Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Question of the Day

I wish that the question of the day were something like: "what is my reward for writing two pages?" or the fantasy query: "is it possible that I've lost 3 pounds by going to the gym regularly for two weeks?" or even "what do I want to put at the top of my Netflix queue?" Hell, I'm not proud. I'd even take this one: "at what point in my reading of American Psycho will I actually, physically vomit?"

Instead, I find myself pondering the question "How?". I should preface this by saying that I've found, in my research and teaching, that this is consistently the question I come back to. When I started writing, the question was always "why?", but over time it's become "how". [I'm also plagued by the image of a small, severe Polish woman who grew up behind the Iron Curtain asking "yes, but what's at STAKE in your argument?!" That, however, a different story entirely...] In many ways, "how" is the more interesting question. This came to me in a blinding flash one day while I was teaching a memoir about Japanese internment to a group of rather savvy first-year students. When I asked them to contemplate why the Japanese had been interned, they were able to quote chapter and verse about the rampant racial distrust and hatred of the time, and some students, with a little prodding, were able to connect that to the significant economic influences that helped white nationalist groups lobby for internment. Frankly, I had anticipated a bit more of a struggle here, and so I found myself generally stymied by their response for two reasons: first, because of the speed with which they came to their conclusions, and second, because of the ease with which these reflections tripped off their tongues. [To be honest, I think I expected a little more outrage. Where's the outrage, I ask you?]

Thankfully, I managed until the end of the class, but thinking about it later, I realized that the operative follow-up question for the students was not "why did internment happen?" but "how did internment happen?". I don't mean how in the material sense (trains/buses, intermediary assembly areas, etc.), but rather, what kinds of mechanisms, personal and political, operated to achieve this end? Clearly more interesting, right? Because those same mechanisms are still operational for other ends (here's the "what's at stake" one. You see how that works...).

So, in many of the arguments that I make in my field, I position myself as the "how" girl--the one who works to identify and assess the ways in which various, and sometimes seemingly innocuous elements work together to produce effects (whether those are internment and injustice or the MTV juggernaut--depends on the day). Now, however, I find that same question plaguing my professional life. Without giving it all up, let's put it this way: How do various faculty members enact a compromise that everyone can live with? Embedded in that question is another: How do groups, each plagued by resentment, agree on a common good without investment in punishing each other? Here's where the "why" question does me no good. I know why it would be best for all, and I know why bitterness exists. But I don't know how to address it.

Is the mechanism invisible, or just plain absent?

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