Saturday, November 08, 2014

Why Ph.D.s Should Teach College Students

Who should teach? And who should decide who teaches? What should the learning environment look like? And who should decide how it looks--and should there even be just one “look”? These old questions came to mind today when I read Marty Nemko's October 29 article in Time, "Why Ph.D.s Shouldn't Teach College Students."
I went to college at the tail end of a period of experimentation in higher education, graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin (after attending two others) in 1973. The Beloit Plan, an attempt to move away from traditional models of higher education, had drawn me to the school. It was an attempt to step aside from some of the rigid structures that had been in place for decades. Included in the Beloit Plan were three full (15 week) semesters in each year with students expected to be on campus continually for their first three and last three, leaving a five-semester flexible period in between (what would have been the third semester of senior year wasn’t included, keeping the time frame from entry to graduation in line with other colleges). A student could choose to take four semesters of classes on campus in a row, then take a year away to do something else, and then come back for a final four--or any variation. The only thing each student had to do was complete a “field term,” working at an approved internship or job for at least one semester and writing a substantial report on the experience (I worked as a “copyboy” in the newsroom of The New York Times).  There were other changes, including attempts to move away from the “Carnegie hour” and to give students greater control over their programs (I was able to design and teach a course on Science Fiction during one of my last semesters--an experience that would prove quite valuable later, when this Philosophy major finally got around to going to graduate school in English and completing a dissertation on a Science Fiction writer).
Financial problems (among other things) let to the abandonment of the Beloit Plan later in the seventies. But it was the reason I went to Beloit, choosing it over Antioch (which had an even more robust "work" program) because I knew I was not disciplined enough to succeed in the even more student-driven environment of Yellow Springs. There were other possible alternatives to the traditional college model, including the “great books” school, St. John’s College in Maryland; Goddard College in Vermont; Friends World College with campuses on Long Island, in Japan, Kenya, Costa Rica; and elsewhere. Some of these are still around and still working to provide alternative paths to the baccalaureate, but their numbers are sadly diminished.
There were also experiments going on in what today we would call “sandboxes” within many colleges and systems, though few of these remain, either. Individual teachers, in addition, were experimenting with new models of learning, including Fred Keller at Columbia, whose 1969 article “‘Good-Bye, Teacher...’” still influences how I envision the perfect educational situation at the college level.
It seemed, at the time I entered college in 1969, that higher education was on the cusp of real and universal change, the development of a panoply of possibilities able to meet the divergent needs to multiple sorts of learners. Instead, thanks in part of the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the subsequent cultural turnaround of the 1980s, we have a reduced vision of education at all levels today, one driven by “outcomes” and “accountability” instead of by learning.
Nemko provides, accidentally, a nutshell explanation of why there these events have led to such a limited breadth to education today, and to so little real contemporary experimentation. Nemko is a “career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform” with a Ph.D. in “education evaluation” from UC Berkeley. Though he has some teaching experience, his main focus seems to be on “results,” not on learning. In other words, he is a reflection of the growing mania for statistical verification and standardization that is now driving education in the United States at all levels and has done so since A Nation At Risk in 1983. He has created what he calls a College Report Card that he thinks should be front-and-center on all college websites:
  • Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey.
  • The most recent report by a visiting accreditation team (for a college to retain accreditation, a team of experts periodically visits for a few days and writes a report listing the identified strengths, weaknesses and recommendations).
  • The four-year graduation rate.
  • The average four-year student’s growth in writing, analytic reasoning and mathematical reasoning (many institutions use a standardized exam like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).
  • The percentage of students who graduate with their intended major who are professionally employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.
Frankly, I can’t think of many things seeming so innocuous that would be more detrimental to actual learning on campus or that are more directly reflective of the wrong turn American thinking on education has taken.
Student satisfaction, for one thing, should not be a goal of education. Believing it so is part of the fallout of a mistaken belief that business models can be useful in education. They cannot be (except in aspects of running the institutions). I want my students to be engaged, curious, excited, focused… but I do not care if they are satisfied, as long as they are learning. That is quite different from my attitude toward my customers back when I was running a store. Sometimes, in fact, the process of learning requires dissatisfaction and discomfort. That is never true of customers in business.
Accreditation bodies are becoming more and more suspect as evaluators to those of us who care more about learning than outcomes. Over the past few decades, they have become drivers of pedagogical focus through an over-emphasis on assessment through quantification. They are also overly interested in things like graduation rates, which are not always the most useful tools for evaluation (City College of San Francisco, for example, which is having trouble with its accreditation body, is criticized for low graduation rates yet its mission is not always to move students to degrees but to provide educational possibilities for those people who may be more interested in courses than programs). Today, it can seem like the accreditors want to reduce education to entries on spreadsheets. Their evaluations can seem to have little to do with assessing the amount of actual learning going on.
