Monday, June 20, 2016
I founded this blog in 2010, when I was an employee of CSU Northridge. I will be teaching an online course (English 306) during summer 2016. Aside from this pending obligation, I have separated from CSUN but will leave this blog up as a public resource. For more updated information about my work, please visit English Manif: http://englishmanif.blogspot.com .
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Below is the rough draft of the document presented to the English Dept. Literature Committee on April 20, 2016. I am not enclosing the 90 pages of attachments.
Comments and revisions are incoming from various parties involved. I will post the updated and full version of this proposal on May 10, 2016. The English department meeting on May 13, 2016, is scheduled as the moment to present this proposal to the voting English faculty.
Comments and revisions are incoming from various parties involved. I will post the updated and full version of this proposal on May 10, 2016. The English department meeting on May 13, 2016, is scheduled as the moment to present this proposal to the voting English faculty.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
PROPOSAL FOR CHANGES TO LITERATURE CURRICULUM
April 20, 2016
Table of Contents.
1. Narrative/Statement from R.O. Lopez
2. Program Modification Proposal
3. Program Curriculum with Track Changes
4. Proposal for English 257: Homer to Dante
5. Proposal for English 276: Trans-Atlantic Writers
6. Proposal for English 317: Literature of Racial Minorities
7. Proposal for English 319: Filipino Literature
8. Proposal for English 354: Writing about World Literature
9. Proposal for English 367: Queer and Trans Literature
10. Proposal for English 471: Early American Prose 1630-1900
11. Proposal for English 472: Early American Poetry 1650-1900
12. Proposal for English 479: Popular Media in the Twenty-First Century
13. Proposal for English 480: Diverse World Drama
14. Timetable for Implementation
Statement from R.O. Lopez
This packet of documents presents a proposal to change the literature curriculum in the English department. The changes are modest but urgent given the department’s poor track record in hiring and retaining black and Latino faculty, falling enrollments in the major, and current nationwide attention to issues of racial and intellectual diversity on university campuses. The present suggestions come advisedly after seven years of consultation and advisement, as detailed in this narrative. There are four main objectives involved in this proposal, six points of change, and ten new courses proposed.
Summary of Consultations
The following list summarizes the conferrals, consultations, and advisements precipitating the present document. All meetings included Robert Oscar Lopez of English unless otherwise noted.
1. 2009: Conferral with Chicano Studies and George Uba, regarding English 487.
2. 2009: Conferrals with the following departments in conjunction with the CSU Intelligence Community-Center for Academic Excellence: Jewish Studies, Anthropology, Urban Studies, Geography, History, Communications, Art, Political Science, Gender and Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Military Science, Religious Studies, Liberal Studies, Cinema & Television Arts.
3. 2009: Conference “Sex and Nation-State” integrating multidisciplinary approaches to sexual diversity in national security.
4. 2010: Meeting with Dean Stella Theodolou regarding national security studies.
5. 2010-11: Meetings with Dean Elizabeth Say regarding world literature curriculum and classics.
6. 2011-12: Conferrals with the following departments to discuss world literature possibilities: Asian American Studies, Central American Studies, Philosophy, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Theatre, Deaf Studies, Pan African Studies, Religious Studies, English.
7. 2012: Two presentations before the Department of English faculty on world literature possibilities, including report on study into curriculum of peer institutions and local community colleges.
8. 2012: Beck Grant-supported team-teaching trial with Philosophy and English, testing simulations in literature classrooms.
9. 2012: Conferral with Dr. James Solomon.
10. 2012-2013: Supported by external grants, “Myth Goes to the Movies,” a six-part film series testing the use of films, guest speakers, and research galleries to integrate literary study into other forms of study.
11. 2014: Supported by external grants, “Bonds that Matter,” combined guest speakers and research galleries to broaden trans-historical literary study around themes.
12. 2015: Summer retreat of English Department focused mostly on literature curriculum revision.
13. 2015: Monthly department meeting (English) devoted largely to discussing English 436, Major Critical Theories.
14. 2015: Two open forums led by Literature Committee to discuss literary changes.
15. 2015: Two monthly department meetings devoted partially to discussing changes in literature curriculum (R.O. Lopez was not present).
16. 2016: Two Literature Committee closed meetings devoted to drafting a literature curriculum change proposal.
17. 2016: Conferral with Kimberly Embleton (Oviatt Library) to discuss support for new curriculum.
18. 2016: Two conferrals with Chair of English, Kent Baxter.
The following are documents or organizations that provided additional regulatory guidance for the final draft of this curriculum change:
1. Modern Language Association Job Information List.
2. American Association of University Professors, “1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure with 1970 Interpretive Comments.”
3. Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, 2013 Handbook of Accreditation Revised.
4. Executive Orders 1096 and 1097, signed by Chancellor Timothy White.
5. General Counsel of California State University, Conflict of Interest Handbook, published December 2014.
6. Statement by Provost Yi Li: “Announcement for the Cluster Faculty Initiative and Request for Proposals for the 2017/18 Hiring Cycle” (March 4, 2016).
7. Statements by President Dianne Harrison: “Giving Thanks” (November 25, 2015) and “Chief Diversity Officer Appointment” (March 15, 2016).
