Friday, February 12, 2016

The Revolution Will Not Be _____Splained

This primary season has inspired many accusations of various forms of _____-splaining. We've had call-outs of  “Bernie-Bros”  for the original tactic of  "mansplaining”; responses to those call-outs as white feminist “Old-Splaining” or “Boomer-splaining” and most recently, a reference to white "Bernie-Splaining" to Black voters.

I won't get into the origin-story of the term, which you can read here. What interests me is that on all sides, it seems that political arguments go wrong when they are  perceived to be patronizing attempts to tell other people what their real interests are.

That is, if I'm being Boomer-splained, as a woman, I am supposed to know that my REAL interest, my most important interest is to preserve Roe v. Wade, in internet parlance "because, the Supreme Court" and that the only way to do that is to vote for a viable Democrat. Thus, the only reason to explain why I would not vote for Hillary Clinton would be that having grown up after Roe, I must take this right for granted.   For these particular splainers, I am both ignorant and a traitor to womankind if I don't reach the same conclusions they do about my interests in this political campaign season. My political behavior can only be explained by "not knowing my real interests". My interpretation of my experience is wrong; theirs is right. 

Another popular argument that "Boomer" voters make to younger leftists (regardless of what election season it is) is that they are too young to have learned the vital lesson from the election of 1972, that ANY left candidate, would, like George McGovern  inevitably lose in the general election. Thus, any vote for a leftist candidate in the Democratic primaries is a vote for the Republican party. This lesson has fueled a great deal of the strategy of the contemporary Democratic leadership as well as its rank and file since 1976. That there might be another interpretation of the 1972 election is not considered. To suggest that electing a conservative Democrat might be as bad as electing an actual Republican provokes exasperated exclamation.  That the person who fails to learn this “McGovern lesson” is not ignorant, but has a different interpretation of recent history along with a different experience of the last several democratic administrations is not considered. Only one interpretation of the past can be right.  

A final patronizing "splaining" politics that I have encountered in my voting life, which began when I voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primaries, is the argument to people who don't vote at all that they are failing to recognize their real interests and are letting the country go to the dogs because of their stupidity and apathy.  These non-voters are the most 'Splained" of all during election seasons. “Just get out and vote,” the mantra goes.  Therefore, I find it somewhat ironic to hear the supporters of the Democratic Party's center-right wing accusing those on the left, who have been "splained" and "splained" to for their entire voting and non-voting lives, of being the new Splainers-in-Chief.  No one is up in arms about "splaining" to non-voters about how much difference a vote makes. There is plenty of evidence that it barely matters who you vote for, and that you can make change more effectively by joining social movements regardless of the year or season, than you can by throwing your energy into a political campaign. However, to argue for the rationality of non-voters instead of denouncing them is to evoke hyperventilation among believers in the electoral process. I am not spitting on voters who see it in their interest to do so. However...let the splainin begin.

My focus on boomers and democrats above, is not meant to imply that the Left has not often done a great deal of patronizing "splaining” of their own.  The most odious form of splaining I’ve encountered comes from those who deny the significance of race relative to class or deride what they call "cultural politics." These splainers share a goal with me, but they have a different analysis of why it's failing to materialize. Based on what they write, and where they focus their energy, they seem to believe that the biggest obstacle to the creation of a strong multi-racial left is a competing left for whom race, gender and/or sexuality are as important, or more important, or even just inextricably intertwined with, the United States class structure. “If only these people would stop believing that race/gender/sexuality matter so much and realize that class was a more significant determiner of their experience,” these class-first analysts argue, “we could all join together and change the world.”  Most of these splainers don't go quite so far as to blame working-class women, Blacks or queer people for what they see as bad analyses. Instead they describe the bad Black, women and /or queer leaders as bourgeois hucksters who are successfully bamboozling working-class members of these "cultural" groups to foreground these other aspects of their identity, ally against their own class interests and hitch themselves to the parties and agendas of wealthy Black people, women, queers, etc.  Now there are of course real examples of such politics of bourgeois nationalism, feminism, etc. but not everything that places race, gender, or sexuality first is a bourgeois trap. Moreover, even in cases where there is BS going on, just telling people "here's what's really happening to you" is not a good way to engage in movement building.

