Monday, June 19, 2006

And the rant goes on...

To continue my post on how to read and write in an academic way, starting with what to leave out when you're writing an answer to a question:

You have to be selective when using information about a text in an answer; you have to choose, out of the store of what you know, the most relevant points or facts. Please, please don’t vomit out everything you know about something. Yes, I know that’s how they taught you in school. It worked back then because the amount of information you were working with was very small: you could deal with the whole of it without getting swamped. But you’re now out in the adult world where there is no one rationing your information input; that responsibility now lies with you and no one else. When you read, you must organize in your mind the information you collect. I find a good way to do this is to read the book once for the story, or the general argument, then red it again to see how the points are developed (or the effects are made). The second reading is analytical, and helps when you are asked about something in particular, say gender in Little Dorrit. You will then automatically think about the women characters, their fates, and particular incidents that brought out in stark relief their position. You might also think about the gendering of the male characters. In each person’s response to this topic, there will be some broadly similar features, since they all rest on the same text. But within that similarity, there will be sharp differences in interpretation and evaluation. These will depend on who it is that’s holding the opinion. Unlike in school, there is no longer ONE right answer: there are an infinite number, PROVIDED they can be upheld with supporting evidence. If you can get the supporting evidence, and it’s fairly hole-proof, then voila! You have an opinion. Seen in that light, what the teachers tell you in class is also a collection of opinions. They’re usually the ones that rest most solidly on evidence, but they aren’t any kind of gospel, and we WANT you to take issue with them. With time and between institutions, and even between teachers (or especially between teachers) this body of opinions varies. This is no longer table d’hote: this is a la carte.

This reminds me of a story Swapanda tells. A fairly bright girl came and sat for the interview (this was way back when selection was on the basis of interviews). When asked what she read, she named various textbooks in her syllabus. Somewhat taken aback, the interview board asked her if she ever read anything else. She proudly said, ‘Ami out boi pori na’ (I do not read ‘out’ books). In other words, she never read anything unless required to do so by the system. Needless to say, if you follow this method you will be in deep shit.

Well, in college, as I was saying, you have to be selective about what you put in your academic writing. I often see (though I see less of it these days) that regardless of what the question is, people giving an exam invariably preface their answers with a summary of the entire plot. In gross detail. This usually leaves them with one paragraph at the end in which to answer the question. Do NOT do that. Think first, then start answering the question from the beginning, and stick in the evidence as you go along. In truth all that is worthwhile in the vomitatious answer is the last paragraph, and it’s seldom worth the full mark weightage of the answer. Really, if that is what we wanted of you, we wouldn’t bother to ask questions in the first place. We ask questions because art is long, and life and exams are rather short. If you have studied even a little, you will know far more about a text than can fit in a 40 minute answer. The question is there to narrow it down.

When you answer a question, you are expected to show acquaintance with the text. What does that mean? Well, of course you must refer to, paraphrase and if necessary quote from it, but your instances should be geared to your answer. You must choose them to bolster your argument, or to make points about the text. Your selection of the most appropriate and telling bits of text earn you credit. You will not get credit for mugging up huge chunks and spewing them like carpet bombs over the terrain. But this is something that people seem to have worked out these days, it was more of a problem in my time when huge, four-hour tests gave people the leisure to talk an infinite deal of rot. The plot summary was practically de rigueur then, but these days of lightning-fast exams seem to have killed them. However, term papers still get waylaid by them, but I would like to point out that if you are doing your term paper on a fairly obscure text, and it is a major part of your argument, then you will need to give a fairly full description. Use your common sense, and if you haven’t any, use a teacher’s (after asking politely).

I’d also like to point out to you that most scholarly books follow these simple rules. In other words, most of the texts you read in the ordinary course of your studies embody these principles. However, you must read them not only for content but also for ‘meta data’ i.e. the way the texts are put together, the values that inform them, the techniques they use, in order to appreciate this. Give it some thought next time you read a book.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A hit! a very palpable hit!

A most wonderfully valid point, O Panu! I am glad you made it. This brings me to the topic of academic detachment, which I was going to take up a bit later, but what the hell. The question also comes up in a slightly different way: some kid accosts me in the corridor and says why is Blah di Blah on the course it’s horrible, it makes me puke, IT IS THE PITS!!!!!!! I say, yes of course, dearie, but it’s there for your own good. This usually floors ‘em.

