Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New and Forthcoming Publications

I was happy to see that an essay I wrote for the journal Symploke recently became available via Project Muse:

“Anonymity, Authorship, and Blogger Ethics.”

[If anyone who doesn't have access to Project Muse would like me to send you a copy, please let me know by email; I would be happy to send it to you.]

This was something I actually wrote more than two years ago, not long after a series of panels at MLA related to blogging and public intellectual activity. The paper actually began as an MLA presentation, for a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski, in December 2006. In the essay, I bring together literary theory relating to authorship (Barthes, Foucault, and critiques of French theory by scholars like Sean Burke), with context from literary history (the 18th century broadsheet as a predecssor to blogging as a genre), in order think about how the possibility of universal, instantaneous publishability is changing ideas of authorship (not destroying it, but changing it).

I was happy to see that it appears that a student at West Virginia University is already using the article in a paper she's writing: here. (It's part of this course)

I have some other publications coming out soon as well:

"Veiled Strangers: Rabindranath Tagore’s America, in Letters and Lectures." Forthcoming from Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing, 10:1, 2009.

"Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues" Forthcoming from South Asian Review, 2010.

"More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr." Forthcoming from Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2009.

Of those, the Desani article was the most difficult to write; it actually had its start as a blog post I wrote all the way back in 2005. I had submitted it for publication in 2007, only to receive a "revise and resubmit" that seemed very challenging at the time. For various reasons, between 2007 and summer 2009 the paper was simply in limbo. I attacked it again this summer, and sent it off, this time successfully. The version that will be published is much shorter than the original version. Some of the materials I referred to, such as Desani's columns for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1960s, are not easily accessible, and I'm toying with the idea of having them scanned and OCRed for the web.

The Tagore essay goes back even further. It had its seeds in the very first blog post I wrote for Sepia Mutiny, back in 2005. I had given versions of it (in a more scholarly vein, of course) as a talk a couple of times. When the invitation came to send it to "Journeys," I was happy to finally finish it.

Finally, the essay on Nina Paley and the Ramayana was written quickly this past summer, almost on a lark. It brings together scholarship on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition (especially in the two important Paula Richman anthologies) with Nina Paley's animated, postmodern appropriation of the narrative.

In other news, the project I have been doing on Mira Nair is approaching completion; I'm hoping to send off the manuscript this fall. I'm also presenting a paper on the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at the upcoming Modernist Studies Association Conference in Montreal (early November). Finally, I'm presenting at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia at the end of December (a paper on the "open letter" as a literary genre in the era of globalization -- from Sa'adat Hasan Manto to Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga).

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: A Few Reflections

As many readers may be aware, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last weekend. Her friend Cathy Davidson has a tribute, and Duke University Press has noted it as well on its internal blog. I'm sure there will be much more to come from Eve's friends, colleagues, and students in the months to come.

I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).

I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular, and here is a little bit as to how.

1. Variations of "the closet."

First and foremost, Eve Sedgwick’s work pretty much directly inspired my dissertation project, which I originally titled (for myself), “Epistemology of the Religious Closet.” The actual title I used in the finished dissertation was “Post-Secular Subjects.” I later decided I didn’t like the term “post-secular,” and abandoned it, opting instead to a develop the argument that secular authors who engage religion in modern life articulate a distinctively literary approach to secularization, one which cannot come close to abolishing religious the influence of religious texts or practices (in short, a complex genealogy of secularism rather than a “post-secularism”). I published a version of the dissertation in book form in 2006, as “Literary Secularism”; though the top-level argument had changed, it was in many ways still a close version of what it was when I first conceived of it.

The idea came to me, like a shot, while reading Epistemology of the Closet, a book I still think of as perhaps the best example of politicized close reading I have ever encountered. The paragraph that set it off was the following:

Vibrantly resonant as the image of the closet is for many modern oppressions, it is indicative for homophobia in a way that it cannot be for other oppressions. Racism, for instance, is based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases . . . ; so are the oppressions based on gender, age, size, physical handicap. Ethnic/cultural/religious oppressions such as anti-Semitism are more analogous in that the stigmatized individual has at least notionally some discretion – although, importantly, it is never to be taken for granted how much – over other people’s knowledge of her or his membership in the group: one could ‘come out as’ a Jew or Gypsy, in a heterogeneous urbanized society, much more intelligibly than one could typically ‘come out as,’ say, female, Black, old, a wheelchair user, or fat. A (for instance) Jewish or Gypsy identity, and hence a Jewish or Gypsy secrecy or closet, would nonetheless differ again from the distinctively gay versions of these things in its clear ancestral linearity and answerability, in the roots (however tortuous and ambivalent) of cultural identification through each individual’s originally culture of (at a minimum) the family. (75)

