The Situation (2)

We have a tendency to overthink the syllabus. A year ago, I started fantasizing about a simpler life, teaching Shakespeare at some small, selective liberal arts college. I imagined twelve three-hour lectures/seminars devoted entirely to Hamlet, teaching one act at a time, and assigning a five-paragraph essay every two weeks. I wrote five posts (one for each act), and had planned to write a couple more about larger issues and the final exam. I’ll write those soon, but today I want to talk only about the required reading, where a very simple solution immediately presents itself. Like last year, I want to emphasize that the choice of Hamlet is arbitrary — just an example. You can choose any classic text in your discipline as the focus of your class. As they say, it’s your fantasy.

You will, of course, assign the play in some authoritative edition, such as the Arden Shakespeare. Could students make do with another edition? Of course. But you should remind them that their peer reader has the one you assign, including the critical introduction and the notes. That’s the edition that the reader will be referring to when you cite the play directly, and this image of the reader checking your references is important. You are trying to get your students to imagine real flesh-and-blood “peers”, people engaging in the same sort of intellectual work that they themselves are engaged in. They will be of comparable intelligence and linguistic ability, and they will struggle and learn in comparable ways with the same text. By putting the very same book in each of their hands, you are facilitating their empathy, a sense of intellectual camaraderie. That can be a powerful influence on the class and will do much of the work for you.

What about “the critical literature”? The more classic your key text is, the easier this will be. In my fantasy, for example, I simply assign the Arden Critical Reader. The students now have two solid books to organize a community around, a sort of paradigm for the class. By the final exam, everyone is expected to have read both books in their entirety. This defines a horizon for their discourse, both in class and in their essays. The syllabus will tell them what a legitimate participant in today’s discussion will be expected to have read. Yes, this means that they can either remain silent or pretend otherwise if they haven’t read the day’s readings. There is a risk of exposure, of course, but it’s not so serious that they can’t have fun with it. More importantly, if they have read the assigned reading, they will be able to assume knowledge on the part of their classmates, and use this as a resource to more effectively communicate their insights. Here it is important to emphasize that a horizon is not a boundary: your range of vision is not your range of imagination. Just because your interlocutor can’t see something, does not mean you can’t talk about it.

You might be wondering where the primary literature in the critical tradition has gone. When will the students read Bradley, Wilson, Eliot, Knight, and Kittredge, not to mention Freud (or, better, Jones) and Lacan? These names, of course, come up in the critical reader I’ve already assigned, so my first suggestion is simply to let the students look up the sources as they go, guided, in the first instance, by their curiosity. But as the classroom discussion develops, I would also encourage the students to make some collective decisions about which of the classic works of criticism they should commit each other to having read. If Eliot’s “objective correlative” ends up playing an important role in their assessment of the play, then they should read Eliot’s seminal essay. If Bradley’s theory of Shakespearean tragedy stimulates their thinking, then get them to agree to read it. If a debate rages about whether Freud or Lacan … or Deleuze! … is right about Hamlet’s state of mind, then by all means, suggest they get into the psychoanalysis of the character. That is, let part of the reading list grow organically.

Notice that you are defining a rhetorical situation for the students. What counts as a bright idea or a good question or a witty remark will be determined by a common store of materials that grows as the class proceeds. They can test themselves at any time simply by taking one of their classmates aside and talking about the things that interest them or puzzle them or frustrate them about the play. (They will quickly identify the serious students that make this exercise worthwhile — for both parties.) It is because the scholarly conversation around Hamlet (and all great works of literature) already exists that your work as a teacher — and syllabus designer — does not have to be arduous. You make a few quick, standard selections and establish them as shared reference points for the class. You then let the students contribute their interest and intelligence, and, most importantly, their curiosity. There are countless paths to take through major works of literature and their critical reception. You just have to pick a place to begin.

The Situation (1)

I’m working on a couple of conference papers. Both are about what Christine Tardy describes as the “situated” nature of academic writing. A genre, she argues, can be understood by way of the rhetorical situation in which writing does something. Following Carolyn Miller (1984), she approaches genres as forms of social action in specifiable, rhetorical situations. From this she concludes that some common school writing assignments do not provide occasions to teach genre awareness. Most notably, she does not consider the five-paragraph essay to be a genre: “Referring to the five-paragraph essay as a genre is particularly problematic for students,” she argues, “because it equates a decontextualized form with genre.” Rather, says Tardy, genre should be “defined very specifically through features like dynamic, rhetorical, social, communicative, purpose-driven, and community-bound or socially-situated” (in Caplan & Johns 2019, p. 29, emphasis in original). My goal in these papers is to re-contextualize the form of the traditional school essay, recovering its central role as an academic genre.

