Troubling times

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Last Friday was the concluding input session for the Discourse and Linguistics module I’m involved in. It was a good one, led by enthusiastic, passionate people who knew their stuff and how to put together an effective session. During the course of the day, we were introduced to Foucault, and how power and knowledge were related and formed part of discourse. We were also treated to a session led by author and broadcaster Desiree Reynolds, talking about her novel ‘Seduce,’ which, written in patois, introduces an altogether different consideration for discourse analysts.

To prepare for the session, we were given four readings, two of which were by Michel Foucault. It’s the first time I’ve read him and to say I found it hard going would be an understatement of the first order. The concepts he discusses are complex, but are rendered even less accessible by his writing. When is it ever acceptable to write a sentence which stretches over fifteen typographical lines? A week was not enough time for me to get to grips with work of this nature, so it was marginally relieving to hear one of the tutors also describe Foucault’s ideas as tough to grasp. Helpfully, during the session we were presented with smaller sections of which illustrated specific points, and were asked to unpick them. I still struggled and my discomfort was further exacerbated when one of the group, asked what Foucault was saying in one of the sections, gave a perfectly crisp, lucid summary. It would have taken me days to do that … if I could at all. This is one of those occasions when, as a PhD student, the imposter syndrome kicks in full weight. The only way I console myself is that maybe those who are able to grasp these ideas more quickly have had a longer exposure than I; maybe they studied psychology, philosophy or sociology as undergraduates. Perhaps I have to be pragmatic and recognise that in as short a module as this is, I’m unlikely to be able to fully understand someone as demanding as Foucault. Fortunately, the texts I’m thinking of analysing are likely to gain more from the attention of other discourse techniques, rather than a deep critique of power relationships and effects.

Although I enjoyed the session (even my struggles with Foucault!), I have to confess I found it unusually troubling. Two things struck me and for the life of me, I can’t think why the first should have bothered me, but it did. During the whole three years of my undergraduate study I don’t think I heard a single academic swear. Whether lecture, seminar, tutorial or lab session, no-one ever swore, even though many of them were robust, earthy individuals. In our Friday session, several swear words were used. Now why that bothered me I’ve struggled to understand. I swear, and rarely have issues with other people doing the same, although I never swore as a teacher. I guess I feel uncomfortable if someone swears in contexts where I don’t think it’s appropriate, like the professional, formal situations manifest in most educational encounters. Irrational?

The second issue actually started to bother me in other taught sessions earlier in the year, but became particularly manifest last Friday. Whether it’s because the areas of study are within the social sciences I’m not sure, but there’s a distinctly ‘political’ edge to many of the sessions I’ve attended. That wouldn’t be too bad if there was a sense of balance, but there isn’t. It’s been (for me) uncomfortably left wing. Once more, this shouldn’t be a problem; my views are liberal and lean (mostly) to the left, so why should views which largely echo my own, jar so much? As I said before, I think I (unfairly?) expect balance from the person at the front of the room, rather than subtle referencing of a particular ideology (actually often less subtly). The following example is difficult to recount whilst maintaining appropriate anonymity, so forgive the clumsy writing. A member of the group asked why they couldn’t adopt a particular stance and was told they didn’t qualify on the grounds of gender, race and privilege. That may indeed be true, but it was the way in which the very idea was dismissed out of hand – ‘I am this and this, so that makes me qualified to take this viewpoint, whereas you can’t because you’re not.’ I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the issue was made personal and, for me, would have been better presented neutrally. Perhaps that’s not possible; there are aspects of our self over which we have no choice, so as a consequence, I guess the argument would be that there are certain views we can’t express because we do not occupy the necessary ground. I think it’s that that I find troubling … and perhaps I should.

Interesting that the two issues that bothered me about Friday’s session could probably be illuminated through  discourse analysis.


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