Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities”

By commonplace, I am thinking in terms it as one of the progymnasmata, which (as Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee discuss it in various editions of Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students) were the structured exercises in classical rhetoric pedagogy. To quote Crowley (this is from the first edition) quoting Erasmus, here are some commonplaces that students would “amplify” or “elaborate” on as rhetorical exercise:

  • It matters what company you keep.
  • The safest course is to believe no one.
  • War is pleasant to those who have not experienced it.
  • The best provision for old age is learning.

This is a fuzzy definition for me; I’m not sure I see the difference between a commonplace, a cliché, and a genre marker, other than the connotations– that is, commonplaces and genre markers are more noble than clichés.  In any event, I’m using the term commonplace because on Facebook the other day, Daniel Smith pointed to the NYTimes op-ed “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” by Verlyn Klinkenborg with the comment “At what point does a commonplace become a genre?” And then, later that same day, via (I think?) John Walter, I came across Michael Bérubé on Facebook taking on a remarkably similar NYTimes op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” by David Brooks. So I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to try to begin to tease out some of the key commonplaces/genre markers/clichés of the “End of the Humanities” piece.  I see it as a public service; it will make it easier for future writers to keep up with the demand for such pieces in the mainstream media.

So, what does it take to amplify and elaborate on the commonplace “The humanities are in decline”?   Here’s a list/comparison to get started:

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The end of the Duke Composition MOOC: again, what did we learn here?

I have a boatload of MOOC reading links I feel compelled to write about, but I want to write about about the just ended English Composition I: Achieving Expertise.  Just the other day, I received what I suspect will be the last email from the folks at the Duke Comp MOOC I’ve been in for the last 12 weeks.  Here’s what it said (in part):

Congratulations are in order for the 1289 students who earned a Statement of Accomplishment for English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. About half of those students had a score of 85% or higher. As such, I decided to award a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction to those students.

Let me pause there for a second: in the first of many updates/announcements from Denise Comer at the beginning of this MOOC, we were told there were over 60,000 “students” “enrolled;” in this last announcement, we learn that 1289 earned the “statement of accomplishment” (aka “completion”) for the course.  That’s just over 2%. Oh sure, the very definition of what counts as a student and what it means to enroll in a MOOC is fuzzy, but even by most MOOC standards, that’s poor.

But let me back up a bit:

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A #cwcon 2013 story

My first computers and writing related lesson was on the drive to the annual Computers and Writing Conference and it was about the agency (or authority or trust) we put in our machines, specifically our cell phones, as if they were reliable people. I was travelling by myself and my only navigation equipment was my iPhone. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the route my iPhone had planned for me until I got close to Frostburg, and by the time I did start to pay attention, it was too late.  The “route 1” Apple Maps planned involved about 20 steps for the last 40 miles– turn left down this street, right for 1000 feet down this road that looks more like an alley, left again, etc. This might have been scenic, but just as I started all these crazy turns, thick fog settled in. And I mean scary, white-knuckle driving under the best of circumstances thick fog. I could not see anything beyond the edge of the road– not that there was much to see beyond the edge of the road anyway. It was so bad I was literally driving by iPhone: I propped it up in the cup holder and I glanced between the road and the blue dot and instructions on the screen telling me I needed to turn left in two tenths and then one tenth of a mile… and then I’d actually see the turn. Thank you, iPhone!

Had my iPhone been “smarter” (and frankly had I been smarter and thought more carefully about the route Maps had selected), I wouldn’t have ended up in these back woods in the first place. On the other hand, had I been traveling with another human and had that human been serving as the navigator on these side roads with the previous generation of navigating technologies– a road map– I am pretty sure I/we would have been lost in the fog until it cleared because there is no way we would have been able to spot those turns.  The iPhone got me into that mess, but it also got me out of it.

But back to the topic at hand, the annual Computers and Writing Conference, #cwcon, this year in Frostburg, Maryland. Let me get my main (really, only) gripe about the conference out of the way right at the beginning: I didn’t think a whole lot of Frostburg.

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Three MOOC readings and the (almost) end of English Composition I

The end of English Composition I from Coursera/Duke is near, and I’ll be sure to write something up about that in the next week or so– probably after the Computers and Writing Conference coming up this weekend. The short version for now is it has been a struggle for me to keep up at the end, both in terms of the way in which the class has been paced/the work has piled up, but also just in terms of basic motivations of the “why am I here in the first place” variety, feelings that surly fuel the dropout rate of these kinds of classes. More on that below when I talk about the Koller et al essay.

But in the meantime and while I get ready to leave town, I thought I’d start a post about three MOOC readings amongst the many that have been piling up around me. As is usually the case, this is mostly useful to me so I can come back later, but some of this might be useful to others too.

But before I even get to that, I am pleased and proud to point to my June 2013 College Composition and Communication piece “MOOC Response about ‘Listening to World Music,'” which is part of a special “symposium” section of the journal. (That link is behind a firewall just for NCTE members, though I might put a version out on this web site sooner than later for everyone to read.) I think it turned out well, though I would have preferred a more interesting title and I’m surprised that this is just two pieces, mine and one by Jeff Rice (his essay is at the same link as mine). What I also think works well is that both Jeff and I are both writing about the “Listening to World Music” MOOC, and I think our commentaries overlap and diverge in interesting ways.

Okay, on to three MOOC readings after the break.

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