Category: Teachers

Meretricious

Here’s a passage from Jonathan Coe’s excellent 2004 novel, The Closed Circle.

“. . . the young couple, who had arrived just behind Paul in a white stretch limo were enjoying the attention of a crowd of journalists and photographers.  This couple, whom Paul had not recognized, had last year been two of the contestants on Britain’s most popular primetime reality TV show.  For weeks they had kept the public guessing as to whether or not they were going to have sex with each other on camera.  The tabloid papers had devoted hundreds of column inches to the subject.  Neither of them had talent, or wisdom, or education, or even much personality to speak of.  But they were young and good-looking, and they dressed well, and they had been on television, and that was enough.  And so the photographers kept taking pictures, and the journalists kept trying to make them say something quotable or amusing (which was difficult , because they had no wit, either).  Meanwhile, Doug could not help noticing, right next to them, waiting for his wife to emerge from the ladies’, the figure of Professor John Copland, Britain’s leading geneticist, one of its best-selling science authors, and regularly mentioned as potential Nobel prizewinner.  But no one was taking his photograph, or asking him to say anything.  He could have been a cab driver, waiting to drive one of the guests home, as far as anybody was concerned.  And for Doug this situation encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002—the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true—that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing it” (275-76).

Not a good passage; usually Coe avoids editorializing like this in his novel.  But I wanted to comment on it because 1) I usually, by absenting myself completely from it, avoid “weightless” culture while 2) fighting shy of the clichéd lament about its “obscenity” (laments that echo through the two hundred plus years of despair over the mediocrity of bourgeois, democratic, non-noble mores).  It is interesting to see Coe feeling compelled to both make the clichéd complaint and to chide himself for making it in almost the same breath.  At some level, we elites are not allowed to sound like Flaubert anymore, not allowed to express our distaste—and, yes, our contempt—for what gets dished out on reality TV shows.  Perhaps Milan Kundera was the last fully self-righteous and completely un-self-aware critic of kitsch.  Even as his notion of weightlessness (“the unbearable lightness of being,” such a portentous but still fantastic title/phrase) winds up being little more than the fact that men find it unbearable to be faithful to just one woman.  Kundera’s petulance and (ultimately) silliness put the last stake through the heart of “high” culture’s contempt for low.

But, still.  I have seen Fox news only three or four times in my life; read People  magazine the same number of times, and have never seen a reality TV show.  When I do encounter such things, I am (I admit) flabbergasted as well as bored.  That such trash fills the channels of communication is a mystery as unfathomable to me as the idea that people buy $10,000 watches.  Who would do such a thing—and for what earthly reason?  I don’t even have a condescending explanation to offer.  Fascination/obsession with the British royal family fits into the same category for me.

Meanwhile—and I don’t think Coe sees this—his ignored professor is a “best-selling” author and likely to win a Noble prize–so hardly universally treated like a “cab driver.”  Yeats and W. B. Auden are just two among the great early 20th century poets who lived in fairly dire poverty.  Even the post World War II poets—Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz and the like—were spared that kind of poverty by having moved into sinecures in the beefed-up post-war universities.  Twenty-first century poets will complain bitterly about how few books they sell, but they are lionized within the tight confines of the “poetry world,” giving readings to robust audiences, and never threatened with the kind of poverty that Yeats took for granted.  We live in a world of niches now, so that no poet today can command a nation’s attention the way Yeats did (of course, he had the advantage of writing for a very small nation, about four million people strong, half the size of today’s New York City or London), even though no poet today can be as poor as Yeats.  The niches, in other words, reward well—have cultural capital in both its forms (financial and reputational) available for distribution.

All of this has to do, in very large part, with the ways that the post-war universities have become the patrons for the arts in our time.  Outside of the university it is very hard to make a living by the sweat of your pen.  The Grub St man of letters, writing his reviews for the papers and the weeklies, no longer exists—while no poet and very few novelists can make a living apart from teaching creative writing.  But the universities do provide a structure that insures rewards.

What everyone keeps lamenting these days (instead of lambasting the meretricious glob of TV and the tabloids) is the utter lack of contact between the niches.  The “culture” we teach in school is utterly divorced from the “culture” our students access outside of school.  They know nothing, and care less, for the material to which we introduce them—except for the very small minority we convert over to what by now should be called “school” culture, not “high” culture.

