Baffler

I write to express my disappointment at the choice to run June Thunderstorm’s “Abled-Bodied Till it Kills Us” in Baffler No. 26. The argument of this article is that a few people in one workplace a decade ago believed that they had disabilities, that Thunderstorm does not think they had, and that therefore the concept of “ableism” is merely a means by which the rich perpetuate their power. Even the last part of the article that makes a slight concession to the concept of “disability” shows no awareness of the significant role that class analysis has always played in the disability rights movement and in scholarship. As a whole, however, the article’s main rhetorical effect is to mock disability, ableism, and those who experience them. Evidently, to the author and the editors, reinforcing anti-disabled bias was acceptable for the sake of ridiculing some former co-workers.

With some trepidation – because I have so often experienced bias on this issue, even from people who view themselves as otherwise free of biases – I shall try to explain the basics of disability critique, why I expected better from The Baffler, and what The Baffler might have done on this topic.

“Ableism” is a clunky term, and I wish we had a better one. However, our society does allocate economic value and power based on physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Rosemarie Garland Thomson proposed the term “normate” for the ideologically constructed non-disabled body. This is the body for which the social world is built, the one it assumes, and the one whose absence it punishes with exclusions. Disability itself isn’t simply a property of bodies. It’s a bodily difference on which social practices them impose additional and unnecessary exclusions.

Some examples. Decades ago, many people who use wheelchairs could not get jobs because few buildings had ramps and accessible toilets. Ability to use steps was, in effect, a job qualification, for no good reason in most cases. Thus a difference in physical ability became a difference in employability, when there was no relevance.  A person who is colorblind has a physical impairment, but our society doesn’t rely on color perception for many social goods. Color blindness is mildly disabling, at most, at least under the conditions of 21st Century America. It’s never just about the body per se, but also about the assumptions about bodies that we build into the parts of the environment we control.

Access and accommodation mean adapting the environment or social practices to differences in ability. The widespread perception that this is somehow “special” treatment is incorrect. For instance, I am sighted; I need lights to do my job. My sightedness and need for lights is already accommodated by light fixtures and the expectation that an electric bill must be paid. I have never had to ask my employer to provide me with light so that I can do my job. When a disabled person asks for an accommodation, it’s not different. Only ideology makes it appear different.

Abled privilege, infelicitous term that it is, is living in an environment that is already build to accommodate you. If you don’t believe me, let me know when you need to enter a building with doors 25 feet off the ground because the designers assumed bodies that could flap their wings and fly in.

I use these examples because I think they’re easy to understand. But let me mention the context to which the article refers – higher ed. It’s my context too. I first discovered The Baffler as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. My first Baffler was No. 5, which I discovered in 57th Street Books and quickly devoured. I rounded up every back issue I could lay hands on – all but the first – and bought every new edition as long as I lived in Hyde Park. That issue and subsequent ones from that period resonated with my disaffection with literary theory and with the generational rhetoric surrounding my cohort, Gen X. I have assigned Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” essay from No. 6 to students into the current decade. That’s The Baffler I remembered and loved.

I was profoundly deaf by that time, too. Born with “normal” hearing, I began to lose it slowly in early adolescence. At the time, many universities didn’t have disability services for students. In college, I had several classes where I could not hear the professor at all, and where other students refused my request to share their notes with me. By grad school, I had learned not to ask for any kind of – accommodation, but I didn’t know that sense of the word at the time. Let’s say, any variation in practice that would have let me obtain the same information that my fellow-students had by means of their functional ears. Thus, I had at best fragmentary comprehension of what was said in my classes. That means every damn one. For eight years. And I went out on the notorious academic job market in my naturally late-deafened state.

I’m going to skimp on details here, because I keep imagining the editors taking the snide tone of this article. Suffice to say that I discovered disability criticism, including its class analysis; undertook a bodily alteration; and through a highly unlikely chain of events, managed to remain in academe. Now I regularly have disabled students who will not ask for accommodations they really need, because they don’t want to be stigmatized for having “special” extras – and in the process, they get less out of their educations than they might. There are not rick kids, so let’s think a little before slamming all of higher ed for being too accommodating, and thus feeding the attitudes that make things even harder for these students.

So please listen up.

Yes, there is such a thing as abled privilege.

