When Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein founded PennSound in 2003, one of their impetuses was purely pedagogical. They wanted to make a digital audio archive of free, downloadable files of poets reading their own work and of discussions about poetics available to teachers and learners looking to parse out poetic lineages and differences.
As Al Filreis explains in this 2007 podcast, PennSound is an archive for those seeking to make aesthetic connections between different poetic trends: a site of convergence for the reader (in this case, listener) and the poetic tradition. This makes PennSound a particularly useful resourse for teachers who are looking to demonstrate to their students the relationships between contemporary poetry and earlier poetic movements.
A brilliant former student, now pondering a career as a teacher, asks a few questions. I hope he will forgive me the pithy responses.
What do you think is the purpose of education?
Not to teach but to enable learning. That will sometimes entail teaching, but mostly will entail other modes. These other modes are best effected in small groups (either in person or virtual, but ideally small in number). These other modes should probably not be put into practice in a classroom. Maybe, to take one possible example, in an old house.
Why do you think it is important to teach?
Not “important to teach,” but important to be part of organizations dedicated to enabling learning. The reasons for that are obvious, I hope. Learners often (although not always) benefit from guidance when they deal with materials and with problems new to them. They also benefit from guidance when the environment (outside schools--e.g. stressed or nonfunctioning families, wartorn or poverty-stricken communities, etc.) is not otherwise conducive to thought.
What strategies or methods do you think are effective?
Leading discussions of problems and materials enables learning and application of lessons to other contexts and situations. Lecturing enables consumption, reinforcement of subject discipline, belief in the authority of the lecturer, and silos of intellection.
In June 1999 I and a hundred or so others (teachers, poets, poet-teachers) gathered at Bard College for a conference on the possible connection between experimental poetry and experimental pedagogy, hosted by Joan Retallack among others. There were six or seven of us from the Kelly Writers House at the conference, and on the last morning of the three-day confab (there on the slopes leading down to the eastern side of the Catskills-region Hudson River, it did at times feel like summer camp), we presented about the Writers House itself as an alternative learning community focused on poetics.
Conference done. Then we promised ourselves we’d do some kind of followup in Philadelphia, and indeed did so in early 2001. Joan Retallack came down from Bard, reading some of her own poetry that seemed relevant to the theme (alt-poetry, alt-pedagogy), and then Kerry Sherin, KWH’s director at the time, described a transition to the next and longer part of the program: a discussion, as a follow-up to Bard, about specific pedagogical issues and practices. There were about forty of us in the room there at the Writers House, in addition to about thirty who were tuning in by live webcast. Louis Cabri, for instance, was then in Calgary — and participated by posing some questions.
Not long ago Jenny Lesser converted the old RealVideo-format recordings into audio-only mp3, which of course these days is a much more usable, portable mode.
Here's Kerry Sherin setting up the discussion, by, in part, remembering the Bard conference. Here's 9 minutes or so on experiential learning. Here's a discussion of what makes it difficult to teach experimental writing. And here's a link to the whole 2-hour audio mp3, and, for your video fans and users, still, of the Real player, here's a link to the streaming video.
A poet in a serious discussion yesterday used the example of 140 characters as a constraint-based poetics. He was talking about haiku, natch
The tweet in itself was precisely 140 characters. Here in the relatively spacious J2 textbox, though, it seems so bare, so minimal. In the twitter format I use (the application called “Tweetie”) the full 140-character update fills the space and makes me feel downright loquacious. These new media really are our messages. You'd think I'd have discovered this before now.
Kenny Goldsmith responded to my blog entry from a while back, entitled "5-page paper on Stevens, yours for just $59.75." Here's what Kenny writes:
Some time ago, you blogged about the conundrum of finding a paper mill selling an interpretation of Steven's poem "Mozart, 1935," which might have incorporated your own work on this subject into it, a remix of your own words. You say, "Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem?" You then go on to say that "I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No? How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?"
My answer is not desperate at all. In fact, each semester, I force my students to purchase a paper from paper mills and present it as their final project as if they wrote it themselves. Each student must stand up in front of the class and present it with such irrefutable conviction as if they themselves wrote it and truly believe every word of it. Failure to do so convincingly results in group censure from the class, and ultimately in a lower grade.
The kernel of how we must teach today is embedded in your quandary. By reifying the old lines of "this is mine" and "this is not," we perpetuate myths of originality. Was your research sprung completely from your own genius? Most likely not. You sourced it from dozens of places. What is original -- and genius -- is the way you wove those sources together. But isn't that what good research always has been? It's just that the digital makes this process transparent and eminently elastic in ways that were hidden before.
Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) to describe a new tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius -- a romantic isolated figure -- is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.
