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Analysis Of Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5579 words Published: 5th May 2017

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This semester has proven to be a very useful for the development of both my reading and writings skills. For me, as for a person who merely five months ago came from a country where English language is known by a few, this experience was vital in a way that it opened up the secrets of effective reading, writing and analyzing in English language. Before taking the College Writing course I had a hard time understanding the proper writing process, which seemed very vague to me, but as I began taking my first steps in trying to understand it I have realized that it was only fear that took over me. Although many would think that the final result is only what matters, for me the process was more engaging. The course has offered a wide range of reading and writing techniques and styles, thus taught me to transfer my ideas to paper clearly and effectively. However, applying theory in practice would have been much harder if there were not the preparatory writing assignments that we had throughout semester. The essays and papers we wrote throughout semester helped me to trace my progress in writing process. They helped me comfortably and very efficiently write papers based on academic journals and articles.

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In the beginning of the semester, one of my weaknesses was the organization of sentences and paragraphs. The process of writing an essay has changed over the semester. At first I would start writing essay by putting all of my ideas onto paper thus making an inappropriate organization. But having realized the importance of making a thesis statement I have less trouble organizing main points of each paragraph. Even though it is hard to develop a solid and clear thesis, I understand its significance as it states the argument that reader will be reading.

The first major assignment that we did this semester was the paper on Robert Sapolsky’s “Ego Boundaries, or the Fit of My Father’s Shirt”. This assignment was unique in its nature, as it demanded us to deeply analyze each and every part of the text: summarize it, reflect upon the ideas of the text by explaining them, and finally exploring our own experiences with those ideas. Clearly, the assignment’s goal was to teach us the proper way to understand texts, and integrate ideas that are present in texts with our own lives. I have to admit that in the beginning I had no idea how to complete the assignment, but with the clear directions that were provided, I managed to do it. It was very surprising when I realized that the writing process for this paper was very mechanical and precise. Before this paper, I always thought that writing such complicated papers required a lot of imagination, which I thought I did not have. However, now I understand that all that I needed to do is to read the text thoroughly, brainstorm for ideas, and to formulate the final version of the paper based on my ideas and on drafts that I previously wrote. I felt a huge satisfaction and relief after completion of the assignment, because I have learnt a huge lesson for myself from this assignment and I was ready for this type of tasks in the future.

However, as confident as I felt after completing the Sapolsky paper, I had never imagined that there were different approaches to writing these kinds of essays. One of the major tasks was to write an essay based on a very complicated book by Ervin Goffman “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” This book was intended for large audiences with no particular knowledge about the study of psychology. Nevertheless, the text was very difficult to analyze as it contained many complicated words, intricate sentence structure, and allusions to other works on similar topics. . I felt overwhelmed by reading long and complicated literature because I thought I needed to remember every single detail that I read. However I learned to highlight the main ideas as I read so that I could go back and find details if I needed to recall on them for my essay. Due to this technique, I improved my analytical skill tremendously and was able to extract the main ideas throughout the text, and combine them to write a decent essay. The primary difficulties I faced doing this task were the abundance of scientific terms and the overall difficulty of the text. In order to understand the text, I had to read it carefully, part by part, so that I could get the connection between the ideas in the text. By taking notes every time I encountered something interesting and provoking, I managed to construct the outline for the essay. Then, writing the essay itself became much easier since I had all the ideas on my notes. The only thing I had to do to finish the assignment was to assemble the notes and combine them in meaningful sentences and in correct order to provide the essay with a proper flow and preciseness.

The course has offered a wide range of reading and writing techniques and styles, thus helping me formulate the notion of clear, rich, and focused writing. The essays and papers we wrote this semester helped me formulate my own writing process, with help of which I can comfortably and very efficiently write papers based on academic readings that the university classes offer. As far as I am concerned, I have become a much more attentive reader and a much better writer since I took this class. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical about what the class had to offer me, but now I understand how important it was for me to be a part of this class and had such a valuable experience. With the knowledge that I have acquired during this semester, I am very eager to start working on papers and essays regarding my own field of specialization.