People get enormous social power just because they can hear – and enormous social detriment when they can’t. Going to college and teaching in colleges is radically different for those of us who lack a major sense, or have major neurological differences, or major differences in mobility. The details of the experiences differ, depending on the physical-mental differences, but the exclusionary structures operate pretty much the same way. Here’s how they operate: nobody is aware of how the environment and practices already accommodate their normate bodies; disabled bodies are blamed for the detriments that are actually socially imposed; and whether or not we even have a disability is questioned. Meanwhile, our numbers in the student body and professoriate remain very low. And the non-disabled think this is fine and the natural order of things.

There is such a thing as fucking abled privilege.

It’s as real as white privilege and male gender privilege. And The Baffler saw fit to snark at that. I can’t imagine this magazine publishing an article that took a comparable tone to sexism and racism. Then again, I’ve missed recent issues, so maybe this is your thing now.

Here’s what I imagine instead. One of the things I loved about The Baffler of the early ‘90s was its analysis of how post-modern theory enabled the image-driven culture of late capitalism. The rejection of ontological realism in much theory leaves us only with a discourse body, something entirely a fabrication of images and speech. By suppressing the reality of our actual bodies, theory abets late capitalism’s manufactured desires. It rigs curtains so that we don’t see that all of our bodies are commodified fuel for the economic machine. If we have bodies that won’t serve as this fuel, we are disabled and excluded from what most people experience as their main source of value, their ability to produce profit. (For whom?) If we start with “normal” fuel-bodies, when we became disabled by the machine, it spits us out as waste product. Our bodily needs are then seen as “costs” and “burdens,” while other bodies somehow don’t have “costs” or aren’t “burdens.” Maybe the difference between a body that isn’t a “cost” and “burden” and one that is, is whether it’s currently function as fuel. Or not. What or whom does it serve to embed this ideology in so many people? Cui bono?

Disability critique can be, in some ways, more traditional than the faux radicalism of theory, and far more radical than even Marxism, in its potential to undo the human being as seller of his/her labor. That’s where The Baffler could have gone with disability.

But no, you had to punch down. You had to mock the terms that generations of activists have created to construct a language for expressing our lives.

I’m sorry this is so long.  I have never written such a long letter to a periodical. In fact, I have never before used profanity in correspondence with a periodical. But dammit, you’re not Fox News, you’re The Baffler.

Or you used to be.

The Unasked Question

Where were you when. Everybody asks that.

I was about to start a class. Some of the students had heard and told the rest of us.

Later that day, a colleague asked me to be on a panel discussion the next evening. Why? Because I’m the religious studies prof. The only one. Not tenure-track, nor any hope of same.

One of my major memories of that September has been on my mind lately. It’s the question no one ever asks: How do you feel about being a scholar of religion – now?

What’s it like to have your field treated as fluff, and then suddenly one day, everyone is interested?

What’s it like to have to school everyone in the asking of questions? To stammer at answering questions because the concepts in which they are posed are flimsy?

(“Does religion make people violent?” Is “religion” a single monolithic thing that can be summed over human experience? Does it make sense to speak of it as somehow outside of “people,” such that it could make people something they aren’t already? Violent – how much, when, where?)

Do events like these change your connection to what you study?

That’s the big one, the one I’m aware of not being asked. Generally, people assume that scholars of religion are religious in the terms that make sense for the supposer’s thought balloon. Often, people assume that I agree with their own religiosity, but just know more about it. Or at least, they assume that until I open my mouth.

Yes. In the weeks following 9/11/01, I couldn’t stand my subject, or anybody’s assumptions about what I do, or the terms in which questions were posed to me, or the sheer lack of any place to stand – that is, any discursive footholds in which to speak in a different mode about religions and those who make them. Those who make them, meaning, us.

Popular discourse about religion is dominantly configured as unispace – a continuous ground of things or events, with only affirmation or denial recognized as options. Religious people believe. Scholars believe. With the verb “believe” effacing numerous and disparate actions and relations. No second or third dimensions available in which the objects of unispace might be framed, or non-unispace acts performed.

I’ll have to explain more later what I mean by unispace. Not today.

I don’t hate-study things. Very few scholars do. Given the demands of academic life, it would be strange to spend so much of one’s energy studying something that you hate. Not impossible, but strange, and rare.

Sometimes students infer that I hate the Bible, which just means that I don’t view it as they do. Look at those available settings: agree with me, or hate. They’re wrong in the inference, and even more wrong in the underlying structure. It saddens me that a few write that at the end of a semester, by which time, they should know just a tiny bit better.

