Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

403. Free from Thought

In Media, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Work, writing on September 30, 2017 at 3:22 am

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
                      George Orwell, “The Principles of Newspeak”

Newspeak and doublethink are addling our brains. Doublethink is making it increasingly difficult to discern truth from lies, fact from fiction, but Newspeak actually limits the range of ideas that it is possible for us to entertain, and as such it is even more dangerous.

George Orwell gives us an example of Newspeak in The Principles of Newspeak, an appendix to his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which shot up the sales charts earlier this year in the wake of President Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term alternative facts—lies, in plain English). The word “free” was still in the Newspeak vocabulary, but only in the sense that, for example, a dog may be declared “free from lice”; it was not possible to use it in the sense of “politically free or intellectually free, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed.” “Freedom from” was still a thing (as we say in today’s sloppy parlance), but “freedom to,” not so much—not at all, in fact.

I’ve been thinking these dismal thoughts a lot recently, especially since I’m teaching a first-year seminar on the subject of citizenship and the media,. We’re currently considering the possibilities of democratic citizenship in a “post-truth era”—with the adjective “post-truth” defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  If the range of people’s thoughts is indeed being narrowed by 21st-century Newspeak, then even the most assiduous information-gathering and fact-checking is in vain, because it is not merely disregarded; it can no longer be recognized.

Talking points—or, as Urban Dictionary defines them, “political and moral signposts for the walking dead”—have had a powerful role in narrowing the range of possible thought on a subject. Disseminated by think tanks and political parties, they feed people politically and ideologically driven ideas in neat little sound bites that are repeated so many times across the news media that they become the default response, even as the people who have imbibed them ad nauseam and in turn spew them out may be unaware of the underlying ideology, believing that they are echoing their own opinions and beliefs. We have former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart to thank for bringing the use of political talking points to our attention. Here, compiled by Stewart, are 50 talking points used on the right-wing Fox News channel—all proven to be lies after being fact-checked.

I love my students and find them intelligent, skeptical, and, with some encouragement, fully capable of independent thought; but like most of us, they are out of practice. Thanks to the Newspeak disseminated in a constant barrage of commercials and internet memes, their brains are overstimulated and, in the hurricane of flying debris of wordsimagessoundsstaticflotsamjetsam&sheerstuff, they cling to talking points as to anchors, ports in a storm. The trouble is, the media barrage makes sustained thought nigh-impossible and the talking points become substitutes for it.

What has sparked these gloomy reflections is an assignment on fake news in my first-year seminar that does not seem to be going as planned. After some reading, writing, and discussion about the role of “fake news” in the 2016 election and the role of social media in a “post-truth” era, I asked students to research and present a fake news story that went viral, was influential, and was finally exposed as a hoax. It would be both educational and fun, I thought, and the hands-on group exercise would reinforce some of the reading they had done.

Students’ initial written responses seemed to indicate that they had understood the reading. They were full of the kind of sentiments that make the professor happy because they echo her own words in the classroom: concerns about the future of democracy and the promise and pitfalls of the internet. But when students were asked to browse the reputable fact-checking sites and bring to class a selection of the most damaging fake news stories, what did they come up with? Stories that looked as if they were fresh out of the trashiest tabloids.

Mcdonald’s accused of using human meat in its burgers

Disney claims Hocus Pocus 2 is in production—a sequel at last, after 20 years.

J.K. Rowling fires off a round of anti-Trump tweets after watching a misleading video of his encounter with a handicapped child visiting the White House.

Apple Computer is charged with deliberately slowing down old iPhones so as to sell its new models.

The Daily Mail claims that an asteroid will destroy the earth.

Hardly earth-shattering stories—well, apart from the earth-shattering one. I guess I’m out of touch; students were aghast that I had never even heard of Hocus Pocus. Maybe I just need to lighten up. If we’re all going to die anyway, what does it matter whether it’s death by Twitter-induced nuclear war with North Korea or by a rogue asteroid colliding with the planet?  To quote a ‘friend’ of a ‘friend’ on Facebook when I pointed out that a compromising photo of Hillary Clinton they were all enjoying no end was doctored: “Why let the truth get in the way of a good laugh?”

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.
Not!

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 

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Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.

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Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 

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Come Together

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

from occupy.com (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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