Necessary information

It has been far too long since I’ve blogged…

Online social networking and blogs have emerged as one of the heroes from the Virginia Tech shootings. The degree to which individuals and journalists turned to the Internet for up-to-the-minute personal information might be unprecedented. Otherwise, these articles speak for themselves.

‘Ulysses’ Without Guilt – Dealing with info glut

‘Ulysses’ Without Guilt – New York Times (Subscription Required)

Stacy Schiff, a guest columnist at the Times writes today about Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” which seems like a great invite to talk about a book that I haven’t read. From what I understand, Bayard’s basic argument is that exposing oneself to a breadth of material is just as good as knowing something deeply. Schiff writes:

Say what you will about Professor Bayard, he forces us to confront a paradox of our age. By one estimate, 27 novels are published every day in America. A new blog is created every second. We would appear to be in the midst of a full-blown epidemic of graphomania. Surely we have never read, or written, so many words a day. Yet increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d’oeuvres of education. We read not in continuous narratives but by linkage, the movable type of the 21st century. Our appetites are gargantuan, our attention spans anorectic.

She then goes on to posit that technologies like search, “arguably the very definition of reading has changed.”

These are phenomena that the process of studying for preliminary exams made me deeply aware of.  As information grows over time, the amount of material one must read becomes increasingly dense. I once knew a professor who, when she was studying for prems, was instructed to read everything about her (broad) subject. I don’t think that is remotely possible anymore–but technolgies like search and news aggreation might offer ways to get at what we’re interested in. Hopefully it doesn’t come at the cost of well crafted prose.

Supreme Court on PBS

Last night PBS aired the first half of its documentary on the history of the Supreme Court. This half went all the way from the Revolution to the New Deal and focused primarily on major cases (Dred Scott, Lochner) and their relation to political changes. While there’s a bit of hagiography, they seem to be doing a good job at pointing out how the Court has been at times falable throughout its history.

Shows like this are always good fodder for teaching, and the section on Marbury v. Madison shows how a case with a somewhat complicated background can be made interesting by turning it into a good story.  A segment like this might make a good online class supplement.

Stanley Fish on Higher Ed

Stanley Fish – Think Again – A Closing Argument for Now – Opinion – TimesSelect
(note: you may need a subscription for this one)
Fish has achieved notariety within my field of Mass Communication Law for an article titled “There’s no such thing as the First Amendment, and it’s a good thing too.” Much like the above linked post, he argues that politics is tied up in nearly every aspect of life. He argues that the First Amendment is a “political prize” which might get applied differently, depending on who is in power, and because of this fact there is no point in looking for any unifying or underlying principles.

However, Fish makes a surprising clarification here by stating that everything can’t be scrutinized as political. He states that this argument:

…should alert us to the fact that by stretching the notion of the political to include everything, we have fudged distinctions that will return in force the moment some simple questions are posed. Is the political act (if you want to think of it that way) of teaching one author rather than another really the same as the political act of campaigning for one candidate rather than another?

In the context of college education, Fish argues in a previous post that instructors should simply “do their job.” This is simply two things:

1) to introduce students to materials they didn’t know a whole lot about, and 2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over.

In many ways, I think he’s right. Exposure to new and diverse materials as well as learning critical skills are a large part of the college experience. However, the one thing missing from this picture (which perhaps appears between the lines) is stimulating intellectual and moral development (a la Piaget and Kohlberg). Helping students to critically evaluate materials and to both understand and appreciate different points of view is what college is (academically) all about.

Fish concludes that searching for truth in teaching must be academic truth, rather than truth generally. If I’m reading him correctly, I believe that he is saying that we need to teach the “truths” that I referred to above–research methods and critical skills. The problem with moving away from “academizing” political issues is that it becomes difficult to moderate discussions of controversial issues. While we can’t erase politics (especially in issues of media policy), we can do our best to give all sides a fair explanation to equip students with the tools they need to make up their own minds.