Pelias - The Critical Life Ronald Pelias This...

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Unformatted text preview: The Critical Life Ronald]. Pelias This autoethnographic essay fiillows one individual throughout his day to explore how evaluation functions as a fitndamental orientation of a scholar’s academic [2' e. It calls into question the individual’s relationship to criticism and its presence in the ongoing process of doing one’sjob and of living one’s li e. Its argument is based, not in the logical proof but in aflect, in its ability to solicit identification, in part, through the use of second-person narrative voice. Keywords: criticism, pedagogy, academic life, autoethnography You wonder: What does it mean to live with a critical eye, an eye that’s always assessing, always deciding questions of worth, always saying what’s good or bad? What does it mean to judge others? What does it mean to say someone else does not measure up? By what right do you set certain standards? How can you not? What does it mean to judge yourself? By what right do you evaluate? What is at stake? To discover the heart of such questions, you track your day. You wake up in the morning with a cat in your face. Aggravated by the purring and by a poor night’s sleep, you feel your body’s lack of readiness to begin the day. You note the difficulty you have swinging your legs out of bed and resent that you must use some effort to get up on your feet. You glance outside and you think that the day looks grim. You look at your wife, still sleeping, and wonder why the cat always decides to nudge you. Downstairs, you gently pat the other cat who is asking for food. You open a can of Chicken Tuna for them and note the watery texture. You recognize that they have definite opinions about the matter. You go outside, find the paper, pleased at the delivery boy’s careful placement. You fix yourself a cup of coffee, re—heated from the day before. You taste its sourness. You begin to read. As you take in piece after piece, you assess—you’re pleased that a referendum for a new school will be voted upon in the next election; you’re unhappy with the increased allocations for the military; you’re amused by a Dilbert cartoon; and so on. After you finish the paper, you move into the bathroom. You brush your teeth taking some pleasure in the taste of the toothpaste. You wash, and as you do so, you see yourself—you notice your face with its growing lines, your belly round as a watermelon, your hair flat as forgotten wet hay, your fingers stiff and swollen. You dress and discard a piece of lint from your shirt. You remove some cat hair from your pants. You notice that your favorite shoes are becoming worn. Your white, middle class, male body is ready for the day. You call to your daughter to get out of bed. You know you will have to call several more times before she’ll respond. This is a daily ritual. You call twice more. You fix your daughter a bowl of cereal with too much sugar. After seeing how good it looks, you fix a bowl for yourself, even though you usually don’t eat anything in the morning. You are enjoying the cool crunchy taste, when your daughter strolls in, wrapped in a blanket. You notice that part of the blanket is dragging on the floor but decide not to comment. “Good morning, darling,” you say, reading her mood and Ronald I. Pelias is a Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901. Communication Education, Vol. 49, No. 3, july 2000, pp. 220—228 Copyright 2000, National Communication Association CRITICAL LIFE—221 speculating on the likelihood of her making the bus for school. You say as nicely as you can, “If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the bus.” “Don’t worry,” she responds, “I’ll make it.” Twenty minutes later you watch the bus go by without her. You are miffed. Your wife comes down as you and your daughter are about to leave. You listen to her cheerful and loving good—bye to your daughter right after you had scolded her for her tardiness. You watch your daughter act as sweet as any child can be. You roll your eyes. In the car, you welcome the sound of your old 1985 Honda Civic starting right up. Your daughter begins working the radio buttons, seldom landing on a station that you would select. When she stumbles upon a song that you like, she, despite your protest, slides right over it. You turn the radio down and she turns it back up. You turn it down again and say, “If this isn’t loud enough, it can go off.” She rolls her eyes. You notice but say nothing. You hate starting the day this way with your daughter. After you drop her off at school, you tune in NPR. You hate starting your day at the office later than you anticipated. At the office, you greet the staff and notice that the person you work most closely with looks tired, perhaps upset. You ask, “Is everything alright?” You hear a not very convincing “Everything’s fine.” You say, “Are you sure?” and after a second assurance, you suppress your suspicion and go about your business. But she stays in your mind. You worry that the man she has been living with is still not treating her right. You never liked him—his talk always seemed too loud, too dismissive of everyone, including her. You wonder if you should say anything to her about him but wisely decide that it would be presumptuous to do so. In your own office, you look at your coffee mug and regret that you didn’t wash it the day before. Coffee, though, is a necessity, so you clean it. Pouring a cup, you enjoy the smell. You sip, not wanting to burn yourself, and then you read the messages you still have to answer, check your calendar for appointments and meetings, and make a list of what you must get done. You brace yourself for a long da . You begin to grade a set a papers you’ve promised back to your students. The first paper you select begins with the sentence, “In my speach, I want to do a poem I always liked alot.” You cringe, wondering how a student majoring in Speech Communication could misspell “speech,” how in the second round of perfonnance he could still call his presentation a speech, and how a junior in college could believe that that sentence would be an adequate opening to his essay. With all the authority of the academy behind you, you grade him down “alot.” Before moving on to the next, you give his page and a half essay a “D” without thinking about the racism, classism and sexism of academic standards and without celebrating the fact that the student claims a deep affinity for a poem. The second paper is well written but says very little: “B — .” Next on the pile is an essay from your favorite student, the one who always seems so engaged with the material, so willing to participate