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Tenure Statement on Scholarship | Tenure Statement on Teaching

"A Faith-Shaped Approach to English Studies"
(Tenure Statement on Scholarship, 1998)

Susan M. Felch

A faith-shaped approach to any academic discipline must take into account the many levels at which faith and learning may be joined. One such level, that of first-order scholarship, interrogates the basic assumptions which shape a discipline. In the case of English studies, this level of scholarship involves looking at historical and contemporary models of rhetoric and literary criticism to uncover how each answers fundamental questions:

  • What is the nature of language? How does it communicate? How well does it communicate? Or does it communicate at all? What is its structure? Can we understand that structure?
  • What is the nature of literary works? Is "literature" a classification that is distinct from other forms of writing? What makes a literary text "good?"
  • What is the role of literature in society? Does it, or should it, have a pedagogical function? Does it reflect culture or influence culture? What is its relationship to historical processes?

The fact that so many different answers have been given to these questions, suggests the complexity the Christian scholar faces in this basic task. Within the domain of Christian scholarship, one tendency has been to assume the compatibility of certain theoretical models with Christianity without thoroughly investigating their underlying presuppositions. For instance, while it is easy to decry deconstruction's skeptical stance toward language, it has been too easy to adopt a realist paradigm of language that gives insufficient weight to the slipperiness of words and meaning and the substantial challenges to a literalist model of language raised by problems in translation theory.

As I often say to my students, Christian scholars get to work three times harder than anyone else. First, we must understand what everyone else is saying about our discipline and that means taking a close, empathetic look at various viewpoints. Second, we need to step back and evaluate these perspectives in light of our biblical understanding, which assumes, of course, that we are serious about developing our own theological acuity. Third, we must articulate our critiques and proposed solutions not just to sympathetic colleagues, but to the Academy, and these must be ideas which are shaped and directed by our commitment to Christ.

This first-order level of wrestling with the shape of the discipline seems to me to be central to the engagement of faith and learning. It gives direction to the kinds of questions I raise, the topics I choose for research, and the way I shape my publications. It is, therefore, implicit in all my scholarly work. But it also shows up in quite practical ways in the classroom, not only in direct discussions of theoretical models, but in the works I choose for each syllabus, the weight I give to certain issues in class, and the kinds of papers I encourage students to write.

Another level on which faith and learning interact within English studies is found in the analysis of particular authors and texts. Here the encounter is quite explicit, and this is the level students grasp most easily in the classroom. It is not only natural, but necessary to talk about the reformed notion of sanctification when we encounter the Redcrosse Knight in Book I of The Faerie Queene . On the other hand, Voltaire's scathing send-ups of clerics in Candide, or Melville's uneasy relationship with his own Dutch protestantism require us to pay attention to the dark side of religious experience. Writers from outside the Christian tradition, say Yasunari Kawabata or an American author like Maxine Hong Kingston, raise provocative questions about the shape of religious belief in other cultures and the pressure these beliefs bring to bear on creative works. Then, of course, there is the perennial concern with common grace: How does a literary work give expression to the sensus divinitatus which each of us possesses by virtue of being made in God's image? I would characterize this level of engagement as being concerned primarily not with the shape of the discipline but with the content of literary works. One danger here is that students can lose sight of the literary integrity of a work, if a text becomes merely an allegory of culture or theology told in narrative form.

Still another level of engagement concerns the pedagogical implications of the faith/learning interaction. How should our Christian commitment shape the educational enterprise?

I have addressed this third level in my reflections on teaching, and examples of the second level of analysis can be seen in my articles on Milton, Anne Lock, and Mikhail Bakhtin. In this document, however, I would like to suggest two ways in which faith can begin to critique and shape some of the basic paradigms in the discipline of English studies, particularly in the area of language.

