Friday, April 28, 2006

Living With War

I listened Neil Young's new album today. Not last fall's "Prairie Wind," but the new new album called "Living With War". It was streamed for free today on, but I don't think they were ready for the demand since I couldn't get on that site all day. I used my Internet savvy to find a back channel (O.K. there was a link of, which I check twice a day).

Neil shocked his record company by informing them that he had a new record ready to go, since he just did one (and last month there was a lot of publicity for a concert video based on that last album). But Neil is really mad at George W. Bush, so he sat down and wrote a bunch of protest songs about Iraq and Bush and cut them in no time at all. Politics aside, it's a pretty good record that doesn't seem hurried at all.

Neil is an interesting case politically because he doesn't easily fit into the typical brainless "limousine liberal" entertainer model, and unlike many entertainers I feel like he has enough integrity in his personal life that if he wants to speak about what is moral or right he isn't hopelessly hypocrytical (unlike his CSNY bandmate David Crosby for example).

He's written a couple of the all-time seething leftist protest songs of the rock era in "Ohio" and "Rockin' in the Free World" (though the latter is, like "Born in the USA," usually mis-interpreted as a patriotic anthem). However, he has also written an emotional potentially militaristic post-9/11 anthem in "Let's Roll," he once supported the Patriot Act, and once spoke in support of Reagan.

Neil brings up some good points during the course of the record, but I'm a bit bothered by the second to last track "Lookin' for a Leader." He suggests that many problems can be solved by putting a new person in the White House, one who can "re-unite the Red, white, and blue" and "clean up the corruption."

He also says the new leader will have "The Great Spirit on his side." Despite the ecumenism in such a statement, isn't Neil essentially advocating what Bob Dylan warned about over 40 years ago in "With God On Our Side", or for that matter what peasants in monarchies have believed for centuries--the divine right of kings? Does he really expect there will, even figuratively speaking, be a divinely appointed individual that can make everything right?

I don't want a president who people look up to as a savior or a hero. I would rather a president who fits into a system, and a people who look to a system rather than an individual to solve problems. It might not be as sexy or as good of a story to have faith in systems instead of individuals, but I think it is much less dangerous.

For the sake of argument, though, let's assume that a huge number of Americans listen to Neil's message and go along with it. Who of the presidential contenders for 2008 right now has the best shot at attaining the "cult of personality" that Neil is looking for, who can claim to be an idealistic visionary leader, who can claim to be a hero? There is only one: John "Wayne" McCain.

Wouldn't it be funny if Neil's album turns out to be best for Republicans in the long run?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Last Paper

In all likelihood, this is the last paper I'll have to write in some time, and perhaps my last English paper ever. This makes me a little sad because in the last couple years I have discovered a lot through writing papers, and the amount of insight I get into a particular subject through writing is often enough to make up for the work that goes into the writing. If I feel my brain atrophying, perhaps I'll have to force myself to whip up a little ten pager or something just to post on this blog.

In the mean time, feel free to enjoy this 19-pager about the seminal African novel "Things Fall Apart." In my reading of academic writing over the last couple years, I've noticed that it is pretty often to include a "twist," to surprise the reader with an unexpected interpretive move or two, only tangentially related to what appeared previously to be the thesis of the paper. In this paper I've got so many "twists" it makes me dizzy. In order to get to a page length requirment, rather than belabor points I'd already made, I spun off new ones. I'm actually pretty happy with how it turned out. Enjoy.

The Wicked Son and Non-Wicked Daughter in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

In Afrocentricity and Multiculturalism, Ali Mazrui makes the claim on behalf of Africans that “we invented the family” (qtd. in Henry 207). The correlation between a functional family unit and the functionality of a larger society is a central theme of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Ultimately, it is the disintegration of the protagonist Okonkwo’s family that stands as an indicator of the actual cultural disintegration referenced in the title. But was it inevitable that Okonkwo’s family had to fall apart? To begin to answer this question, though Africans may have invented the family, it is beneficial to look at another culture’s tradition of family to get a better sense of how this disintegration occurred—specifically the Jewish tradition of the “Wicked Son.”
A Passover midrash at least one thousand years old tells the story of four sons. The “son who does not know how to ask” is unable to enquire about the celebration, and is therefore given direct instruction by his father. The simple son can at least recognize that something out of the ordinary is occurring and can ask what is happening. The wise son quotes Deuteronomy: “What mean the testimonies and the statues and the ordinances, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?” The wicked son quotes Exodus: “What mean you by this service?” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 243).
The difference between the questions of the wise and wicked sons are subtle but wide. By using the term “you” the Wicked Son distances himself from the tradition. According to Gallagher and Greenblatt, this is a fundamental rupture in the Jewish individual’s duty to the community and family: “The issue here and throughout the Seder is a Jew’s relation to historical memory. The Haggadah enjoins a continual renewal of the ancient experience. . . The wicked child refuses to incorporate the memory of enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt; he refuses to swallow the story as his own” (qtd. in Lentriccia 244).
Ironically, Things Fall Apart represents a reversal of this Jewish tradition. The implicit message in the story of the Wicked Son is that by not re-enacting the previous generation’s escape from slavery, the current generation risks at the very least a symbolic cultural, if not physical, enslavement. In Achebe’s story, the inability of Wicked Sons to pay homage to the free generations of the past results in an enslavement, both physical and cultural. There is even a geographical reversal in the stories, as the Jews escape from African enslavement to a freedom outside of that continent, while the Umuofians regress into an enslavement that originates outside of Africa but arrives on their (heretofore unbloodied) doorsteps.
Significant to the Passover story is the event that leads to the Jews finally receiving permission to leave Egypt. After all the plagues visited on the Egyptians, it is the deaths of the firstborn that is the one that finally inspires the Pharaoh to briefly open the gates of freedom. The first born are significant because they will one day inherit from their fathers. Receiving an unearned inheritance mandates a show of gratitude, a responsibility to pay honor to one’s ancestors. By cutting off the future inheritors, the threat to the society is that the living will not receive their due honors after their life has passed by.

Okonkwo’s “Wickedness”
Again, we get an ironic reversal of this model in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo receives no inheritance from his father, and therefore pays him no homage. In fact, he goes so far as to repress his father’s very existence, excising him from his thoughts whenever possible: “Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success” (46). Later, in his one moment of sympathy with his father, when he fears the same symbolic patricide that he has inflicted upon his father will befall him, he simultaneously severs their link, while also severing the link slowly forming in his mind between his father and his son: “But Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, who was Oknokwo’s father. He pushed the thought out of his mind” (108). Harry Olufunwa points out that this mental action is indicative of Okonkwo’s inability to remember the past linearly:
…space in time in Okonkwo’s memories are distorted to a great degree….He appears to be able to remember only his father’s “contemptible life and shameful death”, a recollection which so dominates his perception of his father that it obscures whatever else occurred in his past (62)
Of course, repressing and compacting his feelings and memories about his father does not mean they are not there. In fact, we know from our omniscient narrator that Okonkwo’s unconscious disposition toward his father is what drives his every decision: “…Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (10). Significant here is that Okonkwo is ruled by a “passion.” Not only are his feelings buried in the realm of the unconscious, but they are safely buried there because there are not articulated in language. Oknokwo is a creature of passion throughout the novel, and his moments of clearest insight come about in visual images, whether it is of he and his father in the afterlife “crowding round their ancestral shrine,” (108) or of being in “sympathy [with a] smouldering log” (109). In this tableau, he an amalgamation of the Wicked Son (who does not respect his ancestor) and the “son who does not know how to ask” (since his inability to verbalize the images that pass through his mind preclude an ability to inquire into the causes of his distress).
It is the latter distinction that leads him to his ruin. Although Okonkwo and his oldest son had never formed a bond, there was a time when Nwoye showed him veneration. Their relationship was irrevocably altered when Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna, an event that could have been altered had Okonkwo simply listened to the most respected elder in the village. However, when Ezeudu warns against Okonkwo taking part in Ikemufuna’s execution, Okonkwo says nothing in response. He does not argue, agree, or question. Unable to work through the decision in the verbal realm, he is forced to rely on his instinctive desire to separate himself from his father, and perhaps in doing so, he projects his Oedipal desires to kill his father unto his adopted son. Indeed we are told that in the crucial moment of Ikemufuna’s murder, Okonwko was “dazed with fear” (43). Again, his passion (in this case fear) gets the upper hand over a cognitive working through of his desires and motivations.
Okonkwo’s psyche’s repressive instinct is not limited to his relationship with his father. In the days after he killed Ikemufuna, Okonkwo spends three days struggling with his guilt, before finally being able to repress it. After three days “He began to wonder why he had felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night” (53). Of course, the psychoanalytic implications of this are obvious. The dream is the means by which the repressed returns, and in the daytime loses its power. Okonkwo’s guilt is now buried in the unconscious.
However, it has its return in the form of the “accidental” death of Ezeudu’s son, a convenient target given the father’s role as a gadfly on Okonkwo’s conscience. The effect of Okonkwo’s shooting of Ezeudu’s son is banishment and the loss of everything he had worked for, an appropriate self-punishment that Okonkwo’s unconscious administers to its subject.

