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While many of us in the English department will be busy with Congress in early June, Professor Randy Harris will be a keynote speaker at Incommensurability 50, a conference in Tapei, China.
If, like me, you’re not quite sure what “incommensurability” means, here’s what I copied from the conference website:
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend independently suggested the provocative idea that under certain conditions theories (paradigms, world-views) are incommensurable – they have no common measure. Kuhn introduced the idea in his exceedingly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), dramatically claiming that the history of science reveals that proponents of competing paradigms fail to make complete contact with each other’s views and are always talking at least slightly at cross-purposes. According to Kuhn, competing paradigms lack a common measure because they use different concepts and methods to address different problems according to different standards. This effectively limits communication between conceptual frameworks across the revolutionary conceptual divide, and requires bilingualism, relearning on the basis of a conceptually incompatible perspective. Kuhn called the collective reasons for these limits to communication the incommensurability of pre- and post-revolutionary scientific traditions. The idea of incommensurability was also central to Feyerabend’s philosophical pluralism from its early stages in post-War Vienna in the late 1940s, through to his post-modern approach in the early 1990s, as the idea began to be applied to languages and cultures more generally. Ever since, claims about incommensurability have been central to controversies across an array of disciplines, and the idea of incommensurability has played key roles in a wide range of discussions within and beyond the philosophy of science. This conference will focus on a number of interrelated themes: from the nature of the notion of incommensurability, to incommensurability in logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, in the social sciences and the arts, in comparative philosophy, in intercultural communication, and as a challenge for global politics.
Dr. Harris will be giving a paper titled “(In)commensurability, Rhetoric, & the Curious Case of David Brewster.” Here’s his abstract.
[T]he claim that two theories are incommensurable is more modest than many of its critics have supposed.
—Thomas Kuhn (2000, 36)
Incommensurability, strictly construed, does not obtain of scientific theories. They are not numbers. The implied metaphor is bad. Weakly construed, on the other hand, incommensurability obtains, but carries little more force than misunderstanding. It just sounds more imposing. The material question, then, is whether incommensurability is meaningful in the middle ground. And that is a question rhetoric can help to answer.
We will look at the curious case of David Brewster, a nineteenth century Scottish physicist whose work, in attempting to bridge corpuscular and undulatory conceptions of light, occupied that middle ground.
Dr. Harris has published a book on Rhetoric and Incommensurability.
You can order your copy here.
We certainly hope that Dr. Harris comes home with lots of PHOTOGRAPHS for the blog. Thanks, Randy 🙂
Last week yours truly was at the University of Holguin, Cuba. I was participating in the Canadian Studies conference, which included a one-day teaching workshop with students and faculty (I was one of the teachers) and then a couple of days of conference presentations. The conference is sponsored by the Canadian Studies Centre of the University of Holguín, in collaboration with The University of Western Ontario, and it is also supported by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and the Canadian Embassy. This was the sixth International seminar on Canadian Studies, but the first one I had been to. Hopefully it will not be the last, as it was a wonderful experience. The theme of the conference was “Canada: Society and Identity,” a fairly broad theme. Interestingly, many of us who presented on Canadian topics (without consultation with each other beforehand) talked about Aboriginal issues. If you are interested in seeing the fully conference program, please click here.
On the teaching day I delivered a course on critical approaches to Métis literatures, outlining some of the current debates in this particular scholarly field. My conference paper the next day was on place-based identities in Mėtis literature where I focused on theorizing the connection between particular geographical locations and Mėtis stories, including life stories. I was a bit nervous because Clément Chartier, the President of the Métis National Council, was in the audience, but apparently I didn’t say anything too silly or completely wrong. It was actually great to meet President Chartier. Had to go to Cuba to do so!
