Paper #5b – Supplement

Introduction

I have perhaps over-reached with my ideological arguments in this week’s entry – having written twice as much as the word count for the entry in ideological claims alone.  For this reason, I have moved this section to a separate supplemental essay.


Several weeks ago, I promised to look at my Feminist Epistemology articles and consider the ways in which texts focused on research “function both as performative scholarship and as scholarly performance,” while attempting to understand “how the response from the authors reflects the ethos they similarly express in their theoretical contributions and methods.”  Through this, I had hoped to “explore how we can validate and make authoritative subjective forms of social theory for RAD research, how embracing such theoretical forms has been, and will continue to be, an essential part of the resurgence of empirical study in the humanities” (link).

I would argue that simply asking these questions and making statements of such assumptions is in many ways the core of my epistemological and theoretical alignment.  However, I certainly expect that more needs to be said about how such study might indicate a person epistemology or system of belief – and the answer to that question is highly ideological.  To this end, I will begin with the question of ideology in general within the humanities, and the roles this question presumes for us.


On the Dangers of Ideology in the Humanities

 “Here I have a very traditional Marxist answer. Ideology is not only ideas. Ideology is something which structures our daily practices. Ideology is not that you think money is something mystical; ideology is in how you deal with money everyday. Legal ideology is that even if you don’t trust the legal, you use it, you rely on it. In the Wittgensteinian sense, it’s a form of life. I even develop often that today in our cynical times, for an ideology to function, it doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not. In a way, you have not to take it too seriously. This is of course may be my own weird experience because when I was young in Communist Yugoslavia, we had an extreme form of this. I witnessed how the regime experienced as the greatest threat when people took the regime’s own ideology too seriously” (Slavoj Zizek, Nov. 11 2011).

I don’t think it would surprise anyone to discover that I am a hard-left progressive with a strong foundation of Marxist readings of labor and practices within the university.  However, I think it would surprise some to discover how especially moderate I am in my philosophy and pedagogy for a humanities academic who views Bernie Sanders as a problematic candidate for being far too right-wing for my tastes.

Let’s talk about Rhet/Comp, specifically.  If there is one thing that the current Marxist reading of comp theory (like Marxism itself) lacks, it is pragmatism – an understanding of the inherent personal, non-systemic, failings of humanity in the face of personal benefit and intellectual complacency.  Rhet/Comp, however, has fully embraced the systemic view of communication as paramount.  In this light, I view it as a travesty that as a field we have moved away from the boots-on-the-ground realities of teaching writing and research skills while the vast majority of students entering (and exiting) the university still cannot write or obtain knowledge coherently.  I do not adhere to the social turn of the Rhet/Comp folks – as a “true leftist,” I have discovered three Truths in my own life:

  • being taught, mechanically and aesthetically, to write and research in nuanced, accurate, and purposeful ways leads students naturally towards a valuation of knowledge and proof over ideology, since accurate and skilled writing demands evidential and logical support,
  • when thinking for themselves and valuing knowledge over ideology, students tend to naturally track towards more compassionate and progressive values, since progressive values are inherently the values of logical pragmatism applied to the social landscape – all writing is social, and to engage in society is to be compassionate – and,
  • when faced with the heavy-handed indoctrination of the social-episteme, or the postmodern concern, students tend to retreat into ideologies of the self (wherein our most destructive, fascist tendencies lie). In a time when “the youth culture” is tracking to be more and more social, progressive, and inclusive, even the most liberal values expressed in the undergraduate English classroom are tracking more and more personal, fascistic, and exclusive (link).

You cannot instruct people into progressive citizenship, or they will flee from progress.  You cannot model progressive citizenship and expect students to value that model. Through instruction, however, you can create a void where progressive citizenship should be, and full well expect many students to abhor such a vacuum and occupy it.  To teach people how to think, to teach people how to recognize rhetoric and ideology, you must first teach them to write.  To teach them to write, you must first teach them to access knowledge.

