Individualism, individuation, and… fascist education.

Product-66665-1.orgThe word ‘education’ comes from the root
e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrustion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupils head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as proved by the root meaning.

So my determination while travelling to NYC last month was to read something non-thesis related, and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was my choice for several reasons: it’s short, Spark’s funny and dashes off plenty of well-observed social commentary and of course is thought-provoking as well, and it’s something I ought to have read anyway. I do love a good school-based story. And on top of delivering on that promise, this particular quotation (which is probably the most-quoted from the novel) stuck out to me, and has rattled around in my head ever since. At first I thought I really liked the sentiment, but then I had second thoughts.

It’s topical, for one thing, as I’m in part working through ideas around the bildungsroman in my current chapter… how the form charts individuation as an inevitable part of adult socialization, and when and under what circumstances this process reinforces individualism, which is increasingly marketized under neoliberalism.

And yet individuation is, for all its potential to skew in an Ayn Randian direction (sidebar: I remember my early days on FB, back in 2006, when the platform was new, being staggered by how many college students listed Atlas Shrugged as their favourite novel. It always feels like not enough folks got past this stage in individuation and their taste then hardens, or better, mutates, into a rank form of individualism… I suppose the legions of prominent conservatives who still claim inspiration from her are proof of this, although the Democrats these days are in several ways more Randian than the Republicans, I’d want to argue), still rather compelling to me as a theme, and important to avoid submission to political domination, etc.

So what does it mean that it’s a bit tempting to take inspiration from this defence of the educator as leading out the innate characters of students, when it is mouthed by Brodie who is in fact a fascist? We all know we aren’t meant to like Miss Mackay, who practises the model of education as simply filling students’ heads with ideas. But then again, the fascistic elements behind Brodie’s viewpoint are readily on display here in her rhetoric.

First, there’s the appeal to truth being established through proximity to a discernable origin, in Brodie’s repeated recourse to a Latinate citationality, a doctrine which–and no offence to any classicists reading this–in its politicization has become increasingly evidently malicious in warping history. It’s what Foucault wrote against in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” posing his genealogical method against an anti-intellectual kind of historicism that regrettably continues to rear its ugly head in mainstream political discourse. Take the current conservative jurisprudential vogue for originalism–as personified by Antonin Scalia, the anti-intellectualism of which was so ably and memorably deconstructed by David Souter–a doctrine dear Stevie and friends are so desperate to bring north of the border, as he is so often keen to do with the worst ideas of American conservatives. Just as language changes meaning with use, so do ideas, and this is not by itself a bad thing… so Brodie is at best petty in her etymology here.

Second, she appeals to the idea of students’ innate being, which cuts against the way in which education is one of the most obvious sites where the power of social determination–in both good and bad ways–is brought to bear in shaping who students become. So I guess what Brodie’s doing is posing a bad binary in terms of models of education. Her method supposes that students have a lot they can offer in their own predispositions. But what she doesn’t admit is those predispositions are not necessarily innate either; I think the missing third term in this binary is a less hierarchical and more social approach to education. I’ve had cause to say a few times lately that what I love most about being in school is learning socially… when a conversation coalesces in such a way that there’s a feeling as though the group is building something together, whether that’s in a graduate seminar, or if I’m wearing a teaching hat with undergrads, or just talking shop over drinks with colleagues, friends, or family.

Yet when Brodie talks about a leading out, what it also makes me think of is that experience of a person–more often than not it’s a teacher, but it can sometimes also be a peer–naming a quality in me that I didn’t even realize I possessed, giving form to an insight I didn’t even understand I’d had. It’s a powerful moment, the kind of attention that is rarely expressed in any circumstance, let alone in a pedagogical situation. But that moment can be understood as not just a product of innate ability, can’t it? Because surely the other’s role of identifying your contribution in that moment is also crucial. So in that sense perhaps Brodie’s theory is more social than she lets on? Given the incredibly exclusionary way in which the filling-young-minds-with-knowledge model has functioned historically, badly serving students who face hugely various social determinants both in and outside of school that in turn mean they likely learn in so many different ways, maybe Brodie’s posing of her model against Mackay’s isn’t as bad as all that?

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A Resolute New Approach to Internet Presence

This is just a quick note to make a few quick summary observations. I’ve obviously decided against following through on this blog as a comps blog, for a number of reasons you can ask me more about if you’re curious. But my inattention to the blog can be interpreted as a symptom of the fact that I’ve felt so incredibly stretched for time for so long now, and the blog was one more chore to consider, so over the holidays I’ve decided that I want finally to engage in a serious reconsideration of my online presence.

You could say that this was precipitated by some other people’s good examples. I mean, if Zadie Smith admits to spending an outsized amount of time online, I feel as though I’m in OK company. It’s a joy to be able to share ideas and experiences with friends online, but it starts to feel less joyful at times and more like a demand. I need to switch off the voice in my head that makes the following train of thought whenever I encounter someone’s ideas in an online article, which goes something like this.

Should I share this with my friends? Would it be better on Twitter, Facebook, or both? How will its posting reflect on others’ opinions of me? Might it offend some of them? Am I up for the fallout of offending some of them? 