In subsequent pages, Sedgwick goes on to use an example of a kind of Jewish closet in Racine’s adaptation of the Book of Esther, in Esther (1691), as a powerful contradistinctive tool. She uses the similarities and differences between the Jewish closet of Racine’s play and the homosexual closet to limn what is in fact the ‘proper’ subject of her analysis.

Reading Eve at that time, I had no ambition or hope of adding anything to what seemed to be an exhaustive consideration of how the closet is central to thinking about the modern discourse of homosexuality. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the idea of a Jewish closet she was alluding to, and mapping it to yet other frontiers: what about other religious closets in other cultural spaces? One thinks, first of all, of the complex embodied expression of religious identity in the Indian subcontinent, and of how fraught that identity can become at times of communal violence, such as the Partition, or the many incidences of communal riots that have followed. Much South Asian literature (and cinema) exploring the legacy of Partition marks this problem; there are numerous scenes where writers describe men being forcibly disrobed by mobs to establish whether they are circumcised or not (Muslims are traditionally circumcised; men from other religious communities traditionally are not). Though this is a very different space from the Victorian prose fiction Eve Sedgwick specialized in, the analytics she developed in Epistemology of the Closet can be a productive starting point for thinking about the strange crossing of sexuality, religious ritual, and raw violence in those South Asian scenarios.

2. Politics; the culture wars

Both during her most productive phase and more recently, a few scholars under the “anti-theory” aegis have attacked aspects of Eve Sedgwick’s work. She was attacked by Roger Kimball, for instance, in Tenured Radicals, after she gave an MLA paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in 1990. (She opens the final published version of that essay, in Tendencies, with a response of sorts to Kimball; see this blog post at The New Yorker.) This was the peak of the culture wars moment, and Eve ably responded to those sorts of kneejerk cultural conservative criticisms, both in her academic work, and in public venues like NPR and even, occasionally, on television.

More recently, I remember seeing a more respectful criticism from Erin O’Connor, in her “Preface to a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” essay in Victorian Studies, which still reflected some doubts about Eve’s latter turn to affect and texture:

Some scholars have begun to question the governing paradigms of the field, most notably Amanda Anderson and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. But as a rule, critics of interpretive paradigms have tended to avoid concluding that paradigms are themselves the problem; instead, they make their analysis of faulty paradigms into the basis for proposing new, ostensibly improved ones. Anderson, for example, devotes her most recent book to promoting "detachment" as an alternative to the popular theoretical rubric of "cosmopolitanism," while Sedgwick concludes her remarkable skewering of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that dominated 1980s and 1990s criticism by recommending a new-age psychoanalytic approach derived from Silvan Tompkins's little-known cybernetic work on shame. But as the far-fetched quality of Sedgwick's peculiar solution shows, the quest for a perfect paradigm is a quest for a methodological grail.

Here O’Connor is referring, approvingly, to Sedgwick’s essay introducing her anthology, Novel Gazing, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” (1997). She’s obviously less enthusiastic about “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins” (1995), an essay she co-authored with Adam Frank. I’ll say a bit more about that in the following section.

I vaguely recall other people saying, in various settings (including the Valve), that they find Eve Sedgwick’s writing opaque and impenetrable, along the lines of the “bad theory writing” charge that is often levied (sometimes, admittedly, by myself) against theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Though I sometimes have to run to a dictionary to look up the words Eve throws out (“saltation”), I actually don’t find Eve’s writing to pose the same problems as Butler or Spivak do.

There is, granted, a slipperiness that sometimes enters in at moments of peak intensity in Eve’s later close readings, and some prodigiously long and complex sentences. But one never feels she is evading the question she’s posed through jargon. Indeed, some of Eve’s more declarative moments, addressing legal matters (see, for example, her engagement with Bowers v. Hardwick in the opening section of Epistemology of the Closet) are models of clarity and intellectual rigor. Eve Sedgwick, in short, uses literary theory jargon appropriately, to engage difficult conceptual problems and make complex arguments, not to hide what might be seen as straightforward assertions behind terminology derived from Lacan/ Derrida/ Foucault. In her later essays, Sedgwick made a pronounced effort to nudge her fellow progressive academics to rethink how our established terminology can in fact be a crutch.

