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Pedagogy, J. Z. Smith style

December 13, 2011

The well-known eccentric J. Z. Smith (U. Chicago) (he doesn’t pick up the phone, has never used a computer or the Internet) is celebrated in a funny, funny interview in a U. Chicago student newspaper (published version, full version).

I would rather celebrate him by reproducing his essay on “The Necessary Lie:  Duplicity in the Disciplines.”

His comments have relevance to many topics we discuss on this blog – see, for example, his comments on the King James Bible and Shakespeare in the second paragraph.


smith2George Bernard Shaw once made a wisecrack that I think defines the academic disciplines as social entities: "I may be doing it wrong but I’m doing it in the proper and customary manner." This raises at least two questions that I would like to examine. First is the white lie, which comes up when we are self-conscious about speaking in a nondisciplinary fashion about our subject. Second is disciplinary lying, which is part of the process of initiating somebody into a discipline. Indeed, disciplinary lying may be the marker of what it is to belong to a discipline.

The white lie.We lie, it seems to me, in a number of ways. We sometimes cheerfully call the lie words like "generalization" or "simplification," but that’s not really what we’re doing. We’re really lying, and lying in a relatively deep fashion, when we consistently disguise, in our introductory courses, what is problematic about our work. For example, we traditionally screen from our students the hard work that results in the production of exemplary texts, which we treat as found objects. We hide consistently the immense editorial efforts that have conjecturally established so many of the texts we routinely present to our students as classics, not to speak of the labors of translation that enable many of them to read these texts. Then we read them with our students as if each word were directly revelatory, regardless of the fact that the majority of the words are not in the language in which the text was written. In fact, we have a curious strategy of when and how we decide to display some of this hard work. For example, Chinese or Japanese texts in translation read like Yiddish—every third word is followed by some indecipherable foreign word in parentheses as if this would in some way enhance understanding. We are really reminding our students that this is foreign and hard to understand. In Shakespeare, we display an enormous glossary material, implying that this, too, is a foreign language that, nevertheless, can be mastered with effort. Yet the King James Bible, another Elizabethan text, is characteristically taught in God knows how many humanities courses across the country with never a single footnote indicating that the language, while simpler than the language of Shakespeare, is just as foreign and just as difficult. One would like them to note, for example, that the word "let" often means to stop somebody from doing something, and the word "prevent" at times means to let them go ahead and do it. One gets odd moral conclusions by reading the King James Bible without such footnotes, and yet our mutual lie is that it is infinitely accessible while Shakespeare is accessible with difficulty; foreign texts remain inaccessible.

smith1Moreover, we conceal from our students the fields-specific, time-bound judgments that make objects exemplary. We display them as if they are self-evidently significant and allow the students to feel guilty when they do not feel this self-evidence. We rarely do what some German critics have called a reception history of the object in front of us, examining why or how the object became in some way exemplary of humankind in a particular discipline. Thus, when we deal with a figure like Plato, we rarely reflect on the fact that, after all, the dialogue that was Plato for the Western world for most of its history (i.e., The Timaeus) is no longer read. Jefferson and other wise people despised The Republic thoroughly, finding it an absolutely impenetrable document. They thought Cicero—today all but dropped from the canon—was the place one went in order to think about democratic institutions. That is, we don’t introduce our students to the fact that the artifacts that we examine are scarcely blooming with self-evidence. We conceal the revisionary histories of the objects we examine. If they’re written works, we conceal their drafting and their changes. If they’re scientific objects, we conceal the history of failed experiments and the history of sheer serendipity. That is to say, we convey to our students a specious perfection of the object and a specious necessity to the history of that object.

When we conceal from our students our hard work, that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things. There are, I think, more serious educational consequences. If we present the work as perfect or as work without a revisionary history, then we present a work that no student could hope to emulate. Indeed it serves, if it serves at all, as a standard for how far below that standard the student falls. If we present the material without displaying the effort that goes with it, students tend to conclude that things are true or false, or alternatively, that it’s entirely a matter of their opinion whether the object is exemplary. In that case, what we have is a contrast between his or her feelings and my feelings. Thus, in the name of simplification, what we really end up doing is mystifying the objects we teach at the introductory level.

