academia: November 2004 Archives

improperly biased

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I don't recall where I caught the second-hand link, but wherever it was led me to Erin O'Connor's citation of this article by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle Review, called "Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual." Three guesses what it's about...

In fact, it's a pretty measured and temperate piece, even if it falls back unproblematically into the equation of diversity with so-called "intellectual diversity" of the sort that David Horowitz has been pushing for the past several years. And the slide from surveying "humanities and social science scholars" for their political affiliations to making claims about campuses, colleges, and universities (which, as we know, don't teach the hard sciences, business, engineering, or technology) goes unexamined as well. Nevertheless, Bauerlein's root claim, that there are various fields where conservative thought is basically unwelcome, is fairly accurate.

The secondary claim, however, that there is "an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond," is one that I'd dispute to a degree. The trick at work here is to accuse leftists of being anti-discrimination in theory and discriminatory in practice--fair enough. I'm not so naive as to believe that this doesn't happen, or that there aren't "several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying."

Bauerlein cites a Chronicle survey, though, which found that roughly half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "campuses are havens for left-leaning activists," that "colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach." Okay. Setting aside the colossal hubris required to make a statement of that magnitude--which I myself couldn't comfortably make about any school that I've ever studied or taught at--I want to raise a chicken/egg question. Bauerlein, Horowitz, and others who make this argument suggest/assume that universities are a place from which conservatives have been expelled, but I guess I'd suggest that it's at least as relevant to consider campuses as places, as havens, to which these dreaded left-leaners aspire.

Why is this an important point? Because, contra Bauerlein, this process doesn't begin in graduate school. By the time students arrive in my courses, they're adults, albeit young adults, but they have a full set of values that steer them towards particular fields--they've been raised in a society where the hierarchy of values is pretty clear, and they don't need to see the comparative salaries of assistant professors to know which departments, programs, or careers are most compatible with their value set. I'm not arguing that those of us who are less than economically rational about our career choices are any more noble, or any better for that matter, than anyone else, but I think it safe to surmise that I may hold values more similar to those of my immediate colleagues than they are to, say, those of the faculty in the business school. I suspect that someone with my beliefs would feel just as out of place there as someone with conservative beliefs might feel in an English department. But then, that's hard to say, because Horowitz didn't include them in his survey.

I don't disagree with all that much of this essay in one sense. I do think it's important for students at every level to be party to asking questions rather than assuming answers, and I do acknowledge that there are fields where the latter happens more often than perhaps it should. But to paraphrase O'Connor's prior post, "I won't deny that such schools and such attitudes exist--but I will say that it's wrong to stereotype [higher education] and the [faculty] who [populate it] in such narrowly rigid ways." And to do so in the name of diversity is to misunderstand intentionally that particular ideal, in a way that elevates the stereotypes of conservatism and liberalism to the level of knowledge, an elevation that Bauerlein rightly, I think, recognizes as anti-intellectual.

Convergences redux

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If you scroll down, you'll find my (decent) Day 1 and (less than adequate) Day 2 rundowns of the conference I was at this past weekend. Also, I've posted some pix from the final, alcohol-soaked gathering of the conference, at a bar called Lizzie's, I think. A few of us had already left, so not everyone is represented there. Sorry bout that.

Convergences, Day 2

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See, here's my problem. I hate speaking in public. And so I go through 3 distinct phases when I have to do so. First, I get really antsy, and having trouble focusing. Then, when I have to speak, my conscious mind goes mostly on autopilot, allowing me to slide into some lizard-brain zone where I remember very little of what actually happens. Finally, I slowly climb back out of it, fueled mainly by relief that my time is over. And none of these phases is especially effective for note-taking. Keep that in mind.

Kevin Mahoney and Rachel Riedner began day 2 with a tag-team presentation, "Cultural Studies Pedagogy and the Corporate University," whose first couple of minutes I missed, thus depriving myself of the frame for their talk. As best as I can tell from my notes, Kevin and Rachel argued for a deeper understanding of pedagogy as a site of political engagement. What we have taken to calling empire is, in their words, a public pedagogy of neoliberalism and globalization, one that's especially effective at deflecting resistance. It does so by producing individuals who compete for their own personal gain, to the detriment of public participation. They argued that traditional leftist discourse has begun to interfere with our ability to form counterpedagogies and to sustain horizontal relations, and these were two of the strategies they suggested given current conditions in higher education.

Bradley Dilger talked about "The Logic of Default," riffing on a section from Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media. Manovich suggests that using defaults when it comes to interfaces is one way of resisting the lure of customization that drives technology consumption. Bradley complicated this notion, however, noting that Manovich's default-ism, even if it's relevant at the scale of interface, happens at multiple scales, and as a result, we're always already choosing, whether or not we go with defaults.

Then some nit talked about networks.

And after that, I stopped typing notes. This was bad. The panel after mine featured Jenny Bay, Sarah Arroyo, and Thomas Peele, and I listened rather than typing. They raised various questions about new media, and because they were taken up in the discussion that followed, I actually remember the conversations more than the panel per se. Perhaps someone else will contribute notes?

