Something Else That Would Have Been a Sample Assignment Response

Earlier in the session, I found myself thwarted in my attempt to provide a sample assignment response when the first week’s assignments were quizzes alone. As I sat down to draft a response for the fifth week’s assignment, though, I found myself having the opposite problem. Instead of encountering an assignment I could not meaningfully or ethically exemplify for my students, I encountered one I have already abundantly exemplified for them. Instead of having no work that could be done, I had ample work that had already been done–which is a much better situation to be in than that I had had before

Seems apt.
Image from the Harvard Business Review.

What the students are asked to do in my class this week is read an article, write a summary of it, and write a response to it. I have no shortage of such things already available, in this webspace and elsewhere, even if they are not necessarily in the APA format requested by the institution. But I’ve practiced that format enough with my current students that I do not know that I need to give it them again, so, instead of making an offhand reference to where they can find examples in this webspace, I’ll give a list of a few of them that seem to have attracted most attention:

I hope they provide useful models of content for my students and for others to follow.

Help fund more quality instructional materials, please!


A Rumination on a Teaching Practice Borrowed from Tabletop Gaming

In a post I recently made to my personal blog, I make reference to some of the teaching and gaming I did as a graduate student. I remember both fondly, at least at this point, and I have done what I can to take the best parts from both into future iterations of my work in the classroom and at the table; I’ve had less success than I might hope, to be sure, but I have still had some success. And some of that success has focused on a single practice that came from the tabletop gaming I administered into some of the teaching I’ve done. It doesn’t always translate into a given class, of course; different courses call for different assignments and different techniques. But that a tool is not universally applicable does not mean it is of no value, and because I think there is some value in the practice–having students overtly commend one another in private reports to the instructor–I think it fitting to spend some time discussing it more formally than my personal blog admits.

Related image
Not atypical, this…
Image from Wikipedia, which I’d not normally use.

To explain the activity a bit: When I was in graduate school, I ran a large tabletop roleplaying game. Normally, such games will have a referee and four to six players; I was the referee, and I had thirteen to fifteen at my table. It was not always a ruly bunch, to be sure; so large a group in which individuals need longish periods of devoted attention tends to go that way. But we got on more or less well, and the players enjoyed what I gave them (I think; please don’t tell me if I’m wrong). And part of that, I think, was that I gave them encouragement to play well–beyond the intrinsic value of participating meaningfully in an ongoing extemporaneous story. For I had each player vote at the end of each gaming session for the player other than themself who had done the best job of playing at the table that night.

By asking them to do so, I encouraged them to more fully inhabit their character and the narrative milieu in which those characters were enmeshed, and to do so in a way that helped the others at the table. And I encouraged them to attend to the performances and participation of others to reward behavior that, through authentically developing and communally-determined practices, was optimal for the group as a whole. In effect, the players came to agree on community standards for behavior and participation, and they looked for ways and reasons to praise one another, rather than make mock of one another as is common at gaming tables and in too many other places in the world.

To apply that idea to classroom practice took a bit of doing. For one, it only works well in group settings, and I tend to shy away from group assignments when I can. My experience, as both student and teacher, has been that one or two group members will do all of the work, while the others coast by on the labors of the diligent. (A rant threatens to emerge; it may do so later.) However, much of the teaching I have done has been of classes that have institutional mandates for group projects (the public speaking class at DeVry was one such; the technical writing class at Oklahoma State University was another).

In the latter, particularly, I had some success with having students report on their group’s and individual group members’ progress in the assigned projects; I made it part of assignment guidelines, requiring them to submit progress reports as daily assignments, so that there was extrinsic motivation to address the tasks. (Most of the students in that course were in another writing class only reluctantly; the extrinsic motivation was needed.) But I noted with some annoyance that, while I would see participation and submission from several group members, I would not see accurate assessment of those participants who weren’t; a few noted to me that they were reluctant to “throw [another student] under the bus,” even when the group’s work as a whole suffered because of such a student.

