Monday, April 30, 2012

Pedagogy & the Iron Curtain of Humanism

In a nutshell: Two decades after the Culture Wars, has humanism slipped behind an Iron Curtain? Advocates of a values-free academy would have us teach the humanities minus the ongoing confrontation with freedom and justice that veritably defines the humanistic tradition. How do we, as professors of humanity, respond?

As I wrote my recent post on humanism in a post-human world, I began thinking of two books published since the multicultural revolution of the 1990s: Gerald Graff's 1993 Beyond the Culture Wars and Stanley Fish's 2008 Save the World on Your Own Time. In 1993, fresh from the Culture Wars and in the midst of the multicultural revolution, Graff argued that
the best solution to today's conflicts over culture is to teach the conflicts themselves, making them part of our object of study and using them as a new kind of organizing principle to give the curriculum the clarity and focus that almost all sides now agree it lacks (p. 12). 
In his second chapter,  Graff describes how exposure to Chinua Achebe's essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" caused him to change his approach to teaching the story. "In short," he writes, "I was forced to rethink not just my interpretation of Heart of Darkness but my theoretical assumptions about literature" (29). He continues:
First, I was forced to recognize that I had theoretical assumptions. I had previously thought I was simply teaching the truth about Heart of Darkness, "the text itself." I now had to recognize that I had been teaching an interpretation of the text, one that was shaped by a certain theory that told me what was and was not worth noticing and emphasizing in my classroom. I had been unable to see my theory as a theory because I was living so comfortably inside it. (29-30)
I don't always agree with everything Graff says, but you gotta hand it to him this time.

In 2008, the core of Fish's argument was that teachers should keep their own religious and political views out of the classroom, refrain from "trying to form their students' character or turn them into exemplary citizens" (66), and instead fulfill their "obligation to present the the material on the syllabus and introduce students to state-of-the-art methods of analysis" (97). My first inclination is to object that there are no academic claims that are not also political and ideological, and to claim that there are is only to deny your own politics and ideology. Fish addresses this objection at considerable length. For example, the first time the matter arises, Fish writes
I am not urging a restriction on content—any ideology, agenda, even crusade is an appropriate object of study. Rather I am urging a restriction on what is done with the content when it is brought into the classroom. If an idea or a policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance—aided by the instructor, students are to decide where they stand on the matter—then the classroom has been appropriated for a partisan purpose. But if an idea or a policy is subjected to a certain kind of interrogation—what is its history? how has it changed over time? who are its prominent proponents? what are the arguments for or against it? with what other policies is it usually packaged?—then its partisan thrust will have been blunted, for it will have become an object of analysis rather than an object of affection.
We can see the limitations of Fish's approach if we consider Graff's example about teaching Heart of Darkness. As Graff recounts, in response to reading Achebe's essay on Conrad's racism, it was not enough to say to his students simply, Okay, here is another valid interpretation of Conrad's novella that I would like you to consider alongside mine. Rather, he experienced a fundamental change in his own understanding of literary response; namely, the realization that he was all along practicing a literary theory, not identifying the truth about the text. Thus, even when, as he goes on to recount, he contextualized Achebe's argument within a broader debate about race in Conrad on the one hand, and "political" versus "traditional" readings of the text on the other, I would argue that Graff was presenting an idea "as a candidate for allegiance" and not merely "an object of analysis," to use Fish's terms. It's not that Graff was presenting Achebe's reading of racism in Conrad as a candidate for allegiance; on the contrary, Graff makes it clear that his students know that he remains committed to what he calls a "traditional," "humanistic," or "aesthetic" reading of the text (I'll have to debate that contention elsewhere). What Graff is presenting as a candidate for allegiance, however, is precisely the idea that Fish claims is "both true and trivial" (p. 175); namely, that everything is political.

Ultimately, Fish concedes that "everything is political," but pronounces this "a claim that is both true and trivial" (175). The problem, I think, is that this claim is nowhere near as trivial as Fish makes it out to be. I just spent an entire semester seeking to convince my first-year graduate students in comparative literature that all criticism was political because all literature was political. And while they all got the basic idea by the end of the semester, some of them continued to think that politics is primarily about institutions of government and diplomacy, and that extending the term, as Terry Eagleton does in Literary Theory: An Introduction, to encompass "the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves," was a bit of a stretch. Others accepted the premise as a matter of fact, but did not necessarily think it had much bearing on their own work as either scholars or teachers.

I call this an "iron curtain of humanism" because humanism is precisely about saving the world. We cannot profess the humanities in general, and literature in particular, without acknowledging the presence of morality, the ongoing confrontation with freedom and justice that veritably defines the humanistic tradition. If we have it Fish's way, discussions of freedom and justice are effectively off the table, unless we structure them only and entirely as objects of study rather than as candidates for allegiance. Fish may have proposed his "save the world on your own time" doctrine as a way to keep Holocaust deniers out of the classroom, but to me, it seems to be no less than an engraved invitation. What better way is there to perpetuate ideologies of slavery and injustice, than to prohibit the teaching of freedom and justice in the humanities classroom? Of course there are going to be debates as to what freedom and justice look like; but such debate, too, is in the nature of the humanistic tradition, and should be fostered, not stifled.

