Uncertain about the androgynous mind

“Why do you think I won’t like it?” a friend asked after I described a book I had read and liked but said he wouldn’t enjoy. I have been reaching for an answer, because simply saying It’s a feeling I have is insufficient. But Virginia Woolf, whose writing I adore, has provided a reason:

 This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop …. (67)

That. The authorship of a book and the subject of a book still influence how readers position ourselves relative to the book. Many readers — even open-minded readers of “better” literature — want to read the book about the metaphorical or actual battle-field because they believe it will be more important, more worthwhile, than a woman’s book about interior matters.

Woolf made her comments in 1928, but the sentiment still applies. Look at whose books are reviewed, whose books win major prizes. Look at how books by women writers tend to be handled when they are reviewed. Whether we acknowledge the fact or not, books by women are perceived to be less serious, less important, than books by men. This perception troubles me deeply. It’s not a perception I share.

It is necessary, as Woolf says elsewhere in A Room of One’s Own, to write “as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages [are] full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (84). I’m not sure I agree with Woolf on this point, but do feel that books by women may be different from those by men — and by no means less for that difference.

Source: Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Classics, 1993).


Max’s choice

When I was in my teens I read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, an assigned text that propelled me into studying the Modernists and Modernism generally. You may remember that the key to the novel is the word timshel:

 But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

In a closely argued essay about Where the Wild Things Are, Desmond Manderson explains how the story of Max may be read as a tightly compressed telling of the growth from strict obedience to personal responsibility — timshel, if you will:

 A rule can never capture the complex process of judgment that must always be experienced as both bound and unbound, unique and universal. To be responsible is precisely to respond to the particularities of a situation, and to make a choice in relation to it. Merely to apply in rote fashion the words of a rule is no exercise of responsibility at all, because it involves no decision at all; it is, in fact, to claim that one ’s hands are tied. No one would ask a machine or the wind to act responsibly. Obedience, then, is the polar opposite of responsibility. The recognition of difference, and the necessity of continually making judgments that attend to that difference, marks the end of the possibility of unquestioning obedience and the true dawn of responsibility. (123)

I love the ideas about law and love this essay traces, and how Manderson ultimately argues that the critical, thinking being is the best legal subject — and how he puts reading at the centre of that process. I like the normative claims and the ethical subjectivity he argues for. This is a fresh analysis of Sendak that has potential for opening up many other children’s and YA texts.


Source: Desmond Manderson, “From Hunger to Love” (Law and Literature 15.1: 87–141).


What if I kissed the teacher?

It was almost a decade ago that I first read Mark Bracher’s powerful essay “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy.” At that time I was a fairly fresh post-secondary instructor, beginning my doctoral studies and feeling my way between literary theory and pedagogical theory. In this essay Bracher argues that “transference is ubiquitous in literature classes” (128). From my own experiences in the classroom, as both student and teacher, I cannot dispute Bracher’s assessment. I believe teachers and professors in literary disciplines, including writing courses, should read and reflect on this essay, for it makes vital observations about our behaviour and ethics.

Importantly, Bracher argues, the teacher cannot help being the object of transference, at least for some students. Contemporary pedagogical practices almost ensure that it will happen:

In such a situation, strategies designed to reduce or eliminate the coercive and seductive force of authority actually have the opposite effect, because they function surreptitiously to reinforce the transference. The first strategy, the democratic, egalitarian gesture in which the teacher attempts to function as just another member of the class, often makes students suppose that this subject, the egalitarian teacher, really does know — knows or understands something about students’ abilities that other, more traditional teachers do not. As a result, students’ admiration for and enthrallment by such teachers is often increased rather than decreased by the teachers’ attempts to give up their authority. The second strategy, the “up-front” and honest acknowledgement and expression of the teacher’s own political or epistemological bias, with its assumption that students can counter the teacher’s authority with their own if they can recognize the teacher’s bias, mistakenly assumes that disagreeing with an authority neutralizes its force. In actuality, such admission of bias on the teacher’s part often simply transmutes the force of overt authority into a more subtle, transferential form even more powerful than the overt form: students may be so taken with the teacher’s honesty (or insight, or self-awareness) that their faith in the teacher’s authority is made even stronger. The third strategy — that of exposing the contingent, constructed nature of authority — also results in increasing the force of the teacher’s authority through reinforcing the transference, for such discussions, like the acknowledgment of one’s authority and the egalitarian gesture, succeed above all in confirming the students’ supposition that the teacher is a subject who really knows — in this case, knows epistemological truths that not only the students but also most other teachers don’t know. (128–29)

He continues:

The question, then, is not whether to operate with transference authority, but rather how to operate with it in an ethical and effective manner — that is, how to have a significant impact on students, but without subtly coercing or seducing them into particular beliefs, values, desires, enjoyments, or behaviors. (129)

Ultimately, Bracher argues that teachers must become more conscious of the kinds of outcomes we seek in the classroom, since the ultimate goal of teaching is to effect some kind of change in the learner (and presumably the teacher). While psychoanalytic pedagogy is largely ignored in today’s classrooms, Bracher’s essay offers nuanced insights about how teachers actually operate and how we may even work against our declared intentions. I recommend his essay highly.

Source: Mark Bracher, “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy” in College Literature (26.3: 127–146).


