Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Pedagogy, Bias, and an Entirely Unrelated Amusing Internet Video

Last week, I had my students read a 1988 article by Peggy McIntosh called "The Invisible Knapsack", an abridged version of which can be found here.

For those of you who haven't read it, it's on the subject of privilege, especially unseen privilege, as it pertained to the white majority in the United States in the late 1980s. I use the past tense there (with reservation) because of the conversation that took place in my class.

Given that it is, primarily, a composition and rhetoric class, we spent much of our time on how McIntosh presents her argument, and the effect it has on the reader. But we spent more time than I expected grappling with the relevance of the article to modern readers.

My students' first reaction was "how old is this, anyway?"

Back up: The majority of my students are 18 years of age. This means that they were born, by and large, between the first day of January and the last day of December in 1994, and for whom, as Beloit's Minset List for this year tells us (among other things) "Slavery has always been unconstitutional in Mississippi, and Southern Baptists have always been apologizing for supporting it in the first place" (that state ratified the 13th amendment on 16 March 1995 -- Kentucky beat them to it by just under 19 years). Since they were young enough to be even aware of politics, there have been prominent black figures in the upper echelons of American governance, with Condoleezza Rice serving as National Security Advisor from 2001-5, later replacing Colin Powell as Secretary of State from 2005-9. (And, as the list also notes, since they were eleven, the job of Secretary of State has been a woman's job).

So it's with a great degree of skepticism that my students came to a list meant to highlight white privilege, with items on it like:

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can deal with my hair. 


I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race. 


I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race. 

Which, I suppose, fair enough, right? It's easier than ever before to see, especially in cities, the growing cosmopolitanism of America. All colours of culture have been, to a large extent, equally commodified (and so what if that's just because there was a profit to be made and a market to be explored, right?). And the "person in charge" has been a black man for the past four years (long may he reign). But the real challenge was in getting them to recognize that there are still items on the list that continue to be relevant. Especially in places like Arizona, items like this:

If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race. 

The number of people who get pulled over for "driving while black", "flying while brown", and so on in this country is, in the words of a prominent internet meme, still too damn high. Profiling, I tried to tell them, was a form of racism. And they largely seemed to agree.

But they also seemed to think that the lion's share of racism in this country was due to economic conditions, ones that, at one point in history were due to racism, but now are due to a repeating cycle of poverty only tangentially and historically related to race. Because if everyone is equal, like they've been brought up to believe, then the problem isn't racism. The problem is money.

Well, I'm still working on them with that one. We had to get to compositional matters.

This week I'm having them read an article from Scientific American. "Study Shows Gender Bias in Science is Real. Here's Why It Matters." It's part of my ongoing quest to teach them to analyze rhetorical situations, understand bias, and, this week, how genres produce expectations. I'll let you know how it goes.

Oh, and because I promised in the title, here's a silly video treating the story of Hengest and Horsa as though it were a) historically accurate and b) a first-time home-buyers' TV show. Enjoy?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Thomas Meyer's Beowulf

So it's been a while since I last wrote something on here, but I'm turning over a new leaf with the beginning of the semester. Expect to see more posts on teaching now that I officially have a composition and rhetoric class all of my very own. There will still be plenty of medieval here to see too -- starting today with a discussion of Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, newly published by Punctum Press.

Many of you have probably heard the news: there's a new Beowulf in town. What do I think? I think it's better than Heaney's. Let me repeat that: I think this version is better than the one by the Nobel laureate. I'll explain.

As far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of Beowulf out there. On the one hand you have hyper-accurate scholarly translations and editions. Of these the generally accepted king is the one that has come to bear the name of its originator: Klaeber's Beowulf, which I believe is now in its fourth edition. There are others, more or less useful for other specific purposes. I prefer Liuzza's prose  verse translation (1) for beginners, because it's accurate enough to be useful for scholarly purposes without weighing ten pounds and being very intimidating, but there are others to be sure. The first type are necessarily prose translations: as Bede said when paraphrasing Cædmon's hymn, "verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."

The other type are the poetic translations. These aren't ever going to be accurate enough for scholarship, but have other merits, chief among which is their ability to convey (if done well) something of the artistry of the original that escapes prose translations.

For this type judging the best edition is a matter of taste -- who can say what makes a poem more amenable to one person than another. Each poet -- for this type of translation requires a poet -- makes choices. What meaning will be sacrificed in order to meet the requirements of meter, alliteration, etc.? To be sure, even prose translators must make some of these decisions, but for the poet there are many many more.

Meyer's poem, for me, captures something visceral about the original that escapes even the best prose editions. It occupies a peculiar meeting place between the wild lunacy of Ginsberg's "Howl", the impassioned restraint of one of Thomas's villanelles, and the original "Geat epic" in Old English. It also, in its formatting, captures something of the performance, of the way we think perhaps it would have been, could have been performed in Old English. Look:

Especially for the last part of the passage, some comparison is in order. 

