There is a haunting paradox about human nature that I have often contemplated, and it became particularly pronounced tonight when I found myself confined to my bathroom. It is as though we, as human beings, are drawn to the very things that may harm us, even when we have the knowledge, tools, and foresight to avoid them. We walk the tightrope between our conscious desires to live and the inexplicable forces that seem to pull us towards self-destruction. Freud called this act the “death drive,” and I encountered it that night.
Sitting in my bathroom, regretting a meal chosen out of impulse rather than wisdom, I pondered how easily we are led astray. Why do we often allow ourselves to be swayed by fleeting desires, peer pressure, or even the sheer thrill of the unknown when our better judgment tells us otherwise? Was it merely hunger or perhaps a deeper yearning for connection and shared experiences with my friends that led me to that ill-advised choice?
There is a broader question here, beyond my food-related predicament: What do we, as humans, truly want? We chase after ephemeral pleasures, squandering our resources, time, and energy on things that often do not serve our higher purposes. We know the pitfalls, we are well aware of the risks, and yet, we dive headlong into them. It is as if there is a magnet inside us that attracts us to the very things we should evade.
There is an ancient saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.” How apt it feels as I reflect on how we, generation after generation, continue to replicate the mistakes of our fathers. Maybe it is a form of inherited memory, or perhaps it is a testament to the cyclical nature of human history. Whatever it is, the scale seems grander now, with our mistakes amplified and broadcasted for all to witness.
But hope isn’t entirely lost. For with every tug from the death drive, there is a counter pull, a life drive if you will, urging us to seek light, happiness, and fulfillment. This life drive reminds us of our inherent worth, pushing us to make choices that resonate with our soul’s true calling. It tells us to embrace those robes of dignity, to light our path with the flames we have access to, and to run from the shadows.
I yearn to align myself more with this life drive. It is a conscious choice I want to make, even as the death drive lurks in the background. For every moment I spend in darkness, I want countless others bathed in light. Every time I paint myself with the mud of poor decisions, I want to wash it off with the water of clarity and purpose.
In that quiet bathroom, in the middle of the night, I made a promise to myself: to strive, to seek happiness, and to run – not toward inevitable doom but toward life, light, and love. The battle between the death drive and the life drive will continue, but I am determined to tip the scales in favor of life.
perched high ‘ver moon
Twirled fingers eyes horizon
splashing shadows ‘ver cast.
Spectacle for our generation
Cast dream ‘ver yonder
Sun reach out yon
Make us nation and
out this long night
for knights mighty stand
wheedling future pasts.
T’s our testimony:
arrived too soon
bayed destiny ‘ver deaf pasts
hand me sun
future past ink must dry.
Breath t’s pages the wry
Testament—ancestors grey in wisdom
masters of temporality decry
mound ‘ternity chains,
our kins and the ring of fate
T’s circle must stand unto faith
seals future moments.
Miranda Fricker explores the concept of epistemic injustice in the context of testimonial practice and argues that the virtue of reflective critical openness can serve as an antidote to the prejudice inherent in epistemic injustice. She examines the concept of “testimonial sensibility,” which she elaborates as being an ethical virtue that shapes our responses to the speech acts of the other. She further describes “epistemology of testimony” as a broader framework for organizing her arguments about the phenomenon of epistemic injustice, which she interprets as pernicious conduct in testimonial practice.
Fricker problematizes the phenomenon of epistemic injustice by examining different propositions that seek to address or engage the concept of epistemic injustice. To begin with, she unpacks two models, the inferential model and the doxastic responsibility model, to reveal their shortcomings in addressing epistemic injustice. The inferential model advocates that in testimonial practice, the hearer’s receptiveness to the speaker is influenced by perceptual reasoning grounded in what is known about the speaker. This includes the speaker’s background and stereotypes that define the speaker’s social identity. Fricker shows how this model, which arrogates the notion of unreflective exchange to show its spontaneity in the exchange between the speaker and the hearer, fails to account for “justificational laxity.” This model is not grounded in the conventional experience of testimonial practice, which as Fricker explains, tends to follow the “everyday phenomenology of unreflective transparency” (157). She delves into research presented by McDowell and Coady to reveal gaps in the inferential model. She discloses how the model fails to address epistemic injustice because it lacks a critical openness to the speaker’s speech.