It might seem strange to bring up all this intellectual argument just after Eve Sedgwick has died. But in truth, if you read her works, it's clear that Eve was a gifted and inspired polemicist (a "fighter") in addition to being a brilliant reader of Victorian literature. It seems like a mistake to only acknowledge the people who liked her; in fact, Eve Sedgwick was a fairly controversial figure for many people. Let's not gloss over that.

3. Affect and Texture.

Though I've always found the texture material fascinating, for years I agreed tacitly with the spirit of Erin O’Connor’s response to Eve’s work on shame and affect. The bits and pieces of Sylvan Tompkins’ “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness” Sedgwick and Frank quote in “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold” sounded like beautiful psychoanalytical poetry to me, but hardly the seeds of a post-paranoid critical method:

If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. If you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace

It wasn’t until this very spring that I had a good opportunity and excuse to read Tompkins at greater length, and see better what Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank were interested in; I also came across a good many passages that sound nothing at all like the one above. As I see it, it’s not just Tompkins as a theorist who might potentially be more friendly to gay, lesbian, and queer analyses than are Freud and Lacan. Rather, with his emphasis on “weak theory,” and his ability to autochthonously generate concepts to insightfully describe interpersonal dynamics, Tompkins is a good model (though by no means a “methodological grail”) for how we as critics and teachers can respond to the representation of psychological nuances and embodied emotion (“affect”) in modern fiction, without having to lean on the questionable edifice of Freud/Lacan.

(I would say more about what I’ve been getting from Sylvan Tompkins’ work as I’ve been reading it this spring, but that might be the subject of another post, for another time.)

My project on secularism & religion is perhaps over (though I keep writing things that branch off of it in some way; there’s this essay on E.M. Forster, for instance). But I seem to have started building towards another project that is substantially inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s work, on texture. I posted some early thoughts along those lines a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve sat down with John Lawler’s essays on Rime- and Assonance-coherence (did I ever thank you properly, Bill Benzon?), and I’m starting to expand further into “phono-semantics” -- with a hope of writing up a publishable essay early this summer.

A big challenge remains the fact that texture, unlike most of the other concepts Eve Sedgwick is credited with contributing to literary studies and queer theory over the course of her career, does not seem to have an obvious or essential political application. One can certainly study texture and affect in modern fiction as a “queer” alternative to the repressive hypothesis, as Renu Bora does with Henry James' The Ambassadors, or as Eve herself does with James' "Art of the Novel." But one might also be inclined to pursue it simply because it’s interesting to see how George Eliot, Thomas Hardy (or, in "my own" 20th century, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce) represent the textures of the material world in their works.

Thank you, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For everything.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

"Imagining South Asia" Special Issue Now Available

A long time ago, Prof. Kavita Daiya and I started working on a special issue of the journal South Asian Review, with the topic "Imagining South Asia." After several delays, the issue is finally out. Hopefully the cover should give you some idea of what we were after in the issue:

The source of the image is here.

Here is the table of contents:

Fakrul Alam: "Imagining South Asian Writing in English From Bangladesh"

Savitri Ashok, "Battering Ram, Bruised Nation: Postcolonial Nationalism and the Forsaken Promise of Secularism"

Rajini Srikanth, "South Asia and the Challenge of Intimacy in the Global War on Terror"

Alexandra Schultheis, "Reading tibet: Area Studies, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Human rights"

Bidhan Roy, "From Brick Lane to Bradford: Contemporary Literature and the Production of Asian Identity in Britain"

Lavina Shankar and Rajini Srikanth, "From Multan to Maine: A Conversation with Ved Mehta"

Henry Schwarz, "Resolution, Revolution, Reaction: Reimagining Conflict Transformation Through Art"

Makarand Paranjape, "Imagining India: Aurobindo, Ambedkar, and After"

Kailash Baral, "Identity and Cultural Aporia: Globalization and the Tribes of Northeast India"

Amardeep Singh, "Names Can Wait: Misnaming the South Asian Diaspora in Theory and Practice"

I am putting my own essay online as a PDF if anyone is interested, here. (Needless to say, I would love to hear feedback on the essay if anyone has the time to read it.)

Also, if any of the contributors would like their essays also available online, please let me know.

