Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

***

I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.

***

So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.

 

Notes

[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).

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Day 135: The Enlightment

A couple of weeks ago an email popped up in my inbox with the subject line: The Enlightment. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name. The body of the email was empty but there was an attachment titled “EmailtoProfessor.” I’ll be honest, I was a bit anxious about opening it but after consulting with HWMBP, I did.

This was the content of the attachment (I’ve X’d out their last names and the name of the school):

Dear Professor Duck-Rabbit,

Hello, our names are Paige Xxxxxx, Destiny Xxxxx, Matti Xxxxxx, and Emma Xxxxx and we’re 7th graders at Xxxx Middle School in Xxxx, California. We have been assigned a project based on the Enlightenment and we have some unanswered questions that we’d appreciate you answering:

1) What were the key concepts and beliefs during the Enlightenment Period?

2) How did Jean Jacques Rousseau contribute to the Enlightenment?

3) How is the Enlightenment the beginning of U.S. History?

Thank you for your time and input on one of our final projects of the school year.

Sincerely,

Paige Xxxxxx

Destiny Xxxxxx

Emma Xxxxxx

Matti Xxxxxx

Finally, yesterday, I replied. This is what I wrote:

Dear Paige, Destiny, Matti, and Emma,

Thank you so much for your email and sorry to take so long to reply to you! I realize this reply may be arriving too late to be of help for your project, but I nevertheless still wanted to answer your questions.

1) The Enlightenment valued reason, meaning the ability of rational thinking to solve problems–whether philosophical, scientific,  social, or moral. Thinkers in the Enlightenment were breaking away from earlier ways of thinking that valued traditional ideas as the source of all wisdom. So, instead of thinking that, for example, inherited religious ideas, or ideas derived from ancient Greek or Roman philosophy were necessarily right, Enlightenment thinkers thought that individuals should use their own problem-solving abilities to think for themselves. You can think of Benjamin Franklin as being a quintessential Enlightenment figure. He was a scientist (the embrace of the scientific method is a big part of the Enlightenment– it’s the age of Newton) and a social reformer; but he also brought the same problem-solving perspective even to questions of individual morality. “Honesty is the best policy” is a pragmatic principle: you shouldn’t be honest just because people tell you to be honest; it’s also, says Franklin [yes, yes, my pedantic reader, I know he doesn’t literally say this in any of his major works, but it’s a useful shorthand for the Protestant work ethic] the best way of getting along, and experience will show you that. The Enlightenment’s faith in human reason also leads it to be very optimistic about the possibility of progress. If we can solve problems simply by applying our reason to them, then it seems that nothing can hold us back–not ideas of innate original sin, nor longstanding customs and traditions. Consider Mary Wollstonecraft, another Enlightenment thinker who writes an essay called _A Vindication of the Rights of Woman_. At the time when she is writing (this is in the eighteenth century) women receive very little education compared to men. As a result a lot people think that women are simply naturally less intelligent than men. Mary Wollstonecraft says that we should try educating women in the same way as we educate men, and then we’ll see if women are really innately inferior or if this apparent inferiority is simply caused by them being poorly educated. This same “progressive” perspective leads to calls more generally for broader human rights. People like Thomas Paine ask: why should people collectively be shackled to decisions made on their behalf by people in the past who were acting in their own narrow interests? Olaudah Equiano asks: if we believe that every human is endowed with the same faculties and deserves the same opportunity to cultivate them, then how can we justify slavery? At the same time, though (and this speaks to your question about beginning of U.S. History), Enlightenment thinking valorized the idea that individuals had the right to maximize their own interests as much as possible. But this created a profound contradiction because cultivating one’s own interest and power to the maximum potentially impinged on the well-being of others. You can see this tension manifest itself in the beginning of the United States in terms of slavery and the right to bear arms. Both the right to bear arms and the right to own a slave elevate an individual’s power at the expense of others who will be the potential victims of the gun-owner or slave-owner.

2) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a very influential political philosopher and social theorist. He is an interesting figure because he’s very much a product of the Enlightenment, but his ideas also develop in ways that rebel against Enlightenment values: this rebellion against the Enlightenment is sometimes called the counter-Enlightenment.” One field that Rousseau was very influential in is called “conjectural anthropology.” Basically what this means is that he was speculating (conjecturing) about what it would be like in very early human society before the development of civilization. So he’s not being an anthropologist in the sense of going to a particular geographical setting and observing the culture; instead he’s imagining himself traveling back in time and observing early humans. What he argues is that innately, humans are basically good, but that when they join together to form civilization–which people do to safeguard themselves against violence–they become corrupt. This is a lot to do, Rousseau says, with how we start comparing ourselves with other people–who is the prettiest, who has the most resources, etc. This kind of thinking, Rousseau says, makes us selfish and narcissistic–concerned only with ourselves. You can see here the seeds of the counter-Enlightenment: instead of thinking, like other Enlightenment thinkers, that civilization is inherently progressive–a way of cultivating human virtues and improving ourselves–Rousseau says the opposite: in civilization we lose touch with who we really are and become enslaved to superficial values and a sense of competition.

3) Many of the early leaders of the United States were influenced by key Enlightenment ideas and thinkers like John Locke, an English philosopher whose ideas are reflected in some of the United States’ founding documents. For example, the idea that all individuals have a natural right to defend their life and property is an idea of Locke’s. Locke was also influential on the idea of the separation of church and state: he argues that even once humans have entered the “social contract,” i.e. come together to form a civilization in order to collectively protect their individual interests, individuals still should have the freedom to follow their own conscience when it comes to their religious beliefs. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and others were profoundly influenced by Locke.

If you have any follow-up questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them! Also, if you are going to use any of this information in your school work, be sure to explain that you got this information from me, so that you are not plagiarizing (i.e. presenting what I’ve written here as your own work).

Good luck with the end of the school year and wishing you all a lovely summer!

All best wishes,

Professor Duck-Rabbit

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