A model of critical writing: A tribute to Gilberto Perez

At one point in Moana (1926), Flaherty’s documentary about Samoa, we see a native boy start to climb a coconut tree. We don’t see the whole tree, only the bottom part of it, and that view is held, as the boy climbs up, until he disappears at the top of the frame. Then the camera moves upward to take in the boy climbing up another section of the tree, no longer the bottom and not yet the top, and that view is held again until the boy again disappears at the top of the frame. Again the camera moves upward, to take in now the top part of the tree and the boy still climbing until finally he reaches the coconuts he was after. […] Like a narrator, [Flaherty] makes a sequence of something that is not: he shows us the tree a piece at a time, this and then that and then that, as if he were telling us about it. Deliberately he only shows us so much, which makes us curious to find out what more there is and surprised at how very tall the tree turns out to be. The climb, unlike the tree, is itself sequential, but Flaherty’s rendering of it is sequential in a way that the climb is not. Deliberately he allows the boy to leave our view, which draws our interest to where the boy has gone, the space we are yet to see above the frame.
Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 53-4.

I was very sad to receive the news that Gilberto Perez, an extraordinary film critic, died suddenly last month. Perez taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and on the college’s website a touching set of tributes has been compiled. I met Perez in person only once, briefly, when he visited the UK for a conference. But as a writer on the page, Perez was a source of near-constant intellectual company, stimulation and inspiration for me for long portions of my postgraduate studies – and beyond. He is one of a very small handful of writers about film that I have tried sustainedly to emulate as a model of critical thinking and writing.

Perez often begins a passage of argumentation by presenting a description of a short sequence from a film. His description of the tree-climbing sequence from Moana is a good example. It is economical, clear and precise (and at the same time very evocative), highlighting for us the things about the sequence that matter to the argument. The writing serves the sequence: in this example, Perez embraces repetition (‘the camera moves upward to take in’ … ‘again the camera moves upward, to take in now’) as a way of conveying the sequence’s patterning.

Next, Perez will take a step back and discuss the significance of the sequence he has described – what it tells us about the medium of film and its possibilities. The passage quoted above appears in a chapter in The Material Ghost where Perez considers film’s storytelling possibilities.

Often, Perez will then draw film theory into his discussion. After his discussion of Moana, Perez sketches Benveniste’s category of ‘enunciation’ and his distinction between ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, and the uptake of these categories by film theorists. Perez’s summaries of film theory are as clear and precise as his summaries of film sequences, but his purpose when summarising theory is often to identify blind spots and/or logical failings.

After summarising and challenging the general claims of a particular film theory on general grounds, Perez then brings the two parts of his argument together, and returns to the sequence he began with, and tests the theory against the sequence. Should we put our faith in the categories and distinctions offered by this theory, Perez is usually implicitly asking, if it fails to do justice to what is going on in (what has been achieved by) the sequence we have been considering?

The camera is an observer, not a speaker; the boy climbing the coconut tree is something the camera sees, not something it says, not an utterance. Our sense of a telling in Flaherty’s sequence comes not from an act of saying but from an act of seeing, from a way of directing our seeing. Rather than an enunciator, the camera is an indicator, an instrument for pointing our attention to things in the world before its gaze. (Ibid, p. 55)

This is beautiful writing. Perez moves through and adjudicates between a series of possible ways of describing the sequence as a way of sharpening our powers of discrimination and perception. The discrimination is accompanied by a use of supplementary (re-)phrasings which come after sentences could have been concluded and which create the impression of thought at work, of striving to arrive at formulations that do justice to the thing being discussed, of there always being more to say about and other ways of nuancing one’s descriptions (‘…from an act of seeing, from a way of directing our seeing.’).

In the first chapter of The Material Ghost, Perez offers the book as a ‘combination of criticism and theory’ (p. 21), and it is the way that Perez combines the two that made me want to adopt him as a model. Films and moments within them come first (both in terms of what is measured against what, and often also in terms of the ordering of the argument). Theory is measured against the achievements of particular films, and against the careful descriptions of those sequences in language that strives to be accessible to all, not just those already in possession of a particular theoretical vocabulary. This seems to me to be a good way to proceed.

