The U.S. Department of Education introduced a new rule on June 13 that could have an outsize negative impact on historically black colleges and universities.
And no one noticed.
As the former president of Bennett College -- the nation’s oldest historically black college for women -- I have been honored to play a role in increasing the immense opportunities HBCUs have provided to black students and other students of color over the past 150 years.
I have also witnessed the sharp increase of higher education costs, even as the importance of a good college degree continues to grow. Millennials will be burdened with more student loan debt than any other generation before them. According to The Wall Street Journal, cumulative outstanding student debt has surpassed an astounding $1 trillion. Yet with a decline in state and federal support -- states are now spending, on average, 20 percent less per student than they did in 2008, according to one think tank -- colleges and universities are more and more dependent on tuition for their financial stability.
Although HBCUs provide excellent academic opportunities for their students, they do not have the monetary security other colleges and universities enjoy. For example, top-rated HBCU Howard University maintains an endowment of about $660 million, while top-rated non-HBCU Harvard University has an endowment of $36 billion.
This fiscal contrast could become an immediate problem for HBCUs and their students in light of the Education Department’s new proposed rule.
The department recently announced the revised borrower defense to repayment regulation, which would allow students to sue their college or university and default on their loans if they think that the institution misled or defrauded them during the time they were enrolled. The original rule has been around for 20 years and provides essential protections for students who have been defrauded by their educators. The revised rule would greatly expand the criteria for students to sue their educators, with a far lower burden of proof on the student.
While I agree that students must be able to petition their educational providers for student loan forgiveness if they feel they have been defrauded, I worry about the unintended ramifications of such an enormously wide-open regulation. The Education Department has estimated it will have an economic impact of $4.2 billion in tuition repayments and other costs, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg. Institutions could also accumulate mounds of fees, as legal counsels attempt to wade through the vague and confusing regulations -- a cost HBCUs can ill afford.
The new rule has other costs and implications for HBCUs, as well, by requiring institutions to obtain new and costly letters of credit from lenders. HBCUs could be negatively impacted by “financial responsibility regulatory requirements,” which could threaten “their ability to continue their historic education mission,” according to a May 2016 letter from the United Negro College Fund.
My concerns mirror theirs.
According to a Gallup-Purdue University report, black students who graduated from historically black colleges felt more supported, both academically and emotionally, than their black peers at predominantly white institutions. Additionally, HBCUs graduate 18 percent of all African-American undergraduate students and 25 percent of all African-Americans in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
I had the privilege of working alongside many bright young women of color at Bennett who have graduated to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers and have all made significant contributions to the American workforce. And I hope HBCUs can continue to produce such exemplary students of color.
Unfortunately, if this rule is implemented in its current form, opportunities for black students to receive the education they need to compete in the 21st century could decline. HBCUs would be forced to funnel their already limited monetary resources into unnecessary legal counsel instead of into the classrooms where they belong.
The proposed language in the rule is vague, difficult to understand and could cost taxpayers up to $43 billion over the next 10 years. The rule change was doubtless written in reaction to the May 2015 bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college system. The federal government may have to forgive millions of dollars in loans Corinthian students now owe. HBCUs are different from for-profit colleges, but the hastily written language of the rule makes no distinction among types of institutions.
We can all agree that students must have strong protections if they can prove they have been defrauded by their academic institution. Those protections already exist, and students should be better informed of their current rights and better empowered to pursue loan forgiveness in the case of legitimate grievances. But that shouldn’t come at the cost of financial instability, especially for HBCUs whose fiscal position is often not as strong as traditionally white institutions. Policy makers should revisit the rule and include HBCUs in the public comment process, which should be extended to take into account an examination of these issues.
I am hopeful that the Department of Education will consider these concerns and invite us to the discussion table before the comment period closes Aug. 1, and will do what’s in the best interest of students, educators and taxpayers. But in the meantime, it’s essential that our community makes our voices heard.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist and the founder of Economic Education. She is the former president of Bennett College, America’s oldest historically black college for women.