Or there’s this: “Oh, but you don’t have to read it this way. True religion is . . .”

Nope. Everything that people have constructed as religion goes into the pot of stuff with which we work. Suppose I were a meteorologist and, before doing the grunt work, I threw out of the pot all the weather I don’t like? That’s not true weather! Just focus on true weather, and you’ll understand.

No. I’ll be doing something – deceiving myself, among other things – but I won’t be understanding anything much.

Whether I like something or not, whether I find it compatible with my values, has no bearing on whether it rightly goes in the pot of what’s “religion.”

So: by temperament, I don’t hate-study things; but some events so disturb me that I wish I were not a scholar of religion. I could stop being one. That’s always an option. But so far, I haven’t taken it.

I don’t know if the usual 9/11 memorials are really different this year, or if it’s only me. Probably the latter: I am, once again, troubled by what I study. And not just by religions, but by the way people talk about them, by the questions people ask that can’t be answered because they’re ill-formed. I get irritated at all questions, and wish I had just gone into classics.

My current mood has nothing to do with this anniversary. But no, not ready to write about it yet.

Summer Solstice Daydream

This June, when I am overextended far beyond my usual overextension – summer term, two articles and two conference papers to write, preparing to leave the country for six weeks, and packing up my office for a departmental move – my thoughts turn to daydreams.

It’s an old daydream, with new embellishments every time: quit the academy and found a monastery devoted to preserving humane learning through the coming dark ages. And rescue cats.

By monastery, I don’t mean a religious community. I mean that monastic form can be a viable structure for once again storing knowledge and its practice in human beings. Not work and pray, but work and study.

People can pray if they want to. But the daily hours are readings, small seminars, labs, and tutorials. Dialogues. Musical recitals or plays to mark the months.

The humane learning to be practiced includes both what we now call the humanities and the sciences. I am not assuming a western-only canon; a flexible, global canon would be better. The point is to keep the light of knowledge from going out entirely, to preserve something, maybe even build a little, so that humans or a descendent species don’t have to reinvent the wheel (literally) on the other end of the darkness.

Study and work. Work includes the labor necessary to sustain the community: some basic agriculture, cooking, crafts, medicine. And we’ll need vets for the cats. Ideally, everyone will have both an area of study and practical skills – all of which are understood as practices of knowledge and paths to understanding the world and the self.

The monastery will not grant any kind of credential. It will have both a permanent community and students who live under the communal rule for a short term. Once the monastery is a going concern, students are novices of a sort – possible postulants for permanent membership, but those who do not remain are charged with returning to whatever is left of civilization and encouraging there a love for knowledge. Itinerant teachers of a sort, whatever else they might do. I, of course, plan to stay.

The monastery will be a combination of Hogwarts, the Citadel, Lorien, and Granger’s Exiles. With cats.

In floating this daydream to others, I have been advised not to require a vow of celibacy. As long as celibacy is permitted along with the variety of gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship arrangements, there is no need for vows. But study comes before sex.

No compulsory celibacy, but poverty seems unavoidable. I hope we can live simply and well. But it won’t be easy as the climate changes and civilization crashes.

I’ve had some version of this daydream for a long time. I had it before I saw it in print in Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, which I read in 2001. Berman warned of civilizational collapse and suggested a “monastic option” as a possible response.

But one little thing about the book bugs me. In his litany of American ignorance, he refers to a telephone survey in which people were asked who “the wife of the biblical Noah was” and 12% said Joan of Arc. Arc, ark. Facepalm.

Not that I expect better of survey respondents. The question itself bothers me: in the biblical text, Noah’s wife doesn’t have a name, unless you want to say “’Eeshet Noach,” which just means “Wife of Noah” or, less strictly, “Mrs. Noah.” Later Jewish and Christian traditions give her different names, but the biblical text does not.

So why was a phone surveyor asking Americans to name Noah’s wife? To see if people would spot the trick question? To prompt the predicable Joan on purpose, the better to deplore our cultural ignorance? Or does its inclusion indicate the report is a joke? Does this unanswerable question make the whole book a joke, and is this Berman’s tiny clue?

Be that as it may. On my bad days, I want to ditch the academy, all the riptides of credentialism, managerial encroachment, and consumerism that surround (I still believe) quiet attempts to cultivate minds. And do – what? Something else.

