Teaching Criticism

from the "English Grad Student Shaming" tumblr.

“What Mom always said doesn’t go far in grad school…” (from EnglishGradStudentShaming.tumblr.com)

This post attempts to puzzle through the impulse to critique and criticize in literary studies; in particular, it considers a grad-student culture of shame via the newly-created tumblr “englishgradstudentshaming.” What happens when grad students and instructors feel like they “can’t say anything nice about books anymore”?

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Monsters in Literature

"How the Sea Monsters got into Sense and Sensibility."

From the cover of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Ben H. Winters

Last week, I asked, “Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?” I might broaden the scope of the question and ask if it applies to any class. Certainly profs and instructors must challenge students, and hopefully all teachers will facilitate flashes of insight in their students that crack open the subject matter with the joy and anticipation you might bring to a hungry assault on a Christmas filbert. But should we seek to convince students that personal, emotional, or so-called trivial approaches to a subject are wrong? Unscientific? Shallow?

I don’t know. But I appreciate Deborah Britzman’s thoughts on the subject: she baldly calls this desire to control student response to a curriculum monstrous. And, according to Britzman, all teachers have something of the monster about them.

I want to let Deborah speak for herself on this one. She’s got this elliptical way of writing that is confusing, sometimes even grammatically off (she particularly favours comma splices), which leaves gaps in meaning for her readers to ponder. This impressionistic style likely comes out of her background in psychoanalysis: her writing refuses tight linearity and strict logic as if it were anathema to true meaning-making. So, yes, her writing can be frustrating. It can feel like she’s being deliberately unclear, even lazily non-specific, but those gaps in meaning, those elliptical gestures to a not-quite-said something have the uncanny ability to create moments of deep insight in her readers. She allows her readers to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge; we make meaning right alongside her.

So, as a Christmas gift to you, and by way of “farewell, until next time”–next time being the new year, when I return to Dry-Erase after the holidays– I give you your very own pedagogical Christmas filbert to crack open:

The Monstrous in Teaching

from Novel Education: Pyschoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning, by Deborah P. Britzman, p. 114-117.

“I wished the course title “Monsters in Literature” would convey, in miniature, the whole story of what students could expect to learn. I would present to the class, whom I had never met, a series of literary monsters that would lead them by the hand to critique the monstrous in real life. The course title, so I thought, was a shortcut, a pedagogical telegraph, perhaps even a wish for pedagogical telepathy…. In sequence, the curriculum began with the fantastic, but in my head these actual monsters would only set the stage for encountering something terribly real and literally terrible: the inhumanity of the state apparatus, class inequality, racism, and genocide.

Admittedly, this was a very depressing curriculum, one that I would meet again and again throughout the course of my teaching career. Little did I know how depressed it would make me. Only much later would I learn to become more attuned to the students’ complaints, my own depression and even my role in their discomfort. When I began teaching, however, my rationalization for trading in such affect, [was] replacing their denial of false consciousness with my depressing truth…. My ignorance was performed through a pedagogy that tried to insist that works of art are communications to be received and corrections to be made. It took me many years to see in this wish something manic, a teacher’s defense against encountering both the literary and its excess and the students, all of whom had their own minds. The manic defense was a symptom of a kernel of the monstrous in my own teaching. ….

The idea that everything was political crowded my centre stage. I used literary monsters to convey the truth. And because there was a truth, it never occurred to me that there would be an argument with students…. They were adverse to using these creatures as a means to critique their society and to accepting my demand that everything, including the monster, is political. Simply put, they wanted to play, escape, and enjoy. ….

For the twenty-year-old that I once was, these psychological questions of significance and relation…–what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom–could not be recognized as the question par excellence. ….

220px-JekyllHyde1931After distributing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, I worried that the novel was too difficult. I could not read the book through their eyes and, when preparing for the week’s lesson, my misreading of their abilities and interests persisted. Stevenson’s novel was to begin our social inquiry. Looking back, I realize that I must have thrown it in the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my best defenses, that the students signed up for the Monsters part, not the literature.

