The Two Fallacies That Aren’t

When I was an undergraduate English Major at Cal State L.A. in the 1970’s, most of the faculty in the English Department had been trained as New Critics. New Criticism was focused on the text of the literary work itself to the exclusion of historical context, authorial biography, authorial intention, or any kind of reader response. The practitioners of New Criticism called it “objective criticism” because they wanted to exclude factors that were either unknowable or subjective. Their method was a close reading of the text, looking at the topic and theme of the work and such formal elements as ambiguity, irony, metaphor, symbolism, imagery and other devices.

New Criticism dominated English departments from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, so my professors were already having some questions about it. However, the practice of close reading continues and has even been officially revived in the Common Core. Two other concepts remain as well, concepts I consider pernicious. These are what Wimsatt and Beardsley called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy.” My complaint about these phrases is more about the rhetorical effect of the word “fallacy” than the concepts themselves.

The Intentional Fallacy

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that “The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (468). They do not want to ask, “What was the author trying to do?” and then “Was he or she successful in accomplishing this intention?” Even if they could ask the author, as they could in the case of T.S. Eliot, they do not wish to because to do so “would not be a critical inquiry.” They make a strong distinction between evidence internal to the text of the work and external evidence that might be found in the author’s biography or journals and letters. We could ask, if Charlotte Bronte writes a novel about a governess, does it matter that she herself was a governess”? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, that fact is irrelevant to the text.

From many other points of view, the fact that the Bronte sisters did indeed work as governesses and were concerned about the existential conditions of such work is indeed relevant and interesting. That is why I object to the word “fallacy.” There is nothing wrong with bracketing authorial intention and other matters external to the text in order to focus more closely on the text itself. But to stigmatize attention to these external matters as a “fallacy” is ideological. It is to brand all such inquiries as illogical from the outset.

The Affective Fallacy

In the introduction to their article on the “Affective Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley state their definitions:

The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins,
a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (31)

Note that in both cases what they are concerned about is deriving “the standard of criticism.” A New Critic attempts to provide an indisputable definitive reading of the work. The standard they strive toward is one of scientific certainty. They want to be able to say, “This is what it means.” Of course, in order to do that you have to leave out the squishy uncertain parts, such as what the author was thinking and how unpredictable readers might respond.

A Rhetorical Critic

Of course for a rhetorical critic, the New Critical approach leaves out all of the interesting parts. Such a critic sees the work as a rhetorical act, constructed by an author in order to have particular effects on readers. Author, text and reader are all equally important. Authors write for readers and so readers influence authorial decisions. Authors and readers are situated in contexts that are external to the text. Taken together, the two New Critical fallacies neutralize and render motionless all of this rhetorical interaction.

Conclusions

I rather like reading New Critics. They are attentive readers of literary works. But these two “fallacies” are fallacies only if one completely buys into New Critical dogma. It is unfortunate that we continue to react to them as if they were true. It cuts off so many other interesting approaches.

The most pernicious aspect of this terminology is the effect it has on pedagogy and the enjoyment of literature. For any reader, the first concern is how he or she responds to the work. We want to make connections to our own lives and feelings. We ask questions such as

  • Why do I identify with this character?
  • What does this character tell me about myself?
  • How does this situation relate to my life?
  • What would I do in that situation?
  • How would I feel if that happened to me?

It is questions like this that lead to engagement and the enjoyment of literature. These are starting points for real readers, who might think that a work is “good” because they engage with it. But unfortunately, the “Affective Fallacy” has taught us to be suspicious of engaging the reader’s emotions. It is a great loss.

Works Cited

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1946), pp. 468-488

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Affective Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1949), pp. 31-55

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

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Rachel, a scavenger in a burned out city in a dystopian world, finds a houseplant-sized piece of glowing biotech tangled in the fur of Mord, a giant flying bear who terrorizes the human inhabitants. She lives in an abandoned, partially-ruined apartment complex called “The Balcony Cliffs,” with Wick, a genius biotech designer. She takes her salvaged biotech home to find that it grows and learns and becomes a sentient being she calls “Borne.”

