Essentialisms…

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, Stephen, that you read my tortured story on human nature as about the aftermath of the election and not as a reflection of my current whole life situation. ‘Cuz in academia, that’s what we do, and you’re fulfilling your “function” in the DRP course as our instructor. Or, perhaps you elided that part “on purpose” out of some ethic of propriety – a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed in polite company (i.e., publicly)?
I’m struck by the incredible energy on the DRP email list right now – getting religion back in schools, campaigning for school boards, all the great things we can read, and other “debates to be had” (Scott). No Doubt there is tremendous Education occurring at this very moment! And I don’t mean to impugn it, although for some reason I keep getting pissed off when I start to write about this. Apologies for any misdirected stray rage.


Joanna highlighted the need for a “defamiliarization campaign” about religion in schools: “We need to recognize that we’re always teaching religion, the task seems to be to name it.” Similarly, we’re (and I do mean us, and I mean it vertically (teacher:student) and horizontally (student:student, teacher:teacher?) are always teaching politics.
So here’s all this massive energy about things none of us are currently actually DOING (like running for the school board), which some of us may do in the future (godspeed!) but somehow not noticing (?), or choosing not to notice (?) how we’re “contributing” to an educaton that says democracy needs to happen there and then, not here and now.
Which is reminiscent of the Amherst Town Meeting debate about the “place” for local discussions of international policy.
But if we engaged that energy here, say, in the department, we’d be confronting a mini-version of the larger dynamic. We’d have to confront those aspects of the “cycle of violence” Mel Gilles describes in her piece, The Politics of Victimization.
But that would mean naming the ways our department – the people in it – act “as if” there are essential truths and ways of going about things. So, don’t bring up subtle dynamics of racism when they occur (or afterwards, or at all). Don’t notice that 2/3rds of the faculty has issues with another 2/3rds. Don’t try to “mix” social interaction with cultural studies. Or….whatever combinations cross existing “essential” boundaries.
Couldn’t we produce (create, generate) our own “site of intersection between theory and practice” (Stephen, paraphrasing Donna)? Isn’t that what we need to do to generate the “grand narrative” we need in order to stop putting palliative and redressive bandaids on political wounds?
I like Stephen’s formulation: “the point is to transform from thug to thief; that is, from a brutal assassin to one who plays with all social norms and rules. They are related, two sides of the same coin, just as liberal democracy is always ready to collapse into fascism.” Becoming a thief, however, requires practice just like any other skill. We want to change norms and rules? Then we have to get our hands dirty trying to do it! We want to be skilled with our play? Practice practice practice!
Unfortunately, as unhooked and unhinged wrote, it seems (if not always, at least far too damn often) that there’s “no real way to recover from the mistake of not knowing.” We should all be perfect first – know the right procedure, the optimal timing, the precise move and then enact it without error, hesitation, or misstep. Or else.

8 thoughts on “Essentialisms…”

  1. Hi Steph,
    I appreciate your interweaving the DRP class and the discussion about the department that started here under the

  2. I was about to respond to Steph’s blurb about school committees when I read Stephen’s plea for a larger frame.
    So to quickly address Stephen…..I was actually trying to take a longer view…One thing I saw from the descriptions U&U provided were that I found it typical of my dual graduate programs. I can’t speak about other programs, but I find it interesting, at the least, to recognize that PERHAPS one of the politico-communicative games being played (in 2 places) demands that performers adopt a stance of certain curiousity. That is, students must seem certain about what they are curious about. You know; “goal directed.” and if the goals change, it is REALLY hard to manage.
    Now, I think that actually relates to what I was going to respond to in the first place: “So here’s all this massive energy about things none of us are currently actually DOING (like running for the school board), which some of us may do in the future (godspeed!)”
    Ah, but when one DOES do those things, partly out of using the small amount of expertise one has gained through research, and partly out of potentials for future research, and mostly part out of feeling an old-fashioned sense of civic duty (and all that good stuff about agency and efficacy)………one’s status as a scholar gets questioned. “Are you going into local politics?” and other such questions have the effect (when they come from academics) of saying: pick one–are you with US or THEM?
    The funny thing is, the locals just ask: “what are you doing next?” “What are you involved in now?” They assume that you will continue with your job, your profession, and that the political life is just part of your commitment to the community. Academics worry that outside committments are akin to leaving the profession.
    (Side tangent: When in one grad program, I was strongly urged not to get a “job” because that would detract from my studies. Other women students were discouraged from reproducing, for fear of that same detraction from the life of the mind.)