In 1916, the classroom lecture notes of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss scholar, were published posthumously as Cours de linguistique générale ( The Course in General Linguistics ). This slender volume set the direction of language studies for the remainder of this century. Saussure wanted to wrest the study of language away from the philologists and historians who emphasized the chronological development of words and meanings and the classification of language families. Instead, he insisted that linguistics should study a particular language at a particular time. At the heart of Saussure's notion of language are two key ideas. First, words (signs) are composed of two parts: the signifier (sounds or written marks) and the signified (the concept that attaches to the signifier). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, but not individual. That is, I myself do not arbitrarily attach signifiers to signifieds (unless I am composing my own personal language), but I am inculcated into the system of signs we call English as I learn my mother tongue. And that system consists of signs whose signifiers and signifieds are conjoined in stable, but arbitrary, relationships. The relationship of the sign (signifier + signified) to any object in the outside world (the referent) is also arbitrary, but Saussure considered this notion to be of relatively little interest to the linguist.

Second, Saussure believed that language could be divided into its abstract system of rules ( langue ) and the concrete utterances that people actually speak ( parole ). For Saussure, only langue is the proper subject matter for the linguist--the system of language and not actual speech. The messiness of concrete utterances is bracketed off from scholarly consideration. To rephrase the situation in classical categories, langue constitutes the essence of language--what it actually is--while parole consists only of accidentals, that which can be eliminated from analysis.

The linguists who followed Saussure eagerly embraced his notion of signs as composed of signifier and signified and his insistence on the study of langue. In the United States , for instance, Noam Chomsky's transformational linguistics focused on the deep structure of grammar from which, theoretically, every sentence could be generated. Literary scholars imported Saussurean linguistics into the developing field of structuralism. Here deep structure, or langue, translated into the common elements of plot or character that can be found in various pieces of literature. The point of structuralism was to understand individual literary works in terms of their relationship to these deep, underlying structures.

Saussurean linguistics and literary structuralism both insisted that despite the arbitrary relationship of the signifier to the signified, the sign itself was stable. Such confidence was exploded by Jacques Derrida's address to the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference on structuralism in which he deconstructed Claude Levi-Strauss's structural analysis of myth. Derrida showed that if the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, there is no reason to posit a signified at all. One signifier merely points to another signifier in an endless chain of deferral. To take a simple example, if you look up the signifier "enthusiasm" in the dictionary, you find this definition: "belief in special revelations of the Holy Spirit." To understand that definition, you must look up another signifier "revelation" whose definition, "an act of revealing divine truth," in turn points you another signifier "divine" and so on ad infinitum. At no point can you claim to have landed on a stable signified, or mental concept. Similarly, in literary works, or texts as they are now called, a reading strategy was developed to demonstrate their inherent instability. By uncovering the instability within the sign, deconstruction also problematized the relationship between the sign and the referent. If the signifier cannot even be attached to a signified (a mental concept), what possible connection can it have to the real world (the referent)? Communication itself became a problem to be solved.

Although deconstruction per se is no longer practiced by most literary critics, its strategy of constructing binary oppositions and deconstructing them to show their inherent instability has been carried over into the cultural criticism that now dominates English studies. Furthermore, the notion that a description of signifiers pointing to other signifiers in an infinite chain within a finite universe can be taken as a completely adequate explanation of language has gained wide currency.

Although my analysis has concentrated on the first of Saussure's notions--the composition of the sign--deconstruction's critique of the stable sign shows up the more serious flaw in Saussurean linguistics, namely its concentration on langue and the bracketing off of parole . It is significant to note that although deconstruction rejects the Saussurean definition of the sign as composed of signifier and signified, it does not reject the claim that language--in all the ways that really count--can be understood as an abstract system. If you grant this claim, I would argue that deconstruction is difficult to refute. If you understand language merely as a system of signifiers and signifieds, the claims to stability made by structuralists do themselves seem arbitrary. Christian thinkers, such as Merold Westphal, who see in deconstruction a useful critique of imperialistic language, accept this basic claim.

There is, however, a countercurrent to Saussurean linguistics in the twentieth century, represented by such thinkers as Mikhail Bakhtin (dialogics) and Kenneth Pike (tagmemics) among others, which rejects the claim that the proper subject of language analysis is the abstract system of language ( langue ), insisting instead that scholars must examine language as it is actually spoken ( parole ). From the perspective of dialogics and tagmemics, abstract or structural formulations are always reductive of the actual experience of language. Such formulations may be useful as heuristic devices, or for limited analysis, but ultimately they fall short of explaining the nature of language. Actual utterances ( parole ) cannot be bracketed off from the study of language because they, and not a system of rules--are language.