On really bad days, it seems pointless even to try to sustain humane leaning through a Dark Age. I mean, why? So future peoples can trash different environments, until the sun goes nova and fries the inner planets? If there comes a day when I break with academe, maybe it should be a much cleaner, deeper break – a vow never to teach again. So far, I have only sworn, temporarily, not to teach specific subjects again. This break would be total. Just take care of cats. Often I’m not sure what else we can do, except care for another living being who is before us now. No abstractions, no “humanity,” no “ideals,” just a cat that wants to be fed and cuddled. Often that seems enough, and more peaceful than what I usually spend my time doing.

Last summer, I aired these daydreams in a Twitter with @jenebbler and @Exhaust_Fumes. They too had had some variations on these daydreams. Jen’s cat daydream was more embellished than mine: she wanted a tabby ranch, here in Texas, a place that would provide a home for tabby cats. Other cats would be welcome too, but tabbies featured. Might we combine the cat ranch with the monastic option? Thus was born Tabby Ranch Monastery.

Its rule has not been written yet, but its purpose is clear. Preserve cats, preserve knowledge. One could do worse.

Academic Mix Tape (Mixed Again and Again)

Leaving academe as a breakup song – I remember it well. Last weekend, @kelly_j_baker started a Twitter hashtag on this premise. I tossed in one or two, but felt out of place. Or out of time: my academic soundtrack, including breakups, spans nearly two decades. I’m also tenured now, and thus perhaps an unwanted interloper in conversations among academics who have not found a place in academe and must leave. I never expected to have the place I now hold – the time I spent unemployed, on part-time contracts, and on full-time annual contracts still exceeds my time on tenure track and tenured.

I stopped for a few minutes there, running through the unpacking those last two sentences need. But I get choked up thinking about it. Literally, literally. My throat constricts. Maybe the #academicmixtape concept will let me string together the key moments and moods, if not the full narrative. Every track is a song that I listened to at its moment, repetitively, craving the meaning it might yield if I squeezed hard enough. Yeah, I know many of these are sappy sentimental. Tough shit.

Track 1: John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels” – 1997

With no job for the coming year, I move back to New Orleans to live with the parental units. I’m burnt out on academe and eager to focus on the literary writing I had neglected while finishing my dissertation. Academe’s a game. Real writing comes from watching shadows on the wall.

Wheels within wheels. Whiff of Ezekiel, whacked by God into either muteness or a speech that no one could hear properly.

Track 2: Elaine Page, “Memory” – 1998

Still unemployed, a year after leaving Chicago. I have a little musical Renaissance – start piano lessons, take a music theory course at UNO, and try a little community ed singing class. The singing teacher assigned “Memory.” I had never heard it before. Actually, we could debate whether I hear it now, since I was quite deaf at the time. Still, it sticks in my Chicago-besotted head. There I am, walking through the parking lot by UNO’s Performing Arts Center, looking up at the stars and missing another lifetime.

Note: The song’s blend of standard Broadway sentiment with the language of T. S. Eliot gives me whiplash. Then again, my brain is filled with such strange bedfellows.

Also, I can’t sing.

Track 3: Neil Diamond, “Love on the Rocks” – 1999-2000

In 1999, I start a half-time, semester-contract job, and keep looking for tenure-track jobs. Or at least full-time academic jobs. But in my first week of teaching, I cannot hear well enough to respond to students. This changes everything. The question is no longer, can I find a real gig, but can I teach at all? Not really. So what else could I do – bearing in mind that I would be doing whatever it was as my deaf self, which preceded my barely socialized academic self, and would follow it too? Of course, I’m not listening to the song so much as to my auditory memory of it. Memory can be louder and clearer than reality.

(I have an I’m-quitting letter that I wrote to both of my Doktorväter around this time. A recent Twitter discussion stirred that memory, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. The Twitter discussion assumed this would be a conversation, an assumption that puzzled me. Were all those people still in the same cities as their grad schools, that they could drop in on their advisors? Or – what, phone calls? I couldn’t use phones. Seriously, people, you had these conversations face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice? Does no one write letters anymore?)

Anyway, I didn’t quote “Love on the Rocks” in the letter, but I listened to it often as an academic break up song. No apologies here for the sappy side of my taste: listen to that chorus. There’s real wisdom for leaving academe. When you know there’s nothing you can say, you stop trying to say anything, and just go.

