Tuesday, May 27, 2008

And... yet another person who has not done the reading.

It has long been recognized that if only something could be done in psychology remotely comparable to what has been achieved in physics, practical consequences might be expected even more remarkable than any that the engineer can contrive. The first positive steps in the science of the mind have been slow in coming, but already they are beginning to change man’s whole outlook.
          I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry, 1926

Hillary recently sent me a link to this article, Jonathan Gottschall’s "Measure for Measure" at the Boston Globe.

Gottschall argues that literary criticism is in crisis, and that its hope for salvation is – surprise! – science. It's not just that literary critics should "embrace" science, as the article's subtitle suggests -- a vague suggestion, in any case; who in literary criticism is honestly against science?

No, Gottschall, has something better in mind -- do science!

"In some cases," he writes, "it's possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory." Now, there are very few actual tenets of modern literary theory, so this ought to be interesting.

Consider the question of the "beauty myth": Most literary scholars believe that the huge emphasis our culture places on women's beauty is driven by a beauty myth, a suite of attitudes that maximizes female anxiety about appearance in order, ultimately, to maintain male dominance.

I'm puzzled by Gottschall's failure to cite the source of the term "beauty myth," Naomi Wolf's 1990 book The Beauty Myth. Perhaps he elided the source because if he were to cite it, he would have to admit that Naomi Wolf is not a literary critic, and The Beauty Myth is not a work of literary criticism. Wolf has a bachelor's degree in English, just like half the people you know.

But even leaving that aside, in what sense is the beauty myth a tenet of literary theory? Literary theory is, by definition, a body of theories about literature. So what does the beauty myth have to do with literary theory at all?

Answer: zilch.

Unfazed by the irrelevance of his example, Gottschall goes on.

It's easy to find evidence for this idea in our culture's poems, plays, and fairy tales: As one scholar after another has documented, Western literature is rife with sexist-seeming beauty imagery.

Sexist-seeming, please note. It is not sexist to treat women as decorative objects because, Gottschall is going to tell us, science says so.

Scholars tend to take this evidence as proof that Western culture is unusually sexist.

Actually, scholars do not do that. Going through literary works to find sexist ideology (which abounds) and saying, “Aha! Western culture is unusually sexist! More sexist than most cultures!” is not a literary enterprise. For a literary critic, Gottschall seems alarmingly unaware of what it is that we actually do. I challenge Gottschall to come up with some citations of “scholars” (plural) who have said this. Not Naomi Wolf: actual literary critics.

And note, too, that Gottschall needs the conclusion that his straw-critics have drawn to be that Western culture (already a problematic term) is unusually sexist, because it’s that unusually that he’s going to use Science! to undermine:
But is this really the case? In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women's beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.

So what Gottschall claims to be establishing is that Western culture (a monolithic, unexamined term) is not more fixated on women's physical objecthood than are other cultures. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, there.

He goes on to conclude that objectifying women comes from "human nature" (another extra-special unexamined term). Because obviously, there are exactly two possible sources for the beauty myth: “Western culture” and “human nature.” Way to use reason, there.

(Of course, considering that the written record that Gottschall uses as his corpus has been controlled by men for centuries, "human nature" winds up meaning "male nature." Again.)

Gottschall provides several other examples, each providing a banal “scientific” result refuting a straw-man version of some belief (supposedly) widely held in the humanities, smirkily holding scientific methods up as infallible and, moreover, always appropriate.

Here’s the thing about calls for the humanities to “embrace science.” They aren’t anywhere near new. It’s not just that, as Gottschall acknowledges, C.P. Snow was asking humanists and scientists to talk to one another in the 50’s.

In fact, the call for the humanities to emulate the sciences came in with the New Criticism, the influential movement that shaped the modern English department, well before Snow started getting cranky. It’s rooted in nineteenth century positivism as reinterpreted by the modernists, that sense that Science! can do anything!

