Monthly Archives: October 2006

The Load

I’m feeling the teaching load. I’m 4/4 (for the non-academic readers: four courses in the fall and four in the spring), but with a small student population per class, so one would think that my time-suck here might be comparable to a 3/3 at other institutions. Well, yes, maybe, but not so much: in addition to the familiar committee and service stuff, there’s also the added bureaucracy that comes with this unique institution. Mandatory Web-based anti-terrorism training and suchlike. Being a sponsor or a resource for individual cadets and for clubs and teams. So I’m finding that my time fills up very, very fast, and I’m struggling to find places and times where I can actually do the scholarship that I want to do.

And the scholarship itself isn’t the reward. It isn’t the payoff. My classroom time is the payoff. I love the scholarship, sure, and I think I’ve got some good ideas, and I’m pretty sure I know more about one very skinny and narrowly-focused aspect of my field than anybody else in the field. But the scholarship is what lets me do the teaching. The teaching is the payoff.

I got my job here, at this highly unique and competitive institution, largely because of my scholarship. I enjoy my job here, as I’m sure my recent posts have indicated, largely because of the teaching. I’d made assumptions, myself, about the types of student I’d encounter, and the language many academics might use to describe them (e.g., “thug,” “fascist,” et cetera), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised: in some ways, they’re rather more open-minded than their more “liberal” peers at UMass or Pitt.

Case in point: I’ve recently asked them to write an essay about bias in higher education, and the widespread perception of a problematic liberal bias among college professors, their own included. (Most of their instructors are career Army officers with advanced degrees, but there are some civilians like me, as well.) To start the essay, I thought it would be a good idea to see how they might compare their own ideological perspectives to one another, so I sent them to the politicalcompass.org site. (Yes, it’s got all sorts of well-documented problems, but as a socially comparative instrument, it served my needs quite well: for the purposes of this writing assignment about bias, one’s politics mean nothing except in relation to other peoples’ politics.) Check out the range of (wholly anonymous) responses:

Cartesian graph of our class positions from the politicalcompass.org questionnaire

And we’re generating some good discussion about those responses in class, which is exciting to me. Some cadets, as one might imagine, have expressed dismay that their answers have ideologically aligned them with Ghandi; others, delight. But beyond that, there’s the social aspect to the teaching, and that’s the deeper and darker concern for me. I’m meeting these students as freshmen, as plebes, and I’m feeling swamped by four sections of their opinions, ideas, impressions, and worries — swamped, even, by their diversity of opinion. But the thing that remains unsaid, always, for me, and the thing that they wholly accept, is nothing like the job market worries that the conventional undergraduate bears.

The thing unsaid is that they all know they’re going to Iraq or Afghanistan as soon as they graduate. And to me, that thought is an immense load, but they bear it with that complete equanimity. In part, it’s why they’re here.

Walking Hours

In my first semester as a new professor, much of my attention is going either to managing the load of papers, committees, and other work or else to syllabus development and lesson planning (and my enjoyment of the time spent in the classroom), but I’m also aware of some of the unique aspects of the extracurriculum here. Consider, as one such aspect, the way certain discipline concerns are managed:

I’m not sure what else to say other than the practice of videorecording, editing, and distributing this film stands in an extremely interesting relationship to the exercise of discipline depicted in the film. There’s something of the repurposing there that Jim Ridolfo has talked about in his investigations of “rhetorical velocity,” and that repurposing does interesting things with the relation between representation and power. Note to self: this bears further investigation, especially at an institution like mine.

What Prominent Republican

The elections are weeks away, and tonight I’m grading papers and continuing to refine a writing assignment that asks students to engage with difficult texts on vexed topics in ways that require some attention to one’s own politics. In coming up with lead-in exercises, I’ve again encountered a Web site I’ve used as part of past class exercises, and I’m delighted to see they’ve fleshed out their materials considerably.

One of the things they now include is a quiz, from which I’ll shamelessly steal the following question:

What prominent American Republican said these two things?

1. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are. . . a few. . . Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

2. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed; those who are cold and are not clothed.”

I hope you might venture a guess in the comments. If you know, or if you Googled, please play nice and don’t spoil the fun.

Bonus discussion question: What sorts of politically correct feminist tree-hugging left-wing hippie peacenik terrorist-loving Democrats and academics can you imagine mouthing such sentiments?

Examples welcomed.

The Labile Professor

Many of my students this semester like to throw around the term “bias” when evaluating library and Web sources for their essays. Certainly, it’s a useful category of analysis, but the increased interest in the term here (as compared to the interest at UMass or Pitt) is remarkable. At the same time, though, it’s something I should have expected, given the highly conservative politics of much of the student body here: “bias” as a category of analysis will of course take on more importance for those whose politics construct liberal open-mindedness and the privileging of engaging a diverse range of perspectives as somehow problematic.

The next major essay assignment in my syllabus asks students to do close, careful analytical work with two difficult texts (published essays of around 20 pages or so) and develop a response that “wrestles” with the difficulty of those texts and creates something new and interesting out of that “wrestling.” In the past, I’ve paired an excerpt from Brothers and Keepers with an excerpt from Discipline and Punish (yes, I was a new teacher; the choice of assignment came out of the intersection of Bartholomae and Petrosky with what was going on with my brother), paired Mark Edmundson’s “The Uses of a Liberal Education” with Wesley Shumar on the commodification of higher education or Jean Anyon on the class structure of high school, paired Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” with William Gass’s “On Reading to Oneself,” paired Malcolm Gladwell on the anthropology of shopping with David Guterson on the Mall of America. So: prison, education, interpretation, consumerism.

This time around, I think I’d like my students to tackle bias. And I’m thinking about recent and ongoing blog conversations, and so one text that comes immediately to mind for me is Chapter 1 from Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts: that’ll provoke some classroom sparks here, I grin and tell myself.

But, see, that immediate felt smug confidence is too often a warning sign for me. Like, You’re feeling a little too good about yourself here, Professor Mike the Would-Be Wonder-Teacher.

Where, then, to best observe the interaction of student ideologies and professorial ideologies at my new institution? If I’m going to try to watch my step as a new professor here, to get a better sense of the ideological and academic climate, where might I look? Well, yeah: duh. I go, of course, to ratemyprofessors.com, and I check out my colleagues, especially those whose ideologies I know. And I find something both interesting and not altogether unexpected: “Instructor X,” the student writes, “will give you an A, as long as you discuss [Instructor X's field of scholarly interest] with him and [engage in an outdoor recreational activity in said field of scholarly interest] with him.” The student gives said instructor high ratings across the board.

For my institution, this genre of comment is unfortunately not uncommon. Nor is it unexpected: we all know that in deeply hierarchical organizations, obsequiousness can go a long way. What’s interesting, though, is the way it constructs instructor response. Here’s how to get the instructor to do what you want, it says. And it gives the instructor top scores in “easiness,” “helpfulness,” and “clarity” for being optimally labile. Which makes me wonder: even in a student-centered apparent laziness enhancer like ratemyprofessors, what criteria might they usefully add to broaden their appeal beyond the how-can-I-optimize-my-laziness crowd? How many of the students who browse ratemyprofessors might be interested, say, in an instructor who scores high in “rigor”? What if “labile” were a synonym for “helpful” and “easy”: would students go for that? Your students?

If so, how might they connect to readings about bias? And here’s the central motivation, the reason for my post, to which I hope you might respond, dear reader: what roughly 20-page text might you assign as a rigorous, careful, and interesting alternative perspective to Bérubé’s on bias in academia?

Short Schrift

(For The Happy Tutor.)