School culture does get a boost from all those middle to upper middle class parents who, for various reasons, see fit to give their children violin, ballet, singing, and (less frequently) art and acting lessons in lieu of (or in addition to) having them play little league or soccer or join a swim team.  The arts/athletics divide in American child rearing practices deserves sociological study.  Both for characterizing the parents who give their children different kinds of lessons—and in a longitudinal study of what effect those lessons have on later choices in life (chances of going to art museums or to the symphony; kinds of career paths taken).  And how does deep involvement in youth sports culture track to an obsession with celebrities or TV world?  Not any obvious connection there.

These schisms no doubt always existed in American culture.  But they didn’t used to track so directly to different political allegiances/views.  My colleague Jonathan Weiler thinks he can tell your political affiliating after asking only four questions, one of which is your emotional response to Priuses.  I have fear he is right.

And, as usual, most perplexing–and disheartening–to me is the deep hostility that such divides now generate.  Just as I really cannot understand why the uber-rich are so discontented, so determined to increase the financial insecurity of their employees, I cannot understand why our cultural warriors are out to destroy the universities.  Yes, its partly their war against all things public.  UNC is in the cross-hairs in a way that Duke will never be.  But it is more than that.  They have some leverage over UNC; they’d go after Duke as well if they could.  The need to punish one’s enemies as well as look to one’s own well-being is what I don’t get.  Peaceful co-existence of the various niches, the indifference of tolerance, is off the table it seems.  I keep referring back (in my mind) to a comment Gary Wills made years ago about the Republican nominating convention (of 1992 or 1996; I don’t remember what year).  He reported that over 30% of the delegates were millionaires, yet they seethed with discontent and rage.  What objective reason did they have to be so agitated? Life in the US had treated them damn well.  The same, of course, can be said of Donald Trump in spades.  What is the source of all his anger?  Pretty obviously the fact that he does not feel respected by the cultural elites.  So he wishes to destroy them, to cause them maximum pain.

A final question: does meretricious popular culture, all that weightless trash, always have this kind of aggression against dissenters to that culture packed within it?  In other words, I am back to thinking, yet again, about resentment–about its sources and about the cultural/societal locations in which it lurks.

Holding Professors Accountable in the Midst of Political Attacks on the University

I was a participant in a roundtable on public higher education last Friday that included two UNC faculty members, a senior associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, two current students, a state legislator (Republican), a business man who is also a big donor to UNC, a former member of the UNC board of trustees (from the financial world), and the executive directors of two right wing think tanks in the state, including the notorious Pope Foundation (which has recently changed its name to the Martin Institute.)  The Pope Foundation, as well as the John Locke Foundation (the other group represented), has been consistently critical of UNC courses in women’s and sexuality studies, requesting syllabi and then criticizing specific professors and courses in the public media.  More generally, they have both been scornful of the language of “diversity.”

The context for the conversation was a forthcoming book by our ex-Chancellor and the founder of our undergraduate program in entrepreneurship in which they argue 1) that universities cannot and should not be run like corporations, and 2) that the basic social contract that generated support for public higher education from 1950 to 1990 is now badly strained, if not completely broken.  Their book sets out to find a way to repair that broken compact.  So the goal of the round-table, which was filmed, was to discover if there was any common ground on which to build in the effort to heal the rift.

Substantively, not much was accomplished.  Everyone was on their best behavior, perhaps because being filmed.  Our right wing guests didn’t have much to say; they mostly listened.  Everyone affirmed the idea of a liberal arts education; everyone seemed to sign off on the notion of “access,” another key theme.  Similarly, there was no push-back against the idea that the universities of North Carolina were an economic driver—and a major reason why we were not Mississippi.

Our businessman philanthropist was the one who said we, as a society, were failing to invest in our future—and that tax cuts had gone too far.  No one really took up that point, although the state legislator was willing to say that tax cuts needed to stop—and that “maybe” we had gone too far in that direction.  When asked about the legislature’s thinking about higher education, he denied there was any hostility to it.  The legislature simply faced a number of competing demands when it came to budgeting—and all of those demands were legitimate, good things to support.  He made it sound all ideology-free, just a matter of making do with the available resources.

