Kelly Writers House

The seminar

This coming Wednesday, April 21 on the UPenn campus, Danny Snelson has organized an evening to celebrate Tan Lin’s recent book publication, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking [or 7CV] through the event series he curates, EDIT: Processing Network Publishing. Instead of a typical book launch, the event Wednesday seeks to enact and extend a poetics of distribution and/or metadata. Which is to say, a poetics that foregrounds problems of data description/retrieval, information processing, and the status of the book as an administered object. Through the event, an impromptu workshop will be created (picture a nerdier version of Warhol’s Factory), which will extend Lin’s book through various hand-made printed objects as well as digital ones.

I was asked by Tan Lin to write a short essay for this event. I had to choose from a list of topics and I had to write it straight: accessible, informative, normalized.

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The Seminar

Commercial entities run what they call seminars. You can attend them at corporate headquarters, in the "seminar room," or in meeting rooms at hotels specializing in hosting such professionalizing gatherings. Perhaps the term came into use in this context because its progenitors sought to yield some of the academic connotation from the university. In the early years of the 21st-century, the word in its business context has come to mean a commercial event.

Most people, when using the term, mean a recurring meeting, a series. At American universities it has come to mean something of the opposite of "the lecture." Here there is an expectation that learners will participate in the making of the lesson. Often this counter-intuitive methodology is never explained; the reversal of expected roles is simply assumed. When a teacher lectures in a seminar it is deemed inappropriate.

Business-school pedagogy has positioned the seminar exactly halfway between its new corporate and its traditional academic connotations. Here the learner is expected to think "out of the box," while the pedagogy is said to be both "open" and "Socratic." But the so-called Socratic Method (favored by law schools) leads learners through a discussion in which freely volunteered answers to questions lead inexorably to the lesson the teacher had in mind from the start. Thus it can be said that the seminar has become the perfect tool of hegemony: open by process, closed by content.

It is easier to lecture than to lead a truly open discussion (in which the endpoint topic cannot be predicted at the outset). It is easier to transfer the power of certain knowledge by the open-closed method than by the closed method.

The word "seminar" is derived from the Latin seminarium, a seed plot. In the post-agricultural economy of the United States - an era rung in by Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr as the time of the university as "Knowledge Factory" - idioms making use of the seed plot have withered and died. Essentially the only remaining idiom in this connotative family is "sewing seeds of destruction."

In some European countries, the seminar is not at all what it is in the U.S. It is a lecture class (often "given" by a super-eminent figure) in which there is no discussion, but a synthesizing paper (a seminar paper) is due at the end of the course of meetings. The eminence sows a seed; the learner, silently gathered around, is the relatively fertile or infertile furrow set to receive it. In this the trope makes clear sense: the lecture is given and (as certified more or less by the term-ending paper) it is received. The seminar in Europe continues to be associated with old concepts of authority (gone to seed, we might say). But in the U.S., while it would seem that the seminar augurs a new kind of authority in which listener can be talker and talker listener, the seed is gone from the scene.

democracy and lists


Recently I listened again to my conversation with Ian (Sandy) Frazier, recorded in 2006. Now we've segmented this audio recording into topical segments. Go here here and listen to portions of the discussion on populism, Francis Parkman, the connection between democracy and the writing of lists, on the idea of an "open-hearted" American place.

bitter, rock, trash, Ben & gold

In our "7-up" series, 7 people talk for 7 minutes each about something - trash one year, bitterness another, rock a third, Ben (Franklin) a fourth. It's wonderful random stuff. Come and listen.

megachurches for spring break

When the gospel garage-rock we had so tolerantly been appreciating came to an abrupt end, Lon Solomon's face appeared like the Wizard of Oz on shining silver screens. A shiver ran down my spine and kept running as his dark mouth opened wide around words like "trustworthiness" and "veracity".

very printeresting

book arts

the Howe team

Photo by Arielle Brousse. T-shirt design by Michelle Taransky.

going around on Moebius

Chris Funkhouser, Sarah Dowling and Tan Lin joined me yesterday at the Writers House to talk about a Bruce Andrews poem - "Center" from Moebius. This PoemTalk session will be released a few months from now.

are people getting better? Laurie Anderson tells us

When Laurie Anderson spent two days with us at the Writers House in 2003, I interviewed her and moderated her discussion with others. This morning we release the segmented edition of the audio recording of that session, dividing the whole into topical parts. Here is the list of topical segments, and here is the link to our Anderson Writers House Fellows page, where you can also find links to video recordings of Laurie's performance and also of the discussion session (in RealVideo format).

1. introduction by Al Filreis (3:19)
2. on the Nerve Bible and the body (4:06)
3. on the autobiographical nature of the Nerve Bible (1:57)
4. on time and responsibility (4:34)
5. on ending but not concluding performances (2:28)
6. on performing Statue of Liberty at the 2001 Town Hall performance (8:20)
7. on starting out as an artist and being in a commune (7:49)
8. on technology and media (8:57)
9. on Puppet Motel (2:52)
10. Anderson's favorite contemporary poets (6:37)
11. on the impossibility of technology being sensually subtle (6:27)
12. on Melville's bible and Songs and Stories from Moby Dick (8:33)
13. on whether or not people are getting better (3:51)

Susan Howe last night & this morning

This morning I interviewed and moderated a discussion with Susan Howe, and last night Susan read her work, including the opening pages of Melville's Marginalia, sections of The Midnight, and the poems in a series called "118 Westerly Terrace" (the address of Wallace Stevens's home). Click here for links to audio and video recordings of both events.

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