The weekend before our discussion of the novel’s beginning, I panicked, imagining the students would hate it and would never be able to read it. I worried they would hate me as well…. Yet there the students were that Monday morning. And, too, there was a sheepish student teacher to be greeted by their enthusiasm over the novel. In this difference between what I imagined and what occurred, the students began to be real because I could take no credit for their existence. …. And no matter how difficult the prose, how archaic the English, they read on, enjoying the suspense, identifying with what was monstrous in themselves and others, but not because they needed to change the world. Just the opposite, they wanted the world to take them in. Essentially, and like Shelley’s Frankenstein, they wanted to be recognized, even adored, for all their foibles, phantasies, and desires.”

Merry Christmas!

“Book Club” Ain’t in the Course Description

“I realize that I must have thrown [Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde] into the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with  my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my defenses, that the students signed up for the Monster part, not the literature.”

–Deborah P. Britzman, Novel Education, 116

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca: "We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!"

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca:
“We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!”

The quandary Britzman describes above will sound familiar to many literary scholars. It will likely ring true to teachers in any field where “reading against the grain” is an accepted methodological practice, from History to Anthropology to Sociology. I think, though, that instances of what might be called “false advertising” are particularly pronounced in the teaching of English Literature, not because English profs are dishonest, or because students today are woefully naive, but because in the field of literary studies, there is a great deal of anxiety about the role of fiction studies in Higher Education and, subsequently, a lurking desire to escape fiction, aesthetics, and literature itself. Or, at the very least, a desire to distance the study of English Literature from the much-maligned book club.

A Crisis in Literary Studies

Albert Braz’s recent article, “In Praise of Literature,” claims that “It is hard for anyone actively involved in the life of an English department in the last few decades not to notice the way English professors have become ambivalent about our ostensible raison d’être. Whenever one discusses the future of the discipline, it soon becomes apparent that most people feel that if it can be saved at all it will be by embracing some related field, such as film studies, cultural studies or that academic catch-all that goes by the name of theory –anything but literature” (University Affairs, 1 Nov 2012).

“This jeremiad is neither accurate nor new” is Terry Goldie’s response to Braz, and he’s right: Braz’s concern for “the seemingly permanent crisis in literary studies” (Braz) is not new. It betrays a nostalgia for a golden age in literature that perhaps never existed. And yet, I agree with Braz, or at the very least I agree with his suggestion that “the most striking aspect of… “the Age of the Critic” is its antagonism toward the literary imagination.” Braz takes up Paul A. Cantor’s description of the twentieth-century as the Age of the Critic and applies it to the early twenty-first century; in so doing he points to the centrality that literary scholars have ascribed to criticism–to being critical–in literary studies today. What Braz calls “the literary imagination”–by this, I take him to mean “creative imagination”–gets pushed aside in the scholar’s scramble to deconstruct the text. In literary studies, it seems difficult to talk about whether one likes a work of art or not in certain streams of literary studies. It seems increasingly difficult to ask why some works of art appeal, and others don’t. In literary studies today, questions of aesthetics seem dangerously uncritical, and so, too, do questions about reader responses, and finally, what art might have to say about what it means to be human.

But, is this not what students “get” when they read literature for an English Lit. class, at least in part? Perhaps this is even what they are looking for when they enroll in literature courses. Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?

I ask these questions because they are questions I have badly needed to ask myself. Deborah Britzman, whom I quoted at the beginning of this post, returns to her first experience teaching English–at the age of twenty, to a ninth-grade English class–to describe how, at the time, “[t]he idea that everything was political crowded [her] centre stage” (115). I appreciate her word choice. Her older, more experienced self does not refuse or undermine her youthful belief that “everything is political”; instead, she explains that this concern crowded out other concerns. In a way, the question, “How is this political?” blinded her to other questions literature compels readers to ask. For the younger Britzman, literature and the human, personal response it compels from readers was secondary; the politics “behind” it: “truth,” and this zealous investment in criticism ultimately blinded her to the people in the classroom. “Students were missing,” she writes, “as was the teacher” (114). In other words, she overlooked “what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom” (116). This is what Britzman calls “the literary and its excess” (115)– the excessive in literature, or what ideologies, ways of thinking, or even scholarly methodologies cannot account for or speak to in literature. Fiction is excessive; it speaks to things that cannot quite be said. It gestures. It creates anew with metaphor in an attempt to take readers off the beaten track, to see things, suddenly, a little askew, to give a feeling of something else. And this newness, this sideways glance out of the corners of the literary eye, can be terrifying, nauseating, and disturbing, for sure, but it may also be joyful, hopeful, self-affirming, calming, and downright pleasurable.

