Archive for August, 2009

A motto for the new school year

August 28, 2009 Leave a comment

From an old blog posting, something that seems just right for teachers to turn into a mantra here at the start of the school year: 

We habitually underestimate our students. We habitually underestimate our students. We habitually underestimate our students.

Boudreau on interrogating the story

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Former Marine Tyler Boudreau writes about recovering from the psychic wounds of combat:

They say war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell. I say that a lot. I say coming home is hell, and hell ain’t go no coordinates. You can’t find it on the charts, because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all, so when you’re there, you’re nowhere–you’re lost. The narrative, that’s your chart, your own story. There are guys who come home from war and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost. They don’t know their own story, never have, and never will. But they’re moving amidst the text everyday and every long night without even realizing it. They’re out there beyond the wire, trudging through the sentences, tangled in the verbs, suffocating on the adjectives, wrecked by the names.

They live inside the narrative like a cell and their only escape is to understand its dimensions. Once you get it, maybe you can start tearing down the walls. Every soldier’s mind is different. There is no single code to break. It’s ever-changing. I don’t have a recipe, but there’s one thing I do know and that is the power of the narrative. Put the story together. Understand the story. Ask questions of the story; make it answer you. Make it. You don’t take no for an answer. You find the answer. You keep building that narrative until the answer comes around. That’s the low road out of hell. (Packing Inferno, 148)

So the wounds, psychic and otherwise, turn the world into a chartless place — everything stable is torn, all the patterns break. To live in the chartless land is to pay endlessly for the past; or to freeze everything in order to keep from feeling the heat of it all again. But putting the story of experience back together, drawing out the patterns — this is a way of making a chart for the torn and broken one, for oneself. And as you get to know the story, some of its powers diminish and some of its elements can be beaten back or caste away. Knowing the story well enough, you will see it cough out its secrets one by one. These secrets are not the keys to Disneyland, but they are keys.

In reading around in the book, I gather that the story is not only one’s own experience, but also the broad patterns of one’s society. For him, as a combat Marine in Iraq, the contradictions (win hearts and minds; kill in combat or out of fear) handed to him by his countrymen as a mission shape the personal story. His story lives within the webbing of his country’s story. The story he must interrogate is both his and his country’s. Hence the link to yesterday’s note:

…being educated might be this: … Being able to make an informed decision about the story your culture likes to tell.

Escaping from the narrative

August 25, 2009 Leave a comment

One definition of being educated might be this: Knowing the story your culture likes to tell itself well enough to be able to make up your own mind about it. Being able to make an informed decision about the story your culture likes to tell. If you can’t accomplish that basic move, you’re trapped in the story, yes?

Yesterday’s questions…

August 24, 2009 Leave a comment

…were these: Can the university hope to escape the forces of change that have imposed themselves so disruptively on journalism? Or must the university too learn how to earn its authority in a new way?

Judging by the ways I hear people talking about social media on campus, this new set of tools is seen primarily as an aid to marketing, and so the problem is taken to be a marketing problem. That means that the deeper disruption, the reshaping of attitudes about authority, that has, it seems, touched journalism, is not thought to be an issue for colleges and universities. Judging by the words and actions of administrators and marketers, the audience simply demands that we use these new tools, but nothing more.

If so, then the conversation is much more mature among journalists than among academics. We academics assume our position is secure. Why we might do so in an age when state funding for public colleges and universities is covering smaller portions of the school budget each year, when full-time faculty are a minority of the faculty at many schools, and when part-time faculty often work in abusive labor conditions, I don’t know. I guess the tenured folks are getting by. (Full disclosure: I have tenure.)

No wonder it is so interesting to keep an eye on what journalists are thinking about this crisis — it may very well be our crisis over here in a few years.

Reading Jay Rosen

August 23, 2009 1 comment

I’ve been reading and listening in and watching the work of Jay Rosen this summer, as he continues to collaborate with Dave Winer and others on the problem of reshaping journalism for the challenges of our time. I’d like to jot down some of my mental notes and see what they look like. I take Rosen to be arguing, among other things, this:

In professions such as journalism, writers’ perspectives are necessarily limited and error is fundamental. Authority that is merely asserted by journalists rather than earned is increasingly unpersuasive as well as alienating to readers, but our unfolding understanding of social media suggests a direction forward. Social media invite and facilitate corrections and the diversity of perspective that make corrections possible, and authority can now be earned through increasingly rich and open practices rather than merely asserted.

