Catching up in World History

Back in the day (like, 1989) I was hired to teach World History. When I first arrived at the college, I was given the syllabus.

Now, I had been trained to teach Western Civ. I was a Europeanist, with an emphasis in medieval technology and a secondary field of early U.S. History. My graduate school language had been French (no, I don’t speak a word of it now — don’t ask me to order for you). But even I, with my Eurocentric background, could see that the syllabus was not World History. It was what I later learned would be called “The West and the Rest”, a condensed Western Civ class with a unit on India, a unit on China…you get the idea.

So I resolved to reform the curriculum and make the course truly global. I didn’t realize I was wading into a whole intellectual swamp about the history of the world, but I did know I needed help. So I founded the North County Global History Project, in collaboration with historians from other community colleges, and even National University. We created several annual conferences, inviting experts in global history to come speak. We also shared internally, with all the world historians working together, bringing in our various areas of expertise. It worked. The curriculum was revised and approved, and all our instructors have been teaching global history for years.

That included me, until about 2004. At that time, our Western Civ classes were expanding, and I was eager to teach them. Online classes were expanding, and I was learning to teach them. The following year I founded the Program for Online Teaching, and my focus for the next 12 years or so was on online pedagogy, and the creation of new class in the History of Technology.

Well, time’s a funny thing. I now have an opportunity, next fall, to teach World History again. So suddenly I am embarked on examining what’s happened in the discipline, what’s up in the scholarship, and what’s available as far as resources. I’ve been reading the current textbooks, and articles on the last dozen years of the field. Although I had belonged to the World History Association, my membership had lapsed as they priced me out of their conferences (they took place in Italy and on cruise ships). So I don’t exactly have an insider view.

If you read my blog, you know what I think of textbooks. But really, I’d like to start with one, and there are no Open Educational Resources for world history that cover the entire course. I assumed I could find a newer textbook with a solid thematic structure, since that’s where the field was heading back in 2004. It turns out there have been some efforts at thematic global history in recent years, including The Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks, and Forging the Modern World by Carter and Warren. I have just finished reading the latter, except for the last chapter, because by then I was too depressed to continue to the end. A reasonably-priced, readable, book of a good length for students, it has themes that carry through. That’s what I’m looking for, a thematic framework to make history truly global, rather than just bouncing from region to region for each chapter (“Meanwhile, in China…”) But Carter and Warren’s themes have to do with the lengths to which states will go to establish legitimacy (think blowing things up and killing lots of natives) and the difficulty in resisting this. The losers lose horribly. There are names in the book (emperors and such), but you never see the real people, the people on the ground. They just seem to be buffeted by forces beyond their control. There’s no agency, no hope. Yes, I could add that in when I lecture. But I’d feel bad assigning such misery and helplessness.

When evaluating textbooks, I also like to “spot check” content– look in the index for certain things to determine how they’re covered. So since I want to be global, I looked for global things. For commodities, gold or silver work — so does cloth. For food, sugar or chocolate are good (and aren’t they?). I look for coverage of people like the Arabs, the Jesuits, and the Jews, people who didn’t necessarily fit evolving concepts of the nation and tend to operate globally.

And I look for women. Not necessarily individual Great Women, but rather women in groups, acting with agency and purpose. Great Men tend to be individualized as historical actors, even though none of them would have achieved anything without a network supporting them. Women may have to form groups just to be heard. Such groups have fought not only for suffrage, but for things like laws, peace, fair prices, and education. (I look for “peace” also.)

Looking at the books so far, those that have these people as actors tend to have a regional focus rather than a global, thematic focus. That includes Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (the current edition of the book I used in 2004) and the newer Smith’s World in the Making. The McNeills’ The Human Web and Morillo’s Frameworks of World History are more thematic, but I believe conceptually too difficult for community college students. It’s becoming pretty clear that I have to decide between a global focus without the real human experience, and the real human experience without a global framework. That sucks. You would think the field would have moved further in the time I haven’t been paying attention. I envision a book with global themes and flyovers, but with little boxes that telescope in on an event as an example, and sample those from around the globe.

