Saturday, November 21, 2015

Monday, April 20, 2015

this and that


I figured I’d use this last blog post of the semester to do a couple of things. First, to reflect upon the first project that my students write in my 1020 assignment sequence and how it—perhaps inadvertently—accomplishes some of the goals Lang talks about in his chapter on the first day of class. Next, to kind of brainstorm out loud one particular teaching strategy I would like to incorporate into the syllabus I am working on for our final assignment.

“First Impressions”

I know I’ve at least mentioned the first project in my 1020 assignment sequence before and here are the directions:
______________________________________________________________________

Project One
Descriptive/Narrative Paper: Mining for and Recognizing One’s Personal Voice: “Writing About Writing” 
(3-4 pages, due 11:59 p.m., Sunday 1/25)

In Project One you will be introducing yourself to our class through the description and/or narration of one of the following prompts pertaining to the act of writing. For this project you can choose to describe and/or narrate:

  • A time or experience in your life when you used writing to accomplish, change, obtain, prove, or express something important or defining.
  • Why you like, dislike, love, hate, excel at, struggle with, look forward to, or dread writing. For this prompt, you might want to focus on a specific genre (or type) of writing.
  • A particular piece of writing of which you are proud, and why. This could include anything you’ve written during or since high school—an essay, poem, personal statement, diary entry, editorial, et cetera ad infinitum. 

You have total freedom on this first assignment to tell your story using whatever language, tone, form, and style you think most effective—and of course, as they are the key to truly conveying the who, what, when, where, and why of something, the more details the better. In this first paper I would like to see, hear, and meet you.

With Project One we begin our assignment sequence with a writing assignment that gives you a chance to write with comparatively few prescriptions, so as to get a sense of the personal voice in your writing that you are bringing to our class. You will use this first piece of writing to help frame, approach, and reflect upon the transition you will be making into “college” or “academic” writing scenes and situations, rife as they are with directions, requirements, and rubrics. Along with our corresponding discussions and class work, this assignment will help you identify a set of implicit questions (concerning audience, purpose, and situation) to reflect upon as you encounter each new writing task throughout the semester. Project One will help you begin to think about the similarities and dissimilarities, and continuities and discontinuities between your personal voice and the academic voice you will develop as you face the demands of writing for academic audiences and the corresponding rhetorical situations. 
______________________________________________________________________

The past three 1020 classes that I’ve taught have done this assignment, and although it has been useful for a number of reasons that I had not even really considered when I was developing and writing it, I regret to say that I am not sure it has done what I intended with regards to voice. Why and how it has—and/or I have—failed to generate the ideas and discussions that I hoped it would (and which it still might, with more work on it this summer) is not why I’m talking about it, but instead I’m bringing it up because it accomplishes a couple of goals that Lang brings up in his chapter on the “First Days of Class.”

First of all, most of my students have said that they really enjoyed it, and I have received a lot of very thoughtful, sincere, poignant, and inspiring papers. Students also have often told me that starting the semester off with a low-stakes, “expressive” paper like this is an excellent way to ease back into the writing ritual after a break, instead of simply plunging right back into the “formal academic” writing that they will be doing throughout most of the rest of the semester. 

At the most basic level, for me, as an instructor, this assignment is an excellent and fun way for my students to introduce themselves to me. Beyond this perhaps selfish reason though, the above assignment is a really effective way to elicit the kind of information that Lang talks about in the section of the aforementioned chapter that discusses “First Impressions” (31-37). In this regard, this first writing project in my 1020 assignment sequence has proven to be an incredible and pleasurable way to get an idea of the “prior knowledge” the students bring into the 1020 classes that I teach, to get at least some idea of how well my students write and express themselves (although this has not been an accurate barometer in this regard a few times now), and to get a picture of my students’ “past experiences with the course topic, or [of] their understanding of” at least some of the ideas and skills I will—hopefully—help them discover and develop over the course of the semester. Yeah, instead of covering this stuff in the first class or two, this assignment isn’t due until the end of the second week of classes, but on the other hand, this first project ultimately gives me a more in-depth and genuine account of this information than the short little first-day exercises that Lang describes.


My Syllabus

I’m hoping to organize my syllabus around “keywords.” I will either derive the keywords from Raymond Williams’ influential Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society:




Or from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s newest edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies:




So, the idea is to have my students in perhaps ENG 2310, “Major American Books: Literature and Writing,” pick a keyword that ties into their interests, and have this keyword guide their readings throughout the semester. First, their will be a short assignment summarizing and responding to the corresponding entry in whichever of the above texts I choose to use, which will both begin the students engagement with their keyword and also commit them to it. I like the idea of having them do weekly blog-posts throughout the semester on each reading, and their readings and blog-posts will be guided primarily by considerations of their keyword. 

So that the students’ keywords are in dialogue with one another beyond our discussions in class, I would organize keywords into individual blog groups. For instance, if I was to use Burgett and Hendler’s text, one blog group could consist of “Region,” “South,” and “Border.” Or if I was using the Williams’ text, a possible grouping of related keywords could consist of “Labour,” “Radical,” “Violence,” and “Industry.” Obviously the groupings for the blog groups could go on indefinitely. Part of the students' grades would also consist of responding to other students’ blog posts and there would be at least one short paper using the keyword to guide their analysis of a text the class reads.

That’s what I’ve got for now…but there is also this:



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review


I am reviewing the newest edition of American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture, which is the third edition of this text and was first published in 2012. First and second editions were published in 1997 and 2006. It is published by Routledge and can be purchased new from Amazon at—what I consider to be—the reasonable price of $45.00. It was written by Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, who are both professors of American Studies at the University of Derby, in the United Kingdom. Some of the updates and revisions that this newest edition includes are sections focusing on Barack Obama’s presidency and America’s transition from the “Bush Years,” the increasing attention to what is called “Hemispheric American Studies” and the corresponding discussions surrounding globalization, and updated discussions of spaces and sites in the United States such as “suburbia” and the Mexican border. There is also an accompanying website for this newest edition, the URL of which can be found at the end of each chapter along with sections on “References and Further Reading,” and sections on “Follow-up Work,” which provide a number of exercises and assignments that help illustrate and establish the thoroughly interdisciplinary nature of the book and field. The website is organized according to the chapters of the book and includes links to corresponding online resources and further assignments and discussion tools.