This science fiction novel has a hint of Frankenstein about it. Mord was created by the “Company,” along with other monsters, but they lost control of him. Is Borne another Frankenstein? Will we have Frankenstein versus Frankenstein?

I used to teach Finch, another Jeff Vandermeer novel in this course. Finch is about a noir Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow-style detective trying to solve a double murder in a city run by “Gray Caps,” fungal alien beings who came up out of the ground. It’s a science fiction detective novel. However, it went out of print and used copies are very expensive. I’ll bring it back if it ever goes back in print. But my students enjoyed Borne.

As with Stranger in Olondria, I made podcasts for each section of the book. However, these podcasts are organized a bit differently. I focused on character development and issues rather than doing a chronological walk through of the reading. I also stopped putting a list of questions at the end because the students felt that they had to answer the questions rather than engaging in their own speculations. The questions are still there, but they are scattered throughout the presentation.

I may be teaching this again a year from now. I imagine that for now the podcasts and questions could also be used for a book club sort of discussion. The podcasts contain spoilers, so it is best to read the section before listening to the podcast or reading the notes. The notes were created to script the podcasts, but the podcasts often contain additional comments that come to me on the fly.

Borne Part 1, 3-56

Notes

Borne Part 2, 59-193

Notes

Borne Part 3a, 197-264 (Part 3 has been divided in half)

Notes

Borne Part 3b, 264-323

Notes

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

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One of the novels my genre fiction class is reading is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American who has taught in Sudan, Egypt, and California. She has received or been nominated for numerous literary awards. The novel is about Jevick of Tyom, an islander whose father grows pepper. Jevick’s father is a wealthy, respected leader in the community. Once a year, he travels to Bain, the capitol of Olondria, to sell his pepper. After one of these voyages, he brings Jevick a tutor, Lunre, a scholar from Bain. Jevick learns to read and to love books, and dreams of Olondria. His father dies suddenly, and Jevick goes to Bain to sell pepper. On the boat, he briefly encounters Jissavet, a girl with a genetic illness that causes her hair to turn red. This is a fatal encounter that immerses Jevick in a struggle between two religious cults, the cult of Avalei, the goddess of love and death, and the cult of the Stone, supported by the king but not the people.

The novel is rich with beautiful sentences and sensory detail. Because I am teaching online, I made a podcast for each of the six parts of the novel. I am including the podcasts and my notes below. Each podcast has questions for discussion. I highly recommend the novel. The religious and political conflicts are not unlike our own, though the world of the novel is very different and Jevick is a hero of an unusual sort.

I suppose that outside of my course, these materials could be used for a book club discussion, or in a different class. My podcasts may contain spoilers, so it would be best to read the appropriate section of the novel before listening. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to read the novel, or are not sure, the podcasts may be interesting, or may inspire you to want to read it.

Because they were created out of the need for converting to an online format during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are references to this difficult situation.

Book One: The Wind of Miracles

Notes

Book Two: The City of Bain

Notes

Book Three: The Holy City

Notes

Book Four: The Breath of Angels

Notes

Book Five: A Garden of Spears

Notes

Book Six: Southward

Notes

Genre Fiction: Week 11

We are in spring break at the moment, though the concept of spring break seems meaningless under these circumstances. I am continuing to create podcasts and grade assignments. Next week, we will finish up the stories from Peter Beagle’s Secret History of Fantasy. After that, each student will choose one of the two novels I have assigned, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (who I found out yesterday is an Assistant Professor in English at our sister campus, CSU Channel Islands) or Bourne by Jeff Vandermeer. Because I am letting them choose, I will essentially be teaching two novels simultaneously! The prerecorded podcasts should make that possible, but I hope to finish the podcasts for Stranger during this break so that I can record the podcasts for Bourne next week.

Week 11 Podcasts and Notes

Peter Beagle, “Sleight of Hand”

Peter Beagle is the editor of the collection and the author of this story, “Sleight of Hand.” He is most famous for his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, about a unicorn trying to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, aided by a powerful but somewhat incompetent wizard, Schmendrick. “Sleight of Hand” is about a woman who makes a fatal decision that accidentally results in the death of her husband and daughter, but is given a chance to remake that decision by a mysterious magician.

