Monday, August 10, 2015

This Day in Feminist History

Forty-five years ago today, Shirley Chisholm speaks on behalf of the Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment: 
This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set further generations free of them.
The role of the ERA in the women's' movement in the 70s is endlessly fascinating: in some frameworks it plays a similar role to the vote in the early movement: a single issue that galvanized many but threatened demobilization: in the first case, when the vote was achieved, in the second, when the ERA reached its final defeat. The debate about its importance was also a key part of the real but misunderstood divide between liberal and radical wings of the feminist movement - the former seeing it (largely) as central, the latter as (largely) a distraction. Like the vote, it was a huge, grassroot effort that by nature demanded an immense grassroots mobilization.  As Bonnie Dow illustrates,  the ERA gave the movement a central demand that ensured it was seen as a movement, and whatever predictable framing TV gave the movement, it was seen as such. If my immersion in the period has suggested one thing, it's that the ramifications of the backlash that led to its defeat are central to any understanding of what a feminist "movement" - not a change in perspective but a social movement with all that goes around this - is and isn't and might be yet.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The George Washington Bridge: "Inside Llewyn Davis," James Baldwin, and Portraits of Grief

I looked forward to watching Inside Llewyn Davis for a long time before it came out. I grew up on folk music and some of these songs will probably be the last thing I remember when I've forgotten my own name. 

I wasn't disappointed, but a lot of people were. Critics and friends alike - and my folk-loving parents - all focused on the how "unlikeable" Davis was - like David Edelstein, they found him/the movie "sour" or "snotty." 

I was intrigued by this reaction. As anyone whose read a single think piece about the "Golden Age of Television" knows, we're living in the age of anti-heroes: the more anti the better. So what had Llewyn done that soured the deal when unrepentant murderers, meth dealers, and racists were compellingly "complex"? 

The brilliant Eileen Jones writes persuasively in her piece at Jacobin that viewer's contempt has to do with the American valorization of success - the film doesn't give its hero a narrative of upward mobility, of movement towards success, and we're not open to stories of failure, so much so that "If Inside Llewyn Davis weren't so funny, none of us could stand it."

I think she's undeniably right about all of that. But after watching the movie again recently, I was struck by the extent to which it is also a movie about grief. It strikes me that Davis' problem isn't that he's not talented or successful enough, it's that his friend and former singing partner died in a terrible way, and he doesn't pretend not to be wrecked by that. 

I think I missed this the first time because Davis doesn't talk a lot about his grief - and that's the point. Like unrequited love, grief in a happiness-obessed and death-denying culture is the love that dare not speak its name. This time, when, midway through the film, we learn through a conversation with John Goodman's unsympathetic jazz musician that his friend jumped off the George Washington Bridge, I thought of another portrait of New York Bohemia from around the same time, James Baldwin's Another Country. Here we have another suicide by another young musician from the same bridge. Unlike in Inside, Baldwin takes us right to the scene: 
Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire. 
This scene comes on page 78 of a 365 page novel. The rest of the book deals with the fallout among his group of bohemian friends. Straight and gay, black and white, talented and otherwise, they are truly marginal in a way recent hipster culture would make us forget. They are wrecked will various kinds of guilt and anger they take out on each other without recognizing it as such. It's an incredibly portrayal of grief and what artistic expression can and can't do with it. 

I played this audio of Baldwin reading from this scene in a fiction class about a year ago. I didn't have a particularly good reason except we were reading a Baldwin story and I'd just come across these and wanted them to hear his voice. There was an awful tension in the room when it was done. Turns out when you play audio of a suicide scene people's first reaction isn't "those sentences!" I had violated some rule by putting something like that out there and just letting it hang. I imagine that's how people in deep grief feel - like they are stinking up the party wherever they go. 

In her piece Jones taIks about  the key scene when Davis has a chance to play for the powerful agent Bud Grossman and he picks the resolutely bleak "The Death of Queen Jane" to which Grossman replies "I don't see a lot of money here." The first time I saw this, what struck me was Davis's acceptance: he doesn't, as the heroes of countless art versus commerce movies might do, tell Grossman where to stick it or that he will rue the day or some such. I wonder if people would have found him more "sympathetic" if he had. 