I understand the impulse, to be certain. I’m not along in having heard that “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches,” or other words to that effect, and I was not immune to the shame of being a tattle-tale. And, at one level, I was content to let students undercut themselves; if they did not care more about the work and their reward for it, I saw no reason I ought to do so. But, as one of the students who was exploited by group work, I hated the idea of such exploitation continuing even when students had a mechanism to prevent it (part of the students’ grades came from the mutual assessment, so they could have excluded non-participating group members).

When, instead of asking students to identify the group members who had done least, I asked them to identify those who had done most, I saw a much better response rate from them. Additionally, I received much more detailed feedback on student performance from the other students’ perspectives, which was of great help. Some of that did run to specific notes about other students’ non-compliance with the standards of their groups, which also helped me to make the adjustments I needed to make as I oversaw the groups’ work. In essence, it worked in more or less the same way with my students as it had with my players, for which reason I commend the practice to use in other classes.

It is not universally applicable, of course. Not all classes require or admit of group projects, at least not conveniently. And there are courses that operate under stricter institutional mandates, obliging specific assignment sequences and lecture topics. But where it can be deployed, the practice of having students cite and justify each other’s excellence is a useful one.

 Care to send a bit my way?

Sample Assignment Response: A Revised Response Essay for ENGL 062 at DeVry University in San Antonio

To follow up on the work of last week and before, continuing what I’ve found to be a useful pattern, I mean to press on in drafting sample assignments to help my students better understand what they are asked to do for the class. I also press on on in the hope that my efforts will prove to be of both that benefit and others to readers yet unknown to me. In doing so, I narrate my process of composition and present another sample paper near the end of this blog post.

I figured I’d relate it to the previous…
Image from

For the present assignment, students are asked to revise the drafts they submitted during the previous week in light of instructor comments about them. Submission guidelines remain the same as for the previous piece.

Accordingly, to complete the exercise myself, I opened the editable copy of the paper I had written, saved it under a new filename, and printed it out. When I review my own work, I do so more effectively from paper as a result of years of practice doing so, and I try to cater to my strengths when I do such work. Printed copy in hand, I pored over my earlier work, looking for places I could tighten phrasing–particularly in the long body paragraph of the earlier paper. Where I could, I marked such passages and penned changes between the printed lines. I then transferred the comments back into the editable paper, working from the end of the paper towards the beginning so that the changes I made would not displace other phrases I needed to change.

With that done, I again reviewed the piece for readability by applying the Flesh-Kincaid reading level test. It again returned a result in line with what I had hoped to find. I was thus able to proceed to review style and mechanics in the work. After making the adjustments that needed making, given exercise requirements and ease of reading, I put the document into an accessible format, which I present here in the hopes that it will be of use: G. Elliott Revised Sample Essay.

I can still use more support as I work to support my students more.

A Rumination on Cliché

As I was writing in my journal a few days back, I used a cliché turn of phrase and found myself musing upon it.* I try to avoid cliché in my own writing; years of formal training as a writer and as a teacher of writing have made such avoidance as much as reflexive. When I do invoke one, it is almost always either obliquely or ironically, almost never in the manner intended–if intent can be said to matter in such cases. But, as I’ve looked at it and at the surrounding world, the thought occurred to me that the ingrained avoidance of cliché is not necessarily a good thing. That is, it seems to me to emerge from unpleasant places and to perpetuate unpleasantnesses in ways that should themselves be avoided. And if that is the case, then I am once again complicit in structures of power and oppression that it were better I not partake in.

Source in the image, of course, and used for commentary. Go check it out.

There are some reasons to avoid clichés, of course. Cross-comprehensibility comes to mind as one major example of them. Cliché is dependent on cultural context for its meaning and effect; such phrases as “Pardon my French” only work for communities that associate French with obscenity. No small amount of the writing that gets done is done for an audience that cannot be assumed to share the cultural backgrounds of the writer; certainly, no small amount of the teaching of writing (particularly business and technical writing) is done with an eye towards audiences of differing backgrounds. Reducing the burdens placed upon such readers is cited as desirable, and reducing the presence of cliché in the writing lowers such burdens.

