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?


Institutional Responsibility

The other day a colleague and I were discussing what to teach in this post-postmodern age, generally agreeing that rehashing the theory-science wars was counterproductive, and that teaching deconstructive critique (as a purely epistemological exercise) was out of steam. See Latour. But I did urge that practicing deconstruction be considered as a still important element of our being instituted, being in institutions, instituted beings. Such play is obnoxious. But I think it important to remember, across Burke's "way of seeing is a way of not seeing" that the institution continues to enforce barriers and boundaries instituted in the late 19th century. For all the talk of postmodernity, the University changed little, if at all, in its expectations and operations.

In preparing for my graduate class tonight on Contemporary Rhetorics, I chose to read Derrida's "University in the Eyes of its Pupils" (in a move toward post-pedagogy, each student was asked to read three different essays related to postmodern theory, their choice). I first read this piece in Thomas Rickert's Institutional Rhetoric course, and I must say it remains my favorite Derrida essay. At one point, Derrida makes an argument that I think succinctly expresses Heidegger/Lyotard/Reading's critique sof an increased technological/efficient/excellent university and Foucualt's arguments for how the increased discursive-institutional dispersion of power complicates resistance. Derrida:

A State power or the forces that it represents no longer need to prohibit research or to censor discourse, especially in the West. It is enough that they can limit the means, can regulate support for the production, transmission, and diffusion. The machinery for this new "censorship" in the broad sense is much more complex and omnipresent than in Kant's day, for example, when the entire problematics and the entire topology of the university were organized around the exercise of royal censorship. Today, in the Western democracies, that form of censorship has almost entirely disappeared. The prohibiting limitations function through multiple channels that are decentralized, difficult to bring together into a system. The unacceptability of a discourse, the noncertification of a research project, the illegitimacy of a course offering are declared by evaluative actions: studying such evaluations is, it seems to me, one of the tasks most indispensable to the exercise of academic responsibility, most urgent for the maintenance of its dignity.

A few posts ago, I made mention to Richard Miller's open ended slow reading, something I would equate with the arguments for post-pedagogy advocated by Byron Hawk and Thomas Rickert. But we have to be ready to fight for such possibilities, because I fear the increasing drive for "excellence" (scare-quoted to summon the specter of Readings) in assessment will not be open to the open-ended and student-directed. It wants teleological ends and directed students. In an atmosphere of accountability and expediency, teachers teach and students learn from teachers--how can students learn and teachers learn from students? I don't think the Power that is will legitimate the impetus of such a question.

But I increasingly feel the call to fight for it.


The Multitude Speaks

Today, before heading out of the office, I wanted to check Facebook. And, oh my, I got a big DNS error page. Surprised, I turned to almighty Google with the search "Facebook DNS failure." Lo and behold, Google's top response was a twitter feed displaying dozens of people tweeting the DNS failure (including a witty "not a good omen for The Social Network's opening weekend). There's truth, multitude style--even if it isn't necessary True. (Que Casey's rejection of everything).

Steven Johnson and Creativity

Meg sent me this short YouTube promotion for Steven Johnson's upcoming book on creativity. Its worth the time. My one-line response: one book's distraction is one browser's connection.

I like this talk because I've been thinking of Richard Miller's recent discussion of "slow reading" (which I discovered browsing through Facebook, and then browsing over at the Blogora). From what I gather, Miller developed the idea out of Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text (in my quick searching, I couldn't find anything by Miller on this subject, but I did find a recent ADE Bulletin article by Jonathan Culler on Close Reading). From what I gather from reading about it, Miller's idea is for students to read one book over the course of the semester (about 15 pages a week). There's no pre-planned syllabus, student assignments develop from the reading on an idiosyncratic basis, negotiated by teacher and student. As a commenter on Facebook gestured, I have a fun time thinking about how USF's recently minted "Office of Assessment" would respond to such an idea (but I dwell in a completely enframed, technological, bureaucratic UNIverse). Such an idea, however, seems connected to the premise of Johnson's upcoming book--that great ideas are a result of careful contemplation and chaotic encounter.

Thankfully, today, our libraries provide opportunity for both.


Visual Rhetoric InDesign Project

I'm teaching an undergraduate course in Visual Rhetoric for the first time at USF this semester. Our first few projects involved analysis and manipulation in photoshop. Our fourth project requires students to work in groups of 4 to design a cover and typography for a work in public domain using InDesign. We're going to watch an episode from Bravo's Work of Art this summer in class today as a way of introducing the project.

My guess is that others out there have tried a similar project--I'd appreciate any commentary you might be able to provide. I use this project to introduce concepts of visual research, teamwork, and to get them to play with a new technology. Here's the assignment sheet:

Assignment 4: InDesign Project

Dr. Marc C. Santos | ENC 3310 | Fall 2010

Our 4th major project is our first team project. You will be placed in teams of 3 to complete this project. The project has two major stages: pitch presentation and delivered product.

The final group deliverable will be an InDesign file (.indd); individuals will submit a Project 4 Postmortem. Each group will be responsible for selecting a work from the Gutenberg Top 100 downloads (all works in public domain) and giving it a modern re-design fit for print publication.