To insist, and insist, and insist again that people's felt experience of race, gender, or sexual inequality is wrong only replicates the dismissal of their reality that they already experience from people who they see as their direct oppressors. This version of splaining is, in my view, a bigger obstacle to the growth of a multi-racial left coalition than any BeyoncĂ© video.  The biggest obstacle to building a multi-racial socialist movement in the US is what appears to be the continuing insistence of some socialist activists on adhering to a color-blind class politics that aggressively denies the lived experience of people of color. 

My point is not that people's interpretations of their own experience cannot be questioned or that we cannot engage in conversations with people in which we try to get them to reconsider how they interpret  their own experiences. I have engaged in many such conversations with white working-class conservatives; I have learned a lot when doing so.  How things “really are” is often much more complicated than it appears in our day-to-day lives.  But how we make political decisions is not usually based on sifting through the very complex nature of that reality either. The fact is that people get excited about a political message if it resonates with the way they interpret their own experiences in some way. We cross into the territory of patronizing "splaining" when instead of listening seriously to what someone else is saying about how they reached a particular political conclusion,  we treat their analyses as inexplicable, pathological, malicious, the product of bamboozlement or stupidity. I mean this even for Trump supporters.  

 I know from the thrill I got when hearing Bernie Sanders say "political revolution against the billionaire class" and from seeing that Together video  that my own political attachments are not just rational and fact based. Why should I expect anyone else's to be?  Our own experiences inform what resonates with us. When we disagree with someone and get offended, it's worth asking ourselves:  Could it be that we are missing something because we have blind spots based on inevitably limited experience? Could this person know facts that I do not know or have forgotten?  I was recently swept up in the "free tuition" plank of Bernie Sanders' program as a purely populist one based on my history at CUNY until a friend reminded me that given the whitening of many state universities (which is not just about tuition), that this particular plan of redistribution could continue to advantage middle-class white people.

We know this: people are emotionally invested in particular interpretations of what has happened to them during their lives for complex reasons that cannot be "splained" away.  If we are interested in building a strong multi-racial feminist socialist movement, we will never get there by splaining. 

Finally, “ splaining” and argument aren’t the same thing.  Not everyone who offers an alternative analysis or a new set of facts about something that happened, even if it is something that happened to us and not to them, is guilty of ----splaining.  If we roll our eyes and call "SPLAINING!" every time we encounter someone who disagrees with us,  if we can’t get past a defensive reaction to even an angry articulation of someone else’s point of view, we will never be engaged in real politics at all.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Left Wing of the Possible, Hope vs. Fear, and what Happens in Jan 2017

Today is the day of the Iowa primaries of 2016, and everyone is watching to see what will happen. To me, this is one of the most significant primary elections of my lifetime because I see the Sanders' candidacy as doing something that no other Democrat has successfully done. He appears to have built a pretty broad-based electoral coalition by suggesting real economic reforms, thus repudiating the Reagan Revolution that many of us lived through and which we are still living with. The New Democrats strategy was to "steal the issues" of the Reaganite Republicans, aka Neoliberals. They reduced taxes, they cut welfare, they talked about personal responsibility and threw more people in jail.
   Sanders is running against this version of the Democratic party has been against the odds, polling close to an opponent who once appeared unbeatable, and on an issues that people have described as "impossible": Single-Payer healthcare, free College tuition, A total ban on fracking, and of course, a serious attempt to regulate Wall St.. Hell, it's a small point, but I thought of him when I paid a $3 ATM fee today. To top it off,  Sanders has built his numbers while relying primarily on individual contributions and bucking "Super-pacs." He is not running as a symbol, he is running to win. As many have said, he is polling well against Republicans, and it doesn't seem impossible anymore. He is doing it.