We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.
That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.
Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.
A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.
This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.
One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.
That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.
The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.
In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.
Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.
That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.
In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.
Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality(Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.
Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.
Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).
She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”
That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).
The current national dialogue around greater access to higher education is encouraging, but zeroing in on it leaves us dangerously close to overlooking the full spectrum of challenges facing today’s students. By limiting national debate to the financial barriers that prevent students from earning a college degree, presidential candidates ignore the larger problem: we are an undereducated nation. Too many of today’s students are unprepared to succeed in college and, worse, in life and work after they graduate.
We know this trajectory begins long before students reach college, and yet we neglect to tackle the problem at its source. We -- all of us in education -- have to reach out to these kids earlier. Despite a clear need for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to work together as one complete system of education, we still operate and receive funds as two separate and distinct entities. And effective systems don’t operate in silos.
Presidential hopefuls should consider a plan that will incentivize K-12 and higher education to get our acts together -- ideally, through a funding model that binds our sectors and ensures investment only in what works. To be truly effective, we should target support to data-driven, evidence-based programs and services that we know not only increase access to college but also boost completion -- and ultimately lead to career success.
As in other states, we see the dire need for this kind of collective action in my home state of New York. For every 100 ninth graders here, it’s estimated that only 73 will graduate from high school. Of those, 51 will go directly to college, 37 will return for their sophomore year, and only 23 will complete their degree even close to on time. Just 23 out of 100, and that is only the average. In our upstate urban centers, it drops to 16. And that’s just in New York, a state that’s doing better than most.
“A Roadmap to College Readiness,” recently published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Association of System Heads, reports a similar trend of underpreparedness nationally and looks at what 10 state systems are doing to address it. In California, each of California State University’s 23 campuses employs an early-assessment program coordinator who works with high school advisers. In Texas, “go centers” pair recent college graduates with low-income and minority students who are academically ready but do not plan to attend college. And each of the states studied offers a senior-year transitional course for students who score below a college-ready level in 11th grade, helping to bring them up to speed before high school graduation.
The common denominator among successful strategies highlighted? All 10 states report that their most effective strategies are a result of K-12 and higher education working together.
To be truly effective in preparing students for successful lives, this partnership model must carry over into a student’s college years and after graduation. Because even the students who are prepared for college aren’t always completing their degree, and even those completing their degree aren’t necessarily finding a job in their field.
Less than 50 percent of adults in New York hold a postsecondary credential of some kind, yet by 2020, almost 70 percent of jobs in the state will require one. That’s an astonishing gap, one that is only slightly narrower than the national average. Any education strategy that doesn’t directly impact that bottom line is not worth pursuing.
As the state’s public university system, the State University of New York owns the challenge of grappling with this issue on behalf of New Yorkers, and we are confident that we have a path forward: a completion agenda that aims to deliver 150,000 SUNY degrees annually, up from about 93,000, by investing in proven strategies that support student completion. Among the approaches we are taking to scale are:
Strengthening cradle-to-career partnerships. As many as 40 percent of children nationwide are not ready for kindergarten. They lack the basic vocabulary and sensitivities this early work demands, and this level of unpreparedness often follows them as they progress through the education pipeline. Adapting the StriveTogether model and working closely with the national organization, SUNY is partnering with communities across the state to ensure that every child, every step of the way, has a chance at success. In Albany, N.Y., one such partnership -- the Albany Promise -- has improved student outcomes with a number of targeted interventions. Through a partnership with Albany High School, for example, they put in place New York’s first in-school administration of the SAT in 2014, raising student participation from 53 percent to 82 percent.
Recruiting, training and retaining more excellent teachers. We know that excellently trained teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success. And while New York is home to some of the best schools and teachers in the country, too many students still never experience great teaching. Through TeachNY, we are partnering with all of New York’s education stakeholders, including the state Education Department, to address a significant teaching shortage by transforming teacher preparation. One of our goals is to cement teaching as a clinical practice profession. Because like a doctor performing surgery or a pilot flying an airplane, we want to provide every opportunity for future teachers to gain live classroom experience before their first day on the job.
