Commentaries - April 2009

TV film: a young Jew helps his skinhead friends desecrate and try to destroy a synagogue. He doesn’t protest when one of them urinates from the balcony, but some residual religiosity makes him urge the others to stop tossing around a Torah and put it back where they got it. He identifies with Hitler in part because the Nazis recognized the importance of the Jews.

It’s The Believer.

Reviewed by Julie Salamon in 2002.

Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm radio show does a tribute to Walt Whitman. For details and a link to the audio: click here.

Joyce Carol Oates.

Have you thought about writing a memoir? I wanted to write a memoir about being a widow. It was going to be the opposite of Joan Didion. Hers is beautiful and elegiac. Mine would be filled with all sorts of slapstick, demeaning, and humiliating things. Like trash cans whose bottoms are falling out.

Do you think widowhood is properly understood? I think that Didion took it on a very high plane, and she does have assistants and maybe a maid. But it’s actually a very hardscrabble experience. It’s not placid and tragic so much as it’s physically arduous.

From an interview conducted by Deborah Solomon.

Social media Henny-Pennyism comes to the university

John Housman playing a crusty old-school law prof on TV. Not much chance of friending or following him.

A year ago (3/20/08) I wrote this:

In today’s NYT “Thursday Styles” section the lead story, under a huge photo of a famous crusty TV law prof, is a story about “the professor as open book.” Wow! News! Now students and others can discover their professors’ red wine preferences, their favorite films, their social-networking profiles, “friend” them. Or not — or not — if the academic in question does not choose to put such stuff up, which is most often the case, even at this late date into the internet age. So what really is the story here? The key perhaps is where the story runs: the “Style” section, not the higher-ed page/half-page in the main first section. This story befits the My Space/You Tube/no-one-is-private-anymore craze and has nothing to do with academics or education or the professoriat per se.

“It is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature, or Roman archaeology to know that the professor on the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.

Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television …

While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer.”

Now ponder this last part. The professor’s “job” seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the “job” seems to be changing. These things are not innate. And as for entertainment, it’s the Times that’s asserting this by putting the “story” on its Style page. There’s nothing more or less entertaining about a teacher who is known as distinct from unknown. It all depends on the teaching.

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Now some Facebook friends and I have discussed the matter further and here are some of their comments:

[] M.L.: The professor’s “job” seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the “job” to be changing. / If you remove the word “personal,” 2x above, isn’t this the same argument for all learning these days? Do you think that job is actually changing?

[] B.R.: Unsurprisingly, while I wholeheartedly agree with your general sentiment, and while I think you are actually a fascinating case study of someone who’s utterly webbed up (2.0, natch) yet almost never in the “bethou me” sense — in fact the contrary: almost always in a pedagogical or at least intellectually engaged/evangelical sense — unsurprisingly, I’m not sure that, for some people anyway, the personal sh!t isn’t possessed of some potent magnetism. Prof as celebrity, as it were: that same bone gets tickled. / But then, OTOH, isn’t the poetic (STS) fallacy of YouTube & Facebook & whatnot that we can all be like celebrities, and have our wine preferences and our bunny suit escapades broadcast for consumption? YouTube — to paraphrase Amis, “‘TV, innit?’” That’s a sexy promise. I suspect that demurrals about “the job” are, in some cases, cloaks for its indulgence.

[] D.M.: Personal impenetrability, solitariness, and remoteness are part of the mix when someone has a title that makes them the smartest person in the room. If it makes you feel better, those three qualities are minor superpowers.

[] J.F.: In a public school setting, administrators would frown upon this kind of formalized personal contact between teachers and students. (I have former students as facebook friends, but no current students, no matter how close I might be to them in class.) But you’re right — artificial boundaries inhibit education. I have, on more than one occasion told my students, “You’re smarter than me; I just have thirty-five years on you, that’s all.” And the longer I do this (ten years now) I realize the absolute value of personal connections with students.

[] K.A.: blah blah blah … what page are we on!?