Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Authority and Scholarship

Dr. Virago has a great post up about the "intro to graduate studies in English" class that she teaches, in which she discusses her desire to encourage a feeling of scholarly authority in her graduate students. She closes the post with the following (though it's worth heading over and reading the whole thing, as well as the comments):

But mostly, I want them to understand that I wasn't born a medievalist with a book and some articles and a good knowledge of my field. Heck, I was pretty much an idiot in my first year or two of graduate school. Everyone is. The ones who think they aren't are smug bastards and often they're the ones who make deadly mistakes along the way. (Learning how to recognize the smug bastards and not following their example is a life skill in and of itself, but a subject for another post.) What I try to teach them, anyway, is that building knowledge of one's field -- both of the primary texts and the critical conversations about them -- takes time and work and dedication. It doesn't happen by taking a class or two. You have to keep at it. And you do that because it's the knowledge and the creative thinking about your subject that gives you authority -- not your place in the hierarchy. I think one of the best examples of that is the kinds of conversations that happen on blogs -- so I suggest students read some of them, too.

But still, I see too much shyness, too much deference, too much fear of asserting their ideas with authority. So clearly I need to do more. Tell me, oh wise readers, how it is you developed your own authority, and how you seek to teach students how to develop it.
Now, I can't (yet - though soon I will be able to, as we've begun a grad program in which I will teach) talk about this in terms of teaching graduate students. I can however, talk about how I deal with these issues in terms of teaching undergrads, and particularly in terms of how I teach my advanced undergrads, and particularly and especially in terms of how I have tried to facilitate this kind of authority in those students of mine who express a desire to go on to graduate school. Because even though I don't currently teach graduate students, this is a huge issue for me in terms of what I want students to become as writers and thinkers across my courses, whether they're majors or minors or just general education students.

For me, this whole question begins with the writing that we expect of students in our courses. Even in a first-year writing course. I think that most students enter college - as I did - thinking that the point was to spit out authoritative voices that are not their own in their writing. This is what got me A's in high school, and this is what even many of my college professors seemed to appreciate. The result was that I felt very disconnected from much of the writing that I did. I thought that feeling of disconnection was normal. I thought feeling like I was an underling whose ideas didn't matter was kind of the point. I was not by any stretch of the imagination "joining the conversation." I was parroting conversations that other, more important, people had already had. Again, this sort of thing is often rewarded, whether in high school or college. "Good students," the kind who end up in graduate school, are smart, and they realize that this is the kind of thing that is often rewarded, and so they learn to do that. It's a "safe" bet. And depending on one's context, the ability to do this can put one at the top of the class.

But ultimately, the point of "academic writing" - at any level - should be to "join the conversation" and to produce new insights. This point is the very antithesis of the "collage of other people's ideas" approach that is often rewarded. It's also really fucking scary. And it also means that you might screw up sometimes and be inadequate to the ideas that you try to put forward. The much safer bet, in many contexts, is to be deferential.

So where does this begin in my undergraduate classes? It begins with forcing students to have their own ideas. And part of this means designing paper topics (if I give them) in ways that are self-consciously quite broad or in organizing assignments in steps so that students develop their own topics. It's not that I don't give my students guidance, but I do force them to arrive at their own conclusions through the topics that I provide for out-of-class writing. (I'm more directive on exam essay questions, in part because it's easier on them.)

In other words: let's say that I'm assigning a 3-5 page primary text literary analysis. I do not give topics like Discuss the representation of women in "To His Coy Mistress" and "My Last Duchess." This might be the sort of topic I'd provide for an essay exam, but for a paper, I feel like it encourages regurgitation, either of what I lecture on in class or of what other Esteemed Critics Have Written (even if it's not technically plagiarism, though often such topics do inspire that). Or, at the very least, it implies an answer I might want given what I highlighted in lecture and class discussion. They know what I think about the representation of women in these two poems. They'll give that to me if I ask the question in that way. Instead, for a paper topic, I tend to go broader and to frame the topic in ways both broader and more narrow in terms of a series of questions that force them to offer their own ideas. So yes, I might do something about the representation of women, but I'll give them their own choice of texts to compare, and I'll offer questions and counter-questions, which are (as much as is possible) neutral and don't give an indication of "what I want them to write." Some students truly hate this. Most, however, feel like it liberates them. All of a sudden, somebody cares what they think. Somebody cares about their ideas. That's the first step.

Now, I do a bunch of stuff to facilitate the idea that they can have any idea that they want, as long as the text supports it. First, I organize most of my classes now around group activities in which they get together and figure shit out before I lecture. I base my lectures off of their responses, and I really engage with their initial readings much more than I did as a new teacher. I give them steps for analyzing, and then I - off the cuff - respond to what they come up with. (Note: this is only possible because I'm so comfortable with the material that I teach now and with my authority as the teacher, which is, I think, different from scholarly authority.) Second, I have a range of informal writing that students do in most of my classes that is more "reaction" or "response" based, to which I give comments, although the emphasis is not on the grade. Again, I give them the rules for how to write these reactions/responses, but I don't give them the ideas that they should have. Along these lines, I also give presentation assignments in my upper-level classes, which makes students the authority on given topics/texts, and which is crucial to destroying any image of me that they might have as "sage on the stage." No, their classmates are the authority for certain class meetings. I may supplement what they have to say, but I'm in no way the Subject Who Knows.

I should note: the point of all of the above is not, and my students know this, that any idea is as good as any other. I regularly talk about how some ideas are better than others. I give examples of crap ideas that I myself have had. The point is not that "anything goes" or that any reaction or interpretation is just fine and dandy. The point is that all ideas must be supported by the primary text. But if the idea is supported by the primary text, even if I heartily disagree with it, a student can earn a very good grade. The point is not that you've got to agree with me but rather that you've got to convince me. And in my discipline, that's the whole point really: convincing your reader that your interpretation has merit. Showing how you got there, and showing why it matters.