But as it turns out, science can’t do everything, which is why literary studies exist, with separate disciplinary methods. Moreover, science and its methods aren’t infallible – nor are they static. When you use computational methods to analyze style, your results are only going to be as good as your algorithm, and your algorithm is ultimately limited by what the writer of the algorithm can conceive.* Science fucks up all the time; that’s the nature of experiment. Good scientists acknowledge the limits of their research, measure their error bars, and reflect on their methods.

People with a poor understanding of how the sciences and literary studies work and an ignorance of those disciplines’ histories write articles in the Boston Globe proclaiming that literary studies should remodel itself after the sciences.


*I am not, by the way, against the use of computational methods in the humanities. In fact, I find what I've learned about them interesting and would like to learn more. I am, on the other hand, thoroughly against bullshit articles with heroic narratives about computational methods valiantly revealing the truth that hundreds of doddering old professors refuse! to! see!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More budget cuts links

Daily Cal: Budget Cuts Note: this article is attributed to Kea, but it was drafted by a coalition of grad students and signed by a large bloc of grad students and faculty, as well as some officers of the English Undergraduate Association. Also, we don't know who wrote the crummy headline.

Daily Cal: English department may cut 16 R&C courses by next spring

Daily Cal:Repeating History: "Fee hikes are inevitable, but students should still be able to count on the UC regents to minimize the increases."

UC News: Investing in California's Future

UC Berkeley News: Bottom line on the Berkeley budget

Saturday, May 17, 2008

One more google search string:

"the study guide to the book perilous gard."

Somebody is not only bad at reading, but also bad at googling.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

UC Budget Cuts

The Coalition of English Graduate Students, University of California,
For Immediate Release: May 14, 2008
Contact: Snehal Shingavi

UC Berkeley Hamstrung By Budget Cuts:
Ability to Provide Required Courses to Undergraduates Severely Affected

(Berkeley, CA) -- Statewide cuts to the budget of the University of California will have an immediate impact upon UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students. After a decade of incremental budget cuts, the university has very little ‘fat’ left to trim. As a result, vital areas of the university will now be affected, depleting the ability of core departments to provide basic instruction.

The impact of the cuts will be felt as early as this coming spring, when the English department alone may be forced to deny entry into required Reading & Composition classes, known as R&Cs, to as many as 300 undergraduates. R&C classes are already difficult to get into.

“The classes fill up lightning-fast because almost every student needs to complete the R&C requirement,” Ahmed Owainati, a Computer Science undergraduate, commented. “The only solution is to dedicate your Phase One enrollment to getting that coveted slot, despite the many other lower division requirements one might have, and even then nothing is guaranteed. I completed my first class in Fall '06, and did not get into the second until three semesters later in Spring '08, despite spending each Phase One in between trying to get into some R1B class.”

Although no clear information is available yet as to the total reduction in the number of R&C classes across the university, it is likely that some Class of 2009 seniors will be unable to graduate from the university as a result.

Christine Chang, a third year double major in Molecular & Cell Biology and Public Health, recounted her difficulties in completing the R&C requirement:

“Trying to enroll in a Reading & Composition course was a struggle,” she said. “After failing to receive a spot in an R1A class in the first semester I attempted to sign up, I was able to secure one in my second round, at the cost of a class I needed for my major. This semester I finally took my R1B. In the first few weeks, 40 students were crowded into a small classroom in hopes of getting a spot; many had to sit on the
floor. Approving the proposed budget cuts would mean that the UC will be requiring a class and simultaneously further hindering students from taking it.”

The impact of these cuts upon UC Berkeley’s English department is severe. The university has been forced to deny teaching appointments to graduate students and lecturers, which it relies upon to teach lower level English and foreign language classes. Now tied as the top graduate program in the country with Harvard and Yale, according to US News and World Report, the department may be forced to reduce support to its graduate students.

Students who rely upon teaching appointments for fee remission, health insurance, child-care, and access to research facilities will lose these basic services. Students who have already passed their qualifying exams may be forced to withdraw from the program.