Streamlining high school to college transitions. Throughout the country, innovative new high school designs that offer college credit are serving the needs of students who are traditionally underrepresented in college and making a crucial connection between K-12 and higher education. Dual enrollment programs in Maryland, New York, Tennessee, and Texas allow students to earn college credits -- oftentimes even an associate’s degree -- before they graduate from high school.
In New York, we now have 20 early college high schools that offer dual enrollment for students who are traditionally underrepresented in college; 33 P-TECH partnerships, for which students complete an industry-aligned curriculum; and five New Tech Schools, which use a project-based learning model and emphasize the integration of technology in the classroom. Some are transitioning to what we call Smart Schools, which will provide a streamlined program where students acquire an associate degree in high school, at no cost, and then transfer to one of our four-year colleges to earn a higher degree. In our state, these models share an average graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent.
Bringing applied learning to every degree. The value and effectiveness of learning by doing is unrivaled. Our students consistently point to internships, clinical placements, service-learning programs and other work-based experiences as the highlight of their education. Job-placement rates for cooperative education programs nationally are nearly 100 percent. We are bringing applied learning to the broadest possible scale while also working with the state’s Department of Labor to ensure our graduates are meeting workforce needs.
These efforts are a small sample of the interventions and strategies that we know will increase completion for our students. There is so much more to be done in our state and across the country. Cutting costs only scratches the surface.
Free college is a well-intentioned and, in a growing number of states, successful model, but it falls substantially short of what today’s students really need. If presidential hopefuls want to tackle the costs of college and truly make a difference, they should support significant and targeted investment in student achievement that spans the education pipeline and incentivizes schools, communities, colleges, employers and everyone else with a stake in education to work as one cohesive system.
If we could begin collectively serving the whole student, from his or her start in pre-K to and through college and into career, we can help more of today’s students be successful in school, in their chosen field and in life.
Nancy Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.
A national outcry regarding the cost of education and the poor performance of institutions in graduating their students has raised questions about the extent to which accreditors are fulfilling their mission of quality assurance. Politicians have expressed outrage, for instance, at the fact that accreditors are not shutting down institutions with graduation rates in the single digits.
At the same time, accreditors and others have noted that the graduation data available from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, familiarly known as IPEDS, include only first-time, full-time student cohorts and, as such, are too limited to be the measure by which institutional success is measured -- or by which accreditation is judged. But simply noting this problem does nothing to solve it. The imperative and challenge of getting reliable data on student success must be more broadly acknowledged and acted upon. The WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) has taken important steps to do just that.
As is well known, IPEDS graduation rates include only those students who enrolled as first-time, full-time students at an institution. Of the approximately 900,000 undergraduate students enrolled at institutions accredited by WSCUC, about 40 percent, or 360,000, fit this category. That means approximately 540,000 students in this region, including all transfer and part-time students, are unaccounted for by IPEDS graduation rate data.
The National Student Clearinghouse provides more helpful data regarding student success: while including full-time student cohorts, part-time students are also considered, as well as students who combine the two modes, and data include information on students who are still enrolled, have transferred and are continuing their studies elsewhere or have graduated elsewhere. Six-year student outcomes, however, are still the norm.
Since 2013, WSCUC has worked with a tool developed by one of us -- John Etchemendy, provost at Stanford University and a WSCUC commissioner -- that allows an institution and our commission to get a fuller and more inclusive picture of student completion. That tool, the graduation rate dashboard, takes into account all students who receive an undergraduate degree from an institution, regardless of how they matriculate (first time or transfer) or enroll (full time or part time). It is a rich source of information, enabling institutions to identify enrollment, retention and graduation patterns of all undergraduate students and to see how those patterns are interrelated -- potentially leading to identifying and resolving issues that may be impeding student success.
