Whether by necessity, tradition or desire, it is a fact of our present situation that the arts have become intimately tied to education. With TEACHING IN THE MARGINS Full Stop seeks to further explore the implications of this reality, the ways the writing happening now is influenced and influences the teaching of reading and writing. Further, at a cultural and historical moment when funding for arts non-profits is increasingly being cut and University presidents are dethroned for not moving fast enough, the question is no longer should the way artists and educators operate change, but how?
With this in mind, we sent our questionnaire to writers and curators, academics and educators, with an eye open to the interface between innovative artistic practice and progressive pedagogies, taking stock of the untapped potential of these unconventional ways of knowing, discovering how art pushing borders creates new spaces for teaching and learning at the margins.
In the early 1990’s The New York Times called Michael Joyce’s novel afternoon “the granddaddy of hypertext fictions,” while The Toronto Globe and Mail said that it “is to the hypertext interactive novel what the Gutenberg bible is to publishing,” and Der TAZ in Berlin called him “Der Homer der Hypertexte.” His most recent print novel, Disappearance, will be published by Steerage Press in October 2012, with two novels, Going the Distance (SUNY Excelsior editions), the first appearance in print of his 1994 online ebook, and Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden (Starcherone) to follow in successive years.
He lives along the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie where he is Professor of English and Media Studies at Vassar College.
Why did you become an educator? How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed?
It is strange, but I do not want to start with that word, educator, which seems ill-fitting, rough, and at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, elevated; although I am Jesuitical enough (my father, late in his life, claimed the adjective for himself as well, adding “… self taught, of course” to it) to know its etymology, the leading-out. Instead I prefer teacher (especially against “professor,” since I never quite learned to profess, when I begin to do so always trailing off into apology). I should do that now. I’m sorry.
I became a teacher, I think, because of the family table at dinner: eight children, four each of the then mentionable genders, around a single dining table at 6:00 each evening in the American-Irish ghetto of South Buffalo. We would talk and laugh and argue and contend, with my father and mother taking full part, offering Latin etymologies, earnest history lessons, poems, and gossip, sometimes intermixed. Both my parents had wanted to go to college to become teachers, both had to drop out because of the Depression. In high school my father’s essay in classical Greek was published in the yearbook and won him a leather-bound edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels as a prize. He started his first year at Buffalo State Teachers College, where, well before his time, he even played soccer for awhile, but as the oldest brother in a family of four brothers, had to drop out to go to work at Bethlehem Steel where his father worked. My mother married him and had children, although during the war she worked for the rationing board and, before that, for the Lackawanna library where she often mixed up the warning they were required to give each patron who checked out books, finding herself saying “Wash your hands after reading, don’t eat the books.” We ate the books.
I’m afraid I’m also going to quibble the second question, which seems to describe a reciprocal relation, i.e., perspective varies with development, that I would flip to say development varies with perspective. My learning and teaching have led to an ingrained habit of what one of my mentors, Sherman Paul, a great Americanist critic and scholar, called perspectivalization. Sherman identified it as the characteristic move of modernism, and especially its American strain, which (already in 1976) he named The Green American Tradition, from Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, and Thoreau down through Stein to Williams and Olson. The longer I teach the more I understand the inherent perspectivalization that Charles Olson offers as the epigraph for The Maximus Poems, “All my life I’ve heard / one makes many,” something Olson, then the rector of Black Mountain College, heard from the college cook. Teaching for me is a process of seeking the many in the one, a process which follows from another characteristic Olson injunction, “how to use yourself, and on what.”
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your approach to teaching?
Though I am wary of its seeming a cliché, my students, without any doubt, were and are the biggest influence. Teaching doesn’t make sense to me unless you can learn from it, and the only way to do that is to listen to what people say, then question, provoke, confuse, and admit one’s own doubts and confusions. We convene around our doubts and come to know each other, and what we study, through them.
That said, if the question means to ask about influences in a more conventional sense, I had three mentors, aside from my mother and father, as I came to teach: Sherman Paul with whom I studied at Iowa and Mel Schroeder, my first year English teacher at Canisius College, who died last year; the third was Olson, whom I’ve only read and, more recently, seen and heard online at PennSound and on Youtube, but who I could have heard face-to-face had I sense enough, or at least not been too lazy to bring myself to cross town on the bus to hear him lecture at the University of Buffalo when I was a teenager.
Sir Ken Robinson makes the claim that the current American education system constructs the boundaries of learning in a way that makes true creativity impossible. In your experience, what is the relationship between arts and the education system or the academy? Symbiotic? Parasitic? Ambivalent? From your perspective, how does the American education system constrain the potential for innovative creative modes of thinking, creating, and writing?