Critical Creativity

I can look back and see a younger version of myself doing the same things that Britzman recalls in her anecdote. I can clearly remember–and I’m sure, so can many of my friends and colleagues, probably with a cringe–a younger, haughtier version of myself dissatisfied with students who confused my tutorials for a book club. In my mind, they weren’t doing literature right. I knew how to do it; they didn’t. Over time, though, as I increasingly become aware of and gain respect for students not as students, but as human beings, I have also come to deeply respect the variegated approaches to literature they bring to the classroom. And not just to literature, but to theory, to politics, and to how all three are articulated in their daily lives. Not only that, I have also come to value the creative, productive side of literature–you know, the writing process that results in the stuff we get paid to teach, and, too, the writers that produce the works we read. I’ve come to value creativity, experimentation, storytelling, self-expression, belief & faith in a new way; I’ve come to value creativity just as much as criticality.

Last week, Joseph Frank, author of the blog Verba Americana, commented on the photosponse as a mode of “critical creativity.” My still perhaps over-zealous grad-student self wants to translate that to, “creative criticality.” (Yes, Joe is rolling his eyes as he reads this). Regardless, Joe has captured a fullness of meaning in that term that the more commonly-used, and more mechanistic, scientific or even mercenary phrase “active learning” can communicate. In the scholarship of teaching and learning, active learning is associated with measurable student success, “deep” learning, and the lowering of student “attrition” (or drop-out) rates. Thinking about active learning as a form of critical creativity has the potential to move active learning away from an ends-oriented teaching tool to an open-ended, student-driven mode of inquiry.

Works Cited

Braz, Albert. “In Praise of Literature.” University Affairs. 1 Nov. 2012. Online.

Britzman, Deborah P. Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006. Print.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Primacy of the Literary Imagination, Or Which Came First, The Critic of the Author?” Literary Imagination 1.1 (Spring 1999): n. page. Online.

The Letting-of-Words-and-Thoughts-Hang-in-the-Air

Or, the Art of Storytelling…

I’m all over “fluff” lately. Some might call it “pulp.” Others, “crap.” My partner might describe it as “sh*t spray.” Although admittedly this last descriptor would likely arise more out of a commitment to seize any chance at scatological one-up-man-ship than out of any real feeling of judgement or criticism.

I am talking here about genre fiction. I’ve been asking myself these past few months: why genre fiction? Why am I suddenly so absorbed by fantasy, romantic fantasy, post-apocalyptic narratives and post-human science fictions? And why do I get so bloody riled up every time some “respected” author approaches the genre and ruins it entirely with postmodern disruptions of plot, conventions and credibility?

At the same time that I really started getting into these particular genres I was also thinking about why I liked listening to stories so much. A well-told story is pure magic. A well-told story just feels so good. It is sensational. I mean, I sense it; it is a bodily thing. Perhaps because it is intimate; listening to a good storyteller, you’re drawn right in.

Am I just tired of the novel–of the literary novel, that is? Of the internal monologues and endless recycling of narratives of personal growth and enlightenment? Yes yes yes yes, frick yes,I am tired of this perpetual telling of the inner life of the modern individual.

But that’s not the whole story. I have this feeling, this gut feeling, you see, that genre fiction is a lot like oral storytelling. Both are bound strictly, in many ways, by convention. This isn’t some surface or formal resemblance. Generic conventions set up a sort of covenant between speaker and listener, text and reader. The reader of genre fiction anticipates while she reads based on this generic covenant, or contract. This anticipation is a sort of foreknowledge. She is writing the story before and as it develops; she is participating in the articulation of knowledge before the text can even articulate it. And so it goes with listening. With listening we try to anticipate where a speaker will lead us; with oral storytelling, the storyteller uses devices with which we are familiar to allow us to attempt this anticipation, to feel as though we are a part of the meaning-making process as it unfolds.

