Thursday, July 17, 2014


Friday Fragments

One of the benefits of getting older is that sense of surprise when you discover that something you hadn’t thought much about in, say, twenty years has changed in interesting ways.  

In a discussion this week with a colleague from the humanities, I had one of those moments.  She mentioned that if you look at the elective classes that tend to fill, and the electives that don’t, you see a distinct pattern.  The classes that involve making something or performing something -- whether theater, music, or creative writing -- do quite well.  The classes that involve analyzing things others have created -- upper-level literature, art history -- don’t.

Students would rather create than analyze.

It struck me, because it wasn’t how I remembered things being.  Not all that long ago, the ‘creation’ classes were usually sort of off to the side.  The culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s -- who to include in the canon and how to read them -- were based on an assumption common to both sides, which was that humanistic education was mostly about reading and analysis.  The important debates were over who and how to read, not whether to.  Literary critics were academic celebrities.  Now, it’s about creation.

Something similar is happening with “maker faires” and the like. The shift to creation doesn’t seem to be confined to literary studies, or even to the humanities.  It seems broader.

It’s a mixed blessing, of course, but I’m inclined to be optimistic.  If you’ve struggled to produce something, you’re likely to be a more nuanced and sympathetic critic of others who do the same.  You know how limited the choices are, and what the constraints on production are.  

I’m guessing that the cultural shift has something to do with the proliferation of platforms that the web has wrought.  Until about 1997 or so, it was difficult to get work exposed to any kind of large audience.  Gateways to the public were few, and tightly guarded.  Creativity could be expressed instead through critique.  Anyone who remembers “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or even “Pop-Up Video” will recognize the impulse.

Now, production is far easier and gatekeepers are barely hanging on.  You can make video with your phone, and distribute it to the world with a click.  With 3-D printing, you can make prototypes of complicated contraptions that would have been impossible just five or ten years ago.  The challenge now isn’t winning over some critic or executive; it’s getting noticed above the din.  

Today’s eighteen year olds were born in 1996.  This is the world they have always known.  

If I specialized in literary criticism, I’d be nervous.  But the arts may be poised for a new, if very different, golden age.


One of the cable channels had a Harry Potter movie marathon this week, so The Wife and the kids watched several.  Actual conversation between TW and The Girl, upon seeing a scene with Helena Bonham Carter:

TG: If I were a supervillain, I’d wear my hair just like that.  My clothes, too.

TW: Are you going to be a supervillain?

TG: I haven’t decided yet.

TW: You’d be a great supervillain.


TG (deadpan): I know.

World, you’ve been warned…


Program Note: We’re going on vacation next week, so the blog will spend some time in the sun.  It’ll be back on Monday, July 28.  See you then!

I've also noticed the interest in majors like creative writing, so it is helpful to see that this is not a local phenomenon. It would be interesting to know if this focus on the practical side (engineering or applied physics rather than theoretical physics, writing for an audience rather than lit crit or philosophy) is also seen at universities.

I'd attribute part of what you describe as reflecting changes in K-12 in the last decade or so. Essays on the HS exit exam tend to be reactive rather than arguing from data, and there seems to be little emphasis on careful "critical" reading. Skimming seems to be pushed hard as a test-taking skill. The latter creates a challenge in problem-solving classes like chemistry and physics because they have not learned to read every word, let alone turn those words into symbols in a math class that emphasizes word problems.

Apparently this has not gone unnoticed, because we were told that one new feature of the Common Core was to bring fact-based logical argument back into the curriculum.
We're noticing this in high school. Students are opting out of 'harder' subjects like physics to take easier subjects like international business. Why work hard for an 80% when you can get 95% with no homework?

And a lot of the 'creative' work isn't, really. All the kids need to do to be 'creative' is come up with something their teacher hasn't seen before — which with the internet isn't that difficult.
This is what you would expect from the proliferation of new media. There are fewer barriers to entry and a growing niche market for just about everything. It makes more sense for people to learn some basic skills and try producing something today than it did ten years ago.

Yes, most of those creations will be terrible, but a civilization with ninety-nine failures for every success is a civilization that's progressing at a remarkable rate.
Nobody can say for sure what is better. Actually for every person different things can be regarded as better or worse. But still I do not like tendencies which I notice in the system of modern education. Students are mostly self-centered, able to give answers to the questions they have learnt and that`s all. We have to make our children think, find their own solutions, expressing their own thoughts and writing essays is an excellent way (check amazing essays here ) But our kid are offered tests with only right answer. Quite sad.
Ha! You are gone for a few days and strangely written spam shows up on your doorstep.

I'm posting to see if you noticed the kerfluffle about a "nothing special" private non-profit college in Iowa trimming some non-yet-tenured faculty who spoke out on the college's plans thinking academic freedom applied to at-will employees. Maybe you should write a column about what your college does about mentoring new faculty.
I live for challenge, and if I had it to do over again, I'd take international business over physics in a heartbeat.

There's something about reliably paying your mortgage that just makes your adult life that much more pleasant.

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