Or some variation thereof. I spend so much time being anxious over this kind of stuff that I lost sight of what might have been exciting about the piece in the first place. I wouldn’t call this a first world problem, tempting though it is to satirize it as such. But that’s mainly because I think the phrase itself is lazy and condescending in affixing a preoccupation with major social issues on an abstracted and unspecified other; plainly, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that my problem emerges from the specificity of the privileged academic set in which I’ve spent the majority of my time since I began my MA in fall 2008. That’s by way of saying that if the list that follows sounds a bit tone-deaf in discussing the obstacles I’m facing in my life, that’s because I’m doing my best to stop being that way in my day-to-day existence and take seriously the fact that I “must learn to learn,” to borrow Spivak’s eloquent formulation from another context.

To make a long story short (and without going into my objection to the concept of Gregorian New Year’s resolutions, and my subsequent rationalization of the fetishistic disavowal of that objection by going ahead and announcing some for myself in this highly public forum), I have a set of plans for the next year, an important year in my academic life in which I need to finish writing my comprehensive exams, write a long proposal of my thesis, commence researching and writing that thesis, present papers at more conferences in a year than I have done to date in my life, prepare another paper for publication, and oh, you know, live life as a functional (and hopefully agreeable) human being at the same time.

1. I will stop using my FB account (i.e. I won’t log in) from January through mid-March. Consider this a trial separation for the remainder of my comps. I don’t dislike FB altogether, despite chafing against its obviously underhanded “shoot first and ask questions later” approach to interface updates, and my intense disdain for Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas about privacy. I can promise I’ll return then, but some time apart will give me the chance (I hope) to think through how I want to be on Facebook a little more clearly for when I return to it. I thought about account deactivation, but have decided that I can probably just refrain from logging in.

2. I will stop using my phone to check email.

3. I will limit myself to one email browse/day, and try to schedule it for a regular time.

4. I will start treating my iPhone as a phone and not a toy – getting rid of games, not using it as an iPod, etc. And in general, I will try to be less attached to it.

5. I will do my utmost to cut down my time surfing the net. I don’t know for certain all that that will involve, but it will likely be some combination of downloading Freedom, and in general restricting (possibly cutting out altogether) the amount of time I procrastinate by browsing online.

6. I will cut down on my use of Twitter by not tweeting links.

If this list makes it sound like I’m going to turn into a recluse, then the answer for the moment is a bit of a “yes, but…” I hope no-one takes this to mean that I’m going to start ignoring the folks in my life who are important to me. But I am going to be less available, and if you have a genuine problem with that, to be completely honest I really couldn’t care less right now. I am willing to risk that mild inconvenience to you in part because I’m prepared to bet that you will like my company more when you do have it if my time spent in your company isn’t spent waging a constant interior battle against the nagging thoughts pressing on me that I’m boring because people already have so much access to my online life. Maybe think of it as: less Kasim is more Kasim? I sort of hate that phrase’s origins in neoliberal managerialism, but it’s the best one that comes to mind just now.

This list is by no means total, and won’t have wholly negative impacts on how I communicate with folks either. I am looking forward to experimenting with different means of being in touch with others, whether by phone, email, or even just regular old post. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start using this space a little more frequently?


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A Serendipitous Coincidence, or How to Historicize the British Experience of Neoliberalism through a Liberal Intellectual and an American TV Western

I’ll begin this entry by noting that the opening injunction from Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious – “Always historicize!” – has become such a theoretical commonplace as to be nearly overdetermined. He’s not the only theorist whose words get stretched, certainly, but his pithy phrase is germane to what I’ll be trying to do in this entry: map a guide for my reading of my comps. Yes, I promised this would come sooner, but unfortunately that didn’t quite happen. Few would disagree with this proposition if it’s understood as a general sentiment, yet the semantic weakness of such an injunction divorced from the context in which it’s developed – and it’s worth remembering that introductions are typically written last, grounded in the often skimmed (if not skipped altogether) middle pages of any academic book – becomes clear as soon as we start asking some questions: whose history are we talking about? Are we relying on capital “H” history? What about herstory?

If I’ve learned nothing else in graduate school, it’s that few scholarly projects could reasonably hope to account for all the various exigencies of the terrain they cover. I’m reminded of Edward Casaubon’s fruitless effort to write The Key to All Mythologies in Middlemarch, or, to make a reference of slightly more recent date, David Lodge’s professor Morris Zapp (a character purportedly modelled on Stanley Fish) from Changing Places, who aims to write,

a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question (35).

Such an impossible project is what I could easily end up setting for myself in reading for my comps, especially in prepping my field paper. What I’m in need of are two or three points that I can use to quilt my critical attention. In this case, as happens so often when an immediate focus seems difficult to come by when it’s called for, I have found my bearings through some of my other current pursuits. So, given that my field is 20th Century British and Irish Literature, it is rather fitting that my non-comps-related activities of the past week somewhat bookend the past century: towards the more recent end, I have been reading through several of Tony Judt’s late works, particularly in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (although also in Postwar), and at the earlier end, I finished watching HBO’s Deadwood.

