28 October 2007

The Grain of the Voice

My 9th grade English teacher, a tall lanky Italian American man I would spend hours mooning over (the large hairy forearms, the little tuft of chest hair that would emerge just north of his shirt collar as he leaned over my desk, his high tight ass under his drab chinos as he wandered in front of the chalk board), wrote on my mid-term progress report, regarding my performance: “A smart student who is also pedantic and condescending.” Only fourteen and already big with the attitude. Unfamiliar with the art of the backhanded compliment, I needed to look up the word “pedantic” in the dictionary, and was suitably impressed with myself. Why, yes, I thought, that describes it pretty well. And the rest, as they say, is when her real troubles began.

This pedantry continues, obviously, into my adult life, although modulated by a Forsterian desire to connect rather than impress exclusively, to bring people into the circle of intellectual recognition, the warmth of that particular fire, as opposed to excluding them. Even if this is a laudable goal, it is a hard one to achieve, and one that is not universally applicable in all situations, as the lamentable example of Leonard Bast proves. Quite clearly, many academics use their erudition to establish a boundary between the unwashed rabble and ourselves as the intellectual elect. When this happens in the classroom, it can be inspiring or destructive or both at the same time, and may in fact be one reason why academics are so hated in our society. Historically, Americans seem to have little patience for book learnin’. It chafes against our narratives of parthenogenesis.

My stylistic and linguistic pedantry of long-standing might also be the origin of the latest hot rumour at Cold City U. that I am not planning on returning to campus following my fellowship year, that they should just reassign my office because I am “outtie.” I am considered “too smart” for Cold City U. Is this true, I wonder? Ultimately, no, because most academics are smart and indeed most academics also work with students who lack élite training, but it seems more a question of style than actual smartness. I am “too smart” in relation to the way the institution sees itself, which of course is more about the institution than me. Ironically, the old Greeks at Sadistic College thought I wasn’t smart enough for that bordelle, which I suppose is a way of saying in the end there is no winning. Smartness, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder.

I would like to think I have struck a balance between the two sides of egghead élite and rabble, through reports from course spies that describe unedited student commentary as “he’s really smart and uses big words, but isn’t an asshole about it.” But for every student brought into the warmth of the intellectual fire, there is no doubt another who feels that such performances are showboating in the worst sense. If only students knew that many of us actually talk and think this way in private as well as in public, they might be a little less anxious. At least in my circle, the intellectualism of verbal language continues to the most minor things, shopping lists and emotional problems and the weather. On the tongue of the lively academic, language lives a life that is rarely does outside of literature.

The other day, in a community meeting, I used the word “Zeitgeist” and afterwards, was approached by people who expressed admiration of my use of words they had only ever read. Stunned and not a little embarrassed, I thought of the lists of vocabulary words in 12th grade AP English, of the crafting of unfamiliar sounds and meanings, of the thrill of discovering the myriad ways in which we can express ourselves. I had not, at the time, thought this special, but do now.

I have been thinking of these intellectual and linguistic personae more lately, the performance of erudition, because this semester, like some others, I have been utilizing blogging as a course assessment in my class. My students had the option of maintaining a blog for the course, and I too as the instructor maintain a “course blog,” that offers extracurricular commentary on class readings, discussions, and ideas. This double blogging (course blogging and this blog) has been both interesting and exhausting, and curiously, I have come to feel ambivalent about class blogging in a way I didn’t when I carefully designed the assignment.

For one, it is clear that the development of a written voice is essential to blogging. Those of us who blog regularly know this aspect of the medium, and are drawn to it, I would suppose, because of the expositional and narrative possibilities. Some of my students have taken to the genre like fish to water, and are, as they say, natural bloggers. In fact, when I designed the assignment, I thought this would be true of most of my students, imbued in social networking and online chat and Instant Messaging. This, however, was a misapprehension. Aside from those natural bloggers, who typically are also either gabby or strongly opinionated students in real life (IRL), some of my student bloggers have had trouble crafting themselves in the genre. On Friday, I had an early morning appointment with a student, a smart dedicated young woman, who admitted she was having trouble figuring out how to blog and what to blog about.