Which is also the weakness of looking at the four-year graduation rate as a one-size-fits-all gauge. One of the nice things about the Beloit Plan was that it could allow students to take from three full years to five (or more) to graduate. With a one-semester field term and eight semesters of classes, a student could graduate almost exactly three years from matriculation. On the other hand, a student who found their field-term project particularly engaging could extend it to a year or much more without endangering their ability to return and complete their degree. Today, for many CUNY students (I teach at a CUNY campus), graduation in four years is an impossibility. A great number of them work and, even with financial aid, cannot afford the time to take 15 credits a semester, the number they would need for a four-year path. Others have family commitments that keep them from that pace. The idea that the institution should be evaluated negatively for the socio-economic situations of the students is, well, silly and counter-productive.
Let's move on to standardized assessment. In my field of English, it is impossible to standardize assessment and one could even argue that trying to do so is counterproductive. Even the rubrics that supposedly can reduce writing to numerical scales are based on subjective judgments, making the resulting numbers, which can seem so “scientific,” meaningless. One, for example, asks that writing evaluation be based on numeration of things like “minimal,” “some,” “adequate,” and “thorough.” And, in another aspect, of “numerous,” “several,” “few,” or “very few.” How can one differentiate between these fuzzy terms on a numerical basis? It just doesn’t translate. Also, the standards that we do supposedly have were not established through any nationwide (or higher-education-wide) discussion but have evolved through the accrediting bodies or experts without review from outside (one of the same problems Common Core State Standards faces in regards to k-12). There’s an aura of arbitrariness to contemporary “standards” that not only makes them suspect but that makes one wonder if single standards are a good idea in the first place. Though the idea of "standards" may be attractive, there needs to be care and consideration behind their development--and a broad discussion. None of this has happened.
The final of Nemko’s “grades” would be on what students do afterward. OK, but education, to my Dewey-saturated mind, needs to be much more than job preparation. In fact, that should be the least of our concerns in terms of evaluating the efficacy of education. When schools are evaluated on how their students do in the short run, as Nemko wants, they will concentrate only on that, producing graduates who can step into particular jobs but not the educated citizens who will benefit American society over the long haul. Education should be aimed at the future, not at filling immediate needs. When students are well enough educated generally, they can learn the specifics of a job quickly--and that sort of training should be on the shoulders of employers, not colleges. (Of course, I am not writing of certificate programs here, but of the baccalaureate degree that attempts something greater than simple preparation for employment.)
A report card like Nemko’s will do nothing to improve education or make potential students better able to make intelligent decisions on where to attend. It will only limit administrative focus to those particular areas he lists, making them, not education, the center of the college experience.
Nemko’s title, as should be clear by now, is perhaps more than a little misleading. It is, in respects other than institutional evaluation as well. Little of college teaching, these days, happens at the hands of Ph.D.s. Complaining about them is somewhat like beating a dead horse. Adjuncts, most of whom are not research scholars, shoulder much of the burden of undergraduate education. And many of us who are Ph.D.s follow, to some degree, the ideas developed through the likes of Paulo Freire and Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction or the Mastery concept that grew from it over the seventies. At CUNY (and at City Tech in particular) we are constantly working to improve peer-led learning. Nationwide, digital possibilities are being explored as means of enhancing current educational processes or as alternatives. Rare is the “sage on the stage” that Nemko complains of, so rare that the phrase itself has long ago turned stale. What Nemko claims as a “hidebound” situation is not that at all, but a constantly evolving process.
Now that, of course, may seem to contradict my initial point that experimentation in higher education has died down. What has changed, really, is the nature of experimentation, a change brought about by the type of mindset that Nemko himself represents, the mindset with a focus on outcomes and not on learning. Assessment and “standardization” (standards, again, imposed without appropriate discussion of the reasons for them or the reasons why any particular ones are chosen) have straitjacketed attempts at systemic experimentation; the experimentation happening today takes place on an individual level or within constraints and regimentation imposed by accreditation agencies (among other external forces) unlike anything imposed in the past.
This is why there are so few experimental colleges today, or attempts to break out of the box of traditional educational assumptions: We have forced education into boxes like those on Nemko's "report card" or on grading rubrics--and we won't let it out. We are more interested in ranking than in learning. What Nemko offers will only increase this.
I know: I haven't answered the questions I posed at the start. Who should teach? Everyone, but subject specialists can organize the learning in ways nobody else can so need to have at least supervisory responsibilities. Who should decide who teaches? The collective faculty needs to have responsibility for who is deemed a subject specialist, but teaching itself is best based in the collective that includes students and faculty--and everyone in between. Who should decide how education looks? The institutions, working as wholes, need to do that--not outside experts but the people who will actually use the spaces. This, of course, implies that there can be no standardization.
Certainly not, if real learning is the goal.
(Originally posted on the Academe blog.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Neourbs and Death's Ironic Scraping