Academia, I want to argue, is a perfectly legitimate “situation” for writing, and traditional school assignments, therefore, provide ready opportunities to cultivate genre awareness in students. They don’t need to be merely decontextualized forms. Indeed, the key move in my argument is to situate student writing in an immediately meaningful context, namely, the classroom. In this post I want to think a bit about what a class is, especially at university, and how it effectively “simulates” the situation of scholars working in their research paradigms. I use scare-quotes here because I’m not sure that simulation is the right metaphor for the relationship of students to scholars. It would be better to think of the students as “apprentices” — they are not pretending to be scholars, they are doing entirely “real” scholarship, just at a more basic level than their teachers.

To see this, consider why scholars normally write and who they are normally writing for. It is sometimes thought that they write mainly to share what they know with others, i.e., to “disseminate” what they have learned through their research. While this is certainly part of the function of academic writing, it does not, to my mind, capture the distinctly critical function of academic writing. The readers of academic writing are not presumed to simply believe what the writer tells them, as might be the case in a work of popular non-fiction. The academic reader does not, first and foremost, come to the text to learn something about the subject. Rather, the purpose of academic writing is to expose your ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. That is, academics write for their peers in order to test their ideas against the ideas held by other knowledgeable people. That’s the situation scholars are in as writers.

How is this situation reproduced (also probably a better word than “simulated”) in the classroom? Well, everyone in a university classroom is, presumably, qualified to be there. They are each other’s intellectual peers. So students can simply imagine writing for an intelligent and engaged fellow student. They can imagine exposing their understanding of the course material to the criticism of this student — one who has struggled with the same materials, under the same conditions, for the same length of time (the semester, say). The traditional formal requirements (like those of the five-paragraph essay) can now be understood as a conventions, to be deployed when engaging with the reader’s attention. Five paragraphs, for example, means about five minutes in which to present five claims along with the support, elaboration or defense that, precisely, the situation demands. And the situation, again, is that of having recently formed a belief about a particular set of materials among similarly qualified peers. The purpose of the writing is to contribute to a conversation that is already going on inside and outside the classroom throughout the semester.

Just as editors and reviewers of the scholarly literature ideally represent the real readers of a scholar’s paper, teachers should evaluate student writing, not according to what the teacher gets out of it, but what another student would get out of it. Does this essay provide an occasion on which a person with similar experience of the course material might offer useful, critical feedback? Could both the reader and the writer learn something from further discussion based on this text? Of course, the teacher will also evaluate the understanding of the course material that the student demonstrates. But this, too, is relative to the classroom situation. How well does does the student have to understand Elizabethan drama, or worker compensation, or cell division, to get an A in this course, at this level, in this program, at this university? When students are thinking about what to say and how to say it, they should be situating these issues in a context defined by the who and the why of the classroom. Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.

The Gradual Formation of Knowledge in Discourse*

There is another interesting issue of translation in Kleist’s essay “Über die Allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden”. “Reden” is here usually translated as “speech” or “speaking”, but the standard translation of, say, Heidegger’s Being and Time renders it as “discourse”. Kleist is, of course, very focused on actual speech situations, i.e., talking, but we can extend the idea to written contexts as well. Somewhat trivially, for example, the process Kleist proposes could presumably be initiated also by writing a letter to a good friend that tries to explain the idea.

From here it is a short distance to a “discursive” conception of knowledge, as famously articulated by Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge. He talked about “discursive formations”, which comprised the formation of particular objects, concepts, “enunciative modalities”**, and strategies.

The individual scholar thinks something and perfects that thought in conversation with peers (including students). The scholarly community, meanwhile, collectively shapes the objects and concepts of their knowledge in discourse. Kleist says that “it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows.” As I never tire of saying, knowledge is indeed a “state of mind”, i.e., “justified, true belief”, but that state should also always be thought of as a “stance”, a practical orientation in a social context. When we know something we are in a state of readiness to converse about it and write about it.

It’s important to keep in mind that discourse is made up of gradual, ongoing processes. And they are supported by a whole array of practices, from the very local practices of the college classroom, to the very global practices of the published literature.

