Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story made me question a lot of the things I think I know about story-telling and narration. There is almost no dialogue in this novel, very little description, and it takes place entirely in our unknown narrator’s head. In fact, it’s a story about writing a story, and I’m sad to admit that I rarely enjoy that type of novel because they often feel like exercises in ego.
This novel is anything but that.
- In some ways this novel feels like Davis is sort of revealing some of the narrative tricks that novelists use, perhaps because as a short story writer she’s messing with a form that she’s not invested in…
- More likely, she’s carefully identifying the lens through which she both reads and writes, being transparent in a way that feels somewhat deliciously uncomfortable…
- This narrator thinks herself brutally honest…but she’s also not all that self-aware.
- It’s not like she’s an unreliable narrator, exactly, but we get clues as to why she’s not necessarily seeing the world as it is…
- And I think that she also *knows* that she’s missing cues she should be picking up on, and that knowledge drives her obsession (or is driven by it)…
I finished Cole’s most recently republished novel last week, and I wrote a bit about it in an earlier post on the fetishization of service, but I have a couple more notes…
- Cole is acutely aware of both artistic and literary traditions, and knows that he is in conversation with the Achebes of the world. I wonder who else he considers himself speaking with? Does he speak with Nnedi Okorafor (fantasy writer whose novel Who Fears Death? rocked?) Or is he a part of the bourgeoise European artistic tradition that he knows well as an arts scholar? Or is photography his jumping off point?
- The novel struck me as in its attempt to paint realistic portraits (I’m guessing) of Nigerian society. Cole spends very little time examining colonialism’s roots, and lots of time painting snapshots of dysfunction – children thieves who demand extortion money, upper class stories of break-ins and murders, the vast amount of anxiety and fear that the country lives in, finding itself perhaps in fundamentalist movements like Boko Haram.
- He has said in an essay in The Atlantic that he does not write to provide solutions or to speak clearly in his fiction:
I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point.
Nonetheless, this essay is written as a further explanation of his tweets about what he calls the ‘white savior industrial complex,’and I think that EDISTDFTT is part of his effort to take on the responsibility of identifying solutions for his own country, especially as his narrator struggles between going back to the U.S. or returning to the country of his childhood, Nigeria.
- The novel is also an attempt to identify positions from which intellectuals can act, much as it tries to identify ways in which action makes sense. His narrator, early on, tries to ride a public bus, despite his family’s fears, and he does even though he wonders about the risks.
Two studies that I’d like to consider as we move forward with helping students write more effectively:
- Group writing effectiveness, especially as writing courses move online
- Games/empathy (affective and cognitive)
I think that we can start to accumulate data on both, and I’m going to try to outline how I see these studies working in a series of posts that will follow.
One goal, I think, is to work towards a different approach to writing on campus. We are feeling pressure to include more digital projects, but until we get more technical help and a different way of staffing instructors for these classes this won’t happen. In the meantime, though, we can start to look at ways to incorporate online aspects of the writing experience in what we do and how we teach.
One possibility might be to go to a 102/202 model. In this format students have to pass 102 at the end of their first semester and 202 at the end of their second. 202 can be more specialized, allowing different cohorts of students to write in the areas in which they are becoming experts. A list of pros and cons might look like this:
|202 can be more discipline-focused
||Interacting with other faculty and having them teach writing will be difficult
|202 can be more group-focused
||Having expertise in facilitating group writing projects will take training and patience
|Students and instructors will still want optional 100 and 101 courses
||Scheduling (or, more accurately, planning out an individual’s college career) might become difficult
|Having 202 takes the outcome focus away from vague general improvement concerns (“they have to learn to read and write, even acontextually”) to more directed conversations in their areas of expertise
||This approach will make us rethink our entire approach to writing, which will be a long and difficult conversation especially in an ecosystem that operates by fiat
|More direct involvement for tutors, with the potential for tutor-run workshops
||Need to produce more tutors, and create better interactions between them and faculty
There will be more, of course. The best approach will involve some sort of pilot, but even implementing that might be tricky. My guess is that we can work with the various consistuencies (registrar, advising, tutoring) on campus to make this (pilot) happen.
In my never-ending praise of disruptive movements (when that power is used for good) and desire to find examples of folks tweaking their corporate masters and doing good work, I picked up a text that might curb my enthusiasm a bit, Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. Wolf is a neuroscientist who uses this text to collate recent brain research about how we read and then use that collation to help us understand where we’re going with technological development, and it definitely served to correct my relentless search for a way out of the dystopic trends in our culture. Better summaries of the text are available on the open net that will no longer exist if certain alpha males get their way, so I’ll just add a few notes:
- Her argument is that despite how natural it feels to read, our brains were not designed for reading, despite our cultural privileging of that activity.
- She sees that as a feature, not a bug – “thus, the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually” (5).
- She combines Proust’s use of reading as an “intellectual ‘sanctuary'” with the idea of the squid, an animal that helped us understand how beings with long central axons transmit sensually-derived information in the body. The squid essentially serves to help her explain the biological components of reading, Proust the cultural.
- Her findings have a ton of implications for how we think about dyslexia (not some sort of defect but rather a brain that processes information differently) in particular.