8. Dr. Kent Baxter’s Chair’s Report, March 2016.
Four Main Objectives
Based on all consultations and advice from the above sources, four objectives emerged as key priorities/goals for a change in literature curriculum:
1. Diversify the literature provided to students in English to incorporate more classical literature outside of the United States and Great Britain, world literature, literature in translation, and literature by people of color.
2. Reform the curriculum in order to create long-term working conditions more likely to enable the department to recruit, hire, and retain black and Latino faculty.
3. Reverse the decline in students choosing to major in English.
4. Broaden the political perspectives available to students in the English department so that they have some opportunity to hear critical analysis from teachers with conservative worldviews.
Six Points of Change
In order to meet the four goals above, six overarching changes are included in this proposal:
1. Modify Student Learning Outcome #4, to eliminate the phrase “British and American,” thereby leaving open the possibility of major curriculum that crosses or does not stay strictly within national boundaries.
2. At the 200-level, replace the existing three-part required sequence (258/259/275) with a menu of five courses from which students may select three. This change would involve adding two new courses, Homer to Dante (257) and Trans-Atlantic Literature (276).
3. At the 300 level, currently all English majors take English 355 (Writing about Literature). Modify this requirement so that students may opt to take English 355 as it exists or take English 354, a new course (Writing about World Literature). English 354 would entail the same critical methods as English 355, but would have a special requirement that over 50% of the reading material be literature in translation or literature outside of Great Britain and the United States.
4. At the 300-400 level, increase the number of required “diversity” classes from one to two. Create two pools of diversity classes, one focused on racial/ethnic diversity and one focused on gender/sexual diversity. Students would have to take one course in each of the separate lists. A number of new courses should be introduced to broaden the scope of both these pools of diversity classes. (See proposals for English 317, 319, and 367).
5. At the 400 level, add two new genre courses in the early American literature sequence (expository prose and poetry) to offset the focus on the novel.
6. At the 400 level, reduce the number of courses required under “Twentieth Century” from two to one. This requirement should be renamed “Twentieth and Twenty-First Century.” To enrich this pool of classes, add courses in Popular 21st Century Media (479) and Diverse American Drama (480).
Statement from Robert Oscar Lopez
CSUN’s literature curriculum is inadequate. It is both urgent and imperative that it be changed without further delay. Compared to peer institutions within the California State University system, CSUN’s literature curriculum is repetitive and exclusionary. Literature courses at CSUN neglect many texts considered integral to “Western Civilization” while also offering only weak selections in multicultural diversity. In consultations, Dr. James Solomon has claimed that the current curriculum originated in the 1990s after a dispute among intellectual factions; these factions, it appears, no longer exist in the English department. The present structure of our department’s literary program has outlived the debates from which it was born.
In consultations, some faculty have claimed that this curriculum was forward-looking for its time. Yet even in the mid-1990s—which were a heyday for border theory, trans-Atlantic studies, critical race theory, postcolonialism, and queer theory—the curriculum was already excessively constrained by the national boundaries of the United States and Great Britain and adrift from the growing cosmopolitanism in the field.
The racial dynamics of the curriculum are extremely problematic given that CSUN is a Hispanic-Serving Institution located in Los Angeles, where Black Lives Matter maintains an active and vocal presence. In 2013, Prof. Rodolfo Acuña published two articles in CounterPunch drawing attention to the institutional racism of CSUN: “The Illusion of Inclusion” on November 15, 2013, and “Institutional Racism” on December 12, 2013. In the former article, Prof. Acuña called CSUN “a plantation run by white overseers that are getting increasingly defensive about their illegitimacy.”
At almost the same time, I was publishing articles in American Thinker and Public Discourse. I discussed how racism manifested as an undercurrent in hostility to people with socially conservative views. I noted, for instance, that an alarming number of Christians sanctioned at universities over charges of homophobia were African American churchgoers like Eric Walsh or Crystal Dixon. These articles hinted at the possibility that my racial identity as a Latino might explain why I faced disproportionate backlash over political differences. While there were faculty members at CSUN with ties to the oft-maligned Koch Brothers, Clinton Global Initiative, and Lockheed Martin, the modest support I received in the form of small grants to advance traditional family mores—particularly views on abortion, sex, adoption, and marriage mirroring the views of Pope Francis and of the Southern Baptist Convention—caused me to be disproportionately targeted by off-campus mobbers and by on-campus detractors. As far as I know, no CSUN professor has been investigated pursuant to as many unmeritorious accusations as I have.
I am certainly not the only professor of color who has come forward with evidence of differential treatment. At the time of Acuña’s articles, CSUN was already in the news because of a racial bias claim filed with the Chancellor’s Office in March 2012 by Prof. Marilyn Joshua Williams (this was reported on July 9, 2012, in the Los Angeles Daily News). The history of black protest against institutional racism is long and troubling at CSUN; for example, on March 12, 1992, just before the Rodney King riots, the Los Angeles Times reported that 500 protestors stormed the office of then president James Cleary to object to anti-black racism.
At www.thedemands.org, proponents of reform in higher education have assembled the objectives of protestors at 77 campuses; their focuses vary. Some have focused specifically on representation of African Americans and Latinos among the tenured ranks. The specificity is designed to prevent institutions such as CSUN from “padding” their diversity to include white women, white homosexuals, Native Americans with minimal Indian ancestry, or Asian Americans in their diversity hire numbers. Stacking statistics this way has worked to hide discrimination against two specific racial/ethnic groups—blacks and Latinos—with a history of exclusion from such institutions.