Doxastic responsibility advances the claim that the hearer is anti-referentiality and argumentation. In other words, the hearer is spontaneous in the manner of everyday speech. Fricker contests these claims by showing how doxastic responsibility is unreflective. She argues for the introduction of ethics into the epistemology of testimony. Here, she points out that ethics brings the “notion of sensibility” (159), which in turn leads to interpretive and practical judgments. Sensibility is historical, cultural, and learned. A person is socialized into a specific sensibility through a process that considers both the individual and the social as a collective. Acquiring sensibility brings one closer to rational-unreflective and critical non-inferential judgments, which leads us towards a critical openness to the words of the speaker.
As Fricker demonstrates, testimonial sensibility supports the notion that the hearer’s response to the speaker is anchored in what she refers to as “epistemic socialization,” which is a “social training of the interpretive and effective attitudes in play when we are told things by other” (161). She explains how people are socialized through passive social inheritance and active learning. Testimonial sensibility is the virtue that gives us spontaneity and reflectiveness. Fricker discusses how stereotypes damage testimonial sensibilities. She combines this notion with the concept of epistemic injustice in examples found within Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Lee’s novel describes a situation where a major court decision is made because of “corrupted testimonial sensibility” in which the jurors find a Negro man guilty solely because of their “immovably prejudiced social perception” of him (Fricker, 167). In The Talented Mr. Ripley Greenleaf is not able to recognize the prejudices of race and gender inequality. The worst individual in this film is Mr. Ripley, who is not only aware of reflective critical openness but also determined to create epistemic oppression. These materials consider the thematic issues of race and gender, and how insensibility to these issues leads to epistemic injustice. Fricker determines that hearers’ social identity often acts like a cloud that shoulders the hearers from moving beyond the social constraints that limit their ability to engage in reflective critical openness.
Even though Fricker flaunts reflective critical openness as an antidote to epistemic injustice, she is cognizant of the challenges of actualizing this virtue in societies with deeply ingrained ways of thinking that prejudice specific populations. The stories of Tom Robinson and Marge underscore the powerlessness of reflexive critical openness. These are an example of a framework that is captive to the very systems that it seeks to contest. In other words, this virtue is a product of influential powers in society. Its utility becomes more visible as society strives to address inequality, racism, and gender oppression.
In conclusion, Fricker states that human beings live in social spaces with relations that shape their sensibilities. A community can be both a space for evolving prejudice and inculcating the virtue of reflective critical openness. In this kind of community, people experience life differently. The current social structures have the ability to further support the alienation of individuals within this society from the “essential attributes of personhood” (Fricker, 172). It is important to recognize the current faults and issues within the modern epistemic climate and recognize it for the oppression and prejudice that it systematically encourages.
Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and A Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing”. Metaphilosophy, vol. 34, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 154-173.
In this essay, I argue that pirates are space traitors who trespass legal and economic boundaries to achieve individual or collective gains and destabilize a society. The popularity of the concept of piracy in cultural representations such as films, fashion, comics, and literature highlights changes in society that mirror the legal-economic happenings during the Golden Age of Piracy. At the core of the pirate culture is the concept of neoliberalism, which is understood as the promotion of ideas of individual freedom that favor market-based initiatives and limited governmental role in social welfare. Neoliberalism removes business barriers and seeks to privatize and monetize sectors of the economy, such as education and healthcare, that are ordinarily the preserve of governments. Piracy is, “a form of morally ambiguous property seizure committed by an organized group which can include thievery, hijacking, smuggling, counterfeiting, or kidnapping.” Although the definitions of pirate culture and neoliberalism appear pejorative, these concepts have rekindled discourse on contemporary pirate culture in two ways: (1) They have created conditions that mirror the high seas, which was the primary arena of piracy, and (2) They have led to the emergence of a class of “traitors,” or people who are bent on undermining the neoliberal order. This essay examines some of the neoliberal practices that have sustained piracy in our contemporary culture.
