Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Trial #1: Menelaus, from Homer's Iliad. Oct 2007. Canisius College

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.

The theory chapter, which I published in France

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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What does it mean to put text on trial?

I have begun this blog, because this is my second academic book. And I'm doing things for this book that I am not sure the discipline of English allows me to do. Which is why it's so much fun. I love books. I adore literature. And I love teaching. I even flatter myself from time to time, by saying that I'm pretty good at it. At the very least I teach literature better than I can aim an M-16, which I learned when I failed my Army qualifications twice in a row at Fort Leonard Wood. If you need me to hit a jihadist 175 meters away with an M-203 and nail him within the five-meter kill radius of a fragmentation grenade, you would probably do better to look elsewhere. But if you need someone to make sense of Walt Whitman using a New Testament scripture, clips of America's Next Top Model, an overhead projector and three blue magic markers, I'm your man.

So why have literary study and the literature classroom become so dreary? Why is it that whenever I have those great classroom moments -- those moments when my students and I are stumbling into a brilliant insight -- I am more often than not engaging in something unprofessional? We aren't following MLA guidelines, or we're reproducing the dominant ideology, or we're violating the gods of "close reading" (a term used by other scholars akin to believing in God or being a tax-paying citizen), or we're constructing a straw man argument, or we're being insensitive to some constituency that's not even in the classroom, or we're being "facile" and misapplying some theorist. Dear God, I know that English is a discipline. I know my favorite philosopher, Michel Foucault, has made it clear that disciplines do this: They regiment and tame our bodies, often by first regimenting and taming our thought process. Disciplines brainwash and castigate us. Which explains why literary study so often feels like a drag, unless you do something that the profession says you ought not to do. But if this is all the matter of discipline, why can't it at least be as fun as marching in formation and chanting the Army cadence, "Drive on, first platoon"? Why has the literature classroom become so laborious?

If anything should be laborious, it shouldn't be the profession of teaching literature, since the scholars and students who flock to English classes are a motley but lovable tribe of hedonists, daydreamers, slackers, and drama queens. If only as a profession we could admit that we aren't Engineering majors and we don't fit in with business models, we might let literature breathe and everyone could be a lot less annoyed when they engage in the heavenly act of reading.

Therein lies my book. Two classroom scenarios play a central role in this book. The first is a negative one, the second a positive one. To get to the second, though, you have to get through the first, so you understand the underlying tension in literature classrooms.

Let me begin by asking you to close your eyes. Wait, no, don't do that, because then you can't keep on reading. Just concentrate. Picture this: A literature teacher stands in front of 32 college students. The teacher talks about a Great Book. Not just any old thing you'd pick up at the drugstore, some "classic" or "masterpiece" that the teacher has studied, strenuously, for a third to a fourth of his life. Maybe he has stubble because he was too busy thinking about this book to shave. He probably voted for Obama. He takes the notion of progress very seriously and believes, intuitively, that teaching literature is part of bringing about social change, if not on a massive level, at least in some small way. He loves the book he's teaching, and thinks it affirms what he believes. He's an idealist, even if he scoffs at the notion of being naive.

And his students are there for a bunch of reasons, many of which do not have to do with loving the book as much as the teacher does. Some are there because they want to be creative writers, and they tolerate other people's writing only to the extent that they think they can find a few gimmicks to pilfer. A few are there because there was no other class with available seats at the time they needed. Some are there because it's a requirement. One or two confused Coolidge Hall and Coleridge Hall, and should actually be in Engineering 259, not English 492 (they'll figure it out soon enough.) Then a bunch thought the teacher was cute but gave little thought to what he actually had in mind, academically speaking.

So with this uncomfortable asymmetry between a teacher who loves what he's teaching, and students who wonder what the big deal is (I mean, really, Macbeth, a good play?), one must a semster make. Therein lies one of the great secrets that pedagogues are desperate to unlock. This is not a universal problem, for there will always be those students who love reading and enjoy the classroom experiences. For around 75% of a class, however, the instructor has to find a trick. Calgon won't help.