  3. i’m concerned by this in Steph’s post:
    “Unfortunately, as unhooked and unhinged wrote, it seems (if not always, at least far too damn often) that there’s “no real way to recover from the mistake of not knowing.” We should all be perfect first – know the right procedure, the optimal timing, the precise move and then enact it without error, hesitation, or misstep. Or else.”
    notions of the ‘right procedure’ and ‘optimal timing’ really fly in the face of what i think are most interesting about art and creating: process (and the dismantling of process). certainly this is my claim, but isn’t this where the real work takes place? do we have to respond to the “right” or whomever ‘without error’ as you say, or can we nod to them, acknowledge their struggles, and go about our own too? not separate but equal, but agnoism in a productive (self productive) fashion?
    –sp

  4. In many ways, I’m an outsider to this blog space. I am not in the class with Steph, Stephen and others and I have decided to post anonymously. It would have been easy to be dismissed on those two grounds alone, but thus far folks have been responding to my rather bleak view of the department and my experience of not fitting in. First, I must say that my intention was not to suggest that everyone in the department is a part of what I termed “the cutting edge.” I was speaking of experiences I had with certain professors in classes I took with them several years ago. I was not clear about my definition of
    “cutting edge” and realize that my lack of clarification left a lot of questions. I don’t want to go into details about who said what, who did what, and what I did and what I said.
    My main reason for posting was to speak about something that has been bothering me about the academic world and especially departments where certain members of the faculty espouse critical thinking and alternative views of history, culture, theory, and so on but act in ways that undermine what they are teaching and writing. When I came in I was a bit lost. I wanted to really explore certain areas such as critical rhetoric, but they were not what others in the department were doing so I immediately felt “unhooked” and later when I started talking about my interests I started feeling “unhinged” as though what was grabbing me was nuts.(existentialism, the “deadness” of social and cultural life that focuses on consumption, youth, beauty, leisure; the academic emphasis on being an expert and staking out a territory instead of being an activist or an advocate; my own stumbling around trying to stake out an intellectual space for uncertainty, fear, dislocation, rootlessness and all those other things that busy people with their own agendas and fulfilling personal experiences might see as a waste of time or simply interpret as ignorance and stupidity or think best addressed in a psychiatrist’s office). I mean when graduate students come into a program like this one, saying I can’t find myself or my voice or my intellectual self is a major risk and it’s only a matter of time before they drop out. Who really here wants to work with grad students who say, “I’m not interested in that, but I’m not sure what I am interested in because I’m still trying to figure out if the academic “game” is for me because there aren’t too many people around here like me and the ones who do are doing stuff that makes real political sense to them but doesn’t to me)
    Maybe others here haven’t had this experience, but I have and I’m lucky I found meaning in my personal turmoil and had the courage and “bad manners” to read stuff I found interesting and turn it into work I could really feel a part of. This did not happen because the majority of faculty I met in and outside the department encouraged me or even showed interest. I think this process I went through is a real aspect of becoming an intellectual. Feeling encouraged and supported even when the faculty members have no personal or professional interest isn’t easy for faculty, I’m sure. Eventually, when I could speak about my intersts coherently enough, I found encouragement in my chair and committee, which I will always respect.
    Peace

