Teaching and bad affect

I’m teaching an Anthropology of Europe class and I decided we’d end by talking about current events. So the week before this, we talked about the Greek economic crisis and Syriza. This week, we talked about Brexit. On Thursday, we talked about Islam and political violence in Europe (France in 2015 — Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan — and then, by way of contrast, Germany in 1993 — the Solingen burning of a Turkish family’s home).

So we talked about crisis, basically. But this was only a crisis within a crisis, because crisis was already omnipresent in our classroom environment. The whole class has been a slow-moving affective crisis, for me. (This is saying something redundant, admittedly, since most crises feel like slow motion at the time, the slow motion of shock at least, or the slow motion of ambiguity, even if they get reframed in hindsight as events; and most crises are affective, except for the ones that you don’t yet know how to sense…)

It’s been the sort of class where, a lot of the time, after you leave the room, as the teacher, you feel obscurely broken down and sad, and then the feelings linger into the evening, and then they emerge again with the next class, or at most they get vaguely attenuated without dissipating. I actually do think my students have learned a number of important things about Europe (they had barely heard of Franco, or even of socialism), and their papers and homework show a lot of thinking and knowledge, but I don’t think they think they’re learning something. Instead, they largely feel disaffected about the whole endeavor. So this — how shall I put it? — this collective mood of detachment frowns down on the classroom as soon as I open my mouth. It just hasn’t gone away in months.

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Papers on French philosophy, precarity and protest

It’s been a fun year for me (leaving aside here, you know, many disturbing political events, trends, pomps and circumstances, because this isn’t that kind of blog) because some of my post-dissertation work is actually in print:

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Plato and the birth of ambivalence

I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)

But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premised on the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.

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Self-governing schools in Tanzania

“Neoliberalism” is always an unsatisfying category, but as it does broadly designate a cluster of policies and institutional logics, it tends to stick around as an ideal type. David Harvey puts it like this:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

I usually prefer to talk about “New Public Management” instead of “neoliberalism,” though, because it more directly picks out a set of governing techniques (audits/markets/contracts + incentives) and leaves aside the question of the “philosophy” (if any) that lies beneath.

One of the papers that made a major impression on me in thinking about neoliberalism/NPM, in any event,  was Alexander Mitterle’s excellent “Un socialisme académique?” Mitterle shows that many of the institutional governance mechanisms that we call “academic capitalist” were already found in socialist East Germany. As I summarized his findings in my review of the edited collection where he published: Continue reading Self-governing schools in Tanzania

Does academic informality matter?

Since I started teaching at Whittier, I’ve been thinking about how I like my students to address me. There’s something of a local norm of just calling everyone “Professor.” It cuts down on cognitive overhead, no doubt, to be able to address all of one’s teachers by their title; it saves on having to keep track of their names. Not to mention that my last name is hard to pronounce, so perhaps students don’t know how to say it, or don’t care to risk getting it wrong…

I’ve started to tell them they can call me “Eli,” as a sign of… a sign of what? Familiarity? Informality? Friendliness? Being easygoing? Not wanting to reinforce the old-school hierarchies? Some combination of these. But it also occurs to me that telling my students what to call me is still a way of inhabiting authority, even if I ask them to call me something less-hierarchical. So instead of requesting that they call me “Eli,” I just frame it as giving them the option of calling me by [firstname]. They can exercise it as they choose.

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Is writing composition or improvisation?

In my corner of the academy, one isn’t really taught much about writing.

One is taught constantly to produce texts and to judge texts, but that isn’t the same thing, because writing is a process, and the text is merely the product. A theory of a product isn’t a theory of its production.

There is of course a cottage industry of advice, guidelines, tips, “rules for writing,” writing strategies, and so on. Generally this advice is instrumentalist. It tells you, “Picture your reader!” “Write short sentences!” “Always revise!” “Have modest goals!” It tells you, in sum, “Write like this if you want to succeed.”

The problem with this sort of writing advice is that it isn’t really about writing. It is about career success, behavioral self-optimization, and complying with norms.

The second problem with writing advice is that it constantly equates writing with composition. But composition is only one metaphor for writing. Perhaps improvisation (to borrow a sibling musical category) is another possible metaphor for writing. Maybe it’s even a good one?

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Whittier College at the end of summer

I grew up partly in a college town, and I’ve been around college campuses most of my life. One of my favorite times of year is this late-summer empty moment that happens after summer sessions finish and before classes start for the fall. It’s peaceful; you get a clearer view of the space.

