Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks, gearing up for the new term, and also standing in for a colleague who has been away. It’s a strange thing, taking someone else’s course for a brief period of time – particularly during the first couple of weeks of a new term, which tend to set the tone and expectations for the rest of the course. I wonder just how far I’ve deviated from what they would have done with their students early on.

The course is called “Social Construction of the Self”, and I’ve had a great deal of fun watching how the students dealt with this concept. For the most part, they have dealt with it as many academics do (at least tacitly): treating the concept of social construction as what L Magee often calls “an irregular verb” – expressing positions that can best be characterised as: he is constructed; she is constructed; you are constructed; they are constructed; I am objectively true… Over and over in class discussion, the students expressed that they understood this social construction stuff – no sweat: all these other societies, all the rest of human history – constructed. No problem. But they persisted in using metaphors of unveiling, of discovery, of peeling away the layers – such that their current perspective somehow always ended up being positioned as the unconstructed truth that all those other – visibly constructed – positions just hadn’t yet managed to reach.

It was lovely – I had enormous fun with this. I gave examples, I drew pictures, I asked questions, I poked and prodded – and I completely, utterly, and absolutely failed to put a dent in the reflex asymmetry and exceptionalism of the students’ positions. It’s not that the students rejected the notion of social construction – that would have led to a very different sort of interaction. It’s that, as far as they were concerned, they were accepting the notion (which itself is interesting, and perhaps indicative of the students’ belief that a course with this title “expects” them to accept its namesake concept – by rights, I’d expect at least some students to query the premise – but I’ll leave this issue aside). It’s just that the position they thought they were accepting, involved some kind of recognition of how all those benighted and unenlightened other folk had constructed things – thus covering over the truth that we have now unveiled. It was glorious – I don’t think I managed to communicate to a single student the question of what it might mean to think about the “construction” of their own positions. So now I’ll be missing the course the rest of the term, wondering whether I would have remained so ineffective if I’d had the whole thirteen weeks…

While I was being ineffectual in other people’s courses, I decided I would do further damage by evangelising my particular views on academic writing. I do this, of course, to my own students all the time – but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interfere with someone else’s students, as well. I have three major demands for student writing: that they treat other texts as arguments, rather than as authorities; that they empathise before they criticise; and that they write in order to effect a change in their reader.

The first is fairly easy to explain, and is basically just an iatrogenic issue related to how they were taught to write in high school: most students come to university inclined to treat all texts like encyclopaedias – as repositories of consensus information, rather than as arguments or attempts to effect a particular change in their readers. This leads to students seizing and rephrasing random bits of text, and then tossing a Harvard cite to the source in parentheses, with no attention to whether that text might be making a tendentious claim, whether it might disagree with the text they cite in the next sentence, etc.

The second is also reasonably easy to communicate, although very difficult for most students to do: I want students to demonstrate that they’ve made the attempt to make sense of a text – by paying very, very close attention to what it says, and how, before they leap breathlessly into judgement, telling me whether they agree or disagree. Learning to get into someone else’s text is difficult, and students don’t get as much practice doing this as I’d like (I gather this must be more of an issue for me than it seems to be for many other staff – which makes some sense, given that I’m generally teaching history and theory, while many of the other courses students take will focus more on pre-professional training). When the course theme allows it, I tend to spend a great deal of time on this issue in my classes.

The third is perhaps the strangest thing to attempt to teach. I used to express this point by telling students that academic writing involves making an argument. This seemed like a close approximation of what I was after, given that students in my courses are generally writing academic essays. This instruction, though, seemed to lead students in some strange directions. What I tended to get on initial assignments was something I’ve been calling “argumentative show-and-tell”: students would write whatever they were writing and then, in the final paragraph, and often with no relation to what came before and no supporting evidence or analysis, would suddenly burst out with something like, “But I think x…” End of essay.

I found this pattern very confusing, until I realised that this was how students were interpreting my request that they “make an argument”: they thought an “argument” was, essentially, a stance – a declaration of their position. And they treated this stance or position as if it were something like a static and fixed possession – something they could describe, but not something that had any intimate connection to the process that structured and motivated their writing as a whole. More fundamentally, there was something strangely autobiographical in their approach – the reader was somehow not in the frame – they weren’t writing to persuade someone else to think a particular way, or to effect some transformation in another person, but rather to make some kind of authentic declaration about themselves. I’ve found that this final point – writing for a reader – structuring writing to attempt to effect some specific transformation in those who encounter the writing – the most difficult to communicate successfully.

7 responses to “Substitutions

  1. rob July 30, 2007 at 10:18 am

    “It’s just that the position they thought they were accepting, involved some kind of recognition of how all those benighted and unenlightened other folk had constructed things – thus covering over the truth that we have now unveiled.”

