Reasonable Words: Outcomes and “epistemic suicide”

A think piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed by philosopher Steven Hales takes on one of today’s most sacred of educational sacred cows, “Outcomes assessment.” Pretty easy to show that you get stuck in an unending chain of inferences about whether some educational objective has ever been met. (If you can’t trust grades, then you can go to high stakes tests, if you can’t trust high stakes tests, you can go to oral exams, if you can’t trust exams you could go to papers. But at some point, you just have to give up the ghost and trust that there is some relationship between how you are evaluating something and the thing itself, even if it is as tenuous as the shadows on Plato’s Cave.) From his article:

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“Yet the mavens of outcomes assessment do exactly the wrong thing—they pretend to have some other method that is the royal road to truth when, prey to the same doubts, it is no more than the path to ignorance.”

Hales is surely right about the shaky philosophical grounds for this current fad of objective assessment (to me part of a much larger obsession with data which has created all kinds of philosophically corrupt endeavors). Not sure that any assessment would escape his philosophical charges, though.

To somebody who has done a lot of work documenting K-12 teaching practice, a more mundane problem occurs: Outcomes assessment in the form of high stakes tests takes too much time and money away from experiencing the content itself. And although contentious, there are definitely some people who have raised quality concerns about the tests and the grading. The “upshot,” as my calculus teacher liked to say, Outcomes assessment, often badly done and probably not worth doing anyway?

Angry Words: Libraries v. Academic Publishers

Battles over academic publishing and IP are going on all over. Cambridge University Press is taking on Georgia State over E-Reserves and whether those constitute copyright violations. This is heading to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, after a lower court handed down a decision mostly favorable to Georgia State.

Sorry, this triangle here means it’s copy protected, so I can’t make you a copy. Please go to Avignon to register with the Pope;  and come back with your login and password. A boar’s head, would be nice too.

The question of copying and who pays or gets paid is a very old one in academic libraries, predating the web by centuries. Some savvy medieval invaders made complete copies of every book in the monastery libraries of the conquered region one of the conditions.

In my long ago college era, reserves meant articles in boxes behind the library reference desk, which I think mostly passed muster as fair use (although they probably were not supposed to be recopied, as they inevitably were). Profs also handed out lots of photocopies, sometimes with instructions not to violate copyright. And there was the unloved and unlamented world of microfiche and microfilm, which really is something we all have to be happy isn’t around any more.

Reserves had become course packs by my late 80s stint in grad school. These were “book like” of the Kinko’s variety and they carried lots of warnings about one-time use, etc., presumably to stave off law suits, although they did occur. People go to school, particularly library school, to get access to lots of information, so there is a built in desire to push limits among everyone involved.

Now that you can buy readings online from academic publishers, I suppose the difference in appearance between what is offered in an e-reading that a professor or library provides and what you might pay for from the publisher has diminished even further. I see that as a mostly good thing, and the idea that you have a EULA to agree to rather than some form of ownership a little weird. Certainly publishers’ business models are stressed by all these changes. Maybe that stress will spawn some creativity around what is needed now given that simple access is a completely different issue;  it’s also an challenge for libraries and academics, as the economics of access to content fall to their shoulders in ways that are hard to predict and manage for.

India has its own version of this going on, in this context still over the photocopying of reserves. A bunch of very high profile academics, led by Amartya Sen, have come out strongly against the presses, pointing out that one argument at least, that photocopying hurts the financial interests of professors, is pretty laughable. From the article:

The letter finally said that “We would finally like to place on record that the petitions filed by the publishers claim that they are acting on behalf of authors and representing the interest of authors. As academics and authors we believe that the wider circulation of our work will only result in a richer academic community and it is unfortunate that you choose to alienate teachers and students who are indeed your main readers and we urge you to consider withdrawing this petition.

Reasonable Worlds: Albert Goldbarth

Found an absorbing prose piece, “Absence” by Albert Goldbarth, a favorite poet of mine. Taking the Chauvet Cave Paintings as a starting (or perhaps stopping) place and, as he does in his poems, spinning out cosmic possibilities that are both funny and apt.

A few bits from a wonderful spell of writing:

How that door is such a real, knockable, tape-a-note-onnable, solid thing—and floats, like the ocher rhinos of prehistoric caves, on a field of absence. How we all walk every day, all day, through unlimited meadows of emptiness: what happens between the toggled switch and the light bulb’s watting to life, what line of transmission exists between the turn-on keystroke and the lit screen, or between the turned ignition key and the engine thrum. That’s Dimension X for myself and my friends. Most of us still live in a world of magic.

As for me, I’ve decided to pioneer an existence that’s Internet-free. I’ve never touched a computer keyboard, not once. What follows—never sent or received an e-mail, shopped online or paid a bill there, no eBay, online porn, or social networking, not one Google moment, or Nook, or Kindle, not one Wikipedia glance—is a willful illiteracy; is a life that’s increasingly antimatter; a charcoal stag or a reindeer that’s itself, that’s more itself, because of everything it’s not.

It’s common to suppose that a Luddite wants less. That’s what refusal must mean. But in fact a Luddite wants more—of the same. If I had enough space I’d devote an entire room to the museumly care of early manual typewriters. As it is, my few mementos of that vanishing world are dear to me … and the blue mesh bag of typewriter keys that Peggy gave me is doubly dear.