At the beginning of the “Using the Book” section of the introduction, the authors explain that practicing the kind of interdisciplinarity indicative of the field of American Cultural Studies means employing different modes of analysis in each chapter, since, as Campbell and Kean explain, “investigations of different themes or topics demand different approaches” (9-10). The authors’ intention is therefore not to provide comprehensive summations of the topics that are examined in each chapter, but instead, to draw an illustrative picture of the wide “range of potential approaches to [studying] American culture” (5). So, I would say that the best way to describe the overall methodology of this book is to call it teaching by example. Or as the authors themselves describe their approach, “by way of discussion of interdisciplinary issues” the text can be seen as “a starting-point or a place of departure” (5) for students’ own work. Though I think this is definitely useful, I am not sure if I would require a class to purchase the whole textbook, because I think simply copying and distributing a selection of representative and illustrative chapters from the text might suffice in establishing the wide variety of approaches there are to examine specific topics in American Studies. I am still undecided about this.

There are two major concerns laid out in the introduction which help to define and guide the text’s methodology. The first major concern of the text is with what the authors identify as “the problematic nature of national [specifically American] identity” (3). Campbell and Kean break this first concern down further into questions regarding the problems with critical inquiries that reduce “national identity to some essential singularity,” and likewise, critical work which attempts to merely study American culture “in isolation and from ‘within’” (3). In this regard, the text maintains a heavy methodological emphasis on what the authors call “worlding”—or “viewing American culture as intrinsically linked to wider flows of meaning and identity” (20). The second major concern of the text is with the nature and importance of interdisciplinarity. The authors break this down into questions regarding the relationships between texts and contexts, of what is—and can be considered—a “text,” and finally to questions of how history is written, received, and studied (5-7). The type of international and interdisciplinary American Cultural Studies that is practiced in this text, the authors explain, is thus meant to inspire and encourage students who are just being introduced to the field, to develop their engagement with American culture and interdisciplinary work “in tandem” (2).

“The American City: ‘The old knot of contrariety’” (chapter six) is as good a chapter as any for getting an idea of one particular mode of cultural analysis practiced in the text. I think it does a great job of illustrating the ways in which an interdisciplinary cultural-studies approach can illuminate how cities can be viewed as perpetually ongoing events and processes, that are constructed as much out of cultural texts, social discourses, and human behavior as they are by the architectural structures and geographical sites of which they are physically comprised—and correspondingly, how important it is that these different perspectives be dialogically engaged when studying cities. An illustrative example (or two) might help to provide a picture of what this looks like in the chapter. In the section of the chapter focusing on the “Theoretical City: The Desire for Control and Order,” the authors draw from material ranging from architect Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, Edgar Allan Poe’s short-story “The Man of the Crowd,” spatial theory from Michel De Certeau and Marshall Berman, D.J. Waldie’s memoir Holy Land, and Woody Allen’s film Manhattan to examine the tensions between the visions and aspirations of urban planners and the lived experience of human beings in the built environment. Analogously, in the section of the chapter discussing “The Spaces of the City: Architecture, Art, and Ambivalence,” the authors draw from the literature of Upton Sinclair, the parks of Frederick Law Olmstead, the architecture and writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the essays of urbanist Lewis Mumford, the architecture and essays of Louis Sullivan (the “father” of the skyscraper), the paintings of Edward Hopper, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the spatial theory of Neil Harris, and Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity to examine how the built environment and the lived experience(s) of human beings inhabiting these spaces and sites effect and reflect one another.

Despite its claims to being an “introduction” to American cultural studies, I do believe this book to be a bit theory heavy. Which is fine with me, of course, but for a lower-level undergraduate course in American culture, I think this book would require at least some supporting and supplemental theoretical elucidation. For instance, in the introduction alone the authors draw from Foucault, Harvey, Bakhtin, Barthes, Jameson, and Hall (just to name a few). Admittedly though, I feel as if I am having some difficulty deciding if the depth and scope of these theoretical engagements are that far beyond the capacities and knowledge of undergraduate students, or if it would simply be a matter of dealing with theoretical questions during class discussions. Correspondingly, a big part of the introduction is in fact devoted to unpacking many of the theoretical and thematic terms and concepts that are often encountered throughout the text. As I state above, though a selection of the text’s chapters would be useful as examples to both illustrate the variety of interdisciplinary strategies in American Cultural Studies and to help establish how broad this variety can be, I am still unsure if I would require students to purchase the entire text. With the above said, I do think that individual representative chapters would be incredibly helpful in establishing themes in a course specifically on American literature and culture.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Taking the Text on a Road Trip"


I really could not have found a better article on pedagogy in literary and cultural studies than the one whose description follows. “Taking the Text on a Road Trip: Conducting a Literary Field Study,” was written by Paul D. Reich and Emily Russell and appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Pedagogy. The title of the article says it all—it is a description and analysis of what the authors call a “field study” (or “road trip”) exploring a number of literarily, historically, and culturally significant sites across the region known as “the South.” Admittedly, just the thought of someday being able to perhaps integrate something like this kind of methodology into courses that I teach on American literature and culture, is at least part of the reason I’m here. 

Reich and Russell’s “field study” was conducted over a spring break, seven weeks into the upper level undergraduate course they were teaching which was organized around the concept of “region”—focusing specifically on the regional literature of “the South.” The field study consisted of a one-week road trip via van (and train and plane to get to and from their home campus in Florida—Rollins College, in Winter Park) that began in Savannah, Georgia and ended in New Orleans, Louisiana stopping to experience literary, historical, and cultural sites that included Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home and the Mercer Williams House in Savannah; the Andalusia farm outside of Milledgeville, Georgia where Flannery O’Connor did much of her writing; Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak house just outside of Oxford, Mississippi; and the French Quarter in New Orleans. Many of the corresponding readings (as well as the accompanying theoretical texts) were read and discussed in the first seven weeks of the class leading up to the “road trip” and included John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Kate Chopin’s At Fault, and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. There were also shorter readings that were assigned for between the destinations (to be read while on the road or in hotels) which included Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Alice Walker’s “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Sally Wolff’s “William Faulkner and the Ledgers of History.” There were also short reflective writings done either on the road or in hotel rooms, and some archival work along the way. The final seven weeks of the class focused primarily on individual work which included “fifteen- to twenty-page seminar papers and creative projects ranging from short films and original songs to hand-sewn dolls” (418), all of which, the authors indicate, drew from experiences from and material generated during the road trip.