Judt’s opening to Reappraisals announces the two organizing principles for the essays collected therein: (1) what has happened to diminish the role of the intellectual in political discourse, and (2) how has the state risen and fallen. Taken together, these are the strands that organize his narrative of the twentieth century – how appropriate they are, or the specific problems with each of his cases, I haven’t any interest in detailing at present. What is of moment for my current task is his focus on the state… which brings me to the second of my week’s preoccupations. Deadwood, the HBO TV series, is about the establishment of a settler colony between Montana and the Dakotas in the late 1880s, in unceded Sioux territory. The show presents a fictive historical take on the slow dance of an actual town towards federal governance by the USA (cut short by the show’s cancellation after the third season). The primary resource (i.e. gold) centred economy presents one of the final opportunities for frontier capitalism, which, oddly – when the authoritarian entrepreneur George Hearst (father of the well-known newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst) enters the scene and shepherds the town at gunpoint into what passed in the nineteenth century for American democracy, complete with rigged elections, political murders and highly intimidating business practices – comes to seem like an idyllic if libertarian moment for Deadwood’s resident “hooples” (one of my favourites from the impressive vernacular of the series). Indeed, one of the show’s hallmarks is its mistrust of any claim to moral superiority based in the law, a theme primarily enacted through the righteous and all-too-often misdirected sheriff-dom (a word?) of Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, whose efforts to do good most often merely exacerbate the numerous social conflicts characteristic of the fundamentally lawless population.

But why refer to a Western serial drama in the middle of what is supposed to be a reflection on twentieth century British literature? In effect, Judt laments certain attributes of the social contracts built in countries like the US after the eclipse of the kind of frontierism and crony capitalism, both of which are economic systems subject to an unapologetically excoriating critique in Deadwood. From the vantage point of late nineteenth century Britain, of course, the Deadwoods of the world were to be found in an empire that was qualitatively different in scope from any other Western power (despite competition from Spain and France, and the pretensions of the US, Germany and Italy in this direction in the early half of the twentieth century). So a crucial element of the story I will be investigating has to do with the impact imperial decline had on the kind of country Britain was to become in the twentieth century. To put far too fine a point on what comes after Deadwood, robber barons such as Hearst and his ilk eventually had to reckon with the popularity of Keynesian economic theory (which influenced the New Deal) as a route out of the Depression. Meanwhile, in Europe, tolerance of an enhanced role for government in administering the economy was cemented by post-war reconstruction. Taken together, this sketch represents the political historical coordinates for my year’s readings.

Even as I would certainly wish to acknowledge that the advent of the welfare state presented opportunities for corruption undreamt of under its less regulated predecessor, and by no means delivered consistently on the social goods it promised (an argument I am currently touching up in a paper on Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen I hope to submit for publication), neither do I wish to overstate this point. Indeed, it is worth observing that the means by which the legion of conservative detractors of liberal capitalism’s flirtation with ostensibly socialist measures transformed their ideas from crackpot theories (thinking here of the splendid isolation from government influence in which Friedrich Hayek’s circle toiled in their early days) to politically palatable policy guidelines was by recourse to some of these very arguments. While my dissertation picks up on the latter end of this trajectory, seeking to historicize the destructive impact of neoliberalism on British politics generally, it’s at least thinkable that those involved in the dismantling (or, put more charitably, reorganizing into private hands) the government provision of social goods would have us return to the kind of unforgiving hegemony of profiteering chronicled in Deadwood. To be clear, though, that isn’t necessarily what I think is happening, mainly because I don’t have much confidence that very many apologists for the socioeconomic status quo have sufficiently developed capacity of social thought to understand the full consequences of the policies they advocate.

To many of my colleagues, few parts of this terrain will be unfamiliar. But I rehearse it here first and foremost as a kind of thought exercise, one I’m conducting to draw out the strands that will focus my year’s reading. The first of these, as I’ve already intimated, will be the question of how Britain reorganizes itself once decolonization begins. It’s that question referred to in a somewhat more literary sense by Jed Esty as Britain’s “becoming minor.” The second strand I envision as in some sense a subset of the first, as I turn to examine the individual’s situation vis à vis the state. If, as Judt suggests, we can interpret twentieth century history as the story of the rise and fall of the (welfare) state, then what does the novel since 1979 tell us about how the state both persists (consider for example the ubiquitous reinvigoration of police powers, or in Althusser’s terms, repressive state apparatuses, post-9/11, or, to put a British spin on things, post-7/7) as a dominant force in individuals’ lives, and its simultaneously diminished role (consider here the hegemony of consumerism referenced private health insurance, where what Zizek would call the Leninist freedom – choice, in this instance – becomes the justification for the perpetuation of mass inequality). I hope that these questions will orient my discussion towards key aspects of state and society that have changed – thinking, for instance, of race, gender, sexuality, the division of the public from the private, among other considerations – over the course of the twentieth century. This is emphatically not to suggest that the critique of neoliberalism occupies a position of privilege over these other issues, each of which is a substantive and urgent area of scholarly inquiry in its own right. Rather, it is to acknowledge that while market logic is now more likely than ever to play a role in any given relationship between an individual and the state, that role necessarily intersects with identity political issues. Thus, rather than positing a determining role for neoliberalism, or placing it in a privileged position in a notional hierarchy of the myriad social problems that confront us daily, my project will view as crucial the task of specifying historically how neoliberalization works in each of its several iterations within the context of late twentieth century British culture. In this respect, I would argue, the novel represents a crucial cultural indicator through which to locate both replication of and resistance to these processes.

