Recently, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, helped to cause a minor scandal when he refused to use gender-neutral or accommodating pronouns with students who self-identify as other than “he” or “she.” The university remonstrated him—and then Rex Murphy came to his defence a week ago in The National Post. Yesterday, the professor had a major news outlet, The Toronto Sun, to publish his own essay. That Peterson is gaining publicity for a right-wing perspective should be obvious from the stated dislike of Marxism in his essay and his nigh inexplicable claim that people who want to change pronoun usage have “an intense resentment of anyone who has become successful for any reason whatsoever.” As a more-or-less leftist liberal with only a little nostalgia for the bygone conservatism of the Red Tories, I want to use my own admittedly (and helpfully) jumbled politics, and my position as a professor of English, to ask a simple question. How can we set aside the us-and-them politics of this debate?
Before I go too far, I want to say that if a student ever came to me and said, “I prefer the pronoun 'per'" or any other pronoun, I would use it, or, if I couldn’t remember it among all the options, I’d use the person’s name. Having some control over the words people use to define you is meaningful to your sense of identity and belonging. Here is one of my favourite poets, the insistently or at least consistently lower-case bill bissett, offering a similar opinion:
. . . . . . . . . . can b myself he
she thinks thn thats the feer
that th punishment will cum
fr sure if he she cant leev her
call her him n start packing
Here bissett is also radically objecting to the authority of standard English, while offering the he/she option that many people today would change to “they.” Who would have thought that bissett’s writing would ever be old-fashioned in the eyes of other radicals? But rather than do any research right now to answer this question, I also want to say that I note as “incorrect” the grammar of most students who use “they” when referring to singular nouns and names. When a student’s writing is already excellent, I try not to count “they” as a technical error.
Most students, however, are not using "they" for political reasons. Rather, they don’t know which parts of the sentence benefit from agreement with each other. They need a lot of reminders about how parts of sentences fit together to generate and express coherent, consistent thoughts. Asking for agreement in writing is usually not as political as many students and critics think.
It's obviously political in the case of Peterson, however, with various parties attempting to convince or cow each other. In my opinion, confrontational assertiveness is no help, and a third way out of the double bind is needed. I can respect someone’s stated preference for a set of pronouns, but, if the word “they” comes from standard English and is plural in standard English, I’d also like people to respect my preference. It’s a part of my sense of identity and belonging as someone who loves language and has fostered that love against various stigmas that persistently degrade art and the humanities. Rather than err with “they,” I’d rather see writers use neologisms such as “per,” “pers,” and “perself,” which Marge Piercy coined in her 1979 novel Woman at the Edge of Time. (I like these ones because they remind us of the English word “person,” so they’re not only affirmative but also easy to remember and say.) To butt heads on “they” as plural or singular is to perform a script produced by a binary opposition whose politics is equally binary and thus potentially antagonistic. (“Politics is” can be correct when “politics” is used as a synonym for other singular nouns such as, in this case, “ideology.”). The third way is the neologism, which should be less contestable, in theory but not in Murphy’s or Peterson’s case.
Murphy’s conservatism reacts partly against the perception of these pronouns as “a set of freshly made up words,” or, in other words, what he calls “neologisms.” Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "neologism" itself dates to 1772, which is closer to “new” than “old” in the history of the English language. If Murphy reflected on this relativity, he would soon realize that the English language is constantly changing to reflect new realities, partly by gaining new words. I would remind Mr. Murphy of George Orwell’s coinage of “doublethink,” which I suspect Murphy himself has been glad to have in his verbal toolbox. I love Murphy’s subjunctive and his vocabulary of “imprimatur” and, perhaps ironically, “obscurantists”—but, Mr. Murphy, to use “midwife” as a verb would surely have bothered some English professor somewhere. Maybe even me.
Yes, I have been—am—a prescriptivist much of the time. In trying to improve a student’s writing, we’re trying to improve the student’s thinking. Many of us need to improve our thinking by learning how to think beyond binaries, or black and white. This lesson comes partly out of the debate over pronouns, and many of the advocates of gender-neutral pronouns identify as “non-binary.” But, still, knowing how words agree with each other is really helpful: it helps writers to be aware of how sentences work and how their readers might experience their sentences. There’s nothing wrong with this purpose.
So I was stung when I first saw how the website Motivated Grammar attacks professors like me for prescriptivism. I’m amazed at how someone could write against prescriptivism and sound like such a bully! Check it out:
The only problem with this view [of grammatical rules as helpful] is that all
you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release
some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some
authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just
getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you
up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they
feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown
violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety
of the language. (par. 4)
Notably, Peterson believes that his university and his provincial government are trying to do just that: “[scare] people into submission.” He worries that the government will dramatically expand hate speech laws to punish people who misuse pronouns which, I agree, would be scary. I know that a pronoun can be used hatefully, but there are all kinds of other words that are much worse; "hate" is a very serious word. What if you could be punished if someone overheard you misidentifying a genderfluid person who identified as “she” when you knew her, and who later flowed into “he”? Gender is too complex to regulate with such imagined laws, and one would hope that the tone of the discourse surrounding it could be less brutish.
Laws can be too rigid, and other forms of power can be more flexible. I like the power of contextualization, of putting things in perspective. Motivated Grammar states that many well-respected writers throughout history have used the singular “they.” If great writers break the rules, why can’t we all? Using a claim to authority (the great writers) to deconstruct a claim to authority (grammar) is fine, but it can be interpreted as just another power play, one power against another. Recently, I heard Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea hosting his program on CBC Radio, and he said of a song he had just played, “I love it—loves it!” He corrected himself into using the grammatically incorrect but culturally appreciated error of subject-verb agreement in Newfoundland. This example of self-policing demonstrates to me that the “grammar police” and the related discipline are not only functions of a dominant language or culture. (Read DA Miller’s The Novel and the Police or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for more on police and self-policing.) Dialects and subcultures have their own gatekeepers, often cultural figures such as Doyle or Murphy.
I like their respective styles of writing, but let me give my own example of a great writer. Not too long ago, I was reading Tim Ingold’s wonderful book Being Alive, specifically its chapter on landscape and weather. The blurb from Stuart McLean (not the Stuart Mclean of The Vinyl Café) on the back cover claims that his prose “is exactingly lucid and charged with poetic eloquence.” Indeed, he is a writer who can use the subjunctive perfectly: “Are pebbles, then ‘objects on the earth’? [James] Gibson would say so, and so would we, were each of us to stop to pick one up and, having examined it, to replace it where it lay” (131). But I found this sentence: “For formerly blind persons whose sight has been restored by a surgical operation, and doubtless for the newborn opening their eyes for the first time, the delirium [of seeing the world appear to be formed in the moment] can be overwhelming” (128). Here, a writer many would call “great” switches from the plural “persons” to the singular “newborn” for no apparent reason, thereafter linking “newborn” with “their” when “newborns” would agree better. Why not write “newborns”? (It’s so easy to fix these minor errors, so why not?) Did Ingold intend to refer back past “newborn” to “blind persons”? Not likely. (That’s a sentence fragment, of course, and I’ve started some sentences with conjunctions, too.) But what harm is done by agreement? And why doesn’t this usage cast doubt on the writer?