One of the most significant challenges that the authors discuss is how to make a field study such as this more than simply an exercise in traditional literary tourism, which the authors explain is often prompted by mere “sentimental attachment to character, hero worship of authorial genius, and a strong belief in the ability to achieve direct access to the persona and the past through the preserved site” (419). To avoid the perils of uncritical sentimentality that often come with tourism the authors’ attempted to make the critical methodologies of the classroom “portable” (419). As they explain early on, this meant extending the scope of the textual interpretation practiced in the classroom to include new “object[s] of study,” specifically, “the author’s house, the guide’s rhetoric, and the region’s self-presentation” (419). 

The first “object lesson” with which the authors and their students tussled involved the varying degrees of preservation the different authorial homes received and likewise the kind of public attention that each of the different homes elicited, which, as the authors explain, “allowed us to examine how those differences signified hierarchical structures within the literary canon” (420). For instance on one end of the spectrum would be all of the resources that the University of Mississippi and the greater Oxford community allots to the Faulkner House compared to the comparatively humble allotments afforded to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia farm, which is maintained entirely by contributions and a nonprofit foundation (421). To complicate these canonical differences even further, the authors had the students read Alice Walker’s “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor” between Savannah and O’Connor’s farm outside of Milledgeville. Thinking about how race factors into these canonical and social prioritizations Walker astutely laments how disheartening it is “that in Mississippi no one even remembers where Richard Wright lived, while Faulkner’s house is maintained by a black caretaker” (421). 
Reich and Russell explain that after this reading and the aforementioned stops on the road trip, the class’s conversations would frequently come back to what they “now saw as blank spaces on the map” (421).

The second “object lesson,” involving the commentary and guiding inducements and questions provided by Reich and Russell to their students, quickly became a question of narrative and historiographical authority between the authors and the guides that they and the class encountered at some of these sites. This meant having to critically navigate around the often romanticized accounts and narratives that the tourist industry was peddling, and upon which some of the guides that the class encountered stubbornly insisted. These were of course accounts and narratives which often conveniently glossed over—or outright ignored—some of the more deplorable historical details one finds in the South. Corresponding to their reading of Kate Chopin's At Fault, the class had stopped at Oak Alley Plantation in rural Vacherie, Louisiana, which proved to be an illuminating example of this narrative tension. Despite the slavery and human misery that once operated there the guide fatuously asserted that "the plantation had been sustained by "family and a love of the land," to which the authors added parenthetically, "plus 57 killed servants" (422). The guide's romanticized narrative was simply one element of the tourist experience which also included the site being marketed as a great place for weddings and destination for experiencing "'authentic' regional fare in its restaurants" (421). (If it's not appropriate to market a site like a German concentration camp as a place to have weddings, which I of course agree with, I've never completely understood why an American slave plantation is considered appropriate for such things and wonder what this says about how our country deals with its past. I'm well aware of the differences between a plantation and a concentration camp, but at the same time, the levels of misery and suffering seem comparable. I guess a conversation for another time.) As Reich and Russell explain, these scenarios presented the class with another “fictional” text to consider, meaning the one “focused on place and authored not by the writer or by the students but by the agents of literary tourism” (420). Of course, in a region such as the American South, this kind of struggle for historiographical agency is especially significant.

New Orleans ended up being a generative and illuminating place for the final “object study” regarding how regions, cities, and sites attempt to represent themselves. Here they had their most disappointing and seemingly most touristy experience. Here they encountered shallow literary tourist attractions that the authors describe as being “ephemeral, often occurring in marginal spaces like the street, the trolley, and the tour bus”—for instance, random plaques indicating that William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams had lived in a certain apartment. On the other hand, they had read Dave Eggers’ post-Katrina narrative, Zeitoun. They explain that there are now tourist buses of the city’s Ninth Ward that promise “an eyewitness account of the events surrounding the most devastating natural—and man-made—disaster on American soil!” (423). They and their class could not reconcile themselves to this kind of “so-called disaster tourism,” and consequently decided against it. They conclude that New Orleans’ attempts to represent itself and its spaces as literary sites fails in two ways—they “were either too removed" such as the shallow and surface level kind of tourism of which the above plaques are indicative, or they were "too uncomfortably present” (423), meaning how wrong it seemed to take a tour bus ride where the point is "to gawk at poor, largely black, unrecovered neighborhoods as a commodified example of 'disaster'" (423).

These three “object lessons” illustrate that professors and instructors leading such a literary field study “are forced to relinquish some authority over the texts and their contexts” (423). This is where preparing the students to approach these spatial texts critically, and for themselves, becomes especially crucial. “For a generation steeped in the ethos of ironic distance,” the authors write regarding their students’ experience at the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, LA, “they smirked at attempts to belatedly incorporate a multicultural story of slavery onto the grounds of the plantation and laughed at the euphemisms employed by the tour guide” (422). The different “teachers’ voices” that the aspiring literary scholar will encounter on these kinds of field studies at each site, Reich and Russell suggest, compete to present a “narrative of the region, the author, and the work” (424). Since these inevitable tensions between authoritative voices are at times beyond the control of the literary professor, the authors conclude, an effective pedagogical strategy is “to encourage the students to examine not just the texts but the locations and their experiences there as stories to be closely read” (424). In other words, encourage students to consider their own affective responses to and impressions of the sites.