Understanding other people’s stories

In his article Understanding Other People Stories Roger Schank discusses the challenges people encounter when trying to understand each other. According to Schank, people frequently do not understand what others tell them. It is easier to remember a notion or a belief if it is told in a form of a story. He presents a theory that all the information, experience and events we understand are incorporated in a story that that we remember and share with others. Schank states that understanding means to respond to the speaker’s stories with stories of listener’s own memory. People learn from stories if they can relate it to something that they previously knew. Moreover, we truly understand a new story only if it made us reexamine our previous stories. Throughout the text author talks about different things that are important to know about understanding other people’s stories.

There is an interesting point that the author describes is a selective listening. People hear only some parts of the stories they are told and tend to listen to the ones that interest them. The reason for that is that we care about topics that we can understand and relate to. “We cannot think of about all the possible ramifications of something we are being told. So we pay attention to what interests us” (Schank, 374). He presents a notion about index, which is a kind of symbol that helps people classify all the stories they have in the memory. Schank describes it as “[a]n index is a juxtaposition of another person’s beliefs, made evident by statements or actions, with one’s own beliefs” (Schank, 380). We use them to label some stories of beliefs that we had before in our system of values.

Furthermore, the author describes the topic about the way people understand stories as that they do it by reflecting their own stories onto the speaker’s stories. Understanding process of other people’s stories involves identifying ourselves to our own memories. We can use our own stories to confirm the beliefs of others that were imposed on a particular object. An example of this is my recent conversation with my parents. Last time using Skype, we were talking about my new life at Berkeley. I told them my story of getting used to my new environment that involved the difficulties and obstacles that I struggled with during the first month. There were a lot of challenges; I told them that it is really hard to study abroad, and particularly at such a place as Berkeley. I have troubles with a lot of things ranging from studying unfamiliar subjects to living in the dorm. Interestingly, their response was recalling their own time when they were students in college as I am now. And what they told me is that “everybody goes through this process that I am neither the first one nor the last one. The academic year will pass quickly before I even notice it. I just need to be patient and do my best to succeed in college”. I found their answer interesting, since I could see the relation of it to the idea that people understand stories by reflecting their own stories. My parents reflected my story to their own experience when they were in college. They saw my story as a story about them as a “Subject 5” from the text did. They found an index of studying at college is difficult time and that everyone goes through this process. As a result they just confirmed their previously held beliefs about hard time at university. This is an example of the process when people understand a story by recalling their own memories.

Another interesting idea that the author highlights in the article is that people often misunderstand other people’s stories by relating their own experience to the new story. When the listener hears a new story he finds an old story from his memory, which he can use to relate it to. However, the idea is that we usually find only one principle to relate a story, because it is enough for us. That is why each person understands stories in a different way. A good example of that could be how I personally got confused when I was reading Robert Sapolsky’s Ego boundaries or the Fit of my Father Shirt. At first, I misunderstood the nitroglycerin bottle as the bottle containing the ashes of the author’s father. This happened because of the word “frailty”, which I thought to be remains of his father, but having discussed this article in the class I realized that this was just a medicine that his father used to take. This misunderstanding happened because of my previous experiences with the word frailty. I related the context of the text as a story about people who hold ashes of their ancestors in a vase, since it is important and sacred remains of their loved ones. Because I initially knew a story about such people I just related it to the new story that I have read. My index was that people remember and honor deceased relatives in way of storing their ashes. I had a belief that people often keep the ashes of their ancestors after the death, so that they have some part of the deceased person to relate to him. Thus recalling a previously known story to understand a new one led me to misunderstanding the core context. This example proves the idea that people often misunderstand stories by reflecting their own meanings on it.