Cuba itself has changed a lot since the last time I was there in 1999. There was more variety of food, more consumer goods to buy, more openness to entrepreneurship and to Cubans owning small businesses. American dollars no longer circulate, but there are two different Cuban pesos: the CUC, which is what we foreigners pay with, and non-convertible Cuban pesos, which the folks use. One CUC is equivalent to about 25 non-convertible pesos, so that tells you something about wages and cost of living. Cubans who work in the tourist industry have access to CUCs and the goods that they can buy, so clearly those are much-desired jobs. But, in true socialist style, tips earned by workers at resorts are pooled so that everyone gets the same. Tourists ride in fancy air-conditioned buses. Ordinary Cubans take cranky old buses, ride in old cars (some as old as the 1940s), or use horses and buggies to get around. Beaches were as pristine and gorgeous as ever, and the people are truly hospitable.
As for the academic context, here are some observations:
- Cuban students and professors are passionately interested in all things Canadian.
- They desperately need books and other resources in Canadian Studies.
- Cuban universities look and feel a lot like universities anywhere: students look like students; professors look like professors.
- The weather is better than it is here, but some of the buildings are in disrepair.
- I will never again take air conditioned university classrooms for granted.
- It is possible to show a perfectly adequate PowerPoint presentation projected onto a white bed sheet or a blank wall.
- People were so grateful to have Canadians come to teach them, to talk to them, and to mentor them that it truly felt like an honour to be there.
Of course, it made sense to go to Cuba on a package deal to an all-inclusive resort. Before and after the conference we had a little beach time. And yes, it was glorious. Much needed decompression after the end of winter term. Here’s the money shot.
Welcome back from Reading Week!
Today I have for you the third instalment from Professor Shelley Hulan about her recant travels in India and England.
“Being a walker by habit and inclination, I naturally gravitate towards routes and destinations that favour the carless. This winter I’ve been lucky enough to be able to compare parks in two of the world’s great cities, Delhi and London. In metropolitan centres as ancient as these two, a couple of things are immediately apparent: First, the city’s inhabitants take their shared spaces—and the universal right to them—very seriously. Second, whatever their history (and they are likely to have plenty of it), these spaces are always working spaces. Their flora and fauna, beautiful to look at, are “ornamental” in precisely the sense identified in the OED: they are the accessories, often functional in their own right, of a larger, more important entity.
What makes these parks more important than their component parks are the ideas and attitudes implicit in visitors’ use of them. Beautiful oases in the heart of crowded urban centres, these parks are democratic. On any day of the week you will see a cross-section of society that includes people of every class and occupation, all with an equal right to the space and all using it to fulfil immediate needs: to exercise, to socialize, to picnic with friends and family, or just (a most precious possibility) to spend time in relative seclusion beneath the trees. In the parks you see in these photographs, places may be found to do all of the above, even on busy Sunday afternoons, when I took most of these pictures.
Without further ado, I give you Lodi Gardens and Jantar Mantar, both historic and archaeological sites in central Delhi, and Greenwich, St. James’s Park, and the Mall (closed to cars on Sundays) in London.”
A guest post by Professor Sarah Tolmie.
Back in October, just around Thanksgiving, I attended a conference at the University of Southern Denmark, in Kolding, on the Future of English Studies. Fraser Easton, as chair of English, had circulated a call for papers several weeks before, and very spontaneously I decided to go. A flurry of e-mail with the organizers, Jane Vinther and Gordon Slethaug (former chair of English here at uW and our main connection to the institution) followed, and then I found myself on a plane to Copenhagen (via Reykjavik and its shockingly expensive airport) and subsequently on a train down to Kolding, about an hour from the capital, along with my husband Scott Straker, a medievalist who teaches at Queen’s University. As it happens, we met Fraser at Pearson airport, at which time we all figured out that we were going to the same conference; we then managed to lose each other shortly after arriving in Copenhagen and didn’t catch up until the following day. Academics are fairly hopeless at this sort of thing.
However, after checking in at the lovely old hotel, the Saxildhus, mid 19th century and a bit down at heel, and eating a fabulous meal at a restaurant in the oldest building in town, a 16th-century merchants’ hall, we felt we were in shape for the conference, despite imminent jet lag.