Here’s how it works.
WSCUC collects six data points from institutions via our annual report, the baseline data tracked for all accredited, candidate and eligible institutions and referenced by WSCUC staff, peer evaluators and the commission during every accreditation review. On the basis of those data points, we calculate two completion measures: the unit redemption rate and the absolute graduation rate. The unit redemption rate is the proportion of units granted by an institution that are eventually “redeemed” for a degree from that institution. The absolute graduation rate is the proportion of students entering an institution who eventually -- a key word -- graduate from that institution.
The idea of the unit redemption rate is easy to understand. Ideally, every unit granted by an institution ultimately results in a degree (or certificate). Of course, no institution actually achieves this ideal, since students who drop out never “redeem” the units they take while enrolled, resulting in a URR below 100 percent. So the URR is an alternative way to measure completion, somewhat different from the graduation rate, since it counts units rather than students. But most important, it counts units that all students -- full time and part time, first time and transfer -- take and redeem.
Interestingly, using one additional data point (the average number of units taken by students who drop out), we can convert the URR into a graduation measure, the absolute graduation rate, which estimates the proportion of students entering a college or university (whether first time or transfer) who eventually graduate. Given the relationship between annual enrollment, numbers of units taken in a given year and the length of time it takes students to complete their degrees -- all of which vary -- the absolute graduation rate is presented as an average over eight years. While not an exact measure, it can be a useful one, especially when used alongside IPEDS data to get a more nuanced and complete picture of student success at an institution.
What is the advantage to using this tool? For an institution like Stanford -- where enrollments are relatively steady and the overwhelming majority of students enter as first-time, full-time students and then graduate in four years -- there is little advantage. In fact, IPEDS data and dashboard data look very similar for that type of institution: students enter, take roughly 180 quarter credits for an undergraduate degree and redeem all or nearly all of them for a degree in four years. For an institution serving a large transfer and/or part-time population, however, the dashboard can provide a fuller picture than ever before of student success. One of our region’s large public universities has a 2015 IPEDS six-year graduation rate of 30 percent, for example, while its absolute graduation rate for the year was 61 percent.
What accounts for such large discrepancies? For many WSCUC institutions, the IPEDS graduation rate takes into account fewer than 20 percent of the students who actually graduate. The California State University system, for example, enrolls large numbers of students who transfer from community colleges and other institutions. Those students are counted in the absolute graduation rate, but not in the IPEDS six-year rate.
As the dashboard includes IPEDS graduation rate data as well as the percentage of students included in the first-time, full-time cohort, it makes it possible to get a better picture of an institution’s student population as well as the extent to which IPEDS data are more or less reliable as indicators of student success at that institution.
Here’s an example: over the years between 2006 and 2013, at California State University Dominguez Hills, the IPEDS six-year graduation rate ranged between 24 percent and 35 percent. Those numbers, however, reflect only a small percentage of the university’s student population. The low of 24 percent in 2011 reflected only 7 percent of its students; the high of 35 percent in 2009 reflected just 14 percent. The eight-year IPEDS total over those years, reflecting 10 percent of the student population, was 30 percent.
In contrast, looking at undergraduate student completion using the dashboard, we see an absolute graduation rate of 61 percent -- double the IPEDS calculation. Clearly, the dashboard gives us a significantly different picture of student completion at that institution.
And there’s more. To complement our work with the dashboard, WSCUC staff members have begun work on triangulating dashboard data with data from the National Student Clearinghouse and IPEDS to look at student success from various angles. We recognize that all three of these tools have limitations and drawbacks as well as advantages: we’ve already noted the limitations of the IPEDS and National Student Clearinghouse data, as well as the benefit of the inclusion in the latter’s data of transfer students and students still enrolled after the six-year period. In addition, the data from both IPEDS and the clearinghouse can be disaggregated by student subpopulations of gender and ethnicity, as well as by institution type, which can be very beneficial in evaluating institutional effectiveness in supporting student success.