The fantasy of the neourb (the new urbanist): "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Mailer's ghost to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Brooklyn's Dream, because it hath no Brooklyn; and I will sing it myself at the end of the bridge, upon the walkway: peradventure, to make it the more precious, I shall sing it to our death."

You don't hear much of the death of Brooklyn, of the death of our cities--not any longer. There's a new dream replacing the nightmare demons of black encroachment (now contained in stop-and-frisk and visions of chokeholds and tasers). We, no "they" dream themselves to safety, guns and batons no longer visible during their cloudwalks to vegan markets and galleries whose brick walls flatter themselves into an urban rawness not the experience of anyone involved. Not even their parents. They open their arms to their black brethren--so long as they went to the right colleges, speak the right dialect, and work the right jobs. The rest--white, black, brown, yellow, whatever--are swept away and no longer signify.

But Brooklyn is dying, really, gasping for air, rattling its throes to a beat mistaken for rhythm, sounds mistaken for melody. Sandy warned them, but was passed off as a matter of luck--as though nothing else is, as though Gerritson Beach and Breezy Point died for their... protection (they have no sins). They, the neourbs, the children of the suburbs and entitled educations and trust funds, step into an urban paradise of their own creation, a bespoke Brooklyn crafted from artisanals out of the residue of the pushed behind (left behind? That would be a relief), the people who can no longer afford to live in New York City, let alone Brooklyn.

"Silver heels above me! I watch you pass my face; Climbing above the rest! near there half a step high! I see you turn from my face. Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me! In the limousines, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose; And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more than me, and more in our imaginations, than you might suppose."

Only the dead... only the rich know Brooklyn. Brooklyn... it cannot sustain the weight of wealth--no, its people, its soon-to-be former people can't. No longer can they live here, or in urban centers anywhere across America where the once wilds of Mafia and blackman myth have been tamed to nothing more than trophies of once everyday use. The African restaurant replaces the African; soul food remains though the soul is gone. The servers crash eight to a room out the LIRR while the cook, the landscaper, the contractor have self-styled themselves craftspeople, doing it all alone, those toiling for them simply replaceable parts like all of what once was the working class. They have the luxury of seeing working-class heroes in the mirror for they don't have to work at all or sleep in smelly rooms in illegal roominghouses near a Long Island station. They are moving farther and father out: "What happens when they can't come in at all? Can you really prepare those meals alone? Mow all that grass, trim? Install that oak flooring (bespoke)?"

That's the death. Those who do the real work of Brooklyn are shoved, with no consideration, to the far periphery by neourbs who flatter themselves that they can do it all, all by themselves. They don't need servants, they don't need helpers, they don't need anything but maybe their machines (though those, too, are probably redundant).

But they do. They are walking naked now into the water in their imagined splendid robes. Soon, they will not be waving, but drowning.