OK, one of the first things you learn as a lit student is how to read as an academic. That means that although your personal likes and dislikes matter (they are after all the fuel of your academic curiosity) you are also an impartial judge of the worth of an individual text. You begin to acquire a historical perspective on how literature as a whole has developed, and you start to see texts in the context of their time and of their themes. That’s one of the prime objectives of making you write answers and essays. Now a good academic will never let their personal feelings get in the way of assessing a text. Or to be more exact, will be able to do the industry-standard assessment without flinching, but will probably complain if asked to write a seminar paper on a cordially disliked work.

Most of the works in your syllabus are NOT there because they are great literature (and you are NOT expected to bang on about how the work is chock full of genius and proves that Shaw is god’s gift to world culture or whatever). They are there either because (a) they were pivotal in changing the trends of their time, or (b) because they stand for a common and important genre of their time. They don’t necessarily have to be good as well (though it’s always a welcome bonus). If you personally dislike a work, you are of course at liberty to say so. But you must FIRST place the work in its time and place and give it due credit for (a) and/or (b). You can then move to your opinion of it, and then back up your opinion with instances from the text. You won’t be allowed to say ‘This sucks, because ….!’ Because that’s childish and irresponsible. But if you can say, ‘I consider Sade morally depraved because of his eagerness to turn people into things, as he does in chapter x where he uses three young girls as mobile chess tables… ‘ then you’re on to something. Yes, we will even accept repugnant opinions if you can back them up. We have even had proto-fascists in this dept, and we never penalized them for their opinions, only where applicable for sloppy thinking, and in this they were not unique. In fact give me someone full of weird opinions who’s willing to fight for them over some docile mugpot any day.

In an ideal world, the problem you refer to doesn’t arise. I CAN’T be revolted by your opinions of Sade, if you present them sanely. Now I don’t deny that there are teachers who fall foul of this (not so) lofty ideal. But as far as I know, we don’t have any such in this Department (correct me if I’m wrong).

Hope this clears up what ‘contextualisation’ means.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A thought

This post is not a very coherent one; I apologise sincerely to the readers for that. But I believe that there is one concept that I have been giving a lot of thought upon, and though very cliched and all that it might seem, it is important for me to get this out.

First, I would like to talk about the point that RBC comprehensively explained. We must feel a text before commenting on it, we must understand it, and in the process, place ourselves in the context of the text and experience it, and our replies to the text should be from us and us alone, not from any other person.

But then we are faced with a problem. What if, despite all our efforts otherwise, we fail to contextualize the text???? What if, while responding to it, we do not do so in the way we are required to, by others.? What if, our contextualization is directly in contrast to that what is wanted from us??

I shall give an example here. Both PG and UG groups had Marquis de Sade in one of their optionals (UG in Censorship and PG in Queer theory).

Lets just say, maybe I found Sade to be extremely enlivening and thoroughly delightful (well, lets just think of me as a perv). That contrasted directly with what someone else thought.... that is, lets say you, a teacher, is absolutely revolted by the ideas that Sade dwelt in. And therefore, though perhaps brilliant, my response to Sade will not be seen as favourably by you (brilliant it may be) because of your preconstructed response towards Sade.

Therefore I shall end here, leaving the question with you.... To What EXTENT can this reader-response theory be open? To what extent can it be repressed?

*incoherent, incoherent.... but still, I think I got you thinking*

Rant number three

Why put in references? Any work of scholarship, however humble, is a contribution to knowledge. As such, the path you followed to produce it should be retraceable, so that other scholars can follow your thread of reasoning and come to their own conclusions about what you say. If not, your piece is not a work of scholarship: it might qualify as creative writing, but it just won’t do in an academic context. The references are a map telling those who come after you where to put their feet, i.e. where and how to find the data you used in making your argument. You therefore have to refer to concrete things, like pages in books that actually exist. I’ve seen people write things like ‘Enid Blyton’ or ‘Wikipedia’ in their reference lists. This makes no sense: how is one supposed to follow in your footsteps over these vast trackless deserts? You have to refer to actual books/sites that exist as concrete entities, if possible mentioning the page numbers where relevant.

