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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Content as occasion

I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at least three times in classes at Barnard. I also read it in my high school’s senior year Humanities class; my eighteen-year-old classmates insisted that the lesson from the book was, “women used to not have any rights, and then we gave them some.” I got predictably furious—-and ended up writing my college essay about how I figured out that indignation wasn’t the most productive classroom behavior and learned how to be a more thoughtful feminist. (Hello, Barnard!)

We read it as one of the first books in the Women and Culture First-Year Seminar; then again in a Centennial Scholars seminar that focused on interdisciplinary work; and maybe also in a seventeenth-century poetry class where we wondered about why Woolf had characterized Margaret Cavendish as "a vision of loneliness and riot ... as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death," when it was plain to see that she was awesome. Except in that last discussion, when we were critical of Woolf’s formulation of barriers and negative examples to describe a much richer history (that was indeed available to her), I never felt satisfied with these classroom discussions. They always seemed to have the same predetermined course toward the class bickering about whether Woolf was “right” or not. One possibly more productive way to look at Woolf’s description of Judith Shakespeare and the progress of women’s writing from that imagined example’s tortured status through angry Cavendish, to Anne Finch, to Frances Burney, to Jane Austen is to historicize it. Why did she make this argument at this point in time? What stake did she have in framing women’s literary history this way; why does her argument about the value of women's education depend on flattening the landscape of literary history in order to make the evidence for progress through education?

Maybe it’s difficult to focus on historicizing texts in an undergraduate and the other impulse is to go for "provocative" discussions ("how do we still see this process play out today?") or thematic discussions ("what do we think about women's oppression?"). I’m positive this practice isn’t unique to Barnard, or to discussions of Virginia Woolf, or to discussions of so-called non-canonical texts. But in debates about what students are learning--at Barnard, women's progress through education--somehow the non-canonical texts are the things that come in for criticism, not the particularities of the day’s discussion or the questions that are asked about a text. For this reason, I was interested to read Juli Weiner’s article from the Blue & White, "'Pretty Good' Books," about critiques of Barnard’s First-Year Seminar program and the school’s “Nine Ways of Knowing” curriculum.

There are a lot of critiques that get kind of mixed up in the article: students interviewed cite the problem of reading non-canonical texts, of not reading enough female authors, having obliquely conceived thematic seminars such as “Symmetry” or “Death,” sitting through poor classroom discussions, and living with their classmates if they are in a residential seminar assignment. Some of these concerns seem like reasonable critiques of particular classes, but it’s difficult to link them into a general critique of the curriculum. The main critique seems to be of the idea of using "content as occasion": some students worry that they’re not getting as rich an education because they aren’t reading the same Great Books syllabus as Columbia students in the Core Curriculum. Weiner writes,
Lit Hum and CC, the centerpieces of the Core, require the study of canonical texts with inherent historical, literary or philosophical value, while in the seminar program, the texts function as a springboard for discussion. "The emphasis is not on what we read," explained Mindy Aloff, a professor who currently teaches The Art of Being Oneself. "The seminars are to encourage skills in writing, reading, and speaking. The content is an occasion for helping people do something else."

But the "Content as Occasion" philosophy--namely, that worthwhile content is not a necessary component of meaningful discussion--contributes to the widespread dissatisfaction with the FYS program. The seminars are a jumble of disorganized syllabi, reluctant professors, and disillusioned students. Furthermore, when it comes to meeting their objective--providing an intellectual foundation outside the rigid strictures of the canon--many students say they fail. The disappointment is particularly acute because these are first-year courses. They should provide the means and the desire for four years of intellectual growth--one of the aims of the 9 Ways of Knowing. Instead they risk extinguishing any academic curiosity.

