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Life writing

My review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas appeared in yesterday’s NYT Book Review, and offers solid proof that the 650-word review is not my strongest genre.  Because of my unfortunate habit of summarizing and even quoting from the books I review (as Jerry Graff asked me, “how come you do that instead of just offering your own account of American higher education and then mentioning the author’s name in your review’s final sentence”?), I had to devote 642 of my words to Menand’s argument, leaving only eight for myself.  See if you can figure out which eight!  Hint:  they’re not consecutive.

Shorter me: what’s a shorter?

So I may have a bit more to say about Menand’s book here or at CT (or at both places!) in the next few days—specifically, about his proposals to shorten the average time-to-degree in the humanities.  Yes, I know he’s been shopping these around for a while, and I know that Marc Bousquet remains (almost) as skeptical as ever.  But I’ve changed my mind on the subject over the past 15 years, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll try to explain why.

In the meantime, more Jamie news!  He began his second stint at the LifeLink apartment yesterday, and he’s staying for a full week.  This time he has two roommates (as well as the apartment coach), friends from Special Olympics basketball and golf.  (However, moving in on Sunday afternoon and doing the meal planning and shopping for the week on Sunday evening, Jamie had to miss his 6-7:30 Special Olympics swimming practice.) And we have a very empty house.  I think I’ll stop by his place of work tomorrow and check in on him.

The other day, I was going through his school backpack and came upon his Health folder.  For the most part it’s the standard high school fare, stuff about making healthy choices and having self-esteem, and so on.  But one page caught my attention: under the heading “Autobiography,” students were asked what they would write about themselves and how they would title their work.  Here’s Jamie’s response:

Lifes We Know It

My parents say that all the time.  I am a child in my lifelyhood.  I am to be going up kid.  I like to play Uno.  And I also like animals a lot in my life.  And I like my cd rum game a lot of times.  I am be adult.

Jamie Berube

My first thought upon reading this was, “that’s so sweet—he opens by talking about the fact that there already is a book about him, written when he was a child (in his lifelyhood).” My second thought was a memory of when he first started taking French in seventh grade, and his teacher, who had never had a student with Down syndrome, informed us that he probably shouldn’t be taking the class, since he wasn’t capable of producing proper sentences in French.  “He isn’t capable of producing proper sentences in English, either,” we replied.  “But he understands far more than he can say.” (Or, in developmentese, his receptive language skills are much stronger than his expressive language skills.) Seventh grade didn’t go so well, partly because Jamie’s para that year was kind of depressed and didn’t like helping him with French, but his high school teacher and his para have been amazing.  He still has trouble writing sentences in French, but his grasp of tenses is getting stronger, and his vocabulary is expanding steadily: I can tell him, “tu dois ranger ta chambre avant de sortir,” and he gets it (not that he proceeds to clean his room right away—he is a teenager, after all), and the other day I couldn’t remember the French for coat, and Jamie said, “manteau.”

Anyway, as you can tell, Jamie has a habit of dropping words from his written sentences, so that “I am going to be an adult” becomes “I am be adult.” The first three sentences, as I read them, are about Life As We Know It: “my parents say that all the time” means that he is well acquainted with the fact that there is a book about him and that many people have “met” him through the book, and the next two sentences are Jamie’s version of my explanation, “the book is about when you were a kid just growing up.” As for Uno: that’s a weird one!  Of all the things he could have mentioned ... well, he did play some Uno in the LifeLink apartment last month, and more recently he hung out with one of his afterschool companions playing Uno in a local coffeehouse/bookstore.  So I suppose it’s fresh in memory, even if it isn’t really one of the salient features of his life.  His love for animals and his facility with Harry Potter CD-ROM games, sure, but Uno?  Go figure.

When I asked him about his autobiography, Jamie seemed pleased with his work but (of course) did not want to discuss it in front of Janet, so I simply asked him if he could write things like this to help me with the yet-to-be-written book about how he grew up and became an adult.  I’ve asked him this question a couple of times in recent years, and Jamie says he’s ready and willing.  But we’re going to wait until after he graduates from high school, at least.  “You know what will happen when you graduate,” I say.  “What?” Jamie always asks.  “I will cry,” I say.  “Michael,” he replies, with mild-to-moderate exasperation.

