I’m currently trying to get my head around the very minimal teaching that I will be doing this semester. In the Dutch system, at least where I am located, all students finish their studies with a ‘bachelortheses’. It might look a little like an Australian honours thesis, but I’m gathering it’s quite different. For one thing, everyone writes them. They’re a maximum of 6,000 words long. And you get six months in which to write it. And it’s not in a one-to-one supervisory relationship, but is supervised in groups of 5 students to one supervisor. Of which I am one.

The vast majority of these students will never have written a full academic essay. Most courses here are short, lecture-based and culminate in a multiple-choice exam. So I am suddenly realising that the key element of this project is the writing. In some ways, I’m really looking forward to this because I get to work with them over around 16 weeks. I’m thinking of suggesting that we make our meetings a little longer (they’re flexible, based on my choices, really) and include a specific, weekly session on various writing skills. Given also that many of these students will be German, this will probably be useful for ironing out some hiccups as they occur.

It’s also complicated for me, in that this is the first teaching that I’m doing, and I’m discovering that these students may not be, well, equipped to handle my comparatively random take on things. I can’t assume, for example, a critical approach to, well, knowledge. This makes me gulp a little. It makes me gulp a little more to find out that the English language program here is run mostly by Americans and that this has meant that it’s… sigh… more scientistic than other bits. Won’t that be fun? The dense normativity of such sites is a little frightening, but also exciting as a space in which to make an intervention (right?! ;-))

But my bachelortheses group topic should select somewhat:

The concept of the normal has had a profound influence on contemporary science and thus on contemporary styles of life. This group will explore both the history and the more recent function of ideas of the normal, normalcy (normality) and normalisation, particularly as they have guided medicine, psychology and the human sciences more generally, in their interaction with those categorised as ‘abnormal’. Those who are interested in the philosophical and theoretical interrogation of the concept and category of ‘normal’, and its effects on people’s lives, will enjoy participating in this group. Whereas ‘abnormality’ in a psychiatric sense is hotly debate elsewhere, I would especially encourage those students who are interested in the normalisation of those with bodies deemed to be ‘abnormal’.

So at the moment I’m trying to work out what kinds of readings I’m going to give them to get them thinking about this topic. I mentioned Ian Hacking to another staff member, who thought he would be too complicated. I’m not sure what to think about that, because I tend to think that Hacking is a very approachable writer! But so far, here’s my ‘theory’ background that I’m kicking around as I try to think this through. For the record, I’ve also got a list of different ‘normalisation’ therapies which will constitute the ‘case studies’ for the contemporary function of the normal for them; in the first session we’ll pick whichever ones they’re most interested in. So far this list includes: human growth hormone use, cosmetic surgery, circumcision (for boyfolk and girlfolk), intersex ‘corrective’ surgery, limb-lengthening surgery, pre-natal genetic diagnosis, self-demand amputation and cochlear implants. I may include trans ‘reassignment’ surgeries, but I’m a little uncertain about replicating the sense that surgery is The Trans Thing To Do, so we’ll see. I am, though, interested in the ‘wrong body’ story which seems to shape many of these practices, and also shapes the ways that trans is medicalised. Mm.

But in terms of theoretical background, I’m trying for things that will ease them into the critical approach to ideas of normality. So far I’m thinking about:

Lennard Davis’ second chapter from Enforcing Normalcy, which gives a potted history of the rise of the idea of the average, its influence on modern ideas of democracy, industry, grammar and most of all, on ideas of disability. I like this because it’s accessible, it’s fairly broad, and it raises the question of how disability is contextually situated (which students both often struggle with, and get really excited by).

Ian Hacking’s “Making Up People”, specifically the London Review of Books version. It’s useful because it discusses the ‘looping effect’ of particular normalising technologies: i.e., that we usually underestimate the effects on people of how we think, categorise, and treat them.

Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance, chapter 1. I actually want his “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers” but apparently this is too big an ask of the university library (?!) and has not been reprinted (sadface) since its publication in 1982 in a journal that is no longer on major subscription lists (Humanities in Society Number 5, she says, in the vain hope some kind person might have an e-copy they’re willing to bounce my way). The latter, I seem to recall, is a really neat historical and political unpacking of the development of stats, in the context of Foucault’s idea of biopower. The former is a bit drier, with all the detail of the history and fewer of the broad brush strokes that make Hacking kinda useful!

Next we hit the Foucaults: I’m thinking the final lecture from Society Must be Defended, which unpacks the way that racism (taken as the division of the social world into the subrace and superrace) fits with the development of medical concepts of health, of normalcy and of course the introduction of the biopolitical (the management of the population).

Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume 1, the bit on the Repressive Hypothesis. I want to give the students a sense of how intimately bound up together ideas of normality and the concept of an inner self needing expression are. After all, the idea of ‘becoming who I really am’ appears so neutral, but is so often enacted in normalising ways.

I’m also thinking of a bit from Discipline and Punish, because there’s some stuff on normality in there. But I have to go back to it, because it’s been a while. Also surveillance might be useful (obviously is heavily implicated in Hacking’s ‘looping effects’).

Canguilhem is probably a bit unavoidable, although I’m going to try to be selective on this one: probably the section from the end of the revised version of The Normal and the Pathological, where he explicitly tries to tie his history of medicine to politics. But I’d quite like some of his earlier points about suffering tending to produce medical consideration of the state of the patient, and thus the deeming of particular styles of being as pathological, which in turn has more to do with the mismatch between the patient and their world than about anything necessarily inherently bad (as he says a lot in that book, nature doesn’t side with humans against, say, colds and flu)

I’m considering putting in a section of Lisa Blackman’s book The Body because there’s a section that does the ‘outside-in’ thing of exploring the idea of bodies as signifying and social, and works back into the production of selves through embodiment. I don’t want to overload them with too many ideas, but this seems to be key for talking about modifying bodies like we are…

And finally I’m thinking of Nikolas Rose’s “Normality and Pathology in the Genetic Age” for a little updating of this stuff. There’s a newer ‘version’ of this paper, called “Normality and Pathology in the Neurobiological Age” but while I think there are useful things about the ‘we’re all a bit pathological!’ argument, I think it tends to efface that the hierarchies of normality and abnormality remain shockingly material in their effects.

The lovely NP of Rough Theory suggested Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, for ease of access into these ideas. I’m still thinking about it: in some ways it’s useful way in, though perhaps less pithy than it might be (I get it, pop sci and all that). But it’s a bit hard to tell whether I’ll need to start from that point, and I do kind of like to avoid both ‘but the Real World!’ talk and ‘bias and objectivity’ kind of talk, because often students cling to these far more familiar ideas and use them to refuse to consider, say, the idea that objectivity is problematic, or that we need to put a question mark over the idea of the Real World, or at least over our access to it. So we’ll see!!

Any thoughts welcome, obviously! It’s hard to plan too thoroughly at this stage, because I have really no clue of the educational background of my group. Some may be ‘honours’ students (who take higher level classes all through); others may have done the science studies stuff here, and be a little familiar with some of these ideas; and of course, they may all be happily drifting along with the scientism of the English speaking program…

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