Monthly Archives: February 2018

For Normal Writing, part 2

(See part 1 here.)

…every time you meet a new man, the battle is on: the latest guest has to decide if you are

a) stronger than he, and
b) smarter than he, and
c) less queer.

And if you pass on all three counts, if you win the arm-wrestle, culture derby, and short-hair count, well then if he is a decent sort he usually feels you should run for President.

Norman Mailer (1959)

The 1950s are often described as the “age of conformity”, sometimes as a reference to the title of Irving Howe’s famous essay, in which he criticized his fellow intellectuals for failing to think independently about the Cold War. But it was certainly not just the mind of America that was shaped by the reigning ideology; the very body of the time, we might say, was under strong pressure to conform to what Jay Dolmage calls “normate culture”. If ever there was a time in recent history when the “normate subject” was ” white, male, straight, upper middle class,” and the normal body “profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able’,” surely the 1950s was it. Indeed, the civil rights struggles of the following decade were often explicitly waged against the “reactionary” forces that pushed back towards what had come before. What was sought — what was sorely needed, many would argue — was a liberation from the  norms (racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism) that the age enforced.

Let us grant, then, at least for the sake of argument, that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cultural subject, the “normal American”, was a middle-class, straight, white man. And let us also grant that this norm (or package of norms) was being enforced, pushing the experiences of lower class, gay, black and female Americans to the margins, “marking” them as in some way unfit for cultural life, culturally dis-abled, we might say. As Norman Mailer put it, you wouldn’t vote for a President you didn’t think was stronger, smarter and less queer than you were. Those were the  terms of battle on the field of culture. We can even grant that the upheavals of the 1960s didn’t fully put these battles behind us. Many people today will argue that straight, white males continue to enjoy vast cultural “privileges” that are withheld from their “others”. The normalizing pressures of culture continue to operate, perhaps as they always have and always will.

All this may be granted. (It’s not an argument we need to have today.)

It is the next step in Jay’s argument that I want to challenge. He believes that writing, and in particular student writing, is one of the practices through which the normate subject is constructed and maintained. That is, emancipation from normalcy requires emancipation (let’s say) from what the Chicago Manual of Style calls “polished American prose”. At a general level, drawing on the work of Lennard Davis, he suggests that language “enforces normalcy”; he agrees with Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James Wilson that “language becomes an ‘address interpellating the body’; linguistic conditions, in part, shape the body normatively.” And he applies this directly to the conventions of both usage and layout, noting that even the ideal of “clarity” distinguishes normal subjects from the great (if you will) “unwashed” masses.

We currently see this trend played out on the page through grammar and usage rules—which Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee suggest “are the conventions of written language that allow [people] to discriminate against one another”. But we also see normalcy imposed multitudinously through “surface features” like page layout and sentence length. We see normalcy interpellated through nebulous ideas like “clarity,” which Trinh T. Minh Ha suggests “is a means of subjection” and “conformity to the norms of well-behaved writing”. “To write ‘clearly,’” she argues, we are forced to “incessantly prune, eliminate, forbid, purge, purify; in other words, practice what may be called an ‘ablution of language’”.

Needless to say, the composition classroom is a traditional site of this ritual purification of our language. For Jay, then, it becomes another field of struggle against the conformist pressures of his age, another place, where we can “check our privilege,” to put it in the now-familiar language of our own age.

The ways that we police (or “coach”) student writing shapes student bodily possibilities. Another way to say this is to assert that dominant pedagogies privilege those who can most easily ignore their bodies.

There are three claims here that I want to resist. The first is that teaching or coaching (I often consider myself more the latter than the former) is tantamount to “policing” students. The second is that this impinges on the bodies of the students, that it shapes their possibilities for physical action and, presumably, limits their avenues of development. The third is that approaches to writing instruction that “focus on texts and thoughts, words and ideas” privilege people whose bodies are somehow unproblematic. I would argue that conventional prose (and the associated traditional pedagogies) are a boon precisely for those most in need of ignoring their bodies, and those most dependent on the respectful distance of their fellows.