Protestors at several campuses have also drawn attention to ghettoization. They highlight the fact that universities mislead the public about their numbers of blacks and Latinos by hiring them through ethnic studies departments, which concentrate blacks and Latinos in controversial fields where they are most likely to bear the brunt of backlash. Such ghettoization often provides cover for discriminatory practices in traditional disciplines like English and history. Demands from various groups have already noted what I have noted in my seven years of study into CSUN’s curriculum: namely, curricular problems can fuel racial inequality in the student population and among the faculty.
CSUN’s literature curriculum reveals a department struggling unsuccessfully to deal with diversity. The major requirements emphasize canonical works from Great Britain and the United States, while the catalog copy emphasizes mostly white authors. The sole diversity requirement, consisting of one three-credit class, does a disservice by making racial and sexual minorities interchangeable, therefore creating the possibility that English majors may avoid gender diversity by studying racial diversity, or avoid racial diversity by studying gender diversity.
At the same time that there is national attention to institutional racism in higher education, there is growing alarm over the discrimination against conservatives in academic hiring and promotion. On Heterodox Academy, Jon Shields notes that while 36% of the country identifies as conservative, only 4% of humanities faculty do (even this figure is somewhat misleading since libertarians are often misconstrued as conservative; the Koch brothers, for instance, are liberal on virtually all social issues.) In a post on Heterodox dated November 23, 2015, Shields notes that this rate of underrepresentation makes anti-conservative bias more severe and alarming than discrimination against blacks and Latinos. Blacks and Latinos together make up about 30% of the United States but 7% of full professorships and 12% of assistant professorships. Indeed, the research by University of North Texas professor George Yancey fleshes this out with substantial data, since his survey found that large percentages of social scientists would be unlikely to hire or tenure professors who espoused conservative viewpoints.
Just as white-dominated curriculum might fuel the lack of Latinos and blacks in higher education, so the explicit bias against the literature typically esteemed by conservatives in humanities curricula might contribute to the general exclusion of conservatives at colleges and universities. Many of the most vocal conservative scholars like Victor Davis Hanson and Bruce Thornton emerged from specialties in classics, Western civilization, or highly traditional literary history.
CSUN’s literature program aggravates these exclusions at both ends. The major emphasizes canonical literature by white authors within reactionary national boundaries. Yet CSUN does not offer students a great books curriculum on par with programs one finds at institutions such as St. John’s. After all, if we are going to steep the students in white privilege, why not do white privilege well? But in fact we do not ground students in the world civilizations and traditions that informed British and American literary greats and made their flourishing possible.
There is no Homer to Dante course at CSUN comparable to what one finds at San Jose State University. Nor is there anything akin to the literature in translation offered at campuses like Long Beach and San Francisco. Exacerbating these gaps is the lack of genre diversity. CSUN’s literature classes focus largely on novels and short stories, underrepresenting poetry, drama, and expository prose. The paucity of course material in antiquity and European literature in translation undermines not only the main sequence of literature in the major but also the efficacy of Major Critical Theories, which purports to school students in Greek, Latin, French, and German theorists with no substantive exploration of the literary tradition in those languages.
According to Dr. Kent Baxter’s Chair’s Report of March 2016, our total number of undergraduate majors fell from 617 to 488 between 2012 and now. Our total of graduate students in literature fell by over 50% over the same period. This occurred during a time when the student population on CSUN’s campus was growing rapidly, swelling to over 40,000. While there are too many factors influencing student enrollment to blame the literature curriculum alone, it is nonetheless clear that the department’s literature curriculum is not helping matters. Departmental constraints discourage introduction of exciting topics or contemporary parallels, which often make literature more relatable to students. At the same time, the lack of true canonical integrity in our course of study dissuades those students who might accept the lack of diversity in exchange for a chance to experience a “great books” curriculum.
Poor curriculum complicates hiring and retention of diverse faculty. When I joined the faculty in 2008, including me, there were four Latino professors and one black professor. Now there is no black professor on our faculty, and two Latino men have gone into early retirement. If I leave the department, the numbers of black & Latino faculty will have dropped from five to one.
Things are not acceptable as they stand currently. The phrase most operable in this case is “public good.” Observe the very first standard put forth by WASC Senior Colleges and Universities in its 2013 Handbook of Accreditation Revised:
The institution’s formally approved statements of purpose are appropriate for an institution of higher education and clearly define its essential values and character and ways in which it contributes to the public good (12).
What is “the public good”? More clarification can be found in the American Association of University Professors’ “1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, with 1970 Interpretive Comments.” This document states, “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition” (14). The corollary is that free search for truth means that curriculum must answer to objective criteria beyond and apart from the inclinations or biases of specific groups who might, at a given moment, predominate in academic institutions.
Further clarification of the meaning of “the public good” can be found in the CSU Conflict of Interest Handbook published in December 2014, prepared by General Counsel. The introduction to this handbook refers to a sacred principle, namely, “the basic premise that it is a violation of the public trust for public employees to benefit personally from their public positions” (1). This foregrounds the crucial concept that higher educational institutions, especially public universities, cannot conduct their affairs primarily to suit the interests of employees, the institution, cliques within it, or political factions. There must be a material standard apart from what these particularized interests want. Something larger than powerful groups’ will to maintain dominance must be the prime motivating consideration.
