Saturday, December 13, 2008

Guest Post: Keith Harrison

Keith Harrison is an emeritus professor at Carleton College. My wife (who was an English major) took a class or two from him, but my only connection with him was doing the poster announcing his convocation "How to Stop Your Papers from Killing You (and me)"... Which I of course missed. But a few weeks ago I was visiting our friends the Heimans in Northfield, and discovered they are publishing a book by Keith based on the concept he was then developing, which is essentially an attack on Everything You Ever Learned About Writing School Essays: the "hourglass" model, removing sense of personal voice, outlining first... provocative stuff. Mark Heiman was looking for notes, so I took it home and read the proof, and realized I had erred badly in missing the convo. I wrote to Keith and told him what I thought, and he responded with what amounts to a blog entry. So with his permission I'm posting it here:

The Subj/Obj opposition has puzzled me since the time I heard an English teacher call a poem by Shelley ‘a subjective lyric’. I couldn’t understand what he meant, and said so, and learned nothing from his reply. Much later, reading Bronowski and Polyani, and a host of others, I got thinking about it again. I believe (especially since Heisenberg) it’s a pseudo-distinction, and certainly in the humanities a useless pis-aller. Whether in cartography or poetry I believe all we can do is to give versions of that part of the world which takes our attention. In spite of what many scientists actually assume in their practice, if not in their belief-system, there’s no god’s eye view of the world. We are not (at our best??) cameras, for reasons that should be transparent to anyone who thinks a little about it. Scientists hate that thought because it ushers in the dreaded C-Word as Murray Gell-Man puts it. What in the hell do we do with consciousness, which is after all the most fundamental fact of our being here? The answer that scientists often give is that you have to regard it, as Freud does the mind, as an epi-phenomenon of the body. Or, in the case of Crick, you dismiss the question as trivial. Generally speaking, you’re better off to forget about it and get on with the "real work". The trouble is that, as writers, we can’t do that because it doesn’t make sense. We are here and we have to tell stories - all kinds of stories - about what we experience. Part of my brief is that because we have been trained to think of ourselves as non-persons and because we have tried hard to do that, the result is the kind of prose that pours out of our colleges by the truck-load. In most student-essays there’s nobody home and when you ask the simple question— where did this dogma of ‘impersonality’ come from?—it’s not possible to find a satisfactory answer, except: we have always done it that way. But if essays are really forms of narration (stories), questions of accuracy inevitably arise. Why is my version of the auto bail-out more accurate than another’s? Or less? Interesting questions. Not, I would maintain because mine is more objective (whatever that means) but maybe because it has a wider explanatory range, because it is more consistent with many other ‘explanations.’. Consistency does seem to be a key, but clearly not a self-sufficient one (people used to be consistent about phlogiston). I could go on but will stop (on this question) with this: there seems to me nothing wrong with either a scientist or any other person declaring him or herself to be a largely ignorant person trying to make a somewhat intelligible "version" of one part of the world we all live in. Yet our dominies, our Strunks and Whites, and the greater part of our professoriat, would argue very strenuously against that assumption. We must tell the truth, be objective etc. There’s always the ghost in the machine, even when we take God away. The belief is very powerful. Someone must know the truth. It’s got to be there. Doesn’t it? Even Dawkins fall for the delusion.

Now for something provocative. I’m more and more convinced that beneath all our professional ‘belief’ in objectivity, five-paras, the forbidden ‘I’, and on an on, is a deeply entrenched commitment to the status quo. In other words that commitment is based a political belief which is almost invisible and, because of that, all the more powerful. This is the elephant in the room. We have taken our binary oppositions (heredity v. environment, nature v. culture) so much for granted that we’ve become stupefied and stunted in our thinking on very important matters. When one considers the brief given implicitly to most student writers, but NEVER examined, it goes something like this: You don’t know much about the recent history of Madagascar but your task is to write about it AS IF you do know something about it (you will get the vast bulk of your knowledge from sources, of course) and AT THE SAME TIME you should write as if you are not a person and must never use the first person. The brief is doubly incoherent at root. No wonder students hate writing essays but being, essentially, survivors they will find the best way to get under the wire. The most common practice is to string together a series of ‘quotes’ (properly acknowledged, of course) and to try to give the impression that the essay has an author, but not really, because the ‘author’ doesn’t really know anything. One can hardly imagine a more futile dry loop, a more complete waste of time. To ‘succeed’ in this exercise requires an imagination as dense as that of George Bush or Bill Kristol or Larry Summers. It’s main driving power is an unflinching commitment NOT TO THINK.

Against this ‘method’ of writing a paper I would propose the following. Get interested, get very interested in a topic, put yourself on the line as you think about it. Work. (If you can’t find a topic please do something else. Anything. But DON’T start writing until you are really involved.) Stand firm in your own partial knowledge, ask real questions. Use you genuine ignorance as your strength. Explore. Use quotations to help shape your own ideas, questions, puzzles. This is your essay it cannot be written by your sources. Use your essay as an authentic exploration of a question which matters to you. Remember that most teachers cannot write. They have been trained to think in very proscribed modes for reasons which become clear as you think about the whole purpose of education which, in the words of our some time Governor, Arnie Carlson, is to produce ‘successful units for deployment in the economic sphere.’

You were surprised by my ‘weird’ ideas on outlining. Another reader was delighted to find that it’s okay to use the first person in an essay, a third felt relieved that it’s alright to end her essay at the end and not at the beginning as she usually does. More questions: what do the words ‘alright’ and ‘okay’ mean in these sentences? More still: a university is a place where we should ask questions, sure. But not questions about sacred matters like this, or patriotism, and on and on.

