Commentaries - September 2007

teaching consensus through dissensus

In the early 90s I taught my class on the literature and culture of the 1950s. The course was about consensus and these young brilliant doubters decided that the form the seminar should take should be dissensus--in itself a resistance to the material. They went hog wild and I let them do so. These were heady early days of the web and we put a summary of the (non)final exam essays on a web page here.

The photo at right (created by the students in a then-new program called Photoshop) morphs me onto a singing/dancing/chanting it's-no-longer-the-1950s Allen Ginsberg.

At the end of the course, one of the students wrote: "We thrive upon cognitive dissonance; we never shrink from conflict, understanding that 'the disagreements themselves can be the point of connection' (to quote Gerald Graff's book on teaching the conflicts). There have been times that we have yearned for consensus, for closure, but we all agree that the most engaging, the most thought-provoking, sessions have been those left unresolved, both sides of the room ruddy-faced and hot under the collar as we collect our materials for our next class."

"I am indeed still muddling, sifting, figuring, reconfiguring, and getting a more firm grip on what I think," wrote Michelle, "but that effort no longer constitutes my position on anything. Even those 'who claim to be so straight as to the way they view the world,' of whom I had been suspect but also admired, are also still in a process of thinking and rethinking."

"This is what happens," writes Ellona, "to the undergraduate who is rejected by intellectual community: when students are assuaged into believing that they take nothing relevant from a course other than a letter on their transcript, they build an ideology of test scores and essay grades, and grow to love being judged solely by others for the intellectual content of their thought, rather than testing the limits of their own intellects against another person."

"A university," Christy writes, "should be a safe place for students to experiment with ideas and to challenge our perceptions of the world...." Alas, she writes, in the current climate the student "quickly learns to keep his mouth shut about an issue until the professor has told him what to think about it. THIS IS NOT AN EDUCATION; IT IS CLASSICAL CONDITIONING AT ITS BEST." So "What needs to happen for such an environment to occur? Student-faculty interaction is undoubtedly a place to start. Students need to be able to discuss their ideas and beliefs with people who are more experienced at questioning such issues. Students need to learn to defend their beliefs against someone who knows more about the subject; this will force us to think critically about the issues with which we are working, and ultimately will teach us how to construct and deconstruct an argument. We will begin to understand the world around us in a very real way, and this understanding will provide us with ways to interact with the world."

The above-mentioned Ellona wrote up an "Undergraduate's Bill of Rights and Responsibilities." These included:

You have the right to conduct undergraduate research, and have its intellectual content taken seriously.

You have the right to prioritize teaching in the tenure process. You have a right to protest that lack. You have a right to expect that your concerns matter.

You have the right to organize class dinners and parties, and to invite the professor to attend without feeling you've overstepped the boundaries of propriety by mingling social and academic pursuits.

Under "Responsibilities":

This contract is in danger of being dissolved by the "University" at all times. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to see that the academic community includes you at all times, and a responsibility to fight like hell when a Provost or Undergraduate Chair or tenured professor defines that community without you in it.

Finally she added: "In my ideal academic community, everyone would know this by heart, would recite it word for word and then follow it up with a Shakespeare sonnet."

[] See this comment on the above.

coming soon: the American night

I've written a brief review of Alan Wald's new book Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade. Trinity of Passion is the second of three linked books that track a generation of left-wing American writers from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

The earlier study, Exiles from a Future Time, took us from the concurrent emergence of aesthetic modernism and of post-1917 forms of radical politics to the first months and years of the Depression. (The story of that concurrence takes Wald and us to the brink of understanding how and when modernism and communism could and could not converge—-a big, important topic that Wald himself has played a major role in raising in other books and essays over the years.) The new work, focusing more on novelists (poets were the emphasis of Exiles), takes us through the Popular Front period. The third book, already researched and in states of draft, is to be called The American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Wald is right to claim that each of the three “stands alone as a self-contained book” (to quite the new book's preface) but, when taken together, the three will have coherently introduced dozens of fascinating heretical writers most readers will not have known before, and will have reworked—sometimes with the addition of stunning new information about their political views and affiliations—a number of writers we thought we knew.

Here is a passage from my review:

"Judging only from the many books in which Alan Wald is thanked—-typically for sharing his personal archive, providing leads, and teaching his method—-we know that he is among those who believe that the survival of such research has a political and ethical efficacy. And if he has conveyed the sense of this style to a few young scholars, he is also aware of his debt to predecessors: Walter Rideout for his 1956 book on the radical U.S. novel (daring for its time), Daniel Aaron for Writers on the Left of 1961, and James Gilbert for Writers and Partisans of 1968. Wald’s work stands in a literary-historical tradition. But his trilogy is already better and more coherent than the three just named. Why? Because the archives are open wider than they were during the cold war, and because veterans of American literary communism were ready to talk at least somewhat honestly by the time Wald (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) traveled to them with his tape recorder."

And here is the whole review - I should say draft of it, since it's bound to be edited a bit.

not bearded barbarians, per Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth in the New York Times Book Review in 1961 on the new poets: Denise Levertov was tops, with Robert Creeley a close second, Charles Olson third (oh C.O. must have loved that), then three San Francisco-based poets, and then a few others. Creeley's poems: "Each is an excruciating spams of guilt." This is a 1960 story so naturally it's on my 1960 blog, here. (Speaking of Olson, I find our Olson PENNsound author page to be a goldmine. Have a good listen.)

words as they come to hand

Tony Green of New Zealand makes 3-dimensional word-things.

I'm happy to list Tony's blog among my links and also here in this entry:
http://tony_green.typepad.com/. A must read/see. Tony is a "former academic, now freelance art historian,art critic,curator,poet, twice married, father of a homeopath, an accountant, a schizophrenic, a ballroom/latin dancer, a gymnast, & a university arts student."

I believe I first "met" Tony during Robert Creeley's visit to the Kelly Writers House in 2000. During two-day visits by Writers House Fellows. And Tony - who had heard Bob Creeley read in Auckland in 1976 and got to know him in Albuquerque in 1983 and in Buffalo and elsewhere in the 90s - participated in the live webcast of the interview/discussion with the poet which I led. I recall that Tony phoned us from New Zealand to speak with Bob. Here's a link to the mp3 audio-only recording of that discussion. Somewhere in this hour-long recording should be the conversation between the two.

I even - and proudly - own one of the Tony's pieces. I "teach" it when I teach my course on modern & contemporary poetry.

nothing inspirational

In Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938) dictated the order in which a poem of historical or political significance should be treated in the classroom. What was "prior" was the poem as a poem; then and only then could it "offer illumination" as a "document." Such illumination was possible, at least in the abstract, but literary significance must be comprehended first (and never mind the notion--which was in fact just then of interest to a number of poets ranging from Reznikoff to Rukeyser to Pound to Norman Rosten--that a poem could consist of documents or be a kind of document itself.)

Notwithstanding this statement of priority, the anthology is full of poems (Andrew Marvell's, for instance) that at least initially draw our attention to them because of their compelling historical subject matter; our sense of the beauty of the poem as a poem could follow secondarily. Really. Why not? The order in which these two sorts of value are ascertained does not affirm or refute the New Critical ban on historical readings, for, at least here, the interpretation of historical significance is permitted right from the start.

Here's a passage from the prefatory "Letter to the Teacher," written in 1938:

This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:

1.  Paraphrase of logical and narrative content;
2. Study of biographical and historical materials;
3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.

Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.