OK, logistics, practicality, and feasibility for this kind of literary field study. Of course this sounds expensive—and it is, although one only gets a picture of this in note nine. Beyond it requiring students to spend their spring break thus (which is not a difficult sell to literary enthusiasts), this course came with an added fee of $1800. Yep. In a far more ideal world (country), there would be public resources for such academic luxuries but of course, in this world, this cost would put this out of reach of many students. In this regard, the authors say that their students’ ages on this literary road trip ranged from twenty to forty, included a fairly equal distribution of “traditional” students and students in the “evening degree program,” and was racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. Although I see how this kind of a site-specific and “experiential” pedagogy would be tough to pull off at a lot of schools, at the same time I feel like in most upper-level classes and seminars in literary and cultural studies one encounters the kind of passion for and enthusiasm towards literary texts that students would make this work—whether it would be through simply taking a little more money in loans or sacrificing some other luxury outside of the academy. Unfortunately—as much as this article excites me—this is definitely an academic luxury.

As should be clear at this point in the semester after a number of our conversations, this kind of pedagogical effort to create connections between literary texts and the spaces and places which they represent, excites me. Using one student's comments in the article, this kind of dialectical engagement with the American landscape and the literary texts that have helped form our perceptions of the sites of which it is comprised, creates a generative connection between that which is "ephemeral" and that is "tangible" (428), which those of us in the humanities rarely get to experience or explore. "While within the humanities," Reich and Russell suggest in this regard, "there are few opportunities for experiential learning, literary field studies provide one way to replicate the experiences students have in other disciplines" such as the natural and social sciences (430). The idea that this kind of literary road trip brings into the conversation, the narrative being created by the students' own experiences and impressions of these sites, is precisely the kind of blurring of the boundaries between the "in here" of the academy and the "out there" of the world that I think is crucial if the humanities are to remain relevant. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Mist closing in, getting thicker...

...One drops out, becoming quicker
Lights grow dim, they glimmer
The chances smaller, the odds are slimmer
Dot dash, dip flash, don't crash
Loosening my grip
Be sure to tread carefully
Steering a passage
Finding a line
Cross to comply, crossply
Progressive acceleration, skidding but the expression
Remains pan, radiators for all
Radial, I'm still in control, I understand, a hand, a hand moved me
Driven by self-propulsion
Turning right across the stream
The risks increased with sustained leisure
Courting death, so ill at ease…"




Monday, March 23, 2015

grades


Some of this week’s readings on grading are heartening. For some reason it does help to read that grading is such a formidable and at times exhausting ritual for so many other instructors. As ambivalent as I have been about Lang’s book thus far, most of what he says in the first pages of his chapter on assignments and grading were things that I appreciate hearing. Although I am yet to have a student contest a grade on an assignment, I can completely relate to what Lang calls the “painful realization” that many (if not most) of us will “never stop wondering, at least occasionally, about the legitimacy of [our] grades—or about the legitimacy of a particular grade that” we have given (128). 

I have taught four sections of 1020 thus far (I’m on the eleventh week of my fifth section), and I can think of two specific final grades that I’ve given that I remain a little unsure of still. My unsureness about the first grade boils down to the question of grading based on “effort” versus—I guess what one would call—“quality,” although I’m not sure quality is the best word for what I am talking about here. In the teaching orientations and in my cohort’s first practicum, I remember repeatedly having it emphasized to us that we should be grading primarily on the quality of the work and the level of skill shown in it, and not on effort. I think I grade based on effort to at least a slightly greater degree than what some of the instructors running practicum and the orientations seemed to prefer (prescribe?). I know the idea of basing our grades more on the quality of and the skill shown in the work is to—at least teaching 1020—make sure we are preparing students for what comes next in the course sequence. But I’d like to think that perhaps giving a student's effort a bit more weight in my grading, also means grading based on some degree of confidence that I have that a student will rise to the demands of what they face, whether the work they do is A material or not. 

“Sal” was a student I had, who worked his ass off, was always on time, clearly did all of the work and reading, took part in class discussions, and did all of the other things that we consider part of being an engaged, attentive, and caring student. “Sal” was also an ESL student and experienced a lot of the difficulties in writing that one encounters with some ESL students. At EAA time, he was right on the fence of C and C-, but did have a C. I had the normal conference with him that I do with all of my students who receive EAA grades or who are on the fence like "Sal" was, and made sure that he arranged visits to the Writing Center. When I went through and calculated his final grade at the end of the semester, sure enough he came up with a low C, but according to the numbers, he did get the C. This made sense to me, because regardless of the faults in his writing his effort still should have counted to some degree (enough to warrant the C), because it meant he understood the extra work he needed to do to improve his writing and that he was willing to do this work. To this day, based solely on his capacities as reflected in the "quality" of the work he turned in, I am unsure if sending him off to 3010 was the right thing, and if he was truly prepared for it. But I am sure through his performance in that class that he would work his ass off to do what is required of him in 3010, and this seemed right. No, his writing was not the best, and needed work, but he cared, and showed up everyday, and was enthusiastic, and worked hard. I guess you could say that the numbers helped me make a decision that I would have had much more difficulty making otherwise. For me at least, the numbers don’t lie, and they are also a way to guarantee a kind of egalitarianism in my courses. 

The second example of a grade that I’m still unsure of, derives from a time when I gave an A- to a student that I still think maybe should have gotten the A. “Zoe” was what one might call an ideal student—strong reader and writer, excited to be in school, incredibly well read after having just left high school (for instance, she was already a Gramsci adherent and loved her Zinn and Chomsky), loved to talk and always had valuable contributions during class discussions. “Zoe” missed one of the class reflections, and even after I sent my normal email giving an extra day or two on it, still didn’t turn it in. When it came time to calculate “Zoe’s” final grade—even with that missing reflection—I was totally surprised to see that she received an A-. Even if I rounded up, as I always do, her final grade was still an A-. I tussled for a while with just giving her another point, because she seemed to deserve an A based on quality and effort, but the numbers kept it egalitarian, and once I started thinking about changing her grade, I realized I would have probably had to change others. Instead, I stuck to what the numbers said she deserved, and that way I know that things remained egalitarian.