If we truly believe that aesthetic experience, including literature, is transformative, than we must not only teach the capacity for self-transformation (as I argued in a recent post); we must also teach the fundamental morality of aesthetic experience. Yes, "morality" is a suspect term these days, no less than "humanism" itself. And yet, isn't this precisely what Eagleton is referring to when he says that politics includes social life and power relations? Acknowledging the moral dimension of aesthetic experience no more implies a particular moral commitment than acknowledging the political dimension of aesthetic experience implies a particular political commitment. Rather, in both cases, what we are doing is affirming that the creative endeavors of human beings, from art to literature to science to philosophy, have both moral and political dimensions, and that to read a poem, to see a painting, to hear a symphony, to comprehend an idea, is to engage with relations of right and wrong, weak and strong, the moral and the political. The pedagogical challenge is to teach students how to think critically about morality and politics, while upholding freedom of moral and political choice, not only as a a matter of academic ethics, but as a humanistic ideal.

Blah, blah, blah. I know you've heard all this before. If I'm boring you, just click on the play button below.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Humanity in a Post-human World

In a nutshell: Postmodern critical theory has undermined our belief in a unified individual subject with a core human nature that transcends social construction and historical specificity. But we need not choose between our individuality and our humanity, nor need we give up on core humanist values or a pedagogical focus on humanism and the human condition. 

In a recent post, I wrote about my discovery that my students by and large are not familiar with the term "human condition," nor do they have any sense of what humanism is. This helps explain why it is so challenging to get students to think about literature in broad humanistic terms, rather than in the narrow, instrumental, moral-of-the-story type terms to which we are accustomed. With the help of Edward Said's Humanism and Democratic Criticism, I traced this erasure of humanism to the advent of French critical theory in the 1960s and 70s, as well as the rise of identity politics in the 1980s and 90s. What I would like to do here on Pedagogishness is provide some thought-tools for bringing the human condition, humanism, and humanistic values back into the classroom.

One thing I did not know until several weeks ago was the origin of the term "human condition." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was coined by French humanist Pierre Boaistuau (c. 1517-1566), who wrote a philosophical treatise called the Theatrum Mundi in which he exhorted, "Let us learn, by the great miseries and afflictions that God has sent us, the great fragility and misery of our human condition." The phrase in the original French is, of course, notre condition humaine.  Boaistuau's Theatrum Mundi was published in an English translation by John Alday in 1566, and the term became not only current in English, but central to notions of Renaissance humanism.

As you can see, the notion of the human condition was from its Renaissance beginnings bound with the ideas that (1) there is a personal God, (2) he has an active hand in human affairs, (3) he is the source of human misery and affliction, and (4) the essential condition of humankind is weakness, frailty, and misery.

Now, that message certainly worked for the Renaissance, and continued to be palatable throughout the Reformation, and indeed resonates with a Hobbesian notion of human life as "nasty, brutish, and short," and therefore jibes well with the social contract theory of such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. On the other hand, even with Hobbes, we see the notion of internecine human conflict coming to supplant that of divinely engineered human suffering. And by the time of Rousseau and the Enlightenment, the human condition is coming to be seen as one of infinite progress and perfectibility, not only through reason, but through a burgeoning realm of science and technology. So even long before we get to 20th-century French critical theory and American identity politics, we can see a certain erosion of the core humanistic idea of a human condition whose inherent frailty and fallibility transcend historical specificities of society and culture.

In the recent post alluded to at the outset, I briefly discussed Edward Said's argument, in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, for embracing postmodern critical theory while retaining a fundamental commitment to humanism, humanistic values, and even the so-called "grand narratives" of enlightenment and emancipation. Let me quote Said at greater length here:
Although I was one of the first critics to engage with and discuss French theory in the American university, [James] Clifford [in a 1980 review of Said's groundbreaking and influential 1978 monograph, Orientalism] correctly saw that I somehow remained unaffected by that theory's ideological antihumanism, mainly, I think, because I did not (and still do not) see in humanism only the kind of totalizing and essentializing trends that Clifford identified. Nor have I been convinced of the arguments put forward in the wake of structuralist antihumanism by postmodernism or by its dismissive attitudes to what Jean-Francois Lyotard famously called the grand narratives of enlightenment and emancipation. On the contrary...people all over the world can be and are moved by ideals of justice and equality.... Change is human history, and human history as made by human action and understood accordingly is the very ground of the humanities. (Said, p. 10)
In another recent post, I said that I was inspired by the example of my husband, the poet and scholar Jason Schneiderman, when he taught English 220, the introduction to literary study at Hunter College, as a graduate teaching fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. In one regard, Jason treated his literature students the way he treats his creative writing students: he insists on the specificity of human experience, and refuses to allow students to identify with a character, setting, event, or situation in a poem, story, or play. Jason and I would argue about this. Jason, I would say, I see your point about specificity, but identification is how we relate to literature; that commonality of human experience is what draws us into the text. No! he would reply. I don't need to read a story, poem, or play to learn about my own life; I need to read a story, poem, or play to learn about somebody else's life, about that which I am not, that which I have not experienced. Literature is about empathy with the experience of another that is not my experience.