It's time to let go of notions of propriety and ownership of language, particularly in university situation where there is a subsidized economy. None of us are writing for profit -- we are subsidized by research funds and university positions -- and are thus obliged to take the most theoretically radical and experimental positions possible. Imagine if other research wings of universities such as science labs took the safe and known ways? They certainly would be upbraided for not taking chances. Why can't we do the same?
- - -
Now my reply to Kenny's reply:
I'm sort of hoping that the parents of our students will see the $59 charge on their sons' and daughters' credit-card bill, and a discussion of this purchase will ensue. In such a conversation--I'm imagining it taking place over the Thanksgiving dinner, with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Schloime listening in--Kenny's teaching will spread like waves across the pre-postmodern generations, the tuition-paying traditionalists who thought that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school they were escaping unoriginality rather than venturing to its center.
Anyway, the tone of my blog entry was all wrong, as I can see upon re-reading, and I think threw Kenny off. I find the fact of a $60 five-page paper on Wallace Stevens absurd and I'm not primarily concerned about the fate of my own academic writing in the world of digital copying. Really. I don't disagree with Kenny--as he knows--about remix. I don't fear it and I have very little concern about owning my interpretation of a poem by Wallace Stevens. It was my hook, my start on writing about the topic. Already not a fan of the grade-giving and grade-getting system of higher education (a view to which this blog amply testifies), I'm bemused by the lack of consciousness and laziness of people in that system feeling the need to pay top dollar for a dumbed-down academic remix. A little bit of work of could have produced the same (I mean even a remix) for free. You see, that's where we begin to see differences between Kenny's uncreative writing course and the paper mills he seems to favor (he doesn't really favor them--imagine him and the purveyors of such a venture in the same room!--but his position necessitates that he be annoyed by people annoyed by them). Kenny's students are (to say the least) extremely conscious of the aesthetic or anti-aesthetic (but that's still an aesthetic) of the sampling, and the violation of conventional values--a violation felt as such by the giant middle on the spectrum running from cool anti-authorial stealing to lazy pirating advantage-taking profiteers--is material for his pedagogy and their learning. He "forces" them to engage in such violation and it's the beginning of their venture into the art world. Kenny and his students, brilliant in their creative uncreativity, are doing one thing, which I admire and literally support. And his world is energized by its all being free. A gift economy thriving on the new digital world in which authorship has happily disappeard. I'm there too. But the purveyors of the paper mill have created something that is the opposite of the gift economy, and the result is an uncreative uncreativity that only very very superficially befits the world Kenny enjoys living in.
To me, this is all about pedagogy and the fate of higher education. I adore the energetic, intense, resourceful (that's, by the way, another word for creative) not-lazy students who are self-consciously participating in the lazy buy-your-papers economy. I don't adore students for whom this process is a matter of sheer unselfconscious ease. The former is learning, being part of a community of learners (such as in Kenny's amazing classes), and it is always, always a rigorous uncreativity. The latter are mere corner-cutters, seeking the easy. I have little time for them. What Kenny and his students do is not easy--seems easy, but isn't. Let's make that distinction.
The very fact that audio recordings of poetry are now readily available to the classroom can be turned to a great advantage and can at least temporarily change the relationship between teacher and student. It is surely the case that when my students and I in class together listen to sound files instead of reading poem-texts, our vocabularies tend to be on the same plane. I might have a subtler response to what we’re hearing, and certainly I know far more than they about the sound in literary-historical context, but they are never struck dumb by the terminology I bring to bear on the point I seek to make about the specific sound of the words, the poetics of it. The students notice this difference – between their talk about the poem on the page and their talk about the sounded or recorded poems – and their discussion of poetics generally becomes charged with it. If it is true of those who perform spoken poetry that (as David Antin has put it) ‘it was my habit to record my talks / to find out what i[’]d said’ then similarly, the disorienting and terminologically disruptive mode I am describing is the means by which we might find out what we are teaching.
