Monday, August 15, 2011


. . . And that's the first and last reference to Eliot on this blog, I promise (if anyone finds another one, don't tell me. It'll crush me). Aren't you glad this means I won't ever make some horrible joke about April being the cruelest month?

It's been a rainy day here, though it hasn't ever really stormed hard enough to cause anyone to head for the hills or anything. Mostly, it's been drizzling on and off throughout the day. The weather and the light (it's been fairly bright in a gloomy sort of way) coupled with the giant tree outside the window I face as I work at my desk reminds me of Oregon (though it's the wrong kind of tree). Given that I've spent most of the day looking back through old assignments, lesson plans, and readings (I'm teaching some stuff this coming semester I haven't even read since the summer before I started teaching at OSU--I'd better brush up. . .), that's kind of appropriate. I've just about finished my syllabus and I've started reworking all my assignment sheets so that I can get into the office tomorrow and get all my photocopying done before the rush. It's hard to believe, but the semester starts one week from today (actually, it'll start one week from 8:00 this morning). On the one hand, I'll agree with everyone I've spoken to that this summer has flown by. On the other hand, last week and this coming week seem to be edging along so slowly. I'll be glad to get into a routine when classes start.

This coming semester will mark the start of my third year of teaching. I remember reading somewhere (an interview with someone? I honestly can't remember) that after three years the amount of learning that you do as a teacher tends to drop off dramatically (in the sense that more and more student responses to your teaching--what they like, what they don't like, what could be improved, what needs to change, what should stay the same, etc., etc.--tend to be repeats) and the general style of your teaching is fairly solidified by the end of that third year. It would be nice to think that this were the case (you mean after this year I'll stop feeling completely and hopelessly underprepared at all times and will start feeling like I know what I'm doing?), but I'm not convinced. In fact, I don't want to be convinced. I'd like to hope that I (and my students) don't have to settle into a rut from here on out to eternity (I guess it will change slightly when [if?] I start teaching courses that aren't freshman comp before reverting to monotony), mostly because I'm not convinced I'm a very good teacher yet, and I would really like to get a lot better before any rut-settling takes place.

I'll be teaching at eight in the morning this coming semester on MWF, and that means I'll be my students' first exposure to university. I'm kind of blown away by that idea: our class next Monday will literally be their first ever class in university. In some ways, I feel a lot of pressure to step up my teaching game in response to this fact. I've been going over and over what I want to say on the first day. I want to make sure that--in the words of (probably) my favourite piece of pedagogy I've ever read, Peter Elbow's "Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process"*--"the students [I] certify really understand or can do what [I] teach, to see that the grades and credits and degrees [I] give really have the meaning or currency they are supposed to have," but I wonder if I shouldn't spend just a little extra time and energy on the other side of the process, the contrary to that "guardian" stance: "to be [my students'] all[y] . . . as [I] instruct and share: to invite all students to enter in and join [me] as members of a learning community--even if they have difficulty. . . . to assume they are all capable of learning, to see things through their eyes, to help bring out their best rather than their worst when it comes to tests and grades." I don't think I've necessarily shirked this aspect in the past--or, at least, not intentionally--but I'd like to spend a whole lot more time this semester in that ally role, rather than that guardian role. I'd like to think that I'm confident enough as a teacher now that I don't need to be a hardass to prove a point or anything like that.