The short answer is that we trust Ingold’s writing because of who he is (however questionable such authority might be) and, more important for my argument, because most of his writing really is above reproach. Readers in the academy, however, are trained (perhaps a distortion of our education) to be critical of everything, including each other. One of the recent peer reviews of one of my essays returned the feedback that my writing is too “conversational”; I had used a single contraction in 6,500 words. (The essay has since been published.) My former supervisor, in contrast, reacted to my attempt to minimize metaphor (read my book if you wonder why) by telling me my writing had become almost unbearably “stark.” Professors tend to approach everyone’s writing with a critical eye. Students, especially, are usually in the early phases of establishing credibility as thinkers and writers. If my professors over the years hadn’t noted the myriad ways in which my essays were difficult to understand, I might have improved simply by reading a lot more, but I might have needed twenty years instead of—I won’t say how many.
In the end, I wish Peterson would relent and eschew his overly conservative ways, but I also wish that the more ardent prescriptivists and political correctors would calm down a little so that we can talk about writing and gender without polarizing our debates.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Confessions of a Sisyphean Prescriptivist and bill bissett Fan." Publicly Interested, 4 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Right now I want to help a bigger public than usual to understand literature, rather than try to add to what other professors know about William Shakespeare, symbol, and metaphor. For you high school and college and undergraduate students finding this blog, the easy way to cite this post and avoid plagiarism is right here:
If you say, "Bullshit, I'm not curious," you're using a metaphor to call a statement excrement. If you say, "It's too complicated, so I'll probably never get it," you're using one too: the metaphor that knowledge is something you can "get," as if it were some new shoes. And you probably shouldn't believe either of these quotations, because they don't give you much credit, and metaphor is never literally true.
My specific interest today is how metaphor interacts with symbol. You know what a symbol is, but I'm going to explain a little more about it, starting with Shakespeare's character Macbeth when he says (or when Patrick Stewart says it, playing Macbeth),
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more… (V.v.24-26)
The first line here is a metaphor: life is a walking shadow. It’s an explicit metaphor because it spells out the basic formula for metaphor, A = B (life = walking shadow), which I learned from Trevor Whittock in his book Metaphor and Film. (There’s no harm in saying where you learned something.) Shakespeare follows up with an implicit metaphor: life = an actor (the "player... upon the stage"). It’s implicit because he doesn’t say “is” in that metaphor. Why does he need two metaphors to explain life?
One answer, a short one, is that life’s not easy to understand. Another is that an actor walking in the spotlight on stage will cast a walking shadow, so Shakespeare is not so much adding a metaphor as he is extending the first metaphor.
Let's return, then, to "life = walking shadow," A = B. Another way of explaining the formula for metaphor is to say, “this is that” (Frye 11) which I learned (as you already saw in the parenthesis) from Northrop Frye. The equal sign from above is equivalent to “is,” and that’s why we understand metaphor as an expression of shared identity instead of similarity. You probably heard that metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use like or as. This explanation isn’t bad, but it’s not good, because comparison is what similes assert. Metaphors assert identity: that two things are the same thing. The verbs “to be” and “is” refer to being, and being is essential to identity.
The verbs and the equal sign also suggest how specific metaphor is, compared to symbols, which usually have a bigger variety of meanings.
But there's also a difference between a symbol and the category of symbolism (things that stand for something else). The category includes metaphor (because the A stands for B). Symbolism includes symbol itself. If you wonder how a category can contain itself, think of your parents. They are symbolism, and you are their child, symbol. But you also have a cousin called metaphor, and another called synecdoche, and another called metonymy. They’re all in the same family and can often be mistaken for each other, but they’re all different.
So, the first line I quoted is a metaphor that contains a symbol: the shadow. How you could ever be the child of your cousin is way beyond my understanding of biology, so this is probably where metaphor breaks down—where, if you push it far enough, it doesn't make sense any more. But up to that point, metaphors can make sense.
Let’s just focus on the symbol of the shadow. According to an often consulted book called A Glossary of Literary Terms, symbols can be traditional (also known as public or conventional, among other synonyms) or personal (or private or invented) (“symbol” 358), and as a traditional symbol the shadow is easily understood. It means death, transience, guilt—usually negative things.
Here's Shakespeare's twist on it. No one interpreting a shadow is likely to say it means “life,” but Shakespeare does—"Life's but a walking shadow"—and metaphor is the device that enables him to be so creative with a symbol. He also makes it walk, which animates the reference to death so that the symbol is not so gloomy (unless, of course, it's the Grim Reaper).
You might argue with me here, pointing out that the soliloquy is really depressing by the end, when Macbeth says that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V.v.26-27). Agreed: that’s dark. But, guess what? Shakespeare is dead, but lots of actors have cast a shadow on the stage or movie screen since he died, and many of them are saying his lines. That’s life! And when you notice how deft Shakespeare is with symbol and metaphor, you’ll probably agree that his words are signifying something, not nothing.
Still, why would he use the word “idiot” to describe actors? He implies here that not only actors but also the people who write their lines are not only stupid but also wordy. (Wordy like the preceding sentence!) He is basically criticizing himself; it’s self-deprecation. But, funnily, not many of us think that of Shakespeare. He was very smart, and he knew it. Interpreted with this self-deprecation in mind, Macbeth’s gloomy speech can also be understood as a joke. Tragedy and comedy combined!
Like that idea? Here are two final, slightly more advanced, ways of thinking about it.
First, the joke in this metaphor is also what could be called self-reflexive metaphor or theatrical metaphor; he wrote it about himself and his experience in theatre. I mention it because Shakespeare popularized a whole tradition of how we understand the self (the actor on the stage) through theatrical metaphors.
Second, think about liking. Think about all the “likes” on websites and social media that are there because a corporation wants to track our desires and simplify our expressions and interactions. Liking is about desire and about connection; fundamentally, it is the expression of a felt similarity between you and what you like: you like panda cubs because you value cuteness. This way of thinking is what similes are for.
Metaphors are for when you are so obsessed with pandas that you feel as if you share an identity with them. You want to go live in a forest in China with them and protect them from hunters; your empathy is that powerful. Shakespeare wrote so often about actors and pretending to be other people that he was probably obsessed with them and, of course, acting was part of his career. Often, we relate to others through metaphor because we identify with them, as I learned from Diana Fuss in Identification Papers, a book my friend Mike Lee recommended.
