The Practice of Dissent
Irina Dumitrescu, Department of English, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
What role does dissent play in academic life? Or, to be more precise, is dissent possible in academic communities, in the close, cooperative groups we (or at least some of us) work so hard to build? We try to make our classrooms safe spaces for student discussion, organize conferences that are supportive of fresh ideas and fresh scholars, and foster collegial relationships in our departments. The resulting affective networks are emotionally rewarding and intellectually productive. It is not hard to imagine differences of opinion being voiced in scholarly fields that prize disputation and dialectic above consensus, or in departments at odds with themselves — and in either case, contention could be salutary or destructive. But what happens if, as Anna Klosowska and Eileen Joy recently put it, “our affections are always in and around our work” (Joy and Klosowska, 2012) — what if we take seriously the call to weave friendship and, yes, even love in our writing and scholarly life? Ideally, this attitude should enrich our research, without cutting out the possibility of dissent, criticism, explicit disagreement. Does it work this way?
The answer, as I see it, is sometimes, but not often enough, and occasionally no. The structures of power underlying academic life as we know it already make it challenging enough to say “nay.” The untrammeled pursuit and publication of knowledge is nominally a core value of the university, a right some of us might earn after a few decades of judiciously pressed lips. Even then, an interest in promotion, publication, fellowships, or even just a desire to get things done without too much trouble, might cause a scholar to be more reticent than he would like. Friendship does not help this situation. Rather, it encourages greater self-censoring, since more is at stake. It is, in the long run, easier to replace a letter of reference than someone you love.
Given all this, how do we do dissent? Agreeing to disagree is not enough; the adaptive social skill of silence will still have its way. Let me suggest a couple of strategies, in a spirit of play and, more importantly, of practice. For I think that we ultimately have to practice dissent, like an instrument, if we want to make it sing.
The first is dissent through structures designed to allow its communication. Here I agree with my colleague Bonnie Wheeler’s defense of the ability of private, thorough peer review to challenge authors to revisit and improve their arguments. (Wheeler, 2012.) In the classroom context, the anonymous feedback form can also be useful, especially when students are allowed to comment on a teacher’s pedagogical choices before the course is done, and while their suggestions can still be discussed, experimented with, or even implemented.1
More important, I think, is the decision to model contention, not just as social or emotional relief valve, but as conscious practice. Reading early modern vulgaria I am struck by the extent to which they include phrases both of love and of hatred and fear, often directed at the master. A selection from a Tudor schoolbook edited by Nicholas Orme demonstrates the degree to which vulgaria offered the chance to perform conflict.2 One passage teaches the schoolboy to explain all the reasons he is “more bownd to my maisters than to my father or my mother” in English and Latin, including a short paean to the teacher’s role in guiding the child to learning, virtue, and religion. Lest this seem like crass indoctrination, the next imagined speaker argues for the primacy of natural parents, acknowledging all they have done not only to feed and clothe the child but also to pay his tuition.
The anonymous Oxford schoolmaster who compiled these vulgars did not shirk from incorporating disagreement into the lesson. We are more reticent. For this reason, when my seminars (and I) get too complacent, I ask the class to argue against whatever claim I have just made, even if they agree with it. This is easy to do given such a clear power relationship, but I wonder if we can do better to practice open dispute among colleagues as well.
If not, we might want to consider another, rather cagier form of dissent, this time from the Verba Seniorum (Migne, 1844-64). A hermit allows another to reside in his spare cell, but the number of brothers who flock to learn from his guest leads him to envy his spiritual fame. He instructs his disciple to evict the popular monk, but the disciple lies, telling the guest that the master is concerned for his ailing health and the master that the guest begs for a few more days’ shelter. So it goes on for about a week, until the impatient senior monk hastens to the cell in a violent rage. However, the guest is led to believe that the abba is there out of love and prostrates himself in gratitude. The master immediately recognizes the error of his ways. General amity restored, he questions the disciple, and upon learning of the wise subterfuge, says: “ex hodierna die tu meus pater esto, et ego discipulus tuus” [from this day, you will be my Father, and I your disciple]. This, too, is dissent, albeit by loving disobedience rather than outright defiance. And yet, as the story suggests, it too can be revolutionary.
Joy, E. and A. Klosowska. 2012. These are the Tiny Engines that Power the Sails of Our Adventure: Friendship As a Way of Life (Again, and Again). In The Middle [weblog], September 26: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/09/these-are-tiny-engines-that-power-sails.html.
Migne, J.-P., ed. 1844-64. Verba seniorum, Patrologia Latina, Vol. 73. Cols. 754B-755D.
Orme, N. 1981. An Early-Tudor Oxford Schoolbook. Renaissance Quarterly 34(1): 11-39.
Sullivan, P. 2008. Playing the Lord: Tudor Vulgaria and the Rehearsal of Ambition. ELH 75(1): 179–196.
Wheeler, B. 2012. Yeah, but good luck getting it peer reviewed. postmedieval FORUM II [online forum], March: https://postmedieval-forum.com/forums/forum-ii-states-of-review/wheeler
Woods, M.C. 1996. Rape and the pedagogical rhetoric of sexual violence. Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages, ed. Rita Copeland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 56–86.