Passivity vs. Action
Just as the “Wicked Son” in the Jewish tradition distances himself from his duty to community and family, Okonkwo demonstrates wickedness by repeatedly invoking his own moral code and value system, which can be at odds with the community’s. This is most evident in his thirst for action and his restlessness. Since he operates in a community which values and inscribes restraint, the result in a slow build-up of tension which, for Okonkwo, can only result in a burst of ultimate wickedness.
Existing much of the time in a pre-verbal stage, Okonkwo “…had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists” (3). This tragic flaw is reminiscent of Melville’s Billy Budd, who because of a stutter, ended up undermining his own innocence and killing a British officer. Because of his language deficiency, Okonkwo can not fully enter the communal order (though he strives to do so), and is left with frustration. The frustration feeds his restlessness and impatience, making him a man of action (often impulsive action), which in a vicious cycle, furthers his alienation from the community and leads to greater and greater frustration.
Since the character ultimately encounters frustration in so many aspects of his life, it is easy to lose track of the initial cause of his frustration—his father. We are told that “He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father” (3). The juxtaposition of these sentences is helpful in uncovering the sublimation involved in his psyche—all the unresolved frustration (presumably going back to unfulfilled Oedipal drives) of his relationship with his father continues to drive him to restless action in his dealings with his tribe. The effect of this sublimation is that his lack of filial deference is projected onto his social interactions. This is significant because it indicates that his frustration, impatience, and hastiness is not the cause of his alienation from his tribesmen, but rather the result of an already existing alienation.
Therefore, his act of violence against the British messenger can not be presumed to be the explosive result of a slow build-up of outrage against a passive and cowardly generation of tribesmen that has betrayed the ideals of their fathers. Okonkwo tries to rationalize the event before it even occurs. He predicts that the tribe will choose to avoid war, and laments that “Worthy men are no more” (141). He asserts to himself that “…if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself” (141). Notably, this train of logic takes place while he “…slept very little that night” (141). He does not want to enter the realm of dreams and allow his unconscious mind to dispute the rationalizations he forms. However, the truth does slip out to some degree. In his meandering thoughts he lights upon a scapegoat in Egonwanne, who he predicts will use his “sweet tongue” to “move out men to impotence” by arguing that “our fathers never fought a ‘war of blame’” (141). In acknowledging Egonwanne’s verbal skills, Okonkwo subconsciously admits the lack of his own grasp of language. However, the truth of the matter is that Okonkwo’s verbal shortcomings may be a subconscious way of avoiding truth—he is, after all, able to predict Egonwanne’s speech. Notably, he doesn’t offer any defense against Egonwanne’s presumed argument. Deep down, Okonkwo knows that Egonwanne is right. Their fathers never fought a “war of blame.” It is (Okonkwo’s) Egonwanne that invokes ancestry and filial obligation when discussing whether to go to war. Okonwko himself knows he will “leave them and plan my own revenge” (141 italics mine). What Okonwko doesn’t even realize about himself, though, is that the revenge isn’t against the British, it is against his own tribe, standing in for his unresolved hatred for his father.
In striking down the messenger, Okonkwo has the necessary pretext for suicide, which leads to the achievement of what Okonkwo has been unconsciously striving for his whole life—separation from his clan. He has taken an action which he knows will force them to reject him. Despite the irony of a type of reconciliation with his father (by suffering a mutual fate), the action is one of wickedness—in elevating himself over the tribe, he has severed himself from what his culture holds sacred.
It is also a fate foreshadowed in more ways than one in an exchange between Okonkwo and Obierika:
“I don’t know how to thank you” [said Okonkwo]
“I can tell you,” said Obierika, “Kill one of your sons for me”
“That will not be enough,” said Okonkwo.
“Then kill yourself,” said Obierika.
“Forgive me,” said Okonkwo, smiling. “I shall not talk about thanking you anymore.” (100).
Although both characters are speaking in jest, there is serious meaning. At for the request for filicide, Okonkwo’s response is telling. To kill one’s child wouldn’t be a great sacrifice for him. On one hand, he has already done it and managed to overcome the elements of conscience that haunted him. On the other hand, he is already expressed a willingness to kill his son, under the guise of protecting the interests of the clan “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan: I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (24). Just as he rejected and symbolically killed his own father by refusing to acknowledge his memory, he has a (perhaps unconscious) fear that his oldest son will do the same to him
As for the second request, although Obierika is not asking Okonkwo for a literal suicide, his request can be read as a request for Okonkwo to put the tribe before himself, something he ironically rejects by following the literal request. The degree to which Okonkwo possesses an agency and an individual subjectivity is, though I believe settled once and for all with his final action, obfuscated throughout the bulk of the novel. His actions oscillate between pursuit of self-interest and deference to the cultural standards and values of others. Moments of rebelliousness are common: his beating and attempted murder of his wife on a holy day, his decision to accompany the group that planned to kill Ikemefuna, his decision to act alone in plotting rebellion against the British, and even his rejection of his father could be seen as moments when his will emerges supreme in the battle with the collective will. However, his participation in tribal ceremonies that mask his identity, his willingness to accept punishment which he personally believes to be unfair, the deference which he showed his maternal relatives, and his willingness to swallow his pride and admit that he has a weak “chi” all conspire to present a more complex portrait.
Neil ten Kortenaar explores this dynamic. He argues that Okonkwo’s split psyche is indicative of Achebe’s own psyche. He sees a parallel between Okonkwo’s role in the novel and Achebe’s struggle as an African novelist—the struggle to express one’s own subjectivity through art while at the same time feeling beholden to be a representative of the community. Ten Kortenaar sees the portrayal of Okonkwo as Achebe’s attempt to make sense of his own role, a role which creates a subjectivity at odds with itself—a self that feels “its division from the world and from its own essential self” (792). Yet, according to ten Kortenaar, this type of split subjectivity is not the province of artists alone, but of the African colonial condition in general. The result is that the artist’s struggles are representative of the community. However, he then maintains that “Representation is dangerous hubris” (792), as illustrated by Okonkwo’s drive for political status: “Okonkwo’s very desire to be the agent of the Oracle that directs Umuofia’s affairs is the mark of his distance from the community” (792).
As an artist, it makes sense for Achebe to strive to be representative. It is less clear what the motivation is for Okonkwo to seek representation. I think the answer can be found in untangling the ambivalences Okonkwo feels towards his culture. He personally wants to reject, forget, and metaphorically kill his father, but he knows the dangers of social disorder and cultural disintegration that would result if this were the norm. His dueling impulses play out in the divergent practices noted above, and the attempt at political power could be seen as an attempt at resolution. By not just attaining the law of the father, but by becoming the tribe’s spiritual father, he could attain silence his conscience. At that point, his patricide would be justified because he would be the law, there would be no memory of his a law before him (at least no conscious memory—following the logic of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism it would be likely that in this scenario Okonkwo would set up a totemic memorial for his father).
Unfortunately for Okonkwo’s ambitions, the arrival of the British as a colonial power preclude him from attaining the law of the father. He will never have phallic power as long as the tribe is subjugated. The only option left to him, the only way that he can finally resolve his tension, is through a final and clean break with the tribe, to finally allow his subjectivity to conquer the collective subjectivity. His own interests and the tribe’s interests are no longer reconcilable.

