Assorted quotes from cultural theories class, wherein Mel gives up on reading the firehose and finds out why all universities are German and complains about BSJanuary 16, 2013 – 6:42 pm
Some of my actual reading notes from the past week:
This paper drove me nuts. / Bullllllllllllllllshit. Bullllllllllllllshit. / VAGUE VAGUE VAGUE (I shall leave this paper unnamed.)
WHAT IS HE SAYING COULD HE PLEASE USE SHORTER SENTENCES ARE YOU SURE THIS WAS TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH? (re: Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge”)
I’ve stopped taking detailed notes on everything. Sometimes I don’t even take notes. I’ve decided it’s more important that I’m in the conversations that I’m in, so now I capture what will make me more present to conversations either now or later on. I am getting used to the idea that it’s ok for me to “just” be absorbing and not recording, trying to make sense of what’s happening in the world; the important things will stand out in my mind, and I’ll drop other important things, but the world will go on. I’m missing things, letting data be lost, and not chasing it down afterwards. Not long ago, this would have seemed horribly wrong to me; those habits were (and are) my survival skills. If you’re deaf and want to be a scholar, you had better be an information bloodhound. But they’re habits, and habits should be broken when they don’t work; there’s no sense in clinging rigidly to them.
There are some things that I did understand in class today.
“Critical theory is wary of syntheses and reconciliations. It is born of struggle, and it wants to cause trouble.” — Patti Lather
Is it ideas that change the world? Or is it a change in material conditions? (The latter is a Marxist point of view.)
Postmodernism plays a lot with categories — breaks them apart, proliferates them. Some of this is due to changes in material conditions; for instance, one reason we have categories is so we can coordinate central distribution of resources — we take a census and find out how many people are X and how many are Y so we can give $A to X and $B to Y. However, we’ve now got more ways to distribute resources non-centrally; I can Kickstarter something, DonorsChoose it, or so forth — and so that rationale for having categories starts splintering away a bit.
The proliferation of categories has some other interesting effects. When we only have a few big categories, we can place them in opposition; male vs female, for example. But when you have 1000 different categories — imagine 1000 different genders — then you can’t place them in opposition quite so easily; they are too many to fit neatly into an overarching story (the “metanarratives” that Lyotard critiques as being the foundation of “modern” thinking — “postmodern” thinking is that metanarratives are dead). So what do you do with them then?
Why universities are basically all German
I also caught a part in the book about “Humboldt’s model of the University,” decided to find out what that meant, and ended up discovering how universities have come to be the things we think they are.
Humboldt envisioned the university education as a student-centered activity of research: “Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead the student conducts research on his own behalf and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it.”
I’d taken much of this model for granted: of course professors should do research. Of course academics should have intellectual freedom. Of course the point is to let students explore, learn how to be independent thinkers — of course professors ought to mentor and help students in that exploration… It could have gone much differently if the French model had held sway. Or if another model had come up.
Are professors going the way of the dodo?
Lyotard talks about (on page 53 of his incredibly confusing book) “sounding the knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks at transmitting established knowledge, no more competent than interdisciplinary teams in imagining new moves or new games.” So the question, of course, came up in class: “is the age of the professor dead?”
I don’t think so. I go by duck typing. If someone can transmit established knowledge and imagine new moves and games, they’re a professor; that’s how I credential people. And we’re always going to need people who transmit knowledge and imagine new things, and we need something to call them, so we might as well call them professors. If you’re skilled, then you’ve got the skill no matter how you acquired it — performativity becomes the basis for legitimation.
Of course, it’s “easier” to evaluate skill in some disciplines rather than others — it’s easier for a non-practitioner of basketball and philosophy to quickly tell the skill level of a basketball player than a philosophy writer — but some of these difficulties are historical social constructs… we’ve made it so that most kids know what basketball is and consider it a familiar game and think nothing of teaching it to each other on the street, but philosophy’s discourse is harder to get to at the moment, so fewer people are able to learn it, and we rely more on credentials and gatekeepers to say that this person’s good at it and qualified to teach.
I mean, I’m getting the credentials to become a professor. And the credentials will be helpful, don’t get me wrong. But I’m here to do the learning that I need to be duck-typed as a professor — I’m learning how to teach, do research, think in different ways, move and act and shape the world in different ways than what I could do before. And if that learning leads to the letters “P,” “h,” and “D” after my name, awesome. And if chasing that learning leads me out of it, then fine; I’m here for the growth, not the title. Right now the two go together, but I wonder if chasing one over the other will ever lead me to a fork in the road and some tough choices.