Sep 16

Eye Rolls, Corporatization, and Wikipedia

I’m once again teaching my first-year composition course about Wikipedia, and so on the lookout for when the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” makes the news. Notable stories in the past couple years include the lamentable scarcity of female editors (and the abuse those few female editors face), manipulation by marketing firms, and grudge-holders seeking revenge. Last week Wikipedia featured, briefly, in the ongoing debate about the corporatization of American universities. The example touches on two lessons I hope my first-year students take away from their composition courses — evaluating sources and the importance of knowing one’s audience — and reveals what I take to be a major disconnect between a corporate ethos and an academic one.

The University of Iowa recently announced that its 21st president will be Bruce Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Kraft, and Boston Market. The choice has been, to put it mildly, unpopular. Inside Higher Ed‘s Kellie Woodhouse notes that fewer than 5% of faculty and students approve Harreld’s appointment, primarily because of his lack of experience in higher education administration, and even Business Insider picked up the story. Cathy Davidson, among others, sees the announcement as further evidence of the corporatization of the public university, a trend has become all to common and was exemplified this summer by Scott Walker’s gutting of the University of Wisconsin system. (As Caroline Levine cogently explains, Walker’s move was political and ideological rather than budgetary).

So how does this connect to Wikipedia? Harreld’s critics point out his performance in a public forum, which began with a presentation that Kembrew McLeod of Slate calls “rambling,” then continued with a Q&A. Here is a video of the forum, queued to the moment that most upset his detractors:

Sara Riley, who identifies herself as an attorney and a second-generation Iowa grad with kids recently graduated and currently enrolled, calls out Harreld for his comment that Iowa should aim to become a “public Ivy”. Riley asserts that Iowa is a public Ivy, and has been since the 1980s, to which Harreld snidely responds, “I’ve seen the website, too.” In answer to Riley’s, “which website?” he replies “Wikipedia.” When Riley says, “I don’t go to Wikipedia, I’m an attorney,” Harreld rolls his eyes, unable to hide his derision. He doubles down on his source a minute later, assuring Riley that he does remember what Wikipedia says about Iowa’s status as a public Ivy. (For the record, Riley cites a better source.)

The exchange, and particularly the eye roll, reveals a lot. The truth is not measured in mass appeal #quote #quality #innovation #inspiration #CSISpadina #torontoThe educational model that colleges and universities promote distinguishes authoritative, trustworthy sources from biased, unrepresentative, or ill-informed ones. (So does Wikipedia, for that matter: and it doesn’t even consider itself reliable). Harreld’s implication that such distinctions are silly, that it doesn’t matter where he gets his information, reveals a fundamental disconnect with the faculty, staff, and students he will lead as president of the university.

But that’s not the biggest issue. If I’m being honest, I use Wikipedia just about every day (Riley probably does to). Not for nothing is it the seventh most visited site: it’s an efficient, accessible resource, and it’s mostly right most of the time. There’s even a case to be made that Wikipedia can help us rethink liberal education in the twenty-first century. Rather, the issue is one of audience. I don’t cite Wikipedia in my scholarship, I don’t prep class based on Wikipedia, and I would certainly never bring it up in a job interview as evidence that I’d researched my prospective employer.

At least in the clip, Harreld seems not to understand why academics might object to such a source, and that misunderstanding, to my mind, gets at one of the fundamental disconnects between the corporate ethos and the academic ethos. For speed and efficiency, Wikipedia is just fine. But for accuracy and rigor, a better source is necessary. Stakeholders in an institution whose mission is to “advance scholarly and creative endeavor through leading-edge research and artistic production” have a right to expect more from their leaders.

Dec 11

Dickens, Adaptation, and A Christmas Carol

My book manuscript is about children’s literature, the novel, and moral instruction. I argue that Victorian writers like Charles Dickens learned the narrative strategies that underlie their morally instructive novels from the stories they read as children. Chances are, this holiday season you’ll watch or read some version of one of the texts I write about: A Christmas Carol.