I could not argue with Jason's success as a teacher (his students never let him forget it), but neither could I adopt his approach. I continued to think that literature was about identification, or, in the classic Aristotelian formulation, revealing the universal in the particular. But Jason said no, literature does not reveal the universal in the particular, literature reveals the particular in the particular, and that is its value. And now that I think of it in terms of humanism, antihumanism, and Edward Said's insistence that we can embrace postmodern critical theory while retaining our commitment to enlightenment and emancipation, I'm inclined to think Jason was right all along. The human condition is particularity--particularities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, experiences of freedom, slavery, justice, injustice, inclusion, isolation, joy, sorrow, and so forth. The human condition is E.M. Forster's "Only connect." It's not the universal in the particular; rather, it's the universality of the particular: there will always be difference; there will never be uniformity--of experience, identity, belief, or what have you.

As usual, this post is getting long and I fear I have raised more questions than I have provided answers. I said at the outset that I wanted to provide thought-tools for bringing the human condition, humanism, and humanistic values back into the classroom, and I'm not sure I have done so in any very practical way. But perhaps these observations will help some teachers think about their own commitments, and how they can bring their humanistic values into the classroom and keep them there, even in the face of resistance from various social, cultural, and political forces. This discussion remains, and will remain for some time, to be continued.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bringing the Human Condition Back

In a nutshell: Identity politics made the human condition unfashionable. But if we want to practice a humanistic pedagogy, we need to bring the human condition back into vogue.

For their Daily Write on February 21, I asked my mythology students what they learned about the human condition from having read Homer's Odyssey. I asked that question to get them thinking in broad humanistic terms instead of in narrow "moral of the story" terms, which is their wont. But what I realized, upon reading the Daily Writes prior to the next class, was that a lot of them did not know what the term "human condition" meant. I was shocked, but not surprised, and ultimately kind of excited: here I seemed to have found a key, at least a partial one, to the problem I keep picking away at as a teacher of literature and culture: why my students seem to respond to literature in such narrow, instrumental terms instead of broad, humanistic ones. The fact is, for the most part, they have no real sense of what humanism is!

So I began putting together together some PowerPoint slides (large lecture class) on the human condition. Here are the definitions I found:
The positive and negative aspects of existence as a human being, esp. the inevitable events such as birth, childhood, adolescence, love, sex, reproduction, aging, and death

The state or condition of being human, esp. regarded as being inherently problematic or flawed. The condition of human beings collectively
Oxford English Dictionary

The unique and...inescapable features of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context. ...[T]he irreducible part of humanity that is inherent and not connected to factors such as gender, race or class
Notice the very last part of the Wikipedia definition: The irreducible part of humanity that is inherent and not connected to factors such as gender, race or class.

That part of the definition is very striking, and certainly did NOT go on my PowerPoint slide. Why not, and what is so striking about it? Well, two things. First, that word "inherent" means that the human condition is natural, not cultural: essential, not socially constructed. Second, that part about how the human condition is "not connected to factors such as gender, race or class." That's connected with the word "irreducible" earlier in the sentence, and suggests that there is some aspect of our humanity, our natural, inherent, irreducible humanity, that can be separated out from all (historically specific, socially constructed) aspects of our identity, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, etc.

In other words, the human condition has nothing to do with our individual identity. For a split sec, I wondered...where on earth did that part of the definition come from? And then I realized: Ohhh...identity politics!!!

What do I mean by "identity politics"? Again, the Oxford English Dictionary:
The adherence by a group of people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to political beliefs or goals specific to the group concerned, as opposed to conforming to traditional broad-based party politics
Identity politics is a term for the way politics and identity movements coalesced in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In particular, politics connected with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, and the various movements that emerged out of 1990s multiculturalism. But what the OED definition does not say is that not only was identity politics distinct from broad-based party politics; it was also distinct from the prevalent idea of humanism that helped bridge party divides for decades if not centuries before identity politics. Edward Said writes brilliantly about this in the first chapter of his 2004 book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism. He argues that the advent of French theory in the 1960s and 70s "brought about a severe if not crippling defeat of what was considered traditional humanism by the forces of structuralism and post-structuralism."

Based on the pioneering work of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in the nineteenth century, twentieth century thinkers like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault provided a theoretical basis for a backlash against traditional humanism. By arguing that psychological, social, and historical factors were the basis of a fragmented subjective identity, they undermined the traditional humanist idea, based on the Enlightenment refinement of the Cartesian cogito, of a unified rational subject with a core of humanity that transcended race, class, gender, society, culture, and history itself.

To be sure, I believe all of that French theoretical stuff that I just summarized ever so concisely in the preceding paragraph, as did Edward Said. But, as Said argues in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, we need not "see in humanism only the totalizing and essentializing trends" vitiated by postmodern critical theory, nor must we accept, along with postmodernism's critique of the Cartesian subject, "its dismissive attitudes to what Jean-Francois Lyotard famously called the grand narratives of enlightenment and emancipation" (Said, p. 10).

That's a really important argument Said is making; an argument, moreover, for why we do not have to choose between humanism and critical theory: why we do not have to leave the human condition at the door when we walk into a classroom informed by theoretically sophisticated notions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the socially constructed, historically specific nature of individual identity. We do not have to choose, that is, between our individuality and our humanity.