And no, I’m not gonna write one.

Rigor or workload?

It appears as though next summer, our 8-week classes will all be offered in a 6-week format. I am in favor of this. At first this seems like a good idea: students finish faster, faculty are done sooner (avoiding the problem of immediately starting fall afterword). Until one thinks about rigor.

Rigor is a word frequently argued about in academia but rarely defined. It has something to do with the academic integrity of a course. If, for example, it is a college class but one assigned a third-grade textbook, there would be a problem with rigor. Our course approval process requires a list of possible textbooks and possible assignments, ostensibly to ensure appropriate rigor.

Years ago, our historians were asked to offer 4-week intersession classes in winter, and we said no. Our senior historian at the time went in with the dean to argue that rigor could not be maintained. Our classes, as approved for transfer to university, were 16 weeks long. We could not maintain standards, particularly with students rushing through reading and writing at 4 times the speed. It’s a community college. Some students had trouble reading college-level work. Forcing them to do it faster would be disastrous for their success and our teaching. We won the argument, because at the time there seemed to be a general understanding that History requires extensive reading and writing, and by extension considerable thought. This requires more time.

As time has passed, however, the expectations for the level of student achievement have changed. The emphasis on “student success” has led not only to a natural and predictable inflation of grades, but a much broader acceptance of less rigor. The available textbooks for a college course are written at a much lower level, and have many needlessly large illustrative images and lots of white space. Courses are approved for General Education transfer that are more “fun” and have significantly lower expectations of learning ability. The push for what is called “equity” has led to an utter rejection of everything from the Western canon to any novel written by a white male, with the result that many longer works with universal themes are no longer considered appropriate for assignment.

So in a sense all rigor, in the sense of expectations of the level of the work completed, has declined. But rigor is not necessarily workload. When I was at university, lower-division courses required a full textbook, and several ancillary texts. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only one ancillary text was required, but it was an extensive secondary book. Students chose the shortest one, of course. All the same, the workload (number of pages to read, number of papers to write, length of those papers) was significantly higher.

If rigor is being decreased, but achievement in the discipline continues to be expected, then workload should increase. If the level of what one is being given, and is expected to perform, is lower, then increased quantity would provide more opportunities for practice. Increasing workload thus implies a dedication to higher rigor, even if the standard is not obtained.

But we must also consider the contemporary dedication to the affective well-being of the student. This dovetails with the culture at large. It is accepted that people who are distressed cannot study well. Mental illness, overloaded schedules, job and family demands are seen as reasonable justifications for being unable to perform what could have been considered university-level work a generation ago. Before, they would have been encouraged to leave university and find a job for which they were suitable. Now they are held onto like precious gems, who without university have no chance in life. It’s our fault, not theirs, if they don’t succeed.

The university transfer approval process requires that community college rigor matches that of university. This has not been a major issue. University rigor has also declined. No one checks very carefully, anyway. But approval also requires that the same rigor and workload approved at the course level apply to every class section that is offered. So if I offer a 16-week class that normally required a full textbook, five primary source readings each week, and two assignments per week, the expectation is that this will be compressed but identical in shorter-term formats.

While this may seem to be a way to maintain rigor while increasing workload in the short term, it doesn’t actually work that way. I have adapted several of my classes to the 8-week (double-speed) format already for summer classes, and to provide a “back-to-back” single semester option to complete a two-course sequence. Enrollment in these is excellent — students do indeed appreciate completing the course faster, and they drop less often. I have long felt that 16 weeks is too long anyway. But I do not demand exactly the same number of assignments for my 16-week students. The primary source boards dropped from 16 to 8 to keep their focus on the weekly unit. Everything else, however, I simply doubled up: textbook readings are two chapters a week, primary sources are ten instead of five.