It didn’t help that our dean told the group that North Carolina was still the 4th best state in the nation in terms of its support of its higher education system. (NC started out in 2008 as one of the best–and the pace of cuts here in NC was similar to the pace across the whole country, so we did not fall in this particular ranking.) That fed an unjustified complacency in the room—unjustified because it allowed everyone to ignore the ways recent actions have hurt instruction on our campuses and limited access.  The egregious mandate from the Board of Governors (which rules over the whole system, as distinct from the Board of Trustees for each individual campus) that only 25% of tuition increases can be used to fund need-based aid never came up.  (I have seen that number reported as 15% in the UNC Alumni magazine; I was pretty sure it was 25%, but could be wrong.)  Thus, as the BoG approves tuition hikes, it makes sure the most vulnerable are hurt by them.  Their rationale was that more affluent students should not be “taxed” to supplement the fees of less affluent students.

I have a friend who attends BoG meetings regularly.  He confirms that they hate Chapel Hill in ways that they don’t hate NC State or the other schools in the system.  There is no consistency either to their hatred or to their ways they would like to transform UNC, Chapel Hill.  He characterizes the BoG members as the wealthiest people from their rural communities—who have witnessed the precipitous decline of those communities after the death of tobacco and textiles and the furniture business (the three pillars of the NC general economy prior to 1990.)  NC was never a rich state, but it was one that functioned for all of its citizens.  Now we have a very prosperous middle of the state—with per capita incomes that rival Connecticut’s—yoked to a depopulated east (except for the booming ocean front resorts) and an Appalachian west where the poverty levels match those of Mississippi.  Governing a state that is both Connecticut and Mississippi is well-nigh impossible.  But the legislative power rests in the hands of the white Mississippians.

Those rural legislators—and the supporters that they have appointed to our Board of Governors—have no remedies.  They don’t know any better than anyone else how to revive the dead economies of the places where they grew up and where they still live.  They look at Chapel Hill and see an elitist, rich, and complacent institution that takes thousands of kids from the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs, while taking one or two top students from the rural high schools, turning up their noses at the rest.  So they (Chapel Hill) sneer at us (white Southerners), while stealing away our best and brightest—who they turn into Democrats and snobs, people who are never going to come back to the dying towns they grew up in.  And while they are turning down our kids as not good enough, they (in the name of diversity) are giving slots to all those blacks, Latinos, and Asians who have crowded into the outer suburbs and inner cities of our state.

When it comes to solutions, these guys (again, I am going on the reports of my friend) swing wildly and incoherently between free market fundamentalism and socialism.  They can move from praise of the market to suggesting all kinds of state interventions on the turn of a dime.  They don’t know what to do, but they know who the enemy is, and they want to lash out and do some hurting.

None of that came to the surface in our polite conversation.  The right-wingers in the room would, I assume, distance themselves from the no-nothings.  But the real conflict is that these educated, smooth right wingers (Paul Ryan types) are against public education.  They are Milton Friedman acolytes.  Education is a private investment that families make in their future—and schools get lazy, complacent, and inefficient when not subjected to competition and the resultant market discipline.

I am not as hostile to these arguments as most faculty members are.  And maybe when I expressed my version of anti-complacency, I was guilty of trying to placate the right-wingers in the room.  (Note that all of this is implied; they did not articulate any such arguments in our conversation.)

Here’s how I make the case.  I was in a room with some financial world people—hedge fund managers, and folks at Goldman Sachs—just shortly after the election in November 2008.  The financial guys (and they were all guys, about 10 of them in a mixed crowd of about 25 total where the other 15 were not financial types) all agreed that the Democrats (Nancy Pelosi was their particular bête noir; I guess because dissing a woman was better in their eyes than dissing a black man) were going to screw the nation’s economy horribly with their urge for regulations and taxes.  Nothing about the financial collapse seemed to have altered one iota these guy’s confidence that they knew what they were doing—and about how to best organize the nation’s economic well-being.  Sure there had been some mistakes, but they knew how to fix them.  Just keep those no-nothing politicians from messing things up.

