May 15

What’s in My Pocket? A Snapshot of Two Years’ Reading

Though its former name, Read It Later, was more descriptive, Pocket tops the short list of apps that have significantly changed the way I go about basic activities. If you don’t use it, you should: you can, Jeans pocket frontwith the click of a button, save an article or video and, as the name used to indicate, read it later. I use it as I run through headlines in my rss reader, or when I stumble across articles posted on Twitter or Facebook that I don’t have the time or inclination to read that moment, or when an article includes references to other things I want to read. This way I can benefit from the interconnected web without losing myself down a rabbit hole of distraction and interruption (feel free to pocket the articles linked below, or to get distracted and interrupted). And when I want to read something, I always have a list available.

OK, sales pitch over (I received no remuneration, financial or otherwise, for this post).

One feature of Pocket is that it archives rather than deletes, and recently I found myself deeper in this personal archive than I’d ever been. I’ve never been great about tagging things, but when I saw my wife tagging what she’d read, I decided it was a good idea. And then I decided to go through the archived articles and tag those, too.

Thus began an long period of scrolling and tagging. What emerged was a snapshot of my non-work-related reading over the past two years (I made it that far before the app decided enough was enough, and returned an error message). I was reminded of articles that had been trending at the time (like “The Case against High-School Sports,” in The Atlantic) and of Teresa A. Sullivan 2012events about which I’d read a lot (Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace, or President Sullivan’s ousting and reinstatement). And it became clear that I read a lot of book reviews, with a distinctly scientific slant (I was very interested in the debates about eusociality, and I well remember the jellyfish book and the passenger pigeon).

Certain patterns also emerged. There were lots of articles about higher education and the humanities, and about academic publishing (problems facing university presses, retractions in scientific journals, the locking of research behind paywalls). There was an assortment of popular-press articles about Dickens (clustered around the bicentennial of his birth), the digital humanities (clustered around the MLA and around well-publicized critiques like Kirsch’s), and children’s literature. And there were lots of articles about Wikipedia.

I teach a Wikipedia-themed composition course, and articles about or related to the online encyclopedia popped up regularly over the past year, peaking last summer as I put together an annotated list in preparation for the course’s first iteration (I’ll keep updating it). But the course’s origins are visible as far back as I could go, which was 2012, when Philip Roth wrote published a letter in the New Yorker and Timothy Messer-Kruse updated the entry for the Haymarket Riots, about which he’d written two books. Had I been able to go further, I know that pattern would have continued.

This summer I’ve been awarded a Faculty Instructional Technology Integration grant, and I’ll be using it to make some changes to my course. This glimpse of my reading past has been especially interesting as I look ahead to my teaching (and reading) future.

Do you use Pocket, or something similar? Have you ever trolled through the archives to see what you’ve been reading the past few years?


Feb 06

Optimistic Applications of Data

Earlier this week two articles appeared almost side-by-side in my Google Reader feed: David Brooks’s New York Times op-ed “The Philosophy of Data” and Rob Kelly’s “A Data-Driven Approach to Student Retention and Success,” in the Faculty Focus newsletter. Like anyone at all involved in digital humanities, I’m used to reading about how big data is changing our research methods and opening up new kinds of questions. (This New York Times piece, widely promoted on Twitter, is just the most recent of many articles that talk about “big humanistic data” in the popular press.) But these two articles together got me thinking about how what Brooks calls “the rising philosophy of the day” might be affecting other aspects of our professional lives.

Brooks confesses himself initially skeptical of “data-ism,” reducing everything to the quantifiable, but argues that there are two things data does really well:

  1. Data tells us when our intuitions are wrong (Brooks give the examples of purported “hot streaks” in basketball, which don’t exist, and campaign TV ads, which aren’t as influential as we think they are).
  2. Data illuminates patterns we might not otherwise see. (Brooks cites James Pennebaker’s work on first-person pronouns in The Secret Life of Pronouns)

Kelly speaks to a specific application of collected data: retaining students. Colleges collect a lot of data, mostly about admissions. There’s a lot at stake, since this data determines schools’ ranking on lists like U.S. News and World Report. News stories about universities’ data collection often focus on schools fudging the numbers, but Kelly’s article is more optimistic about the ways in which this data can be used to actually help students. He quotes Margaret Martin of Eastern Connecticut State University, who notes that “it’s hard for the general faculty population or administrator population to really have a handle on the data that is really driving decisions.” Kelly continues:

Faculty involvement in this initiative is essential, and there have been two things that have motivated faculty to participate: the desire to better serve the students and the potential to engage in activities that employ their skills (and could potentially produce publishable research).

If data can tell us where our intuitions are wrong, or help us see patterns otherwise invisible, how can faculty access that information in a way that’s usable? Surely we all want to better serve our students, and employ our skills, and Kelly’s article hints at a contributions DH scholars in particular can make. Historically at least, humanities scholars have been well-represented in the upper levels of university administrations. As humanities professors develop skills to work with “big data,” I wonder whether these skills will transfer to administrative tasks as well.