Here’s what Whittier College looks like this time of year.

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Courtyard of the Campus Center

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Derrida on complacency and vulgarity

In Benoît Peeters’ biography of Jacques Derrida, there is an intriguing interview with Derrida that was never published. Peeters writes:

In 1992, Jacques Derrida gave Osvaldo Muñoz an interview which concluded with a traditional ‘Proust questionnaire’. If this text, meant for the daily El País, was in the end not published, this is perhaps because Derrida deemed it a bit too revealing:

What are the depths of misery for you?: To lose my memory.

Where would you like to live?: In a place to which I can always return, in other words from which I can leave.

For what fault do you have the most indulgence?: Keeping a secret which one should not keep.

Favourite hero in a novel: Bartleby.

Your favourite heroines in real life?: I’m keeping that a secret.

Your favourite quality in a man?: To be able to confess that he is afraid.

Your favourite quality in a woman?: Thought.

Your favourite virtue?: Faithfulness.

Your favourite occupation: Listening.

Who would you like to have been?: Another who would remember me a bit.

My main character trait?: A certain lack of seriousness.

My dream of happiness?: To continue dreaming.

What would be my greatest misfortune?: Dying after the people I love.

What I would like to be: A poet.

What I hate more than anything?: Complacency and vulgarity.

The reform I most admire: Everything to do with the difference between the sexes.

The natural gift I would like to have: Musical genius.

How I would like to die: Taken completely by surprise.

My motto: Prefer to say yes.

[From Derrida: A Biography, p. 418]

One could say many things about this. But for now, I mainly want to observe that I am struck by the open sexism of admiring “thought” as a woman’s virtue while singling out “vulnerability” (in essence) as his preferred “quality in a man.” Of course, one of Peeters’ interviewees remarks that “In spite of his love of women and his closeness to feminism, he still had a bit of a misogynistic side, like many men of his generation.”

Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals

Ten years ago, before I started doing research in France, I wrote my MA thesis about the politics of “bad writing” in the American humanities. Empirically, my major case study was about a “Bad Writing Contest” run by the late Denis Dutton, which dedicated itself in the late 1990s to making fun of (ostensibly) bad academic prose. The winners were always left-wing critical theorists like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson.

I ended up concluding that the Bad Writing Contest was a scene where low-status-academics got to symbolically denounce higher-status academics, so in that sense the whole affair was basically about status dominance; but I had put the project behind me, until I was reminded of the topic by Corey Robin’s recent comments about Judith Butler as a public intellectual. I’d like to focus briefly on his main claim: that Butler’s seemingly inaccessible writing style did not prevent her work from being culturally generative and iconic. As he puts it:

It is Gender Trouble—that difficult, knotty, complicated book, with a prose style that violates all the rules of Good Public Writing—that has generated the largest public or publics of all: the queer polity we all live in today.

To be clear, Robin’s view is that Butler’s success as public intellectual was neither because nor in spite of her prose style, but rather that success was altogether orthogonal to prose style. He proposes that “it’s not the style that makes the writing (and the intellectual) public. It’s not the audience. It’s the aspiration to create an audience.”

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Working-class in academe

When the Minnesota Review changed editors a few years ago, the old back issues disappeared from their website. Fortunately, one of my favorite essays, Diane Kendig‘s “Now I Work In That Factory You Live In,” from the 2004 issue on Smart Kids, is still available through the internet archive. As one of my recent posts sparked a bit of discussion of social class in higher education, it occurred to me to look back at Kendig’s essay. It recounts a great moment where class status is revealed:

In 1984 I began full-time teaching in a tenure-track position at a small college in Ohio. One day, walking across campus with one of the most senior members of the faculty, I was discussing with him some classroom difficulty we were both having. He shook his head in resignation and said something I have heard faculty all over the world say so often, as though it explains everything, “Well, you know, most of our students come from working-class backgrounds.”

This time, for the first time, I did not stand there in shamed silence. Although it was not my most articulate moment, I said, “So what, Richard? So do I!”

He stopped walking as he threw back his head and laughed. Then threw his arm around me and said, “So do I, Diane. So do I.” I don’t know what that moment meant to Richard, but for me, that moment meant that I was able to say that being working class is not an excuse or a sorrow or a shame. It happens to be where I come from.

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critical anthropology of academic culture