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Essay on crowdsourcing the humanities curriculum

Undergraduate students should join professors in selecting the content of courses taught in the humanities.

This is the conclusion I came to after teaching Humanities on Demand: Narratives Gone Viral, a pilot course at Duke University that not only introduced students to some of the critical modes humanists employ to analyze new media artifacts, but also tested the viability of a new, interactive course design. One semester prior to the beginning  of class, we asked 6,500 undergraduates -- in other words, Duke¹s entire undergraduate student body -- to go online and submit materials they believed warranted examination in the course.

Submissions could be made regardless of whether a student planned on enrolling in the course. In response, hundreds of students from a variety of academic disciplines, including engineering, political science, religion, foreign languages, anthropology, public policy and computer science, submitted content for the class.

This interactive approach, which I call Epic Course Design (ECD) after German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theater, represents a radical break with traditional course-building techniques. Generally, humanities instructors unilaterally choose the content of their syllabuses -- and rightly so. After all, we are the experts. But this solitary method of course construction does not reflect how humanists often actually teach.

Far from being viewed as passive receptacles of instructional data, humanities students are often engaged as active contributors. With this in mind, ECD offers a student-centered alternative to traditional course-building methods. Importantly, ECD does not allow students to dictate the content of a course; it invites them to contribute, with the instructor ultimately deciding which (if any) student-generated submissions merit inclusion on the syllabus.

Nevertheless, when a colleague of mine first heard about my plans to allow students to determine what was to be examined in Narrative Gone Viral, he was deeply skeptical: "But students don¹t know what they don’t know," he objected. In my view, that is not a problem -- that is the point; or at least part of it. For crowdsourcing the curriculum not only invites students to submit material they are interested in, but also invites them to choose material they believe they already understand. Student-generated submissions for Narratives Gone Viral included popular YouTube videos like "He-Man sings 4 Non Blondes," "Inmates Perform Thriller" and "Miss Teen USA 2007- South Carolina answers a Question." While my students were already exceedingly familiar with these videos, they clearly didn’t always see what was at stake in them.

All of these works are worthy of academic scrutiny: the "He-Man" piece is interesting because it confronts preconceived notions of masculinity; "Inmates Perform Thriller" prompts questions of accessibility to social media; "Miss Teen USA" is notable because it reveals how viral videos often appeal to a viewer’s desire to feel superior to others.

I am not proposing that all humanities courses should integrate this approach. What I am suggesting, however, is that ECD represents a viable alternative to more familiar course-building methodologies. This includes classes that do not focus on social media and/or popular culture. Importantly, whether students will be interested in suggesting texts for, say, a course on medieval German literature is not the crucial question; in my view, the crucial question is: Why should we refrain from offering motivated students the opportunity to do so, if they wish?

There was relatively little repetition in student submissions for Narratives Gone Viral, an indication that students were reviewing posts made by their peers, weighing their options, and responding with alternative suggestions.

To put a finer point on the matter, students were not merely submitting course content: they were discussing the content of a course that -- in every traditional sense -- had yet to even begin.

Michael P. Ryan is a visiting assistant professor of German studies and the American Council of Learned Societies new faculty fellow at Duke University.

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Faculty Worry About Lobbying by Next President of New Mexico State

Former New Mexico Governor Garrey Carruthers earlier this month won a 3-to-2 vote to become the next president of New Mexico State University, but his political baggage has been met by protests from some faculty members.

Two years after he left the governor’s mansion, Carruthers, a Republican, proceeded to chair the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a lobbying group sponsored by the tobacco giant Altria, then known as Philip Morris Companies. The group served to counter the growing concerns over man-made climate change, among other topics. “I think that we're facing one of the most serious environmental crises of our time, ... and I think that universities across the country should be dealing with finding solutions to the effects of global warming and climate change,” said Gary W. Roemer, an associate professor in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology. “I’m not so sure Garrey Carruthers is the kind of visionary leader to do that. I hope he is.”

Asked by Roemer last month during an open forum for faculty and staff about his views on global warming, Carruthers appeared to distance himself from his work with the coalition, which he left in 1998.

“I can tell you that, as an economist, I’m not up on the science of global warming,” Carruthers said. “And I think that science is moving rather rapidly, but the evidence appears to me to be leaning more and more toward we’ve got a problem with global warming. I think there are a whole host of people who would disagree with that -- some very fine scientists who would disagree with that -- but it seems to me that the science is moving in the direction of saying we have a global warming problem, and we need to begin to take care of it.”

Despite Carruthers’ response to Roemer’s question, other professors said Carruthers’ work as a lobbyist serves as a warning sign for how he will approach his work as president.

“He believes in the use of science for business purposes, whether it’s good science or bad science,” said Jamie Bronstein, professor of history. “I think it really calls into question the integrity of everyone’s research on campus when you have somebody who doesn’t have any respect for the scientific process chairing the university."

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Should San Jose State Have Defended Prof Under Attack?