Track 4: Frank Sinatra, “Send in the Clowns” – 2002

May 2001: cochlear implant surgery. I did not do this to save my academic career. I did it so that I could move on, leave the limbo of half-time contracts and the fruitless annual cycle of academic job searches. In the months that follow, I glut on music – old music I can now hear again and far better than before, new music that I could never have parsed on my powerful hearing aids. This is the Year of Sinatra for me, and also a year of love songs. Sheer infatuation with sound.

Of all the new songs that year, this is the only one I connect with academe: the out-of-sync partners, will-they-or-won’t-they, can anyone tell where this is going if anyone even wants to? And is it just too late? I try to get back in the game, but no one was there. I’m now on a full-time contract, after two and a half years half-time, but this is still limbo. I dig into publication, teaching, and applications for tenure-track jobs. It was several more years before it really sunk in: at the point when I could hear again, I was stale, past the expiration date. There was no way, was never any way, that I could go on the job market as a fresh PhD who could also hear.

Certain consonant sounds occur in the higher frequencies. In a progressive hearing loss, they’re the first to go. For me, they were the longest gone, the sounds I had not heard in 20 years: v, f, s. On my recording, Sinatra really drags out the lines.

Don’t you llllovvve ffffarccce? Enter clowns.

Track 5: Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed” – 2006

The department tried repeatedly to get my position converted to tenure-track. I tried continuously to land other jobs. Pointless all. After the destruction of New Orleans in August 2005, academe was chaff to me. Even my own bitterness at it was chaff.

In that year that started with a grief so large that it’s off the scale of the standard Life-Stress Inventory, I am told in February that the provost’s previous Nos to the conversion of my position didn’t just mean Not Now, they meant Not Ever. Word comes down in the clearest possible terms not to ask again. My job search was then in its eleventh year.

I used to care.

Track 6: James Darren, “Here’s to the Losers” – 2010

In 2006, I began looking for support positions in universities – what’s now called alt-ac, but we didn’t have a name for it then. Applied for over two years, had many phone or video-chat interviews, even one campus visit. No offers.

Summer ’07. I’m at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, with a manuscript of poems about New Orleans, my troubled relationship to it and its imago, pre-K and post-K stuff. Day 2 or something, and I’m checking email at the library. From my chair: admin converted me to tenure-track. I think he’s joking. That was my reply: “Are you joking?”

I know a few of the details leading up to the decision, but these don’t amount to an explanation. If anyone does know why, she or he has not told me. I was sure of one thing: my merit, whatever that means, was not the reason. Yes, I believe I deserved it; I just don’t think that my deserving it is the reason why it happened. Nor was my lack of merit the reason why it didn’t happen for so long. This should not be true, but it is.

I first heard “Here’s to the Losers” on Deep Space Nine – one of my grad school shows, my favorite Trek – sung by James Darren. During my post-CI music glut, I found a CD Darren had made in ’99, with all of his Vic Fontaine songs. This was my favorite, and I revisited it often over these years. In most of those listenings, I imagined it as an anthem for those academe spat out, who lurked on the margins, who were never in the right place at the right time. Who did the work but were never wanted. In other words, me.

I don’t consciously associate the song with tenure. However, when I compiled this list a few days ago, I looked on my iPod for my seasonal playlist the year I was tenured. There it was.

Just to be clear: I do not hear this as an affirmation that academic things will work out academically. Often they don’t. Or if they do in a superficial sense, the reality that lies beneath may be quite strange and incommensurable with standard scripts. Since I left Chicago in ’97, the greatest joys and the greatest griefs of my life have had nothing to do with academe, or with any reaction against it.

Bless them all.

Misfits in MOOCland

I had already framed the story: the professor who had enough background and put in the effort, who failed a MOOC. I relished that story. No such luck. Much to my surprise, I passed.

As much as enjoyed the songwriting MOOC, I found myself a mis-fit for the course and the format. Let me count the ways.

First: This genre just isn’t me. Most popular songs are about the romantic or sexual lives of teens and twentysomethings. Here, I don’t mean pop as the subgenre, but music produced for mass consumption via radio, internet samplings, and large sales volume. Songs that narrate some arc of this circle make up the largest piece of popular pie: I want you; now we’re together and it’s great; now we’re broken up, and that’s bad or good, depending on who dumped whom. That’s about it.

