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Newsletter AF: Volume 1 - Issue 3

Winter Break Edition: December 21, 2018

 

The third newsletter from the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: briefing book; student debt; campus novels; humanists and machine learning; festive music by both humans and AI.

Connect with us: Stop by the office to chat or grab one of our first two AF posters; both beautiful and educational, they make excellent décor for the office or dormitory. AF drop-in office hours for the Spring 2019 semester will be announced in our January newsletter.

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New and upcoming at AF

A reminder that our in-progress briefing book on shifting enrollments in higher education is available now to anyone interested in it, along with some data about majors at a fairly arbitrarily-selected group of smaller colleges drawn from the Common Data Set. We have received some useful suggestions for additions from many of you, and we continue to welcome suggestions, additions, and critiques.

After winter break we will announce dates for a new series of workshops for Swarthmore faculty, staff, and students by New Inquiry and Popula editor Aaron Bady and Slate’s Lili Loofbourow on how to write and pitch longer-form features. Stay tuned for additional public writing workshop news.

Global Swarthmore is the Aydelotte’s Second Tuesday Café theme this year; on December 11th conveners Ayse Kaya and Carina Yervasi continued their curation of the series with a talk from Philip Jefferson on political solutions to global poverty.

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On Our Minds

Student debt is certainly a millstone around the neck of many graduates and their families, but Eric Levitz observes that there’s some justice in the view that debt cancellation would mostly benefit the upper middle-class. On the other hand, Levitz points out, arguments about what’s progressive or regressive in public policy on higher education often take place within ridiculously cramped spaces where the choices we face are artificially isolated from the vast expanse of other kinds of government revenue and expenditure. Economist Sandy Baum is one of the people cited in the article making this point on debt, but we also remember what Baum said when the Aydelotte brought her to Swarthmore, that even a modest resurgence of funding support for public universities and community colleges would be a triumph for social mobility in America. We don’t have enough billionaires to get to that goal one private institution at a time.

Some debts are welcome, like the ones you build up when you seek advice on social media. We’ve had trouble finding a few good “campus novels” to teach in our upcoming spring course Why College. We want fiction that’s about college life--about the experience of being a student, about the romance of scholarship, about the inner world of teaching, that follows narratives of administrative work or dorm life. What the genre mostly provides is middle-aged alcoholic English professors who have failed to write novels and sleep with their students, along with a whopping serving of jaundice and sarcasm about the entire enterprise of academia. We did get some good ideas from friends on Twitter, enough to avoid having to assign the newest entry to the genre.

It isn’t just the novelists who seem alternatively bemused and disappointed by us all. It’s hard to pick up a book on higher education without reading furious jeremiads about excellent sheep and ruined universities. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to do so much--save the economy, produce the leaders of tomorrow, stop climate change, reverse inequality, motivate the youth to vote, mold the moral character of a generation. But as University of Virginia professor (and Aydelotte Foundation Advisory Board member) Chad Wellmon points out, we’ve been in the moral character business for a long time, and it’s always been a contradictory and fraught enterprise.

Ted Underwood has some illuminating and important things to say about the roles that humanists should play in work on machine learning. The sometimes “slippery and unscientific” nature of machine learning, Underwood explains, requires the expertise in discerning and explaining the strengths and limitations of historical knowledge that is central to humanists’ work; the “fuzzy, context-specific models produced by machine learning,” he tells us, “have a lot in common with the family resemblances historians glimpse in culture.” Humanists are therefore necessary partners to an enterprise that will otherwise flounder, much as early work on artificial intelligence was slowed by the absence of philosophers or other humanistic scholars.

After all, data does not speak on its own, no matter how much we may wish it would. Richard Arum at UC Irvine is right that we know far less about ourselves than we might like. And it’s true that “liberal arts” shouldn’t simply proclaim the obvious and perpetual inevitability of its success. But forgive us if the initiative described there sounds like the approach of another wave of assessment, an enterprise that becomes its own justification, drowning innocent teachers and scholars who were simply going about their business and suddenly find themselves instead the gullies and channels of someone else’s workflow.

There’s the bemused cynicism back again! But idolatry to data is the least of the propitiations that might inspire that feeling in us. The offerings to the Great God Amazon were more far more amusing. Not to mention the difficulty of keeping our eyes from rolling right out of their sockets when we hear that the for-profit publisher Elsevier claims affection for open access, saying “Where you have a dialogue, we want to be there supporting you.”

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Extracurricular

We at AF are getting ready for our holiday break. Many of us will see movies and catch up on TV. Two of us plan to see The Favourite; one of us will see Into the Spider-Verse; one of us will watch the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

One of us has a child who has pared her holiday playlist down to three essentials: Christmas in Hollis, Last Christmas, and Hanukkah Oy Hanukkah. We welcome suggestions for winter break music that will expand our horizons. And speaking of holiday music, there have been many AI-generated Christmas songs released in the last few years, but this festive 2016 version may have been the first one, and is still, we contend, the best.

We hope you have an excellent winter break and a happy new year.