Teaching in the Margins: Juliana Spahr
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.
Juliana Spahr is the author of a number of critical and creative works including Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow Press, 2011); This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (University of California Press, 2005); Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001); and Response (Sun & Moon Press, 1996), winner of the National Poetry Series Award. With Joan Retallack she co-edited Poetry and Pedagogy: the Challenge of the Contemporary (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006). She currently teaches at Mills College.
Why did you become an educator? How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed?
I wish I had a good answer to this that showed I was a selfless person who was devoted to exchanging ideas with others. However, while I do often feel devoted to exchanging ideas with others, I don’t.
A few years ago Mills, where I currently teach, did a retreat. The retreat was led by one of these corporate retreat leaders. It wasn’t a great match for the department. But putting that aside, one of the things we had to do at the retreat was tell three anecdotes that brought us to teaching. My three were this:
1. My mother was a high school teacher. She went back and got certified to teach after my father had a heart attack and it was realized the family needed another income stream. So I associated teaching with a modest but steady income. This assumption I would come to learn was more complicated than I realized at the time.
2. When I was in college, the poetry professor was a noted “appreciator” of undergraduate women and so he let mainly women into his workshop. I was one of these women. To his credit, his appreciation took an educational form. He gave the women in his classes lists of books to read. I went and read them. His appreciation gave me a certain fluency in literature that I used to get into graduate school.
3. Then at this same undergraduate college I was having an affair with a different professor. He was a bad drunk. I had to get away. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, it felt impossible to move somewhere and find a job to me at the time (although it probably wasn’t), so I applied to graduate schools.
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your approach to teaching?
Teaching is something that I experience as evolutionary but in the most arbitrary of ways. I got “trained” by example in both the discussion based seminar and in also in more process based pedagogies that were suspicious of the hierarchical thinking of things like the lecture, the exam, the evaluative grade, etc. And then when I began to teach, I was devoted to these process based pedagogies. It was as if my goal in the classroom was to act as if I was not there. Which was, of course, absurd because I still had to give exams and grades. It has taken me many years to finally come around to the idea that there might be a reason to, for instance, tell someone something that I know.
I feel like people keep asking me to comment about teaching, especially about teaching creative writing, and I should say that I still feel like I have no clear answers. I continue to constantly experiment with the workshop. I refuse to dismiss the idea that it can be productive for twelve people to sit around a table and discuss the work of someone in the room, but I do not know really how best to do it or how to make it something worth doing. I continue to have endless conversations about teaching with colleagues. I continue to feel confused.
But that said I do have some beliefs. I believe that reading matters. And not just reading for craft questions. Historicized reading really matters. Not in the literary survey sense but in the here is how literature interacts with various political and social concerns at various times sense. I spend a lot of time in workshops trying to place student work in context. More and more I find myself saying things like this: “this sort of writing you are doing is a return to the sort of conversational Buddhist-influenced poetry that was written mainly by white men on the west coast of the US in the 70s and frequently references the natural world; why have you found this aesthetic meaningful at this moment?; are you arguing for a return to this sort of writing?; if so, why?”
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 had not seen that video until you pointed it out. I tend to agree with most of his historical analysis, as simple as it is with its TED talk format. Because all I now know of his work is this video, I’m not sure that I know what he means by creativity which doesn’t get defined.
In terms of this question about the relationship between the arts and education, I would only say that they’ve got a very intimate relationship. And a very profitable relationship. And that the American education system’s concern with the arts is an economic one (or will be as long as schools cost money and people will pay money to colleges and universities to study the arts). In general, I’m not convinced that the education system does a lot of meaningful damage to the arts. But it also doesn’t do a lot of cultivation. And that makes sense because there has never been any evidence that one needs any educational institution (the American one or not) to become a writer or an artist. Even as individuals writers and/or artists do learn things from being in education systems. What this means for writers and artists who work in education I do not know. It might mean nothing. I’ve got a friend who says that going into the academy ruins good writers. But despite the long list she has of bad writers who teach, I don’t think there is any evidence for this either. Her list tells us something about how the academy hires, not about the impact that the academy has on being a writer. It seems that whether one is a good writer or not does not correlate in any way with education.
Is it possible to teach creativity within these constraints? Is it possible to teach creativity at all?
This is hard because I’m not sure what creativity is finally. One can teach the tradition and the uses of arts. That is all I can commit to saying.
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?
I tend to avoid the terms “experimental” and/or “innovative.” And instead maybe use something like “modernist influenced.” Or more specifically, descriptive terms for the things that tend to get called “experimental”: “disjunctive,” “atypical syntax,” etc. And then I would include them in a classroom because they are one of the ways that contemporary literature gets written and it is an ethical obligation to present in the classroom the full range and diversity of the ways contemporary literature gets written when one talks about contemporary literature. I should probably also admit that I like teaching these literatures more and often even think they are “better” or “more interesting” for how they respond or reflect or comment on changing social and economic conditions — globalization, economic crisis, etc — and insist that literature should be engaged in these discussions, rather than shoring up a national tradition because to not admit this also seems a bit of a dissimulation.
What role do you see new technologies and non-academic spaces playing in transforming the way we learn in everyday life?
These two things — new technologies and non-academic spaces — seem very different to me. While I’m not against new technologies, whatever they are, it is hard for me to see the move to MOOCs as something to be heralded. This is not because I’m against technology or using technology in the classroom or against online education. There is, obviously, a lot of potential there. But at the simplest level of analysis, there is no labor shortage in the academy right now. And so the idea that we need to have faculty at certain universities teaching large numbers of people online seems absurd. At the same time, I do think these endowment heavy institutions (“ivy league” and other top tier colleges and universities) who are currently pushing MOOCs should think some about how to serve a larger demographic, should make commitments to educating a demographic larger than legacy candidates, should think hard about open access. But that they would choose to design a technology that if it is successful, an admittedly big if at this point, would put even more people out of work and call it open access is absurd. There is no shortage of academic labor. We don’t need to consolidate it.
That said, “non-academic spaces” are crucial. And I’ve been really interested in the free skool movement that keeps growing in the US. I think the reading group, both the coterie reading group that poets are so fond of and the public reading group that anarchist info-shops are so fond of and all the other forms of it, are crucial. Many have suggested that some of the mass resistance that we are seeing around economic disparity came out of various reading groups that were happening across the country. This makes me feel some hope.
Is literature (or art in general) inherently didactic? What do you hope to teach through your writing?
I often wish it was more didactic. I like it to mean things, I confess.