Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Start Spreading the News: Jeffrey Tucker on Race, Science Fiction, and Delany @Fredonia

I'm pleased to announce that the planet's foremost Samuel Delany authority will be speaking on my campus tomorrow afternoon. Jeffrey Tucker of the University of Rochester's English department has something new to say on the subjects of his fantastic 2004 study A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference. In "The Necessity of Models, of Alternatives: Samuel Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand," Tucker starts with two questions: 1) "How does one define science fiction (SF)?" and 2) "What difference does race makes to SF?" and ends by arguing that "Stars in My Pocket can be shown to be participating in the tradition of African-American literature and demonstrating the difference that race--both Delany’s own identity and the social phenomenon that has structured so much of the American experience--makes to the author’s conception of SF and its potential as a tool for critical analysis." To find out how he gets from point A to point B, come on over to room S-121 of the Williams Center Thursday, 10/8/09, at 4:30! This is a preview of an essay that will appear in a special issue of SAQ entitled "Thinking Black Intellectuals" that he's co-editing with Grant Farred, so be there or be square!

[Cross-posted at sf@SF.]

[Update 1 (4:30 pm): Here's official announcement from SUNY Fredonia.]

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Look for My Students' Writing at American Identities and sf@SF

I've got students in both my undergraduate classes this semester signing up as co-authors on the sf@SF blog, which is now on "science fiction--and more--at SUNY Fredonia." I've just posted a brief observation on the odd choice of commercials that run during Onegai My Melody on and Ouran High School Host Club on, just to kick things off. We should have several posts per week from a variety of student writers up there this semester. I'm also going to start posting identification projects from last semester's American Identities course over on the blog of that name. Check both out when you get a chance!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Follow Me on Twitter!

Yeah, I'm going to try microblogging as a means of communicating with various constituencies from now till 30 June 2010, when I step down as chair of the SUNY Fredonia University Senate. While CitizenSE won't become an all governance all the time blog, it may get updated slightly more regularly than it was last academic year. We'll see!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Academic Freedom Watch

Michael Berube indirectly explains why my tenure as chair of the University Senate this coming academic year will be very interesting. (I start July 1st--wish me luck!) But even if you haven't been involved in governance at your public university, he explains why you should be.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Random Responses to Wai Chee Dimock's Recent Work

Wai Chee Dimock is visiting Fredonia this week as the keynote speaker for "Remapping World Literature," the 4th annual Mary Louise White Symposium organized by the English department. I'll be on a roundtable with her and several of my colleagues in a few minutes, as we examine together the implications of her work for teaching strategies, course design, curriculum, professional development, and strategic planning in English at Fredonia. Although I'll be improvising my comments, I thought I'd better take a shot at organizing them, however haphazardly, here first. But first some ideas that aren't going to be making it into my talk. Better to get them out here so I'm not tempted to use up my 5-7 minutes on them.

Free Association

For much of my first year in grad school, I was so overwhelmed by all that I was trying to take in that I could only think associatively. It was actually a pretty pleasant experience, if exasperating, mostly because it was a shared one: all my friends in the entering class had the same condition. We'd get together and start making whatever random connections between literature, theory, music, video games, tv, film, and sports came to our minds. It was our way of making sense of what we were learning and living through, I guess. Group brainstorming, or something. Sometimes we'd even come up with good ideas, but that wasn't exactly the point.

Reading Dimock's Through Other Continents brought to mind that time in my life, but also reminded me how much had changed since then. I read it in airports and on airplanes on my way to the Reworking the University conference in Minneapolis--and I read it in one gulp, with the excitement and pleasure I associate with reading really good science fiction. And, indeed, I was reminded of science fiction on almost every page, whether it was Neal Stephenson's blend of Sumerian mythology and cyberpunk in Snow Crash, Kim Stanley Robinson's exploration of an alternate history in which Chinese and Islamic civilizations rose and fell in the centuries after the plague depopulated Europe in The Years of Rice and Salt, or efforts by Guy Gavriel Kay, Dan Simmons, and Samuel Delany, in their very different ways, to combine myth, literature and fantasy and/or science fiction. And more: I was reminded of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel series Sandman, Amitav Ghosh's mix of memoir and history In an Antique Land, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's unclassifiable Dictee.