It is ironic, if you ask me, that our increasing awareness of the embeddedness of universal, theoretical knowledge in particular, practical contexts, which Heidegger emphasized already in 1927 (in his description of “the existential conception science”), and which really took off with post-Kuhnian and post-Foucauldian “science studies” in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have motivated initiatives that have largely eroded precisely those sites (the classroom and the literature) that were supposed provide occasions for the careful formation, and indeed “perfection”, of our thoughts.

We seem to have grown impatient with thinking. We might also say that we have too much blind trust in science. We no longer try to get our minds around difficult ideas. Instead, we imagine that “the facts are known” and that an expert somewhere knows those facts. All we have to do is listen and believe. It is the role of the scientist to confidently assert, not to “think out loud”. We’re unwilling to entertain a tentative formulation.

Fortunately, there is increasing awareness that the mere “communication” of research results in scholarly journals and their subsequent “popularization” in the media has very little to do with the growth of knowledge or the perfection of thought. In the language of TED talks, it’s merely about “spreading ideas”. On this view, it sometimes seems to me, we’re expected to believe things even if we don’t understand them. As long as the claims are supported by “science”, i.e., by a study conducted according to an accepted method and framed by a recognized theory, the “fact” is said to be established. We then let the Malcolm Gladwells of the world “get the word out”. It is considered “educated” to be receptive to them. To propose to subject a fact to further “thinking” (“after the fact,” as it were) is considered either quaint or rude, and in some cases outright dangerous.

Once again, it is important to let Kleist remind us that the spirit moves slowly. Just as importantly: it moves (gradually, gradually) towards perfection only when we are talking to each other, whether in speech or writing. And this is why it is so important to write as participants in a conversation about imperfect notions, not as public speakers of incorrigible truths. Peer review should not try to determine whether or not the result a paper presents is valid, but, rather, whether or not the result has been presented in a way that makes it possible to discuss it. To use Foucault’s language, it must be formed as a statement in a discourse, ready to be questioned.


*This is a lightly edited version of a post I wrote in 2013 on my old blog with updated links. In the comments to the old post, there is an interesting exchange between Thomas Presskorn and me about the difference between “mental states” and intellectual stances that you might find interesting. I took the issue up in a subsequent post.

**He seems to use this phrase to avoid the loaded terms “subjects” and “styles”, both of which would perhaps be too easily understood, i.e., misunderstood. Specifically, just as he uses “discursive formation” to avoid the philosophical baggage of the term “theory”, I think he uses “enunciative modality” to avoid the baggage of “subject”. He’ll sometimes talk about the “position of subjectivity” (of a statement) essentially synonymously, however, and I usually read him as providing us with an account of “theories” that emphasizes the historical contingency of their objects, concepts, subjects, and themes.

The Gradual Perfection of Thought While Speaking

As you may have noticed, I’ve been revisiting my old blog this year and reposting them here in only lightly edited form. It’s interesting to compare my thinking back then against my views now. Actually, it’s sometimes a bit disturbing to see how little my thinking has changed. This is especially relevant in the case of today’s repost, which is about a little essay by Heinrich von Kleist: “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (English translation here). I first wrote it back in 2013, as lead-in to discussing the distinction between thinking and knowing. Instead simply setting these two “states of mind” in opposition to each other, we can approach them as mutually supporting “mental processes”. Since first posting it, it looks like my thinking has in fact changed a little, perhaps under the pressures of the age. I’ll get to that at the end.

First, let me address some delicate (indeed, delicious) issues of translation. Consider the word “Verfertigung”. I’ve seen it rendered both as “formation” (PDF) and “construction” (PDF). I like Laura Martin’s translation of “Verfertigung” as “perfection”. After all, to “per-fect” something is to “do” (facere) it “completely” (per-), that is, to “finish” it. And “finish” is actually the root of the German word, namely, “fertig”. When Kleist speaks about the situation in which the mind is already “finished” with a thought (“wenn der Geist schon … mit dem Gedanken fertig ist”) he is using the same root. The only way to keep the association as explicitly in English would seem to be to translate “Verfertigung” as “formation” and then talk about about how a thought might be “already fully formed in the mind”. Or, like I say, we can render it, perhaps more implicitly, as “perfection” and “finished”.