We had a long conversation on models, ideas, generating thinking. But the simple fact of the matter is that it is hard, if one is not naturally drawn to electronic media, to sustain something like a blog. When I was writing the guidelines for the assignment, in late summer, I knew there would be an adjustment period for some students, but in fact this adjustment period is, for some, not temporary. The simple fact of the matter is that some of these students are not bloggers, and would have been better served by the traditional writing option (you know, papers and stuff).

The rules for course blogging are in the end very similar to something I have begun to think about the blogosphere: One must start with voice to become fluent in developing voice. In other words, and for the most part, voice cannot develop in electronic media unless it already exists on some level elsewhere, verbally or politically or socially or on the written page. It is no accident that my most successful course bloggers are those who already come equipped with fire and music. These personae communicate themselves strongly on the web page, whereas the more mild students suffer under their light (all the course blogs are linked, and so students are reading each others’ blogs as well as my course blog).

The relationship of the course blog to the student blogs was originally one of modeling, but as I now review several weeks of entries, I return to the concept of pedantic alterity, the difference between myself and my students, not only grounded in the fact that I am a regular blogger here (which my students, obviously, do not know about), but also through the differences of articulation and voice grounded in electronic media but flowing from other sources as well. I have been very happy with my course blog, but realise that on some level it is also ridiculous: incredibly erudite entries that, while short, no doubt must remain, for some students, opaque. In other words, in many ways my course blog is like this blog.

The voice carries over, curiously, from Oso Raro to the man, the professor I am IRL. The illusion, the performance of persona on this blog becomes more concrete on the other blog, the course blog, with a real life picture and a public identity, but what is the connection between Oso Raro of Slaves of Academe and Professor Oso IRL, between Oso here and Oso there? Not surprisingly, even though there is a greater public identity on the course blog (which is written under my real name), it is a voice modulated and yes, restricted, by a rigourous professionalism. I am, natürlich, the professor, and must maintain that performative mask in ways that change and shift the voice of the course blog away from Slaves of Academe. They are both real, both the real me, but the course blog feels less so, or rather perhaps and ironically, more performative than here.

The course blog was meant to facilitate further discussion, and I think in some senses it does, but in another way it serves the more traditional exercise of establishing differences between professor and student that by their very nature are intimidating. And in the end, I’m not sure how I feel about that effect: is it helpful? Is it useful? Or does it result in confirmation of long-held conceptions of egghead difference, inscrutable ideas meant to obfuscate, not clarify? Pedantry has a bad reputation, but I do think there are better and worse variations of it.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that I am ambivalent on the uses of course blogs as assessment tools. I’m not sure that it doesn’t put certain students at a disadvantage, and I’m not sure that it has been as effective as I would have hoped in terms of bringing web-based media and information into the classroom. But the concept of voice remains at the heart of my ambivalence, both my students and my own, as we venture tentatively into the electronic frontier together.


E said...

back in the daze of sydney living and big uni honours thesis, before planes flew into buildings and my soul returned to the original town of damage (tm) I was arguing that blogs and foucault's writings on the care of the self formed an intriguing relationship - that they shaped and modified the self, restrained and produced the self, enabled and yet kept under surveillance the self - ostensibly to a public world but with an internalised panopticon.
i think it still holds - that what is produced is a work but also a work on the self, and, as you write, there has to be a work there, a voice to be worked with...

Lesboprof said...

I have always been struck by the tone and erudition of your blog voice. I would not call you pedantic, but cultured, thoughtful, challenging, and reflective.