Now, our students, by and large, don't know anything about any of this--nor do they necessarily need to. But what I am suggesting is that this history of antihumanism--in the wake of French critical theory, identity politics, and related social, cultural, and historical factors--is where that peculiar part of the Wikipedia definition of the human condition comes from, insisting that the human condition has nothing to do with race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration, or any of the other factors that define individual identity in our contemporary globalized (or, as Gayatri Chakrovorti Spivak would have us say, "planetary") world (see Chapter Three of Spivak's 2003 book, Death of a Discipline).

But it's not just about a Wikipedia definition; it's about a reality: the reality that our students, by and large, no longer have a sense of humanism or the human condition, because those notions were no longer fashionable, or even theoretically admissible, not so much in the classrooms of today (where the right wing is mounting a vociferous if ungainly defense of many good old fashioned humanist values), but in the classrooms where today's English and Comparative Literature professors earned their own BA's and PhD's. Thus, if we are going to have a truly critical pedagogy, a transformative pedagogy, a "post-punk" pedagogy, as I have advocated in recent posts, we need to resume teaching our students about the human condition, and asking them to think about the texts they read in terms of what those texts teach them about the human condition, which is to say about themselves, because there is no conflict between their individuality and their humanity.

We need to bring the human condition back...we need to make the human condition sexy again...we need to...oh, I give up, you know where this is going!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Transformative Pedagogy

In a nutshell: If literature is transformative, then as teachers of literature, what we are really trying to teach is the capacity for self-transformation. That's why this business Gerald Graff has called "professing literature" is so damned hard, and so damned important.

As teachers of literature, we believe that literature is transformative. At least, it seems to me, that's what we need to believe if we are to have any skin in the game at all. And believing that literature is transformative, we want our students to experience that transformation. But if that's the case, then what we are trying to teach our students is not periods, or movements, or genres, or authors, or texts, or literary devices or techniques, but rather the capacity for self-transformation itself. That is a tall order. That's why this business Gerald Graff has called "professing literature" is so damned hard! And so damned important.

When I was in college, some 30 years ago, I developed what I called the "take up and read" theory of literary criticism, based on the famous conversion story recounted by Saint Augustine in Book VIII of the Confessions, in which a childlike voice prompted him to take up and read the first passage his eyes should fall upon in his bible, and this passage revealed to him his vocation of celibacy and service to God. In my version, students and workers would take up and read the major textual monuments of Western Civilization, and recognize the hegemonic discourse for the instrument of ideology that it was, prompting them to take up their vocation of resisting capitalist oppression and injustice.

You can imagine how that worked out for me.

FYI, the folks under whose influence I developed this idea were primarily Raymond Williams (1921-1988) and Fredric Jameson (b. 1934), two Marxist literary/cultural critics for whose work I continue to have the highest regard (even though at this point, there is much more Jameson that I have not read than that I have read). And although I did not study with him for very long or know him very well, I was deeply affected by my brief encounter with a Marxist philosophy professor, Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004). And although I was wary of him at the time, because of my simplistic views about Israel and the Middle East as a callow undergrad, I would have to say that in retrospect, the teacher who has become my greatest role model is Edward Said (1935-2003).

But as you might know if you read the Joe Strummer post, my model for critical pedagogy (which is what "take up and read" really amounted to) was not really literary study at all, but punk rock. Back around 1979-83, my college years, I was profoundly impressed by the power of bands like The Clash and Gang of Four to, well, frankly, package and sell a radical critique in a 3-minute pop song--that you could dance to and sing along with, no less. I'm pretty sure I was not alone in thinking that punk rock was inaugurating a cultural revolution that was going to evolve into a political revolution. But alas....

So I guess what I fantasized about, if that's not too strong a word, was a pedagogy that would have the same impact as The Clash's "Clampdown" or Gang of Four's "I Found That Essence Rare," but based on reading stories, poems, and plays instead of listening to music. And I continued on from college to graduate school, thinking that I was going to earn that doctorate and become that college professor and radicalize those students and bring about that change. But I didn't. I didn't even finish the doctorate. Instead, the early 80s became the late 80s, and the energy of punk dissipated, and my graduate experience did not seem like a very fertile soil for creating anything radical.

There was an incredibly powerful model of radical activism in the late 80s and early 90s, and that was Act Up, the grassroots AIDS activist group that was blazingly successful at transforming the response of government and the pharmaceutical industry to the AIDS epidemic. (Coincidentally, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Act Up. Good overview in the Huffington Post.) In fact, I have been baffled that discussions of the Occupy movement in the leftish media have not cited the influence of Act Up on Occupy--I have not seen or heard it cited even once--when in fact most of the theory and practice underlying Occupy was pioneered, perfected, and deployed to striking success by Act Up 25 years ago. I hasten to add that I was not a part of Act Up. I tried. It wasn't my style. I'm not proud of that; it's simply true: if I have anything to offer, it lay then, and lies now, in a direction other that what Act Up activists called "direct action."