I have no interest in writing on that topic. The implicit self of that narrative arc is just not me, or any persona I can muster.

Second: I can’t sing, and we had sing. The course information said that singing ability wasn’t required, but that wasn’t quite true. You have to understand: I don’t mean that I have poor vocal quality, although this is also true. I mean that I can’t match pitches to an instrument or another voice. I can’t even sing a single pitch, any pitch, forget about matching, for the duration of one damn quarter note. Never mind why, if there’s a reason, and please don’t encourage. I can’t flap my wings and fly, either, but I muddle through.

Now the course was not about singing. However, about half way through, we had to submit our assignments in the form of uploaded tracks of ourselves singing what we had written. Most people, I gather, did as recommended, and recorded themselves over ready-made loops provided by the instructor. But we were free to choose other means of recording, including composing our own music and accompanying ourselves on an instrument.

I wanted to write my own music, to dig into that task. Also, I thought that composing would be easier than learning Garage Band on a tight schedule. This was superficially true. So I composed at the piano, in pencil on manuscript paper.

But how to record myself? The first time, I just chanted over the metronome and recorded to an mp3 file. For the final assignment, I played my chord progression into Garage Band, and then recorded myself “singing” over it.

Third: the limitations of peer-grading. I failed every assignment from the third one on. One of these was our second full verse, full chorus assignment, in which my peer comments included several “corrections” that were themselves mistakes. (Incorrect rhyme identification, failure to understand that stability and instability are partly relative, etc.) From the fourth assignment on, we had to make the singing tracks.

Yes, back to “singing.” I could write lyrics and set phrases into the musical structure according to the rubrics. But I could not sing what I had written. I’m not talking about pitches, which are out of the question. I mean that I can’t sing my own rhythmic intensions. And doing that was, unlike accurate pitch, necessary to show if one had fulfilled the assignment. So doing the assignment required me to be able to do something else that wasn’t the assignment, but on which basis others would assess whether I had done the assignment. (There was no way of uploading sheet music – which I circumvented in the final assignment by temporarily posting the sheet music to this blog, and linking it. And then I’m assuming that others can read music, which also wasn’t required.)

Here was my frustrated Inner Student griping: if they say it doesn’t matter, it really shouldn’t matter. We should be able to submit sheet music, or there should be synthetic voice software that can sing from an e-score. Maybe there is, and you just don’t know how to find it. I asked friends, and no one knew. Is this something everyone else but me (and my friends) knows? Or maybe there is no such thing yet. (Imagine all-synthetic music, including vocals: ick. We’re close enough to that already.) It’s a really simple thing to be able to sing in rhythm. You wrote the damn rhythm, and the words. But I can’t do it. I would have to practice a lot more, and I can’t take that time away from work and sleep. These are basic skills, you should work more on them. But I would need more time, and these skills are related, but not necessary, to my being able to write a song. These assignments require things they don’t say are required.

All assignments do that. Said the Inner Professor. There’s no way to write an assignment without assuming something, and no way to teach a class without assuming something. Even MOOCs have to assume something. I realized that I felt (part of) the frustration of a student who finds herself lacking unstated background knowledge – and I felt crappy about it.

Crappy, lost, having to waste time attending to extraneous tasks because those skills weren’t even supposed to be tasks anymore.

This happens in real classes. It happens in mine. I have taught classes where the reading, writing, and thinking skills of the group varied from about seventh grade to seventeenth (by my own reckoning). Yes, ideally, the range would be narrower. Often it isn’t. So what do we do? My current approach is design courses flexibly so that some tailoring is built in, and more tailoring can be done in consultation with the students. The goal is that everyone who works at it improves from where he or she starts out – and that everyone has to put in some effort. Yes, it takes time. It takes attention. And I actually have to know the students. Even in classes where the prior preparation and ability range is more focused, each student has the potential to benefit most if this dialogue can unfold – unfold with an instructor, someone who can assess quickly and then focus the student were the most growth is likely to occur.

Brings me back to peer-grading and its central problem: who is grading the graders? How does anyone know if the peer-grader has the skills to perceive key elements of others’ work? In one songwriting assignment – on phrase setting on or off the downbeat to achieve different effects – the peer-grader would have to be able to perceive the downbeat itself, and its relation to the verbal stress. In fact, there had been a quiz calling for just this skill. (I aced it.) People who may not have that skill were scoring the work of others. It seems to me that peer-grading in MOOCs has to rely on graders whose fitness to assess specific tasks has not itself been assessed.