Quality assurance and quality enhancement in higher education

The UK higher education sector employs a range of mechanisms intended to assure or enhance the quality of its teaching and, more broadly, its degree programmes. These mechanisms can often be seen to rest on assumptions, tacit or otherwise, about what kind of an activity teaching is. When considering the fitness for its intended purpose of this or that ‘QA’ or ‘QE’ mechanism, then, it can be useful to consider whether its assumptions about what teaching is are sound ones.

Perhaps students should be the arbiters of teaching and programme quality?

It is now standard practice for students to complete evaluation questionnaires at the end of each module on their programmes of study. Student representatives are elected to represent the views of their peers in programme/subject-area level meetings and elsewhere. And there is, of course, the National Student Survey, ‘an annual survey which gives university and college students the chance to have their say about what they liked and did not like about their student learning experience during their time in higher education’, and which is used to produce data used to measure the quality of the offerings of different institutions against one another.

The first thing that needs to be said is that mechanisms and systems that allow students’ views to be heard and to potentially have an effect upon teaching and learning are an essential and a very good thing. It is essential that students are represented and represent themselves in forums where policies are debated and framed, and decisions are made.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that bad teaching or bad programmes would receive good results in the National Student Survey; it is less clear, though, that the NSS and the league table results it drives offer a reliable way of distinguishing between the satisfactory, the good and the excellent. An inspection of some of the questions that the NSS asks might begin to demonstrate why this is so. (I will leave aside the not-inconsequential problems that arise from policies such as the one that states that even if all the students in a 22-large cohort were to complete the NSS survey, the results would not be eligible for publication because the data set would be deemed numerically too small, despite being a 100% sample, and the one that states that sometimes data sets are arrived at by combining the results from two different programmes, which may well have little or nothing to do with one another. Both principles are stated here.)

The first four questions in the NSS questionnaire come under the heading ‘The teaching on my course’, and they are as follows (each statement is followed by a series of tick-boxes to choose between, ranging from ‘Definitely agree’ to ‘Definitely disagree’ – plus a ‘Not applicable’ box):

1. Staff are good at explaining things.
2. Staff have made the subject interesting.
3. Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching.
4. The course is intellectually stimulating.

Again: it is hard to deny that bad teaching and bad programmes would not receive good results from such a survey. But does this set of questions address all of the things that teaching is and does? Would we be satisfied (that word again) with a definition of teaching that suggests that it comes down to ‘explaining things well, making a given subject interesting, being enthusiastic, and prompting intellectual stimulation’?

More pressingly: these questions, overall, implicitly position the student as being in receipt of a service which requires very little from her or him in the way of interaction or input. A decent BBC4 documentary could be assessed using the same questions (with the replacement of references to ‘staff’ with references to ‘the presenter’, and ‘the course’ with ‘the programme’) and receive excellent results.

The most important question in the National Student Survey – or rather, the one that is most often used as a stand-alone measure of quality – is the final one: ‘Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of my course.’ Some of the problems with this question are the same as those I have already raised (asking it to do more than distinguish the subpar from the rest is asking too much of it, as the tightly-clustered scores for this measure in the Guardian’s most recent university league table indicate; the student is positioned as being in receipt of a service rather than participating in a mutual activity). It is also worth lingering over the word ‘satisfied’, and the kinds of experiences it can be happily applied to. If I turn to my partner after a filling meal and declare myself satisfied, all is well. If I declare ‘Overall, I am satisfied’ after an artistic, loving, and/or erotic encounter, then that statement will be received – correctly – as a weak endorsement, if not a veiled insult. I think it was in an article in the THE that a university teacher wrote that one of the main aims of his teaching is to make students dissatisfied, not least of all with themselves and their own current levels of knowledge, the better to spur them on to what they ought to be capable of achieving. Universities profess to want to teach students critical thinking, but the last thing that they want is for those students to turn such a critical lens upon what they have been offered. So perhaps, in fact, we should factor in the possibility of a slight negative correlation between course quality and satisfaction. Those who are satisfied with what they have received may simply not have been taught to expect or see the possibility of better things. Perhaps it’s more educationally beneficial to leave a course feeling furious than to leave it feeling satisfied. Perhaps the statements that students should be invited to affirm or deny in the NSS should be the following:

1. Staff on occasion refused to explain anything, and instead forced me to explain it myself so that I took ownership of my learning and the concepts at stake.
2. Staff at times made me so angry with their insistent chipping away at my reasoning that they forced me to completely re-think my perspective.
3. Staff expected me to be fully engaged and prepared in my studies, and accepted nothing less.