But I was keenly aware of Act Up, and in a sense, maybe its success is part of what drained my enthusiasm for a critical pedagogy based on a commitment to the transformative power of literature. It seemed that the only way anyone was going to transform anything was through the kinds of highly theatrical, socially disruptive, multimedia tactics of Act Up and other groups like it--to the extent that there were any other groups like it (Guerrilla Girls comes to mind, but it's hard to think of anything with the literally life-and-death impact of Act Up). And as I said above, that kind of in-your-face direct action was simply not my forté, even though I respected it, admired it, and indeed, very frequently wanted to sleep with it.

Eventually, the era of Act Up style activism waned as well. Punk rock. Direct action. One by one, the promising models of social, cultural, and political transformation proved to be passing fads and fashions. Meanwhile, I continued to believe in the transformative power of literature, even if I could never articulate a "take up and read" pedagogy that would allow professors of literature to somehow teach the capacity for self-transformation. In fact, if anything, my faith in that transformative power has only grown stronger as I've gotten older. You might say that instead of becoming increasingly disillusioned, I've sort of reached the end of disillusion, and have become re-illusioned, renewed in my missionary zeal. Maybe it has to do with seeing the impact my husband, the poet and scholar Jason Schneiderman, had on his English 220 students at Hunter College. Maybe I just got tired of doing nothing, of acquiescing to failure.

But when I re-entered the classroom in 2005, I must admit, I was not thinking "transformative power of literature." I'm not sure what I was thinking. I mean, you are handed a course. In my case, it was a course called Classical Origins of Western Culture. Homer to Vergil kind of thing. My field. Now, to me, those words, "classical origins of Western culture," start all sorts of postmodernist, cultural materialist, critical theoretical neurons firing away. Every word in that course title is simply dripping with the slimy goo of IDEOLOGY!!! And I considered teaching the course from that perspective. But I quickly decided against it. That wasn't what they were there for. They were there to increase their supply of cultural capital, not undermine their whole cultural identity. I was not Edward Said, and this was not his Columbia University course on Information, Representation, and Power.

Anyway, Brooklyn College soon changed that course title to Classical Cultures, wisely climbing out of the whole morass of origins, the West, and the ideological dimensions of classical humanism. But that wasn't really the issue. I would go on to teach similar Western Civ/Great Books-type courses, as well as classical mythology, at Queens College, Montclair State, and the University of South Carolina. This fall, it's right back to my beloved Brooklyn College. It really doesn't matter so much what the course is called: Classical Origins of Western Culture, Classical Civilization Through Its Literature, Great Books of the Western World, Greek and Latin Classics in Translation. The issue remains: the transformative power of literature--how to teach that? How do we teach the capacity for self-transformation? I have not provided the answer in this post, and I'm sure I do not have any definitive answer, but I do have ideas. Since this post has grown so long, however, those ideas will have to wait for a sequel.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eros is a floor wax AND a dessert topping

In a nutshell: An old Saturday Night Live sketch helps me teach my classical mythology students about the double life of Eros as mythological god and philosophical concept in Plato's Symposium.

Part of my approach to classical mythology involves creating awareness of Greek gods and goddesses as personifications of nature and humanity. When mythology moves into philosophy, as in Plato's Symposium, the double life of Eros as both god of desire and concept of desire is one of the richest aspects of the text, but also the most subtle and complex to teach. As so often, I leverage a page from popular culture for a metaphor that will help my students wrap their head around an idea: like new Shimmer, Eros is both a floor wax AND a dessert topping.

I'm not sure how much explanation this really needs, but I can go into a little more detail. My take on mythology is really less about gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, heroic quests, and underground journeys than it is about mythology as a type of knowledge of the past and what happens to mythology after the Greeks invent history. History is another type of knowledge of the past. To some extent, mythology and history are at odds. But, as I tell my students, Greek history cannot escape its mythological past. So Herodotus explains the Persian Wars in terms of mythological stories of abducted maidens like Io, Medea, and Helen, and Thucydides, for all his vaunted rationalism, nevertheless treats Minos and Agamemnon as historical rather than mythological figures.

I like to say things like "Greek history cannot escape its mythological past." I also tell my students that, after the Greeks invent history, "mythology takes refuge in Greek tragedy." Thus, we see mythological figures walking, talking, doing and being in a historical world. For Aeschylus and Sophocles, this historicizing of myth / mythologizing of history is done in fairly good faith. Myth becomes a medium for exploring political and ethical dilemmas, or perhaps more accurately, the ethical dilemmas of political life (political in its Greek sense of life in cities). For Euripides, I believe, it becomes a slug fest. In his Orestes, for example, Apollo blithely rewrites the Odyssey, marrying Hermione off to Orestes even though he knows that's not how the story goes. "I know she's supposed to marry somebody else (Neoptolemos I think)" Apollo says (in Anne Carson's brilliant translation), "but I'll see to it he dies." And when Herakles in Euripides' Herakles contemplates suicide after realizing that he has killed his wife and children in a fit of divinely inspired madness, Theseus chides (again in Anne Carson's translation), "Threats are no use, the gods don't care."

Then along comes philosophical dialogue, à la Plato. Philosophy likewise competes with mythology, not as a type of knowledge about the past, but rather as a type of knowledge about nature and humanity. But philosophy, like historiography, is an activity that takes place with the invention of history as a backdrop. And again, the mythological past is inescapable. Thus, we come to Plato's Symposium, a series of speeches in honor of Eros, the god of love and (sexual) desire. These speeches, however, are plagued with constant slippage between Eros with a capital "E," meaning the god of desire, and eros with a small "e," meaning the concept of desire: a floor wax AND a dessert topping.

