Archive for October, 2011

Normal and Rhetoric of Science

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

For what seems like an eternity, English studies has tried to adopt scientific methodologies. For example, every assignment that is graded needs to be accompanied by a rubric, which I find somewhat ridiculous, but I can’t talk about that or even really think about that, right? Of course, like any good English teacher, I still do have rubrics for my major assignments because that is what I have been taught and it also helps out immensely when students confront a teacher about a grade. We also have a little thing called “assessment” where we “assess” student writing to see how well students perform the tasks we have instructed them to do. Even though we attempt to make all these things as objective as possible, they still are inherently subjective activities. The truth is we can sit there and “do norming” all we want to try to be objective, but you will still find 1-3 people giving a student portfolio a 5, more giving it a 4, and yet even more giving it a 3. Then there will be scattered 2’s and 1’s.

Methodology is indeed wonderful, as is ideology.

In my Rhetoric of Science class, we have been talking quite a bit how science has asserted itself and essentially lorded over us. One of the ways science does this is through rhetoric and its terminology. I would argue that science has reached the supremacy it has through creating its own terminologies. One of the best examples of this is through the word “normal.”

To an ordinary person, normal is a typical word that denotes anything naturally occurring. Normal is basically a set standard, which is how the OED tends to define it. Through researching the paranormal, I discovered that the word normal became to be used quite often in order to professionalize science back in 1840. It was used to make science legitimate as a professional field of study. William Whewell back in 1840 used the term “normal” a few times in reference to the professionalization of science in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Stephen Toulmin points all of this out in his article titled, “New Philosophy of Science and the Paranormal” where he briefly discusses how science took the word “normal” and used it to popularize and legitimize their field. Toulmin also discusses that these scientists didn’t want to use the word “natural” because it was a word associated with the Romantic poets of that time period. Thus, the Romantics had a sort of monopoly on that word and the scientific community didn’t want to engage a word that was already a bit overused by the Romantic writers. Science isn’t after all literature.

The OED is also an interesting source to use to understand the word normal and variations of the word normal. What is most interesting to me is that variations of normal, such as normalize, don’t come into being until after 1840. This, at first glance, seems to further the argument Toulmin made in his essay on the paranormal and the use of the word normal. (It is also interesting to note that the word Paranormal did not exist until 1920. Supernatural was often used to describe anything paranormal, and that word first arrived in 1530.) Now, I haven’t looked further into this to see what contexts the word normal and variations of it played into, but considering what I read so far, it seems likely that the first variations of normal were used by those in the scientific community.

Either way, this speaks for the power of terminology. It makes me think of how when I was writing my Philosophy of Teaching I was told to basically construct terminology (though explain those in some way) in order to somehow stand out. At first this sounded terribly unethical–making up words to sound smarter? But, considering how science has manipulated terminology in the past, it isn’t like it hasn’t been done before. And considering the way society sings the praises of science (or Science), it may not be a bad idea for us in the humanities to do the same. In this sense, we can learn a lesson from science, even though I do feel science also subverts us in other ways, though to administrators, those ways make us more powerful.

Shy kid turns teacher and is surprised by it (not quite an Onion headline)

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

I don’t know if I am just having a good semester or if I finally have unlocked something within my teacher self, but I have been getting great compliments from my students on my teaching lately. I’ve always gotten good feedback, but this semester has been kind of phenomenal, at least to me. During conferences this week, I have had a number of them tell me what a good job I am doing and I confess it feels good to hear that. I have been called “a stud” because of how I do the assignments with the students and still bring a lot of energy to the classroom. I have been told my activities in class are never boring and always fit in well with the upcoming assignments. One student told me that I have a great amount of energy as a teacher. I have even convinced many students that English is not as awful as it had been in the past for them. They not only say they enjoy the class, but they also enjoy the structure and yes, even the writing assignments.

I know, right? Creepy. It is almost too good to be true. I’m almost waiting for something awful to happen.

And now I am sitting here wondering when all this started to occur. When did I finally get a clue as to how this teaching thing works? When did I find the way to affect my audience in such a way? I’ve never been a good speaker and I still don’t think I am a great speaker. When I plan a lesson for a class period, I show the lesson on the overhead and there I have many prompts and other material for things I am talking about. Students have told me how much they like this because they can find these notes on blackboard later and that they can easily follow along in class since it is all on the overhead. But the reason that I make detailed lessons like that to share with students is because I know I am not that great orator. (Though I was told I am engaging in class, so perhaps that makes up for being not a great speaker.)