When you think of it, metaphor is probably more meaningful than any of us expected. It's about life, your identity, and how you relate to others on the "stage" of the world, which you can affect through your performances, just like your favourite actors and musicians affect the world. And when you know more about metaphor, it reveals hidden or extra meanings about writers and their literature and culture, including their language, which might also be your language.
If you're curious now, check out a book called Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. You'll be surprised by how much of what we think is metaphor at work in our minds, without our knowing it.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Shakespeare’s Symbol within Metaphor.” Publicly Interested, 14 July 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com. (This post is the first in which I've switched from previous MLA formatting guidelines to those in the 8th edition, which is, sadly, going to make me reformat this whole site.)
Mainly because of the recent provincial budget in Newfoundland, where literacy rates are the lowest among all provinces in the country, around half of the public libraries are slated to close to save money. On the show Because News, Rick Mercer called the closures “an attack on literacy.” I don’t like military metaphors, but I agree in the sense that the closures are, like most wars, stupid. They seem highly unlikely to improve our collective intelligence. Maybe, as the library board's chairperson reportedly said, we once had even more libraries but unsatisfactory literacy nonetheless. I can accept that libraries are not magical except to those who already love to read, but I would add that they are only part of the story of literacy, just as literacy is only part of the story of libraries.
On the same show as Mercer, Aisha Alfa said that we might not really need libraries anymore, because we can get a lot of books in other ways: e-readers, radio, the Internet. But Tom Henighan explains that, unlike music playing on the radio or streaming on the Internet, "it’s impossible to put a book in the background and turn it on" (qtd. in Mackey 10). Although I agree that literacy now requires competence in multimedia, Alfa's suggestion doesn’t account for enough of the details. Yes, we can get a lot of books on the Internet, but the libraries under consideration (or lack of consideration) tend to be in rural and often remote areas where people tend to have less money and less Internet access—except in public places such as libraries.
Another rejoinder is that reading online or on screen and reading a book are not the same. When you look at people read on a computer (e-readers being an exception), you probably don’t see it as reading. They are just “on the Internet.” In Literacies across Media, Margaret Mackey writes that, in any situation, we can't look at readers and "see what is going on inside" these reading minds (6). (I was drawn to Mackey's work on the weekend because she was speaking at the Newfoundland and Labrador Book History Symposium organized by my colleagues, an event at which the library closures were often discussed.) In the case of online reading, they could be looking at anything—an online book, yes, but also the image of a chair to buy or a music video or, most likely, the mosaic of distractions that is the typical webpage.
The problem with literacy here and probably anywhere is that, unaware of the pleasure of concentration, too many children don’t care to read, and, obviously, it’s not much fun if you can’t do it and haven't seen others enjoy it. The conventional wisdom now is that having books in the home and reading to your kids are big boosts to literacy. Mackey explains: "We learn how to read in and through the company of other readers" (6). I also read an essay by Daniel Coleman recently, “Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity,” that prompted me to realize that reading a book shows people an intellectual activity and promotes it by familiarity. We should read books to our kids, and we should read them around our kids.
Yesterday, my partner and I borrowed a car and drove up to Pouch Cove, where we sat in the park across from the library, ate a snack, and admired the amazing view of the ocean and a massive strip of fog hiding the horizon. On some concrete wedges serving as a fence just below the view, some kids had painted images of the cove, including the same kind of fog. Inside, although the library was closed (just at that time of day), we peeked through the window and saw a long set of shelves filled with children’s books. The library also had a large health and wellness shelf, plus a big fiction section that included not only Danielle Steele but also local authors such as Elisabeth de Mariaffi. There was a desk in the centre of the room where a librarian could welcome people and help them find books and information, and—crucially—probably also serve a liaison role with the community centre upstairs.
This is the crux of so many public spaces: you can go there and benefit from them without having to be screened by a bureaucrat, asked prying questions, reminded of what you need that you might not be able to supply for yourself. On the weekend, we were having brunch with some friends, and our friends gave lots of examples of what libraries offer. They offer librarians (experts on how to avoid the problems of reading on the Internet, for example), warmth in winter, air conditioning in the heat of summer, safe space, public washrooms, Internet access, and books—and people from all walks of life go there, at least in my experience. When you learn at a library, you learn how to be more self-reliant with information and knowledge. You can go there with dignity, even gain dignity (e.g., a sense of pride in learning). When people rightly criticize the proposed library closures as likely to hurt poorer people more than richer people, we should all remember how it feels when our pride, self-respect—dignity—are hurt.
The individual consequences, of course, are often badly rationalized by monetary savings in the grand scheme of things. So, the proposed library closures coincide with a new tax on books, the only one in the country, so that the government can not only save, but also make, money. But Chad Pelley at The Overcast seems absolutely right in his prediction that the tax will deter book buyers and thereby raise little money through book sales—“10% of nothing is zero” (6)—while damaging the publishing, distribution, and local retail industries.
For my own part in the grand scheme of things, I fear that I am not going to enjoy my teaching as much if or when I am teaching literature to people whose literacy has suffered partly because of the new book tax and proposed library closures. But, sad consolation, I will probably not have to teach many of them; they will be less likely to meet entrance requirements, regardless of our oft-mentioned special responsibility to the people of the province. The accessibility of the university will worsen. The university will be, for people who might once have benefited from a public library, another closed door.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'The Dignity of the Library.” Publicly Interested. 10 May 2016. Web. [date of access]
If you were my downstairs neighbour and I put my stereo speakers on the floor, cones down, and pumped up “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you could call the police and I could get a ticket.
If we were at a restaurant, together in the room but not “together,” and I was wearing too much cologne, there would be no similar recourse that I know of. Why not?
Like music, scents can invade one’s personal space. Although you might not especially want your perfume or cologne to be smelled by everyone, most scents are intensified by synthetic chemicals so that many people can smell them whether or not they are your intimates. Perfume and cologne can expand the wearer’s personal space. They are on clothes, hair, and especially skin, and suddenly the skin can often be detected anywhere in the room. By phenomenological magic, they make the wearer a giant. They are a claim on space. As with a flag planted on a hilltop, a scent says, “You will always be able to notice me.” Unlike the flag, the person wearing the scent doesn’t have to be seen to be noticed. It’s a sign that can point at (seemingly) nothing, so, in the hallways on campus or in office buildings, I can routinely smell fragrances worn by people who are no longer there. Unlike music, a fragrance can trigger asthma attacks, headaches, and dizziness (“Go” par. 7). In my view, or in my nose, it is a bad sign.
Except when used sparingly, perfumes and colognes redefine public space. You can’t look away from them. They replace the discourse of speakers and listeners with nonverbal messages, each one loud, like a cry. In an Althusserian sense, it is a hail that provokes an ideological recognition or compliance. I’m serious; like a person’s fashion and couture, a fragrance has meanings related to peer groups, cultural influences, and identity politics. One way of reading the bad sign as an ideological message is that any space is or was open to colonization (a message we descendants of settlers in the West recognize instantly, if not consciously); even the air can be commodified with a branded fragrance such as “Obsession” or “Chanel no. 5.”