I will end this first section by noting that I have not presented arguments against students being the arbiters of teaching and programme quality, and have no desire to do so. I would certainly never subscribe to the idea of them being the sole arbiters, but I do think their input and views are indispensable. What I have been trying to suggest is that some of the prevailing current conceptualisations of the student’s relationship to the learning experience and some of the most influential data collected from students and used to measure ‘quality’ are flawed.

If teaching is like other activities of employees working for large organisations with elaborate managerial structures that engage in a range of activities, then perhaps the way to drive up standards is to find ways of incentivising good performance: through promotion, or bonuses, or less expensive pats-on-the-back like awards schemes?

I won’t dwell too long on this one. In a lot of the UK HE sector, teaching is seriously (one might even say scandalously) undervalued in comparison with research activity (though it would be implausible to go so far as to suggest that teaching quality is never a factor in academic promotions). Therefore, any system that enhances the visibility and prestige of teaching is, to the extent that it achieves those aims, a good thing. Bonuses and similar perks are largely alien to the sector. Economic questions aside, perhaps this is because there is something slightly off-the-mark about thinking that teachers, as opposed to certain other kinds of workers, are driven to perform well, or perform better, by the prospect of performance-related pay. And it would be a strange creature indeed who was motivated sufficiently by the prospect of an award to expend the intellectual and emotional energy – and the sheer time – that truly outstanding teaching demands, if he or she did not possess a more intrinsic motivation to expend those resources anyway. My own experience, which I know I share with many, many teachers, is of being driven by a compulsion that I cannot suppress to sink more care and time into teaching activity than is commensurate with any extrinsic rewards I receive, or even realistically might receive, for such activity.

If teaching is like other highly-skilled professions, like medicine or law, perhaps the route to quality enhancement is for university teaching staff to be made to undergo teacher training? (And isn’t it scandalous that there are so many university teachers without formal teaching qualifications? After all, you wouldn’t let someone without the proper training perform open heart surgery on you, would you?)

I have mixed feelings on this topic. I undertook a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, and the opportunities that programme offered me to reflect upon my teaching, and my teaching philosophy, were hugely beneficial. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the programme made me qualified to teach, whereas beforehand I was not. Again, we find ourselves up against the exceptionally tricky question of what kind of an activity teaching is.

Perhaps the comparison with surgery leads us astray: perhaps teaching is more like athletics, or playing an instrument, or speaking a language. Most people can grasp the basics, but the way to get better is to do it as often as possible. Speaking a language can’t be reduced to a set of propositions which one must grasp in order to be able to do it successfully. It’s about knowing how, which (as a famous distinction in philosophy tells us) is different from knowing that. And teaching is not the only thing that academics do that prepares them to teach: their own entire career of learning also prepares them (both the subject knowledge they have acquired, and the processes of learning they have undergone).

Teaching can also be more unpredictable than heart surgery, athletics or musicianship. The rules of engagement change every time. The tools of one’s trade include not only subject knowledge, but the ability to intuit how successfully that knowledge is being absorbed and understood by your other ‘subjects': your students. And that ability, for most people, arises not – or rather, not exclusively – from one’s classroom experiences, but from one’s experience of being a human being, and interacting with fellow members of one’s species.

Perhaps external examiners are a good quality assurance and enhancement mechanism?

They are, but not that good.

Some brief arguments in favour: 1. Even tidy people will make more of an effort to put their house in order if they know they have friends coming to visit. 2. External examination is a good way of sharing ideas and checking marking standards across institutions.