One of the critical distinctions between Saussurean linguistics--in either its structuralist or deconstructionist mode--and dialogics/tagmemics, is the stance toward communication. In Saussurean linguistics, communication is either ignored or rendered problematic. That is, the question of how language moves from its system of signifiers/signifieds into the real world is bracketed out of the original analysis. With Bakhtin and Pike, however, language analysis begins with the fact of communication. No matter how messy, ambiguous, and inaccurate language may be, it does actually work. It is the primary means by which humans interact in the world. Therefore, a serious study of how language works cannot simply bracket off its communicative aspect.

The most important contribution the Christian scholar can make to this debate over the nature of language is that which comes from theologically disciplined reflection. It is tempting to conflate Christian reflection with ethical, theistic, or even the vaguely spiritual analyses. While each of these dimensions may be incorporated into theology, it is in a disciplined reflection on the nature of the world in the light of God and his word that we can offer a responsible, and indeed, gospel voice to the Academy. A theological or faith-shaped response to academic issues will not so much result in a formulation or theoretical paradigm as in the re-mapping of the space within which to think about a particular issue. In other words, one of the most important tasks of first-order Christian scholarship is to redefine and reshape the parameters of the question. Within that mandate, two theological motifs seem to me to be of particular importance in this debate over language.

The first is the notion of irreducible complexity. (1) The consistent witness of the Scriptures is that reality is complex: God is a trinity, three persons in one. The creation of the world is described within the rhythm of six successive days. Jesus Christ is both God and man, the human and the divine unmerged but inseparable. The church as the body of Christ is composed of individuals who are yet one in the Spirit. Theoretical paradigms that take account of irreducible complexity would seem, therefore, to come closer to the nature of reality than those that insist on an abstract singularity.

The second theological motif is that of the active word. In the Scriptures, discussions of language usually take place under the rubric of "the word." It is clear that one of the dominant features of God's word is that it is active and effective. God speaks and the world comes into being. God's word goes out and accomplishes its purpose--it is sharper than any two-edged sword; it does not return to him void. The word, therefore, is not an abstract or static entity but a powerful force. So it is no surprise that God's most intimate communication, the incarnated Christ, should also be called The Word. Human language, warped by the fall, cannot claim infallibility or total effectiveness, but to the extent that it remains an analogue of divine language it is also active and effective; it does the work of communication by bringing together sign and referent, word and world, even in its necessarily broken and fragmented way.

The reformation discussion of the sacraments in the sixteenth century offers one exemplar of the real, though muffled, connection between sign and referent. The sacraments as signs are not identical, but are ineluctably linked, to that which they represent--union with Christ in baptism and the Lord's Supper. The fact that the sign can be misused or misunderstood in no way invalidates its genuine connection to its referent. As George Steiner would say, words have a real presence in the world; that is, the covenant between world and word guarantees that language can speak truly, if not exhaustively, about that which is real.

I do not think it is accidental that Bakhtin and Pike, both of whom arguably work from within the Christian tradition, foreground irreducible complexity and the active word. (See my "'In the Chorus of Others': Bakhtin and Tradition" for a fuller discussion of Bakhtin's indebtedness to Christian thought and the way in which this influences his understanding of language.) But scholars from other traditions make similar gestures. Jürgen Habermas, for instance, offers a trenchant critique of Derrida's exclusive interest in abstract notions of langue; a Marxist, like a Christian, is unwilling to eliminate the day-to-day physicality of life from the purview of the scholar.

Irreducible complexity and the notion of the active word should caution Christian scholars against formulaic and simplistic interpretation of phenomena and texts. Language cannot be confined to an abstract system of signifers and signifieds; genuine communication does occur between individuals and even across diverse cultures. On the other hand, there is never a simple transfer of word or concept from mind to mind. Thus, on the question of the nature of language, a Christian scholar rejects both a one-to-one correspondence theory of meaning and the endless deferral of meaning in a chain of signifiers. Instead there is the recognition that in a multiplicity of ways we do shape words which are "always already" there, but that we do so in order to make sense of experiences which we commonly claim. Furthermore, both God and the world constantly intrude on our imaginations, disallowing solipsistic or radically skeptical theories of language. We use language not because it is an elegant (structuralism) or playful (deconstruction) system, but because it works. That is, it communicates. For structuralists and deconstructionists, communication is a problem to be solved; how does langue actually work in the world? For parole theorists, it is the given of language. Which is not to say that all the problems are solved. But the two different starting points give vastly different accounts of language and its meaning.