Recall that the “normate subject” of 1950s culture was “white, male, straight, upper middle class”. And now consider some of the strongest voices in the early 1960s. Think of Jimmy Breslin, a working class journalist who never earned a university degree but won a Pulitzer in 1986  “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens”. Or think of Gore Vidal, whose homosexuality did not prevent him from being one of the most celebrated and respected writers of his generation. Or consider Harper Lee, the woman who wrote what must still be the single most taught novel in the American canon,  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). It has in many ways become the very paradigm of American prose writing. Finally, think of James Baldwin, a poor, gay, black man who wrote the defining essay of the civil rights struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). All of these writers escaped, not from the normalcy of prose convention, but into it. Writing was not another site of their subjugation, but a respite from what Baldwin called “the not-at-all-metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you”. In their writing, they were able to turn the tables on the most degrading forces of their time and assert themselves without having to apologize for the color of their skin, the configuration of their chromosomes, or the state of their desires.

This can be seen even more starkly if we go beyond cultural marginalization and look at physical disability. In his book Disability Rhetoric, Jay passes, in my opinion, a bit too quickly over the cases of Helen Keller and Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose literary productions he takes as a sign that “nobody should be assumed incapable of communication” (p. 143). Keller, most famously, managed to learn language despite being both blind and deaf. Learning that the signs that were being traced on the palm of one of her hands represented the cold water running over the skin of the other was the beginning of what would become a recognized literary talent. Bauby, who was already fully literate (indeed, he was a magazine editor) at the time that a stroke rendered him completely immobilized (“locked-in”), learned to communicate the contents of his autobiography by blinking one eye. He composed the entire book “in his head”, holding a chapter at a time in his memory and then “dictating” it one letter at a time.

For Jay, these accomplishments show that “the least dangerous assumption” is one of competence, that Bauby and Keller were, despite appearances, capable of communicating. To me, they reveal the extreme charity of the prose form, embodied in the patience of their instructors and stenographers and rendered permanent in the conventional form of the written page, where the author’s ideas are now as independent of the reader’s patience as the ideas in any other book, where the speed of reading renders the speed of writing irrelevant, i.e., where the reader is able to ignore the body of the writer to the indisputable advantage of the latter. I sometimes describe the act of composing a paragraph as working in “bullet time”. Because writers have much more time to compose themselves than the reader will (conventionally) take to read them, the writer faces the reader in, as it were, slow motion. Like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, writers are able to dodge bullets, even stop them in mid-air. In the text, being able to write is like knowing a virtual kind of kung fu.

In his famous essay on the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, Norman Mailer described “ego” simply as the “state of our psyche that gives us the authority to tell us we are sure of ourselves when we are not.” Achieving this state, perhaps, requires us to be able to, as Jay puts it, ignore our bodies. The authority of the ego transcends our all-too-familiar bodily limitations, however socially or materially constructed they may be. Freed from the limitations of a particular time and a particular space, the text gives us confidence we may not have in the here and the now of our embodiment. Indeed, Mailer suggested that boxers find their ego in the ring, which separates them from the complexities of social life and puts them face to face with a problem they understand how to deal with. Ironically, it becomes the “least dangerous” place. I believe that writers likewise find their authority (there’s a reason we call them “authors”) in the text where they, too, are able to transcend the particularities of their embodiment. As writing instructors, we teach them how to control this space. We show them how to handle themselves. We train them to be themselves in prose.

For Normal Writing, part 1

“I could pretend that I had no body.”
(René Descartes)

In 1973, Uri Geller made an appearance on the Tonight Show. At the time, he was already famous for being able to bend spoons with the power of his mind, divine the contents of sealed containers, and see what other people were thinking. He had been drawing large audiences to his public appearances and had even convinced a number of highly accredited scientists that his psychic abilities were real. Suspicious of his guest’s purported mental talents, however, Johnny Carson had consulted with the magician and skeptic James Randi to arrange stage conditions that would thwart any trickery; and that night, sure enough, Geller felt “tired” and was unable to demonstrate his powers. “I don’t know how he does it,” Randi has said, “but if he’s using his mind to bend those spoons, he’s doing it the hard way.”

