The opposite of what I think

I’ve got to get a move-on here because I’ve got to clean up after our faux Mardi Gras party we had last night (pictures and a post about that later). But I wanted to post something about the last couple weeks of wiki-centric stuff around here, culminating in a couple lectures featuring Larry Sanger and Marshall Poe.

Just to back up a bit:

Marshall Poe is the McAndless visiting scholar at EMU this year. This is an endowment that was set up many years ago to bring in various visiting professors for a term; a couple years ago, this is how we got Scott McCloud to be on campus and do so much stuff with our classes. Poe’s approach has been to bring in others, presumably the people that he worked with/interviewed for his forthcoming book on Wikipedia, to come in and give talks and such. There are a couple more scheduled through the term.

This week, it was Sanger, who spoke along with Poe Thursday night and Friday morning at this little symposium thing we had here. Basically, Sanger spoke mostly about his new project, Citizendium, which he sees as a sort of anecdote to the anarchy and chaos of Wikipedia, a place where articles are written by people who use their real names and are then vetted by real experts, and a place where everyone has discussions in professional and polite tones.

I have to say there are few things that Sanger said that I agree with.

One of the things that framed my own preconceived notions about Sanger was Poe’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Hive,” which is a history of Wikipedia. In the story, Sanger is depicted as a guy who came up with much of what was Wikipedia (at least in the early days), who was victimized by/a participant in some ugly flame-wars, and who was more or less tossed out of the Wikipedia universe just as it started taking off. So I knew that he had reasons to be bitter and defensive. But the extent to which this came across in his two speeches was rather striking. Sanger seems like a pretty angry guy.

I don’t think Wikipedia (or YouTube or Digg, both of which Sanger and Poe mentioned frequently) are as chaotic and lawless as they suggest, and it seems to me that model of many eyeballs has served Wikipedia surprisingly well in terms of it accuracy. Citizendium (and btw, an unsolicited piece of advice: change the name to something that folks can easily pronounce) aims to be a better online encyclopedia, but even if that were possible, why? What’s the goal? All encyclopedias– Britannica, Wikipedia, Citizendium– are, by definition, summaries which are inevitably “watered down,” which frequently gloss over controversial details, and which are often enough wrong. I encourage my students to use Wikipedia as a place to get started, though I don’t allow them to reference it as a source in an academic research project. But I wouldn’t allow them to reference Britannica or Citizendium either. So even if Sanger is making a better mousetrap/encyclopedia (and that’s an “if,” of course), it’s difficult for me to understand the point.

In the end, I think what was most interesting about Sanger’s speeches and point of view is that it is so very very different from mine and, as far as I can tell, most of my colleagues. Sanger is a Philosopher with a capital P and out of the same mold as Plato. He’s an academic (of a sort) who, based on his training and world view, has no problem at all with an epistemology that assumes Neutrality is possible, that Knowledge is “out there” and, that the goal of philosophy is to objectively approach and understand that Knowledge. The best way to get to that Knowledge is to ask a Philosopher, which is someone who has Wisdom (and, in these days, Credentials) and can thus provide the answer.

Rhetoric has traditionally been described as the opposite of Philosophy, and given that Sanger and I (and probably most of my colleagues in the English department) begin with completely different world views about what (K)knowledge is and how we get there, I just don’t get where he’s coming from at all. Sanger would probably feel the same way about me.

At some point on Thursday night, Sanger made one of those “off-the-cuff” comments that really has stuck with me: he said he imagined Citizendium as being kind of like those old county fairs, where article writers would be like the farmers presenting their wares and the academic experts would be like the judges picking the winners. Well, this– and the call for politeness and decorum and order that came up again and again– just struck me as nostalgia. And like most things that are based on nostalgia– the genre of the western, for example– it is a longing for a more perfect past that never actually existed in the first place. In that sense, I think that Citizendium is a beautiful and futile dream.

Whadda wearin’?

As I type this (or at least as I start to type this), Larry Sanger is talking at the symposium I’m attending on wikis and stuff, and (obviously) my mind is drifting a bit. I will probably have to write something more thoughtful about the events surrounding Sanger’s visit later.

Anyway, while that was going on, I stumbled across “A Call for Professional Attire” by Erik M. Jensen in Inside Higher Ed. Basically, he’s pointing out the long-standing bad dress of most academics. It’s kind of a funny piece, one that I don’t agree with generally speaking, but amusing and thought provoking nonetheless, and there are lots of good comments on the article.

