Category Archives: pedagogy

New MA course in literary studies: Gothic Transformations

My new Literary Studies course for Athabasca U’s MA program is now open for enrollment.

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh's The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

Illustration from 1897 edition of Marsh’s The Beetle. (Public domain image via British Library.)

The 19th-Century Novel: Gothic Transformations assigns readings in major English novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and explores how British fiction in the nineteenth century both was influenced by and also adapted Gothic themes and elements, like supernatural horror and psychological suspense.

Gothic fictions and those that adapt the Gothic represent important cultural mediations of the social, political, and economic issues and transformations that characterize Britain during the rise of industrial capital and the global expansion of England’s empire: the transformation of literary production (e.g. serialization, copyright change, circulating library distribution); the advent of public education, industrialization and class conflict; imperial expansion; feminism (e.g. the “New Woman” discourse); and developments in science and technology (e.g. new recording media).

SF: so many corporate dystopias, so few unions.

A couple of years ago, during a break in a faculty association meeting, my Athabasca U colleague Bob Barnetson and I got to talking science fiction, and he casually observed that for all its depictions of big business, the genre’s oddly lacking in corresponding images of unions. I told Bob there was a paper in his idea, and voilà, in the current issue of TOPIA, Canada’s journal of cultural studies, you can read the interdisciplinary article we co-wrote on the subject: “Resistance is futile: on the under-representation of unions in science fiction.” Here’s the abstract:

“This article surveys science fiction (SF) since 1980, and queries the conspicuous under-representation of recognizable images of unions in popular SF, which includes, in contrast, numerous images and narratives of corporate business. According to theories of unionism, science fiction studies and Mark Fisher’s theory of ‘capitalist realism,’ the co-authors theorize this pattern of under-representation, and, in the process, identify and analyze a very small but diverse body of SF works from this period that do include images of unions, in ways that range from the symptomatic to the radically suggestive.”

We gave 1980 as a start date for our study because that was about when corporate elite rule (a.k.a. neoliberalism) started to take off, and because that’s why tweets like this make sense:

Research is integrally intertwined with teaching, but it’s not as often that we in academia get to link research as closely with service. This collaboration has been one such welcome opportunity. (And it’s involved our students, too: we’re specifically indebted to the insights and references shared by AU alumna and SF author Heather Clitheroe, who’s reminded me I need check out The Expanse for more evidence of unions in SF.)

On a point unrelated to our subject matter, I also like that our article appears in an issue that both a) marks the debut of Dr. Rinaldo Walcott as TOPIA‘s new editor, and b) pays tribute to the great, late Canadian writer Austin Clarke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the article, but you or your institution don’t subscribe to TOPIA, you can e-mail me at academicalism[at]gmail[dot]com to request a single copy (because Canada’s educational fair dealing provision in copyright law allows for individual sharing like this).

On the “literary turn” in non-literary disciplines

A thought about the late spate of studies like this one, just reported in The Guardian:

“Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds: Research by US social scientists found that those who read novels by the likes of Toni Morrison and Harper Lee do better on ‘theory of mind’ tests. Genre fans do not.”

Read the full article on Dr Kidd and Castano’s study, and/or read the study itself.
Anyway, my thought is this: literary studies have long valued & practiced interdisciplinarity; but, from recent neuroscience studies on novel reading and empathy, to this latest sociological research on fiction, the apparent “literary turn” of other disciplines — often better funded and better reported disciplines — is maybe cause to ask (at the risk of seeming protectionist) to what extent those other disciplines are engaging with literary study — or colonizing it?

New MA course on Canadian prairie poetry & drama at Athabasca U

Athabasca University’s MA in Integrated Studies program is pleased to offer a new group-study* course for the coming fall semester: Poetry and Drama of the Canadian Prairies (MAIS 752).
The course is open to enrollment by students not just in Athabasca U’s MA program, but also in other Canadian and international graduate programs that recognize and transfer AU course credits.  Interested grad students can e-mail AU’s MA program office at cis@athabascau.ca for more information or to enroll. (Enrollment deadline: Aug. 15.)

ForgetSK_26June2016

Highway 13 sign pointing to the town of Forget, Saskatchewan.

