The National Moment of Remembrance

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays…

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

Memorial Day History,” Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

My Dad is buried at the Veteran”s National Cemetery in Houston. Dad was proud of his service, for good reason. I think, though, that we need an expanded idea of service that includes nonmilitary service, too. I think that we sentimentalize the military when we try to make it the most important kind of service to community and nation. We need a day to memorialize all service, from soldiers to labor organizers.

Property is Theft: Here’s Your Grade!

I’ve long been fascinated with plagiarism, not so much as a problem of students, but as a preoccupation of certain professors.  A fear of plagiarism– and an anxiety about grade  inflation–seems to be symptomatic of our era, to use the old term from theory. Yet, as Rob Jenkins suggests, there’s really not much to worry about when it comes to plagiarism (“Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism.”)

Urban myth at the University of Texas at Austin held that the fraternities had extensive collections of tests and papers, dating back decades, that the fraternity brothers could use for all sorts of mischief.  I am not sure how much of that story is reality and how much is braggadocio, but I do know that a certain subset of fraternity culture sees substantive learning as irrelevant to a college degree.

Animal House (and its antecedents and predecessors) may be an exaggeration, but it’s rooted in a grain of truth. There’s nothing new in the idea of cheating in college and little evidence that technology– the internet or otherwise–has made it any more common. Most writing teachers don’t need any software, either, to notice that a particular students’ prose has suddenly improved dramatically.

It takes  time and energy to succeed at cheating. Students don’t cheat often, and they cheat under pressure, and do it badly. The anxiety about plagiarism, I think, echos the degradation of the authority of the college professor, culturally and economically. As our ‘soft power‘ declines, in short, professors feel the need to assert their authority as the guardians of property and bourgeois propriety.

Orwell 2.0

Every time I broke my arm as a kid, I started noticing people in casts everywhere. I’ve been mulling over a paper presentation about consumerism in my field, and I am having a similar experience. Suddenly, everywhere I look there’s an article suggesting something about new communication technologies, good or bad.

Most recently it’s a Slate piece called, “War is Gaga.” It’s written, in typical bourgeois journalistic style, from the point of view of “our troops.” The point, in other words, is that these “ridiculous dance routines on the Internet” (as the subtitle notes) are a way for soldiers to blow off steam. No doubt.

There’s a brief nod to the creepier side of some of these videos (not much on the racism or xenophobia) and an acknowledgment that these videos are a profoundly denatured view of war. It’s imperialism as sketch comedy. The piece also notes that the military, which once resisted web 2.0, has now embraced it.

It’s hard to imagine a better way for the military to naturalize war and to help focus our concerns on “our soldiers” rather than on the policy that put them in danger. It has to be one of the most direct propaganda channels– straight to the hearts and minds– ever created. There’s no putting this genie back, either.

Nodding Like Stanley Fish

Founded by Lynne Cheney and Jerry Martin in 1995, ACTA (I quote from its website) is “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges.” Sounds good, but that “commitment” takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure colleges and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements. Academic institutions, the ACTA website declares, “need checks and balances” because “internal constituencies” — which means professors — cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.

The battle between those who actually work in the academy and those who would monitor academic work from the outside has been going on for well over 100 years and I am on record (in “Save The World On Your Own Time” and elsewhere ) as being against external regulation of classroom practices if only because the impulse animating the effort to regulate is always political rather than intellectual.

August 24, 2009, 9:30 pm, What Should Colleges Teach?, Stanley Fish

I’ve been watching ACTA for a year or more simply because they are a very reliable guide to the reactionary academic mind. Increasingly, too, they are a great guide to the way conservative thinking is going undercover, attempting to hide its messages beneath a veneer of common sense thinking. The latest manifestation of the emerging agenda is www.whatwilltheylearn.com.

I am not sure I like “nodding along” with Stanley Fish, but I was. (I’m not surprised to find that he would feign surprise when he agrees with a very conservative organization.) I don’t agree with everything he says, of course. It’s not so easy to create a course that is “only about writing.” I am suspicious of a list of goals for a writing course that begins with “grammar.”

On other hand Fish seems to see the ACTA’s agenda pretty clearly. They use a modern sounding rhetoric focusing on creating and or maintaining communities when in fact the goal is to disrupt or even disband communities in the name of a restoration of what was supposed to be an American golden age. Pre-homosexuality, pre-feminist, pre-minority and so on.

American democracy matured, at least to some extent, and things got complicated and messy and the ACTA would like universities to take up the goal of making things simple again. I think Fish is also right when he suggests that ACTA’s not so hidden agenda is the autonomy of the university, particularly the academic freedom of individual professors.

Fish and the ACTA are exaggerating, of course. Most people who teach at colleges are not tenured professors and so do not have the sort of academic freedom that Fish seems to suggest is the norm. So Fish is being as nostalgic as the ACTA. Fish seems to see the ACTA as a vanguard instead of a gesture that seeks to consolidate goals already achieved.

What’s at stake here is not so much ‘general education’ as the leadership of U.S. education and the system of privileges accorded to the academic elite. Neither Fish nor the ACTA are much concerned that writing, for example, is by and large taught by adjuncts and graduate students. It’s not about the rest of us. They are fighting over the power of top-of-the-pyramid professors.

Ours and Mine

I use roads that I don’t own. I have immediate access to 99% of the roads and highways of the world (with a few exceptions) because they are a public commons. We are all granted this street access via our payment of local taxes. For almost any purpose I can think of, the roads of the world serve me as if I owned them. Even better than if I owned them since I am not in charge of maintaining them. The bulk of public infrastructure offers the same “better than owning” benefits.

The web is also a social common good. The web is not the same as public roads, which are “owned” by the public, but in terms of public access and use, the web is a type of community good. The good of the web serves me as if I owned it. I can summon it in full, anytime, with the snap of a finger. Libraries share some of these qualities. The content of the books are not public domain, but their displays (the books) grant public access to their knowledge and information, which is in some ways better than owning them.

Kevin Kelly, The Technium, Better than Owning

I continue to be fascinated by the ways in which the economic impasse is eating away at older property forms and creating the possibility for new forms. The textbook industry is a good example. Suddenly, materially privileged professors and administrators are ‘discovering’ that textbooks are expensive.

“We can fix it,” they say, as if they were not, in part, responsible for this inaccessibility. Still, whatever the origins, online textbooks are going to kill off the textbook industry– of course, something equally awful might arise in its place. In any case, this might be one of those silver linings in the dark recession clouds.

These musings and potentials are complicated and unpredictable. The CD may disappear but the LP seems to be back, complete with free digital download of the music so you can play it on your MP3 player as well as your turntable. Some of the musing, however, doesn’t make much sense.

I like the way Kevin Kelly mulls over the things he, personally, does not own but uses daily. These are our collective wealth: the highways, much of the internet, and so on. He’s less persuasive when he linke these forms of ownership and rent-to-own schemes or leasing. These are mostly confidence games.

The root problem, I think, lies in the lack of a critical economics in popular culture. Economics as commonly discussed, is business economics, that is, discussions of how to make capitalism work better. You have to venture fairly far out to the periphery to find anti-capitalist economics.