On a final note—or perhaps as kind of a parting shot—something about Cathy Davidson’s technological cheerleading rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s fine to be aware of what she’s writing and trying, but I do not see how her romanticized utopianism when it comes to evaluation has a single practical thing to say to me, as a second year GTA in the field of “English” teaching freshman composition. I disagree wholeheartedly with her constant insistence of our period being some kind of technologically mediated watershed for human understanding, communication, education, and sociality, as she rants in the “Follow-Up” to her first post. I won’t quote Jonathan Crary again, but I do find his description of the engineered maintenance of this unending sense of “transition” to be spot-on. So, when Davidson repeatedly goes on about how we “are now at one of the great, transitional, transformative ages in human history,” I find this declaration on her part to simply be overly dramatic and whimsically delusional…

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Texas...

…is the Reason


Monday, March 9, 2015

"Who am I?"


I went into my reading of Donna LeCourt and Anna Rita Napoleone’s article “Teachers with(out) Class: Transgressing Academic Social Space through Working-Class Performances,” expecting (hoping) to encounter some kindred thoughts on coming from a poor and/or working-class background into teaching and graduate work that would speak to some of my own experiences, but I did not feel like I could relate to much of what they discussed. Once again, I think this might have a lot to do with differences in gender—which they themselves suggest could be a possibility on page 103 when they ask, “how would these narratives be different if told by working class men?” 

As I’ve also stated in the past, I think another reason I can not relate to many of their descriptions of personal insecurity and anxiety is because I am as far along in life as I am, and my character is—for good or ill—etched in stone and I have perhaps fewer questions in my own head (and heart) regarding who I am at this point. Nobody tells me that I can do this, but I cannot do that, or I can be this, but I cannot be that, or because I've devoted my life thus far to being this, that consequently I cannot now decide to also be that. Although, like most of us, I by all means experience moments of tension and anxiety at times here in the academy, it has nothing to do with worrying that I don’t belong here, as it were, but more significantly (and perhaps less superficially) it almost always results from simply worrying about not being on point—in other words, not being prepared or not knowing the material being discussed. This is downright terrifying to me at times, in fact, and as some of you good people know, when I stumble when I’m in the midst of trying to work something out or during an engagement with material being discussed I definitely experience physical reactions. For instance, my ears turn bright red and I sweat like I’m running a lap—and perhaps, in a sense, I am. Also, as I’ve stated before, I’ve never really experienced this kind of tension or anxiety teaching—only in seminars and my own courses. As long as I’m prepared to teach my classes—and I always am—I’ve felt almost as natural in front of the classes that I have been fortunate enough to have taught thus far, as I do skateboarding through Hart Plaza…almost.

With all of that said, at points in LeCourt and Napoleone’s article, they really lose me, if you want to know the truth, and I have to admit that my notes and annotations are decorated with sarcastic comments and quips. I get that it was part of her research, but Napoleone’s description of her discussions with her students about, well, her, sound a tad cringe-worthy, and a bit awkward and uncomfortable for her students. Who knows, maybe they weren't, but, devoting a class to talking about her own accent (88)? I mean, talk about a “teacher-centered” approach. I have no doubt that at least some of my own students see me at the beginning of the semester and have no idea what to expect. I put my own distinct brand of academic unconventionality out there before I even meet my classes, when I email them the link to our class wiki before our first meeting, at which point they can see by my “About Your Instructor” page that I may not fit neatly into any kind of preconceived notions they may have about university instructors. But once we meet and they see that it’s all business in the classroom, I’m yet to have a single student lay some shit on me about not being able to figure out what they’re there to do and what I’m there to do, because I have a bunch of tattoos, bad teeth, and I tie my pants up with a shoelace. I respect my students and I take my teaching very seriously, and this is clear from the first class on, and it seems to me that once this is clear to my students everything else just falls into place. The same applies as the semester moves along, and our familiarity grows. I can sit and casually talk with students before class about—for instance—the new album Freddie Gibbs did with Madlib (Piñata), and joke and talk shit, but when it’s time for the business of the class to begin, and for them to occupy their role as student, and me my role as teacher, I’m yet to have a student not recognize when it's time to "get into character," and then do so.

By the time LeCourt and Napoleone actually get around to providing examples of what they consider to be “working-class” behavior, language, and mannerisms in the first place, and what “performing” this role might look like, and by the time they are warning that “Performing ‘class’ in the classroom…also involves much risk for the body that seems not to fit academic norms,” I was anxious to see what “working class” pedagogy—according to them at least—looks like (87). Because, I’ll be honest, when they’re talking about the potentially “transgressive nature” of an instructor “performing class” in the classroom, I had begun to get this picture in my head of Joe Pesci in Easy Money:



So, beyond their argument that "performing" working-class can be "transgressive" in the academy (OK), I’m left with the assumption that much of what LeCourt and Napoleone are describing has to do with not only coming from a working-class background, but being a woman and coming from a working class background. Which is fair enough, I know it makes a difference. I guess. I mean, there’s a lot about this article that makes me wonder if I’m a bit more oblivious to—actually, indifferent about—what other people think about me and my place in the academy than I think I am. I know one thing in this regard, I wouldn’t have survived a day at the University of Chicago if I worried, at all, about any of the people who feel threatened by my presence here. I don’t ultimately know what to make of Napoleone having to leave LeCourt’s seminar (97). “[S]he left because of her intense emotional response to the discussion,” LeCourt suggests, “and the way that discussion left no room to discuss her own past, oppositional behaviors, and how they emerged from a class consciousness.” Oh word? First of all, that must have been some “discussion” that did not allow for a participant’s “past [and] oppositional behaviors”—i.e. that person’s perspective—to come into play. Second, she left? I just don’t get it. I thought one of her points was that being working-class meant having a kind of thick skin...






Monday, March 2, 2015

“I’m stricken with a cerebral malaise…”


I love the idea of students approaching literary texts through the lens of their own experiences. I love the idea of blurring the lines between in here (the classroom) and out there (the world in which our students do the vast majority of their learning). I also love the idea of obscuring the boundary between us (instructors) and them (students) in the classroom and of correspondingly teaching in a way that “does not exaggerate the gap between what we are able to do and what our students are able to do as readers and interpreters” (Blau 96). So, there are elements of M. H. Dunlop’s argument for a “text-based approach” to teaching literature that are compelling, although I think it’s foolish to totally disregard authorial intention. “Instead of awaiting the arrival of meaning,” Dunlop suggests as regards textual criticism, “students can mount critiques of the ideologies or beliefs encoded in texts and thereby construct connections between [not only] the world and the text,” but between their world(s) and the text. 

