Travis McKinney

Contributing writer for The Artifice.

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Professors as Wielders of Truth, Dictators, or Facilitators

In the humanities classroom—I speak in particular of literature here—what is the role of the professor now? Is it changing? How has it changed? Does the professor at times hold and use too much power so as to be authoritative with his published books and many letters behind her name? Is the professor a facilitator only that aids the literature student in finding his way? How often should a student openly disagree with or challenge professorial authority? In other words, in their attempts at dismantling authority, showing hegemony for what it is, separating us from the paradigms in which we unwittingly live, do professors also ironically demand certain kinds of "knowledge" which they ought not to?

  • Depends on the prof...There are as many different types of profs as there are students. I don't think they can be lumped into one category. In any profession there are people who abuse their power or who altruistically give of their time and knowledge. Perhaps whoever writes this article could look at how professors are portrayed in literature. The writer could also look at how the role of professors are depicted in movies even though the topic is in the literature category if the writer wanted to expand. In the kids movie Big Hero Six the prof was the villain. Surprise!! But how are most profs roles written? As villains or heroes? – Munjeera 8 years ago
  • I personally think they can perform all these kinds of roles. Take your university -or the academic world- as a micro-society; everyone of this people has a role to play and fills it with individuality. A professor might choose to focus on his/her students learning because he's not able to produce academic material; another one may produce it, but become frustrated because the academic community doesn't value it, so he pushes his ideas on his students with authority; and so on. There's no fixed role for the professor. I've had teachers who wouldn't admit any answer as right as well as those who would agree to anything, as long as it was inventive; those pursuing the improvement of the whole class, and those motivating us to fight like dogs for points. They are human beings with a determinate set of goals, ideas and complexes; and yes, they have a position of power that 'practically' would be unwise to challenge. If you want to dismantle authority, you may always find other kinds of spaces: a conversation, your own published book. – Paul Iago 8 years ago
  • Speaking as a professor, I can tell you that every one of us has a different teaching style, personality, size of ego, and pedagogical philosophy; as well as what we believe is important in the classroom atmosphere. You will find Wielders of Truth, Dictators, and Facilitators in every discipline; in every department; often all in one person! It really is about the individual. Interacting with students in the classroom is often based on the students themselves - not all students will respond the same way to the same material. Some classes are talkative and like to discuss issues, some do not; some seem as a general group to be defensive, or bored, or engaged, or laid-back, or hyper, or distracted (and if it's a 2 pm class, everyone is just trying not to fall asleep), so we have to (or ought to, at least) adapt our teaching strategies in turn. But your topic is actually very timely, as it is closely related to the current, often passionate debate over tenure: its perceived benefits and drawbacks, and whether or not it is a guarantee of free speech (as it is meant to be), or a free pass to be self-serving, lazy, and/or abusive toward students. Good stuff here. However, can you clarify the last part for me? I understand the implicit irony of expecting compliance while simultaneously preaching free thought and raging against the machine, but I'm not sure what you mean by demanding (?) knowledge "they ought not to be" requesting. Do you mean they are being inappropriate? In what way? – Katheryn 8 years ago
  • To second the above comment, I, as a professor, would appriciate more nuance. Sometimes students challenge a professor with no evidence to back up their claims. There is a right way and a wrong way to challenge authority and the people with more letters at the back of their name are better trained in the art of critical analysis. I teach theatre which is close to literature and there IS a such thing as a wrong interpretation if it cannot be backed by textual evidence or dramaturgy. – Christen Mandracchia 8 years ago
  • I teach theatre too! - seconded. – Katheryn 8 years ago

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Latest Comments

What a wonderful job you’ve done defining and in the texts you gloss capturing the sublime and its importance. I have always felt that the sublime is just such an experience—whether encountered through literature or life experience elsewhere—that shakes us to our core, terrifies us, and, like the steep cliff down which we now look, understanding our selves as mere trifles of the universe, which at any moment may blow us to dust and leave us forgotten, also allows us, because of our new awareness of our smallness, to be more alive than we have ever been, if momentarily. I feel that you have captured that very well, particularly in Frankenstein.

The Sublime's Effects in Gothic Fiction

I cannot say what a literary artist is; and I cannot comment on your whole article in such a brief post, but I will say this—

As to your section on youth and being an artist, I think you touch on something quite important. We all experience “the bloom,” a time when we are youthful but matured, and then we all experience the time after that, as our leaves begin to descend toward the ground, shrivel and die. I think Hemingway wrote about it well—the existential crisis of this realization. Perhaps more than any, artists (whether literary or other, but “real” artists) have quite a time coping with life post-bloom and attempt on some level to express their feelings of it.

Perhaps then, at least in my view, instead of being a poet and being young, an artist needs for most of his or her life to grieve the loss of his or her youth, to preemptively grieve the loss (to come) of those he or she loves, including the self. When one walks around feeling this loss for years upon years, and then writes about it, I would say one is a literary artist. The trick, I think, is in surviving this grieving for as long as possible. Some do it for longer than others.

What Does it Mean to Be a Literary Artist?

Edna’s feelings of possession, isolation, and servitude continue, perhaps in different forms, today. When I was an undergraduate I was so struck by this short novel, that one could, with what seemed all the wealth and security in the world, walk into the gulf and end it all in order to escape. Now I am fifteen years older and, from the experience of life, understand that the only way out of that feeling of isolation and possession (which eventually grips us all) is to be outside the paradigm. This is what (mainly) we teach in many American Literature classes, to recognize when we have fallen into a narrative of living, a massive constriction. For Edna she viewed the waves that lapped over her as that escape—she had little else she could do. But for us now—? We need her title; we need “awakening,” the sublime moment that makes us feel more alive than ever before. So many of us are already dead inside. Perhaps then, in whatever way that we can, we can avoid such a tragic end.

The Awakening: Where does the dream lie in Marriage, or Lust, or Freedom?

The word “novel” itself means something new—so what better way than always to change into something it was not before? Of course it retains many of its characteristics (usually prose, usually long, usually fiction), but let it change I say into whatever it wants. As an avid reader of Derrida, I think perhaps the problem is in our attempt at always drawing the lines around things—this is a novel, that is not—who knows? I can’t even determine where to draw the line between a “novel” and a “novella.”

Is the Novel Dead?