My reaction was predictable.  These guys need to be accountable; there needs to be watch-dogs, and there needs to be consequences for bad results.  And my argument is that it works no differently for teachers.  We should be accountable for outcomes.  We claim we are teaching these students—and should hardly expect the public we claim to serve to be satisfied when we assure them: “Don’t worry.  We know what we are doing and we know your kids are learning lots and lots.”

That’s not good enough.  To take just one example: there is now tons and tons of research that shows that presenting information (in no matter what format: a book, a lecture, a power point presentation) has very little impact.  People do not learn things by being told them.  Active learning produces vastly better results for the retention of information and the fuller comprehension of that information (as demonstrated by the ability to put it to use in different contexts).  Yet many of my professorial colleagues resist that finding.  Lectures and reading books worked well for them—with no thought about the fact that they are outliers or for finding ways to promote learning for the majority of their students, not just a talented minority.

Even more basic.  We are now required to state the course’s objectives on our syllabi—and are encouraged to think about how our pedagogical strategies and our assignments (what students are asked to read, write, do projects or reports on etc.) might lend themselves to achieving those objectives.  Again, many of my colleagues think of this as philistinism, as creeping corporatization.  The nerve of asking that we define “outcomes.”  I have no patience for such responses.  We (the professors) are the anti-intellectuals we claim to abhor when we refuse to a) take seriously the research about what enhances learning and what does not, and b) refuse to self-consciously and critically think about our own goals and strategies in the courses we teach.

In short, the public has as much right to ask teachers to justify their practices and to reform them when results are not particularly good as they have the right to insist that bankers be regulated by external watch-dogs.

The measures are the hard part.  Numerically based assessments of learning outcomes are crude at best, and worthless at worst.  But stricter assessment of outcomes is coming—and it is in the interest of professors to be deeply involved in the establishment of the metrics.  I am reasonably confident that qualitative assessment will be our friend, not our enemy.  My bet is that such assessments will prove, rather conclusively, that education does not scale well.  There are not many efficiencies that will actually produce better results.  As teachers, we should stand staunchly and unequivocally for getting the best results for all of our students—and such results are not going to be achieved (in most cases) by on-line courses or 350 pupil lecture courses.  In some select instances, on-line instruction may prove effective—and we (the professors) should embrace such cases.  Any money saved can be used to promote more hands-on teaching in places where that is required.

In short, just as we would be appalled at doctors who did not make use of data about results to influence treatment of future patients, we as professional educators should be eager to discover what works well and what does not—and have it guide our future practice.  To run away from such self-study, screaming “corporatization,” is irresponsible and, in my view, indefensible.  It also suggests we are terrified by what we might discover—which belies our publicly displayed confidence that we know what we are doing.

We are rightfully resentful of—and resistant to—a knee-jerk hostility to universities as elitist and left-wing, and to the professors as under-worked and over-paid sycophants.  But that doesn’t entitle us to a free ride and a total refusal to change our ways.  I am going to allow myself a gross overgeneralization: I have seldom met any group more conservative (in the sense of clinging to the established ways of doing things) than a faculty that prides itself on being progressive, even revolutionary.

Roland Flint

I have been indulging myself lately, writing a day book for this year of 2018.  Writing something each day, ranging from what is happening now to dwellings on various past events/feelings/friends.  Today I was writing about my in-built aversion to father-figures.  I never had one and don’t think I ever wanted one.  But that made me wonder about teachers I have admired and loved over the years, people who taught me many things.  My sense was that I adopted my ways of being in the world more from friends than from teachers.  I learned from my teachers, but was never inclined to imitate them.  That kind of stealing I saved for my friends.  Maybe because I felt some kind of barrier—one of age or of non- intimacy—that kept teachers from being fully real to me.

But these thoughts of teachers sent me to Google.  And Roland Flint has a fairly significant web presence.  Here’s the best site, complete with some poems and a fairly full biography.