When you read for an essay, keep a notebook by you, and when you come to a point you want to use, quickly jot down the page number and a few words on the point in your notebook. When you take a book out of the library, before you sit down to read them, note down the author(s), editor(s) if any, full title, series title if any, publisher, place of publication and year of publication. If it’s an article, note the author, title, journal name, volume number, serial number, page range. Also jot down the accession number and shelf-mark: this will help you find the book easily again. This may sound very cumbersome, but believe me, habits like this will stand you in good stead in any research-based field, including journalism. Try and make this as close to second nature as you can; it’ll save you a lot of trouble and heartbreak later on.

A point that has been confusing people is how to balance your own opinions with those you read from others. The essential trick is to see the whole thing as a dialogue. You MUST react to what you read, whether it’s primary or secondary material. You must engage imaginatively with the text. Remember that all texts are produced by people, and therefore there is nothing ‘given’ about the way they are: someone chose to make them that way, and you can inquire into the reasons. If you are puzzled, or unsatisfied, or annoyed or irked by something, that’s a good place to start thinking about it. First look for the reasons behind your feeling, then check out the secondary material to see if anyone else feels like that. If no one does, then quite probably you’re on to something new. If someone has, read what they’ve written and see if it exhausts everything there is to say on the subject. If not, then again you’re in business.

OK, we are losing the thread here. My next post will be on selection from texts for an answer/ essay/term paper.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

On plagiarism and more...

Arundhati in the comments on the previous post has very succinctly summed up the essence of avoiding plagiarism, but for the hard-of-thinking I'll go over it again.
Firstly, plagiarism is just a fancy word for COPYING. It means both copying verbatim and passing it off as your own work (which is illegal) and copying the ideas and vomiting them out as your own (which is not always illegal but is definitely damaging to your reputation). Now wait a minute, you say. Isn't that what we're taught to do all through school and even in college? True. It's all part of the process of teaching.

Teaching is paradoxical. We fill you up with facts and figures that we already know, and ask you to 'learn' them ie repeat them back to us, but what you don't get told at the outset is WHY we do this and WHAT its supposed to do for you. You figure the purpose of it all slowly as you go along, and college is where it should start to dawn on you. Eventually, when you've climbed the mountain of the syllabus and internalised as much of it as you can hold, we want you to step off the map. College is where you take your first tentative steps into the unknown, by thinking for yourself, by asking questions, by adding to what's known and evaluating, interpreting it. Of course, we hold your hand while you're doing it, and we weigh what you bring back from the edge, but the point is, you have to know where the edge is.

This is where the rules change. Now we still want you to go out there and read secondary material (that is books about books, books of criticism, books that you might call meta-texts) as well as primary material (novels, poems, biographies, etc) but we also want you to begin in a small way adding to what's known. You are now required to start pulling your weight in the academic world. You might say, well, these people we're reading are such bosses, they've covered everything, I can't find something original to say about Paradise Lost!!!! The answer to that is, of course there is something original to say about PL. There always will be. The state of the art today hasn't even scratched the surface of that text, or of any text.
So how do you do it? Read the critics to map the edge. Then hammer them. Ask where they haven't gone far enough, where they've gone too far, where they haven't gone at all. Disagree with them: have a dialogue with them in your head. Then put it on paper. Do the same with the primary text: in fact do it more with the primary text. Your reactions to a text are uniquely your own: they are original without your having to sweat it. You will do this successfully if your school education as yet hasn't dulled you to the point where you no longer react to what you read. Schools mostly try to turn people into buckets full of 'facts': we want you to be crucibles in which facts are transformed. You still have to fill the crucible, but you also have to light the fire underneath.

Now do you see why copying term papers is such a missed opportunity? we give you term papers to do so that you can, in a controlled environment, start to form your own opinions about texts and genres. Finding the material on the web is only the first part of the process. Then you have a dialogue with it, which you report by quoting bits of the material either in quote marks (for small bits) or in stand alone blocks for large bits, with references in both cases, and intermesh them with your own comments and interpretations. Look in any work of criticism worth its salt to see how it's done. Yes, and you have to reference EVERY TIME you quote. You can't just have a sloppy list at the back, huddled away after your name and cool downloaded pictures. If that means you mention a site fifty times, so be it. Also be alert to subpages in sites: your browser bar will tell you when you've followed a link to a sub page. You also have to give the date accessed along with the stable URL. You don't need to mention your browser or OS. Images also have to be referenced.

This is becoming a very long post. I'll let you chew this bit, and continue my rant next time....