This slippage reaches its farthest limit when Socrates asks Agathon (in Seth Benardete's flawless translation), "is Eros the sort that is love of something or of nothing?" In English, we say/write "Eros" for the god of desire, and "love" for the concept of desire; but in the original Greek, both words are the same: E-R-O-S. Even the use of capital letters and lower case letters in the Greek text is a modern invention; so for Plato and his contemporary readers, there would be no visible or audible difference between the two words, and one can only guess what sensible difference there would be. Can we even really imagine how freaky that is? Makes me think of the old optics experiment where you draw a bird on one side of a card, a cage on the other, tape the card to the top of a pencil, and rotate the pencil fast between the palms of your hands, so that, due to the inability of your brain to differentiate the rapidly alternating images, the bird AND a cage becomes a bird IN a cage.

Of course, it's probably due to ideas like these that I don't have a tenure-track job as a classics professor right now! But I won't let that stop me. I'll continue to teach my students the really interesting stuff that they didn't even know existed, rather than the merely fun stuff they can just as easily find on the Internet.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Post-Punk Pedagogy

In a nutshell: Joe Strummer is why I teach. He exhorted ("Let fury have the hour!"); he provoked ("Anger can be power--Do you know that you can use it?"). That's what we should do as teachers in front of the classroom, just as Strummer did onstage and on vinyl. This post turned out to be minimally about the actual Joe Strummer, and mostly about all the metaphorical Joe Strummers in my life. 

The April 20 edition of Soundcheck, WNYC’s daily talk show about music hosted by John Schaefer, featured a segment about a new book and documentary, Let Fury Have the Hour, by writer, filmmaker, producer, and visual artist Antonino D'Ambrosio, about the late Joe Strummer, lyricist, rhythm guitarist, lead singer, and social conscience of the 1970s and 80s punk rock band, The Clash. In a very real sense, Joe Strummer is why I teach. I thought that that perhaps surprising fact deserved a post here on Pedagogishnes, so here goes.

As readers of Pedagogishness are aware, my skin in the teaching game is critical pedagogy, helping students think critically about axes of privilege and oppression in a world where people are defined by their race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, and other historically specific, socially constructed, and above all highly POLITICAL categories. But where I first learned about critical pedagogy was not really from Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Rather, it was from Joe Strummer. More accurately, a string of Joe Strummers, for whom Joe Strummer may serve as something of a cipher and a synecdoche, starting perhaps with--well, I wasn't planning to say this initially, but starting perhaps with my mother, Lee Broder (1921-2005).

My mom, the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, had not quite a high school education. Nevertheless, she was a voracious reader of books, newspapers, and magazines and took me to every major museum and cultural attraction in New York City by the time I was ten years old. My father, who himself had only a high school education, died when I was 11, and my mom worked in various kinds of clerical jobs at places like A&S Department Store and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to keep me fed, clothed, and sheltered. This 50 year-old widow (I was a "change of life" baby) packed me onto buses to destinations from Niagara Falls to Washington, DC (with several stops along the Great White Way, including my first-ever Broadway musical, the ever fabulous and life-changing A Chorus Line) all before I was 16 years old. I've often faulted her for the stumbling blocks she put in my path, but from the long view of my own middle age, I must admit, Mom was my very first Joe Strummer.

Then, in fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Levy, who was divorced with two preschool-age children who sometimes joined the class for picnic-in-the-park type outings. By the end of the school year Mrs. Levy was Mrs. Cohen (a much better match, it turned out, as Phyllis and Ted are still together 40 years later, with lots of grand-kids). Mrs. Levy was dedicated and innovative in a way that seems intimately connected to the ethos of that era. That year our class was responsible for putting on the big school play, and Mrs. Levy led us in writing our own script, based on a bunch of folk protest songs she taught us while strumming on her guitar--"Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" is the only one I can remember offhand. A space traveler named Gulliver lands on a planet called 1776 where none of the people have any rights. Gulliver tells them about freedom and the Declaration of Independence, and they stage a revolution and start a democracy. I played Gulliver, of course!

That year, somebody in the administration got the idea to mix some of the "lower performing" Puerto Rican kids from the rough part of Coney Island in with the rest of us "higher performing," mostly Jewish kids (and Timmy Yee, who was ethnically Chinese but said "Oy vey" when bad things happened to good people) from the Luna Park housing development in, well, the other part of Coney Island. Apparently nobody else really wanted them. Oddly enough, the under-performing Puerto Rican kids all did great that year, with a teacher who didn't assume there was anything wrong with them and treated them like capable and intelligent human beings. I remember the day after West Side Story was on TV, and all the Puerto Rican kids were suddenly Sharks. We Jewish kids (and Timmy Yee) were hardly Jets, but there was still some wariness between us that fall. By the spring we all had a lot of respect and affection for each other. That was the year my father died. Mrs. Levy, who became "Phyllis" after the school year ended, kept an eye on me for years to come. She and Ted took me along with their own kids to see my first-ever production of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. Phyllis Cohen was my next Joe Strummer.

