Monday, March 30, 2009

"Oh crap" breakthroughs

I hate it when clarity dawns ... and reveals to you that the last ten pages you wrote are exactly wrong wrong wrongity wrong.

Such is life, alas.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Textbook affordability

Apparently UC Berkeley has assembled a task force on textbook affordability. (No evidence yet, so far as I can see, of a task force on not raising student fees every year while simultaneously cutting course offerings and freezing faculty hires so that a higher proportion of undergraduate courses are taught by non-tenure-track academic staff.)

The task force doesn't seem to have come to any earth-shattering conclusions yet; for instance, the "Why are textbooks so expensive?" section of the web site concludes that textbooks are expensive because their prices have risen. Imagine that.

The recommended actions all involve adopting cheaper textbooks or finding cheaper sources for textbooks (e.g. used). Ludicrously, they suggest allowing students to use older editions of a textbook and combing through different editions to identify the differences. We call that kind of labor "collating," and it is an enormously tedious process only worth undertaking in an editorial or scholarly capacity -- say, to establish a variorum of the poems of Marianne Moore. Performing many hours of tedious unpaid labor is not really a solution for the high price of textbooks; it just relays the cost to the instructors (who are increasingly employed contingently, which, you may have heard, does not really leave them with hours of leisure time for combing through multiple editions of textbooks). And that's quite apart from the fact that older editions may contain significant problems -- something particularly common for literature anthologies.

What seems to go unrecognized in the task force's recommendations is the fact that publishers' tendency to issue new editions every few years is designed to prevent the resale of used books from replacing, or significantly undercutting, the purchase of new ones. No matter what, there will rarely if ever be enough used books to accommodate a given class, and some students will be left in the lurch paying an unacceptably high price for a new textbook. Encouraging the use of used textbooks cannot address that problem; moreover, it won't cause publishers to lower prices.

Perhaps we should be talking not just with instructors and students but also with publishers. I was fascinated to read the California legislation urging publishers to adopt measures that are likely to undercut their sales (like performing the aforementioned collating on instructors' behalf, or publishing supplements rather than new editions). I don't think it's likely that publishers will adopt these policies, but it would benefit everyone, I think, to stop thinking of college students as a necessarily privileged class that can bear incessant gouging. What we need are not piecemeal tactics (like assigning old editions) but rather a thorough reconsideration of the economic system that surrounds academia, one that reconceives the college student as a member of the scholarly community, rather than a customer demanding (and paying for, at the highest rate we can charge) goods and services therefrom.

But that, of course, would also involve the University of California refraining from constantly raising fees while also lowering the quality of instruction. Students are not widgets.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

There is a reason one of these lists is not like the others.

Pitch received from my alumni association:

One of these lists is not like the others.

The U of C is a leader in Nobel Prizes, Fulbright scholarships,
and Peace Corps service...

* Nobel Prize Winners
* 34 YALE
* Total Number of Nobel Prizes awarded to students, alumni, faculty, or affiliates of the University.

* Fulbright Scholars
* 115 YALE
* Number of Fulbright Scholars* since 1998-99.
*When available, the number of undergraduate recipients is used

* Peace Corps Volunteers
* 43 YALE
* Number of graduating seniors who volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps over the last two years.

Alumni Giving
* 43% YALE
* Percentage of undergraduate alumni who give back to their alma mater.

It's time to move alumni giving into the top ranks too.

Indeed. Time to tap the doubtless overflowing coffers of those alumni researchers, grad students, and Peace Corps volunteers.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Later it struck me that the best history of painting in London was the National Gallery, and that the best history of literature, more particularly of poetry, would be a twelve-volume anthology in which each poem was chosen not merely because it was a nice poem or a poem Aunt Hepsy liked, but because it contained an invention, a definite contribution to the art of verbal expression.

--Ezra Pound, "How to Read"

Pound is here advocating rewriting the history of literature on the model of (one version of) the history of science: as a progress narrative, not unlike the march through various models of the atom that constituted your tenth-grade chemistry book's sole nod to history. (Okay, perhaps it mentioned Boyle as well.)

This forward-moving model of history, from triumph to triumph, depends in part on repudiating the literary judgment of Aunt Hepsy, which is of necessity a matter of mere taste, and probably bad taste at that. That Aunt Hepsy (a spinster, a Hepzibah Pyncheon?) liked a poem carries no weight with Pound. Poetry is important stuff, the stuff of progress, and that clearly has nothing to do with the opinions of old women.

Modernism's "new realism" depended in part on masculinizing poetry through the authority of science/scientism. What did this mean for modernist poets like Marianne Moore, who were genuinely interested in science but who, by reason of their social station, were increasingly coming to resemble Aunt Hepsy as the years passed?

Ezra Pound, "How to Read," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T.S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968) 17.
"Ilse and I had a fight yesterday about which we'd rather be Joan of Arc or Frances Willard. We didn't begin it as a fight but just as an argewment but it ended that way. I would rather be Frances Willard because she is alive."

--L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon

L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon (1925; Toronto: Seal, 1992) 156.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


It's not what it used to be. (TM)

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Helpful tips from my cell phone user's manual

Do not attempt to operate your phone charger if it has received a sharp blow, been dropped, thrown from a speeding motorcycle or is otherwise damaged; doing so may damage your phone.
Emphasis added.

Composition students are invited to rectify the faulty parallelism.

T-Mobile. Getting Started. TM1524 GH68-18756A. p. 27.
(The MLA guidelines for citing a cell phone user's manual are frankly insufficient.)