By Duncan Richter
Here's how my life is. After irrationality at work has led me to drink and despair (I'm exaggerating) I see photogenic cables on my walk in to work in the morning, and then a crow that, while I'm watching it, swoops from its wire across the road and swerves to the ground passing right in front of me, giving me a close-up that film crews would wait days for. Delight completely replaces despair.
I don't think it's possible to live in that state of mind, but it's still heartbreaking (exaggerating again) that we have to work for other people because all the land we might otherwise live on has been taken and that the people we work for are so prone to irrationality. Perhaps a basic income would make up for that injustice (if that's what it is), but it's harder to know what to do about the latter problem. Karl Kraus thought satire and care of language could push people away from irrationality ("if those who are obliged to look after commas had always made sure they were in the right place, then Shanghai would not be burning”), but he couldn't stop the Nazis. Brian O'Nolan seems to have felt he could do some good too, but he didn't stop anything. It's tempting to just give up, and I usually do. But it's also tempting at times not to, so here I go. Not offering satire, sadly, but complaining about nonsense, bullshit, etc., and seeing it as both a cause and a symptom of other problems.
I read two articles in Inside Higher Ed this morning and was not thrilled. The first starts off well, noting that people in the US seem remarkably tolerant of lies and nonsense spoken by politicians. It also notes the depressing fact that pointing out to people the falseness of their beliefs actually tends to make them hold more tightly to those beliefs. But then it switches gears to talk about how libraries should respond to all this and says:
For academic librarians, the new Framework for Information Literacy has a strong emphasis on context and on making meaning rather than finding and evaluating it in finished form.
Aaagh! Isn't it exactly this kind of idea (that meanings are made) that gives an air of intellectual responsibility to the liars and bullshitters identified as a problem at the start of the article? If the audience makes the meaning of the speaker's words then how can they straightforwardly be lies or bullshit? Don't we need less Fish in our intellectual diet rather than different libraries?
The second article is worse. It's about whether assigning more writing in college leads to better writing by students. How is this assessed? Naturally by "students’ self-reported intellectual growth and personal satisfaction over time." Who needs reality when you have appearance? And then there's this sentence: "Meaning making assessed how students engaged in some form of integrative, critical or original thinking." So now thinking is "making meaning"? Ugh. Amazingly, "Students who reported that more of their writing assignments involved clearly explained expectations were more likely to report greater higher-order learning in the classroom." In other words, students given non-annoying assignments felt that those assignments were better in other ways too. No danger of bias affecting those findings. Presumably for comedy purposes the article (which is reporting on the "findings" of a study) also refers to "regression analysis" and "bivariate correlations". How much rigor do you want? To be fair, what the study seems to have found is that students who use or experience what are considered (by others) to be good writing practices also considered themselves to be learning more than students who used or experienced other practices, and that this correlation was stronger than any between how much students had to write and how much they felt they were learning. This is evidence, however weak, that those strategies are indeed good ones. That is worth knowing. On the other hand, the relevant good practices are:
- communicating orally or in writing with one or more persons at some point between receiving an assignment and submitting the final draft.
- engaging in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking. Examples include asking students to apply a concept learned in class to their past experience, relate knowledge learned in another class to knowledge presented in the current class, support a contestable claim with evidence, or evaluate a policy, practice, or position.
- instructors providing students with an accurate understanding of what they are asking their students to show that they can do in an assignment and the criteria by which the instructors will evaluate the students’ submissions.
In other words the report provides weak evidence that the bleeding obvious is indeed true. Or so a cynic might say. Others take a different view:
Daniel Melzer, associate director of first-year composition at the University of California at Davis, is referenced in the new paper for his popular 2014 study suggesting that most writing assignments are poorly crafted (The authors agree, and say more assignments need to be based on the practices they’ve identified). He said he’s been following the authors’ preliminary research, and that it’s already made waves in the field.
Waves! A field in which this makes waves is not one in which I want to work. But there it is. This is the kind of thing that makes me think the humanities deserve to die.
I need to go outside and see more birds.