Friday, October 19, 2012

Medieval Star Wars!

This is the perfect mashup of "medieval" and "robots."

  • I feel like the talented Chawakarn Kongprasert has illuminated my psyche.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Natura artifex Redux

Here are three images of Natura artifex, or Natura the artisan, standing at her forge. She uses a hammer and anvil to create new people out of existing archetypes.

You've seen this one before. Natura is forging new people out of parts.
Yale University, MS 418, fol. 282v. France, C15.
 AW, our DC correspondent, alerted me to this version, from a slightly later manuscript. Instead of limbs, she has a baby on the anvil, and dismembered baby bodies lie at her feet.
BL, MS Harley 4425, fol. 140. Flemish (Bruges), late C15.
 And then there's this one. A naked Natura stands at her forge, whanging away at a wang and Balzac.
Obscene pewter badge of Nature at her forge. Netherlands, late C15.Heilig en Profaan: Laatmiddeleeuwse Insignes in Cultuurhistorisch Perspectief. Amsterdam: Van Soeren, 1995.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Creative Construction

We are just about to start a new unit on scholarly practices, changing media, and the purpose(s) of citation in the first-year writing seminar I'm teaching. I have been re-reading The Footnote and "The End Matter" and mulling over what I want to say to my students about how historians use sources to make meaning about the past and the relationship between one's own work and the work that came before. So I read with interest Simon Reynolds' review essay in Slate, in which he confronted the assertion, by a number of artists, critics, and scholars, that citation and stealing and borrowing are the only way that anything is created. There is only recreativity, no creativity. Reynolds argues against this, and in favor of a more Romantic (and romantic) embodied notion of creative genius. 

Recreativity has a lot in common with neoplatonist ideas about creativity. In fact, they're remarkably similar. Hugh of St. Victor argued that all art is inherently mimetic: Humans can only copy from existing natural forms. Or, as I put it elsewhere, "Nature fabricates, humanity imitates." Bark, feathers, and scales provide inspiration for clothing and adornment, the sounds of nature are the basis of all music. The human mind, according to Hugh, was plastic, and could only receive the imprints of what it had seen and try to imitate them. It could not create ex nihilo; only God could do that. Even Nature worked with a set of archetypes handed to her by God; she translated the archetypes into matter. Sometimes copying could make way for combining, as with vernacular writers who recounted history, myth, and fable. Their work was often described as combining elements of story with aspects of style. The resulting mash-up was a new literary genre: romance. In the early modern period, History became a discipline with a set of expectations about accuracy. In this case, subject matter was yoked to verifiable evidence, which gave rise to a new set of scholarly technologies for thinking about credit and the footnote.

Monday, October 1, 2012

College Rank and File

Joe Nocera's recent op-ed piece in the NYT about the college rankings racket exposes a largely unexamined fault line running through contemporary discussions about the many problems facing higher ed and the many problems endemic to academia: credentialing vs. learning. 

Students such as the embittered young woman who was "only" able to attend a state school, or the bright senior intent on "marketing herself" so that she can get into an elite private institution reflect a harsh reality of higher ed: a college degree is a necessary credential for greater lifelong earning power and, one hopes, greater economic freedom. This may be particularly true for young women, as this article points out. And the Great Recession has raised the spectre of our nation's newest graduates living in their parents' basements, as part of some extended pupal stage. Rankings, whether from U.S. News & World Report or Washington Monthly, reinforce this idea, as the rankings implicitly turn an individualized four-year experience into an inherent value of the degree itself. A credential from Harvard is "worth" more--in the marketplace--than a credential from Wichita State. The credential mind-set is behind the drive to monetize on-line courses and increase access to distance-learning and extension schools at elite institutions: students who want a credential for the job market can get one, often at the cost of an actual education. 

As Nocera points out at the end, there are far more important factors than what school one attended that determine the kind of education one might receive. One of those factors is face-to-face interaction with high-quality professional educators, something a lot of companies and institutions are trying to reduce (faculty are expensive--especially those health insurance premiums--and our work can't be easily scaled up or routinized). 

Another is what the student brings to her college experience. A willingness to take risks, to work at the edge of one's intellectual comfort zone, and to fail makes learning more possible and likely. In addition, the lessons of a liberal arts education will stand one in better stead in the long term, as the value of a credential in the marketplace is unstable. Unfortunately, the skills required to get into an elite school are, often, incompatible with intellectual risk-taking and willingness to fail. All too often, students arrive at college and discover that the character traits that have gotten them to college are not necessarily the ones they should continue cultivating. And for the many students who are incurring significant debt to get their credential/education, the cost of taking risks (and perhaps failing) is terribly high.