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.