My post the other day, which was not as forthright as the above in my support for Sanders' candidacy led some of my readers to conclude that I am primarily seeing Sanders from the perspective of a glass half empty. I posted this update there to clarify.
 Because of a few people who have communicated questions to me about this in other venues I want to be clear. The point of this post is not to attack Sanders, whose candidacy I see as important and valuable because he is bringing meaningful proposals for economic justice into mainstream electoral politics for the first time in my lifetime. That said, I think it is wrong to characterize the current primary contest as a referendum on class vs. 'identity politics" as the way forward politically, as some Sanders supporters have done.
  So, I admit it, I am "Feelin' the Bern." I was invigorated by hearing Sanders use the word "socialism" and attack big money in the first debate, and I have been increasingly optimistic as I have seen momentum grow behind Sanders' advocacy for Single-Payer insurance which I've supported since I first heard a speech about it in the mid-1990s. That Sanders has made this alternative to our absurd healthcare bureaucracy into a viable policy is a huge deal. He's beating Republicans in national polls even though he explicitly says he will raise taxes. He is making what seemed like political "third rail" positions into stuff people talk about on the corner. In this moment, his campaign to me represents what some call the left wing of the possible. It is a shame that the main argument against him is that he is "unelectable." In an excellent piece over at Huffington Post, Anthony Conwright says: 

When people say Bernie Sanders' ideas are not politically viable, what they are really saying is:

Satisfying the needs of the people his policies would support is not politically viable, therefore, we should not vote for him. Not only does this language illegitimize the needs of those people, but the language implies there is something unviable about those people--at least politically. Sanders' proposals of providing health care to all Americans, making public colleges tuition free, and decriminalizing marijuana are all initiatives that would positively impact black Americans, and help close the equality gap in America. In 2013, 42 percent of African Americans ages 25 to 55 had student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white Americans. In Iowa, an African American was 8.34 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana position than white Americans, according to a 2013 study by the ACLU .According to the 2014 National Healthcare Quality & Disparities Report, African Americans and Hispanic Americans still have higher uninsured rates than white Americans. If addressing the needs of black Americans and minorities in this country is too radical, whose needs are politically viable?

When it comes to electoral strategy, I agree with Tom Frank. It's not a good idea to just write-off the white working class voters for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, it is a bad idea politically and also strategically to wrap the Sanders campaign into a battle within the left that is based on attacking and dismissing the politics of racial justice or gender equality as violations of working-class thinking. It is not only necessary to make the argument the way Conwright does above to be specific about how economic policies benefit specific disadvantged groups, but more importantly, for parties and movements to include people who aren't white men - (even if they are working-class) in the process of defining what the unifying issues are. This kind of strategy will keep us away from the bad class politics of the New Deal era, which brought us such limited reforms that we can still see the long term fall out from in the recent mortgage collapse, which disproportionately hurt Black homeowners who were the hardest hit by the 2008 crash. 

 At the same time, just as it is worth talking about the imbrication of race, gender and class, especially in the process of crafting broadly unifying demands, it seems unrealistic to argue for an issue that does not have the possibility of gaining a wide swathe of the electorate as part of a national election campaign.  Coates seemed to do with his call to Sanders campaign to put reparations for slavery on their platform. This only holds up because Coates describes Sanders as running a symbolic rather than a serious campaign, but as we can see above, this is not the case. it's also worth pointing out that while Coates himself has since changed his own mind on reparations, he once said it was "racist" to demand that Obama support reparations when he was campaigning in 2007,  If it was a struggle for Coates to get behind reparations,it seems like no matter how right this policy is, it is a hard issue to include in the kind of electoral campaigns that exist in the United States in the current moment.
The question is not, "If not now, when?" the question is "if not here, where?"   