in any discus- sion, so open to criticism. You know that even if her behavior were just an act, performance matters. She does not disappoint: “A.” You work through the batch, assigning grades, sometimes delightfully surprised and sometimes dismayed, some— times conscious of what is guiding your judgments, sometimes not. A colleague, bursting into your office, exclaims, “I’m so angry I don’t know what to do. Read this review.” He hands you several pages and then continues, “How could a reviewer read my piece that way? How could the editor agree with that reviewer? I’ll bet he didn’t even read the piece.” You say, fearing that the editor and 222—PELIAS reviewer are probably right, “I’ll be glad to read your essay, look these responses over and tell you what I think.” You have been just where he is. You remember the frustration of trying to please anonymous readers whose values seem as hidden as land mines. You remember the anger that arises from their cutting words, words that seem to say you are worthless. You remember the disappointment, pushing down on you, weighing on you, sinking into you. You believe you give them too much power in your life. Your colleague leaves and you wonder if he will place enough pieces in just the right journals to get tenure. You glance at the pile of papers you just graded. Your mind wanders. You think to yourself: My friend is caught; my students are caught; I’m caught. Everyone is caught in the same critical grind, giving out and taking in comments designed to say how we are positioned, rated, ranked. Even when you are situated on the top, you know that judgment carries a cost for those on the bottom. You think you could write an article that laments this fact. You imagine writing it in the second—person, inviting identification. But then you worry that not everyone feels criticism’s weight, that not everyone feels its never ending presence. You ask yourself if you are just tired after years of pronouncements. You pull yourself back from your speculations about the critical life. You have about thirty minutes before your first class, not the amount of time you like to have to prepare. You check the syllabus to see what you are suppose to cover. It’s a familiar topic, one you have presented many times before. You jot down a few themes you want to cover but you don’t feel quite ready to face your students. In class, you pretend that you are ready; you note what you hope to accomplish. You mention a friend’s research because you always found her way of framing the issues you are discussing particularly rich. The hour, to your relief and delight, goes well. At the end of class, you applaud your own effort, remembering that the classroom is your favorite place to be. After your first class, a prospective graduate student calls inquiring about the status of his application into the program. Following a script you have used before, you answer, “I’m sorry to report that the graduate committee did not recommend that you be awarded a graduate teaching assistant in our first round of offers. We have placed your name on an alternate list.” Silence and you sense the pain associated with your words. Other calls of inquiry come and the responses to that script vary: “Fine. I just wanted to check before I accepted the offer from the University of Texas.” “Could you tell me why I was rated so low?” “When do you think you might know if I’ll make it in?” Based upon their responses, you move some higher and some lower on the alternate list. Some you drop off the list altogether. The calls you dread come from those you’ve decided you will not accept into the program. Your line is: “I’m sorry to say that the graduate committee did not feel that you were a good match for our program.” You know what is coded in the word “match.” We do not think you will do well in our program because what you want to study has nothing to do with what we offer (didn’t you look at what we said we ofierP), because everyone who wrote a letter of recommendation for your file indicated that you are not graduate student material (didn’t you realize that the people you asked for a recommendation would not write positively about you?), because given your prior academic record it seems unlikely that you will be successful in graduate school (didn’t you think your 2.3 GPA and your bottom 10% CRITICAL LIFE—223 GRE scores would hurt your case?). You know your decision will have conse— quences in their lives. You know your decision will carry defining power. You know your decision hurts. You know, most of the time, what you are trying to perpetuate. You understand that everything and everybody is judged in a market economy. Whether it is from the corporate executive’s dictates, the academic’s scrutiny, or a grandparent’s gentle reminder, no one escapes appraisal. Everything and everybody is given a price, an established worth. And you know that with every critical remark you make, you are participating in the commodification of everything and every- body. You are marking value, sticking on a price tag with each assessment, turning some things and some people into damaged goods. You see too how criticism itself is commodified as it colonizes social life. Your assessments, your glorifications and condemnations, become only something else to buy or discard, something else that moves people to the auction block. You do not see a way to escape criticism’s ceaseless production. But, you do not want to let go of your standards. Mail arrives. As you collect yours from your faculty box, you are pleased to see two journals, Communication Monographs and Performing Arts Journal, a book catalog from the University of Chicago Press promising discounts to 90%, and several first class letters. You thumb through your Communication Monographs. You see five articles, most by more than one author, on topics of interest to you but located in a paradigmatic logic you find less than convincing. You read the abstracts and shake your head, not because you are confused by the content, but because you cannot understand how the scientific model continues to thrive in the discipline given the number of arguments that show why the heart needs to accompany the head, particularly with such topics as communication apprehension, intimacy, compliance gaining strategies, communication competence, gender, relational maintenance, and empathy. You place the issue on a stack of material you plan to read. During the next several months, you will keep skipping over it until you finally put it on your book shelf along side other unread Monographs. You imagine the assessment the authors of the these articles might give your work: Self-serving and self—indulgent, not generalizable, insufficiently