Arguments against: 1. Externals view from a distance. They are like detectives or historians sifting through the paper traces that the teaching activity leaves behind: module handbooks, essays, marking criteria, feedback. They gather a valuable but incomplete picture. 2. Many things often work against feedback from the external examiner being as comprehensive or honest as it could be: i) he or she may have friends in the department he or she is examining for; and/or ii) may hope to get a job in that department some day (or at least not make that unlikely to happen through hatchet or even spanner-wielding; iii) like many academic activities, that of ‘externalling’ is likely to be performed to a pretty tight schedule, within which the path of least resistance is overall approval combined with minor suggestions for improvement.

Perhaps approvals panels who make sure that new modules or programmes tick certain boxes are important?

They are, and again, it is hard to imagine a module/programme without worked-out responses to the questions that these procedures ask being sound or worthwhile. However, and also again, whilst they may guard (to some degree) against badness, they cannot guarantee goodness. One can use skillful and/or cynical technique to comply with these procedures, and it is not a technique that has much to do with good teaching.

Perhaps sharing best practice within a peer group is a good way of enhancing quality?

I think this is one of the best mechanisms, and I’ve written on this topic before, here.

Perhaps good teaching is like good parenting?

In many ways it is, I think. And whilst there is a huge trade in parenting literature, plus training classes and so on, it is fair to say that the cultural consensus is not that to try to raise a child without a formal academic qualification in parenting constitutes a dereliction of duty similar to that of performing heart surgery without the appropriate medical certification. One might suggest that this is so because what parenting demands is less cognitive ability or procedural knowledge and more infinite patience, tolerance of repetition, the ability to understand incomprehension or misunderstanding and how it might be corrected, knowing when to chide, when to encourage, when to reprimand, when to goad, when to lead your charges on, and when to leave them to it. Most parents also come to see their children as unique, and uniquely precious, meaning that a book might teach them things about two year old boys, but it can’t teach them about their two year old boy. And so it is, albeit to a lesser extent, with teaching: for the best and most effective teaching to occur, one needs to know the person doing the learning.

Perhaps good teaching is erotic?

I think this is the case too. It ought not to need saying that I am not talking about sexual encounters between teachers and students. Nevertheless, the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas and the meeting of minds can be an intense and sensual experience, as thinkers including Socrates, Plato, Freud and Brecht have observed. Socrates and Plato represent the idea of teaching and learning as an intense dialogue pursued between two individuals. As John Durham Peters has observed, this is a model of communication as insemination (as opposed to dissemination, a favoured historical proponent of this method being Jesus). (Plato would further suggest that the pursuit of knowledge is always also the pursuit of beauty.) Freud would suggest that all human social activities, teaching included, are displacements of libidinal drives, a means of channeling unsociable, and even antisocial, urges, to productive and socially sanctioned ends. I hope that the day never comes where I find it easy to contain a passion for the particular films or ideas I’m teaching that makes me want to jump up and down, declare that passion, and, most importantly, try to spark the same passion in others.

— — —

Quality assurance and enhancement are important, and they are here to stay. They can help to improve standards in certain ways.  They can incentivise the doing of certain things. However, the kind of teaching that is truly worth the doing for the teacher and worth the experiencing for the student lies beyond the reach of such mechanisms. It has to be borne of love and of a passion that cannot be inspired by anything extrinsic: a love for fostering knowledge and understanding in others, with all of the misfiring, iterativeness and messiness that this will entail, and a passion for one’s subject and for the activity of learning.

Jonathan Franzen’s description of a memorable teacher of his

His eyes gleamed with excitement and pleasure if a student said anything remotely pertinent or intelligent; but if the student was altogether wrong, as the six of us in his seminar often were, he flinched and scowled as if a bug were flying at his face, or he gazed out a window unhappily, or refilled his pipe, or wordlessly cadged a cigarette from one of us smokers, and hardly even pretended to listen.  He was the least polished of all my college teachers, and yet he had something that the other teachers didn’t have: he felt for literature the kind of headlong love and gratitude that a born-again Christian feels for Jesus.  His highest praise for a piece of writing was ‘It’s crazy!’  His yellowed, disintegrating copies of German prose masterworks were like missionary Bibles.  On page after page, each sentence was underscored or annotated in Avery’s microscopic handwriting, illuminated with the cumulative appreciations of fifteen or twenty rereadings.  His paperbacks were at once low-priced, high-acid crapola and the most precious of relics – moving testaments to how full of significance every line in them could be to a student of their mysteries, as every leaf and sparrow in Creation sings of God to the believer.