Individualism vs. Collectivity
Another aspect of the relationship between the individual’s duties to self versus the community is explored by Christopher Wise. He makes the case that one can not understand the dynamic at work within Things Fall Apart without jettisoning the Western reliance on Cartesian ideas of subjectivity. Wise cites Achebe’s own rejection of Cartesian thought, and highlights the short leap from “cogito ergo sum” to essentializing the Other, which leads to racism and oppression of the Other. Wise sees a Levinasian notion of service to the Other (including ancestral others) as the organizing principle of Igbo society.
Despite his claims that the novel privileges a collective subjectivity, Wise also explores the paradoxical emphasis in Igbo culture of individual achievement, most notably in Okonkwo’s achievements and aspirations: “[The Igbo] are…endowed with a strikingly logocentric and powerful individualism” (1063).
While Wise may posit it as a “paradox,” I’m less comfortable with the juxtaposition, and prefer the label “contradiction.” After repudiating a Western ontology, Wise seems to allow it back into play by raising logocentrism, a very Western tenet. Wise is conspicuously silent on the subject of Okonkwo’s suicide. Was he ultimately acting in his self-interest or in the service of the community? As I have argued, I believe he was acting in purely self-interest, and that the act of suicide, an act anathema to Igbo culture, indicates an ironic bond with the colonizer’s culture. Suicide requires a Cartesian worldview. However, the creep toward Westernism was evident in Okonkwo before the Western ontology arrived. His wickedness is his responsibility and not the result of cultural imperialism. In death, his hanging, symbolic of suspension, is ultimately indicative of his tenuous position in life between these two notions of subjectivity.

Nwoye’s “Wickedness”
As noted, Okonkwo’s unconscious was working toward a rupture between father and son, as evidenced by an early threat he made against Nwoye: “I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (24). This is even better articulated later: “He saw himself and his father crowding round the ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, Okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth” (108).
The shift in intensity between the above two passages can be attributed to Okonkwo’s growth from a vague uneasiness about his progeny’s ability to fulfill their duty to him (in the first) to an outright realization (in the second) that his son is, in the Jewish sense, wicked. The seeds of Nowoye’s “wickedness” can be seen as far back as his duplicity toward his father’s storytelling: “And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories” (38). Though he was clearly attempting to curry favor with his father in this instance, his actual disinterest in his fathers’ stories of warfare betoken a fundamental fissure between the two. Those seeds of wickedness and rebellion spring to life with the killing of Ikemufuna, the turning point in their relationship.
Some critics have attempted to minimize Okonkwo’s complicity in the boy’s death. Solomon O. Iyasere takes it upon himself to prosecute Okonkwo for the action. He responds to Damian Opata’s argument that since the action wasn’t pre-mediated, Okonkwo was the victim of fate, as well as David Carroll’s argument that since Okonkwo was acting on behalf of the will of the community, the community and not the individual was to blame. Iyasere points out that it was certainly pre-mediated for Okonkwo to accompany the group on their journey, and that though the community sanctioned the death of Ikemufuna, it certainly condemned the one the boy called father having any hand in his death, much less in delivering the actual death blow. In addition to taking away Okonkwo’s defenses, Iyasere goes on the offensive, accusing Okonkwo of “limited metacognitive powers” (310). He adds that “Lacking rhetorical skill, Okonkwo overcompensates for his deficiency in this area by being too quick to act” (311). Earlier in this paper, I have examined this tendency in Okonkwo, and have examined what I believe to be the psychological cause of his “deficiency.” I raise Iyasere’s accusations here because I think his explanation for Okonkwo’s “act first” mentality has interesting consequences. He ultimately sees Okonkwo as the ultimate conformist, always ready to act so that he will not be judged by others as “unmanly and effeminate” (311).
Although I’ve already made clear that I see Okonkwo as a nonconformist, I think with some slight tweaking, I can reconcile our divergent views of the character. Although wanting separation from the tribe, and wanting separation from his father, Okonkwo is subconsciously aware of his Oedipal drive to kill his father, and therefore must be fearful of suffering the same fate befalling him. His drive to action, therefore, need not be a pre-emptive strike against being judged, but a constant attempt to postpone judgment, not so much from the tribe, but from his own thoughts and those of his sons, including Ikemufuna, who in looking to him for justice, also demanded that Okonkwo make a judgment, something that must be avoided at all costs. Iyasere points out that “What Okonkwo does not recognize is that by attempting to obliterate his father’s reality, he symbolically destroys his own existence and his own place in Umuofia society…” (313). As I have argued, I think Okonkwo did recognize this, albeit subconsciously. He had the dueling impulse to embrace and avoid this drive.
The desire to avoid judgment can not always be avoided, and in his act of killing Ikemufuna, Okonkwo simultaneously made a judgment against justice for his adopted son, which inspired Nwoye to make the very judgment that Okonkwo had been hoping to avoid—the patricidal instinct blossomed within Nwoye’s consciousness.
Like his father, Nwoye lacks the language to describe his unease, but our narrator tells us that he felt “a snapping inside him” (43). Later, he still lacks a language to describe his dissatisfaction, but the Christian church provides him with an emotional dimension that his home life lacked: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow…He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (104). This new sensation gives him the ability to say for the first time of Okonkwo “He is not my father” (101).
Nwoye’s external sign of his transformation is to change his name to Isaac. In this, he has committed the sin of the Wicked Son; through nomenclature he has chosen to end his identification with the line of his ancestors and enter into a new tradition, ironically the same tradition which gives us the concept of the Wicked Son. Perhaps room must be made for a fifth son at the Passover table—the adopted son. For though it is Christianity which makes its claim upon Nwoye, he chooses a name more common to Judaism—a faith that doesn’t have “the mad logic of the Trinity.” Also unlike Christianity, it is a faith that still calls for filial obligation. Notably, when Mr. Kiaga tells him “Blessed is he who forsakes his father and mother for my sake” (108), Nwoye “did not fully understand” (108). It is likely that the lack of understanding comes about because Nwoye/Isaac like Okonkwo, wants to reject his father, but also like Okonkwo, doesn’t want to reject the cultural standard of ancestral respect that is shared in both the African and Jewish traditions—an ancestral respect that gives rise to claims such as “we invented the family.”
The Non-Wicked Daughter
Though both the Jewish and African traditions venerate ancestral respect and the idea of a “family,” our vantage point today allows us to notice the conspicuous absence of the daughter as an agent of cultural, not just corporal, reproduction in the mythologies. Although we have four different sons present at the Passover midrash, we lack any daughters. Things Fall Apart presents two generations of wicked sons in a patriarchal. In a patriarchal society, the sons are the ones who must uphold and pass on cultural traditions. When sons are wicked, things fall apart. What makes this story a tragedy is that but for a tragic flaw, things wouldn’t fall apart, or come to a tragic conclusion. I’ve already discussed at length the character Okonkwo and his tragic flaw(s), but in a larger sense this narrative is also the tragedy of a culture, with patriarchy the culture’s tragic flaw.
In order for patriarchy to be considered an aspect of the culture’s downfall, the narrative must present an alternative to patriarchy and hint at the possibility that an adaptation of the alternative would have potentially resulted in a different fate. Achebe delivers the alternative in the person of Ezinma. While Okonkwo was engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his wicked son, all along he had a decidedly non-wicked daughter. In contrast to Nwoye’s rejection of his culture’s bedrock spiritual values, Ezinma as a young girl consented to the being a vessel for those values. The middle of the night journey to the shrine could have been an important moment of cultural transmission and reproduction, but the event seemingly had no significance for Ezinma or the tribe when she reached adulthood. Laura Nesbitt sees Ezinma as a central character of the novel, one who unlike Okonkwo who “represents the past,” instead “symbolizes rebirth and the future of the clan” (6). During Ezinma’s journey to the shrine, Nesbitt is impressed by the girl’s courage, which she interprets as indicative of the fact that “The future will be found in the union of native people sharing their struggle, courageous enough to create new religion, language, and educational systems” (7). I am in agreement with Nesbitt that this character and this specific event carry the potential to create a better future, but her actual power to achieve that potential was limited by how her culture viewed women and the family. She was not allowed a seat at the figurative Passover table, and her virtue was not able to pick up the slack for Nwoye’s wickedness, even though the often obtuse Okonkwo saw the potential in her for greatness: “He never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl” (122).
Not only did Ezinma have the potential to fulfill a new cultural function, but I think she also had the potential to fulfill a new familial role. The story is filled with father-son relationships in which there is a disharmony between the parties, which resulted in all manifestations of violence. However, Ezinma and her father had a deep connection: “Of all his children she alone understood his every mood. A bond of sympathy had grown between them as the years had passed” (122). Had this bond existed between any of the father-son relationships in the narrative (Unoka/Okonkwo, Okonkwo/Ikemefuna, Okonkwo/Nwoye) the story’s tragic elements would have been eliminated.
Despite the fact that Okonkwo comes from a patriarchal culture, he can not be excused for wishing that Ezinma was a boy. The counsel he received from his maternal uncle Uchendu could have been enough to enlighten him to the role Ezinma could have played:
“…can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme?’ We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding…And yet we say Nneka— ‘Mother is Supreme.’ Why is that?”
There was silence…’I do not know the answer’ Okonkwo replied…
‘Listen to me and I shall tell you. But there is one more question I shall ask. Why is it that when a woman dies she is taken home to be buried with her own kinsmen?’
Okonkwo shook his head (94)
Although Uchendu is practicing a Socratic rhetoric in order to force Okonkwo into thinking about these questions, Okonkwo is resistant. After the first question, he only breaks his silence when forced to. The second question he gives no verbal response. He is a man of action and not contemplation, and therefore the answer that Uchendu provides to his own questions goes in one proverbial ear and out the other: “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you” (95).
Although Uchendu provides an answer, the answer just raises more questions. Why is the fatherland equated with goodness and the motherland with bitterness? Why is the motherland a refuge? To address the second question first, I think the answers can be found in the Oedipal struggle. The fatherland is a site of vicious Oedipal conflict, with the son often acting out patricidal desires in a variety of alternative but perhaps equally anti-social guises. Ironically, though, the punishment for such anti-social behavior is actually a reward. The subject is banished to the motherland, which in part fulfills the Oedipal desire of mating with the mother.
However, this still doesn’t resolve why the motherland would be equated with bitterness. If the subject has actually attained, albeit in sublimated form, one of the goal’s of the Oedipal struggle, why doesn’t he rejoice? Perhaps the victory is hollow if the prize is not attained through patricide. To make one’s own name in the fatherland, to attain the political power that Okonkwo was seeking, is, as discussed earlier, to become one with the law of the father and to symbolically kill the father. The motherland may become a refuge in the event of failure to succeed in the fatherland, but it is a bitter refuge.
This is not to suggest that it had to stay a bitter refuge, though. Okonkwo, like any other subject, had the potential to undergo Oedipalization. It is rather frivolous to suggest that he would have benefited from a talking cure, but his resistance of verbalization of his emotions and beliefs precluded him from working through his unresolved conflict with his father. Had he successfully done so, an alternative to his tragic fate was open.
In “The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” F. Abiola Irele comes to the ironic conclusion that the novel is utopian. Irele sees Achebe making a leap that his African contemporaries didn’t in refusing to romanticize the past and instead beginning the work of conceptualizing a future. According to Irele, Achebe’s work “represents an imaginative remapping of the African experience within the space of history, the literary mode deployed as a means of shaping consciousness for the confrontation of the new realities on the horizon of African being” (24). In this model “cultural memory” is not forgotten, but allows for the subject to become “resolutely oriented toward a future envisioned as pregnant with new possibilities” (24).
I am particularly interested in how Irele regards the nature of “cultural memory.” The “crisis” he speaks of in the title is the recognition by the people of Umuofia that the traditional modes of thought are no longer equipped to deal with the present problems presented by the colonial encounter. Irele sees the “crisis” as an evolutionary nudge in which cultural memory, perhaps even collective memory, is re-fashioned.
Irele finds a meaningful summary of the culture’s value system in this passage: “A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors” (86). The “crisis” is the shake-up in this order, first hinted at in the conflict between Okonkwo and his father, and then ruptured in the conflict between Okonkwo and Nwoye. But from the ashes of the old order comes the hint of a new order.
It was possible that after banishment, Okonkwo could have stayed in the motherland. He could have given proper veneration to Uchendu as a surrogate father, received honor and veneration from his virtuous daughter Ezinma, and found a functioning role as a member of his mother’s tribe. The center may have held together after all, had the culture that invented the family been a bit more open to revising its definition of the family and its expectations of familial roles, in which wicked sons can be redeemed with new fathers and non-wicked daughters are invited to the table. That this tantalizing possibility emerges from a close scrutiny of the novel speaks to the truth that Irele may be right—perhaps Things Fall Apart is a utopian text, after all.

Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1958.
Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. “The Mousetrap.” Close Reading: The Reader. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Andrew Dubois. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2003.
Henry, Annette. “Missing: Black Self-Representations in Canadian Educational Research.” Canadian Journal of Education 18.3 (1993): 206-222.
Irele, F. Abiola. “The Crisis of cultural Memory in chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” African Studies Quarterly 4.3 (2000): 36 pgs. 26 March 2006. .
Iyasere, Solomon O. “Okonkwo’s Participatiion in the Killing of His ‘Son’ in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness.” CLA Journal 35.3 (1992): 303-315.
Nesbitt, Laura. “Creating Identity Out of the Postcolonial Void.” Journal of African Literature and Culture 1.3 (2006): 8 pgs. 26 March 2006. .
Olufunwa, Harry. “Achebe’s Spatial Temporalities: Literary Chronotopes in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.” Critical Survey 17.3 (2005): 49-65
ten Kortenaar, Neil. “Becoming African and the Death of Ikemefuna.” University of Toronto Quarterly 73 (2004): 773-794.
Wise, Christopher. “Excavating the New Republic: Post-colonial Subjectivity in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Callaloo 22.4 (1999): 1054-1070.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Anti-Plato Bowl

Plato wanted to ban art from the ideal republic. His reasoning was that our reality was already once removed from "true" reality (an imitation). Artistic representations of our reality were even worse because they were imitations of imitations.

Sports are often thought of as representative of reality, but another way of thinking about games are that they are an imitation of reality. Therefore, in Platonic thought sports, like art, are an imitation of an imitation. So what about sports video games? An imitation of an imitation of an imitation? How about real athletes playing sports video games?

I'm not sure how Plato would describe ESPN's "Madden Bowl," but I don't think he'd like it. It's amazing to me that a viable TV network could actually put a video game of a sporting event on TV and expect people to watch it. What is even more amazing is that if it wasn't for the lack of Packers in the tournament, I actually would watch it.

If I can get the same kind of thrill (albeit lessened) watching a completely artifical imitation of a sporting event, it makes me wonder about the thrill I do get from actually watching sports. I've always known that there is something artificial about my viacrious enjoyment of a team from my geographical area, but I don't like to be reminded of it and I'm afraid that the Madden Bowl throws it into my face. Along with this Onion article from several years ago, I am forced to confront the irrationality of being a sports fan.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Strange Times

I admit my blog is in a bit of a rut: when I'm not posting papers no one cares about it seems like I'm always talking about on-line communication and pointing out how surreal these times are. Yet, I continue to be astounded. I spent a few minutes at Kevin Ray Underwood's blog: This guy was arrested in Oklahoma and charged with killing a young girl. There are more gruesome details I won't get into here, but if you need the full story of how sick this guy is you can do a google news search on his name.