Whew! So, in my blog’s next installment, which will hopefully be on time for a change, I’ll be talking Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, with whose Bliss and other stories and Women in Love I’ve decided to start my readings.

Work Cited

Lodge, David. Changing Places. London: Secker & Warburg, 1975.

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The List

Over the weekend I’ll add a post that explains my approach to these works, but for now I’ve posted the full list below. I’m hoping to post semi-regular thoughts on my readings on Fridays, starting next week. Wish me luck!

Modern British and Irish Literature: Department of English Primary Area Examinations List

Novel, Short Fiction and Autobiography:

Group A:

D.H. Lawrence: Women in Love (1920)

Katherine Mansfield: Bliss and other stories (1922)*

James Joyce: Ulysses (1922)

Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Group B:

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)*

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)

E.M. Forster: Howard’s End (1910)*

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Jean Rhys: Voyage in the Dark (1934)*

George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)*

Group C:

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (1945)*

Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (1949)

Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962)

Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (1957)*

Group D (8):

Margaret Drabble: The Ice Age (1977)*

Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)*

Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985)

Kazuo Ishiguro: Remains of the Day (1989)

Diran Adebayo: Some Kind of Black (1996)*

Ian McEwan: Enduring Love (1997)*

Zadie Smith: White Teeth (2000)

Allan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty (2004)*

Drama and Film (19):


Cicely Hamilton: Diana of Dobson’s (1908)*

Samuel Beckett: Endgame (1957)

Harold Pinter: The Homecoming (1965)

Sarah Daniels: Masterpieces (1983)

Jacqueline Rudet: Money to Live (1984)*

Caryl Churchill: Serious Money (1987)*; A Number (2002)*

David Hare: The Secret Rapture (1988)*

Jonathan Harvey: Beautiful Thing (1993)*

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Elmina’s Kitchen (2003)*

Tanika Gupta: Fragile Land (2003)*


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

My Left Foot (1989)

The Crying Game (1992)

Trainspotting (1996)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)*

The Deal (2003)*

Criticism (12 30-page works):

Raymond Williams: from The Raymond Williams Reader (2001): “Culture is Ordinary”

Michael Levenson: from A Genealogy of Modernism (1986): “Consciousness”

Jacqueline Rose: “Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Ellis” (1988)

from Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader (1996): Stuart Hall’s “New Ethnicities”; Paul Gilroy’s “British Cultural Studies and the Pitfalls of Identity”

Rey Chow: from The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1997): “From Biopower to Ethnic Difference”

Rita Felski: “Nothing to Declare: Identity, Shame, and the Lower Middle Class” (2000)

Ian Baucom: from Out of Place (2000): “Locating English Identity”

Peter Hitchcock: “Decolonising (the) English” (2001)

Jed Esty: from A Shrinking Island (2004): “Becoming Minor”

Heather Love: from Feeling Backward (2007): “Introduction”

Rebecca Walkowitz: from Cosmopolitan Style (2007): “Critical Cosmopolitanism and Modernist Narrative”

Jasbir K. Puar: from Terrorist Assemblages (2007): “Homonationalism and Biopolitics”

Sara Ahmed: from The Promise of Happiness (2010): “Melancholic Migrants”


Thomas Hardy: “Hap”; “Neutral Tones”; “The Subalterns” “The Darkling Thrush”; “Heredity”; “The Change”; “I Met a Man”; “Afterwards”; “Geographical Knowledge”; “God’s Funeral”; “The Ghosts of the Past”; “No Buyers”; “In the British Museum”; “Exeunt Omnes”

War Poets:

Vera Brittain: “The German Ward”; “To My Brother”

Jessie Pope: “The Call”; “War Girls”

Robert Graves: “A Child’s Nightmare”; “Country at War”; “When I’m Killed”; “It’s a Queer Time”;

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce et Decorum Est”; “Strange Meeting”; “Arms and the Boy”; “Disabled”

Siegfried Sassoon: “Glory of Women”; “The Rear-Guard”; “The General”

W.B. Yeats: “Adam’s Curse”; “No Second Troy”; “A Coat”; “The Wild Swans at Coole”; “Easter 1916”; “The Second Coming”; “Sailing to Byzantium”; “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”; “Leda and the Swan”; “Among School Children”; “Byzantium”; “Vacillation”; “The Gyres”; “Lapis Lazuli”; “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Charlotte Mew: “The Farmer’s Bride”; “Fame”; “Arracombe Wood”; “On the Road to the Sea”; “Monsieur Qui Passe”; “The Changeling”; “The Cenotaph”; “On the Asylum Road”; “The Fete”; “Smile, Death”; “Rooms”; “Ken”; “The Quiet House”

T.S. Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; “Hysteria”; “Gerontion”; “The Waste Land”; “The Hollow Men”; “Little Gidding”

W.H. Auden: “Musée des Beaux Arts”; “September 1st, 1939”; “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”; “The Novelist”; “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”; “Under Which Lyre”; “Law Like Love”; “The Unknown Citizen”; “The New Age”; “The More Loving One”; “Spain 1937”; “Oxford”; “The Age of Anxiety”

