Daily Archives: September 20, 2006

The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s

I’ve just finished reading the first three chapters of a new book by John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (OUP 2006). It’s a book that is particularly interesting in light of my own work but also in light of the conversations here a few weeks back about Habermas and the coffeehouse, so I thought a brief summary of his argument with a quotation from his section critiquing Habermas might be in order. However, I admit openly that I have read only the first three chapters of the book (which is not terribly long, not McKeonesque at all–it’s around 300 pages), and I will therefore not claim to give a complete account of his book or his argument, which is much more complex than I can indicate here.

Barrell’s purpose is to investigate the ways in which the political conflict and consequent atmosphere of suspicion in Britain during the revolutionary decade pervaded all aspects of life and thus blurred the lines between what had been conceived of as “public” and “private.” Increasingly, as the political furor in Britain grew over the decade, the private realm became politicized, private conversation became public, and even off-the-cuff remarks in spaces (such as the coffee house) that had been conceived of as “private” in some measure were potentially politically dangerous.

In the interest of space I’ll skip over his first chapter and go directly to the second, which relates more directly to our earlier conversation about coffeehouses and Habermas. The chapter is titled “Coffee-House Politicians”; in it, Barrell suggests that the coffeehouse–or rather, two fascinating trials that develop out of “seditious utterances” made inside two of London’s coffeehouses–is one example where the politicization of private speech during the 1790s is clear. In the first case, an attorney named John Frost was reported for using seditious language in Percy Coffee House. After a delay of several months, one of the witnesses reported Frost to the authorities and Frost was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “six months imprisonment and an hour in the pillory” (79). The second case is similar, though it involves two men who were arrested for making seditious remarks in the New London Coffee House; one man was a penniless gentleman and the other an impoverished doctor. The gentleman, Charles Pigott, was released without being charged; the doctor, William Hodgson, was indicted, tried, and convicted. The defense made by Frost’s attorney, Thomas Erskine, and Pigott (Pigott published a pamphlet on the eve of Hodgson’s trial that offered a defense of himself and to a lesser extent Hodgson) was based on the same assumption: that a coffeehouse was understood by all “polite” people to be a place in which the conversation is “private.” Whatever was overheard in the coffeehouse could not actually be “heard.” Both Erskine and Pigott therefore protested that a “gentleman” should not be subject to eavesdropping much less prosecution on the basis of conversation that should ostensibly be “private,” despite its having taken place in a “public” place. Erskine argued that “words spoken in a public coffee house were words spoken in a private space; that they were, so to speak, privileged; that they should not have been heard by those to whom they were not addressed; that, if inadvertently overheard, they should not have been reported” (83).

The point that Barrell is making in highlighting the defense offered by Erskine and Pigott is that it is class-based. Two men who claimed liberal, reformist sympathies in the event fell back upon essentially aristocratic defenses, motivated at least in part by a distaste for the circumstances of their arrests. Both express disgust at the lack of “politeness” of the men responsible for reporting them, Erskine by frequent emphasis upon the “spirit of a gentleman” and Pigott by highlighting the informers’ (lower-class) professions. Barrell concludes, “It is an intriguing index, however, of the difficulty with which the discourse of rights became established, that [Charles James] Fox, Erskine, and others, especially Pigott, who seem to have regarded this [freedom of speech] as a civil right essential to the survival of civilized society, found it so hard to express, except in terms of class difference, the right of an elite not to be overheard by their social inferiors and dependants. The spirit of despotism was not the exclusive property of loyalists” (102). The fact that the defense of these two men was class-based tends to undermine Habermasian descriptions of the coffeehouse as an essentially egalitarian place wherein two men could meet as private men, leaving their public identities (as a hairdresser and a lord, for example) behind, and this is the basis for Barrell’s critique of Habermas (which I will quote and then be quiet!):

“‘Provided a man has a clean shirt and three-pence in his pocket, he may talk as loud in the coffee-house as the “squire of ten thousands pounds a-year”‘, wrote the celebrated late eighteenth-century antiquary Francis Grose. Well, perhaps; but this kind of patriotic egalitarian ideology seldom meant quite what it said, and anyone who has been brought up within the English class-system, even as it is 250 or 300 years after the heyday of the coffee house, is likely to have doubts about how far distinctions of rank could possibly have been suspended in public coffee rooms…I am doubtful, too, about the supposed demise of the coffee house in the second half of the century. There were, famously, thousands of coffee houses in London around 1700, but the vast majority of these must have been little local caffs, often in basement rooms, open only for a few hours a day, and patronized by tradesmen on their way to work, who no more expected to be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities than to be offered a latte when they ordered a milky coffee. No more than a handful of early eighteenth-century coffee houses can have come close to Habermas’s or Sennett’s ideal” (81).


The Remnant of the Unimpressed

I hope that title sounds like a horror movie. It should. By now I’m up to the ninth sequel, The Remnant: Life is Very Long.