As I think on the matter, however, it seems to me that the push to avoid cliché has substantially classist overtones. That is, the straight-ahead use of cliché tends to be associated with presumably less refined, less educated people; it is associated with lower socioeconomic strata, while its avoidance and rejection are both coupled to formal education and the concomitant association with either wealth or aspirations to wealth. In effect, cliché is a “lower” class thing; its lack is an “upper” class thing. Typical regard bears out the idea; cliché is described in such terms as “phrasing that has been stripped of meaning from overuse,” making it a tired hand-me-down that is ultimately empty. It is decried as intellectual laziness, as trying to sound good without offering substance. And such regard, such construction, such opinion introduces problems to the typical teaching thrust of eliminating clichés, such that noting valid reasons such as cross-comprehensibility read too easily as justification after the fact for oppressive practices.

Cliché becomes particularly fraught when viewed as socioeconomic acculturation. By denying writers the use of cliché, we (however collective the “we” can be) deny them self-identification as members of particular communities (with the communities varying by the cliché used, of course) and insist upon particular markers of identification that may well not be those to which the writers may hold for themselves. They become effacements of smaller cultural groups that are in most cases disadvantaged in one way or another. It is not to be wondered at, then, that people coming from those groups chafe under such restrictions and lash out against those who would impose them–and they are not wrong to do so. Yet, again, there are reasons to avoid cliché, reasons to which instructors have to be able to respond authentically and without the appearance of papering over problems instead of addressing them directly.

How to strike the necessary balance is not at all clear. And I expect that no few will think either that I am overstating the case by linking cliché to cultural practice or that such cultures as are associated with use of or reliance upon cliché deserve to be oppressed, somehow. To the latter, I have nothing to say that I care to put into this piece; I have many words for it, but most of them are more obscene than even French would admit of. To the former, though, I might say that oppression comes in many forms, not all of which are overt; indeed, the smaller, more covert forms are more pervasive, harder to resist because they are less obvious and, in many cases, more deeply ingrained. Years of teaching conducted by many teachers makes it easy to think that “it’s just the way it is,” as has been seen and actively opposed in other cases. Though the way is not clear, it should be opposed in this case, too.

*I find myself in mind of Cathryn Molloy’s 2010 College English article “The Malcliché: An Argument for an Unlikely Episteme.” It’s been a while since I read it, and I’ve not refreshed myself upon it in writing the present piece, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it is relevant. Back to text.

Help me steer clear of what I need to avoid!

Sample Assignment Response: A Response Essay for ENGL 062 at DeVry University in San Antonio

To follow up on the work of last week and continue what I’ve found to be a useful pattern in other classes, I mean to return to drafting sample assignments to help my students better understand what they are asked to do for the class. I also continue to hope that my efforts will prove to be of both that benefit and others to readers yet unknown to me. In doing so, I narrate my process of composition and present the sample paper near the end of this blog post.

Cat videos are internet-appropriate, right
Image from

For the week’s assignment, students are asked to compile a first draft of an essay that addresses one of two assigned prompts, both of which respond to themes in assigned readings. The essays are asked to be three paragraphs in length–introduction, body, and conclusion–and to come under a cover page in APA formatting. No requirement for outside sourcing is expressed, so no outside sourcing is expected, though there is specific reference to the assigned readings, themselves, so it might be permissible.

To respond to the exercise, I began by setting up an APA-format document in Word. That is, I set up my document in double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman typeface with one-inch margins on letter-sized paper. I also arranged my cover page, running head, and pagination as prescribed by APA style. Given that I did not expect to need to use outside sources, I did not set up a references page.

That done, I settled on a topic to which to respond, whether responses to homeless persons or a central idea around an inspiring person. The second seemed a better fit for the class and the assignment, so I opted for it. With that done, I had to identify a person I find inspiring, and, with the person identified, I had to settle upon a central impression to convey about that person. (I’d done so in an earlier piece, so I had some experience to help me along, even if the subject differed.)

I typed that central idea into my document, then copied and pasted it on the next line of my document and highlighted the second in green. I tend to do so when I compose essays so that I know what thesis I am trying to support; as I draft forward, I do so behind the highlighted thesis, leaving it as an ever-present goal for my essay to achieve.