I'm forgetting what other works I wanted to remind myself to let Dimock know about or find out if she knew about, mostly because I was borrowing a colleague's copy of her book and didn't write in it or take any notes on it. Instead, I was revelling in the feeling of witnessing ideas I'd been working on over the past decade precipitating in somebody else's solution--ideas I never would have come up with on my own, but which shared a family resemblance to those of the many writers I've been tracking whom I've been connecting to debates over globalization and literary studies. I hadn't experienced such an intellectual rush since I read Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations--a feeling of things falling into place, things I had figured out taking on a new significance or relating to new context, things I had never considered before taking on a new interest and urgency. So while both works inspired all kinds of free associations, they also helped me identify large-scale patterns I had been groping towards, sharpen points I wanted to make, and imagine new possibilities for connections between times and places we usually think of as disjunct.


In my contribution to today's roundtable discussion, I'm going to be highlighting some of the unexpected ways the courses I'm teaching this semester connect with issues raised by Bender's and Dimock's work. Of course, I taught Bender in my American Identities course, but it was actually the juxtaposition of class discussions on Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land and Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues that I'll be focusing on as a counterpoint to and way of looking differently at a key moment at the end of Samuel Delany's Atlantis: Model 1924 from my Harlem Renaissance course, which in turn will lead into a consideration of why I organized my Black Women Writers course the way I did and what it was like teaching it. My goal will be to raise the question of what we consider to be the ends of teaching world literature and make a case for a modest, minimalist starting point.

I'll use that starting point as my entry into a more programmatic proposal to reexamine the Fredonia English department curriculum, specifically the way we bridge our introductory-level world literature core (all of which is in Fredonia's general education program) with our required and elective upper-level courses, many of which are in national literatures.

But more on that later! Time to head out for the roundtable....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Just a Little Experiment... which I mean this post, its connection to my contribution to the Tactical Teaching roundtable here at Reworking the University, and my Intro to Grad Studies in English course, which I'm introducing to the conference participants this afternoon. Let's see how using this post in place of a handout or powerpoint presentation to report on the context, purposes, design, teaching, and results of my particular approach to tactical teaching works out....

One way I hope it works out is that the faculty and students hearing and/or reading this consider why and how they would approach relating the history and politics of their fields, disciplines, profession, and institution in all the intellectual, activist, and other work they do, on campus and off. I'm talking about relating as comparative/interdisciplinary/theoretical work in their own research, as expressive/narrative/creative work in their own writing, and as curricular/design/pedagogical work in their own teaching, mentoring, and service, but most of all as an effort to recognize the differences between these domains and discourses and yet still make connections across them, for themselves and for others. So just as I hope my students will continue the work of my courses (not just complete the work in them), so, too, am I hoping that my readers and listeners will want to work through the issues I'm raising, work up their own approach to teaching the university, and see how it works out.

One thing listening to yesterday's panels, roundtables, and workshops brought home to me is how important--and difficult--it is to situate ourselves and our work in ways that effectively link the individual, local, regional, national, and planetary. What follows is one attempt to combine self-reflexivity and contextualization, to connect theories and strategies to tactics, and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about teaching--and reworking--the university.


So what do you need to know to make sense of my 1.5-credit, half-semester, required master's-level seminar?

First, you need to know a little bit about SUNY Fredonia, a public regional university within the 64-campus State University of New York. We're located right off the New York State Thruway, southwest of Toronto, Buffalo, and Rochester, and northeast of Pittsburgh, Erie, and Cleveland. So if you're thinking rural rust belt, you're not too far off. Over 40% of our 5100 undergraduates and 350 graduate students come from Chautauqua and Erie counties and roughly 75% come from the small towns, suburbs, and cities of western NY. For all too many of them, the Fredonia campus is the most diverse place they've ever been.

OK, so what about our English department? We're a pretty large department for a school of our size, with 25 tenure-stream faculty and more than 300 majors in English and English Adolescence Education and concentrators in English from the College of Education's Childhood and Early Childhood Education majors. Many of them have switched over to us from other departments and programs, often because they like the way we teach our courses they have taken for general education credit. Because we cap our class sizes at 30 when we're teaching three courses in a semester and 25 when we're teaching four, we're able to be fairly flexible in the classroom, with our readings and assignments, and in our office and on-line interactions with our students. With the core of our undergraduate major a set of introductory-level genre-based world literature courses, we don't subscribe to the coverage model. But because we've been able to do a lot of hiring in the last decade or so, particularly in American literature, creative writing, and English education, students have access to a wide range of courses, approaches, traditions, texts, and media each semester.