The novel is everywhere this time of year, in unexpected forms. Characters might be Muppets, or the Flintstones, or Barbie. Scrooge might be be Bill Murray as a television executive: Scrooged film poster.JPGOr Matthew McConaughey as a bachelor photographer: Ghosts of girlfriends past.jpgOr Vanessa Williams:A Diva's Christmas Carol.jpg

All adaptations are interpretations. And even the oddest adaptations of A Christmas Carol might in fact be quite consistent with Dickens’s story, which is itself about interpretations, good and bad. Scrooge is initially skeptical about the instructive ghosts: when Marley asks him if he believes in ghosts, Scrooge says he can’t believe his own senses – “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But it only takes one visit for Scrooge to realize how valuable the lessons will be. When he meets the second ghost, he says, “I went forth last night on compulsion, and learned a valuable lesson. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Before the story is half finished, Scrooge has already learned not only to recognize his own unhappiness but also to welcome future lessons.

By the third spirit’s visit Scrooge knows the game very well: he resolves “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw.” The silent third spirit shows Scrooge a funeral, and Scrooge replies: “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Scrooge is wrong. He incorrectly interprets his moral visions, failing to recognize himself in the “unhappy man.” When the truth finally dawns on him, he tells the spirit “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” He is converted only after making that mistake.

Part of the lesson, then, is being wrong. To learn something from A Christmas Carol, we have to be willing to make a mistake – and then willing to correct it.

When we watch an adaptation of a novel, we typically ask, “how does this film compare to the book?” And we typically respond, “the book is better.” But A Christmas Carol gives us an opportunity. In Scrooge, Dickens shows us the power of being wrong. So when we look at an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, we can ask not just, “is it right in its interpretation” but also “how might it be different from the book, and what might that difference mean”? How might making Scrooge a television executive or a bachelor or a diva use Dickens’s novel to respond to modern, American cultural needs?

And if those responses turn us back to Dickens, is that such a bad thing? In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, David Leitch calls A Christmas Carol “entry level Dickens”: people encounter the novel, often as children, and besides the moral lessons about compassion and conversion they gain the cultural knowledge that the story represents. The story provides an entry point not just to Dickens, but to adult culture more broadly (his reading of The Muppet Christmas Carol is especially good).

ChistmasCarol2009-Poster.jpgOne problem: the story isn’t always associated with Dickens. Disney’s 2009 version, for example, advertises Jim Carrey and claims this is Disney’s A Christmas Carol — Dickens is nowhere on the poster.

So at this time of year, maybe we need to be especially conscious that we make this connection: that we make A Christmas Carol entry-level Dickens rather than just another Disney product.

I’ll be doing that on Saturday: if you’re in Orlando, come hear my talk at the Orlando Public Library. I’ll be talking about Dickens, childhood, (both his own childhood and his child characters), and, of course, Christmas: Poster for Dickens Christmas Talk

Oct 17

Wikipedia and Student Writing

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, chances are you know that I’m pretty interested in Wikipedia. I’ve built Wikipedia-related assignments into a couple previous literature courses, and right now am teaching a first-year writing class for which our theme is “Wikipedia.” I’ve just returned my students’ second assignment, wherein they added to a Wikipedia page of their own choosing (topics ranged from the Peruvian indigenous people and European art trends to American cars and Puerto Rican rum).

As a teacher of writing who’s fairly active on social media, I heard a lot last week (while grading papers about Wikipedia) about two articles lamenting the quality of student writing. Slate blamed the SATs, while David Mikics at The Daily Dot targeted Wikipedia. The two reveal a wide gap in just what we mean by “writing.”

Matthew J. X. Malady, No test material on this pagewriting for Slate, chastises the SATs for training students to write B.S., boringly-structured five-paragraph essays with no thought to content, or evidence. That seems pretty dead on, and when Anne Ruggles Gere (whom Malady quotes) says that college instructors spend time undoing what students had learned in high school, this is surely what she means. In my view, good writing means thinking about someone else, and something else, and necessitates at least some attention to the real world — to evidence and to other people’s arguments. The SAT doesn’t reward that, and so students don’t learn it.