Six weeks presents a slightly different challenge. I cannot simply eliminate the Age of Discovery, or the American Empire. These are required to be “covered” to be approved for university transfer. Thus the workload must increase. I suspect that the transition from eight weeks to six may be a tipping point for rigor and workload.

What happens when one increases the workload beyond the expectations and desires of the students? First, they just don’t do it. They simply won’t be exposed to the facts, interpretations or ideas. They’ll skip the Age of Discovery. Second, they will not enroll in the first place, or drop the class in favor of classes with lighter workloads. Our History department has seen a consistent slide in enrollments over the last few years. While we know that this is partly because the national reputation for disciplines like History is on the decline (as it is for intellectualism in general), there is also a greater dedication to rigor in our discipline, a dedication often misinterpreted as “white” and elitist. (In truth, historiography has been foregrounded the agency and obstacles for people challenged by mainstream culture since the 1940s.) The college now offers far easier course in “culture” that count for the same requirement, and thus compete directly for enrollment.

Simply compressing my 8-week classes into 6 weeks, I fear, won’t work. The workload will be well beyond the expectations of students, and they will leave, drop or fail. While failing used to be acceptable, we are now expected to prevent this at all costs. So some tasks need to be removed. It cannot be topics or “coverage”, so it must be reading, assessment, and writing. I am leaning toward removing the textbook reading, because it could be considered “boring”, they have more difficulty reading, and the facts are not as important as them “doing history” (my lectures may have all the facts they need). Removing textbook reading also reduces the number of quiz questions, or perhaps eliminates the quizzes themselves. The writing assignments should be given a few days without anything else due, so they focus on them — those I am unwilling to change, but I want to provide them with space and time.

The grading weights would change accordingly, so that each of the remaining tasks would be worth substantially more. That is unfortunate, because my usual method is to have many little assignments, so that no one assignment is worth a lot. That way students can learn, practice, improve. So in addition to impacting rigor and workload, my pedagogy will also be affected. I do not, however, see another way.

A free textbook experiment

For some time, I have been creating free textbooks for students. In my online classes, these take the form of a pdf file, containing edited selections from Wikipedia followed by my own edited selection of primary sources.

In online classes, students rarely print the book, although they are invited to if they wish. In on-site classes, printing is an issue. We reference the book frequently in class, and they read aloud from documents. The continual searching required by an e-book or online version wastes a lot of time compared to “see page 76”.

Few students want to print the textbook on their printer or use the library printer, because it’s about 170 sides of print. Since they do not understand the printer interface on computers, when they do obediently print the book themselves it comes out as 170 single-sided pages on 8.5 x 11 paper (that’s about A4 size). So over the past few years I’ve tried various things. The most successful has been having them bring the file to Staples or Office Depot with syllabus instructions of what to ask for.

When students asked why they must go to all this trouble, I explained. I could have the books printed by the on-campus bookstore. This is actually a corporate conglomerate, Follett, which in addition to enforcing copyright clearance that violates the TEACH Act, insists on marking the book up 26%. When I complained to Follett that I wrote it, they only printed it, and 26% was excessive, I was told that I can ask to receive my own percentage in royalties added into the price. They couldn’t see this made the problem worse, not better. Students nodded appreciatively when they understood I was trying to save them money. Then half got the book printed the first week, a quarter in the first few weeks after being reminded, and a quarter not at all.

Our college has promoted Open Educational Resources for some time. There is even a state-wide grant that faculty can get to adopt them. People like me should get these grants, but can’t for two reasons. First, the grants are for adopting OERs, not creating them. This is despite the fact that it takes over a hundred hours to create a resource, and about six to select one from the very few on offer. Second, the grants are only available to those who can demonstrate a savings over the previous semester, meaning those of us who have been offering free textbooks for years aren’t eligible.

So last term, given all these limitations and the execrable quality of open access textbooks in History, I asked the department for some printing funds. Since I teach so many classes online, I do not use much printing money each term. With this money I was able to have printed enough textbooks for the whole class (much easier in a time of declining enrollments). I did it half size and spiral bound, making a rather attractive if thick booklet.