"I saw the least minds of my generation corrupted by Wall Street, stuffed hysterical bankers, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fee, self-proclaimed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of money, who pompously flatters his greedy eyes and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of million-dollar flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.... "

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gray Mountain

It had been years since I'd read a John Grisham novel, not since 1996, when I put down The Runaway Jury. The book was fine, even enjoyable, but my taste had moved on to the likes of James Lee Burke, whose Cadillac Jukebox came out the same year and whose depth and complexity, to say nothing of style, grabbed my attention. That was also the year of John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama. When I wanted suspense, I was finding, there were choices of far greater sweep and command than Grisham, though he always did take me for a rollicking good ride.

When I read that Grisham was situating his latest novel, Gray Mountain in Appalachia, I shrugged my shoulders. Though he may be a southerner, Grisham is no child of the mountains. A riveting page-turner against a backdrop of hillbillies and hemlocks was about all I could expect--fine, but I had no need of that. No long trips are in the offing and I hope I won't be inhabiting waiting rooms for the hours and hours that make such books positively lust inducing.

Then I heard that Grisham was taking on Big Coal in his new novel. That, I thought, could be interesting, though the struggle against the mining companies is now much more than a century old and no closer to resolution than it has ever been. The thirst for fuel does more than blind us to the realities of climate change... it even leads us to ignore damage to people and places that occur right before our eyes, not just five, ten, twenty years down the road.

At best, I thought, Grisham would simply be reiterating the sadness and helplessness of the lyrics of John Prine's 1971 song "Paradise":
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
In a way, that's exactly what he has done.

Among, fortunately, other things.

Like many whose parents are Appalachian but who grew up away from the mountains (visiting many times a year, of course), I am attuned to even the smallest hint of hillbilly slight. So, it was with a feeling of here-we-go-again that I read this passage from the main character's first experience in the hills of western Virginia:
An old pickup truck approached from ahead, slowed, and seemed ready to stop. The driver leaned out and yelled, "Come on, Romey, not again."
The cop turned around and yelled back, "Get outta here!"
The truck stopped on the center line, and the driver yelled, "You gotta stop that, man."
The cop unsnapped his holster, whipped out his black pistol, and said, "You heard me, get outta here."
This, I thought as I read, looks like it is going to be another book of vulgar stereotypes of Appalachia. Too bad, for I had been enjoying the book, so far.

But Grisham was fooling with me. Romey, it turns out, is the author's way of showing his readers that he recognizes the stereotypes but will be going out of his way not to indulge in them. Quickly, Romey is shown to be a fool even in local terms and the fear he engenders quite unwarranted. We are quickly introduced to Donovan Gray, whose family gave the name to the title location: "He wore faded jeans, hiking boots, a fashionable sports coat, no tie." Throughout the book, Grisham goes out of his way to depict what he has discovered is the reality of Appalachia, not the popular perceptions. Gray and almost all of the other characters (all, except for the bad guys, the main character's parents, and a wealthy lawyer or two) ring true--especially the Appalachians. That, from my point of view, is something of a feat.

There's a reason for Grisham's care, and that's the contrast he wants to create between the Appalachians and Big Coal. He can't solve the problems of mountaintop removal but he can show its quite real impact on human beings--if he can create characters who do not fall into Appalachian stereotypes. Deliberately, he leaves the battle in his book unresolved, just as the actual battle for the survival of the coal-producing parts of Appalachia remains unresolved.

Though the thrills I had long associated with Grisham are missing from this book, for the most part, I like it better, far better than I had thought I would. The care and sensitivity shown surprised me, and my respect for Grisham has grown.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Badass Mark Naison and the Growing Conflict in American Education: A Book Review

One of the many carefully orchestrated myths of the corporate “reformers” who have hijacked American education this century is that opposition comes only from the Tea Party and from teachers union ‘dead enders.’ All right-thinking Americans, the myth goes, recognize that our public schools have failed and that education in the United States can only be saved by alternatives like vouchers and charter schools, by public schools staffed by temporary Teach for America instructors, and by imposition of “standards” by an elite that knows what employers need. Led today by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, College Board head (and Common Core State Standards creator) David Coleman, and Students First organizer Michelle Rhee, this well-funded “reform” movement has been steamrolling over resistance for years, opponents often destroyed before they even know they are under attack.

