Steve Fuller on bad writing

Steve Fuller, a social epistemologist I have some acquaintance with (and who is extremely controversial for defending intelligent design in the Dover school board case), has for some time had one of the more interesting takes on “bad writing” in the humanities. One of his earlier diagnoses appeared in Philosophy & Literature ten years ago; a more recent one appears in the middle of his curious (and, I might add, extremely readable) 2005 book, The Intellectual. This from the middle of an imaginary dialogue between “the intellectual” and “the philosopher”:

Intellectual: … Difficulty is illegitimately manufactured whenever an absence of empirical breadth is mistaken for the presence of conceptual depth. Say you restrict yourself to speaking in the name of Marx and Freud, and then address things that cast doubt on what they said, such as the absence of a proletarian revolution or the presence of post-Oedipal identity formation. Not surprisingly, you end up saying some rather complicated and paradoxical things. But you have succeeded only in engaging in some roundabout speech that could have been avoided, had you availed yourself of a less sectarian vocabulary. But the continental philosophical game is mostly about deep reading and roundabout speech. By the time you have gone to the trouble of learning the relevant codes, you will have become an ‘insider’, capable of wielding a sort of esoteric power by virtue of that fact alone. This is a trick that the US continental philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler learned from Plato.

Philosopher: All I know about Butler is that a few years ago she won the ‘Bad Writing’ contest awarded each year by the editors of the journal Philosophy and Literature. So she must not have been that successful.

I: Au contraire. In fact, the editors played right into Butler’s hands, though neither she nor they appreciated it at the time. An accusation of ‘Bad Writing’ boils down to the charge that the author doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In fact, of course, it implies only that the accuser doesn’t know what the author is talking about — and hopes that others share this problem.

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Psychology of graduate education: Failure avoidance

Dean Dad argues that “the whole prestige hierarchy/pyramid model – basically an inverted funnel – is based on weeding people out. If you buy into the model early and set a goal of succeeding within it, the entire educational process becomes a game of failure avoidance.” In other words, that the whole system of evaluation, promotion, and hierarchization between students and institutions leads people to concentrate merely on rising to higher and higher levels of membership, which, psychologically, appears as an orientation exclusively directed towards not screwing up. The corollary feeling is a pervasive “fear of failure,” he argues. And “at the end of the process, you wind up with a greater-than-average proportion of hyper-critical shrinking violets.”

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Critical pedagogy and the undercommons

Last year at Rethinking the University, John Conley argued that politically engaged pedagogy was a political alibi that the academic labor can’t afford to indulge in. Here, in a curious essay that has appeared in Social Text and also on interactivist, Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey argue something similar: that critical pedagogy is only the perfection of the university’s professionalizing tendencies.

…Critical education only attempts to perfect professional education. The professions constitute themselves in an opposition to the unregulated and the ignorant without acknowledging the unregulated, ignorant, unprofessional labor that goes on not opposite them but within them. But if professional education ever slips in its labor, ever reveals its condition of possibility to the professions it supports and reconstitutes, critical education is there to pick it up, and to tell it, never mind—it was just a bad dream, the ravings, the drawings of the mad. Because critical education is precisely there to tell professional education to rethink its relationship to its opposite—by which critical education means both itself and the unregulated, against which professional education is deployed. In other words, critical education arrives to support any faltering negligence, to be vigilant in its negligence, to be critically engaged in its negligence. It is more than an ally of professional education, it is its attempted completion.

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Class bias in higher education

Just discovered an interesting blog by a law professor, Jeffrey Harrison, called Class Bias in Higher Education. He comments on how elites signal their status through a visible non-engagement with others, a sort of bodily disdain, a “stiff upper lip”; he remarks on how people choose to spend or invest their social capital (suggesting that elites tend to hoard it for spending on themselves); he suggests that practically no law professors want to talk about class; he comments on the irrational selection process for new hires; he also suggests that there is an enormous (and unjustified) bias in favor of job candidates from elite schools.

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The scholarly lion

scholar lion statue

This is the scholarly lion at columbia university. It cannot roar. It can’t charge. It can’t even move. It is only a statue.

One wonders, frankly, what kind of comment on scholarship is implicit in this puzzling object, with its ruffled main, its gnarled lips, its green face the color of sea-beaten algae or refrigerated mold or weathered bronze, its thick lips, its empty eyes, its stiffened limbs. Are scholars meant to be like lions, brave and heroic, ready to seize the truth in their jaws, to roar at lies, to stand guard before virtue and prestige? Or are scholars here represented as statues, statues of something that might once have been brave when it was alive and lithe, but that now is halted, appropriated and bronzed?

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Economic impact of economic crisis on universities

I did a bit of research yesterday about the national effects of the economic crisis on the university system. A few interesting overviews are available: Timothy Burke predicts a permanent end to continuing university growth; Christopher Newfield comments on the debilitating effects of student debt; P. T. Zeleza has a big overview of the situation. But I thought I’d share the links to some of the relevant news, to save others the effort of looking it all up.

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The “first man” and the pragmatic life of academic gender

I’ve been casting around for a place to start thinking about the workings of masculinity in universities. Ron Baenninger has come to the  rescue, having just published “Confessions of a male presidential spouse” in Inside Higher Ed. Baenninger was a professor at Temple U., and his spouse, MaryAnn Baenninger, is now president at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota.

It’s quite a long piece, this confession. But it has a recurring image that seems deeply suggestive: the male husband polishing the woman president’s shoes.