grounded in current research, not appropriate as scholarly discourse, unacceptable method, superficial examination, no contribution to the accumulation of knowledge. You know the reasons for that reading but you believe it misses the point. You write to create an evocative resonance, to call together a company of voices who feel the burden and pain of criticism’s sting, to open a space for dialogue. You pick up the Performing Arts journal from your pile of mail. You see several pieces that you will read, pieces by the same group of contributing editors that appear over and over in the joumal’s pages, pieces that imply that performance only occurs in New York City. You resent this New York coterie that perpetuates their own interests but would never admit such a thing. It would seem petty, small, provincial. The University of Chicago Press catalog promises, you begin to see, 90% discounts only on titles you don’t want. There are, however, several that intrigue: Marjorie Perlofl’s Writing Poetry in the Age ofMedia, Charles E. Reagan’s Paul Ricoeur: His Life and His Work, and Patricia Fumerton’s Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Litera— ture and the Practice of Social Ornament. But the title that makes you take out your checkbook ($19.95 for paper) is Greg Dening’s Performances. You read that Stephen Greenblatt believes Dening is the “most brilliant ethnohistorian writing today.” You 224—PELIAS are anxious to see how Dening’s study of time and place will use performance, whether it will lay claim to performance as a special activity or simply as a synonym for doing. As you write out your check, you speculate why in this 47 page catalog there are no subject headings for communication, performance studies, or theatre. You consider how each of these fields struggles for academic legitimacy, how each makes birth right claims from their English father, how each resents its position. Your first class mail contains several pieces that you are anxious to open. You quickly go through the letters that you know pertain to the graduate program. You open application materials—transcripts, late letters of recommendation, GRE scores, etc.-—paperwork you will file later. You scan the materials quickly noting what might be important. You receive one letter accepting and one rejecting your offer to do graduate work in your program. You mark their names, one with a “yes” and the other with a “no,” thinking that if you had to lose one of these two people, you wish it had been the other one. Of your fifteen initial offers, twelve have accepted. You are pleased. You call an applicant from the alternate list, make the offer, and hear a sigh of relief. The applicant, now effusive, accepts immediately and you sense that you have called the right person. Your mail also contains your self-addressed—stamped-envelope from The Georgetown Review, a response to a group of poems you submitted several months before. You feel the weight of the envelope and guess that they haven’t taken any of your poems. You open the envelope and find a standard rejection slip addressed to “Dear Contributor” and signed, “The Editors.” It reads, “Thank you for submitting your work to our magazine. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet our needs. We wish you luck in placing it elsewhere.” You look for some indication that your poems were read, considered, perhaps a signature or a short comment on one of the poems. You find nothing. You wonder if you are wasting your time sending out your third rate poems. Perhaps you should just save yourself the trouble, not to mention the postage. You consider for a moment the difference you feel when some of your poems are rejected and when a scholarly essay of yours is turned down. For you, writing poems is your avocation, a necessary one that hangs on you like clothes. It helps keep confusion at bay but it is not your job. Writing articles is; it is what you are supposed to know how to do. It is what you were trained to do. It is what you claim is essential to an academic life. So, when one of your articles is rejected, when the reviewers point out the silliness of your ideas, when the editor doesn’t even have an encourag— ing word, you feel as if you have been punched. Usually, it takes you several days to get back up. Remembering this, you doubt that you gave your colleague the support he needed when he came in earlier complaining about his reviews. You want to be the kind of person who offers judgments that humanize, that make us better people. You try, like the feminists have taught you, to work with additive rather than corrective models. You often cast your comments within a contingent frame, noting the basis for your critical responses while indicating why other perspectives might call your claims into question. You study the situation to determine how you might speak with interpersonal sensitivity. Yet, judgments, whether given or received, seem to move inside the body. First and foremost, criticism is always felt. You wonder how often its effect is simply to harden us. Back to your mail. You received a note from a former student who wants several letters of recommendation. You will comply but you are sorry that the person is not happy with her current placement. You had thought it was a good spot for her and CRITICAL LIFE—225 when you look at where she is applying, you doubt if she has found a better fit. You wonder what percentage of your colleagues believe that their department is a happy home for their work. As you put her letter aside, you notice that you haven’t finished your coffee. You sip; it’s cold and bitter. You look at your watch wondering how long until lunch. You are surprised and sorry that most of the morning is gone. You go to lunch with several colleagues, a daily ritual that can range from delightful to tiresome. As a result of the diflicult faculty meeting from the day before, you and your colleagues’ lunch talk is filled with cautious repairs. The faculty were split over who they should hire. The vote was 8-7 and no one left the two hour meeting happy. You recognized how the split vote reflected different directions for the department. It cut to the core of departmental identity, each side dangerously implying who among those present had value. You found one faculty member’s pronouncements particularly annoying. It seemed a shame that the debate had to take place over the bodies of the two candidates for the position. Over lunch you reaflirm a commitment to community and pledge never to buy French Onion Soup in that place again. You rush back from lunch to make a 1:00 o’clock preliminary examination meeting. ...
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