I should say that our undergraduate students do. Budget cuts and hiring freezes in the 1980s pared down what had been by all accounts a thriving a vibrant graduate program in English. When I first arrived at Fredonia in the fall of 1998, our graduate enrollments were increasing, partially in response to a proposal, eventually shot down, that the state requirement that all English teachers in NY must qualify for professional certification within three years of gaining provisional certification rather than five. But even when enrollments dipped a little this decade, we still struggled to offer enough stand-alone graduate seminars. Now that they're increasing again, this problem is even more urgent, particularly when New York State's fiscal crisis management means we can't hire our way out of it. Although this year we're seeing more off-campus applicants than usual, for many of our best undergraduates, staying at Fredonia for two more years is an attractive option. My colleagues and I have been brainstorming for the last decade how to impress upon them the difference between undergraduate and graduate study, while trying to impress upon ourselves and each other what it means to teach graduate seminars in a program where the master's is the terminal degree, where our teaching load is much heavier than that of our graduate professors, and where our students have a wide range of educational foundations, learning expectations, and career aspirations.


ENGL 500, Introduction to Graduate Studies in English, is one attempt to address these challenges. For faculty who might teach it at the same time as they teach another 1.5-credit course (such as its undergraduate equivalent or the graduate capstone), it provides a way to manage their teaching load in additional to its pedagogical purposes. For graduate students, it provides a common initiation into Fredonia's graduate program in English, whether they are going for professional certification, planning to apply to Ph.D. programs, or figuring out their next step. To mash up the catalog copy, course description, and goals:

Introduction to research methods, strategies, and faculty expectations for reading and writing as a graduate student in literary studies. The course will also explore critical and pedagogical approaches, as well as historical and current trends in literary studies and related disciplines.

This required 1.5-credit seminar aims to help graduate students achieve a deeper and broader perspective on the English department at SUNY Fredonia through consideration and contextualization of department goals and practices in curricular, professional, and institutional frames.

ENGL 500 is designed to prepare students for their future endeavors as English graduate students and new professionals in the field. Students will develop an understanding of the history, purposes, and domains of the discipline of English studies and of the current goals, requirements, structure, components, and content of the English major at SUNY Fredonia.

The last two paragraphs are my own; they signal a desire to embed a survey of methods, approaches, and trends in reading, writing, research, and teaching in the discipline within curricular, professional, and institutional frames. Last semester, I conceived of ENGL 500 as the graduate equivalent of my fall 2005 English Composition course, Writing Matters, where I offered my new undergraduate students opportunities to explore connections between the stakes, purposes, and ideals of higher education, critical and civic literacies, and global challenges of the 21st century--and, in so doing, to question who they were, why they were here, and what they might learn and do. I wanted my new graduate students to have similar opportunities to make sense of this transition in their lives, its identificatory and interpellative structures and situations, and to continue developing a sense of agency and project.


Given the contraints of 8 weekly 150-minute meetings, limited further by my decision to set aside the opening class meeting for a simulation and the final class meeting for student presentations, as well as to build in a library session in the middle, I actually had a little less than 6 full sessions to move us from a consideration of the Fredonia English department's goals and mission in the context of disciplinary histories and debates to a broader examination of how our approaches and practices are informed by and take various positions on the history of debates over curricula in the humanities, the profession of English, and the politics of academic institutions.

In the former 3 sessions, my plan was for students to use Donald Keesey's Contexts for Criticism and M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Harpham's Glossary of Literary Terms to map different approaches to reading and to use the course ANGEL space to compare their critical travel narratives as a prelude to the session on "reading"; to share samples of their undergraduate writing and, in light of Joseph Gibaldi's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and our own locally-produced (mostly by English grad students) writing guide, Beyond Normal: How to Make Your Writing Devilishly Good, as well as a class visit from the professor who was the driving force behind the latter and some youtube clips on new media, to explore their own expectations for writing as a graduate student; and to research how our departmental goals and mission compared to those of other master's programs and report their findings on the course ANGEL space in annotated bibliographies as a prelude to discussing with two professors from the department who have ties to Women's Studies and American Studies how they might consider connecting their reading of literature and theory with their own emerging research interests and focuses.