But what I noticed this time was the other part of the exchange. Grossman, trying to be helpful, doesn't reject Davis out of hand. He tells him he's a musician, not a star. His advice is to get a partner, to which Davis replies, "that's good advice." 

There's something deep going on in this film about music and catharsis as there is in Baldwin's novel. The one Baldwin story that's in all the anthologies, "Sonny's Blues," is also all about this. We need music because it's where we're allowed to be sad, irrational, but we want even the people who make this for us to shut up about it the rest of the time. And so it seems we don't forgive Davis not because he's not successful or because of some of his genuinely dickish moves during the movie but because of his sadness. We forgive so much, but not sadness, and that makes me sad.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Marlene Sanders, 1931-2015

For my research reading Bonnie Dow's excellent "Watching Women's Liberation 1970." One point she convincingly makes is that coverage of the movement was not as uniformly hostile as we might expect. Part of this was due to women like Marlene Sanders, who died this week, and, among other things, produced a substantive piece on the Ladies Home Journal strike of 1970. As Dow explains, activist Susan Brownmiller cultivated this sympathetic coverage by leaking word of the sit-in to Sanders in advance, assuring she would be the one on the scene. There are a lot of great stories of these little collaborations at the time - my favorite being another one Dow describes, when a secretary at Playboy leaked to feminist activists a memo Hugh Hefner had written asking for "a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart." , Dow devotes a chapter to the documentary she produced for ABC about the movement and how she navigated her sympathy for the movement with her position at the network and her views about the role of journalists. Those of us on the left are rightly suspicious of the idea that getting more people of X group on the inside is a solution to social injustice, but in this case it did really make a difference.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Some Stupid Test

Over the course of my sabbatical, I'm hoping to write a range of personal reflections on teaching. It's a hard topic to talk about. A lot of the formal scholarship is notoriously bad, which makes a lot of teachers hesitant to read about it, which is a shame. 

One aspect of teaching I think about a lot is how our own histories as students shape the way we teach and, especially, how we relate to our students. One of the reasons I think faculty diversity is important, despite being an inadequate method of addressing institutional racism and sexism, is that people tend to mentor students who remind them of themselves. And one thing most, though not all academics have in common is the experience of being told they were "smart," of doing well on tests, and, crucially, getting the message that intelligence wasn't just a tool, it was an identity. At its best, this identity can help people develop and take pride in their capacities and curiosities and resist our anti-intellectual culture; at its worst, it can foster smug superiority, the belief that if one is brilliant, everything one does must be brilliant too. When too many people who've been told this their whole lives are put in the same place, you get this.  

If nothing else, any teacher worth her salt quickly learns that there's no one such thing as "intelligence."  This isn't some great sentimental statement about equality - in fact it's about difference. There are such a range of qualities everyone has - abilities that are verbal, cognitive, physical, social that can reveal themselves in such a range of ways. There's curiosity, there's focus. There's the ability to do what someone tells you no matter what, there's the desire to say fuck it if it doesn't seem to serve you. Any of these can be useful or harmful or be seen as intelligence or its opposite depending on the circumstances.  

Last year, Michael Kinsley had a moving piece in The New Yorker about his experience living for twenty years with Parkinson's disease and his fear of losing his mental capacities. This experience helped him understand what teaching has taught me. He notes that what he unfortunately calls the "P.C" view of intelligence is actually the one being supported by science. But just as cubically, he's having the experience, for the first time, of being on the wrong side of the test taker who doesn't make those distinctions:
As the word gets out that Parkinson's disease is not just a movement disorder, there will be people whose careers will be destroyed because, on a particular day at a particular time, they can't recite a seven-digit telephone number backward. Allowing someone's fate to depend on whether he or she can do well on some stupid test is just the reductio ad absurdum of the meritocratic machinery that has been pretty good to me (and to you, I suspect) over most of a lifetime.
Notice the parenthetical. It's most likely true that most people who read The New Yorker did well on stupid tests, just like most professors did. I don't want to pick on Kinsley for only now realizing this - what he's talking about is the kind of personal, felt knowledge it's hard to reach without personal experience. We know so many of the stupid tests that are in the news these days are bullshit, but we don't always have access to what it does to the psyches of those on the other side of the line. 