Here's Heaney's:

Then as dawn brightened and the day broke
Grendel's powers of destruction were plain:
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning...

The Old English:

Ða wæs on uhtan     mid ær-dæge
Grendles guð-cræft     gumum undyrne;
þa wæs æfter wiste     wop up ahafen,
micel morgen-sweg.     (ll.126-129a)

And Liuzza's prose:

When in the dim twilight just before dawn
Grendel's warfare was made known to men,
then lamentation was lifted up after the feasting,
a great morning-sound...

Of course Liuzza's is the most accurate rendition, followed by Heaney, and at a distance Meyer -- but which do I *like* better? Which do you? Heaney is trying to straddle the line, I think, between accuracy and artistry, and I think Meyer has somewhat heroically decided to throw his hands in the air. He's given up the cause of literal accuracy and gone for something else, accuracy of the soul maybe. In the end, it's all up to a matter of taste, but in my opinion, we don't need another accurate translation. We have those. 

Meyer's version fills another need.

(1) It has been pointed out to me that Liuzza's translation, though it stresses accuracy over many formal concerns (like alliteration) is in fact a verse translation with an admittedly quiet four-stress line and medial pause. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Righteous anger

Offered with only one comment.

That comment is, of course, "Fuck you, anonymous miniature trimmer. Fuck you and your shitty scissors."


On Introversion and Academia, or, Take a Deep Breath and Stop Blaming Introversion

In the Chronicle of Higher Ed yesterday was an advice column about introverts in academia by William Pannapacker. Link here.

He brings up a lot of good points, especially that academic careers demand an eccentric combination of activities comfortable for both introverts and extroverts (studying alone for long periods vs. standing in front of large numbers of people to explain what you've found -- not to mention the obligatory conference schmoozing and job interviews).

But as someone who's always been introverted (having taken the meyers-briggs probably a dozen times over the years and always having scored something beginning with "i") I still have to take issue with his confusion of introversion with a kind of anxiety about social situations. Introversion and extroversion are about where you get your energy, from being alone or from being social. It's not the same as being shy.

For example, discussing the problems faced by introverted graduate students:

Meanwhile, most graduate students are teaching for the first time, and the introverts are constantly worried about how their reticence will damage their credibility in the classroom: Will my hands tremble, will my voice quaver, will I be able to smile naturally? Will they challenge my authority?

Social anxiety is no more a necessary marker of introversion than extroversion, though perhaps it is a trait more common in introverts because of a lack of practice in social situations. I am no more nervous in front of a class of students than I am sitting in a pink bathrobe at my computer at two in the afternoon with a beer in my hand. I was the very first time, but it had nothing to do with my introversion and everything to do with the fact that it was something new (the getting up in front of class, not the pink bathrobe). It's like going on a first date. If you're not a little nervous, you're in the minority.

That's because being comfortable in front of people isn't anything to do with extroversion. It's about being comfortable in your own skin, being unafraid of being foolish, and being aware that you are your own worst critic (Unless you're in a job interview. Then you're looking right at your worst critic who for some reason you weren't expecting to be there, but who totally is right there. Where's my scotch?)

Now if we were talking about being exhausted after half an hour of rubbing shoulders with (even pleasant) eminent scholars at Kalamazoo, or after speaking for an hour to recalcitrant students who really couldn't care less whether it's "could care less" or "couldn't care less", then I'd be right with you. That's exhausting stuff. I used to wish I smoked so I could take quiet outdoor breaks every hour -- now I just take mental health breaks to "get some fresh air".

But I don't get shaky in front of a crowd, and I'm not made nervous by meeting new people. It's just like going scuba diving: the faster you jump in, the more you get done before you need to come up for air.

And that's my two cents for the afternoon.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Readers! (And Writers?)

Good lord, I feel like a kid who just got his first upvotes on reddit* - we still have readers! :) Hello, all!

And so, after shuffling back through my papers, I realize I said I would post about pedagogy.

At Gothic Revival University, as at many such institutions across the country, a system has evolved whereby graduate students from the English department are conscripted to teach the teeming hordes of first-year students to "write." Not just the first-year English students, mind, but *all* the first-year students.

In actual fact, as at many institutions across the country, the majority of first-year students in these classes are *not* English students, because most English students "test-out" or "AP-out" of the requirement. This leaves English graduate students in the unenviable position of teaching everyone *but* English students how to write.

Perhaps you can see the problem.

Have you ever heard a professor in a non-English discipline complain "why hasn't anyone taught these students to write?" Well, someone has, probably to the best of her abilities. The problem is, Dr. History/Anthropology/Physics/Theology/Whatever professor, English graduate students rarely have the call to write History/Anthropology/Physics/Theology/Whatever papers, and so have a bit of a challenge teaching students (who could be going into any or none of the above fields) to write for those fields.

