Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Gobbledegook in English Literature studies

written by S. A. Dance

Like any responsible book collector, I’m often forced to decide which books deserve a spot in my limited shelf space. During these purges, one type of book always gives me pause. These are the books I acquired during the two years I was a graduate student in comparative literature; books unheard of by most people outside of academia but, to many inside, akin to scripture; books by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, György Lukács, and Slavoj Žižek, to name just a few from the pantheon. I’ve held on to some thinking one day I might return to graduate school to complete a PhD, and what would a graduate student be without his copy of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama? But with a tenured teaching position, two kids, and a mortgage, I no longer entertain such fantasies. Now I’m free to finally make a confession: I never knew what these books were talking about.

The demands of my bourgeois existence grow with each passing year, and I didn’t want this little secret to metastasize each time I crossed paths with a true initiate or cracked open Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia to finally figure out “how anti-production appropriates the productive forces.” I realize that in making my confession, I may only prove my own obtuseness, but so be it. It has been quite cathartic so far.

My last book purge found me deciding the fate of Slavoj Žižek’s Tarrying With The Negative, a book I read in a class on Shakespeare and political theory. Žižek is known for threading pop culture, German idealism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis into a confounding tapestry. His pop culture references include kitsch like Kung-Fu Panda, and they lend his thoughts an air of accessibility. That air quickly dissipates, however. As a high school teacher, I know students understand a text if they can summarize its main point in a few sentences. I imagine a house guest surveying my bookshelf and, impressed by my erudition, asking, “What’s this Slavoj Žižek book about?” In a panic, I try to muster a coherent sentence about dialectics, Hegel, ideology, or something, but nothing comes. I quickly thumb through the book, looking at my copious annotations. Still nothing.

Turning to a random page reveals one reason I found it impenetrable: “In Reading Capital, Louis Althusser endeavored to articulate the epistemological break of Marxism by means of a new concept of causality, ‘overdetermination’: the very determining instance is overdetermined by the total network of relations within which it plays the determining role.” The first five words alone posed a significant barrier. I had never read Althusser’s Reading Capital and I had never read Marx’s Capital, which, perhaps, guaranteed my floundering in grad school given the pervasiveness of Marxist thought in the humanities. If my professors expected me to engage in any significant way with neo-Marxist theorists, they must have assumed I was intimately acquainted with Marx himself. I was not. I went to graduate school because I found studying literature exhilarating and fulfilling. In my undergraduate honors thesis I analyzed the significance of Herman Melville’s allusions to the Book of Job in Moby Dick. I wanted to do more of that: studying and understanding the great works of literature. Instead I was asked to understand how “The Althusserian ‘ideological interpellation’ designates the retroactive illusion of ‘always-already;’ the reverse of the ideological recognition is the misrecognition of the performative dimension.”

Since I couldn’t read Žižek to understand Žižek, I had to look elsewhere. The most lucid explanation is Roger Scruton’s essay “The Clown Prince of the Revolution,” in which he traces the influence of the dubious psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on Žižek. Scruton explains Žižek’s main thesis throughout his corpus “We become self-conscious by an act of total negation: by learning that there is no subject…This is the aspect of Lacan that Žižek finds most exciting—the magic wand that conjures visions and promptly waves them to nothingness.” When Scruton observes that Žižek “is a lover of paradox,” he echoes Adam Kotsko’s analysis of Giorgio Agamben’s work: “[W]hat is most distinctive about Agamben’s style of thought comes from his love of paradox and contradiction.” The humanities professor and Agamben’s English translator admits that Agamben is really, really hard to understand but he believes this is a good thing. Concerning Agamben’s “study of animality,” The Open, Kotsko writes, “It’s not clear how all the pieces of Agamben’s argument fit together, but this only increases the book’s effectiveness for me: it’s not a definitive answer to the question of how humans and animals relate, but a book to think with.”