Mikics has different quibbles. In his view, the Internet has by and large been good for scholarship: we can turn to JSTOR or Google Books, rather than waiting weeks for Interlibrary Loan. This helps students too, since they can more easily locate the kind of evidence they need — once they un-learn what they studied for the SAT, of course. My students experienced this, and as they added to Wikipedia several commented that they actually enjoyed tracking down sources to make their points, in Wikipedia-lingo, “verifiable.

As Mikics notes, this abundance of resources brings its own challenges: “The Internet blends fact with fiction, the crazy with the conventional, and all too often the result looks like an endless—and tasteless—mass of information.”  He acknowledges this blending to be a bigger problem for students than for professors: because the Internet encourages us to jump between articles, students don’t usually spend much time evaluating their quality (this evaluation is one of the skills they must develop in their college courses). This is one major reason why I’ve turned to Wikipedia as a subject for a course: students in my class spend a great deal of time evaluating sources, and for these skills Wikipedia is, in its guidelines if not always in its execution, quite useful (even its failures provide a starting point for discussion).

But Mikics also identifies a subtler and, in his view, more pernicious quality to online reading in general, and Wikipedia in particular. “The worst effect of the Internet,” he claims “is its consequences for student writing.” He doesn’t mean to say that student writing is insulated or lacking evidence, nor does he refer merely to plagiarism and the sown-together nature of a student paper obviously lifted from Wikipedia and Sparknotes. Rather, he’s concerned with style:

even when students don’t plagiarize, the damage has been done. They knuckle under to the dull, one-size-fits-all version of knowledge that is embodied, more than anywhere else, in Wikipedia, [where] lumps of facts have been licked into shape by a thousand anonymous tongues, draining them of any vestige of personality.

For all its superiority to print encyclopedias (Maria Bustillos makes this point very well), Wikipedia lacks the personal style of its predecessors.

Fine. I certainly agree that the prose on Wikipedia tends towards bland mediocrity, and I wouldn’t want my students using it as a stylistic model, mimicking its sentences as Benjamin Franklin mimicked Addison’s from the Spectator. But Mikics’s solution seems something of a pipe dream:SteacieLibrary

I tell my students, to turn yourself loose in the library. Spend a long afternoon in the stacks and see what strikes you; look for the most intriguing, most quietly promising books on your subject, even if you have to work at them.

Suggesting students improve their writing by spending “a long afternoon in the stacks” is tantamount to suggesting they learn survival skills by being dropped off in the Amazonian rainforest. Sure, it’s possible for an expert (I’m sure David Mikics derives great benefit from the stacks, as Bear Grylls derives nutrition from jungle plants). But in the absence of some guidance, the advice seems almost cruel.

Of course, the dichotomy is a false one: it’s not “Wikipedia or the library.” If we want to talk about style instead of facts and evidence, we needn’t read Wikipedia articles. What about The Oatmeal? Or countless online news sites and quality blogs? The Internet is good for many things. Want to learn about style? A modern-day Benjamin Franklin can read the Spectator papers at Project Gutenberg, and all of Jane Austen’s novels are in the public domain. Want to know when Franklin was born, or the name of Jane Austen’s sister? Go to Wikipedia.

Adrienne LaFrance, a writer The Atlantic who wrote recently about fact-checking Snapple caps, offers this insight:

The Internet is lambasted as an abyss of lies, when really it’s a place to organize around the question of what’s real … a bottle cap with a one-liner on it might be the closest thing we have to the physical manifestation of the tweet. The real lesson Snapple teaches us isn’t about how many eyelids a bee has or the first food eaten in space, it’s that the Internet’s not inherently a place for lies any more than a bottle cap is a place for truth.

Wikipedia is no more a model for style than it is a place for medical advice (which I’ll talk about next week). But that doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically useless, or that it’s responsible for a generation’s bland writing. Like the rest of the Internet, Wikipedia is a tool, and it’s up to us to show students how to use it — and how not to.