axiomatic context and antipedagogies

“Decimate” used to mean having the 90% of a unit kill or witness the deaths of 10% of their fellow soldiers that were usually chosen randomly to die. It was the punishment that made soldiers stand up against impossible odds because breaking formation and running could result in one. Back when I was a kid, it used to mean “a great loss.” Now it just means “just losing about 10%” because that’s what the word means if its axiomatic context is ignored.

There are no rules followed the same path.

It used to be an axiomatic expression that meant “the absence of a foundational structure must still serve the story for the lack of it.” Character growth is one of the fundamental foundational structures of fiction. The absence of it means the character must have as actively chosen to stay the same as they would have acted on the need for change. But not changing should have a cost that changing would have reduced in some way otherwise the book starts and finishes on a character that was right to not change at all.

Can that still be an effective story? Sure, with enough rewrites or inspiration from the muses. Will the average underpublished writers be able to capture the push and pull between a character’s inability to change and their need to just by polishing the first attempt of the story?

Probably not. But it is the UBC methodology in a nutshell. The English canon is filled with static characters from Atticus Finch to Sherlock Holmes. Examples of static characters existing in great works of literature would be the lesson taught to this UBC student, not the tools necessary to make sure that each time a character doesn’t change, they don’t change for a more significant reason until not changing is the most significant thing they can do. They won’t get any tools at all.

Because Atticus exists, characters don’t need to change at all is a bad lesson. He was a pacifist who sat out all night with a weapon to defend what he believed in against his friends and neighbours. His relationship with all of them changed that night, even if he didn’t act on the difference.

But this is what happens when you don’t say the axiomatic part of the statement out loud for more than a generation. The unspoken axiomatic part gets dropped for its most literal interpretation of the words. A story will always need the fundamental structures of fiction or be an exemplar for why those structures are not always needed.

Rules, however, are just a collective opinion on a subject.

Way, way, way back in the day, I wrote a story for a workshop. A writer I still respect liked most things about it but thought the character shouldn’t be gay if being gay didn’t impact the story. It was back just before the fulcrum finally tipped society into accepting (a very narrow band of) queerness. This advice was still a year or so away from when it would fall out of common usage.

It’s been clear to me for a while that “there are no rules” is being understood to mean if a masterpiece can work without using a foundational structure, the average learner doesn’t need to learn how to use any of them. “Gay characters must be gay for a reason. Every character should be assumed to be straight for my comfort” isn’t a foundational structure of writing. It’s an opinion that’s been proven to be incorrect and abandoned.

Writers should write X words a day is an opinion. Writers should write is a fact. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, what they write and with whom they write it with is entirely the author’s choosing.

My MFA program could not have proved more clearly that improperly facilitated critique-based peer review can drive the learner further away from their objectives. It is an antipedagogy. A facilitator should never allow students to agree amongst themselves that mistakes the majority still make are fine. Work meant to move a reader needs to do more than perfectly capture what a character is looking at or talking about. If the student body doesn’t think so, the facilitator still needs to do their job and facilitate their learning.

Instead, the provost decided being gentle was more important than being an instructor.

If a pedagogy is written to teach the student, an antipedagogy was written to please them. The UBC’s program could not have been a finer dictionary definition of an antipedagogy by the provost’s deliberate design. “Gentle,” the man said.

As though gentle could be a pedagogy. Don’t teach the student anything that might upset them might as well have the same value to future career goals as an Elf-Spotting degree from Iceland. It’s up to the learner to be able to tell a meaningful story capable of moving their ideal reader before the program begins.

Learn how to spot elves, then come to Iceland and we’ll give you this paper that says you can is not an effective pedagogy, either.

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