- It has also been used by folks like Nicholas Carr to try to understand what the different types of reading we are asking people to do now affect the brain. There have been all kinds of studies on reading and its affective qualities (I’ll link to them in another post that I’m working on), and technoculture (and digital culture), and Wolf’s argument that we are losing some sort of “associate dimension” when we read on the web, losing our abilities to make truth out of the world for ourselves and instead relying on search engines (wow, The Circle reappears constantly) to identify truth for us.
- This argument is firmly in the dystopic, skynet-is-active vein of technological criticism. Wolf’s findings, I think, can certainly be seen in that light – we will get shallower, dumber, less capable of making associations, and our brains will be forever tweaked, incrementally, in that direction by our addiction to the net.
- I’m going to try to think about this in a different direction, however – those incremental changes, if we’re fast enough and smart enough, might well lead incrementally to a far different place, one in which we value the plasticity of our brains and look to ways to make those connections useful, empathetic, and driven by our needs for connection. Wolf devotes her entire final chapter to what she sees as ways to start this disruption.
I’m starting to understand my own resistance to the use of psychometric tools in helping students learn (and in understanding myself): the exercise can seem narcissistic, and it can also run contrary to American cultural thinking about the primacy of change, and how important it is, and how easy change is to accomplish.
I think I’m starting to question that mythology (despite the brilliance of Office Space which should have helped me figure that out a long time ago). I have always thought that continuous improvement is the ultimate in capitalist/corporatist maintain-the-wage-slave-drudgery, but I still buy into constantly improving myself, those around me, and our culture at large.
What psychometric tools do in some ways is to challenge that myth, or at least the ease with which it is accomplished. I understand that they are mired in the idea that these sorts of tools help us improve, but I’m starting to wonder if that improvement isn’t of a hugely different type than the utopic vision that we all seem to buy into. What these tools do is help us understand just how important understanding where we are is, and how much effort any sort of change involves.
The neuroscience (what little I understand of it) confirms this view I think. I heard an audio essay on NPR last night that talked about the idea of toxic stress and how that sort of stress, especially when encountered early in one’s life, hardwires the brain. Hard wires are truly difficult to reroute, and perhaps by accepting the difficulty of that sort of task we can get a better idea of how to help others in changing even our more-easily-reroutable programming.
Edit: the toxic stress connection, I think, is a key element in connecting to questions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. As this article points out, there is clearly much work to be done here, but perhaps psychometric tools can help.
This article has me frustrated, and I’m going to try to figure out why here…
- I want to accuse it of lazily repeating myths about the millennial generation, but it slides around directly accusing young folks of the general stereotypes (self-obsessed, pampered, screen-addicted) and sort of foists those critiques off onto colleges and universities. Higher ed certainly is not innocent of believing (and acting upon) these same stereotypes as well, but what this strategy does is enable Flanagan to not directly indict students.
- She also idealizes stand-up, something I get. As she notes here
And in the comedians’ desperate attempts to grasp the realpolitik of the college market—and to somehow reverse engineer an act catered to it—you could see why stand-up is such a singular form: it is mercilessly ineffective as agitprop.
and I agree – at its best, stand-up is agitprop – Bruce, Carlin, Pryor, and Rock are the most famous, but there are a lot of lesser-known comedians who have done some essential rhetorical bomb throwing as well…
- Her critiques of the university are useful, especially when she accuses them of simply wanting to entertain students, but she doesn’t mention some of the larger systemic issues that result in this – too many universities, too much of the employment scene devoted to this four years of what she calls ‘resort’ living, too much accumulated debt that results in the need to justify these expenses in terms of gains in marketable skills.
- Holy shit, though, this comment made me chuckle and want to spew for its truthiness:
During the day, “educational sessions” on topics of inexpressible tedium—“Wave Goodbye to Low Volunteer Retention”—droned on, testament (as are the educational sessions of a hundred other conferences) to the fact that the growth field in higher education is not Elizabethan literature or organic chemistry but mid-level administration.
Translating the need for studying Elizabethan literature might be a tough sell, but I can’t imagine why better understanding organic chemistry is, and this wholehearted rush to add administrators at a high level in universities seems less about the hypothetical soul of the institution and more about a desire to not tackle tough visionary questions with any sort of thoroughness or clarity.
- Her accusation that universities are no longer living the glory days of the 60s (“We knew who the enemy was then,” although Pogo might have been a good read for them) is a misread of campus environments. Yes, free speech is great until it’s abused, but what students are trying to do is to create an atmosphere that is not harmful. Even as I write this the slippery slope leading to an absolute yawning chasm looms, but the students who are trying to be careful shepherds of the dollars they spend are at least aware of how a university paying a comic to say stuff is some sort of endorsement.
- She ends with a nod to the essential humanity that drives the student activities folks to choose this style of comedy, but wonders at the cost. Not a surprise ending, but I think she also misses that while student activities folks are perhaps shy about offending in and of themselves, they also know that they will not be in these positions if they choose comedians who the institution does not approve of. Whether or not that sort of caution is one that will irredeemably shape them is something that none of us know…