I quickly learned that, like Kotsko, many of my professors valued paradoxical and obscure arguments. And I got pretty good at making them. In an essay on Wallace Stevens, I concluded by asserting, “If everything is nothing, then that nothingness is everything. For poetry to encompass one, it encompasses the other. When Stevens’s mind of winter descends into the inescapable nothingness of his subjectivity, he has claimed for himself the totality of everything.” I don’t know what this means. But I wrote it and I was rewarded for it.

I knew my analysis of Wallace Stevens would please my professor, but I was bothered by a nagging thought that I really didn’t understand Wallace Stevens. I wondered if my graduate school training just amounted to a parlor trick. Last year, at my high school, the students enjoyed arguing if a hotdog is a sandwich, the millennial equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The hotdog question made its way to the whiteboard in our staff lounge. By the time I arrived, my colleagues had written their responses. Some argued that a hot dog is not a sandwich because a sandwich requires two pieces of bread and a hotdog bun isn’t supposed to separate. Others averred that it most definitely is a sandwich: Meat between bread is a sandwich, end of story. I saw these responses and thought, “Simpletons!” before putting my graduate education to work: “In order to determine if a ‘hotdog is a sandwich,’ we must first determine the proper understanding of ‘is’ for if we do not grasp the ontological necessity of being itself, we fall into an abyss wherein ‘being’ is and is not itself and thus a hotdog is and is not a sandwich for it is and is not its very self.” I was quite amused by the whole situation until a colleague told me that a student had seen the whiteboard and said he wanted to study philosophy so that he could write like me.

The so-called Sokal Hoax was a clear indictment of the humanities’ love of nonsensical arguments. Physics professor Alan Sokal put to the test his hypothesis that something was afoul in the humanities. He wondered if “a leading North American journal of cultural studies [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” makes abundant use of Derrida and company, theoretical jargon, and paradoxes. He expounds, for example, “that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed.” The farcical essay proved his hypothesis when it was published in the academic journal Social Text. When Sokal revealed the essay to be a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca, he blasted both the editors of Social Text, who “apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion,” and the state of the humanities where “incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic.”

That was in 1996. The hoax continues, but now with unknowing pranksters. My Master’s degree is proof. Like Sokal, I got away with nonsense cloaked in a semblance of meaning. In constructing this illusion of comprehension, I also got away with some downright atrocious prose. In an essay on Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Towards A Minor Literature, I eked out this abomination: “Similar to Kafka’s use of German, Wole Soyinka wrote ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ in English and not Yoruba, his mother tongue. The implications for this are immense, and the deterritorialization is not merely a theoretical suggestion but infects and plays a role within the represented, diegetic world of the play.” I might have gone through my entire graduate school career writing like that had my advisor not been the department curmudgeon, who would not tolerate unparallel sentence structure or a single dangling modifier. It is possible I never would have crossed paths with such a relic, and surely many graduate students never do.

Of course, my horrendous style was a symptom of my failure to understand anything of significance in what I was reading. (I don’t know what “deterritorialization” or “diegetic” mean.) I see pretentious prose masking empty thinking in my high school students’ writing. I often read sentences like this: “The persistent continuance of racially prejudiced ideologies in the minds of many Americans has only diminished to small degrees or some might think not even at all.” Clearly, the student meant to write “racism is still a problem in America,” but, realizing the banality of this statement, injected it with prepositional phrases and multisyllabic words. This style of writing is almost encouraged in graduate school. Theorists, by and large, write sloppily. And the prose I ingested, I spewed out. Derrida, for example, writes in On Grammatology:

Unless my project has been fundamentally misunderstood, it should be clear by now that, caring very little about Ferdinand de Saussure’s very thought itself, I have interested myself in a text whose literality has played a well known role since 1915, operating within a system of readings, influences, misunderstandings, borrowings, refutations, etc. What I could read—and equally what I could not read—under the title of A Course in General Linguistics seemed important to the point of excluding all hidden and “true” intentions of Ferdinand de Saussure.

