Practicing Deconstruction Responsibly

I think deconstruction, when practiced well, is both destruction and construction. Derrida's later work provides numerous examples of such positive practice. But this would just get us into a tired, commonplace exchange.

In terms of changing the University, I am quite concerned about the increase of standardization, particularly in terms of assessment. I told my class Tuesday night that assessment is becoming the new "excellence" (in Bill Readings' very particular conception of the term). This might not be the case for you, since you work at a small, private school.

But Florida is a bureaucratic nightmare (I've been trying to get a course approved for two years! Its on committee 3 of 6. That is not an exaggeration). Additionally, the administration is calling for rubrics to assess all classes and levels of instruction; they want us to demonstrate "inter-relator reliability" for dissertations. We try to explain that this is near impossible: on the last round of PhD exams, for instance, I am the only person really qualified to assess the quality of a classical response; the other people on the committee specialized in composition theory. And I had to spend a week reading up on the student's list so I could evaluate the quality of the responses.

No matter how hard we try to explain the narrowness of our specializations, they just frown at the deviations in our numbers. No matter how much we argue that our work is aesthetic and indeterminate, they expect evaluation to operate according to definitive measures. It gets frustrating.

But that's how I am practicing deconstruction here, by identifying the presupposition that grounds "assessment as excellence." Those grounds are that aesthetic disciplines can be quantitatively measured. Elements of these disciplines can be--but ultimately I believe we teach processes of engagement more than we teach products of knowledge. I might be in the minority on such a position, but I don't think so. Note--there's nothing wrong with assessment, nor could a University likely operate without it, but there's assessment as operation and then assessment as meta-narrative. There is no absolute, determinate line between the former and the latter. To honor such indeterminacy, we need to keep attending to where that line might be (keep it in language so that it keeps moving in the fore ground, so that we are aware of its stake as a grund).

Such deconstruction (as challenge) does risk defacing my commitment to Levinas's ethics--but I challenge the other in this case out of defense for an other other (a neighbor), my students. My primary commitment is in providing them the best education possible, and I believe the best education is one that responds (holds itself responsible) to the students--providing them the most paths, the most freedom to develop. I don't think the emphasis on standardized outcomes does this. In fact, I think it is a violent reduction of pedagogical possibilities. That's why, as I concluded in my previous post, I am willing to fight. But I also try to keep my argument as open to the other as possible--recognizing the legitimacy of their mission, recognizing that it might be quite applicable for others, recognizing that I cannot with assurance dismiss their claims. I am willing to discuss. As I describe Levinas--I am trying to create a mood, a disposition, out of which a positive exchange could take place.

On another note, I'm looking forward to picking up Nussbaum's book, Not-for-Profit as the reviews I've read (from a variety of perspectives) seem to be quite positive. I think they will support my preference for skills based conception of the humanities. I quibbled with Nussbaum's conception of "world citizens" as a grad student, since it seems to replicate a homogenizing cosmopolitanism and re-centers the human in first position (I would prefer instead "citizens of the world," which holds out for the possibility that the world is larger than the people on it). Regardless, I believe Nussbaum's Socratic/deconstructive interrogation of the Humanities early 21st century travails will attract attention. And these days, attention is everything, right?


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Totally love it. I agree with everything here. I think what happened there yesterday in the comments section was just quibbling over terminology, because I wholeheartedly hear and endorse what you're saying, whether we call it deconstruction or not.

[...your first paragraph today seems to indicate that "whatever Derrida did" is sort of definitive of Deconstruction. For me, knowing only what I know about Derrida from you, I was just imagining that turn toward the end as a more *definitive* turn--ultimately moving "beyond" or "past" or "through" simple deconstruction. If he performed "positive practice" later in his career, I guess I'd be more comfortable calling that "ethical philosophy," or something, but again--I'll gladly concede this point by way of deference to your expertise!]

We're not quite that mired in bureaucracy, but close. All of the "accreditation" procedures seem like a racket to me.

But anyway, here's the image I take away from this: starting in the 19th century, a big tower was erected... and as it grew taller, as we added to it, it got unstable. So now we'd like to dissemble some of the structures at the top, in hopes of reducing the overall height.

To me, that seems like the best thing deconstruction can do--a hugely important thing, no doubt! But it's not a whole new model, right?

So now I'm with you again!--lead the charge!

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Once again, what starts as a comment ends up a post.