In the latter 3 sessions, I eased up on the multitasking and ramped up the reading load, as we moved in successive weeks from W.B. Carnochan's The Battleground of the Curriculum to excerpts from Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest, Michael Berube's The Employment of English, and Amitava Kumar's Passport Photos to most of Marc Bousquet's How the University Works. The three assignments that were due after we completed these discussions--an essay focusing on one idea from the readings or campus events they were most interested in incorporating into their critical or pedagogical practice, a presentation relating the literary work they had chosen to read for the first time that semester to selected issues from the course and in their professional development, and a reflection on their learning in the course--were meant to supplement and build upon our in-class and on-line discussions of these works.


Because we were trying to do so many different things in such a short time, I strove to create as relaxed and informal a classroom atmosphere as I could, get the students talking to each other as much as possible, and shift pedagogical gears often enough to keep everyone interested. A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Our opening class meeting culminated in a simulation: as I had a roughly equal number of students taking graduate courses for professional certification as not, I was able to separate them into two groups. Each group would act as a department task force charged with proposing revisions to the requirements for the M.A. or M.S. in Ed. to the Curriculum Committee (me). This role-playing exercise allowed the students to examine their graduate program's structure, identify their expectations, hopes, and anxieties, and imagine ways of doing things differently. It allowed me to share some of the rationales for and histories of the existing structures, answer students' questions, and ask them in turn to consider resource and other implications of their ideas for change. The simulation allowed us to consider relations between individual and institution, structure and agency, constraint and change, project and persuasion; it got the students thinking like professors and taking responsibility for their education. It wasn't only an ice-breaking activity (although it was that, too)--it set the stage and the tone for the rest of the course.

Things didn't always go as planned, of course. But sometimes they went better. Having worked with Bousquet on Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor for a long time, I knew he'd be interested in talking with my students about his new book, so we set up a skype conference call the day we'd be discussing it. It just so happened that was the same day that one of the largest student protests in Fredonia history took place; a conservative Christian activist came to campus uninvited and proceeded to preach against various aspects of student life he imagined taking place, with a particular emphasis on framing homosexuality as a sin. By the time my class had begun in the late afternoon, what had started as a very small group of students listening to and attempting to engage the speaker in dialogue had grown into a much larger crowd, consisting of hundreds if not a thousand or more students and faculty who had improvised a counter-protest or just come to hang out and enjoy the unseasonably good weather. About 2/3 of my class made a case for observing and reporting on the event (and two even posted a brief report here), while the rest of us brainstormed questions for Bousquet. We had to push back our conversation with him, but were still able to ask a good number of our questions:

  • Did you ever expect that your book would be taught in an introduction to graduate studies seminar for master’s students?
  • How much do you agree with in Cary Nelson’s foreword?
  • In light of what you document, why would anyone want to be a grad student in English?
  • What’s so bad about the prevalence of nontenurable teachers in American universities today? Doesn’t their presence keep costs down and save money for parents, students, and taxpayers? Why should parents be worried about having their son or daughter taught by a nontenurable faculty member? Should they get a tuition discount when that happens?
  • What’s your central diagnosis of the problems facing American higher education as an institution?
  • On page 28 you suggest that Marxist analysis offers the best way of understanding and organizing against contingency in academia. How would you respond now to the tough questions you ask yourself right on that page, particularly “In the big picture of global exploitation, just how important are the problems of underemployed holders of doctoral degrees anyway?”
  • Is tenure part of the problem or part of the solution? How has your own tenure affected your role in the academic labor movement? What would it take for tenured faculty to stop being complicit with the trend toward expansion of nontenurable teachers in the professoriate?
  • Are unions part of the problem or part of the solution? Look at the U.S. auto industry--and the ways existing faculty unions haven’t slowed the turn toward nontenurable teachers much, if at all....
  • Do you think the disconnect between most faculty’s politics (generally liberal) and most Americans’ politics (generally conservative) is a problem for American higher ed? When Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers are the poster children of academia to a good portion of the American public, is it any surprise budgets are bad and getting worse?
  • What’s your position on the “market regulation” solution you offer on pages 208-209 today in light of the current financial/credit crisis? How do you set it up? Where does the funding come from? How do you enforce it?
  • How about pg. 47’s converting nontenurable piecework to tenure-track jobs idea? Do you anticipate any problems with implementing it?
  • Do you have any advice for SUNY, where its budget and tuition levels have always been a political football between the legislature and governor? Gov. Patterson just announced he wants to cut $2B more from the NYS budget—and we’ve already taken a 14% cut ($4.2M)....

