A Reflection Post on Reflection


Image result for vintage photos of people readingI remember vaguely from five months ago,  sitting next to my adviser and picking classes. When discussing the required classes for my major, she firstly offered up “Reader and Text”.   I remember asking her what the course entailed and after reading the description, still clueless as to the meaning behind “fluid readers and text” was, she offered little to no help on demystifying the course’s entails. When entering the class, the first assignment we received was to analyze the reader in the painting Young Girl Reading, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.   For the first time in my scholastic career, I was asked to analyze the anonymous “reader” behind the book. Over these fifteen weeks, the importance of the fluidity of readers became more and more obvious. It is important to have fluidity in a reader, for if not, the puzzle pieces of the narrative may go undetected. Even in class, the witness of how each person interprets a plot, or character decisions, and how a work affects someone is individual to each one of my peers.  Continue reading “A Reflection Post on Reflection”

Thoughts on Bias in Discipline Part 2: The Arts; Should an Artist’s Contribution To Their Art Be Separated From Themselves?

All disciplines share fault in the use of bias in their study—this is especially true when it comes to figures that have provided substantial movement to the discipline; typically, these are the individuals whose work we tend to study when we take a course. There may be omissions to several of the defining factors of an event or person, or there may simply not be a lot of coverage on the flaws and faults of the event or person. The purpose in the use of bias is to communicate selective values and positive moral judgments; this will maintain the discipline’s positive standing and prevent any discouragement from people who wish to study the discipline.

In an attempt to maintain the public integrity of a discipline and continue the study of a discipline, the dominant and influential figures that have provided substantial contributions to the development of the discipline are often depicted as unrealistic perfect beings—in my opinion, it should be a priority to properly teach about the figures that hold such weight without any omission to their biography; unfortunately, this is not the case. The bias toward individuals and events in history branches across several disciplines including: English literature, Western Music, and Western Art. The leading figures in these disciplines are often celebrated and solely recognized for their contribution, which creates the sensation that these individuals are flawless and perfect—interestingly, this image can be quite intimidating for disciples, which sort of works in contrast with the attempt to maintain more disciples with the bias towards the figures.


If you continue reading this post, I encourage you to ponder. Should things in a discipline be taught truthfully? Is there any validity in this approach to teaching? Should we still learn about these individuals? Is it alright to neglect these individuals and their large contributions to the progression of a discipline?
Warwick also had a fairly interesting question to ponder on, which was referenced in Joe Moran’s book Interdisciplinarity: “Is it not sufficiently attractive to ensure a voluntary attention to it”?

Continue reading “Thoughts on Bias in Discipline Part 2: The Arts; Should an Artist’s Contribution To Their Art Be Separated From Themselves?”

Yes and no

Graff and Birkenstein, p. 63:

“Yes and no.” “Yes, but . . .” “Although I agree up to a point, I still insist . . .” These are just some of the ways you can make your argument complicated and nuanced while maintaining a clear, reader-friendly framework. The parallel structure — “yes and no”; “on the one hand I agree, on the other I disagree” — enables readers to place your argument on that map of positions we spoke of earlier in this chapter while still keeping your argument sufficiently complex.

Compare Martina Navratilova on Serena Williams in today’s New York Times:

Serena Williams has part of it right. There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished — and not just in tennis.

But in her protests against an umpire during the United States Open final on Saturday, she also got part of it wrong.

Read the full article, a model of the approach that Graff and Birkenstein call “Agree and Disagree Simultaneously,” which they also call “our favorite way of responding” (62) to what “they say.”

More meta moves that matter

Last week in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts,” we looked at Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. If’s worth noting that in their effort to offer practical guidance on good academic writing, Graff and Birkenstein quickly and naturally make the shift we’ve described in previous discussions as moving “up one level of abstraction.” There’s simply no way they can argue for the value of their practical advice without getting theoretical, without getting “meta.” They don’t call attention to this move, but it’s there all the same. In the first paragraph of their introduction, they describe writing as a particular kind of activity – an activity, like playing the piano, shooting a basketball, or driving a car – that is learned and that can be broken down into a sequence of “moves.” Not all human activities are of this type.

Behind that first paragraph, then, lies the theoretical question “What is academic writing?” – a question to which the answer is no more obvious than the answer to the question, “What is a text?”

Graff and Birkenstein go further: the move-based activity that writing most closely resembles – perhaps is simply a form of – is conversation. To categorize writing this way is to imply answers to some related theoretical questions: What’s the purpose of academic writing? How, exactly, does it work? By what standards can we distinguish effective from ineffective writing?