Ideology is the lens through which the self, the insular community concern, overtakes the social good.  Knowledge, broad-ranging and demanding of broader contexts, is the lens through which the social finds supremacy.  The sad, great irony of the social-epistemic turn is that it made writing an ideological act – and in doing so, took away its very power to change the world: the power social-epistemicists so praised it for.  By making the act of writing identity- and literacy-based, rather than knowledge- and skill-based, the social-epistemic has taken away both the social and the epistemic.  By making knowledge personal and meaning contingent, the social-epistemic has made its mission personal, and itself contingent.

There is a reason I bring Rhet/Comp, specifically, to bear; it is, for me, the hallmark of the damage that personal ideology has visited upon the academic enterprise.

It is prima facie absurd, the notion that the humanities can defend their value through contingency and “personal literacy narratives”; what the humanities demonstrate (to those with institutional power) instead is that they will be easily cowed, and that they will provide feel-good platitudes as scholarship – doing nothing to upset the dominant, neo-liberal paradigm.

Rhet/Comp is a stand-in for the humanistic disciplines in general today – it proves its value to itself by demonstrating that it lacks value to the greater institution.  Rhet/Comp’s devaluation of empirical methods has gone, hand-in-hand, with its inexorable march into institutional obsolescence.  The innate value of the study of rhetoric and its role within communication is lost within its inability to articulate that value outside its own disciplinary mode.  The contingency of truth is now paramount, and the Board of Trustees does not care for contingent truths.  Because we will not budge from the postmodern, social-epistemic concern, all of our concerns become for naught.  We have, finally, embraced ideology.

If there is a theme to my ideological statements throughout this semester – both in my course discussions and in my writing – it is one of objection to intellectual and academic complacency in the face of changing (capitalist) realities in the worlds both outside of and internal to the modern university.  The university is not what it once was.  The role of the university is not what many advanced (read: tracking for scholarly careers) students expect it to be, having been enculturated into the space by generations of scholars past, in literature, in theory, and in the classroom.  But, perhaps most importantly, our understanding of the role and nature of “knowledge” and “pedagogy” in the university is nowhere near what it has been for previous generations and previous scholars.  By pursuing a PhD at this time in the history of the Western Academy, is my emphatic belief that I have entered into citizenship within a falling empire.  As a shorthand for this, I have uttered the phrase “seeing as we are all cogs in the Capitalist Machinery of Death” perhaps more often than was appropriate.

Where does the pragmatic desire to instill values of knowledge in pedagogy intersect with my greater disciplinary interest in promoting RAD values throughout higher (read: non-instructional) scholarship?

As administrative concerns, capitalist desires, and political exigencies crash upon the doors of the English departments of the Western world, the faculty retreat within, crying out, as with one voice: “Please, leave me to my books. The modern English Studies scholar lacks the tools to fight back against the Capitalist Machinery of Death, because the modern English Studies scholar presumes upon Michel Foucault and “personal narratives of digital literacy” having equal value to herself, to her students, and to her university’s administration.  It is not pragmatic, and it is not reality, and it will not serve.

We need a better model if we are to fight back.

In the era following the anti-positivist movements within English Studies, it is not voguish to make such claims.  It is, in reality, cause for anathema, excommunication from the humanities “in-crowd.”  But I am not claiming that there is objective truth, nor am I claiming that truth is not contingent.  What I am claiming is that English scholars must integrate themselves into the modern scholarly enterprise – and the modern scholarly enterprise trades in the currency of replicable data. This data does not need to serve the administrative interest, so long as its accuracy and quality is unquestionable.  It can serve the philosophical and epistemological desires of the humanities – and it can benefit students in ways that the social turn still has not managed.


References

Broughton, J. (1968). High Kukus. The Jargon Society, Inc. No. 56.

Jones, N. (2011). Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek. Harper’s Magazine, 11 Nov. 2011. Web.