Things didn't always work out so serendipitously, of course. Due to heavy demand for sessions with reference librarians, I had to push our library visit back to the week we were supposed to discuss Carnochan's history of curricular debates in the humanities. Students struggled to keep up with the readings, connect them with the assignments, and use both as tools for self-reflection. But overall the course went much better than expected and I'm excited to get a chance to revise and teach it this coming fall.


Students had a hard time categorizing and comparing the goals, missions, and requirements of the master's programs that they researched with the ones in their program at Fredonia, mostly because few departments were as explicit about them as we are on our web site and few students were ready to unpack what was left implicit on their web sites. By and large, they didn't do a very good job of using our readings and discussions on ways of reading to analyze the underlying logic of other programs' structures.

Students wrote critical essays on Marian Wright Edelman's Convocation lecture and the vocation of a teacher; on the Eliot-McCosh debates and their undergraduate institution's balance of electives and requirements; on the exploitation of student labor and the value of literacy and literature; on the rationale for studying criticism; on Judy Shepherd's lecture at Fredonia, The Laramie Project, and queer young adult literature; on how our assigned readings framed debates over the definition of literary studies. Two practicing teachers decided to do structured field experiences, where they planned, taught, and reflected upon units informed by the course. One had her students form teams and produce their own versions of Beyond Normal, with its mix of archival history and writing guide aimed specifically at Fredonia students; the other had his students explore pastoralism and ecocriticism and produce a multimedia response to works by Thoreau, Frost, and Oliver. Some were solid, some were very good, most were in between, but all at least understood the basics of the assignment and wrote capably. Still, I was left wondering how I could better prepare them to "reflect upon and figure out how to apply a key concept, method, or strategy that you have encountered in or out of the course this semester that matters to you and makes a difference to your future plans as a scholar/critic or teacher"--particularly, to focus their reflections and specify their applications.

Students' presentations could be divided into two groups: those who were at Fredonia to earn professional certification tended to focus on works they had heard about and were considering whether and how to teach, from Lowry's The Giver to Anderson's Speak to Runyon's Burn Journals to Hartinger's The Geography Club to Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Stoker's Dracula (to help contextualize his students' interest in the Twilight series) to Orwell's 1984 (to address issues of censorship, propaganda, and surveillance); those who were not tended to focus on a canonical writer they had missed or avoided in the past, such as Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Swift (Gulliver's Travels), or were into, such as Leopold (A Sand County Almanac). I was impressed by the students' creativity and effort, but struck again by the gap between my expectations and hopes and what most of them produced. Once again I'll have to better explicate the key elements of the assignment:

After choosing, reading, and researching the reception history of a work of your own choice that you haven't yet read, you will prepare and deliver a 10-minute presentation on it that connects some of the key ways it has been interpreted and valued with the issues we've engaged in the course that have mattered most to you and have best helped you clarify what you intend to do while a graduate student and after.

What I was hoping for was that students would focus on issues of disciplinarity, curriculum, profession, and/or institution, using their analysis of the work they had chosen and its reception history to speak to their current identity and future plans. Understandably but regrettably, most focused on teaching or research and not on the larger frames the course was designed to disclose.

Fortunately, students' final reflections showed that whatever their struggles on individual assignments, they really had gotten a lot out of the mini-seminar. They tracked their intellectual journeys in the course and pulled together the different readings and assignments with great thoughtfulness, creativity, passion, and specificity. At times, they were brutally honest about the parts of the course that didn't work for them, giving me some excellent ideas for revision. But most of all, they confirmed for me that the general direction, approach, and structure of the course was workable, needing refinement rather than a complete rethinking.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tactical Teaching/Reworking the University

Heading over to Minneapolis tonight for the Reworking the University conference, where I'll be discussing my Intro to Grad Studies in English 1.5-credit master's-level seminar on a Saturday afternoon roundtable with Heather Steffen of Carnegie Mellon and Nick Hengen and Lucia Pawlowski of the University of Minnesota.

I'll be putting the course in context, going over its goals and design, talking about students' and my own takes on how it went, and contrasting it with an undergraduate composition course I taught back in 2005. Since I'll be getting another shot at it in the fall, I'm excited to get great ideas for revision and redesign during the conference (although I doubt any will be as funny as this one). Thanks to Nick for the invitation to participate!