To learn from the story you need to enhance the old story with details that you matched with a new one. Because people tend to understand other people’s stories mainly through reflecting the stories they previously knew, the question then arises: How do people get beyond this circle of understanding and learning new things? Schank answers this with a contradictory approach. He argues that it happens due to irregularity in understanding stories. By not fully understanding the story they learn something new easily since that piece of information gets stuck in their memories for a while when they identify the mistake afterwards., as he points this out, “[w]e really only learn when the stories we hear relate to beliefs that we feel rather unsure of, ones that we are flirting with at the moment, so to speak. When we are wondering, consciously or unconsciously, about the truth…, then the evidence provided by others can be of some use” (Schank, 388). Schank believes that people can learn something new only when they ask questions and analyze their views. For example, in the Sapolsky’s article Ego boundaries or the Fit of my Father Shirt, the author describes the relationship with his father, and the way he thought about his father as a mentally ill person. He tries to use his previously known stories such as scientific knowledge of the disorders to explain the illness of his father. His index is that science can explain everything. He uses his understanding of mental disorder to examine the behavior of his father. As a result, Sapolsky considers his father as a scientific case not as a father. Using his scientific knowledge he tries to explain that his father had split brain disorder that led to vanishing of his ego boundaries. However, through the process, he realizes that he is not able to justify his previously believed thoughts about his father as a mentally ill patient, because the science could not answer all of the questions the author had. In the end he understands that the problem was not in the diagnosis, but in the attitude towards the problems he had with his father. Thus, he teaches himself a new story: by reexamining his previously held beliefs about an index that scientific approach can explain everything in the life.

In the conclusion we can see that the process of understanding other people’s stories is complicated. Understanding involves such process as indexing, finding old stories to relate, and reflecting them to the new ones. We usually do it by relating our own stories to the new stories that we hear, but finding similar elements in our own story and the story being told is different to all people. Therefore, we learn from new stories if we rethink our previously held beliefs.

The Role of Thefts in “Theft”

The main topic in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Theft” are the different kinds of thefts. Theft in the story appears to take both physical and intangible forms such as stealing pens, wallets, personalities, authority and reputation. Theft is a zero-sum game with no win-win outcome. That is a fundamental idea which lies throughout Oates’ story. People’s vulnerabilities, bad habits and motivations of hatred are resembled through these thefts. The author presents several facts of theft to allow a reader to analyze motives of a thief, his/her psychology and consequences of such their acts.

The main character, a college sophomore, Marya Knauer has a complex and ambiguous attitude towards theft. She perceives it as a weakness, which prevails over her sense of moral duty and voice of reason, but also as a tool that she believes can empower her. Her first stealing experience began with “silly little shoplifting expeditions” which insensibly rose into a sequence of spontaneous, rash and pointless thefts (143). Admittedly, stealing gave her a feeling of elation and “triumph” when she appropriated someone’s genuinely valuable possessions. It can be inferred that Marya clearly understood that her habit to steal was disgusting but she could not resist any opportunity to do so. It seems she sought excitement and a dose of adrenaline by getting involved in risky and morally unacceptable affairs.

Moreover, Marya considered theft as an act of liberating herself when her personal life was constrained and dictated by other’s will, when “she had had to submit to the routine schedule of Wilma’s household” and “she was living her life as it were nothing more than an extension of theirs” (142). Stealing made her feel free because she could transgress the bounds of decency, disregard rules, and neglect prohibitions without being caught and taken into accountability. She could hardly fight her impulse even though her euphoria lasted fraction of a second. For Marya stealing was a way of seeking revenge from people who tried to take advantage from her. She stole a pen from a professor who did not give her a good grade, because he lost some of her work during grading. Having put much effort in studying, she took everything too seriously what resulted in professor calling her “rather grim” as she was always thinking only about academics. The reaction to such rude remark was her lying about her mother serious illness and stealing the professor’s pen. Marya felt “her pulses were beating hot, in triumphed” for a way of defeating the professor for the words he said and for the grades he gave (158). Moreover, she did not feel guilty or ashamed because she believed that professor deserved this. She started using this pen “signing her name repeatedly, hypnotically: Marya, Marya, Marya Knauer, Marya Marya Marya Knauer, a name that eventually seemed to have been signed by someone else, a stranger” (159). She saw this act of stealing as “triumph” over the professor, who tried to hurt Marya’s identity.