Here are the notes.

Robert Holdstock, “Mythago Wood”

This novella was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I have subscribed at various points in my life. The magazine, unlike most in these genres, is still in publication, though I no longer have a subscription). Holdstock later turned it into a novel, and then wrote numerous other pieces in the same universe. The story is set in Ryhope Wood, a three square mile tract of original, primeval oak forest. The Huxley family lives in Oak Lodge, on the edge of the forest. The father believes that the forest contains wild boar and manifestations of ancient heroes. When he dies, one of the sons takes up his explorations. It is a memorable, haunting story, grounded in a theory of Jungian archetypes.

Here are the notes.

Kiji Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

A woman buys a monkey show for $1.00, including 26 monkeys of various types and a tour bus. The monkey act climaxes with the entire troop of monkeys vanishing from a suspended bathtub. They return hours later, in ones and twos. She doesn’t know how they vanish or where they go. The story explores the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life.

Here are the notes.

The students, at least most of them, seem to enjoy the podcasts. The discussions on the discussion boards have been interesting. I think what is key to this is that I am not telling them what the stories mean. I am pointing things out, drawing attention to stylistic features and writerly decisions, and asking questions that could have many possible answers. They seem to feel free to express their opinions, which means they are engaged with the stories.

I read their mini-proposals yesterday. All of them want to write stories rather than a critical paper. More on that later.

Suddenly Teaching Online: A Path Made by Walking

I have now been teaching my previously face-to-face classes completely online for two weeks. My campus uses Blackboard as a course management system. It’s ok. It has some glitches and some design flaws, the worst of which is the inefficient way it uses screen real estate. I’m pretty familiar with Blackboard because I have been using it to support most of my classes for almost 20 years. And before that I was using WebCT, which Blackboard bought. Yes, it has been that long.

Blackboard

Here is what Blackboard looks like when you are responding to papers:

BlackboardScreenshot
The text box is really small. Lots of space is wasted at the top. The right side is taken up mostly by blank, unused, gray space. I can scroll down to eliminate some of the wasted space at the top, but I have to redo that positioning for EVERY SINGLE PAPER. I can make in-text comments (good) but it is hard to make the comment box go away without turning off the commenting feature, so it is basically, turn comments on, make a comment, turn comments off (bad). I can create, edit, and attach a rubric and score a paper by clicking in the appropriate cells (good), but if I score one paper and then find out that I have made a ridiculous error in the rubric, it will not let me edit the rubric. I have to score every subsequent paper with the defective rubric (bad).

Blackboard is full of issues like this. It has discussion boards and blogs, but the only real difference between them is that the discussion boards are organized by topic and the blogs are organized by student. They aren’t real blogs. Both tools are functional, but clunky. In the blog tool, in order to see other student’s blogs, you have to click a tiny down arrow underneath your own name, which produces a drop down menu. By default, it only shows blogs with posts, so at the beginning of the semester if you are the first one to post something, when you click on the down arrow, you see nothing. This causes a great deal of confusion.

So I am familiar with Blackboard, but I have never used it to teach a totally online course.

Other Tools

We also have access to Zoom for video conferencing and chat and Kultura for creating and uploading videos. The problem with video is bandwidth. Many of our students don’t have wifi at home and the places they used to use for wifi access–Starbucks, McDonalds, libraries–are closed. Besides, the whole point is to stay home and stay well. So they use their phones, but quickly blow through data caps.

Some of my colleagues are using Slack, which has a free plan, for chat. My grad students recommended that too. As near as I can tell, Zoom and Slack are overlapping products. Zoom emphasizes video, but does chat, while Slack emphasizes chat but does video. In my last seminar meeting, we did one hour of Zoom followed by one hour of Slack. They both worked well, but provided different experiences.

