What an exciting year for distance learning! Cutting-edge communication systems allowed colleges to escape the tired confines of face-to-face education. Bold new technologies made it possible for thousands of geographically dispersed students to enroll in world-class courses. Innovative assessment mechanisms let professors supervise their pupils remotely.
All this progress was good for business, too. Private entrepreneurs leapt at the chance to compete in the new distance learning marketplace, while Ivy League universities bustled to keep pace. True, a few naysayers fretted about declining student attention spans and low course-completion rates. But who could object to the expansively democratic goal of bringing first-rate education to more people than ever before? The new pedagogical tools promised to be not only more affordable than traditional classes, but also more effective at measuring student progress.
In the words of one prominent expert, the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." The future of education was finally here.
2012, right? Think again: 1885. The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses. That’s right: you’ve got (snail) mail. Journalist Nicholas Carr has chronicled the recurrent boosterism about mass mediated education over the last century: the phonograph, instructional radio, televised lectures. All were heralded as transformative educational tools in their day. This should give us pause as we consider the latest iteration of distance learning: massive open online courses (MOOCs).
In response to the "MOOC Moment,"skeptical faculty have begun questioning venture capitalists eager for new markets and legislators eager to dismantle public funding for American higher education. To their credit, some people pushing for MOOCs speak from laudably egalitarian impulses to provide access for disadvantaged students. But to what are they being given access? Are broadcast lectures and online discussions the sum of an education? Or is an education something more than "content" delivery?
To state the obvious: there’s a living, human element to education. We who cherish in-person instruction would benefit from a pithy phrase to defend and promote this millennia-tested practice. I propose that we begin calling it "close learning." "Close learning" evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. "Close learning" exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.
Techno-utopians seem surprised that "blended" or "flipped" classrooms – combining online media with in-person discussions – are more effective than their online-only counterparts, or that one-on-one tutoring strengthens the utility of MOOCs. In spite of all the hype about interactivity, "lecturing" a la MOOCs merely extends the cliché of the static, one-sided lecture hall, where distance learning begins after the first row.
The old-fashioned Socratic seminar is where we actually find interactive learning and open-ended inquiry. In the close learning of the live seminar, spontaneity rules. Both students and teachers are always at a crossroads, collaboratively deciding where to go and where to stop, how to navigate and how to detour, and how to close the distance between a topic and the people discussing it. For the seminar to work, certain limits are required (most centrally, a limit in size). But these finite limits enable the infinity of questioning that is close learning. MOOCs claim to abolish those limits, while they paradoxically reinstate them. Their naïve model assumes that there is always total transparency, that passively seeing (watching a lecture, or a virtual simulation) is learning.
A Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, recently published a polemical book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Discouraged by students regurgitating his lectures without internalizing the complexity of scientific inquiry, Firestein created a seminar to which he invited his colleagues to discuss what they don’t know. As Firestein repeatedly emphasizes, it is informed ignorance, not information, that is the genuine "engine" of knowledge. His seminar demonstrates that mere data transmission from teacher to student doesn’t produce deep learning. It’s the ability to interact, to think hard thoughts alongside other people.
In a seminar, a student can ask for clarification, and challenge a teacher; a teacher can shift course when spirits are flagging; a stray thought can spark a new insight. Isn’t this the kind of nonconformist "thinking outside the box" that business leaders adore? So why is there such a rush to freeze knowledge and distribute it in a frozen form? Even Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng concedes that the real value of a college education "isn’t just the content.... The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students."
The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."
Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level "training." But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.
Close learning transcends disciplines. In every field, students must incline towards their subjects: leaning into a sentence, to craft it most persuasively. Leaning into an archival document, to determine an uncertain provenance. Leaning into a musical score, to poise the body for performance. Leaning into a data set, to discern emerging patterns. Leaning into a laboratory instrument, to interpret what is viewed. MOOCs, in contrast, encourage students and faculty to lean back, not to cultivate the disciplined attention necessary to engage fully in a complex task. Low completion rates for MOOCs (hovering around 10 percent) speak for themselves.
