Author Archives: Dave Mazella

blau’s literature workshop: interpretive dependence

Apart from his interesting views about the theory/practice split in literature teaching,  Blau has some good insights into the “interpretive dependence” we help instill and reinforce in literature students when we teach in the conventionally authoritative ways.  (This seems equally true in both lecture- and seminar-style courses, incidentally).

In the conventional scenario, the literature professor usually acts as the authoritative source of knowledge. This kind of professor anticipates student confusions with carefully synthesized prefatory lectures; confidently answers questions (because he* [*since this version of authority is heavily gendered] has  answered them a thousand times before); and spontaneously produces the summary remarks that tie together in-class conversations with the authoritative views of experts.  And hey presto! you’re done.

This is the kind of pedagogical model many of us remember from our own education and would love to emulate, because who wouldn’t want to become this kind of authority?  And I admit that even though I share Blau’s skepticism about this kind of teaching, my bad days with things like groupwork or student presentations sometimes make me wish I had a more traditional classroom.

So what is wrong with this model of teaching?  What we should notice is how the satisfactions and learning end up belonging to the figure of authority.  Its successes are not successes of learning, but of teaching.

Blau points out that this kind of teacher-as-authority has cleared away the precious source of any inquiry, which is readerly confusion.  Though Blau doesn’t quite say it this way, the difficulties we encounter in literary works are not obstacles to understanding, but the best way in to deeper, more refined, better integrated understandings of the works we study, through independent inquiry.  His heuristic principle is that “the only texts worth reading are the texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you don’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (24).

From the pedagogical perspective, students need to know that it is the texts they don’t immediately understand that may be especially worth reading, because “the process of figuring it out will constitute a process of advancing or deepening your vision.”  This is his way of arguing the value of unfamiliar (yet canonical) texts to the hostile, skeptical or indifferent student who will blurt out, like one of the students he observes, that “this play sucks,” when the class is reading Shakespeare. (Note, however, that this kind of student resistance happens at least as often, if not more, when reading more recently canonized authors.)

From the disciplinary perspective, though, Blau seems to have identified an important aspect of professional literary study, which we might call the literary counterpart of Wineburg‘s “historical thinking“: “interpretive thinking.”  This emerges from his account of the differences between professional and novice readers of a Thoreau passage, where the professionals are actually eager to find the areas of difficulty or confusion that leave novices frustrated, stymied, or depressed at their own insufficiency as readers (28-32).  And the predictable response of such students is to desire, or demand, that an authoritative teacher clear up those problems that could serve as the beginning of their own learning.

Blau’s alternative is the “literature workshop,” which models to students a collaborative, self-revising, process of discussion and synthesis that will support its members as they work their way towards those more refined understandings.  Students should watch teachers engaged in their own struggles to understand questions and devise solutions, and realize how much individual work and outside feedback is necessary to arrive at a finished piece of scholarly interpretation. Though Blau treats the literature workshop as a way of training students to engage in individual inquiry, it seems to me equally important to persuade students to commit fully to a collective process of inquiry and synthesis of multiple perspectives that will benefit them all.

Blau observes that this process-oriented, workshop model is commonplace in first-year and creative writing pedagogies, but much less common among literature instructors.  It would be an interesting question to investigate: in what ways does the study of literature reinforce the traditional dyad of interpretive authority and dependence? And why might this kind of interpretive authority and mode of interaction be seen as a problem, even by some literature scholars, at this point in time?

DM

blau’s literature workshop: some premises

I’ve been thinking about Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop for a while now, because I’m slated to create and teach an advanced graduate course in pedagogy in the spring, and I’ve been looking for approaches that would give more experienced teachers some new concepts and practices to use when they return to the classroom.  The emphasis on the “advanced” pedagogy comes from my experience that most texts on higher ed teaching seem designed for beginning instructors. Texts like Jim Lang’s On Class or McKeachie’s Teaching Tips do this job very well, but they have almost nothing to say to the teacher who already knows how to face a class on the first day of the semester, plan a syllabus, or grade a paper, but would still like to improve her teaching in specific ways.