For the last three years he's been keeping a blog on At what point in history could we actually read the open diary of a psychopath? I guess it's not totally unprecedented: de Sade kept a diary and Hitler wrote an autobiography. Still, what is unprecedented is the unfiltered, unedited aspect of a blog, particularly the mundanity. The day after committing a heinous murder, this guy was actually linking to an article about fossils.

It's interesting that media reports portrayed Underwood as a bored antisocial loser. His blog indicates that even if he didn't get out much, he had an active intellectual life with plenty of interests. It makes me think that the cause of his criminality isn't so much environmental reasons as it is biological. He blogged about not taking his medication and struggling with "dangerously weird" fantasies.

Media reports also mentioned that he joked about cannabilism on his blog. One even mentioned that he posted a question about cannabilism on his profile. Strangely enough, he didn't actually post the question. picks random questions for your profile, and that is the one he ended up with. It's just another sign that these are strange times-- we've always had murderers and even cannibals, but for a real life cannibal to intersect with the pop culture-filtered post-Hannibal Lecter-esque world of cannibal humour-- this is just too much for my mind to wrap itself around.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Most Boring Post Ever

I don't expect anyone to read this, but I spent a lot of time on it so I'm going to post it. Maybe someone interested in writing center pedagogy will find it through google, who knows. I'm hoping to get it published in Writing Center Journal. It's not exactly Sports Illustrated, but it'll have to do (because I don't think S.I. readers care about writing center theory).

An Addendum to Tutor Training: Negotiating Reading Out Loud in Writing Center Sessions

Azor Cigelske
April 14, 2006

In The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, a training manual for writing center tutors, Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner urge tutors and prospective tutors to have writers read their own texts out loud. They detail what they see to be the advantages of this method:
When the writer reads the paper, he accomplishes several things, in addition to keeping in control….Listening to the whole thing from start to finish puts you in the role of learner and the writer in the role of expert. And our anecdotal evidence is pretty good that the reader is listening, too, to the way the draft is working….he’s giving his draft a critical reading in ways that will help him revise (30).
The fact that Gillespie and Lerner use only anecdotal evidence indicates to me one of two gaps in tutor training literature that I hope to address in this paper. First, I would like to provide some practical data to support the theoretical contention that the best way to begin a Writing Center session is to have students read their own drafts. Despite the prevalence of this suggestion in tutor training manuals, there has been a dearth of research into its effectiveness.

Current Theory Regarding Reading Out Loud
Gillespie and Lerner point out three theoretical benefits to having the student read out-loud. First, the student takes ownership for her paper and has a greater degree of agency (or as Gillespie and Lerner say “control”) over the session. Second, the power in the session is better diffused between both parties. Third, the writer has a better critical engagement with the text. These same three ideas are basically paraphrased in Toni-Lee Capossela’s The Harcourt Brace Guide to Peer Tutoring: “By reading his own work, a writer reinforces the fact that the draft belongs to him. This strategy also puts him in charge, because he can stop when he comes to a passage he wants to work on. It also helps him hear passages that ‘sound funny’ even though they may look fine on paper” (11). Capossela also quotes Karen Spear as theorizing that “When writers hear their ideas in the presence of an audience, they understand themselves differently” (11).
We see the same ideas, along with a new one, coming to the fore in Jeff Brooks’ “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work,” published in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice (often used for tutor training):
Have the student read the paper aloud to you, and suggest that he hold a pencil while doing so […] this will accomplish three things. First, it will bypass that awkward first few moments of the session when you are in complete control of the paper and the student is left out of the action [….] Second, this will actively involve the student in the paper, quite likely for the first time since he wrote it. I find that many students are able to find and correct […] problems without any prompting from me. Third, this will help establish the sometimes slippery principle that good writing should sound good (222).
His first reason echoes the desire for the student to have ownership, his second reason calls to mind Gillespie and Lerner’s call for “critical engagement.” His third reason adds yet another element to the conversation, the idea that students regard their text as something that has lyrical or rhythmic potential.

Some Empirical Support for Current Theory
I hoped to validate these theories with some data from students who had been through a writing center session. As a pilot study, I distributed an e-mail survey to University of Louisville Writing Center clients in December 2004. I received 44 responses from students who had a writing center session in the Fall Semester 2004. In order to validate my results, I distributed a follow-up survey in March 2006, involving students who had writing center sessions (with different consultants) in the first half of the Spring 2006 Semester. I asked four questions in common, with similar results in both studies. (I added one follow-up question to the second survey, which will be discussed later)
The first question I asked was whether the student’s paper was read out-loud (by either the student or the consultant). In the first survey, 40 out of 44, or 91% of sessions involved reading out-loud. In the second survey, 25 of 27, or 93% of sessions involved reading out-loud. Reasons given for not having this part of a session included wanting to pay attention to specific sections of the paper, and wanting an honest reaction to a fiction piece. The frequency of the practice underscores in my mind the importance for research and discussion.
The second question I asked was “Who read…you or the consultant?” In the first survey, roughly two-thirds reported that they read (27 to 13 in which the consultant read). The results of my second survey were even more pronounced: roughly three-fourths of sessions in which the paper was read out-loud involved the student doing the reading (19 of 25). These results were not surprising given the emphasis in tutor training literature on having the student read. See figure 1 for a summary of results.
My next question was an attempt to determine if the students found value in the out-loud part of a session. I asked, “Did you find yourself gaining any insight by having the paper read aloud, or was it simply a way for the consultant to get familiar with the paper?” I intended the question to be open enough to give students a legitimate, guilt-free response if they felt the out-loud portion was not especially helpful to them. However, both surveys indicated much satisfaction with this part of the session.
I broke responses down into two categories, depending on whether the student or the consultant did the reading. In the first survey 24 of the 27 students who did the reading claimed they gained insight (89%), compared with only two who said that it was beneficial only for the consultant (7%). More than half of those who had the consultant read also claimed to benefit, but the percentage was lower. Of the 13 students, nine said it was helpful (69%), while four said it was not. I find it significant that despite the much smaller sample size, this group had twice the number of respondents who claimed no benefit. In the more recent survey, 17 of the 19 students who read themselves gained insight (again 89%), while all six students who had the consultant read reported that they gained insight. Overall, 56 of 64 respondents, or 88% reported gaining insight by having their papers read out-loud, validating this as a worthwhile part of a writing center session. See figure 2 for a graphic representation of results.
My final question was an attempt to determine the level of critical engagement with the text, as well as a writer’s ability to assert power in the session. I simply asked if students interrupted at any point during the out-loud portion with questions or comments. Once again, I broke the data down into categories depending on whether the student or consultant did the reading. In the first survey, of the 27 who read their own papers, 22 said they interrupted at some point (81%), compared to four who said they did not (15%). One student could not remember. Of the 13 students who had the consultant read, eight (62%) said they interrupted, compared to four (31%) who did not. One student did not respond to this question. In the more recent survey, of the 19 students who read their own papers, 12 (63%) said they interrupted, while five (26%) said they did not. Two students did not remember. Of the six students who had the consultant read, four of the six interrupted while the other two did not. Overall, 34 of 46 (74%) students who read their own papers interrupted, while 12 of 19 (63%) students who had the consultant read interrupted. I think this shows a reasonable level of attentiveness and ownership in both situations, though the numbers do seem to suggest that students who do their own reading have more ownership and control in a session, and are more likely to interrupt the reading with critical observations. Figure 3 summarizes the findings related to this question.
I was able to compile some qualitative data with my surveys as well, as I invited students to contribute any observations or remarks about the out-loud session. Many students validated the theoretical postulations in the tutor training manuals. One student said, “I think reading out loud is a great approach. It allows the writer to hear the paper from a third person perspective, allowing him/her to pick up on areas that don’t quite ‘sound right’ or flow.” This echoes Capossela’s idea that “[reading] helps [students] hear passages that ‘sound funny’ even though they may look fine on paper.” It also supports Brooks’s notion that “good writing should sound good.”
Another student remarked, “I found certain points did not make sense after reading aloud. This is such a simple task, but I have not been reading aloud while working on papers at home. I think it helps to read to another person, because you are more aware of someone listening.” This echoes Spears’ assertion that “When writers hear their ideas in the presence of an audience, they understand themselves differently.”
One of the more glowing endorsements of the out-loud process came from another student: “I think it’s best for the person writing the paper [to read] because I know it turned a light on for me. I went from going to the writing lab for every paper to writing my own without any help and no loss of grade, simply from reading the paper out loud.”