As MOOCs progress, I wonder what will win in the end. Students being students, when will they realize that they could all just give each other As? Maybe the best thing to do with pseudo-assessment is to turn it into mutual back-scratching. Then again, the internet being the internet, MOOC grading could turn into a troll-infested comments section with the super-density of black holes. In neither case do we know if anyone has learned anything. But in both cases, the owners of the big data generated by all this activity – they still win.

Song of MOOCs and Grades

In January, I signed up for a MOOC. Given the extreme burdens of my recent work, the timing was lousy. What was I thinking?

I have followed MOOC news for the past two years and been active in Twitter discussions of venture capital’s latest attempt to abolish the professoriate. (I strongly recommend the blogs by Jonathan Reese and Tressie McMillam Cottom on this and related topics.) But I felt that my ability to critique was limited without direct acquaintance with the beast – a scruple that doesn’t seem to trouble billionaires who don’t know which end of a university is up. My one previous attempt, last spring, foundered on the shoals of professional duties. This time, I meant to finish.

So I picked the Songwriting course offered by Pat Pattison of Berklee on one of the major platforms. It fit the bill: a humanities-arts course for which I had some background but which would also be challenging. I’m a poet with extensive formal training in English and an amateur pianist. I have not attempted to write a song since I was a guitar-playing 12-year-old with no knowledge of music theory, so I didn’t have a head start on songwriting itself. Also, the course focused strongly on lyric-writing; musical composition wasn’t even required. Old skills, new form. A good combination.

I viewed every lecture, consulted recommended resources, participated in the boards, aced all of the quizzes, and completed five out of six assignments for peer review (lowest score dropped, so the 0 disappears). I enjoyed Pattison’s presentation and yes, learned from it. He avoided stumping for MOOCs themselves, offered useful nuts-and-bolts approaches to lyric-writing, and drew some insightful parallels between poetics and musical structure. In short, I worked. I had fun.

I am probably going to fail. But I get ahead of myself.

I was especially curious about how the peer-grading worked – I wanted to feel that from the student’s end. As a professor, I find it frustrating how much students focus on the grade instead of the learning, to the point of seeing learning as incidental. I can remember my growing, dumbstruck awareness, early in my career, that what students wanted from me were grades. Good ones, ideally, but often just lots of them.

This MOOC’s peer review took the following form. Each week, we had a writing assignment that focused on specific elements of lyric prosody – e.g. developing a structure that goes somewhere, use of line lengths, types and use of rhyme, and similar. The rubrics were clearly written and directly correlated with the assignment instructions. Did the work use the strategies taught to create stability? Were important ideas highlighted by structural elements? And so on. Each week, after submitting my work, I then received five anonymous assignments to score. Every scoring rubric had a field in which one could write comments to the other student. A few hours after those scores were due, everyone’s results would be available.

On the first two assignments, my peers, whoever they were, scored me very high. This, I felt, demonstrated my ability to write for a rubric. Not that it was that mechanical. In the first week, I made a list of song ideas – could only come up with three – and then I would just use whichever idea best lent itself to that week’s rubric. In my reviews of others, five per week, I saw a wide range of ability to follow instructions. I’ve been teaching too long for that to surprise me.

Anyone I reviewed got way more than they paid for.

By the second week, people who were mad about their peer grades started posting complaints. Some would post their whole assignment, with the reviewer’s scoring and comments, and then append point-by-point rebuttals of the grade. I hadn’t thought about how the online format would make it easier to complain about grades. The comments to such posts contained a mixture of encouragement and agreement with the refuted reviewers.

These had me laughing out loud – inadvertent entertainment! – until I began to feel voyeuristic: I was watching students gripe about grades. Except they weren’t complaining about or to a professor, they were debating with anonymous “peers.” I use the scare quotes because the concept of peer came under attack. Some people felt they were being graded by people who knew less than they did. This is, at least some of the time, true. But this is what we signed up for – didn’t people know this going in?

What did they want?

Many of the complainers wanted the professor or teaching staff to grade them. You know, ‘cause those people know more about the subject than the rest of us do. This desire both heartened and appalled me – heartened because it showed an understanding that an expert can assess work far better than another random student. Appalled because, evidently, expert attention should be free to any and all comers.