Lauren Saltiel, BC '10, characterized the collective disdain as a sentiment directed not at specific classes, but at the entire program. "I didn't really go into the seminar thinking it would be this great discussion class--it's just something I had to do and didn't have high expectations for." The lack of seriousness regarding the construction of FYS and the incoherence of the syllabi are evident in the administration's nonchalant attitude toward canonical considerations. "We like to say: 'Not Great Books, but pretty good books,'" laughed Robert McCaughey, looking down at his anchor-patterned tie. A current professor of The Beautiful Sea, McCaughey was the founding director of the FYS program from 1983-1987. Were this same statement applied to Barnard's intellectual mission the result would be offensive: Let's not produce great minds, but pretty good minds.

I think, although I could be mistaken, that McCaughey is being ironic in that quotation, and the extrapolation that "pretty good books" are linked to pretty good minds is a willfully ludicrous interpretation of the quotation.

Indeed, I find it difficult to predict whether a classroom discussion is going to be amazing. I wish they were always amazing! But I’ve been in classes about excellent books—-canonical texts and non-canonical texts alike-—where the discussion has fallen flat, and I’ve been in situations with books I liked less—-again, canonical texts and non-canonical texts alike—-where the discussions have been wonderful. The wonderful discussions far outnumbered the flat ones, but I'm willing to admit that my experience may be rosier than others'. Sometimes I even say that I like talking about flawed books more because I’m interested in finding the seams where books don’t fit together and using that gap as an invitation to discuss content and style. I think it’s my job either as a teacher or a student to capitalize on those moments as places for inquiry.

For this reason and others, some of the anecdotes in the Blue & White story trouble me for how the author wants to make them point to representing some fundamental problem with the “content as occasion” model. Frankly, I find it hard to take seriously any critique of a class where the students complain about not having anything to say about reading Borges. The “transcript” of classroom discussion indicates that the instructor asked unproductive questions, but the dead end seems like a sad resolution to “The Garden of Forking Paths”--or whatever the were reading. The text itself gets lost in the complaint. What happened to the students’ agency and responsibility in this anecdote, in this classroom?

The other question I had about this failed “Symmetry” seminar is: from these anecdotes, what do we learn about the kinds of limitations that thematic-based may discussions present? It’s been my experience that students are used to having thematic discussions about love, justice, women, oppression, and so on; I believe the thing that a First-Year Seminar should really focus on is learning how to ask good classroom discussions that will generate good essays. That means modeling thoughtful, specific questions as an instructor--something that isn't obvious at first and that I had to learn how to do--but it also means instilling in the students some sense of responsibility for class discussions. For this reason, I’m less apt to blame the syllabus for these negative experiences in First-Year Seminar than I am to ask the students, What would you do differently with that text? What would you recommend adding or changing about the syllabus?

In the passage I quoted from the article, I bolded "inherent" because... really? We're not going to treat that word like it's problematic? (Everyone's favorite word at Barnard.) I re-read John Guillory's Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation a couple of weeks ago because I was thinking a lot about the Core Curriculum, and I can't recommend that book more highly for anyone who's interested in the history of the canon. Gerald Graff's Professing Literature: An Institutional History is also excellent for its look at how colleges and universities have organized syllabi over the past two centuries and how people have debated the inclusion and exclusion of certain works from the canon. Guillory puts under pressure three claims that have been taken for granted on both sides of the debate:
1. Canonical texts are the repositories of cultural values.
2. The selection of texts is the selection of values.
3. Values must be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the work.