This semester I have also done far more small group work than I have ever done in the past. Sure, I have gotten a small amount of complaints (about 5-6 students out of 43, if you want a statistic) about this, but even that has been positive because many of them have shared how they enjoy learning from others in the class, even if they prefer working alone. One person even said that she enjoys everyone in the class because they are all “so devoted to their majors and know a lot about their fields” and she felt that opened up small group discussion more. She added, “I just love listening to everyone else and learning from them.” And I do feel that students learn best from each other. I firmly believe in what they call activity based learning and social constructivism, even though as a student I still mostly dislike group work, at least until I am in the group and things are going well.

While I do think I have learned a lot about teaching after leaving Mankato and teaching as an adjunct and later as a graduate instructor once again, I do have to say I have a great group of students this semester. Even the majors who normally shut down in writing classes seem to be enjoying the class, assignments and all. Everyone has brought an amazing amount of positive energy to the classroom and I think that has helped me as a teacher tremendously. The students are enthusiastic and many of them work very hard. They remind me why I enjoy teaching every time I walk into the classroom.

I am not trying to brag about how well this semester is going. To be honest, I’m just trying to wrap my head around how it seems to be going so well. I have certainly learned a lot about good teaching at my present university by watching good teachers and by talking about good teaching. But I have also learned a lot about writing, and I think that has helped, too. I just think I have been astonishingly lucky that I was able to “get” this teaching thing and be able to help students learn and realize a writing class is never as awful as it may sound at first.

I can’t help but think about what a friend of mine once told me: “we all have a place where we are a gifted performer, Jessica. I think teaching is just your stage.”  Maybe he was right. In that case, at least I know I am in the right profession. It is just funny to think about that because I was the shyest, most timid kid you had ever met in your life once upon a time. If you talked to me, I just might have burst into tears. (This is NOT an exaggeration. I did burst into tears quite frequently. It is part of the reason why I repeated kindergarten.) Of course, no one I know today, outside of family and long-time childhood friends, knows that part of me, though I am sure it can easily be guessed at. In my own classes, I sometimes don’t say a word and usually I have to be asked to speak at all. So that girl is still there. But that is a story for another time.

[rough draft] Steampunk: Abstract

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

This is just a rough draft of the abstract I am working on for a paper about Steampunk. I wrote it just today, so I realize a lot of this needs to be fleshed out more. The deadline is November 10th, though, so luckily I have some time.

Abstract: “Steampunk in the Posthuman World: Insecurity and Transcendence”

Marshall McLuhan believed in the future of the humanistic machine and, as a culture, we have seen this with the visionary actions by the late Steve Jobs and others at Apple. McLuhan wrote of how we dwell in our machines where tools become an extension of the human. As one examines the world today watching people interact with cell phones and Apple products, McLuhan becomes a prophetic voice. One of the most interesting aspects of the human and technological inventions comes forth through Steampunk.
Steampunk, in a sense, has become a cultural instrument. Steampunk suggests a way where a person can literally inhabit a “humanistic machine.” But what the question arises as to what is Steampunk besides just an aesthetic or cultural movement? In my perspective, Steampunk responds to and represents our insecurities about our human selves in the face of technology. Will we lose ourselves to the machine, one must ask?
Looking backward to Victorian culture through Steampunk helps answer this question considering Victorian’s emphasis on ghostly tales. In Victorian ghostly literature, such as in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, it becomes clear that the ghosts are not outside of us, but that we are the ghosts. In other words, the man walking into the haunted house is himself haunted. My question is that what does this say about self and what does this say about the human self in a posthuman world through the Steampunk movement? My paper will focus on how themes within Steampunk speak to our insecurities in a posthuman society.
Posthumanism does not just speak to insecurities, however, but also represents a presumed lack of balance between human and the machine. My paper will further articulate how Steampunk represents our lack of balance in regards to culture and the global arena. In a world where we can connect instantly with others from around the world, how do we maintain our sense of self, of our own culture, with so many emerging influences? In a sense, it is interesting we have turned to Victorianism (in this case Neo-Victorianism), since Victorianism focused on control, both self and social control. But with so much technology, how can we enforce that sense of control, how can we regain balance? Steampunk seems to give us answers to this and this need for control is one thing my paper will discuss. (My own comment: I know. There is work to be done.)
Despite these negative readings, one cannot ignore how Steampunk also represents a powerful movement toward making a positive and powerful use of our technologies. My paper will end discussing how Steampunk can give a culture lost in its machines a voice. This portion of the paper will focus on the transcendence of Steampunk—how steampunk can help the human transcend the hold of the machine and cause human and machine to meet with mutual purpose. (My own comment: I don’t really like the last part of this last sentence–I’m working on this. I need to do some more thinking of the transcendence idea anyway.)