Oral storytelling is often described as dialogic; that is, it is supposed to open up a sort of dialogue between storyteller and listener. Sometimes, this is because storytellers use devices that call on the listener to actively participate. These devices might be as simple as silence; or, to give this practice its proper due, we might better describe it as the letting of words and thoughts hang in the air. Silence tends to be taken to mean absence, end, closure or lack. The letting-of-words-and-thoughts-hang-in-the-air is something different all together; it denotes a fullness and a loitering of meaning. It allows the space and the time for listeners to respond, either inwardly to themselves or outwardly to the storyteller, via audible or visible gestures. Call-and-response is of course another, well-known oral storytelling, dialogic device.

The thing I never really got before about listening to oral stories is that this dialogic or participatory function is not merely geared toward entertainment. When you listen to a story and it feels like magic it is because you feel at once like worlds and meanings are appearing, like magic, out of the fabric of someone else’s voice, but also like you are there, somehow, part of that creative act. Yes, I get that this happens with written literature as well, and the big-L “Literature” I lambasted. But a well-told oral story has the power to make you feel intimately tied to its creator and to the act of its creation in a way that reading can’t. Except maybe for the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Perhaps you can guess now why I’m rambling on about genre fiction, oral storytelling and generic conventions in a blog that’s supposed to be about teaching and learning: because bringing learners into the process of knowledge production is key to deep learning, authentic learning, or whatever it is you want to call it.

If this were a didactic story, I would leave you here with a few lessons. I would explain to you precisely how we can learn from oral storytelling as teachers and learners. And I’ve gotta yell you: I am a teacher (sort of), and I write about teaching (kind of), so the keen desire to tell you WHAT IT ALL MEANS is damn difficult to ignore.

But ignore it I will. I’ll let the words loiter, here, on the page … at least I will, once I say just one … or two … more things. Or, in fact, once I invite a few others to say a few things.

Kimberly M. Blaeser, in her work on contemporary Indigenous literatures in North America, writes that “Native authors… attempt to encourage a response-able way of reading” (qtd. in Neuhaus 12). J. Edward Chamberlin, in an essay on oral storytelling called “Boasting, Toasting and Truthtelling,” claims that “It is style that certifies truth–not the subject or the sincerity of the speaker, except insofar as that sincerity is an element of style, as spontaneity might also be” (39). And Chamberlin, when paraphrasing classicist Milman Perry, adds this: “style, not language, constitutes thought in oral performance” (39).

Is your teaching “response-able“?

Is performance a part of your pedagogical lexicon?

Does the spell of style disperse with the end of the performance?

Does performance obfuscate real meaning?

Do you like how I’ve included gaps between these questions as though giving you the opportunity to respond?

 

Do you?

 

Works Cited

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Writing Voices Speaking: Native Authors and an Oral Aesthetic.” Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts. Eds. Laura J. Murray and Keren Rice. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. Print.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “Boasting, Toasting, and Truthtelling.” Orality and Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines. Eds. Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. Toronto: U of T Press, 2011. 21-42. Print.

Neuhaus, Mereike. That’s Raven Talk: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Regina: CPRC Press, 2011. Print.

Show & Tell, vol. 2

It’s time for another installment of Show & Tell, where I share with you a blog post, article, or idea that I’ve come across in the realm of teaching & learning, university affairs, or what have you, and then you, fingers crossed, share your own in the comments section. Or maybe just comment on mine.

This is how I envision it happening, anyway; though in reality people are busy, with lives and the like. Part of this blog’s purpose is to try to make research on teaching and learning more of a commonplace practice in the lives of teachers, rather than an exceptional, rigorous, intimidating or last-minute sorta thing. Research can be as simple as clicking on a link and reading someone’s thoughts on a personal learning experience, or it can mean reading a peer-reviewed article describing the findings of an academic study. But in any case, I think the valuable end-result of doing your own formal or informal research on teaching and learning is that it invites reflection.