I tell this story to my writing students as part of an effort to dispel an illusion that many of them suffer under. They think that writing is primarily a mental activity and that “the trick,” therefore, is to get into the right frame of mind. (Sometimes they call it “knowing”; more often, they call it “being inspired”.) This illusion is fostered by every piece of well-composed prose they encounter, which seems to effortlessly transfer ideas from the writer’s mind to their own as they read. It’s not for nothing that Stephen King has described writing as a kind of “telepathy”; a good writer makes it look easy to get someone to imagine what you are thinking. To get them to appreciate the real nature of the difficulty, I try to convince my students that writing, like playing the piano or drawing a picture, is not something we do first and foremost with our brains. It’s something we do with our hands. Indeed, it depends much more on sleight of hand than on telepathy. A writer brings about the distinctly “literary” effect of the text by concealing, like Geller, the most important parts of the process that produces it.

So one might think that I would be in agreement with Jay Dolmage, a composition and disability scholar at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “I’ve tried to work against the assumption,” he tells us, “that writing is not a physical act,” which, like I say, is also exactly what I do. But while I attribute this assumption to my students, Jay believes it underpins “the dominant discourse surrounding the teaching of writing.” While I try to disabuse my students of a common misconception about writing, Jay leverages the actual practices of his students against the “ideology” of literacy, especially as it manifests in conventional academic norms, which, he believes, have emerged from an “ableist” history that favors “normal” bodies over those of the disabled and otherwise marginalized. Fittingly, he titled his contribution to Kristin Arola and Anne Wysocki’s 2012 collection (Composing Media Composing Embodiment ) “Writing Against Normal”.

It’s an interesting argument and I want to engage with it over a few posts in some detail. Indeed, Jay concludes his piece with an invitation to such an engagement and a statement of his aims, which I also share. “This is a critical turning-away from traditional body-meanings. This is a turn towards recognizing and enabling all bodies,” he says, adding that “this is a turn that asks you to revisit what I have argued for here, and perhaps to resist each of my conclusions, instead locating your own beginnings.” This is precisely what I’m going to do. While I, too, think that writing instruction should en-able every-body, I’m going to resist, or at least take issue, with each of the conclusions he draws from his assumption that writing is a physical activity, a materially embodied and socially embedded process. It’s not the premise I disagree with but the conclusion. It’s not the goal he seeks, but the route he proposes to reach it, that I will challenge.

I want to argue that conventional prose writing has always involved “a critical turning away from traditional body-meanings”. Indeed, there is an absolutely critical tension already on the first page of Jay’s essay, which begins by asserting that “as a discipline, broadly speaking, we in composition and rhetoric have not acknowledged that we have a body, bodies.” Like I say, I certainly acknowledge this (i.e, that we have bodies, not that we fail to acknowledge them), both in theory and in practice, but what Jay means is perhaps better captured in his opening sentence: “The dominant discourse surrounding the teaching of writing focuses on texts and thoughts, words and ideas,” he writes, “as though these entities existed apart from the bodies of teachers, writers, audiences, communities.” This is of course entirely true, but what exactly is there to take issue with here? Is it not the whole point of writing to let us risk our ideas without risk to our bodies? That is, is it not the very aim and purpose of writing to give ideas an existence, as it were, “apart from” our bodies? And does this not mean that, far from failing to acknowledge our embodiment, the discourse on writing takes this predicament of ours very seriously indeed. In fact, if you’ll pardon it, it takes it literally.

We get a clue to the larger argument (and my response to it) in the next paragraph, where Jay introduces his disability perspective and his conception of norms and normalcy:

normalcy is used to control bodies; our normate culture continuously re-inscribes the centrality, naturality, neutrality and unquestionability of the normate position; our culture also marks out and marginalizes those bodies and minds that do not conform. Norms cir- culate, have cultural ubiquity and ensure their own systemic enforcement. The normate subject is white, male, straight, upper middle class; the normal body is his, profoundly and impossibly unmarked and “able.” On the page, this subject and his body translate as error-free, straight and logical prose; as a writing process that is a portfolio of progression towards perfection and away from all evidence of struggle and labor. (Pp. 115-116)

Jay is proposing to “write against” this normalcy and to teach his students to do the same. I want to argue that conventional prose writing has always afforded marginalized bodies such criticality and has never been taught as “a portfolio of progression towards perfection”. I will argue this through a series of famous cases, major writers who relied heavily on the particular affordances (and even imperfections) of conventional prose precisely to break with the conventions of normate culture, to overcome the forces that marginalized them and others. I want show that we are always writing against normal — that it is, in a sense, the normal mode of writing.