I know that he is discussing “literary analysis,” in a more general sense, but the impulse to bring the lives and experiences of the students into their engagements with literary texts echoes Sheridan D. Blau when he writes concerning “the merely mechanical gestures of literary analysis produced by our students” (103).  Arguing that these “mechanical” readings and writings from students are the product of the kind of “techniques of analysis associated with New Critical ‘close reading’” (102), Blau explains that “when asked to interpret or comment on a literary work as an academic assignment, [students] tend to cancel out their own native intelligence and capacity to make sense of or read events they encounter in their own lives in favor of interpretive moves they have been taught in school and that they assume are required of them when faced by the verbal icons of literary texts” (103).

Some of my favorite lines and passages from short stories/writing that I look forward to having the chance to engage with my own classes in the future, are lines and passages that shook me to my core when I first encountered them because they seemed to speak to some of my own experiences (whether I could elucidate the connections or not) and to that real-world shit that I believe literature can be an invaluable lens to consider. For instance:

  • The passage in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" after the Misfit has gunned down the grandmother in the ditch and he says: "She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
  • The passage in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" when Sonny's non-stop piano playing has gotten to a point where it is driving everyone in Isabel's home crazy, but they knew not to stop him because even his brother "sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life."
  • The passage in Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea For Captain John Brown" after Thoreau asks "Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung?" and he then answers: "While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled and music is a screeching lie."

On a final note, after nearly ten years of intensive academic work here in the field of “English,” I find myself often unsure of the practical value of what we (I) do in here, so I don’t think I’m as bothered as others may be, by what Erick Kelemen identifies as “the potentially destabilizing force” (126) of something like textual criticism. I think it will be OK… 
___________________  _____  _______________________  ______  

"Oh where oh where can jah love be now
My dear, it's here in the underground
Inside the hearts of your own children"






Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday morning blessings...


"Say you will never ever catch me, no, no, no"




Monday, February 23, 2015

Wendell Berry is a bad ass...


…and I love that Lang brings him and his Ludditism up at one point. If you don't believe me just read this:




Despite what my post from last week may seem to indicate, I’m all for utilizing and integrating some “teaching and learning technologies” in the courses that I teach. I do use a class wiki already—admittedly in a humble and rudimentary way, but it’s a foundation upon which I will continue to build. My students submit papers electronically and I comment on them and return them likewise, and I actually prefer this to paper copies (although I do believe in low-stakes in-class writings as well). Finally, I definitely plan on incorporating weekly blog posts into the courses I teach next fall—time and time again I’ve found them to be advantageous for a number of reasons that are included in our own syllabus in this course. 

Nevertheless, I will never pretend to not see the insidious and pervasive corporate presence that undergirds all of the technological stuff we as instructors seem to incessantly have forced upon us. And, to put it plainly, I refuse to have any of these conversations without this fact somewhere in sight. Period. 

In this regard—and before I go on—I’m going to bring Jonathan Crary into this one last time (for good measure) as regards the problem with perspectives (such as Davidson and Goldberg) that insist that the present is defined by a kind of technological adolescence and liminality which will inevitably lead to some terminus ad quem of technological maturity. 

“This pseudo-historical formulation of the present as a digital age,” Crary explains, “supposedly homologous with a ‘bronze age’ or ‘steam age,’ perpetuates the illusion of a unifying and durable coherence to the many incommensurable constituents of contemporary experience…One of the underpinnings of this assumption is the popular truism that today’s teenagers and younger children are all now harmoniously inhabiting the inclusive and seamless intelligibility of their technological worlds. This generational characterization supposedly confirms that, within another few decades or less, a transitional phase will have ended and there will be billions of individuals with a similar level of technological competence and basic intellectual assumptions. With a new paradigm fully in place, there will be innovation, but in this scenario it will occur within the stable and enduring conceptual and functional parameters of this ‘digital’ epoch. However, the very different actuality of our time is the calculated maintenance of an ongoing state of transition [my emphasis]. There never will be a ‘catching up’ on either a social or individual basis in relation to continually changing technological requirements. For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement” (37).

OK then, stepping back from the broader perspective of the technocratic juggernaut mentioned above—meaning getting back into the humble space of the classroom—I agree with James M. Lang that one of the best ways to approach balancing more traditional teaching/learning methods with new(er) technological methods is simply the same approach that makes for a proven formula when confronting many of life’s decisions: moderation. As Lang states in a previous chapter that we’ve read, “simply putting your lecture outlines and important information on a PowerPoint slide represents no great improvement from writing those same words on the blackboard or putting them into an over head” (77). It’s all about finding a comfortable, generative, and effective balance…I guess.

After the opening—and perhaps compulsory—anecdote with which Lang begins the chapter “Teaching with Technology,” he cites Don Madigan when he writes that “this generation of students is ‘used to multi-tasking’ in ways that are less familiar to us older types” (44). Lang claims his students have “clearly illustrated” this to him time and time again. I can also say that my own experiences with the younger, ostensibly tech-savvy generation(s)—in and out of the classroom—have also very “clearly illustrated” to me that the aforementioned “multi-tasking” simply does not work for many of them. In fact, it seems to often make a mess out of the simplest writing tasks.

On a final note, I would like to draw attention to the similarities between some of the ideas we had last week regarding how we would use technology to broaden and enhance our approaches to studying the spaces, places, and landscapes of the literature and films we teach and one of Jesse Stommel’s interesting ideas in “How to Build an Ethical Online Course.” When I first read, “The best online learning should engage us in an immediate and physical way,” I was instantly and skeptically thinking to myself that an online class could not be further from immediacy and physical presence—and I still feel that way I guess. The “shared sense of physical space” that Stommel claims is created by—for instance—his assignment that requires students to blog about Thoreau’s Walden and include photos of a hike they might go on, would be better shared in the actual space of the classroom. 

