James W Carey on Harold Innis

Electronics, like print in its early phases, is biased toward supporting one type of civilization: a powerhouse society dedicated to wealth, power, and productivity, to technical perfectionism and ethical nihilism.  No amount of rhetorical varnish would reverse this pattern; only the work of politics and the day-to-day attempt to maintain another and contradictory pattern of life, thought, and scholarship.  As Innis pointed out, the demise of culture could be dispelled only by a deliberate cutting down of the influence of modern technics and cultivation of the realms of art, ethics, and politics.  He identified the oral tradition with its emphasis on dialogue, dialectics, ethics, and metaphysics as the countervailing force to modern technics.  But support of such traditions or media requires that elements of stability be maintained, that mobility be controlled, that communities of association and styles of life be freed from the blinding obsolescence of technical change.  However, the demands of growth, empire, and technology put an emphasis – in education, politics, and social life generally – on those media that fostered administrative efficiency such as print and electronics.  Only by supporting the countervailing power of substantive rationality, democracy, and time would the bias of technology be controlled.

James W Carey. ‘Space, Time, and Communication: A Tribute to Harold Innis.’ In his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised Edition. Routledge, 2009.

Quantity and quality

I’ve been away from home for most of the working week at the excellent ‘Television for Women’ conference at the University of Warwick, so blog-wise I only have time for an ‘aside’ (a category of post that I’m glad WordPress provide among their options, making me feel less guilty about brevity). [Retrospective edit: the formatting of ‘Asides’ in the WordPress theme that I’ve chosen is sufficiently ugly to have led me to abandon using them (I love the rest of the theme) and to convert my existing ones to ‘Standard’ format.]

In what looks set to become a regular feature, I thought I’d point to a couple of things I found of particular interest in this week’s THE.  We’ll start with the dry one…

Here is the second paragraph of one of the cover stories:

A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute and consumer group Which? found that on average students works for 900 hours a year, far fewer than the 1,200 hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree, and calls on the watchdog and the government to investigate the issue.

This is interesting, and has several implications.  The first one that struck me was that in light of this finding, the percentages of contact time advertised in the Key Information Set (or ‘KIS’) for each UK undergraduate programme ought to be revised upwards.  That percentage is calculated by dividing the number of scheduled/timetabled hours a student has on each year of her/his programme by that aforementioned ‘number of hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree’.  So if the latter shrinks, the percentages go up, giving an almost certainly more accurate indication to parents, potential students and other interested (and perhaps sceptical)parties of the percentage of her or his study time the average student spends in guided activities.

The other piece that caught my eye was an opinion column, titled ‘Black-mirror narcissus’, pitched to the reader (of the print edition) like this: ‘This is the age of the anti-social network, but the humanities classroom offers reflection of a healthier sort, argues Robert Zaretsky.’  I don’t agree with everything Zaretsky says.  He rehearses Nicholas Carr’s arguments about ‘what the internet is doing to our brains’ somewhat uncritically, for example.  However, I share Zaretsky’s scepticism about the pedagogical model represented by ‘Moocs’ (‘massive open online courses’), and he articulates well the value, and the values, of the ‘humanities classroom’, and the need for both ‘dissemination’ (ie. lecture-based) and ‘dialogic’ (ie. seminar-based) forms of teaching.  Here is one of several eloquent passages:

humanities professors do what Shakespeare’s fool does: not only does he question the values and ambitions of the powerful, but, as with Lear, he also leads us to understand and empathise with the king’s flaws.  Yet he does so not in a circus tent, much less a king’s palace, but in the theatre – a place set apart from the noise and business of everyday life, a place where the audience forgets itself, all the while attending to the meaning of other lives.

One last thing: I’m very happy that the Whedonverse has met the Twitterverse.  Joss Whedon is finally tweeting as himself with his own profile, @JossActual.  I eagerly await a Slayage article about this exciting development, but for now I’ll just enjoy reading the tweets.