We need hope and idealism and big goals, but only inclusive discussions about how to define and push broadly unifying demands can build real power. Single-Payer is not a white man's" issue - it is legitimately a policy that will help the 99%. The same is true for other issues that Sanders' supports, and this is why he is gaining support from so many people. I think that real criminal justice policy reform is also a broadly unifying issue, since a racist policy that disproportionately hurts minorities ALSO has begun to capture more and more white people into its net, which may be why we are seeing increasing opposition to mass incarceration from white people. The trick is to make sure that any policy reforms that do happen don't disproportionately soften up the pressure on white people, leaving people of color behind.  
In the longer term, the place for pushing the "divisive" demands is simply not the national presidential campaign. The place where those battles happen and are still happening is not waiting, and let's hope it does not go away tomorrow or next year.  it's in social movements where people can get together to push whoever is elected to do what they think needs to be done. We hear of the disaster that hope created in 1972, but Nixon is now lauded for legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, that was passed during his second term,without any seeming comprehension that the reason these reforms passed was that there was a waning, but still robust social movement alive in America at that time.McGovern lost, but movements won.  And where do people think the Sanders surge came from?


Saturday, January 30, 2016

What's the Matter With Kansas, Neoliberal Multiculturalism and what's left of an American Left

  In the past few days, I've become increasingly interested in what seems to be an internal discussion among Democratic Party supporters, and those further to the left who are energized by the seeming viability of the Bernie Sanders campaign and may wind up voting for Democrats for the first time in several years.
Late Update: Because of a few people who have communicated questions to me about this in other venues I want to be clear. The point of this post is not to attack Sanders, whose candidacy I see as important and valuable because he is bringing meaningful proposals for economic justice into mainstream electoral politics for the first time in recent memory. That said, I think it is wrong to characterize the current primary contest as a referendum on class vs. 'identity politics" as the way forward politically, as some Sanders supporters have done.
   I will say more about this in a subsequent post on the meaning of what it means to build an electoral coalition on broadly unifying demands as opposed to what the priorities within the left are when we talk about movement building and organizing outside the electoral process, which I believe must remain central regardless of who is elected.

 Here's what I'm seeing.

 Sanders has been running his campaign with the strategy that Tom Frank advocated in his book What's the Matter with Kansas. In it, Frank argues that the far right has captured white working class men, winning elections by playing culture war issues (guns, gays and abortion) and targeting class antagonism at "entitled" racial minorities. There are problems with Frank's book, and Frank's politics, in that they play to that "class first" argument that downgrades racism, sexism and homophobia into "cultural" issues that have divided an otherwise grand coalition The argument's flaw is that it is not race or gender neutral  It sets up a class coalition dominated by the interests of white working class men and then invites everyone else in the working class to get behind their banner as if all people in the working class had identical interests. I've noticed that some white socialist organizations who make these class-first arguments tend to be slightly better on gender and sexuality in this regard than they are on race, which most likely has to do with the fact that these socialist organizations include white women who have forced them to consider the seriousness of their positions, but very, very few Black people who have been able to do the same.
    To me, this not an economic prioritizing, but a way of thinking about class issues that is based on white working-class male experience. It misses the fact that white working class people have received privileges and "psychological wages" that W.E.B Du Bois explained many years ago and which many subsequent historians have drawn upon and explained some more.
   In terms of agenda-setting, this way of understanding economic populism ignores the fact that for Black working class people, police violence and incarceration may be more immediately pressing working-class issues even than access to decent health care. The same was true for anti-lynching politics which were wrongly interpreted as "merely symbolic" by white leftists and labor activists until they themselves started getting mobbed by vigilantes during WWI. The point is, you can't protest if you can be killed on the street without a trial. It's a basic issue of democracy. While we would like to have better access to health care, the criminal justice system has targeted enough Black people that incarceration could be considered a genuine state of emergency for working class Blacks. That is, even if you are broke, sick, and can't afford health care, you might be more worried about prison than healthcare if you know someone in prison, especially if that person is a member of your family.
    Ta-Nehisi Coates was naming this white economic populist blindspot as it is manifested in the Sanders campaign in his article on Sanders and reparations that has gotten so much attention over the last week.
    In a similar vein, feminism has often been described on the left as a "bourgeois" movement, merely interested in getting women to the same place in the ruling-class as "their husbands" as if working-class women did not exist, or more importantly, as if women's interests were identical with men's, thus white women have the same rights as white men, black women have the same interests as black men, etc. This would ignore all interests that are particular to women as women, regardless of class and race: such as rights to have or not have children, status in relation to men in the workplace, rights in relation to husbands within marriage, and vulnerability to sexual violence. Gender is not symbolic if you're in a state where "marital rape" is a legal impossibility or where you cannot get an abortion no matter what your class status is. Of course, poor and working class people are much more vulnerable to racism and sexism than rich people in the same race and class. When Henry Louis Gates is arrested at his own front door, he gets a meeting with the president. When a white woman is raped in Central Park it's a national issue. On slightly less exemplary level, rich women who get beaten by their husbands might have alternatives beyond domestic violence shelters,.but even rich women can be financially dependent on their husbands because of the way that many domestic abusers control their wives' access to property.

