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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Talented Mr. Student: Books, Class, and “Passing”

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/08 at 06:02 AM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

This post is a sequel to what I wrote here about teaching literature, and the relationship between literature courses and social class. Readers concerned about the fallout from the conversation may want to read the post here.

It is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Did I know you at Princeton, Tom? I didn’t, did I? -Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Over the past months, I’ve written a series of posts that refer obliquely or directly to the theorist Slavoj Zizek—in particular, to the short editorial pieces he has published that, taken together, call for the formation of a radical vanguard capable of forcing political change in the West. My first such piece was probably “Why I’m Not A Radical.” Now, here I am, in response to Dr. Crazy, writing from what commenter metaleptic termed a radical position. That, in a nutshell, is the political situation of scholarship and instruction in literature. We are bound to present radical possibilities to our students—radicalism of all kinds, not only the re-distribution of wealth—and yet every tradition has a celebratory literature. Literary works are often skeptical of political dogma, mass action, sudden change, and the alibi of righteousness. In many cases literature will represent grievances it cannot resolve, or will represent change ambivalently. Luther Blissett said as much in his excellent reflection on Chekhov:

I just finished reading Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the first time, and upon completing it, I found myself stunned.  I couldn’t articulate Chekhov’s message.  He seemed to be saying something about the passing of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class and serf, the end of one period, the beginning of another.  But I couldn’t say whether Chekhov liked this or not.

It’s not clear to me, looking over the discussion that has followed my first post, whether “passing” for middle class is a topic Dr. Crazy would want to explicitly raise in the classroom. She did name it as one of her reasons for teaching literature, and other readers found her explanations persuasive. My critique of it summoned a number of defenders, including Sisyphus and Scott.

Put simply, passing is problematic. I am not dismissing it. I am not disputing the fact that the experience of higher education, as a whole, gives students incredibly valuable kinds of social and professional mobility. Literature courses help students become articulate and erudite, and, depending on their personal and professional choices, they might well be able to “cash in” on the possession of those qualities. Still, the discussion has to arrive at two questions:

1. What are the consequences, for the discipline of literary studies, of valorizing “passing” in a way specific to a certain demographic? Might the problems with passing require an ambivalent attitude towards it?

2. What do artworks themselves say about passing?

I believe, responding to the first question, that an unproblematic valorization of passing turns back the clock, leaving us once again on the cusp of the so-called “culture wars.” As for the second question, the best art on passing presents it as a decidedly mixed blessing. Literature courses have the capacity to present it as such. They need not resort to truisms about the privileges of privilege.

Here’s what Dr. Crazy wrote in the original post:

[I teach literature in order to] give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner - or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

Here’s my response: Working class people and the poor already have numerous vocabularies for discussing complex things. An uneducated person may not be informed about important current events, or they may feel uncomfortable dealing with certain kinds of useful and complex objects, such as older works of literature. An education is a valuable thing in those respects—does this even need to be said? At the same time, to use a well-established example, hip-hop has a complex vocabulary and a complex meta-vocabulary, and it did not arise as something imitative of white culture or middle class culture.

It’s not that certain ways of representing and describing the world became powerful because they were more competent to represent complexity; they became powerful because they were forcibly imposed. If you don’t make this crucial separation between, on the one hand, the historically contingent vocabularies that signify power, and, on the other, the formal capacity for complexity, then you lose sight of the reason to (for example) teach novels written in the vernacular. In her afterword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes:

My choice of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of the culture. Thinking back now on the problems expressive language presented to me, I am amazed by their currency, their tenacity. Hearing “civilized” languages debase humans, watching cultural exorcisms debase literature, seeing oneself preserved in the amber of disqualifying metaphors—I can say that my narrative project is as difficult today as it was thirty years ago.

Now, of course, I can understand all this immediately, without explanation; what I can’t immediately understand is the phrase from the novel, “Quiet as it’s kept,” which, accordingly, Morrison devotes much of the afterword to explaining. And why should I try to grasp it? Understanding that phrase won’t help me hobnob. It wouldn’t help any privileged person get along in the world, or rise to still-higher plateaus of comfort, except perhaps as fodder for hypocritical conversations of concern. Furthermore, it can only tell a person familiar with the world Morrison conjures something they already know. If upward mobility is the goal, this novel wastes everyone’s time.

Sisyphus writes,

Middle-class culture values doing things without an immediate payoff.

My response: not really, if the latest figures on credit card debt are to be believed. But more to the point, if a student is attending college at all, then he or she has some inclination towards long-term planning. Poor students do not need whatever Keats we throw at them in order to recognize the value of planning. If they didn’t know how to plan, they couldn’t begin to manage the schedules that Crazy and Sisyphus rightly attribute to them.

In response to my reference to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Dr. Crazy wrote:

When I talk about my students (themselves, for I have had students who’ve missed class because they were in jail on assault charges as well as domestic violence charges, or their family members or friends) and jail, or my own experience with family members who go to jail, I’m not talking about people who end up becoming activists and fighting the power, who will go on to write “indelible accounts of time spent in jail.” I’m talking about people who expect the person who has “succeeded” to bail them out, lend them money, help them move at least once every two years, and give them rides when it’s inconvenient.

This goes along with what she says about what her students lack:

The reality is that the majority of students who succeed in high school come from families where there is emotional if not material support for succeeding in school.

In other words, if you go on to become an activist, or if your family provides emotional-if-not-material support for your education, you aren’t working class. Whether or not you are poor is a function of whether your family values education; your class background depends on whether you become an activist. Sure, the behaviors and attitudes that Dr. Crazy describes are common enough, and they correlate to class, but to disqualify the alternatives is to distort the very meaning of class. It comes to mean apathy and vulgarity, rather than simply the fact of occupying a certain place in the American hierarchy.

The problematic definition of class continues here:

I’m not trying to make my students “more likably bourgeois” or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS.

There is a slippage here between the class “bourgeois,” and the attitudes and common culture of that class. The slippage didn’t originate with me—it’s inherent to the argument that by acting like a bourgeois, a person can eventually become bourgeois. Yes, Dr. Crazy’s students are not bourgeois, but she is trying to help them be “likably bourgeois” in their deportment.

Silencing and independence

Sisyphus writes,

There are so many ways to handle said problems, just as there are many different ways to interact with literature --- and going off and figuring out some of those meanings for yourself, and working on your writing/argument/project until it seems good quality, those are the important things for students to practice.

Naturally, I’m in full sympathy with this, but it’s quite a different paradigm from that of social mobility. Social ease is about accomodating people—understanding their definitions of quality and figuring out the kinds of meanings they endorse, putting those ahead of your own. It is not a condition of independence.