Stevie Smith: “Pretty”; “Deeply Morbid”; “Away, Melancholy”; “Not Waving But Drowning”; “Mother, Among the Dustbins”; “Sunt Leones”; “Suburb”; “Souvenir de Monsieur Poop”; “My Hat”; “The Celts”; “Infelice”; “Never Again”; “The Person from Porlock”; “The Murderer”; “I Had a Dream…”; “The Frog Prince”

Eavan Boland: “The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish”; “Listen. This is the Noise of Myth”; “Anorexic”; “My Country in Darkness”; “Quarantine”; “The Journey”; “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”; “The Dolls Museum in Dublin”; “In Exile”; “Outside History”; “The Harbour”; “The Pomegranate”; “What Language Did”; “Mise Eire”

Jackie Kay: From The Adoption Papers (“The Waiting Lists”; Severe Gale 8): “That Distance Apart”; “Old Tongue”; “Her”; “Things Fall Apart”; “Hottentot Venus”*

Bernardine Evaristo: Lara (1997)*

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Of Frames and Princesses, or an Introduction to my Comps

After allowing this blog to moulder these last few months, this post is a threefold exercise in dusting off, being part apology, part explanation, and part introduction. There might even be a fairy story that finds it way in as well. But let’s get the easy part out of the way relatively quickly – the apology for the three months’ absence. Apology is almost certainly not the word for it, but since February 5, coursework continued and ended. The latter aspect has felt freeing for a time, but I remain mindful of the new challenge that begins this month for me – reading for my comprehensive exams.

Preparing for “comps” – as I will refer to them from now on – involves reading widely in my field, which will allow me to write two papers that I will give my committee next February. The field paper demonstrates my overall grasp of my area of focus: 20th Century British and Irish Literature (of course, there will be some 21st Century content in there as well). The topic paper situates my own project within that field; a project which in brief aims at tracing a literary history of British neoliberalism, from the shattering of the Collective Consensus under Margaret Thatcher, to the “socially ameliorative face” that Tony Blair’s New Labour provided for the British iteration of this global political phenomenon. Due to the post-70s focus of my research, I see my comps as helping me to understand a good deal of the literary pre-history of the period I plan to analyze, although there’s some more contemporary stuff on the list as well. There is much more specificity to what I’m planning on doing here, obviously – that will have to wait for a later post, which will also include a full list of my comps readings.

In this post, what I want to do is think more philosophically about how the comps will work to frame my transformation from student into a fully “professionalized” PhD. The idea of frames has come to occupy a lot of my time lately, and I wasn’t even in Daniel Coleman’s “Framing CanLit” course last semester (although my friends who were in it got me thinking about the issue). My longest coursework paper this semester engaged with Martin Heidegger’s notion of enframing, which, to put it quickly and dirtily, refers to the way in which we see only certain possibilities depending on how we frame our approach. The issue of framing in the classroom even came up in conversation at a lovely Toronto dinner party I went to with a friend last Saturday.

So you could say that the issue of frames has been on my mind lately… irrespective of the issue of framing my approach to the great deal of reading I’m required to do over the better part of the next year. Whenever I’ve asked my peers and profs for advice about how to go about my work this year, what recurs most often, however differently it is phrased, is this very notion of frames. Frames’ importance to comps is double: a) the frame I bring to my reading will influence the conclusions I draw from my readings, and b) the way I conduct myself this year, as well as the conclusions drawn from the exams, will influence the kind of scholar I become. Further to this latter point, my comps promise to have an impact on everything from the minutiae of my reading habits, to my overall mental map of the academic field to which I hope to become a regular contributor.

But what does all this have to do, you may have been wondering, with the fairy story to which I alluded in the opening of this post? You could call what follows an extended riff on a friend’s idea that has stuck in my head since first semester, when she told me about a paper she wrote using a novel as a means of theorizing. If that sounds a bit obscure just now, I hope it will get clearer as this anecdote progresses. I decided I’d let myself off the hook a bit after coursework was all over by reading something not obviously school-related, so I decided to return to a book I’d skimmed through a few years ago – Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. It’s a short but dense novel, one that defies description in conventional narrative terms. For instance, I could try to describe it by saying that it’s set in London, and encompasses the Civil War, the Protectorate, and the Restoration, but it’s only partly those things, largely because Winterson’s postmodern palette refuses to be bound by the strictures of place. Perhaps her epigraph puts it best, which refers to the Hopi language’s lack of past or future tenses, it’s clear that Winterson sets out here to stretch the limits of the language we use to denote time and space.

Rather than describing it in terms of context, however, it makes more sense to explain Cherry as a novel about a journey. Jordan apprentices with the royal gardener John Tradescant, bringer of exotic plants (like bananas) to England, and in the course of his travels falls in love with Fortunata, the youngest of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a German folk tale that Winterson plays with throughout her narrative.

I won’t say much more about the narrative itself. What I’m aiming for here is a more personally reflective reading of the novel. It would be easy to draw a parallel between my own reading this year and Jordan as apprentice gardener and importer of exotic fruits to England. Intriguing though it would be to link the apparently imperialist connotations of the garden with the inherent problems of canon formation involved in crafting a list of important works, I will not pursue this resemblance any further.

