Saturday, April 14, 2012


It's getting toward the end of the semester and I've just collected my students' reading journals in order to have a look at what they've been writing throughout the second half of the semester. They were supposed to make an entry into the journal every day they had a reading assignment (from a quick scan, it looks like less than half of them managed to do this), and their entry was to identify problems they were having, ideas they came up with while reading, general reactions to the text, etc. It's a fairly standard practice with some fairly standard goals: to ensure that they read, to help them think about material before coming into class so they have points to contribute to discussion, and to give them a chance to develop paper ideas/topics in an informal, low stakes way.

The most frequent comment I've seen so far in my students' reading journals--it's at the top of every entry, it seems, repeated like a mantra--is "This story was confusing." Sometimes there are slight variations--"This story makes no sense," "I'm so lost"--but mostly, the recurring theme is confusion. I was surprised that the frequency of these comments didn't drop as the semester went on; I'd structured the reading assignments to go from Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (the most difficult, in my mind) to John Cheever's "The Swimmer" (the easiest), with the idea that the frustration and difficulty they encountered in reading Kafka would spur them to develop (aided by class discussion and writing) the tools to read difficult material. Thus, by the time they came to the final reading assignment of the semester, Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, which we just finished, any confusion or frustration they encountered would immediately suggest to them strategies for reading and engaging with the material that would quickly move them beyond confusion as their sole reaction to the text.

Unfortunately, their reading journals don't reflect this. Even when the students were able to quite effectively produce interpretations and begin to make claims out of their confusion, they still circled back to that as their dominant (to the point of exclusivity) reaction. That the development I anticipated hasn't taken place is obviously a point on which I need to think further--what more can I do to help them get over this hump and start developing their reading skills?--but also seems like it might be related to other larger cultural factors.

A few passages from Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? seem pertinent here:
Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many--and these are A-level students mind you--will protest that they can't do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it's boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be "boring." What we are facing here is not just time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate "New Flesh" that is "too wired to concentrate" and the confining, concentrated logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp--and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension--that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche. (23-24)
If, then, something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a pathology, it is a pathology of late capitalism--a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture. Similarly, what is called dyslexia may in many cases amount to a post-lexia. Teenagers process capital's image-dense data very effectively without any need to read--slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane. (25)
Teachers are now put under intolerable pressure to mediate between the post-literate subjectivity of the late capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass examinations, etc). . . . Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. Teachers want to help students to pass the exams; they want us to be authority figures who tell them what to do. Teachers being interpellated by students as authority figures exacerbates the "boredom" problem, since isn't anything that comes from the place of authority a priori boring? (25-26)
While I think Fisher's take on this is perhaps slightly exaggerated at this point--although perhaps in the UK system in which he works he is in fact totally on the mark--I do feel that the process of educating students and the relationship between students, teachers, and material is trending ever more in this direction. The "indigestibility" he discusses seems related to my students' confusion. They want story without the process, the content without the form, because the act of reading, of deciphering, of making the story appear in a difficult text--which is a necessary and inseparable part of the text--runs against the grain of their mode of consuming and interpreting data. Thus, even when my students succeed in overcoming this confusion, it is the confusion they have no choice but to focus on rather than what that confusion allows/offers them.

A possibly related--though at this point wholly unsubstantiated--speculation on my part is that the breakdown in the disciplinary regime that Fisher discusses, taken together with its usurpation by Deleuze's societies of control--has something to do with my students' confusion with the material they've been reading because the stories have tended to talk about time in a way that my students no longer experience/think about time. Disciplinary society's discrete units of time, in which events are asynchronous from each other (8:00-10:00 is a block of work; 10:00-10:15 is a break that allows for socialization; 10:15-12:00 is another block of work) without any sort of overlap or simultaneity, are part of what the stories we have been reading have been playing with: the boundaries between formerly asynchronous events are breached, time becomes fluid. "The Swimmer" relies on time passing in several ways at once: the passing of an afternoon is linked to the process of aging from virility into senescence and to the cycle of seasons. Pedro Páramo cuts between events happening years apart, with effects often discussed before causes are established, and confuses chronology even further through the presence of an active population of ghosts who continue to live in the town of Comala long after their deaths.

