Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Arum and Roksa on life after college

The Chronicle of Higher Education has two articles — one, two — on Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s new book Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, the sequel to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). The news is not good.

And here, also from this week’s Chronicle, are Arum and Roksa themselves:

We find it implausible that in a globalized knowledge economy, the current state of affairs will continue indefinitely. Not just because the growth in college costs is unsustainable, but also because legislators, families, and students will have difficulties justifying why resources are increasingly allocated not to improving instruction but to building new dormitories, student centers, and athletic facilities. While this might be an effective institutional strategy for attracting 17-year-olds as consumers and keeping them satisfied with “bread and circuses” once enrolled, it has produced a competition to provide the best amenities and student services money can buy and the least challenging academic demands and expectations.
I think of the reading list I created when I first taught a garden-variety freshman-lit class: Barthes’s Mythologies, The Turn of the Screw, Dubliners, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Blue and Brown Books — oh, and Don Quixote, all of it. Today that list would look like the dark dream of some horrible outlier.

A related post
A review of Academically Adrift

[Did the students read and get something from those works? They sure did. And Cervantes and Toole paired well.]

From a file folder

A Meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein

E. George Wilson

I recall was great fondness and a measure of sadness my meeting with Herr Wittgenstein. One spring afternoon I was in my rooms reading for my exams when I heard a noise in a nearby tree. Curious, I rose from my chair, looked out the window, and beheld a preternaturally young-looking man descending from the boughs in a brisk no-nonsense fashion. I hurried outside to inquire of him as to the meaning of his action and was in turn asked, ‘What do you mean by “meaning”?’ I found myself unable to answer and straightaway admitted the foolishness of my question. Wittgenstein laughed (I had the curious feeling that he was laughing both with me and at me), presented me with a dish mop, and asked in a low tone if I would care to take in a ‘flick’ with him that evening. I realized at once that I was in the presence of the finest philosophical mind of the twentieth century.

The years dim my memory, and with the passing of time I find I have only faint recall of the film itself (I remember only a darkish woman with citrus fruits arranged on her head), but I can still vividly picture Wittgenstein as I called for him in his rooms. Upon my knock, he removed the door from its hinges and set it against the wall. ‘This,’ he smiled, ‘illustrates the method of philosophy.’ His rooms bespoke a spartan nature, utterly devoid of a desire for useless ornament. A paint-by-the-numbers set, later to prove of inestimable value in his work on color, rested on the one table; a toy duck and rabbit and several dish mops sat in an open safe. I noticed that his rooms contained not one of what I, in my greenness, thought of as philosophical works; the one bookcase held three or four comic books, a monograph on toothache, and the piece of string that served as the model for several of the amusing diagrams contained in his works. The only other objects visible were a small bottle and the number of dead flies.

I was by this point frankly in awe, and Wittgenstein’s conversation during our walk to the cinema served only to confirm me in my feeling. ‘We say that penguins have no conception of time,’ he observed, ‘but then why do we say of a particular penguin that he’s always late for his dental appointments?’ I confessed that I could not explain the contradiction. The talk continued in this matter, with Wittgenstein posing questions that left me unable to respond. There was a brief interlude during which he busied himself looking for a particular grouping of trees that formed, he said, the ‘big W.’ I jested that, my name being Wilson, I should like to contest his claim to such a group of trees. Wittgenstein smiled and asked me another question.

After the flick we were both feeling famished, and Wittgenstein suggested that we visit a small restaurant noted for its cold pork pies. I almost wish I had not agreed to this plan, for it was to give me a glimpse of the dark forces the tormented this brilliant soul. After we had consumed our pies, Wittgenstein called for the waiter and calmly announced that he had no money to pay the bill. ‘But Herr Wittgenstein,’ I exclaimed, ‘I would be only too glad to pay for our pies!’ ‘I would not hear of it,’ he said seriously, and proposed to the waiter that he might wash dishes as a means of paying for our meal. The manager was consulted and the proposal accepted. Wittgenstein rose from his chair, extracted a dish mop from his coat pocket, and walked off in the direction of the kitchen.

Thus ended my meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein. Holding my gift mop in my hands, I have wrestled with my conscience for many an hour, debating whether I should disclose my knowledge of his dishwashing mania. Since no member of the Wittgenstein circle has come forward, I find it my duty to make my experience public. I can only hope that my honesty will prompt others to follow my example. At this point we need not fear for Wittgenstein’s reputation: his place in the realm of philosophy is secure; his light shines with ever increasing brightness in these dark times.

[Found recently in a file folder. I wrote this piece as a graduate student in 1983. Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (1958) was my inspiration. Yes, I was deeply under Wittgenstein’s spell. The imaginary “E. George Wilson” was of course British, as his diction and punctuation should suggest.]

Related reading
Other OCA Wittgenstein posts (Pinboard)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day


[“Second Floor, East Corridor. Mosaic of Minerva by Elihu Vedder, with restorer at work. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.” Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Between 1980 and 2006. Click for a larger view.]

All trades, their gear and tackle and trim. Including tiny brushes.

The Library of Congress has made this photograph available via Flickr.