In my own life, my public voice (the one I use with friends, colleagues, and students) is much more straightforward and crude than my academic writing voice. My blog voice, I believe, is somewhere between the two. Perhaps the nature of the blog voice is shaped by my personal commitment to informality, directness, and a general sense of positive thinking in my real life. That said, I also enjoy words, and I have a large vocabulary that sometimes slips out. My partner, while quite smart, sometimes has to ask me about specific words that I use.

I find that my speech and writing reflects what/who I am reading at the time. Perhaps I should spend more time reading your blog?! My style might become more complex and perhaps even pedantic as well! ;-)

adjunct whore said...

interesting reflection, especially the origins--i love that people imagine you too smart for your job.

i've thought of using blogs in courses, but the truth is that it is my own, and something i share with other writers and self-fashioned personaes of another realm. i read your early post about the uses of blogging, the peformance, and the metaphor--and these are aspects of blogging i cherish. the connections made, the creative aspect of blogging, the individual and then communal aspect of it is not something i would want to labor over with students.

they, i imagine, too have thier own blog worlds, or at least facebook worlds.

adjunct whore said...

sorry for "their"

Cero said...

I've had my blog called pedantic more than once and it is really just about trying to write clearly and have facts straight.

Sisyphus said...

Another lovely post ---- so, is that origami crane on the notebook a secret hint to us that you are, in fact, a replicant?

Carol Guess said...

I'm new to blogging, and not sure that my (printed) voice translates well. But in my limited experience with assigning blog assignments to students, I've found blogs useful for creative writing but not so useful for academic writing. My creative writing students enjoyed the thrill of immediate publication; of giving each other assignments; of writing in persona; of writing very rough drafts that could be shaped, later, en route to print. With theory/literature classes, I've found blogging less useful. My GLBT course blog is mostly a means to make adjustments to the syllabus, to post handouts, etc.
Is this about voice? I think so, because I think students struggle with academic voice, see it as somehow "other" than their own voice, while in creative writing there's the option of writing in one's "real" voice (whatever that means).
Your blog continues to fascinate me, because you do what my favorite theorists (Butler, Sedgwick, Foucault) do: you make philosophical concepts fun. It's that simple, really. In each entry you've got a series of philosophical observations, which you explain and elaborate on with detailed examples and images. I really think this blog should/could be a book; I don't think I'm naive about publishing (lots of books to my credit), and I mean it when I say you should query some of the better presses (Routledge, U. of Wisconsin) publishing Queer Studies. Any sensible editor would be all over this. Try R. Kadushin at Wisconsin, for eg.

Cero said...

I can see where it would be better for creative than academic writing, for the reasons Carol gives.

I've got a course blog but I do not make it mandatory to post - I started it because the university's course management software went to pot and I never liked it anyway.

Some students like to post and others don't, and those who like to post are the same as those who like to speak up in class.

I like blogging as a prelude to academic writing but I may be unusual. I always liked to take notes on a typewriter, and my favorite literary genre is the abstract. With a blog, I can write a bunch of abstracts, essentially, and then knit them together into an article ... much easier.

db said...

The guts of this beautiful post for me: voice is a powerful thing, built over a long time, and although we want to help our students find it, it is not something that can be magically coaxed out mimetically.

One of the things I think I learnt most from feminism is how the politics at stake in that subjective voice, each sentence so full of history and difference, can't be approached directly, except in good company. This post resonates with my own experience that the classroom is something different than the meeting of generic teacher and student, a trope that even myself in the cultural politics game sometimes falls for. As you point out, the performance is only greater in that space, but as it should be - just as the case study perhaps teaches more than the rl experience, so the performance can give us some distance on the connection with those who will click into our energy/intensity implicitly, and allow us to activate something in others who might treat our less mediated responses with fear or suspicion. Not quite sure where that's going, except to say there is a lot more at stake than the relentless talk of "participation" that comes from the Tech-Ed 2.0 crowd pumping blogging as a classroom saviour.

Z said...

e - on the shaping of self, etc., yes. It is exactly why I have the blog.