But let me end this post on lighter note. While I am an utterly middle class, straight, white male, I take exception to the suggestion that my subject position in the culture is “profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able’.” Indeed, when I propose that students approach their problem as one of getting their prose “into shape”, I often steal a line from Don Knotts, from back when he was playing Ralph Furley on the sitcom Three’s Company. After describing my own modest jogging regimen as a model for training their ability to compose a paragraph, I take a beat and gesture proudly down the length of my very “normal” figure. “A body like this,” I tell them, “doesn’t just happen, you know.” It almost always gets a laugh.

Resources and Requirements

I’ve been noticing something about composition studies lately. It’s an attitude about conventional prose that sometimes looks like resentment to me. I’m sure I’m misunderstanding it in its particular manifestations, especially when I detect it in professional writing instructors, but I certainly sometimes see it in students, and even established scholars, and here I can have a long enough conversation with them to be pretty sure that they have misunderstood the problem in a way that pitches them less than constructively against it. They have a bad attitude, we might say.

In a nutshell, they think of prose as a requirement rather than a resource. They feel constrained by the demand to compose themselves in individual orderly paragraphs that each supports, elaborates or defends one thing they have good reasons to believe is true. They think that the fact that it doesn’t allow them to express their whole being, all at once, with perfect authenticity, is some sort of criticism of this one particular obligation that they have. They forget that the conventions of scholarly prose were developed to facilitate communication between scholars, not to inhibit it. They fail to appreciate the usefulness of familiar patterns in the presentation of our results to each other, especially when those results were arrived at by the use of recognized methods with the aim of improving established theories. Prose is, first and foremost a promise of something, not a demand. What is required of us is simply that we make our knowledge available to each other as a resource.

They only usually feel this way for a moment. I can normally talk them down from the precipice before they throw their research to the winds of New Literary Forms and begin to write dialogues, or poems, or even comic books. I try to tell them that writing prose, however hard it may be to do well, is easier to do at least competently than these higher arts. Much more importantly, it is easier to understand. It it is kinder to your readers, your peers, to tell them what you think in coherent paragraphs arranged to add up to a larger thesis. The reader can examine your ideas one at a time and make of them what they will. They can compare your reasons for thinking something with their own reasons for thinking the same or the opposite. They can pick your ideas up and put them down and use them as they wish to help them along in their own projects. They are not being asked to have a profound transformational experience when they read your prose, they are merely being given some things to think about and, with time, new knowledge to add to their own.

When we foreground academic “requirements” we make the work of writing less enjoyable than it needs to be. But, ironically, the best way to put them into the background is to incorporate them explicitly into our process. Some people feel constrained by an 8000 word limit on their articles. But in what sense is it a limit? Isn’t it just because they want to say too much on this particular occasion, to have too “total” an impact on the mind of the reader, to dominate it too completely, that they want more words to work with? To see what I mean, think of another requirement that can be usefully converted into a resource: the deadline. If I give you a week or a month or a year to write something, what does that tell us if we haven’t decided what you are going to write yet? And why not just reverse our thinking here and choose something to write about that we can reasonably complete within the given amount of time, the given amount of words.

What we need is a subject to write about that fits comfortably into the time and space we have been allotted or (as is more often the case) the time and space we have allotted ourselves to work. This takes an exercise of judgment and that judgment can be developed over time and through practice. This why I encourage writers to learn to master a single moment. At the end of one day choose one thing you know well enough to write a single paragraph about at the start of the next. Then spend 18 or 27 minutes writing it followed by a two or three minute break. Get on with your day. (That could be another paragraph, if you had decided that the day before as well. You could write up to nine paragraphs this way in three hours.) With time, you get better at choosing just the right thing to write about — a paragraph’s worth of your knowledge. The writing moment becomes more and more enjoyable as a result.