A devotion to close learning should not be mistaken for an anti-technology stance. (Contrary to a common misperception, the original Luddites simply wanted machines that made high-quality goods, run by trained workers who were adequately compensated.) I teach Shakespeare, supposedly one of the mustiest of topics. Yet my students navigate the vast resources of the Internet; evaluate recorded performances; wrestle with facsimiles of original publications; listen to pertinent podcasts; survey decades of scholarship in digitized form; circulate their drafts electronically; explore the cultural topography of early modern London; and contemplate the historical richness of the English language. Close learning is entirely compatible with engaging in meaningful conversations outside the classroom; faculty can correspond regularly with students via e-mail, and keep in close contact via all kinds of new media. But this is all in service of close learning, and the payoff comes in the classroom.
Teachers have always employed "technology" – including the book, one of the most flexible and dynamic learning technologies ever created. But let’s not fixate upon technology for technology’s sake, or delude ourselves into thinking that better technology overcomes bad teaching. At no stage of education does technology, no matter how novel, ever replace human attention. Close learning can’t be automated, or scaled up.
As retrograde as it might sound, gathering humans in a room with real time for dialogue still matters. As educators, we must remind ourselves – not to mention our boards, our alumni, our students, and those students’ parents – of the inescapable fact that our "product" is close learning. This is why savvy parents have always invested in intensive human interaction for their children. (Tellingly, parents from Silicon Valley deliberately restrict their children’s access to electronic distractions, so that they might experience the free play of mind essential to human development.) What remains to be seen is whether we value this kind of close learning at all levels of education, enough to defend it, and fund it, for a wider circle of Americans – or whether we will continue to permit the circle to contract, excluding a genuinely transformative educational experience from those without means.
Scott L. Newstok teaches in the English department at Rhodes College.
I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
Last week’s column began to preview the fall and winter offerings from university presses. The first batch included books on higher education, the digital and dead-tree humanities, and speculation regarding the mind and emotion.
Now we move on to race, class, gender, war, and sundry other topics of heated public interest. The very titles of certain volumes may outrage some people, which can’t be helped. I will opine a little, on the fly -- but the most interesting thing about the whole process has been looking for possible or implicit connections among the books. With luck, readers will come across a few titles of interest here they might not have noticed otherwise. Including the institutional affiliation of the authors and editors of this many books would have bogged things down too much, but for each volume there is a link to the publisher, which usually has a web page providing that information.
Democracy and its discontents are the focus of several new books on political theory and history. The most philosophical of them is by Étienne Balibar – one of Louis Althusser’s students and collaborators, as it’s impossible not to mention even after more than 40 years. Balibar sums up the deepest conflict at the heart of the constitutional nation-state by coining the neologism he uses as the title of Equaliberty: Political Essays (Duke University Press, Feb. 2014), originally published in France three years ago.
The eminent (and prolific) American political theorist William E. Connolly continues to think through the conditions and consequences of pluralism. His latest report, also from Duke, is The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Sept.). Connolly worries that making the marketplace the ultimate arbiter of institutional legitimacy leaves us with a brittle and empty polity. Nadia Urbinati reflects on the same condition in Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, Feb.), with its criticism of “technocrats wedded to procedure, demagogues who make glib appeals to ‘the people,’ and media operatives who, given their preference, would turn governance into a spectator sport and citizens into fans of opposing teams.” (As a resident of Washington, I’d say that about covers it.)
In The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, Oct.), David Runciman warns that liberal democracy -- hitherto capable of managing its economic and political troubles, and even emerging from them strengthened – remains vulnerable to unforeseen developments it has no guarantee of being able to fix. Pushing the discussion in another direction is Anti-Crisis (Duke, Nov.) by Janet Roitman, who questions the reliance on the concept of crisis in narrating our social, political, and economic ordeals.
