Yesterday and today, the American president, Donald Trump, suggested that weapons-trained teachers should carry concealed firearms to keep the peace in schools. His proposal comes after yet another school shooting in the United States, one of a regular series of mass murders that is, or should be, a shameful embarrassment for politicians and the gun lobby in that country.
Today, Trump insisted in a tweet that “ATTACKS WOULD END” if teachers were armed, but, as I implied in a recent essay in Film-Philosophy, this is a case of insisting on a hypothesis when other countries have a proven alternative that dramatically reduces gun violence. It’s simple: far fewer available guns, especially automatic weapons of war sold to the general public. Few convenient weapons of carnage, few mass murders. Amanda Holpuch’s story in The Guardian today includes various other reasons why Trump’s plan is far-fetched, including the unlikelihood that a teacher would shoot accurately under pressure (not to mention with a pistol against a machine gun or a rifle easily modified to shoot automatically).
Partly because ridding the country of most of its publicly available automatic weapons is inconceivable to its president and to many others, we hear “solutions” such as arming teachers, but what does this solution imply about Trump’s vision of education?
Although I think it presentist and ageist to disbelieve an idea simply because it is old or shared by someone old, in this case Trump's vision should be dismissed partly because it is out of date. In my previous post, I quoted Marshall McLuhan, who wrote about the classroom as “an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon.” How true, when you consider Trump’s proposal, which is in effect to reinforce the idea that schools are jails presided over by armed guards. I mean, teachers.
When I suggested—again, in my previous post— that we should envision the classroom as if it were the International Space Station, I tried to aim high, to the stars. Trump is aiming low, dungeon-level low.
I would add that his model of education, with its hard-to-crack security, appears to be the one that Paulo Friere described as the banking model, in which teachers simply “transfer” knowledge to students, like a bank transfer. Trump himself said today, “I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected.” In this model, teachers have all the power, including knowledge, and they dispense it for clients who have paid their tuition, so that a diploma or degree is a commodity rather than a qualification. This model is capitalist in one of the worst senses of capitalism, the so-called neo-liberal capitalism in which even intangible "things" are monetized.
Contrary to this model, many contemporary teachers and professors believe that students need to be more in control of their educations and learn better when they are posed problems that they have to try to solve on their own, and with guidance as necessary. This alternative model puts significant authority in the hands of the students. Relatedly, some Indigenous models concentrate on shared dialogue and storytelling, and lessons are narrativized hints that have to be interpreted.
Again, the students have more power over their educations, and they are therefore more likely to take responsibility for what, how, and when they learn.
To arm a teacher is to enforce the teacher’s power and authority, but it is also to suggest that the manner of teaching should be authoritarian, not merely authoritative. This notion is a serious problem when it comes from supposedly democratic government. Democracy emerges partly out of education, which is, in some traditions, the opportunity to learn citizenship—not to be merely indoctrinated into patriotism, but to choose reasonably from varieties of government one that would represent you. Trump’s suggestion demonstrates to me that his vision of democracy is corrupted by authoritarianism.
I feel a responsibility towards my students, but I don't want so much authority over their lives that I am responsible for their lives, too. They need to learn to care for themselves and for others as much as I do, and if looking out for each other was more a part of American culture, perhaps there would be less hatred. Canadians, with our democracy, need to remember this lesson too. The classroom should be more like democracy and less like tyranny.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Classroom as Prison Cell with Armed Guards.” Publicly Interested, 22 Feb. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Not many people think about Marshall McLuhan much now, but I do. He faded from being the best-known professor in North America to something like an obscure prog band still loved by only a few, such as Can—and if you’ve never heard Can's “Vitamin C,” you really should, not only for Damo Suzuki’s poetically critical lyrics but also for the jazzy-mathy Jaki Liebezeit on drums. That’s how I think of McLuhan. Like Can today, he’s “out there.”