If a Jack Derrida wrote that in my English class, he would have some considerable revisions to do. I would suggest the following:

I am interested in an influential text from 1915: Ferdinand de Saussure’s A Course in General Linguistics. My interpretation of this much-discussed text is quite important even if it disregards Saussure’s true intentions.

The second sentence remains a bit vague, but without asking him his “true” intentions, I’m not sure I can improve it further.

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” so clearly explains the causes and consequences of bad writing, that it’s no surprise I read it for the first time after leaving graduate school. He observes that “[Our language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” The bad and predictable style “will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” Obscure arguments and poor style exclude independent thought and new ideas. Orwell would not be surprised to see the poor style and the growing intolerance to free speech in many of our universities today.

Of course, I should have known what I was getting into. In 1989, Robert Alter lamented the eclipse of literary scholarship by theoretical language games in his book Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age. The research done in most English departments, he observed, no longer cares to “engage the literary work in its subtle and compelling specificity but rather to use it as a prooftext for preconceived, and all too general, views.” He estimates that “many young people now earning undergraduates degrees in English or French . . . have read two or three pages of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva for every page of George Eliot or Stendhal.”

That estimate is too conservative by today’s standards. I’ve never read George Eliot or Stendhal and I have a Master’s. Free from academia, I should begin studying literature again. It’s time to ditch the Žižek.


Why raising my son made me question what female empowerment is doing to boys

My son Fin is four. He loves reading, endlessly plays with Lego and has developed a sudden and surprising obsession with bats.

Needless to say, I adore him — and am trying to raise him, like the good feminist I am, to empathise with others, articulate his emotions without fear or repression and to play with pink prams if he wants to.

It recently occurred to me, however, that if I had a daughter I might be more concerned with passing on different messages.

Just as my own mother repeatedly told me throughout my youth, I would be advising my daughter of the importance of being independent, becoming educated, earning her own money and not relying on anyone. I would be encouraging her to be strong.

But I'm not teaching my son any of those sorts of things. Why? I suppose I've always thought it was a given that males will grow up to be strong and independent, self-sufficient and confident, no matter what messages they receive in childhood.

Only recently have I started to feel decidedly uncomfortable with my own preconceptions about gender.

While I passionately believe that, after years of discrimination, women and young girls deserve a chance to shine and to be cheered on to achieve whatever their heart desires, I can't help feeling that in the process, we're in danger of swinging too far the other way. In empowering girls, we're also disempowering our boys.

So keen have I been to bring my son up to appreciate female achievement and to know that women can be strong, that I've been reading him a collection of children's books called Little People, Big Dreams.

Sumptuously illustrated hardbacks, they take the life stories of famous women in history — artist Frida Kahlo, authors Agatha Christie and Maya Angelou, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and others — and retell them in a child-friendly way.

Fin enjoys them because they're great stories about people who change things, and is too young yet to notice that these books are all about women.

But while reading them to him before bed, I've been feeling a little odd. While I know that regular history books have long been criticised for ignoring women and being too male-centric, I'm not sure the answer is to present our children with girls-only books.

Doesn't that only succeed in perpetuating the original problem — but for boys, rather than girls? Are we just reinforcing gender stereotypes, albeit in the other direction?

The Little People collection has been such a success that it's spawned many copycat books, which devotedly tell the stories of great women of science, sport, politics and more. They are in the same spirit as so many deserving schemes that aim to inspire girls to reach for the stars, be it professionally or intellectually.

And my feminist heart applauds the intentions of such initiatives. Yet as a mother of a young son, I can't help but worry.

While we're all happy to talk about our desire for 'strong women' in society these days, I'm ashamed to admit that I somehow feel disconcerted to hear someone discuss a 'strong man'.

Because, if I'm honest, when hearing the words 'strong man' I subconsciously think of negative connotations — things like misogyny or bullying. But when I hear the words 'strong woman', I think of victory over oppression.

