Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reality trumps academic satire

Stephen Budiansky, in the New York Times, on the difficulty of writing a satirical novel on American college life:

I knew that Tom Lehrer, the great satirical songwriter of the 60's, had said he had to give up satire when it kept being overtaken by reality. The final straw, he said, was Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

My final straw came when a friend at Case Western Reserve University (now referred to as Case, after their consultant concluded that all great universities have single-word names) sent me a packet of information on the university's new showcase undergraduate seminar program. Called SAGES (this supposedly stands for Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship), the program offers as an essential component of its core intellectual experience an upscale cafe that serves Peet's Coffee and is "staffed by baristas whose expertise in preparing espresso is matched only by their authoritative knowledge of all things SAGES" . . . . As a model of pandering to students in the guise of lofty academic purpose, I thought that was pretty hard to top. Then I started reading the 92-page guide Case has created for teachers of these seminars.

If students fidget, talk or walk out of class, the guide advises seminar leaders not to "manage" such behaviors, but to explore their underlying causes. Instructors must remember that to such characteristically American cultural beliefs as the importance of morality, rationality and personal responsibility, there are equally valid alternatives that must be respected.

Instructors must be wary of spurious objectivity, such as a 0-100 grading scale; much better is a 0-5 scale, or, best of all, a check, check-plus, check-minus scale. And finally, if students do not contribute to discussions at all, seminar leaders should "make space for silence."

It's enough to drive a satirist to something stronger than chai latte.
Yes, it is. It's fortunate that there are still students (see the post immediately below) who understand that college remains not a commodity but an opportunity, with myriad possibilities of endeavor and effort.

      » "Brand U." from the New York Times

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