Similarly, still in the name of simplification, we treat theory as if it were fact. We treat difficult, complex, controversial, theoretical entities as if they were self-evident parts of the universe that we inhabit. Students coming out of introductory courses in the humanities know that there is such a thing as an author’s intention, and they regularly and effortlessly recover it from the text they are looking at. Students in introductory social sciences know that there is such a thing as a society that functions, and they effortlessly observe it doing so. Students in introductory sciences are wedded without their knowing it to a tradition of induction from naked facts, in what Nietzsche called "the myth of the immaculate perception." Indeed, I’ve often argued when teaching in the social science Core that, if I could only have the first week of Chemistry 101, my job would be infinitely easier because at least we would have raised the possibility that one wears eyeglasses when one gazes at these naked facts.

Despite the proud claim that we make over and over again that we teach the how rather than the what of the disciplines, we, in fact, do not; it is the theoretical conclusion that our students underline in their books. I spend a half hour with each of my students looking at what they’ve underlined, and they’ve always underlined the punch line and never anything that might be called the process that led up to it. That is to say, theoretical entities have been reduced to naked facts. The process of discussion often becomes one of show and tell for these unproblematic, now self-evident conclusions. In other words, we have skillfully concealed from our students the power of the remark once made by a mathematician, "I have my results, but I do not know yet how I am to arrive at them." Even a false generosity with respect to method conceals the process when we present this method one week, that method another week, allowing none of them to have the kind of monomaniacal power or imperialism that a good method has when we’re honest about it. Without the experience of riding hell bent for leather on one’s presuppositions, one is allowed to feel that methods have really no consequences and no entailments. Since none of them is ever allowed to have any power, none of them is ever subjected to any interesting cost accounting.

smith3Another way we end up reducing our students to the notion of a subject being all opinion (and we’re very angry when they assert that to us) is the way that introductory courses, whether seminar or lecture, whether of a large field of study or a small field of study, are never introductions. They are always surveys. They may be shorter surveys or longer surveys, quicker surveys or slower surveys, but nothing is allowed to be truly troublesome. It suggests that one might think that a freshman seminar devoted to a single work is probably a far better introduction than our vaunted Core. That is to say, one really ought to be able to work on a limited number of exemplary objects and to answer all the various sorts of questions that one might come up with. Though I don’t like a lot of the framework, Jeff Robinson has a book, Radical Literary Education, about a classroom experiment in which he takes the introductory English class through a reading of a Wordsworth ode for an entire semester at Colorado State. They’re into a complex unpacking and unfolding of the enterprise. I’m not terribly thrilled with the message he’d like you to get from this; nonetheless, the strategy, it seems to me, is one worth looking at.

Disciplinary lying.The self-justified white lie is done in the name of our students, in the name of simplifying, of generalizing, of speaking to a wide and a diverse audience. However, one also has to look at the place in which lying becomes built into the structure of things, in which it becomes that which constitutes a discipline as a discipline over and against other disciplines. Here, at least in principle, we lose the excuses that go with the introductory course. One would presume a student who had been through a program of rigorous disciplinary lying would emerge at the conclusion of his or her baccalaureate experience with some measure of sophistication. Yet, when I used to do something called the dean’s seminar in which we talked about the disciplines as seniors graduated, I was struck by their lack of the sense of the conventionality that governs what we do. These seniors still sought the cost-less method, the cost-less theory, even at the end of two to three years of allegedly depth study in a field.

Fields are taken not only as self-evident but as singular, without real understanding that what’s a style for one is not a style for another. Take a simple example in my own field. If I want to publish an article in one of two general journals in the field of religion—History of Religion and The Journal of the American Academy of ReligionI have to at least redo the notes. History of Religion does the so-called humanities-style notes and The Journal of the American Academy of Religion does the so-called social science—style notes. It’s not just that it’s inconvenient; what I am doing is fundamentally altered by which of those two styles I accept. In the humanities, the footnote is exegetical, and you will accept what I say on the basis of my exegesis of that particular passage. On the other hand, when I read something that says, "Levi-Strauss 1970—83," I’m supposed to find the one sentence in a four-volume work that justifies the paragraph I have just read. That’s a very different understanding of how you justify your work. That really is an authority model, which has very little to do with any claim to exegesis. Yet, one never talks about such differences with students.

I discovered a stunning example of disciplinary lying in a book by the now late Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman, Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman, written for no other purpose that I can determine but to make money. He writes, rather cockily, that he finds world travel a rather dull way of spending a vacation, so instead he travels to another discipline. He spent one summer working in the biology laboratories at Cal Tech, and, according to his report, his results were significant enough to interest James Watson and have him invited to give a set of seminars to biologists at Harvard. Yet when he wrote up his results and sent them to a friend in biology, his friend laughed at Feynman. As he recalls, "It wasn’t in the standard form that biologists use, first procedures and so forth. I spent a lot of time explaining things that all the biologists knew. Edgar made a shortened version, but now I couldn’t understand it. I don’t think they ever published it. I learned a lot of things in biology. I got better at pronouncing the words, knowing what not to include in a paper or seminar and detecting weak technique in an experiment."