Now a month into my ninth term of classroom teaching, having taken two year-long fellowship breaks, I finally face two classes full of delightful, smart, engaged, funny English majors, all curious and bright-eyed at the prospect of three hundred years of British literary history. Well, not all of them are so bright-eyed.

In every class I’ve ever taught, at Case Western Reserve, NYC College of Technology, Hunter College, and now Queens, no matter what the subject or group of students, no matter how exciting and judiciously chosen the texts, no matter how caring, entertaining, strict, or pleading I get, there is always a Remnant of two or three students who seem to wish I was dead.

Go look it up! Somewhere in the annals of my RateMyProfessors.com ratings at each college, you’ll find at least one comment reading “B-O-R-I-N-G. Like watching paint dry” or “she is so hyper u want 2 shoot her n the FACE.” There are plenty of kind things too (“Carrie is DA BOMB”), and, despite the apologetic comments (“I know she is really hard and obsessed with the 18th century (lolz, C!) but you’ll learn alot!!”), I get the sense that my classes leave behind a wake of happy students who’ve learned something valuable. But in every classroom, the more the tide turns toward engaged, edge-of-the-seat discussion, the deeper into the ether the Remnant drifts.

The problem is that I was usually an eager undergrad, even when I wasn’t the most careful reader. I could never keep my hand from shooting up to contribute to conversation, and I know how much my eagerness alone led to me receiving kind help from professors. I never imagined how painful it would be to stand in the front of the room and look out at those few rolling eyes and weary grimaces, those of the people I used to ignore from my teacher’s-pet perch.

Things I do to shrink the Remnant:

1. I make participation and attendance a not-insignificant portion of the grade.
2. I talk about the classroom as a laboratory and the need for everyone’s voices.
3. I ask them to write for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every class in response to a question about the reading.
4. I often remind them that admitting to not doing the reading is preferable to lying about not doing the reading.
5. I make eye contact with the quietest students first every time I ask a question, looking for the tell-tale brow-furrow of thought.
6. I ask questions that range from the extraordinarily difficult to the Sunday-School easy.
7. I give research assignments in which each class member becomes the resident “expert” on a topic.

I’d say this makes my odds pretty good, altogether. I’ve had reluctant students who’ve said they appreciate that I draw them out without humiliating them. But the Remnant, now down to just one or two per class, remains unmoved. They respond thusly to the above strategies:

1. They declare they’re just there to pass, not to excel.
2. They express contempt for their own abilities to contribute.
3. They write nothing down or copy a single way-off-base sentence from a neighbor, verbatim.
4. They continue to lie, waiting for me to challenge them, or they declare they don’t have time to read, ever.
5. They stare back, incredibly still, in the hope I’ll somehow not see them.
6. They roll their eyes at the easy questions. No meatballs for me, thanks!
7. They refuse to do the research until long past its usefulness to the class.

I plead. I cajole. I contact them by email. I ask their friends what’s up. I put the class in a circle. I talk to them after class. This sometimes gets a few on board, but still the shrinking Remnant refuses even to bring the day’s reading with them so they can concentrate fully on a space about two inches behind my forehead. What have I done? You’d think I’d killed their goldfish or forced them to read Clarissa. (Still waiting for your explanation of how you get them to do that, David!) I guess they’re angry at me for not allowing them to go gently into that good night. I just won’t let them fail. I refuse to believe that English literary history is so unlearnable that anyone–especially English majors–should have to take it twice.

Perhaps the problem is my amour propre, rather than their lack of it. I want to feel I’m a good enough teacher to reach them all. I am young and this is what young people do: we imagine we’re heroes.

I wonder whether this still happens in elective classes. I’d hope not. British Literature II survey is a requirement for the major at Queens, so I know some of them would rather be reading Bukowski on the lawn with a cigarette, but I’ve been teaching some incredibly steamy stuff. The only pattern I’ve noticed is that the size of the Remnant is always smaller in classes with non-humanities majors in them. Who’d have thought?

What do you do with the Remnant? Do you let them do their thing, or do you intervene? How do you wash off all that eye-rolling at the end of the day? Have you eradicated them completely? If so, give me the secret formula!

Teaching Students to Use Secondary Criticism?

This is really a follow-up to the earlier thread about the library, where we received some interesting posts about how you were teaching your classes about basic practices of library research.

In that earlier thread, I was especially struck by Allen’s point about the need to teach students about how to incorporate other critical points of view into their writing, without allowing those other writings to dominate or determine their own positions. This principle seems to be the rationale behind Allen’s six source requirement for a 5-6 pp. paper.

As always, I’m curious about how others deal with this in their lower- and upper-division courses, whether they choose for their classes the secondary criticism they use for research papers, and how they teach students the balancing act that we sometimes struggle with in our own writing.

If you have suggestions for especially useful works of criticism that function well in your courses and lectures, please share those with us.