Still, the assignment he describes, and the ways in which he explains utilizing technology to display images is kind of what I was thinking of last week. For instance, while having students engage Charles Baudelaire’s poetic representations in Paris Spleen of the massive spatial upheavals caused by the “Haussmannization” of Paris, and the corresponding dislocation and marginalization of the poor of the city, students could accompany their writing (this could be via blogs or in-class presentations incidentally) with photos of analogous—and equally dislocating and marginalizing—spatial upheavals occurring in Detroit.



Perhaps the same could be done while having students engage and examine examples of "cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, [and] hidden cities," as envisioned in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.


Or perhaps students could use actual images to help capture and think about the evolution of this country's distinct paradigm of suburban (and exurban) space, and all of the social and political impressions of it that are movingly rendered in D. J. Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.




Saturday, February 21, 2015

let's break for a message from our sponsor


                                        "I call architecture frozen music."
                                          -Goethe






                                                                dancing

Monday, February 16, 2015

I think this is my stop…


“In many places one still encounters the assertion that contemporary technological arrangements are essentially a neutral set of tools that can be used in many different ways, including in the service of an emancipatory politics…Those who continue to promote similar arguments are, for their part, the product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.

“Everywhere one encounters the complacent and preposterous assumption that these systemic patterns are ‘here to stay,’ and that such levels of technological consumption are extendable to a planetary population of seven going on ten billion. Many who celebrate the transformative potential of communication networks are oblivious to the oppressive forms of human labor and environmental ravages on which their fantasies…depend. Even among the plural voices affirming that ‘another world is possible,’ there is often the expedient misconception that economic justice, mitigation of climate change, and egalitarian social relations can somehow occur alongside the continued existence of corporations like Microsoft, Google, Apple, and General Electric [my emphasis]. Challenges to these delusions encounter intellectual policing of many kinds. There is an effective prohibition not only on the critique of mandatory technological consumption but also on the articulation of how existing technical capabilities and premises could be deployed in the service of human and social needs” (47-49).

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
—Jonathan Crary


There is so much in Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age that I have a problem with, that I’m not even going to start with it.

Since I first read it a year or so ago, I have continued to consider Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep to be one of the most important books out there. As a means of establishing a kind of political economy, Professor Barrett Watten brought it into our discussion in our Postmodernism seminar last winter, and I’ve read it again since. Among other things, it has made my perception of the society I fairly recently kind of caught up with, in a technological sense, far more acute. I’ve been vigilant in academia for examples of how the corporate-technocratic juggernaut which Crary discusses will look as it increasingly fouls the air in here. As far as I am concerned, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking is, in this regard, a gold mine—or perhaps more aptly put, a steaming pile—as it were. 

The manic sense (and futility) of trying to keep up, the sheer inertial pervasiveness of the technocratic intrusion into any and every part of our lives, the incessant expressions of valuable time slipping away (or being wasted)—the whole dizzying sense of frenetic affect that Crary explores wrapped up in 83 pages on technology and teaching. And since every so many pages something Davidson and Goldberg were claiming or explaining brought Crary to mind, it is with Crary that I will at times respond to Davidson and Goldberg below.

Just as an initial, general kind of observation, there is something about the article—some kind of underlying tone I guess—that starts to seem like I’m reading something from people who are, more than anything else, simply terrified about losing their jobs. There is so much in The Future of Thinking that I will never buy into—so much


Mania

Throughout The Future of Thinking there is an almost manic sense of the present falling by the wayside, and frenetic instantaneity, and precious time slipping away, and incessant change. For instance, when claiming that educational institutions are changing far slower than, say, corporate culture is, Davidson and Goldberg write that this “slow pace of change makes us think we know what a learning institution is—or we think we do” (3). Or then again, Crary might say that the technocratic forces of change that some educational institutions are not keeping up with are elsewhere “facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point” (40). Of course, the blurring of the boundaries between learning and consumption comes up often in The Future of Thinking.

Davidson and Goldberg go on to explain that “New technologies make possible instantaneous revision, repositioning, reformulation” (9). They then—rather dismissively if you ask me—acknowledge that there may be drawbacks to this in that people "may not take the time to reflect" (9). They continue on to insist that “the moment [of change] is fresh enough that it is still visible to us” (9), but I would like to suggest another element of this moment of “freshness”—that the glare of shiny, new contraptions and the libidinal stimulation of technological novelty blinds some of us and keeps some of us in a perpetual state of technological arousal. In 24/7 Crary explains the above instantaneity that Davdison and Goldberg discuss like this:

“The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture and control of time and experience”

To the whole general debacle of academia not keeping up with all of the technological change, and the risks that Davidson and Goldberg present, I will respond here with Crary’s assertion that: “Submission to these arrangements is near irresistible because of the portent of social and economic failure—the fear of falling behind, of being deemed outdated. The rhythms of technological consumption are inseparable from the requirement of continual self-administration…The illusion of choice and autonomy is one of the foundations of this global system of auto-regulation” (44).


Transition

Davidson and Goldberg suggest that “New digital and collaborative modes of learning, writing, communicating, and publishing inevitably disturb traditional definitions” (31). Fair enough. Thus, they go on to explain, “in transitional moments such as the present one, assumptions become visible and also require serious rethinking” (31). The idea of standing at the precipice of technological change and “transition,” and of being at this pivotally liminal point where if decisions to change are not made, academia will become perilously outdated (outmoded?), seems like academia genuflecting to the engineered obsolescence that the rest of consumer society does. 

The “very different actuality of our time,” Crary correspondingly argues, “is the calculated maintenance of an ongoing state of transition. There never will be a ‘catching up’ on either a social or individual basis in relation to continually changing technological requirements. For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement” (37).


Children

Could “The School of the Future” in Philadelphia be any fucking creepier? ‘Nuff said.