In other words, once we get past our existential fears of facing students and acting as authority-figures, how can we identify and work on the things that still trouble our work in and out of the classroom?  Unlike the fears everyone experiences in their first years of teaching, these problems come at us in very specific ways throughout a semester, and will continue to visit us semester after semester, if we cannot find good solutions.

Compared to the worries of beginning teachers, the problems faced by experienced teachers are both very concrete and frustratingly difficult to overcome, since they often involve working between contradictory pedagogical or professional principles that need to be maintained simultaneously. How to provide better feedback, without losing oneself to a stack of papers every other week?  How to lead discussion more effectively, given the unpredictable mix of passivity and self-display your students might demonstrate?  How to design better assignments, if you feel that your current assignments are only reinforcing their worst writing habits? And so forth.

One of the Literature Workshop’s virtues is Blau’s decision to honor the experience and practitioners’ wisdom of the English teachers he addresses, whether these are teaching in secondary schools, community colleges, SLACs or research universities.  This stance derives from the book’s origins in the National Writing Project at UC Berkeley, and its founders’ decision that its professional development would present “pedagogical ideas to colleagues largely in the form of demonstration lessons that model actual classroom practices, and then in reflecting on those demonstrations and their origins as a way of drawing a rationale or theory for practice from the demonstrated practices themselves” (15).

This characteristic integration of practice, reflection, and theorization into a recursive process honors the NWP motto of “teachers teaching teachers,” and it avoids the typical professional development scenario where teachers have to sit through lectures by outside experts or consultants who often have no concrete experience with the types of teaching being done by their audiences (17).  The danger of this kind of top-down, tone-deaf “professional development” is that it often comes from administrators or staff who have never, or no longer, face the same daily teaching challenges that faculty do, and who therefore lack credibility.  For this reason, NWP presenters like Blau only present on strategies that they themselves have practiced and refined in their own classes for an extended period of time. Convincing experienced teachers to do the uncomfortable work of reexamining what works, and acknowledging what doesn’t work, in their own teaching requires the “teacher who teaches teachers” to have some insight into the potential difficulties of such a process. For this reason, the credibility of this kind of teacher is essential for the process to have any lasting or deep effect on its audience.

There are two interesting consequences of this experiential approach to pedagogy: the first is that the kind of generic “universal teaching manual” for a particular kind of class or discipline (along the lines of McKeachie or Lang, as good as they are) seems impossible, since even the most dedicated innovator will be working in a relatively restricted curricular area.  In other words, the experience grounding a particular faculty-member’s teaching strategies will remain bound up with the type of school, student, discipline, course, and curricula that gave it a context to begin with.  This is by no means a bad thing, but it does mean that any account of teaching is deeply contextual, and requires that context to be understood in order for its lessons to be learned and implemented in a useful way.

The other consequence is that Blau’s version of English literary studies remains, in his words, “anti-theoretical,” in the sense that he is most interested in encouraging students in his introductory literature courses (and in his graduate courses for English Education students) to read and discuss literary works–at least initially– in their own terms.  He encourages his students to pursue their own lines of inquiry without having to be lectured in historical or theoretical contexts beforehand, and allows theory to “break out” (in Graff’s terms), when “agreement about such terms as text, reading, history, interpretation, tradition, and literature, can no longer be taken for granted, so that their meanings have to be formulated and debated” (5).

The result is not that theory is denied or disavowed, but that it does remain tacit, external, and undeveloped until students themselves can be brought to understand the implications of their own interpretations and interpretive debates.  This approach to theory, which makes eminent sense given Blau’s own teaching audience and courses, means that Blau’s work has less to say about other kinds of work in the English major, particularly historically-, theoretically-, or research-based-work in more advanced courses.  However, I still think there is much to learn from Blau in terms of eliciting responses from every level of student, and especially in leading discussions and designing assignments.  I’ll discuss these in another post.