Those practices are being sketched by a variety of journalists, and some patterns are starting to emerge. The one deeply uncertain thing, though, is how to make it pay enough for the better parts of journalism to carry on in whatever old and new formats we need for the years ahead.

My own further questions are these: Can the university hope to escape the forces of change that have imposed themselves so disruptively on journalism? Or must the university too learn how to earn its authority in a new way? Beyond the great importance of journalism, that’s what interests me in thinking about Jay Rosen’s work right now.

Language, tension, change

August 23, 2009 Leave a comment

In a celebration of the career of the late literary critic Richard Poirier, Alexander Star addresses the tension central to literary language, and perhaps many other uses of language as well. A writer struggles with and against the meanings that have gone before:

In painstakingly close readings, [Poirier] showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote. (“Richard Poirier: A Man of Good Reading,” NY Times, 8/23/09)

“The inherited structuring of things” here might include the fuzzy practicalities of common sense, the grasp various professions have on some portions of our experience through specialized language, the guiding generalities of our great founding national documents, the ritualized meanings of our institutions of education and religion, the comfortingly familiar tropes of our movies and pop songs, the cynical subtexts of government spending, the unchallengeable stock phrases of political rhetoric, and so forth. Poirier took a wide view of the matter in the passage Mr. Star sampled in his essay:

When a writer is most strongly engaged by what he is doing, he can show us, as if struggling for his identity within the materials at hand, he can show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things, how to keep within and yet in command of the accumulations of culture that have become a part of what he is. Much of cultural inheritance is waste; it always has been. But only those who are both vulnerable and brave are in a position to know what is waste and what is not. (The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life, xxi)

The writer risks something — a sense of self-fashioning? the power to speak and act? — by living among the inherited truisms and contradictory common senses of the age. Yet over time someone has been doing the “structuring of things” that is passed down to us as culture, and that process continues.  The artist is one of the players who takes a hand in the work that each generation much do to receive and sustain and pass on the great unwieldy mass of custom and meaning and nonsense.

For Star, as for Poirier, this basic tension in language and society, between inherited structure and innovation, reveals a struggle for agency and speech that has implications for our understanding of self:

The principal hero of this struggle was Emerson, whose reputation Mr. Poirier did much to redefine, challenging the familiar view of him as a facile optimist, a woozy metaphysician or an enabler of laissez-faire capitalism. Nor would Emerson have embraced the modern notion of “the self as something put together by a person who is then required to express it and to ask others to confirm it as an identity.” Rather, he saw the self as something very much like what Frost called a poem: “a momentary stay against confusion.”

We need a space for self-fashioning, but for Poirier this space is in and among the materials of culture.  More than a merely private and  “momentary stay against confusion,” the individual’s expression organizes the messy mass of cultural materials provisionally, and bits of that work stick. And it’s a good thing, too; there is too much noise and junk that we would be, as Poirier says, “smothered” if it were not so.

But it wouldn’t “stick,” would it, unless the speech and acts of the individual were part of the group’s consciousness — were processed, at least sometimes, by a community that itself changed as individuals changed, that spoke because individuals spoke. The theory of assertive selfhood requires a theory of change in community. Both require the tensions that language contain and reveal in culture. They all require a place for work to get done.

Notes for next time around: Available here for entending the discussion might be Bakhtin, whose view was that language always operates via centripetal and centrifugal forces that both draw meanings into the control of social institutions and disrupt those patterns of meanings. And when following a line of thought involving Emerson and the lonely brilliance of the artist, it is tempting to see the whole matter as one of individual striving and literary genius, but that leaves out so many people.  What exactly is the social element? In what ways are groups involved in reshaping culture moment by moment? Or in making contexts for our individual self-fashioning? Do social media gives us clues about how individual acts coalesce into social patterns? And what portions is speech and what portion is action, as in the political sphere? Do social media reveal as well as change the way we work out the tensions discussed above? I hope that the answer is yes, at least in that there are new places for speech, for gathering people together, for sparking social action.

Carrying on

August 22, 2009 Leave a comment

There are just under 1400 posts over at the earlier blog, Weblogs in Higher Education, which focused on pedagogy and the web. As good as the blogging software was, pMachine is feeling a little behind the times, so I’m going to start a new project here under my own name. Also known as…