With a thesis in place, I worked to offer a paragraph of support for it. I try to draft essays thesis first, then body, so that I know where I am going for my introduction and whence I will proceed for my conclusion. The body drafted, I began to work on my conclusion, since I was already at that point in the paper; I rephrased my highlighted thesis, stripping away the highlighting, and wrote a brief note discussing future implications of that thesis.

After I put together a brief conclusion, I returned to the beginning of the paper to lead through an introduction into the thesis I had constructed. Following a common introductory pattern, I offered some context for discussion before moving to narrow my focus and identify my topic. The thesis I already had in place followed, giving me a complete paragraph that already moved into a body of work.

With that done, I reviewed the piece for readability. I once again applied the Flesh-Kincaid reading level test, which again returned a result in line with what I had hoped to find. I was therefore able to proceed thence to review my document for style and mechanics. After making the adjustments that needed making, given exercise requirements and ease of reading, I put the document into an accessible format, which I present here in the hopes that it will be of use: G. Elliott Sample Essay.

I can always use more support as I work to support my students more.

A Rumination on Some Old Writing

I have commented from time to time about my own writing and my writing processes, not only here, but also in other venues. I’ve also recently looked back over some of the stuff that I’d written before, partly because it was relevant to the writing I was doing more recently, and partly because I am still subject to fits of nostalgia. Sometimes, those fits do something decent for me; I did a few things decently in my younger years, at least, and I have not let their promise lapse utterly as seems to have been the case with quite a few other things. Sometimes, they do bad things to me, largely when I end up dwelling on what could have been but now never will be. Occasionally, though, they give me occasion to pause for rumination–not that I am short on things that offer such gifts.

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Across years of study and years after formal study ended, I have been writing. I flatter myself to think that I’ve gotten better at it over that time; I know I’ve gotten more willing to put the writing where other people can see it, and I know I continue to harbor the idea that the writing I do is of some value to others. And not just in the way that any writer who writes for a public has to harbor such a thought (and all do, else they’d not put their writing where others are apt to see it); as the sample assignment responses I’ve been doing suggest, I expect the writing I do to be of direct benefit with tasks at hand in, at least the short term and for at least some of the work I do.

But I’ve also mused in other venues about looking back over older essays of mine and revising and otherwise updating them. (Admittedly, paratext is what comes to mind, but paratext is important, as I’ve argued and as others have far more eloquently and successfully argued.) I’ve got most of my old papers–those written since I gave up on trying to become a band director when I grow up–on file, and a great many of them would work as the kind of thing I tend to post here. They need more work than reformatting and insertion of paratextual norms such as illustrative and decorative graphics and HTML-compliant section headings, of course. Even the things I wrote a scant few years ago show their age and my relative immaturity, and I know that the things I wrote in my first year as an English major are far more dated, far less refined, far more annoying than what I put out now. (I have more sympathy with some of my professors now than I once did.) Revisiting and amending the work, though, might well do me some good; there are at least a few ideas that could stand some attention and refreshing, and the rest could well be taken as the kind of penitence a man like me might well do.

At the same time, with few exceptions, the repetition I already do is not the best. I am self-conscious about it already, as I think I’ve shown recently. And I’ve noted in other venues my expectation that saying again what I have already said, and to much the same audience that heard or read it the first time, will read other than optimally. I do not know that what I wrote in days gone by will seem repetition to those who have been reading me more recently, to be sure, but I also do not know that they will not be. And I am not certain that I will do well to work again with ideas that I had once had and put into words years ago; I am not so far past my dissertation as I am past quite a few of the other pieces, and I do not know that I can stand to look at the thing again to make it a monograph, as I know I was supposed to have done. (That I did not doubtlessly contributes to my not having secured work in academe, not that making the monograph would have guaranteed a damned thing.) The thought of catching up on the scholarship and writing the at-least-one additional chapter stymies me. The thought of going further back and trying to do more causes me to balk utterly.