I hope Jamie has a great week.

Posted by on 02/01 at 10:45 AM
  1. What’s a shorter?

    You’re a shorter!

    Jamie has a habit of dropping words from his written sentences

    Tell him he’s in ... company.  (I was going to say “good,” but sometimes it’s best to be honest with one’s self.)

    Posted by SEK  on  02/01  at  03:39 PM
  2. "I am a child in my lifelyhood”

    What a simply wonderful description.


    Posted by  on  02/01  at  04:42 PM
  3. Jamie has a habit of dropping words from his written sentences

    Maybe you should have had him write the Menand review. 650 is clearly not enough (not just for you, for anyone).

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  04:47 PM
  4. Uno seems to be something he’s done recently with peers outside the house.  Maybe “I like Uno” means “I like LifeLink, I like the coffee shop, I like the feeling of independence I get from doing stuff on my own.”

    Or maybe it’s just that he’s been winning at Uno.  Have you checked his wallet lately?

    I was turning the pages of the NYT BR as I usually do when I saw your name, so I read the review rather carefully.  Seems to me you thought the book was a bland compendium of conventional wisdom.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  05:21 PM
  5. After reading the review I wondered if you thought anything new or worthwhile was being argued. Is Menand making a compelling case for the answers he is giving to the questions set out? I did like the collection of essay on academic freedom he put together several years ago.

    All good news on the Jamie front. He clearly has self-esteem, and so high school has not been the damaging experience it was for, ahem, some of us.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  05:37 PM
  6. Love the Jamie updates, as always.  Congratulations to him on a week of independence!  I can confidently predict that when my kids graduate, I will collapse into a puddle.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  07:11 PM
  7. Should have said “if,” I suppose; my oldest will at the least make things interesting.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  07:13 PM
  8. Bloix, Chris, I think Menand’s chapter on general education is very good, and his final chapter on graduate education is like the beginning of a good argument:  if indeed the system is designed to produce ABDs, surely one can find much more to say about this?  (I managed to squeeze in a very tiny and obvious point, namely, that college teachers who depend on student evaluations for their yearly appointments are working without any job security to speak of.) But the argument about interdisciplinarity doesn’t really move me, no, and the crisis-of-confidence genre is something I’m very familiar with (though sincerely grateful that Menand doesn’t finger the usual suspects).  And I say this as someone who’s been a fan of Menand’s work for 20 years or so.

    JP, SEK, Elliot, there’s no question that Jamie’s prose is more economical than mine.  Also more succinct, and perhaps even more to-the-point in a direct kind of way.  I will manage to avoid puddledom when he graduates, I think, but I have to say I was pretty close to liquid form when Nick graduated from college.  That kid done good, even though I don’t chronicle his every step on this humble blog.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  08:05 PM
  9. I don’t think the system is designed to produce ABD’s.  It’s evolved to produce ABD’s.  There’s no intelligent designer anywhere to be seen.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  10:02 PM
  10. I really like Bloix’s point about the system “evolving” to produce ABD rather than being “designed” that way.  Professors can’t get together to design much of anything, let alone a sinister ABD factory!  I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this; I’m supervising a lot of heartache as my PhD students teeter into the market.

    I love the latest from Jamie.  Really moving and interesting, as always.

    Posted by  on  02/01  at  11:53 PM
  11. Don’t be so down on UNO, it is a variant of the greatest game of all time, crazy-spades, which is like crazy-eights, except spades are wild and if you can’t play a card you lose.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  12:19 AM
  12. Boy, have I missed this site-- don’t ask why I’ve been MIA lately, since that’s all trivial and benign.

    Here’s wishing that the entire Bérubé clan has a great week, year and epoch.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  02:21 AM
  13. But the argument about interdisciplinarity doesn’t really move me, no

    Well, there’s a bolt from the blue.

    I don’t think the system is designed to produce ABD’s. [. . .] There’s no intelligent designer anywhere to be seen.

    Given my encounters with university administration, the latter doesn’t necessarily imply the former.  Though I do think the notion that it arose organically is correct, it has long since been optimized by outside hands.  Regardless of their long-term planning skills, professors do tend to be good at squeezing blood from stones.  So once enough of them notice that their system produces cheap teaching and bench labor, the temptation is nearly irresistible.  Then again, this is all against the background of a system that belittles teaching and rewards large assembly line laboratories.  Which brings us back to the question of evolution vs. design again.