    I see this as a matter of habits of thought and speech. Anyone who teaches “theory” encounters a variation on the situation you describe. In my discipline(s) it unfolds in the context of exploring ideas about multiple, differential, contextualised interpretations of texts (literary, media or whatever). No matter how hard you try to present the idea that interpretations may vary on the basis of how they can be framed or organised by some institutionalised or conventional or regular (in the sense of having a certain regularity) context — e.g. by the principles of a “feminist approach” vs an aesthetic analysis, etc.; by a prevalent concept of genre; or by a less “formal” (or formalised) but nevertheless utterly conventional set of ideas about the “non-serious” nature of tv; etc. — a significant majority of students will continue to say that “each of us brings our own personal experiences to the text and thus has our own personal interpretation of the text”. And they will say this as though it were confirmation of the argument about the socially-organised nature of interpretation.

    I think this is partly because the ideology of individualism (to revive a dead language for the sake of convenience) has insinuated itself into so many facets of social existence, especially those facets that connect in some way with the range of objects and practices that we might call “cultural” or “symbolic”. But I think it’s also (perhaps even mainly) because this idea of “personal interpretation” is itself acquired as a critical point, i.e. as a critique of the lib-humanist (as distinct from lib-pluralist) view of the transcendence and autonomy of the cultural text, of the authority of the author, etc.

    In other words, a potentially challenging idea is being assimilated to a relatively conservative stance because the classroom context and the nature of the course require of students a “critical” disposition. The students obediently oblige by being “critical” in the only way they know how.

    I’ve learnt to adapt to this structure or predisposition by trying to teach explicitly against the inherited, commonsensical “critical” concepts. This means identifying them from the beginning, outlining their quasi-systematic organisation, etc. and treating them as a discourse (in the Foucauldian sense) that mobilises particular responses, then showing the limits to that discourse whilst exploring other possible modes of analysis and critique.

    The down-side of this is that sometimes (often?) students feel robbed of their capacity to “express their opinion” — precisely because that opinion has already been identified as the object that must be analysed and critiqued.

  2. N Pepperell July 30, 2007 at 10:41 am

    All the best pedagogical challenges are iatrogenic 🙂

    In my own “theory” courses – where I have control over the course design – I do something similar to what you describe, and I do see some gradual shifts over the long haul with most students. But this is in a context where I’ve selected readings and designed lectures to drill in the “discursive” nature of what I’m teaching. I was just very struck by how, trying to make somewhat similar points, but in this much more ad hoc context, I went down in such dramatic flames… 😉 It was as though the students and I were attending two different courses that just happened to be occurring in the same physical location at the same time. (I should note, if it’s unclear, that I actually enjoyed this teaching stint immensely – there was a certain watching a trainwreck unfold dimension to the whole thing, but I don’t regard this as at all the students’ fault, and I sort of enjoy this kind of thing…)

    I’m curious, though – aside from the issue of habits of thought and how students are predisposed to hear certain “critical” points – how you deal with students’ reflex obedience to what they believe a course “expects” them to say. I find this a pervasively vexing issue – although of course I understand the instrumental incentives that motivate students to do this…

  3. N Pepperell July 30, 2007 at 10:43 am

    P.S. On your final point about depriving students of the ability to “express their opinion” – I have to admit, I structure my teaching in a way that has this same effect. Students seem to come to me extremely well primed to offer their opinions – I figure they must have plenty of opportunities for this, thus freeing me to focus on cultivating other skills… 😉

  4. rob July 30, 2007 at 11:36 am

    how you deal with students’ reflex obedience to what they believe a course “expects” them to say.

    Trying to deprive them of the means to say what they believe a course expects them to say is currently my only means for dealing with that problem.

    But I think you’re more wanting to know how I encourage students to be critical (in the self-reflexive, rather than simply reflexive sense) of the premises of a course. The thing is, I don’t really see the obedience we’re talking about as necessarily a problem. There’s an instrumental incentive for me as much as for the students to foster this kind of obedience.

    That’s not to say that I discourage (tacitly or explicitly) critical examination of the premises of a course. It’s just that, if we accept that some forms of criticism aren’t really critical at all, that most students’ capacities for criticism are premised on the uncritical type of criticism, that the alternative forms of criticism that the course aims to habituate students with are “better” than those forms they’re already familiar with, and that (therefore) the only way a student could be “properly” critical of the premises of the unit would be first to acquire the critical capacity that the unit aims to cultivate, then you have to accept and expect that, by and large, students’ “critiques” of the premises of the course will actually be uncritical and thus are signs, more or less, of the course’s failure.