I am accused of advocating silencing; Crazy writes, “If I try to give them a fighting chance for when someone responds to their perspective with a bunch of allusions to NPR and radical literature, it’s because without that, the only result would be in their silencing.” This is a strange accusation, given that the whole drift of Crazy’s concern with socialization is judicious silencing:

For me, my students should leave my courses able to have new kinds of conversations - not just conversations about their families or their jobs or money or the next project on the house or that the car needs to be repaired or even about which relative is in jail, which are the kinds of conversations that dominated my upbringing and which (it seems) dominate many of my students lives with their families and friends. (from a comment here)

It’s not that those things are superficial, but in a professional context, yes, those [other] conversations are to be avoided if one hopes to get ahead. (from the continuation at the Valve, here)

Authenticity and the limits of mobility

Is it on “delle Croce, just off the Corso”? You’re a quick study, aren’t you? Last time you didn’t know your ass from your elbow, now you’re giving me directions.
--Freddy Miles to Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley

I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.
--The Great Gatsby

[Morel] answered me in a curt, haughty tone. He had become a real ‘poseur’ and the sight of me, reminding him as it did of his father’s profession, was obviously disagreeable to him.
--Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah

Scott writes,

I’m talking about providing students with the tools required to reach the fringes of financial independence—not by aping the pretensions of imaginary middle class ideals, but (as Dr. Crazy wrote) to allow them to pass among its citizens and fool its gatekeepers.  It is in this sense that I find teaching literature most subversive: all the supposedly indelible markers of class can be wiped from our souls with a little learning.

Actually, a little learning won’t do it. Differences of background are readily perceptible. Ripley can provide himself with jazz records, but he can’t give himself a whole childhood of skiing vacations. Moving a team of polo horses across the country marks the Buchanans out as aristocrats; spending the same amount of money puts Gatsby under suspicion of bootlegging. Morel can learn to play music, but he can’t get over his love of little phrases that seem impossibly gauche to Marcel. Dr. Crazy seems to think that if she can only provide sufficiently dramatic illustrations of poverty and hardship, the complexities of passing will disappear: the utilities were shut off when the family couldn’t pay! The parents are addicts! The relatives are in jail! In fact, these anecdotes only bring us face-to-face with the actual tragedy of inequality, and do nothing to prove that literature classes can solve the problem.

American literature might be describing as an entire national literature of passing: passing wealthy, passing white, passing straight, passing male, passing Gentile, and so on. The truth is that there are terrible limits imposed on our powers of disguise. Some of these limits are imposed by other people. Whether or not they see through us, they consciously and unconsciously impose tests upon us.  The worst of it is that you can’t pass such tests by trying harder; Ripley knows more about jazz than Dickie Greenleaf ever will. Zeal is a result of tensions the natives don’t experience, and so is total disinterest. Allusions are just that—allusions, vague references. I don’t teach my students to make allusions; I have them analyze one play in depth at the expense of all the rest of Shakespeare. What’s more, you can pass with Dickie Greenleaf but not with Freddy Miles. Freddy Miles knows exactly who you are, and he will always hate your guts.

But far more important, really, than external constraints, and perhaps more interesting, are internal ones. You might be willing to move up on the social hierarchy, but are you willing to turn around and condemn the lazy poor? Are you willing, as a person of Jewish descent, to listen to apathetic and dismissive conversations about “letting the Arabs have Israel”? If somebody responds to your perspective with allusions to radical literature, is that engagement or a way of labeling and neutralizing you? In novels like Quicksand, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Invisible Man, the protagonists find that pangs of regret and rebellion seize them unexpectedly, and carry them kicking and screaming out of otherwise marvelous social circles. I say that this is “interesting” because, unlike intolerance and unlike creating gauntlets, it’s valuable. Nobody’s required to have a particular crisis of conscience, but out of these crises of passing have come some of the most important social critiques of our time. These critiques walk the line between different cultures, drawing on both (or all) but rejecting the unequal way the relationship between cultures is constructed.

Etiquette has two faces: it is a form of courtesy, and also a form of policing. Passing is both empowerment and entrapment. If passing was of vital importance to a particular student population, so much so that it became a primary lens for their whole educational experience, I could imagine building a wonderful literature course around it. It would, like any course, perform its share of socialization, and it would comprehend the desire to pass as other, but it would not settle the matter comfortably. That cannot happen until the injustice itself has passed.


Comments

I find myself in sympathy with both Dr. Crazy and Kugelmass. Like Dr. Crazy, I teach many students who come from deprived backgrounds, and by deprived I don’t simply mean economically deprived. They come from families in which fathers have been busted for selling illegal drugs and mothers tell their daughters that they are not bright enough to aspire to something better (This I heard a week ago: “When I got on the honor roll as a senior [in high school], my mother said, ‘Well, it’s a crappy school system’"). I have young students who are fighting alcoholism and drug abuse. I find myself functioning as a counselor, to some degree, and I keep a list of phone numbers in my wallet of various entities (both in academia and in the community) that may be able to help.

Does teaching literature, does discussing how Checkov plays with point of view, help these students escape these traps (which I see as primarily mental and not economic)? I honestly don’t know—I don’t have a tracking system that enables me to see how my students have done in later life. Further, as people have pointed out on these threads, it’s very difficult to find a one-to-one correspondence between studying literature and anything else. But in my heart, I do believe literature can help.

(Oh, in sheer practical terms, teaching standard English in comp classes is more immediately relevant—how we speak in job interviews and on the job is a course a marker. So I insist upon standard English in writing and discussions while at the same time telling the students why—I don’t claim that it is fair that a certain way of speaking and writing has been deemed superior (not for inherent reasons, but because it is a class marker), but I do say it’s important for practical reasons.

As I hope I’ve made it clear, I find education in general (like Kugelmass, I’m hesistant to put too much weight on any one particular discipline) as a useful tool in helping students think their ways out of mind traps. As an undergraduate, I was lucky. Attending a university was much more affordable than it is now. I could work part time and, with the help of various scholarships and one $2,000 student loan, I was able to get by. But I was very poor. My family could not afford to help me. My point is, though, that I never felt poor, never considered myself poor. I was very lucky not to have had a dysfunctional family life, I was very lucky to have parents who believed in the value of education. I considered myself rich—I could engage in wonderful conservations, I could read whatever I wanted to (and I understood that classes were mere introductions to subjects; it’s what we read with passion on our own that really matters), and I could meet lots of hot chicks (sounds flippant, I know, but not if you’re a young man high on hormones). In short, I was lucky not to trapped in the various psychological traps in which some of my students have fallen.

As for learned allusions about T.S. Eliot or Aeschylus helping me pass as middle or high class—no, not in my experience. (Perhaps it’s different in societies with clearer class distinctions.) I’ve known some very wealthy people, and frankly, that’s not what they talk about. What I do think is valuable about the humanities in general (and the study of literature in particular) is that it helps us stand away from ourselves, to have disinterested conservations, to engage an idea without preconceived notions about where the idea might take us. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that will help your economic situation (in my undergraduate days, getting a comp science degree was the best way to do that). But I do believe (and I choose that word carefully, because it is a belief), that nourishing our inherent abilities to see outside of ourselves can help improve our quality of life. At the very least, it can give us other ways of thinking that may (and I choose that word, too, carefully) give us a framework to understand that we can think/work our ways out of the mind traps of crippling despair, internalized condemnations from parents (and society), and the like. (And yes, I know, that many successful writers live in these various traps; I’m speaking generally about students). Is studying literature a form of cognitive behaviorist therapy? And if so, why not just seek therapy? Those are good questions. I am not laying out a thesis here; I’m not dogmatic about any of the points I’ve made. This is just what I feel. It used to be a truism (perhaps it still is) that studying literature was good preparation for studying psychology.