    Q: Why did the hippie stop protesting against the death penalty?

    A: Because the cake was made with agribusiness grain.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  09:41 AM
  14. There’s no intelligent designer anywhere to be seen.

    Please be careful, everyone—if someone says this a third time, you know, Steve Fuller will show up in the thread.  And we don’t want that.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  11:16 AM
  15. Congratulations, Jamie!

    On justifying the humanities, Keith Oatley has
    an interesting post at OnFiction in which he follows Lynn Hunt (Inventing Human Rights, 2007) in arguing that the notion of equality of rights among humans is at least partially grounded in literature:

    Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of the equality of rights, declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which really is a human universal. “It depends,” says Hunt, “on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially. “Reading novels,” she says, “created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative” (p. 39). Many novels contributed. One that Hunt discusses is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) written by a man and inviting empathetic identification with a woman of a humble social class.

    captcha: designed

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  02/02  at  04:03 PM
  16. Michael, I started reading the review without looking to see who wrote it.  Midway through, I metaphorically smacked my forehead, shouted, “Wait a minute!  Did Bérubé write this?” So if you ever write a thinly-veiled novel about the Clintons under the nom de plume Anonymous, I will unmask you.

    I’d love to hear more about the “time to degree” issue, too.  I think some of it is overblown--some folks who do quite well before the dissertation stage realize that they don’t want to (or perhaps can’t, for various logistical reasons) write a long original argument, and that’s why people who want to be professors should have to try it.  But as it seems to be women, people of color, and working class folks who have the hardest time completing a Ph.D., that does concern me.  I think a lot of students become ABD at the very moment their funding runs out (I did!  We got four or five years’ worth).  To extend funding for ABDs would probably mean admitting fewer students to Ph.D. programs, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, so I think that is worth thinking about. 

    My captcha was “programs.” Hmmm.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  04:51 PM
  17. On time to degree, I vaguely recall that way back in the day, late 1960s, DC Allen chaired a committee that investigated that problem for the MLA. They found that 11 years was the average time to degree in English and recommended that that be reduced, considerably. Of course, back in those days you could get a tenure track job at a good school while still ABD—I know that at least one of my philosophy teachers at Hopkins was ABD. This a long-standing problem that predates the employment crunch (though not by much) and the expansion of composition courses. I got my degree at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-70s and they were quite explicit that they were all about streamlined degrees, though I don’t know what their time-to-degree stats were.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  02/02  at  05:05 PM
  18. What i note interesting is the lack of discussion of promoting early retirement in the academe.  Certainly it takes some dollars (in my personal case, i had a safety series retirement running parallel to my teaching), but it seems worth the investment to enrich the faculty pools with younger and more talent.  Arguably one would need to “force” the university to avoid the current ABD adjunct path, and encourage tenured replacements one-for-one.  But to focus on the development and ignore the retirement puts things out of balance. 

    mds: as an aging hippie i might accept the death penalty as long as i personally got to carry it out. Captcha is “police” in that we hippies don’t like bacon.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  06:52 PM
  19. Q: Why is grape-flavored chewing gum better than a hippie?

    A: Just try chewing a hippie next time you get car sick.

    Posted by  on  02/02  at  07:24 PM
  20. And we don’t want that.

    I resent that.  For the record, I would generally agree that there’s no intelligent designer anywhere to be seen in the leadership of American
    universities.  If there were, more of them would be bravely joining Liberty and Patrick Henry U. in teaching the controversy, rather than
    toeing the line of “scientific orthodoxy” about Darwinism, facts, and falsifiability.  Out of all the public intellectuals with advanced training in biology and biochemistry, why must Ben Stein and I stand alone?

    Posted by  on  02/03  at  09:15 AM
  21. And yes, the H stands for “Harderand.” I got your irreducible complexity right here, baby.

    Posted by  on  02/03  at  09:17 AM
  22. I love these plates. With that hot design, this will make my ride even more eye stunning! I hope it is still at nine bucks. Will check it out now.
    drink coasters

    Posted by  on  02/17  at  06:56 AM





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