Sanders appears to be trying to win the election by creating a working class coalition based on those economic issues that unify working class voters as working class people regardless of race and class (health care, minimum wage, education access, environmental safety) , rather than playing to explicitly racist and sexist "culture war" voters (as the Republicans are doing) or by attacking those aspects of working class experience that are unique to Black people (Reparations). He's obviously doing this in order to keep racist white voters with similar class interests in the fold,  His strategy on gun-control, which is an anti-racist issue as far as I'm concerned, as well as an economic one, is a case in point of seeing these voters as a crucial constituency:
Coming from a rural state, which has almost no gun control, I think I can get beyond the noise and all of these arguments and people shouting at each other and come up with real constructive gun control legislation, which most significantly gets guns out of the hands of people who should not have them."
 The New Democrats, as led by the Clintons and now Obama, have dealt with the problem of the white working class voter in a different way, by mixing hard right positions against working class people of color with appeals to the liberal side of the culture wars. re-branding itself as the party that can be counted to cater to suburbanite and gentrifying urbanite wishes on crime, guns, immigrants, terror, welfare.while simultaneously supporting limited affirmative action, abortion with qualifications, and increasing support for Gay rights as public opinion has shifted.  Republicans have ever since been crying about Clinton's triangulation as "stealing our issues," a policy that has continued in the Obama presidency and with most congressional democrats.

What these democrats represent is not the limit of anti-racism or left cultural politics of any stripe.  They are not calling for a working-class agenda that DOES understand gender and race. They are arguing for an integrated capitalist class that does away with glass ceilings for professional women and includes non-white representation in corporate, state and military leadership, but that retains all the class inequality of the current system. This defines the limits of what some cultural studies scholars describe as "neoliberal multiculturalism." As a recent summary of Jodi Melamed's excellent book on the subject explains:

By severing race from material conditions, official antiracisms make it possible to seem antiracist while furthering neoliberal capitalism, which is reliant on racialized bodies that fall outside of neoliberalism’s ideal subject.  This dematerialization of anti-racist discourse enables the negation of social movement efforts (particularly those of formations like women of color feminism) and legitimizes grossly asymmetrical material conditions, all while appearing antiracist.

That is, while appearing officially anti-racist on certain noticeable issues that are dividing points between parties, but also supporting bipartisan policies such as "welfare reform" anti-sex trafficking legislation (which disproportionately affects immigrants) and wars, the modern day Democratic party has kept minority voters and women of all races in the fold based on advocacy of an integrated ruling class and the fear of a victory by explicitly racist and sexist whack jobs who run on the other side.