DM

principles of literary history

  • For literary history to fulfill some role beyond summary, it needs to reshape, reorganize, reintegrate existing literary histories, so that what is old and what is new make better sense together side by side.
  • The pursuit of greater complexity or comprehensiveness is never sufficient reason to justify a new literary history. Instead, these become the means by which we reach a new perspective on existing writing and its histories, while introducing new materials into our thinking about literature.
  • The value of a new approach, as opposed to a new thematics, is that it should entail a truly new and different way of thinking about the material.  So how do your methods and procedures lead to different ways of thinking? Why is this change important?
  • It’s not just about the value of a particular piece of writing, but about communicating that value to someone who has never considered the writing that way before. What do they need to know, to follow you in your valuation?

DM

stalemate UPDATED

This morning I saw a post from Paul Corrigan about the assessment movement’s real impact, which amounted to “widely observed rituals of compliance” but little genuine change. The real focus of both the post and the Ted Marchese essay it took its title from was the continuing stalemate between assessment and accountability in higher ed.  This is caused in part by everyone talking past one another. Assessment experts tend to regard their own activity as a scholarly enterprise that unaccountably gets abused by the administrators who implement it. Faculty hear most assessment talk as either meaningless College of Ed jargon or administrators’ pernicious attempts to micromanage the work conducted in  classrooms.  Administrators regard it chiefly as something done to satisfy trustees or politicians, and try to think of it as little as possible otherwise. So yes, no one understands anyone else here, but that’s not why the stalemate has lasted almost as long as the assessment movement itself.

What Corrigan doesn’t seem to recognize is that these three groups do not have equal voice in this matter, because it is the administrators, as the folks who hire the assessment experts as staffers or consultants, and who “manage” the faculty, who have decided time and again to define and pursue assessment largely as accountability, standardization, and outward compliance.  There is a political economy to the way that higher education evaluates itself, and I believe that both assessment experts and disciplinary faculty need to understand how assessment and accountability both work within the emerging regimes of neoliberal management of public higher education.

Christopher Newfield, in the important piece I just linked to, spells out the strange imperviousness of administrators to the knowledge extracted by the accountability schemes they use to manage faculty and student interactions. Their imperviousness derives from their recent self-definition as managers rather than faculty members:

In contrast to professional authority, which is grounded in expertise and expert communities, managerial authority flows from its ties to owners and is formally independent of expertise.  Management obviously needs to be competent, but competence seems no longer to require either substantive expertise with the firm’s products or meaningful contact with employees.  The absence of contact with and substantive knowledge of core activities, in managerial culture, function as an operational strength.  In universities, faculty administrators lose effectiveness when they are seen as too close to the faculty to make tough decisions.

In the upside-down world of managerial culture and Christensen’s fantasies of “disruption,” paying too close attention to the information collected by others, or seeming too responsive to what it tells you about students or faculty, all these are signs of weakness, not strength.  And how else can we read the last 10 years of developments in public higher education, except as a demonstration of these principles in action?

So how might we redirect the discussion back toward improvements in learning, for both students and faculty?  One possibility suggested by Newfield is to tie improvement back to the notion of shared governance, and regard good governance and faculty communities of expertise as a necessary but not sufficient condition for improved teaching and learning.  And while we’re discussing research, I would love to see someone analyze the impact that governance has on teaching and learning.

DM

(NOTE: Those interested in discipline-specific approaches to assessment in literature departments should simply go to Laura Rosenthal and Donna Heiland’s Teagle Foundation collection to see a full range of responses to this problem)

(UPDATE, NOTE: Dr. Randi Gray Kristensen directed me to this article, which laid out a similar argument in 1999: Cris Shore and Susan Wright, “Audit Culture and Anthropology: Neo-Liberalism in British Higher Education,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp.557-575;  http://www.jstor.org/stable/2661148 )