We can think of Graff and Birkenstein the theorists as looking for a way to represent the activity of writing, as trying to build a model of it. These are useful words in general for thinking about what the activity of theorizing is. (And to choose them is, of course, to theorize about theory. There’s no end to how meta we can get!)

We spent the last part of class looking at the Lindsay Ellis video on film studies that Taylor posted. We saw that Lindsay Ellis’s argument seems to make many of the “moves” Graff and Birkenstein describe – that her argument fits their model of argumentation quite well. We also saw that to make her argument, she, too had to move up one level of abstraction; she, too, had to theorize. Her main theoretical question – What makes a bit of culture (whether a poem or an action movie) worth examining closely? – is one of the most important ones we can ask as practitioners of criticism.

Thursday theme – Waters of March

As we turn to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, our theme song for today is “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”) written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim) and performed here by Jobim and Elis Regina.

For Graff and Birkenstein, academic writing, at its heart, is a conversation, and, more generally, “writing well means entering into conversation with others” (4th ed., xiv). In their introduction, they quote the philosopher Kenneth Burke’s famous description of “the world of intellectual exchange” as a kind of un-ending conversation at an interminable party.

Here’s the full passage from Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
(1941; 2d ed., Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 110-11.)

It’s interesting to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s use of Burke alongside Alasdair Macintyre’s claim, which we discussed in class, that “conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York University Press, 1984, 133).

By putting the activity of conversation at the heart of what makes humans human, Burke and Macintyre are pursuing a line of thought that grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (especially in the writings of J.G. von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt). Interest in the origins of human language and in the relationship between language and culture led for some during this period to a re-definition of human identity in general: it wasn’t the capacity for reason (as Aristotle, for example, had supposed) so much as the capacity for language that separated human beings from other animals.

(It’s interesting to consider the fluidity of human identity at this scale. Not only does each of us, arguably, possess an identity that changes over time, but the various attempts to identify a defining characteristic of humanity as a whole means that it may be useful to think of humanity as existing in a variety of “versions.” Wikipedia’s list of names for the human species is instructive here.)

Macintyre describes conversations as “enacted narratives” (133), highlighting the way our conversational engagements often represent the unfolding of some kind of story. This way of thinking about conversation fits his definition of human beings as “story-telling animal[s]” (138). Graff and Birkenstein treat the subcategory of academic conversation as a kind of game characterized by a fairly circumscribed set of “moves,” but there are clearly narrative elements in their conception as well, as evidenced by their quotation from Burke and their advice about “putting in your oar.”

But the Regina-Jobim performance perhaps suggests something even more fundamental about conversation than its narrative element, something about the sheer pleasure to be found in conversation’s back-and-forth dynamic, even when it doesn’t involve an exchange of ideas with what Macintyre calls a telos – that is, a projected goal. If you look at the song lyrics (in either English or Portuguese), you see that Regina and Jobim are simply taking turns running down the items in a list; they’re not conducting the kind of conversation Graff and Birkenstein have in mind at all. There’s no advocacy here, just the pleasure of moving the song forward by taking turns. At the same time, they’re clearly singing to each other, not just trading off. You can see it in their gestures as much as you can hear it in their voices.

I get the same sense of the pleasure inherent in the interactivity of conversation – prior to and apart from its intellectual content – watching this video of a nonsense conversation between twin babies that went viral in 2011. As a basic human activity, conversation doesn’t seem to be entirely about the content of the words.

Tuesday theme – Sit Right Down

To balance the high-tech communication tools we’ll be discussing, the theme song for ENGL 203-04 today evokes an older, slower medium of expression. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was written in 1935 by Joe Young (lyrics) and Fred Ahlert (music) and was made popular by the great jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Of course, since the singer (let’s call him “Waller” for now) is describing a letter he’ll be writing to himself, he won’t have to watch the mail to learn what’s in it: so maybe this isn’t such a slow-paced communication after all.

This theme song also looks forward to the discussion we’ll have on Thursday about Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say. The book’s premise is that academic writing typically takes the form of conversation, even if the conversation is one between the writer and an imaginary interlocutor. Waller’s letter will be from himself to himself – but he’ll be imagining it’s from his lover.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

The song’s wit lies partly in the way it becomes a song about writing, and indeed about the singer’s own power as a writer.

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet

This amusing prediction of self-astonishment (which is also, perhaps, an expression of authorial self-satisfaction) has tripped up some performers. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald get the pronouns wrong in this version, telling the listener, “I’m gonna write words oh so sweet,/ They’re gonna knock you off your feet.