Interestingly, theft takes on a more sophisticated form when it comes to reading. “The reading she did acquired an aura, a value, a mysterious sort of enchantment” (142). It was perceived as a forbidden fruit, something “illicit, precious beyond estimation” (142). Indeed, she could be completely immersed in reading, “slipping out of her consciousness and into that of the writer’s” (142). She found herself entirely absorbed into writer’s ideas and mentality as if her mind was led by an invisible hand, and that experience was electrifying and hypnotizing. It prompted her to conceive life as an ephemeral and to regard everything as superficial and trivial. “Mere life was the husk, the actor’s performance, negligible in the long run” (142). Reading as a process was equally elating and exciting as stealing but not criminal and risky. Marya’s personality was splitting and she started losing authenticity while making her way through writer’s imagination, greedily reading every word as it was her own, treating every emotion, idea expressed and the plot itself as her own creation. Marya’s addiction to reading can be expressed by absence of any intrigue in her personal life, which Oates describes as isolated, ascetic, and monotonous (143). Reading is treated as a “one-sided relationship” which she benefits from without giving anything back. When the book Marya read seemed to take life through her, she could get her emotions, which are usually experienced and nurtured through building relations with other people.

The first theft that is depicted in the story happens with Marya, when her wallet with a month salary from part time job at university library and her favorite pen were stolen from her room in Maynard House. These incidents made Marya become anxious and angry, feeling unprotected before the real world. It ruined her previous impressions of the university life and made her very cautious and even distrustful for other students. Marya decided to isolate from the world by staying in her room all the time and reading every book she could find. (142). As a consequence she became a complete robot, having a derelict life, because she could not trust anyone in her dormitory anymore.

Mary’s isolated living and unsocial behavior reflects her attitude towards friendship. She asserts that friendship is a “waste of time” on something ephemeral and not worthwhile (154). Marya is completely obsessed with studying; her energy is devoted to maintaining high grades. However, relationship with Imogene alters her perception of the friendship. It evolves from a friendly acquaintance to admiration, mutual benefit, envy, competition, ignorance and culminates in break up. Imogene is presented as a chameleon playing various roles in public, quickly adapting her behavior to changing circumstances, and changing her mood and attitudes frequently. Her inquisitive character and easygoing informality are seen by Marya as intrusion into her privacy, her secret isolation. Marya and Imogene become interdependent but they are not interested in the actual friendship.

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Marya’s life changed drastically when she met Imogene Skillman. The first time when Imogene appeared in the dorm room, Marya was depressed and reduced the protection level from the world. Marya recognized from the first look that Imogene was somewhat unique person, not resembling other student on the campus. But Marya could not fully understand what Imogene’s real personality was. After spending more time with Imogene, Marya still did not acknowledge that they are becoming friends. She always questioned herself if she appreciated Imogene’s friendship and even accepted that she liked Prhyllis more (153). This girl majored in mathematics and lived next-door, and according to Marya’s system of values of true friendship Philly was a best match as an “appropriate” company. In spite of Phyllis being more likeable friend, Marya could not stop thinking that she is more inclined towards Imogene.

Marya is flattered by Imogene’s attention; she accompanies her to coffee shop, meets with her friends trying to impress them. Marya cautiously succumbs to Imogene’s admiration and tolerates flattery since she fears becoming dependent on her friendship, for dependency is equivalent to limited freedom. Her protest against Imogene’s influence and domination is expressed in the intense concentration on her academic performance. “She threw herself into work with more passion than before”, eager to face challenges and vindicate that her intellectual achievements demonstrate her wealth, thus soft power (154).

The difficulties in friendship that Marya and Imogene had with each other originate from different backgrounds they had before. First, Marya came from a poor family, where she had to obey restrictions and authority. On the contrary, Imogene being from a rich family had a nonchalant life with lots of freedom and opulence. The thefts that are illustrated in the story had a great influence on the development of the relationship between main characters. Thus, thefts caused Marya and Imogene to realize what true friendship is.