Still, all of this is not why I teach literature. I teach it because I find it interesting and fun.

By on 01/29/08 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I dislike about this exchange—and I’m not going to quote or cite from the blog post because I think it’s been pretty much requested that people don’t—is the tyranny of personal experience.  It’s like when a student says that they like a book.  All right, you say, why do you like it?  How?  What did the text do to make you like it, and would anyone else?  But by asking those questions you’re apparently invalidating their personal experience.  It’s just supposed to be there.

Here’s my personal experience.  I come from a Jewish family in which my parents were more or less poor, in their early life.  (My father’s family, in particular, seems to have been homeless for some time after immigrating, when he was a child.) My father went to college (for free, under a government scholarship), became a scientist, and therefore promptly became middle class in terms of education, income, profession, etc., and our family moved out of Brooklyn to a company town.  Did knowledge of literature help my parents “pass” as middle class despite their background of relative poverty?  On the contrary, both were extremely well read, far too well read to fit in in the non-Jewish context that they’d moved into.  People were supposed to talk about fixing their car or something like that.

Therefore I grew up middle class.  But my personal experience—and don’t invalidate it, anyone!—leaves me with a desire to say something whenever people confuse the senses of what “middle class” or “bourgeois” means, in terms of their varying usages with regard to income, and work, and education, and culture.  It’s possible to be a poor intellectual, or a middle class non-intellectual.  Not all middle-class communities care about literature.  Some poor people are always in and out of jail.  Some aren’t.

If you’re going to generalize, you need to detangle these things, or at least be willing to see people make the attempt.  That means being willing to let other people read your words in contexts in which you might not prefer that they’re read.  A stance of “don’t generalize!” may be OK, but—well, now I guess I will quote from the original post in this exchange:

“So those are Dr. Crazy’s reasons for teaching literature. And while some of them do have things in common with what the panel discussed, well, I think they’re a lot more basic and concrete. I wonder whether, had the panel included a more diverse range of voices, whether some of those reasons might have been put on the table. As it is, however, those reasons surely inform most people who teach literature, but in the context of this discipline, those reasons only rarely get discussed, and even more rarely are those reasons discussed at the major meeting of our discipline.”

Those reasons surely inform most people who teach literature?  That’s not a personal reaction.  That’s a generalization, and, you know, one that I—according to my personal experience!—find to be rather hostile.  I’ve been in a number of classes where I suppose that I was one of those 2 or 3 students who weren’t really in need of curiosity-inspiration, disruption of a consumer model of education, insistence on complexity, or socialization to be upwardly mobile.  I did indeed need “a break from the other demands on my life”, but as those societal demands were mostly that I not read so much and instead become interested in car-fixing, career preparation, and other tedious pursuits, those classes didn’t do much to help.

Of course it’s fine to say that the reasons you teach literature are because you care about the 20 or 30 people in your class who, because of the makeup of the surrounding area, need those things, rather than the 2 or 3.  OK.  I’d personally prefer that my teachers had been people who taught literature because they were interested in literature and assumed that their students would be also, because I think that would have helped the people in both groups.  But, you know, that’s just me.

By on 01/29/08 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find your general point about passing to be a good one in the sense that I am also troubled by the idea that passing ought to be valorized in itself.  You are correct to point out numerous literary examples of the baggage that comes along with “passing,” marking its complexity as a not altogether celebratory experience.  Yet it is unfortunate that you mar this promising insight by first representing passing as something of permanence, and then crumbling down that straw man with references to Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf.  Dr. Crazy never represents passing as something of permanence at all--in fact, her representation of herself as someone who has learned to pass clearly marks that act as conflicted, one that grants her mobility at the same time that it is fraught by tensions around what it means to be from such a background, her family’s perception of her career, etc.  Those facts are not in the one post by Dr. Crazy that you have cited, so it is understandable that your knowledge of her background and her sophisticated understanding of her own class identity might be misrepresented in your post.  Passing entails having access to the pass, so to speak--the tools to perform--and one sometimes chooses to pass, and sometimes not.  It is never a question of whether or not one has “really” become X or Y.

I was disappointed at best with your comments about Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  It is hard for me to understand why you would use that particular text and your inability to grasp a certain phrase as an example of how the text would not give you class mobility.  Does an understanding of Morrison’s work generally grant someone class mobility the same way as understanding the work of, say, Shakespeare (or even Gastby)?  You use a work from an acclaimed author that is, despite its fame, still in many ways a marginalized text, often thrown in with a mix of “other” texts to get “the other” in.  Thus your making the point of not being able to accomplish class mobility through understanding Morrison’s text seems an odd one (if I may be excused for using the same adjective for your argument as you used to describe Dr. Crazy’s).

I am also very confused as to how you got from quoting this phrase from Dr. Crazy: “I’m not trying to make my students ‘more likably bourgeois’ or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS” to summarizing her position as follows: “Yes, Dr. Crazy’s students are not bourgeois, but she is trying to help them be ‘likably bourgeois’ in their deportment.” I am having some difficulty understanding why you might end with a mean that directly contradicts her words. 

“Slippage” does not explain it to me, and this is the most troubling part of your post, as you claim that Dr. Crazy’s position is that “In other words, if you go on to become an activist, or if your family provides emotional-if-not-material support for your education, you aren’t working class. Whether or not you are poor is a function of whether your family values education; your class background depends on whether you become an activist.” This was in response to Dr. Crazy’s statement that “The reality is that the majority of students who succeed in high school come from families where there is emotional if not material support for succeeding in school.” I am unable to understand how you have come up with such an idea based on what Dr. Crazy points out is true in the majority of situations in which students succeed in high school.  Does this mean that Dr. Crazy would think a student who succeeded in high school, coming from a poor but emotionally supportive family, is not working class?  Where does she imply this?  Once again, from your post I gather that you are perhaps unfamiliar with the quite sophisticated and critical way Dr. Crazy writes about issues of class and the university, but even from the sentence you cite, I fail to see how you are attributing to Dr. Crazy a view that she hasn’t articulated.

I appreciate your investment in this discussion, though some of your points are rather overstated or rely on texts that seem strange given your stakes.  You might also do well to explore the ways in which race is imbricated in (and therefore complicates) issues of class “passing” or class mobility given your references to hip-hop and Morrison’s novel in order to do some justice to those examples.