Pilot work has been done to plot an institution’s IPEDS and dashboard data in relation to the clearinghouse data, displayed as a box-and-whisker graph that provides the distribution of graduation rates regionally by quartile in order to give an indication of an institution’s success in graduating its students relative to peer institutions within the region. While care must be taken to understand and interpret the information provided through these data, we do believe that bringing them together in this way can be a powerful source of self-analysis, which can lead to institutional initiatives to improve student completion.
As noted, WSCUC has been working with the dashboard since 2013. While we are excited and encouraged regarding the benefits of the tool in providing a more complete and nuanced picture of student success, we also recognize that we have a great deal of work ahead of us to make the tool as useful as we believe it can be. After two pilot projects including a limited number of WSCUC-accredited institutions, the required collection of data by all WSCUC colleges and universities in 2015 revealed a number of challenges to institutions in submitting the correct data. The dashboard can be somewhat difficult to understand, especially for institutions with large shifts in enrollment patterns. And unlike National Student Clearinghouse data, dashboard data, at least at this point, cannot be disaggregated to reveal patterns of completion for various student subpopulations.
Such issues notwithstanding, we are encouraged by the value of the dashboard that we have seen to date and are committed to continuing to refine this tool. WSCUC staff members have given presentations both regionally and nationally on the dashboard, including one to IPEDS trainers to show them the possibilities of this tool to extend the data available nationally regarding student completion.
We are hopeful that other accreditors and possibly the NCES will find the dashboard a useful tool and, if so, adopt it as an additional completion measure for institutions across the country. In any case, we will continue to do this work regionally so as to not just complain about the available data but to also contribute to their improvement and usefulness.
Mary Ellen Petrisko is president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission. John Etchemendy is provost of Stanford University.
The story is told of how, during an interview at a film festival in the 1960s, someone asked the avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, “But you must at least admit that a film has to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” To which Godard replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.”
Touché! Creative tampering with established patterns of storytelling (or with audience expectations, which is roughly the same thing) is among the basic prerogatives of artistic expression -- one to be exercised at whatever risk of ticket buyers demanding their money back. Most of the examples of such tampering that Robert L. Belknap considers in Plots (Columbia University Press) are drawn from literary works now at least a century old. That we still read them suggests their narrative innovations worked -- so well, in fact, that they may go unnoticed now, taken as given. And the measure of Belknap’s excellence as a critic is how rewarding his close attention to them proves.
The late author, a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, delivered the three lectures making up Plots in 2011. Belknap’s preface to the book indicates that he considered the manuscript ready for publication at the time of his death in 2014. Plots has an adamantine quality, as if decades of thought and teaching were being crystallized and enormously compressed. Yet it is difficult to read the final paragraphs as anything but the author’s promise to say a great deal more.
Whether the lectures were offered as the overture to Belknap’s magnum opus or in lieu of one, Plots shuttles between narrative theory (from Aristotle to the Russian formalists) and narrative practice (Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, primarily) at terrific speed and with a necessary minimum of jargon. Because the jargon contains an irreducible core of the argument, we might as well start (even though Belknap does not) with the Russian formalists’ contrast between fabula and siuzhet.
Each can be translated as “plot.” The more or less standard sense of fabula, at least as I learned it in ancient times, is the series of events or actions as they might be laid out on a timeline. The author tweaks this a little by defining fabula as “the relationship among the incidents in the world the characters inhabit,” especially cause-and-effect relationships. By contrast, siuzhet is how events unfold within the literary narrative or, as Belknap puts it, “the relationship among the same incidents in the world of the text.”
To frame the contrast another way, siuzhet is how the story is told, while fabula is what “really” happened. The scare quotes are necessary because the distinction applies to fiction and drama as well as, say, memoir and documentary film. “In small forms, like fairy tales,” Belknap notes, fabula and siuzhet “tend to track one another rather closely, but in larger forms, like epics or novels, they often diverge.” (Side note: A good deal of short fiction is also marked by that divergence. An example that comes to mind is “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, where the siuzhet of the narrator’s account of what happened and why is decidedly different from the fabula to be worked out by the police appearing at the end of the story.)