Another Gap in the Literature
Although much, both quantitatively and qualitatively in my surveys supports the theoretical positions of the training manuals, I also found some data, particularly on the qualitative side, which calls into question some of the assumptions made in the training manuals, and also points to a second gap in the manuals that needs to be addressed.
Current tutor training literature implies that the model of “student reading and consultant listening” is universally preferential to a model of “consultant reads and student listens.” Yet, some students found it more beneficial if the latter method is employed. One student who responded negatively when asked if any insight was gained from the out-loud portion responded, “Had the consultant read it out loud I may have been able to gain some insight. It is easier to gain insight when you listen to someone read your paper.” Another student said, “I think reading it out loud is the first step in gaining an overall knowledge of how your paper will sound if someone else is reading it.” Yet another student said “I definitely feel the consultant should read the paper aloud, because I feel it is more effective for both the consultant and the student. The consultant is able to visually look at the paper and check for grammatical erros [sic], while the student can hear his or her own ideas and see how his or her paper sounds.” Certainly, this makes sense in light of the theory that different people have different learning styles and strengths. An auditory learner, as the latter student quoted seems to be, would more likely benefit from hearing rather than reading her or his paper.
So how is it that the first student, who likely would have benefited more from having her paper read to her, ends up reading the paper herself? I made one alteration to the survey the second time around. I asked students how the reader was determined. Her response: “The consultant asked me to read my paper out loud.” In doing so, the consultant was following the advice of Capossela’s training manual: “Have the writer read the draft aloud” (10). Interestingly, no advice is offered as to how exactly the consultant should go about “having” the writer do this. The implication is that the consultant should exercise his or her power and demand the student follow this directive. This is highly ironic given that a main point in Capossela’s manual is to “Let the writer set the agenda and be in charge of the conversation. If you seize control of the conversation, the way a doctor does with a patient, the writer will sit passively, waiting for you to make a diagnosis and recommend a cure” (10). Further advice is given for how to empower the student, from how to situate the conference spatially to how to ask questions rather than make statements. However, lack of direction on how to negotiate the reading out-loud in a session is a second major gap in this and other tutor training literature. The gap is apparent in Brooks’ article as well. He uses the same wording as Capossela: “Have the student read the paper aloud to you.” Ironically, the chapter is titled “Making the Student Do All the Work.” In this case, the verb “making” seems to belie the degree of agency that Brooks is ostensibly advocating as his central thesis.
Consider Capossela’s “back-up” plan: “If the writer is reluctant to read, you read the draft aloud. This is not as desirable as [having the student read], but it is better than silent reading” (11). There is a gap between “Have the student read.” and “If the student is reluctant to read…” How much reluctance must a student show in order for the consultant to offer the alternative? Must students be made to feel reluctant if they prefer the alternative method?
Given the gap in teaching consultants how to negotiate out-loud reading, it is unsurprising that there would be different variations in technique. One of the students surveyed in spring 2006 felt she had to read out-loud even though she didn’t want to because “the consultant asked me to.” Another student, who nevertheless reported that he gained insight from reading out-loud, remarked that he did the reading himself because “[The consultant] didn’t seem like he wanted to so I volunteered.” Although this session apparently turned out well, one can’t but be a little troubled by the suggestion that the student needed to pick up on nonverbal or unspoken cues in order to determine the session’s agenda.
Though it is apparently undesirable for a consultant to be too insistent regarding the reading out-loud, perhaps the consultant can be too neutral. By presenting the student with both options as equally desirable, many students who could perhaps benefit from reading their own papers may instead elect to nominate the consultant, feeling self-conscious or reluctant to read their own work. An example is this response from a student when asked who read the paper and how this was determined: “[The consultant] read it. She said that it’s usually best to read the papers out loud, and asked if it was OK for either of us to read it. I said that it was fine to read it out loud, and asked her if she would do it.” The student doesn’t tell us why she chose not to read it, but it appears possible that had the consultant been more directive, she would have been more likely to read it herself.
The issue of student comfort is another aspect of the negotiation that could be better addressed by the training literature. In an article often used in tutor training, Thomas Newkirk points out that “When we push students to speak, to evaluate; when we listen and don’t rush to fill silences, we may be able to transform the rules of studenthood…” (315). Newkirk is expressing the same desire for student empowerment that other theorists use as the basis for requiring student reading. But the verb “push” implies that discomfort on the student’s part is inevitable. It is quite likely that he is primarily speaking of an intellectual discomfort, which most pedagogical theorists would likely acknowledge as more positive than negative. However, given the real life dynamics involved in a student writing conference, one wonders if it is necessary that emotional discomfort must also be present. Is there a way for students to be afforded a comfortable environment so that they are more likely to accept intellectual challenges?
To be fair, training manuals do recognize the degree of apprehension that students may be feeling, and they offer advice for consultants to help assuage nervousness. For example, Gillespie and Lerner advise that
[w]riters can come to the writing center with either clear or vague ideas of what will happen, but many come with apprehensions and vulnerabilities. Some see it as a sign that they are not strong writers. […] Most are nervous. So taking a few minutes to get to know the writer is really important. Even if you only have a short time to work together, it’s important to set a collegial, congenial, friendly tone during those crucial first minutes (28).
Certainly this is sound advice, but given the difficulty many students may face in being asked to read aloud, shouldn’t extra attention be paid to how to ease students concerns about being called on to do this. I’d like to share a few survey responses I got to indicate the importance of this issue. One student said “At first I was so afraid…” Another remarked that “id [sic] rather not be around alot [sic] of people id like to have the option of going into a private room so I can fully focus on my paper and not have the distractions of the other people.” Such an arrangement could be logistically impossible for some writing centers, but could the consultant have said something to ease the writer’s fears and perhaps caused the other people in the room to be less of an issue? Another student actually went so far as to suggest what she would like consultants to say:
It was a little unnerving having my paper read aloud because I am so worried that I did not write the paper well enough and I will embarrass myself. It would be beneficial that they [sic] tutor say something along the lines of I am not going to judge or make you feel stupid…Obviously not exactly those words but something along those lines. It will reassure the writer to not be worried or apprehensive about their work and the session will potentially be more successful because the writer will be so comfortable and willing to work.
One can’t help but be impressed with the degree to which this student recognizes her own emotional needs, recognizes how they can be met through the consultant’s verbal interaction, and also sees the big picture pedagogical benefits of having those needs met.
I’d like to focus on one more area in which the gap between theory and instruction may result in an inability to maximize the degree to which the out-loud portion of a session can be helpful. As stated previously, Capossela states that “[reading out loud]… puts him in charge, because he can stop when he comes to a passage he wants to work on.” As my survey results indicate, students who do their own reading are more likely to do just that. However, are there some students who fail to do this because they have not been advised that it is permissible? Could students be afraid to interrupt a consultant reading for fear of being rude? I didn’t ask in my survey why people didn’t interrupt, but one student volunteered that he didn’t because “he was reading.” I’m not sure if this answer was indicative of personal preference or of a misunderstanding about how the session could proceed.
While I have focused on the gap in tutor training literature as it relates primarily to 1) how it is decided who reads, 2) how the student could be made comfortable with this process, and 3) how the student is notified of the appropriateness of interrupting, the fact is that there is a gap regarding anything said about how reading out-loud is negotiated. There is little advice given in the literature about what could be said regarding this part of the session. This is all the more surprising given the amount of space in general that tutor training manuals give to session negotiations.
For example, Gillespie and Lerner devote about six pages to the dynamics involved at the start of a session. Included in these six pages is a sample dialogue. To their credit, at the end of the dialogue, they do include a suggestion for what a student can say regarding reading out-loud: “I’ll tell you what, will you read it to me? Reading’s a good way, you can tell me, in a sense, what I should listen for, what your concerns are with this draft. And reading it out loud is a good way for you to get a feel for how it’s shaping up, what your language is like” (32). Gillespie and Lerner bring to the reader’s attention that the sample tutor provides a “short justification” (33), something in my opinion that is very desirable. However, I’m unsatisfied that the suggested dialogue doesn’t address potential fears about reading out-loud, nor does it invite the student to interrupt her own reading. Further, I fear that the first sentence is too directive. While it is a question, by starting with the phrase “I’ll tell you what” the tutor clearly establishes a power advantage over the student and perhaps practices a subtle coercion. Perhaps asking “Are you comfortable reading this to me?” would be more desirable.
Although Gillespie and Lerner offer a perhaps less than ideal sample, at least they make an effort to address this part of the negotiation. Capossela has an entire chapter entitled “Getting to Know You,” along with an eight part list of “preliminaries” before starting a session, though absent any firm advice about how to negotiate reading. In The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Leigh Ryan entitles a chapter “Inside the Tutoring Session,” in which extensive attention is paid to strategies for effective tutoring, with an emphasis on session negotiation. In a section entitled “Setting the Agenda,” Ryan remarks, “As you and the writer talk during these first few minutes, look for information that will help you understand his or her concerns and determine what you can do” (15). It is admirable that she recommends a “few minutes” devoted to determining how best to help the student. Like Gillespie and Lerner, she goes on to include sample dialogues. Unfortunately, nothing in the entire chapter addresses reading out-loud. As previously mentioned, both Baker and Newkirk, in their articles in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice, emphasize the role of the student in the writing session, and how the tutor can help to empower the student. They both offer suggestions about how to accomplish this, but unfortunately neither gives direction regarding what a tutor might say.