And (as I suddenly see sunshine outside my window), at the very least, I think I'll be more fun than Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education today: while I'm sympathetic to his claim that teaching the "classics" (but "whose classics?" is of course the inevitable question here--based on his list, pre-WWII and almost exclusively white. He might be shocked to learn that of the names he's listed, DuBois is the only one who holds any real appeal for me) is important regardless of their relevance, I can't agree with his suggestion that we shouldn't teach the "materials of mass culture" because they are "vulgar, transient, and thin" and "aren't worth the labor." I understand his point that the classics can be useful in helping to develop our students' critical thinking skills (a term I absolutely hate. I'm with Rob Jenkins: what you mean when you say critical thinking is, in fact, thinking), I mean, I teach "A Modest Proposal" and "Letter From Birmingham Jail" and all those kinds of things, and I also teach all the "nu-classics" of the modern composition classroom he decries: beer ads, music videos, television and movie clips, song lyrics. Hell, last year I taught part of Kanye West's Twitter stream. What drives me crazy is the opinion, one that the author of that article very clearly holds, that the two are mutually exclusive in terms of fostering critical approaches to texts and contemporary culture. That only through teaching "past high culture" can teachers "raise [their students'] critical thinking about contemporary mass culture."

There is an absolute wealth of great contemporary mass culture that trains its viewers/readers/listeners/participants to think critically about that mass culture. There's definite value in having students work their way through a difficult text in order to come to an awareness of a method of cultural critique (or simply to explore another viewpoint), but there's nothing that says "easy" texts like television shows can't do an equally effective job (other than that author's opinion that they can't because they're not as "rich" or "worthwhile" or "lasting" or whatever terms he wants to contrast with "thin, vulgar, and transient"). In fact, he stakes his claim around this idea of teaching classics regardless of their "relevance," but I think it's actually something of a red herring: I don't teach the materials of contemporary mass culture because I think they're so much more relevant than the classics, I teach them because I honestly think they're more effective at helping students to learn and develop certain skills.

He goes on to suggest (in shockingly violent language that casts critical reading/viewing/listening skills and cultural literacy as analogous to a physical confrontation) that these mass culture materials are not effective because: "A few days with images taken from great photography and film will equip them to 'read' music videos much more effectively than will a few days with those videos themselves" and "The language of Romantic poetry exercises critical thinking about language better than does the language of billboard jingles." While both of the "high culture" elements he mentions here have value (and it's fun to expose students to those things, particularly if they've never had access [or even known they could have access] to those things before), he does nothing to actually establish that those claims are true, he simply holds it to be so. Indeed, he's as negative towards contemporary mass culture as Adorno at his worst, an elitist who does nothing to hide his elitism and is deaf to any other viewpoints because, bottom line, he holds contemporary mass culture to be incapable of producing anything that could be challenging, that could disrupt students' "saturation with media." While that's certainly true for aspects of contemporary mass culture, it's by no means true of it all (to offer an easy example [this is, like, low-hanging fruit here]: Arrested Development and the idea of intertextuality--I have seen in the past few months no fewer than four separate references to AD as the standard for an illustration of that concept; to offer another: The Daily Show/Colbert Report and their increasingly naked pedagogical/didactic approach to the consumption of media).

Students are saturated with the present and their own cultural moment, I'll agree with that, but that's no reason to turn away from teaching that material in favour of texts that one loudly and triumphantly proclaims to hold no relevance (is there anything that will drive students away from those classics faster?). Connect the two, the classic and the material of contemporary mass culture, and watch the lovely things that happen.

[EDIT: A former professor might have had the best response to the article: "Wow--who knew Matthew Arnold wrote for The Chronicle?"]

Anyway, enough of that for now. I'm betting chances are good that if you're reading this blog, you're probably fairly sympathetic to the quality and worthiness of contemporary mass culture. Speaking of which, one more worthy example of it before I go: in keeping with my Mogwai appreciation from last night, I thought I'd offer up this live version of "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong." I'd long heard about what a transcendent live act Mogwai are, but I mostly assumed it had to do with sheer volume and their approach to their louder songs. This version of "2 Rights," though, from their live album Special Moves, is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the album version. I can only imagine what it's like to experience it in person.

*No link for you on that one, unfortunately. It's on JSTOR if you have access, in College English 45.4 (1983): 327-39. I should say, also, that I haven't read all that much pedagogy, if my choice of favourite insults your sensibilities.

No comments:

Post a Comment