Helpful Feedback for Derrida on “Structure, Sign, and Play”

Perhaps [weasel-word!] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word [loaded according to whom?] did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function [is this really its only function?] of structural–or structuralist–thought [which is it?] to reduce or to suspect [again, which?]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling [why? Unpack this].

It would be easy enough to show [then show it! This is a big generalization that you never support!] that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme [is this a reference to Foucault? In that case, cite]–that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy [this is a big claim, citation?]–and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement [unclear -- I think I see what you're getting at, but it could be expanded and unpacked a bit more]. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define [maybe you should lead off with what this event is supposed to be, rather than making the reader wait? I'm already losing the thread], structure–or rather the structurality of structure–although it has always [careful with these generalizations] been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence [this feels jargony to me], a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure–one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure–but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure [what does this mean? Unpack]. No doubt [this does not seem as immediately obvious to me] that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself [this seems a bit overblown -- maybe nuance?].

If you see something, say something: On academic representation

A couple years ago, I was invited to contribute to a reference volume. I was honored to be included and eager to have the chance to demonstrate my expertise on the topic. Yet as I looked at the proposed table of contents, I noticed a problem: no women. I told the editor that I did not feel comfortable contributing to a volume with such a lack of diversity.

I have never mentioned this incident publicly, out of fear that I would come across as boasting about what a Nice Guy I was. Yet as I was talking about writing up one of the pieces, The Girlfriend insisted that I must say something, because what happened next may surprise you: the editor admitted it was a problem but said that he simply didn’t know where to begin in fixing it. I didn’t know anyone personally who would be a good fit, but I recommended he look at a very diverse edited volume on the topic and contact the editor. Within a few months, the entire contributor roster had been revised.

If the story had stopped with the first paragraph, it would be hard to recommend my course of action — a pointless act of martyrdom that would only lead to a “worse person” (someone unconcerned with such matters!) being invited to take my place. Yet it doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome. Even people who are not “directly” concerned with diversity are surely aware that a conspicuous lack of it will cause protest and embarrassment. The earlier they’re able to correct the problem, the less inclusion will look like a patronizing “tokenism.”

Those of us white guys who are in dialogue with women and minorities in our scholarly work know that it’s not a matter of “eating your vegetables” so that you can get the dessert of all the exciting white dudes — a more diverse set of interlocutors makes academic dialogue more interesting and improves our own work. We shouldn’t selfishly keep that goodness to ourselves, nor should we allow academic publications and conferences in which we play a part to be mired in monochrome mediocrity. In an ideal future, of course, this kind of inclusiveness would be the normal course of events — but in the meantime, it’s regretably often the case that white guys more easily gain a seat at the table, and they need to use their power for good.

Peer review: What’s the alternative?

In what is increasingly becoming a tired schtick, Rebecca Schumann rehearses the most inflammatory cliches about academic practices — in this case, peer review. David Perry’s response reflects my own experience: I’ve had a generally good experience, but I’ve heard about friends who had a much harder time.

Schumann suggests that anyone submitting to a journal should be required to do a “constructive,” timely review of an article for said journal before their piece will be considered. The gap here is that the same editors who let people get away with harsh reviews are going to be in charge of assessing the required reviews — why would we expect anything different? It’s also striking that the solution to the badness of peer review is to get more people to do peer review (especially in the case of the “crowd-sourced peer review” solution she also discusses). Yes, I agree: the solution to the problems of the system is a good version of the system without the problems.

I would like to gently suggest that there are factors other than the badness of reviews themselves that contribute to the bad reputation of peer review. First, it makes sense that an increasingly high-stakes “publish or perish” mentality would lead to a higher volume of lower-quality material. Many articles that I’ve reviewed struck me as simply needing more incubation time — including the time and distance necessary to say, “Okay, so I’ve done all this exposition… but what am I trying to say here?” Students who let the deadline sneak up on them are not the only ones turning in “papers in search of a thesis.” And in some cases, I honestly think the editor should have simply rejected the articles out of hand without involving me. It’s not the author’s fault, but I can understand being irritable when you’ve volunteered your free labor and your input isn’t actually warranted.

Second, the high stakes involved amplify people’s usual defensiveness of their own work. This may lead to an overdiagnosis of “harshness” of tone and an exaggerated suspicion of the reviewer’s motives — isn’t it a little convenient that peer reviewers are so often presented as promoting their own work and viewpoints? We’re all willing to call bullshit when blog commenters say that we’re just afraid of how right their views are and can’t tolerate dissent. There’s always going to be something uncomfortable about getting criticism of one’s work from an anonymous source — I mean, I was sweating bullets when a very close friend was reading my draft of Creepiness, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have been if it were a total stranger — and while some reviewers may come across as unduly harsh, maybe you wouldn’t read it that way if you knew them personally. The disadvantages of anonymity go both ways.