Whatever the nuance of a perfume or cologne, it always says, “smell me.” But it’s very different from the scents in Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” In this poem, the intoxicating and sensual smells evoked are only in the imagination. They are erotic because you can’t touch the body in the poem. In real life, fragrances often over-deliver. I have been turned on by the occasional perfume, if it teases. But fragrances are often just constantly in your face. Even if you can’t touch the body, you can become numb to its attractions, and your other senses can be overwhelmed—especially taste, which relies so much on smell.
Last week, I was in Montreal again, and we splurged to go to my favourite restaurant, P’tit Plateau—but the experience was not what it could have been. It was not because of the food, which was excellent as always. It was not because of the company at our table, because everyone was wonderful even when I became a grump. The problem was with some of the other company at a different table, specifically a guy who came in with his girlfriend and promptly stunk up the place.
My train of thought went like this:
1. If my evil eye could kill, he’d be dead right now.
2. Relax, the scent is already gone—no, it’s back.
3. I can’t taste the celeriac. My wine is not from Cologne.
4. Maybe I could ask the waiter to talk to him.
5. Maybe I could leave with a doggy bag of food.
I stayed, but I quietly complained to my friends. Later, on the street after having chugged some more wine, I was more vocal. My friends, one who is Parisienne—the French being associated with the finest perfumes—and one who loves his cologne, objected. So did my partner. These were their reasons:
1. Your nose is sensitive. We couldn’t smell him much.
2. He might have put on too much without time to clean up.
3. We have to tolerate people’s differences in public.
I’m not certain that I recall #3 exactly, but it was a message of tolerance, and I accept that. Mostly. I do, however, believe we are justified to be intolerant of harmful behaviours. (How intolerant? Possibly more so than I was, given that I stayed and didn't say anything to the waiter or the cologne-wearer.) People who smell a little like the type of food that they eat should be tolerated, because food is necessary and nutritious (other edibles being worthy of disqualification as food, according to Michael Pollan). People who smell like gasoline because they work at a gas station should be tolerated because they need to work for a living. (My grandfather sometimes smelled of engine oil—and the tobacco that he called “snuff.”) I wouldn’t be bothered if they cleaned up before going fine dining, though.
I’ve already suggested how, in theory, wearing a scent can be harmful, but I would like to substantiate it so that I don’t appear to be sticking my nose in other people’s business for no reason. First, let’s consider the potential scope of the harm. When I talk about scents, I mean not only colognes and perfumes but also all the fragrances added to moisturizers, hairspray, aftershave, candles, anti-static sheets, soaps and detergents, deodorant (an ironic term if there ever was one), etc. They are everywhere, and that’s part of the problem.
Other people’s business. Here’s where perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances become really interesting. Yes, I admit that fragrances can be interesting on their own. Michelyn Camen of ÇaFleurBon blogged to lament the “repercussions of ‘anti-perfumism’ on our Art,” and while I hesitate to attribute the term “art” to everything, especially with a capital A, I have no doubt that some people—artisans, maybe even artists—can create remarkable and meaningful effects with fragrance. Mother nature does it too, and we can accentuate nature. I marvel at the complexity of coffee, which can be grown and cultivated to enhance its enjoyable qualities.
So, business. In Canada and the United States, if not elsewhere, fragrance is a big business. It’s pharmaceutical. As with any corporation that uses science to create proprietary formulas, fragrance manufacturers want to keep the secrets of their products. Governments have mainly allowed corporations to continue as is, despite the finding that a “typical fragrances can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients” (“Scents” par. 7). On these long lists are substances such as “carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants’ (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” (Steinemann par. 5). The Canadian Lung Association focuses on diethyl phthalate, which is an allergen and reproductive toxin. Anne Steinemann, contributing an essay to The David Suzuki Foundation, has expressed concern about the lack of regulation (par. 6). Why, if we are concerned about interactions of prescription drugs, are we not worried about fragrances, which are like drugs in that we ingest them through our noses and skin, and they modify our body chemistry (as food does, of course, but not harmfully)?
The situation is reminiscent of the governmental relationship with the tobacco industry before the widespread restriction of smoking in public, with the exception of course that fragrances have not been linked with millions of deaths. Cigarettes are obviously much worse. I remember coming home from the bar (where I was neither a smoker nor much of a drinker, in those days; I was designated driver), and my clothes would stink up the apartment and could transfer smells to the furniture and carpet. Those days are gone, here at least, though several of my older relatives have died or are sick because of their smoking. In our newly healthier environments, Marilee Nelson calls fragrance “the new secondhand smoke.” I would not be surprised if we can one day (if not already) correlate illnesses such as cancer with low dosage interactions between high numbers of chemicals, or simply with the carcinogens already proven to be in many fragrances.
When I expressed some of these concerns to the manager of health and safety at one of the universities where I worked previously, he said that he wouldn’t support a no-scents policy because fragrances don’t bioaccumulate and are therefore not harmful, and because some people like the smell. Yes, and some people like to smoke cigarettes. And, in fact, some chemicals in fragrances do bioaccumulate, according to research in the United States (re-reported by the DSF) that found that 70% of umbilical cords contain synthetic musks (“Go” par. 8) . In other words, we keep the synthetics in our bodies and can transfer them to our fetuses and children. They’re also building up in the Great Lakes and in the fish that live there.
If nature is the ultimate public space, we are marking it with scents as no other animal has ever done.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'Smell Me': Scents and Public Space.” Publicly Interested. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. [date of access]
The day before this long weekend, musician and radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. When the verdict arrived, online criticism transferred visibly offline as feminist protesters converged on the Toronto courthouse to denounce the criminal justice system and express solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. Chatelaine interviewed at least 10 of the women who protested, and some of them echoed the hashtags #WeBelieveSurvivors and #BeenRapedNeverReported that started in response to Ghomeshi, affirming the credibility of those who allege they were sexually assaulted. (In Canada, sexual assault is a category that includes rape, but the charges against Ghomeshi were not of rape; he was charged with having struck and choked women in the context of kissing.) Over 20 women came forward with complaints against Ghomeshi, corroborating suspicions about Ghomeshi and raising questions about his, and their, credibility. With this entry on my blog, I want to suggest that the feminist protest is a public intellectual answer to some of these questions about credibility, but I stop short of disagreeing with the verdict or the presumption of innocence even though the protest against the criminal justice system otherwise seems quite right.
As a privileged white male writer who has never experienced sexual assault and whose father is a judge, I am easily associated with the system under question and am not an ideal commentator; however, I’m curious about these issues and how they are entangled in one area of my expertise: celebrity and popular culture. My book on celebrity led me to further questions and to the design of a university seminar on public intellectuals in the context of Canadian literary and arts cultures. In this context and that of my seminar, I want to look at the discussion of celebrity and credibility in Ghomeshi’s trial through the unexpectedly focusing lens of public intellectualism, which helps to validate some, but not all, claims of the feminist protest.