 Or, as Tom Frank put it in a 2014 article:
 These days, the big thinkers of the Democratic Party have concluded that they can safely ignore the things I described. They’ve got a new bunch of voters these days — the famous “coalition of the ascendant,” made up of professionals, minorities and “millennials” — and it pleases them to imagine that with this unstoppable army at their back they will win elections from here to eternity. There is no need to resolve the dilemmas I outlined in “Kansas,” no need to win back working-class voters or solve wrenching economic problems. In fact, there is no need to lift a finger to do much of anything, since vast, impersonal demographic forces are what rescued them from the trap I identified. They now have the luxury of saying, asPaul Krugman did on the day after the 2012 election, “Who cares what’s the matter with Kansas?”
Sanders' campaign is trying to switch the neoliberal multicultural discourse of the Democrats out for an an attack on Wall St. and Student loan debt in the wake of Occupy, perhaps with the belief, that as with gun control, big, unifying economic reforms that help the entire working class will create space to negotiate for more controversial arguments where interests are different within the working class. One could argue that this was the case with the New Deal, which was remedied by extensions of state support as won by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Black Lives Matter has fairly successfully pushed both Clinton and Sanders to more significant criminal justice reform positions - although both campaigns appear to me to fall within neoliberal limits.
    And this is telling. Sanders may be rallying for unifying economic reforms, but he's not actually a revolutionary in the broader sense. Not everyone on the left sees a ray of hope in Sanders' campaign but instead, view his current surge in popularity as the bamboozlement of starry-eyed white liberals who see him as more different from the Democratic establishment candidates than he really is. The key to his similarity to Clinton is his continued support for U.S. militarism and empire building, which Melamed's book, mentioned above, identifies as the anchor of  neoliberal multicultural policy-making. As Noam Chonsky once said in response to a question about what he'd do if elected to the U.S. presidency, "have myself arrested as a war criminal."   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Year's Academic Reading Challenge 2015

The first challenge I organized went well.  Some day I'll write a blog post about it, but most of the people who participated did all their reporting on Facebook.  Now I've learned this reading challenge idea is a "thing." I found another one at Book Riot That I like. However, if I keep doing so many reading challenges to keep myself limber and not over-specialized, I may wind up not actually doing all that reading for work that I have to do. With that, here's my......

Winter-Spring Reading Challenge 2015

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  date published;  pp. #
Date read
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.

book written by someone you saw give a lecture or present at a conference

 book by a current colleague, coworker, or friend

 Academic book someone else recommended to you

 Book from a “Best of 2014” list

 book about the history or culture of a city, town or neighborhood in the United States

 academic book that’s considered a classic in your field (that you’ve never read) OR  Book that you always see cited but haven’t read.

 Book with a color in the title

Journalistic or popular book about any place outside the United States

 Special Issue of any academic journal

National Book Award Winner from before 1980

3 books related to science

 Science fiction book

 Non-fiction book about science written for general readers

Academic book about science or science fiction. (history or philosophy of science, lit crit of science fiction/utopia, cultural studies of science, or actual science for audience of scientists)

EXTRA CREDIT – Book in a genre you hate /or Double up in any category except the first “free” one.

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Books of poetry or special issues of journals must be at least 100 pp. long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print edition at least 200 pages long.

Books must be started no earlier than midnight Jan 1and finished no later than May 31, midnight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Reading Challenge Update

So, my first ever reading challenge for academics has now begun. Post below to share with the group...what book are you starting with? I believe I'll be starting with the June 2014 issue of American Quarterly....