Perhaps it is good to leave some of the past in the past. Perhaps it is good to have moved on from some things, to put them down and not pick them up again, not because others will need to take them up, but because they should be trodden into the ground by unseeing feet and covered over by the sediments of passing years, what was in them leached out and returned to the source form which they sprang or else locked away from view forever.

Your contribution remains appreciated!

Sample Assignment Response: A Developed Paragraph for ENGL 062 at DeVry University in San Antonio

While last week may not have seen the kind of assignment for which I can offer a sample to my students, this week does. Accordingly, I will do as I have said I will do and work to offer a sample of the kind of work I would like to see from my students, hoping that having a concrete example will help them to do better work. I also continue to hope that my work will help others outside my classroom, as well.

A common symbol of achievement.
Image from

The assignment faced by students in the second week of Introduction to Reading and Writing at DeVry University in San Antonio is to draft a solid paragraph on one of four topics: educational reform, gender difference, family, or discrimination. Each is narrowed slightly from the overall topic heading, and responses are expected to consist of at least 100 words in APA format. The paragraph is asked to make a point, provide illustrative evidence, and explain how the evidence functions to bear out the point.

To address the exercise, I began by setting up my APA-style document. That style guide asks for black, double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins on letter-size paper, with running heads, page numbers, and title page in prescribed places; I set my document to those standards.

That done, I settled quickly on a broad topic, opting to treat class discrimination. The topic had been on my mind as I had been working on other writing, so it was an easy choice to make. Focusing more narrowly was a bit more of a challenge; a paragraph will admit of but one instance, and there are entirely too many instances of class discrimination. I opted to take what I think is an unusual approach; most pieces on discrimination treat the discrimination against those in perceived lower positions by those in higher, but there is discrimination by the perceived lower against the higher, as well–or, rather, concerns not unlike covert prestige apply. That is, eminence in areas other than are commonly recognized as conferring eminence are prized, and the commonly prized derided. Again, such matters had been on my mind already, so arriving at an example to treat was easy.

Having made the decision about the topic, I began to draft my paragraph, opening with context to aid readers in understanding my approach. From context, I moved to pivot into my specific topic, an instance of discrimination leveled at me, presenting it as the central point of the paragraph. I then moved to offer specific illustrative examples to support that point. Those provided, I connected the information I had offered back to the central point I meant to make in the paragraph, and I then offered a concluding sentence to wrap things up.

With that done, I reviewed the paragraph for readability. Applying a fairly common test, the Flesh-Kincaid, returned a result in line with what I had hoped to find; I know I have a tendency to wax verbose in ways that are not always helpful, and it was a relief to find that I had not done so. I was thus able to proceed thence to review my document for style and mechanics. After making the adjustments that needed making, given exercise requirements and ease of reading, I put the document into an accessible format, which I present here: G. Elliott Sample Developed Paragraph January 2019. May it and its successors prove of benefit now and in time to come!

Care to help me keep it going?

In Response to Erin Bartram Once Again

On 8 January 2019, Erin Bartram’s “How PhDs Romanticize the ‘Regular’ Job Market” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, Bartram relates a facet of her experience transitioning out of academe, namely the common expectation of those moving into so-called alt-ac and post-ac careers that the job market in the world outside the ivory tower is better than that within it. She argues that the non-academic job market requires the same kind of clear vision academics are expected to have about their own fields and in-industry hiring practices. The article continues by listing factors to consider while engaged in the search for out-of-academe work: reflection’s limitations, prevailing labor competition, mismatches between credentials and requirements, employer uncertainties, and prevailing misunderstandings about academics. Bartram ends on a valedictory note, commenting that the difficulties of the labor market are not reflections on job-applicants’ character, that the success of one makes the success of another easier, and that those of us who have been forced into academic exile or expatriacy are working on a (perhaps romanticized) common cause.

Once again, the image is from the piece discussed.

This is hardly the first time I’ve written in response to what I’ve read from Bartram, as witness this, this, and this, at least. It seems to be something of a pattern for me to do so, and I have to wonder how it reads, partly to her (if she is aware of being so discussed) and partly to my own readers, who may or may not be tired of seeing me come back to the same ideas time and again. Then again, I’ve read a lot of novels that have had the same plot–and sell millions of copies. I may be forgiven, then, for coming back to a writer whose work I’ve treated before.

