Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Journalist's Privilege?

A while back I was called upon to be deposed in a civil case. The attorney wanted me to give the names of certain other parties to whom I, in my capacity a professor/advisor/writer, had promised confidentiality. When I spoke with my attorney, he said that I did not have a choice: I had no right, whatsoever, to refuse to give the names. This is true for every citizen in any case: no matter what you have promised someone, you are forced to give out names or other information as long as it does not incriminate you (I was a witness in the case, not the defendant) and you are not part of one of a few privileged relationships: attorney/client, doctor/patient, psychologist/patient, priest/confessee, spouse.

Maybe I am naive, but I was shocked that this was the case. I'll bet many Americans would be equally shocked to find that they can be compelled by a court to diverge secret information about friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. But that's the way the law is and, as my reading of Anglo-Saxon law shows me, it has been that way for a very long time. The idea, presumably, is that trying to have a fair trial means that witnesses have to tell what they know.

I think the fact that many Americans do not realize that they can be forced to testify as witnesses (probably because they believe that the Fifth Amendment applies to witnesses as well as defendants) has led to some confusion in the public about the anonymous source case just turned down by the Supreme Court. If people all realized that they had no such privilege, they would, I believe, be even less supportive of the journalists who face jail time.

Now I understand why journalists use anonymous sources (though the big-time papers over-use them, but that's another post). The leakiness of the government is in general a good thing: although it makes it tougher to ride herd on the permanent bureaucracy, it also helps uncover malfeasance. But a generalized "Journalist's Privilege" is problematic. Unlike attorneys, doctors, and psychologists, journalists cannot be licensed by the government (First Amendment prohibits it). As Glenn Reynolds and other "citizen journalists" correctly argue, employment by a news agency can't be the basis for such privilege because there's no bright-line test to determine who is a 'real' journalist and who is not. Thus theoretically anyone could claim that privilege if he or she had "published" the information on a website, in a newsletter, or via a text-message alert.

But, the argument is sure to go, there's a difference between a reporter for the New York Times and, say, me, "publishing" my website to a few hundred readers. The two extreme cases may be somewhat different in terms of how many people are reached, but there are "journals" and "periodicals" with very, very restricted readerships. The people writing for them get counted as "real" journalists, even if they are writing as a "non-ferrous commodities" reporter with American Metal Market journal. You simply aren't going to be able to draft a clear dividing line without the aid of a constitutionally forbidden de facto license.

When I was in journalism school we were told simply never to use anonymous sources at the early stages of our careers. "Every elected official will tell you right up front 'this is all on background' or 'this is all on deep background," one of my professors (who had won two Pulitzer Prizes) said. "Your job as a reporter is to get information on the record. Anonymous sources are the point of least resistance and thus to be avoided at all costs in a finished story." His idea, which is a good one, is that anonymous sources give you an idea of where to look or what questions to ask, but then you write the story in such a way that you don't need to use them. My (very) limited experience showed that he was right. There are different rules for Big Journalism, or course, but I think that journalists would be much better off if they followed my professor's advice.

As for a generalized journalist's privilege, I don't think it's going to happen. If courts (and we the people, since we made the laws through our representatives) see limiting the number of people in the privileged witness class to be a good thing (which they/we obviously do), then I do not think it likely that they will allow a category as nebulous as "journalist" to become privileged. In some ways this is too bad, since the general public may lose out on important information. But on the other hand, if I, for the greater good of society, have to divulge some students' secrets about drug use or divorcing parents or sexual behavior or cheating or health problems (and none of those were part of the case I mentioned above), then it seems to me that just about everyone else should have to struggle with the dilemma of whether to follow the law or refuse, honor one's promise, and pay the penalty. I am relieved that I am not in that situation and glad that now I know I could be. Other professors should realize that they too are in jeopardy of being put between sworn oath and citizen's duty.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The deadly limbo of pre-publication

As some readers of this blog know, my book, How Tradition Works, is coming out later this year from Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. The book was sent in to the press in the summer of 2002, accepted in January 2003, then edited and revised in both March and September of 2003. Since then I have been waiting. A brilliant friend read the manuscript and gave me a lot of good ideas, so I revised again in November of 2004. The galleys are supposed to arrive sometime this month, and simultaneously another brilliant friend is reading the manuscript, so it is quite possible that she will find more errors and problems for me before the galleys come.