A case in point is the recent experience of Bill de Blasio, new mayor of New York City. Diane Ravitch, the doyen of the anti-”reform” movement, notes his surrender to the charter-school movement and asks: “How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?” The answer, of course, is money. The money of the “reform” movement has, over the past decade or so, crushed all obstacles.

Over the last year, however, de Blasio’s caving notwithstanding, the situation has begun to change. Parents and teachers and others not beholden to the big money have started fighting back. The reformers attempted to cross a bridge too far by imposing on the states a standardization formula (Coleman’s CCSS) that utilizes high-stakes centralized testing for evaluation of both students and teachers—and that clearly benefits business much more than it does schools. Parents, seeing their children blindsided by a testing regimen making schooling a dreaded experience, are beginning to opt out of the CCSS-sparked standardized tests. Teachers, finally fed up with the vilification of their profession that has become an accepted part of American political discussion and terrified by new evaluation methods that reflect little of what actually goes on in their classrooms, are also finally beginning to resist. The Badass Teachers Association (BAT), organized in 2013, has become central to organizing the frustrated and increasingly marginalized (in terms of education policy) profession.

One of the founders of BAT is Fordham University’s Mark Naison, a professor of African-American Studies and a civil-rights advocate with an activist pedigree going back to the 1960s. He has now written Badass Teachers Unite!: Reflections on Education, History, and Youth Activism (Haymarket Books). Along with Ravitch, Long Island high-school principal Carol Burris and a growing cadre of bloggers, Naison has emerged as one of the leaders of a movement that may, one day, sweep the “reformers” and all of their money from the center of American education, a place they have occupied since the inception of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Money can do a lot but, when it comes to affecting the lives of children, parents and their allies, money may not prove to be everything.

Based on writings published primarily online over the past few years, Naison provides much more than a simple history of the backgrounds of a movement threatening right now to burst into national prominence. He also provides a context of public schools, real American public schools in the Bronx where real education happens, as a counter-argument to the failure meme at the heart of the “reform” movement. He paints a picture of students not as raw material for factory schools but as individuals with their own plans and desires, ones that can be far different from what the “reformers” draw up for them. And he makes clear just what his movement is fighting against: the Common Core standards, “a one-size-fits-all model of learning that is imposed through bribery, intimidation, and extreme political pressure, for the profit of private companies” (96); high-stakes and excessive testing; teacher evaluation based on student test scores; privatization of public education; federal and state mandates on local schools; and teacher rights to collective bargaining.

In his introduction, Naison describes the reason behind his own latest activism, a growing recognition of “the profound illegitimacy of policies wrapped in the mantle of patriotism, philanthropy, and civil rights” (xvii). He writes:
if my voice is unusual among the many speaking up to challenge attacks on teachers and public schools, it stems from my commitment to try to understand current policy initiatives in light of the historic experience of immigrants and people of color in Bronx schools and the history of great human rights struggles in the American past. (xvii)
The genesis of his writing, and of this new movement, lies not in Tea Party activism or in teachers unions. It lies in an American individualism and activism that has been quiescent, these last decades. The corporatist movement, in a stroke of genius, coopted even the language of past mass movements, leaving them word-tied. It even has the nerve to call itself a new civil right crusade. Yet all the while, as Ravitch points out, it is promoting “the re-creation of a dual school system” as diabolic as that destroyed more than half a century ago in Brown v. Board of Education. What Naison, Ravitch, Burris and the others are part of creating in response may be the first genuine populist movement in America since opposition to the Vietnam War.

Whether or not this movement will succeed—it has a difficult task in the face of concerted resistance by American oligarchs of both political parties—remains to be seen. But, sparked by a growing cadre of talented spokespeople like the three I have mentioned here, its chance of creating an effective counter to the monied movement of “reform” grows daily.

Anyone who wants to understand this movement, to be involved in it, to counter it, or just to observe it intelligently, would do well to read Naison’s book. All of us should want to: the conflict between the “reformers” and this new mass movement may well prove to be central to the American history of the next few years.