We begin to think of the dimensions of the paragraph, not as requirements or restrictions, but as resources. We have at least six sentences and at most 200 words at our disposal. We have exactly 27 minutes to bring it together. We are freed from distractions and interruptions as we write. We have one job and the time we need to do it well. We should feel free here, wealthy even, not confined to the cell of a debtor’s prison.

Reading Out Loud

I try to help people shape their prose faculty, their facility with prose. About a week ago Greg Ashman tweeted an NPR interview about the “science of reading,” which occasioned mixed feelings in me. It’s always nice to hear science confirm one’s teaching philosophy and, though I don’t teach reading to grade schoolers, but writing to university students and scholars, I find “phonics” to be both a compelling theory and a useful practice. When students want to know whether or not they are “doing it right”, i.e., whether or not they are writing well, I tell them to read their paragraphs out loud. Even better, I tell them to get a classmate to read it out loud to them. The way a paragraph sounds, the ease with which it comes off the page, tells you a great deal about how well it is written.

But I’ve also long been skeptical about the scientific study of ordinary cognitive abilities like reading and writing.  Claudio Sanchez introduces his interview with Mark Seidenberg with this observation:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

At first pass, this seems like a reasonable point. But suppose I said that only one third of the nation’s school children eat a healthy diet. And suppose I explained this by way of a “disconnect” between what kids are fed and what the latest research shows us about how foods and beverages actually affect the brains of children. The research may be perfectly sound (or it may not) but did we really need brain research to understand what children should eat? This becomes still more clear when we hear what the science actually shows.

Success in reading depends on linking print to speech. There’s a massive amount of behavioral research, neuroimaging research, on brain organization and brain development, which conclusively shows that skilled reading is associated with children’s spoken language, grammar and the vocabulary they already know. It’s about teaching kids the correspondence between the letters on a page and the sounds of words.

This sounds very “old school” to me and (as with all things old-school) immediately sensible. What should puzzle us is that grade-school teaching was ever disconnected from this insight. And this is where things get tricky for me. I want to celebrate Seidenberg for speaking the truth to teachers, but I fear that the problem itself arises because the teaching profession is, increasingly, guided by research. If teachers had been able to maintain autonomy over their own teaching methods, they would never have abandoned the close connection between learning to read and reading out loud. And then I wouldn’t have to teach students to read out loud when learning how to write clear, scholarly prose. It would just be natural.

I don’t know much about the scientific literature on reading at the grade school level, so I don’t know exactly when exactly what went wrong. But  I do suspect that the distance between the spoken and the written word grew substantially under the so-called “post-modern” conditions that were inspired by Derrida’s “deconstruction” of “logocentrism”. At one level, after all, it was precisely an attempt to free the written word from its servitude to speech. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that complaints about the “turgidity” of contemporary academic prose are often traced back to Derrida’s influence. And it can certainly be demonstrated that composition studies has been profoundly affected by this influence. Indeed, I’m increasingly confident that literacy studies has been deconstructed as well, so it would not surprise me to find that grade-school literacy practices have been deliberately freed from the shackles of logocentrism. It would not surprise me if this can be shown to have had a detrimental effect on the reading level of school children.

My mixed feelings about Seidenberg’s suggestion, then, stem, not from any disagreement I have with him, but from the authority that science increasingly has over teachers. I don’t think teachers should adopt phonics on the advice of science, but on the counsel of common sense. (Indeed, it was also common sense that should have pushed back against the “ideological turn” in literacy studies and the “process turn” in composition studies.) It has never really made sense to separate writing from speech entirely–to let writing live a life of its own, independently of the sound that our words make. It only made sense after we taught ourselves to trust “research” more than the evidence of our own senses. Or rather, at that point we had begun to happily believe things we didn’t understand, to adopt practices that didn’t really makes sense to us, because one or another “study” had “shown” that some new pedagogy was needed to get us “beyond” traditional teaching methods. I don’t think it made things easier.

Academic Exceptionalism

I doubt if a man deserves freedom until he can get along without being being cow-herded.