In this paper, I have been able to sketch only the outer contours of the map Christian scholarship might offer to the study of language. As the history of the church indicates, however, theological reflection on the nature of language and literature is an integral part of our heritage. It is my hope that I can continue this tradition thoughtfully and faithfully, in ways that are shaped and directed by my commitment to Christ.

(1) By irreducible complexity, I do not mean the theory that some structures in the biological world are so irreducibly complex that they cannot be accounted for by any naturalistic theory of evolution, as advocated by Michael J. Behe and others.

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"Nurturing Faith"
(Tenure Statement on Teaching, 1998)

Susan M. Felch

If I were to describe in simplest terms what I do in the classroom, I would say that I try to nurture faith. The problem with simple terms, however, is that they can obscure a complex process by providing tidy labels. One way to unpack the richness of this concept "to nurture," is to contrast it with two other formulations: "to confront" and "to fortify."

The idea of education as confrontational is certainly attractive. Professors want students to think, to reexamine their assumptions about life, to move from immature black-and-white thinking to the complexity, if not downright ambiguity, of maturity. Although we may nuance our own role in this endeavor--casting ourselves, for instance, as those who merely create cognitive dissonance--the college experience itself may become a bucket of cold water thrown upon unsuspecting subjects who, in turn, may either wake up or drown. A kind of "survival of the fittest" mentality takes over, if not the ethos of a cruel practical joke.

On the other hand, education as fortification also has its attractive features. What do we want our graduates to look like? If the answer is solid citizens, competently trained professionals, supporters of an ideological cause, or loyal church goers, our emphasis may turn from confronting students to buttressing their attitudes and skills.

If confrontation and fortification seem to be antithetical (one tears down and the other builds up) both are terms that invoke images of inert objects, blueprints, cognition, systems. Neither formulation is the unique preserve of a particular theological or ideological agenda. A naturalistic educator may wish to dismantle transcendental notions, but a socially-conscious Christian educator may wish to knock down materialistic assumptions. On the other hand, virtually any ideology which is centrally committed to ethical norms (Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, Christianity) will be tempted to engage in fortress education in order to build up a cadre of loyal adherents. Indeed, it is often true that confrontational education, rather than remaining disinterested, becomes merely the predecessor of a new fortification. Annie Dillard wryly observed this phenomenon in an essay first published in the Yale Review .

Every few years some bold and sincere Christian student at this university disagrees with a professor in class--usually about the professor's out-of-hand dismissal of Christianity. Members of the faculty, outraged, repeat the stories of these rare and uneven encounters for years on end, as if to prove that the crazies are everywhere, and gaining ground. The notion is, apparently, that these kids can't think for themselves. Or they wouldn't disagree. ("Singing with the Fundamentalists," The Yale Review 74 [1985]: 316)

Such a movement from confrontation to fortification can be traced in the trajectory from deconstruction to cultural studies in the literature departments of some American universities.

Nurturing, however, in distinction from the bricks-and-mortar motif of confrontation and fortification introduces the image of a living process which I find much more congenial to my sense of education. Theologically, there seem to be two rich strands which support defining educating as the process of nurture. The first strand acknowledges that all relationships are composed of both structural and personal elements: God is sovereign creator, but he makes adam in his own image; Christ is Lord, but he saves his people by becoming incarnate; a true leader does not lord it over subordinates, but is instead a gentle servant. In an educational context, these paradigmatic relationships suggest that appropriate hierarchical structures (which teachers necessarily inhabit) must be aligned with personal, caring interactions.

