Saturday, October 23, 2010

Off to Israel

I am off to Israel for eight days and posting may be even lighter than usual. I am giving a paper, "From Apartheid to Liberation: Race, History and South African Historiography," at a conference, "Concepts of 'Race' in the History of the Humanities," at the University of Haifa.

I have not been to Israel in several years and am looking forward to returning and seeing how things there have changed (or, perhaps, how my perceptions have changed). The Israel-Palestine conflict is in the midst of another potential turning point moment that is likely to result in disappointment even as so many of us ardently hope for the alternative.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hump Day Humor

Just a reminder that no particular faction or ideology monopolizes the crazy:

Hat Tip.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Nitpicking

Ok, so this criticism is pretty picayune, but in his recent review of Tony Blair's new memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, Fareed Zakaria writes the following sentence: "The fact is that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were the two most successful political figures in the post-cold-war world because they understood the essential truth of economic policy in our times, which is centrist pragmatism."

Here is a one-question exam:

In fifty years, which of the following political figures will loom largest in the history of the post-Cold War era:

A) Tony Blair

B)Bill Clinton

C) Nelson Mandela

Even using Zakaria's own standard of centrist economic pragmatism, and even ignoring the decades before 1990, the answer is C.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bill James and the Simpsons

Over at Joe Posnanski analyzes Sunday night's Simpsons baseball episode, which cleverly took on the supposed sabermetrics-traditionalist divide.

Even in making fun of statistical analysis, the episode (inadvertently?) got at a larger truth: stealing bases is actually pretty dumb much of the time (not always, just much and possibly most of the time).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hump Day Humor

This is on my coffee cup, which I got from the famous Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, and it makes me laugh every time I read it:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Insight Into a Failing Business Model

If you want some sense of the absurdity of the current pricing model of scholarly journals you need look no further than a recent email I received from Taylor and Francis after I inquired about buying an issue of one of their journals:

The single issue price for 'Soccer and Society,' Issue Numbers 1-2 is:

Institutional Rate: $200

Personal Rate:$60

Yes, you read that correctly. For one issue (and yes, it appears to be a "double issue," but seriously now) of a journal of which you have probably never heard (and that I was only vaguely aware existed) they want to charge an individual $60. I can live with higher institutional rates, though journals have skyrocketed those costs as well, passing the expense on to rich institutions, yes, but also pricing less rich institutions -- which is to say, the vast majority of institutions -- out of the market.

And I guess this pricing model is an ingenious idea because Routledge has actually turned the double issue into a book. And is selling it for $125. Because apparently they want no one reading their journals and books. Cunning.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A Friday Question

So why is it that the very same people who claim the staunchest fealty to the Constitution -- and are most inclined as an ideological bloc to claim authority as its interpreters -- are also most inclined to call for amending it, usually to get rid of the inconvenient stuff they don't like?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

University Life Roundup

Lots of stuff on higher education has been clogging up my tabs on my computer, so consider this a purge:

Here is a pretty good defense of tenure, aimed at parents of future and present college students, which may not be perfect but is still pretty important. One issue the author does not address is the fact that not only does tenure protect certain types of potentially controversial work, it also protects the ability to do long-range research. It is not uncommon for a historian to take a decade or more to write a book, especially a big, ambitious one. We should embrace that sort of commitment to quality. And if that holds true in the humanities, it is even moreso in some of the sciences -- imagine telling a cancer researcher that they must work on the timetable of a three year contract.

Inside Higher Ed recently published two defenses of something that ought to need no defending (here and here) -- the liberal arts education. The goal of any college or university ought to be to teach students how to think, how to reason, and how to engage with ideas. If students can do that, they will be able to succeed in any range of jobs and careers (which they will change multiple times anyway) where there will be training in any case.

Here is a decent, if too tepid, defense of the professoriate from the onslaught from the outside. Academics are an easy target, but most of the criticisms barely withstand even the minutest scrutiny.

I oftentimes toy with declaring my classes to be a no-laptop zone. The vast majority of students do not use them to take notes, or even to look things up relevant to the class. And yes, sometimes classes can be "boring," I suppose, as dealing with unfamiliar or challenging material often is. But while I hope my classes are entertaining, my job is not first and foremost to entertain them. And if they are on Facebook or ESPN or sending emails, it is a distraction for people around them and it is a waste of time for them and for me. I have also toyed with the equivalent of pop quizzes: "Show me your laptop now." But I'd prefer that my classroom not be a place for "gotcha" moments even if some students deserve to get got. In any case, two recent articles agree with me, here and here. I'm not certain if I'll enact such a policy. But I'd be wholly justified in doing so.

The New Republic's Book has recently published a couple of justly tough reviews of new books on higher education, including Richard Kehlenberg's critical look at Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It and David A. Bell's completely warranted hammering of (former Williams professor) Mark Taylor's Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities.

Finally, can technology help reform (or overhaul) peer review? It will help. But technology is not a panacea. And while a wiki approach to scholarly publishing certainly might have some merit, as a historian, I still believe the craft of writing matters. We are not mere compilers of fact and dossiers for interpretation. History is as much art as science (moreso, I'd argue) and there is pleasure as well as knowledge to be gained from a well crafted book or article in my discipline and in many others.

Friday, October 01, 2010