Jay Clayton

Looking Forward to Next Year

I just had my last class period with my English 121 class yesterday, and I’ll be grading their final portfolios over the weekend. I’ve already spent some time, obviously, thinking about what I want to do next year in terms of online platforms in my classes. However, there’s still quite a bit of planning to do, and I’ve realized how important it is not to think about the online component of the course separately from the rest of the course. As Julie Maloni writes in her Profhacker post, I have to “integrate”: When “blogging is part of the course requirements, it clearly plays a role in meeting the goals of the class, and you support and provide feedback to the students with regards to their blogging to the same extent that you would their essays and exams,” then students will treat blogging with the same commitment that they would more traditional assignments. This is the part I have to figure out in much greater detail: how can I make blogging play a role in helping students achieve the course outcomes? 

That question has to hold off a bit until I figure out exactly what the course outcomes are, as this summer will see the implementation of some changes to the first-year writing program at Eastern. We’ll be adopting a new book (probably Understanding Rhetoric by Losh, Alexander, Cannon, and Cannon), which will structure the semester for me a little bit, and which I think the students will really enjoy. We’re also introducing new, course-specific (rather than program-wide) outcomes, which will help to differentiate the two courses I’ll be teaching next year. My specific plan for using the blog will depend, to an extent, on these changes. 

That being said, I think I can begin laying out some questions that I need to answer over the summer as next year’s syllabi begin to take shape:

  • Do I want to use blogging in both English 120 and 121? Is blogging useful for the purposes of 120? How will I use them differently in each class if I use it in both classes? I’ll probably have at least a few students carry over from 120 into 121. If I keep the basic plan the same, then the returning students could potentially be relieved at not having to learn a new system, and they could teach the other students how to do it. All I’d have to do is change the prompts to fit the course outcomes and maintain the returning students’ interest.
  • Do I want to continue using the hub-and-spoke model? Or do I want to adopt a more singular, centralized model? I currently have a course blog (the hub) and then each student has their own blog. This seems to be working out, and could be tweaked to make it better. Students can feel more ownership over the presentation of their work, down to the color of their blog’s background. On the other hand, there are some benefits to having a single class blog, like this one from Jay Clayton’s first-year writing seminar: it gets updated at least once a day, it’s easier to assess, it’s easier for peers to comment, and it’s more likely to reach a wider audience. Dr. Clayton told me that his class blog gets thousands of hits from all over the world, which helps to reinforce the idea of writing for an audience.
  • Do I want to continue using tumblr? It has its benefits. It’s easy to make, it’s attractive, it’s easy for an outside audience to start following it, and at least a few students in each class will be familiar with it. But of course, it has drawbacks as well. It doesn’t have built-in comments, though there might be a way, especially if I do a single class blog, to fix that. Otherwise each student would have to add a question mark at the end of each title, which isn’t always rhetorically appropriate. I also know from experience that students don’t give their writing on tumblr the same attention to detail that they give traditional assignments. This might be different in a slightly more formal space, like WordPress. 

That’s all I can think of for now. Now I must turn my attention to the reflective essay that’s due today in English 516. It’s a reflection on my attempt to create a plan for tumblr next year, which I’ve already done here, on the blog, and I’ll also be reflecting on this, the blog, which is weird, because I’m sort of reflecting on the blog now… in the blog… 

All is contained within the blog; all of the blog is contained in all.

Jay Clayton on Literature & Science

It just so happens that next week the Journal of Narrative Theory (JNT) at Eastern Michigan will be hosting a dialogue on… exactly what I’m interested in learning more about right now. The JNT has invited Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt and Laura Otis of Emory to come speak “about cognitive science, genetics, and the literary imagination.” I’m really looking forward to all of the events: the colloquium on Tuesday, in which students and faculty will discuss some articles by the invited speakers, the dialogue itself on Thursday, and the opportunity to have coffee with the speakers the afternoon of the dialogue. In preparation for the events, particularly the colloquium, I’m reading through the articles provided by the JNT, and I’ll be writing about these articles (and some others, if I have time) on this blog, beginning with…

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Jay Clayton’s “The Ridicule of Time: Science Fiction, Bioethics, and the Posthuman” from last summer’s American Literary History. In the article, he makes the case for including literary voices in discussions of the ethics of biotechnology.

