In philosophy and art humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation. Philosophy as an attention to human problems must yield to science dealing with mechanical masses of non-human material. The questions of medicine, hygiene and psychology are being relegated gradually to physiology. Art no longer attempts to mirror man, or the things in nature as seen by man, but depicts unrecognisable patterns which are like nothing on earth—lines, cubes, inhuman designs. The art of representing visible likeness is relegated to the science of photography. The philosophies and arts of one age are the exact sciences of the next. Philosophy, searching for what is true, and art, searching for what is new, may be discovered as being always out in front of society, in the vanguard; while the sciences and industries—the more utilitarian and moralistic activities—may be considered as forming the main body of the army, moving into the positions the spearhead establishes. This division of labour is rarely seen operating on a large scale, but viewing the world as a whole it will be seen that the humanism which has inspired so many of the great philosophers and artists of the past is a goal attained. We have arrived at humanity; there is work for science, enormous work—but the vanguard has to look to new goals ahead. — Harry Hooton, excerpt from "Problems are Flowers and Fade," from Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun, self-published booklet, 1943.
Over the last few months, Harry Hooton has been on my mind. His name has been mentioned a number of times as I have progressed through this archival project, and on my first visit to Amanda Stewart's house she lent me a copy of Poet of the 21st Century: Harry Hooton, Collected Poems, selected and introduced by Sasha Soldatow and published by Angus & Robertson in 1990. I didn't open the book until I knew I could take it to bed and read it entirely. My gut told me Harry and Sasha would eat me, my night, my bed, effortlessly. And they did!
Back in the heyday of claims about "the internet revolution"--I'd say 1997 was a peak year--there was naturally a backlash. I sympathized a little bit with the backlashers, since so many people who knew nothing about computing and information technology participated in the hype. But mostly I did not sympathize. In '96 or so I was asked to write a short review of Barry Sanders' A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) and I used it as my chance to respond to those who fretted about the impending demise of the book. (I knew Barry a bit from our days researching together at the Huntington Library and actually--from those good conversations in which he seemed no troglodyte--I was surprised when reading his book how much I disagreed with him.) Here are the first two paragraphs of the review (the rest can be found here):
Some anxieties become merely historical. One is surely Barry Sanders's. His book A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (Pantheon, 1994) is full of worries that the flow of data across the screen is replacing the cozy curl in the armchair--frets about the death of the book. I'm not really much concerned with the problem of making a rejoinder to Sanders, or to Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber, 1995) eloquently joins the trend of English profs become anti-computing Jeremiahs. I'm more concerned, actually, with the way in which the logic of Sanders and Birkerts and others affects our thinking about universities at a critical moment when teaching, the intellectual relation of teacher to student, and basic university structures, can dramatically change for the better if we take a few conceptual cues from the information age. The parallels between the two situations--how electronic media alter the book and how they alter education--will have to remain somewhat implicit here, for lack of space. (But, partly to prove my point, I invite discussion of the animated sort these printed pages won't enable; see below.)
For Barry Sanders, computers are intellectually fascistic. He thinks that when young people read books, as opposed to electronic text, they experience a kind of authority (the author's) that is engaging and not forbidding--entreating interaction. Horrified, he imagines that when a "young person...enters into an electronic world, [it is] one in which the rules are immutable and pre-established.... He or she comes to know that authority, real knowledge, and skill, reside in the machine, dictated by an anonymous disembodied programmer.... Authority resides in the book as well. But it is authority, not technological ukase." This so completely mistakes electronic text that one hardly knows where to begin. Sanders is wrong about the relationship between the authority of the programmer and the individual reader of e-text. If anything, authority is both more transparent and more effectively open to response in the new media for reading and learning than in the context of print--and here is where we might conceive of a powerful author-reader/teacher-learner relation for the near future.
I loved my old home page and I was sorry to have to give it up a few years ago for something spare and linky/listy. I concede that the sparer style works better but I miss the narrative clutter, a non-design enthralled by hyperlinking right there in the flow of words. That little "latest news" link in the top left blinked for about a year when that was the newest thing. Fortunately I knew that blinking links were bad news pretty quickly and reverted to plain old plain old as soon as the excitement faded. The old page dates back to 1994 and it looked more or less as you see above from 1994 until 2007 or '08! I maintain a link to it and I imagine that most of the links still work. Prior to the site on top of which this old page sat I had a wonderful gopher. This was of course before the graphical browser (Mosaic was the first, I think--before Netscape) and it was stiff and hierarchical but effective in conveying information and giving users a tour, in effect, of the material you wanted to present. I loved the chaos of hyperlinking once it was possible through this thing called "the world wide web" and, let me repeat, I felt that the hyperlinky text was the way to go. Eventually another kind of design became the standard. Now--what with drupal and blogs and blog-style user-enabled sites--we're back to a more cluttered surface, but still nothing like this single-look languagy flat surface.
I've created what's called a "gadget" which you can add to your personalized Google page (called "iGoogle"). If you already have a personalized Google page, just click on this link and you'll now see "your daily Al" every time you go to Google.