Because of the central importance of the “public good,” there are several reasons often offered for not changing the literature curriculum, which we should dispel.
1. Over the last seven years, I have heard various parties say, “the faculty have to feel comfortable with whatever changes we make.” This is actually not true. We have a duty to provide a literature curriculum that allows students the full range of avenues to arrive at truths about the human condition, including both white and nonwhite perspectives, as well as liberal versus conservative perspectives. Tenure does not transform mortals into deities; professors’ comfort zones are not sacred. If colleagues react to this proposal by saying that they do not feel inclined to read my suggestions or converse with me because they do not like me or my tone, then they are not only being closed-minded and petty, but also violating the obligations of their profession.
2. Over the last seven years, I have heard the argument that nothing has to be changed, or can be changed, unless we can provide evidence that there is a problem. This rationale is also untenable. Those who perceive and document problems have good reason to fear retaliation for raising such concerns before the department. Executive Order 1096 by Chancellor Timothy White defines “retaliation” as an “adverse action” taken against someone who in good faith believes that there is a discriminatory pattern and opposes it. People do not have to be members of a protected group to be victims of retaliation. I have opposed the curriculum and faculty dynamics in the English Department because I see that they discriminate against blacks, Latinos, religious people, and conservatives. I have endured many adverse actions as a result. Such a pattern is a telltale sign that exclusion of marginalized voices has progressed to a critical phase where the institution cannot self-correct without some drastic shift in approach and/or external scrutiny and pressure.
3. Over the last seven years, I have heard people say that regardless of what the catalog or our official requirements say, they are teaching diversity in their classes already so everything is okay. This is not sensible. Sooner or later what we teach in the classroom will be judged by how it matches the curriculum that we are officially supposed to be teaching. Gentlemen’s agreements, special ententes with the dean, and camouflage of our true agenda cannot sustain us, nor should we engage in cheating if we expect our own students to be honest.
4. Over the last seven years, I have come across people who say that we are not adequately paid to take on the extra work required to do a curriculum overhaul. Often this sentiment is coupled with the claim that the bureaucracy and protocol pose some insuperable barrier to changing our literature option. At times we hear that we cannot design new courses if we lack tenure-track faculty to teach them, but we cannot hire new people if we lack courses for them to teach; such a closed loop of foreclosed possibilities guarantees that nothing can change. These are all various forms of filibustering. Again, the public good is an important benchmark against which we must measure ourselves. The public has a right to object if we avoid a task as basic and existential as updating our literature curriculum and structuring new hires accordingly.
Lest readers of this statement infer that I have a personal grudge against the department, I would like to address such a suspicion. CSUN’s English department has been a place in which I could not flourish or even participate as fully as white colleagues. I could opt to stew quietly in my frustrations or I could get off my rear end and try to do something positive. Hence, this packet.
This statement will be posted online so members of the public, if they take an interest in higher education reform, can follow the debate and learn from us.
Robert Oscar Lopez, PhD
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Whenever I carry out a trial, students are broken into three groups: prosecutors (1/4 of the class), defenders (1/4), and the jury (1/2). I conduct two trials in a class, one at the midterm and one during the week of final exams. Thus students change roles; the jurors of the first trial become defenders or prosecutors for the second, and vice versa. The prosecution decides what charges to bring against the accused; it is their responsibility to word them in an opening statement. The students do not have to use legalistic language or base charges on actual laws; they are rather asked to isolate ethical problems in a certain character and cull from these problems a set of charges. My instruction to the prosecutors, leading up to the trial of Menelaus, was this: “You must express the accusation in clear and understandable language likely to convince the jurors.” The reward for winning a trial by jury was a boost of 10% on their final grade. For such a lucrative incentive, teams took the project seriously.
The trial felt like a spectacle. The furniture was rearranged; my lectern pushed to a corner, desks clustered in circles for the two competing sides. Jurors sat in an imperious row to observe interrogations. I played the witnesses, which required a great deal of energy. I did not mind, since it allowed for a carnivalesque reversal of authority and funny moments. One student was the “judge,” keeping time and letting questioners know when they needed to wrap up. No longer the professor, I was seated defenselessly in a chair and vulnerable to aggressive, even hostile, questions from students who stood over me and had permission to gesticulate at and badger me. Students took the exercise seriously, dressing in business suits, whereas I as the witness dressed more casually than was typical. At moments questioning became so heated that students feared the reversal of power had gone too far, but I would reassure them periodically that it was okay to be tough with me when I was acting as witness. After about 15 minutes, the students showed few inhibitions in questioning me.
Euripides’ Trojan Woman, as translated by Brendan Kennelly, was the basis for the Menelaus trial. Prosecutors deliberated for weeks among themselves before deciding on a crime to charge Menelaus with. They read Trojan Women carefully and consulted historical, archaeological, and literary scholarship to understand ancient Greek warfare. Since I met with them for brief consultations, I traced the evolution of the prosecution and defense arguments.
The prosecutors knew their main vulnerability: Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother, was the general who made decisions during the war, so it would be difficult to accuse Menelaus of war crimes. The defense could point out that Menelaus was powerless to restrain Greek soldiers from committing the atrocities outlined by Athena in the opening scene. The prosecutors toyed at first with accusing Menelaus of a romantic flaw–loving Helen too much or failing to kill her after Troy fell–but Helen’s infidelity seemed an easy issue for defenders to exploit, to outrage the jury and compel them to sympathize with Menelaus as a wronged lover.