So here’s my proposal: get rid of the anonymity. Turn the process into a genuine dialogue between peers rather than a high-stakes, up-or-down evaluation by some random person. You could even require people to do some peer review on their own beforehand and submit a signed statement from one or two readers along with the piece. To make sure people aren’t constantly relying on the same two people, you could make it a norm for CVs that your initial reviewers are included in the listing for any peer-reviewed work. If you want an independent assessment, have a named peer reviewer respond to the full package.

Yes, there is potential for abuse with this system, in that it could amplify “old boys network”-type effects — but my #slatepitch position is that many of the cruellest and most pointlessly time-consuming aspects come from pretending that the profession is an impersonal meritocracy and feigning ignorance of the importance of reputation and social networks.

Metrics and the Humanities

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is conducting a consultation on the use of metrics to assess research quality. The current system in the UK is that, every five years, a time-consuming and expensive research assessment exercise is conducted. The last one was called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (you can see where this is going). It involves dozens and dozens of academics reading through submissions from more or less every research-active university scholar in the country. At the end of this, an ever-dwindling pot of money is divided up between universities in order to promote further research and ‘reward excellence’ (i.e. concentrate money where there is already lots of it).

Naturally, the government would prefer the bean-counting to be done in a cheaper way, ideally not involving actual people (whether this constitutes an accelerationist moment, I will leave you to judge). As a result, they are keen to promote metrics-based assessment, hence this consultation.

The primary way of measuring the quality of a piece of work would be to count how many citations it attracted. This raises huge questions about the adequacy of the measure employed, and, of course, how the measure distorts what it is that is being measured, as people indulge in all sorts of game-playing to give and get citations. Meera Sabaratnam and Paul Kirby have written a response to the consultation, arguing against the proposal. You can add your name to it, if you wish to support it, though this applies principally to academics based in England. Others might wish to read the response anyway, and reflect upon the neoliberalisation of humanities research, and how it might be resisted.

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Theologian, Token, Troublemaker: Casting Female Identity in Academic Career Development

This is a guest post from Kate Tomas, DPhil candidate in Theology at Oxford University. It continues the discussion opened by Marika in her post from yesterday. – APS

I read Marika’s post on the SST Gender, Feminism and Theology panel, and as the woman who raised the issue in the first place, (and subsequently had a bad experience as a consequence), I feel the need to respond.

The organizers of the panel, along with Dr Matthew Guest, who was one of the men on the panel, attempted to fix the PR problem I had raised. Their solution was to find a woman – any woman – to be physically present. As Marika knows, I think tokenism is bad, and that tokenism requires tokens, and tokens are actively formed, not simply found. Tokenism complicates women’s agency, and we have to be aware of this when being asked to be a token. 

Having said that, I really think Marika was put in a difficult situation by being asked to be the token. Those who asked her occupied (and occupy) positions of power. Like me, Marika was a graduate student (now a Dr following her viva) and like hundreds of other graduate students, we are both looking for jobs. The organizers of the panel have jobs. They are also potentially in positions to give jobs. As Marika wrote she has ‘often felt that subtle pressure to play nice in both academic and Christian contexts; and I have felt it at SST specifically.’ Asking a female graduate student to be the token woman on a previously all-male panel, just because you have been called out, is more than subtle pressure. Read the rest of this entry »

Universalism and Its Discontents: Thursday, June 5th 12pm EST

Some of you all may enjoy watching a discussion take place between Peter Wolfendale and myself, moderated by Deneb Kozikoski, for the Fixing the Future series of seminars and conferences. Universalism and Its Discontents will be a free one-hour lunch discussion (for those of us on the East Coast anyway!) where we are going to discuss #accelerate with a particular focus on the recent description of their upcoming summer school “Emancipation as Navigation: From the Space of Reasons to the Space of Freedoms” Also, for those who can’t watch live, it will be archived on YouTube for your enjoyment and my eternal embarrassment.

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Zizek’s pedagogy: Or, The id of the academic mainstream

For decades, Zizek has been expressing his disdain for teaching. Now, for whatever reason, people are choosing to get worked up about it on Twitter. What’s striking to me is not merely the fact that Zizek’s views on this matter were already well-known — rather, it’s abundantly obvious that his claims are only slight exaggerations of widespread attitudes in academia.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

I’ve seen a couple theories on Twitter that Zizek is attempting to subvert the teaching profession from within, but if so, he’s remarkably dedicated to the bit — by all reports, he really does neglect his students totally. We don’t need to posit some kind of conscious intention on his part to use his approach as a starting point for reflection, though. It does seem as though most universities do not highly value teaching. They show this through their standards for advancement and through their staffing practices, which treat the majority of teaching faculty as totally disposable. They rely on people’s passion and/or guilt to generate acceptable pedagogical results. Zizek is in a unique position as an academic who can walk away from any faculty position and be totally fine, and that enables him to take the “offer meant to be refused” and treat teaching as a pointless formality compared to his real work. In other words, as ethically objectionable as we might find Zizek’s pedagogical practices, the real problem is the system that makes his approach plausible.