For my students, though, time is already fluid. The seventy five minutes that delineates our class time no longer designates a time solely dedicated to learning about writing and argumentation via literature; as long as students are connected, via their cell phones (as much as I try to ban them, inevitably at some point at least one will make an appearance), they can continually escape this attempt to create a discrete block of time. The same thing applies, as Fisher notes, to the presence of food in class--students will attempt to bring whole meals into class, once again resisting the attempt to separate periods for consuming food/media/entertainment from class time. Bringing materials from other classes (ones deemed more important than a class devoted to writing and literature) to work on during our class is another form of this. The "New Flesh" Fisher mentions, constantly "wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture," does not have the sense of time as a series of discrete events against which simultaneity can be a flashpoint. Thus, attempts by these texts to use and play with time in this way is confusing to students because it is alien to their sense of the world and to how time operates within it.

Alongside this phenomenon of confusion, though, lurks the ever-present spectre of "value." What value does my class have for a student? What are they getting out of it? I would venture a guess that our thoughts on this (mine and my students') are not the same. I was pointed to why do we have to learn recently. A quick scan of the entries reveals the usual suspects--literature, philosophy, history, geography--but also a surprising number of entries dedicated to the sciences and math. There seem to be two basic arguments that students are putting forth in the tweets collated on this site:
1) Why do I have to learn about [x] when there is [computer program/hardware device that approximates one aspect of that discipline]? Example: "What's the point of learning about maps and stuff when we have GPS and Navigation systems."
2) What's the point of learning about [x] when I'm not going to be [occupation that would make use of that subject] when I grow up? Example: "Why do we learn physics? I'm not going to be an electrician when I grow up anyway o_o"
This is obviously not a new development, though it does point to a disturbing commodification of education by evaluating the process and content along the lines one would use while shopping. Here, education becomes positioned as an unnecessary frippery/luxury item: why buy this when I don't need what it does? Of course, the fact that students often misunderstand or misinterpret the "what it does" part when it comes to education makes this mindset even more damaging. I sometimes think of a shopper dismissing a bucket of water as a luxury item while his/her home is on fire when I consider this, though the premise of this attitude toward education still seems wrong.

For one thing, this attitude is a fairly obvious (though silent) way in which austerity rhetoric creeps into arguments about the structure and purpose of higher education. Fredric Jameson is right to insist that we decouple personified metaphors about balancing budgets in households from issues like national budgets and debts, as here the "we're all in this together" and "we all need to tighten our belts" kind of sentiments become the logic of the students' critique of the value of their education. As an unnecessary luxury--in their eyes--in the current economic climate, philosophy (or literature, history, etc.) is something that students must tighten their belts against, rather than something that can offer an alternative to "the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture" and its attendant logic of students being reducible to their consumer habits and occupation. Also, the "common sense" retort to this that so often seems to be promoted--encourage the students to understand the value of a degree in philosophy, literature, etc. in terms of potential career opportunities--serves only to further solidify the logic of the students' critique, as it progresses from the assumption that this critique (and the ideology that encourages students to launch this critique) is correct.

One final passage from Fisher on this topic:
It is worth stressing that none of the students I taught had any legal obligation to be at college. They could leave if they wanted to. But the lack of any meaningful employment opportunities, together with cynical encouragement from government means that college seems to be the easier, safer option. Deleuze says that Control societies are based on debt rather than enclosure; but there is a way in which the current education system both indebts and encloses students. Pay for your own exploitation, the logic insists--get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you'd left school at sixteen. . . (26)
Combating this logic requires not a concession to its soundness, but rather a commitment to overturning the economic and social conditions that engender it. Taking the "indigestibility" of Nietzsche that Fisher mentions and using it as the counter to students' questions of "value," of "utility," as the way to engage students in a discussion of how the question they are asking/the critique they are attempting to voice is formed and whose interests that question/critique serves is important, but it's only one part of the fight. Based on the above, those who worry about the value of the humanities in the current age would do well to focus on student debt, on economic reform, on the struggles that movements like Occupy have brought to national attention, as that is the organizational battleground out of which the ideologies that must be opposed can be most effectively fought.  

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