Also, I have been trying to boil down three chapters (well over 160 pages) into a 20-30 page article for Oral Tradition. During this re-writing process, I've come across so many things that I can no longer bear, but fixing them would require re-writing the book. I'm simply not the same writer I was in 2000-2001, when the book was really written, and so my writing seems glaringly awful. I'm very proud of the argument, though, because even after all this time it seems to hang together very tightly. But revising this stylistic mess out of the galleys is going to be nearly impossible. [To be a little more sanguine, it's not a mess, per se, but a collection of grammatical stuctures, turns of phrase and rhythms that I don't use any more -- as such it will, one hopes, bother me but not my readers. ]
For a while I was very mad at my press for taking so long, becuase you know that some nimrod is going to attack me for not citing some particular work published in 2004. Sorry. Book was already written. But after speaking to the publisher and seeing the immense back-list of books that were in line in front of me. I understood. Another participant in the same conversation said "Why do you accept so many books when you have a big backlog?" Said the publisher: "People need tenure and promotion materials. If their materials are good, and can be reviewed anonymously and accepted, then they can have their work eventually recognized and, more importantly, they'll have something to give to their tenure committees." Good point, and a very humane approach. Plus, I'm sure he has to deal with a lot of authors whining about getting things accepted and published.

But my larger point is that still having this over me creates a liminal situation in which I'm not done or free of the book, but I also can't really work on it any more. It's driving me crazy. Only a few more weeks -- one hopes-- and it's out of my hands.

Monday, June 27, 2005

And another thing that's wrong with theory...

Richard Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard comments in
this post on this post on Butterflies and Wheels by Mark Bauerlein on "Theory's Empire." The thesis of the article is that at one time theory was exciting and ground breaking, but now it is institutionalized and boring. Richard comments that
Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s "the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature" ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional -- else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect

I wish I had said it as well myself. If the original impulse of theory was to shatter orthodoxies and challenge hierarchies (it wasn't all that, but that's the mythology), the current incarnation is tediously hegemonic. Yes, and your academic father's (or grandfather's) theory is never as interesting to you as it was to him. I'm sure deconstruction was really exciting back in the day, but, well, I don't live back in the day, and I don't care.

Bauerlein writes that "the cumulative result was that the social scene of Theory overwhelmed the intellectual thrust." That's certainly true, but there's a deeper problem: the theory evolved into elaboration for its own sake, turning a corner of literature departments into Philosophy-Lite ("Just as much deep meaning, but a third less logical rigor"). You can see how theory for its own sake could take over ("we have to get the theory right first, before we move on to the interpretation. If you interpret with an incorrect theory, there's no point"),
And there's certainly a lot of intellectual fun to be had in arguing the kind of abstractions that go along with literary theory. But in the end theory has alienated people from literature rather than drawing them in with all the cool new tools of analysis. Why? Because theory, as it is currently constituted, is no longer about finding things out but rather about obscuring them.

Last year I read a paper by a very, very smart student who had become a theory-head. He talked and talked about "imbricated discourses," and I could see that he understood what the theory he was using said. But he could not, when asked, explain why "imbricated" was a better description of these discourses than, say, "overlapping." "Why does one metaphor have more explanatory power," I asked. This wasn't a trick question. I was giving him a chance to show his stuff. But he seemed incapable of realizing that "imbricated discourses" aren't things--they're metaphorical descriptions of things. And that if "imbricated" is a better description than overlapping, you should explain why either metaphor has more explanatory power. "Imbricated" things overlap like shingles on a roof or scales on a butterfly's wing (I knew the word from entomology before it showed up in theory). We finally broke through this problem by talking about the actual things he was talking about -- the Battle of Maldon and Beowulf -- and how each poem treats concepts of honor and duty.

It's certainly possible that the student got something out of labeling these "imbricated discourses," but I think he got a lot more out of telling me, in his own words, how he thought the poems both touched upon and used the same conventions and ideas.