Of particular note to me are the fourth and fifth of the listed factors for consideration in the article: “Employers are not so sure about your ‘transferable skills'” and “Misperceptions about PhDs persist.” I’ve noted before that my own search for full-time work outside academe took some doing, and that, while I have a solid job with promotion prospects at the moment, I am not so far into it or so far removed from the frantic search that it does not still resonate with me. And that resonance is what makes the two points stand out; they are things I encountered repeatedly as I looked for work, and they came up–and come up–even with the job I currently have.

Regarding the former, the idea of transferable skills, I followed the advice I’d been given, both about making arguments in general and in applying for jobs, more specifically. I made the case that the things I had learned to do as I learned to be a scholar would help me to do the things I would need to do in the job. Poring over manuscripts and early editions of texts taught me attention to detail and record-keeping. Writing paper after paper after paper helped me develop a typing speed that is the envy of many a clerical worker. Training in several languages helped me learn better how to communicate with a variety of people. Working through courses and curricula helped me learn how to budget time effectively to address short- and long-term goals, and to do so with minimal oversight and direction.

Making that case did not help me much against automated HR systems that regard coursework–and teaching–as things other than the skills required for the job and so discard such resumes as mine out of hand. And it did not much help with employers who felt similarly, or who saw coursework as a pale imitation of experience (which it is, in many ways, though there are things that individual experience teaches only at great pain) and thought that my lack of the latter made me less desirable than others. Even in my current job, there are times when what I have been trained to do that lines up with the stated job description for my present and presumptive positions only does so on paper; my ingrained reaction is the wrong one.

Such concerns interact with the latter of Bartram’s points, the idea of misconceptions and misunderstandings. One thing by which I’ve been struck in my time in my present position is the strange regard in which I am held. My coworkers look to me for guidance and insight because I have the credentials that I have, but they are not seldom inclined to disregard what I offer because it proceeds from a place of erudition; I still seem to them to be too pointy-headed for a lot of things I say to work, even when I untangle no few problems that they have. When I interviewed for the job, after having resigned myself to the loss of a long-time dream in terms of the academic job search (I was several years at it before the realization broke upon me), I got the question of why someone with a PhD would want to work the work I work now. And while more than a year at the job has allayed the idea that I am looking in earnest to get back into academe, I am certain it was in force then–and I suspect that it persists to some extent even now.

(For the record, while I do still work as a contingent academic, and I would not be averse to picking up a little more work in that regard, I have no intention of leaving my current agency. I doubt I’ll get a better offer than what I have now, at least for quite a while, and I see no reason to give up what I’ve managed to cobble together without damned good cause.)

I know that I am fortunate to have found an agency that was desperate enough to take a chance on me–and that is actually a pretty decent job. Sure, it could be better, but no job couldn’t. And I know I am fortunate because I know Bartram has the right of it; employers often look askance at PhDs, both because what academia does is seen as at odds with what the world outside it does and because those who have lived the life of the mind are looked at as longing to return to it. And there is longing for it on my part, to be sure, as I am certain is true for others. But I am equally certain that many of us who are now on the outside, or who are only in the lowest basements of the ivory tower, know well that we will never reach its higher floors and that it boots nothing to bloody our knuckles by knocking yet longer at the doors that lead to them. Those of us who seek outside work and who have it now want nothing more–or less–than to be able to support ourselves in line with what we have long been promised, and in as many words: if we work hard and do the right thing, we’ll have decent lives.

The situation persists–and so does the need for your help in addressing it!

What Would Have Been a Sample Assignment Response

As I’ve moved into a new session of teaching, I had meant to begin developing sample assignment responses again. They seem to have helped my students in the past couple of sessions, and I do want to help my students succeed, despite what many of them seem to have thought over the past however many years I’ve taught. But when I went to look at the current session’s assignments for the first week, thinking I would get a head start on developing those new examples, I found that they are online quizzes.