As far as my own fashion senses (or lack thereof) go, a couple of thoughts in no particular order:

  • I have gone through various phases of professional dress in my academic career. At Southern Oregon, where outdoorsy wear was the main wardrobe for everyone, even deans, I went through a period where I showed up in a tie. The reasons for this were complicated, but they included being on the job market. A few years ago here, I went through a phase where I wore a coat and tie, in part again because I was sort of on the job market, and in part because I realized I had all these clothes in the closet that I wasn’t wearing.
  • My current dress mode is something along the lines of khakis or nice jeans, a golf shirt or a button-down shirt, often with a sweater in cooler weather, nice quasi-walking/hiking shoes or deck shoes or Doc Martin-esque shoes– kind of “business casual light.” I think I am in this place in my life and career where I’ve taken sort of a Martha Stewart attitude toward fashion. Like Martha, I see myself as always dressed about the same, yet always kind of casual but able to fit in all but the most formal or most casual settings. And, like Martha (I presume, though we’ve never really talked about this), I’ve taken this approach because I frankly have better things to worry about.
  • Professorial dress code, IMO, depends a lot on context. I don’t teach lecture hall classes, but if I did, I’d dress up. If I was a dean or department head or something like that, I’d dress up. But I don’t. I teach online or I teach in small groups, so I don’t think the “gravitas” of a coat and tie matters that much. I think there are two possible exceptions to this: first, younger/more junior instructors probably get more mileage out of dressing up. Second, it probably helps for the instructor to dress up a bit more for classes like first year composition. But those are both just guesses/assumptions on my part.
  • What I think Jensen is missing here is that the reason why professors dress as casually as they do is because they can, and if people in the “real world” of felt-lined cubicals and the like could, they’d wear jeans and a sweater and sneakers to work every day too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on some sweats and do some online teaching….

Dartmouth’s “back to the future” writing program

There was a little piece in Inside Higher Ed today, “Evolution of a Writing Program,” which is about changes coming to Dartmouth’s first year writing program. The opening paragraph:

Many a college has de- and then re-constructed its approach to teaching writing — in composition courses, in classes across the curriculum, or both. In announcing the creation of a new Institute for Writing and Rhetoric last week, Dartmouth College presented its particular take, including a new focus on tying together public speaking and writing instruction, expanding support services for students writing in foreign languages, and eliminating exemptions from an introductory writing course sequence required of all Dartmouth students.

The exemption thing is significant because (apparently) about 200 of the 1,000 first year students get out of the writing requirement now– that’s several more sections of fycomp that they’re going to have to staff. The article also quotes the dean of faculty wondering how the heck they are going to access writing success among their students? Where will they turn for resources and advice? Where indeed….

Actually, it also strikes me as a move that could benefit schools like EMU. Speaking only for myself, I would just as soon make it impossible for students to be able to exempt our required first year writing course; maybe with the move Dartmouth is making here we can argue “well, if they’re requiring for all their students, why the heck shouldn’t we do the same?”

Anyway, this all makes me think of the past in two different ways. First, depending on the version history that one subscribes to, it is from old and ivied schools like Harvard and Dartmouth and such where the split between writing and speaking first became evident back in the 19th century. I did some research on this that I (regrettably) have yet to publish on this stuff as it ties in with elocution, and I think this is an argument that David Russell makes in Writing In the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990, but basically, this split in the US happened after the Civil War. Some places never did quite give up the whole connection between FYComp and speech– this was the case at the University of Iowa when I was an undergraduate.

Just a guess, but I suspect that as writing and composition studies becomes more about “media studies” (with pedagogy that embraces multimedia/new media as standard fare in all sorts of courses, including fy comp) and as the field drifts even further away from literature and traditional English department studies, I suspect we’ll see more programs like this.

Second, this is a “back to the future” moment for me personally. For reasons I won’t go into right now, I actually tested out of first year composition entirely at the U of Iowa. As a first year student, I of course thought this was great thing, but as a college professor, I think I missed out. As Lindsay Whaley, associate dean for international and interdisciplinary programs, says in this piece: “In a sense, I think it was [perceived as] an honor to be exempted. There was a sense that ‘Wow, this is great.’ From a faculty standpoint, there was a sense that they’re missing out.” I think that’s right.