Take Time to Ask a Tortoise

Keeping it simple seems to be sound advice for a variety of settings. Simple connotes pastoral. Simple seems to be associated with a different time when technology didn’t gum up the works. Simple was when people held a tool and knew what resulted at the other end. Part of what occupies the modern psyche is the belief that the world is more confusing than ever.  

As a director of a university press, I hear the moans about how technology has changed everything. Everyone can be a publisher with a computer and some software. Some publishing experts still wish libraries would buy more books. The world would then be sane again.  People who say this aren’t.

One issue that always surfaces about scholarly publishing is its ponderous nature. As good writing becomes less of a priority and science and math rise as areas of importance, materials that come to university presses need more editing. We could all toss in the towel and communicate via twitter and text messaging. Of course, the permanency of that legacy might be lost in unprecedented sunspot activity or some unknown computer malady set off a flawed iPad app.  

In the late 1800s, William Guthrie, reviewing a book of French fiction noted “we can only confess that here is a scholarly book, a vigorous book, a witty book, a whimsical book, one that will not only ‘repay a reading’—that is, discharge the principal of its debt as an honest book—but generously count out in good gold a larger interest than even a usurer could have expected.”  It was the gay nineties after all, but how could anyone pass on such a tome after plodding through the review.

Amelia Mason who wrote a social history of the French Salon culture was inclined “to wonder if these noble cavaliers and high-born women did not yawn occasionally over the scholarly discourse of Corneille and Balzac upon the Romans, the endless disputes about rival sonnets, and the long discussions on the value of a word.” I’m sure a bottle or two of Bordeaux was passed around to ease the pain. But words do have meaning especially for golfers who need the confidence to play “at their highest level weather [emphasis added] trying to clear a water hazard off the tee or hit the high soft lob shot around the greens.” Weather must be forecasted differently where “Nitro” golf balls are manufactured.

Or maybe we should take the A. Melvile Bell 1886 suggestion: “[B]etter is an inferior address, vitalized by eloquence, than scholarly discourse that falls dead from lips of dullness.” Obviously Bell understood that good delivery can overcome many shortcomings. However, flowery speech can’t cover-up failures in investigators’  data manipulations like the famous academic paper often used to make the case for austerity by two eminent Harvard professors which was debunked by a graduate student doing his homework.

Maybe University presses could get better coverage for their plights by offering prizes to prospective authors. The field seems to be wide open for this kind of initiative as long as the whole process is handled above boards. In 1898, I’m sure some enterprising director spent a good deal of time deciding on a good topic for a competition before coming up with the idea to give out two prizes for the best manuscripts on the psychological, physiological, and pathological effect of celibacy on women.  

University presses, rightly or wrongly, are viewed as the tortoises of publishing. Slow. Ponderous. Stuffy.  However, paying some attention to detail may not gratify the masses, but it only takes one bad result, quoted repeatedly, to misinform generations.  

The MOOC(H) Parade

A friend of mine explained that the object of the MOOC revolution was to have the authority in a particular field of study create an online course for the masses. I told her determining the identity of a faculty expert might take well over a decade. She seemed nonplussed.

Another colleague explained with the advent of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) revolution he could become the global expert on late nineteenth-century Ohio literary publication history. I reminded him that MOOCs were intended for a very significant audience.

He didn’t talk to me for days.

I don’t think that MOOCs are the “Pet Rock” of today’s educational environment, but I’m convinced there is a lot of Massive Open Online Course Hysteria going around.  As a university press director I’m reminded of the effort by many publishers to put content on CDs when the technology was new. That effort lasted about a year and ended quite badly. Even e-books have had a long incubation process and haven’t made traditional books obsolete.

MOOCs can be helpful in many ways, but they are more of a public relations and marketing tool. Sure, I can take a course via a Stanford or MIT MOOC. I won’t be charged for doing so, but I won’t get credit either. Further, I’ll need to be super motivated because if I’m like the greater percentage of MOOC takers, I will drop out before completion.

MOOCs can be useful in many settings. Giving content away for free does create some business model problems. Perhaps, MOOCs will be licensed to particular colleges and universities. MOOC creators will then need to include advertising to pay for their costs.

A professor who has moved some courses online was gratified to know that his online students’ test grades were statistically similar to his traditional, face-to-face students. Online was pretty capable he said, except for the proposition of student collaboration. The online environment just didn’t work well for group projects.

MOOCs can be very useful for highly-structured students who can discipline themselves to finish what they start. MOOCs can even be good refreshers for many in the workforce. However, I don’t think society will advance if we have a generation of MOOCers.

My teenage son would never have to leave his room when he stays home to go to college.