When you work with students who didn't have that experience, you realize just how insidious the process can be. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's classic look at the sorted history of IQ and related attempts to prove the superiority of the entitled class, he talks about how these classification systems set the conditions that give more and more resources of all kind: to each according to their abilities, when ability = some stupid test. I've been thinking about this passage from the book a lot recently:
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
What's interesting to me about this is the extent to which its inverse has become a motivational cliche: your imagination is your only limitation, and all that. A lot of the time we lefties talk about why people buy into the myths of social mobility and all that as if it's a lack of knowledge about social inequalities or the ideology of individualism. But I think a lot of the times people know the game is rigged against them. Putting the blame on oneself can be a way to have hope - if that fault is hard, we can change it, we can work harder next time.

What's also interesting to me is how much, despite all their processed investment in the meritocracy, people who have been raised to be rewarded under the system are often happy, in private of course, to acknowledge that it's all a game. Part of being socialized for success in the U.S. is about knowing which rules apply to you and how; it's about knowing that not all of them do, because if you try to follow all of them you go crazy.  Perversely, the much vaunted failure of students of working class backgrounds to take learning seriously is just the opposite: they take it so seriously it seems overwhelming. Trying to help them navigate the system while still maintaining the value of intellectual work that isn't a game is hard work and I don't know how good I am at it but I know it won't get any easier the more of these stupid fucking tests there are.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Misty Copeland

In another life, like countless girls, I spent countless hours dreaming about ballet. I subscribed to Dance Magazine, I sewed ribbons into shoes, and I watched a VHS tape we had of the Kirov's production of Swan Lake dozens of times. I read Gelsey Kirkland's memoir on the beach and cried.

I wasn't very good. But I kept practicing, and I cared about it deeply. I think it was invaluable for my young physical self growing up in a very anti-sports family, and to my love of the arts.  One summer I went to a ballet camp and there was this imposing teacher everyone was scared of. But one day he broke character and had us huddle around and talked about the worthiness of our calling. He did a probably offensive but very funny imitation of a ditzy high school girl and asked if those girls made fun of us for dancing. He told us, just remember, what do they do? Nothing. What do you do? You dance. He made it sound sacred.

When I got to college (a woman's college I'd picked in part because they had a dance program), I realized quickly a lot of budding feminists saw ballet as a very bad thing.  It fetishized little girls, it gave them eating disorders, it was aristocratic, elitist, etc. etc. I could see where they were coming from, but my heart wasn't in it. Later in graduate school when I met the Marxist who would become my advisor, I sheepishly mentioned I had been a dancer once, in another life. "Ah, she said. That's so wonderful! The physical discipline!" That's probably the moment I knew she would be an important figure to me.

Today Misty Copeland was promoted from soloist to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. She is the first African-American woman to reach that rank in that company.

This profile in the New Yorker by Rivka Galchen from a little while back does a good job outlining why this is such a big deal. I've had a lot of conversations over the years defending my love of ballet with especially women who had bad experiences with dance teachers who told them to go on a diet or who just can't get past the whole aristocratic, Court of Louis XIV thing, or the hierarchy that makes "soloist" and "principle" such important categories, or for whom the whole aesthetic is corrupted by its idealization of weightlessness. I get all that. But like my Marxist professor, I think that some of the things bourgeois culture has made are too beautiful to be left to the bourgeoisie, even if when you got to the NYBT these days you have fucking David Koch's name on your ticket.  I'm also the kind of Marxist who has a certain impulse to defend the guild-like qualities of worlds like ballet. (Copeland even points out in that profile how people assume ballet is her hobby, and she reminds them she's in a union.)

