Monday, May 14, 2007

Former D.O.C. Professor Writes Letter to TMC Faculty About Program's Problems (Confirming LZC's Criticisms)

Dear colleagues,

I write to urge you not to jump to conclusions based on Nancy Gilson’s account of developments in DOC over the past few years. I taught in DOC 3, the course on ”Imagination,” for five years, the last of which was under the direction of Abe Shragge, with Nancy Gilson just coming on board as well. I feel strongly that the current conflicts are not about TAs creating parallel syllabi, which no one has done, or about TAs requiring students to read short supplementary texts for discussion in section, which has long been standard practice not only in DOC and the other writing programs, in the Department of Literature and the Third World Studies Program, but also in the Critical Gender Studies Program which, like DOC, employs TAs from various departments across the humanities and social sciences. From my perspective, the graduate and undergraduate students who have organized the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition are right to claim that DOC has abandoned its original mission. Indeed, when I was teaching in DOC 3, I was constantly in the position of resisting the director’s efforts to avoid controversial matters altogether and to substitute edutainment for intellectual work.

Nancy Gilson is mistaken in saying that prior to Shragge’s appointment DOC 3 dealt only with the 1920s through the 1970s and neglected issues of sexuality and immigration. She is also mistaken in contending that the changes Shragge made simply reflected a need to incorporate more current texts and more points of view. When I entered the program in 2001 at Fraser Cocks’ request, I worked with him to overhaul the last third of the course, which included poems by the lesbian writer/critics Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991) on gender, race, and immigration read through the history of “Tejas”; Fae M. Ng’s novel Bone (1992), dealing with race, gender, and the history of Chinese immigration to the US; and a then-cutting-edge essay by New American Studies scholar Melani McAlister on “Military Multiculturalism” (2000), on sexuality, gender, race, and US imperialism in the first Gulf War. (Before long the latter piece was suppressed by Fraser Cocks on the pretext that it was “too long,” whereas the real issue was that it dealt with matters that had everything to do with the current war in Iraq and thus generated a broad spectrum of passionate responses in many students.)

In my view, Abe Shragge has systematically steered the DOC program away from the rigorous investigation of issues of social justice. A quick look at the syllabi tells one very little, as so much depends on how the texts are taught and indeed whether the texts are taught. I have no reason to doubt the TAs’ observation that certain instructors do not address the course readings in their lectures, as this has long been a common practice in DOC. In fact, when I first began teaching in DOC, the writing administrator, Pam Wright, who was attending my first few lectures, marveled at my approach to teaching, which involved analyzing the texts students had read, relating them to current events, and encouraging dialogue about those texts in lecture.

Abe Shragge’s recent dismissal of two TAs for their extra-curricular political activities was only one of several reckless moves he has made. He has a clear pattern of getting rid of everyone who does not comply with his idea of what DOC should be, including Abbie Cory, a Ph.D. in Literature who worked as a lecturer, and tenured faculty with ten times his experience, including a professor in Literature (who had taught in DOC since the program’s inception) and myself. In fall 2006, my colleague and I learned not from Shragge, but from the Literature staff member in charge of course scheduling, that we were not slated to teach DOC 3 the following spring as we had both expected. Simply put, we were purged in a manner that was unprofessional and downright shabby.