Clayton begins by saying that science fiction has had “a pervasive but unexamined influence on” bioethics (318). Most people assume “that SF warns against the consequences of biotechnology,” when in fact it is “overwhelmingly positive about the possibility of transforming the human” (319). He admits that the most famous SF novels, and films as well, are dystopian, like “Brave New World and Oryx and Crake” (319), and that the SF work that is optimistic about the posthuman falls largely within the “90 or 95 percent of SF production” that “is strictly perishable” (Suvin, qtd. 319). However, from a public policy standpoint, this mass of “popular, ‘low,’ or plebian” (Suvin, qtd. 319) fiction is important, because it represents “a significant strand in our culture” (319), which ought not to be overlooked.

Science fiction responds to the concerns of the age in which it is written, whether it be eugenics, the Cold War, racism, etc., as Clayton amply demonstrates. Thus, we have developed “a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction” (Cscicsery-Ronay qtd. 319-20). As SF possibilities linger in our collective cultural imagination, SF concepts become easy rhetorical devices for both sides of the futurism debate (if we can boil it down to just two sides).

spacevikingOn the one hand, “[s]cientific jeremiads,” that is, works of opposition to biotechnological interventions, “attempt to motivate people to act in history—to resist a feared future—by conjuring a ‘novum,’ to use Darko Suvin’s term for a new reality science fiction creates” (335). Such writing also utilizes “metaphors of organicism” (335), what I would call appeals to naturalness, which are, in fact, appeals to the illusion of naturalness. This is especially important in relation to Fukuyama’s claims about what constitutes “human nature” (337). I will no doubt take up the idea of “naturalness” in a later blog post.

The jeremiads also use “performative speech,” or the use of broad proclamations about what “we” are feeling about scientific developments: “something . . . leaves a lingering moral qualm” (Sandel qtd. 335). (I am reminded of the phrase “questions are being raised about,” which allows the writer/commentator/whoever to displace the burden of explaining why the given topic is relevant onto a nonexistent passive subject. Fox News might be the worst abuser of the phrase, but it’s fairly commonplace.) The other rhetorical device is “symbolic oppositions,” the familiar us/them dichotomy that “plainly substitutes symbolic for social analysis” (Bercovitch qtd. 336).

On the other hand, the scientific “encomia,” or works in praise of biotechnological interventions, also use the “same rhetorical elements” (337). Though he refers to a number of works, Clayton does not give any specific examples of how the “rhetorical elements” are used. He does, however, demonstrate “slippage,” in which science-fictional elements are appropriated, unacknowledged, into purportedly non-fiction writing, which “illustrates the kinship these works bear to our culture’s science fiction” (338).

“Both jeremiad and the encomia have their uses,” Clayton nearly concludes, “but the latter especially courts the ridicule of time” (338). That is, it’s easy to make predictions and wild extrapolations about what the future may hold and hope that you’re right. More than likely you won’t be, but in the meantime you might get paid to give public lectures. “They traffic in mundane predictions, and their attempts to inspire awe at biotechnology’s wonders sometimes result merely in the feeling of ‘gee whiz'” (338). (Could this be an example of performative speech?)

Clayton ends abruptly with a call to “take up the challenge” of bringing “the analysis of posthumanism to bear on problems with tangible impact on patients, health-care providers, and scientific policy” (339). At the very least, literary scholars should resist the trend of “generalizing glibly about cultural attitudes from a sample size consisting of a few decontextualized novels and films” (338), though it’s not clear what else there is for us to do.

Some questions that I have for Dr. Clayton that I might bring up when I see him next week:

Does the optimism in SF about the possibilities of biotechnological intervention say more about the self-selecting group of individuals most interested in SF? How much can we look to that mindset as evidence of more popular optimism about science, particularly when the most popular novels and films seem much more pessimistic?

It seems as though this conversation gets to the heart of the contemporary conversation about the role of the humanities in society. The humanities, the argument goes, need to be doing something for society, rendering some tangible service. Is there a danger to the humanities in making promises about what we have to offer to scientific discussions? Walt Whitman wrote of the sciences that their “facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling” (“Song of Myself,” part 23). Are we qualified to make our dwelling in the sciences?

How is the relationship between the literary imagination and the sciences, as you perceive it, similar to or distinct from that relationship as it might be perceived from a position that is primarily reliant on cultural criticism? For example, one might argue from a Marxist perspective that technological advancements have historically benefited and will continue to benefit the capitalist class. Do you see your project as approaching the sciences differently?

How does the relationship between SF and biotechnology translate into discussions about information technology, robotics, global warming, etc.? Do the discourses of other scientific issues have a similarly problematic relationship with science fiction?

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For more information about Jay Clayton, you can check out his profile on Vanderbilt’s website, where you will find this delightful picture of him next to what looks like a mural of a tricycle.