Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Frið and Fredom 

Yesterday I heard on NPR Jeremy Rifkin talking about differing European and American notions of freedom, as discussed in his book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. Today, I read at excerpt from Cornel West's forthcoming book Democracy Matters, in which he writes:
How ironic that in America we’ve moved so quickly from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Let Freedom Ring!” to “Bling! Bling!”—as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys, as dictated by free-market fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, as I reach the conclusion of my work on "Frið and Fredom in La3amon's Brut," I find that notions of freedom are highly contested in the Middle Ages.

There is something going on here, a nice convergence between my research and a contemporary isssue. I'm going to pursue this more when I have time.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

One thing after another 

Readers (if there are any still with me) will I have noticed that I have had very little time to post new entries this month. I have been feverishly trying to finish an essay on forest law in La3amon's Brut, and, as soon as I returned from the conference, I learned that my mother-in-law was in hospital, and I had to fly up to San Francisco. I'm almost finished with the article, my mother-in-law is still in hospital, and classes start tomorrow. Pause for breath.

Amongst all this, I have been thinking about a number of issues related to current developments in the academic profession, and my university in particular. I have been reading Gerald Graff's Clueless in Academe, the central thesis of which is that many students and the general public find the intellectual culture of academia inaccessible; academics must therefore make the culture of academic ideas and arguments more readily understandable. I'll reserve judgement on the book until I've finished it, but this is hardly revelatory. Making academic ideas accessible is what teaching is all about. We're not always successful at it, but the reason is not because we're not trying. The reason is because it's hard. Graff often implies that the majority of students are simply outright anti-intellectual in their attitudes. If this were actually true, academics are not to blame if some students cannot be "converted". In my experience, students are more often passively anti-intellectual. They may not be able to do what their professors do, but they respect what their professors do.

Often the reasons for students' failure to achieve in an academic environment has nothing to do with the efforts of their professors. The number of students in this country is growing, but funding for education is not growing in a way that allows students to work full time on their studies. In the end of the day, not being able to devote time and energy to learning is the largest barrier to achieving fluency in academic culture. This is especially the case for students at a place like my university, Cal State Northridge.. The majority of our students not full-time students, and they are also almost all transfer students (and soon will be all transfer students if current trends continue), meaning that we can't even shepherd them from lower to upper division courses. I should add that faculty are equally distracted. Teaching four courses per semester means that we must back off from some of the ambitious pedagogies which we would like to employ.

It is in this context that I am staggered by the university's drive to become a "learning-centered institution." I rather suspect that this is a euphemism for "teaching-centred", with teaching implying contact hours with students, and reduced support for research-based activities. I suspect that "learning" means student learning, rather than faculty learning or faculty contributions human learning. But leaving aside such a contraction of what the word "learning" means, it's just a stupid idea. According to our university president, the impetus is for greater accountability or assessment (the terminology varies depending on where the pressure is coming from). People want to know what students are learning. Well, if teaching four courses isn't difficult enough, having to document this will distract faculty from their teaching activities even more. Becoming learning centred will mean reduced learning.

In addition, we have to accept that in many ways we're not a learning-centred institution and are not well placed to be one since students are so distracted by jobs and family, and faculty have such a heavy teaching load. A truly learning-centred institution, one which produces measurable learning all around is a well-funded institution which can support economically a community devoted to studies full time. Somehow, I don't think these are the sorts of changes those who have decreed that we should be a "learning-centered institution" have in mind.

Or if this is a bit cynical, put it down to the stress I'm under at the moment. No doubt I'll be returning to this subject again.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

A Brut-ish Experience 

In case anyone is wondering where I have been for the past week, I have been at the 5th Internation Conference on La3amon's Brut in Providence, Rhode Island. I'm still on the East Coast, but I'll be returning next week to bore you with new editions to this web log.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?