Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Speech Impediment

I’ve attended a couple of fantastic seminars on Frankfurt School critical theory recently – part of a series conducted by another university. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the series until it was well underway, and was able to attend only the final two. The regular participants were very tolerant of this strange interloper who dropped in on their sessions uninvited, and ushered me along with them to the meal and drinks that followed the final seminar last night.

As it happened, there was some discussion over dinner about my own theoretical work. I have these sorts of discussions all the time with the reading group folks, of course, but we know one another well, and have built up to discussions of our own projects, from the simpler starting point of shared discussions of other texts. And I have these sorts of discussions all the time online, as well. But – and here is the interesting thing – I had grossly underestimated the impact of those online conversations on how I currently think about theoretical discussion and debate.

So I found myself last night, trying to explain a project that, admittedly, is rather difficult to explain in the best circumstances, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to sound anything other than vaguely insane. (The visiting scholar leading the seminars listened to me for a while and then, somewhat puzzled, offered, “Well, you know… these things… I mean… One needs to put them aside for ten years or so, as it were – they are so big… And, then, maybe, one can come back to them…”)

But what I found myself feeling most acutely was a kind of chafing under the restriction of not being able to write out my response – my hands were longing for a keyboard, and I kept thinking: this would just be so much easier to explain if I could lay out a bit of background, and organise the presentation a bit more linearly – if I could just respond in email or on the blog. I spent the whole evening experiencing the… er… medium of speech as incredibly limiting, and longing for the additional expressive potentials available in online exchanges.

There is, of course, a grass is always greener dimension to this reaction: in online exchanges, I often find myself wishing that someone could just see my body posture, or hear my tone, and thus avoid mistaking my intention or affect… And, in fact, in specific respects this in-person discussion was able to be a bit more hard hitting than I can be online, precisely because it was quite easy to communicate nonverbally whether the focus were on the person, or on the ideas. I managed to get through an evening of theoretical discussion and, at times, quite pointed disagreement, without having to pay all that much attention to smoothing emotional reactions – something that can be quite difficult in online exchange.

Still… the systematicity that gets lost in face-to-face exchanges, the lost ability to post information that can quickly get a reader reasonably up to speed, if you’re coming at a common problem from an unusual or obscure perspective… (When a very bright person expressed that they needed me to define some of my technical terms – like “macrosociological” – it’s fairly clear we’re coming from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, and some basic work in building a shared vocabulary will be required before discussion can move forward…) So I kept stumbling across these moments where I couldn’t help but long to translate the discussion into an online space.

I missed my keyboard…

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6 responses to “Speech Impediment

  1. Joseph Kugelmass May 23, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    Hurrah! This should be required reading for anybody who thinks that the academic blog world is all risk, no reward.

    One of the oldest-known facts about cyberspace, but one which needs to be repeated in the context, is that it is more parallel and referential than conversation, which is linear. The fact that I can have several tabs open, with all the parts of a given conversation, or open to several different places in the Rough Theory archive, makes it possible to be “up to speed” in a way that is hard to duplicate with a concise series of statements.

    Obviously, being concise is desirable, but particularly in context-oriented fields like sociology, the simultaneity of cyberspace is a substantial help.

  2. N Pepperell May 24, 2007 at 1:07 am

    Yes, exactly – I’m constantly back-tracking conversations within a blog, or looking across discussions that are sprawling across multiple blogs – or just taking advantage of the ability to pause over an issue in order to respond in a more nuanced way.

    And the ability to point someone to a longer presentation of some particular issue, or to spend a long chunk of a post or comment providing a bit of on-the-spot background (which can then be skimmed or skipped by people who know this material already)… It just makes it much easier to move the conversation beyond basic terminological and background issues, and onto more substantive points.

    There are other advantages to blogging, of course – I’ve never bought the notion that the medium per se is inappropriate to intellectual exchange. The medium suits interdisciplinary conversations particularly well, as those exchanges always require a particular kind of mutual interest, and it’s simply unlikely to find a group of people with those shared interests in a local setting – so you need the worldwide scope. And the parallel and archival potentials of the medium are probably particularly important for interdisciplinary exchanges, as well.

    And for people in positions like mine – where I was deliberately recruited as a disciplinary outlier (the only sociologist in my research group) and as a theorist on an applied empirical research project – blogging has been essential in order to obtain critical traction…

  3. rob May 24, 2007 at 11:17 am

    I’m a writer not a speaker.

    I can completely sympathise with the situation you were in, NP, but the point of difference for me would be tied to the benefits not of blogging specifically but rather of writing (a little more) generally. For the most part, I’m unintelligible if I’m not given the time and space for composition (though such time and space is no guarrantee that what I write would be any more intelligible than what I would otherwise speak!). I need to be able to craft my response, get the syntax just right. In writing this brief comment — well, it’s brief at this point in the process, at any rate — I’ve already made dozens of minor changes to phrasing, syntax, order of information, etc., and by the time I’ve finished it will be more like a hundred or more.

