I’ve said it before, I have problems with the edu-factory stuff. I’m skeptical about the political value of academic written work generally, and as I’ve griped about before (tediously, I know, I annoy myself too…) I don’t like this stuff about ‘the common‘…

I find the combination of all that even more frustrating. As an experiment, I took the piece “To build up a transnational network of struggles and resistance: within and against the global university” from the edu-factory web site and plugged it into this online readability test.

Here’s what it said:

The Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score is 36.2 (0 to 100, higher is best)
The Flesch-Kincaid grade level is 13.1th grade
The Gunning Fog index is 15.9 (average is 12, lower is best)
The Coleman-Liau index is 14.8
The SMOG index is 11.8
The automated readability index is 12.9

I added in links in case anyone wants to read up on those indicators. As I understand it, the number is an estimate of the grade level in school that someone should be at (that is, they should be reading equivalent to the expectations for that grade level) in order to read the piece. I forget which, but some site I read said that 8th grade writing level is widely considered a universal level, as in, a piece of writing is ‘universal’ if it’s written at that level.

The numbers above seem to me to say that this piece is far from the 8th grade standard of being universal, ie, being widely accessible. “Fair enough,” I could imagine someone saying, “edu-factory is for college people!” Sure. But ‘the university’ is not made up of just academics, and academics shouldn’t act or talk like it is.

There’s also this report about literacy rates for college graduates in the US. I’m not sure what to make of that report, but I did notice on skimming it that it defined “proficient” literacy with prose as including being able to read “complex, abstract prose,” “making complex inferences,” and “comparing viewpoints in two editorials.” (p13.) It seems to me that the edu-factory text in question needs a proficient reader, as defined in this report. The average college graduate in the US, according to this report, is not a proficient reader. Now, there are all kinds of skeptical and critical claims that could be made about this report and these reading tests and so on, but I think they still have a use here. Namely, they help show that this written material is far from universal in its writing.

I suggested recently to a friend that is much more interested in and sympathetic to all that stuff, a friend who also teaches, that he try the following as an experiment: have the people involved hand out edufactory type writings to students they teach – not cherrypicking specific students, but distribute them in class. Ask the students to read the material then ask them to talk about what they think the material says. I predict a low success rate. That exercise in a class room could actually be pedagogically useful, perhaps, but what I’m certain it would reveal is the presumed audience for this stuff. There’s nothing wrong with audience specificity. And there’s not necessarily something wrong with moves that exclude some people. It is wrong, though, in my opinion, to make exclusionary moves while invoking universality and commonality. Likewise the above stuff makes the term “the university” really get under my skin. This is more polemical than I intend but I can’t think of another metaphor… imagine the nearly all white male delegates of a Republican Party convention singing “We Are The World”, in that context the song would not have the connotation of global unity and so on but would have other more negative connotations. I think the technical and professionalized (and disciplinary [or at least milieu] specific) terminology makes the use of “the common” and so on in these sorts of writings have a similar ring to them. Invoke universals in a specific way, universalize particulars, make particular groups and interests appear universal… I’m not opposed to this on principle, but I’d like to see it admitted to. Likewise with exclusive language.

I also want to add, another friend suggested recently to me something along the lines of this: this ‘the university’ stuff doesn’t universalize in the sense of making one group the bearer of others’ interests. Rather, it seems to universalize in the sense of acting like academics are the sum total of people involved in universities.

This language bit is particularly frustrating because I know at least some of the people involved believe that language is material, that ways of talking have force and are bound up with power relations. But the project seems to me not to be interested in its own language issues, in the politics involved I mean.