Belknap returns to Aristotle for the original effort to understand the emotional impact of a certain kind of siuzhet: the ancient tragedies. An effective drama, by the philosopher’s lights, depicted the events of a single day, in a single place, through a sequence of actions so well integrated that no element could be omitted without the whole narrative coming apart. “This discipline in handling the causal relationship between incidents,” says Belknap, “produces the sense of inevitability that characterizes the strongest tragedies.” The taut siuzhet chronicling a straightforward fabula reconciled audiences to the workings of destiny.
Turning Aristotle’s analysis into a rule book, as happened in later centuries, was like forcing playwrights to wear too-small shoes. The fashion could not last. In the second lecture, Belknap turns to Shakespeare, who found another way to work:
“He sacrificed the causal tightness that had served classic drama so well in order to build thematic tightness around parallel plots. Usually the parallel plots involve different social levels -- masters and servants, kings and courtiers, supernatural beings and humans -- and usually the plots are not too parallel to intersect occasionally and interact causally at some level, though never enough to satisfy Aristotle’s criterion that if any incident be removed, the whole plot of the play should cease to make sense …. Similarity in plots can be represented as the overlap between two areas, and those areas may be broken down into individual points of similarity, dissimilarity, contrast, etc. Without knowing it, a Shakespearean audience is making such analyses all the time it watches a play, and the points of overlap and contrast enter their awareness.”
It’s not clear whether Belknap means to include the modern Shakespearean audience -- possibly not, since contemporary productions tend to trim down the secondary plots, if not eliminate them. But the Bard had other devices in hand for complicating fabula-siuzhetarrangements -- including what Belknap identifies as “a little-discussed peculiarity of Shakespearean plotting, the use of lies.” In both classical and Shakespearean drama, there are crucial scenes in which a character’s identity or situation is revealed to others whose confusion or deception has been important for the plot. But whereas mistakes and lies “are about equally prevalent” in the ancient plays, Shakespeare has a clear preference: “virtually every recognition scene is generated primarily out of a lie, not an error.”
In a striking elaboration of that point, Belknap treats the lie as a kind of theatrical performance -- “a little drama, with at least the rudiments of a plot” -- that often “express[es] facts about the liar, the person lied to or the person lied about.” The lie is a manipulative play within a play in miniature. And in Hamlet, at least, the (literal) play within a play is the prince’s means of trying to force his uncle to tell the truth.
Now, such intricate developments at the level of form also involve changes in how the writer and the audience understand the world (and, presumably, themselves). The Shakespearean cosmos gets messier than that of classical drama, but loosening the chains of cause and effect does not create absolute chaos. The motives and consequences of the characters’ actions make manifest their otherwise hidden inner lives. To put it another way, mutations in siuzhet (how the story is told) reflect changes in fabula (what really happens in the world) and vice versa. Belknap suggests -- tongue perhaps not entirely in cheek -- that Shakespeare was on the verge of inventing the modern psychological novel and might have, had he lived a few more years.
By the final lecture, on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap has come home to his area of deepest professional interest. (He wrote two well-regarded monographs on The Brothers Karamazov.) Moving beyond his analysis of parallel plots in Shakespeare, he goes deep into the webs of allusion and cross-referencing among Russian authors of the 19th century to make the case that Crime and Punishment contains a much more deliberate narrative architecture than it is credited with having. (Henry James’s characterization of Russian novels as “fluid puddings” undoubtedly applies.)
He even makes a bid for the novel epilogue as being aesthetically and thematically integral to the book as a whole. Other readers may find that argument plausible. I’ll just say that Plots reveals that with Belknap’s death, we lost a critic and literary historian of great power and considerable ingenuity.