(The “15th edition” gives you an idea of how long I’ve been creating these.)

I handed them out the second day of class, and told them to feel free to highlight or write in them. I told them what I had done and why, and that essentially these were paid for by taxpayer dollars. When I handed them out, they accepted them in an entirely different way than a handout or assignment. Each student took the booklet from me carefully, placing it on their desk. Some squared the corners with the desk. They turned the pages somewhat gingerly.

This pattern, of treating the book as a gift rather than a task continued through the semester. It was rather as if I’d given them their own chemistry set. After 12 weeks, I noticed that many of the booklets were still in mint condition.

Now we know that students don’t tend to highlight and take notes in their books anymore, unless it’s part of a specific assignment or one makes a point of insisting on it. At the end of the term, only two or three had been marked in. The rest looked perfect. None were grubby or torn. So I asked if anyone might be willing to turn in their book to pass on to the next group of students. Over half did so.

Although it may have been just a very considerate class of students, I’d like to think there’s something else at work here. I had been concerned about doing this because I thought the book would be devalued, since they hadn’t paid for it. But the opposite happened. Giving them the book seemed to tap into the affective domain. They cared that I gave it to them. They seemed to see it as a sign of me caring about them. And they cared for the object. The attitude was such that if there was no department money, I might well pay for doing it myself. I’m certainly going to do it again this term.



The Bradlaugh-Besant Trial

As a historian who teaches many “fly over” survey classes, I think my story of birth control activism is probably the same story told in many American classrooms. Margaret Sanger* takes center stage, and the years of focus are around 1913 or so.

This is despite the fact that birth control has been around for as long as people have been in a position to think about whether they want more children. I am familiar with the Ancient Egyptian sponge (soaked in the juice of the tips of acacia trees for spermicide), the medieval use of pennyroyal as an abortificant, and the efforts of professional doctors to make midwifery illegal for their own ends (always, of course, with the excuse of fighting quackery).

But here I am, studying the young H. G. Wells, and I’m reading the sections of his autobiography when he’s in Midhurst at the age of 18 or so, and he writes:

The Bradlaugh Besant trial had occurred in 1876 and the light of sanity was gradually breaking into the dark places of English sexual life. There was perhaps a stronger belief current then that births were completely controllable than the actual facts warranted. Now under the stimulus of Plato’s Utopianism and my quickening desires I began to ask my imagination what it was I desired in women.

What is the Bradlaugh Besant trial? I am ashamed to say I have no idea. So I Google it, of course. Apparently, a book by Charles Knowlton had been around for decades, but around 1876 the Society for the Suppression of Vice seems to have encouraged the prosecution of its publisher, Henry Cook, for obscene pictures. Cook spent two years at hard labor, and another publisher pleaded guilty in a similar case.

So National Reformer journalists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Knowlton’s book (Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People) on purpose, as an act of civil disobedience. The courts were willing to let them off if they stopped printing and selling it, but they refused and suffered fines and imprisonment.

Naturally the next step here is to find the book, which I did at Internet Archive. This version is 1845, but it was originally published in 1831. There’s quite a bit about sex in there, and for those who make jokes about Victorians not knowing about the clitoris, well obviously some of them did:

A number of issues are dealt with fully, with marriage as the solution for all elements of natural desire:

Notice how this also does not fit our, um, preconceptions. But I was seeking the contraceptive information, which was nearer to the end. Knowlton mentions the “baudruche”, or condom, as useful in “checking” conception. He’s also discusses the sponge:

He recommends using the sponge with “some liquid that acts chemically upon the semen”. He follows with a long section on thorough douching within five minutes of congress, also with some alum or chemical agent.

Fantastically modern, useful, and effective information, this. When I had some people read this section and guess what era the book was written, invariably they thought the 1910s. I would have thought so too. But no, it’s 80 years before that. Other sports fans have known about this stuff for years.