Theory is dying a long, slow death because it has become boring and opaque. When it comes to praxis, it's predictably pseudo-radical. When it comes to literature, it's predictable. Theory won't die out entirely because there is a quorum of young scholars who have staked their careers on it (I know someone who says "I am the person who does Lacanian analysis of female saints' lives; That's my niche" -- and a tiny niche it is...). But until something new comes along that opens up new avenues of though, that isn't bogged down in academic politics, and that has the capability of overthrowing the people who are currently on top (it doesn't always happen, but the frisson of a good Terror always motivates interesting work), theory will remain the kind of tedious thing it is: a rite of passage and a series of empty rituals that people perform without believing.

That is until my theory comes along in How Tradition Works and crushes all rival theories beneath its knobbed and armored claws....

Sorry. Summer cold and too much robitussin...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Most Intellectually Exciting Books

A few folks took up my call to list their three most intellectually exciting books written in the past decade. Herewith the results of that challenge:

Triona Trog lists Finders Keepers by Seamus Heaney, Defying Hitler by Sebastien Haffner, and Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Este.

Natalia at Unknown Strains lists John Guillory's Cultural Capital, Colleen Lye's America's Asia, and Lisa Robertson's The Weather and also Anne Cheng's The Melancholy of Race. [must avoid Stanford/Berkeley rivalry joke about Berkeley Ph.D. chosing four when asked to choose three... (and to be fair, Natalia did choose Cheng only if she could get in a fourth)].

I thought also that Tiruncula had also posted her three, but I am being a doofus about getting into the archives and can't find it.

If there was anyone else whom I've rudely missed, please ping me and I'll correct.

I think that the difference between all of these books (and the three I noted) is remarkably huge, and it goes to show that intellectual excitement is a very individual thing. There are indeed massively influential works, but I wonder how many of them are genuinely exciting to a large group of people; maybe there're just popular, not deeply influential.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Approaches to Comp

A commenter on this entry asked what I thought of Stanley Fish's article in the NYT wherein he says that he teaches comp by having his students spend the semester making up their own language, thus learning about the internal structure of a language. I agree pretty much with all of Prof. Blogger's comments, particularly his point that students really need to learn to read as the foundation of their learning to write. I try to teach "college-level reading" in my Wonderful Life class, with some success. I personally don't find teaching comp boring (at least in this class) because the students have never responded the same way twice.

But back to Fish's approach: I think it is very useful for learning about the structure of language (and something that J.R.R. Tolkien did a thousand times more effectively than Fish ever could, but I digress...). I also think it will not improve Fish's students' writing one iota more than any other approach would.

If I've learned anything from teaching comp for nearly 15 years at various places, I've learned that getting students to be better analytic grammarians--although a good thing in and of itself--does pretty close to nothing to improve the quality of the writing that they produce for other classes. This is partially due to the compartmentalization that Prof. Blogger notes (students will not always carry the knowledge they've gained in comp into other classes), but also because the production of new writing is not really closely connected to analytic grammar. Students produce, say, dangling participles not because they can't learn the rules about dangling participles but because they do not recognize dangling participles when they are engaged in real-time composition. What allows them to recognize and avoid dangling participles is an internalization of style cues, and that they get from reading. Instruction can help: I can point out the dangling participles and explain why they are confusing to readers, and some students will learn to catch them on revision. But you can grammar-drill your students all you want (and I have, and to an extent, still do, just because I love grammar) and they will still produce the same old errors when the pressure of writing about a difficult topic pushes them outside of their comfort zone.

It is a cognitive problem: have a student write a 'what I did on my summer vacation' essay and it will come out grammatically clean. Have the same student write an essay about a difficult topic and all of sudden there will be subject/verb agreement errors or comma splices or misplaced modifiers. I wish faculty would realize that not all of these problems are due to failures in instruction or student laziness: a good prorportion of them are caused by the students not being able to keep all the cognitive balls in the air at the same time: thinking about a difficult topic, constructing an argument, writing clearly and grammatically.

