Month: February 2014

On MOOCs, and telescopic philanthropy


Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her. 

Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders. 

I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action. 

What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.  

One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional. 

I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:

[I]n addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?

In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”

Literary theory class this term

I’m excited to be teaching for the first time 21L.451 Literary Theory, on accounts of feeling and “the feelings” in aesthetics and affect theory (I put a very rudimentary course website here). I knew I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and to break somewhat from the theory survey format. The title of the class, “Feeling in Theory,” is brazenly ripped off from Rei Terada’s great book of that title (which I regret is not on the syllabus itself; I may try to correct that oversight in weeks ahead).

I will ask students (one per class session) to bring to class a cultural object in any medium suggested by the day’s assigned reading — something that can be usefully discussed in relation to the reading, in support of the argument or not. Cultural objects that have been brought into the class discussion are indicated below in brackets. Let’s see how it goes!

M 2/10 Plato, selected dialogues [Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965); Red Bull commercial]

W 2/12 Longinus, On the Sublime [a clip from Transformers 2, illustrating how the artist may be “carried away, as though by drunkenness, into outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter at hand” (103)]

T 2/18 Edmund Burke on the sublime and beautiful [the aural sublime: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring]

W 2/19 Immanuel Kant, from Critique of Judgment [no cultural object today, as I wisely deemed the hour would be better spent staring at the text in a state of desperate stupefaction]

M 2/24 William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads [scenes of everyday life and labor in 19th-century paintings by Gustave Courbet, Winslow Homer and others]

W 2/26 Karl Marx, from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Theses on Feuerbach [“Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb” — excerpts from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair]

M 3/3 Sigmund Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams [E.A. Poe, “A Dream within a Dream”; e.e. cummings, “You are tired”]

W 3/5 T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”; W.K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy”

M 3/10 Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” [Chaplin as the Tramp in Modern Times; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation]

W 3/12 Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

M 3/17 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

W 3/19 Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text; Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” [“What you see is what you see.” –Frank Stella]

M 3/31 Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy”

W 4/2 Cavell, from The Senses of Walden

M 4/7 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [Your gaze hits the side of my face]; Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish [in the U.S., ongoing debates about “the humane way” of putting individuals to death]

W 4/9 Foucault, from The Use of Pleasure (The History of Sexuality, vol. 2) [the sins of the flesh; the pleasures and temptations of the flesh]

M 4/14 Deleuze, “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” in What is Philosophy?

W 4/23 Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics”

M 4/28 Leo Bersani “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

W 4/30 Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”

M 5/5 Lauren Berlant, “Affect in the Present” “Cruel Optimism” [Robert D. Putnam, “Crumbling American Dreams,” The New York Times, 3 August 2013]

W 5/7 Berlant, “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event” [from Hermann Hesse’s Demian: “How strange that the stream of the world was not to bypass us any more…”]

M 5/12 Sianne Ngai, “Stuplimity”

W 5/14 Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” [cute politics; “Giga Pudding”]

A new humanities?


MIT has begun to promote something it calls the “New Humanities,” and to advertise the “Initiatives” associated with this field. To judge on the basis of the projects under this banner, research in the “new humanities” involves the production and use of digital tools, and/or has as its object of analysis some aspects of contemporary digital culture. The campaign is no doubt partly intended for students interested in pursuing careers in computing, of which there are of course many here, and no doubt for the parents of these students (and prospective students) as well. The specific initiatives are all of them valuable; I’m an active contributor to at least one, MIT’s Annotation Studio.

What constitutes “new humanities” work is somewhat scantly defined. There is for instance no compelling reason why the term should not refer to many exciting and innovative kinds of humanistic inquiry being carried out today, including but not limited to digital humanities and new media studies. If the “new humanities” is understood to include the humanities as it is carried out on a computer, moreover, how is this field to be distinguished from every conceivable project in the humanities today? Finally, who is the “new human” that will be served by the “new humanities”? It is true that the sensorium changes over the course of human history — Marx teaches us this; so does Walter Benjamin (both significant producers of knowledge in the humanities). Though they carry more smartphones and tablet computers today, however, students have not notably changed physical form in the years I’ve been teaching.

I go on at length about this rather trivial piece of nomenclature in order to underscore the point – so self-evident as to seem not worth mentioning, were the point not also sometimes contested – that new questions, topics and approaches arise in all sorts of humanities research, all the time. As Natalia Cecire recently pointed out in an excellent and widely-circulated blog post, the humanities are continually producing new objects and modes of knowledge. The humanities do this, Natalia observes, much to the disappointment of those who would like to see the humanities dismissed as a relic, an obsolete pursuit, a merely preservationist field. Myths of its moribundity are just that; they are myths propagated through ignorance or willful blindness to what the humanities actually do – to the work of the humanities inside and outside classroom and university walls. Through a sort of learned ignorance about the humanities, Natalia writes, some describe it as dedicated to producing “old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects” – those usual suspects being the Great Books, the best that has been thought and said, the dead White men (with maybe a few women and persons of color thrown in). Natalia rightly notes that the truth is entirely different: “at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time.”

