Thursday, December 20, 2012

Joe Strummer, ten years gone

In a nutshell: December 22 will mark the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Joe Strummer, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and leading force of the punk-rock band, The Clash. Here are links to some appreciations of Strummer, and to my own April 2012 post on Strummer as Critical Pedagogue. 

Joe Strummer, singer, songwriter, guitarist, leader of The Clash, and provocateur of critical pedagogy through punk rock, died of a quite unexpected heart attack as the result of an undiagnosed congenital condition at the age of 50 on December 22, 2002. There was a nice piece on NPR about him this morning, and I also found this article in SPIN magazine. If readers of Pedagogishness want to send me links to other appreciations of Strummer, I will add them.

Back on April 24, I posted an entry on Pedagogishness about Joe Strummer's influence on my own "post-punk pedagogy," which turned out to be more about the many Joe Strummer stand-ins and lookalikes in my life, but may still be worth a read.

Fascinating Chapter on Critical Race and Classics

In a nutshell: I'm reading a fabulous essay on critical race theory in classical studies by Shelley P. Haley of Hamilton College, and you should read it, too.

In 2009, Fortress Press published Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, a collection of essays edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Laura Nasralla. Chapter 1 is a wonderful essay entitled "Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies," by Shelley P. Haley of Hamilton College.

Haley confronts the same issue with critical race theory and classics that I confront in my use of queer theory and classics. Namely, widespread resistance to the idea that the theoretical perspective is relevant to the object of study, and the suspicion, bordering on accusation, that scholarship done in this vein is "anachronistic" or in some other way invalid or inappropriate.

Haley dispenses with this charge concisely and effectively in the brief abstract that begins the chapter:
The justification for using a theory focused on modern phenomena like “race” and “racism” to analyze ancient Greek and Roman society is that modern interpreters of those ancient societies have internalized the modern values, structures, and behaviors that are the object of critical race theory.
After an overview of critical race theory, Haley proceeds to discuss definitions of race and color in the ancient Mediterranean world and to a reconsideration of race in an understanding the Vergil's Dido before proceeding to a consideration of race and gender in Pseudo-Vergil’s Moretum. Haley concludes that "the Romans were acute observers of color, gender, and class difference" and that "critical race theory can help to unlayer the intersectionality of the constructs [of race, class, and gender] of ancient Roman society."

The simple summary above does not begin to do justice to the nuance and insight of Haley's reading of individual ancient texts, or her analysis of how modern social and cultural constructs of race, class, and gender have shaped the scholarly response to these texts, particularly to the representation of race, gender, and cultural difference in these texts.

I'm not sure the full text PDF I found of Dr. Haley's chapter is really intended for public consumption, or if it is only accidentally downloadable from the Fortress Press servers. Therefore, I am not going to include a direct link to the chapter here. But it's quite easy to find if you search for the title and author of the essay. Oh, and of course, you can also borrow the book from your local public or campus library, or purchase the book on Amazon or directly from the press.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ban on Mexican-American Studies headed for repeal?

In a nutshell: A newly enacted plan to desegregate the Tucson Unified School District may provide a path for the return of Mexican-American Studies.

As reported on the News 4 Tucson website, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) on December 11 passed a plan designed to satisfy a 1978 federal desegregation order and ending the district's dual system for white and minority students, giving supporters of the banned Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program new hope for a return of the outlawed ethnic studies program. A federal court still has to approve the plan. If it is implemented, a revived MAS program could return in fall 2013.

For background on this story, see my long, detailed, multimedia post on the plight of MAS in Tucson.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Government picking winners and losers in college?

In a nutshell: We need to shift the debate on STEM vs. liberal arts from an either/or to a both/and discussion.

As reported in The New York Times, Governor Rick Scott of Florida is now proposing that Florida's 12 state universities charge lower tuition for students majoring in "business-friendly" science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and higher tuition for students majoring in humanities or social science fields.

This is wrong and bad on so many levels, and ironically, perhaps, represents precisely the kind of government regulation of the economy to pick winners and losers that conservatives generally oppose. But I don't want to spend a lot of time dwelling on that now. Instead, I want to propose that we humanists (and our allies) consider supporting a higher education model that encourages all students to have a humanities/social science major and a STEM minor. As callers to Brian Lehrer's show on WNYC are repeatedly affirming right now, we need both: we need students to learn the STEM subjects so they can be prepared for jobs in the post-industrial economy; and we need students to learn the humanities and social sciences so they can think critically, be culturally literate, and be prepared to participate fully as informed citizens in a democratic society.