In the end, prosecutors chose two charges: “selfish negligence” and “genocide;” respectively, Menelaus did not do enough to stop the war earlier for the sake of men under his command, and Menelaus did not order his men to restrain themselves during the rampage that wiped out the male population of Troy. The sufferings of both Greek soldiers and Trojan civilians were highlighted. Both charges were strategized as sins of omission; rather than debate things Menelaus did, they fixed on things he didn’t do. For if Menelaus’ crime was that he didn’t do more, what evidence could the defense counter with? The prosecutors purposefully characterized Menelaus in stereotypical terms. In the fall of 2007 deaths in Iraq were at a high point and the most important debate was about how to bring American troops home. Drawing from rhetorical styles evident in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, prosecutors guessed that the jury (mostly women) would be liberal Democrats likely to hate anyone comparable to George W. Bush. And so the prosecutors tailored their rhetoric to emphasize Menelaus’ similarity to Bush. They underscored Menelaus’ dependence on others to make decisions, his identity as a spoiled aristocrat, his selfish disregard for lives lost for his wounded honor. One prosecutor likened Menelaus’ consuming obsession with Helen to the President’s obsession with avenging his father for the Persian Gulf War.
Tension in the room escalated during the trial. Some students had family stationed in Iraq. As I was pretending to be Menelaus, one prosecutor slammed his hand against the lectern and asked me how I felt about the image of dead soldiers, returning in “flag-covered coffins” – an erroneous reference, of course. He knew the Greeks used funeral pyres but he felt entitled to adapt symbols for young people in 2007. Another taunted me using gender stereotypes, asking, “Menelaus, are you too much of a Mama’s boy to fight your own wars?” He implied that Agamemnon’s military control was a result of Menelaus’ irresponsible nature; the goal was to defray the defense’s contention that Menelaus could not be held responsible. Rather than allow the defense to spin Menelaus’ non-decision-making as innocence, the prosecution presented him as weak, unmanly, dissipated, and distracted—traits associated with Moore’s critiques of Bush.
The prosecution’s tactics might have carried the day, but the defense was willing to study hard. Their secret weapon was that two defenders had read the Iliad in its entirety and knew that Menelaus, far from behaving like a sissy, challenged Paris to a hand-to-hand duel that would have ended the war without causing the fall of Troy. This event, early in the Iliad, ends with Aphrodite whisking Paris away in a cloud to Helen’s bedchambers, thereby removing Paris from the decisive man-to-man combat Menelaus initiated. The defense focused on this episode when I was asked to be Helen for questioning. The defenders intended to make the prosecutors’ anti-feminine language backfire, especially because the jury was mostly women. They focused on the way Helen manipulated him during the debate between Helen and Hecuba midway through Euripides’ play. If the prosecutors wished to smear Menelaus as unmanly, then the defenders would exploit this by pushing the stereotype to its fullest extreme: Menelaus was indeed unmanly and therefore easily controlled by women like Helen and Hecuba. Menelaus was indeed unmanly and therefore unable to carry out the sacrilegious rampages that manlier Greek soldiers undertook. By pushing the prosecution’s stereotypes to a new extreme, the defense questioned the core values of machismo itself, looking critically at the behaviors of foot soldiers who had the masculine potential to revolt against Agamemnon (which they did not) or could have used their manly self-command to restrain the atrocities that Athena defined as irreligious war crimes.
“Can any of us blame others for our crimes?” asked a defender during her closing statement. “Can Helen blame the gods for betraying her first husband? Can the marines at Haditha blame Rumsfeld for going too far, and if so, would they not be blaming us, the citizens, since we put Bush into office?” Her words chilled the room; some of the students cried. I thanked the prosecutors and defenders for their closing statements and asked them to shake hands, much like two football teams. Everyone in the room had forgotten we were in a classroom. We had forgotten to behave like good inhabitants of sociofugal space. Our ideologies were laid bare, our contradictions exposed, our disagreements forced into an open arena. Leonardo’s window had opened and we had crawled inside the text; it had become our world, a mirror that threw back grotesque reflections of ourselves as Americans.
The jury found it impossible to arrive at an absolute answer to the questions they had to answer: Did this jilted husband neglect his troops for selfish reasons? Did his irresponsibility cause genocide? One woman abstained. Of the six jurors that remained, three were finally convinced that Menelaus could have done more to decrease the death toll. The other three concluded that the soldiers possessed the free will to choose how to conduct themselves, even in the adrenaline of battle. After a long discourse, they could not break the tie, and asked me to cast the deciding vote. This was an uncomfortable situation because of who I was outside the classroom: a conservative Christian who had parted ways with the right wing over the war. I opposed the Iraq War in 2003, but I did not support withdrawing US troops until the insurgency was tamed and a functional republic was in place. The jury’s gridlock could not have been more painful to me given my public stance on the War on Terror. Forced to break the tie, I sided with the prosecution. Ten years, I thought, was too long for a general to keep a pointless war alive.