This week’s Show & Tell comes outta the swarm of internet buzz words in the world of education and professional development: “unconferences.” Notably, unconferences seem to draw upon many of the discussion facilitation practices with which Teacher’s Assistants, like myself, are already familiar. They attempt to invite open, communally-mediated discussions. They also try to avoid the traditional conference format that isolates speakers at the head of a lecture hall or hotel conference room, which in turn tends to render conference attendees passive audience members desperately in need of lots of bad coffee to keep immobilized bodies and silenced tongues awake.

So, my recommendation for the week is Amy Collier’s post on her experience with the unconference format in her post at The Red Pincushion, “A vote for unconferences.”

http://asiancan.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/conferenceposter.jpg

The 2012 John Douglas Taylor Conference
October 25th & 26th
McMaster University

And while I’m on the subject, I might as well plug the traditionally-formatted conference I, my supervisor, and his other students are organizing, to be held at McMaster this October 25th & 26th– Working the Frame: Comparative Approaches to Asian Canadian Literature and Culture (which is generously supported by the John Douglas Taylor Fund, the Department of English & Cultural Studies, and the Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture). It’s going to be awesome. You should come. The program  features a film screening with Richard Fung, a full day of panels and two keynote addresses from Lisa Lowe and Lily Cho the following day, and, to close the conference, an evening of discussion with a plenary panel of artists & activists: David Chariandy, Larissa Lai, Lee Maracle and Chantria Tram. It ain’t an unconference, but it is going to be oh-so, so good.

What do you think of unconferences? Any ideas for how the organizing committee for Working the Frame could open the conference to an online community? Got your own Show & Tell? Do share!

sex in the classroom


image

 
Who: Me, and students enrolled in a first-year English Lit. course 
What: Discussion of characterization in Mrs. Dalloway 
When: Modernist London…. as pictured by Virginia Woolf
When (like, for real): Last week
Where: Tutorial

twenty minutes in…

Me: “She keeps hitting us over the head with it, doesn’t she? Smacking us in the face with that dick, with that dick-knife / knife-dick symbol, over and over and….”

Sometime later…
Student: “And then I found out she was old. So, she has wrinkles. Right? And you can’t see her breasts, because, like, they would be way down here.”

(I think her hand hits her hipbone here, to indicate the exact level of saggage all the women in the class can look forward to.)

And, a few hours later, in my other tutorial…

Me: “Well, she’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, isn’t she? She doesn’t cross her ankles demurely, she opens her legs for all the world to see. And she chops flower blooms from their stems– she only wants that feminine opening; she violently removes the phallic part of the plant. And in every way she is described as open, inviting, attractive. Basically, she is a walking vagina.”

Sex in the classroom. We never know quite what to do with it, do we? This past week, I put the portrait-drawing contest that I described in my last post to the test, again. It was a bit of a gamble. Whereas previously I had used this activity to talk about characterization in a highly realist novel–where the author gave a detailed physical description of each character, one that unapologetically aligned outward appearance with each character’s interior life–this week, I chose to use this activity to discuss characterization in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose a few passages, and asked the students to become portraitists, to draw a portrait of the character the assigned passage described– a tricky task when faced with Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style. She is a writer who rarely gives a catalogue of physical traits; instead gestures, symbols, and the inferences and associations that a character excites in another are what define how we, the reader, envision that character.

But holy crap, did we have fun with this activity. And by the end of it, with 25 minutes left in tutorial, we had plenty of time to discuss each portraitist’s “artistic” choices. Students clearly and carefully relayed their interpretations of the text to the class; they explained how they translated text and metaphor into image. Truly fantastic. These were students doing close reading at its best, but with interest, and humour.

image

Mrs. Dalloway’s take-home message: clock towers are a lot like giant penises.

Sex quickly entered the discussion because, well, it was Woolf’s work we were discussing after all. How funny it was for us all to recognize just how prevalent sexual symbols are in her text. They are everywhere. There is the phallic penknife, opened and closed, opened and closed, by Peter Walsh; there is Big Ben all erect at the centre of the text, penetrating each scene with its ominous noise; there is that orgasmic crowd scene, with every face turned to the sky to watch an airplane reach higher and higher, eagerly awaiting the release of each smoky letter written (you might even say spurted) in the sky above them; there is Sally Seton, castrating a bunch of flowers, divesting each bloom of its stem to display their feminine openings, unaccosted by any hint of masculinity; there is a frothing fountain at the centre of Clarissa’s memory of Peter, and an open vase, a jug, or ewer or whatever attached to her memory of Sally.