But it was news to me. I do explain to my students, who tend to see history as the story of inevitable and consistent progress, that knowledge, excuse the expression, comes and goes. In some ways, less is commonly known about birth control now than in the 1970s or, in this case, the 1830s (and revived in the 1870s thanks to the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial). For the difficulties of the most recent generations, I blame the pill. Unlike the brilliant cervical cap (just try to get fitted for, or even find, one of those), or even the diaphragm, the pill requires absolutely no knowledge of ones body whatsoever. Use the knowledge or lose it. My first thought was that Fruits of Philosophy might be pretty useful to some of my students. And heck, it’s less than 40 pages long.

A couple of facts needed checking. Despite the court case charges, there do not appear to be any pictures (at least in the 1845 version), and Wells meant 1877 for the trial instead of 1876. Good stuff all the same.


[*Margaret Sanger and H. G. Wells had a sexual relationship when he was older, and no child seems to have resulted, which is more than one can say of a couple of his other encounters.]

The mysterious M. Birt

Another post on the mysteries and fascination of doing research!

So I’m checking the transcriptions of various articles by H. G. Wells, and I’m working on a book review he did for the Saturday Review in 1895. The book was Abelard and the Origin and Early History of Universities by Gabriel Compayré. And I get to this:

I often run into this sort of name dropping in Wellsian articles. Since I’m annotating his work, I need to find out who M. Birt is. I assume M is “Monsieur”, though it could be a first initial. I do what I always do, grabbing some of the quote and Googling it in quotation marks. Nothing.

This is unusual, but it’s happened before. Not everything published is available online, of course. So I try to hunt down M. Birt with search terms: Birt + 19th + century + education, Birt + 19th + century + university.

There’s a printer named Birt in Seven Dials, there’s a Rodger Birt who wrote recently about a 19th century photographer. A theologian at Leeds…nope. This looks promising:

He seems to be some sort of astronomer, so I search for a first name. Scroll up 15 pages. William Radcliffe Birt. Google that then.  Oooh, he was a leading selenographer. I know that word now: he liked mapping the moon. But what does that have to do with medieval universities? Maybe he wrote something about them. Try Google Books — all astronomy. Internet Archive. Nothing. Nothing? Take out his middle name. An obituary. An astronomer, and died decades before. Hathi Trust. Nope. Maybe it’s not him.

Back to Google. Birt + university. Lots of acronyms. Birt + medieval + university. Google changes Birth to “birth”, but if I wish I could see what ratings Paul Birt at University of Ottowa is earning on RateMyProfessors.

Back to plan A, the quotation. I try “This is the way with learned bodies.” Nothing. F*** Google. Switch to Dogpile.

Try M. Birt medieval university. Hmmm…

Germany? Entirely possible.

Change search to t + birt + medieval + university. He’s there in Google Books. A modern classicist. No, that’s not it. Back to Search theodor birt german. All the books are in German. I don’t read German. Back to Google: Theodor Birk. Wikipedia!

Great! Except none of his publications are in English. The most popular one with a close date is Das antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhältnis zur Literatur (1882). Something about ancient books. Maybe he did medieval stuff too?

Idea! Maybe the quotation is translated from the German. Use Google Translate. Put in part of the quotation. Get German translation. Get Google to translate German result. Not making sense. Try “medieval university” translated, with his name. Nothing.

Besides, Wells didn’t speak German, or if he did he couldn’t have done it well. And he wouldn’t bother translating for an article he’d dashed off for money. It just didn’t make sense. And why would Theodor Birt be messing around in the Middle Ages anyway if he was a classicist? It was all too obscure. By now it’s midnight and I’ve had it up to hear with M. Birt.

