Everyone their own professor (w/ apologies to Carl Becker).

3 04 2013

I. Everyone Their Own Sushi Chef.

Last summer, I tried sushi for the first time. I was in Korea at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul and I went into a restaurant with a big banner in English that said, “Tourists welcome.” To that point in time, I had been one of those people who said smarmy things like, “I prefer my dead fish cooked, thank you.” However, having fallen under the spell of Andrew Zimmern [“If it looks good, eat it.”], I thought it was time to give sushi a try.

Some of it was wonderful. I particularly remember the octopus sashimi because it was easily identifiable, and thanks to this scene from “No Reservations,” octopus had become the ultimate in creative Korean dining in my narrow American mind. Inevitably, some of the rest of the sushi I had there tasted awful to me. Unfortunately, the woman who served me there spoke very little English so I had no way to identify which kinds of sushi I liked, and which kinds I didn’t. I lacked guidance.

If I hadn’t had sushi, I never would have rented the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix last week. That documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master, Jiro Ono, was simultaneously boring and riveting. [My wife lasted with it for only 45 minutes, but later she said to me, “I couldn’t stop thinking about him [meaning Jiro] all day.”] Perhaps the most obvious takeaway from the film for a sushi novice like me is that preparing great sushi is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Towards the end of the movie, a food critic explains that eating at Jiro’s restaurant is a bit like listening to a symphony. The “performance” has movements and is scripted to the last detail. Patrons get one piece a time in a particular order to heighten taste sensations. The pieces that women receive are slightly smaller than those going to men so that their smaller mouths won’t slow down the production. The chefs are trained to see which hand each patron favors so that the pieces can be put on the side of the plate that each person favors too.

Why should anyone care about this? Sure, you can just eat sushi like I did, but don’t you want to make the most out of a new experience? If you understand sushi the way that Jiro does, you can learn more than you ever thought possible. The film (and this is what got my wife thinking so hard) even tells you something really special about the nature of work.

In order to see this subculture in all its glory, you have to have a guide. You have to get a sushi education.

II. Everyone Their Own Librarian.

When I was in graduate school, I used to play a game I called “Stump the Government Docs Librarian.” While I don’t think my dissertation was particularly good, it was well-researched in large part because I managed to find all sorts of extremely obscure reports that weren’t even in the US Government Serial Set thanks to the wonderful help I got at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Obviously, Google Books and other such databases now make finding these kinds of obscure sources rather easy. One click, and all the greatest libraries of the world are at your fingertips. In the future, as these resources become even more powerful, they could actually put libraries and librarians out of business. As Nick Carr recognizes, this has created a certain amount of tension between the good folks putting together the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and local institutions:

The DPLA leadership is sensitive to this tension, sometimes to the point of defensiveness. In announcing his appointment, [DPLA Director Dan] Cohen wrote, “The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country.” Yet the first sentence of the DPLA charter reads, “The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.” It’s hard to see how the DPLA will be able to fulfill such a broad mission without treading on the turf of local public libraries.

In this environment, librarians will have to provide a different kind of guidance. While we may no longer need them to help us find particular books, librarians can still help researchers figure out how to find needles in a series of gigantic haystacks. For example, what search term should you put in that database?

Besides interlibrary loan, I rely on local librarians to tell me what databases are available to me at our institution. I also need help learning how to improve my searches. As almost any history professor knows, students generally know almost nothing about how to search the web when a Google search of a single word or phrase does not yield usable results. That’s why I include lots of librarian time in every class I teach which requires a research paper. In fact, as the tech has gotten better, I’ve expanded that time rather than cut it back.

III. Everyone Their Own Historian.

In 1931, Carl Becker gave what may be the most famous presidential speech in the history of the American Historical Association. He called it “Everyman His Own Historian.” Sexist language aside, Becker’s speech was a poignant call for historians to recognize that academic history only has a purpose when it meets the needs of the public:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the “new history” that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old.

I tend to think of Becker’s speech most often during the periodic “Why can’t we all write like David McCulloch?” dust-ups that periodically echo through my profession. Nevertheless, Becker was no anarchist. He still envisioned a role for professional historians in a world where one did not have to have a Ph.D. in order to write good history:

[The history profession’s] proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.

We historians, in other words, should provide guidance to people trying to come to grips with their own pasts. After all, nobody has the time to research everything they need to tell their own stories. Professional historians can provide the kind of analysis and perspective that amateur historians cannot or choose not to offer.

Without that perspective and analysis, not even David McCullough could write like David McCullough.

IV. Everyone Their Own Professor.

If nothing else, MOOCs [You just knew I’d get to them eventually, didn’t you?] have brought the “Everyman His Own Historian” problem to every discipline in Academia. After all, why should I pay to go to college if I can listen to all the best professors in the world do their thing for free? In fact, if I run their lectures on 150% speed, I can learn everything I need to know in less time that it actually took for them to tell their stories in the first place! And I can do it at home in my pajamas! How can that not be progress?

Not so fast MOOC maniacs. Even the author of DIY U has noted that MOOCs aren’t an education by themselves. Take it away, Anya Kamenetz:

But I have something to say about MOOCs. Specifically about the quality of pedagogy in MOOCs as offered by platforms like Coursera and Udacity and edX. David Wiley, who has taught me a lot of stuff, said this at least five years ago, actually. MOOCs are content. Content is infrastructure. Infrastructure is just the first step.

MOOCs are content = a MOOC is not a course.

I suspect she and I would differ greatly on how much guidance a student needs after the MOOC starts, but isn’t it better to have more guidance rather than less? What too many people don’t understand is that the inevitable effect of MOOCs will be to take that guidance away entirely for most students.

This is what makes members of the MOOC Suicide Squad members of the MOOC Suicide Squad. When I read this post by Mark McDayter, I said to myself, “He’s solved the Cathy Davidson problem!,” namely how to deal with an educator whose goals you embrace, but whose methods will make those goals harder to achieve. You explain the political context in which those methods must inescapably operate:

Davidson, I am reasonably confident, does not support the gutting of Humanities departments and the replacement of teaching faculty with MOOCs. Indeed, she explicitly says as much. But her adoption of the language of the techno-enthusiasts is not nearly nuanced or critical enough to avoid giving aid and comfort to The Enemy.

Who is the Enemy? There are people who are enemies of higher education in general and people who are enemies of professors in particular. We will never win over enemies of higher education in general, who are often very conservative people who think that students can learn anything worth learning all by themselves with no access to professors at all. However, the enemies of professors in particular don’t always recognize that they are enemies of professors. Our job is to show them the light of reason.

If we professors can’t explain why the guidance we provide is an essential part of the college experience, we deserve the fate that inevitably awaits us.*

* That last link is to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article that’s subscription only as I write this, but you can still see my point here just by reading the headline.




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