Nor do I want to linger on the observation that an ancestor of mine through my maternal grandmother happens to have been one of the signatories to King Charles I’s death warrant, of whom Jordan’s mother, the Dog-Woman, has the following to say:

As for the rest of the forty-nine who had signed the King’s death warrant, forty-one were still alive in 1660 when the new King returned. I have always thought us too civilized a nation, though I have a soft heart myself, and I was sorry to see that only nine of those forty-one received the proper penalty under the law for their unanimous murder (108).

What interests me more than this resonance with my family genealogy is how Winterson’s re-envisioned story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” reminds me of my own childhood, when I was in a play of a similar name. We only had enough cast members to call it Five Dancing Princesses, if I recall correctly. Or was it six? Caitlin, maybe you remember? In any case, I only have a dim memory of the play (I was about 11 or 12, I think), but what I remember most clearly about Princesses now is how it didn’t turn out. I clearly recollect that the script called for two soldiers, aptly named Soldier 1 and Soldier 2. One of this pair is the soldier from the fairy tale who wins the hand of the eldest princess in marriage through a piece of trickery, and as you might imagine, his was a pretty plum part in the play version. The other soldier is his accomplice, who had fewer lines than I have fingers. Not having read the script too carefully, I wound up getting my 1s and 2s crossed, so that I insisted during casting on being the latter when the part I really wanted was the former. The lead ended up going to my best friend, and I accepted my mistake quietly. In the end, as I’ve often found when I’ve been forced to make the best of such situations, I quite enjoyed my part in the play. But what, I often wonder, would have happened had I received the part I actually wanted? What aspects of my life might have been different? Would I have landed bigger roles down the line (disclaimer: I eventually did go on to have several lead parts as I continued acting through to high school)? Would I have been more like my brother, and pursued a career in performance?

It’s plainly fruitless to continue with all of these what-if scenarios. But for me, this anecdote is not just a reminder of how important seemingly minor details can be. It also suggests how experience can frame your entire mental approach to an activity for the rest of your life. I certainly never took casting lightly again! Perhaps I ought to look at my comps as something akin to casting: just as a director decides which actor is best suited to a role based on the kinds of performance desired, so I need to decide what my organizing questions will be, which may come to play a role in deciding on the order of books I will read. As I noted earlier, the readings ahead of me will determine a lot of things down the line – I will teach from this list, as well as return to my notes frequently as a guide to the field. To put it according to my thespian anecdote, then, framing my comps well will ensure I get the part with the most lines.

Works Cited

Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. Toronto: Vintage, 2000.

Posted in Criticism, Personal, School-related | 1 Comment

Vancouver 2010 in the New Left Review: A Few Quick Thoughts

A friend posted an article from the most recent issue of the NLR entitled “The Anti-Olympics.” Jules Boykoff provides an overview of the “convergence of movements” that came together to resist the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It’s pretty exciting to see this kind of coverage in the NLR; I think those who were there had a sense of being at one of the myriad fronts of struggle against the global onslaught of neoliberal capitalism – the particular breed being what Boykoff rather aptly terms “celebration capitalism.” It’s not that this article provides official confirmation that what we did was important; rather, what excites me is that such a prominent archive of the strategies of resisting the 2010 games suggests that the lessons learned there may carry forward to London 2012, and other sites where sports and politics converge.

To shift gears to the personal, I was struck as I read this that nearly a year has passed since the Vancouver Olympics. Back in the fall of 2008, as I began my MA, if I had an inkling that my understanding of politics might be transformed by going back to school, I certainly never imagined that sports would play such a central role in that transformation! All this is to riff a bit on my last post; “The Anti-Olympics” also suggests to me the ongoing importance of the university as one site in which to develop critiques that can inform contemporary activism. Among the names mentioned in the Boykoff piece are friends, acquaintances, professors, and even mentors that I came into contact with during my MA at SFU. Even though I sometimes fall into pessimism about how removed from pressing social and political problems my work at university is, this article reminds me how much my own experience of the university has been rather far from the elitist “ivory tower” stereotype.

This experience was a big part of why I felt I could go on after my MA into this PhD, despite all the odds of the “job market.” I have said that I was politicized in February 2010, but perhaps that’s not quite the right way of putting it – I think it’s more that I figured out what that word meant for the first time. I had never before witnessed firsthand people live out their politics to the extent that my colleagues did. I also understood in a manner I never had done before just how alienating nationalism and patriotism could be, an understanding which promises to inform my research going forward, as will be evident when I (finally) get around to writing here about my project itself. But I don’t just take serious lessons from February 2010, as the final quotation from Mercedes(!) is also how I remember the events of a year ago: “it was really, really, really fun.”

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The Economist goes to grad school, only to find an ethical question

Every so often, some online outlet of punditry decides to do a tell-all on academia. Yes, I know what you’re thinking… is this where the real gossip is these days? Maybe yes, maybe no. My experience so far leads me to lean towards the latter.

Such articles tend to start doing the rounds on academics’ Facebook pages and Twitters. So it was probably only a matter of time before the Economist decided to get in on the game. What would their illuminating contributions be to this budding strain of journalism? What, there’s a dearth of jobs? A huge debt can be accumulated in paying for the privilege of accessing a stunningly bad labour market? PhD students are the ideal employees because they sign up willingly for the chance to be exploited?

