No Live Readings

by Russell Jacoby on August 3, 2009


Edmund Wilson’s printed note, a response to a student group asking him to do a reading, breathes of another world. He added in a handwritten scrawl that he doesn’t do “live readings either when I’m offered a very large fee.” And the printed card itself lists a bevy of activities that he declines. Unlike participants here and now – myself and the others – he doesn’t “contribute to or take part in symposiums or ‘panels’ of any kind,” “give interviews” or speeches. He is an ornery writer, devoted to his craft.
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George Scialabba and the Culture Wars; or, Critique of Judgment

by Michael Bérubé on August 3, 2009

In his brief but delightful introduction to <i>What Are Intellectuals Good For?</i>, Scott McLemee offers a précis of the Scialabbian moral/political universe: “Reconciling the skeptical pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the geopolitical worldview of Noam Chomsky is not a simple project.  Rarely do you find them treated as two sides of one ideological coin.  But that seems like a reasonably accurate description of Scialabba’s sense of the possible.  If he were to write a manifesto, it would probably call for more economic equality, the dismantling of the American military industrial complex, and the end of metaphysics.”  This does indeed sound reasonably accurate, and it serves as a reminder that McLemee is one of the few contemporary writers and reviewers who belongs in Scialabba’s league.  For regardless of whether one agrees with Scialabba’s judgments on matters moral and political (and, often enough, I don’t, even though I’d endorse that hypothetical manifesto in a heartbeat), one has to be impressed with Scialabba’s uncanny ability to <i>inhabit</i> the books and writers he reviews.  Scialabba’s work in <i>What Are Intellectuals Good For?</i> is remarkable for its range, yes, and his prose is notable for its precision and clarity.  But what’s most impressive, I think, is the scrupulousness fairness that Scialabba brings to the task of reviewing.  Almost every essay in this collection allows the reader some degree of imaginative sympathy with the books and writers under review, even when Scialabba himself turns out to be largely unsympathetic to the material he’s writing about.  That’s because Scialabba, like McLemee, always offers a reasonably accurate précis of the material he’s writing about before he gets around to taking issue with it.  It’s easy enough to do, of course, when you’re writing about someone who sees the world as you do; but George Scialabba does it as a matter of course.  I wish I could say the same of all reviewers; and though it’s a standard to which I hold my own review essays, I know very well that I’ve sometimes honored it in the breach.

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Standards at UK universities

by Chris Bertram on August 3, 2009

My friend Jo Wolff has “a column over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free”: section taking issue with Phil Willis MP, who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills which just issued its report on “Students and Universities” (downloadable “here”: ). Jo is upset with Willis and his committee for two reasons: first, because they suggest that the marked increase in the proportions of First Class and 2.1 degrees is the result of grade inflation; second, because they were sceptical about whether a degree of the same class from different institutions are necessarily of equal value.

Jo’s response to the first “dumbing down” point is to cite the benign influence of the government quango the Quality Assurance Agency on teaching standards in Universities. I can’t actually work out if Jo’s QAA argument is sincere or an attempt at heavy irony. In any case, I wonder if he’s actually read what the report says about the QAA. It argues — surely correctly — that the QAA has been more focused on processes than on what happens in the classroom and that it has been quite easy for universities to tick the quality-assurance boxes whist actual teaching quality goes unexamined. That’s one part of the report that is surely right. At the time of “subject review” I think only about 1/19th of a department’s score was a result of classroom observation and the rest was attributable to a lengthy paper-trail which we all laboured for months to assemble. But whatever, Jo knows as well as I do that the incentive structure that government has put in place for higher education in the UK has not favoured quality of teaching but rather research. Teaching has been seriously underfunded and there has been little to no payoff in terms of career advancement open to good teachers. In the circumstances it really is hard to believe that the across-the-board improvement in student grades is the result of better teaching. (No doubt any increase in performance in the UCL philosophy department is attributable to better teaching, but Jo needs an argument for the sector as a whole!)

Jo’s response to the second point — cross-institution comparability of standards — is to say “so what?”. He may be right. But what infuriated the Select Committee was that they asked the question of university leaders and failed to get a clear answer. Rather they were faced with obfuscation and evasion. Perhaps if Jo had been interviewed he would have given the committee a clear, reasoned and satisfactory answer as to why it doesn’t really matter: the Vice Chancellors of Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities weren’t willing or able to do so.