Is it belaboring the obvious to acknowledge that blogspace is theatricality, networked? What if we add to that acknowledgment the observation that under theatricality, no rhetorical act is merely self-evident; that every assertion, by its existence, calls attention to its rhetorical exigency and demand that the careful reader ask: does the fact that this needed to be said indicate that there is a countervailing perception? Does Pliny’s praise of the emperor Trajan send the message that the emperor Trajan is somehow in need of praise; that there is a common perception that the emperor Trajan is somehow not worthy of praise? (This question is one of the core foci of Shadi Bartsch’s argument in Actors in the Audience.) Under theatricality, should the act of posing a question qua question indicate to us that it’s actually an assertion wearing a mask?

Consider another example from imperial Rome (again, via Bartsch’s Actors in the Audience): Nero made a regular habit of disguising himself as an ordinary citizen and wandering out into the city at night and engaging in robbery, assault, rape, and murder. Reports of the effectiveness of his disguise vary, but there is agreement among historians that Nero occasionally encountered resistance, whether his subjects recognized him or not. In one instance, Nero assaulted a senator, who recognized him but did not initially acknowledge that recognition, and fought back forcefully, giving Nero a black eye. Weeks passed with Nero remaining out of public view until the eye healed. When he returned to public life, the senator apologized to Nero for fighting back, and here the reports diverge: the senator either realized that he had violated imperial theatricality’s illusion and put himself to death, or he was encouraged by Nero’s court to put himself to death. In either case, the senator violated the rules of imperial theatricality by removing his own mask of being deceived by Nero’s disguise. The lesson from Nero’s time seems clear: under the regime of theatricality, there will always be some who wear masks, thereby leading to environment in which all wear masks, and must be treated in accordance with their masked personae, rather than being treated as who we might feel them to truly be.

The ongoing carnival at Wealth Bondage is perhaps the ideal blogspace instance of the regime of wholly masked theatricality — and yet The Happy Tutor, in his cussedness, continues to confuse matters and blur those lines even after his apparent retirement and the death of The Author Function.

In such a context, the known knowns are as follows.

  1. As the Deputy Editor notes, “the Author Function died hacked to death in his cell, an apparent suicide, while under the protection of the Forces of Homeland Freedom Optimization.”
  2. The Happy Tutor as apparently disembodied rhetorical process — a sort of satirical floating signifier, perhaps — continues “beating his stick upon an empty drum,” shaping debate by pointing to the debate and making the case for his own superfluity in that debate, and thereby offering a peerless and unprecedented lesson in fashioning authorial ethos wholly out of rhetorical praeteritio. Debate over the possibility of argument under hegemonic regime, the Tutor suggests, is impossible, and even were it possible, he could not add to it, since his function as fetish action figure authorial persona was to engage that debate. In so suggesting, the Tutor simultaneously forecloses and initiates the debate over its own possibility.
  3. Under the regime of academic theatricality, forthrightness is only possible when all parties concerned agree to engaging in similar and concerted mask- or non-mask behavior as a component of the generic conventions of the festschrift. In other words: forthrightness in praise here is (and must be) a function of genre.

But don’t 2 and 3 contradict one another? Isn’t avoidance of that contradiction what all those masks and fetish action figures are about? And, once more: under theatricality, should the act of posing a question qua question indicate to us that it’s actually an assertion wearing a mask? As is his habit, the Tutor in his self-conscious act of semi-retirement leaves us with more questions than conclusions. He’d likely blacken my eye for saying so, but it seems to me the highest praise possible to propose that the Tutor’s rhetorical performance of identity has itself become a literary trope in process: the act of placing himself and his interlocutors sous rature.

It may here be needlessly and painfully earnest — it may, in fact, violate the conventions of theatricality and perform the rhetorical equivalent of breaking the fourth wall — to point out that even in the apparent earnestness of encomium, we ought to attend to the masks, the inversions, the play. I share the Deputy Editor’s observation: the Tutor isn’t one to rest long. He’ll soon return to the play.

A Lesson

Imagine you’ve been working with your students on productive strategies for paraphrasing and summarizing. Imagine you’ve been working with them on properly formatting their quotations and lists of Works Cited, as well. Imagine that you offer them a passage from a text and a set of ways of using that passage that are either (1) acceptable, (2) plagiarized, (3) erroneous, or (4) both plagiarized and erroneous. You ask them to work in pairs to come up with evaluations and rationales for those evaluations.