I only know so much about Roland because he wore his heart on his sleeve in his poetry.  We never talked of these things—although I was a student in his Faulkner seminar (the only class I ever took with him) that horrible fall when his six year old son was killed by a car.  It was about four weeks into the semester; he was then gone for another month at least, with various guest teachers carrying on for him.  Before he came back to teach, he was at a Georgetown football game in the rain.  There was a crowd of about 50 people (at most) watching in the downpour.  I was there because I was covering the game for the student newspaper.  Roland had a flask and was pretty drunk, and we stood together (it was too wet to sit down) for some time (was it ten minutes, twenty, thirty? It seemed an eternity in its awkwardness). I don’t think I drank from the flask, although he offered it to me.  But, perhaps, I took one swallow out of politeness.  Whiskey has never been my thing.  I may have said fifteen words the whole time, and was fixated on whether I should express my sorrow about his son’s death.  I couldn’t find the courage to mention the death—and felt both an idiot for not doing so and certain that was the right course as he told related anecdotes of his time in graduate school in Minnesota.  Tales of poets: Alan Tate and John Berryman.

Some years later, when his collection Stubborn, was published, I wrote to him to tell him of that day.  Why?  Because the stubbornness that his poems are built around is the relentless grief for that lost life—a grief that still haunted his every day some twenty years on.  I thought he would welcome another window into that horrible time that he clearly dwelt on much of the time in his thoughts and imagination.  I got back a short letter, one almost cold in its brevity, and its main point was that I must have mis-remembered because he would never have taken alcohol in the presence of a student and certainly wouldn’t have offered alcohol to one.  An odd memory lapse about the looser atmosphere of the early 70s, because I also remember distinctly the bottles of Almaden wine lined up on the table at the end of semester class party he sponsored for that Faulkner seminar.

My college girlfriend took Roland’s poetry writing classes and I went to several of the poetry readings that he sponsored—most memorably the one with James Wright.  Because of Roland, I memorized a number of classic English poems that second year in college, bits of which I still retain.  Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” most ambitiously Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”  And I went to see him on trips back to DC over the years, certainly in 1979, just before taking up my first academic job at the University of Michigan, when after that I do not know, but 1979 was not the last time I saw him.

Did I see him after that exchange of letters (which would have been in 1992 or 1993)?  I don’t know. But I think not.  Certainly we never talked about it if we did meet.

I read recently an essay by Richard Ellmann in which he says every life has a turning point.  I suspect a biographer has to believe that, has to believe that a life has (assumes) a definite shape.  How else could you write a coherent biography?  I can’t identify a turning point in my life—or can identify at least ten of them.  And I am proud to think my life too various, its incidents and relationships too many, to be reduced to some single plot line.  But a catastrophe like the death of a child would, it seems to me, puts its stamp on everything, blot out so much else.

Here’s one of Roland’s poems about that turning point in his life—and the way it remained with him.

 

WHAT I HAVE TRIED TO SAY TO YOU

That there are ways to love the life you haven’t had,
ways to forgive the one you have.
That while your brother wasn’t killed
to test anyone, his death is,
somehow, allowed by the mystery
requiring our lives to have this
permanent pull at the middle.
Our lives are what they have been: unrevisable,
changed only in our responses,
if we are still ready, somehow,
for the next day, the next
person, poem, chance, even prepared,
however unready, for the next death.
Can we permanently grieve the boy
without hating what has become of him?
What has become of him?
He has returned to mystery,
the same one that is our life,
mine and yours this morning,
the continuing shapes we never see
up there, this afternoon, tomorrow:
so he is already, ahead of time,
in everything we do. I feel it, often,
that I am living my life in part for him,
not permanently dead in us, but telling
how we’d rather he had lived than not.
Remember our game of listening in the park
to hear the woods fill up with sounds,
birds, mostly, from farther and farther away
the longer we listened. He seems now
especially to have listened,
raptly, eyes closed, as if to singing,
as if he were entering the song,
and like the way he usually walked
far ahead of us or far behind –
already gone to his own music.
When I think how long it is
since he has entered all silence,
it takes me by the heart to think
those sounds like light have stayed
in whatever we are left to be.
That songs we heard those days
are from the place he’s gone away to,
a singing in the mysteries connecting us,
if we can stop and be quiet and listen.

(Easy, LSU Press, 1999)