One failure of the confrontational model is that it does not address seriously the structural imbalance of power that always exists between students and a teacher in the classroom. As Dillard again humorously recounts from her own student days:

It was a provocative fact, which I seemed to have discovered, that we students outnumbered our teachers. Must we then huddle here like sheep?. . .Lately I had been trying to enflame my friends with the implications of our greater numbers. We could pull off a riot. We could bang on the desks and shout till they let us out. Then we could go home and wait for dinner. Or we could bear our teachers off on our shoulders, and --what? Throw them into the Lorna Doone batter? I got no takers. ( An American Childhood 231)

She got no takers because students normally acknowledge, and accede to, the imbalance of power that exists in every classroom. A confrontational model tacitly assumes that professors and students meet one another on an equal footing. In such an encounter, the student benefits from sparring with a well-matched partner. In fact, however, most students, simply because of their inexperience, are overpowered in a confrontational classroom, responding with cowed silence, simmering hostility, or cultivated mimicry--a response sometimes mistaken by the professor for genuine learning. A nurturing model, in contrast, pays attention to the structural and personal dynamics of the classroom. Although it recognizes the hierarchical structure, it calls on the one with power (the teacher) to use that position in a hospitable way, caring for students as persons as well as pupils.

The second theological strand which supports a model of education as nurturing can be summarized in this way: God loves process. He doesn't make the world instantly; he spends six days shaping and forming his creation and even then it isn't finished. "Be fruitful and multiply," he says. "Go name the animals and meet your wife and write love poetry: 'Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.'" Jesus sweats, and cries, and "grows in favor with God and man" before he completes his redemptive task which is itself a process of obedient life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Salvation is that mysterious process from foreknowledge to glorification that encompasses predestination, calling, and justification. In an educational context, this emphasis on process is a reminder that humans (myself and my students) aren't abstract systems or finished products but dynamic beings.

So, to nurture is to teach in such a way that both relationships and process are appropriately acknowledged. But no one nurtures in the abstract. I nurture someone (each student) but also something (that which I wish to take shape in him or her). What I want to nurture in my classroom is faith, taken both as a noun and as a verb. As a noun, faith is, of course, the Christian faith defined biblically, theologically, and historically as a body of beliefs as well as that vital component of redeemed experience granted by God's grace. I learn the faith and I have faith. As a verb, faith embraces faithfulness, the living out of salvation in the totality of life. To nurture faith in the classroom does not pit comprehensive system against experiential narrative but recognizes the importance of both.

So what do I actually do in the classroom to nurture faith?

First, when I design my syllabi, I try to include literary works written by thoughtful Christians which explicitly address issues of faith (Dante's Inferno , Julian of Norwich's Showings of Divine Love , C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces , Shusako Endo's Silence ). I want students to understand that intelligent believers have been wrestling for centuries with all the questions and issues that confront nineteen-year-olds in 1998. Their faith didn't begin when they were baptized or "accepted Christ." To be nurtured in the faith means to understand the tradition of faith as it has been interwoven through the centuries with wars, apostasy, Islam, skepticism, complacency, good, and evil. It means to understand that in the sixteenth century Catholics killed Protestants, but Protestants killed both Catholics and each other. And it means reading the achingly beautiful poetry of atheists alongside the pedantic prose of Christians. It means asking "Why did Spenser support England 's scorched earth policy in Ireland ," and "Why was T. S. Eliot attracted to fascism?" It means becoming alert to the sensus divinitatus that inhabits works written from other faith traditions. Our own tradition isn't always pretty, so nurturing faith doesn't mean dispensing warm fuzzies along with indoctrination; but I do believe that I can and should point out the scarlet thread of faithful writing that is intertwined throughout literature and encourage students to continue spinning it out for themselves. They can't, and shouldn't, replicate George Herbert's intricate poems of praise, but they can create an analogue suitable for our own time and place. I want to give them the hope that God has been, is now, and always will be present in his world.

A second example might not seem so obviously nurturing. In fact, it might seem downright confrontational. But I do try to nurture faith in the classroom by insisting on engaged, argumentative writing. "What snags your imagination?" I ask. "What do you passionately want to explore in this paper?" My students look at me blankly, but I know what they are thinking: "I don't want to explore anything passionately. I just want to finish this assignment and get a good grade." Still, I nag, I harangue, I insist on rewrites and individual conferences, I wear myself out. Why? Because living a life of faith, living a faithful life, just can't be done on automatic pilot. So I want them to catch the vision that thinking deeply, and then caring enough about other people to communicate those thoughts clearly, is part of living a faithful life. Obviously, there will be some days when the cognitive dissonance in my classroom makes it look like a confrontational arena, but my hope is that by the end of the semester students will have found it to be, on balance, a nurturing environment.