[Hopkins’s poem: here.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

From Philip K. Dick

I’ve never read Philip K. Dick, but I found these words, somewhere, and I like them. From the novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982):

Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.
Useful advice for anyone involved in the work of an institution. I for one always mistrust institutional rhetoric of the inevitable. (Look, there’s some now, coming down the pike.) To my mind, the claim that something is inevitable might alone be reason enough to object.

[Got MOOCs?]

Please Do Not Feed the Rocks


[Photograph by Sluggo Smith.]

As seen on Sherman Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, “some rocks,” in a simulation of their native habitat.

[“Some rocks”? Here’s an explanation.]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Infinite Jest in LEGO® blocks

On the road to the cute-ification of everything: Brickjest, scenes from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest recreated in LEGO® blocks. Like they say, this is wrong on so many levels.

I may be misjudging. But at least I’ll never make the mistake of saying Legos again.

[“Like they say”: a Robert-Creeleyism. I know it should be as.]

From A Time of Gifts

In 1933, at the age of eighteeen, Patrick Leigh Fermor began a journey on foot from the Netherlands to Turkey. In a Munich youth hostel, a pickeliger Bua, a pimply chap, steals his rucksack, which holds a diary, books, money, clothing, and a passport. A letter of introduction still on Leigh Fermor’s person leads to a five-day stay in nearby Gräfelfing with Baron Rhinehard von Liphart-Ratshoff, whose White Russian family fled Estonia. The Baron and family collect a rucksack and some clothing for their guest. And then:

All these kindnesses were crowned with a dazzling consummation. I had said that my books, after the lost diary, were what I missed most. I ought to have known by now that mention of loss had only one result under this roof . . . What books? I had named them; when the time came for farewells, the Baron said: “We can’t do much about the others but here’s Horace for you.” He put a small duodecimo volume in my hand. It was the Odes and Epodes, beautifully printed on thin paper in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century, bound in hard green leather with gilt lettering. The leather on the spine had faded but the sides were as bright as grass after rain and the little book opened and shut as compactly as a Chinese casket. There were gold edges to the pages and a faded marker of scarlet silk slanted across the long S’s of the text and the charming engraved vignettes: cornucopias, lyres, panpipes, chaplets of olive and bay and myrtle. Small mezzotints showed the Forum and the Capitol and imaginary Sabine landscapes; Tibur, Lucretilis, the Bandusian spring, Socrate, Venusia . . . I made a feint at disclaiming a treasure so far beyond the status of the rough travels ahead. But I had been forestalled, I saw with relief, by an inscription: “To our young friend,” etc., on the page opposite an emblematic ex libris with the name of their machiolated Baltic home. Here and there between the pages a skeleton leaf conjured up those lost woods.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977).
A Time of Gifts is the first of three books recounting this journey. The others: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986) and The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos (2013). The best parts of A Time of Gifts thus far: its scenes of hospitality.

A related post
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s eye

[The Baron seems lost to history, but Wikipedia has a likely ancestor. Bua is Leigh Fermor’s rendering of the local pronunciation of Bursch, “a youth,” or as Leigh Fermor translates it, “chap.” Machiolated is just one indication of his intimate knowledge of architecture.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Block that metaphor, or block that other metaphor

The television was running:

“We will tackle and dissect issues of importance . . . .”

Related reading
All OCA metaphor posts (Pinboard)

Block that simile


[“Like gas in a car, your body needs grains.” Found in a free publication distributed by a local HMO.]

The simile fails in two ways: 1. The human body doesn’t resemble gasoline. 2. Gasoline doesn’t need carbs. A better sentence:

Just as a car needs gasoline to run, your body needs carbohydrates.
Related reading
All OCA simile posts (Pinboard)

[Carbs is another name for grains? I think the HMO just redefined carbs.]

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Beloit Mindset List, 2018 edition

It’s back. This year’s list looks to my eyes like a particularly tasteless and clueless array of hastily selected cultural fragments. Tasteless: “Yet another blessing of digital technology: They have never had to hide their dirty magazines under the bed.” Clueless: “‘Salon’ has always been an online magazine.”

Oh, to be eighteen, and to feel personally insulted by this list. And to be able then to ask: “What’s ‘Salon’? And shouldn’t that be in italics anyway?”

The Beloit Mindset List has been annoying me since I became aware of it. As in wrote in 2010 in this post,

What bothers me about the Beloit list involves some unspoken assumptions about reality and young adults. The list reads like a nightmare-version of the proposition that begins Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” “The world is all that is the case” — all that is the case, that is, in the life-experience of a hypothetical eighteen-year-old American student. . . . The Beloit list seems to suggest that if it hasn’t happened during your lifetime, well, it can’t really be real (witness the weirdly Orwellian statement that “Czechoslovakia has never existed”), or, at best, that you cannot be expected to know or care about it. Even the ugly word mindset reinforces that implication: “the established set of attitudes held by someone,” says the Oxford American Dictionary. The OAD illustrates that meaning with a sentence about being stuck.
Related reading
Re: the Beloit Mindset List
The Beloit Mindset List, 2011
The Beloit Mindset List, again
Beloit Mindset List, 2034 edition
The Beloit Mindset List, 2017 edition