By Rokeya on 01/29/08 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, this little kerfluffle does at least throw into relief the claim that literature is grounded in empathy and functions to enlarge empathy. The question arises: whose empathy? By the way, might there be some reason,- and, by reason, I don’t mean to imply an exclusion of irony,- why Dr. Crazy chooses as her handle “Dr. Crazy”?

By on 01/29/08 at 06:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rokeya,

From my perspective, “one sometimes chooses to pass, and sometimes not” is overly voluntaristic. One sometimes tries to pass, sometimes not. In trying to pass, one very often fails, and in trying to “come home” again to earlier practices and vocabularies, one very often discovers a newly formed chasm. Again, these are the kind of complexities literature has the wonderful capacity to represent.

In any case, if you think Crazy’s blog, as a longer document, addressses these sorts of complexities, perhaps you’re right. Obviously, now is not the time for me to be investigating that, particularly given the sorts of speculations about me that you and others have put in the most recent comment threads there.

My point, in bringing up The Bluest Eye, was to show that the work required in learning its language is valuable, but not because it grants me or anyone else social mobility. It’s precisely because Fitzgerald and Shakespeare were always-already more valuable cultural capital that the culture wars had to be fought in the first place. The reason Morrison is still marginalized has everything to do with what Morrison calls the “cultural exorcisms” and “civilizing” of language that debase people and literature. It’s not just that passing can’t be assured of success, or that passing may produce psychic crises for the marginalized subject. It’s also that passing is somewhat complicit in the hierarchical structures that produce it. (That does not reduce to a statement like “passing is bad” or “passing is unethical,” but Morrison is clearly critical of its ubiquity in her novel.)

I am also very confused as to how you got from quoting this phrase from Dr. Crazy: “I’m not trying to make my students ‘more likably bourgeois’ or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS” to summarizing her position as follows: “Yes, Dr. Crazy’s students are not bourgeois, but she is trying to help them be ‘likably bourgeois’ in their deportment.” I am having some difficulty understanding why you might end with a mean that directly contradicts her words.

Dr. Crazy is saying that because her students aren’t bourgeois, she’s not trying to make them bourgeois. In fact, it’s because they aren’t bourgeois that she thinks a certain kind of intervention (which she thinks literature can accomplish) will help them by making them pleasing to others, and so upwardly mobile.

Here’s how the conversation about activism went. Dr. Crazy characterized literary conversation as an alternative to conversations about personal experiences with jail. I responded with Foucault, but for her, Foucault was something different because he’s a theorist. OK, so I responded with the intensely personal account of jail in Malcolm X’s autobiography. If you’re going to read that book or talk about Spike Lee’s film, you have to talk about jail. So then Dr. Crazy ruled out the possibility of a student ever becoming radicalized like Malcolm, or at least of that radicalization being relevant—“I’m not talking about activists.” In other words, she was disqualifying every legitimate and provocative response to silence about jail, in order to leave us with nothing but self-undermining, politically useless social faux pas. Then, she was making those faux pas characteristic of a whole social register, excluding in the process certain kinds of radicalism that might be equally disproportionate among underprivileged populations.

(Rich made the same point about money on the other thread.)

In her comments, Dr. Crazy made it clear that the important difference between her students and mine were their respective levels of academic achievement, and the differences of upbringing implied by those numbers. Meanwhile, in her original post and follow-up comments, she was talking about class. Here’s the quote:

[O]ften students from the kind of background that I come from (I have a cousin who dropped out of high school currently in jail, and many other relatives who’ve also spent quality time there) or where the business of day-to-day getting by is often all-consuming, that one isn’t necessarily equipped, or at the very least comfortable, upon entering college, to have other kinds of conversations because one has never really been exposed to them [...] Things like talking about money with specificity, or talking about family members in trouble with the law, etc., are seen as crass in a middle class or higher social context.

So these things all get confused. Her students are lower-than-middle-class and tend to speak crassly, like members of her own family, and that’s what authorizes her claims. Then, the difference between her students and mine is that my students receive more support (at least emotionally) from their families when it comes to getting an education.

So, if you do support your child’s getting an education, and you work a minimum-wage job, you turn into a working class person with middle class values.

Now, I admit that it may have been hyperbolic to describe this as a claim that someone isn’t working class. But I have very serious political objections to depriving the working class of the ability to value education after its own fashion. I am deeply committed to those thinkers who conceptualized what education is and should do in radical terms that were (and are) deeply uncomfortable for the majority of the middle class.

Let me give you an example from my own life, since we are letting that sort of example carry such an astounding amount of water. My grandfather, a telephone repairman, avidly collected and read John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. Although my mother did not receive much encouragement when she became an English major, her own experiences with the family’s library influenced her greatly, and she still talks about Steinbeck with undimmed enthusiasm and respect.

Virtually no graduate program invests time in The Grapes of Wrath, and very few undergraduate courses do either. It is primarily a “high school book.” Part of the reason Steinbeck is so furiously ignored is that he wrote didactically about socialism and the American underclass. So what am I to do? Embrace the privileging of, say, Billy Collins over Steinbeck, since, across several generations, my family has graduated to the middle class? I could certainly catch more flies that way.

My grandfather’s passion for Steinbeck was not a departure from class. It was part of the way he inhabited his class.

***

Frankly, the person who has to explore race more fully here is Dr. Crazy. She’s using the racially-charged term “passing” very freely, while simultaneously asserting that her students aren’t involved in street culture, but instead resemble the family on Roseanne. In other words, they’re white, so I shouldn’t bother her with references to African-American culture. Again, the argument proceeds through a series of disqualifications.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/08 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

you clearly want to conduct a discussion about the value of studying literature on your terms and nobody else’s - ok good, but what do you need Dr Crazy for then?  As several people have pointed out, she’s really not talking about what you say she’s talking about.  She gave her individual reasons for teaching Lit.  You want to talk about your reasons, and to say that her reasons are wrong ones.  She can’t be wrong about her own opinions.  When you criticise her opinions your points just look bloodyminded.  All through this you’ve been producing peculiarly ‘strong’ readings of her comments, a great many of them bordering on bad faith; your last paragraph beginning ‘Frankly’ is an example.  I don’t understand passing as being involved exclusively or even mostly with race, but the way you’re writing, I can’t discuss this with you without entering into a pointless slanging match.  Dr Crazy didn’t say what race her students are, and nor did she make anything resembling the remark “In other words, they’re white, so I shouldn’t bother her with references to African-American culture. “ Mate, she just didn’t say this, and nor would she.  If you really want to argue with her at least have the sense to take her on over what she actually has literally and openly said.  When literature teachers try to do interpretation of each other’s texts it gets embarrasssing, and everyone looks stupid.

By on 01/29/08 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura,

Actually, she’s giving what she considers “one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at [her] kind of institution,” and she certainly can be wrong about that. The whole conversation about how it’s only her opinion—unless you think she’s right, in which case it is a compelling justification for the humanities—is itself spectacular argumentative bad faith.