Right now, this debate seems to be very polarized: Should we support STEM or liberal arts, period. This is ridiculous; typical, but ridiculous. We need to start shifting the debate from an either/or to a both/and discussion. How can we restructure our curricula, at public and private institutions alike, across the entire country, in both K-12 and in higher education, so that we can educate our children holistically and not partially.

The discussion should not be driven by anxiety on the part of liberal arts programs. This paragraph in the NY Times article reveals the disturbing tendency of so-called "liberal arts devotees" to focus on funding concerns rather than social or economic justice:
At the University of Florida, the state’s most prestigious campus, a group of history professors criticized the recommendation for tiered tuition and organized a protest petition. Liberal arts devotees across the state are signing it. The professors said the move would inevitably reduce the number of students who take humanities classes, which would further diminish financing for those departments. In the end, Florida universities with nationally prominent programs, like the one for Latin American history at the University of Florida, will lose coveted professors and their overall luster. 
 At a policy level, the flight from humanities classes is not to be lamented for the toll it will take on departmental budgets, but rather for the impact it will have on students' ability to think critically and perform their civic duty, including serving as energetic, innovative leaders of business and government.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The End of Western Civilization

In a nutshell: My classroom full of black, brown, East Asian, South Asian, orthodox Jewish, Muslim, female, and gay male students, very few of whom are well spoken for by the White Male Christian Subject of Culture, have a very hard time accepting the idea that they themselves have supplanted him.

This semester I have been teaching a class at Brooklyn College called The Idea of Character in the Western Literary Tradition. The course description, not of my own design, is very broad, and allows the instructor to cobble together any kind of survey of Western literary texts that suits his or her fancy.

I decided to go broad and teach the class as a survey of the entire Western literary tradition from Homer to Toni Morrison. I wanted to explore the emergence of the idea of Western Civilization itself and its eventual run in with the crises of multiculturalism and globalization. In the course of the semester I came up with the idea of a White Male Christian Subject of Culture who imagined himself to have roots in twin Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. We looked at the Greek male heroic subject of culture in the Homeric epics and how he was joined on the literary landscape by a range of alternative "heroes" (in the later sense of protagonist or central figure), including the idealized shepherd of bucolic poetry, the parodic antihero of Hellenistic mime, and the indignant scowl of Roman satire. We also looked at representations of women's voices (albeit in poems by men), with examples including the Briseis and Penelope of Ovid's Heroides and the gossipy housewives of Herodas's sixth mime. I took particular pleasure in regaling my students with ancient literary examples of pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and sex-toy mongers. They enjoyed reading these texts and, more importantly from a pedagogical perspective, they were surprised by them, and learned some new things about the Western literary tradition.

By the end of the semester (this week), I was trying to convince them that Western Civilization was over, a historical construct that now exists only as a relic of the past, not the dominant form of culture (to use Raymond Williams' term) or the discourse (to go Foucaultian) in which we currently live. One last, great, impotent tirade of the White Male Christian Subject of Western Culture, I have argued to them, can be heard in Dostoyevksy's Underground Man (Notes from Underground), and his last pitiful gasps can be heard in T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." Toni Morrison's Sula represents a radically different form of cultural existence, with its defiant assertion of black female subjectivity that is not only aware of its historical marginalization but determined to assert both its own dignity and its right to speak.

I was shocked, but not surprised, and in fact perversely pleased, to find in class yesterday that The End of Western Civilization was a very hard sell in my classroom full of black, brown, East Asian, South Asian, orthodox Jewish, Muslim, female, and gay male students, very few of whom are well spoken for by the White Male Christian Subject of Culture, but all of whom had a very hard time accepting the idea that they themselves had supplanted him.

That is the exciting discovery I wanted to share with you in this post. As old friends of Pedagogishness might be aware, this post marks an emergence from a four-month silence on my part. The academic year 2011-2012 was exhausting, somewhat traumatizing, and left me voiceless. It's been a rough fall semester, but also exciting, and my voice is starting to come back. This semester has given me a lot to think about and write about, and as it runs its course in final exams and the posting of grades, I believe readers of Pedagogishness will have more to demand their attention.