She also substitutes “you” for “I” twice in what should be “A lot of kisses on the bottom, I’ll be glad I got ’em.”

Sarah Vaughan, too, sings “knock you off your feet,” but then recovers for the “kisses” line.

Both Fitzgerald and Vaughan are more interested in the music of this song than the lyrics, of course; and we might usefully think of them as entering into conversation with Ahlert (and Waller as the song’s canonical performer) through the way they play with the melody. At the same time, their slips are an indication that there’s a bit of psychological complexity to the singer’s situation.

Is this a jaunty, playful song or a sad one? Why must the singer pretend to write a letter in the lover’s voice anyway? Evidently the lover has failed to write. Why? The singer doesn’t appear too hopeful about their relationship, or it wouldn’t be necessary to “smile and say [taking on the lover’s identity], ‘I hope you’re feeling better.’” And, come to think of it, whose smile is it – that of the lover (in the singer’s imagination) or of the singer? If the singer’s, it could be a smile of pleasure (at the singer’s own cleverness), but it could also be a smile of resignation (in accepting the reality that the lover isn’t smiling … or writing).

The air of loneliness that hangs about this song of one-way communication imagined as two-way communication is reinforced, in Waller’s version, by the urgency with which he repeats the phrase “make believe” three times at the song’s conclusion, as if trying to persuade himself that he can be persuaded – if only he tries hard enough – that the letter is from the uncommunicative lover:

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,
And make believe – make believe – make believe it came from you.

And for whom are these urgent words intended? For whom is the song itself a kind of love letter? Why, the very same lover who hasn’t written and, for that very reason, probably isn’t listening – assuming the song even reaches them. Perhaps, after all, the song, like the imaginary letter it describes, is merely from the singer to the singer: a perfect and self-contained act of make-believe.

The Real-Life Application of “Reapers”

Admittedly, I have trouble going back and revising my writing. Growing up, I always kind of had a chip on my shoulder when it came to this. I was always allowed to submit essays without any real necessary needs for extensive revisions. Even recently, I submitted an essay early in my History of Theatre class, and managed an A the first time around, meaning I saved myself a lot of trouble in the upcoming weeks. However, when it came to my “Essay 1” submission for intertextuality, I cringed as I found myself deleting all but 400 words of my formerly 1600-word essay for revisions.

Continue reading “The Real-Life Application of “Reapers””

The Importance and Rationality of Impatience In the Case of Feminism

As many of us may know, feminism has been the subject of debate and scrutiny for as long as we can remember in our immediate lives.  From job inequality to societal values, women have never really seemed to get what they want or even what they deserve.  Part of this, it seems, is the misconception that the force that feminists bring to their requests and demands is a statement of vengeance or a superiority complex.  In Interdisciplinarity, Moran says that feminism “has been founded on an impatience with the power arrangements…and the way that the experience of women is devalued or excluded” (Moran 92).   Continue reading “The Importance and Rationality of Impatience In the Case of Feminism”

Miscellaneous advice on writing

With papers coming due in my section of ENGL 170 between October 3 and October 10, this is a good time for some advice on writing. Here are a couple of suggestions from the experts and a link to one frequently updated source of interesting perspectives on the writing process.

First, if you find writing hard, you’re not the problem. Writing is hard. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs at The Atlantic, speaks eloquently to some of the difficulties in the video below.

One of the writer’s hardest jobs is to make reading easy. It’s also one of the most important jobs, though some writers seem to forget this. Student writers, especially, fall prone to the fallacy that longer words and more complicated sentences will make them appear more intelligent. Not so, as this aptly titled article from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology demonstrates with research (h/t @cjprender on Twitter). In fact, readers are most likely to impute intelligence to writing that exhibits lucidity, simplicity, and directness, as recommended in the SUNY Geneseo Writing Guide.

Self-consciousness about writing can make the process harder than it has to be. Rather than censoring  yourself every few words, try letting yourself write out at least one draft without stopping to revise anything. Then put that draft aside for a bit — at least an hour, preferably a day or so. When you come back to it,  you’ll find it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it was.

But it will still need revision. All writing does. And when you’re done, take some time to reflect on what it felt like to do this particular bit of writing. There’s a time and place for everything, including self-consciousness. You’ll write better if you have a good sense of what writing involves and strive to keep the whole process, with all its difficulties, in view.

One model of this good kind of self-consciousness is the Drafts blog at the New York Times website. The blog features writers writing about writing. Reading these writers’ self-reflections on their writing might give you some new things to think about in your own.