So engrained has this divide become that any display of male strength seems almost discouraged. And when I imagine Fin growing up, that doesn't sit well with me.

Why? Well, it seems we already have a lost generation of boys, a whole underclass of disenfranchised young men who don't know where they're going in life or what their purpose is. Surely every mother wants her son to appreciate that women can be strong and successful — but no one wants a situation where young boys simply don't know what it is to be a strong and successful man, either.

Other mothers are similarly unnerved about their sons' futures in this new landscape. Recently, someone told me of a picture she'd seen on Instagram — a woman, posing with her young son and daughter. The smiling mother and daughter are wearing t-shirts declaring 'The Future is Female'. Meanwhile, her son looks decidedly lost and perplexed, perhaps uneasy at the thought of a future where he is seemingly obsolete.

Shouldn't the future be about change? Or ideas? Not one gender over another?

I suppose you could say I was raised to believe the future was, indeed, female. From a young age, my mother made sure that I knew I could be anything I wanted to be, I just had to work for it — albeit harder than the boys in my class.

Otherwise, my childhood was entirely average — I grew up in East Anglia, went to a local comprehensive and my best friends from school, both male and female, are still my best friends today.

Gender roles in our house were pretty distinct: my father, an electrician, left for work at 4.30am most mornings and my mother only ever worked part-time, around school hours. As for careers advice, well, in common with most children whose parents worked hard in manual jobs, there was a limited awareness of what options I had.

I was told I could be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. I was a fan of the U.S. drama Ally McBeal at the time, starring Calista Flockhart as a lawyer, so I went with lawyer. When I qualified, the first partner I worked for happened to be not only the youngest partner at the firm, but also a woman. She was astute and inspirational, and I wanted to be like her — and with her example, never felt my gender would hold me back.

That changed when I started working as a lawyer for a technology firm, where I was often the only woman in the room. I was frequently talked over, and in one tax structuring meeting, was asked to fetch the sugar (yes, really).

It only made me work harder, and I became deputy CEO, next to the male founder.

Motherhood changed me — not least professionally, because it inspired me to set up my app Peanut, a social network that connects like-minded women who happen to be mothers.

I'm married and we share parenting equally, but I felt isolated when I had Fin in 2013. My friends either didn't have children yet, or didn't live locally. I often felt lonely and bored — and then guilty for feeling this way.

If I was desperate for an app like Peanut, other mothers would be too, I reasoned.

But motherhood also forced me to confront preconceptions about gender that had become embedded over the years.

I admit that when I discovered I was having a son, I worried about not having anything in common with him. All the things I loved as a child — drama, ballet — seemed decidedly girly. I felt terribly concerned I didn't know anything about football.

And then Fin was born and I realised that, just like the male sexists I'd met throughout my life and career, I, too, had quickly reduced my son to a stereotype. Because he's not just a predictable boisterous 'boy' of clichי. He's his own person.

He's not like me — not because he is a boy, but because he is an individual. His endearing shyness, his lovely bookishness have nothing to do with his gender. They're part of his personality.

And yet I, a lifelong champion of equality, still find myself falling back on stereotypes when caring for him. For example, I admit I have told him more than once 'big boys don't cry'. I would never dream of saying the equivalent to a four-year-old girl.

Imagine then, how I felt, when Fin's nursery teacher told me of an incident when he had somehow become physically entangled with another boy. She offered him a cuddle because he was upset, which he stoically refused — and when told it was OK to be sad, my little four-year-old, red-faced with anguish, permitted one solitary tear to run down his cheek.

I felt terrible. Because it seems that while society is trying to allow girls to be all things — strong, independent, emotional, empathetic — we will only permit boys to show aggression or boisterousness.

Yet any mother will tell you her boy can be just as sweet and vulnerable as a girl, and that the complex, wonderful reality of a son challenges any football-obsessed clichי that exists.