    All of that sounds horribly instrumental, even mechanistic, if not a little dogmatic. So let me just follow it up by saying that “failure” is not in and of itself a bad thing, nor does it always happen that student critiques of a unit’s premises are actually uncritical. And, really, it’s a way of articulating my belief (if you like) that capacities for critique do not pre-exist the disciplines that produce critique, such that a given criticism can be traced to an enabling form of thought, which has its origins in a particular discursive and disciplinary regime. Because the forms of critique I aim to cultivate already take the prevailing (commonsensical) forms of critique as their object, any “authentic” (ugh! I hate that word) criticism put forward by a student is highly likely to be traceable to the form of critique that the unit aims to cultivate, even if one could never say that that form of critique was actually what mobilised the critical statement.

    Ultimately, I try to be pragmatic about these things: because the practices of thought that I aim to cultivate are already (IMO) potentially “more critical” than those I aim to displace or delimit, I’m more than happy if students “only” make it as far as understanding (better yet, acquiring) those forms of critique. If they take it further, then that’s a bonus.

    I guess the other thing to keep in mind is that, in my units at least, the “premise” is actually an objective, or rather the premise is a pedagogy and not an idea. I try not to teach ideas so much as forms of thinking and these forms of thinking may not have a great deal of purchase outside the context of university education. If they do, it’s only insofar as they may have something to say about the assumptions and limits of other (commonsensical) forms of critique.

  5. N Pepperell July 30, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    To be honest, although I’m happy for students to be critical of the premises of my courses, what I had in mind was more the problem of students bringing in expectations from outside the course – I find that I spend a lot of time puncturing bad habits that, for various reasons, have been instrumentally useful for students in other contexts. This is probably a bit difficult to explain without getting myself into trouble in a public forum… ;-P But I struggle with student essays and, a bit less frequently, interventions into class discussion that reflect a certain image of what students believe “someone like me” will want to hear. I find these sorts of preconceptions take some substantial effort to dislodge – in part, I suspect, because they are generally fairly successful means for students to disengage without penalty in other contexts, by keeping to what they perceive as some kind of party line… From my point of view, it results in students offering up certain kinds of default positions without thinking through the implications, relying on the preconception that I will share these positions and therefore mark them sympathetically.

    It’s not so much that this is difficult to break down, as that at least some students experience the process as a sort of breach of contract – I’ve violated a certain expectation that particular contents or positions are what they’re meant to produce, when what I’m after is instead – as you say – a particular form of thinking. It may be that there’s no good way around this problem, other than for the students to experience the process. I just keep trying to work out ways of minimising what seems to be a certain level of shock…

    The issue of teaching forms of thinking that may not have ready application outside the university is an interesting one. I occasionally find myself in a bit of trouble for the value I place on academic forms of knowing or writing – not that these are the only forms of knowing or writing that I value, but that I believe there is a value in exposing students to certain things that they are unlikely to experience outside a university setting. I do actually think there is a “practical” value – and I think this can be an extremely important thing to teach – but I’m aware that the way in which this becomes “practical” is not what people normally intend by this term, and my sense is that my position is regarded as problematic. It provokes interesting reactions – again, difficult to discuss in this context. 🙂

  6. rob July 30, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Ah, now I get you. I can’t say that I encounter the phenomenon very much. Whether it’s because of the kind (by which, of course, I mean level) of students I teach in my current institution, or because my units are designed in such a way as to allow little opportunity for that kind of response, or simply because I’m blind to it, I don’t know.

    I am pretty fanatical about students working within and responding to the terms of the unit, though, and I’m not particularly tolerant of essays, say, that don’t demonstrate their connection to the unit objectives, etc., regardless of how intelligent or well-researched those essays might be.

    I guess that means that I’m also likely to disappoint those students…

    I just keep trying to work out ways of minimising what seems to be a certain level of shock…

    Here’s a wonderful passage, from Bill Readings’ delightful University in Ruins, that may give you some comfort in that respect:

    There is some other in the classroom, and it has many names: culture, thought, desire, energy, tradition, the event, the immemorial, the sublime. The educational institution seeks to process it, to dampen the shock it gives the system. Qua institution, education seeks to channel and circulate this otherness so that some form of profit can be made from it. Yet the shock arises, since it is the minimal condition of pedagogy, and it opens a series of incalculable differences, the exploration of which is the business of pedagogy. Education, as e ducere, a drawing out, is … this drawing out of the otherness of thought that undoes the pretension to self-presence that always demands further study. And it works over both the students and the teachers, although in a dissymmetrical fashion.

    It sounds to me as though the shock is a sign that you’re doing something right. (I wonder from this whether we might develop a theory of teaching as shock treatment?)

  7. N Pepperell July 30, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    That’s a wonderful quotation – I like the concept a great deal. I’ll have to think about whether the sort of shock I’m facilitating is of this sort… 😉

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