I should also admit that I once liked Ghomeshi’s band Moxy Früvous and listened appreciatively to a few of his interviews that related to my research. I’m not a fan (in the sense of someone who not only likes but also enthusiastically follows the performances of a band or celebrity), but I know that I am biased, partly because of his celebrity, whatever degree of it he had before the allegations and the related scandal. Right-leaning media such as The National Post labelled Ghomeshi “a minor celebrity,” whereas left-leaning media such as The Guardian called him a “radio star” and “one of the country’s most prominent media personalities.” Meanwhile, Matt Gurney pointed out in The National Post that Ghomeshi’s celebrity was maintained through his associations with other celebrities—the network he gained as a bandleader, interviewer, and CBC spokesperson.
In conversation with Gurney, Allan Bonner predicted that Ghomeshi’s network will stay away from him now—an increase in the separation from a decreasing number of allies. Ghomeshi’s celebrity is unquestionably significant to his case: his prominence at a public broadcaster, CBC Radio, demands public trust, and having lost the trust he will probably never get a similar job in Canada, whereas other alleged and convicted criminals are rarely well known and even more easily forgotten; they can recapture a low profile and might reintegrate. If Ghomeshi’s celebrity and his nice-guy persona protected him while he worked for CBC Radio, his celebrity did the opposite after the accusations, and he has in effect been punished without being proven guilty. His accusers and their supporters, however, would rather see him behind bars. I have read the complete legal decision and (as an amateur) think it reasonable despite its lack of imagination about why survivors might try to stay in touch with their attackers, especially if the survivor is a fan attacked by a celebrity who encouraged an appealing love interest. The decision also avoids the topics of what Su Holmes and Sean Redmond call “fame damage” (in their book Framing Celebrity) and of the fan’s desire to see the whole arc of the rise-and-fall narrative of stardom—what Anne Kingston in Maclean’s called “Jiandenfreude” in reference to Schadenfreude—that we get from so many biographies and movies: Elvis Presley, Sunset Boulevard, Marilyn Monroe, Birdman, Kurt Cobain, etc. But the decision isn’t a speculative, psychoanalytic, cultural, or celebrity study of the kind that I might write.
So, I wonder how the debates about credibility change if we think of Ghomeshi—not as a star—as a public intellectual whose situation motivates various publics to respond with varying degrees of intellectualism to concerns often ignored in the public sphere. (I write more below about feminist intellectual involvement in this public sphere.) He can be called a public intellectual because of his skill as an interviewer—a skill that involves considerable background preparation, inquisitiveness, verbal mastery, and quick thinking on air. (If these are less impressive because he had help from CBC Radio staffers, remember that many professors have research assistants, editors, and even writers too.) Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals is germane to the case. He too is a judge, and his book has been rightly criticized for its laziness and biases by Gertrude Himmelfarb and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Nevertheless, his book is sometimes insightful. Posner argues that public intellectuals deliver a “credence good” (49), which is really a service based on applying their expertise to more general situations. That’s how they establish credibility, though in Posner’s view their celebrity can work against their intellectualism so that the associated credibility meets only a low standard, perhaps that of the so-called lowest common denominator. Ghomeshi’s credibility before the accusations was high, at least in the general public that was not yet aware of the reputation whispered into being at the CBC, and in the court of public opinion his credibility (not an issue in the actual trial) argues against the credibility of his accusers.
Without physical proof of an attack—cuts, bruises, DNA, photographic evidence—credibility might be established anyway, through interrogation of the complainant. Credibility is a major factor in any trial, which is why Ghomeshi’s lawyer focused on questioning the credibility of his accusers in the absence of evidence beyond testimony; she and he benefited from media attention that preceded the trial, including his preemptive explanation, quoted in The Globe and Mail, of his sexual preferences. (In the early 1980s, rules of evidence in the Criminal Code changed so that corroboration is no longer required to believe a complainant without evidence beyond testimony. The Code also changed so that credibility isn't scrutinized when people make complaints about events in the past, and it disallowed a complainant’s sexual history from influencing assessments of credibility, i.e., in sections 274, 275, and 276.) The judge in the trial, William B. Horkins, wrote that “the judgment of this Court depends entirely on an assessment of the credibility and the reliability of each complainant as a witness.” In Chatelaine, Lianne George reflected on “how near-impossible it is to be a credible witness.” Here are the unlikely standards of behaviour that a survivor would have to meet after an attack to be credible later: record every detail, possibly while in shock; somehow rationally imagine a future in which you need each of these details in court; and most notably “avoid contacting your abuser under any circumstances, regardless of how desperately you want to appease, understand, rewrite history or ‘normalize’ the situation.”
(The quotation marks around “normalize” refer to the word chosen by Lucy DeCoutere, Ghomeshi’s only publicly known accuser—the others anonymized by the publication ban—to describe her reason for maintaining contact with Ghomeshi after the alleged assault. Her alleged deception in not revealing her continued contact until presented with evidence of it was one of the main reasons why Horkins had to doubt her credibility in general.)
George explained that “shifting accounts, omissions, memory lapses, confusion and concealed animosity directed at the accused” could all be used against a complainant even though all of these seem to be perfectly normal. Who always tells a story in exactly the same way? Who doesn’t skip one thing one time, and something else the next? Who remembers everything, especially when strong emotions are involved? Who can’t be confused under questioning, and who wouldn’t feel “animosity” toward an attacker?
One answer would be an extraordinary intellectual—a Sherlock Holmes but not necessarily a man—whose memory, rationality, and disinterestedness would enable testimony to be beyond reproach. Most people are not so cognizant under interrogation. I wouldn’t be. Hardly anyone is an ideal witness. The link between presumed intellect and credibility is problematically strong. I would say that it gives Ghomeshi and his credence goods an advantage, except that in the actual trial his credibility was not an issue (because he did not testify) and that in the court of public opinion he seems to have lost, not that I can measure this loss except by my impression after reading comments posted by readers on mainstream websites.
So, what counteracted Ghomeshi’s credibility to the public? What makes public opinion sufficiently informed outside the courts, given that inside the courts his accusers did not meet the court’s standard of the ideal, intellectual testifier?
With an implied reference to public intellectualism, George called the trial “a massive public education” about failures of justice in the system. As reported in the news media, sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime with low rates of conviction. These facts do not mean that all accusations are true, but in my reasoning outright and intentional lying to accuse others of sexual assault must be very rare, partly because the investigations, laying of charges, protracted trials, associated expenses, and public scrutiny all deter baseless accusations. If people simply want to hurt someone or prefer revenge over justice, there are easier ways than going to the police.