“You do not have to force a child who is interested in Pokémon to practice at the computer” (22). Oh, word? Of course not, total immersion in commercial culture and commodity fetishism has guaranteed that they’re hooked to the fucking gills already at that age. Davidson and Goldberg go on to explain that, “Technical skills, programming, literacy, social life, aesthetics and design, narrative-making, socializing, and fun are all woven together, and, for many preschoolers, the only brake is the parent who worries about the child spending too much time (or money) on Pokémon” (22). Thank god software’s been devised to “limit children’s time at the computer” (22), because the parents evidently are unable to do so. In “This multidisciplinary learning world,” Davidson and Goldberg go on to claim, “play and learning are inseparable” (22). I love how they leave out the fact that also inseparable from all of the “play” and “learning” is corporate ubiquity, insatiable consumption, and acute commodity fetishism of the worst kind—meaning the kind which focuses specifically on “five-year-olds.” 

I could go on, but I’m over it. 

Admittedly, I still have almost thirty pages of The Future of Thinking to read. Maybe something in those thirty pages will make me retract something from above—but I doubt it. 

Human beings in classrooms together… 

…there is something intellectually, socially, and—dare I say—spiritually invaluable about this scenario that, at least as far as I'm concerned, will never be outdated, outmoded, or obsolete…





Monday, February 9, 2015

"background knowledge"?


Since the syllabus outlines a fairly broad scope of ways in which to approach our blog posts, I want to think about the ongoing question of why we (and this can be the “royal We” or simply, I) teach, or want to teach literary and cultural studies in the first place, and how a particular section from Sheridan D. Blau’s The Literature Workshop corresponds and speaks to this question. I must first assert a bit of a caveat here at the beginning though—part of me worries that in what follows, I may be, to some degree, tangentially meandering away from the conversation that Blau is having. Hopefully not. Another concern that I might as well express here is that I’m a bit worried that what follows will make starkly manifest how lost and out-of-place I feel at times here in the Humanities. Oh well, full steam ahead.

There is quite a bit from our Blau reading that I potentially would like to discuss, but chapter four, “The Problem of Background knowledge,” is especially significant to me for a number of reasons. Primarily though, it was an interesting chapter because I realized while reading it that what Blau calls the “background knowledge” responsible for, surrounding, influencing, and determining the texts that we teach, is to me, actually as much of the point as the actual texts themselves. Put another way, I’m as interested in (if not more interested in) the world in which the texts are produced as I am in the texts' representations of this world. As I’ve stated before, I am interested in history, politics, society, and the landscapes in which the unfolding of these things occur and I'm here because I believe literature offers the most rewarding windows into these human phenomena, entities, and places. Whether it be the ways in which history, politics, society, and the spaces in which we live are reflected in the texts or the ways in which the former influence and determine the texts, my interest in all of this, is the world in which we live, and I simply believe that literary (and cinematic) texts have the potential to be the most genuine, important, revealing, and generative ways in which to engage with our world. 

The importance which I invest in the historical, political, social, and spatial “knowledge” that surrounds a given text makes it so that the “background,” in what Blau calls “background knowledge,” is a little troublesome to me. The secondary status of this kind of “knowledge” in relation to the texts, which is implicit in the above, is something with which I am still tussling. I know that Blau’s book and workshop model of teaching and facilitating literary and cultural scholarship is very much focused upon the execution of literary interpretation, and I'm not sure if any of the knowledge acquired and/or produced by this interpretation is meant to escape the confines of the classroom or of the seemingly hermetically sealed boundaries of the academy. I would not be here if I did not believe that if one wants and/or needs to get a genuine, stark understanding of what it is like to—for instance—live on the streets of a certain neighborhood, in a certain city, at a certain time, than the literature produced by human beings from those streets, that neighborhood, that city, and at that time is where one needs to look. 

To support this assertion, I’m not only going to draw from someone wholly outside of the humanities, but from someone outside of academia in general—Robert D. Kaplan. Part journalist, part consultant to the army, part “Senior Fellow” for think-tanks, part “geopolitical analyst,” etcetera, I appreciate Robert D. Kaplan for the same reason I appreciate someone like Mike Davis—when there is no apparent “light at the end of the tunnel” in a certain part of the world with which they are engaged (see for instance Davis’ Planet of Slums), and this truth must be acknowledged if anything is to be done to help the people living in said place, writers like Kaplan and Davis are willing to say so—to say that what’s being done or tried is not working.




OK, almost a digression, maybe, but I had to at least give a little context for the following passage from Kaplan. Oddly enough, in the middle of his massively influential, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, which is basically a collection of essays and articles (he’s written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, etc.), in chapter eight one comes across—of all things—a reading of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.  Entitled, “Conrad’s Nostromo and the Third World,” and in a nutshell, Kaplan’s reading focuses upon the ways in which Conrad’s novel illustrates how the most genuine and realistic understanding of political actions can often be best derived by examining the personal motives behind these actions. Or something like that. Anyway, the below passage is the reason you’re reading this, as it is how Kaplan connects this to the “real world” circumstances that he covers and with which he tussles. Apologies ahead of time for quoting at length like this:

“A person raised in a middle- or upper-middle-class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter firsthand such a society—whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle-class existence—is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle-class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find ‘evidence’ for ‘pragmatic’ solutions.

The problem is further compounded by the separation of literature from history and of both from political science in this age of academic specialization, creating policy makers ignorant of the very books that explain places like Haiti and Somalia far better than any social science ‘methodology.’ While the usefulness of history is accepted and needs no elaboration, the usefulness of literature is less so among the policy elite, even as Marco Diani, a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, writes that, ‘The anguish of any society can be found in its literature, often earlier and more clearly revealed than in its social sciences.’ That is because the future lies inside the silences…” (157-158).

Once again, apologies for the length of the above quote, but I felt like it was necessary to fully contextualize the last paragraph, which is what is most important to me. 

Blau’s chapter on “Background Knowledge,” like much of his book, was terrific in a number of ways and provides some inspiring models with which to attempt to make sure that “our instruction does not exaggerate the gap between what we are able to do and what our students are able to do as readers and interpreters” (96) themselves. But also important to me in this chapter, was the way it deals with the importance of  “background knowledge,” because, as I state above, I consider the historical, political, social, personal, and spatial context and circumstances that produce the texts, as important as the texts themselves. What this means or looks like in action, in the classroom, is another whole conversation--which I will perhaps get a chance to explore this semester amongst you good people and with the syllabus I produce. What I will say here is that it definitely means bringing this "background knowledge" into the foreground alongside the texts themselves...