I think that at its base creativity involves undoing systems. There used to be enough daylight between the education system and the academy (where the latter is understood as an arena for exchange of ideas not canonical authority) to make undoing possible, but lately, with the push toward so-called outcomes assessment, I am less sure. The educational system is meant to constrain, as all systems are. Its participants are “tasked” to create economic creatures to serve as page or handmaiden within the domains of corporate citizens; creativity has been revised into problem solving; the workplace is every place. What we have to do is to (re)create space.
Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition:
we learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do.’ Our only teachers are those who tell us to ‘do with me,’ and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce … When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other … To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself (23)
Sherman Paul titled his book about the Green Tradition, Repossessing and Renewing. In defining the relationship between arts and the education system I would add a third term to that, one implicit in Sherman’s dyad, i.e., resistance. Ours is a relationship of resisting, repossessing, and renewing.
Is it possible to teach creativity within these constraints? Is it possible to teach creativity at all?
I put off this question until last, which may say as much in response to it as what follows. That said, whether or not creativity can be taught seems to me less an issue than how to help students unbind the constraints that seek to quell and contain their natural creativity. I have the good fortune of teaching at a liberal arts college with extraordinary students and few constraints short of the administrative dullness and canned sloganeering that passes for “excellence” in a neo-liberal context. Vassar students arrive ready to go against the grain. With them it is a question of undoing a certain facility, or at least impeding and confusing it, so that they can discern the kinds of habitually “creative” gestures they have learned to reproduce and begin to move for themselves.
By and large those I know who work at other levels of the American education system are my former students, many who have formed themselves as teachers through programs like Teach for America or in foreign teaching such as with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme). Afterward some find their way into public school systems with greater and less success; a few find places in alternative or charter schools like Endeavor College Prep in Los Angeles; fewer still end up at the more elite prep schools of the sort for which ivy and sister schools and the like used to provide genteel (and gentile) faculty. Again the constraints they report come down to administrative strictures, including curricular homogeneity, outcomes assessments, and the like. While these complaints seem not unlike the ones I remember from friends my age who went off to teach at these levels, the intensity of constraints has increased. Even—or perhaps especially— those who teach in the arts face pressure to provide “deliverables” rather than an encounter with signs, with the pressure coming from students and parents wanting to profile for the next level as much as from administrators.
What, for you, constitutes a piece of writing as experimental or innovative? What, if anything, does this sort of experimental practice have to contribute to the classroom?
Experimental practice seems to me what we do in classrooms. I mean practice here in the Buddhist sense of watchful being, but also as the poet Stephen Motika, my former Vassar student, describes it in regard to the title of his recent collection, Western Practice, “the practice of life and practice of writing and reading, the practice of thinking about art, and having grown up in a family that privileged art.”
Your question implicitly notes what has become a shift in academic discourse about the arts, and especially writing, shifting terms from the experimental to the innovative, where neither term quite works and, worse, where the shift privileges a sort of newness quite unlike Pound’s borrowing from Confucius in his dictum “Make it new!” — that is, repossessing and renewing — but instead toward what I have called the constant yearning for “nextness” — Steve Job’s insanely great thing — that afflicts a medial age. Indeed this particular shift in terminology canonizes a succession of the sort that nextness feeds and feeds upon; “experimental” giving way to “innovative” is essentially a fashion statement, advertising, and thus elides what has long been a creative tension between those terms and the energy that shifts between their poles. Gertrude Stein’s complaint about the label experimental, that “Artists do not experiment. Experiment is what scientists do; they initiate an operation of unknown factors to be instructed by its results,” discloses itself as a resistance to system in favor of the kind of present-tense, and spatially present, renewal that Deleuze speaks about. “An artist,” Stein says, “puts down what he knows and at every moment it is what he knows at that moment.”
This processual quality, Deleuze’s plane of immanence, is what Isabelle Stengers connects to Deleuze’s late notions of a pedagogy of concepts, the plane of immanence being, she says, the space “that the creation of concepts presupposes, requires and institutes.” Yet, to my way of thinking, what is presupposed and then instituted is often difficult to focus upon, more a desire for form, in Hesiod’s sense, than formal entity, with the new space sometimes seeming a void. Robbe-Grillet wrote that a “new form will always seem more or less an absence of any form at all, since it is unconsciously judged by reference to the consecrated forms.” Which is to say new writing— after all, the root of “innovative”— is an undoing.
To get, finally, to your first question then, what constitutes a piece of writing as experimental or innovative for me is, beyond all else, that it intends to recover, or discover anew, the pleasure of acts of reading. Such texts are meant to offer pleasure. They are closely written pleasures.
Which brings me, finally also, to your second question, the place of such practice in my classroom. Having spent much of my teaching life in an articulated kind of opposition to “close reading” as it is too often practiced, i.e., as a kind of initiate’s decoding, outside or at least orthogonal to the text, myself favoring rather the kind of active engagement of French critics, I was shocked when I came to attend Hélène Cixous’ Beckett/Proust seminar in Paris to hear her complain that Americans do not know how to read closely. What she meant was, of course, something other than what I had resisted, and, if I can flatter myself, something closer to what I actually do in the classroom.