My post doesn’t assert that passing is involved exclusively or mostly with race, but that doesn’t mean that a conversation about class and passing can ignore race, either.

How on earth would she know whether or not her students are involved in street culture, other then by their race? Why respond to my term “street culture” with a reference to Roseanne?

As for the rest, I’ve already done what I can in the comments to the last thread and the “fallout” post at my blog. That’s where I answer the question “what do you need Dr Crazy for then?”, etc.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/08 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read that post last night.  And now I’m trying to discourage you from more arguing with Dr Crazy; you picked a fight with her, nobody won, and now can you please just drop it, it’s embarrassing and incomprehensible.

By on 01/29/08 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If your concern is that I want to write another follow-up post to this one, or something, I assure you that’s not the case. So chillax.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/08 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, dear.  I certainly did not mean that people choose whether or not to pass.  I meant that sometimes it is voluntaristic and sometimes they do *not* choose it and it happens anyway as they are “read” in a particular way.  My “not” was ill-placed, I see.  I don’t have time to respond to your thoughtful comment now (writing deadlines loom), but I felt I should certainly address this error in my previous comment.  Thank you for kindly drawing my attention to it.

By Rokeya on 01/29/08 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and one more thing--Dr. Crazy’s careful attention to class, which often does not take race into account, is something I *have* critiqued (politely) many a time.  Again, I certainly do not expect you to have read every exchange on Dr. Crazy’s blog, but please do be assured that my critique of your post on the same grounds is consistent with my critiques of her posts, as well.

By Rokeya on 01/29/08 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Somebody asked why I call myself “Dr. Crazy” so I thought I’d provide a link that explains just that.

http://reassignedtime.blogspot.com/2006/11/on-being-crazy.html

In addition, the name is meant to be a bit light-hearted, to indicate that the blog is an informal space rather than a professional one.

By Dr. Crazy on 01/29/08 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I posted this response over at Joseph Kugelmass’s place, so I’m posting it here as well.  Several of the point have been anticipated by others, and it’s clear that there’s a larger context for this that I might be missing.  But here’s my response for what it’s worth:

It’s not that certain ways of representing and describing the world became powerful because they were more competent to represent complexity; they became powerful because they were forcibly imposed.

If folks were wanting to call out “Bourdieu” in the [earlier] Valve discussion, in reading your first section, I was wanting to call out a “Gramsciiiiii!” I think your pointing to both organic intellectuals and counter-hegemonic formations is valuable here.  If you want another essay to support your point, a more useful one than Morrison’s might be June Jordan’s essay, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan” in which she discusses teaching Black English as an expressive language and the dilemma of speaking in the dialect of one’s oppressor versus being dismissed for using one’s own (low class) dialect.  One might play this against David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage” in which he describes choosing to confront his students about their own language skills and talking honestly with some of his African American students about the unfortunate disadvantage that they faced in this area as the dialect that they had grown up speaking is farther away from “proper English” than the dialect that their white class mates had grown up speaking.  Learning this second dialect, however, is a skill that would help them navigate not just college but the wider world.  Both Jordan and Wallace are speaking the truth.  There is a world in between passing (pretending to be someone else) and keepin it real (accentuating and making a virtue of difference) that most folks navigate throughout their life. If you’re applying for a professional job, you don’t need to act just like your interviewer, but you do need to be able to understand and present behavior and language that is considered professional.  On the other side, if you are, say, an academic, then, unless your parents are also academics, you probably tone down the academic English when you go home.  One doesn’t have to valorize middle-class attitudes or behavior in order to recognize the value of being able to navigate them, and I don’t think Dr. Crazy does so.

In other words, if you go on to become an activist, or if your family provides emotional-if-not-material support for your education, you aren’t working class.

I honestly don’t see where you get this from.  She wasn’t saying that people who don’t have the experiences she’s describing aren’t working class.  Her point, so far as I can tell, was that her students aren’t just lower middle class, they are lumpen, and that they therefor face more than casual difficulties in navigating a world culturally dominated by folks with a very different set of formative experiences.  Beyond this, I think her point was that those who are lucky and able enough to use their education to lift themselves into another class aren’t sellouts and aren’t viewed as such in the communities that they come from.

You point to a slippage in Dr. Crazy’s comment between bourgeois as a class and bourgeois as the customs and mores associated with that class.  The more common slippage, and the one that I see in the different framings that you give to the issue of mobility or passing and that given by Dr. Crazy, Sisyphus and SEK, is that between “bourgeois” in the sense derived from Marx of the owning class or the very rich, and “bourgeois” in the vernacular sense popularized in the 1960s and 1970s as defining the attitudes of the comfortably middle class.  The folks who were talking about the value of English or of undergraduate education in general for navigating class advancement were all talking about moving successfully into the middle class.  Your literary examples are all drawn from middle or lower class people not just trying to navigate a new set of social circles but trying to pass themselves off to the very rich as one of their own.  This extreme setting makes class mobility seem not just like adapting to a somewhat new political or social environment, but a kind of permanent and impossible masquerade, a denial of self.

You make a good point about the ambiguities of passing.  Moving between classes presents many problems, and not just performative ones, for those attempting to do so.  I graduated from the same small liberal arts college that my father had earlier dropped out of.  He was the first in his family to go to college and despite doing decently felt like he was going to be discovered as a fraud.  So he joined the army, learned to translate Russian, and went back to finish his degree at a state university.  He then went on to program in Russian literature at the University of Chicago before dropping out of that program to become a mechanic, because he enjoyed doing that more.  He was close to his family, but also felt somewhat alienated from them.  My parents cultivated a group of family friends who were intellectuals, but not professional-class, and they found community in their in-between status.  When I went to college I had the advantage of college educated parents and at least some professors who had come from different class backgrounds, and so was more prepared when it came time for me to navigate my education, as well as my novel social encounters with the children of the owning class.  I have friends who weren’t so lucky and they struggled more than I did.

As Dr. Crazy noted, the ability to navigate novel class cultures is only one of the things that she hopes studying literature can do for her students.  It is a skill that they need to possess, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t make it into a lens for their entire educational experience.  The revolution is not today and it is not tomorrow.  For the indefinite future we will have to work to help our students prepare for the inequalities of their future lives, and make sure that they know that they are capable of doing so.

By on 01/30/08 at 12:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JPool,

Tragically, my reply probably comes too late. Writing a dissertation prospectus has temporarily kicked me off the blogs. Anyhow, here are my thoughts.

If you’re applying for a professional job, you don’t need to act just like your interviewer, but you do need to be able to understand and present behavior and language that is considered professional.  On the other side, if you are, say, an academic, then, unless your parents are also academics, you probably tone down the academic English when you go home.  One doesn’t have to valorize middle-class attitudes or behavior in order to recognize the value of being able to navigate them, and I don’t think Dr. Crazy does so.