It’s been said (by whom I can’t recall) that all really serious problems now are either too big or too small, too general or too specific, for the nation-state to handle them. Perhaps that explains why the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber -- whose Jihad vs. McWorld was one of the more prominent globalization books of the 1990s – now stresses the efficacy of municipal politics with If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press, Nov.).
Biographer of Isaiah Berlin, champion of human rights, and erstwhile standard-bearer for liberals who rallied to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Michael Ignatieff had at last report returned to Canada to serve as leader of the Liberal Party. Non-admirers south of the border may reasonably have assumed, with relief, that they would never hear from him again. Indeed, to judge by one recent book and Inside Higher Ed's reports, some Canadians were of a like mind. But now Ignatieff returns to print – presumably invigorated from leading his party to massive, history-making defeat in the 2011 elections, when he also managed to lose his own seat in Parliament – with Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Harvard, Nov.) From lemons to lemonade -- on the double!
Scholars and warriors alike contribute to How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War (Stanford University Press, Sept), edited by James Burk, and Jacob N. Shapiro’s new book analyzes The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, Aug.). Promising “a groundbreaking look ahead at what may happen after the war in Afghanistan ends” (which could be soon, reportedly) David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, Oct.) identifies “four megatrends” at work in shaping the future of political violence by non-state forces. His use of the term “urban guerilla” calls to mind the 1960s and ’70s, when most of the developments that Lindsey Churchill discusses in Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.) took place.
Zaid Al-Ali draws a balance sheet on The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, Feb.), while Christopher J. Fettweis offers his own diagnosis of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, Oct.). That is perhaps the most Noam Chomsky-like title ever attached to a book written by someone other than Noam Chomsky. The linguist’s political interventions come up for assessment in Anthony F. Greco’s Chomsky's Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader (Vanderbilt, Jan.).
A blurb for Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, Oct.) says that its editors, Randall Amster and Elavie Ndura, have assembled writings by “a modern-day who’s who of nonviolent thinkers, bring[ing] fresh new perspectives to the urgency and practicality of alternative recourses to violent conflict.” The catalog doesn’t indicate who is on that list. It can’t be a good sign for the state of the world that the only potential contributor who comes to mind is the Dalai Lama.
Blithe as its contemporary practitioners can often be, economics was once called “the dismal science” – a characterization that now seems at least as suitable for ecology. The fields converge in William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (Yale, Oct.).
But then they converge in life as well. Both economic and ecological issues are easy enough to infer from the subtitle of David Sedlak’s Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale, Jan.). Something else ecologists and economists share, evidently, is an itch to extrapolate. Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale, Sept.) looks at a famous wager between a free-market optimist and an environmentalist catastrophist.
It will be interesting to see if Walter A. Friedman reports any evidence of a hybrid species, the free-market catastrophist, in Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (Princeton, Nov.) Analyzing the history of policy misfires in WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them (Oxford, Nov.), Richard S. Grossman argues that terrible consequences follow when a particular ideology trumps attention to “cold, hard economic analysis.” Okay, but if you can find anyone on Wall Street who admits to ignoring cold, hard economic analysis in the interest of a particular ideology, I will trade your credit default swaps for a nice, newly foreclosed home.
Meanwhile, much further down the socioeconomic spectrum, we have a few assessments of the labor movement that seem like S.O.S. messages in book form. That’s definitely the case with Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review, distributed by New York University Press, Nov.) by Steve Early -- a freelance contributor to The Nation, Labor Notes, and In These Times, among other journals -- who is one of the two or three labor journalists whose byline I’m always glad to find. (For a while I also thought he was a great singer and songwriter, but that turned out to be Steve Earle.)