Observing Videotaped Sessions: How Tutors Fill the Gaps
Given the relative lack of direction for writing tutors in the training literature, I wondered how tutors set out negotiating the out-loud portion of their sessions. I also wanted to compare the feedback I received from students with an observation of actual writing center sessions. I started by viewing tapes of six sessions from fall 2003 at the University of Louisville Writing Center.
The survey indicated that consultants encouraged students to read out loud; the tapes backed up this notion and provided a clear picture as to how this was accomplished. Of the six sessions I viewed, four involved the student reading and two had the consultant read. All four sessions that included student reading involved the consultant leading the students toward reading themselves. In each case, the consultant allowed the student the possibility of opting out of reading, but the question was posed in such a manner as to make a positive response more likely. One consultant referenced an earlier session and said, “So you feel pretty comfortable then (reading aloud)?” Another consultant asked, “Do you feel comfortable reading?”. Another asked “Do you care to read it out loud?” The fourth consultant was even more leading than others in stating: “What we usually do is have you read this out loud.”
Of the two sessions that involved consultant-reading, one of the consultants was just as leading with her question, asking it in identical terms to one of the others: “Do you feel comfortable reading?” In this case, though, the student responded in the negative. The consultant followed up by asking “You want me too?” The student then responded in the affirmative. This session was different from the others in another respect, as well—of the six sessions viewed this was the only one with an ESL student. There may have been a correlation between the two factors, with an ESL student perhaps more likely to articulate discomfort reading out loud than a native speaker.
One of the survey responses from an ESL student indicated that in a typical session the consultant is more likely to do the reading: “Sometimes I am reading but most of the times [sic] the consultant does. Probably because I am foreign and it is just easier and faster that way. Nobody even decides it’s [sic] just happens.” Without more research, it is difficult to say if it is just as desirable for ESL students to do their own reading as native-born speakers, but I feel certain that they should be given the chance to state a preference
Only one of the six sessions involved a consultant posing the out loud question in neutral terms. The consultant gave the student advantages for either approach: “There are two ways of doing this. If I read you get to hear the way it sounds. If you read you get to read it the way you want to.” The student said he needed to hear it, and picked the former, allowing the consultant to read. Just as with the survey respondent, when given a neutral option, the student chose to listen rather than read.
One area in which the videotaped observations tended to contradict e-mail responses is in the area of student interruptions. Although a majority of students who responded to the survey claimed to have interrupted the reading with questions or comments, the videotaped sessions showed little evidence of this. In the session in which the consultant read a native speaker’s paper, the student did not interrupt at all. He did appear to be looking at the paper for the majority of the session, although at one point he took his cell phone out of his pocket, opened it, pressed buttons (perhaps turning it off), then closed it and set it on the table. This would seem to indicate less that 100% concentration during the session.
The sessions that involved student reading also featured minimal interaction during the out-loud portion. One student made two brief observations about sentence level issues. Another session that involved no interaction did include the student making some minor changes as she read. Although the fourth student-read session involved no interruption, there was an interesting student-consultant interaction. At one point the consultant tacitly handed the student a pen; the student marked down a change and handed it back to the consultant without missing a beat. Perhaps part of the reason for students’ reluctance to interrupt is that they were not advised to do so. None of the consultants told the students that they were free to stop or ask questions while reading.
The one session that involved lots of interaction and interruption was the one with the consultant reading to the ESL student. Most of the interruptions were initiated by the student, but the nature of the session dictated that much discussion take place in order to clarify meaning within each paragraph before global issues could be discussed.
In addition to learning how the readership is negotiated, viewing the tapes allowed me to observe the degree to which consultants provide students with a rationale for the out-loud portion. Three of the six consultants told the students why it was a good idea to read out loud. As already noted, one consultant pointed out advantages of reading out loud when asking the student which method was preferred. Another consultant told the student, “Sometimes you can hear things you can’t see” (while pointing to her ear for added effect). The third consultant said, “You’ll catch any mistakes or awkward sentences.”
After viewing these six session, I viewed more recent sessions (Fall 2005), again from the University of Louisville writing center. I had more specific coding questions while watching these sessions. I wanted to know how the consultant phrased the issue of reading out loud (did he suggest, state, or ask that the consultant read; suggest, state, or ask that the student read; phrase the issue neutrally; or phrase the question to include both possibilities though favoring one?). I wanted to know what outcomes resulted from these different approaches. I wanted to know if the student showed any reluctance to reading and how it was dealt with. I was looking for evidence of the consultant giving directions about what the student should do during reading (such as interrupting). Finally, I wanted to know if in fact the students were interrupting, or if there was any other evidence to indicate if the student was or was not engaged during the reading.
Of the six 2005 sessions, there was again variation in how the out-loud portion of the session was negotiated. Two of the sessions had the consultant out-right state that the student should read. Two more had the consultant ask the students if they would read (though one consultant ingeniously prefaced the question by saying, “Generally one of us will read out-loud,” before directly asking the student if she would read. This seems to be a favorable way of encouraging the student to read without locking her into that behavior). In another, the consultant asked if she should read, and the other session actually had the student volunteer to read before the consultant even broached the subject. The outcome of these different approaches resulted in four sessions in which the student read and two in which the consultant read. One of the results was rather predictable; the session in which the consultant asked if she should read resulted in the student’s quickly agreeing. The other involved an ESL student responding negatively when the consultant asked if he would read. In that case, the consultant quickly volunteered to read, which the student readily accepted. Interestingly, one of the sessions in which the consultant stated that the student should read involved another ESL student. She consented to reading without any signs of reluctance.
Actually, none of the students in the videotapes demonstrated any reluctance, even non-verbally, to having their paper read out-loud. However, I’m not sure that this willingness can be attributed to anything that consultants said to ease concerns. Only two of the six consultants gave specific rationales to the students for reading out-loud. One consultant said that reading gives the student the chance to “hear things you missed,” while another student said “you can hear better how the paper flows.”
Only two of the six consultants gave specific instructions for what the student might do during reading (or listening). One consultant actually instructed his student to stop every paragraph (which she did, if only at times to get affirmation to keep reading). The other consultant told the student to “Mark anything you see you want to come back to,” though the student didn’t end up marking anything. In all, four of the six sessions involved the student interrupting the reading and either changing something or asking a question. This is consistent with the survey results, but one wonders if the percentage would be even higher with the students were more informed about what could potentially occur during the out-loud portion of a session.
Though there is no universally correct way to negotiate the out-loud portion of a writing center session, the lack of research into this topic and the lack of direction in tutor training manuals makes this a neglected area of writing center theory. The number of different approaches that consultants take, some of them highly divergent from one another, indicates that some general consensus should be explored. It is my belief that consultants should spend more time negotiating this part of a session, that students should be encouraged to read their own papers (while still being given the opportunity to listen), that students should be made aware of why this is a part of the session, that students be given direction for what to do during reading (and be empowered to interrupt the reading at any time), and that students emotional needs regarding reading out loud be met. I think if these aspects are all covered in the negotiation, we stand a better chance that the session, in the words of the student survey respondent, “will potentially be more successful because the writer will be so comfortable and willing to work”.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