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Violin Lessons," by Onechan

It's the Month of the Young Child in Chautauqua County and National Poetry Month, to boot, so of course our day care provider is trying to teach onechan and imoto to write poetry. Of course, onechan, who turned 5 a few months ago, is a veteran when it comes to group-authored poetry, but here's her first solo piece:

Violin Lessons
How you hold the bow
The strings are G, D, A, and E
I don't know about the chin rest
I want to keep going

Yeah, she also started violin lessons recently. We gave her the option of any kind of lessons she wanted for her birthday, anticipating swimming or dance or piano, but one of the characters from her favorite anime Ojamajo Doremi plays the violin, Uncle Bill Benzon introduced her to Vanilla Mood over at my other blog, and she's seen enough of Nodame Cantabile to have chosen the violin for herself. That's what we get for giving her a choice, I guess! She's finding it more of a challenge than she anticipated, but she isn't giving up. Here's an episode of Ojamajo Doremi where Hazuki's going through her own violin-related struggles.

Gambatte, onechan!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

On Use and Reference

Compare the articles by Wayne Heming and Patrick Smith, which present contrasting perspectives on LPGA golfer and professional model Anna Rawson in the wake of a radio interview she recently did in Australia that has lead to the year's first serious controversy in the world of women's golf. The controversy revolves around Rawson's choice of words--and at its heart is a debate over reference vs. use.

Here's Heming's set-up:

[Rawson] came under fire for her poorly chosen comments aired by NOVA 5AA in Adelaide on Wednesday.

"The tour has got so much better with so many young stars and great players," Rawson told the radio station in an interview arranged by her father Jim. "But the mentality unfortunately amongst the media and the industry hasn't changed.

"They still think we're at 25 years ago when the tour was full of, you know, a lot of dykes and unattractive females nobody wanted to watch."

Was Rawson citing others' views or was she implying she shares or endorses them? A lot hinges on how you read that "you know," which is why being able to hear the interview itself rather than just read snippets from it is so crucial to answering the question well. Not having been able to track down the audio file, the best I can offer now is a reading of how others (who presumably did hear it) are interpreting her words during and after it and a reflection on the controversy it has raised.

In choosing which clarifying/explanatory statements from Rawson to focus on, Heming emphasizes Rawson's insistence on reference:

"I was making a reference to how I feel society sees women's golf as a whole. I don't believe that. I wouldn't want anyone to think that was my opinion and I am sorry I said that, definitely.

"I was making a reference to how women make seven times less than men on the course and 20-to-25 times less on the sponsorship front. It's amazing how women's golf has grown and we have many great young players out here, yet society and the media haven't really caught onto that.

"That's what I was talking about, I wasn't talking about my opinion at all."

In his condemnation of Rawson, Smith emphasizes use:

It was an offensive remark showing little respect for the women who toiled here in Australia and internationally so the likes of Rawson could make a comfortable living playing the sport professionally.... Rawson's remarks were odious. She is right that women's golf in Australia is growing and developing superior talent. But it is only the legacy of the very women she denigrated on radio. Time she let her clubs do her talking. Otherwise she needs a caddy for her mouth. A little help with sentence selection wouldn't go astray.

In a similar vein, Bernie Pramberg ends his overview of the controversy with a comment from the head of the ALPG:

"She was not misunderstood. She did not preface her comments by saying the perception of women's golf was that of society. It was her perception. It's disappointing she made the comments."

So which is it--reference or use? Is Rawson a talentless self-promoter who buys into the beauty myth and is a borderline homophobe, or is the media opportunistically turning her own critique of the way women's golf is perceived and represented into an interrogation of her rather than an opportunity for self-reflection?

LPGA blogger Bill Jempty argues that this is clearly a case of reference. I tend to agree with him on Rawson's intentions, but think she could have done more to make her implied quotation marks more explicit than prefacing them with a "you know"--and perhaps even should have chosen more neutral language to summarize the "mentality" she was trying to criticize. It's not that she got her facts wrong: the quality of competition in the world of women's golf has gotten "so much better" in the past quarter-century; there are many "young stars" ready to challenge the "great players"; those stereotypes about the sexuality and beauty of the golfers on the LPGA did exist (despite the Jan Stephensons and Sally Littles on tour back in the day) and still do in many quarters. It's that the line between reference and use is so slippery to begin with. Even if Rawson had made clear by her tone of voice and the use of the "air quotes" gesture that she was referencing others' beliefs, the very fact she--a glamorous straight young star--repeated a term on the air that's sometimes used as a homophobic slur and sometimes reclaimed and reappropriated by lesbians themselves (in a somewhat similar way as, say, "Yankee" was in the late 18th C by American colonists) put her in an ambiguous position, raising such questions as, "Was she trying to express solidarity with the tour's lesbians, past and present, by not papering over the offensiveness of homophobia? Or was she assuming heteronormativity and associating herself with its most vicious defenders?"

