Now that the semester is almost over, I may get around to actually writing about my other two graduate school courses besides the teaching practicum. Let's start with "Rhetorics of Pedagogy", the class that I was told to take after I couldn't get into the class I was told to take, which was about Norse mythology and probably would have been a lot more fun. In this class we've been focusing on agency, the ability to choose. When I wrote my pretentious pseudo-intellectual blog post about agency a few months ago, I had no idea that agency is not just a philosophical or theological idea, but an actual subject of legitimate academic study and debate that strives to make it far more complicated than I ever imagined or think it actually is. But it turns out that agency is not just a philosophical or theological idea, but an actual subject of legitimate academic study and debate that strives to make it far more complicated than I ever imagined or think it actually is.
I know this now because for the first several weeks I had to read three or four academic papers every week and write dicussion posts about them. Before we began, Professor Jessica noted, "While some of you may have experience reading in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, I anticipate that it might be new for some of you. Anytime we enter a new discourse community through the activity of reading, it can be challenging to grasp the author’s entire argument. Because these scholars are writing to their peers in the field, they are expecting their audience to have ample prior knowledge. So, don’t worry if you feel like you’re grasping at some of the concepts. Just pay attention to what’s interesting to you and any initial interactions you notice. Please bring your questions to class, though; these will be great places for us to explore further as a group."
That didn't entirely assuage my concern that I only seemed to understand about ten percent of the material I was reading. Many times I read through three paragraphs of pompous academic gibberish, reached a clear sentence, and thought, "Oh, is that what you've been trying to say for the last three paragraphs? It seems pretty straightforward. Why were those last three paragraphs necessary?" And then I pieced together the parts I understood and write a discussion post, and then Jessica gave me full credit and gushed about how insightful it was and made me feel like an imposter. And then I went to class and talked about the readings and everyone else seemed to actually have some idea what they were talking about and made me feel like an imposter. It was only a matter of time before my classmate would hold a meeting and throw me out the airlock.
Here are some of the few things I retained.
Agency can be a co-production between two people - say, an orator and an audience - creating a feedback loop of kinetic energy between them, as one sends out a perturbation and the other decides what to do with it. The orator can choose to have an effect on the world, but not what that affect will be. Your agency is limited to choosing from among the options that are available and known to you, which are limited by your genetics, upbringing, knowledge, and so forth. Studies have shown that the brain impulse behind an action precedes the conscious decision to do that action, which is rather disturbing. One paper suggested that agency lies in the choice of whether or not to actually obey those impulses, and compared it to restructuring the brain away from addiction by choosing to garden instead when the addiction impulse comes.
Agency can become disseminated throughout a complex assemblage of people and non-human factors that takes on a life of its own so that no one person can be blamed for what happens. The example given in one paper was the assemblage that led to the blackout in August 2003, when a tree branch in Ohio caused fifty million people to lose power. The example I came up with for a class discussion was systemic racism - some white people don't believe in systemic racism because "I'm not racist and nobody I know is racist", but systemic racism is more more than the sum total of a minority of overt racists being overtly racist. It's more than a handful of police officers murdering black people. It's a complex and nebulous assemblage that's been constructed by actions, policies and institutions since at least the early 1400s, and the momentum of all those things, even after they're corrected on a case-by-case basis, will continue to self-perpetuate unless and until people actively push back against it. Our choice, then, is how to respond to whatever assemblages we find ourselves in. I really gravitated toward this idea because it sounds like chaos theory, which I know a lot about from the novel Jurassic Park, which describes it in much greater detail than the movie.
Some scholars insist that agency isn't even real, but is a necessary fantasy (yes, these fancy papers call it a "fantasy") in order for us to be able to function at all. Even if this were true, I'm not sure how this information would benefit anyone. If the fantasy is necessary, why ruin it for us? What are we supposed to do differently because we know this? Of course, if agency isn't real, no one can reasonably ever be punished for anything, but that's irrelevant too because we don't have agency to decide whether to punish them or not. At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, and acknowledging the severe limitations of my own understanding of this topic, my lack of agency forces me to conclude that this theory is a load of bull.