In the teeth of all the conformism I have found in fifty years of teaching I want to join in the exciting task of helping students be authentic persons, in whatever they do. We (all students) have to give ourselves permission to be alive, questioning, foibled, ignorant, occasionally savvy, always fully ‘here’. Bloody difficult task. Our systems have made it an almost impossible one. Most schools have a corpse in the basement, and another one in the brain-pan. (Another full essay needed here). To cut to the essential thought: A revolution, what Blake called a Mental War, seems necessary.

And there you have, in sum, his new book. My only comment (I viscerally agree with most of what Keith says) is to go back to objectivism (the cult of objectivity) as a way of creating common ground based in verifiable experience. Whatever the culture of science may have become (and I hope to have more to say on this soon), the basic fundamental core of science is the idea of repeatable experiment. And the idea of objectivity comes out of this sense that if I drop two cannonballs from the Tower of Pisa, from the second of planet Foozbain, or the top of Mount Doom, they will land on the ground at the same time, regardless of their varying mass. This skeleton of "verifiable facts" seems to me to be the basis of the whole shooting match: the langauge of cartography, the voiceless essay, journalistic objectivity...

It's all pidgin, and placed against the previous context of a common language based on divine and miraculous explanations for things, it makes a lot of sense. It makes conversations about practical matters possible for a broader range of people. The trouble comes when we start wanting to insert lyrical, subjective content into this pidgin, because that content is adamantly non-repeatable. Conversely, we can get in trouble if we hide behind "objectivity" in order to get our selfish way (see Woods' critique of cartography).

And when we insist that all discourse be carried out under this rubric, even when what we are talking about doesn't need the pidgin to be able to cross a cultural divide, we (as Keith points out) stifle real creative work, which needs to be carried out by a whole person, not just the part that can be translated into pidgin.


Joe Banks said...

What a great, meaty piles of stuff to interact with! I never had the pleasure of having Professor Harrison, but this discourse reminds me of the incident that made up my mind that Carleton was where I wanted to spend 4 years.

I was visiting as a prospective student, and attended a sunday convocation -- don't know if they're still doing them anymore, but I sure hope so. Houston Smith, a prominant religious scholar, was speaking, and in a sketchy 5 item proof (probably available somewhere in the internet) he addressed the implications of science as our dominant paradigm.

He pointed out that science was now our "sacral" way of knowing, that science was based on the repeatable (CONTROLLABLE) experiment, and that therefore it had nothing to say outside of that which was controllable. Then, he pointed out that this was a lousy way to approach the sacred. There was silence in the chapel where he spoke, uncomfortable like bright light on a ketchup stain.

Science is certainly our dominant paradigm, even in the humanities, as Professor Harrison points out. I agree with his analysis of objectivity/subjectivity in essay writing, and find it insightful that he (like Houston Smith) is holding the light up to something that's uncomfortable to look at, particularly as someone who's invested so much time into academic systems. I squirm when I read his words, as someone who did really well writing those pseudo-objective essays about things I really didn't know much about.

Recently I've been hitting my head against Michel De Certeau, a Jesuit who wrote deeply about the problems of historiography in general, and of French religious historiography as a case study. He suggests a way of understanding our scholarship that I found very relevant to the dicussion here.

The writing of history is the intersection of reality (the thing(s) that happened) and what someone makes of that occurance. In that sense, we hope that histories have as their basis some verifiable event(s), and must at the same time acknowledge our agency in creating meaning out of those events. With just the former, it's data, not history. With the later, it's narrative, not history.

That's a difficult intersection, when historians live in a context which highlights the subjectivity of the meanings they create from events. De Certeau points out that the dominant means of doing so in history has been to tell, in the same work, both the narrative of the historical interpretation, and the narrative of the generation of that interpretation.

This is the familiar citing of sources, siting the discourse of the historian within a landscape of other ideas and writings, and of acknowledging bias and intention.

But De Certeau also points out that this double narrative, the what-i-think as well as the how-i-got-to-thinking-this, only sharpens the shadow of the Other, that which is necessarily excluded from our smartest, most honest, best informed efforts at understanding.

natcase said...

Joe, could you please pull out what you mean by your last paragraph:

But De Certeau also points out that this double narrative, the what-i-think as well as the how-i-got-to-thinking-this, only sharpens the shadow of the Other, that which is necessarily excluded from our smartest, most honest, best informed efforts at understanding.

You lost me there. Sorry. Which Other are we talking about? How is the shadow of it sharpened? Why is it necessarily excluded, etc?

Joe Banks said...

Sorry -- I guess that was a little obscure. The poetry backdrop to that comment was Eliot's "Hollow Men," esp this excerpt:

"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow"

In boring old prose, I think the Shadow De Certeau is writing about is everything that is missing from our attempts to desribe reality -- whether that is French religious historical analysis (in his study) or the act of representing geographic reality in a 2 dimensional medium (most of what we've discussed in this blog).

I think it's better that our map, or story, or drug trial, or historiography is able to tell its OWN story, as well as presenting the "results;" it is the best way we've found to marry the (necessarily) objective(ish) pieces of common reality that renders such an effort useful, while acknowledging its origin (us) as (necessarily) subjective sources, located in a particular place, time, medium and culture.

However, the Thing we make and the Story about how/why we made it are still not the reality both claim to describe. Reality throws a shadow whose outline can only be approximated. I don't think it means the exercise isn't useful (in all the ways we've used that term so far), perhaps crucial.

But the less "fact" there is in our productions, the less likely we are to forget the shadow. Nobody seriously tries to prove that Tam Lin actually was taken to the fairies -- I wonder if the "willing suspension of disbelief" in storytelling and theater is simply our relief at not being required to evaulate the event factually.

Olof Hellman said...

What a thought-provoking essay! I really need to get that book.