You can order just the special issue by sending $15 (payable to South Asian Review) to the office of the editor, Professor Kamal Verma, at the University of Pittsburgh. The address to send it to is at this page. For just a few dollars more, you can get an annual individual subscription.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

William Deresiewicz in "The Nation," and a Blogger's Response

Start with William Deresiewicz in The Nation, for what ails the English department, according to him (via English @ Emory).

It's been said many times that English enrollments have declined nationally because of "theory," but that's been shown, I think conclusively, not to be true. (A starting point might be this 2003 ADE report (PDF), which shows that the biggest decline in the number of English majors happened in the 1970s and 80s, though there was some recovery from the losses in the early 1990s -- notably, the peak of the culture wars moment. But the ADE's report also suggests there's been a general decline in the Arts & Sciences as a whole; more and more students are getting degrees in other parts of the university, such as engineering, business, education, and the life sciences. A much smaller proportion of college degrees now are B.A.s than used to be. In short, the problem is not the turn to "theory" or the "epochal loss of confidence" Deresiewicz talks about, but a structural change in American higher education.)

Then, proceed to Ads Without Products, for a blogger's response. The most striking observation for me had to do with the frame -- what does it mean that Deresiewicz is publishing this essay in The Nation?

This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…) (link)

Obviously, one wants to hear the "more on this" part, but there's still quite a bit to chew on here as is.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Blogging and Peer Review -- Noah Wardrip-Fruin's Experiment

In the January 22 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young writes about an experiment being conducted by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a Communications professor at UC-San Diego. Wardrip-Fruin is publishing segments of his book, Expressive Processing, on a blog, with the hope that feedback from commenters might be as effective as traditional peer-review. The book is to be formally published by MIT Press, who are encouraging the experiment, though they are also continuing with a traditional peer-review process as well. Wardrip-Fruin is using the CommentPress feature designed by the Institute for the Future of the Book.

Wardrip-Fruin has started putting sections of his book online at Grand Text Auto. The first chunk (section 1.1) is here. Wardrip-Fruin describes his project as follows:

Luckily, quite a number of books have already been written about digital literature, and many more have been written about digital media more generally. However, almost all of these have focused on what the machines of digital media look like from the outside: their output. Sometimes the output is considered as an artifact, and interpreted in ways we associate with literary scholarship and art history. Sometimes the output is seen in relation to the audience and the wider culture, using approaches from fields like education and ethnography. And there are, of course, a variety of other perspectives. But, regardless of perspective, writings on digital media almost all ignore something crucial: the actual processes that make digital media work, the computational machines that make digital media possible.

On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. Output-focused approaches have brought many valuable insights for those who seek to understand and create digital media. But, on the other hand, it leaves a big gap.

This book is my attempt to help bridge the gap. (link)

After perusing sections 1.2 and 1.3 of Wardrip-Fruin's book, I must admit I'm not sure I get it. What Wardrop-Fruin describes as "processes" seem to me to be mainly programming artifacts. Why not work out a theory of video game narrative using the logic and idiom of the object-oriented programming languages that are used to create the video games in the first place? (Classes, objects, methods, etc.) But again, I should concede that this is not really my thing, theory-wise or thematically.

Wardrip-Fruin is certainly not the first person to blog a book in progress (see Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance), but he may be the first humanities/social sciences academic to do so. Do people know of other examples?

And of course: one wonders whether and how something like this might work with a book on a specifically literary (or literary theory-ish) topic. Wardrip-Fruin's experiment seems to be sustainable partly because he is writing about a digital media theme, and is therefore likely to find readers who are densely involved in the internet; that is not so much the case for scholarly communities in literary studies.

Incidentally, I brought up an idea for a different kind of experiment in blogging/peer review last year, and got a somewhat mixed response.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Mini-Survey for The Academics in the House

My co-editor and I are finally wrapping up the issue of of South Asian Review we've been guest-editing. The essays are in good shape, and we're now working on the introduction.

I wanted to make some comments on the "state of South Asian literary studies," but as I've been writing, it's occurred to me that I don't know a great deal about how widespread "South Asian literature" really is in the North American academy. (In particular, I have a strong suspicion that for the most part the category is folded into the broader category of the "Postcolonial"). So I composed a mini-survey, which I'm also forwarding to friends and to some listservs.

1. Do you teach courses exclusively on South Asian literature on a regular basis? (Or are your South Asian authors generally folded into courses on "postcolonial," "world," or "global" literature?) If you are a student, have you taken such a course recently?

