The prof you know personally

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.

- - - -

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" seems 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 35 years on you, that's all." And the longer I do this (10 years now) I realize the absolute value of personal connections with students.

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

artists: we will pay much of your rent

Through our ArtsEdge residency program, we will give you a place to live and work - and will pay half your rent! Deadline for applications for the 2009-10 residency is April 15. Here is more info and contact info for applicants. Our 2008-09 ArtsEdge resident is playwright Greg Romero.

Creeley driving the car

We've just released the newest episode of PoemTalk. Click here for more.

Because I am always talking (PoemTalk #16)

Robert Creeley, "I Know a Man"


Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man" is in many ways a signature poem. Few poems we choose to discuss on PoemTalk are such. Many are downright unrepresentative. This one might indeed be unrepresentative but if a person knows just one Creeley poem this is probably it.

It's been much written about. In The San Francisco Renaissance Michael Davidson explores the "Beat ethos" with a detailed reading of "I Know a Man." Similarly, PoemTalkers Randall Couch, Jessica Lowenthal and Bob Perelman find beat here--but also its counterargument, and/or a rejoinder to its dark depth and to the beat propensity for driving nowhere (or somewhere) fast. Robert Kern in boundary 2--a 1978 essay--finds postmodern poetics in the Creeleyite anthem: in a nutshell, composition as recognition. Cid Corman (himself the topic of an upcoming PoemTalk) finds and commends the "basic English" of the poem, comparing it with a "more refined" and less effective poem on a similar topic by Louis MacNeice. Walter Sutton back in '73 drew a line of influence from Charles Olson's poetics to Creeley's "laconic" and "spasmodic" lineation and rhetoric.

The PoemTalkers talk about this remarkable instance of eloquent stammering. The stammer is perhaps the apt way--since form is never more than an extension of content, and vice versa, after all!--of heading into the surrounding mid-1950s darkness, only to be brought up short by the actual needs of the actual American road. It is not a resolution and not a capitulation, but an assertive and possibly ironic (funny, anyway) means of bringing up short. Or, in short: more stammering.

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

Our friends at the Poetry Foundation have listed and linked all episodes of PoemTalk here. And, as always, one can subscribe to PoemTalk through the iTunes music store; simply type "PoemTalk" in the Music Store search box.

There are, at last count, eight different recordings of Creeley reading this poem - all to be found, along with much more, on PennSound's Creeley author page. Not long after his father's death, Will Creeley brought to us boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, which we have gone through carefully, digitizing, segmenting, identifying poem by poem.

a New Zealander among us

Wystan Curnow, art critic and poet, spoke at the Writers House this evening on curating as a critical practice. The event was shown live on KWH-TV and is already available as a video recording. Wystan was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, and studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Yes, Penn. So his two-week visit here is actually a return to his alma mater many many years later. This afternoon he joined me and Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman to record a PoemTalk episode on a poem by Louis Zukofsky--which will be released in a few months. Then we all went downstairs for his very good talk on curating. Have a look.