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Challenge for Academics

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so with a doff of the professor's  tam and my apologies to Megan C. Troup, I am stealing her reading challenge idea to start one of my own. Troup runs book challenges over at her blog Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. I like the way she does her challenges because they're not just a number, but not so prescriptive as to require everyone to read and discuss the same book. 
Instead, she creates a set of categories designed to get readers to try new things.  I did her summer reading challenge this year, and I may also try her winter challenge. However, since we academics read for a living, I thought we could use our own challenge that included space for more specialized literature, flexed our reading muscles with some interdisciplinary categories, and allowed some breaks for serious but “fun” reads.....all the while, structuring in a bit of promotional support for our friends and colleagues.This one goes for the length of the fall semester and winter break and includes 14 books total.

   Extra instructions for people who like to read academic books, but aren’t professors appear in italics

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print editions are at least 200 pages long. 
To fit the framework of the challenge, books must be started no earlier than midnight on Tuesday 9/2 and finished no later than Dec. 31 midnight. 

Note for non-professional academics: In any place where it says “academic book” look for any book published by a scholar with a university press.  Look for the publisher info and the “scholarly apparatus”: footnotes /or endnotes, appendices, acknowledgments mentioning colleagues, graduate students, dissertation committees, etc.

5 points: Read any book related to your research or teaching (at least 200 pages long) (Non-professors, read any academic book)

10 points: Read a book written by a friend, acquaintance or colleague

10 points: Read a book by a former student or former teacher

10 points: Read an entire academic journal issue including book reviews

15 points: Read a book reviewed in the journal issue above

15 points: Read an academic book about a country or region that isn’t part of your research or your current teaching.  (Non-academics, read an academic book about a country or region that you don’t usually read about)

15 points:  Read a book that you always meant to read but never got to or never finished  (Non-professors, read a book assigned for a course that you never read or never finished when you were a student)

20 points:  Read a novel that was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014. The long list will be published in September and the finalists will be announced Oct. 15th.

20 points: Read a book about current events written by a journalist

25 points: Read a Pulitzer Prize winning book from before 1970 (any category). Find a list here:

20 points: Read a book with “house”, “apartment” or “room” in the title.

35 points: Read three academic books on the same general subject, one from each category: history, literary criticism, ethnography.

*** As you make your preliminary lists, post them in the comments on this post. I'll do check-ins periodically.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Scholarly Panic: Thoughts about Teaching and the notion of "Originality"

One of the hardest things that scholarly writers face is the pressure to be original.  For graduate students, who may be making their first attempts at original work, this demand for original ideas, interpretations or discoveries can be especially anxiety producing. I’ve heard stories of graduate students hiding certain library books in the fear that others will stumble upon the same ideas. I’ve speculated about and heard others speculate about plagiarism when publications come out that seem to replicate conclusions and sources that were in unpublished manuscripts that had been sent out for review. Even for more seasoned scholars, the fear is there that we don’t know what we’re doing and that our work will be replicating something else.  Given the amount of scholarly production, it seems almost impossible to imagine that we can do original work unless it’s on a subject that’s so obscure no one else knows (or cares) about it.

I’m writing this little reflective story as a way to think about how to teach students what we mean by originality and how to reduce the anxiety associated with a seemingly impossible goal.

This morning I was reading news on Facebook and followed a link to this article by Kristoffer Smemo, a  graduate student at UC Santa Barbara who’s writing his dissertation on liberal Republicans:  

I was thrilled by his analysis of the band Black Flag’s conservative ideology, because he had so clearly articulated and formulated thoughts about the U.S. hardcore punk scene, about which I had been reading as part of my research for a chapter of my book on anti-fascism.  After my initial thrilled and excited reaction to reading this sharp analysis, I had the panicked reaction of “oh no, he figured it out first!  And now… all my work on this subject up to now is just superfluous. ”

My “oh no!” reaction while understandable given the competitive aspects of academic culture is also kind of ridiculous for a number of reasons.

The reason for this reaction is based in an understanding of scholarship as a competitive endeavor in which only one person can be “the smartest” or “the first” to the finish line.  Given the fact that it’s hard to be original perceiving scholarship this way can make the experience of research anxiety producing, miserable and alienating.  If we instead think of scholarship as a collaborative human enterprise in which people working in the same area can be helpfully viewed as friends or comrades, what originality means, and how we get there becomes much less lonely and other people’s work becomes less threatening.