Both piracy and neoliberalism occupy ambiguous positions within capitalism. David Harvey shows that from the late 1960s and through the 1970s, world economies stagnated, unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, and governments such as Britain borrowed from international bodies such as IMF to take care of rising welfare expenditures. The United States of America’s inability to control the flooding of the dollar led to the abandonment of fixed exchange rates. Moreover, the oil crisis of 1973 shattered many economies and marked the beginning of a rapid economic decline in both developed and developing countries. The welfare state that was the hallmark of European and African countries could no longer be sustained in a world that was shifting emphasis from Keynesian policies that privileged society, to neoliberal policies that put individuals at the center of economic planning.
People have adopted pirate culture as a response to nonemployment, low welfare, and high cost of living. It is arguable that the pirate culture inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a movement attempting to destabilize capital while calling for an end to economic inequality. The pirates of the Caribbean directly opposed the violent control of labor and merchandise by nationalist mercantile companies and what they viewed as “tyrannical” inequalities. Thus, protests or initiatives such as Occupy Wall Street are organized around the idea of opposing monopolies, colossal capital, and corporate practices that have shrunk the labor market. Pirates reduced the profits of privateer companies, including slave ships. Similarly, in our contemporary world, pirates devastate governments and businesses through attacking websites, hacking banks, and calling for boycotts.
Interestingly, even though neoliberalism purports to lift trade barriers, the age of intellectual property protection has enacted many laws that punish people for attempting to access knowledge from an unauthorized avenue. Modern companies, similar to the privateer companies during the Golden Age of piracy, are increasingly becoming monopolies that control patents for innovations. Furthermore, corporations such as big pharmaceutical companies are involved in biopiracy, which is the act of extracting indigenous medical or science innovations without compensation. Piracy has become the contemporary moral response to these inequalities.
We can draw parallels between the internet and the high seas. The high seas were the arena for the Golden Age of piracy, but in our contemporary world the internet has created “nationless” pirates. Businesses are increasingly shifting their operations from brick-and-mortar buildings to virtual spaces. Some of these businesses have considerable advantages that have enabled them to create monopolies that offer commodities without competition. An example of this type of company is a record label. These businesses own all forms of artistic works and attempt to have exclusive rights to specific spaces of art performances to gain complete control of capital flow within the art industry. Additional examples include online retailers, movie streaming services, and book publishing industries. Pirate culture in these sectors has become a form of redistributing commodities that people can no longer afford. Scholars have pointed out that the core values of pirates were “collectivism, anti-authoritarianism, and egalitarianism.” It seems that the Golden Age of piracy was conceived as a socialist utopia where people distributed property equitably. Whether they achieved this goal is debatable. However, what is important is the notion that pirate culture in the contemporary world operates on the same principles.
Pirate culture in the contemporary world, like that of the Golden Age of piracy, is becoming more organized and highly coordinated. The internet allows pirates to create a sense of brotherhood. There are aspects of the pirate culture that are less known in scholarship communities because historians and cultural analysts are yet to reconcile their research with the idea that pirates create unique work culture, complete with language, music, rituals, and a sense of brotherhood. Pirate culture is organizing as a social order with rules of governance. The Disney World frenzy and the rise of the video games industry have broadened the platform for this culture to flourish.
 Harvey, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.”
 Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy,” 675.
 Dawdy and Bonni, 667.
 Dawdy and Bonni, 680.
 Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy.”