Monday, March 24, 2014

NANO Interview with Aaron Barlow

The interview centers on questions of academic publishing. Here's a sample:
Outside of technical fields where on-going "insider" conversations are quite necessary, there seems little continuing need for the old-fashioned niche journal, especially in the humanities. Few of us await with tingly anticipation the new issue of Pynchon/Wallace Quarterly for we have already followed the relevant conversations online--perhaps even through Twitter.
Give a read!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Postmodern and the Erasure of the Avant-Garde/Kitsch Split

This is distilled from the first chapter of my book Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. I have long felt that the discussion did not need to be centered on the filmmaker....

Fredric Jameson, in "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,"   posits postmodernism as a reaction against what he sees as the cultural snobbery of modernism, a snobbery that created a divide between an elite-accepted high culture and low popular culture. For that conceit to work, however, an anger against the snobbery has to exist. Instead, most born into the postmodern world are cultural omnivores, rejecting categorization, ingesting all they finds with equal fervor and delight.   
On the other hand, Jameson, like many scholars of his generation, accepts that the divide created (or, in the eyes of the modernists, identified) between high and low culture through modernism is, in fact, real-and has had a continuing impact.
This divide has long been an accepted part of most views       of Western culture. Writing in 1953, Dwight McDonald commented that "Mass Culture [his phrase for "popular" or "low" culture] is to some extent a continuation of the old Folk Art which until the Industrial Revolution was the culture of the common people, but here, too, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Folk Art grew from below. It was a spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people, shaped by themselves, pretty much without the benefit of High Culture, to suit their own needs."[1] The assumptions McDonald makes and Jameson doesn't contradict are ones that many of today’s artists and consumers of art don’t share. The hierarchy of cultural values, the idea of distinct high and low arts with intrinsic difference in value, doesn't exist in this new universe- reflecting an attitude that is perhaps the most important difference between the modernists and their children.
MacDonald goes on to make the somewhat contradictory claim that "Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying."[2] Here, the real distinction between the modern and the postmodern (taken most broadly) is highlighted by an older statement of another hierarchy or distinction, not one of cultural value but of commercial interaction, and of a basic misunderstanding of that interaction: consumers in Western capitalist systems have never been passive, nor have they been provided with simplistic, stark choice of one or nothing.
If an artist today were to have any reaction at all to claims such as those of MacDonald, it would probably simply be a piqued interest in what MacDonald sees as kitsch, the output of commercial culture. In making his argument, MacDonald cites Clement Greenberg's even older article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in which Greenberg distinguishes between the two types of artifacts in his title, extolling the avant-garde not as experimental, but as the leaders, the artists trying "to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. "[3] He sees them as removing themselves from the public completely and concentrating solely on art for its own sake and on "pure poetry," providing an artistic base when all else seems fluid. Though working in complete disregard to pop-cultural currents, the avant-garde ultimately, Greenberg implies, provide the path to the future, thereby justifying their art and their seclusion. Their understanding of culture is as something to aspire to, though not something that the general populace might already own.
Kitsch, by contrast-in Greenberg's view-belongs nowhere but among the people and far away from real culture. It is a product of commerce, not art, and probably shouldn't even be mentioned in discussions of art, for it is fake, "ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, [who] are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide."[4] Greenberg goes on: "Kitsch is mechanical  and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even  their time."[5] The reaction, today, to such a description might actually be an unironic, "Cool, let's have some."
Kitsch, by this definition, is the very starting point for twenty-first century art. It is real art, though of a sort that Greenberg or even MacDonald did not even imagine would come to be. It ultimately integrates the posited ideas of kitsch and the avant-garde, completing a process of melding that started, self-consciously and in light of these imposed distinctions, in the 1950s but its erasure is now something of an assumed, seamless, and forgotten (on the surface) base for contemporary artistic creation.
Noel Carroll describes, and more favorably, Greenberg's distinction between kitsch and avant-garde: "Avant-garde art is abstract, whereas mass art ostensibly favors representation. Avant-garde art is reflexive, whereas mass art is generally imitative. Avant-garde art is introverted-it is about itself (it is about its medium). Kitsch is extroverted; it is about the world. "[6] Lacking any sort of overt ideological base, contemporary artist see both the avant-garde and kitsch not simply as pieces for collage or pastiche but as sources for their own art and as metaphors in the new language they are in the process of creating for discussing and negotiating their world, as pieces to be carefully selected, trimmed, and sealed together into a sort of linguistic decoupage.