On the other hand, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard, Feb) sounds less like an S.O.S. than a toast at a wake. Organized labor in the middle of the 20th century "was the core institution fighting for economic and political equality in the United States," its publisher's description says. "Unions leveraged their bargaining power to deliver tangible benefits to workers while shaping cultural understandings of fairness in the workplace. The labor movement helped sustain an unprecedented period of prosperity among America’s expanding, increasingly multiethnic middle class." With the smallest percentage of workers in unions now in a century, Rosenfeld stresses the policy impact of labor’s decline: "curtailed advocacy for better working conditions, weakened support for immigrants’ economic assimilation, and ineffectiveness in addressing wage stagnation among African-Americans." In Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market (University of Minnesota Press, July), Marc Doussard describes jobs where employers routinely practice “denying safety equipment, fining workers for taking scheduled breaks, [and] requiring unpaid overtime.” It’s a fair bet that some of those workers are parents of the kids Walter J. Nicholl writes about in The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate (Stanford, Aug.).
Its publication next month timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates’s A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (MR/NYU, Aug.) revisits and updates A. Philip Randolph’s proposal for egalitarian reform. Ian Haney López proposes one explanation of the continuing and growing extremes of wealth and poverty in the U.S. in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, Jan.).
In Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (Rutgers University Press, Feb.), Clara S. Lewis suggests that federal anti-hate-crimes laws have backfired in perverse ways, while John D. Skrentny points to the even more convoluted side-effects of anti-discrimination legislation in After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace (Princeton, Jan.).
An interesting example of argument within the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia is Richard A. Posner’s Reflections on Judging (Harvard, Oct), which criticizes Justice Anthony Scalia’s judicial philosophy from Posner’s own perspective as both legal theorist and federal judge. Donald T. Critchlow revisits a largely forgotten chapter in the history of American conservatism in When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (Cambridge, Sept.).
Two more titles looking at the history of the U.S. right wing – focusing on activists in the trenches at least as much as the big-name strategists – are Joshua C. Wilson, The Street Politics of Abortion: Violence, and America's Culture Wars (Stanford, Aug.) and Isaac Martin’s Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford, Sept.) Taking a long-term perspective on the American right’s foreign policy is Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton, Sept.) by Henry R. Nau, who is implicitly in dialogue with Milan Babík’s Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology (Baylor, Aug.) whether either of the authors is aware of it or not.
Enough politics! Let’s talk about sex. Or about sexual politics, at least. (Sorry about the bait-and-switch.)
Actually, “asexual politics” seems closer to the mark in the case of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke, Nov.) by Benjamin Kahan. Decoupling celibacy (if that’s how to put it) from assumptions about religious inhibition or repressed gay identity, Kahan maintains that celibacy is “a distinct sexuality with its own practices and pleasures.” Well, to each his or her own. Perhaps the author will be celibacy’s heroic equivalent of the now almost legendary German sexologist whose life and work Ralf Dose recounts in Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (MR/NYU, Feb.).
That said, the celibate lifestyle seems unlikely to face the kind of legal and political issues portrayed in When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (Rutgers, Nov.) by Layane Parish Craig, or Katrina Kimport, Queering Marriage: Challenging Family Formation in the United States (Rutgers, Dec.).
The early stages of family formation typically include reading one of the pregnancy manuals that Marika Seigel studies in The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (University of Chicago Press, Dec.), teasing out the genre’s history and subtexts. Jocelyn Elise Crowley thinks about how to make parenthood and employment compatible, rather than a zero-sum trade off, in Mothers Unite: Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (Cornell University Press, May).
Sarah S. Richardson goes in quest of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, Nov.) -- where we also find the coding that produces death, which is even more persistent. (Mortality has no equivalent of the option for celibacy.) Billy G. Smith offers one view of the Grim Reaper’s unrelenting determination in Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (Yale, Nov.), his account of the yellow fever pandemic of the 1790s.
In The Thought of Death and the Memory of War (Minnesota, Oct.), Marc Crépon reflects on the desensitizing, depersonalizing effect of knowing about the mass slaughters of the 20th century. With Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, Oct.), originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures for 2012, Samuel Scheffler argues that we have a deep, even unconscious need to trust in the continuation of human life on earth long after we’ve returned to dust. He’s probably right, but I would still prefer not to think about it.