(2nd UPDATE, NOTE: Also found this, an illuminating comparative, ethnographic discussion of “audit culture” and “neoliberalism” in various national contexts: ANDREW B. KIPNIS, “Audit cultures: Neoliberal governmentality, socialist legacy, or technologies of governing?” American Ethnologist, Volume 35, Issue 2, pages May 2008: 275–289; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com./doi/10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.00034.x/full)

dh and the “discipline” of english studies; UPDATED

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[image of Ermenonville, Le temple de la philosophie, courtesy of Parisette and Wikimedia commons]

I spent a few days listening in on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference at UH this weekend, and was impressed by a number of presentations. I won’t try to record everything, but will just blog about a few of the ideas that have stuck with me for the last day or so. (For those seeking a good comprehensive account, try instead keynote speaker Geoffrey Rockwell’s very helpful summary of keynotes and panels here)

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the earlier discussion of the Emory English blow-up, I walked into the conference thinking about English studies, a disciplinary agglomeration that has never had much success organizing itself around any consistent methodology or object of study. If this is indeed our disciplinary home and background, I wondered, why should it feature such persistent, distracting arguments about who belongs inside and who doesn’t?  So I walked into the TXDHC conference wondering whether I myself might belong inside their tent.

I was very pleased to see a presentation from Geoffrey Rockwell (Alberta) on Friday about a collaborative project he is developing (with Stefan Sinclair) called “hermeneutica,” In their introduction they note that hermeuti.ca includes both a printed text on methods of textual analysis and a suite of tools designed to “instantiate” those principles. They envision users looping back and forth from the printed portions to the embedded interactive panels that display their own processes and results; these panels would also allow users to enter their own values so that they could “recapitulate and experiment with” those results, and compare their own with R/S’s results. This creates an interactive feedback loop between the learner and the book/site that a “mere” printed text could not emulate. They also include case histories demonstrating what can be done with such tools, reflective essays on their analyses, and finally “recipes” that are “tutorials on how to do interpretative things with common tools.”

“Hermeneutica,” we learned at the presentation, were “little hermeneutical toys” that we could use to analyze the texts around us. Rockwell pointed out that these kinds of interactive data visualizations were already becoming commonplace on sites like the NY Times and the NYSE.

I’d need to spend far more time with this project to have more to say about its details, but what I appreciated were the following principles I gleaned from the presentation and the online materials contained here:

  • The emphasis is on collaboration, since it is unlikely that any single scholar will have all the skills necessary to do the kind of work necessary to tackle interesting projects with sufficient scope and depth to satisfy the lay audience;
  • The emphasis is also squarely on interpretation and the open-ended generation of insights, as an “art of making things more interesting” along the lines of cooking, embroidery, etc., rather than a utilitarian model of searching or pattern-matching;
  • Drawing on Franco Moretti’s discussion of “models” (e.g., “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” p. 4) Rockwell stressed that textual analysis produced by hermeneutica’s tools operated upon “surrogates“* rather than texts themselves, in just the way that scholars might work on the indices or outlines of books rather than books themselves for certain kinds of research. (Moretti: “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead”**) At the same time, hermeneuti.ca’s tools were designed to “help you read,” and to “help you get back to the full text”;
  • This stress on the proliferation and discussion of surrogates in the humanities might help explain why preservation and rereading of of older material legacies are always so closely interwoven with the production of new insights; accordingly, in this presentation, Rockwell began with the little-known prehistory of DH in the 1970s and 1980s, in some of the earliest computer-assisted readings of literature like the work of John Smith on James Joyce;
  • Rockwell’s emphasis here was not necessarily on building one’s tools, or all of one’s tools, from scratch, but using and adapting what one could find from ready-made and available tools, which certainly lowers the bar for those, like myself, who would rather adapt existing tools for their own interpretive projects than devote themselves single-mindedly to tool-construction;
  • Finally, by comparing the tools and products of the hermeneutica to the surrogate-like features of 18th-century architectural “follies,” Rockwell stressed their non- or anti-utilitarian character, since they helped to resist or interrupt one’s use or production of texts, in order to draw attention to their theoretical workings;
  • The anti-utilitarian character of the folly-like hermeneutica makes their character as tools paradoxical, since they represent a class of “tools” that work against the purposeful or transparent operations of signification, slowing down or interrupting production to the point where they make their own use more available for conscious manipulation; they make it possible for creators and audiences to move to new, meta-levels when considering the use of a particular element in a composition.