As it turns out, you can learn all that and more of what you probably already know! OK, so there’s not much new in “The Disposable Academic” – unless you’re an outsider to the feedback loop of depressing articles about the state of academia that is one of the many unadvertised benefits of going to grad school in the Web 2.0 era. Anyway, if you aren’t used to reading this stuff, it’s worth keeping in mind that just about none of the claims it makes are exactly surprising.

But for some reason I couldn’t resist writing about it. Some choice lines, in order, with commentary beneath:

…there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things.

Notice how quickly “problems” shift from plural to singular: the PhD student, the benighted and misguided person who so foolishly decides to enter this hopeless institution. Then, we learn of “an oversupply of PhDs.” There is no consideration that perhaps there’s an “undersupply” of universities. That every year, public universities are pressured by governments to take in more students. That access to public funding is increasingly tied to admission numbers. That those faculty who do have jobs are increasingly overburdened because conservative administrators prefer to hire others like themselves, or else professional fundraisers that promote ephemeral “research excellence” and other boondoggles like fancy new facilities, instead of actually hiring enough qualified teachers to keep class sizes reasonable. End rant.

[A]rmies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’, and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget.

PhDs need to learn to see into the future. Don’t forget, we have “brilliant, well-trained minds;” clearly with the right training, we could predict that a government would be stupid enough to conduct a long, unwinnable and costly war like it did Vietnam. Actually, given the wars the US is currently in, maybe you don’t need to be a mind-reader to predict that that will happen. What is their point again? Well, most importantly, everyone else in every other labour market is clearly invulnerable to the same geopolitical idiocy-driven budget cuts and/or technological advancement-induced obsolescence that lead to industries’ rise and fall. For real. I read about it in the Economist.

…the rise of PhD teachers’ unions reflects the breakdown of an implicit contract between universities and PhD students: crummy pay now for a good academic job later. Student teachers in public universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed unions as early as the 1960s, but the pace of unionisation has increased recently. Unions are now spreading to private universities; though Yale and Cornell, where university administrators and some faculty argue that PhD students who teach are not workers but apprentices, have resisted union drives. In 2002 New York University was the first private university to recognise a PhD teachers’ union, but stopped negotiating with it three years later.

What does this even mean? Unions are on the rise… scary! Or is it? You sort of knew that the Economist would get around to blaming unions at some point, but honestly, I’m disappointed by their lack of conviction here. Certainly, there is mention that some Ivy League administrators that academic workers are apprentices, who should be thankful for the munificence bestowed upon them by their velvet-cloaked superiors, who allow them to work for them. This idea is offensive in that disarmingly old-fashioned way that epithets like “pom” are, in that it’s the kind of thing you might expect some doddery old relative to come out with, but doesn’t really seem quite fitting for your out-and-out racist. I mean, really, “apprentice?” Maybe we should start forming “guilds” too? Or else we could all be like Oxbridge and wear robes all the time… Maybe some outlets of the conventional monetarist wisdom are getting the sense that Milton Friedman’s wearing no clothes these days. OK, atrocious mental image aside, I’m surprised the article doesn’t go ahead and explain why that’s bad for the business of education. Ugh, the “business of education” – now there’s a detestable phrase if I ever wrote one.

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.

PhD students are bad for not wanting to join the real world and get a job. Because the real world looks like so much fun right now. Clearly it’s so difficult to understand for a magazine like the Economist – named for the kind folks whose breathtakingly brilliant advice has nothing to do, or so they’d have you believe, with how bleak that real world looks right now – that they have to turn to psychology to understand why anyone would want to be in such an institution.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records.

A refreshing dose of honesty. And there’s more to come.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records.

A PhD in theoretical ecology is writing for the Economist. It’s tempting to read bitterness here. But make of that admission what you will – at least it’s honest. And hey, I bet writing for the Economist’s a pretty good gig – hook me up! Aren’t I one of those hard-luck PhDs? I promise that I won’t be “less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.” On second glance, that sentence reads oddly like the inverse of that painfully obvious interlude off OK Computer, “Fitter Happier.” I love you Radiohead, but sometimes a bit of restraint would be tasteful. Now that I look at it though, the fan Youtube video for the song is worth a view. The animation’s a bit XKCD-ish.


In a way, I feel bad about this post. Shameful though some may see this admission, coming from me of all people, but I kind of like the Economist. I don’t read it much anymore, but I started reading it at about the age of 12. It was one of the reasons I got interested in politics, not to mention my particular obsession with political geography that some of my readers who’ve known me long enough will remember. No matter which camp you sit in politically (OK, OK, “camp’s” not my finest metaphor), its breadth of geopolitical coverage is still impressive. It’s a Tory magazine, yes, but pretty Red Tory, generally speaking, and at least they’re up front about it most of the time. Given the conservatism of nearly every establishment media outlet these days, it’s sometimes refreshing to read a magazine that still seems to remember what the word used to mean in the days of Edmund Burke. Before the Glenn Becks of the world arrived and ruined the right’s party…

But I should also say a word or two about what I think of the idea of doing a PhD. Don’t hold me to this – it’s no statement of intent, or even anything approaching that. But I certainly don’t know any grad students who don’t wonder frequently (OK, daily) if they made the right decision in staying in school. As the article itself says, “the drawbacks… are well known.” Suffice it to say, everyone in a grad program quickly learns the conventional critique of the university, and many of us probably agree with many of the arguments. To be fair to the article, it does make some of these points. It does address the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, but I have to admit that although I sometimes have my sympathies with that argument, I am also well aware of how stunningly naïve and privileged it can often be. But the article’s mostly about the economics of the PhD.