As English professors we are likely to fear that moral judgments denote absolutisms and do not befit a pluralistic, relativist realm like our putative postmodern world. I, too, could not tolerate an entire semester of preaching one moral view against another. But as momentary interruptions, the mock trials enact a disciplinary rupture. English ceases to be a field separated from la vie quotidienne by its safe aesthetic distance, and literature becomes la vie quotidienne, at least for a week. The students read the play more closely. They speak to each other, and to me, frankly and passionately. They care about the literature. The literature comes alive and cares about them. Not in relativism, but in ritualized absolutism, did we discover true plurality. Despite the “final” verdict, we saw how tenuous the 4-3 vote was; the moral ambiguities of Trojan Woman, and indeed the Iraq War, were branded in our memories. To accomplish such learning, I had to stop being a teacher concerned with professional standards. They had to stop being students worried about proving they deserved white-collar jobs and ought to earn more than their parents. The text had to stop being a masterpiece, and instead become a crime scene—a sacred space polluted by la vie quotidienne.
This will strike folks as a bit dense, but it is the theoretical overview for my book on trials. It was published in Interdisciplinarité dans les études anglophones, in Nancy, in 2010.
Putting Text on Trial: Ethical Debate and the Exposure of Transdisciplinary Difference
Robert Oscar López
California State University (Northridge)
“…if the English gentleman was virtuous, as he occasionally deigned to be, his goodness was purely spontaneous. Moral effort was for merchants and clerks.”
--Terry Eagleton, After Theory.
This essay combines literary theory and pedagogy to make an argument, at once practical and theoretical. Theoretically, I will argue that ethical rather than aesthetical approaches to literature grant readers a more vibrant sense of pluralism. I will also argue that classroom discussions about the ethical lessons of literature are more democratic than discussions about aesthetics. I arrived at the latter conclusion largely through two processes of transdisciplinary and intercultural analysis.
First I meditated on the classroom as a public space. I applied French theorists such as Lyotard, Lefebvre, Barthes, and Foucault to my own pedagogical experiments. Second, I identified one experiment – the “mock trial” -- as particularly rich with insights. (It is impossible to treat aesthetical and ethical discourses as entirely separate; the two overlap, but here “aesthetical” refers to discourses that prioritize beauty over morals, and “ethical” refers to discourses that do vice versa.) Mock trials made literary criticism more accessible and less elitist. They ruptured the disciplinary boundaries of English by focusing on moral questions relatable to students’ everyday lives. Aesthetics still feels to many students (as the Eagleton quote implies) like the domain of aristocracies pitted against the “moral” preoccupations of middle and working classes.
When I refer to "mock trial," I refer to an activity in which a character from a classic text is accused of some ethical flaw, to be debated between two opposing teams (defense and prosecution) and decided by a student jury. The trials occupy two out of 15 semester weeks and count for 20% of the grade, so these are a small part of my English classes. The mock trial is not a sustainable approach for an entire semester; nor would I support jettisoning all aesthetics. Nevertheless the trials tend to be a memorable event for students. I conducted 29 trials between 1999 and 2008, involving over 400 students. Here I use one as a case study.
Let us start with Eagleton’s quote. I am not the only scholar to notice a link between class snobbery and aesthetics. As humanistic education spread beyond a small coterie in the English-speaking world by the 19th century, different social classes approached literature with different motivations. As Eagleton hints, rather than integrating these divergent needs, universities projected a class system onto the hierarchy of critical methodologies. “Beauty's" sublime pleasures (particularly in the heyday of New Criticism) were for wealthy students, while “morals” were the dreary domain of parvenus using literacy to escape menial vocations. Even in the 21st century, a tension between aesthetics and ethics reflects and exacerbates class anxiety.
The French say, “à chacun son goût” while the Americans say, “to each his own.” The peculiarly unquantifiable nature of aesthetic taste is reflected in spaces where aesthetic judgments are made. In libraries silence is treasured and conversation discouraged. In galleries patrons stare quietly at canvases cordoned off from human contact. Each reader/viewer retreats into a private world of appreciation. Unfortunately, privacy does not lead to autonomy; nor do aesthetic preoccupations democratize discursive space. Despite their hushed atmosphere, galleries and libraries send clear messages by prioritizing certain works and negating others by not featuring them. Somewhere there exist authorities, armed with funding and prestige, who have decided which books and paintings are preserved. Their invisibility makes their power more difficult to question since we cannot challenge their decisions. To speak in the terms of Roland Barthes, the invisibility of aesthetic authorities "naturalizes" the "mythology" that the works being shown are beautiful. For Barthes, myths such as the idea of a beauty standard are strongest when people are unconscious of their origins and therefore unlikely to contest their assumptions. In Mythologies, Barthes notes, “driven to having either to unveil or liquidate the concept, [myth] will naturalize it” (129).