University woes

As someone who works at the university, I find these sentences personally relevant — and poignant.

University administrators have discovered that only in exceptional circumstances is the “success” of a classroom positively correlated with the academic excellence of its instructor. In fact, it’s more likely that the two are inversely correlated. The greater the instructor’s academic excellence, the more work she requires of students, the less “fun” they have (of the type I’m describing, at least—for some of us, real effort is fun), the poorer her student evaluations, the lower her subscriptions, and, therefore, the less “successful” her classes.

Source: “Pass, Fail” by Ron Srigley, published online here


Thoughts on gifted girls

Returning to one of my long-term interests, this time in the context of literature and analysis. This article has really struck a chord, personally and academically.

Academically, gifted girls are usually precocious readers. The National Association for Gifted Children’s (2006) position statement on early childhood states that characteristics of young gifted children include early reading skills and advanced vocabulary, and most of the gifted eminent adult women were precocious readers whose talent was nourished at an early age (Kerr, 1997). … Too often, gifted girls’ precocious reading is discounted as merely memorizing or decoding without comprehension …. Although early entrance to school is frowned on by many (Frey, 2005), research consistently shows that these accelerated children show advantages throughout their entire academic careers (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). When kindergarten entry policies are based on average boys’ readiness, tradition, or financial considerations, rather than on an individual child’s actual readiness, they are gendered practices.

Source: Barbara A Kerr, M. Alexandra Yuyk, and Christopher Read, “Gendered Practices in the Education of Gifted Girls and Boys” (Psychology in the Schools 49.7), 647–55.




On the beauty of the book and its endurance

In Smoke Proofs, Andrew Steeves offers a series of essays to ask critical questions about contemporary printing and publishing practices that most people in the industry take for granted. The essay “Why We Accept Shoddy Books” challenges literary publishers to think about how — and how badly — we deploy our limited financial resources in the making of cultural objects:

Strangely, the giant, profit-driven multinational publishers—those firms which are by their very structure and mandate most likely to become estranged from the literary and cultural values of the books they publish—tend to field more skilfully- and interestingly-made books than many of the grassroots, mission-driven and publicly-subsidized literary publishers. How is it that the multinationals can so easily outmanoeuvre the little presses, not only at the volume game where profit rules, but at the quality game as well?

Obviously, the multinationals have figured out that it’s easier to sell a book that looks nice, even if that beauty is only skin deep and fleeting. They have also figured out that they only need to spend trifling amounts of money on design and production to exceed the consumer’s much deflated expectations. And to that end, they tend to spend it on places where it is immediately visible to the consumer—on flashy covers and jackets—and less frequently on fundamentals like the line-by-line quality of the typesetting, better paper or sewn bindings. In effect, they bedazzle and tart-up their books and this passes for quality.

All the while, many small literary presses feel they must cut their design and production budgets to the bone in order to survive, employing poor papers and poorer binding and reproduction methods. As a result, a literary undertaking, such as the publication of a poetry book, too often shares the same production values as the small-town volunteer fire department’s audited financial statements.

Literary publishers cut corners not so they can maximize profit so much as to minimize loss, but I think this phenomenon results from a misunderstanding of their own role and responsibility as cultural institutions, and from a confusion about the true cost, value and function of good design. This confusion allows publishers to diminish the notion of ‘beauty’ to being a sort of luxury item which is deemed to be simply beyond our means. As we wrestle with questions of profit, quality and technology, we sometimes forget that the long-term survival and success of a text is closely tied to the quality of the physical artefact that will transmit it through time and space. (65–66)

In my work with publishers, and with one literary press in particular, I see this confusion at work regularly.

In the follow-up essay “The Fetish for Picture Jackets,” Steeves interrogates the bureaucratic mechanism of publishing grants and argues that in trying to make literary objects look like commercial (read mass-market) books to please grantors, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our culture and our future. Again, I see this disservice in my work with publishers, but never before have I considered the point as sharply as Steeves does.

Anyone interested in publishing, particularly literary publishing, could do worse than pay attention to this lovely book.

Andrew Steeves, Smoke Proofs (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2014).

On Socialism

Socialism is a badly misunderstood word. Does it refer to a concept, a philosophy, a political system, an insult? Here’s an excellent explanation of the basic premise of socialism, such that I could use with undergrads (and other people who need it).

In my view, the most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society. Socialists may not have agreed about the extent to which inequality can be eradicated or the means by which change can be effected, but no socialist would defend the current inequalities of wealth and power. In particular, socialists have maintained that, under capitalism, vast privileges and opportunities are derived from the hereditary ownership of capital and wealth at one end of the social scale, while a cycle of deprivation limits opportunities and influence at the other end. To varying extents, all socialists have therefore challenged the property relationships that are fundamental to capitalism, and have aspired to establish a society in which everyone has the possibility to seek fulfilment without facing barriers based on structural inequalities.

Later the writer explains that, in his view, socialism is a distinct product of nineteenth-century industrial society, although ideas that socialists can identify with occur earlier in history. He points specifically to the Marxist mode of analysis as the underpinning of “socialism” in the modern sense, a point with which I completely agree. The whole book is tight and focussed — not a word wasted. Excellent.

Michael Newman, Socialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp 2–3.