Jan 10

An Argument for Learning Portfolios in Literature Classes

The spring semester begins next week, and I will return to my year-long project about my experience as visiting assistant professor. But I want to use this week to make an argument: if we want literary studies to remain a prominent feature of higher education, then we need to train our students to discuss their learning. And one way to do so is to incorporate learning portfolios into our syllabi.

Last weekend, while many of us were at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, CNN published an article by Michael Bérubé, the current president of the MLA, entitled “What will you do with an English degree? Plenty.” An eloquent writer and a practical thinker, Bérubé has long been one of the field’s strongest defenders, and here he makes a case for the vocational benefits of the English major:

strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration – and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better – more comprehensively, more imaginatively – than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

This is not a new argument: the belief that a humanities degree helps one to synthesize and present complex information is as old as the degree itself, and earlier this year places like the Washington Post and Open Culture ran stories about tech firms needing humanities students. There is empirical evidence to support the argument, too: Bérubé cites Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum’s Academically Adrift (2011), the much-discussed study of what, if anything, students learn in college. Sometimes lost in the popular press’s coverage of the book’s thesis — that students don’t learn much — was the point that students’ learning depends very much on major. Unlike students pursuing vocational degrees (business majors, for example), students with traditional arts and sciences majors in fact did quite well. And this includes English majors. The point Bérubé stresses is that (unsurprisingly) students learn more when they are required to read and write a lot. Which, of course, English classes require them to do.

It is crucial for leaders in the field, like Bérubé, to advocate for the importance of the English major. And I think we should shout from the rooftops studies like Academically Adrift, which empirically verify what we know and feel to be true. But ultimately, if we are going to maintain literature’s place in the academic curriculum, we need advocates beyond the academy. And our greatest allies in this should be our students. At the top of Bérubé’s article is a picture of Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he also mentions Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute. Both men hold master’s degrees in English, but the vast majority of our students (and indeed, students in every major) will not reach such high-profile positions. Pointing to such successes is great, but insufficient.

What I am proposing is that we train all of our students to discuss what they learn in our courses. This seems to me an application of skills we already teach: to borrow Bérubé’s language, dealing with complex material (their own learning) and writing a persuasive account of what it means.

The learning portfolio is one way to help students discuss their own learning. Two of my literature courses this spring incorporate learning portfolios, in substantially different ways. The first is an introductory course, consisting of non-majors and potential majors. The theme of the course is “school stories” (you’ll find a description of the syllabus here), and the primary goal is to introduce students to the fundamentals of literary analysis: as with most introductory literary courses, the major assignments include papers and participation. But I have included on the syllabus periodic short writing assignments (from a single paragraph to one page) asking students to discuss their learning habits. I begin by asking for something they learned last semester, and in the first few weeks I will ask about their schedules (when are they reading and writing) and their habits (how they are annotating the texts). As the semester progresses students will respond to my comments on their papers and ultimately tell me what they feel they have learned from the class.

Most students in this class may not be English majors, and the goal of the assignment is not to coerce or even convince them to change. In fact, I’m taking the risk that an English major will decide he is not getting much from the major and switch to business. But I’m willing to take that risk, and only in part because it is just as likely that a business major will discover that she really is benefiting from her literature class, and switch to English. I genuinely believe that humanities courses do teach the stills that will be most valuable in the twenty-first century. Cathy Davidson has noted that “fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” and while she certainly believes in updating the English curriculum (e.g., abolishing term papers) she makes a convincing case that the best preparation for jobs that haven’t been invented is a liberal arts education, with a strong foundation in the humanities.

My other course is a junior-level Romanticism course for majors. Our focus is on a single literary period, and we’ll spend the majority of our time reading poetry, making good use of Chip Tucker’s prosody tool, For Better for Verse. Students will write weekly one-page papers, designed to build their close reading skills. The first half of the semester will focus on these close readings. The second half of the semester, though, we will turn to critical methods: I will provide summaries of some studies in Romanticism, with an emphasis on what assumptions the author holds (examples include Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, Mellor’s Romanticism and Gender, McGann’s “Rethinking Romanticism,” and Edmundson’s Why Read?). My goal is for students to begin considering what it means for them to be English majors: how do they want to be reading? What is important for them? The final assignment will ask students to choose a method, looking back to the one-page papers they’d written earlier. They will revise their earlier work, and reflect on what they’ve gained from the course.

Much research on teaching and learning attests to how these kinds of assignments benefit students: those who develop their metacognitive skills, monitoring and controlling their own learning, both perform better and better remember what they learn (for a summary, see chapter seven of Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works). This was my initial motivation for using learning portfolios in my classes, and I’ve been using some version of this assignment for years (we do need to address the problem of knowledge transfer if we wish our teaching to expand beyond our classes, but that is a very solvable problem).

Yet I am beginning to think it not just beneficial for students but politically imperative for us that we help our students to convey what they learn in our classes. Florida, my home state, has already begun introducing policies designed to incentivise students away from the humanities. But imagine if a generation of lawyers, teachers, politicians, and executives not only fondly recollected the courses they took as English majors, but also could clearly and persuasively explain how those courses helped them in their careers. Future citizens, former majors, can help us to make the case to future students, and convince them that an English major will help them in whatever yet-to-be invented careers they choose.