  5. Speaking as a professor, Stephen, you keep the discussion at the level of systemics/structure. However, I’m sugesting something much more personal and individual. Perhaps I should just come out and say that who professors like and don’t like always is a personal issue. We cannot talk about systemics without talking about human beings and human actions and choices. From a cultural standpoint, smiling and telling students “sure, that sounds interesting” or “i can work with you but only if…” often comes down to how people learn to negotiate social space. Is it more “polite” to feign interest but fail to return e-mails or phone calls. Or is it better to say, “I can’t meet. I can’t work with you. I don’t really want to do that.” I suppose the issue here might be how Americans (generally) are socialized to be superficial in order to be popular. In other words, is it a cultural “thing” to say enticing things but to act in a way that can be interpreted as disinterest? I don’t know the answers, really. I own my filter through which I view these situations. I tend to see the issue as an interpersonal one born of the cutural milieu, which then makes the issue systemic. Being blown off is the way of the land. I don’t have a lot of “social success” because I say what’s on my mind. i tell people what I think and why. i tell undergrads, “no, I won’t write you a letter’ or “no, I won’t work with you on your senior project” when that’s how i am feeling. Again, I have “bad manners” and I don’t know how to play “the game.”

  6. Aha! I see now where you’re making the point, U&U. I wouldn’t abandon a discussion of the structures of the academy, but I can appreciate the personal level as well. And while I couldn’t vouch for the professors you’ve had throughout your career, I can testify to my own circumstances. When I was a PhD in Classical Studies, for example, one professor realized my Greek wasn’t good enough (I was self-taught) and dismissed me outright. He made every possible attempt to embarrass me or ignore me, right up to the point of inviting all the other students in a class except me to a party with a visiting scholar

  7. Stephen, your experience doesn’t surprise me. And Paula told us the other day that the time pressure (especially around deadlines) is even worse when one becomes a faculty member. It *is* inhumane to live/work (or work/live) this way, and I don’t mean to disparage the attempts people make. That’s why emphasizing the systemic/atic nature of the department matters, as well as articulating its juncture as a cog in the university, which it itself a microcosm of larger macrosocial forces. Its a question of “when and where we enter.” I *know*, for instance, that the academy isn’t run as a democracy, but *very few places are*. Maybe, no – DEFINITELY, my persistence in seeking engagement around these issues and questions is as selfish as it is altruistic. We all need for things to be better, and we – graduate students, especially – will (most likely) NEVER have as much “freedom” to experiment with agency and empowerment (yada yada yada) as we do now, here.
    Meanwhile, I learned another “story” today about a doctoral student who felt discounted/let down by a committee member/advisor. I’d hate to try and count how many I’m aware of (knowing that it’s – probably – not all of them by far). It seems the department got itself into a historical pinch by allowing (?) a culture where students could postpone and postpone….certainly (I’m sure) there were extenuating circumstances, but there always are, right? And when the “stories” are that this or that faculty might forget about your meeting, takes months to read a draft and still may or may not provide feedback (and I’m sure there are also “extenuating circumstances” for faculty too)….it’s hard to feel much sense of urgency and harder (perhaps?) to feel very respected. I’m not speaking personally, but/and, I know a lot of stories by now! Its kindof discouraging.
    I know that the department is trying to toughen up on students and move us through the pipeline much more quickly. That’s fine – as long as there is “reciprocal pressure” on the faculty too. Which, I’m sure there is, but changing old habits, patterns, etc is tough work. Takes time. Requires cooperation and investment in new goals. And maybe some kind of advocacy (?) within the College? I’m really naive (yes, I admit it) about the overarching administration structure, but the people I encounter doing their jobs (for instance, a recent between Michael Morgan and Ralph Faulkingham, who is Chair of the Anthropology Dept) usually impresses the heck out of me. I *KNow& there’s “visioning” going on, and…..there’s something piecemeal about it.
    Speaking of which, I had some thoughts on change, re David’s challenge, whether or not people *really* “want change” – check out “Mentoring, Redux”
    http://www.stephaniejokent.com/weblog/archives/001169.html

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