Hillary Gravendyk, the recent recipient of the UC Berkeley Teaching Effectiveness Award and an English Department Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award, said, “While I’m honored to have the University acknowledge me for my commitment to teaching, I’m frustrated and saddened that the proposed budget cuts would remove the opportunity for me to continue teaching at Berkeley for even one more semester. I rely on teaching for fee remissions and financial support; without that support my
ability to even complete the PhD could be compromised. It is ironic to be congratulated for teaching excellence by the same administration that is making it impossible for me to continue teaching.”

The University of California, responding to Governor Schwarzenegger’s statewide budget cuts, has mandated a 10% reduction to the Temporary Academic Salaries budget, used to pay for Graduate Student instruction and assistant lecturer positions. Across UC Berkeley’s campus, the same fiscal crisis will result in the widespread dismissal of lecturers. Departments that are particularly hard-hit include the prestigious English department, East Asian Languages and Cultures, French, German, and others.

Ian Duncan, Chair of the English Department at UC Berkeley, summed up the implications of the situation. “The projected cuts to the TAS budget pose a serious threat to our ability to sustain our PhD program in the long run. Most of our graduate students enter the program with the expectation that they will be able to support themselves with at least four years of teaching, since we are not able to provide the five-year fellowship packages offered by our peer-institution competitors (all of them wealthy private universities, such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford). At risk, in short, is nothing less than the core mission of the top-ranked English Department at the top-ranked public university in the country.”


Jasper Bernes

4LAKids: Blaming Clark Kerr

Remaking the University

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Library of the Future

My alma mater claims to be building the library of the future.

I have many fond memories of the Reg, and I do love the idea of all onsite storage, but some details of the plan worry me.

For instance:
Housed within the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library will be a state-of-the-art conservation and preservation facility, a special collections service area, a grand reading room and the capacity for 3.5 million volumes of print material, which will be contained in a high-density, automated shelving system.

The system, which requires one-seventh of the space of regular stacks, will serve materials for use in real time. When a request is made for material stored in the system, it will be retrieved within minutes by a crane — unlike off-site storage facilities, where it may take days to receive requested material.

Yeah, you read that right: a CRANE.

And that worries me. Can a crane be as soft and gentle with a book as it should be? And can a crane read titles and call numbers?

Say what you want about offsite facilities -- at least they have people staffing it. What's the likelihood that a crane will actually pull the book you need? I can't count how many times I've found books on Poe and Twain among the Beowulf editions because somebody misshelved PS books as PR. Everyone knows that actually finding a book in a library involves a little shelf-scanning. And I don't believe for a minute that the crane will ensure perfect shelving; machines are easily confused.

I also thought that part of the point of keeping books onsite was to enable browsing. I don't really see how ultra-compact shelving will even allow, much less promote, browsing.

I really do hope this works out, especially since I find the idea of the library of the future! awesome. I just hope it involves actually getting the books you need.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Study guides"

Every once in a blue moon, some morbid curiosity impels me to check my Sitemeter in order to peer at the Google search strings.

My friends, I did so today, and now my eyes are bleeding.

I post a lot on children's and YA fiction, because it's an interest of mine, and because my thoughts on children's lit are not quite so tender and fragile as my thoughts on Stein. But what did I ever do to deserve search strings like this?

- "the perilous gard book notes"
- "two princesses of bamarre study guide"
- "Jennifer L. Holm study guide"
- "House of Dies Drear cliff notes"

That is right. Civilization is in ruin.

Because apparently people cannot even read CHILDREN'S FICTION without searching for Cliffs Notes anymore. (I'll admit that The House of Dies Drear is a little trippy and complex in some unexpected ways, but still: these books are written for ten-year-olds.)

If my searchers are reading these books for school, chances are they are not very old themselves. So their reading abilities may be only somewhat sub par. But then, it also means that grade schoolers now troll the web for ways to cheat on assignments. This makes me miserable.

