Commentaries - April 2010
more on the end of the lecture as we know it
John Gee has responded to my recent writings about higher education - for the blog called Penn Political Review. Here is your link. Gee's piece is titled "In Which I Take a Thought by Al Filreis and Run With It." "We will continue to evaluate students on their retention of information in addition to their analytical skills. But we might, however, stop gathering students together for the purpose of taking in that information."
After months--several years--of digitizing, consulting, traveling, etc., we at PennSound are now ready to make available the recordings of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry. We begin our new Stevens author page with two readings he gave at Harvard near the end of his life. Our friends at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library (though organizationally Woodberry now is part of the Houghton Library system) have shared these with us. Peter Hanchak--only child of Holly Stevens who was the only child of Wallace and Elsie Stevens--has given us at PennSound permission to make available whatever Stevens recordings we can find. I'm personally very grateful to Peter, who clearly understands that PennSound is all about noncommercial, educational use. Thanks to Joan Richardson and John Serio who helped me work with Peter on this; and thanks to Christina Davis, new director at the Woodberry, and Don Share, former director there, for their help and advice as we've moved forward. It's our hope, of course, that the way Stevens is taught will at least somewhat change now that his own way of reading the poems is widely and freely available. Long live open access!
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.
- - -
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.
- - -
Here is an audio version of this little essay.
Splendid day in Chicago yesterday. Began it with another run along Lake Michigan. Then down to Hyde Park early to record an episode (for later release) of PoemTalk. Don Share (senior editor of Poetry), Judith Goldman (on the U of C faculty, in the Society of Fellows) and David Pavelich (modern poetry bibliography in Special Collections at U of C) - poets all three - joined me to talk about a pair of poems: H.D.'s "Sea Poppies" and Jennifer Scappettone's "Vase Poppies." (I've written a little about this pairing earlier here.) A very good session. I begin to realize that a keen choice of poem (or poems, as in this special case) enables the conversation almost automatically (that is, with little effort needed on my part as moderator). During an hour or so between PoemTalk and the Modern Poetry Symposium sponsored by Special Collections, I met up with Brandon Fogel, a former student of mine at Penn and now, with Judith, a faculty member of the Society of Fellows. Brandon's field is philosophy and physics (not just the idea of physics in some squishy history of science sense, but real hard-sci physics). As an undergrad at Penn he majored in English and physics, the only student to do so in my 25 years at the university. Unsurprisingly, the gang already surrounding me knew Brandon, so it was a confab. Then to the conference.
Garin Cycholl gave a wonderful paper on the poet Sterling Plumpp and jazz geography; I don't know much about Plumpp so I was being well schooled. Stephanie Anderson, a doctoral student here at U of C, then gave a talk on Chicago magazine, which Alice Notley edited during her several years here in Chicago in the early 70s (and also a bit afterward--when she and Ted Berrigan were in Europe). Paired with the Notley paper was Nancy Kuhl's on Margaret Anderson and The Little Review. Both these papers made use of fabulous rare materials. Nancy is the curator of poetry collections at the Yale American literature collection at the Beinecke. (I'd corresponded with her in recent years about the various manuscripts I used to research and write Counter-Revolution of the Word but had not met her until yesterday.) Nancy is also a fine poet, as witness The Wife of the Left Hand, a copy of which she gave me yesterday.
The Alice Notley/Margaret Anderson pairing - thank you, David Pavelich - was inspired, suggesting all kinds of things about the terms "editing" and (versus) "curating"; raising questions about young avant-garde women who find themselves at the center of a writing scene ("enabling," etc.). Notley very consciously sought to do all this without much help from Berrigan, and after she gave birth (fall '72?) he guest-edited one issue of Chicago--producing a very different choice of poets. Stephanie suggested that Notley meant to show this difference to their friends and colleagues, to prove, in a sense, that the other issues bore no trace of Ted's hand.
Don Share (he of the equanimous disposition and wonderfully sure, calm voice--a "radio voice," as they used to say) and I gave a pair of papers on the editorship of Henry Rago at Poetry: 1955 (when he took over from the zig-zaggy Karl Shapiro) to 1969 (when Rago suddenly died of a heart attack, not long after an apparently final retirement). My take, in short, is that 1955-1960 is a mixed record for Rago and Poetry at best, and that in 1960 or so Rago caught some fire. Don didn't disagree with my division of the Rago years into two, and he was nicely able to elaborate on all sorts of particular matters of editorship. During the discussion afterward, we began to talk about the special burden - given its special legacy of modernism - facing any editor of Poetry, and got close to a full-out conversation about the situation of Poetry today...when time ran out. But the topic had been raised (what do the failures of Rago's first four or five years teach us?) and it was very good.
After just a few minutes with Nancy Kuhl I remembered that I read (at the Regenstein, in fact; in the Poetry archives) about Lee Anderson's recordings of modern poets--recalled that Anderson (in the late 50s?) was preparing to give these recordings to Yale. Nancy of course knew about the Anderson recordings. There they are, still at Yale. Might it be possible for us at PennSound to collaborate with our pals at Yale to make available some of these recordings? You can be sure we'll be on the train to New Haven soon to discuss.
On the drive from Hyde Park to Chinatown for dinner last night, we passed by Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. The horizontal flat stone thing looks so utterly natural in its urban prairie setting. I was a little shocked by this. I can usually see architecture in photographs and get it sufficiently; but Robie House needs to be seen as it is, just there, on a residential corner in this sweet little university town on the flat south end of its broad-shouldered city.
TAN LIN is coming to to the Writers House. On Wednesday, April 21st, the EDIT series (Danny Snelson) will host this poet, whose work, says Charles Bernstein, “sparkles with unoriginality and falsification.” Join us for a live publication event entitled “Handmade book, PDF, lulu.com Appendix, Powerpoint, Kanban Board/Post-Its, Blurbs, Dual Language (Chinese/English) Edition, micro lecture, Selectric II interview, wine/cheese reception, Q&A; (xerox) and a film.” A reception will open at 6PM, to be followed by Q&A;, printing, and micro-lectures beginning at 7PM. For more information call 215-746 POEM or email firstname.lastname@example.org.