The final panel of the conference began with Byron Hawk, who presented portions of his book on vitalism. He traced a lineage of vitalism from Aristotle to Burke to Deleuze, one centered on Aristotle's conception of entelechy. Chuck Tryon discussed his study of the film Capturing the Friedmans, focusing on the way that this documentary complicates the separation of public and private spheres in its nostalgia for the nuclear family. Finally, Karen Kopelson presented some of the results for a qualitative study she conducted, asking graduate students about their expectations and experiences in rhetoric and composition.

I can't help but feel that this rundown is woefully unfair, because the two panels that followed mine were both quite good. By that point, though, I was tired of taking notes--the fact that I participated more frequently in the conversations was one sign of that, I suspect. Oh well. Maybe someone else can fill this gap...

Day 2 ended with a trip to Moonlight Pizza (long time to sit, but good food to eat), and then to Lizzie's, where we closed the joint, drank our fair share, and pledged to keep this conference going...

Convergences, Day 1

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Here's my rundown of Day 1 of Convergences. Keep in mind that my note-taking varies in intensity from session to session--it's hard to pay close blogging attention all day. Next time round, I'm going to suggest that we each volunteer to take notes (and/or blog) for one other session. When I post my day 2 rundown, you'll see why I say that...

David Rieder started off day 1 for us with "Placeless Rhetorics and Writing: Post-Alphabetic Explorations of Non-Places." The central claim of Dave's talk was that, rather than working against the conditions that make our classrooms non-places (Augé), we should be investigating those forms of writing (potentially post- or extra-alphabetic) that might provide us with new models. He discussed the works of Franck Scurti and Teri Rueb, and encouraged us to interrogate the place-based models that ground the composition classroom.

Tim Mayers went next, and presented material from his book, which is currently (I think) in press at Pittsburgh: "Reviving the Discourses of 'Craft': Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies." I may be projecting here, but I think Tim was working from the premise that writing studies is constrained by its long association with literary studies. His attempt to work out of that constraint was to suggest a partnership between creative writing and composition, one grounded in an expanded notion of "craft," one that extends craft beyond its current scope as technique. Such a partnership, he argued, would bring social concerns to creative writing and return a concern with aesthetics to composition.

The third session of the day was a 3-person panel on the topic of affect. In "Affect and the Times and Spaces of Change," Dan Smith argued that social transformation requires more than proofs, that critique often works through affective dispositions. Critical pedagogy fails to acknowledge its own investment in what Dan described as a "conversion ethos," one that treats the classroom as the only possible time and space for change, and places undue emphasis on our own desires to "witness" such change. More a critique of strategy than of aims, he argued that we need to think in terms of broader spaces and times--what he called ecologies of affective disposition--and come to terms with the possibility that the payoff for our pedagogical work may not always be visible.

Jenny Edbauer presented work from the second chapter of her dissertation, "Rhetorical Theory and the Affective Field of Culture." Her presentation was also a call for broadening our scope to include affective issues, but she focused on the site-based presumptions of Bitzer's rhetorical situation. She argued that rhetorical situations are located in the interactions (often affective interactions) among the so-called "elements" of the rhetorical situation, rather than in the elements themselves.

Christa Albrecht-Crane closed the panel with "Affect, Bodies, Interruption, Fear." She discussed teaching literary theory to conservative students, which caused her to reflect on the trouble that progressive educators have understanding how conservatism operates. In this case, she discussed a paper where the energy of the student's response exceeded his abilities to fully account for it in his writing.

In the interests of time, on a day where we were running a bit long, Judy Isaksen offered to forgo much of the oral portion of her session, "Worrying the Rhetorics of Whiteness." She played a DVD for us, inspired by DJ Spooky's remix of D. H. Wallace's Birth of a Nation. Judy's mix spliced together scenes from Birth, quotes from contemporary race theorists, and a wide range of African-American music.

The final panel of the day--on the place and places of theory--was a little less formal, not the least reason for which was that we were all, I think, getting a little punchy. Jeff Rice began by interrogating what he described as our field's pedagogical conservatism, the unwillingness to see ourselves implicated in the theories that we study. Particularly when it comes to new media and technology, he argued, we remain in a mode of explanation and story-telling rather than performance. Digital culture is unclear, elusive, speculative, and pedagogy (or theory) preoccupied with the clear explanations of its success makes for a problematic fit.

John Muckelbauer talked about the strategies necessary for theoretical work in a field that doesn't seem to make much room for it, one of which was the conference itself. The branding of theoretical writers and ideas has resulted in the bad habit of going to these theorists already knowing what we'll find, and then--surprise--finding what we thought we would. John advocated a strategy of non-recognition, where we draw on rhetorical vocabulary to do theoretical work, thereby enriching both.

Thomas Rickert raised several questions for discussion, related in part to the other two presentations. He suggested that perhaps we have moved from an age of theory to an age of invention or rhetoric, that perhaps the currency of capital-T theory has indeed passed. Rather than indulge in nostalgia for some golden age, though, he suggested that instead we think of the particularity of our own theoretical work as something that has yet to be discovered.

I hope that I haven't misrepresented anyone here too badly. After our first day, we went back to the Clarion and psyched up for dinner, which took quite a while at a restaurant whose name I've already forgotten. Some of us went afterwards to the Flying Saucer, but it was cold, we were tired, and it was a relatively early evening.



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