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Paper #5 – Epistemological Alignment


Introduction

Of course I’m infinite,
said the Grain of Sand, but
what’s the rest of this beach doing here?
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

I don’t expect that a traditional approach to this essay would say much that would surprise anyone who has read my previous entries on this topic, nor my attempts to contribute to the quantitative/qualitative nor the empirical/anti-empirical debates in the modern academy.  However, I do believe that there is a value in reiterating the personal and ideological engagement I feel with this topic, because it is precisely the interpretation of RAD/empirical research as impersonal that I have sought to push back against through my treatment of these concerns.

Because my ideological position in this essay ran absurdly long, I have provided it instead as a separate entry (viewable here.)  What follows, then, is a description of my specific area of interest and how it applies to my epistemological position.

In order to align oneself epistemologically through the RAD interest, one must position oneself for a more “informed” pedagogy, theory, and ideology.  In doing so, for better or worse, one must imply that other approaches are – more or less – “uninformed.”  This is an unfortunate implication.  It is especially unfortunate, because all too often it appears to be true in the modern humanities, where the personal gris-gris of researchers take precedence over the ethical application of humanist, careful, and methodologically-sound research, preferencing personal ideology above and beyond the student-centric ethos of the English Studies RAD scholar – especially in Rhet/Comp and many of the more demographic fields of study, which all too often ignore the necessity of student skills development in order to make room for more vogue, mysterious, postmodern concerns.


My RAD Object of Study

When your back is against me,
said the Wall,
why not lean on me?
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

I have always been intrigued by the recent re-alignment of undergraduate student bodies within the corporatized, capitalistic concerns of the modern academic landscape – and have, similarly, been concerned by (and opposed to) the forwarding of the personal ideologies, philosophies, ethics, and epistemologies of researchers/instructors/theorists as tantamount to “scholarship” with little concern for the ability of students to synthesize such ideologies external to their own academic (and lived) experiences.  Up to this point, this blog has approached the questions of RAD research through the general role that RAD values might play in developing more meaningful, ethical research and data – however, I think it is equally important to consider the ways in which RAD can demonstrate that other practices within the ideologically-driven academy are becoming un-ethical.

As such, some of the primary objects of study for my PhD in general (and a likely topic for my eventual dissertation) are the for-profit elements of the modern academic model that effect student learning – and color students’ very interpretation of what learning is and should be. The study of these elements can be both RAD and ideological – both “Rhet” and “Comp.”  I view these objects as worthy of close study because they have both universalized appeal in the modern, tech-centered college campus, and because they avoid the marginalizing, othering aspects of ideology-centric practices inherent in many of the modern (postmodern) schools of critical and social theory.

I am especially intrigued by the technical, communicative aspects of user interface design for for-profit writing- and learning-support platforms that specialize in instruction, assignment, and assessment, such as Pearson Writer, TurnItIn.com, Cengage Insite and Mindtap, or McGraw Hill Connect – and, especially, Blackboard Learn.  These services (or, as many label themselves, “solutions” – implying that learning is somehow a “problem” to be “solved”) present themselves with an ethos of accessibility, expertise, and student-centric experince, typically while actually offering none of these as actual features of the platform.  By offering a profit-curated form of knowledge, they restrict learning.  By presenting a purely mechanical expertise, they eliminate nuance.  By making assessment part and parcel of production, they debase process and lionize prescriptivism.

To apply notions of “power” and “signification” to resolve these aspects of the corporate intersection with academic progress would be easy enough; it would be trivial to demonstrate (through Marxist, postmodern readings of these systems and their cachet with administrative approaches to streamlined execution of goals-driven instruction) their functions in order to explain away their purposes as wholly malignant to the individualistic and personal nature of learning.

But it would not be effective.  Problematizing the philosophical and ideological origins of such platforms would not resolve the fact of their presence within the classrooms of the academy – our classrooms.  Announcing that “Foucault warned us about Blackboard” will not convince administrators to not enforce the use of such platforms in conflict with some instructors’ educational expertise and professional experience.  It will not un-bundle such software (and its associated fees) from the necessary texts at the foundation of undergraduate learning.