Now to the importance of speaking as such. Kleist focuses on private conversation and almost denigrates public speaking in the traditional “prepared” sense. The kind of talk Kleist is encouraging us to engage in is the spontaneous, honest expression of our ideas, even if it is clumsy and halting, and certainly even though the thought is unfinished, half-formed, under construction. The gradualness of the process of perfecting a thought is important because it indicates its permanent incompleteness. That is, no thought is ever actually perfect; rather, it is undergoing a process that is directed towards perfection. A thought is never finished. To borrow that phrase from the U.S. constitution that Obama made famous in 2008, what we need is a context in which to develop our thinking towards an always finally imperfect but ever “more perfect” state.

The classroom ought to provide such a context, but it has largely stopped doing so because students (under the influence, perhaps, of either their parents or their future bosses) are demanding that teachers tell them not what they think, but what they know. They are expecting to learn the truth, not perfect their own thinking. They want to be able to believe what they are told. That is, teachers are expected to see classroom instruction as a kind of public speaking in which they deliver a prepared message in the most effective way possible. It is no longer proposed as an occasion upon which teachers might discover what they think by hearing what they say. And, by the same token, an occasion on which to discover that they are wrong by hearing what their students think.

Teachers are asked to pretend, we might say, to be perfect in their engagement with students, who are likely (indeed, they are trained by the culture of evaluation) to complain about the teacher’s performance, after holding them to an impossibly high standard: what we might call the “instant perfection of thought”. That is, the students are expecting instruction to introduce clear and distinct ideas into their minds that will require no further reworking by the students themselves. Students can, accordingly, be expected to confidently evaluate their teachers at the end of every semester. In practice this means that after every class the students are less likely to ask “What did I learn?” than “How was class?” That’s long before the process in which they are involved can be expected to yield definitive results. In fact, for many students, since both they and their teachers have misunderstood it, the process never begins.

I remain worried about the state of higher education—indeed, specifically, the state of university teaching. Even more specifically, I’m worried about the disconnect between what teachers actually know and what they talk about in classroom. It is impossible to learn what someone else knows without letting them say what they think. Back in 2013, I was thinking mainly about the positive pressure to express only “finished” thought to the students. Today, we’re increasingly conscious of the problem of keeping our classroom content within the bounds of good taste, of adhering to a certain “correctness” in our expression.

And on this point I do think I’ve moved a little since 2013. It’s always with some trepidation that I raise this question with students in my talks about writing, for example. But I think I’ve developed a pretty good six-minute bit on it. After all, if knowledge is a conversation then we have to let each other struggle and even stumble through it, discovering what we think and what others think about our thoughts. We can’t let “correctness” become the name of an absolute, irrevocable judgment, rendered at the moment our words are uttered. Rather, it should be the always partial, ever gradual achievement of a social process by which we actively “correct” each other, make each other more perfect, if only slightly. We should be exposing our ideas to criticism, and thus letting ourselves stand corrected when we’re wrong. We should not be exposing ourselves immediately to instant censure of thoughts and feelings, on the assumption that our words always already perfectly reveal what’s in our hearts and minds. Indeed, we must hope that our hearts and minds can undergo change — what Kleist so evocatively calls a “gradual perfection”. Let’s keep talking.

The Prose of the World (2)*

In his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel ties the “world of prose” to the “deficiency of natural beauty” and contrasts it to the pursuit of ideal beauty. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted “the prose of the world” with “a poetry of human relations”. As Aubrey Beardsley said to Ezra Pound, “beauty is difficult,” and, in a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.

In writing, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, and when we write prose we are, by contrast, implicitly admitting that we’re only getting some of the experience down on the page. As academic writers, however, we are also trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, “prose” comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with “the entire finitude of appearance …. the totality which is not actual within [us]” (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, in the hustle and bustle of everyday living.

Even in our pursuit of “spiritual interests”—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our “physical vital aims”. Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. “[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else” (149). Maybe this is where Don DeLillo got his views on “the quotidian” — that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace” (Underworld, p. 542). Hegel says: “Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence” (148).

Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling, Hegel tells us, to keep our footing in a world of everyday “actions and events.” It is precisely because scholars express their views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. In prose you write about things that you might be wrong about and you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not “active out of the entirety of [your] own self”. What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.

“This is the prose of the world … —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw” (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within “the entire finitude of appearance”. A finite finitude, if you will. (I’m always harping about how academic writers must appreciate their finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your “entanglement in the relative”, a way of relieving “the pressure of necessity”. This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage with the ordinary totality in ever more precise ways.


*This is a reworking of a post from my old blog.