What Needs to Be Done for Monday, September 30th

Next Monday your project has to give an 8 to 10 minute presentation on your text that includes at least 3 design possibilities for the final project. The presentation should also cover whatever genre research you have compiled for your project (I am expecting 8 to 10 different images). Research should also speak to genre trends—think about size, color, font selections. In the presentation, you might want to have some kind of chronology that speaks to recent republications. Someone might want to look into font sizes typical for print publications. Start looking at books like a good chef eats.

All group members should speak for at least a portion of the presentation (although speaking time does not have to be evenly distributed). Following your presentation, the class (emulating a corporate board) will vote for which of the mock-ups they would like to see continued to completion.

The visual portion of the research presentation should be collected into some kind of media that can be “turned in” for evaluation (be it a website, a powerpoint, a prezi, a flash presentation, etc). Additionally, each group should design a handout for the presentation (note: too much text can make a handout difficult to read, too little can make it useless). Grading for the visual presentation will be based on: 1) the sophistication of the visual used in class, 2) the depth/quality of research grounding design decisions, 3) the quality of the mock-up selected by the class for additional development, 4) the professionalism and preparation of the group’s presenters.

What Needs to Be Done for Monday, October 4th

The group will email me one InDesign File (.indd) containing their project. A finished project will include a front and back cover design (fit for paperback printing), formatting for the book’s first 100 pages (if you are doing a book, this should be a minimum of 2 chapters). In addition to the cover, the book should include page numbers. If you are working with a book longer than 100 pages, there is no need to format all of the text.

The group project email should also include any research files or working files used to complete the project. InDesign is by and large a “finishing” technology. Groups will likely have to use other technologies (Photoshop for image editing, Word for rtf formatting) to create their projects.

Additionally, every person will turn in a Project 4 Postmortem sheet that documents their time spent on the project and speaks to group dynamics. This form will be distributed on Monday, September 30th.

How to Turn it in

As usual, a completed project should be sent to me on Sunday, October 3rd, at 11:59 pm. Please include your team name in the subject line. Postmortems should be sent in at the same time and include the team name in the subject line.


That's Not O.K. Purdue Exponent

So I am a fan of Lanham's theory of Attention Economy (link to interview) and I tend to enjoy a raunchy joke. As other's have noted, Purdue's student newspaper, the Exponent recently tried their hand at both. In a perverse way, they succeeded at both.

To the former, they have attracted at lot of eyeballs. I am contributing to that exposure. Controversy has gravitational pull.

There might be a context in which the cartoon (and I link back to Mxrk, since I can't find a copy online), might be a critical commentary on an atmosphere of hyper-masculine conquest generated by contemporary youth culture. Maybe. But this ad, as many others on Facebook note, seems pretty happy with itself. There doesn't seem to be a trace of irony to be found.

Hence the latter perversity. Its all too cliche for me to even spell it out here. In fact, it is so over the top, that it almost seems biblical to me (see how sex has become so impersonal, see how we have embraced debauchery, etc). It commands such a conservative heteronormative response that it performs something reminiscent of the sentiment of the "church" from this "if God were on Facebook" snippet:

As my wife pointed out, if you search "cartoon" on the Exponent site it becomes readily apparent that they don't like women. Even without the cartoon in question, there's plenty of other evidence. I think it enough for me to say: "that's not o.k."


Assessment from a Poetic Perspective

My wife today sent me a link to Heather K. Phillips MFA thesis project. Heather is a recent graduate of RISD; her project speaks to the legitimation of critique and the ubiquity of assessment at all levels of education. Here's a great paragraph from her abstract:

In my work, I co-opt the vocabulary of critique, cloaked in niceties and reinforced by repetition, to demonstrate its limitations. Using a hyperbolic approach, I identify and mirror the language back to expose the veneer of objectivity and test the limits of subjectivity. I replay feedback in exaggerated form, to challenge the perception that critique is an infallible process.

Last night my Contemporary Rhetorics course focused on Lyotard's Postmodern Condition. One of the student presentations highlighted an interview with Lyotard in a 1996 issue of JAC in which Lyotard declares PMC an abysmal failure and expresses extreme regret for every having written it. In a response to the interview, one of my colleagues, Deborah Jacobs, argued that Lyotard's regret stems from his aversion to definition and "theory" (as Lyotard defines the term) in favor of philosophy and questions. She also notes that Lyotard's dismissal of his writing "unsays" what was "said"--calls it into question, challenges its being. PMC, after all, is a book that attempts to define a particular movement, catalogue a series of transformations, and offer a possible (paralogical) response. It all sounds quite positivist. But it is also a slippery book that defies promises and undermines a few of its own pretensions (last night we discussed whether paralogy can exist as its own meta-narrative, or whether it is a parasitic operation, orientation, or attunement brought to an existing narrative-game). Lyotard jests in his introduction:

It remains to be said that the author of the report is a philosopher, not an expert. The latter knows what he knows and what he does not know: the former does not. One concludes, the other questions--two very different latter games. I combine them here with the result that neither quite succeeds. (xxv)

The passage reminds me of a saying of one of my more sardonic friends from graduate school: "you are always failing at something." Phillips' project speaks to this lingering postmodern challenge to the ideals of human autonomy and truth, particularly her "Stamps of Disapproval." I'm pretty sure I gave Casey one of these stamps not so long ago (but in my defense, his argument was entirely tautological).