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.

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