However, Marya and Imogene have never become best friends, because Imogene, in contrast, had plans of her own about Marya. Imogene stole Marya’s time by spending time in the coffee shops with her friends, stole characteristics of Marya’s personality like mimicking in order to perform on stage, and rumored bad things about Marya’s reputation. But when Marya realized that Imogene was using her for own purposes, she immediately felt deceived and angry. However, even though Marya understood Imogene’s true intentions, she could not stop having relationships with Imogene.

Marya discovered Imogene’s true nature at the dinner in a sorority house where Marya was invited as a guest. When she heard that Imogene made Matthew write a paper on Chekhov for herself, Marya began suspecting the true Imogene’s intentions and desires (163). Her suspicion grew up more when Marya knew about Imogene’s cheating on her fiancé with a stranger. Imogene did it on purpose to make Marya and Matthew jealous of her. After all these underprivileged activities of Imogene, Marya begins to realize that she has become Imogene’s possession, a trophy displayed to her alleged admirers, just a decoration in her one-actor performance. Marya rethinks her concept of friendship writing that it is “play-acting of an amateur type” and “a puzzle that demands too much of imagination” (154).

Marya’s protest against Imogene’s influence and domination is expressed in the stealing the earrings of Imogene “the Aztec ones, the barbarian-princess ones” (175). The author wittingly emphasizes the earring’s design to show that they symbolize Imogene’s social status, popularity and dominance on the campus. Stealing in this case epitomizes betrayal and presumably attempt to appropriate Imogene’s privileges. Unlike Marya’s previous inconsequential thefts this case has a major impact on both characters. She did it on purpose to get everyone’s attention to her, to show that Marya was stronger than all the disloyalties and intrigues against her. She even pierced her ears, risking infection and sickness, and showed everyone that she is truly “a nut that can’t be cracked” (174). Marya felt triumphant, she did not fear being caught up and punished. In contrast, Marya “had worn earrings everywhere, for everyone to see, to comment, and to admire” and she “had been amused at Imogene’s shocked expression” (176). That theft left no winner. Imogene and Marya’s “friendship” was completely ruined. Both students driven by envy and competition have been contributing to gradual erosion of their relationship by covertly and sometimes explicitly stealing each other’s intangible possessions.

Various thefts depicted in the story tell readers about the many different circumstances that Marya and Imogene’s friendship had to go through. Marya Knauer is a vivid instance of a strong willed personality. Despite all of the hostile and embarrassing obstacles and actions towards her, she managed to overcome and keep the “perfect record”, so that to save her status and character unbroken.

The effects of stereotype threats

“Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude M. Steele is a thorough analysis of a concept known as identity contingency. According to Steele, contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with because of a given social identity. Identity contingencies from the author’s perspective represent constraints, both formal and implicit, tied to social, ethnic, religious, gender or any other recognized identity (3). Identity contingencies negatively affect individuals since they deprive those prone to being stereotyped or discriminated of equal opportunities, and abilities. Steele’s research interest in identity contingencies and the roles they play in people’s lives stems from his personal experience of segregation. He reflects on his childhood when he was a victim of racial order in the 1950’s, which placed a number of restrictions tied to the identity, from housing and school segregation to employment discrimination (3). Those conditions made individuals feel their racial identities and deal with their negative implications in everyday life. Steele focuses his research on educational issues tied to identity contingencies and their influence on academic performance among minority college students. The author argues that identity contingencies and specifically stereotype threats negatively impact the intellectual abilities of students; moreover he encourages exploring and implementing solutions to alleviate the stress and underperformance in academic setting in order to help students succeed at university.

The aim of the research is to prove the importance of identity contingencies and of “understanding identity threat to personal and societal progress” (Steele, p.15). Steele comes up with several general patterns of findings. The first is the role identity contingency have in shaping individual lives. The second suggests that their negative impact contributes to the most important social problems in society, thus undermining social integrity. Third is a general process by which stereotype threats interfere with a broad range of human functioning. Finally, they offer a set of solutions that can alleviate effects of the identity threats.