Genre Fiction So Far

For my “Genre Fiction” class, as I have posted previously, I have been producing podcasts for each story and giving them my notes. We are also using both blogs and discussion boards, using the Blackboard tools. Though there has been lively interaction on the discussion boards, there are six students out of 26 who are not participating. I have emailed them several times. Because I felt that I was losing touch with the class, I decided to have a non-mandatory Zoom meeting at the time when the face-to-face class would have normally met. Seven students showed up. It turned into a sort of focus group.

Only three students activated video, and one of these had arranged the lighting so that his face was obscured. The others not only did not activate video, but they were muted too. They communicated through chat or through icons like thumbs up. I had not expected such shyness.

They were all feeling overwhelmed, but they did not blame faculty. However, they pointed out that discussion boards were a lot more work than showing up in class. In a discussion board, everyone has to think and express their ideas. They see showing up for class as an interesting and even fun experience, but the discussion board is work. From their point of view, the homework load has increased tremendously.

This may mean that the ones who participate in the online activities are actually learning more than before. The in-class experience for them is more comfortable, enjoyable, but also more passive, at least for some.

After this discussion, I decided to eliminate one of the novels I was going to teach as well as the final, on the grounds that the discussion board work was ample evidence of their engagement and understanding. This will give them more time to work on their stories.

One of the books I am using in my seminar argues that teaching is “a path made by walking.” That certainly seems true for our sudden detour into online instruction.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.

Notes

“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.

Notes

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Notes

“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?

Notes

 

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 2

Our President has finally decided that the rest of the semester will be online. I think that is wise because it is hard to shift from an online course back to a face-to-face one. It is also clear that our Covid-19 situation will last longer than a few weeks.

For the second meeting of the ninth week of this course I assigned two stories from Peter Beagle’s collection, The Secret History of Fantasy. I include a podcast and some notes for each one.

“Fruit and Words” by Aimee Bender

Here is a link to the notes I used in making the podcast.

This story is about marriage, hope, magic and mangoes.

“The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford

And here are the notes.

So far, this system seems to be working. Students have to listen to the podcasts to get the discussion questions. Then they respond on the new discussion boards. Several students are already doing this.

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.

The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

Online Instruction

On Wednesday we got a message from the President of our university that instruction will be “paused” from today until Tuesday next week and that we would move to a “virtual” form of instruction after that until March 27, which is the beginning of spring break. After spring break they will “reassess” our local context and risk. Then we got a message yesterday from the Provost that said that we would be providing both “virtual” instruction and face-to-face instruction unless “all” of our students preferred “virtual” instruction. Apparently, the administrators bought cameras for the classrooms. They seem to think that an online class is just the same as a traditional class, but with a video feed of the lecture.

I think that these administrators have forgotten what actual teaching is like.

As soon as I heard that we were switching to online instruction, I redesigned my courses.

  • I eliminated some assignments and activities that required face-to-face interaction.
  • I added some new discussion boards.
  • I shifted points around to accommodate participation in discussion boards instead of in class discussion.
  • I made plans to produce podcasts instead of lectures.
  • I informed my students of these changes and got feedback on the changes.

I also began helping the Teaching Associates that I supervise to begin thinking about redesigning their courses. They were freaking out because they are new to teaching face-to-face and suddenly, midstream, they have to switch to an entirely different mode of instruction. I told them that there were actually better prepared than many faculty for this change because they are much more familiar with the technology. One responded, “Yes, we can do this!”

Composition courses are not lecture-based. We have writing activities, whole class discussions, group discussions, collaborative projects, presentations, poster sessions, etc. If we lecture, it is only for a short part of the class meeting.  Meeting with a few students in an almost empty room and lecturing to a camera will not work. This is not information transfer. It is teaching and learning. And it doesn’t make sense to move instruction online and then try to move it back again.

I am afraid that the administrators are afraid to be truly decisive. They want to have it both ways. And they have forgotten the reason we are doing this. If we want to reduce or slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to take decisive action, not a little of this and a little of that, leaving all options open.

I plan to post my podcasts and other instructional materials here. Those who follow this blog for teaching materials and ways of presenting rhetorical concepts may find the series of posts I put up in the next few weeks a bit course specific for their own use, but I hope you will find something useful for your teaching as well.