Without wishing to repeat myself, the problem here is that I’m not really teaching students to succeed in job interviews, or at cocktail parties. All the middle-class relevance in the world could never persuade me to teach Garrison Keillor or the film Memoirs of a Geisha, even though those come up in conversation much more frequently than, say, Emily Dickinson. When I teach, I use colloquial words and forms of address, and dress casually, all of which could lead to a disastrous job interview if some student tried to follow classroom rules there.

Furthermore, Dr. Crazy is not alone here; actually, the whole profession is tending towards a “rhetorical” emphasis on how to navigate systems of power. Right now, there isn’t a great balance between that and more radical perspectives. In addition, not only do most academics tone-down the academic stuff at home, they tone it down with each other as soon as class gets out. In the United States, being an academic is slightly embarrassing, and I’m far from eager to adapt myself to that. In the comments to her post, Dr. Crazy acts like her interest in Rock of Love is shameful, something that education helps us overcome, but meanwhile she’s reassuring us that she’s plain folk with ordinary “guilty pleasures.” That is a much more common move than the Eliza Doolittle effect one creates by saying, “Oh, by the way, I was just reading The Brothers Karamazov.”

This extreme setting makes class mobility seem not just like adapting to a somewhat new political or social environment, but a kind of permanent and impossible masquerade, a denial of self.

I want to link this to your description of your own history, in which you explain how your family background helped you navigate your education and its consequent social encounters. It wasn’t an extreme case or an abnegation because of your background, but then it’s also fair to say that it wasn’t a particularly risky adaptation. Over and over, Dr. Crazy has stressed that her students are coming from very poor backgrounds, much worse than where Ripley or Gatsby began, such that my comparisons with UCI were ill-founded. If the situation isn’t that dire, then the conversation still has little to do with actual instruction in English, but also loses most of its stakes.

Her point, so far as I can tell, was that her students aren’t just lower middle class, they are lumpen, and that they therefor face more than casual difficulties in navigating a world culturally dominated by folks with a very different set of formative experiences.  Beyond this, I think her point was that those who are lucky and able enough to use their education to lift themselves into another class aren’t sellouts and aren’t viewed as such in the communities that they come from.

Suffice it to say that her description of the “more than casual difficulties” they face was performed through a series of generalized hypotheticals, in which she has invincible confidence, but which I found both inaccurate and bitter.

Who cares whether the communities from which a student rises views them as a sellout? Sometimes they do, particularly where race is also involved, as, in the United States, it usually is. Sometimes not. Regardless, that was never my point; obviously, in the United States, just about everyone (myself included) respects hard workers who get their just reward, and yet the slums and income disparities continue to grow. What disturbs me most is the combination of ex-centric thinking (how do others feel about me?) and conservative ideology—the American Dream, the Horatio Alger story.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/08 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, prospectus writing, those hazy days of endless possibility.
Anyway,

When I teach, I use colloquial words and forms of address, and dress casually, all of which could lead to a disastrous job interview if some student tried to follow classroom rules there.

This could also lead to a disasterous job interview for you, when that time comes.  For the love of god, put on a tie and learn how to talk like a prof, at least when anyone’s watching.  OK, I’m the first person (or at least yet another person) to endorse the proposistion that undergraduate education should not be approached or organized as preprofessional training.  I’m a dyed in the wool liberal artser, and I think that what college education does best, as a collection of various disciplines, is to train students in a variety of critical skills.  At the same time, I recognize that even if professionalization is not a big part of how we individually approach our individual disciplinary teaching, it is an important part of what we collectively do.

Furthermore, Dr. Crazy is not alone here; actually, the whole profession is tending towards a “rhetorical” emphasis on how to navigate systems of power. Right now, there isn’t a great balance between that and more radical perspectives.

I don’t want to repeat myself either, but I think you’re using Dr. Crazy as a hobbyhorse for your concerns about the whole profession.  I teach history rather than lit, so I don’t really know how to evaluate your claims of self-hatred/anti-academia in the profession, or a “‘rhetorical’ emphasis on how to navigate systems of power,” but it’s not something I see in my discipline.  I’m also not sure how to make sense of your argument as a whole.  As near as I can tell, it’s something like, “I don’t want my teaching to change my students to make them likeably bourgeois, in part because this would disrespect their cultures of origin, in part because they can never succeed in this endeavor, and in part because to help them navigate a middleclass world would require teaching them middlebrow literature.  I teach my students highbrow literature, though I know that it will be a liability to them when they must deal with their future lives in the anti-intellectual climate U.S.” And then it trails off, because I have no idea what your radical alternative approach to teaching is.  In teaching I find that a radical perspective can (and to my mind should) usefully inform the material that we teach and the way that we teach it, but I don’t see how this is incompatible with training and mentoring students so that they’re able to deal with the world as it currently is.  Do some of your students want to become activists?  Great!  Help them out with that as best you can.  Not all of them are going to though, nor should should they be expected to.  After all, you and I didn’t.

What disturbs me most is the combination of ex-centric thinking (how do others feel about me?) and conservative ideology—the American Dream, the Horatio Alger story.

When I was nineteen, I felt that I was both unable to alter my behavior based on how others felt about me and shouldn’t have to.  While I still sometimes feel like people can go fuck themselves, I tend to think that how others feel about me is at least something I should be aware of, if not neurotically so.  As for the Horatio Alger story, the problem with this is not that it presumes that people want to acquire greater levels of comfort and security, but that it presumes that anyone is capable of doing so if only they work/try hard enough.  Again, I think you presume a presumption where none exists.

By on 02/10/08 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This could also lead to a disasterous job interview for you, when that time comes.

Well, let’s face it, if I’m so stupid that I don’t know how to talk like a professor or when to wear a tie, I probably don’t deserve a good job in the first place.

I don’t want to repeat myself either, but I think you’re using Dr. Crazy as a hobbyhorse for your concerns about the whole profession.

Because, in fact, she’s not giving expression to certain common ideas within the discipline—as, to an extent, am I—she’s...what? An eccentric? A rebel? A unique snowflake?

Do some of your students want to become activists?  Great!  Help them out with that as best you can.  Not all of them are going to though, nor should should they be expected to.  After all, you and I didn’t.

None of the reasons I gave in my original post had anything to do with running an activist training camp. My reasons are there, and have to do above all with trying to present literature in its capacity to be liberating. Whether or not following social protocols is freeing or not depends on the situation, and I think that complexity is something we can teach.

When I was nineteen, I felt that I was both unable to alter my behavior based on how others felt about me and shouldn’t have to. While I still sometimes feel like people can go fuck themselves, I tend to think that how others feel about me is at least something I should be aware of, if not neurotically so.

Aware of, certainly. Determined by, certainly not. Ideas should not be priced according to age; when Rimbaud was nineteen, he wrote better poetry than I will write at seventy. I’m sure we both understand the difference between showing solicitude and being craven.

As for the Horatio Alger story, the problem with this is not that it presumes that people want to acquire greater levels of comfort and security, but that it presumes that anyone is capable of doing so if only they work/try hard enough.