“The art,” says my venerable colleague once Vorticist W. Lewis, “of being ruled”! The art of not being exploited…

(Ezra Pound)

I recently came upon a pointed critique of “neoliberalism” in university administration on Twitter: “Academics aren’t ’employees’ and we don’t work with/for our ‘managers’.” That’s not literally true, of course. Academics do usually collect a paycheck and enjoy a not insignificant package of benefits. They also normally answer to a research director, department head, dean or some sort of president. They are governed by a board, which is responsible to “stakeholders” of some kind, often simply the citizens whose taxes fund the operation. To be an academic is, in that sense, to have an ordinary corporate job.

But the tweet I’m thinking of was trying to suggest a less ordinary picture of the work of an academic. “As an academic, I work with/for students, the international research community, local community and industry partners, [and] the future of humankind.” It was in this sense, it argued, that academics aren’t “employees” as we know it. Presumably, then, we would not say the same about a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm. Presumably, indeed, a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm would not tell neoliberalism to “fuck off” for the same reasons.

But is that presumption true? Suppose we tweak the list of stakeholders a little: “As a pharma rep, I work with/for patients, the international medical community, local community and industry partners, and the future of humankind.” Isn’t there a perfectly good sense in which that is true? Isn’t it entirely legitimate for the employees of Big Pharma to think of themselves in these terms? Is it that much more naive for them to think this way than it is for the (not-)employees of Big Academia?

When people deride “neoliberalism” in the universities they usually mean the increasingly managerial culture that shapes how their work is organized. I agree with Joseph Heath that the term functions mainly to shift the blame onto an abstract entity that can’t defend itself–one that no one is, in fact, prepared to speak in defense of. But where Heath suggests that it might be better to engage in real arguments with libertarians than to “critique” the influence of neoliberalism, I would suggest talking directly about management. I think we too often, and too easily, blame “neoliberalism” for the consequences of what is, at the end of the day, simply bad management. “Managerialism” (which we might define as the ideology that promotes management for its own sake) is certainly at the root of countless bad management decisions; but the solution is not to tell the ideologues to fuck off. To be sure, that’s a pretty good start, but the real revolution will come when the managers smarten up.

What I want to call “academic exceptionalism” is the view academic work is unlike all other kinds of work. I cultivate a version of this attitude myself when I say that universities should be good places, indeed, exceptionally good places, for smart and curious people to thrive. (Let pleasant and ambitious people thrive elsewhere, I say.) But I think it is misapplied when we say that academics are neither “employed” nor “managed”, when we suggest that being managed is somehow beneath the dignity of academics in a way that does not (or should not) humiliate a corporate employee.

The problem in universities, I would say, is mainly that a new managerial culture has been imposed too quickly and is being implemented by people who have limited management skills (they are mainly academics) or limited academic experience (managers “brought in” from the corporate sector). That is, I disagree with the “neoliberalism” diagnosis, though I lament many of the same ills that plague us today. As universities grew, they needed management that looked more like that of a corporation. It was badly implemented and the results are often less than ideal. But rejecting “managerial culture” as such isn’t the solution.

There is managerial excess and it should be challenged. But it’s everywhere and equally bad. And serving our stakeholders directly without the mediation of a manager is more stressful than many academics like to admit. None of their “bosses”–our students, colleagues, collaborators, editors–know what the others are demanding, and what the “future of humankind” demands of us is downright horrifying to consider! A good department head or program director, who reduces our complexities to manageable contingencies, is worthy of respect, and an incompetent one should be returned to the ordinary academic labor they’re more suited for.  When “neoliberalism” is used to cover all the effects of “managerial culture” on the university, it actually ends up providing ideological cover for  bad management. Creeping managerialism becomes an excuse for crappy management.

Wyndham Lewis published The Art of Being Ruled almost a century ago. Two and a half millennia before that, Lao Tzu suggested that “ruling a large state is like cooking a small fish.” (Think on it a bit. I’ll unpack it, or unpick it, in a later post.) Academics should not eschew management; they should learn how to do it well. They should not reject “neoliberalism” but earn the academic freedoms they enjoy. At the end of the day, though they may be under new management, they are employees after all. At the end of the day, like their managers, they go home.