At its heart, their work is both reflexive and imitative, about the medium and about the world. Their reaction to modernism isn't to reject high art in favor of low, but to reject the value of any such hierarchical or oppositional distinction-to reject, in many respects, hierarchies and dichotomies altogether, certainly to deny them as absolutes. Their work certainly isn't simply a cobbling together of pieces but a new way of incorporating the old, a new decoupage.
In talking about film music, composer Michel Chion specifically uses "decoupage" instead of pastiche, pointing out that the composition of this sort, of decoupage, creates a whole, not a collection. Claudia Gorbman, Chion's translator, describes the use of "decoupage" as emphasizing "the conceptual planning of a scene's shooting and editing, whereas its counterpart, montage, in French stresses the postproduction  process of editing."16  This removes any overt sense of       external commentary from the planning and the choices themselves, satiric or otherwise, making the items included within the process simply pieces useful for constructing the new work with all that implies.
Ultimately, by bypassing the models people have constructed and their discussions of theory, by either simply ignoring them or by incorporating both sides of the various dichotomies assumed, today’s artists up reflecting and creating a new type of "mass art," one without boundaries, taking a step beyond older  attitudes and yet embracing them. Until recently, as Carroll argues, mass art has been ignored through the bias of those devoted to high art, "demoting mass art of the rank of either kitsch or pseudo art."[7] The theorists, in his view, started from a bias toward the avant-garde, so they were never able to consider  mass art dispassionately. They saw the weaknesses, therefore, and ignored the strengths of anything but that  which they've already deemed as real "art." "They observed, with some cause: that mass art is formulaic; that, in certain pertinent respects, the response to mass art was what they considered to be passive; that mass art is generally designed to induce certain predetermined effects; that mass artworks are not unique; and so on."[8] They proved the old maxim that just about anything can be made to look bad if one tries hard enough. The real postmodernists, by ignoring objections to mass art, take a giant step toward making the theorists irrelevant.
Though postmodern theorists generally reject the depictions such as those Carroll puts forth, observations stemming primarily from modernist perspectives, just as the modernists did, they still carry forward assumptions and attitudes-and judgments- that contemporary purveyors of mass art ignore. In fact, in holding onto what they see as the abandonment of the avant-garde by what they call "postmodernist" artists, the theorists often continue the very avant­garde/kitsch duality that many of those so-called postmodern artists are ignoring today. In other words, the "real" postmodernism cannot be defined through a preference for kitsch any more than by any overt abandonment of modernism—for the real postmodernists don't react against much of anything; they embrace whatever they find useful, rejecting only labels—including "postmodernism."
Instead of "postmodern," many of these artists are better described simply as "mass artists," people working within the traditions of mass art that have arisen over the past century or so and who are aware of those traditions (and others). They mine them-for reasons inherent in the very definition of "mass art." Carroll argues that a work becomes "mass artwork" if it is ( 1) not singular, (2) both produced and distributed through mass technology, and ( 3) "is intentionally designed to . . . promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or  relatively untutored ) audiences."[9]  However, Carroll does sidestep questions of whether  certain works  of mass  art should be called "art" at all by arguing that  they  are descended  from   categories that have long been accepted as "art." Movies, of course,  come  from drama, etc. The first condition, then, is primarily that the work not be singular, such as an unrecorded or broadcast-live performance of a play or a concert. The technologies  of  the  second  condition  have  changed,  of course, over the years, starting with Gutenberg and the printing press,  but all share the purpose of disseminating the work of mass art as broadly as possible. Carroll defines the "delivery system as a technology with the capacity to deliver the same performance or the same object to more than one reception site simultaneously. "[10] It is the reliance on technology that distinguishes mass art from popular art, a broader category  that  encompasses mass art.
Of his third condition, Carroll writes, "Here, the parenthetical qualification concerning 'relatively untutored audiences' is meant to accommodate the fact that, to a certain extent, audiences may be tutored by the repetition and formulas of mass art itself."[11] Furthermore, "Mass art gravitates not only toward certain formal features for the sake of accessibility; mass art may also gravitate toward the exploration of certain generic affects . . . because they are commonly recognized. "[12] He goes on to say that genres such as action/adventure are mass-art naturals, "since it is easier for the average movie-goer to comprehend how a kick-boxer fights . . . than it is to comprehend the intricate and crafty financial maneuverings of leveraged corporate take-overs."[13]