Right. The assumption here is that if they try to pass, they’ll succeed, and it will even improve their finances.

***

As for your account of my argument as a whole, keep in mind that I don’t have a radical approach to teaching. I’m trying to do something well in a field where that has lots of precedent. Also, I’m not trying to avoid disrepecting cultural origins; the issue here is class. It’s not a matter of respecting somebody’s origins, it’s a question of teaching without a telos towards any particular class identity or class-associated culture.

I can promise to students that they’ll learn something; I don’t think I can promise that they’ll learn how to “pass,” whether or not that’s a priority for them. I might very well make the situation worse by introducing them to a text that competes with other forms of socialization. As for “middlebrow” versus “highbrow,” my preferred distinctions really are “mediocre” (meaning moderately unsuccessful on aesthetic grounds) versus aesthetically successful. Those determinations are quite independent of what happens to be culturally current.

I teach history rather than lit, so I don’t really know how to evaluate your claims of self-hatred/anti-academia in the profession, or a “‘rhetorical’ emphasis on how to navigate systems of power,” but it’s not something I see in my discipline.

That may be because history isn’t always trying to justify itself through a component of instruction in writing. Notably, when Stanley Fish was writing about justifying the humanities, his columns kept defaulting to justifying literary studies, because of the way literary studies have recently been opened up to accusations of spurious or unscrupulous methods—the targets being postmodern theory and post-Marxist political readings, respectively. Historical study is, I think, still intuitively valuable to most people, thank goodness. That’s one of the reasons literary scholars anxious about their own discipline have embraced New Historicism so eagerly.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Because, in fact, she’s not giving expression to certain common ideas within the discipline—as, to an extent, am I—she’s...what? An eccentric? A rebel? A unique snowflake?

No, I just don’t think she’s expressing the ideas you think she is.  She was also making a personal statement rather than a programatic one.  This doesn’t mean it’s not open to question or critique, but I think you can see how “What I think about in teaching” is different from “What everyone should think about in teaching.” It is also the type of statement where one’s particular circumstances (the resources of one’s institution, the backgrounds of one’s students, the support provided by one’s colleagues, etc.) would be more determinant.  But enough of that.  Your ideas can stand on there own, as a positive statement rather than as a reaction.

That may be because history isn’t always trying to justify itself through a component of instruction in writing.

Actually, we are, at least these days.  We were a big part of the Writing Across the Disciplines wave that rose up a few years back and is still splashing itself out (I whink it was/is a good thing, the question is how best to structure/balnce it).  The difference is probably more that we don’t (yet) have the fear that we’ll be reduced to just teaching composition.  It is, however, a significant component of what we teach, and something that I’m always trying to balance time for in the course of my instruction.  If, ten years after taking my class, students can’t remember what the religious, economic and social forces driving 19th century jihadi movements in West Africa were, well then I’ll be sad, but if they leave college unable to write competently, then I’ll feel that we’ve failed them.

By on 02/11/08 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Students in many other countries are worse off than those in the U.S. and yet make the most of their education. In parts of Asia and Europe intellectual cultures are valued; hence, respect for teachers and for a life of learning in general.

By on 02/11/08 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Crazy wrote a response. It was unconstructive and unsubstantive, and I deleted it. But she wrote a whole post to go along with it, so I guess she’s really hoping it will see the light of day. Here y’all go:

While I do enjoy being labeled in pejorative ways, I really have a hard time
believing that this debate - not a conversation, and indeed, it was NEVER a
conversation - that I dropped out of ages ago, continues.  I also have a
hard time fathoming that somehow Dr. Crazy is still a part of it, even
without her participation.

If you want to talk about the profession, Joseph Kugelmass, fantastic.  If
you want to talk about teaching or literature or whatever, hooray, more
people should talk about those things.  But at this point I’d really rather
if you left me out of whatever it is you’d like to say about these matters. 
Unique snowflake though I am, I don’t enjoy when people fight with me when I
don’t actually have a problem with their ideas and when I’ve stopped
responding to their attacks, when people use me as some sort of symbol for
all that is wrong in the world by twisting what I’ve said and refusing to
engage with me in a way that is collegial.

With the passage of time it becomes more and more apparent I didn’t really
ever have a problem with your ideas on these issues.  To be honest, they’re
really conventional and many people within the profession probably agree
with you totally.  In different moods, I even agree with some of what you
say, but it was difficult in the first flush of this debate to respond in a
way that was diplomatic because of nothing more and nothing less than your
pejorative and dismissive tone. I’ll admit I handled it in a way that was
perhaps too hot-headed, and the consequences of that were unfortunate.  I’m
willing to take my part of the blame where that is concerned.  But I’ll also
say that I had justifiable reasons to feel utterly insulted by your
treatment of me, and when I look back over that part of things, I remain
insulted. 

If you ever want to have a conversation about this where Dr. Crazy doesn’t
serve as some sort of funhouse mirror through which you can reflect and
amplify your own concerns, I’m open to doing so.  But I’m not going to
engage in a pissing contest in which I’m belittled at every turn, and that’s
all this has become, if it ever was anything else.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JPool,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments; there’s a finality about them that works for me, as I imagine we’re all thinking now about other conversations, other lines of inquiry.

If I saw somebody doing something useful, and I asked them why they were doing it, and they said “I’m doing it for the greater glory of God,” I would have to decide, as somebody who doesn’t believe in God, whether to challenge that or not, while fully comprehending that the answer was a personal one. The standard pragmatist response is to let it be; the standard Socratic response is to call the explanation into question. I don’t regret, in this case, having chosen the latter course.

If, ten years after taking my class, students can’t remember what the religious, economic and social forces driving 19th century jihadi movements in West Africa were, well then I’ll be sad, but if they leave college unable to write competently, then I’ll feel that we’ve failed them.

I know what you mean—it’s sort of a question of an educational “bedrock”—but hopefully, in most cases, the full richness of these subjects comes through, and we don’t have to settle. It goes without saying that understanding jihadi movements is valuable right now, and will be valuable in ten years.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Crazy,

But at this point I’d really rather
if you left me out of whatever it is you’d like to say about these matters.

As I wrote up above to Laura Carroll, I’m not interested in writing another post about your post, etc. I was just responding to JPool. If your intent is not to engage me, then you should turn off comment notification and move on.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you want to take the original comment that I left down, that’s fine.  I understand that comments here are administered, and my point wasn’t to divert any discussion that you might want to conduct - just to take Dr. Crazy out of it.  I posted on my blog only to think about the bigger picture of how the figure of Dr. Crazy has been used in the discussion - not to try to force your hand in approving the comment that I left.

By Dr. Crazy on 02/11/08 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I left a comment to Dr. Crazy’s post that engaged with your comment, Joseph, about having a “radical approach to teaching”; I think that comment addresses some of the assumptions you carry around what such an approach means and where it might originate.  I won’t repost it here.  I became rather bored with this conversation which is why I haven’t posted again here as I’d promised earlier; my interest was sparked again when I saw Dr. Crazy’s post this morning.