But I want to think a bit more about the title of this article: “The Disposable Academic.” Can we reduce a person to their job anymore? Certainly, there’s a side of me that wants to say that those statistics about all the job-switching we’re going to do in our lifetimes means the sheer time that it takes to become a PhD-certified “academic” poses a bit of a problem. But let’s ask a question about the other word in that title – “disposable.” Is it good that we almost reflexively conceive of jobs this way these days? I can understand the restlessness people have felt or feel at being in the same job for life. I want to try not to be nostalgic here about the (frequently fictional) solidity of the past. But how often do we really think hard about the fact that losing a job just plain sucks? And that what makes it suck is that it often has longterm, material costs, no matter how much bogus rhetoric there is about crisis as opportunity, and despite all the other Up in the Air-like truisms that get trotted out.

Admittedly, my response thus far has been pretty predictable. Conservative establishment magazine says grad school is bad. Grad student clinging to hope and raisons d’être by a thread retorts that said magazine makes unfair and conservative arguments, with generous caveats that indicate unplumbable depths of self-deprecation. Rinse, repeat.

So here’s a bit of a curveball. A friend posted this rather meme-worthy article which explains that Colin Firth commissioned a study about whether brain chemistry could predict a person’s political preference. I should emphasize that it hasn’t been published (as the Internet is famously over-generous to the inherent contingency of single studies, not to say studies that haven’t even finished being peer reviewed). But of course it’s pleasing to think that the basic motivations of conservatism, of which fear (of the unknown, of losing hold of the familiar), speak to brain chemistry. It explains why reasonable arguments rarely win over fulminators of the right. Why every single episode of Rachel Maddow where a conservative actually consents to be interviewed by her is so depressingly predictable.

But the recourse to brain chemistry, in the face of reasoned argument being shouted down by opposition, seems fishy to me. It’s not just that scientists can apparently be commissioned by celebrities (it’s actually somewhat heartening to know that if ethics mean little to corporatized science, at least capitalism keeps working reliably for everyone). Nor is it Colin’s depressing understanding of what it is to be left – I mean, the Lib Dems, Colin? Certainly there’s been a massive “loss of values” in Labour, but I can’t be alone in being unpersuaded Nick Clegg ever promised much more in that way.

No, what bugs me is brain chemistry as the recourse of choice to prove a point that isn’t easily won on other terms. The further neuroscience advances, the more this will happen. It’s not hard to imagine what nightmarish kinds of scenarios to which the indiscriminate deployment of even current technology could lead, in what Kathryn Schulz calls our “Brave Neuro World.” What immediately concerns me, though, are the ethical questions that are closer to our everyday experience in terms of unfiltered neuroscientific means of interpreting human behaviour. Accepting that someone’s brain simply makes them incurable or incapable (who, I wonder, gets to decide what the standard of capability is?) suggests the impossibility of their redemption. I use a term with such religious connotations advisedly – after all, what I’m trying to diagnose here is a loss of faith in people.

I began by mentioning how that ideologically-loaded logic of disposability we see in the Economist article is pretty commonplace. What’s worrisome, though, is the proximity of this to the second logic, where we dispense with argument in favour of neuroscience as a means of explaining away our irreconcileable differences (of opinion). Don’t both these viewpoints assume the same lack of human potential? If we are conceived of similarly valueless, how can they be worth fighting for, or against, as the case may be?

There are a number of directions I could go from this crossroads of the disposable and the neurally normative. But we were talking about PhDs originally, so… what does it mean to be told to that we’re disposable? Does it mean that our minds are forever altered by our “surplus schooling,” that we’re destined to be discontent if we don’t get the job we all ostensibly want? Well, probably yes, to be frank.

But the Economist’s mistake is conceiving of discontent as something always to be avoided. In a way, critical work actually has something to do with the fine-tuning of that discontent. Sometimes that kind of examination can lead you to lose sight of the bigger picture – usually when that happens is when the “ivory tower” perception turns to reality. And, too, sometimes it can be beside the point – literary scholars can over-indulge in hermeneutics.

But if it’s done right, can’t that fine-tuning help you decide which cause of your unhappiness to do something about? Doesn’t that speak to a more redemptive view of what a PhD might have to offer? Learning to refuse to let one off the hook, and expect better of them? While this is an important element of academic work, it’s equally important to temper that inclination with humility – intellectual arrogance is often the consequence of putting too much stock in this approach. I realize this line of reasoning isn’t the sole reason people go into academia. Nor is it the only way to take on this designation of disposability.

Wow, that turned out to be a bit more of a statement of intent than I thought it would. As always, my ideas seem to change with the writing. By the way, why would “pom” be on my mind, you might have wondered idly? Let’s just say that the Australians’ take on the English, or better, their rather wonderful inability to do so, has been on my mind lately.

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