Jonathan Franzen. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Fourth Estate, 2006.

As I draw up my schedule and fill in my diary for the new academic year, I am reminded of this passage from Revolutionary Road

Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.

‘Synchronize watches at oh six hundred,’ says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian-looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control.  Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.

‘I’m afraid I’m booked solid through the end of the month,’ says the executive, voluptuously nestling the phone at his cheek as he thumbs the leaves of his appointment calendar, and his mouth and eyes at that moment betray a sense of deep security.  The crisp, plentiful, day-sized pages before him prove that nothing unforeseen, no calamity of chance or fate can overtake him between now and the end of the month.  Ruin and pestilence have been held at bay, and death itself will have to wait; he is booked solid.

Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road. Little, Brown, 1961.

John Steinbeck on writing

It must be told that my second work day is a bust as far as getting into the writing.  I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line.  It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.  It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them.  A strange and mystic business, writing.  Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented.  The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most.  And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes – praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs.

John Steinbeck. Journal entry dated February 13 1951. Reproduced in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. Pan Books, 1972.

What Richard Katz (one of Jonathan Franzen’s characters) sees when he goes to a Bright Eyes concert

Kiddies were streaming onto the floor from every portal, Bright-Eyed (what a fucking irritating youth-congratulating name for a band, Katz thought) and bushless-tailed.  His feeling of having crashed did not consist of envy, exactly, or even entirely of having outlived himself.  It was more like despair at the world’s splinteredness.  The nation was fighting ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids […] with their sweet yearnings, their innocent entitlement – to what?  To emotion.  To unadulterated worship of a superspecial band.  To being left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders.  They seemed […] to bear malice toward nobody.  Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been part of as a youngster.  They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being.  A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming.  And so said to him: die.

Oberst took the stage alone, wearing a powder-blue tuxedo, strapped on an acoustic, and crooned a couple of lengthy solo numbers.  He was the real deal, a boy genius, and thus all the more insufferable to Katz.  His Tortured Soulful Artist shtick, his self-indulgence in pushing his songs past their natural limits of endurance, his artful crimes against pop convention: he was performing sincerity, and when the performance threatened to give sincerity the lie, he performed his sincere anguish over the difficulty of sincerity.

Jonathan Franzen. Freedom. Fourth Estate, 2010.

What Rick Vigorous (one of David Foster Wallace’s characters) sees when he visits his alma mater

Whom do I see, here?  I see students and adults.  I see parents, obvious parents, the ones with name tags.  I watch the students, and they watch back.  Ability to Handle Oneself, elaborate defense structures, exit their eyes and begin to assemble on the ground before them.  But the eyes and faces are as always left bare.  In the girls’ faces I see softness, beauty, the shiny and relaxed eyes of wealth, and the vital capacity for creating problems where none exist.  For some reason I see these girls also older, pale television ghosts flickering beside the originals: middle-aged women, with bright-red fingernails and deeply-tanned, hard, seamed faces, sprayed hair shaped by the professional fingers of men with French names; and eyes, eyes that will stare without pity or doubt over salted tequila rims at the glare of the summer sun off the country club pool.  The structures spread out, grow, wave at me with the epileptic flutter of the film-in-reverse.  The boys are different, appropriately, from the girls.  From each other.  I see blond heads and lean jaws and bow-legged swaggers and biceps with veins in them.  I see so many calm, impassive, or cheerful faces, faces at peace, for now and always, with the context of their own appearance and being, that sort of long-term peace and smooth acquaintance with invariable destiny that renders the faces bloodlessly pastable onto cut-outs of corporate directors in oak-lined boardrooms, professors with plaid ties and leather patches at the elbows of their sports jackets, doctors on bright putting greens with heavy gold shock-resistant watches at their wrists and tiny beepers at their belts, black-jacketed soldiers efficiently bayoneting the infirm.  I see Best faces, faces I remember well.  Faces whose owners are going to be the Very Best.

David Foster Wallace. The Broom of the System. Viking Penguin, 1987.