The New Yorker piece also does a good job outlining how often throughout history black ballet dancers have come up against the aesthetic prejudices of the art's gatekeepers, looking not only for young dancers with talent or even turnout but who would fit "uniformly" into an ensemble. It tells the stories of dancers like Raven Wilkinson, a dancer with the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Michaela DePrince who have made their careers abroad after come up against these kinds of barriers in the U.S. Shockingly, when the Dance Theater of Harlem was temporarily closed because of financial difficulties (which of course points to a not-minor aspect of the problem), only one of its dancers was offered a job by a major American company. This is a small step in a slow moving world but one that will genuinely move lots of us former bunheads, even those who, unlike Copeland, Wilkinson or DePrince, lacked for talent rather than opportunity.

Relatedly, I've always been more of a NYCB girl, but who wants to go see ABT with me?

Monday, March 23, 2015


March 20th was blessedly the first day of spring and also would have been my Baubie's 100th birthday. She lived 95 of them about as well as you can. She grew up in Minneapolis the oldest of five sisters, had two daughters and four grandchildren. She was a social worker and a faculty wife who loved her college community - much of my stubborn romanticism about academic life is thanks to her, her bookshelves, and her stories about Saul Bellow's various wives. She was a widow for al...most thirty years who remade herself in every way. I first read the New Yorker at her apartment by the lake in Chicago. She took me to the Art Institute countless times and taught me to remember one thing in particular from each visit because you can't remember them all. The last time she visited New York we went to see Avenue Q and she was a good sport about the puppet sex. She stayed at the Wellington hotel that visit and this week I happened to walk by it on St. Patrick's Day and suddenly felt her presence among all the drunken kids stumbling around. I remembered taking the bus with her downtown, talking about Mary McCarthy. Those were my people, she said, the college girls of the Depression, a little eccentric but had their heads screwed on straight. She loved books but wanted to know why so many great writers had such a pessimistic view of the world. I never came up with a good answer to that one. She died just over a year Eli was born and when I found out I was having a boy I had a dream that she said "I thought we'd never have another boy again!" Family legend has it she once had five boys call her in a single night to ask her to the same dance - I can believe it looking at this picture. Happy birthday Baubs. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you're any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I'd do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn't working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there's also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there's also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I've figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it's probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it's probably possible to use some of them in any class.

It's tricky to talk about attribution of teaching ideas and lesson plans - ideally we should all be talking about these things and circulating them such that it's impossible to claim total ownership. But, because so many people are convinced almost all writing about teaching is without merit (an odd position for teachers to take, to say the least), I want to note some writers and thinkers who have been helpful to me with this, though in some cases I encountered their work indirectly. These include Ken Bain (whose What the Best College Teachers Do is an invaluable resource), John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Donald Barthomae, James Moffat, Mina Shaughnessy, lots of essays from Radical Teacher and Rethinking Schools, and countless colleagues at multiple universities, especially at NYU and LaGuardia Community College.

1) Spend more time designing your writing assignments and less time grading them. Write your writing assignments BEFORE your reading list/syllabus. Lots of people talk about "minimal marking" but often we miss the first half of this equation, or it falls by the wayside as we get into crunch time. Very often I've looked at a piece of student writing, wondered where it could have gone wrong, only to realize the student has done exactly what I asked them to do - and that that was the problem. Ken Bain is very good on this. When you're designing a course, start by thinking about what you want students to be able to do, and the assignments should come from that. Create a syllabus and reading list that will allow you to do this.

2) Try to give students "real" rather than "fake" problems to solve.  Have them create knowledge rather than simply reporting it. Ken Bain is also very good on this, and to me it's at the heart of what Dewey means when he talks about his belief that education must be, not preparation for experience, but must itself be an experience. This can mean a number of different things: in a composition class where we read Terkel's Working, students interviewed people they knew about their working lives. Colleagues in sociology have guided students through ethnographies of their own neighborhoods and proposed changes to the urban landscape of their own college, applying what they have learned from urban theorists.  Not so incidentally, this is also the best way to prevent plagiarism. If you ask students to write about light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet, I won't say you *deserve* plagiarized papers, exactly, but let's just say it's a foreseeable outcome. Some of my LaGuardia colleagues do a brilliant project where students edit wikipedia entries. Not only can't they plagiarize, as one of them noted on FB, the students can note with pride that they will be the ones getting plagiarized.