To his Luddite point, I of course learned about him via the Internet (the same place I found this essay, Poetry Daily, an effort out of UVA.

Later in the piece, he quotes a writer on the caves paintings, “The more you look, the less you understand.” Exactly as it should be for some things perhaps.

For work a couple of years’ back we got fairly involved with Gilgamesh (far younger than the Cave paintings but still the oldest known narrative). I’m working on some of it again (making an iBook version of our project, which has a certain piquancy that Goldbarth would probably pounce on). And found this elusive illustration for it–a photo of the tablets itself in all their 3-D mystery. Joking aside, for me Goldbarth is asking to take what’s missing–permanently unknowable–as something central, not peripheral. What’s missing about these tablets, the broken off places, is what (as Yusef Komunyakaa says in the video we did) beckons to us.

gilgamesh title image

Beautiful Picture: Mad Men Looks for an Original Ad Guy

Nice piece in the NYTimes about Brian Sanders, a 75-year-old commercial illustrator, whom the producers of Mad Men (a design mad show) turned to for an authentic 60s and 70s poster. Good choice, as he’s somebody who did them in the 60s and 70s and, although he doesn’t work in that style today, had no problem picking it up again.

From the article:

“What it did was take me right back, about 50 years,” said Mr. Sanders, who added that he was familiar enough with “Mad Men” to be in a bit of disbelief when the show came calling for his drawing board and brushes. The impressionistic image he created uses a scumbled acrylic technique that in its jazzy, textured effects instantly conjures 1960s illustration.
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“It’s a style we refer to over here in England as bubble and streak,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Essex [England]. “I don’t work in that manner now, and I was surprised how quickly it came back, the ability to use it in that particular way.”

There’s a blog with examples of Sander’s work. Also a flickr stream. Amazing to me how quickly these examples take me back to a certain time and place. I mostly associate the saturated colors and “everything at an angle” style with paperback book covers though, not with ads.

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Ben Shahn illustration

The blog mentions Ben Shahn as an influence on the styles of that era, which is clear. One thing I love about graphic arts of that era is that people weren’t afraid of color, witness those wonderful Brian Wildsmith kids’ books.

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Beautiful Music: Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Up for 24 hour for free is a wonderful concert by conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which he has turned into one of the best bands in the land. The concert, which also stars the phenomenal violinist Hilary Hahn, is from the DSO’s European tour and for this concert they are playing at the Concertgebouw, one of the most storied concert halls in the world. That would be occasion enough–but to add to the emotion van Zweden, who is also a violinist, was concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra for 17 years until Leonard Bernstein, seeing a spark in him, encouraged him to take up conducting.

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That he is one of the best conductors around is easy to see and hear. This is something special. Why he doesn’t get snapped up by the Boston Symphony, where he led a knockout series in the 2011-2012 season that I was lucky enough to attend live, is a mystery.

Reasonble Words: Hermann Hesse

A bit of night time ritual (and implicit advice) from Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game,” which I tackled last year at the recommendation of a friend and found well worth it.

“Before his evening meditation he and his aides, the coach and the meditation master, were supposed to review each official day, noting what had been well done or ill done, feeling his own pulse, as meditation teachers call this practice, that is, recognizing and measuring one’s own momentary situation, state of health, the distribution of one’s energies, one’s hopes and cares–in a word, seeing oneself and one’s daily work objectively and carrying nothing unresolved on into the night and the next day.”

Wolf's Moon
Anindo Ghosh’s “Wolf’s Moon” from his Flickr stream.

Reasonable Words: David Tennant and Hamlet

It’s taken me a while to catch up with “Shakespeare Uncovered” from BBC4 and on PBS in the U.S. Just took in the Hamlet episode, presented by David Tennant, which does double duty as a fine intro for anybody learning about the play (or teaching it) but also a vivid teeing up of some of the questions this play is made up of and asks.

Shakespeare Uncovered David Tennant On Hamlet from PBS on Vimeo.

Tennant’s RSC performance as Hamlet was also filmed for TV, and gets under your skin; the knife-edged thriller that the director, Gregory Doran, (interviewed in the doc) intended is certainly delivered.

Beautiful Music: Paul Lewis plays Schubert

The British pianist Paul Lewis is taking a swing through the U.S. playing Schubert sonatas (a big part of his repertory). I caught him last Saturday at the Library of Congress, and here he is playing the slow movement of the late A major sonata (D. 959), which occupies a for a concert pianist roughly the same place Hamlet occupies for a Shakespearean actor.

And a review mentioning this piece in particular from the Guardian.

Lewis has long been a fine exponent of the harrowing A major sonata D959 – he played the andantino at the memorial service for the Guardian’s Hugo Young in 2003 – but this performance always had fresh things to say. The heart of it, perhaps unexpectedly, was the sustained, hymn-like grace of the finale, played like a prayer after the challenges and storms of the first two movements.

Unreasonable Weather: Snow

No commute for me to my home office, so shouldn’t complain, but it’s really coming down in DC.

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
― A.A. Milne,

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