Commentaries - March 2011

Goldsmith on pedagogy

Kenneth Goldsmith
Kenneth Goldsmith

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.

We had to explain to him the very positive aspects of this new pedagogy, that in fact his words were triggers for engagements and explorations that, while not wholly controlled by him, were catalysts for thinking in ways other than what he had planned. I told him that their engagement was a deeper one than what normally occurs.And so we have a glimpse into the future. I can envision a class where bodies physically exist in the same space without a spoken word having transpired; where communication happens electronically and instantaneously -- often concurrently -- yet retains a semblance of community and continuity, even warmth and intimacy. What the electronic classroom does is give us new ways of being together. I often tell my students that they are smarter with a laptop connected to the internet than they are without one. And after seeing what the results of this are, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full time enabler.

Edward Albee at the Kelly Writers House, March 22, 2011

I spent the last two days with Edward Albee, whom I hosted as a "Writers House Fellow." I was able to persuade him to read my favorite speech in all of his 30 plays--the pre-elegy given by A (modeled on Albee's adoptive mother) to the audience at the very end of Three Tall Women. My second favorite (while we're on favorites...): Martin trying to describe his feelings for the goat in The Goat (Or: Who Is Sylvia?), an attempt that breaks down because such longing is an experience of non-relation. He cannot "relate" it because it doesn't not "relate to anything," a foregrounding in a surface of halting words the key double meaning of (in my view) all great writers. Relation = to connect (or--mostly--not) and to describe in words (or--mostly--not).

"in the war betwen flesh & paper"

I picked up a copy of Tuli Kupferberg's The Book of the Body (1966). Tuli K. was an American counterculture poet, author, cartoonist, pacifist anarchist, publisher and, famously, co-founder of the band The Fugs. On the back jacket: "In the war between flesh & paper paper made out of flesh wins every time."

I've recently published a long essay on the poetry of Bob Perelman. It's called "The President of This Sentence." It's about the convergence in Perelman's writing of two parallel and also, at times, convergent analyses--one of modernism's rise and fall; the other of the state of Cold War at the point of giving way to New Left and countercultural skepticism. Here is a link to the whole essay, and here is the opening paragraph:

Bob Perelman a few years ago announced that he suffers from HAD (Historical Affective Disorder). He was joking, but not entirely. His history is sometimes a bit off, yet as for his historiography, especially in the verse, it is almost always perfectly pitched. Perelman disclosed his HAD in a disarming prefatory riff launching a long rejoinder to criticisms of The Marginalization of Poetry, a book of essays he published in 1996. His advocacy of a particular tracing of an avant-garde in that collection had been defended by, he had to admit, a “defiant army of defiantly non-avant-garde sentences hurled at the four coigns of the balkanized master page.” The historical disaffection here, the worst effect of the malady, was to have forgotten in his capacity as a critic the main form/content lesson of the very same modernist prose literary-historiography — learned from Williams in Spring & All and In the American Grain; and from Pound in his most dissociative essays — that was and still is Perelman’s own modernist ground zero. Or, as Ron Silliman forcefully noted, Perelman’s chief impairment derived from a move into the ivied academy, whereupon the book-length display of super-coherent strings of such “nonavant-garde sentences” (among other issuances of normative critical behavior) rendered unruly heterodoxy unlikely or impossible. Thus had our HAD sufferer tellingly — indeed, happily — placed himself at a distinct disadvantage. In the poetry, over the years, both pre- and post-Ivy League, such symptoms as issuing forth from Perelman’s special expression of historical disorder — (1) a keen and specific sense of how the American past operates in the present, mixed with (2) deliberate socio-idiomatic fuzziness and (3) a comic mania for anachronism — have always been the source of his finest and most remarkable writing. The greatest Perelmanian ur-anachronism of all — that there might not be a future of memory — produced verse in the 1980s and ‘90s that offers the most perspicacious understanding of the end of the first Cold War (the early 1960s) I have yet read in any genre. This work presents an analysis-in-verse that convincingly links crazy characterizations of anticommunist conspiracies to a generationally earlier history of the rise and later demise of the modernist revolution.