What I want to ask you is what it means for you to only post Dr. Crazy’s comment within your own comment, prefaced first by your own remarks about what her intention must be, in addition to your description of her comment as “unsubstantive” and “unconstructive.” It is interesting to me that if you were going to post her comment, you didn’t just do it and allow it to stand as an independent comment, responding in whatever ways you liked in a separate comment of your own.  This reminds me of Collins’ The Moonstone where Franklin Blake inserts a footnote into Miss Clack’s account of events (not to compare Dr. Crazy with Miss Clack!) as a way of undermining her authority as a writer, despite the fact that readers would be bound to judge Miss Clack’s writing on its own merits with or without that footnote.  Is there some way you feared her comment might be read independently that you wanted to curtail?  In what ways does your prefacing of her comment reflect on your investment in issues of authority in this conversation?

Also, having engaged with Dr. Crazy enough to have gained an understanding of what she perceives as respectful treatment, I wonder about your decision to describe her comment as “unsubstantive” when this conversation has been, in large part, about different ways of negotiating the task of academic conversation when one doesn’t “talk the talk,” so to speak (Dr. Crazy’s comment definitely isn’t speaking Valvese, but it is speaking to the conversation at hand).  It made me wince to see Dr. Crazy’s post framed by your own and declared unsubstantive in this way given what I know her stakes in the conversation to have been from reading your exchange.  It feels very silencing, even though you have indeed posted her comment.

Since this conversation has gotten rather heated, I want to clarify my comments here aren’t meant to be accusatory.  I think the gendered aspects of this conversation, and in fact the very nature of the two websites on which it is taking place and the class associations with those sites, enhances the points being made in the conversation around authority, teaching, and class.

By Rokeya on 02/11/08 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rokeya,

Dr. Crazy’s comment was made up of characterizations rather than specific responses to what I wrote. I understand that you, JPool, and some others feel that I have misread Dr. Crazy. You made specific points to that effect, and I explained myself further. Calling my post a “funhouse mirror” not the same thing; it’s just a generalization that may or may not be true. Likewise, I certainly don’t see Dr. Crazy as a symbol of “all that is wrong in the world,” nor do I have the patience to read that sentence as if it weren’t hyperbolic—nor do I think Dr. Crazy particularly minds being hyperbolic here, given how frustrated she is with the conversation.

Is there some way you feared her comment might be read independently that you wanted to curtail?

No; keep in mind that I first deleted the comment, then re-posted it when I saw Dr. Crazy’s post. I initially deleted it because I felt it would channel any remaining conversation into a meta-conversation, as in fact it has.

In what ways does your prefacing of her comment reflect on your investment in issues of authority in this conversation?

Oh, please. In what ways does the continual attempt to characterize me as a pitiable debater, seminar by-product, Charles Tansley, etc. reflect dubious attempts to claim authority (or undermine another’s authority) rather than investigating truth?

this conversation has been, in large part, about different ways of negotiating the task of academic conversation

No, it hasn’t been. If the claim was that literature classes help one navigate academic conversations, I would have never disagreed. It was about the relationship between literary studies and class mobility, particularly in the United States.

It feels very silencing, even though you have indeed posted her comment.

I’m sure it does, just as “please don’t respond to my public post written under a pseudonym” feels very silencing to me. But, in the end, that’s why we have different spaces provided by different blogs. Dr. Crazy has both a voice and an audience. I have neither the desire nor the capacity to silence her.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 03:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The conversation has not been about different ways of negotiating the task of academic conversation for you, perhaps, but I think your interlocutor might differ.  I cite as evidence of this Dr. Crazy’s post which elucidates how her blog identity, with all that it entails, has structured her experience of your exchange with her.  It wasn’t the intended topic of your post, but it has emerged from your discussion and has most certainly been part of the conversation from her side.

I don’t think you are simply a seminar by-product.  I do think that writing on The Valve as a graduate student studying X topic will carry with it what it means to write from that position.  I think your posts here perform as much as any of us perform on a blog.

I’m surprised by your “Oh please” response, as well, since you framed Dr. Crazy’s comment the way that you did with some intention.  Investigating the ways in which our framing of other voices functions in relation to those other voices seems a useful line of inquiry to me.  “Unsubstantive” and “unconstructive” would then follow as terms to interrogate.

Maybe I can put this another way.  Why is it that Dr. Crazy became so upset by your post (a response she has acknowledged was not always kind or collegial)?  It wasn’t just because of her disagreement with a series of points in a debate.  She felt that your post treated her in ways that were insulting.  Why is that?

I know people have been unkind to you, and I am sorry for that.

By Rokeya on 02/11/08 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I cite as evidence of this Dr. Crazy’s post which elucidates how her blog identity, with all that it entails, has structured her experience of your exchange with her.  It wasn’t the intended topic of your post, but it has emerged from your discussion and has most certainly been part of the conversation from her side.

Which is fair enough. But that’s not the conversation I wanted to have here at the Valve (i.e. how she perceived the nature of our exchange); it’s a conversation that I think can function perfectly well at her place, and there’s been no shortage of links going there.

I’m surprised by your “Oh please” response, as well, since you framed Dr. Crazy’s comment the way that you did with some intention.

Yes, that’s true. I can see how it might have been better to post it without comment, and then post a second comment with my responses and an explanation of why I initially deleted it. That wouldn’t have been a great solution, either; it also wasn’t a great comment, from the standpoint of my intentions for the post and follow-up discussion, as important here as hers are at Reassigned Time. That said, framing is not just a function of comment structure and quotation. I feel I have been framed in ill-considered ways also, putting me at a serious disadvantage if people end up here after coming from RT. For example, readers of the most recent post there might think that I knew, from the outset, that Dr. Crazy was a woman, and that I was affronted by that fact. Actually, I had to go fix the pronouns in my first post after I’d already published it, because some of them were “he” and some of them were “he or she.” But I really don’t think it’s worth heading over to her blog and trying to get that all straightened out, just as she’s indicated a lack of interest in continuing to engage with my two posts.

.  She felt that your post treated her in ways that were insulting.  Why is that?

I think the most accurate answer would be “I don’t know,” but I’ll hazard a guess: she felt that I was taking her personal reasons for teaching in her situation as universals, and then rejecting them. Whereas, from her point of view, they weren’t universals, and I don’t have the right to dispute the particulars of her experience. It was baffling to her that I would universalize what she wrote, and insulting that I would think I had the right to dictate to her the meaning of her experience.

I still do not believe those claims could be made without going of necessity beyond one’s own experience, as I’ve said before. I also do not think a feeling of insult, however regrettable, ought to determine or swamp a discussion about social class and higher education in which so many teachers, students, and others are implicated.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/11/08 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The road to hell is paved with blog comments about blog comments about blog comments. 

Of course, the road to hell is a bumpy one, what with all those unbaptised babies under the blog comments.

By on 02/11/08 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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