If they could see me now. I am sitting on the floor of the president’s house, polishing the president’s shoes for her. My wife is now a lot busier than I am, and has a sizeable staff. Her importance on and off campus is a lot greater than mine, so I suppose it makes sense that I polish the presidential shoes – which are smaller and easier to polish than my own shoes (which rarely need to be shiny). I have sometimes seen people polish the shoes of other people, but only when they were paid for it. And the polishers were always male, as were the polishees. Shoe-polishing used to occur in railroad stations, or in old-fashioned barber shops that were bastions of maleness – quiet places, with discreet sounds of snipping and stropping of razors, with a ballgame on the radio, and smells of witch hazel, shaving lather, and shoe polish. So here I sit polishing a woman’s shoes and not even getting paid for it.

So when he polishes shoes, it seems, he finds himself in a moment of gendered abjection. He’s down on the floor, not even getting paid, polishing shoes which are symbols of power and sometimes sexuality and are themselves down on the ground, protecting the foot from the grime of the world; he’s in a position of no (relative) importance on campus so it’s pragmatically sensible for him to devote his time to polishing the shoes, for him to be doing this traditionally feminine work of the care of the working spouse’s appearance.

Alongside the structural sexism of this whole outlook, there’s something slightly poignant about the fact that what this man has to do is hard for him and takes re-learning and is symbolically dissonant for him. The echoes of his 50s upbringing are loud, as if he’s judging his life against the gender norms of the past even as he knows the world has changed, gender norms have blurred, roles have reversed. He feels like he’s just not completely ready for the task of taking care of the household while his wife works long presidential days. He seems happiest when he gets to take care of the car, when he drives his wife around, when he cooks dinner.

As boys, most men of my generation never learned to do “girl things”. As a consequence we are not very good at the practical or aesthetic details of maintaining an elegant home, or paying attention to all the important minutiae that underlie the public lives of presidents and their spouses. Things like making sure the silver is polished, as well as the shoes, and checking that napkins and table cloths are ironed and matching. Before her dinner parties I can recall my Mum putting out ashtrays and placing cigarettes in elegant silver receptacles from which smokers (a majority back in those days) would extract their smokes. The most she expected me to do was tidy up my own room. Surveys have shown that the only task husbands do almost universally is taking out the trash. In recent decades some of us also learned to do cooking, cleaning, shopping, looking after the kids, etc., but we reminded many people of the chimpanzee who typed out a novel — nobody expected us to do such things well, and it was remarkable if we could do them at all.

And he seems sad that some things he might be doing – making the house elegant, polishing the silver, doing the ashtrays – are things that boys just weren’t taught. Masculinity here is a practical predicament. Masculinity here is not just a gender identity but a set of quotidian competences and another set of lacking competences, of practical incapacities. Gender as point of pride, as product of socialization, as disability, as occasion for solidarity with other men who like to work on cars. Gender would seem to be a contradictory situation that causes many things to happen at once. He seems half sad that he can’t do some things and half accepting, with an almost traumatized calmness, that he probably won’t do and wouldn’t entirely be expected to do women’s work that still, in the crevices of the language of this text, seems to appear to him as abject.

Structure here is the man’s incapacity to see shoe-shining as not abject. Structure is this unexplained incapacity to shift contexts. Since shoeshining used to be something just done among men, accepted as an odd form of masculine care labor a bit like a pedicure. Shoeshining started to feel bad to him when it was an uncompensated service to a woman.

Someone in the comments section of the article asked if she (I think she) could drop her shoes off outside the man’s office door. But she was joking.

Jokes show us that something real is at stake.

Masculine consciousness here is so deeply about shame and managing shame. As if what underlay this whole system of masculine values was a systemic fear of women and a phobic hatred of being in their shoes. Over which humanistic values are overlaid, like upholstery for a lethal structure.

Department of Photography + Surveillance

photography dept + surveillance

At NYU. This is a picture of an art gallery from the street. The street reflected in the background. Some random art in the bottom.

But really I was just tremendously entertained that the DEPARTMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHY & IMAGING stuck its name right next to a surveillance camera. I guess they are afraid someone might steal their images? Or at least they want to have images of people stealing their images? Or perhaps the security camera is actually part of the exhibit? The white of the camera body blends so nicely with with the white of the wall. It reminds me of a little robot that has stuck its iron fist through the sheetrock and is waving for attention.

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Graduate mentoring and textually mediated intellectual passion

“After you take classes, you mostly stop having a relationship with the department, and your main relationship is with your committee,” a friend of mine said last year.

So the relationship with one’s advisors is the institutionalized moment of semi-autonomy from the institution, a moment in which one’s academic situation is governed by the contingencies of evolving personal and intellectual relations, and only more distantly by the bureaucratic requirements of the graduate program.

This can evoke all kinds of intricate psychosocial dynamics between student and advisors. Being in the middle of them, I can’t really speak from experience here, but let’s look at Janice Radway’s post facto description of her advising relationship, from a 2006 interview in the Minnesota Review with Jeff Williams:

“I first studied with Russ during my sophomore year. I had come out of a very middlebrow background and loved books and reading. I thought of myself as an English major, but didn’t aspire to a professional identity or position. I thought I was going to write as a journalist. In that sophomore year, I took Russ’s class on realism and naturalism, which met three days a week. He was working on The Unembarrassed Muse at that time and offered a special session that you could attend on Thursdays, where he would talk about the popular culture contemporaneous with literary realism and naturalism. I attended those sessions and was transfixed; I was not just transfixed by the subject matter but by his investment in the subject matter. I remember thinking, “This is a job, you can actually aspire to this as a job. You might think of yourself as a teacher, as a professor even.” It sounds silly and naïve, but that really was the moment when I thought about a different future.”
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