10.0828 times & standards

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 2 Apr 1997 22:03:11 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 828.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: "Mark K. Gardner" (139)
Subject: Re: 10.0819 o tempora o mores (longish reply)

[2] From: Laura Blanchard <lblancha@pobox.upenn.edu> (28)
Subject: Re: 10.0824 times & standards

[3] From: Richard Bear <RBEAR@OREGON.UOREGON.EDU> (8)
Subject: Re: 10.0824 times & standards

[4] From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca> (50)
Subject: fishbowls and WWW

Date: Wed, 02 Apr 1997 15:06:48 -0500
From: "Mark K. Gardner" <contact.the.commander@null.net>
Subject: Re: 10.0819 o tempora o mores (longish reply)

Dear Willard and Co.:

Personally, I see several converging social trends that seem to have
reinforced each other to create the current dearth of hapless college
students--and it has its roots (at least here in the United States) in
these fundamental areas, all of which take place long before the student
even attempts to go to college. For those of you who are very busy, you
may not wish to read this lengthy reply, but since this subject has
aroused my passion, and this particular discussion group has been fairly
quiet of late, I submit this re:memorandum to try to develop a radical
(if long-winded) exposition of the problem as outlined.

1) Fewer and fewer students seem interested in reading for reading's
sake, paralleling a similar lack of interest in knowledge for knowledge'
sake. With it has decreased student writing ability, spelling skills,
and perhaps worst of all, reading comprehension and critical thinking
skills. Why? Well, see # 2...

2) The pervasivness of television combined with single-parent/dual-
working parent households has conspired to create a generation of
students who must be spoonfed information in sound-bite sized, easily-
digested and *entertaining* little morsels. They seem to have acquired
the attention span of the average T.V. program between commercials, of
let's say about 7 to 12 minutes, tops...

3) While elements of the "Middle-School Philosophy" seem to be a more
humanistic approach to the style of education myself and previous gener-
ations recieved from the "Jr. High School Approach", the concepts of
group work *and* the overiding concern with fostering a sense of
'nurturing and success' within the student and eliminating any exper-
ience of 'failure' seems to be undermining the entire educational
process at a crucial developmental point.
a) While group-work does encourage students to develop a sense of
cooperation in social settings, reliance upon it eventually removes from
the student any sense of individual capability and responsibility;
individuals never discover their own strengths and weaknesses. And upon
reaching high-school and especially college, students who have grown
reliant upon working in groups flounder and fail when faced with having
to do all the work by themselves.
b) Students, like all human beings, also learn a great deal from making
mistakes and from failing from time-to-time. However, middle-school
students develop a false sense of their own capabilities and begin to
develop a specious sense of that true nature of reality, and for some a
dangerous acceptance of the OK-ness of mediocrity begins to emerge in
their personality. In reality, we do not succeed at everything we turn
our hands to. However, in the last place where it is socially 'safe' to
fail and the repercussions of failure are not permanent, i.e. in grades
5-8, students are not allowed to experience failure. They don't get to
face reality until at least high school, where their record will follow
them into college, and then to face the spectre of failure even more so
after high school, when success or failure in everything now has a
lifelong impact, and ill-prepared and poorly motivated students run-up
huge debts attempting to go to college...
c) My experience at teaching middle-school speaks directly to this.
After several years of butting heads with the administration over a
"high failure rate" and refusing to lower my standards and expectations
for my eighth-grade geography students (such as requiring them to turn
in homework assignments, complete a series of maps in class, and make
corrections to failing test grades), I went back to graduate school this
past year and took a part-time teaching assignment teaching high-school
history. I have many of the same students from last year; some of them
are *just now* beginning to rise to my most basic expectations, but most
of them are simply not adequately prepared for high school work. They
are incapable of completing the most basic reading assignment and then
comprehending and retaining enough information to take a quiz on the
main ideas the next day; most are failing or barely passing...I could
make it easier for them, but it would doing them the most grave
injustice: sooner or later they must learn that mediocrity and lack of
effort are not valuable social skills, and they will certainly fail at
college or the even most mundane job if they continue to believe they
are not really responsible for their own actions or lack thereof.