2. Either way, could you send me the titles of courses that in some way involve South Asian authors, and the names of some books/authors you've taught recently (or again, if you're a student, that were included in a course you took).

3. How often do you teach South Asian literature in translation (i.e., from Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, etc.)?

4. Are any South Asian languages taught at the institution where you teach/study?

5. What journals do you know of that specialize in South Asian literature? (The ones I know are South Asian Review and the Annual of Urdu Studies) What about journals that occasionally publish on South Asian authors/themes, among other regional literatures?

6. What journals might you go to if you wanted to publish an essay on a South Asian author or a topic specifically related to South Asian literature?

7. What publishers might you go to if you had a book manuscript on a specifically South Asian literature theme? What is a recent title from that press relating to South Asian literature?

(You could email me your response, or put your answers in the comments.)

Needless to say, if you know of others who teach South Asian literature, I would be very grateful if you could forward this "mini-survey" to them as well. Anyone who responds will get an acknowledgment in the Special Issue of SAR I am guest co-editing. Thanks in advance!

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Writing Dissertations Faster

I'll be the first to admit it -- I rushed my dissertation a bit. I took my qualifying exams in August of 1998, and exactly three years later I defended. And two days after I defended, I started teaching at Lehigh.

Of course, there are good reasons for rushing a bit with an English dissertation. One of the biggest is exactly what is stated in this New York Times piece (which I presume many readers have already seen):

Fighting these trends, and stretching out the process, is the increased competition for jobs and research grants; in fields like English where faculty vacancies are scarce, students realize they must come up with original, significant topics. Nevertheless, education researchers like Barbara E. Lovitts, who has written a new book urging professors to clarify what they expect in dissertations; for example, to point out that professors “view the dissertation as a training exercise” and that students should stop trying for “a degree of perfection that’s unnecessary and unobtainable.” (link)

Of course, the pressure to come up with something original is not trivial. And elsewhere in the same article, it's pointed out that most Ph.D. programs in the humanities (including Lehigh's) require significant teaching commitments from their graduate students. It's hard to write a 200+ page dissertation while also teaching one, or even two classes a semester. Many students, especially those with young children or mortgages to pay, often find they also have to get teaching gigs during the summers to make ends meet. With such commitments, three years on a dissertation can easily become six, eight, or even ten.

Some students take forever to write because they're caught up in the quest for perfection. But far more end up as "tenured grad students" because these other commitments can make a serious focus on research quite difficult.

One of the increasingly popular methods for staying on track in English is the writing group:

Those who insist on dissertations are aware that they must reduce the loneliness that defeats so many scholars. Gregory Nicholson, completing his sixth and final year at Michigan State, was able to finish a 270-page dissertation on spatial environments in novels like Kerouac’s “On the Road” with relative efficiency because of a writing group where he thrashed out his work with other thesis writers.

“It’s easy, especially in our field, to feel isolated, and that tends to slow people down,” he said. “There’s no sense of belonging to an academic community.” (link)

I did not have this; it would have been helpful (indeed, it still might be helpful for me even now), though I do wonder about whether I could have found other dissertating students with whom I could have had productive conversations about work that was often only starting to be coherent.

One new tool for fighting academic isolation that I would suggest might be to find a sense of community online, by blogging the dissertation. It might sound anti-intuitive; several humanities scholar-bloggers I respect have argued that blogging under one's own name while still in grad school might do more harm than good. (The same folks have suggested you should watch out as junior faculty too! Oh well.) Perhaps graduate students interested in this track might get the benefit without the potential harm by blogging about their progress in the dissertation under a pseudonym?


Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Diversity" vs. Affirmative Action

Richard Tapia has an essay on diversity in American academica in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education that I find a bit troublesome. He starts with the Affirmative Action court cases of the 1970s, including The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and then moves on to criticize the inclusion of foreign and "new immigrant" communities under "diversity."

Over all, the rulings on affirmative action in higher education have said that diversity is a legitimate goal of universities, based on the reasoning that the institutions' educational missions can best be carried out with diverse student bodies. On the surface, then, it seems as if representation is in safe hands. However, if universities (and the courts, for that matter) assume that encouraging diversity will encourage representation, they are mistaken.

The term "diversity" has virtually replaced "affirmative action" and "representation" in discussions of minority issues in academe, following the language of the courts. That shift was more than semantic. It was accompanied by a shift in direction.