Justice differs from revenge partly because it involves public judgment—not necessarily in the court of public opinion but in a court of law that seeks fairness and demands evidence or credible testimony equal to evidence. For a survivor to accuse someone, I assume that she or he has an idea of fairness in mind, coupled with a desire to publicize a case—in other words, to inform others, possibly to protect them, and to engage in debates about facts and interpretations.
Because of this desire to inform and to engage, can we accept the accusations against Ghomeshi not only as public acts but also as acts of public intellectualism, even what might be called collective intellectualism, assuming that being informed and publicly engaged are aspects of public intellectualism? Daniel Coleman argues that public intellectualism should be conceived "as a set of activities rather than a person, activities that many people already participate in" (205). He names reading as one such activity, but I'm also thinking of activities that people in the plural tend to do more or less in sync, like protest. Mary Eagleton in the Women's History Review notes that, historically, women have been denied powers associated with masculinity, intellectualism, and public authority (206), but the number of women professors and university students who have stood up in public to contribute to the outcry against the verdict (as reported in Chatelaine) is a sign of public intellectualism working against celebrity, a situation I don’t recall that Posner anticipated. Unfortunately, appealing to the popularity of a view—such as the view that Ghomeshi must be guilty because more than 20 women came forward to report him, and many more people believe these 20 to be telling the truth—is a fallacy recognized in philosophy. That the fallacy was probably first recognized by now dead white men does not totally invalidate the concerns it raises.
And yet I want to reflect on occasions when an appeal to popularity (and to a related perception of justice) might be acceptable. Most of the public intellectual arguments about the Ghomeshi trial are not, in fact, about the case in specific but about similar personal experiences and the criminal justice system in general. It is perfectly intellectual and reasonable to compare experience with theory, especially when numerous experiences are also being compared to increase the validity of the sample. These arguments are a kind of metacommentary, a sophisticated way of arguing by contextualizing a problem as systemic. They reminded me of how, in a televised campus debate in 1989, David Suzuki hotly responded to Philippe Rushton’s seemingly meticulous but actually very slippery arguments about genetic causes of meaningful racial difference: Suzuki at first seemed less intellectual but was almost certainly strategically playing to the crowd—an appeal to popularity likely meant to influence public perception that was at risk of becoming more racist—and commenting not on Rushton’s specific science but on the scientific system in general, including the university and knowledge translation in the mass media, that allowed Rushton’s minimally believed views to gain disproportionate attention and credibility. In my view of the Ghomeshi trial, the protestors wanted to increase the credibility of views that are disproportionately ignored but usually valid, just hard to prove. In a way, climate scientists have to do the same: raise awareness of systemic problems that can be hard to prove in isolated cases that should not be considered in isolation.
Indeed, one of the problems in a society with de facto permissiveness toward sexual assault is that survivors are isolated. Possibly to counteract this isolation, two complainants against Ghomeshi wrote thousands of emails to each other before the trial. Anne Kingston in Maclean’s explained, however, that “[t]he charge of possible collusion prevented the Crown from mounting a ‘similar fact’ case, one that would use the similarities of the three situations to contend that Ghomeshi had a propensity to act in the ways described by the complainants.” His credibility was unintentionally assured partly because of the emails exchanged between complainants. I haven’t read their emails except for quotations probably selected for their enthusiastically vengeful tones, but I can imagine that they were not only collusive but, like the protests, also expressions of solidarity and encouragement. More such expressions are needed to enable survivors to come forward. The tragedy of the public interest in my view is not that justice was miscarried in this case but that we do not yet have a sufficiently supportive and protective anti-violence sexual culture. In a conversation on the day of the verdict with one of my students, I heard about Muslim women who have gained agency in private or relatively private situations from feminist encouragement in the wider public culture, and I wish for more such encouragement now.
Some commentators, such as Ashifa Kassam in The Guardian and Jesse Brown at Canadaland.com, argue that Ghomeshi’s acquittal is a terrible discouragement, but I partly disagree. No doubt the verdict will have a chilling effect on communications between complainants against the same person, but it does not seem to have had this effect on the wider public. I would point to public outcry, media attention, and increased solidarity as positive outcomes, along with the potential for collective intellectualism, though the positivity is moderated considerably by the fact that the outcomes were already achieved before the verdict. But this fact, too, is an encouragement, because it suggests that survivors have power independent of the power of the criminal justice system: it’s a power linked to academic freedom and freedoms of association, speech, and the media, and it came largely from people who not only believe, but also believe in, each other.
I’m now curious about different standards related to legal credibility: reasonable doubt, reasonable probability, and especially reasonable belief. Is it reasonable to doubt the complainants in the Ghomeshi trial based on how their actions and statements affected their credibility? I think so. Is it probable that at least one of the many women who came forward had a legitimate allegation against Ghomeshi? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe more survivors? Also, absolutely, yes.
P.S. 3/29/2016: Ghomeshi's next trial is likely to focus on sexual harassment in the workplace, and Laura Fraser observed today that the new complainant has apparently not had anything but a professional relationship with him. The changing context, from intimacy to workplace (a more public space), might provide the prosecution with witnesses and even recordings that would corroborate testimony. These potential advantages do not change the fact that the standard of reasonable doubt is easier to reach than the standard of reasonable belief (an imbalance intended to protect the presumption of innocence), but they improve the odds that a collective credibility will enable a conviction when it is warranted.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Public Intellectualism, Credibility, and the Ghomeshi Trial.” Publicly Interested. 27 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
In a post several weeks ago, I lamented the lack of onboard recycling on Toronto-based flights, and I called upon airline executives to allow passengers (like me) to volunteer to move recyclable items off planes and into airports where recycling bins exist. A manager wrote to me to respond to my blog and placed the blame at the feet of the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, both of which supposedly prohibit recycling on those flights to prevent contagion.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt this claim.
Do recyclables really spread disease? Germs do stick to plastic cups and aluminum cans, but they also stick to tray-tables, armrests, and windows (maybe even fabrics) that are probably not all disinfected between flights.
And can the recyclables possibly be a significant risk compared to, or even in addition to, human beings? We are the ones who spread disease. It's on our skin, our breath, and in our blood and bodily fluids, and we're not going through quarantine every time we pass through Toronto. (If you've heard Toronto described as a sort of quarantine or culture-free zone, it's not; it's a good city.)
The conspiracy theorist in me imagines all too easily how convenient a ban on recycling might be to airlines, the CBSA, and the CFIA. By banning recycling, they can save money on sorting used items and claim to be reducing the risk of pandemics by protecting borders and food supplies.
I'll try to find a study that might have been the basis of this highly questionable policy. In the meantime, I'll be scratching my germ-ridden head.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “P.S., World Leaders at Airlines.” Publicly Interested. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
If professors followed the lead of their students and posted anonymous evaluations of students as a rejoinder to RateMyProfessor.com and the Yik Yak app, how would evaluations change—and how might students react?