Spaces of ethical judgment are, on the contrary, designed for active and even heated conversation. (Here I refer to public spaces within democratic societies, since my project applies French theories to American classrooms, and both France and the United States are proud of their republican histories.) The courtroom and the legislature are two obvious examples. In such places individuals congregate to decide the correctness or incorrectness of competing concepts. Some spectators (for example, those who have come to watch a trial but are not involved) are expected not to speak, yet the spaces are designed around conversation rather than against it. Witnesses must be interrogated and lawmakers must debate. One never knows until the final vote or verdict which opinion will prevail, so there is a heightened cognizance that ethical judgment contains an element of surprise and defies simple generalization.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault insists that public space is structured to control the movement of bodies. Foucault reminds us, “It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body – to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skilful and increases its forces” (136). The library and parliament are architected to control the volume and frequency of speech, the distance between one body and the next, the level of fear or shame involved with people observing each other. English, art, and law hold true to the title of "disciplines"; the hush of the library and the procedural operation of court debate point to their effectiveness in controlling bodies even when they seem, prima facie, to be focused on ideas. Yet disciplinarity is not monolithic. Some disciplines lead to greater isolation or anxiety, depending on who is inside the space and for what reason. The gallery, focusing more on aesthetics, dictates few absolute rules for its visitors but nonetheless diffuses differences of opinion, while the courthouse, focusing on ethics, produces abundant rules, while focusing everyone's attention on the fact that different opinions exist. In the ethically minded places, it is impossible to know which opinion will prevail as the ethical “absolute,” until the endpoint of a ritualized process. The punitive power in such spaces might seem repressive; after the congress votes or the verdict is announced we are not entitled to defy the final opinion. To be defiant we would break a law. Nonetheless in these potentially repressive spaces we are most aware that not everybody agrees. Plurality is more visible even though the purpose is to establish the total superiority of one opinion over others.
The humanities classroom challenges my neat binary between aesthetical and ethical spaces. Some professors focus more on the aesthetic value of literature while others prefer to use literature as a way to discern political interests (feminism, Marxism, ecocriticism, and the like) that align more with ethics even if they avail themselves of aesthetic tools. A college junior in the US is likely to see the classroom as both a place to develop subtle tastes and learn about social issues. For the sake of exposition, let us first study the classroom as an aesthetically focused space, best understood in relation to libraries and galleries; by beginning with this precept, I can later explode the aesthetic discipline of classrooms by presenting my mock trials as an interruption of aesthetical discourse by ethics.
Consider for a moment the spaces in which literary subtleties and artistic delicacies are consumed. The library falls into the category designated by sociologists Humphrey Osmond and Robert Sommer as "sociofugal space," which Sommer delineates as "a place where people typically try to avoid one another." In the 1950s Osmond viewed mental hospitals as the locus classicus of the sociofugal, but for Sommer the premier sociofugal space is "a university library" in which "occupants distribute themselves so as to increase psychological and social distance" (Sommer 654). Unlike his contemporary Foucault, Sommer did not emphasize sanatoria and prisons. Sommer saw how inmates in solitary confinement tapped the walls to send coded messages, but library patrons observed rigorous non-communication, spacing themselves as distantly as possible and glaring with disapproval at audible discussion. The ideal environment to suppress discourse was, according to Sommer, not prison but this:
…large, cold, impersonal, institutional, not owned by any individual, overconcentrated rather than overcrowded, without opportunity for shielded conversation; providing barriers without shelter, isolation without privacy, and concentration without cohesion. (655)
Such a description is not entirely remote from a humanities class. The individuality of “à chacun son gout” becomes a case of “isolation without privacy.” The rules against students speaking to each other in class, and the requirement that they address all statements to the authority figure, leave a student defenseless before a profession’s aesthetical standards rather than free to pick one interpretation from many. Feminist pedagogue Karen Hayes adds the following:
[One had] an idea of the academic classroom as a polite, somewhat reserved place, where scholars exchanged insights and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but always with an understanding that common ground underlay their work. I liked that image […] in spite of the fact that I always felt a little excluded from these well-mannered exchanges. (300)
Politeness and tranquility, while cherished, left her silent. The “common ground,” while making the classroom feel functional, rendered the classroom a sociofugal space.
One must also consider the role of social class in the spatial politics of classrooms. In “Plastic Space and Political Space,” Jean-François Lyotard distinguishes between textual and figural space. Lyotard defines textuality as the “play on opposition” and “spatial cutting-up” of graphic units (words) according to semiotic rules. Figural space, on the other hand, involves transgression against “the norm of the intervals defining the textual units” and gives “currency to another order of meaning” (211-212). For Lyotard “space” is relevant to the question of aesthetics insofar as the visual object – book, painting, or pamphlet – is composed of visual units separated by empty spaces. His distinctions between textual and figural space are useful because Lyotard draws from Marx and links both kinds of space to questions of class and ideology. Space contextualizes, and spatial choices politicize, signs. Lyotard evokes Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, which he clarifies for a twentieth-century reader by pointing out:
The space is […] that in which social relations are lived, in which class struggle unfolds. The poster belongs to this space insofar as it is an object of intuitions and representations. (Lyotard 212)
Moreover, Henri Lefebvre examines the architecture of the place where aesthetic objects are presented. For Lefebvre, one needs to go beyond the surface of aesthetic objects and ponder the social “space” or venue in which they circulate. Lefebvre says in the third volume of Critique:
In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought. Thought first of all established a distance (an époché) vis-à-vis daily life, the domain and abode of non-philosophers. (3)
Lefebvre focuses on the banishment of la vie quotidienne, with its pedestrian concerns, from everything that social hierarchies demarcate as “sacred” – the church, the classroom, the imperial court, all places in which authority figures pretend their power has nothing to do with dirty work done in profane spaces outside. But Lefebvre was also fascinated by interruptions, when the concerns of daily life intruded upon the sacred and revealed the latter’s abstractions as materially contingent. Lefebvre writes in Critique of Daily Life, “the everyday is thus closely related to the modes of organization and existence of a (particular) society, which imposes relations between forms of work, leisure, ‘private life,’ transport, public life” (3). Which brings us to my pedagogical experiment. Speaking in terms of Lyotard and Lefebvre, the mock trial is an interruption, a rupturing of the safe barrier between sacred space and la vie quotidienne, and a moment when pedagogy creates the thing that Karen Hayes sees as necessary: “the creation of space for students’ differences” (301). Students, rather than quietly adapting themselves to consensus vaguely naturalized by their professor’s authority, become loud and even boisterous. They become highly attentive to the text yet still passionately confident that what they debate about the text – its ethical intricacies – bears directly on things they understand about their lives in the “essential and mundane” world outside, which Lefebvre says philosophers deem “unworthy of thought” (3).