Natalia’s post is really great; she builds a better case for the timeliness and urgency of work in the humanities than I can hope to do here. In this post I will do little more than pose a question about the “new humanities,” both as an object of institutional advertising and as a condition for innovation in humanistic research: Is knowledge in the humanities progressive? Does research in the humanities develop incrementally in the way we understand the sciences to do? The question has preoccupied some humanists in the past (I’ll touch on a few of these in a moment), but seems for the most part to have fallen out of fashion. Yet an unexamined assumption that the humanities – branches of them, at least – are not progressive, that theoretical and scholarly movements lead nowhere, has nevertheless survived as an occasional topic of complaint.

Are the humanities progressive? More may still hang on this question, or on tacit answers to this question, than we have suspected.

When in 1814 William Hazlitt asked whether the arts are progressive, the answer was decisively no. The arts are absolutely different from the sciences on this ground, Hazlitt asserted, for the notion of progress “applies to science, not to art.” Hazlitt perceives plainly how the question is stacked against the arts. More than that, though, Hazlitt rejects the premise of the question as a comparison of apples to oranges. To pose the question is to misunderstand the specificity of the objects under consideration. The idea that the arts like the sciences could be progressive is “a common error, which has grown up…from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite distinct, without thinking of the nature of the things.”

Hazlitt’s inquiry of course concerns the “fine arts” – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, etc. – and not the humanities as that field is typically understood to involve the interpretation of these objects (and more). Indeed we may be surprised to find that Hazlitt places the craft of interpretation in the progressive camp, including biblical criticism alongside chemistry, geometry, and astronomy among those fields of study that have shown progressive improvement over time. In general, though, Hazlitt imagines a impassable border between science (progressive) and the genius of the arts, and seems if anything to identify literary or art criticism with the latter. Hazlitt’s distinction seems too stark today, as does his assertion that “genius” is essentially and absolutely unquantifiable. The arts and humanities do of course regularly make use of “the advantages which time and circumstances have placed within our reach,” though Hazlitt regards these as at best incidental to the perfection of the arts.

Iris Murdoch takes up a discipline-specific version of the question of whether the humanities are progressive in the opening paragraph of her 1964 essay, “The Idea of Perfection.” Like Hazlitt, Murdoch begins by acknowledging the tone of irritation and complaint with which people frequently observe a lack of progress in philosophical work. And like Hazlitt, she concedes the point immediately.

It is sometimes said, either irritably or with a certain satisfaction, that philosophy makes no progress. It is certainly true, and I think this is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning: a thing which is not at all easy to do. There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Whereas Hazlitt insists on a stark contrast between the timeless arts and the timeliness of the sciences, Murdoch argues that the discipline of philosophy necessarily moves in two directions at once: its movement is both progressive, generating new concepts and pointing out new directions of thought, and regressive or recursive, continually returning to its source and to the encounter with “simple and obvious facts.” These operations – McTaggart’s skepticism, Moore’s common sense – are inseparable and equally essential to the constitution of knowledge in the discipline.

That the humanities, in addition to being characterized by ceaseless innovation, also involves the recovery or rediscovery of things long known may be one of the most difficult things to explain or “defend” about it. Another way of saying this is that the humanities seems so frequently to require defense because of the complicated and seemingly contradictory course that routes to research discovery can take. Murdoch and Hazlitt both identify in the question of whether the arts and humanities are progressive an undercurrent of resentment, hostility or complacency towards these pursuits. A distinctly negative attitude surrounds things of the past; we are a people who hold our breath as we pass graveyards and cemeteries. One reason for the distaste seems clear enough: the past is a principle of drag on the present, or more precisely on the present’s imagined futurity. I remember that in Wisconsin the roads designated “rustic roads” had signs plastered all over with the slogan “a positive step backward.” The seemingly unnecessary adjective “positive” struck me as an odd, funny-in-a-vaguely-sad-way acknowledgement. The emphasis is there to forestall anticipated objections that to “step backward” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I find these thoughts about whether the humanities are progressive have led me to ask a very different set of questions about humanities research – not concerning its timelessness exactly, but about its recursivity, its attraction to the past, to the ordinary and obvious. Engaging inquisitively and productively with the world around it, work in the humanities reaches to the past (as does my colleague Peter Donaldson’s Global Shakespeares project or the innovative project Visualizing Cultures), often bringing back with it stuff that nobody thinks of, or hardly, but which everybody somehow already knows. The humanities moves culture – it directs ideas and shapes history, is a reliably progressive endeavor – partly because it moves us to repeated contemplation of (and confrontation with) these “simple and obvious facts.” In this kind of innovative research, the “new humanities” will not be found in contradiction with an “old.”