University of Pennsylvania: PENNsound, writing.upenn.edu/ pennsound and Kelly Writers House webcasts. A stellar project at Penn, PENNsound is “committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives.” Here you can listen to readings from 1950s to today and often find great extras and links to other exciting websites.
In late spring/summer 2001 Jim O'Neil, then the higher education beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me at length for a story about my electronic pedagogy. The essay would appear in the (now defunct) Inquirer Sunday Magazine in August of '01. In '99 and '00 I had taught three all-online versions of my modern & contemporary American poetry course, English 88. And I had for years been using chat rooms (the earliest was a MOO called PennMOO) and listservs to enable the students' discussion to be the central activity of the course. The six-year-old piece seems a bit quaint to me now, and Jim's focus (in several middle paragraphs) on my life and "development" as a teacher is a bit embarrassing, but the narrative is more or less right. Here's a passage from the essay, starting with the end of the biographical stuff:
In the early 1980s, while pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia, Filreis began to teach. At the time, the university purchased early-version desktop computers. "They were big white machines, in the shape of a huge space helmet," Filreis said. "They ran a word processor program called Magic Wand."
Filreis stored set pieces on computer, each describing a common student writing mistake. He gave each set piece a number. Then, marking student papers by hand, he put a number in the margin near each mistake, and attached the appropriate computer-generated commentary.
"This changed my relationship with the students," Filreis said. "I wanted to engage the students in a conversation." In effect, he had created a low-tech prototype of the teaching style he would later refine. He calls it "dialogic pedagogy."
When e-mail and the Internet appeared, Filreis, who arrived at Penn in 1985, easily integrated these new tools. The core of that teaching philosophy mirrors the course material of English 88.
Postmodernist poets focused on the process of their poetry, rather than on what the words in their poems actually said. The purpose was to make poetry and language new again.
There's no better way to describe Filreis' teaching style. He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself. The point is to develop his students' ability to think critically, not to have memorized every last fact about Gertrude Stein. And yet, he said, through that active engagement with the material, students end up remembering more of the content.
Here's Filreis' teaching style in action: By late April, the students in English 88 are studying the postmodern poets.
Shortly after class gets out one day, the English 88 listserv starts to hum. Some students like the postmodernist message. Others think a poem whose words made no conventional sense was ridiculous. At one point during the raging debate, Filreis e-mails everyone a brief message to guide the discussion along. He cites a quote from one student, who chafed at the postmodernist experiment: "I disagree with the idea that effective poetry can consistently be made by imposing an arbitrary set of rules on some subject and following them rigorously," wrote the student, Jacob Kraft.
Filreis' seven-word reply reads: "Is this not what a sonnet is?"The online jousting plants the seeds for an equally charged debate in class a few days later over an elegy performed in 1975 by postmodernist Jackson Mac Low, called "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore". Mac Low took his friend's name, used a computer to churn out every word that could be constructed from reshuffling the letters of the name, and then got friends to read those 960 words aloud in a staged performance. The work generates intense give-and-take among the students on whether old-fashioned elegies did justice to the dead.
"Who's to say words can capture the essence of a human being?" says Laine McDonnell. "Who's to say these words of Mac Low's don't capture his friend more?" "Aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired," pipes up Jake Kraft. "The postmodernists are only interested in the process. They throw aesthetics out the window."
Now that Filreis has broken down the walls of the classroom, he wants to break through all other confines of the university setting. "I want to start recruiting 'teachers' from the extended Penn community," he said, clearly thinking back to Carl Peterson's influence on him at Colgate. "I want more electronic mentoring. I want to deepen the experiment. I'd love to be liberated from the semester so I could teach whomever, wherever, whenever."
Thanks to technology, he has already liberated himself. He has created a program through which faculty can mentor incoming freshmen over the Internet before they even get to campus. He has cajoled some faculty to participate in online book groups for Penn alumni. And his own Web site - which registered more than 2.6 million hits in the last six months and includes extensive resources on modern poetry, the 1950s and the Holocaust - has become a helpful tool for high-school teachers nationwide.
Filreis is one of a small but growing cadre of professors across the country who are changing classroom pedagogy - and not merely by turning the old-fashioned lecture into a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. Many colleges provide grants and training for professors interested in using the new technology, and on every college campus there's at least one professor harnessing the basic technology of the Internet to free class time for richer, student-driven discussion.
Does the ubiquity of recordings of poets reading their own poems change the way we teach modern and contemporary poetics? On April 23, 2007, I had a good conversation with Steven Evans about this in my office at the Writers House. Here is a slightly edited recording of that conversation: this link takes you directly to a downloadable mp3 file. Steve's Lipstick of Noise site is subtitled "listening and linking to poetry audio files." I visit the site at least twice weekly.
I happily host two podcast series. One is PENNsound podcasts and features recordings from that vast archive of poetry recordings. The other series, Kelly Writers House podcasts, presents excerpts from various sorts of programs, events, seminars and discussions at the Writers House. Please listen and let me know what you think.