* “Group study”: Some of AU’s graduate programs use an online grouped study format. Students in these courses augment their studies with online group discussions and learning activities. Online grouped study courses are usually 13 weeks long and start in May, September or January. There are no extensions for these courses.

New book chapter: “Institutions and Interpellations of the Dubject, the Doubled and Spaced Self”

I’ve got a chapter in Raphael Foshay’s just-published edited collection on Internet culture and politics, The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement.

“Institutions and interpellations of the dubject, the doubled and spaced self.” The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement. Ed. Raphael Foshay. Edmonton: Athabasca UP, 2016.

At the links you’ll find free, full-text PDF versions of the book and its individual chapters, including mine. (Athabasca University Press is an Open Access scholarly publisher that sells print copies and offers free PDF copies simultaneously.)
Here’s a quick intro to what my article’s about (and what a “dubject” is):

This essay develops the idea of the dubject as a model of remediated subjectivity. It will discuss some theoretical and institutional contexts of the dubject, and then will consider digital manifestations of the dubject with reference to how popular digital applications interpellate the user (see Althusser 1971)—that is, how they impose specific ideological and institutional conditions and limitations on applications and on users’ possibilities for self-representation. This work is an attempt to think digital identity and agency in the context of postcoloniality, as a complement to the more prevalent approach to mediated identity in terms of postmodernity. This work thus builds my larger research project of applying postcolonialist critique to popular culture, particularly that of Canada’s majority white settler society. (128)

“Austerity U is fracked” (but here are two ideas for unfracking it)

FindlayTalk-AUE-4Mar15Yesterday at Athabasca U, the AU Faculty Association hosted a talk by Len Findlay, U of Saskatchewan Distinguished Professor of English and Chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom & Tenure committee. Professor Findlay’s talk was titled “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada.” (Here’s the presentation from his talk.) This was galvanizing subject matter for a university and a province where academic freedom and collegial governance have been in question and imperilled for some time (as I’ve blogged previously).

Findlay critiqued the ongoing corporatization of Canadian universities, in the contexts of an increasingly authoritarian federal government that prioritizes resource extraction above everything, and an increasingly neoliberal (i.e. market-fundamentalist) governance of universities that’s restructuring them according to a reductive theory of value, entailing “intellectual species loss and desertification,” endangering academic freedom, and hollowing out collegial governance.

Findlay talked at length about his home institution’s “TransformUS” program prioritization plan, and how it was so effectively opposed by the joint efforts of faculty and students that it was ultimately abandoned.
Findlay is one of Canadian academia’s most gifted orators, and his talk was as witty in its form as it was worrisome in its content.

He recalled responding to a senior administrator’s claim that raising tuition would attract “the best and the brightest” by countering that it would instead attract only “the best-off and the whitest.” He described the colonization of education by business as a shift from the liberal arts to the “neoliberal arts,” and said (a few times) that “Austerity U is fracked.”
While that phrase resonated in the room, the ceiling – I kid you not – started to drip, likely from melting snow on the roof above. A few audience membes scrambled to get buckets and contact the building superintendent, while the rest of us marveled at the perfect metaphor trickling down into the middle of the room.
Findlay, undeterred, forged ahead with his talk. Maybe the most helpful take-away was that he identified two specific things that faculty and staff can watch for at any university that indicate collegial governance and academic freedom at the institution in question are under attack:

  1. Does the university president chair the General Faculties Council?
  2. Does the General Faculties Council (and/or other governing bodies, from the Board to departments and programs) use a “consent agenda” for conducting meeting business?

About the ironically named “consent agenda” (a trivial procedure in Robert’s Rules that has been rapidly adopted and widely abused “to bury sins”), Findlay suggested replacing it with a “dissent agenda.” The consent agenda concept seemed new to him, and may be news to many readers, so it’s something to watch for – as are ways to object to it.

About the managerial disempowering of Faculties Councils, he advised that a university president who chairs a General Faculties Council should be challenged about occupying that chair; “the Faculties Council should facilitate the faculty’s work, not impose the president’s will.” He talked about how U Sask students and faculty (including the faculty union) had organized to successfully relieve their president of the GFC chair. Findlay argued that these two governance trends suggest that “autocratic dictation” (in the guise of “institutional autonomy”) is supplanting “collegial discourse” in university governance.