Does the fact that one pair of students uses the scissors, paper, rock method of evaluation to arrive at their decisions indicate to you that this is (1) the last class on a Friday afternoon, (2) the last class on a Friday afternoon, or (3) the last class on a Friday afternoon?

My boss came by and stood in the door and watched while this was happening, and we couldn’t do anything other than laugh. The cadets in question already had the answers, and were clearly making fun of the instructorial panopticism. I don’t know how to adequately describe the situation, aside from saying that my boss is both a PhD scholar and an Infantry branch Lieutenant Colonel, and all eyes in the classroom immediately noted his rank. And as for the cadets in question: well, if you’re going to get in trouble for doing something, and you’ve been spotted doing it, why stop?

There’s something about the authoritarian structure here that promotes a counterhegemonic engagement in (a very few) certain students; an engagement I’ve seldom seen elsewhere. And I’ll confess: I like that engagement.

Mostly Harmless

Michael Bérubé has some interesting things to say about discourse and power following dust-ups in various comments sections across the interblogowebs. I’m a longtime lurker at Bérubé’s and consistently enjoy his writing, and I felt uncomfortable reading his account of his engagement with Et Alia: Et Alia, in a previous internets identity of his, offered me a great deal of extremely insightful commentary on my blogged struggles with the dissertation, and in fact led me to an insight that profoundly shaped my chapters 4 and 5. And I’m familiar with the rhetorical bombast Bérubé indicts and Et Alia exhibits, having often seen and engaged in it here and at Wealth Bondage and elsewhere: after all, there’s a reason for this place’s Latin name and its translation. But Et Alia’s over-the-topness in that first comment Bérubé cites goes way beyond anything I’m comfortable with, even inasmuch as I get how he’s trying to push the boundaries of the discussion with his polemic. And, of course, polemic is useful in that it gets people’s attention, but it also puts its author in the position of having various audiences wonder how serious one might be. I figure any scholarly colleagues of mine who read here know I’m mostly harmless, despite the occasional ill-considered rant or fit of bombast — but these days, as a brand-new professor at a rather unique institution, I also watch what I say in a manner substantially different from when I was blogging as a graduate student.

And on that topic, Bérubé has much to say: the following portion of his post, where he engages Turbulent Velvet, takes some dark and interesting turns in reflecting on the interactions among power, rhetoric, position, and persona. Certainly, it seems self-evident to say that who you are determines how you speak, how your words are received, and how you interpret what others have to say — until one considers the concrete situation of, say, Caesar listening to Cicero’s oration on behalf of Ligarius, where Caesar was essentially both plaintiff and judge, and Cicero’s explicit invocation of Pharsalus and the fact that he, like Ligarius, had sided against Caesar backs Caesar into a rhetorical corner wherein he can adopt only one role: the merciful and indulgent imperator rather than the severe and just iudex. But in that situation, even Cicero’s position was predetermined for him: given the public perception of his identity and position, he could adopt no persona other than the scandalously oppositional orator in relation to Caesar. In much the same way, I think, oppositional discourse in weblog comments is performance and play, largely based upon the perception of one’s self-image; both who one wants to be and who one feels one must be. Which is what all that business about “celebrities” and conduct and identity seems to be. Certainly, Turbulent Velvet comes across as petulant and obnoxious, but he’s making an important point: someone with Bérubé’s position and status is pretty much (can I do the sous rature thing here and use a term while simultaneously acknowledging its problematic nature?) interpellated — like Caesar — into being open, indulgent, and engaging, while entrants to the conversation, those with less established status, are free (and, in fact, expected) to say outrageous things and toss rhetorical Molotov cocktails.

Think about Pliny and the way he has to bend over backward to even seem sincere in his praise of Trajan in the Panegyricus, because of the way that power relations shape discourse. If you’re someone who’s not recognized as carrying significant status in a conversation, and you praise those who are, there’s no way you’re going to be seen as anything other than fawning and obsequious.