more of the same

1. That last post was also inspired by a conversation with my mother. She worried that I shouldn’t go around shooting my mouth off, otherwise I’d gain a reputation as a trouble-maker. She means well: as do all mothers: but her frame of reference was the other big institution she knows, the British Civil Service. And being a lay inspector of schools.

Mother dearest: no, I’m not sticking my neck out. I’m doing my job. I’m doing what every academic working in literary studies should be doing. The critical element is essential to the work of literary studies, and what distinguishes a tertiary/higher level from the primary and secondary ones. The same goes for our students, what’s required of them, and how they’d be expected to grow and flourish. Developmentally, at a stage for reflection and abstraction. Alas, the elements of fun, enjoyment, and play mysteriously vanish between kindergarten and grad school. One of the hardest things for some grad students, I’ve often found, is rediscovering the joy. Hoping against hope that it hasn’t been excised or beaten out of them completely.

I’m doing my job properly and responsibly. It’s irresponsible to forego the critical side; lazy perhaps, a bad example to students for sure, criminally appalling if you compound the error and actively dismiss criticism (in all shapes and sizes and forms) in front of them. It’s a disservice to them. They are one’s charges, for whom one is responsible and to whom one owes a duty of care. It’s also a disservice to colleagues. Colleagues: here’s another difference between schools and universities. College, university, academia: it’s a fundamentally social and sociable employment. Collegial, community, discursive.

2. A real danger: big classes, the sausage-machine. Encouraging results-driven pseudo-education: “studying” for exams; the objective being getting a qualification; the tangibles. It’s not an education in the sense that we see in Plato: lots gets stuffed in, there’s nothing coming out in exchange, and the stuff that looks like it’s coming out, in an exam, is just the stuff that went in being regurgitated: mixed up and half-digested, often nauseating, often a disgusting stinking mess.

Students become numbers. They already are numbers. I am always disturbed when a new student in a new class introduces and signs themselves with their name and their number. Sometimes even number first. That really distresses me.But the big classes exacerbate the problem: if I can’t count them and pay attention to them individually, they no longer count. I’m crap at names. I also get the blanking-out–I’ve been known to forget my own sister’s name when introducing her to friends. Names take me a lot of effort. And I’ll get them wrong, and then we’ll all have a laugh and thus the bonding goes. Names are one key part to showing students they’re still individuals; and marking individual work, slowly and attentively and properly, is the other. I hate that we have big classes, and that we need them to be that size to demonstrate quality through quantity and economic viability, and to show that we deserve the counterbalance of some smaller classes at the final-year and graduate levels. That’s unfair: it’s using the large classes as pawns in university politics.

I loathe being manipulated by the fact of large class sizes into becoming a part of the dehumanizing machine: because I can’t get all the student names and I can’t read and mark their work the way I’d like to. I feel disgusted and used, against my will, better judgement, and everything that screams out fairness, justice, and basic human decency.

3. Curious position of literary studies: suspended teetering between science-envy and arts-envy. On the arty side: see, we’re not artists when we’re doing literary criticism. It’s insulting to actual artists to say we’re doing the same thing. We’re just not. We may be doing something similar when we use the same talents and tools in a similar way that’s pretty and satisfying–words, for instance. The odd person will have feet in both camps–Morris and indeed much Art Nouveau–or will bring non-fictional forms like the essay to giddy new heights–Orwell, Le Guin, Carter. Scott McCloud manages all that and in the neuvième art besides. Blogs such as this one are messing around with hybrid combinations of the onzième art and experiments with the essay (kinda 5e). But basically us lit studs folks, we’re craftsmen.

On the other hand: we’re dealing in association and analogies. Like any other human artistic production, criticism is figurative; our basic tools are the usual ones, so usual it feels like, well, a commonplace. Our methods and point are metaphor, translation, and making sense. Each of the three in its broadest sense and loading. So here’s another curiosity–a cliché to the point of banality to anyone working on trobador poetry, and yet one that reappears time and time again in that poetry itself, even though it was a cliché then too. What we make is sense, in an active way, as our work; and still, at the same time, sense is what we’re finding as we dig out knowledge.