Which should sound an alarm to faculty and faculty associations across Canada to mobilize towards protecting collegial governance, academic freedom, and the very university itself, as a public institution advancing the public interest – or, in Findlay’s words, as “the last redoubt of critique in Harperland.” In closing, Findlay exhorted us to work against the grain of possessive individualism (and the caricature it creates of the academic as self-interested careerist), and instead embrace advocacy and coalition-building as a vital part of the academic job description. (To which end, this post, along with all the live-tweeting, is one modest contribution.)

And, just for good measure, he also wondered aloud why tuition in Canada isn’t free. “Canada is a rich country, but not a generous one. We’re not generous to our young people, our Indigenous people.” Since Athabasca U’s particular mission is to remove barriers to university education – and tuition costs are the single most cited barrier – then free tuition is a public-interest ideal to strive for (especially in the wake of the abolition of tuition fees in places like Germany). But if that dream isn’t likely to become an imminent reality, neither can we justify raising tuition – as the government would now like to allow Alberta’s universities to do – without grievously jeopardizing Athabasca U’s mission and reputation. “For this university to become elitist by stealth,” warned Findlay, “would be a national disgrace.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lastly, in response to a Twitter query, I’ve put together, with Findlay’s help, a list of the research sources for his talk (along with some further recommended readings).

Works Cited in Len Findlay’s “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada”

Collini, Stefan. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin, 2012. [Review in THE.]

Findlay, Len, ed. Rethinking the Humanities. Spec. issue of English Studies in Canada 38.1 (2012).

— and Paul M. Bidwell, eds. Pursuing Academic Freedom: “Free and Fearless”? Saskatoon: Purich P, 2001. [review in Canadian Literature]

Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. [Review in THS]

Kamboureli, Smaro and Daniel Coleman, eds. Retooling the
Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities
.

Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2011.

MacKinnon, Peter. University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014.

Open For Business: On What Terms? CAUT. Ottawa. 2013.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4

Tuchman, Gaye. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

Further Reading

Barkawi, Tarak. “The neoliberal assault on academia.” Al Jazeera 25 Apr. 2013.

Canavan, Gerry. “Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis.” 25 Feb. 2015.

Coetzee, J.M. “Universities head for extinction” [foreword to John Higgins’ Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa]. Mail & Guardian 1 Nov. 2013.

Findlay, Len. Rev. of Cary Nelson’s No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2010.

—. Rev. of Robert C. Post’s Democracy, Expertise & Academic Freedom: A First Amendment jurisprudence for the modern state. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2012.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: 0 Books. [Preview a dubious proof copy of unknown provenance here.]

Giroux, Henry A. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Truthout 29 Oct. 2013.

Hanke, Bob and Alison Hearn, eds. Out of the Ruins, the University to Come. Spec. issue of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 28 (2012).

MacDonald, Dougal and Natalie Sharpe. “Chapter 3: Online Teaching and the Deskilling of Academic Labour in Canada.” Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. Ed. Keith Hoeller. Vanderbilt UP, 2014. 65-74.

Marcus, Jon. “New analysis shows problematic boom in higher ed administrators.” Huffington Post 2 Jun. 2014.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

“Report of the CAUT Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Governance.” CAUT. 12 Nov. 2009.

Rooke, Constance. “The Engagement of Self and Other: Liberal education and its contributions to the public good.” The Idea of Engagement: Universities in Society. Ed. S. Bjarnason and P. Coldstream. London, The Policy Research Unit, The Association of Commonwealth Universities, 2003. 228-250.

Rumble, Greville. “Social justice, economics and distance education.” Open Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.

Turk, James, ed. Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle Over Free Speech Rights in the University. Toronto: Lorimer, 2014.

Warner, Marina. “Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the Disfiguring of Higher Education.” London Review of Books 37.6 (19 March 2015).

The Main Thing Students in Literary Studies Need to Understand: “Talk About the Writing”

In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.

1. In your essays, talk about the writing.

The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.

in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.

If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.

2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.

The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.

As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.

Further reference

More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.

And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.

And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.