Having considered some of the debates about the Stanford Western Culture syllabus that took place in the late '80s and early '90s, Guillory writes,
A syllabus will necessarily be limited by the constraints of a particular class and its rubric, even by the irreducibly material constraint that only so much can be read or studied in a given class. In no classroom is the 'canon' itself the object of study. Where does it appear, then? It would be better to say that the canon is an imaginary totality of works. No one has access to the canon as a totality. This fact is true in the trivial sense that no one ever reads every canonical work; no one can, because the works invoked as canonical change continually according to many different occasions of judgment or contestation. What this means is that the canon is never other than an imaginary list; it never appears as a complete and uncontested list in any particular time and place, not even in the form of the omnibus anthology, which remains a selection from a larger list which does not itself appear anywhere in the anthology's table of contents. In this context, the distinction between the canonical and the noncanonical can be seen not as the form in which judgments are actually made about individual works, but as an effect of the syllabus as an institutional instrument, the fact that works not included on a given syllabus appear to have no status at all. The historical condition of literature is that of a complex continuum of major works, minor works, works read primarily in research contexts, works as yet simply shelved in the archive. Anyone who studies historical literatures knows that the archive contains an indefinite number of works of manifest cultural interest and accomplishment. While these works might be regarded as 'noncanonical' in some pedagogic contexts--for example, the context of the 'great works' survey--their noncanonical status is not necessarily equivalent in anyone's judgment to a zero-degree of interest or value. The fact that we conventionally recognize as 'the canon' only those works included in such survey courses or anthologies as the Norton or the Oxford suggests to what extent the debate about the canon has been driven by institutional agendas, for which the discourse of the 'masterpiece' provides such a loud accompaniment. The merest familiarity with historical context brings the continuum of cultural works back into focus and demonstrates that the field of writing does not contain only two kinds of works, either great or of no interest at all. For this reason the category of the 'noncanonical' is entirely inadequate to describe the status of works which do not appear in a given syllabus of study.

There's a lot of other good stuff in Guillory's book. (And if you wanted to get more out of Borges than shows up in the article, you might consider his Library of Babel with this idea of selection versus exclusion.)

I want to return to Woolf, though, because I think she's an interesting example of how the canon can be reified for particular social purposes, in her argument as a negative example. She's a fascinating author to read in a classroom that's conscious of the syllabus as a site of selection as different from exclusion, a distinction that Guillory is careful to explain. She refers repeatedly to not being able to access the works of Cavendish or other female authors because of institutional constraints upon her at the university and at the library. Thus the history she gives reflects her reaction to the institutions more than it does some lasting judgment on these authors' work.

Cavendish is such an apt example of this very problem--I don't think Woolf ever addresses this coincidence--because she writes, too, of being locked out of the Royal Society meetings in seventeenth-century London and thus imagining a "blazing-world" where she could oversee her own natural philosophical experiments and divide up institutional and disciplinary knowledge differently. Her definition of what would constitute a genre for knowledge-production would look different, too, from the transactions of the Royal Society that she criticizes in the material appended to the Blazing-World:
The end of reason is truth, the end of fancy is fiction. But mistake me not when I distinguish fancy from reason; I mean not as if fancy were not made by the rational parts of matter, but by reason I understand a rational search and enquiry into the causes of natural effects, and by fancy a voluntary creation or production of the mind, both being effects, or rather actions of the rational part of matter, of which, as that is a more profitable and useful study than this, so it is also more laborious and difficult, and requires sometimes the help of fancy to recreate the mind and withdraw it from its more serious contemplations.

And this is the reason why I added this piece of fancy to my philosophical observations, and joined them as two worlds at the end of their poles, both for my own sake, to divert my studious thoughts which I employed in the contemplation thereof, and to delight the reader with variety, which is always pleasing. But lest my fancy should stray too much, I chose such a fiction as would be agreeable to the subject I created of in the former parts.

The connections between these two authors as they write about exclusion, gender, and the genre of the essay has never struck me more forcefully than it does here. Content as occasion, indeed.

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Anonymous Kait on Mon Dec 22, 10:23:00 PM:
i cannot say how refreshing (like a tall drink of ice water after landing in a desert of high altitude) reading this was. i graduated at barnard in your year - you may or may not remember me - and i found this when wondering what you were up to these days. an interesting article, pointed and smart. so glad to have found you writing articles that i can read at leisure.

also, my experience in Jennie Kassanoff's first year seminar was anything but unfocused. it was tough, interesting, and the discussions were as good as they could have been under the circumstances (i remember that first semester as being a period of a bunch of overachievers learning how and what to read so that we could, indeed, proceed with our education with our curiosity intact instead of squelched ).