Years ago Jim O'Donnell - a pioneer in internet-age teaching - said that the role of the teacher would change from that of provider of knowledge... to that of "front end to the universe": from be-all/there-all giver in a room full of receivers and final arbiter of what constitutes relevant knowledge to medium or gateway or traffic cop gently guiding but never blocking the learners' pathways outward to a world of information and knowledge and text that made the teacher a speck on the horizon yet still great in importance if she or he would thrive in the role of medium. Not maker or giver of the medium, but medium itself. There are classrooms today (and it has not much to do with computing hardware available, though a minimum is required...namely a good wireless connection for everyone) in which the new role is possible and the teacher loves playing it. From time to time here I have mentioned Kenneth Goldsmith's teaching, in part because I adore what Kenny does and in large part because I happen to have access to it, a close look at its development. Kenny's artwork did all this before he taught regularly, but now the pedagogy is catching up with the rest of the project. Here are a few paragraphs Kenny sent me not long ago about what the hell is happening in his classroom:
During a recent classroom visit of a visual artist, it occurred to me that we've reached a new paradigm in radical pedagogy. The artist entered the room, greeted the class and began his lecture with a PowerPoint presentation about his work. While he was speaking, he noticed that the class -- all of whom had their laptops open and connected to the internet -- were furiously typing away. He flattered himself that, in the traditional manner, the students were taking copious notes on his lecture, devouring every word he spoke. But what he was not aware of was that the students were engaged in a simultaneous electronic dialogue with each other about what the artist was saying, all played out over the class listserv, which they all had instant access to. During the course of the artist's lecture, dozens of emails, links and photos were blazing back and forth to each other; each email elicited yet more commentary and gloss on the prior emails to the point where what the artist was saying was merely a jumping off point to an investigation of such depth and complexity, that the artist -- or any ideal of traditional pedagogy -- would never have achieved. It was an unsurpassed form of student's active and participatory engagement, but went far astray from what the speaker had in mind.
When later told about this, the artist was very disturbed. His ego was mauled and when shown the blizzard of gloss, was more dispirited as he felt much of what had transpired was irrelevant and even irreverent (hastily Photoshopped detournments of images and concepts he brought up). He was flabbergasted that all of this "conversation" was happening and he, the authoritative speaker, was not privy to what was being said.
This talk was presented in response to a request for a manifesto to conclude a four-day conference on new writing practices. The conference took place in February 2010 at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta.
My dicta are four in total. In sum they are:
1) Writing isn’t the only thing that is changing or needs to change. 2) The other kinds of changes might demand an attention very different in kind from our usual. 3) Deep down, most of us do not really want these other changes to come. 4) The ideal site might be where things happen rather than get presented or taught.
Now I will elaborate a little on each:
1) If all this talk about true modal changes caused by (or aided by) writing in new media is going to be more than just talk, then we must also seek, or at least encourage, major changes in the institutions that were and are organized to assure the continuation of the old mode. Which is to say: if publishers and universities and art centers as organizations (with budgets, staff hierarchies, physical spaces, customs of credentialing) are set up assuming these binarisms:
I write/you read I talk/you listen I have/you want I am/you aren’t yet I have language/you need my language I produce/you consume & purchase
--and if the relationship I write/you read is in the process of really changing (and indeed most of us here do our work on the assumption that it has already changed)--then all other aspects of the relationship must also be subject to that change. We cannot expect the traditional I write/you read binarism to disintegrate and then just hope that everything else in the writer/reader (and publisher/consumer, teacher/learner) relationship will similarly wither away, for there are actual forces maintaining it.
2) So the most obvious thing one can say is that the conversations we have been having this weekend are not just about writing. We should think every bit as innovatively about the institutions and organizations that rose up around the technology of the book as we have in conceiving the writing that goes on inside or near or astride these institutions. (Complete separation from them is a nice dream, but only as nice and dreamy as other separatisms.)
3) The honest truth is that most of us associated with such organizations - again I mostly mean universities and publishers and art centers, but also humanities institutes and foundations supporting artists – probably don't want the rest of the changes to follow from the disintegration of I write/you read exclusivity. This is especially true of I talk/you listen. (I make noise and you listen silently. I am producing something; you for the moment are unproductive.) Like the poetry reading, the lecture--being an ideology as well as an artifact of a certain phase of technology--is not something most people here are ready to give up. But I'm certain we will all be better off when we’ve put an end to the lecture; and anyway an alternative mode is among the main implications of what we do. So what is truly interactive? How many of us have been promised that such-and-such a gathering would be “interactive” only to find out that what people really want to give--but rarely to receive--is a series of monologues?
4) I do not believe what I'm saying is to come about virtually. It is very much a matter of physical design, of planning (and, incidentally, of planning to stay), of working with brick and mortar. We need to build spaces that are unconducive to what I'm doing right now.
Back in the mid-1970s, when he was promoting “oral poetry” as an alternative to the traditional presentation of writing, Jerome Rothenberg said the following: "As for poetry 'belonging' in the classroom, it's like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have been an accountant." Yet Rothenberg did teach poetry in the classroom, and so admitted to a realization I very much admire and have myself used as a guiding principle: “the classroom [can] become a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be ‘learned’ (not ‘taught’) in action.”
As pre-digital as the metaphor of the kiva is, I still like it. I like it because it pushes the distinction between teaching and learning, and because it imagines spaces where “poetry actually happens” rather than where it is presented as if it’s not there and thus must be talked about.