This essay discusses the impact of digital technology on education. It focuses on blended learning as a product of computer-mediated environments that allow learners and teachers to create a learning environment that combines the advantages of online technologies and face-to-face methods of learning. The essay demonstrates that the dichotomy between the digital natives and digital immigrants do not apply in blended learning as the approach does not seek to replace the conventional brick-and-mortar classroom or constrain itself to online learning
Significant studies about the so-called digital natives, a
population of students growing up in contexts with broad access to
communication technologies (Prensky, 2001; Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008),
focus on how the traditional educational system fails to meet the learning
needs of these students (Margaryan, Littlejohn, &Vojt, 2011). Other studies
examine the extent to which these students integrate digital technologies in
their studies (Ferdousi and Bari 2015), or the adverse effect of technology on
digital natives (Hawi & Samaha, 2016; Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017)),
or contests the existence of digital natives (Bennet et al., 2008; Jones &
Healing, 2010). While this scholarship teases out the primary debates on the fundamental
significance of technology to student learning, they often neglect discussions
regarding the critical role of instructors in developing lessons that appeal to
students born into computer-mediated environments. There are fewer studies that
delve into the practical aspects of designing lessons in a computer-mediated
environment. The ones that do often relegate teachers born before the 1980s into
a category Jones and Healing (2010) refer to as digital immigrants: teachers
born before the rise of digital technology. While this essay concurs with
Bennet et al., (2008) and Jones & Healing (2010) that the binary between
the so-called digital natives and digital immigrants is unstable and
undertheorized because scholars often base their claims on limited empirical
evidence, it argues that blended learning addresses the challenges of combining
traditional face-to-face learning environments with digital technology.
Blended learning is a system of restructuring the classroom
experience through designing lessons that coalesces the strengths of both
face-to-face instruction techniques and online learning into a blended and more
effective learning experience (Garrison and Vaughan 2010). The idea of “system”
shows that the effectiveness of blended learning lies in harnessing the
advantages of face-to-face classroom contact hours and the benefits of
asynchronous online communication (Graham, 2005). However, as Randy and Heather
(2004) cautions, blended learning does not refer to an enhanced
brick-and-mortar classroom that uses technology to supplement its learning
activities. It instead underscores the coalescing of two different environments
into a unique learning experience that rethinks traditional teaching and
learning. The concept of blended learning gained tract in the early 1990s when
the personal computer became a household device to many families in developed
countries. The concept has evolved with the advancement of technology, which
allows many people to access the internet through mobile devices and computers.
Blended learning has moved beyond educational institutions to the business
world, where training and workshops run as blended learning activities.
However, this essay will focus on blended learning in the academic context.
A blended learning environment allows instructors to design
lessons that maximize different forms of learner interaction, such as directly
with the teacher, with other students, and with the content or teaching
material. Learners cannot achieve these forms of interactions in an exclusive
online or onsite learning environment. Graham (2014) argues that blended
learning lessons provide a platform for achieving these interactions because it
focuses on learner affective and cognitive engagement. He bemoans the practice
of designing lessons that only engage the learner’s mind (cognitive), and notes
that student interactions that often lead to a successful learning experience
go beyond the mind into the learner’s heart (affective). For instance, the
motivation to learn a new language is not innate to all students. Therefore,
instructors should cultivate it through creative onsite and online activities
that light up the students’ “passion, desire, and confidence for learning”
(76). The effectiveness of this technique rests on the idea that while
face-to-face learning environment allows educators to create spontaneous
interactions with students, it constrains their ability to attend to the
individual needs of all students (especially in large classes) in the time
allotted for a lesson. However, through online interaction, which is not
limited by time and place, an instructor can tailor learning activities to
individual learners and groups. Thus, blended learning transcends the
constraints of online and brick-and-mortar classrooms by combining the
strengths of both onsite and online environments to create an efficient,
effective, and engaging learning experience.
Technology enables teachers to create a blended learning environment that encourages an in-depth approach to learning, improving student attention, and engagement. Garrison and Vaughan (2008) elaborate on this learning approach as “an intention to comprehend and understand the meaning and significance of the subject at hand” (43). The central feature of this approach is that the conditions we create in a learning environment shape how students engage in a lesson. To most students, particularly in the West, the line between face-to-face and online experiences is thin, as they seem to move seamlessly between these worlds. However, this does not mean that these students are always open and willing to form a learning community in these environments, nor does it imply a sense of homogeneity among these students, as Prensky (2002) does. Therefore, both instructors and students work together to nurture open communication that will make learning communities possible. They can attain this goal through designing blended learning lessons that move beyond the quality of learning outcome and instead incorporate informal practices that allow personal relationships to develop organically. For instance, creating online “chat” forums can allow learners to interact informally and ease the tension that often discourages students (especially those at different levels of learning) from collaborating or even contributing to discussions during a face-to-face lesson.