One of the typical standoffs in an English class occurs when students, who are struggling to connect with the Great Book, grasp onto the thing most immediately accessible to them--which is usually their judgment of characters' moral decisions. If iambic pentameter is too arcane, the student wants to talk about whether the Shakespeare protagonist did the right thing or not. And the teacher, who suddenly sees the object of his painstaking intellectual labor reduced to a commonsense judgment call that anyone off the street could have decided, feels his expertise threatened. His reaction may be to reach further into what he knows better than the students know, which is aesthetics, a general and disputed term that refers to the artistry of the language in a text, its delicacies, its subtleties and nuances which can only be understood fully through sustained scholarship. The students, confronted with complex aesthetical questions they cannot digest, retreat further into what they know as well as the teacher knows, the commonsense moral compass earned through experience and intuition. I call the latter realm ethics, for it is a matter of judgment that, while fair to philosophize, is also fairly easy to understand through the lens of people's past experiences.

Too many impasses between students and teachers are impasses of aesthetical versus ethical concerns. The two realms are hopelessly interlocked and impossible to divorce. But when the scholar wields expertise against the student's intuitive moral judgment, it becomes undeniable where aesthetics and ethics do not overlap, where they answer to different imperatives and follow different standards.

Which brings me to the second scenario, the positive one that grows out of the first one. I found myself in one such standoff, in the fall of 1999. I assigned Bone Black, the memoirs of Bell Hooks, and found my students resistant to talking about the book's aesthetic form. They wanted, instead, to discuss whether the narrator was a good person or not. The semi-seasoned professor, already further along in life, feeds on nuance, while the students, still at the tender edge of adolescence, rely on the timeless youthful addiction to black/white, good/evil distinctions. "The appetite of the young," my old mentor Diane Christian said, "is moral." The young often prefer clarity in ethics and hate hypocrisy, while people in midlife find comfort in ambiguity and make peace with hypocrisy to survive. Aesthetics, the ambiguous world of beauty and craft, collides with ethics, the world of moral certainty.

To break us out of the impasse, back in 1999, I surrendered and held a mock trial. "Fine," I told the class. "If you want to make everything a question of right and wrong, then I'll give you a trial." They had to pick a character from the semester's reading to put on trial. They chose Scarlett O'Hara. And I gave them free reign to judge her with as much scathing moral scrutiny as they could muster. With one catch: They had to argue their case against an opposing side, and their peers would judge.

A strange thing happened during that first trial. The students suddenly owned the literature. Moral questions that appeared simple at first glance transformed into highly complex matters as the conversation unfolded. The students became passionate. As they struggled to bolster their case, they ended up relying on ambiguity and discovering the craft of language anyway. Through ethics they arrived at aesthetics and found the two inseparable. All this they did, without me having to nag them at all.

No course could be composed entirely of trials, of course. One must balance these spectacular moments with the usual weeks of lecturing and note-taking and take-home essay assignments. But trials, when placed strategically in a course schedule, accomplish a great deal. Between 1999 and 2010, I will have held a total of 40 trials, ranging from Helen of Troy and Pandora to Mrs. Gaines in William Wells Brown's Escape and Billie Holiday. The students decide the crimes and how to articulate guilt. The defenders must pick apart the language, not in legalese, but through their commonsense understanding of moral questions. Prickly philosophical problems, such as the perennial "do we judge the defendant by the standards of today or the standards of her time?", arise and enrich the learning experience. The students learn, invariably, that ethics are complicated and moral complexities are inevitably lost in aesthetic ambiguities. They also learn they can own the literature and mine enormous wisdom from it, without being prodded.

And so on this blog, I will be working through Putting Text on Trial. The next posting will be the full text of an article I published in France, corresponding to the first chapter of the book (its theoretical overview). Then I will work through each of the forty trials I oversaw, from Scarlett O'Hara in 1999 to Roxy from Puddnhead Wilson in the spring of 2009.

I invite whoever can't sleep and arrives at this lonely website to join in and comment.