And, see, that's the thing about the whole "authority" question in literary studies. It's not about "facts" in any sort of concrete way, but it is about "evidence." It's about being able to show your work, and to close any loopholes that might allow others to dismiss you. So yes, it's more "subjective" than other disciplines, but it's not without rigor. It's about being able to persuade others, through the rigorous reading that you do and your articulation of that reading, that you are not a schmuck. No, it's not data-driven. But it is evidence-driven. And the point is not to give a report of what everybody else has said, but rather to put your own carefully thought-out and analyzed ideas into context with what others have said and to enter into conversation with them.

Aside: this is, perhaps, one of the reasons why students can mistake English for being without rigor. They think it's all a shell-game in which any idea is as good as the next without any sort of skill. The truth is, English is more like a high-school geometry class, in which even if you get the right answer on a problem, you'll get points taken off if there is a mistake in the proof. Yes, there can be multiple and divergent readings of a text. But if you fuck up in the proof, your goose is cooked. You've got to make somebody who disagrees with you think about why they disagree and acknowledge that your methodology is sound, even if they disagree. That's the whole point. Not that all interpretations were created equal, or that everyone must agree on what a text "means."

So, another thing that I do, which I noted in Virago's comments, is the following:

One thing that I do with advanced students is I'm pretty free about showing them versions of my own scholarship in draft form. I think a lot of times students think that what I'm asking them to do is disconnected from actual critical conversations (a) or that somehow I've reached a point where any scholarly work I do just pops out of my head brilliantly (b). I think that this brings home to them that what they're doing is just a version of what "professionals" do in the context of publication, and it helps to model the coming to authority in a piece of writing.

Now, I'll admit: I've had colleagues look at me with wonder when I tell them that I do this. They say, "But students don't care about our scholarship! Are you insane?" Here's the thing: most don't really care what I'm working on. That's true. But they do respond to seeing the process of what I'm working on, and they do appreciate the fact that I'm in writing hell as they are in writing hell. They also appreciate that I am revealing my writing to them in its messiest forms just as I see theirs in messy forms. It equalizes us. So I'm under no illusions that they care what my scholarship is about - but I do think that they care that I struggle with my own academic writing and that I'm not just a sadistic bitch who enjoys watching them suffer through my horrible assignments. Ultimately, showing them my work is a way for me to explain the work that I assign for them to do. I show them how I'm trying to enter into scholarly conversations that I don't have immediate entry into, and that gives them confidence in entering into scholarly conversations in which they don't feel they have the right to participate.

The thing is, this "authority" thing is not just a problem for students, or for graduate students. It's a problem for scholars. It's a problem for any scholar who decides to branch out from his/her dissertation. Sure, I'm an "expert" on my diss authors, in some fashion, but what about my scholarly tangents that I've followed in the past five years? No, I'm not. The point is, my dissertation isn't me. My dissertation taught me how to analyze literature; it taught me how to interrogate literature through theory. But I'm not dead now. I've got new questions, new things I'd like to explore. And so I use the skills I learned in the dissertation to ask new questions, of new texts, with new theories. Even if I feel like a fraud when I do. The point is, I am more comfortable now with the fact that I won't necessarily know "everything" before I write something about a novel or an author or through a theory that I didn't study in grad school. I'm not necessarily going to be "expert" in everything I explore, but I am an "expert" in how to explore it. And yes, there will still be feelings of anxiety, and yes, I may be way off base with some ideas, but I have faith in my methodology and I have faith in my voice - that I've got something to say and that I can say it in a way that may be well received. And the more that you have that kind of faith, the more things you write, and the more you really do become "an authority" - even in those areas where you feel like a fraud.

This stuff I've been focused on since the diss? I started off as a total fraud. I started with an author I'd never studied in a class, having read only one novel among her 475 published works. And I published an article, and I was a fraud. And yet, somehow people decided, because of that article, that I was an authority. Now, well, I'm a master of the criticism of not one but of three of her novels, and I feel confident in the theoretical tangents that I've made. Part of that confidence comes from the fact that "experts" in these areas have found my fraudulent takes on things "innovative" and "interesting." I've gotten more recognition related to this stuff than for the dissertation/book stuff, not because it's less good, but because it's less afraid and less derivative. I really am my own scholar now - not because authority was conferred upon me or because I read every single thing that I should have read, but because I made the interpretive leap and I joined the conversation, even though it was totally freaking scary. That is what I want from my students. I don't want perfection. I don't want a lit review that beats all lit reviews. I want courage.

That's what I see in the scholarship that I most value. That's what I aspire to in my own work.


Dr. Virago said...

As always, Crazy, thank you thank you thank you for this post (and for the comment at my place). This is most helpful not only to my teaching practices (I do similar things in my undergrad classes and need to adapt them to my MA classes and hadn't really thought about it that way -- duh!) but also to thinking about my own scholarship, even. I'm also diving into a totally new field and so far I've been unconsciously doing what you've been doing in your new field. But now I'm going to think more consciously about what enables me to do it and also I'm going to talk to my grad students about this process.

human said...

You know, when I realized that I knew more about the stuff I was writing my senior thesis on than many of my professors did, I nearly wet myself. And then I wasn't sure what to do with myself, because - how could that be? But I always make the best impression when I forget to be deferential and just join the conversation. I went to AHA and got in a big argument with some really famous guy (I had no idea he was famous) about some stuff I really didn't know about: I just picked the side that sounded right and jumped into the discussion. It wound up with him trying to recruit me to go to his school. And more importantly, it was fun!