Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Technique of Assent

So, my first graduate seminar concluded yesterday with the sharing of papers and the passing of pitchers. Before we moved from the classroom to the barroom, I shared these final thoughts:
I want to conclude the semester by suggesting another way of reading and engaging texts—one I feel is an alternative to common, critical engagements with texts that operate in the negative register (e.g., what does this text leave out, overlook, or otherwise exclude, simplify, or gloss?). This is not to say that such readings are unproductive or unnecessary (as such readings are often both productive and necessary).

It is to suggest other ways of reading that mine each and every text for something that can be “taken away,” “augmented,” “adopted,” or “utilized.” It is a way of reading that leaves one open to persuasion—to approach a text perfectly willing to be “converted to the enemy's camp.” And it is a way of reading that generates new questions, new ideas, and new ways of thinking.

Here are some sample texts from this semester that suggest and enact such approaches:
  1. Muckelbauer’s “reading productively” or “affirmatively”

  2. Gorgias' rescuing of Helen

  3. Jarratt’s re-reading of the sophists

  4. Rickert’s use of Plato’s chôra

  5. Burke’s notion of “discounting”

  6. Corder’s invocation of “love”
This technique of assent is also a reminder that readings in the negative register (where a text is “problematized”) are likewise always already acts of assent: every no bellies a previous yes. From where do we say “no,” and by what "yes" are we enabled to do so? Opening or starting with the "yes" may very well highlight the assumptions upon which our critical responses are based (or cultivated).

I likewise find this technique of assent—as a pattern of response or habit—very helpful for my work as a teacher (and all scholars are, I hope, teachers). And not just because teachers should be generous or “nice” (which they should be), but because one of the joys of teaching is learning. How does the thinking of students and their work productively change my own thinking or teaching practices? What can I, in other words, take away from each and every class and student?

Finally, another excellent reason for affirmative readings or this technique of assent is this: you will come to publish scholarly works many of you. And these works will enter into a community of scholars. Articles written in the safety of solitude will go out into the world and be read by others. What are your obligations to other scholars and their work? How do you want to position yourself within a community of scholars? How do you want to respond to and assent to the work of others?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

U.S. Board on Geographic Names

Easter Break and trip back to S. Indiana (which entails intermittent internet access) has prevented me from blogging for a bit. I am going to sneak a short one here to get back into the swing of things.

This from a Los Angeles Times story on the agency, named in my title, that is
responsible for deciding the names of natural features, including glaciers, mountains, valleys, rivers and ponds.
Now, I obviously love this sort of thing because it draws attention to the inherently political/rhetorical act of naming: no naming is value-free or "innocent." Additionally, the presence of a board to adjudicate such matters (the board does not propose names; it only acts on suggestions from citizens) reminds us that because naming is value-laden it is necessarily contested. Names matter and so we fight about them (or, better yet, we all know they are important because we fight about them, which is to say that if they were indeed value-free and innocent we wouldn't care one way or the other: the proof of my argument is in the argumentative pudding).
Soon the naming authority will find its own name in the spotlight.

In an upcoming decision, the panel will take up a controversial request by a Bay Area man who filed a request to change Mount Diablo in to Mount Reagan because he finds the name, Spanish for "the devil," to be offensive. His request touched off a flood of Internet opposition, and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted against the idea and sent an opposition letter to the federal panel.
Given that the board has recently approved the name "Devils Anvil Peak," it seems unlikely that they will likewise find "Mount Diable" offensive. Now, of course there will be cries of "politicization of the naming process" and howls of "why does everything have to be so political?" I have suggested it is inherently political, and I would suggest that such instances serve as uncomfortable reminders of this. And I would conclude this short blog by suggesting that complaints of "politicization" come not just from those who disparage politics but from those who lose naming contests.