Thus in my Wonderful Life class I try to build up the different steps of an argument and let them get a little practice and confidence keeping one ball in the air, then two, then three. For that you need some content in a comp course, so that there are difficult ideas to think about, but you can't make the writing subordinate to the content. It is, like most things in teaching, a balancing acts. When it works, everyone is impressed. When it fails, well, there are balls rolling all over the floor.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

One Thing You Never Want to See

is a reading of 104.9 on the thermometer when you measure your 4-year-old's temperature. She's ok now (double ear infections, with no ear pain were the cause. Amoxicillin killed the bugs quick), but I'm behind a bit. So I apologize for not yet posting links to those who took up my "most intellectually exciting books" challenge and for not yet replying to some excellent comments. If I have any luck, I'll be able to tomorrow.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Unbearable Weirdness of Student Evaluations

I spent a good few hours last night going through my student evaluations for the past semester. An important ritual of the pre-tenure years was the annual review, in which I was expected to discuss and explain the evaluations. I no longer have to do this in a formal manner, but I think it's a good idea to spend some time trying to understand the evaluations and figure out what went wrong (and what went right) with each course. It puts a nice cap on the year and helps a teacher to consolidate gains and make plans to avoid repeating errors--this is particularly useful at a place like Wheaton where we don't regularly teach exactly the same courses in consecutive years: if you made notes about texts, assignments and lectures in your annual review, you'll remember them when planning the next class.

This year I had a relatively controlled experiment in the accuracy of student evaluations: for the first time, ever, I taught exactly the same syllabus in two different classes, back to back, in the same classroom. These were both my English 101 class Writing About a Wonderful Life, in which, among other things, I have students struggle through Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life.

The evaluations are pretty bizarre for how much they differ. Both classes met for 1.5 hours, the first from 9:30 to 11, the second from 11 to 12:30. The first class gave me my lowest numeric evaluation, ever for the course itself, a 3.9 out of 5. That same class rated me as a 4.6 out of 5 as an Instructor. Compare to the second class, which rated the course itself a 4.3 and me as instructor 4.7 (and that first number for the second class is a little skewed, because one student rated the course a 2, only the second 2 I've ever received, out of about 500 evaluations at Wheaton and Loyola). A better numeric evaluation might be to point out that in the morning class the mode for the course is 4 (10 out of 14), while in the later class it is 5 (8 out of 14). The mode for instructor, in both classes, is 5 (9 out of 14 and 11 out of 15).

The difference in instructor rating between the two courses is not significant, but the difference in course ratings is. Yet the one thing that was exactly the same in the two classes was the course itself. I used the same syllabus, same books, same assignments -- precisely the same. True, by the time I got to the second course, I had worked out the kinks in lecture and discussion, recognizing what had worked and what hadn't. But that should have changed the instructor rating, not the course rating.

I think what this little experiment shows is that individual classroom dynamics are projected unconsciously onto things like syllabus and choice of reading assignments. The second class was much more animated (the 11 to 12:30 time-slot is the best one of the day. Students are awake, they aren't logy from having eaten lunch, and they're not rushing off to anything) with a wider range of personalities. That energy, which had nothing to do with course design, ended up influencing the students' impression of the apparently non-subjective elements of the course.

It's also strange to realize how one's impression as a teacher is different from the impressions the students have. I felt very guilty about this semester because I wasn't on campus the number of hours I would have liked to have been (child care issues). But students raved about how accessible I was--because I answered email right away and scheduled meetings within 24 hours (always during the lunch hour, which students like because it doesn't conflict with their classes). I was not in my office nearly as much as I usually am, and yet I apparently met their needs more effectively (I guess more scheduled meetings rather than drop-ins).

There was, however, one anomalous comment in the Chaucer class, where a student said he/she had emailed me twice and never received a reply. This is very odd, since I just did a search of all my email from students this semester, and there is not a single message that doesn't have a "replied" icon next to it. Strange. I wonder if this could be the same student who claimed to have emailed me all the papers for the semester (I never received any of them, and he never did turn in hard copies...). And it does make me wonder if the wonderful world of spam has started making email much less reliable than it has been.

Overall the evaluations were useful and encouraging. Students seem to have got what I was trying to do in the courses, even if many of them hated the Stephen Jay Gould reading. And in Chaucer there was pretty unanimous agreement that it's a good idea to violate the integrity of the A-fragment.