Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Top Literary Studies Blog? You're Looking at It. Or: The Double-Cliché Self-Regarding Self-Destructo

This post represents a complex double-jointed maneuver, in which I simultaneously pat myself on the back and bite the hand that feeds me. That's right, people, the double-cliché self-regarding self-destructo, a leap never before landed in competition.

The little badge image above comes with the award of "Best Literary Studies Blog" the the present humble blogger, and placing the image there represents the first part of my athletic feat, the patting of myself on the back. But how legit is an award like this? Well, here are the criteria, from "Awarding the Web," the organization that's been kind enough to honor this blog ("Samizdat Blog," by the way, must surely be the ugliest, most dated-looking, dumbest-named of the 45 blogs so honored in the category). As a guy who's been involved in the judging of poetry award competitions, I'd say the awards procedure looks neither more nor less legit than those I've applied/seen applied in various other contexts:

This award highlights the very best blogs about literary studies on the internet as selected by our judges, and is designed to thank the authors for their contribution toward the world wide web we all use & enjoy.

Awards candidates are selected using two methods:
- Audience nominations
- Our team of research associates scouring the web

After a list of candidates is compiled they are each scored by our panel of 5 judges. Each judge rates each blog across 20 different attributes providing it with a ‘subjective’ score. These ratings are combined into an aggregate, and the aggregates of the 5 judges are averaged to give the blog its final rating.

The ratings are then compared, and awards are given out to blogs in the 99% percentile (meaning the top 1% of blogs receive awards).

Sounds on the up and up. Then again, if you go to the list of winners, you'll find that there are only 44 blogs. The number ten spot is occupied by this blog, but at the time of writing, the number twelve spot is vacant. Why? Glad you asked. My colleague Josh Corey's blog was supposed to occupy that spot, but he has declined to be a part of this, and his reasons are worth considering. (This information pertains to the situation at the time of writing: "Awarding the Web" may have found a replacement by the time you read this).

I got in touch with Josh after seeing that we'd both been named winners, and after doing my obnoxious chicken dance of victory at having seen my blog placed ever so marginally higher than his more deserving and elegant blog, I wiped the sweat from my brow and asked how he felt about the award. "they want to list my blog as one of Top 45 Literary Studies Blogs," he said, "Which would be fine and dandy if the purpose of the list weren't to shore up their credibility as a diploma-mill."

What what? Ah! Well. As it turns out, the awards are sponsored by a consortium of online doctoral programs, some run by for-profit institutions. What's more, the html code for the badge one is meant to display on one's blog contains a text link, just below the badge, for a site promoting these programs. I've taken the html code for the link out of the badge above, leaving only the image itself. I imagine I might soon be contacted by the Awarding the Web people and asked either to remove the badge image, restore the link, decline the award, take down this post, or otherwise change my behavior, though I didn't notice anything in the material they sent me about leaving the link in as a condition of the award. (We're now well into the second part of my amazing athletic feat — biting the hand that feeds me — although all said hand has actually fed me is a bit of recognition — always nice, but so very much less nice than, you know, cash).

Being far more morally compromised than Josh, I'm not about to decline the award, though I have a strong suspicion it may soon be rescinde). But just so you know where I stand regarding online education and for-profit education, I'd like to make a couple of statements.

1. Online education in and of itself can be a good thing. I mean, check out all of these free courses over at Open Culture's site (not the courses named in the ads — the ones listed in the main text). I don't think courses like these are a substitute for the actual back-and-forth of a face-to-face classroom experience, nor do I think the kind of courses where you chat online with an instructor are a real substitute. But such courses are not a bad way to pick up some knowledge, and until such time as we collectively decide that access to face-to-face education should be within everybody's reach, free online courses like these may, along with public libraries and the like, be all that's available to some people.

2. For-profit education, whether online or otherwise, is often a deeply suspect enterprise. I'm pretty convinced by what the New York Times has had to say on the issue. Here's a highlight from the article:

... the profits have come at substantial taxpayer expense while often delivering dubious benefits to students, according to academics and advocates for greater oversight of financial aid. Critics say many schools exaggerate the value of their degree programs, selling young people on dreams of middle-class wages while setting them up for default on untenable debts, low-wage work and a struggle to avoid poverty. And the schools are harvesting growing federal student aid dollars, including Pell grants awarded to low-income students.

The article deals with trade schools, not doctoral programs, but they do name the Apollo Group, which owns the for-profit University of Phoenix, and the University of Phoenix is part of the sponsoring group of online doctoral programs behind the award this blog received (some other online doctoral programs sponsoring the award seem to be run by non-profits, like Benedictine University. I have no idea whether Benedictine sees their online doctoral program as a revenue-generator or not).

So. I'm happy for the recognition of the award, but I'm not a fan of for-profit education, online or otherwise, as it is so often practiced in the United States at present. And I imagine we'll soon find out whether the Awarding the Web outfit is going to find their award and my opinions — or my removal of the link that takes you to a list of online doctoral programs — compatible.

If they do get in touch I will, of course comply with whatever reasonable things they ask (I want to stay within their rules and the law), and I'll tell you all about it.



I received a note from the good people at Awarding the Net. Here, in their words, is the gist of it:

Thank you for recognizing our award, and what were trying to do. In terms of what you’ve written about our sponsor, I really can't say anything about what they do. If you read, we clearly state that our working with the sponsor is because they have generously allowed us to host our award on their site, but that is the extent of it. We are not their employees, do not receive any financial compensation, nor are vouching for anything on their site. It is an unfortunate compromise that we have to deal with when hosting our awards, because we don’t have all the finances in the world, but would still love to do our passion, which is reward good content on the web. So we have to work with a sponsor that can host our award.