Blended learning enables instructors to find a balance between
face-to-face learning and online learning that supports learner immediacy and
social presence. Jared et al., (2011) describes learner immediacy as
communication behavior that improves closeness between or among communicants. Social
presence is the ability of learners to present themselves as “real people” with
feelings. In a face-to-face learning environment, both learners and instructors
keep a high level of fidelity or authenticity because they share the same
brick-and-mortar space. In an online environment, interactions have low levels
of fidelity due to lack of immediacy. However, the difference in time and space
allows the online environment to be more flexible compared to a face-to-face
environment. The challenge lies in blending these two modes of learning without
compromising instructor and learner immediacy and social presence. Jared et
al., (2011) discusses how combining platforms such as Facebook video messaging,
VoiceThread video commenting, and video blogs can enhance learner immediacy and
social presence. Technology allows institutions to design sophisticated
learning management systems, such as Canvas, that incorporates social media
capabilities with customized tools for enhancing learner immediacy. Furthermore,
a learning management system can potentially mitigate privacy challenges, which
are typical in social media platforms. Ferdousi and Bari (2015) argue that
technology enhances undergraduate education because digital natives are
predisposed to computer-mediated environments. I contend that these technology
tools are user-friendly and do not require advanced digital literacy.
Therefore, instructors can learn how to combine various media platforms with
learning management systems to create a desired blended learning environment.
Audio-visual technology constitutes the primary tools for
blended learning, and recent advances in these technologies allow teachers to
tailor, edit, or adopt sounds and videos for a blended lesson. Despite this,
research on the use of audio-visual technologies in blended learning does not
show the extent of their usefulness. There is little empirical data that
outlines how instructors and students should determine the relevance of
audio-visual technologies (Canning, 2000). The use of these technologies evokes
challenges such as determining how much exposure to a video can enhance student
learning, how auditory components should enhance visual component, how many
times students should play the video, and how to integrate an online video task
with classroom instruction. Canning’s (2000) research, although conducted two
decades ago and in the context of language learning, outlines elements that are
still relevant in blended learning. She encourages instructors to limit videos
to about four minutes because students get distracted around this minute mark. Canning
further notes that getting the right length does not mean students will engage
the videos effectively. Therefore, instructors should design meaningful and
challenging tasks that motivate learners to engage with the video. Recent
scholarship, particularly by Brame (2017), gives additional elements for
designing useful videos for blended learning. They include aspects that deal
with cognitive reasoning (such as signaling critical points in a video, segmenting
content, and using conversational language), and active learning. It appears
then that audio-visual technology can be harnessed and effectively utilized for
While blended learning is a product of advances in computer
technologies, which have become more accessible in the last few decades, we
cannot constrain it to the category of digital natives. Blended learning
reveals that technology is yet to replace traditional modes of learning.
Instead, technology has enabled instructors to combine conventional learning
methods with online techniques to develop a blended learning classroom that
takes advantage of the strengths of these two environments. Therefore, in
blended learning, the dichotomy between the so-called digital natives and
digital immigrants does not apply. Future research should focus on examining
the scope of blended learning to find out whether it can be used in all
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review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5),
Brame, C. J. (2016). Effective Educational Videos:
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Sciences Education, 15(4), es6.
Canning, C. (2000). Practical Aspects of Using Video in
the Foreign Language Classroom, The
Internet TESL Journal, 6(11). https://iteslj.org/Articles/Canning-Video.
Ferdousi, B., & Bari, J. (2015). Infusing
mobile technology into undergraduate courses for effective learning. Procedia-Social
and Behavioral Sciences, 176, 307-311.
Graham, C. (2005). “Definitions, Current Trends, and Future
Directions.” In Bonk Curtis, Graham Charles, and Cross Jay. The Handbook of
Blended Learning: Global Perspectives, Local Designs. (New York: Wiley).
C.R. (2014). “Engaging learners in a Blended Course.” In Stein, J and Graham,
C.R (ed). Essentials for Blended
Learning: A Standards-Based Guide. (New York: Routledge).