My classroom assignments— a term I don’t use, preferring prompts or probes— mean to destabilize settled readings so that the thing can be seen, “spotted” in the sense dancers use doing pirouettes and chaînés, moving through the vertigo in a line of flight. The educational system these days provides its elite with something of an intellectual steadicam, making it seem necessary to swat the lens, reintroducing or inducing the vertigo for teacher and learner alike. As with experimental writing the intent is to recover, or discover, pleasure, in this case the pleasure of thinking, yet always keeping in mind Heidegger’s great koan from What is Called Thinking, “What of itself gives us most to think about, what is most thought-provoking, is this— that we are still not thinking.”
Thus no online term paper archive — not that Vassar students are likely to consult them— is likely to supply readymades that would serve what are my, often discursive— not to say rambling— arrays of disorientations, confusions, and undoings, including a flotsam and jetsam of citations that clog my prompts and are meant to serve as provocations rather than explications or recommended secondary readings. This kind of practice seems especially necessary now that more and more students arrive on campus ginned up with an impressive array of AP and IB courses that have provided them with generally well-founded, wide-ranging, genial and supple intellectual structures and a canny, if sometimes facile, sense of the multiplicity of critical and theoretical approaches to literature, thus presenting themselves before you all in all arrayed in a patchwork coat of many colors much harder to dislodge.
What role do you see new technologies and non-academic spaces playing in transforming the way we learn in everyday life?
After all my meta-comments on earlier questions, how I love the linkage here of new technologies and non-academic spaces in this one! As someone whose pre-web hypertext system, Storyspace, created with Jay Bolter, was intended precisely as an instance of —so one hopes— Deleuze’s “space of an encounter with signs”; and having already noted above my own idiosyncratic insistence on remapping the academy upon the plane of its own immanence and emergence, i.e. the Akademeia, which in Greek meant “grove of Akademos,” after a fellow whose name wonderfully enough is thought to have meant “from a silent place”; the evocative conjunction of “spaces playing” in the question is a delight.
That said, I’m a conscientious objector to Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and the like; not, I like to think, because I am going through the inevitable turning away from innovation or a late blooming Neo-Luddism, but rather because I am newly enamored with the joys of certain discarded structures. These days I write poems and “print” (which is to say POD+ e-book and mobile) novels rather than hypertexts, but don’t damn the latter; I regularly offer courses where we read a book a week, albeit stretching “book” to mean what a syllabus of mine describes as “subversive, transgressive, experimental, and lyrical forms … including (but in no way limited to) emerging forms of both print and digital literature that verge upon the graphical, kinetic, performative, and encoded,” which is to say that we read what the poet and digital visionary John Cayley calls “complex surfaces.
I teach a media studies seminar titled “The End of Media” predicated on the belief—not original to me by any means, and, in fact, increasingly prevalent among European media theorists— that with so much of the world linked through smart devices and (save me, I suppose) social media that to speak of media as something discrete makes no sense. It is both the sea we swim in, and, increasingly, a shadowy spagyric that flows invisibly through our limbic system. With the ubiquity of the cellphone, there has come a diminution in our attention to polis in the broadest sense of the geography leaning in on us and our pushing back at it that Olson spells it out in his poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld].” We have lost a sensitivity to what Olson called there “a complex of occasions,/themselves a geometry/ of spatial nature,” that is, literally the location, the locale, of others, from their political and social coordinates on one hand, to their emotional and intellectual ones on the other. I share Olson’s insistence that who we are is something more than the welter of “bare incoming/ of novel abstract form”, believing that the shift from embodied presence in a place the last few decades calls for a counter force, a rediscovery of other modes of both presence and resistance.
Is literature (or art in general) inherently didactic? What do you hope to teach through your writing?
This writing, alas, certainly seems to be didactic, I’m afraid. I’m sorry, as the would-be professor said. “I am writing for myself and strangers,” Gertrude Stein wrote in The Making of Americans, “This is the only way that I can do it. Everybody is a real one to me, everybody is like some one else too to me.” My hope is less to teach some thing in my writing than to induce myself and others to encounter language and the spirit anew, doing so in the way of that tribe of Deleuze’s “who tell us to ‘do with me,’ and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce.” If such a hope sounds idealistic or pompous, I’m sorry. There is no simple way to say it.
In conferences and class salons (the term I’ve taken to using, rather than workshops, for writing classes) I often perplex students by asking of a poem or a piece of fiction of theirs, “What do you want it to do?” At first this is confusing (voila succès!) and they tend to respond in terms of meanings, motifs, internal rhythms and the like, against which I push back, insisting that, if writing is to be anything, it must first be an action in this world. This is a standard I hold myself to as well, and which in my writing I most often fail to meet, finding dark consolation in Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”