Plan A again. I try Googling, “Peripatetics when all the world”. The article by Wells that I’m transcribing comes up, which is nice. But right below it is this:

That’s strange. It’s the book Wells is reviewing. Isn’t the quotation from M. Birt? I take a look. The quote is actually from Campayré’s book. But something is a little different:

That’s not M. Birt. It’s M. Biot. The printer (not Birt the printer) got it wrong. It’s a typo. A 124-year-old typo that has had me searching all over for a mysterious Mr Birt in the middle of the night.

Biot. M. Biot. Campayré calls him a historian of science. Google: Biot + history + science. First link is a dead end, some kind of anagram. Second link goes to some Memoir in Google Books. Score! It’s the Report of the Council to the Forty-third Annual Meeting of (scroll up) the Royal Astronomical Society, 1864. Not astronomy again? But there it is, in all its glory, a little biography:

Ah, Jean-Baptiste. Google the full name. Wikipedia. Oh, no, all the books are in French. Translate: université médiévale…

But, the important thing is, I know it’s a typo, and I know that it’s Compayné quoting and not Wells. That will have to do for what is, quite literally, a footnote to history.


Musings on equity and pedagogy

I am considering the implications of mapping student learning challenges and solutions like this:

Universality in education implies open opportunity and access. It also has cultural implications, that certain philosophies, methods, and subjects are worth exploring because they lead to knowledge in a larger sense.

Communality in education implies that the people being educated, and the educators, belong to particular groups or communities. These may include professional or personal groupings, but they may also include other groups favored by social scientists: socio-economic, racial, religious, etc.

Individuality in education implies that learning in basically an individual activity, and that the effectiveness of pedagogy depends on the individual. It also implies that teaching must take into account individual talents, proclivities, abilities. It underpins ideas of individualization and personalization of learning materials and methods.

At many institutions, those who privilege communality are increasing awareness of the influence of groupings on the lives of students. Some of this has taken the form of movements for student equity. In its most useful form, communality makes teachers more aware of the challenges students may face because of their identification within a particular social group. In its extreme form, communality mandates particular forms of speech, opposes ideas that are seen to represent the dominant culture, and publicly shames individuals who don’t engage in groupthink.

Within this construct, universality is seen as tainted. Access is not enough, because those who are disadvantaged by their group membership cannot benefit equally from that access. In its most useful form, this can cause the culture to acknowledge those deficiencies and seek to remedy them, through awareness and policy designed to offset limitations. In its most toxic form, it denies the universality of ideas, and engages in cultural relativism.

Individuality is similarly tainted, because it does not consider the pressures resulting from group membership. Individuals must acknowledge, and in many cases are expected to represent, the group. A person who seeks to overcome the limitations of their group is seen as a traitor to the group. This may occur even when the group is defined externally, and the individual does not identify as a member.

The image above centers the individual within the group, and wraps both individuals and communal groups into the universality of humanity. There are similarities to the philosophy of stoicism. Using stoic concepts of individual and universal, the diagram might look like this:

Creative Commons licensed A-NC-ND John Danaher

In stoicism, the goal is to connect the individual at the center with the universal ideas that supersede the social context. The social world is an intermediate place where it is hard to tell noise from signal. Although humans are automatically attuned to the social world, they must overcome its noise to find a deeper connection with the universal. Communality is highly changeable, redefining itself frequently. Today’s communality is the not the same as yesterday’s.

In education, a central goal is to connect the individual to larger schemes of human knowledge. Pedagogy’s purpose is to assist the individual in using information, creating knowledge, and ultimately gaining wisdom. To achieve only typical attainment may attach the individual to the communal in a way that can prevent higher knowledge.

War of the Worlds

Right now, the entire population of the UK is glued to the television, watching BBC’s three-part War of the Worlds.

I want to watch it too, but there’s a problem, and it’s not iPlayer (which you can’t view legally in the U.S.). It’s that I haven’t read the book.