But is there a line, an invisible line that I should know about, or perhaps even set, which I am not supposed to trespass? Should I be setting some sort of “tone?” My gut instinct says, no, not really. Short of jokes about sexual violence, I’m pro-sex-in-the-classroom. Sex ain’t sacred–I know because Foucault told me so! Plus, I think Foucault is right to laugh at those who ask us not to laugh at sex, to mock those who admonish us immature gigglers, snorting at the mention of the word “labia” or “balls.” Right? I mean, just try saying “labia”  out loud and not cracking a smile.

Labia.

What are your thoughts? Balls in the classroom– yay, or nay? And, another few: what about labia? Mons? Vaginas? Clitoruses (clitori???)? Female masturbation!??!!? I ask because weirdly enough, female sexuality is still taboo, no matter how much or how loudly I yell about my vagina when drunk at the pub. The same (female) student who joked about saggy breasts this week also commented one day, during a discussion of gender performance, on how women and men must sit differently. Commented, and demonstrated: sitting slouched, with legs splayed, she asked, “Who would want to sit beside this?”–whilst pointing derisively at her own crotch–“It’s gross, right? I mean, I know it’s not gross, but really, if I saw you sitting like that, I don’t think I could even look at you.” Should we be looking more closely at female sexuality in our classes? And can we open up the discussion to include everyone, even men? Are male students allowed a voice on sex in classrooms? Do you fear what they might say as much as I do? Honestly, what do you think?

image

Sally Seton. Am I right?

pencil crayons & police portraits… in the classroom!

Can I get more creative with my assignments? I mean, can I include colour, and images?”

This question comes from a former design student, now registered in a series of engl. lit classes. How might you respond?

I can imagine a number of perfectly reasonable responses that I might have to a question like this. I might be intrigued. On the other hand, my eyes might just glaze over as my mind beats a desperate retreat inward, screaming along the way: “this is an english class, not a fine arts class, and neither is it kindergarten, for that matter!”

It is just as likely that english profs & tas might respond with fear & anxiety. Images can make us literary people anxious. in a field increasingly caught up in the world of cultural studies, however, it’s not exactly clear why this might be so.

Scary Pictures

Let’s consider a suite of theorists and their thoughts on photography. Susan Sontag describes the photographer as a hunter, tracking its prey, and links photography to nostalgia, often a dirty word in the humanities. Roland Barthes argues that those photographs best able to communicate to and with a viewer are those that puncture, or penetrate. pretty nasty sounding, right? He notes, too, that photographs, unlike film & video, lack “protensity,” which is to say that photographs have a tendency to freeze their subjects in time, to make them seem immobile, and unchanging. An ethically murky place to find oneself in, this sounds. Not to mention, of course, all of the possible “might have beens” that the photo cannot capture, that remain unseen. Trauma theory also has an anxious relationship with the photograph: some critics fear that the photo only functions to re-inflict the trauma that it documents, as it assaults new victims unprepared for the violence they see in the film, on the page, or on the screen. And, finally, Allan Sekula reminds his readers that photographs are not neutral; subjects pose or are posed, scenes can be staged, the lens limits the view and the photographer’s eye- both her physical eye, and what you might call the eye of her imagination- limits and frames that view even further. Really, though, what sekula wants us to remember is that photographs are political objects, political objects that yet have a tendency to mask and deny the very relationships of power and contingencies of production that bring them into being.

What most of this criticism points to is the “evidentiary” (to borrow Barthes’ term) function of the photograph. It just looks so damn real. In fact, it often stands in for the real; it is documentary proof of the world beyond our immediate view- beyond the purview of sight, and beyond the reach of the present. This is what can make literary and cultural theorists wary of the photograph: reality and representation blur in the photograph, or, more accurately, the image takes on the role of evidence; it points to its referent unerringly, distracting the eye- or, the critical eye, anyway- from the conditions of its own production, and its circulation in economies of meaning in excess of that which it supposedly represents.