I  believe that it is this conceptually suggestive, exploratory, anti-utilitarian element of the “folly” or hermeneuticon–the tool that acts like something other than a simple tool–that seems especially inviting for folks doing work in English departments.  This kind of exploration, shared I think by each of the interpretive sub-disciplines housed in English departments, distinguishes thinking in the humanities from other disciplinary forms of thinking, and distances our work from the kinds of purposiveness found in other disciplines.

DM

[*UPDATE: GR’s discussion of “models” or textual “surrogates” deployed by scholars to interpret an inaccessible “text” reminds me of Frank Ankersmit’s observations about the distinction between “historical research (a question of facts)” and “historical writing (a question of interpretation)” (“Six Theses,” 2.1). It also seems to me that the most interpretively productive way to regard data visualizations of individual artworks or larger groupings might be as Ankersmit’s “metaphors.” According to Ankersmit, metaphors help us to organize, understand, and redescribe the past in novel terms that encourage interpretation and debate (“metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else (‘John is a pig’), “Theses,” 5.1.1).]

[**UPDATE: Bill Benzon (H/T Alan Liu) has posted (here and here) about Moretti’s uses of computers and computer-generated networks for literary works.  Benzon observes that while Moretti does not use a computer to create his network diagrams, they are “very much in the spirit . . . of computing.” Benzon believes that the point of Moretti’s enterprise is the movement from quantification to visualization. Ultimately, this process should produce an “irreducible” visual pattern that can serve as a usefully suggestive model for a literary work or group of works. Benzon writes:

The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis.

In my view, Moretti’s “irreducible” patterns constitute “primary object[s] of description and analysis” when they fulfill Ankersmit’s definition of “metaphor,” “show[ing ] what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else.”

Moretti himself shows these visual patterns’ defamiliarizing potential when he uses figs. 34 and 35 to reveal the significantly liminal status of Hamlet‘s Horatio as a “good gateway” to the play’s “periphery,” in contrast with the courtly characters tightly clustered around Polonius (“Network” 6).  Here are the figures:

Moretti fig 34

Moretti fig 35

When Moretti is able to transform “Horatio” from a character made of words into a vertex that he is then able to describe as a “gateway,” then the transformation of the model into a new metaphor is complete.

DM

bousquet and moral panic

A few people have forwarded me Marc Bousquet’s latest essay (article behind paywall) about the “moral panic” in literary studies, along with SEK’s follow-up, and I’ve seen surprisingly little push-back from the presumed subjects of the essay, English literature professors. Bousquet’s point is that PhD-granting English departments like his own (Emory) are seeing a widening gap between the hiring of newly-minted PhDs in “traditional fields” vs. “new fields.” (i.e., students trained in historical, period-based fields vs. those in rhet/comp or digital humanities).  As a result, the wounded and defensive professors in traditional fields have engaged in what he calls a “backlash discourse” conjuring up “a ‘moral panic’ in defense of literary studies.”

I think there’s some truth in this description, but I also think that the analysis could be deepened.  From my own experience, in a public research university, and in a pluralist department with a full complement of advanced degrees in sub-fields (literary studies, creative writing, rhet/comp, linguistics, and with a growing interest in digital humanities), it’s taken for granted that we must work together, even if it does make all our lives more complicated. It does make inter-departmental conversation more difficult at times, but perhaps more rewarding, too. (I don’t deny that we all wonder from time to time what it would be like to work in a stand-alone department squarely focused on what we  do). But I think that for all but the most prestigious and super-endowed programs, disciplinary autonomy is off the table.