What? you say. How can you not have read War of the Worlds? It’s true. I am not actually a big science fiction fan. That’s not how I got into researching H. G. Wells, and my work mostly stops when he publishes The Time Machine in 1895. I have read that book, and The Invisible Man, and Ann Veronica, and some short stories (the latter mostly because I enjoyed both watching and criticizing the accuracy of The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells). I have meant for some time to purchase an old copy of War of the Worlds, but as soon as I enter a bookstore I forget my list.

So the closest I’ve gotten to the story is a 1975 TV movie about the making of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio program (wherein I learned that the sound of the Martian ship opening was created by a jar screwtop echoing in a toilet bowl). I confess that I haven’t even heard the radio program itself, although I make it available to my students.

I can tell you that the story of the radio program causing people to believe that the Martians were landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, is a hoax about a hoax. I believed the TV movie, and only found out later that it didn’t really happen. People (normal people, anyway) did not think the Martians were invading, even if they were primed to hear about what Hitler was going to do next in Europe. And people from New Jersey just aren’t that gullible. Orson Welles ended up owning the story, though, and he and H. G. Wells met up later, in 1940, to chat on radio. (People loved that, but I think it’s one of the most awkward conversations ever, those two enormous egos in the same room.)

So, I thought I’d better read the book before watching the BBC special. Yes, of course it’s online. That’s not how I want to read it, but I started it just to confirm that the language used at the beginning of the special (ok, I peeked for a minute) was Wells. I got as far as this passage about Mars:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun. . .

Researcher googles on! Bring up MiraCosta College library databases. Find Nature. Hone to 1894. Order by date. And there it was: “A Strange Light on Mars”, Nature 50, no 1292, 2 August 1894. It’s not long.

As it happens, Wells was writing for Nature at this time; in fact, the following issue in September featured his article on “Popularising Science”. Could Wells have read this, and gotten inspired to write War of the Worlds three years later? Certainly.

Could he have written this column? Yes, it’s possible — he did write unattributed bits for money, like the Science Notes in the Journal of Education. I can’t prove it, of course, but it’s interesting, that bit at the end about the Martians seeing us. . .

Now off to the bookstore!




Incipience and books

I am at the North American Conference on British Studies in Vancouver, Canada. The first day, at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (a vastly overpriced way to breathe among the trees), I saw bald eagles in the wild. Apparently they’ve only been here a couple of weeks, for the salmon. Funny to first see ones national bird in the wild in another nation.

Among the other brilliant presentations I saw today was one on H. G. Wells as futurist, and Sarah Cole (author of a new book) talked about how Wells used terror and war. She focused on The War in the Air and The Invisible Man, and among other things talked about incipience. Wells built suspense through his pauses, as New York waited to be attacked by German airships. His invisible man also assumes that the only option for his invisibility is to do horrible things. It is the impending doom, the feeling sportscaster Charlie Steiner talks about when you start the 8th inning and the Dodgers are behind by one, that aspect of modernity that Cole referenced as a highlight of Paul K. Saint-Amour’s Tense Future, that “pre-traumatic stress disorder”. The great sin to Wells, she said, was lack of foresight.

Certainly it is popular to cast Wells as a prophet — it was even in his lifetime. But the period of his life I’m studying doesn’t have that. He has confidence, but it is focused on the present, on the importance of teaching science, not his later stories about man’s response to science.

Then this evening I went to UBC for a book launch for Sheldon Goldfarb’s book of musings on Sherlock Holmes. He had written a script for him to ask questions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played by an actor. It was an interesting way to discuss, in dialogue form, some of the themes from the Holmes stories. He implied that Holmes was needed in a time of waning faith, and used Doyle to express the idea that where he (Goldfarb) saw meaning in so many characters being named Arthur, or so many women in the stories being strong and smart, Doyle himself was just writing stories to make money.

That tied the day together. Wells turned to fiction to try to make money, because a friend told him he was working too hard to become a great essayist, and should just write made-up stories. It was easier and more lucrative. In the Doyle character’s whining about how no one looks at his many other books, it became clear that the popular books are what make the money.