Here's where Judith Butler's discussion in Excitable Speech on the intertwining of mention and use is to the point. Butler points out that every act of hate speech is a mention as well as a use: "The racial slur," she argues, "is always cited from elsewhere, and in the speaking of it, one chimes in with a chorus of racists, producing at that moment the linguistic occasion for an imagined relation to an historically transmitted community of racists.... Indeed, racist speech could not act as racist speech if it were not a citation of itself; only because we already know its force from its prior instances do we know it to be so offensive now, and we brace ourselves against its future invocations" (78). But could some mentions lead to different uses--and different effects?

An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word and mention it, that is, make use of it to produce certain effects but also at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that use into an explicit discursive item to be reflected upon rather than a taken for granted operation of ordinary language. Or, it may be that an aesthetic reenactment uses that word, but also displays it, points to it, outlines it as an arbitrary material instance of language that is explited to produce certain effects. In this sense, the word as a material signifier is foregrounded as semantically empty in itself, but as that empty moment in language that can become the site of a semantically compounded legacy and effect. This is not to say that the word loses its power to injure, but that we are given the word in such a way that we can begin to ask: how does a word become the site for the power to injure? Such use renders the word as a textual object to be thought about and read, even as it also implicates us in a relation of knowingness about its conventional force and meaning. (99-100)

If you think of radio interviews as performance art of a sort, it's pretty clear that Rawson could have done a better job with Butler's first approach to reappropriating hate speech. And what might happen if the Australian media and the rest of us were to take up Butler's second approach? It's worth recalling that it was an Australian journalist who outed Karrie Webb in 2003. The Australian media's coverage of this controversy rings of belated support for Webb, overcompensation for their own complicity, and projection of all their problems onto Rawson. What if instead we all were to take Butler's response to Richard Delgado to heart?

Richard Delgado writes, "Words such as 'nigger' and 'spick' are badges of degradation even when used between friends: these words have no other connotation." And yet, this very statement, whether written in his text or cited here, has another connotation; he has just used the word in a significantly different way. Even if we concede--as I think we must--that the injurious connotation is inevitably retained in Delgado's use, indeed, that it is difficult to utter those words or, indeed, to write them here, because they unwittingly reiterate that degradation, it does not follow that such words can have no other connotation. Indeed, their repetition is necessary (in court, as testimony; in psychoanalysis, as traumatic emblems; in aesthetic modes, as a cultural working-through) in order to enter them as objects of another discourse. (100)

Ultimately, the traditional reference vs. use debate leads us into an all-too-familiar media spectacle where issues of responsibility are reduced to figuring out who's to blame--Rawson for making the comments in the first place or the media for taking them out of context and misinterpreting them. If we instead follow Butler's course of "ironic hopefulness that the conventional relation between word and wound might become tenuous and even broken over time" (100), the real questions to be considered in the midst and wake of this controversy are:

  • What are the most harmful stereotypes of women golfers today?
  • What can each of us do to challenge them?
  • How should the major institutions of women's professional golf (including the media) deal with the history of homophobia and culture of heteronormativity in and around the sport?
  • What would it take to enter injurious words as "objects of another discourse" than hate speech and break the "conventional relation between word and wound"?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike on Golf

Geoff Shackelford points out that the USGA has produced the only golf-driven obituary for John Updike, as well as a bibliography of his golf writing and, most important, a web version of his brilliant 1994 essay, "The Spirit of the Game."

Read the whole thing, as they are wont to say in these here parts.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Someone Break the News to David Horowitz

News flash: there are a lot of Republicans on the PGA Tour. Finally, David Horowitz has a chance to prove how fair and balanced he can be by mounting a campaign for a golfer's bill of rights, promising to discover the networks behind this nefarious conspiracy to exclude liberal golfers, and publishing a list of the 100 Most Dangerous Golfers.