"Oh, but surely someone could have taught them how to write a paper!"

Le sigh.

What I love about being a Medievalist is that we are, like all cultural studies fields, forced to work in multiple disciplines simultaneously. I hate it a little too, but it's in the same way I hate exercise, eating well, and going to bed early enough to not be completely knackered at 6:30am when I get up (all of which I do my best to do). American Studies is probably the closest modern analogue from a methodological standpoint (even if they do at times complain about their supposed lack of sources**). Basically put, we know better than most that there are profound and subtle differences in the way one writes an English paper, a history paper, an art history paper, and an archaeology paper. Primarily, it has to do with what's assumed.

In English, it's taken for granted that your reader has read the text in question (summary is the cardinal sin). It's also taken for granted that the text's relationship to the present reader is at least equal to if not vastly more important than its relationship to its time and place of origin.*** Pretty much only Historicists and New Historicists think that texts are inseparable from their origins. I can't tell you the funny looks I get for asking what the cultural relevance is about certain readings of texts ("yes," I might say, "but what does this tell us about the way we can read the culture at the time of the text's composition?" ... crickets).****

In history, it's assumed that you will be skeptical of your sources. It's assumed that primary source documents are historical artifacts. It's assumed that an anthropological study is pertinent evidence that can be used to support your thesis.

And I have it on good authority that for the most part art history these days is as "presentist" as English (and just as "theory-bonkers", to borrow a phrase).

Basically, every discipline teaches "how to write" differently. Yes, I can try to teach students to organize their thoughts, to analyze a rhetorical situation, to use topic sentences; but I can't make them adept at writing in whatever specific discipline they're going to move into, because I'm not an expert in that field.

Me, I think each department should have its own first-year writing classes. You're an art history major? Congrats, here's the "words and images" class. You like business? Here's your "commerce communication" class. Doing anthropology? Here's your class on "the scientific method in writing".

But until such time as your department decides to teach the specifics of writing in your discipline, please don't rag on the poor English graduate students. We don't know your disciplines; some of us barely know our own.

Hell, at this point we'll be happy if they come out of our classes with the ability to write an argumentative thesis and to use the right "their," "they're", or "there".

*also, I did just get my first upvotes on reddit, for pointing out that making one's bed in the morning is not an indicator of success in life. Go figure.

**Come on, Americanists: if we Medievalists had a tenth of the surviving documentation you have, we'd have stomped out the moniker "the Dark Ages" a century ago. Just sayin'.

***Their originary geotemporality, if you will. Hats off to JJC for being both brilliantly incomprehensible and perfectly reasonable at the same time.

****The author is dead; long live the author-function.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Happy Leap Day

Happy February 29th to one and all, and especially to those who get to celebrate their birthday on the right day for once :) In honour of the peculiarity of the day, here's a peculiar story, via the interwebs, about Saints Patrick and Bridget and popping the question:

Another tall tale (there's no reason to believe it's anything but) dates the origin of ladies' privilege to the 5th century, around the time (speaking of tall tales) St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. As the story goes, St. Patrick was approached by St. Brigid, who had come to protest on behalf of all women the unfairness of always have to wait for men to propose marriage. After due consideration, St. Patrick offered St. Brigid and her gender the special privilege of being able to pop the question one year out of every seven. Some haggling ensued, and the frequency ultimately settled upon was one year out of four — leap years, specifically — an outcome which satisfied both parties. Then, unexpectedly, it being a leap year and St. Brigid being single, she got down on one knee and proposed to St. Patrick on the spot. He refused, of course, bestowing on her a kiss and a beautiful silk gown in consolation.

Really, this should be an apology for not posting more, but I don't think anyone reads this anymore, so to whom would I apologise? Sorry, google's crawler bots! :) If someone does read this, leave a note and I'll post next week about the exciting world of pedagogical theory, in which I am currently mired.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

This May Seem Like a Strange Question...

Someone asked me the other day, and I really couldn't come up with a satisfactory response:

"Why, in English departments, do we write book-length works of "criticism"?"

Oh, in the past, I think it was because there were essentially two options: small things, that is to say, articles which could be compiled in paper journals or book-length publications; or monographs of book length, for book-length publication.

Maybe it's only a question to me because I can't at this point imagine having a book's-worth of analytical things to say on a single topic, or perhaps because, being raised in the digital age, I feel a peculiar affinity for middling-length pieces for which there never used to be any applicable publishing medium. Or perhaps I've read too many book-length works of analysis that really could have been two or three short papers but felt the need to expand themselves to the size of a book for economic (or other?) reasons.

This isn't to imply any sort of value judgement. I'm just throwing this out there.

What do you think? That is, if a) there is a you reading this, and b) you have thoughts.