So, although I have said it before, I will say it again for any extremely young fry who may have just typed "boston jane study guide" into their browsers:

When you are asked to read something, and you find that reading hard, it is not acceptable to go read something easier instead.

Doing so is analogous to consuming some futuristic food-pellet that reproduces all the nutrients of an apple instead of eating an apple. The futuristic food pellet might get you somewhere, but it doesn't reproduce the experience of eating an apple.

If you are having trouble understanding the reading, there are many strategies that will help you understand, and will make you a better reader too:

-Read more slowly.
-Ask a real live person for help with understanding specific passages.
-Discuss the book with your friends.

Looking up digests on the web will not make you a better reader. Reading canned, simplified analyses written (in the case of Cliffs Notes and other such excrescences) by total hacks will not make you a more critical thinker.

Improve your own skills. Think for yourself.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Budget cuts

My first inkling of how bad budget cuts are going to be was the emails that started going around about the cuts in East Asian language funding. Because foreign language classes are taught by lowly lecturers and GSIs, they're the first classes to be cut, and the EALC department has impressively mobilized to protest the cuts to their budget.

East Asian language classes are being cut by nearly fifty percent, causing the department to restrict enrollment to the College of Letters and Sciences. Students in the business school, the law school, the engineering school, the school of environmental design, etc., are just out of luck -- even though they may very well need to learn Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Over 1500 students who are currently enrolled for East Asian language classes will be turned away from further study in the fall. These are core classes with high demand. The students want to learn, and the lecturers and GSIs need the work.

To their credit, EALC grad students have put together a petition to ask that the funding for these classes be reinstated. I think they've generated a lot of sympathy, and as I'm writing the student petition has almost 2500 signatures (a petition for the general community is located here).

But it's not just EALC's budget cuts. The cuts are to all positions staffed by lecturers and GSIs, and most departments have "service" courses that they teach for the benefit of the university at large.

In the English department, it's the Reading and Composition (R&C) courses, English R1A and R1B. Reading and composition is a requirement for Cal undergrads, and most of them fill it with R1A and R1B courses, in English or in another humanities department.

For as long as I've been here, R&C has been ridiculously overenrolled. The roster is always full, the waitlist is always full, and the first week is always populated by hopeful students, either waitlisters or crashers, hoping through sheer tenacity to get in.

In the past the overenrollment has been a small comfort to grad students -- although everyone feels it's ridiculous that R&C is so understaffed, at least we've felt pretty sure that there was always a demand for sections, and that, up to a point, we would have work, and therefore money to live on, while we worked on our Ph.D.s.

So it comes as kind of a blow that R&C appointments are being cut even further for '08-'09. It's a financial disaster for grad students, of course -- it's not like we get paid enough in the first place to start saving rent money for a rainy fiscal year. But it's completely ridiculous that a required class for undergrads is being cut. These students already hang onto their spots on the roster for dear life. There is no question of switching sections because you prefer another topic: if a student relinquishes her spot in one class, there's little possibility of her getting into another. Further cuts can't be supported.

My worry is that the cap for these classes will be raised in order to accommodate all the students. That means fewer appointments for grad students, and more grading for those that do get it (at the same pay). And when you're teaching a writing class, grading takes a lot of time.

And raising the cap also means a different kind of class setting for the students, a more anonymous setting, one in which it's more possible to fade into the woodwork, because it isn't physically possible for every student to talk at any length in a given class period any more.

In a class in which students are supposed to workshop their papers together, it's in the interests of the instructor to try and generate a friendly and relatively close-knit community. Students should have an idea of who it is that's critiquing their writing, and whose writing they're critiquing themselves. But that's not possible in a class that's too large.

Cutting R&C is a disaster. I hope the undergrads make a big stink, because R&C was already in bad shape, and this will really diminish the quality of undergrad education. It's not clear what will happen yet -- I know the English department is trying to find resources to soften the blow -- but I'm worried.