Hawi, N. S.,
& Samaha, M. (2016). To excel or not to excel: Strong evidence on the
adverse effect of smartphone addiction on academic performance. Computers
& Education, 98, 81-89.
et.al., (2011). “The Use of Asynchronous Video Communication to Improve
Instructor Immediacy and Social Presence in a Blended Learning Environment.” In
Kitchenham, A (ed.). Blended Learning Across Disciplines: Models for
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A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the
multi-tasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67,
Littlejohn, A., & Vojt, G. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality?
University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers &
Education, 56, 429-440.
M. (2002). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816.
Randy, G. and Heather, K. (2004). Blended Learning:
Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. Internet and
Higher Education, 7. 95-105.
Randy, G. and Norman, V. (2010). Blended Learning in
Higher Education: Frameworks, Principles, and Guidelines. (San Francisco:
How does one tell stories of people whose lives bear scars and wounds of trauma and violence? Jonny Steinberg’s book, Little Liberia (2011), is a testament to the complexities of representing the life of the Other. Steinberg’s book shows the challenges of negotiating the self, the other, and disciplinary norms to craft a story that honors the wishes of the informant without compromising the ethos of scholarly work, which in the case of literary ethnography may include, inter alia, commitment to greater good, taking responsibility for the freedom and the well-being of the other, being open and transparent, and being cognizant of bias. Steinberg’s Little Liberia like his other works – Midlands (2002), The Number (2004), Three-Letter Plague (2008), and A Man of Good Hope (2015) – blends ethnography and biography to tell the stories of Jacob and Rufus whose lives are intertwined in many ways.
I chose Little Liberia for review because Steinberg’s works exemplify what it means to push the boundaries of disciplinary focus to craft narratives that straddle the lived experience of people while remaining anchored in the systematic way of producing knowledge. Steinberg traces Jacob and Rufus’ lives from the present-day streets of Staten Island in New York to Liberia, their country of origin, and back to New York. At the core of the story is the quest for relevance on the part of Rufus and Jacob. They are children of war; born into a tumultuous and chaotic country with a deeply entrenched system of structural violence that limits any form of personal development or fulfillment. They both fight this system, albeit differently. Rufus is the older of the two; a trained tailor with a passion for improving the lives of the youth in Liberia through soccer. Jacob was a student at a university who was keen on taking an active role in liberating his country from the warlords who were tearing it apart. They both fled the conflict, at different times, but ended up in Park Hill in Staten Island – a place where the majority of Liberian refugees in the United States have come to regard as the “Little Liberia.”
Steinberg follows these men as they go about their business of community building in Park Hill. They both work with a large community of Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island, particularly in Park Hill, which has become a microcosm of the country the refugees fled. Here, refugees reenact the very politics that led to their exile and homelessness. Steinberg quickly learns that Jacob and Rufus do not like each other. Even though they share a similar heritage, their trajectories are marred by controversy and back-biting as they compete for attention, influence, and grant money. Steinberg is not a stranger to these kinds of stories. He has remarked in several interviews that his works explore stories of people and communities in transition; that is, he investigates how political transition changes the filigrees of unwritten rules through which people come to understand themselves and the other.
In Little Liberia, Steinberg maps the landscape of Park Hill like a linguistics landscape ethnographer. For instance, as the story unfolds, he lets us into a long shot of the Park Hill neighborhood. The place was quiet. He comments, “perhaps I was on the streets of some abandoned utopia, that this place had once been crowded, but that nobody lived here anymore” (1). He then zooms in to let us see an “ABC Eyewitness News” pitch-black van parked on the side of the road, which lets us into the soundscape, “a disembodied voice, a reply, then another – a veritable commentary tossed from one window to the next.” For several pages, Steinberg does not let us see living bodies; he wants us to take in the landscape and understand its contours. Later in the story, I began to understand that Park Hill neighborhood is as much a character as is Jacob or Rufus. The landscape demands the same attention as do human characters. It is through its description and documentation that we begin to understand how Liberian refugees reenact their lives in the US. Steinberg unravels this landscape in ways that allow us to smell, see, hear, and experience the lives and of people in the neighborhood.