At the forefront of Steele’s analysis is a stereotype threat, a particular kind of identity contingency. He speculates that stereotype threat embodies a standard human predicament, powerful enough to constrain behavior simply by putting a threat in the air. It is a widespread phenomenon found in any given society and any potential identity group can become subjected to it. It can be applied to any situation to which stereotype is relevant. Thus, it follows members of the stereotyped group into these situations as a balloon over their heads (Steele, p. 5). The author asserts that it is hard to eradicate stereotype threats, though the pressure they impose on individuals can be eased. Stereotype threat is an intrinsic part of human interrelations, a “tool” used by individuals, driven by a basic instinct of competition. Unlike discrimination in its gross forms, stereotype threats are formed subconsciously to benefit privileges of one social group, competing for opportunity and decent life, at the expense of the other group.

The correlation between identity contingency and intellectual performance, in particular academic, preoccupies Steele throughout his research. He sheds light on the issue of academic underperformance of students from underrepresented backgrounds. The problem he believes has repercussions at a nationwide level, even though people think they live in “a racially fair and identity-fair society” (212). He perceives it as a “core American struggle”, wherein institutions try to integrate themselves racially, ethnically, class-wise (Steele, p. 17). In his attempt to reveal what factors account for persistent academic struggles of minority students, Steele uses a concept known as “observer’s – actor’s perspective”. The actor’s perspective emphasizes students’ characteristics, their “intellectual luggage”, aspirations, values, skills, and expectations. He accesses that the actor’s perspective can be essential in explaining underperformance since the observer’s perspective alone cannot provide the full picture of the problem.

His research appeals to E. Jones and R. Nisbett concept of the difference between those two perspectives. They argued that the observer’s perspective is subject to bias because it stresses the things we can see, the actor’s traits and characteristics. But it deemphasizes these traits and characteristics which fall out of the observer’s literal and mental visual field, namely circumstances the actor responds to and the environment he has to adapt to. Steele believes that the actor’s perspective can offer a plausible explanation of the link between identity contingency and intellectual performance. The feedback he receives from minority students supports his view. Students noted the university environment, wherein their social status was subtly accentuated and social life which was organized by race, ethnicity, and social class. This organization led to a rather racially homogeneous teaching staff and faculty. As a result, their social networks were organized by race. They were also puzzled by the fact that minority styles, interests and preferences were marginalized on campus (Steele, p. 19).

Steele in his book presents several experiments conducted to demonstrate how stereotype threat indirectly affects behavior and interferes with physical or intellectual performance. Experiments he refers to, Michigan Athletic Aptitude Test and the one done at Princeton University, clearly show that the pressure stereotype threat is distracting enough to lead to individual’s failure in particular task. The task in experiment measured the very trait and ability the group was stereotyped as lacking. Knowledge of the negative stereotype’s relevance in the given situation made the assessed group fear that frustration on the task could be misinterpreted and seen as confirming the stereotype. Hence, any deviation in performance, whether mental or physical, or a false move could cause an individual to be reduced to the stereotype and treated accordingly. Steele admits that it is hard to prove that something abstract like stereotype threat can have a substantial effect on the individual’s performance. Nonetheless, the research and experiments he undertakes supports his hypothesis of stereotype threat’s detrimental effect on individual performance. His research focus raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the ways stereotypes affect our intellectual functioning, stress reactions, and the tension that can exist between different groups. Moreover, he explores strategies that alleviate these effects in order to help solve societal problems (Steele, p. 13).

Steele conducts an experiment to prove that academic achievement problem of minority students is not entirely due to skill and ability deficits. He contends that external factors and social and psychological aspects of academic experience can be powerful enough to directly or indirectly impair intellectual performance. Hence, the environment and status of a student can be an actual component of ability. Steele comes up with a stigmatization idea, an idea that a devalued social status can cause und


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