Before I try to answer these questions, let me tell you a story. It happened one night long ago to a very new university teacher: a rare ice storm on the northern prairies. Rain and sleet fell as temperatures dropped just as steeply (if that’s how ice storms work), and in the morning everything outside was perfectly and beautifully protected under a hard coat of ice—the trees, the sidewalks, and all the porn that could be spread out over his four-door sedan (or hers, of course).
Who, for the sake of a prank, carries around a dozen glossy skin mags to pull apart in an ice storm?
Somebody did. It was that wintry time of year when students, steaming after getting bad grades, feel only the heat of the moment instead of a chill. Some of them flame their profs or post hot-headed criticism on social media. Others prefer revenge served cold.
I never found out whether the prankster did have some connection to said teacher, but the prank happened to have a lot in common with the implicitly sexual evaluations that students can put on RateMyProfessor. The rubric there identifies “hotness” and “easiness,” both potentially sexual terms, both implying a “meat market.” Chilli peppers rate the hotness, so the food-sex-commodity implication is pretty clear.
How foolish I would be to suggest that profs are the porn stars or nude models of their students’ fantasies when the opposite is the better known problem, but RateMyProfessor definitely shows that the problem is not one-sided in an era of social media. Some students, for example, have used the Yik Yak app to post a long and anonymous series of sexual and insulting comments about three people who were team-teaching their large class.
Teachers are public figures—in that their classes are sometimes large enough to contain strangers (this being one of Michael Warner’s criteria of a public), or include students who are practised enough at disappearing into the crowd that they aren’t recognized by name—and a lot of students would freak out (as many teachers do) if they realized that any of their mistakes could be witnessed by 45, 185, or (God forbid) 600 or 1,000 people. Rampant video recording on cell phones does threaten a lot of bullied kids with terrifying publicity. Teachers are not immune either.
Friends of mine have quit their teaching jobs because of how scary they (the jobs) can be. Besides a politician’s, what other job demands the worker to submit to mass anonymous evaluations—and, in the teacher’s case, with a frequency measured in months rather than years?
Politicians are not the only ones with their jobs on the line. In another example, an untenured instructor was fired on the basis of a potentially baseless allegation. RateMyProfessor calibrates the student-teacher relationship and gives the powers of anonymity and of the crowd to students. Although anonymous evaluators have no fear of reprisal and can therefore speak freely and disburden themselves (a plus), hate speech and libel become much more likely when no one has to anticipate results other than the satisfaction of an insult with no comeback. Some people I know monitor their RateMyProfessor comments and invoke their lawyers to compel the site to remove its more egregious claims.
If profs had RateMyStudent.com, I wonder what changes in the power differential would occur. Free of consequences, anonymous and commenting alongside each other, would professors gang up, indulging in sexual innuendo and cyberbullying too?
Protective anonymity would be more difficult to maintain for the profs, of course, because there are so few of them compared to their students. If a prof dissed a student’s understanding of the poet John Keats’s concept of negative capability, it might hint at the identity of, obviously, a literature prof. (Or the prof could have been anybody, and “negative capability” was just meant to describe the student’s academic prowess.)
Would students react differently to anonymous online evaluations?
They might take them less seriously, but even if the evaluations refrained from bullying or outright shaming the evaluations would still be crucially public. Students do some assignments, such as in-class presentations, in public, but most assignments are remarkably private: intended for one reader (in addition, I hope, to the writer's future self). Private assignments are ideal vehicles for trial and error, hence the essay's link to the French verb essayer, "to try." If students were evaluated in public and anonymously, I think that students would be even more anxious about conforming, and education would be whole magnitudes more intimidating and miserable for them. We would lose many more of them to attrition. Many would not enroll at all. Many might also be justifiably concerned that public evaluations might be read by prospective employers. Whether this possibility would lead students to work more diligently is a question up in the air.
The anonymity of online feedback is probably less threatening than the threat of publicity, but it is also problematically less meaningful. I know that when I get anonymous feedback from 45 students and one of them has a negative comment, I sometimes dismiss it precisely because I have no way of knowing whether the claim is valid. When a student writes, “It’s impossible to get an A in his course,” I can point to (though the student can’t see) the fact that several students got As. But if a student were to write, “I worked really hard on that assignment and got hardly any help or feedback,” the comment is almost meaningless—to me—unless I know who wrote it and can put it in context. I would want to change my teaching if I realized in retrospect that I had misinterpreted a student as a slacker who was too shy to ask for help.
Sometimes knowing our students and their mitigating circumstances can help us to be fairer. Blind justice might not be so just. To generalize: Specificity is good. Generalization is bad.
And yet RateMyProfessor is so full of generalizations that an individual comment could often apply to almost anyone else on a bad day. Whew! So the site’s usefulness is not so much in its particulars as in the prof’s overall score.
Especially easiness. Frank Donoghue writes: “The ‘easiness’ category provides students with the perfect instrument for boosting their GPA. Simply choose the instructors with the highest ‘easiness’ ratings and your grades are bound to improve.”
In the United States, the grade that most college students get is already an A.
This is also the grade that most professors want and were accustomed to as students.
We profs should therefore be able to relate to our students, and I wish more students who post anonymous online evaluations would try to relate to us, too. Most of us, I hope, offer mainly task-based criticism so that students take it less personally: less ego inflation and less crushing of self-esteem. We have to try to be considerate. Our students know who we are—and quite possibly where we live.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "RateMyStudent.com." Publicly Interested. 4 Feb. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Update 2/16/2016: Partly in response to this blog, the manager of environmental sustainability in Air Canada's Environmental Affairs Department wrote to me two days ago to claim that, at 8 of 9 airports in Canada, the company does in fact separate and recycle its onboard waste. The exception is Toronto's Pearson International Airport, which follows rules enforced by the Canada Border Services Agency and set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Preventing the spread of disease is their goal. The manager at Air Canada assures us that the company is trying to agree with the CBSA and the CFIA to expand their recycling, and she asks that we write to the CFIA to express our concerns about a systemic solution to the embarrassing destruction of recyclables. (Further update: Having pondered this awhile, I wrote this postscript.)
Dear World Leaders,
Last week in Paris (mid-December, 2015), leaders from around the world negotiated the first universal agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change. Today, I call on you as world leaders too—leaders of a globalizing industry—to let me help you do your part.
Once upon a time, and for a short time, I was in management, where we had the jargon of "the take away." As you know, it's the proposal that one might remember from a presentation or executive summary. I want to suggest that you remember this: airlines must do more to mitigate climate change—and I'll help! I volunteer to take away the recyclables (a sort of double take away) on airplanes on which I travel and actually recycle them, rather than destining them to a future of burial or incineration.
The world is burning up. 2015 will be the hottest year on record, and yet we continue (more literally than with the world) to burn things that contribute to global warming.
