Thursday, May 25, 2006

In Medias Res

I have always admired the skill with which my colleague SteveG is able to give the "big picture" version of events. He is legendary at taking a philosophical or political insight and weaving it into a larger whole, and thereby helping students or his readers make sense of the part in the whole.

I, on the other hand, have always felt myself to be wrestling with minutiae, in the middle of some story of which I cannot quite figure out the beginning or the end. I am not even sure that I have told a story from beginning to end in my life. I get caught up in the details and the digressions. I am captivated by the little things people say or the odd, seemingly insiginificant sentence in the middle of a passage. I can't help it. I just get stuck.

I know what it is like when students sit in our classes and get lost in perhaps a stray word we used or an image that sent them to another place. I just don't seem to be a "big idea" person. I am far too anxious to make perfect sense out of bits and pieces here and there, as if they all amount to some coherent theme that I can masterfully summarize for students.

Last semester I had a tiff with the Women's Studies curriculum folks because they rejected my course as an appropriate substitute for their theory course. I was absolutely offended. I am, afterall, an expert in feminist theory. The grounds for their objection to my course was that I didn't present the 'canon' of feminist theory in an historical sense, and that I had left out large swathes of theoretical paradigms. I laughed at the letter. Here I had a group of social scientists tell me, the only theorist of the bunch, that my course would simply not count as theory because I wasn't teaching it in the way that they, as social scientists, would teach it.

I have always hated the approach to feminist theory, whereby you create artificial camps and put each theorist in one of these camps, e.g., marxist feminism, materialist feminism, difference feminism, post-modern feminism, or liberal feminism. The list could go on. While I imagine that my social scientist friends find this a useful heuristic device for teaching, and gives students a way of organizing what might seem like a welter of knowledge, such an approach never rings true to me.

What I see when I look at countless essays written by feminist theorists is a set of insights, debates, responses and explorations that are not easily teased apart. I love getting students to immerse themselves in the writings, the insights, and ask them if these writers resonate with their own experience. Do these writers give you a helpful lens through which to better grasp your own incoherent and often confused memories?

Granted, this is demanding a different kind of labor from my students, and perhaps one not best suited for diseminating knowledge in the good old fashion way. I also don't do a good job of giving them the big picture. I sort of leave them dangling, searching for some sort of story that might tidy up all of this mess.

Perhaps I am just sadistic, pushing my students toward some existential breaking point whereby they have to start telling their own story. I dunno. Probably that is giving myself too much credit.

In all truth, I just don't think I see the big picture. I don't always trust that this story can be told in a way that gives a place and role to each event. So much is a mystery to me. And, so I just start somewhere in the middle, hoping that others will help me get to a place of distance, of evaluation, and thereby a place where I can make sense of it all.