4. Freedom = disengagement from the world: no, the opposite. Academics have if anything greater obligation to engage with the world. People working in the humanities: ditto, with emphasis on the human and an even greater obligation still to engage with their fellow-humans.

It being the scholar’s job, point, and purpose to make sense of it and explain that: to peers, to students, to the larger community… to humanity as a whole. And to record their findings for posterity (their benefit, and also entertainment). Share the wealth. An analogy: “serve and protect” works for us as it does for any other public service folks. We serve and protect the public, and the public interest and public good. This can mean what it says, and what’s intended. Not the recent NYPD version: policing and being secretive, keeping information inside, not releasing it to the outside world: and thus increasing the gulf from the public.

5. The academy and ivory towers: irritating notion that we should be pure and untainted. Newsflash: this is 2011, and these are universities. Not monasteries. Even older universities, based on a monastic model, have got rid of much of the culturally and temporally specific baggage that had, by a few hundred years thence, turned into ritualised nonsense (think: Gormenghast or Institute Benjamenta). Yes, there are good things from the older structures that are worth preserving; some defunct aspects might be worth reintroducing, their time might have come again, and they might even be more relevant now than ever. I’m thinking of meritorious undergraduates becoming “scholars,” and scholarship being associated with privileges: money, entitlement to the best rooms in college, extra free dinners. Geek power and respect.

But it’s a historical mistake to keep research pure by rejecting the worldly, repudiate the World. It’s worse than repudiation. It’s reneging: in the sense of breaking a contract compounded by the older underlying sense of breach of promise, trust, obligation; feudal betrayal and treachery. Medieval monastic history–not to mention the history of relations between monastery and university–is far from a simplistic temporal/spiritual division of labour. The regular clergy went through far worse than our current hand-wringing and fist-waving, with divisions and splinters-offs (not to mention heresies) from over 1500 years ago until, recently. The question of life in the world and engagement with humanity isn’t off the agenda by any means: contrast (cough–not my favourite saint, let’s just say) Thérèse of Lisieux with Father Damian and more recent Rwandan and Brazilian religious.

I say: give me Franciscans any day, for worldliness and a lack of self-important pretention, worthiness and decency, and a respect for their fellow human.

On which topic of Franciscans: I should pass you on to John V. Fleming’s Glady lerne, gladly teche. This week’s post dovetails delightfully with today’s stuff and nonsense over here:

(Warning: includes Marx. Which seems to have deeply upset and shocked a commenter, who commits an epic reading fail compounded by a reasoning one. *Sigh*)


  1. Om … condensed thoughts for the day from 33187lo :

    ‘Pick your battles’ and ‘don’t **** where you eat’.

    Also, when there’s a war on, sticking your neck out is liable to get you and those you love hurt. So you either keep necessarily quiet, struggle to maintain dignity and live on as best you can ; or leave everything behind, gently and with great sorrow.

    I know I’ve raised this before, but look! It’s online!

    And just because it’s out there, check out

    1. Well Noni, you’re right: of course you’re right. As is Mother. But there are more than two options here. (I wrote a bunch of stuff and it was really long so I’ve put it up in another post.)

      Yes, I’m picking battles. Sort of. In a complete cheat kind of way.

      1) Bigger ones that matter… ones where hopefully either no-one’s going to win anyway, or not in my life-time.

      2) Battles that aren’t battles. See Fleming article
      about “class struggle” being mistranslated as “class war.”

      3) I prefer to think of this as open and continuing discussion, rather than war; debate that includes strands and tangents and more than two sides, that’s “and/and” not “either/or,” where people might change their minds and positions, and indeed where the whole thing itself might change.

      4) Dialogue doesn’t have necessarily to be opposition and conflict. (No, Hegel wasn’t necessarily right.) Am resolutely feminist on this. That’s the way forward.