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I cannot offer examples of such things. For one, I do not know how limited the quiz bank is from which the students are asked to work; were I to address questions from them, I would be giving students answers, and while I approve of giving models, doing the assignments for them passes lines I am not willing to cross. For another, I am relatively certain I would get into some kind of trouble for posting the questions directly. And were I to try to write an independent example of such a quiz, it would require more work than I am willing to do without additional compensation. (I enjoy writing essays; I find the work of doing so meditative, and I often learn things from it. Quiz-writing is much more meticulous, and while it can be remunerative, I am not likely to draw extra pay for providing supplemental materials to my already-enrolled students. I do the job because I need money, after all.)

For now, therefore, I will have to defer what should have been an example of an assignment response, waiting until next week, when actual written responses begin to be asked of the few students enrolled in the current session. Because there are few, I will be able to attend to them more closely than larger classes permit, which should be to the good for the students and for me. For when I have to assess work at speed, I find myself looking for different things than I would prefer to seek but which I can only work to uncover when I have time to spend–and that is not the case with over-enrolled writing classes that have institutional deadlines I must meet. That seems not to be an issue this go-round, and I am grateful for it. I hope I have cause to continue to be.

Can you help me keep it going once it actually starts back up again?

In Response to Justin Stover

On 4 March 2018, Justin Stover’s “There Is No Case for the Humanities” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with the stark statement that the academic humanities are already nearly dead, offering examples of that near-death, before announcing its overall topic and framing the following discussion in terms of its strange support from the cultural right and left. Stover then addresses prevailing critiques of the academic humanities: their overspecialization, overproduction, and under-teaching. After, he lays out some historical context for the current problem of the humanities, namely that they have been supplanted by the university’s expansion into fields previously assigned to other kinds of institutions, before addressing the inadequacies of common defenses of the humanities. The article proceeds to articulate the academic humanities’ core function: the development of a common culture and class to carry it. The inability to articulate the value of that commonality outside of it is what makes for a lack of case for the humanities, and Stover notes that that lack does not mean the humanities should not be defended or that they will not last beyond the falling-away of institutional support for them.

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates seems fitting.

Before I move into more ruminative responses to Stover, I need to note a couple of things that stood out to me as I read. For one, I am tempted to read Stover’s piece against that of Bennett’s, to which I recently responded. For another, Stover makes the comment that humanities scholarship is “not written to be read, at least in the normal sense of the term”; I find myself wondering what that “normal” sense is. Later, he makes the statement that “The university can be many things, but without [humanities scholars], a university it will not be,” which seems to me to be a bit vainglorious and myopic. Admittedly, accreditation requires a certain number of humanities courses, but the relegation of those courses to adjuncts and visiting faculty–to academic expatriates such as I am–satisfies the inclusion but does not satisfy the soul, as it were. Academic and disciplinary ghettoization happen, and more in the humanities than in other places, it seems.

Those things noted, I think Stover has the right of it. Academe does tend to replicate itself, and it is used as an entree into a particular set of cultural norms, themselves emerging from historically exclusionary and discriminatory preferences and still, in many cases, reinscribing them. And it is true that those norms cross national boundaries, but they are hardly so cross-cultural as might be hoped; there is ample attestation that taking them on involves self-alienation from home cultures, and I could add mine to the litany of them. It is also true that the academic humanities need defense if they are to persist in the university, though whether or not they should is another matter. Movements toward open-access and decentralized work, increasing numbers of academic expatriates who have found no room for themselves within the transnational culture of academe but who still want to contribute to a field from which they feel themselves to have derived benefit and purpose, suggest that the institution is not so necessary now as it was–but only relatively recently was.

It is further true that the humanities cannot justify themselves outside themselves, no less so than theologies require belief to justify themselves, and systems of law, and other human endeavors that Stover mentions. And I might note that faith in such things is diminishing no less than faith in the value of the academic humanities. If the humanities are framed as being in need of defense, it is clear that they–and other fields, to be sure–are losing and are likely to keep on doing so. If they have made promises, they have failed to meet them. They have lied, and to many people over no small amount of time, and it is not unfitting that liars suffer for what they have said wrongly.

Help me move ahead!