    Most face-to-face speaking situations don’t afford me the right conditions to express/organise the necessary phrases for elaborating a theoretical point, and so my spoken performance is, more often than not, woeful.

    Interestingly, though — and here’s yet another example of how distinctions betwee speech and writing are contextual rather than absolute — the main exception to this ineptitude is in the teaching context. I don’t mean at all to suggest that I’m particularly competent in teaching but rather that I find that I stammer (as it were) far less in the context of a lecture, and even a tutorial, than in the kind of scenario you’ve described. And this fact is doubly strange for the reason that I never lecture from pre-prepared scripts — even my notes are little more than subject headings, so it’s not as if I’m simply reciting something that’s already been written.

    On the other hand, I think my lack of stammering in teaching contexts is probably owed to my being attentative to the fact that a big part of the process of “learning theory” is simply a matter of becoming habituated with certain forms of expression (i.e. phrases). Consequently, a big part of “teaching theory” is reiterating those forms of expression — which is to say, precisely, reciting what has already been written.

  4. N Pepperell May 24, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    I agree that these points apply to writing generally – I’m sure I was thinking of blogging on the night because it is interactive, and so is more similar to the sort of conversation I was trying to have. My writing on the blog is much looser and more casual than my formal writing, but – particularly on the more theoretical posts – I also spend a lot of time making minor changes before I’ll let the post go live.

    But I have the same experience with teaching – although perhaps not at the beginning of the term, when I at least tend to feel my presentation is quite rough. As some kind of relationship develops with the group, though, I feel much more fluid in the group interaction.

    By preference, I don’t prepare lectures – and, if I’m fluent enough in the material, I may not even prepare talking points (although I’ll often go through an immense process of working through and annotating the texts I’m planning to teach). My favourite style of teaching involves doing nothing but scribing the student discussion for the first part of a session – letting the students lay the material out as they see it, and trying not to intervene in their mode of presentation. Then I’ll come up behind this discussion and weave an impromptu lecture around whatever the students have introduced.

    This approach, though, requires that students actually read and engage with the material – which itself then requires a particular kind of course design. And it doesn’t suit all sorts of materials: sometimes, it’s simply more efficient to lay things out for the students in a systematic way.

    I never did lectures at my previous university (which as an institution was very strongly focussed on discussion and its version of a “Socratic method” as a teaching technique). Here I do them, both because they are common and so there is some level of student expectation that they will occur, but more because I’m often in shared teaching contexts, and pre-written lectures provide some certainty for other staff members (who tend to see my preferred teaching method as very anarchic and “risky” – but, more to the point, who want to know exactly what I’m going to say, in which sessions, so that they can design their own lesson plans around it).

    And there’s an element of wanting to learn how to do pre-written lectures well – to be honest, I’m much more comfortable riffing more spontaneously around the material, but I feel it would be good also to know how to write an engaging pre-written talk. I’ve seen people do this – but haven’t quite gotten there myself… I lose an “edge” when I’m not having to think on the fly, and I haven’t figured out how one compensates for this in a pre-written lecture…

  5. Ryan/Aless May 25, 2007 at 4:12 am

    This happens to me a lot. I suspect, however, that it is because of my “speech impediment” that I am a somewhat skilled writer. Do you think that’s true? That your inadequacy in one medium is compensated by your skill in another?

    This used to bother me a lot, having a speech impediment. Speech being more immediate than writing and us being required to do it in a greater number of settings (since we mostly find ourselves in situations where we have to talk, as compared to the times when we have to write; this is less true now as I am required to write a lot), I felt, well, a little insecure about my communication abilities because of it. That all changed when I encountered Derrida and his deconstruction of the hierarchy of speech over writing. Thank God for theory! :-)

  6. N Pepperell May 25, 2007 at 8:28 am

    Yes, theory serves many functions ;-P

    Discomfort or frustration with one medium can provide incentive to practice in another… Whether that practice develops skill or not is, I suspect, more complicated – I used to know someone who would teach their students “Practice makes permanent” – thus leaving open the possibility that one might not develop skill, because one was practising something… unskillful… ;-) I suspect that my supervisors occasional worry that it is such unskillful practice that occurs on the blog…

    I agree with rob, though, that there is a strangely written element to communicating theoretical concepts – which may also mean that specific kinds of contexts (teaching, conversations that take place after the presentation of some more formal and structured work, an ongoing and cumulative conversational interaction, etc.) may be required to interact effectively. In this sense, at least, our general experience with speaking as such may not do us much good when it comes to figuring out how to talk about theoretical work, as most of the contexts in which we speak don’t expose us to a useful form of communication for expressing theoretical content… Certainly in my own case, I think it’s probably safe to say that I am far more experienced with writing, than with speaking, about theoretical issues…

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