Phrases like “out there” are metaphors, and McLuhan loved them. He was an English prof, after all. I’ve been thinking about how his use of metaphors for media might teach us about social media and their metaphors today, e.g., their flaming, their tweets, and their trolls. McLuhan seemed to be calling for new metaphors of media when he was in his heyday in the 1960s. In Understanding Media (1966) and The Medium Is the Massage (1967), McLuhan argues that the media are “extensions” of the person’s capacities, such as hearing and sight. A tweet extends our shrillest sounds. A troll lurks and angrily surprises you.
Yes, you can tell that I am not a fan of social media! But a tweet can be manipulated to reject its own metaphoricity and produce better content, as Jeet Heer has done by popularizing "the Twitter essay," which also shows that the essay remains an essential form of knowledge creation and reflective communication.
Metaphor is inherently reflective, because it always prompts us to wonder, well, how IS a tweet like birdsong? McLuhan implies that all media should be understood through metaphors, using a metaphorical statement to claim that a medium is either a “message” or a “massage.” (A metaphor simply says, A=B, or “this” is “that,” always a statement of shared identity.) Whenever we engage in knowledge translation, e.g., by saying that the International Space Station is about the size of a football field, we are using analogy or metaphor. Scientists do it all the time to help people relate to difficult numbers, concepts, and processes.
So, McLuhan tried to find metaphors applicable to education. Fifty years ago in a book called McLuhan: Hot & Cool (1967), he suggested that education move out of the classroom: “The METROPOLIS today is a classroom; the ads are its teachers. The classroom is an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon.... We must invent a NEW METAPHOR” (116, his emphasis).
In the same year, in the film This Is Marshall McLuhan, he said, “In the nineteenth century, the knowledge inside the school room was higher than the knowledge outside. Today it is reversed. The child knows that in going to school he is in a sense interrupting his education.”
If only the classroom could be like the International Space Station! Much like prison for young people in North America, the classroom is punitive: a “dungeon” meant for “detention.” As a result of this belief, McLuhan thought that teachers would do better not to teach content (and, yes, the Internet can supply it just as well, in some cases) and to teach method instead—not what to think, but how.
It’s an appealing idea, and we certainly do have major problems with education as a system and what it is teaching. Today, CBC News reported that someone filling in for a professor at the University of Guelph allegedly publicly embarrassed or traumatized a student and his aide for their behaviours in their large class of 600 students. The story itself isn’t perfectly germane to this entry on my blog, but a comment from a reader is. In the comments section, someone identified as Walter Wilkins alludes to Marshall McLuhan by remarking, “The student/teacher ratio is one of the explicit features of what’s being taught and learned; the medium isn’t only the message, it’s a problem.” He doesn’t elaborate, but the “explicit feature” that he seems to suggest is that students, when there are so many of them, are just a number, and so professors might treat students insensitively or inhumanely.
In McLuhan’s terms, as a medium, a large class may centre a lot of attention on the professor’s power, and often the large classroom or lecture theatre is designed like an amphitheatre, focusing concentrically on the speaker at the front and centre of the room. Having taught a course in a lecture theatre, I know the feeling of power, but I also know that it can feel like you have been thrown to the tigers for the amusement of a crowd that has power in numbers. During the Maple Spring in Québec, in 2012, my lecture theatre at McGill University was occupied by a group of protesters from various universities, demonstrating how easy it is to disrupt a classroom.
Arguably, the biggest disruption to the classroom today is the Internet in all its forms, but especially social media. In looking for metaphors of the Internet, I was led to Star Trek’s George Takei, who made this analogy: “Social media is like ancient Egypt: writing things on walls and worshiping cats.”
The joke about the cats (which is funny 'cause it’s true, to quote The Simpsons) cues an ironic reading of the rest of the quotation: Social media as a singular entity is not all that old, it’s not all that civilized, it’s as much like graffiti as other forms of writing, and, yes, it’s where we idolize beautiful animals, including humans, or just show off all the gross shit they’re involved in.