I feel fortunate to be able to remember life before the Internet. I'll never know what life was like before the automobile, before television, before elevators, but I'll always have a little perspective that future generations won't have about today's technology.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ability for some celebrities and public figures to be able to use the Web to connect directly to interested people without the traditional media as a filter. Even more interesting is when a public figure voluntarily denbunks the myth that they are somehow different than the rest of us, something I observed this week on an Internet message board community I frequent.

Peter David may not be a household name, but to the subculture of comic book and sci-fi fans, he is. He's written big name characters like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. He's also written a bunch of sci-fi or fantasy novels, including Stark Trek novels. He was recently tapped to work with Stephen King on a comic series. He makes a living writing, which is something not many people can claim.

I read some of his stories when I was a kid. He seemed a world removed, and back then, he was. I suppose I could have written a letter to him, but it seems unlikely that any fan would have been able to keep up a regular correspondance with him. Very different today. He frequently stops by comic book message boards (as do many other comic writers and artists). I was a bit surprised by some of his early posts-- he seemed to be rather willing to criticize fans and was sometimes gruff and harsh. I know writers are human, but I was surprised in so public of a forum he was so willing to be blunt. This week though, he really went over the top. Somebody got their hands on a comic book that is due out tomorrow and posted spoilers. This made Peter David go nuts. What resulted was a long flame war with over 100 posts, David himself responsible for over a dozen of the posts.

Apparently, one of the posters and David had a bit of a history. Apparently, six years ago the poster tried to get David in trouble with the National Association of the Deaf for alleged insensitive portrayal of deaf people in a comic book. Six years later, Peter David actually brought the issue up himself and threw it in the guys' face, appropos of nothing. He then gave out his e-mail address and said he'd fill anyone in on the whole story.

I used to moderate a message board on a website for a radio station I worked for. I would have loved to call out jerk posters with personal insults, but representing my radio station, I knew I had to take the high ground. I find it hilarious that someone in such a high position, who could take the high ground if he wanted to, jumps into the mud pit with the fans and starts slinging.

In many ways it's still too early to judge the effect that the Internet has had on society. However, I think it has quickened a trend that started even before the digital age-- the wall between public figure and private person is being worn thin. I'm just waiting for Dick Cheney to jump on some political message boards and start calling people names.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Honest Abe

So in addition to the caves, the other major tourist stuff that I saw this week included the Abe Lincoln stuff over in Hodgenville-- the birthplace, the boyhood home, and the museum. I got to see a replica of the famous log cabin, which left an impression on me. I never thought much about the log cabin myth. To my way of thinking, I had some kind of vague notion that everyone around in the early 19th Century, at least on the frontier, lived in a log cabin. I didn't see what the big deal was.

After learning more about his humble beginnings this week, I better understand why this has resonated with people. The American idea that "anyone can be president" is historically inaccurate, but every so often comes true, and Lincoln is the embodiement of the idea. Never mind that every one of the 43 presidents (or 42 if you don't count Cleveland twice) has been a white male; the vast majority of them have been elite upper class as well. Most of them are actually related to each other and can trace their lineage back to the country's early settlers. Although George W. Bush and John Kerry probably didn't send too many family reunions together, a little known fact is that they are actually distant cousins. Ditto for Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact, Bush is related to a ton of presidents on not only his father's side, but his mother Barbara's maiden name of "Pierce" is indicative of her relation to our 14th President, Franklin Pierce. There truly is an American aristocracy, or at least a neo-aristocracy. Lincoln didn't come from that aristocracy, and he also made a significant impact on our nation-- hence the mythology surrounding the log cabin and his everyman beginnings.

This interpretation of the importance of the log cabin myth also helps explain the name behind the "Log Cabin Society," a group of gay Republicans who seize upon the fact that Lincoln once slept in the same bed with another man as evidence of his homosexuality. Although I think this is putting too much of our modern sensibility onto 19th Century culture, I could see why a group of people who historically have lacked political clout would try to affiliate with Lincoln more so than other presidents. His economic status automatically makes him more accessible than most other presidents we've had.

Of course, Lincoln was not the first president from humble beginnings. That credit usually goes to Andrew Jackson. Although Jackson undoubtedly made contributions to our fledgling democracy (so much so that he's been called the father of our modern democracy), I can't help but wonder if his continued status as the face on the twenty dollar bill is more indicative of our collective admiration for his rise from the lower class than for his actual political achievements.

On a completely unrelated note, between the Olympics and the NCAA Frozen Four I think I may have watched more hockey in 2006 than any previous year of my life. Wisconsin is the national champ in both men's and women's hockey this year. I think if Abe Lincoln were alive today he'd be a hockey fan.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


I went to Mammoth Cave yesterday. It was my first time there, and if it wasn't for my father-in-law visiting, I probably would have never gone. I'm glad I went, and I thought the tour really gave me value for my money. I was impressed with the guide's ability to work the crowd and keep everybody entertained. I'm impressed when anyone with a "scientific mind" is also able to relate to people. My tour was three hours but he made the time go by fast.

What I liked is that although he was certainly knowledgable about the geographical and geological aspects of the cave, he also spent a great deal talking about the social history of the cave and the cultural aspects of the way the cave has been used or exploited over the years.

I was also impressed with the way the guide was able to relate to an audience that had both adults and children. The kids were full of questions, many of which were really good questions that adults wouldn't even think of asking. I was also impressed that many of them were directly about things the guide had stated, even things that he had stated long before, showing that the kids were really paying attention (who says kids don't have attention spans anymore?)

I couldn't help but apply the children's inquisitiveness to the inquisitiveness of older students. I think somewhere along in our educational system, somewhere along the desire to teach concrete lesson plans with specific "objectives," we send the message to students that they shouldn't let their imagination wander in discussions, that questions must relate directly to the topic at hand. I've noticed as a teacher that often students are loath to ask questions in a large group setting that they are more comfortable asking in smaller groups or in one-to-one interaction. I've even noticed in my graduate classes that in discussions students are happy to share opinions and argue points, but rarely ask thought-provoking questions. Which is kind of strange because the first schools set up by the Greek philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) were based on the premise that learning takes place as a result of asking questions.

And as I found out in part yesterday, I don't think ithe task confronting educators is a matter of teaching students how to ask questions, but rather encouraging them to keep the curiosity of their childhood.