After a 10-minute walk through the commercial part of Kolding the next morning, we arrived at the University of Southern Denmark campus (one of three campuses in the region that amalgamated only a few years ago, the others being at Aarhus and Odense). Scott’s paper, on cross-border anxieties in the 15th-century Anglo-Scots text The Kingis Quair (proving that some problems of globalization are hardly new), was in the first session. Mine, on the Salvation Suit project — a virtual reality translation of the 14th-century visionary poem Piers Plowman, a “wearable poem” as I am calling it — was the following afternoon. Fraser’s, on “The English Department of the Future” (which means us here at uW, apparently) was shortly before mine. We all got our words out, and they were all cordially received. There were about thirty international attendees, plus graduate students from the university. Papers were various, many tending towards language learning and pedagogy, as you might expect from the conference theme. It was interesting to observe that a main focus of the conference — namely, English studies — has a particular institutional inflection in Denmark, one that is currently under scrutiny, if not attack, by a populist and pragmatic government. There was some fear that current departments of English studies, which teach both literature and language, would be dismantled in face of increasing pressure for market-driven, competence-based language learning — and that literature teaching would be the automatic loser. Thus, a major effort at disciplinary re-branding and reclamation of humanist identity was underway, to which the conference was contributing. Overall, probably the most interesting aspect of the conference for me was witnessing this difference in institutional status, in a culture that is unofficially, at least, bilingual, Danish and English. Most Danes, both in the university context and outside of it, speak astonishingly good English. The present educational system is clearly serving this function amply: the question is, seemingly, what is value-added by having students read literary texts?
Your admin speaking now: Good question, Sarah. Any responses to “what is value-added by having students read literary texts?
Also, here are some photos from Sarah’s Danish experience.
A Guest Post by Professor Fraser Easton.
As the Chair of an English Department that I think has quite a bit to offer when it comes to the question of the future of our discipline, I was delighted to be able to speak about what my colleagues are doing at an international conference in Kolding, Denmark, last month on “The Future of English Studies.”
The conference held a few surprises for me. First of all, it was a conference on English Studies held in a non-English speaking country (well, not really: all Danes seem to be able to speak excellent English; still, the first language is Danish, and most media is in Danish, with some Swedish, Norwegian or German language channels). This meant that English Studies was viewed in an international framework, and not only in terms of the global spread of English Literature. Issues in linguistics, ESL, and English as a Lingua Franca (for which there is even a journal) were among the hotter topics. So all in all it was a nice decentering of some of the normative assumptions one makes about the focus of the study of English in an English-speaking context—that, for example, the study of national literatures, particularly our own, should be central.
The next pleasant surprise was a talk by Dr. Janette Ryan on “Internationalising teaching and learning: Making room for other knowledge, language and academic values.” The talk spoke directly to the challenges international students face when English-speaking institutions are happy to charge them higher fees, and then leave them to sort out all sorts of hidden assumptions about the classroom, curriculum, and even the nature of English competency (what Dr. Ryan calls “A ‘native speaker norm’ [that] exercises tacit power in pedagogy and assessment”). It was particularly fascinating to learn that Dr. Ryan had taken a university degree in China, is fluent in Mandarin, and can speak convincingly about the nature of Chinese and Western educational assumptions.
Another wonderful surprise—although it shouldn’t have been—was the talk given by my colleague Sarah Tolmie on “Poem/Design: Translating Piers Plowman into Virtual Reality.” I have known about Sarah’s Virtual Reality, Critical Media Lab-inspired project for some time, but this was the first time I had heard her speak about it. The effect on the audience was electric: to take Langland’s poem, digitize it into a virtual realm, and then to use that as a way to test the theories of embodiment that are in part the subject of this dream vision was intellectually provocative and exciting. That Sarah was able to show the VR in action was all the more “immersive” for her academic audience.
My talk was titled “The English Department of the Future,” and there was a really bad photo taken of me as I was giving it. No, I didn’t talk with my eyes closed: I was just looking down when someone snapped the shot!
On a personal note, I got to stay in an eighteenth-century warehouse in Copenhagen that is now a hotel on my way back from Kolding. On the way to Kolding I got to speak with a PR rep for LEGO, which is based a few miles away from Kolding in Billund, and ask lots of questions on behalf of my eight-year-old son.
Your blog admin speaking now: Come back tomorrow to read a post by Professor Sarah Tolmie about her experience of the same conference. Such fun this academic tourism thing.