Third, I try to nurture faith in the classroom by exploring with my students the contemporary issues which dominate the areas of language and literature today. How does language get its meaning? What or who defines "literature?" What should we read and why? How does one cope with the proliferation of theoretical paradigms: postcolonialism, queer theory, the new materialism, cybertheory, post-positive realism? These may not be the most enduring questions one might ask, but they are the questions of our age. Someone has said that if you address every issue except the pressing one of the moment, you have failed utterly to proclaim the gospel. So, I believe that nurturing students' faithfulness means equipping them to understand and participate in the contemporary dialogue about literature and language.

Fourth, I also try to nurture faith in the classroom by encouraging my students' confidence in the Bible. It is simply not true to assume that asking, "What does the Bible say?" impels one into a foolish literalism, or worse yet for a Calvin professor, fundamentalism. What that question does is to open up the rich primary source of all Christian, and indeed much Western and now global, reflection. Scholars and writers from many traditions have found the Bible generative for their own works. Jacques Derrida, no friend of orthodox Christianity or Judaism, is haunted by the Bible's narratives, particularly in his later works. In Memoirs of the Blind (1990), he reflects thoughtfully on two episodes of biblical blindness--the elderly Isaac giving his blessings to Jacob and Esau and Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus . If Derrida mines the Bible for creative insights, why shouldn't my students--most of whom recognize it not just as the Ur-text of the western world but as the word of God--have their eyes opened to the astonishing richness of the biblical text? By my own use of the Bible in the classroom, as well as through directed assignments (such as exploring the structure of biblical narratives as modeled by Robert Alter's readings of Genesis), I try to nurture my students' understanding of the faith and encourage their faithful living.

Finally, I try to nurture faith by encouraging, but not requiring, my students to articulate the state of their own spiritual lives, no matter how feeble, noisy, charismatic, evangelical, or reformed those lives may be. I try to make room in response papers, discussions, and exam questions for reflection on their own spiritual identity in light of the literature we have read together. Because the vast majority of my students are children of the covenant, little ones whom I dare not cause to stumble, I sense the need to tread lightly around their habits of piety and devotion, even while I may offer them alternative patterns that seem richer or more consistent with faithfulness. However much I may challenge students' ideas, study habits, values, or sleep patterns, I try to assure them, not always successfully, that they are essentially safe in my classroom or in my office--that they can be who they are as well as grow into what they want to become.

I am committed to nurturing faith in the classroom, not only because this model has theological warrant, but because I think it responds to our current situation. That is, while I don't want to claim that is it the model for Christian education, I do want to claim that it is a particularly appropriate paradigm for Calvin College in 1998. What can I assume about the students who inhabit my classroom? I can't assume theological literacy, family stability, or personal centers. They aren't tabulae rasae , to be sure, but I can assume that for many students their intellectual and spiritual rooms are cluttered with styrofoam throw-aways. Classic confrontational teaching often contributes to the destabilizing fragmentation of their lives rather than stimulating new thoughts. On the other hand, fortification teaching may simply harden the styrofoam into unrecyclable plastic. Nurturing teaching, however, recognizes where students are and commits itself to digging around the soil, applying the fertilizer, pruning the branches, and then waiting for the fruit to ripen.

In a long poem entitled "Satire 3," probably written during the 1590s when John Donne was in his early twenties, the author gloomily surveyed the religious situation in England . The Roman church was superstitious, the Genevan church harsh. The Anglican establishment had already ingratiated itself with the state and the skeptics and universalists exaggerated their claims to knowledge. Faced with no palatable options, Donne nevertheless concludes with an epiphany which opens up a space for hope.

doubt wisely; in strange ways
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

Donne himself spent the next forty years struggling up that hill; so will I and so will my students. My goal in the classroom is to nurture their faith so that they will know enough, and hope enough, and be loved enough to doubt wisely, but not to abandon the Truth.

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