Break for the Summer

“Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?”

Ludwig Wittgenstein
(Philosophical Investigations, §364)

I’m taking a break here at Inframethodology until mid-August. Before I do, let me draw your attention to Dominik Lukes’ reply to my last post, which you can find over at his blog. His metaphor hacking is always appreciated; everything is, after all, like everything else and unlike everything else in some sense. We have to keep both in mind when analogizing academic writing to a second language or to a musical instrument, to jogging or to drawing. I’ve always liked Wittgenstein’s reflection on whether calculating in the head is “like” calculating on paper. It does probably boil down to the sense which a marked up piece of paper “behaves” like a human body. In many ways, not very. In a few crucial ways, exactly.

I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but I’m also once again taking a break from social media, which, in my case, is confined to blogging and tweeting. I’m going to see what happens to my thinking when I stop paying attention to my Twitter feed and, especially, when I stop engaging with it. Truthfully, I think I’m doing more to damage my social network than to build it by thinking out loud about what others are thinking out loud about. I should work on my book. In fact, I should probably recenter my writing instruction on principles worthy of being preserved in a book and presented in seminars, rather than being blogged and tweeted left and right. “Please don’t understand me too quickly,” André Gide used to say. I’ve been expecting this too much of others, and not enough of myself, perhaps.

This year, I’ve been particularly concerned with two major developments in higher education pedagogy: the anti-five-paragraph-essay campaign and the ungrading movement. I think these are well-intentioned but misguided efforts to deal with the consequences of the last thirty years of growth in the student population. Our main disagreement, I think, is about how university students should be treated and what they are capable of. My view is simple: students are not performing well enough at university these days, including in their writing, not because there’s something new that’s wrong with them, but simply because we’re not requiring it of them. We have to raise our standards and lower their grades. That’s really all that is needed. They’ll work a little harder, do a little better, and learn a little more. Of course, a few more of them well also drop out. But that’s good for everyone, since their talents are probably best used elsewhere. We were probably wasting their time (and money). We have to get away from the idea that academic success is the basis of all other kinds of success. It should be merely one of many ways to get ahead in this world. A university education should be a particular source of value, not a universal marker of worth.

In any case, much to think about. I’m looking forward to mulling it over at a slower pace. In what sense, after all, is the paperback in my hand like my body in the sun? Have a great summer!

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