Perhaps somewhere in history there existed an idealistic classroom, where students appreciated beautiful texts to enrich their souls and thought nothing of using literacy to improve their status in society. In the twenty-first-century United States, such a dreamy sphere is impossible. Tuitions are high and education was posited, as early as Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, as the main way for Americans to resist class stratification and fulfill their republican duties as voters. In Notes, Jefferson cautions readers to invest in universal education to “diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people” (193). He was aware that some European republics had allowed masses to choose their leaders, but did not endow them with enough knowledge to choose well. Such a course had led to tragic results. Jefferson writes, “Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that [despots] are chosen by ourselves” (164). From the nation’s inception, therefore, American letters carried the burden of passing on great creative works, but also the less glamorous task of shielding average citizens against class oppression and preserving the ethical integrity of a democratic system. American students enter a college English class motivated not only by love of beauty but also by social mobility and morals, which American culture casts as inextricable. Their nation’s civic values force them to “choose” between the classroom or slipping in class status and possibly becoming poor. Money is always a subtext.
Like so many colleagues, I have asked students, “how did you like the reading?” only to be replied with uncomfortable silences. Some students did none of the reading, while others did the reading but were scared to say, “It was hard and I didn’t find it beautiful or interesting.” Students know that if they express such things, the teacher punishes them with dirty looks or a lower grade. But it is a source of satisfaction and pride for me, that one activity always breaks this silence and prompts students to become eager, passionate readers. In the mock trial, literary appreciation accomplishes what Lyotard calls “the rules of Leonardo’s window” by which “the viewer is summoned to pass through the ‘window’ and climb onto the stage,” because, as Lyotard suggests, “perspectival treatment works in the same way as the use of stereotypes, provoking desire and at the same time focusing it on a known and communicable situation” (220). When Lyotard mentions “a known and communicable situation” he may be striking upon the key factor in the mock trial’s success. When students debate the moral choices made by characters such as Menelaus in Trojan Women, they translate the remote language of ancient Greece into moral dilemmas relevant to the choices they face every day. The fineries of Euripides’ stichomythia and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, with all their aesthetic grandeur, would demand that students remove themselves from the language of everyday life, but Menelaus’ betrayal by Helen, and the grander dilemma of how much a jilted man’s mistakes may be forgiven based on his emotional wounds, are moral enigmas many students face when they leave English class.
Sociological research about politics and space indicates that displacement of aesthetics by ethics enables people to overcome class anxiety. In the late 1990s sociologists came out with studies of what Elijah Anderson calls “the code of the street.” Reviewers Dalton Conley and Miriam Ryvicker comment the following:
[T]he “code of the street,” which according to Anderson is prevalent in the inner city ghetto, functions as a way for African American youth to maintain social order in neighborhoods that have been abandoned by formal institutions… (761).
In locales where visual culture betokens neglect – collapsing buildings, weed-filled lots, litter on the sidewalks – residents reclaim aesthetically failed public space by submitting it to their ethical “code.” In the classroom, students can also reclaim public space by rejecting aesthetic concerns for ethical ones, by abandoning discussion of a work’s beauty and instead submitting its characters to moral judgment. Mock trials empower students to speak about texts; rather than aesthetically naïve neophytes, they are debaters or jurors, authorized to label acts as immoral, wrong, even “evil.” While many academics shudder at the absolutist resonances of words such as immoral or evil, for students affected by class anxiety, morality is something they can understand through lived experiences, and therefore a relief from the alienation of aesthetics. As my case study will illustrate, the process of the trial itself usually mitigates the potential absolutism in such moral discourse, for the simple reason that trials are so hard to decide, and so difficult to win.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1957.
Conley, Dalton and Miriam Ryvicker. “Race, Class, and Eyes upon the Street: Public Space, Social Control, and the Economies of Three Urban Communities.” Sociological Forum 16:4 (Dec 2001) 759-772.
Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
Euripides. Trojan Women. Trans. Brendan Kennelly. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Hayes, Karen. “Creating Space for Difference in the Composition Class.” College Composition and Communication 43:3 (Oct 1992) 300-304.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Penguin, 1975.
Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life Volume III. Trans. Gregory Elliott. New York: Verso, 2005.
Lefebvre, Henri. Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Plastic Space and Political Space.” boundary 2 14:1/2 (Autumn 1965-Winter 1986) 211-233.
Sommer, Robert. “Sociofugal Space.” The American Journal of Sociology 72:6 (May 1967) 654-660.