Takei was smart. In barely more than a dozen words, he offered a little lesson that expands even as it entertains. McLuhan would have liked it.
In contrast, the tendencies of social media to elicit instant responses and to limit the length of responses (at least in the case of the tweet) are inherently anti-intellectual. Drawing from yet another source from the 1960s, Daniel Rigney learns from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) the most dangerous kind of anti-intellectualism: unreflective instrumentalism, “the dominant ideology of advanced industrial societies and doubly dangerous because its technocratic assumptions are virtually invisible to the unreflective eye. The efficient pursuit of unexamined ends is now arguably the dominant form of anti-intellectualism” (447).
Point. Click. Like. It’s quick and responsive, but we need more than that. We need the classroom of our minds to be “out there” a little farther, closer to the critical distance of the International Space Station. As a classroom the size of a football field, it's big, but there aren't a lot of people up there, so they aren't only numbers. And they have lots of time to think.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Classroom as International Space Station.” Publicly Interested, 17 Jan. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
In the news again today, Senators are arguing about a controversial bill to change the national anthem, but the politicians and others who say that there is a grammatical problem with the proposed revision are wrong.
I don’t have any objections to the proposed revision. It would be different if the government were trying to revise one of the objectional poems by Irving Layton. The anthem is official and meant to be sung together to encourage citizens to feel that they are part of an imagined community, so inclusive lyrics are a good idea. The proposed revision, in fact, is still too martial and religious for my taste, but that's a topic for a different post. This post is about grammar and controversy, that old pair.
Here is the start of the anthem—objectionable to someone in every line, I know, but culminating in the one under debate today:
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
I can explain the first two lines, but that’s probably not what you want right now.* You want the debate about the third one: “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” To be gender-neutral, Bill C-201 proposes this revision: “True patriot love in all of us command.” According to Senator Michael MacDonald in the CBC News story linked above and below, various people, supposedly including English and linguistics professors, have agreed with MacDonald, who protests that the revision is grammatically incorrect.
It’s not. It’s a complete sentence, albeit in archaic syntax: an example of the re-ordering of words that is sometimes necessary to position rhymes at the end of lines, as with “land” and “command.” Adjusting the syntax but keeping all the same words, the line is still a grammatically correct sentence of the imperative type: “Command true patriot love in all of us.” The song begins by addressing Canada as if the country were a person (in a technique called apostrophe: "O Canada!"), and that person carries over to the third line as someone who could command someone else.
It’s correct (if not politically) in the official lyrics, too: “Command true patriot love in all thy sons.” When Senator Michael MacDonald says, “The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase ‘All thy sons command’ is ‘All of our command,’” he is neglecting another “proper” reading: that Canada is the commander.
His interpretation is fine, more or less, and we can discern it by adjusting the syntax again: “All thy sons command true patriot love.” In this case, we can interpret the line to mean that our boys are growing into authority by telling others, or inspiring others, to care for them nationalistically. Another interpretation is that we are in control of our own love.
Also in this case, however, the preposition “in” mysteriously disappears. In my view, MacDonald has to explain the use of that preposition (or why it can just vanish) before he claims that his reading is the “only” one.
* The song begins with what’s called an apostrophe—not the punctuation mark, but an address to someone or something. It’s part of a tradition of addressing sublime things, sometimes including the nation, especially if the nation is ruled by a king and the King is close to God, who (you might say) commands sublimity. It’s sometimes called the “apostrophic O,” as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind." Here at home, the addressee is Canada, and the first line of the song is an incomplete sentence only if we neglect other types of sentences. The second line is the same: technically a fragment (no subject or verb) but excusable because of its exhortative, exclamatory role. If someone bumps into you at the grocery store and he’s the one to yell “Hey!”, you can’t say it’s not a grammatically correct response.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Grammar of the National Anthem in Canada." Publicly Interested, 4 April 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
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.
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]
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]
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]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.