The jet fuel we burn while travelling with you has, at present, environmental consequences that are inevitable results of choosing to fly, but there are many that we can avoid. Every day, airlines use cups and cans numbering in the many millions, many of which are incinerated rather than recycled. In Scientific American not long ago, David Farley wrote that “[t]he U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans every year to build nearly 58 Boeing 747s and enough paper to fill a football field–size hole 230 feet deep—that’s 4,250 tons of aluminum and 72,250 tons of paper.”
The Canadian industry is proportionally no better and is in some ways worse, because some major American airlines do recycle some of the stuff on their planes—but Air Canada and WestJet presently do not, at least on my recent flights to and from Toronto. Such enormous waste is unconscionable, and every time I forget my reusable water bottle at home I feel guilty if I need water on board. (I feel guilty about not buying carbon offsets these days too, but that's a slightly different issue.)
Although consumers have little control over jet fuel consumption except their choice not to fly, to fly less, or to fly with less baggage (a lighter load meaning less fuel consumption), we have plenty of choices on the airplane itself. We could boycott in-flight purchases that involve wasted recyclables, but, as we are taught to do when hiking in national parks, we could instead take away our recyclables into the airports, which do have infrastructure for recycling.
Shouldn't your employees be doing that? (And is a plane in the air anything like a national park?) But since they're not, or at least not consistently throughout your business, your customers could do it. Knowing it can start with one, I proposed to volunteer on my December business and pleasure flights to take all recyclables from the airplane to local recycling facilities, but the flight attendants said they had no resources (presumably enough staff and time) to separate the recyclables from garbage and to collect them. This is where we need your help. Flight attendants need their executives and managers to say that they should take time to separate the recyclables. It seems as simple as having one bag for recyclables and one for garbage—many bags of each, of course, and enough people to move them.
The responsibility is not only mine. You as world leaders are in a better position than me to make a systemic improvement, but I'm part of the system. Say the word, and I'll move the recyclables off the plane.
[Unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Klaus Goersch (the Air Canada Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer responsible for efficiency) with this suggestion, prior to my Christmas-related flights in 2015.]
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Open Letter to World Leaders at Airlines." Publicly Interested. 16 Dec. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Should there be ads on a blog called “Publicly Interested”? The question started to nag me as soon as I decided to start a blog. I can imagine how bpNichol or another concrete poet might begin to approach it, before doing something way more creative:
I mean this in different ways. Ads on the web are a nagging presence, and, of course, they add up—to big numbers of ads, to big potential revenue, and to big distraction. I want this blog to be not only readable, with the zen of print, but also commercially neutral (not that print is). Sadly, I assume that eventually the nice folks at my web-hosting service are going to ask me to pay them to keep this blog free of ads.
My questions are about the extent of my right or privilege to keep it free. Is this blog mine? It’s free of both ads and costs at the moment, so was it a gift? Or is it a loan? Is it public or private space? Let’s say for a moment that it’s mine, as some of my private property is—perhaps not something I paid for, but something I made: not something I made on campus, but perhaps a painting or, better yet, a diary.
A diary is the epitome of a private text, but, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner observes that it does address a "partial stranger" (125): the diarist's future self, a future public. Interpreting a scene of totalitarian surveillance of a diarist in George Orwell's 1984, Warner also suggests that, in an era of social media, our privacy will ultimately be policed (127). The concern for me is not as it is in 1984, where government surveillance is a major problem. Although Orwell remains compelling, I worry more about corporate surveillance and the link between profit and privacy.
In my book on stardom in poetry (if you can believe it—I want to quote that phrase again: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), I remarked upon an admittedly obvious tendency of celebrities to relinquish their privacy for the sake of gaining and maintaining a public, as many of us now do on social media such as this blog—arguably part of a trend toward diminishing privacy and increasing publicity.
Or you can think of it as the total opposite: not a drift to publicity but to privacy, if privacy is inseparable from the idea of private property.
Your privacy includes your own self and your own space, and in a capitalistic society it competes with the private sector: wanting a house to be your private space, you have to offer more than another person or corporation offers for it. You can also profit from it. Let’s think of that diary. It’s not for profit, unless you’re Elizabeth Smart publishing what Dee Horne calls a “novel-journal.” With By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in the 1940s, Smart effectively went public with her journal, which is what bloggers do today—but not necessarily with money involved.
Seemingly different from privacy, publicity is to some extent one’s publicness or condition of being public. In the sense of advertising, publicity is also the incursion of the private sector into public space, which is a space defined partly by its not-for-profit status. Ads on “my” not-for-profit blog would be publicity. As soon as we allow ourselves to talk about “privacy” and “the private sector” in the context of social media, privatization can overtake privacy. "My" privacy might be coterminous with someone else's profit.
An arising concern is that attempts to address and thereby create a public, which is the precondition that Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics (82, 129), will become a privatized activity—very different from standing on a soapbox in a park (insofar as parks remain public), calling out to others with poems or slogans, or blogging. The difference is that the activity is, at least by proxy, selling something.
So I wonder if my web-hosting service would ever censor me for advising people not to look at or click on ads if this blog had them. Presumably the provider can take down a blog for any of the mutable reasons that it or its future parent company might dictate. In the future, “my” blog could be part of a sale, which suggests that my writing is a labour worth something to the provider, as it is to a publisher controlling a copyright.
The recognition of a "labour" involved is both a blessing and a curse. Its recognition as work or a work can be nice, but it means my writing is co-opted into a discourse in which we create property through labour, when I want it to be exist as something other than a commodity. Or, if it must, in addition to a commodity—there's the problem of the "add" again.
So, the fact that I wrote this blog is one explanation for why the provider gives or lends me this public-private space, free of ads. The content, however, is unimportant to the provider, because (in theory) the very fact of my writing is the advertisement. There's an emoticon for this: not knowing how to feel about it, but definitely not good.
Adding to this feeling, the commodity here, for you, as a public, is what Richard Posner calls the "credence good" (49) of informed opinion. A web-hosting service will care about that opinion only rarely, such as when it breaks a law or is somehow harmful to the company. Posner wouldn't care much either, partly because he thinks that this kind of public engagement lacks accountability (7) and quality control (2), in that I am my own editor and am basically just moonlighting from my job as a prof.
If this blog were mood lighting, it would be dark but not romantic.
The irony is that, as a prof, I am a professional writer, but at my publicly funded university (and at others) professors are increasingly expected to be publicly engaged beyond the public of the classroom—to help rationalize public funding of universities—and in so doing we might also engage in the private sector and thereby seem to justify Posner's market-based analysis of our own decline.
In effect, much of my work is also yours: your taxes (and tuition) help to fund my university, and my publications help the corporations that own presses and journals to make profit, very little of which comes to me directly. Whether I like it or not, this blog has a part in what is, in effect, the public-private partnership of today's university.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "No Ads on 'My' Blog." Publicly Interested. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.