Where the humanities come from

In my previous post, I claimed that “the humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.” Clearly people have been engaging in activities of this type in a variety of settings for as far back as we have written records. Yet I want to suggest that there is a common root or model for most if not all of the humanities disciplines as academic discourses, a kind of Ur-discipline: namely, modern biblical scholarship as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Now before anyone freaks out, I don’t mean to say that humanities disciplines are “secretly religious” in any simplistic way — I’m referring to modern biblical scholarship specifically as a secular discipline. Nor do I mean to say anything about contemporary biblical scholarship, which has changed a lot since the period I’m highlighting.)

The primary goal of modern biblical scholarship during its classical period was to undermine and disqualify traditional theological claims based on Scripture as corruptions of their true historical meaning. Read the rest of this entry »

What are the humanities good for?

Simply because the humanities are often critical in their approach does not mean that they lead people to contest existing political arrangements. Many if not most of the greatest humanistic scholars of all time were enthusiastic advocates — precisely in the context of their scholarly work — of policies that we now regard as self-evidently abhorrent.

Similarly, we should not be misled by the superficial similarities between certain humanistic habits of thought and certain desirable moral dispositions. Humanistic methods of inquiry have no more inherent moral force than do the various methodologies of the natural sciences.

Nor is it prudent to construe the difference between the humanities and other intellectual disciplines that model themselves on the natural sciences as that between the “qualitative” and the “quantitative.” Every intellectual discipline works with empirical facts of some kind (quantitative), and every intellectual discipline relies on concepts and theories (qualitative). And even if we could somehow claim that the humanities had a monopoly on the qualitative aspect as compared to the “merely empirical” sciences, that still would not give us grounds for believing that the humanities are more meaningful and hence that the study of the humanities leads necessarily to a more meaningful life.

In short, the humanities do not have any particular political, moral, or life-enriching tendency “baked in.” What are they good for, then? I don’t think this is particularly hard to answer. The humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.

That may sound deflationary, but it is precisely what happens in the classroom and in scholarly work in the humanities disciplines — and year after year, a significant percentage of students (historically, around 17%) find that activity engaging enough to want to devote the bulk of their college work to it, just as we humanities scholars have devoted our entire lives to it. It is a worthwhile pursuit, which does not have to be reduced to a means to a purely utilitarian end or to be hyperbolically inflated into the key to all human meaning (which amounts to reducing the humanities to a means to an end yet again). Students find the pursuit of humanities disciplines worthwhile and compelling, and those who devote their college career to it have just as good a shot at a successful life as those who found other pursuits more worthwhile and compelling during college.

In an ideal world, the discussion would end there, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m tired now, though, so I’m going to save my thoughts on the causes behind the predicament of the humanities for a future post.

On that one grade inflation article that’s going around

You know, this one. I’ve never faced nearly the level of complaining that some do, perhaps because I’m an old softy and also perhaps because I’m a white dude with a beard. Maybe a combination of the two — one year I should shave and see if it makes a difference.

My general guideline is that the average for a given class should be in the B-range. I’ve had classes that are more at the B+ level and a couple that were closer to B-, but generally it seems about right. The problem I see conceptually, though, is that I don’t have “room” to make the kinds of distinctions I’d like to make. If B is average, then A is “solidly competent” — it’d be nice to have room for “mediocre” (C), “competent” (B), and “exemplary” (A). I wind up skewing it so that “competent” is in the B+/A- range, but obviously students don’t feel like those are similar grades at all. Another problem is that it doesn’t seem like there’s any actual role for a D. The distinctions are harder to make the worse the papers get, so it doesn’t make sense to have a wider range of distinctions on the low end of the scale.

As the article points out, though, however satisfying it would be to recalibrate back to a grading system that actually reflects our sense of the quality of the work, it’s not realistic as long as the stakes are so high. Does a student really “deserve” to lose a scholarship, for example, because one professor is randomly being a hard-ass and grading “correctly”? Do they deserve to have their career prospects permanently blighted?

I don’t think they do, but I can only treat the symptoms by grading according to generally accepted grade inflation practices — the only real solution to grade inflation is to decouple college from debt and brutal meritocratic competition. Then people could study what they want to if they show an aptitude for it, and we could afford to do that because we’re the richest society ever in human history and maybe we can get by with fewer baristas so that people can enrich their lives, get in touch with their cultural heritage, and learn useful skills. It would cost money, but there are huge piles of money in corporate coffers and rich people’s bank accounts that are doing nothing but either sitting there or else promoting asset-price bubbles — so we could just take all that money away from them and do something that contributes to something with a recognizably human meaning and purpose. And then our grades would not be inflated and everyone would be happy.

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