His extraordinary reflective practice draws us into his writing process. He places himself in the story and lets us know of his thoughts. Furthermore, he actively questions his conclusions and even engages his interlocutors to reach a better understanding. For instance, at one point while walking home with Jacob, he says:
I brooded over his (Jacob) last comment: Remember where you are from. The Kids in the room all had American accents and dressed like gang bangers in their low-slung pants, their exposed underwear, and their converse shoes.
‘Was every kid in that workshop African? I asked.
‘They were all Liberian.”
‘Why were there no-African-American there?
He said nothing, and we walked in silence for a long time.
Here, Steinberg honors silence. He wants to understand an issue, but his informant is not willing to diverge any information. He waits for another time to pose the question. This practice is an excellent lesson in literary ethnography – the ability to understand that often, informants do not have a language to articulate their story or even to answer your questions. Steinberg’s practice resists imposing his interpretation on silences. Instead, he waits patiently to reframe the question.
In addition to observation and interviews, Steinberg travels to Liberia to talk with people who knew Rufus and Jacob’s lives before they fled to the US. The visit allows him to present a well-developed story about his informants. It also allows him to ground his interpretation on much wider evidence. His earlier work as a journalist in South Africa plays a role here – he wants evidence, and he goes looking for it. Although this step does not seem necessary, especially if one acknowledges that the value of a literary ethnography does not lie in how well it represents the “objective truth,” it does serve a function in this particular story. Rufus and Jacob make claims about a violent conflict in Liberia that can potentially affect the lives of many families. Thus, it pays to countercheck their claims and the contradictions in their stories.
After spending a year and ten months shadowing Rufus and Jacob around New York, Steinberg completed his manuscript and gave copies to both Jacob and Rufus to comment, clarify, or contest any issue in the manuscript. He told Rufus, “if there are things you disagree with, not just matters of fact, but of perspective, about your fight with Jacob, about your vision for Rosa, about your trip to Monrovia, please share with me” (259). He lets us into his mind to peek on his reason for letting his informants shape the story he will finally publish. “My mind drifted, I felt anxious. I found myself wondering whether I could ever know much about this man’s experiences without being there, next to him, as they unfolded” (259). Here lies Steinberg’s gift as a literary ethnographer – the capacity to understand the limits of your craft. Ethnographers can learn a lot from his practice, that is, allowing the informant to challenge your conclusion and interpretation of their lives.
Later, Jacob called him to complain about problems in the manuscript. Problems that might affect families in the Park Hill neighborhood and even back home in Liberia. How did Steinberg address Jacob’s concerns? He reflects on the role of an ethnographer and the imagination of the informant. I share his reflections here to underscore the complexity of representing the life of the other and how ethnographers can exercise empathy without compromising their ‘agency to represent.’
Reading a book-length depiction of yourself for the first time is shocking, always, for everybody who has had the experience. You have spoken into a voice recorder for months, years. As you talked, you’re censored here and embellished there; you felt increasingly comfortable and in control; you were, in fact, writing a persona into the pages of the book that was still to be written. When you finally open the manuscript, you discover that you never were the one with the pen. The person, the writer, has contrived is recognizably you in detail. But in the spirit, something is awry. The writer has cheated. He has written a you that is not you: certainly not a you that you would care to present. You have given him material that you ought to have kept to yourself, that only you should have the right to clothe and display (260).
This quote underscores the major challenge of literary ethnography: the ethnographer takes the informant’s words (words that may have been carefully selected to build a specific persona), his interpretation of those words, and weaves a story of a persona the informant would rather keep hidden. Steinberg sat with Jacob and tried to understand his complaints. In the end, he managed to change a few passages in the story, but mostly let the story be. He remarks that while a writer of fiction is a master of his house with the freedom to do whatever he wishes; the writer of nonfiction is a renter who must obey the conditions of the lease. It seems then that a literary ethnographer – in this case, a writer who blends ethnography and biography to represent the other has the freedom to use the creative techniques of fiction but must always remember his duty to ethnographic truth (whatever that may be).