The Middle East Studies Association is charging that San Jose State University has failed to stand up for a professor under political attack. The association on Thursday released a letter it sent to Mohammad Qayoumi, the university's president, asking why he had not spoken up to defend Persis Karim of the university's English and comparative literature department. Karim organized a seminar in April, financed in part by the U.S. Institute of Peace, called "Peacebuilding, Nonviolence, and Approaches to Teaching the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Some pro-Israel groups have criticized the seminar (and did so before it took place), saying it was anti-Israel.

The letter from the Middle East Studies Association said: "It is our understanding that even before the workshop took place, Professor Karim was subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation by individuals and organizations, mostly based outside San José State, who objected to the workshop's content and participants. This campaign has continued even after the workshop, most recently by means of the circulation of a fabricated statement falsely attributed to Professor Karim and intended to damage her reputation, but also in the form of a request under the California Public Records Act that Professor Karim make available all documents and correspondence related to the workshop and its funding." The letter went on to say: "We urge you to issue a strong and clear public statement expressing the university’s support for academic freedom in general and that of Professor Karim in particular, and its firm condemnation of the smear campaign being waged against her."

A spokeswoman for the university said that San Jose State could not respond to the letter on Thursday.

 

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Ball State agrees to investigate science course some say is pushing religion

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Ball State agrees to investigate course -- taught by professor of physics and astronomy -- that critics say is too focused on Christian views for a science class at a public university. Is this issue one of church and state, or of academic freedom?

In Deal With Union, Instructor Reinstated in Chicken-Killing Incident

Alberta College of Art + Design announced Wednesday that it has reinstated Gord Ferguson, days after dismissing the art instructor for his role in a performance art project in which one of his students killed a chicken in the college's cafeteria. The statement, issued jointly by the college and its faculty association after the two reached an agreement on the matter, said that the college’s decision to terminate Ferguson "was never intended to be about academic or artistic freedom," but that administrators conceded "the perception this action may have created." It went on to say that Ferguson "acknowledges that he wishes he could have had a greater opportunity to advise and support his student before he undertook his performance" last month, and that the incident had raised awareness about both the importance of academic freedom and the meaning of academic responsibility.

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Open letter about Israel boycott to professors of Asian-American studies

Dear Colleagues:

As you know, on April 20, on the last day of its annual meeting, the Association for Asian American Studies, passed a resolution to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” and to encourage “research and public speaking... in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

While I disagree with the resolution, what struck me most at the time was that the vote, conducted by secret ballot, was unanimous, without so much as an abstention. I know that scholars like Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihade have argued for exploring “points of convergence and divergence” between Asian-American studies and Arab-American studies, which share the “project of resisting Orientalism and imperialism within and beyond the United States.”

But Maira and Shihade, writing in 2006, concede that their proposal faces resistance from some Asian-Americanists “sympathetic to Israel,” and from others unhappy with the “expansion of the intellectual terrain and crossing of borders” involved in reaching out to Arab-American studies. Seven years later not one dissenting voice could be heard when the AAAS planted its flag in the Middle East.

Even more striking, not one of you has voiced dissent since. Early this month, I wrote this post, whose premise was that no one in your field — and there are thousands of you — had publicly criticized the resolution. I must admit I was in a sweat to get the piece out because I imagined it was only a matter of time before one of you broke the silence.

I need not have worried. Nearly a month has passed since the resolution, and your silence continues. The American Association of University Professors, in rejecting the AAAS’s call for a boycott, noted that the AAUP “neither supports nor opposes Israeli government or Palestinian policies, although many... members certainly have strong beliefs on one side or the other.” Apart from reminding us of another ground, namely opposition to academic boycotts, on which one might have expected at least one Asian-Americanist to vote against the resolution, the AAUP reminds us of a feature of every academic association I know: they include people who have strong beliefs on both sides of controversial issues.

I wonder if even those of you who consider the resolution a victory think, as I do, that the complete lack of opposition to it is eerie. But I also have questions for those of you — I hope there are some — who have not publicly disagreed with the resolution but are not ardent supporters of it either.

Do you know about the BDS movement? Are you aware that the movement stands not only for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza but also for “respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba”? As Eric Alterman, who decries the “brutal treatment of the Palestinian people,” argues, the demand for the reintegration of “six or seven million Palestinians” amounts to the “demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide.”

Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s best known and harshest critics, has said that the BDS movement is dishonest on this score: "They think they're being very clever. They call it their three tiers.... We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel.... [T]hey know the result.... You know and I know what's the result: there's no Israel."

Finally, Noam Chomsky, a supporter of BDS tactics properly applied, nonetheless thinks the “call of Palestinian society” to which the AAAS refers is “a gift to Israeli and U.S. hardliners” not only because it implicitly calls for the “destruction of Israel” but also because it targets only Israel and lets the United States, England, and other countries “where it is a hundred times worse,” off the hook.

Why not, he suggests, boycott universities in the United States, which have been at least as complicit in imperial crimes as Israeli universities? No doubt that would be bad for AAAS business, but the call as it stands, like a 2002 call to divest from Israel in which Chomsky participated “out of solidarity,” “could be attacked... as pure anti-Semitism.”