Whereas affirmative-action policies aimed to solve the problems faced by large segments of the U.S. population in gaining access to higher education, the new emphasis on diversity led to a focus on the representation of many types of people, defined by religion, language, and other cultural attributes. As required by the courts, diversity was interpreted very broadly.

Over time, more and more groups were included under the diversity umbrella. Most notably, diversity took on an international flavor, and diversity programs and activities typically began to emphasize an understanding of the world's many ethnic groups. While the shift away from affirmative action's focus on American diversity and domestic-minority groups may not have been intentional, new efforts toward inclusion are. (link)

I don't think the word "diversity" expanded in quite the way Tapia describes. If anything, the term always included groups other than the underrepresented minorities (Latinos and African Americans) Tapia is talking about. The question is really whether it is the correct tool to achieve the goal Tapia desires; it may not be.

Cynically, one could suggest that schools and universities knew full well what they were doing when they embraced the rhetoric of "diversity" starting in the 1980s -- perhaps it was always intended as a way to dodge the demand for strictly proportionate representation of historically oppressed groups.

But whether or not that's the case, the term "diversity" now decidedly does refer to all forms of ethnic, cultural, and religious difference. And the idea that "diversity" is merely a sell-out or a ruse designed to keep things the way they are doesn't work for me: diversity for its own sake does have benefits in higher education.

That said, there is some statistical support for Tapia's position in another Chronicle article, which is probably only free for a short time:

In 2005, 109,964 U.S. minority scholars held full-time faculty positions at American colleges and universities, up from 69,505 in 1995, according to the Education Department — a 58-percent increase. The proportion of minority scholars in the overall professoriate also rose, but not as much. The department found that 16.5 percent of scholars were from minority groups in 2005, up from 12.7 percent in 1995. The increase in the proportion of U.S. minority scholars lagged well behind the increase in raw numbers because the number of white and nonresident-alien scholars also rose during the decade. The department includes both U.S. citizens and resident aliens (noncitizens who are permanent residents) in its racial categories, but lists nonresident aliens separately.

Hispanics and Asians experienced the greatest percentage growth: Some 22,818 Hispanics and 48,457 Asians held full-time faculty positions in 2005, both up at least 75 percent from 1995. The growth over that decade for American Indians and black scholars was slightly lower: Some 35,458 black scholars had full-time positions in 2005 (up by nearly a third from 1995), as did 3,231 American Indians (a 50-percent increase). (link)

The key figure: of the 110,000 "minorites" teaching in academia, nearly 50,000 are Asians, while only 35,000 are black. There is, obviously, a demographic discrepancy there.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Canon Wars Redux

There are many good points made in Rachel Donadio's NYTSBR essay, "Revisiting the Canon Wars." Her argument, which is really more a skeleton that allows her to get quotes from fifteen different academics, is that the issues raised by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the book that started the first strong reactionary thrust in the Culture Wars, are still relevant to humanities academics even now that the dust has apparently settled somewhat. (Or perhaps we've all just become more dusty, I don't know.)

First, there's a great quote from John Searle:

Searle also noted a “certain irony” that the Western canon, from Socrates to Marx, which had once been seen as “liberating,” was now seen as “oppressive.” “Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude,” Searle wrote, “the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. ... The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.”

I'm not sure that's true -- the purpose of a Canon, one could just as easily argue, is to create a bourgeois consciousness. Only the earlier generation of "leftyprofs," I think, felt the point was to unmask that consciousness rather than nurture it.

In one sense the debate has been superseded by what's happened in American universities since the 1980s, which is a growing sense that the humanities constitute only a minor component, rather than the core. Other segments of the university -- the sciences, business, engineering -- get the lion's share of funding (they also generate their own funds), and also the lion's share of the university administration's attention. Humanities academics are now in some sense all on the same side -- we have to prove we're still relevant:

All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”

It's rare that I see a Louis Menand or Martha Nussbaum quote I don't like, and this is no exception.

The second section of the essay gets into some more specific Canon questions, and brings quotes from Stanley Fish, Philip Roth, Michael Berube, Gerald Graff, Tony Judt, and John Guillory. There is some of the usual to-and-fro over Toni Morrison and identity politics. I think Gerald Graff's point is worth considering:

To some, another question is how to get students to read critically in the first place. “What does it profit progressives to get minority writers like Walker and Black Elk into the syllabus if many students need the Cliffs Notes to gain an articulate grasp of either?” asked Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written on the canon wars.