But I do understand incipience. It’s what happened as soon as I entered MacLeod’s bookstore this afternoon. Books piled high, on the ground, leaning on bursting shelves. A feeling of impending doom. There it was, an early edition of Wells’ Certain Personal Matters. And more. The proprieter noted my conference name tag, and asked what I studied. I told him, and he showed me more in the science section and then, checking to make sure the till was minded, led me through a Staff Only door into the basement. (Yes, I will follow a strange man into a locked basement if books are involved.) He waved at the back wall. “Elizabethan back in the corner,” he said. “so left of that earlier, to the right…Victorian should be about here” and left me there. Only hunger and the need to get to UBC for Holmes prevented total bankruptcy.

Sustained argument

The Economist‘s column Johnson recently wrote about the extent to which artificial intelligence can compose prose, and claimed we need not fear the “Writernator”.

The reason? Because during an experiment:

Each sentence was fine on its own; remarkably, three or four back to back could stay on topic, apparently cohering. But machines are aeons away from being able to recreate rhetorical and argumentative flow across paragraphs and pages.

Well, most of my students can’t do that either.

So while the article was trying to reassure writers that they need not fear losing their jobs to a computer, I saw quite another angle, a trail of thought that goes something like this:

Computers cannot create sustained arguments. Neither can most of my students. And only the best journalism seems to bother. Educated people can both follow and create sustained arguments. But to whom are they writing? We have many voters and public figures who are anti-intellectual, and only interested in the realms of fear, emotional expression, and personal identity. They have no interest in sustained argument. The media reflect this, with the emphasis on factoids. Articles have gotten shorter, even in journals like The Atlantic. Computers can’t do it, and computer programming is a reflection of ourselves. Perhaps the very idea of sustained argument needs to be defended. But how can one defend it except with sustained argument, and a reliance on the very intellectualism being increasingly rejected?

If I had read the article 20 years ago, I might have nodded along, not because computers weren’t writing then, but because I felt that sustained argument was a norm. It’s perfectly obvious to me why it needs to be preserved, as obvious as the preservation of free speech, democracy, respect for the opinions of others. These things aren’t obvious anymore.

Today on BBC4’s PM program, Evan Davis reported on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s insensitive statement that he would have got out of the Grenfell fire by ignoring the orders of the fire authority to stay in the burning building. He interviewed Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP of North West Leicestershire:

Davis: Do you think he meant to say that he thought he would not have stayed put?

Bridgen: That’s what he meant to say…

Davis: And that in a way is exactly what people object to, which is he’s in effect saying, I wouldn’t have died, because I would be cleverer than the people who took the fire brigade’s advice?

Bridgen (Sigh.) But we want very clever people running the country, don’t we, Evan?

Well, I’m not sure people do. In fact, I’m pretty sure many people don’t see why having educated people run things is a good idea. They think that educated people run things to the detriment of uneducated people, and sometimes that is true.

People, Bridgen noted, tend to defer to authority, as they did in the case of the fire.

When people trust these authorities and the authorities fail, there is popular anger. At some point people will ask from whence does this authority derive? And one can say “from your votes”, but they feel that isn’t completely true. The response is to elect uneducated populists.

Intellectualism, and education itself, may have a much tougher advertising campaign to run than we suppose. The old norms are suspect, and assumed ideas need a cogent (or, better, non-intellectual) defense. I don’t think saving writers from computer-generated text is quite going to do that.





To remember when writing tests

H. G. Wells on examiners:

In many cases they live, as it were, in the border land of knowledge, and have forgotten the paths that led them there. They ask for conclusions that may be learnt by heart, and not for evidence of an intellectual process. Like worthy medieval householders, staff and scallop shell are evidence enough to them of a pilgrimage. In all these cases the examiners understand the subject of examination well enough, but the object not all.

“On the True Lever of Education”
The Journal of Education, vol XIV, no 279, pp 525-527, 1 October 1892