3) Think about and identify what you think good writing is in your field, and what kind of writing makes the most sense for them based on the kind of class and level. You probably didn't write an honest to god academic paper until grad school - does it make sense to give undergrads that task and be upset when they fail at it? Is a simplified version of this the best approach? Would a book review make more sense?  A literature review? A letter to a friend about what they're doing in the class? If you're in English, do you think of "creative" assignments - the ones you and your students have fun with - rewriting a classic poem in a contemporary vein, rewriting a scene from Shakespeare as a Western, say - as something they do on the side but they shouldn't get much credit for? Do you think of it as a reward for "mastering the basics?" Rethink those assumptions. Memorizing a poem and writing a reflection about it might show as much understanding/engagement of the text as a standard essay prompt - why not recognize it as such.

4) Rotate assignments and due dates between students.  A lot of professors asks students to take responsibility for presenting or starting the discussion of a certain reading. In my experience it's rarer to take the next step, to connect this to writing. Having them connect written and spoken work is likely to improve the quality of both, spaces out your grading, and lets students work around their schedules.

5) Think about staging, cumulative assignments, and portfolios as well as revision.  We say that writing is a process and revision is a process but our schedule often makes this an afterthought.  If it's important, we should bake it into the time, talk about it and spend time on it in class. If students have a meaningful chance to return to the work, all those comments you write on them feel like less of a waste.

6) Make student writing a text in the class and make student writing public. Whether they workshop or you bring in sample essays or share them on line, it only makes sense that students have examples of what they're being asked to do. If they have some sense of a public audience, whether through a blog or through their work in class, they're more likely to take it seriously than if they know it's going to you and then to a drawer. Even better are truly pubic projects like ones where they have a chance to present at a student conference, have some publication submission goal, or the wikipedia project I mentioned above. Relatedly, I heard a great presentation by some poets at a conference on collaborative student writing, and I'd love to work with that,  though I haven't yet.

7) Learn to read student writing as a teacher - not an editor.  Your job isn't to correct this for publication - it's to help the student. This is minimal marking, but it's not just that. You're not really marking a manuscript at all, you're talking to a person. Think about what you think they need to hear. David Bartholomae talks about a student paper in a Basic Writing class on Sartre that was in the traditional sense incomprehensible. It had sentences like this: "To elaborate on the subject matter. the principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in itself."* Obviously, to mark the fragments here or send the student to a grammar book would be beside the point. As Bartholomae notes, he in a sense had to learn to read student writing like that. In this case, he argues, the student had a coherent point that they knew how to communicate: fuck you and your assignment. How to respond to that was the real question. We have to read student writing as a communication, not product. This goes at more advanced levels too: Bartholomae also tells a story about the most important comment he got on his graduate school writing, when he was being overly verbose and pompous, as beginning graduate students are want to do. The comment? "Please don't do that again." He knew what it meant.

8) Contract Grading.  In many of my classes, I have taken at least half of Shuman's advise: I don't grade papers. I do give them, (though many don't look like traditional "papers). I give comments, and then I grade the portfolios at the end of the semester which I combine with participation grades. I started this in Creative Writing classes to avoid the "who says my story is a B? Do I change the end to get an A" problem but I've expanded it. In my experience, it makes students work harder, not less hard, and they're more open to read and take in comments if there's not a grade attached. (Understandable! If I got a rejection and comments when I've submitted something, I wouldn't really want to read the comments.)

So those are some ideas. Like I said, you can't really do all of them all the time, but they're worth considering. And if you think you have so much content you really don't have time to think about it, or to talk to your students about writing, then yes, maybe you should consider something other than writing as a means to evaluate them.

* From David Bartholomae, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford St. Martins, 2005.