Of course, girls still all too often come off badly when it comes to stereotyping. Boys are described as 'assertive' and 'inquisitive'; girls are quickly deemed 'bossy' and 'talkative'.

I should know — I was one of those little chatterbox girls.

It's also inarguable that while things are changing for girls, boys appear to be in limbo.

I recently read a comment from comedian and writer Michael Ian Black which summed up just this situation: 'The last 50 years redefined womanhood … [but there was] no commensurate movement for men, who are still generally locked into the same rigid, outdated, model of masculinity. Men are adrift … and nobody is talking about it.'

Black's words really struck a chord with me, as they should any mother. Indeed, with what he says in mind, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the attainment gap between boys and girls is growing ever larger.

A girl born today is 75 per cent more likely than a boy to proceed to higher education. Previously male-dominated professions are becoming distinctly female. Two out of three new GPs are women and, among lawyers, more than three in five trainees are female.

Yes, some of this is certainly down to righting the wrongs of a past where women were restricted to being nurses and secretaries; and yes, there are still industries where there is a lack of diversity — engineering and architecture to name just two.

But overall, has it meant some boys and young men are languishing intellectually and aspirationally? Are the seeds of this sown from the earliest days of primary school, where just 15 per cent of teachers are male?

We mustn't forget that the true definition of feminism is equality. Yet last year, 71 per cent of female GCSE entries were awarded at least a C grade, compared with just 61.5 per cent of boys. Attempting to address that gap shouldn't be seen as anti-women.

I'm thrilled so much has changed for women since those days when my mother told me how important it was that I grew up to be independent. We're still many decades away from true gender parity in the UK. I don't have all the answers. But I do know men are not the enemy.

I know this for sure because one day my lovely, sweet-natured son will be a man. And I want him to accomplish whatever he wants, not because of his gender, but because of his self-worth.


Study of High School mathematics declining in Australia

This could be fixed by giving double weight to STEM courses.  Pretending that they are no more valuable than literature courses is fantasy

In the warm-up before ABC’s Q&A a couple of weeks ago, panel members were asked which subject they liked least at school. Almost all nominated maths or chemistry. Few people would be surprised at this. Maths gets a bad rap, and many school students drop it like a scorching spud as soon as they get the chance.

Media reported this week that the proportion of students taking higher level maths for the NSW Higher School Certificate has declined over the past 10 years, continuing a long-term trend across Australia. This is despite the greater academic prestige that tends to be attached to what is now called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) — as pointed out by NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes in a speech that attracted heated debate.

The drop in students’ maths skills is not just an academic problem. A report released by Engineers Australia says the drop in participation in STEM subjects at a level sufficient to allow studying engineering at university is affecting Australia’s capacity to produce qualified engineers, and resulting in an over-reliance on skilled migration, which carries some risks. Permanent and temporary migration accounts for almost two thirds of new engineers, who are crucial in numerous areas of the economy, both present and future.

Engineers Australia recommends that students be ‘encouraged’ to study advanced and intermediate maths and science to Year 12. Unfortunately, encouragement is not enough; the seeds of participation in high cognitive demand courses are sown early in school.

The typical response to this sort of recommendation is to make maths and science more appealing by using ‘hands-on’, inquiry approaches to teaching; but this is misguided. Study after study has shown that explicit instruction is more effective, and is more likely to give children a sense of self-efficacy (these days called ‘growth mind set’) and confidence in their abilities. Once children have achieved mastery through methodical and sequential teaching, inquiry can be useful — but not before.

Preoccupation with inquiry learning as the solution to all our educational problems is associated with the cliché that traditional, teacher-directed approaches are an out-dated “industrial model” of education that is unsuited to the modern world.

The irony of this is not lost on cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who put it this way: “Apparently schools are bad because 100 years ago evil corporations duped them into prepping workers for factories. And the solution is to emphasize cooperative, creative work, because that’s what present-day, non-evil corporations say is needed for jobs of the future. Got it.”


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