I have only been at this since 1988, but in that amount of time I have
noticed a definite decline in student ability during the past decade;
colleagues inform me that the process has been going on for longer than
that, but that the rate of decline has been increasingly rapid in the
last few years.

4) Along with diminishing expectations, the overall curriculum seems to
be continously subjected to a general "watering-down" while at the same
time from the highest echelons we have been hearing about "a crisis in
American education". From the shrinking of electives in the basic
subjects (English/Literature, Social Studies/History, Math and Science)
to the outright discouragement of students from taking Latin (this I
actually witnessed when High School guidance counselors giving a
presentation about course selection to my eighth grade students told
them "You don't really need Latin for anything, so don't take it.") and
the elimination of the Classics and Ancient Languages from the
curiculum, the pattern is the gradual piece by piece dismantling of
traditional humanistic educational mores and programs. Several years
ago, in my own department I watched as we were forced to take World
History I and II (a two-year series from prehistoric to modern times)
and combine them into a one year long course called Western
Civilization, which trails off somewhere areond the age of exploration,
in order to follow the state Basic Education Program...

All this sounds quite depressing, I'm sure.
Despite this, I am still very enthusiastic about what I am doing, since
I feel that it is my mission to prepare those students who are taking my
basic college-prep Western Civ. course to eventually be able to do
college work. I expose them to primary sources, force them to muddle
through translations of Gilgamesh, Homer, and Virgil, to examine the
architecture around them to identify neo-classical influences, and to
constantly read to them from books that go beyond the basic information
in their text, and demonstrate ('modeling' is the correct educational
catch-phrase, I believe) how one can glean information from a book.
Yes, I simply read to them from a book, and sometimes they seem to be
absolutely amazed at what I've read to them.

The school I work at has a technology plan, and the goal is eventually
to equip each classroom with a computer and to make the entire faculty
computer literate. I am excited by this, of course, but I think the
same basic problems will crop up again there--if students will not read
a book full of pictures with fairly large print (the text they are
equipped with now) I am not sure how framing the printed word within a
montitor screen will be any more likely to inspire them. The real
problem lies in the fact that the learning process *is not FUN or enter-
tainment*. It took all of us many tedious hours of what we believed to
be meaningless toil before we realized that "knowledge for knowledge
sake" was a worthy end unto itself, and then began to *really* learn
things not because we had to but because we wanted to. And most of us
had parents who were concerned, and somewhat involved and available,
without the distraction of TV and went to schools where we were expected
to meet a generally high standard and which offered a rich and varied
humanistic curriculum.

Finally, as for poetry, many of my students seemed amazed when, as a
demonstration of poetic hexameter, I rendered the basic form of a
limerick. Apparently most had never concieved how the syllables that
make up words can be creatively combined to develop a consistent and
song-like rhythym. However, many outrightly refused to even try to read
excerpts from the Iliad or the Aeneid, using for their defense "It is
too hard to read"; or "It's too difficult to understand." And during a
discussion of Ovid on St. Valentines Day, only one girl said she
recieved a poem from a boy; and no one of either sex admitted to
composing a poem for anyone for the occasion. I told them they had
missed an excellent opportunity to never be forgotten, and to achieve a
modicum of immortality at least during the lifetime of their current
boy/girl friend. While most of them thought the entire idea was funny
in a foolish sort of way, I did see a few students appear thoughful for
a few seconds...How can that thoughtfulness be woven into a Web-Page?
Not too easily, I'm sure. And I am doubtful of the ultimate mating of
TV and the WWW. Sure, you and I will rumage through the place just like
it was the library, but how do we involve the students? Will we make
our next educational presentation platform (the computer) more like TV
or can we force the platform to be more akin to Ficino's Neo-Platonic


Mark Gardner

Date: Wed, 2 Apr 1997 13:51:22 -0500 (EST)
From: Laura Blanchard <lblancha@pobox.upenn.edu>
Subject: Re: 10.0824 times & standards

My experience with student queries to the web site I maintain may be

I run the web site for the American Branch of the Richard III Society
(http://www.r3.org/). We maintain an online hypertext edition of
Shakespeare's play, online editions of many primary sources, introductory
essays on Richard III in history and drama, bibliography on a variety of
related topics, and links to other medieval studies and Shakespeare sites.