RAD, however, offers tools to provide meaningful, productive, convincing data of the difficulties these platforms create in the practice of meaningful pedagogy.  Through RAD interpretations of user interfaces, we can leverage student experiences to define user engagement according to its productivity.  RAD study of resource accessibility can demonstrate that any individual platform prevents student access to necessary literature, practices, and skills.  RAD study of student outcomes can help us to appreciate the ways in which these platforms typically do not (and, admittedly, sometimes do) improve the “lived experiences” of active learners.  Meaningful, independent study of these platforms could reveal avenues of productive dissent – results- and student-driven data that does not bow to the administrative concern, but is undeniable, demonstrable, and replicable.

That is all to say, my selection of these objects of study is in and of itself an expression of my epistemological alignment – an argument for a version of political, Marxist desires to better serve “truth” and student needs by eliminating the overtly political, and the overtly Marxist, in order to instead provide a non-partisan analysis of the tools and practices that shape students’ actual lives and and actual, functional learning practices.

I promised earlier (and in my supplement, linked above) that I would study how RAD research (and research in general) can “function both as performative scholarship and as scholarly performance.”  I believe that the study of such administrative concerns as academically primary is highly performative.  It is research that does “real work,” an utterance that enacts change.  It is capable of being both descriptive and extremely rhetorical.

I’ve pushed back against the notion, as I’ve stated before, that RAD is “impersonal” because it is quantitative and empirical.  In exploring the nature of this set of Objects of Study, and the ideology inherent in supporting, opposing, or studying them, I hope I have demonstrated that there is nothing more personal and humanistic than investing in discovering the ideological and politically/economically exigent elements driving and influencing the creation of such tools.  It treats the instructor as a whole person, seeking best solutions while also being limited by social, professional, economic, and political factors.  More than this, it treats the student as a whole person, influenced by these tools and exerting influence over them.  Finally, it also treats the creators and propagators of these tools as whole people, with their own desires, both towards exigency and student success.

Through the interpolation of these three views – rhetorically – with the data-centric study of the tools’ design and effect, I hope that we can come to a more holistic understanding of how they function – for better and worse – and how RAD can help us to understand (and improve upon) their nature.


Conclusion

Wherever you make your home,
said the Louse,
is the center of the world.
(James Broughton, High Kukus).

What is my RAD epistemological alignment?  “Do work at any cost. Serve students at any cost. Find truth at any cost.”  Sure, it looks good when you slap it on a t-shirt, but it’s not likely to make you many friends in the modern academy.

Your students will fear you for being rigorous – for expecting them to come to the table at full engagement, acknowledging that there are no easy answers and the search for truth is hard and painful.

Your colleagues will loathe you for being a stodgy, stick-in-the-mud-type – for daring to expect data and proof, even for the things you all believe or know to be true.

Your bosses will avoid you for being a liability – for raising uncomfortable questions while not being safely ensconced within the unspoken, departmental un-reality of postmodern discourse.

Your masters will punish you for daring to speak out – for commanding the language of their power, and for turning it against their corporate friends and commercial interests.

But in the end, you’ll have done something.  And you’ll be able to prove, not feel, that you made a difference.

In the end, your students will be better prepared, highly motivated, and more compassionate.  And you’ll know that you had some small influence in their growth as thinkers, learners, and citizens.

In the end, you will know for yourself that – however contingent your truth may be, however much an outsider you will become – you can leverage that truth to the benefit of everyone.

“You may have had some hard knocks, said the Pebble, but I’ve been kicked around my whole life” (Broughton, 1968).


References

Broughton, J. (1968). High Kukus. The Jargon Society, Inc. No. 56.

Jones, N. (2011). Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek. Harper’s Magazine, 11 Nov. 2011. Web.