From: "Charles Hammond Jr." <chammond@uci.edu>
To: HUMCORE-TA@uci.edu
Subject: Essay #3 and the Conrad-Marlow Dilemma
Date: Fri, Mar 17, 2000, 10:08 AM
 

Dear Colleagues and Mentors,

While reading the rough drafts for Essay #3, I noted a problem which has
persisted from the beginning of the quarter: namely, that students will
equate the opinions of the main character in a text with that of the
author/playwright. In the case of the latest assignment, my students often
jumped to the conclusion that since Marlow exhibited racist tendencies, then
Conrad must be a racist; likewise, "Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in order
to [for example] expose the corruption of European colonialism . . . " was
also not an uncommon assessment.

In short, I received a great number of papers which sought to psychoanalyze
the author and pretend to know his intentions. I have repeatedly had to
explain to the students that we canNOT assume the author shares the opinions
of any figure in a fictional text and that literary analysis should instead
concentrate on what the *text* does or what a character in a text might
represent, etc.

I am concerned that Professor Moeller's lectures on _Heart of Darkness_ and
_Second Class Citizen_ - while very interesting, informative and
provocative - may have nevertheless left the students with the erroneous
impression that since a figure in a text may share any number of
similarities with the author, one can attribute the same ideas and opinions
to both.

This letter is in no way intended to indict or blame Prof. Moeller, a
scholar for whom I have nothing but respect. I am just wondering whether
there might be a problematic (i.e. for our students) difference between the
way historians and literary critics approach a work of fiction. By
emphasizing the parallels that may exist between the writer and the
fictional figure he or she creates, do we not invite students to think of
and analyze fiction in precisely these terms?

Chuck

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From: "Sharlene Sayegh" <ssayegh@uci.edu>
To: "Core" <humcore-ta@uci.edu>
Subject: History and Critical Thinking
Date: Fri, Mar 17, 2000, 11:55 AM
 

As one of the many historians involved in HumCore, I am deeply concerned by
the comments Chuck has presented to the list.  Certainly students should not
be equating the attitudes of the main characters with the authors of texts;
if they were paying attention in section last quarter, they would have
learned about the many logical fallacies involved in doing so (in the Core
Guide and Writers' Handbook).  It is not a problem exclusive to historians,
and I also think that perhaps the problem does not lie in telling the
student about texts making and marking culture (or about the problems of
primary and secondary sources), but in teaching students how to think
critically on a number of levels.

I do not share Chuck's concern.  I think the problems he is encountering are
problems that all teachers of critical thinking face at one time or another.
We are asking students to move beyond the basic assumptions presented WITHIN
a text to examine the larger issues at stake in the production of it and in
the consumption of it.  We cannot take a text out of the historical context
in which it was produced, and there are a variety of ways in academia to
understand that context.  All of the scholars this quarter, not just
Professor Moeller, have made this clear in their lectures.  Professor
Sinclair talked about Homer's assumptions and the way attitudes and values
of Ancient Greek Culture are presented in the _Odyssey_.  Professor Hu Ying
also talked about attitudes and values pervasive in Chinese society at the
time of the writing of _JTW_.  Professor Clark took us on a geographic
journey to explain how the historical forces at work in early modern
European society informed the way that Shakespeare wrote about the "other."
Surely, it is an oversimplification to say that the way that a historian
explains sources and how they can provide insight into a particular time and
place is exlusive to the field of history and is somehow "problematic"?

We as section leaders need to work closely with our students to explain the
way that primary and secondary sources work--that is, we need to explain the
lectures to them.  We have the one-on-one contact with them and we are the
ones they turn to for greater explanation of the way sources work.  Chuck's
final question, "By emphasizing the parallels that may exist between the
writer and the fictional figure he or she creates, do we not invite students
to think of and analyze fiction in precisely these terms?" is an important

question for us to ask, but in the end, we are responsible for explaining
how those parallels INFORM the way the author views the world and how their
characters are thus portrayed.  This IS hard stuff, but it's rewarding.

-Sharlene Sayegh

----------
From: Michael Clark <mpclark@uci.edu>
To: HUMCORE-TA@uci.edu
Subject: Worldly Texts
Date: Fri, Mar 17, 2000, 2:51 PM
 

Dear Corers,

I think the exchange between Chuck and Sharlene raises some very important
issues that we all think about in our scholarly work in any field, i.e.,
the relation among a text, its historical and biographical contexts, and
the facts that make up what we know of those extra-textual contexts.
Theoretically, I believe that relation is a product of how one uses the
text, and that many different uses are possible, spanning the range
suggested by Chuck and Sharlene.  This topic will be especially important
in Spring Quarter, since the whole quarter is devoted to an examination of
the connection between texts of various sorts and the historical event of
contact between Europe and the Americas.  We will discuss that issue in
staff meetings next quarter, the lectures will address it, and the first
assignment will force students to think about the extent to which even a
diary (Columbus's) purporting to record factual details can and cannot be
read as a transparent record of real events and as a direct record of the
author's true feelings and motives.

For now, however, since Chuck raised this point partly in the context of
grading essays, let me suggest that you treat the issue in terms of the
student's thesis and evidence.  For example, the sentence Chuck
quoted--"Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in order
to . . .  expose the corruption of European colonialism "--is in fact an
arguable thesis and could be supported by citing parallels between
biographical details from Conrad's life and from the novel, just as Bob did
in lecture, or even better by citing statements from Conrad explaining why
he wrote the novel, and so on.  However, I suspect that the student really
wants to make a claim about the representation of corrupt colonialism in
the novel itself and that all the evidence adduced in the essay is from the
text.  If so, then the thesis is not focused appropriately.  If in fact the
student really is claiming to infer something about Conrad's motives from
the novel, then the evidence needs to be presented in that way.  Such
inferential argument is extremely subtle and sophisticated, however, and
requires a rhetorical precision that is far beyond the capabilities of most
Core students (not to mention many biographers).  Nevertheless, simply
pointing out the difference between the two kinds of claims will probably
help students focus their theses on the evidence at hand and perhaps
clarify the basic distinctions that Chuck and Sharlene raise in more subtle
abstract terms.

Mike
Michael P. Clark
Dept. of English and Comparative Literature
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA  92697