So, does the photograph document, or construct? Does it record, or produce? And why should we not engage with photography and “the cult of the image” in a literature course, where these same questions arise again and again and again?

And again. We can only yammer on about histiographic metafiction for so long, ya know?

My suggestion? Ask your students these questions. And to avoid the dumb stares and rolling eyes when you ask them, all you have to do is bring a box of pencil crayons to tutorial.

Portraiture &  Literature in Tutorial

The Composites was featured in People Magazine this week. Thanks to everyone who contributed and shared ideas. Please continue to send them in and look for new work this weekend, after I’m finished running Joyland’s table at the AWP conference. (And I’ve been busy with this as well!)

The Composites: "images created using law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters."


This tutorial exercise comes from Erin, a former PhD student and TA at Mac, not to mention a fantastic teacher and expert on teaching & learning. Erin divided her students into groups and assigned each a brief character description from the novel they were studying. Based on that description, students were to sketch the character, and then answer the question: does the physical appearance of the character tell us anything about her/his personality?

The benefits of this assignment are multiple. First, students have fun. Even if they think it’s kind of stupid. Which it kind of is, right? It doesn’t feel very scholarly, anyway. But that is precisely the draw– it makes learning a little less formal, it asks students to engage in the text in a new and interesting way, and, finally, it gives students the opportunity to socialize. I firmly believe that university, and tutorials in particular, are a space for learning how to be in relation with others, and yet, students so rarely get a chance to practice this. Drawing childlike portraits in tutorial gives students a bit of a break,or a release, and, talking about movies, parties and family while they do so only enriches that learning experience. Really. I swear.

But i digress. Back to the academic: students practice close reading with this exercise. they begin to see representation as intentional, and representative of more than simple “truth.” They begin to recognize the politics of representation in asking, for example, why an author might choose to dress a female protagonist in a trench coat, or to refrain from mentioning race or noting any ethnic markers.Now to add something to Erin’s original exercise, a variation that might be especially productive to include in your “colouring session:” at the end of tutorial, show your students some slides; bombard them with modern mug shots, passport photos, composite police sketches, and perhaps older instantiations of all three.

The Body & The Archive

Why mug shots? As often happens, teaching choices reflect research interests, and this particular idea was prompted by my reading of Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography, which explores the pictorial framing and type-casting of the social world the novel has historically partaken in and produced, even before the photograph itself began to circulate in abundance in an economy of taste. This, in turn, led to a re-reading of Allan Sekula’s “Body and the Archive,” an analysis of 18th-century police portraits and the “science” of phrenology and physiognomy. both tackle the near-ecstatic transmutation the photograph can undergo from product to evidence and from representation to social reality.

Ezra Pound

So: after surprising your students with a series of scary-looking mug shots (and why not include some hilarious/creepy/kind-of-gross celebrity mug shots while you’re at it, is my thinking on the subject), then you can explicitly ask your students: does the photograph, or a sketch, faithfully reproduce, or does it produce something else altogether? What frames a photograph, or our vision, in general? and, an interesting question to pose to your students is: what happens when you imagine your character sketches as police sketches? What sort of criminal do you see? Is it possible to recognize the criminal in your character sketch at all? And if not, what prevents you from doing so?

In short, this exercise provides another entry point into a discussion of “the frame.” In subsequent tutorials, it might lead to discussions about the function of narrative, the line between fiction and non-fiction, history, historiography and myth, and even the old standby, Linda Hutcheon’s concept of historiographic metafiction. But, further, this exercise ushers the image into the literature classroom. I suddenly feel compelled to type: “we live in the age of the image,” despite my essay-marking-self cringing at the mere thought of such a platitude. It’s true, though. And its beginning to seem increasingly idiotic to ignore that fact when teaching critical reading in the classroom.

Any other ideas on how you might introduce the world of visual representation to your teaching of literature? Or how you might get students to think critically with the likes of pencil crayons, photo-shopping programs, or old-school collages? I would love to hear about them.

And, thank you…

To that design student whose inquiry started this entire train of thought.