With the release or rediscovery of three film versions of the Shakespare
play in 1996, Richard III became an especially popular topic for study.
Each day I received at least one request for research assistant from a
student -- most of them from more-or-less conscientious students who
still had not found the materials on our site to help them. Every so
often I would get an e-mail that was patently a re-keyboarding of a study
assignment ("please explain the theme for each scene in Act IV"). I would
answer the questions appropriately.

A few weeks ago I installed a feedback button on our "Learning Resources"
page, accompanied by language to the effect of "If you are a student and
you still cannot find the appropriate material after checking our
<link>online library</link> and our <link>bibliographies</link>, send us
an e-mail and we'll see if we can direct you to the appropriate
resources." The volume of inquiries has slowed to a trickle -- from the
students who have a real stumper of a question, and from the occasional
brazen shirker who still wants us to do his/her homework.

>From this personal experience I infer that most students just needed a
little nudge in the right direction.

Laura Blanchard

Date: Tue, 01 Apr 1997 15:04:02 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Re: 10.0824 times & standards

Re whether people are finding literary/humanistic web sites, the Edmund
Spenser Home Page got 5800 hits (as a site, not all on one page) during the
first ten days of this year. The average seems to be four pages per user,
which extrapolated over the year would mean, what, 52,200 readers? I didn't
think there were that many readers of these works left in the world. *Somebody*
is using this stuff, and knows how to navigate through it as well...

Richard Bear

Date: Tue, 1 Apr 1997 19:15:31 -0500 (EST)
From: Francois Lachance <lachance@chass.utoronto.ca>
Subject: fishbowls and WWW


I rather enjoyed Charles Ess's reply to your reporting on the
Washington newspaper reporting (a reporting delightfully speckled with
cautionary notes about checking references which made me mindful of
your whimsical Italo-ontological reportage... ). Ess's tale of the
WWW-challenged reader made me remember having to teach second year
university students, well acquainted with textbooks, about the use of
index and table of contents. This lack of basic reading expertise
whether in print or e-version reminds one of the ubiquitous blinking
time setting on VCR machines. I read none of these signs as lack of
intelligence but very much as the absence of contact with a reading
and recording tradition.

Or more specifically, the absence of a tradition that encourages
intelligent transfer of paradigms, for example the techne of
dictionary headwords to WWW navigation in the form of before/after
links. I wonder about Ess's students and my own in terms of whether
they were taught to handle reference works as pathfinding tools,
whether they developed a general notion of finding aids that they
could drawn upon when encountering "new" texts.

I am beginning to entertain the hypothesis that those that do develop
the ability to apply skills across contexts were students who
experienced the phenomenon of observing teacher-student interactions,
both those involving other students and a teacher and those involving
a type of meta-positioning vis a vis their own interaction with a
student or a teacher. However not it not just the observation of an
interaction that counts. I think that those observers of communication
breakdown in a pedagogical situation are able to reflect upon the lack
of shared assumptions that led to the breakdown. It is rather humbling
and disconcerting to consider that my own development may have been
fostered by the failure of others. However what does save the
situation is that the observation and reflection upon such conditions
is permitted by an environment that values mistakes. Metacognition in
our best students will be fostered by their interaction not only with
peers but also with those at different stages of their intellectual

This is not a call to recast computer-mediated communication as a
return to the little red schoolhouse. It is a call to offer the traces
of pedagogical interactions to wider audiences by recognizing that
teaching load has an impact on quality of interactions that we model
and foster.

I think that humanists can vouch for the fishbowl effect
of making materials available through the Internet be it WWW, gopher
or ftp. People outside of the classroom, the lecture hall or the lab
will have access to materials that can then be applied to other
learning situations. And every once in a while messages cross the
fishbowl walls to help us, encourage us, and even praise.

solidly in mutuality,


see also
<cite>The Written, the Archived and the Active</cite>