In junior high I had a bunch of great English teachers, but the standout superstar was Vera Goldberg, another divorced Jewish mother, but much more Fran Drescher to Phyllis Levy's...Debra Messing? (I wonder if Joe Strummer was Jewish?) Mrs. Goldberg made us write--all the time. Poems, stories, plays. We were constantly reading our own work aloud. Always making various kinds of creative presentations, individually, in teams, in groups, with props. Mrs. Goldberg (who later became Mrs. Fried, another successful second marriage that seems to have more than made up for the failed first) inspired a lot of people. One of her students a few years after me was this guy named Darren who grew up to make a few films--Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan.... A few months ago, after Darren gave her a call to say a much-belated "Thank You," Vera (I always ended up on first-name bases with my Joe Strummers) started calling old students to find out what other creative geniuses she had spawned. Needless to say, I felt a little inadequate. I didn't even finish my MFA until I was 44, or my PhD until I was 49, and I haven't published anything longer than a poem or a two-thousand word essay. But Vera was pleased nevertheless. Vera Fried was my next Joe Strummer.

(NOTE: Anita Malta and the late Judy Slater were no slouches as English teachers at J.H.S. 303, either. Ms. Malta taught me to write both essays and poems, and Miss Slater had us reading Antigone in eighth grade, in response to which I wrote my own Greek tragedy about a modern hero named Superman, complete with a chorus of citizens of Metropolis. Superman flew around saving lives all over the world while a meteor approached Earth, confident that he could fly up and destroy it at any time. But it turned out to be made of Kryptonite, and Superman fell to earth, defeated by his hubris, and doomed to watch Metropolis destroyed, along with Lois and Jimmy and everyone he loved. The tragedy was introduced by a scholarly essay explaining how I combined elements of modern mythology with the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Miss Slater scrawled across the lavishly decorated cover, "This could have been written by a graduate student!" In fact, I think I later handed that paper in for a class on Greek tragedy with Seth Benardete, or was it Jacob Stern...?)

I went to the amazing (and, amazingly, now shut down for poor performance) 1970s experiment in secondary education, John Dewey High School, where among my outstanding teachers was George Bader, who taught a social studies course called Problems of the American Economy (at Dewey, you didn't just have tenth-grade social studies, you had courses with names and topics). Mr. Bader (yes, we made those jokes) was tall and lanky and long-haired in a sort of Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo kind of way, and seemed to wear the same sweaty and apparently never washed Tweetie Pie tee shirt to class every single day. He strode around the room like a giant smelling the blood of an Englishman, climbing over desks, waving his arms around in exuberant mock disbelief tinged with earnest distress as he enlightened us as to travesties of American government and politics like COINTELPRO and the Trilateral Commission. I was actually a bit skeptical of Mr. Bader at the time, because he had groupies, and I was suspicious of people with groupies, and because I wasn't sure I was as radical as Mr. Bader seemed to think I should be (I kind of wanted Gerald Ford to win in 1976, and thought his campaign-destroying debate comment about the autonomy of Eastern European states was visionary, not foolhardy; I think I was proven somewhat correct in that youthful assessment by the election of a certain Soviet Bloc-buster name Ronald Reagan four years later, not to mention the events at the Gdańsk Shipyard). But the fact is, I sort of grew into George Bader. Now I am the one who climbs over desks and waves my arms around, telling my mythology students that Eros is both a floor wax AND a dessert topping (don't worry, there will be a Pedagogishness post on that one at some point, too). George Bader was my next Joe Strummer.

My final Joe Strummers came along during my college years. One of them was, of course, Joe Strummer. I'm no expert on Joe Strummer or The Clash. For facts and interpretation you should just read D'Ambrosio's new book, and see the film if it's playing at a theater or available for download near you. And it's not even, or even primarily, Joe Strummer who was my main Joe Strummer. I was much more into the much more cerebral Gang of Four, whose Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were named Jon King and Andy Gill (and whose Topper Headon was an awesome Hugo Burnham). But as I said at the outset, Joe Strummer is cipher and synecdoche for many Joe Strummers, men and women who exhorted me and provoked me and taught me that anger can be power, if only I can figure out how to use it.

A number of my facebook friends (who are also real-life friends, regardless of how much or how little I've seen them in thirty years) will be quite justly outraged if I do not credit Stuart (Shlomo) Felberbaum for punking me out in the late 1970s and early 80s (okay, maybe punked out is a strong term, but you know what I mean--we did wait on line all night in the pouring rain for tickets to see The Clash at Bonds in 1981). So here is credit where credit is due. I would never even have heard of The Clash, Gang of Four, Public Image Limited, or, for that matter, Jean-Luc Godard or Robert Rauschenberg, had it not been for Stuart Felberbaum, my high school co-best friend (with Steven Cohen) from Brighton 13th Street. Nor would I have studied Latin or Greek. Stuart Felberbaum was one of my very most very biggest very best Joe Strummers.