Arguably, the way to make sure students have the tools to interpret great works of literature by Shakespeare and James Joyce and Salman Rushdie is to put more emphasis on interpretive method, not to go back to only teaching Shakespeare. This might be something that conservatives and progressives in the English department could all agree on, if, first, conservatives could be convinced that everything wouldn't be better if the English Department restored its old, Canon-backed "prestige" (most of our students aren't aware that it's gone). As for what "progressives" need to be convinced of, it gets a little more complicated. It's more than just identity politics -- "disciplinary balkanization" might be a more accurate way to describe what ails us.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Congratulations to ... Lehigh

Yes, one shouldn't take these things too seriously, but it's kind of cool that Lehigh's U.S. News ranking is now 31 in the nation for research universities -- the highest it's ever been.

Several colleges in the Lehigh Valley signed on to the anti-rankings campaign group (Lafayette, Moravian, Muhlenberg), generally referred to as the "Annapolis Group." Nationwide, most of the colleges that are rejecting the U.S. News approach are small liberal arts colleges, which frequently have excellent undergraduate teaching, but not the kinds of material resources that lead to a high ranking.

There's also the whole dubious matter of the "reputation" survey, where college presidents are asked to do their own ranking based on reputation. I think the U.S. News system would gain back quite a number of schools in the Annapolis Group if it were to simply remove this aspect of the surveys that are used to compile the rankings.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Recycling While Brown

Given what happened last week in Virginia, the events described in this post might seem trivial, but I feel quite strongly that they are not. What's at issue is a fundamental question of civil rights -- the right to live one's life without being harrassed, investigated, or needlessly spied on.

The Indian-American poet Kazim Ali teaches at Shippensburg University, which is a little west of Harrisburg, PA.

On his website (and at Inside Higher Ed), Ali recently posted an account of being detained for "suspicious" behavior. The behavior in question? Recycling. He was doing nothing other than dropping off a stack of printouts of poems to be recycled when someone from the campus ROTC called the police:

A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.

Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white Beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has New York plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don't have the heart to take off these days, says "Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America."

Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us safe. [...]

One of my colleagues was in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened. She heard my description--a Middle Eastern man driving a white beetle with out of state plates--and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. She approached them and told them I was a professor on the faculty there. Immediately the campus police officer said, "What country is he from?"

"What country is he from?!" she yelled, indignant. (link)

I've had just about enough of these incidents. Don't the campus police at Shippensburg U. have a minimum criterion for "suspicious"? Was it necessary to call the state police and the bomb squad? A faculty member dropping off a box of papers by a recycling bin at a semi-rural university simply ought not to have to deal with this kind of nonsense. It's just insane.

It must have been a harrowing experience, but fortunately it ended without further incident, and Ali was released.

The University wrote a statement to Ali following this incident, but Kazim Ali isn't at all satisfied with it, presumably because the university wouldn't want to acknowledge that Ali's race was a factor in an incident where his civil rights may have been violated:

The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."

What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall--who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a days work? Today we gave in willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.

The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.

It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled. (link)

"Fascism" is a strong word, but sometimes you need to go there. Perhaps the key difference is, at least here the police have to adhere to basic concepts of due process. In a truly fascist society, none of that would apply. (We could, of course, debate matters such as Guantanamo Bay, CIA secret detention facilities, the practice of "rendition," and the currently blurry line between "interrogation techniques" and torture. None of those practices by themselves make the U.S. a "fascist" society, but they do call into question the nature of American democracy.)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Professors and Troubled Students

At least five of the people who lost their lives in yesterday's tragic shooting at Virginia Tech were faculty. G.V. Loganathan came to the U.S. from India in 1977; Abhi has a post on him at Sepia Mutiny. Liviu Librescu was, as has been widely reported, a survivor of the Holocaust, and is also reported to have placed himself in the way of the gunman -- saving student lives. Three other faculty members who were killed include Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Kevin Granata, and Christopher James Bishop.

It's been widely mentioned that the shooter responsible for yesterday's deaths was an English major. In fact, members of the English department at Virginia Tech are being mentioned in some recent media reports. Cho Seung-Hui took creative writings classes at the university, and what he wrote apparently was found to be quite disturbing to his professors. Here's the New York Times:

Caroyln Rude, the chair of the English Department, said that she had spoken to a professor who taught Mr. Cho and was told that the general impression of him was that he was “troubled.”