As I continued to read through Bousquet’s essay, it seemed to me that all but a handful of my friends and colleagues in the academy work in similarly mixed environments.  The remaining ones work in institutions either so prestigious that they could ignore the market forces he describes, or so oblivious (or, more likely, divided) that nothing short of catastrophe could make them change direction. Frankly, by the time Bousquet writes, “the moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production,” I wondered why this essay wasn’t just an email to his colleagues at Emory? In other words, why should the rest of us care? At the same time, I do think that there’s a potentially useful discussion to be extracted from this essentially local argument.

I think in the long term and among a very broad group of working scholar/teachers, there’s a lot of justifiable anxiety about the future of what we might call “traditional” or historically-based literary studies.  This anxiety comes not (just) from the insecurities of superannuated or inactive faculty, but from the increasingly market-driven language used to justify the reorganization of academic departments wholesale in domains like hiring, tenure, enrollments, and so forth.  The once-dominant model of nation- and period-specialization has just weathered serious challenge from the MLA leadership this past winter, and left many eighteenth-century scholars wondering just what role we shall have in that organization as it goes through its own evolution (not that the MLA has demonstrated much love for rhet/comp, either).

So I wonder what sort of role literature and literary studies might have in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of “English studies” twenty years from now.  For example, in a pluralistic department organized without period categories, how would historical research be taught, or the general category of “literature” be usefully sub-divided or segmented?  How would “genre” be studied? And so forth. In my view, a large part of this “anxiety” reflects our awareness that many familiar landmarks in scholarly life are disappearing, with little concrete sense of what’s to replace them.

I have two thoughts about this stand-off between Bousquet and the resistant literature faculty he describes.

First of all, because of the depressingly straitened circumstances outlined by Bousquet many times before, a lot of literature faculty–even the ones trained in the Ivy Leagues–have made heroic or at least incremental efforts to adapt their curricula, teaching, and their research interests to their new surroundings and new students.

In other words, the period-based fields have not in any way stood still in the past few decades. This fact really became clear during the MLA dust-up, when eighteenth-century scholars were forced to argue to scholars from other historical periods against shrinking our division at the annual meeting. Not only were the proposals a self-defeating gesture for an organization purporting to represent the entirety of “literary studies,” they would jettison every trace of the field’s development over the past thirty years.  So I think anyone in Bousquet’s position would be much better off encouraging more, and better, adaptations among literature professors rather than threatening them with “irrelevance.”  I  don’t think high quality collaborations can occur under any other circumstances.

My second point is that it feels odd for Bousquet, of all people, to use the language of the market to justify the de facto institutional changes he wishes to make.  I have long admired How the University Works precisely because it questions the use of the marketplace or its organizational jargon to justify educational decisions that affect people. Anyone who has spent time in higher education knows that the market is not in any way a fair or rational arbiter, nor is it an impersonal historical force, but something that produces certain outcomes because of certain prior decisions and priorities. Assuming that this is the case, the changes taking place now are driven in part by all the forces he’s rightly critiqued elsewhere: permatemping, public disinvestment, corporatization, etc.  The economic-institutional process that elevated rhet/comp to its current position (however resisted by a few outliers) may also hollow out the academic departments that may someday be filled with majorities of rhet/comp teacher/scholars.

So the market has spoken, but why exactly should we follow its dictates here or elsewhere?  From my perspective, it might be better to envision (and enact) a version of “English studies” that is able to draw upon the expertise of all its fields, including the historical study of literature.

DM

 

The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at: http://chronicle.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/article/The-Moral-Panic-in-Literary/145757/#sthash.pTUvYCEA.dpuf
The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production. – See more at: http://chronicle.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/article/The-Moral-Panic-in-Literary/145757/#sthash.pTUvYCEA.dpuf

MLA 2014, pt III: The Revised Draft of the MLA Forums, Open Hearings, plus updates

mla2014-logo

Hi folks,

I won’t be attending MLA this year, but I wanted to provide a few 18c updates for those attending and those staying at home:

As always, at the Long 18th, we’re always happy to hear about any news or thoughts about the matters discussed in or out of the panels at MLA. Hit Reply if you want to pass along some bit of news.

Stay warm,

DM