A few weeks ago we transitioned away from these readings and started looking at more accessible, practical applications of agency in the classroom. For those who, like me, are graduate instructors looking toward a long-term teaching career, and also enjoy being able to comprehend more than ten percent of a given article, this was a real breath of fresh air. On the other hand, these readings added to the sense I've gotten from many of the readings in my practicum that seem to be saying, "All the traditional ways of teaching in this country suck and need to be completely overhauled, and that's your reponsibility now even though you literally just started and know nothing." I also learned that end-of-semester student course evaluations are almost useless because the students incorrectly ascribe all responsibility and blame for everything in the classroom to the teacher, failing to recognize the teacher's role as a facilitator of their own agency. Also, they judge female or less attractive teachers more harshly. I hate this planet. I wonder if my career will be ruined because I'm not attractive enough.
A couple things have made this class bearable. First, Jessica is the nicest person in the world. She creates a happy atmosphere even when I don't understand a word she's saying. One time, I completed an assignment but forgot to submit it, and didn't notice until a week later when she gave me a zero, and then I sent it to her and she gave me a perfect score even though it was a week late. This act of kindness made me want to do the same thing when one of my own students did the same thing. I don't want to be like that one guy in the parable who gets forgiven of a debt and then goes and yells at this other guy for another debt and then gets thrown in prison for being a dick.
Second, some of my fellow first year graduate instructors and practicum classmates are also in this class. After we transitioned in the readings, the online discussion posts were supplanted by a requirement to meet with pedagogy groups once a week, discuss them among ourselves, take turns submitting a report of the discussion, and facilitate a presentation/discussion once (originally twice, but Jessica cut it back because she's nice) with the whole class. At the beginning of the semester I signed up for a pedagogy group with my colleague Greyson, my colleague Elle, and some other woman named Jennifer. And then Jessica messaged us all on Canvas and said that someone had dropped the class, so would one of us mind moving to another group? And Greyson, Elle, and I were all like
Nothing personal against Jennifer whatsoever, but we were all relieved that she was the one who moved. So later in the semester, when it was time for the groups to actually start meeting, we stayed on Zoom for a few minutes after class to plan it out. I was happy to be with people I knew and loved, but already felt guilty that I would be no help to them at all and they would probably hate me by the end of the semester. The first chance I got, I told them that I felt like this class was way over my head.
Elle immediately responded, "Oh my G-d, yes!" And she said she felt like she only understood five percent of the material. So I felt a little better knowing that at least I'm twice as smart as her.
For my final project, I'm investigating a question that a few months ago I would have thought was a really stupid question: do fictional characters have agency? And the answer I'm leaning toward is that it entirely depends on your definition of agency, which is apparently up for debate. As a fiction writer I am of course familiar with the phenomenon of characters who seem to take on a life of their own and forge their own way through the story without me directing them. What's happening here, it seems, is that when an author really intimately understands a character, the character shifts from the conscious to the unconscious part of the author's brain, which instinctively knows what the character would say or do in any situation. Even when the conscious part wants the character to say or do something for the sake of the plot, the character may simply refuse, because the unconscious part knows they wouldn't say or do that. So there is certainly a loss of agency on the author's part, but does that agency transfer to the character (who isn't consciously making the decisions either), or is it just a net loss all around? That's what I think is debatable.
I also discovered that it's not at all uncommon for normal, non-delusional authors, who are well aware that their characters are fictional, to report feeling their presence, hearing their voices, and even holding full-blown in-person conversations and/or arguments with them. I had never heard of such a thing outside of a couple of movies, and obviously I'm not a very good author yet since I haven't experienced this. There have only been a couple of notable scientific studies on this phenomenon that I could find, one from 2003 and one from this year. They bring up some interesting hypotheses and possible connections to children with disobedient imaginary friends. Nothing conclusive, though. You'd think such an interesting topic would get more attention. But even if nothing cool like that ever happens to me, characters with their own real or perceived agency are a sign of well-developed characters and lead to more compelling stories than scripting out the entire plot beat by beat, so in my project I'll consider how to cultivate that in a hypothetical creative writing classroom. Jessica said I could. She's so nice.
This is also the class I mentioned where one of my classmates is the former owner of the horrible call center I worked at a few years ago. I just wanted to mention that.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.