      5) This isn’t about battles and war. It’s about subversion. That can include subversion–or, reformation and revision–from within. I’ve always been much more in favour of that sort of thing. The objective is not death and destruction, but thought and change. This can all be positive and creative. Maybe even enjoyable and happy.

      6) I don’t shit where I eat.
      Where I eat = the department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies of UBC; the Programme in Medieval Studies; some trans-disciplinary groups, from groups of friends to the Translation Group; and the corpus of my students, who are from all over.
      I like these people. I’m ridiculously fond of some of them, and at times can be under-critical. I would get rather angry and maybe even contemplate giving a good kicking to anyone doing any shitting here. I have a lovely department, which is well-run, they care, they’re nice and good and clever. It’s family–it really feels like family, if you’re an itinerant expat, and it’s doubly appreciated when a department responds by being like your family
      (((((Hugs whole dept.)))))

      My comments are not, as should be perfectly clear, about my department. They’re about larger-scale systems, and systems around systems. Different thing. I’d also draw a parallel between my discomfort at being manipulated by the system into depersonalizing my own students, and what happens at the department level in relation to its faculty & staff. My department has always managed that admirably, at the administrative level (so: the staff, the head, etc.): never dehumanizing: quite the opposite, inc. talking about what happens at levels higher up, being diplomatic whilst winking, talking to everyone normally like people, looking after us, looking out for us. It’s been an example for doing that myself, writ smaller, with students. Exemplary, compared to some other depts I’ve been, and some other dept. administrators I’ve worked with before.
      (((((Hugs André, Carol, Emanuela, Joël, Marjo, Mireille, Nancy, Rita)))))

  2. Mmm … by ‘war’ i was hinting at a particular time and place, and a moment now described by some as a ‘civil war’. As to the ****, hey, that’s all down to interpretation of what those little stars mean. At least it wasn’t ******, which is clearly ‘sneeze’, which as I have frequently been told, is a naughty, repellent and disruptive thing.

    Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
    The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
    Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
    You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

    1. While there are problems with universities, their funding, student fees, and the whole point of the whole thing: I’d hesitate to call that a civil war. Students on the streets in London, Paris, New York–let alone the rest of France and the UK, and the recent Wisconsin disasters: that’s serious, and should be taken seriously. But: Athens, Cairo, Chile, Syria,… = massive, with further popular uprising in solidarity. It’s insulting to people living actual civil war to suggest anything other than a slight parallel. Yes, same principles; same whole system and value-system at stake; corruption, bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy; it’s global, and it’s globalization. But Vancouver ain’t Santiago.

      Other problem (as discussed with The Beloved the other evening): sure, the system sucks: but how much real practical good is it going to be to demonstrate saying “the system sucks?” Very different from saying “we want equal rights for [x] repressed minority”: simple change from “no rights” to “equal rights.” Or: “bin the poll tax.” In each case, there’s a definite statement; and change is practicable. (I think this is also The Beloved being perfectly correctly propositionally logical.) Hence why smaller-scale demonstrations asking for individual items are more successful.

      Also: what’s the solution? Total revolution, *ankers up against the wall, and who’ll suffer the most: mainly good honest folks–pensioners made destitute overnight, honest mortgage-payers, people who’ll pay rampant inflated prices for food, energy, basics.


      Subversion, reform, change from within. And change with and within The System. Picket and pamphlet shareholder and other big board meetings. Draw up petitions, collect signatures, take them to MPs, have bills go through parliament. In an ideal world, MPs with consciences and obeying their duty to represent their constituents would leave their parties. Go independent. Eventually band together as independents in a new anti-system party; this could be like a national government in times of crisis, or it could be the start of a genuinely new, stable system. But it’s got to be aiming for and in a spirit of stability, ideals, and peace. Otherwise it’ll be like every other us vs. them conflict: replace one authority with another, but the System of the World stays the same. This is where we need anarcha-feminist revolution; a different sort of revolution.

      And then we can all be happy Sneetches jiggling bellies around together jollily…

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