If “you hate the Palestinians,” Chomsky snarks, "it’s a good step.” I don’t bring Chomsky up with you because I, like him, hope for the success of a properly targeted BDS movement. Rather, I want to point out that if you think the AAAS, in unanimously supporting the BDS call, was merely expressing criticism of Israel or concern about the Palestinians, you’ve been had.

The AAAS, which claims to “act as an advocate for the interests and welfare of Asian-American studies” and consequently to act as an advocate for your interests and welfare, has hitched your wagon to a single deeply controversial strand of Israel criticism. Even if you do not agree with Alterman, Finkelstein, or Chomsky, don’t you think that unanimous agreement on a matter about which even Israel critics disagree vociferously is a sign of your field’s ill health?

The president and executive board of AAAS in a recent official statement about the resolution, seeks to shield itself from the charge of selectively targeting Israel. “Many other countries,” they concede, "are, of course, human rights abusers and violators of international law.”

However, “there is active debate on and criticism of their actions at the levels of government and civil society,” whereas Israel enjoys “special status” in the United States and is “immune from government criticism.” This argument puts you in a bad position because to accept it without comment is to suggest that you do not know that Israel comes in for harsh criticism in The New York Times and in Israel’s own newspapers.

It also suggests you are unaware that President Obama, like President Bush before him, has explicitly criticized Israel’s settlement policy. You are also put in a bad position by the argument that “U.S. academics who speak out against the Israeli government’s policies are subject to intimidation and retribution.” To accept that claim, one has to pretend not to know that such speaking out is mainstream, so much so that John Mearsheimer, co-author of the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, got to suffer his intimidation and retribution on "The Colbert Report."

Perhaps more tellingly, one has to ignore the fact that not one person in your field has thought the resolution controversial enough to question. Do you want to associate yourself with the argument that human rights abuses in the West Bank are more worthy of comment than human rights abuses in Sri Lanka because the latter are more often discussed?

There is one more reason the AAAS’s support for the BDS call puts Asian-American studies in a bad position. Read this post by Byron Wong, a blogger whose subject is “Asian American intellectualism, activism, and literature.” Wong, explaining to me why Asian-American intellectuals are not more disturbed by the BDS resolution, proposes that many of them think the AAAS irrelevant: “Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all (since they’re often deadlocked on issues that matter).”

While Wong thinks that Asian-American studies professors are silent on the resolution because they are “just ecstatic that the AAAS finally can agree on something,” it is hard to see how taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to interest people like Wong, who support Asian American activism but do not think that taking such a position does anything to help Asian-Americans.

In closing, I cannot resist asking: Are you at all embarrassed?

I grant that Eric Alterman, Norman Finklestein, and Noam Chomsky, not to speak of BDS’s critics outside of the left, may be wrong about the BDS movement. I also grant that bloggers like Byron Wong may be wrong about the AAAS. Reasonable people disagree about the Middle East, about the advisability of academic boycotts, and about how the AAAS can best serve Asian Americans.

But that is precisely what makes the complete absence of a public conversation about these matters among Asian Americanists, a conversation with at least two sides, so peculiar. How can a group purporting to stand for the “highest professional standard of excellence in teaching and research” permit itself to appear so close-minded?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Marks
Associate Professor of Politics
Ursinus College

Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at twitter.com/marksjo1.

 

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Academic Minute: Higher Education Gender Gap

In today’s Academic Minute, Claudia Buchmann of Ohio State University explains the growing gender gap that exists on college campuses. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Faculty raise concerns about cronyism at U. of Oklahoma

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Faculty members at the University of Oklahoma raise concerns about President David L. Boren's recent administrative appointments -- and a key departure.

Harvard Urged to Do More on Gay History

A prominent Harvard University historian, Niall Ferguson, has been apologizing for statements he made that John Maynard Keynes didn't care about future generations because he was gay and did not have children. The chair of the Committee on LGBT History, a national group, on Tuesday issued a statement encouraging Ferguson to read more gay history, and calling on Harvard to use the Ferguson controversy to play more of a role in gay history. "Harvard should show leadership here by, at a minimum, hosting a major conference about LGBT history and encouraging Ferguson to attend. It is also high time that Harvard makes a new tenure-track hire in LGBT history. The incident has underscored the value of teaching and researching LGBT histories. This confronts ignorance about LGBT people, lives, and communities, and in the process, builds a more accurate historical record overall," said the statement, published at the History News Network.

In an e-mail message to Inside Higher Ed, David Armitage, the chair of history at Harvard, said: "We do not currently have a tenure-track position specifically focused on gay and lesbian history but we did request a post in the modern history of gender and sexuality (jointly with Harvard's program in women and gender studies) long before the recent debate arose. We already have great strength in this field, with Afsaneh Najmabadi, Nancy Cott, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in our department, but we very much hope to extend our reach in this area, alongside many other pressing priorities for our department."

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Are Journal Submissions Getting Sloppier?

Véronique Kiermer, executive editor of the Nature Publishing Group, says that there is more "sloppiness" than in the past in journal submissions, Times Higher Education reported. Kiermer made the remark in a speech at the World Conference on Research Integrity. Among the problems she said she is seeing more of are: missing control tests, poor use of images,  flaws in experimental design and reporting, and problems with the use of statistics.

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