Now, that’s really, when you stop to think about it, a rather remarkable paragraph. Consider how much Feynman is signaling when he uses the phrase, "It wasn’t in the standard form that biologists use." Feynman tells us that he did get some sense of the language domain of the field—how to pronounce the words—he did learn something of the tacit conventions—what not to say, what was not needed to say—he learned something about what counted as appropriate according to the conventions of the fields. What he could not recognize was the fictive modes of accepted disciplinary discourse. As a result, we have a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who, when he writes up an experiment, is laughed at by his biological colleagues; when they write it up "properly," he is incapable of understanding his own work.

This is what lying in the disciplines is all about. It is constructed very much as an initiatory process. As some of you may know, among the southwestern Amerindians, as well as among a number of other people, initiation consists of an act of unmasking. Certain figures wear masks and are called gods. When you reach the age of maturity, the elders take you to the other side, the figures take off their masks and show you, "hah, hah, hah, it’s just good old Uncle Joe," as if you hadn’t recognized that earlier. At least the convention is "now we unmask." A great deal of what a discipline does is initiating its neophytes, pulling rugs out from under things you thought you knew and unmasking things you thought were clear. The initiated use another kind of language, forming a set of those who are in on the joke.

When we talk about disciplinary instruction, we’re talking about creating a corporate entity arrived at through an initiation that proceeds through a rigorous sequence. Within some of the sciences, in theory at least, that sequence is carefully arranged. It’s carefully structured from elementary school to postdoctoral work as one endless and lengthy series of unmasking what you thought you knew. The ideal, often quoted in books on science and education, is the breathless individual who, when Oppenheimer was at the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton, was asked, "What is it like to study with Oppenheimer?" and who responded, "It’s wonderful. Everything we knew about physics last week isn’t true." Well, this is what it means to be an initiated member of a discipline. The science you learned in elementary school is no good when you get to high school, which is no good when you get to the first year in college, which is no good by the second year of college, and so forth.

What, however, happens to the person who doesn’t stay the course? This notion of the delayed payoff is problematic. My son came home very depressed from high school chemistry because he said he "got an experiment wrong." I told him that you can’t have an experiment wrong. An experiment is trying to find out something. You put your two things together, and you found out something. He said, "No, no, no, it wasn’t the way it was supposed to come out." Well, then it wasn’t an experiment. If he performed the same experiment in college, they could show him twenty-eight more variables that went into the results, and he would have understood that he didn’t get it wrong. If that is his only experience with science, he’ll never have that particular idea unmasked.

In most of the fields that we teach, there is no such even rudimentary recognition of sequence or corporate responsibility. Too often the sequence listed in the course catalogue is only political, requiring one course with each professor in a department. The majority of concentration programs, or for that matter graduate programs, don’t acknowledge the underlying initiatory sense that what we knew for sure yesterday we now know as somewhat problematic.

Though I think there is something to disciplinary lying, I think there is very little to justify introductory lying. In the case of the introductory courses, we produce incredibly mysterious objects because the students have not seen the legerdemain by which the object has appeared. The students sense that they are not in on the joke, that there is something that they don’t get, so they reduce the experience to "Well, it’s his or her opinion." On the other hand, disciplinary lying—the conventions within a discipline—enables me to get moving. You have to allow me some measure of monomania if I am to get anywhere. I can’t do my work when I have to stop and entertain every other opinion under the sun. This is why such work must always be done in a corporate setting, so that the monomanias mutually abrade against, so that they relativize each other; so that the students, the initiates, are let in on the joke. I had an old teacher who, when you said something you thought was very smart, would say, "That’s an exaggeration in the direction of truth." I have always thought that was the best definition I have ever heard of the academic enterprise.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2011 3:41 pm

    “We hide consistently the immense editorial efforts that have conjecturally established so many of the texts we routinely present to our students as classics, not to speak of the labors of translation that enable many of them to read these texts.” — This line is classic.

    This entire essay by J. Z. Smith is “an exaggeration in the direction of truth.”

  2. December 14, 2011 12:11 am

    Kurk — I agree.

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