And finally, one last Joe Strummer. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, I had an English Professor named Jeffrey Perl, first for Introduction to Literary Theory, and then for the second semester of the year-long Modern British Literature sequence (another pretty awesome professor named David Damrosch taught the first half). Some of the main ideas of Prof. Perl's take on modernism are captured in this 1994 article by Jewel Spears Brooker in the South Atlantic Review (Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 53-74):
The necessary context for the modernist obsession with history includes the nineteenth-century invention of the "Renaissance," a topic explored in Jeffrey Perl's The Tradition of Return. Perl points out that although the Renaissance happened in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was invented in France in the early nineteenth. The concept migrated from France to Germany and thence to England. As conceptualized in Jacob Burckhardt's monumental Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in Germany in 1860, and Walter Pater's The Renaissance, published in England in 1873, the period became an important and far-reaching reference point in the history of ideas. History was thought of in three large blocks--ancient, medieval, and modern. The third block, defined as a rebirth of the first, begins with the Renaissance. The very idea of the modern, then, includes the idea of a return.
The modernists, then, were obsessed with classical antiquity. I'm not sure if this is what Prof. Perl was trying to tell me, but the message I took away was that a knowledge of Greek and Roman language, literature, and culture was essential for an understanding of modernity. It was Jeff Perl's modern British literature class, then, that pushed me not only to study Greek and Latin (Stuart Felberbaum was already urging me in that direction), but to get a master's degree and, ultimately, a doctorate in classics.

But more than that, Prof. Perl taught me that cultural connections, historical connections, and political connections are ultimately different dimensions of the same human fabric, like matter, energy, space, and time are ultimately different dimensions of the same physical universe. This is what all of my Joe Strummers have been saying all along: The Clash, Gang of Four, Jean-Luc Godard, Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Esther Newton, Adrienne Rich...the list can go on and on, and does go on and on. Now, as I finish this year of teaching both classical mythology and modern European literature at the University of South Carolina, I wonder if maybe one or two students are leaving campus this spring having learned this lesson, or something quite like it, from me. Maybe I finally get to be somebody's next Joe Strummer.

Now that all that sappy memorabilia is out of the way, check out this classic punk rock anthem of critical pedagogy, "Clampdown," from the 1979 album London Calling. NOTE: I really want to include a live performance, but all the live videos of this song on YouTube SUCK! One must not forget that the Clash started out as TERRIBLE musicians. The performance at BONDS in NYC in 1981 would be great, if Strummer didn't mess up all the lyrics to his own song [and it only has audio, anyway, no video]. I'll keep looking, but for now, the studio version is still the best. If you click through to the YouTube page for this video, it also has the lyrics.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Reckoning

In a nutshell: It's been a crazy busy six weeks, but the semester is winding down, and my future is falling into place.

Well I was going like gangbusters there for a while, but I haven't posted a new entry since March 11. I was not planning to include diary entries on this blog, but I feel the need for a reckoning. Apparently I do have some regular readers and one or two of them may wonder where I've been for six week.

Well, for one thing, it's just been a crazy busy second half of the semester. I was flying from here in Columbia, SC, home to Brooklyn, NY, almost every weekend there for a while, what with spring break, Passover, and, sigh, tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar (production overall better than, and individual performances not as good as, the critics would have you believe). When I finally had a respite from my travels, it was time to focus on my paper for the "Romosexuality" conference that took place this past week in Durham, UK. Fact is, I could afford neither the time nor the money to attend, but I was afforded the opportunity to present my paper via YouTube video, which the conference organizer told me came off without a hitch.

And then, aside from all the travel, holiday celebrations, theater, and academic paper writing, well, there was good old fashioned teaching of my three very demanding classes: 1) classical mythology, which is material with which I was quite familiar, but a large lecture class setting with which I was not; 2) Great Books II, Renaissance to the Present, which included material that I have never taught, and that I myself have not even read since I was in college 30 years ago; and 3) Introduction to Graduate Study in Language, Literature, and Culture, a sort of proseminar for first-year master's and doctoral students in my department, which was an exciting challenge, but a potentially daunting one.

Now all of that is behind me. All that remains are final exams and course grades. I vacuumed. I've trotted out my dissertation and resumed working on the manuscript revisions that I put aside in February 2011 and have not touched since. Which is a shame, because I have an editor eagerly waiting to see it. Not a contract, mind you, but an enthusiastic expression of interest. Just tonight I ran over to the Thomas Cooper Library here on the University of South Carolina campus to grab some books that I found myself wanting to refer to. Now I'm sipping some tea while laundry spins down in the basement of my apartment building. Yes, all that remains are finals and grades.

And what of next fall? Well, first there is the coming summer, when I am teaching Latin at the CUNY Summer Latin/Greek Institute, the fulfillment of a 30 year-old dream (I began my own study of Latin and Greek at the Institute in the summers of 1982 and 1983, respectively). In the fall, I am teaching one section of Classical Cultures at Brooklyn College, a special section for students in the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program that I have found particularly rewarding to teach in the past. I chose this course of action in preference to a full-time academic position in the fall for a number of reasons, including a desire to be in the house I own in the city I love with the husband, kitty cats, and life I adore. This situation will also afford me maximum opportunity to continue working on academic publications (like the aforementioned manuscript based on the dissertation, for example), which mentors, advisers, and kibbitzers agree should be my number-one priority in terms of improving my chances of obtaining a tenure-track academic job.

One would hope there will be some more pedagogish posts on Pedagogishness in the coming weeks.