Why did this happen? I don’t know why Shragge unceremoniously dispensed with my colleague. Where I was concerned, however, it was evident to me that Shragge had a political agenda that, in his view, required eliminating senior faculty who had the annoying habit of disagreeing with him. He replaced senior faculty with lecturers and TAs—yes, TAs lecturing in DOC—whom he imagined he could control. Unfortunately, the problems extended beyond the big curricular and pedagogical picture to basic matters of coming up with coherent paper topics that rationally addressed the readings and lectures. (I am the first to acknowledge that it has always been challenging to devise topics that suit all three instructors teaching in a given quarter. My point here is that, with Shragge at the helm, it was exponentially more difficult than it had been with Fraser Cocks.) Shragge took umbrage at any suggestion that paper topics needed to reflect the course materials and that exams needed to test what we had taught. Equally troubling was the director’s routine distribution of handouts that were not only conceptually flawed and badly written, but that contained glaring factual errors. The worst case involved a handout in which there was almost nothing that was correct; it listed erroneous definitions of film terms in which a pan was confused with a tracking shot, a zoom was defined in terms of camera movement rather the use of a certain type of lens, and so on. When I signaled the errors and produced an alternative handout within a day, I was told by Pam Wright that I would have to make the 750 copies to be distributed across the three sections myself if I were going to be so fussy as to insist on accuracy.

TMC faculty responses to Nancy Gilson’s memo—the ones I’ve seen—come from professors in the social sciences. It is understandable that to them the current version of DOC 3 looks like a reasonable course. However, in recent discussions among faculty in the social sciences and the humanities, particularly in Literature, Visual Arts, and Critical Gender Studies, there have been expressions of concern that DOC 3 no longer deals at all adequately with visual culture, literary texts, music, or the means to interpret these modes of cultural expression, and that this inadequacy seriously undermines DOC’s original commitment to interdisciplinary study.

Again, the changes in the program are neither accidental nor innocent. Once I learned that my colleague and I had been dropped from DOC, I discovered that Shragge had planned in advance to replace us with Mary Blair-Loy, a sociologist, and Nancy Gilson, a political scientist, who, like Shragge himself, are not trained to analyze culture. In teaching cultural analysis, it is not enough to consider the themes in literature, film, or photography, as historians and social scientists typically do. There are clearly defined methods of analyzing elements of form and style and the means by which their interplay generates multiple meanings, many of which may well contradict the main themes of the text.

Let me quote from a now-standard textbook, Gender, Race, and Class in Media (Sage 2003), in which the editors, G. Dines and J. M. Humez, paraphrase some fundamentals laid out by Stuart Hall, a cultural studies scholar who, in the past, was an important figure in DOC 1 and DOC 3:

“Because there is a split between textual encoding and audience decoding, there is always the possibility of a multiplicity of readings of any text of media culture. There are limits to the openness or polysemic nature of any text, of course, and textual analysis can explicate the parameters of possible readings and delineate perspectives that aim at illuminating the text and its cultural and ideological effects. Such analysis also provides the materials for criticizing misreadings, or readings that are one-sided and incomplete” (p. 15, my emphasis).”

Too often, in addition to lacking training in the theories and methods of cultural studies, instructors in DOC 3 make the erroneous assumption, shared by most freshmen, that cultural analysis merely involves formulating an opinion about a novel, a photo, or a film, and that any criticism of the opinion expressed constitutes repressive censorship rather than pedagogically-responsible constructive feedback. Are students’ thoughts and opinions valued and respected, whether in their contributions to discussions or in their written work? Of course. Does the articulate expression of an opinion suffice to demonstrate competence in cultural analysis in DOC 3? Absolutely not.

The main issue here is that course content should be determined by ladder-rank faculty with expertise that is relevant to each course in the DOC sequence. Granted, as Robert Horwitz said in his response to Nancy Gilson, many different kinds of texts lend themselves to productive critical reflection, and none should be ruled out a priori. But to my mind, it should be ladder-rank faculty working in concert who decide whether to teach Stuart Hall or Allan Bloom, not lecturers or even the program director who, like his predecessor, has never held a ladder-rank faculty position and who, to my knowledge, has no significant record of research or publication beyond the dissertation.

The director of DOC should be taking his cues from the regular faculty, not the other way around. I urge TMC faculty to actively engage in rethinking DOC and conferring with members of the new TMC curriculum committee, whose formation Provost Havis has just announced. I also encourage ladder-rank faculty to teach in this program. Without you, it cannot be intellectually and pedagogically viable.


Winnie Woodhull
Associate Professor of Literature