The grade-complaint threads amused me until I started getting failing scores on my weekly assignments. Oh, I was still writing to the rubrics. I’m not sure why my scores were suddenly so low – and then I got to feel the temptation to make a score-refutation post. Of course, I resisted, since doing that suggested that something was at stake. Nothing was.

I’ll indulge slightly here, to a point. In one assignment, we had to mark the natural spoken stresses in our lyrics. Now I can out-scan my thousands and tens of thousands. Yet one reviewer’s sole comment was that I should have marked stressed syllables with / and unstressed with – . I had done that. Did my marks not appear in his/her/their browser? Did the “peer” get the natural stresses backwards? Or what? I don’t know, and I can’t find out. Most of my reviewers left no comments.

Since my plummet from As to Fs – I never received any intermediate score on a peer reviewed assignment – occurred when I chose to write more complex language, and continued as we had to record ourselves singing our work, I suspect that my combination of linguistic ability and truly abysmal singing turned people off. (We were instructed not to judge the lyrics by singing quality, but that’s another post.)

The point: when grading is de-coupled not just from expertise, but also from the possibility of dialogue, the student has little means for understanding why a score was low or high. Posting work and reviews to the forums doesn’t solve this problem because the forum commenters didn’t give the scores. They are trying to read the minds of anonymous others.

Pattison and the staff responded on forums to some of this grousing. The purpose of peer review, said the staff, was to help the student doing the reviewing, not the student reviewed. Reviewing others’ work makes us see our own differently. OK. But why then give me the score? If we’re really trying to learn to perceive elements of lyrics, then we need to practice on that – and be assessed on our ability to do so by someone who knows how. That is, if the assessment matters for anything. But maybe it doesn’t.

Last year, I remarked in a Tweet that you can’t mass-scale human attention. I’ll riff on this from other angles in future posts, but here I want to apply this to that activity called grading, marking, assessment. Whatever. In a credentialing system, the letter or number is the end, and any performances (student’s or instructor’s) simply a means to it. Pretty soon software will be able to do a plausible simulation of grading at far faster rates than I can. Hell, if the point is grades, we could write a very simple code that will just spit out a number at the push of a button. So if producing grades is the real point, let’s ‘fess up to that and write that little code.

But if we want to teach and learn, we have to respond to student work. Responding is a broad activity; it requires time, attention, and is inherently dialogic. I respond to students when I speak to what they have spoken in class, when I ask for justification or consideration of alternatives. I respond when I write comments on their writing, addressing their arguments, organization, style, ideas – their sense of what’s important and why. Sometimes, in consultations, students realize for the first time what they actually said when I read a sentence or two back to them – because when they were writing, they did not attend to their own thoughts and language. Most of them don’t know how. That’s one of the things I try to teach them, and the effort embeds the deeper lesson that thoughts and language – including their own – are worth somebody’s attention. The whole testing regime does not send, indeed suppresses, that message: your thoughts and language and character, even, are worth another human being’s attention.

My piano teacher doesn’t grade me. She responds in ways that help me improve as a musician – if I attend to her attention. To work, this must be reciprocal. That cannot be mass scaled, unbundled, or outsourced to software, without first abandoning the purpose of instruction. I wouldn’t trade her response for a piece of paper with a letter or number on it.

The real work of teaching lies in the response, after the student has attempted something. The opening move, the delivery – the rhetoric of which is highly variable and grossly undervalued – is not the whole of it, or even the main thing. Part of the work of learning lies in the response to the response, something that the finality of the grade doesn’t easily allow except in the form of complaint.

Overall, I enjoyed the songwriting course. For a well-educated person who wants to dabble, to refresh, or to supplement private training, MOOCs can be fun. I have had a hell of a year since this one started (long story), and the songwriting course was my one little oasis for six weeks. But let’s not pretend that what I was able to learn is unrelated to decades of formal instruction in English and classics; reams of reading, memorization, recitation, and performance; and the attention of human beings who were more advanced in these arts than I.

Let’s also not pretend that what I learned has anything to do with my grade. I aced the online quizzes, and flunked the peer reviews as soon as we had to write more than simple sentences. I expect to fail this course.


See also:

Jonathan Rees on Peer Grading

Rees’s IHE article on same

and while I was preparing the post, Slate ran this article about who takes MOOCs