“There were signs that he was troubled,” she said. “And the English Department at one point did intervene.”

She said that it related to something he wrote in a creative writing class but did not give details about what was written or what kind of intervention was taken, only that it was some time ago, before she was made chair of the department.

“Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

She said she had not seen what he wrote and said that she could not make public such personal information about a student.

Without going into the specifics of this case, she said that often when there is an intervention the incident is reported to either the counseling center or the dean of students.

“We are not psychologists,” she said. (link)

There are also articles to this effect at The Chronicle of Higher Education (via Gwynn Dujardin), and Inside Higher Ed.

Professor Rude makes a good point: it's not really a professor's job to take responsibility if and when it appears that a student may be disturbed. Since academia has been thoroughly professionalized, there is the presumption of a strict line between a professor and the lives of his or her students outside the classroom. And in this case, it appears that the English department did make an attempt to contact the administration, encouraging counseling for Cho Seung-Hui.

But the nature of creative writing classes in particular -- where the personal lives and psychic dispositions of students are often in the foreground -- makes that line a little blurrier, does it not? Shouldn't the rules be different for teachers whose students are engaged in creative activity?

More generally, I wonder if this recent shooting might suggest a rethinking of the current "hands off" academic culture, especially if a tendency to commit acts of violence is suggested. I'm not suggesting that professors be asked to play the role of substitute parents, but rather that greater emphasis could be placed on building community belonging and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. What that means in practice is difficult to say. There's a fair potential for abuse; young men in particular tend to experiment with representations of violence when they first start out as writers, and we certainly don't need "interventions" every time that happens. But it's also hard to simply conclude that nothing can be done, even with students who show signs of extreme, anti-social behaviour like Mr. Cho.

Any suggestions from readers?

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Blog Peer Review -- Interesting Twist

Last week I put up a brief post on The Valve, outlining a possible system for introducing peer-review to blogs. It generated a few comments, and not very much excitement.

Interestingly, while my colleagues in the humanities seem to be lukewarm to the idea, the post has been taken up by a couple of science-oriented blogs. One is Peer to Peer, a blog hosted by, which focuses on the debate over what is called "open peer review" in the sciences. Another is a blog called "Cognitive Daily", where there are some excellent comments. One of the big questions that everyone is considering is how to make "open peer review" work.

A really tantalizing project that came out of a limited blog peer-review project in the science blogging community is the Scienceblogging Anthology, which has been packaged and prepared for sale as a book on, a site that prepares and prints books-on-demand. This is a more limited approach to blog peer review, but by having a fixed goal (a collection!) they get around the problem of motivations for reviewers. They also circumvent conventional publishing tracks, which seems sensible given that the entire contents of the book are also freely available online.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Postcolonial Journals

(This post is mainly for the academics in the audience)

Following is a short list of "Postcolonial" oriented journals. Now that my book is out, I'm planning to focus on writing some articles, which means, to begin with, getting a better sense of what's actually out there.

There is a useful feature in the MLA Bibliography search, where you can search by "Periodical Subject." If you search for "postcolonial," 34 journals show up, and I've been exploring them. (I don't know why I never tried this before; one of my colleagues showed me how). On the individual entries for the journals, MLA actually gives very specific information as to how long articles should be, what the turn-around rate is, and what the submission/acceptance ratio is.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing

Hybridity: Journal of Cultures, Texts, and Identities does not seem to have a website. It is published in Singapore.

Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. I published a review with them some time ago.

New Literatures Review is published in Australia.

Textual Practice is not a specifically postcolonial journal, though it does list "postcolonial" as one of its keywords.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Ariel: A Review of International Literature; it is published in Calgary. This is one of the preeminent postcolonial journals; they are highly selective.

Wasafiri. I've published an essay with them; they are good (also preeminent, if I can say so myself).

Kunapipi. Another Australian poco journal.

Postcolonial Text. It's online-only, but it is peer-reviewed.

Postcolonial Studies.

Jouvert is defunct -- I'm curious to know what happened there.

South Asian Review. I'm editing a special issue for them this year; I'm also on the Advisory Board.

* * *
Paul Brians has a list that includes a few other journals on his site at Washington State University.

And there's another list here.

Can anyone think of other journals they would recommend?

Secondly, do readers have experiences with these journals they would like to share? (feel free to comment anonymously, if you prefer)

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