Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Forms of Connectivity

I just glanced Gerald Graff's IHE column, "It's Time to End 'Courseocentrism'," which urges greater transparency in the designing and teaching of classes and greater cross-curricular coordination, especially in the humanities. Humanities courses, Graff suggests, confound students with jumbled messages (fwiw, this rings of Fulkerson's concerns with philosophical confusion in composition programs created by all of the mixing, borrowing, and blending). Graff would have us unmix the messages, prefer coherence, and even out the scenes of teaching.

But how?

That's the part that doesn't seem to me to get enough pixels in this column. Graff embraces "amazing new forms of connectivity" as one kind of solution, but connection doesn't by natural progression bring about coherence. Also, connection demands a degree of participation: faculty ought to be putting their syllabi online. (I don't mean for this to be a slight, but I couldn't find any of Graff's syllabi on the WWW). Courseocentrism--any kind of -centrism that neglects to take an interest in what is happening elsewhere--is akin to negligent specialization, perhaps a byproduct of it. There are many ways to complicate courseocentric tendencies at a programmatic level, provided teachers are willing (or made) to do so. In fact, as I prepared to teach this semester, I was impressed to find that the Writing Program had collected more than 250 syllabi and made them available online (albeit as static, unsearchable PDFs). I looked at no fewer than ten of them as I prepared my syllabus, just to develop a sense of what others had done. I ended up doing something slightly different (a courseocentric gesture?); I didn't adapt anyone's stuff, in other words, but this was possible because the syllabi were published online. Who doesn't relish being able to glance syllabi for smart, engaging courses taught at all levels, whether at their own institutions or elsewhere?

In a roundabout, courseolliptical way, this brings me to my larger point (and unavoidable concern): When will the MLA develop a robust relational database for the systematic archivization of syllabi? Why not provide a platform for indexing (pre-coordinate and folksonomic), storing, and interrelating course syllabi (and materials, assignments for that matter)? Looking for a course on contemporary rhetoric? The platform would return a few by direct search and also suggest near-misses, following a "feeling lucky" algorithm. I understand that such a database is something that's been on several people's wish lists (and it's also been technically possible) for some time. No telling whether it would narrow curricular gaps or level out the disjointedness in any curriculum, but it would be a start toward a more systematic use of "new forms of connectivity" to address chronic "courseocentrism."

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 13, 2009 10:20 AM to Academe

Thanks for pointing to this article Derek. It's an interesting read. And you're right: the "how" is a difficult question. Even if we did have syllabi available, what would it really tell us? I suppose it might tell us (if we didn't know) who is or isn't "traditional," who really teaches writing or research, etc. It would be a start though. As you know, social media would offer us a way of activating emergent connections within our curriculum without the need for the centralizing bureaucracy that concerns Graff (and faculty in general).

Posted by: Alex R. at January 14, 2009 5:58 AM

Re: "What would it tell us?", I suppose that could be any number of things. I mean, the Writing Program's syllabus repository at SU told me a little bit about the recent landscape for the course--what people had tried, which topoi they'd staked out for their sections, how they'd divided up the semester into different windows of time, etc. I already had a faint sense of much of that, but it renewed my sense of the curriculum in such a way that it was ultimately fruitful for me to return to those syllabi, even for a passing glance.

If we mined and visualized the archive (difficult for me to avoid this point!), we might shed light on patterns and shifts in curricula--variously scaled tendencies, let's say, in how FYC is delivered, how older practices resurface, how much or little variation there is in the language of unit assignments at this or that part of a curriculum. Granted, I'm thinking somewhat idealistically about a syllabus repository that would draw a high degree of participation.

On other question for me is whether such a creation could have every bit the counter-inventive (i.e., inertial) effect of the "centralized bureacracy." In other words, for better or worse, it might end up becoming a way to shift that stabilizing agency from the WPA to a database overloaded with "average effects." Fun to think about, nevertheless.

Posted by: Derek at January 14, 2009 8:38 AM