Here is a set of things I might say to students in order to reduce the anxiety about what it means to be original and to take some of the competitive energy out of the research and writing process.

1) Someone else will almost always have already had the same idea as you, or an even better one that you haven’t thought of yet, but that when you read it, will cause you to think:  “yes, that’s exactly right.” And, then perhaps, “Damn it, why didn’t’ I think of that?”
 It’s almost impossible to have an idea that no one else has. We’re all living in the same historical moment, and many of us are trying to figure out answers to the same problems, reading many of the same books, and swimming in the same cultural soup. So, of course we’re going to think similar things.  It would be more shocking if no one had the same idea you did than if they didn’t. It’s often the case that someone else has come to a particular question before you did. To look at this from another perspective, isn’t it nice to know that there is someone else who has thought this thing or thought it better than you? Isn’t it in fact nice that someone is interested in the same subject as you?  You are not alone and you are not crazy.   In fact, it means you are addressing a subject that matters to other people. Now, you can see evidence in the fact of this other person’s work that your work is relevant.

2)  Even if this other person has thought the same thing, or figured out this problem in a better way than you, and has even been working on this problem or question a lot longer than you have, it’s unlikely that he or she is working on all of the exact same questions that you are and about the exact same texts, historical period, or topics.  You can carry on with your work.  If it is the case that this person’s research has done exactly what you were planning to do and essentially “got there before you” that is why we do literature reviews when we embark on new scholarly projects. Aren’t you glad you found this book/article/dissertation now instead of a year from now?

3)  You have a new comrade and helper. Discovering that someone else has already answered the question you started your project with does not mean abandoning your research on a particular subject or casting that person’s work as an enemy that has to be defeated in order to prove your own originality or superiority, or hoping that no one will notice and failing to cite a highly relevant work.  The fact that this other person had already started this work before, and has thought about it so intelligently means that their work is going to be tremendously helpful and will save you  from having to do the work that they have already done.

4)  Now that this intellectual comrade has answered the question you started with, you can learn from his or her work, acknowledge this other scholar's significant contribution,  and think about moving to a question that the work raises but does not answer. There will pretty much always be at least one. No work on a subject can say everything about it, and any really good piece of work will be applicable in other ways.   There are all kinds of ways to take inspiration from another work on your subject:  whether that means looking at how an idea or fact can be seen in a different context, applying an idea to a new subject, going broader and making comparisons, going into more depth about a single detail, getting into some unexplored, but possibly related area that the other author wasn’t interested in, and in fact, continuing to treat that person as a scholarly “friend” – someone who shares your passion and engagement, and with whom you are working to build new knowledge in related areas. It makes scholarship much less lonely. This is quite different from thinking about the goal of scholarship as being to come up with an original finding in which you are pitted competitively with everyone else who is working on the same subject.

5) This is different from being so indebted to someone else’s work that you are unable to think of different questions from the ones that they have already answered and just want to repeat their insights and preach about them to others, or even that you cannot be critical of works that they have done. The only reason to write anything is because you still think something is missing from what's out there. Benjamin puts it this way,  Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”  
  Maybe another day I'll write about the value of  enemies or adversaries - they have a role too. As Orwell's famous essay on writing describes it, writing is an ordeal. Why bother if you are already satisfied with what had already been written?  So, while the quest for originality can be anxiety producing when the purpose of your research is all about proving that you’re smarter than other people, that pressure comes off if you remain driven by your passion for the subject and experience some kind of fellowship with others who share that passion and are writing and thinking in the same area, while recognizing that each of us has limited capacities. No one work will say all that is there is to be said, and part of being “original” is actually about engaging productively with other scholars’ work, even when the initial experience of reading it can induce a momentary panic.