Contemporary postmodern artists understand where they need to start in the construction of a mass­ art artifact-but that such a starting point is never a limitation or constraint. These artists know that an audience "learns" as it experiences the work of art (one of the basic points of narrative construction) and that they can pull audiences along within the work just as they have been doing externally ( the "tutoring" Carroll refers to).
Jameson simply didn't go far enough in his thinking about the impact of modernism or the implications of a developing mass art, but is satisfied to discover an imagined whole through a narrow ideological lens of rather limited focal range. He does, however, make a significant point about influence and reference, the point that postmodern artists don't bother to "'quote' such 'texts' as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them."[14] The reason for this, however, is that the source text becomes a part of language itself, not a Jameson pastiche, not parody, nor simple self-referentiality. It becomes another of the basic pieces of language, to be used without the need of quotation marks to represent borrowings- for the pieces have dropped into the language, their referentiality negligible. "Lions, and tigers, and bears" today draws the inevitable chorus, "Oh, my!"-degree of knowledge of the source movie, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), notwithstanding. What happens is not, as Christine Gledhill claims, that "postmodern practices treat the past as a superstore for picking and mixing,"[15] but that film reference has retreated into the common parlance, available for the picking and mixing regardless of origin or even knowledge of origin. Like "thug," descended from a Hindu word but having lost, in American usage, any connection with South Asia, phrases and images from movies have entered into the language. The aspect of parody or pastiche that Jameson describes has been subsumed as references (and usages) become part of a greater conversation.
J. David Slocum writes that the "postmodern gaze ranges over stylistics and narrative, the status of cultural myths, the role of ideology, and the relations between institutional practices and individuals. "[16] This broad vision of postmodernism, following Jean-Francois Lyotard[17] and much more inclusive than Jameson's, sees a purpose-driven aesthetic of rejection of the grand visions of modernism and, in fact, of any system restrictive in definition. On a basic level, then, in terms of film, what some call "postmodernism" is an aspect of a developing language.
When writing of cinema, instead of recognizing the essential conservative nature of filmmaking in Hollywood, Jameson placed the filmmaker (and those like him) within a cultural "periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the  emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order."[18] It is this, to Jameson, that makes what he sees as pastiche and not (as he says) parody, imbuing pastiche with a cultural weight he denies to parody. "Both  pastiche  and parody involve the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles and particularly of the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of  other  styles."[19] Parody, however, is little more, for Jameson, than mockery based on deviation from the normative linguistic values of society, whereas pastiche operates within a postmodern environment in which recognition of a societal center as a norming force has disappeared. Jameson sees a great fragmentation that leaves no basis for the parodying of any particular private idiom, for the loss of standard  makes the act of parody meaningless to all but a tiny audience, rendering it ineffective within the broader society. At this point, Jameson argued, pastiche takes over, using the tools of parody but without the now-meaningless mockery: "Pastiche is blank  parody,  parody  that  has lost its sense of humor."[20]
It's not so simple, really. Though it may be true that the standards parodists once played off against are gone, it does not follow that humor also has disappeared or that pastiche has done anything less than find new standards for use in creating humor, be it parody or satire. The language of the parodist has grown, now including film and the private languages of splinter groups.
Jameson disparages pastiche as a response to a situation in which no room remains for innovation, in which artists no longer have the option to do any­ thing but imitate the past, "to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum. "[21] Pastiche becomes nothing more than a response to the failure of creativity that, to him, is a hallmark of the postmodern culture. In actual usage, of course, pastiche is much more than that. Pastiche, or decoupage, along with its composites are themselves becoming a new standard, a common language, if you will, with referents and standards as clear as those that Jameson sees as being lost-though the new ones are built from a myriad of "private languages" as well as from the films (and other artifacts) that have become cultural landmarks. The in-jokes resulting from fragmentation become among the many building blocks of a larger, though diffused, decentralized and new, basis for conversation.
Jameson, who mistakes usage of pastiche for nostalgia, picks  out American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1972),  Chinatown  ( Roman  Polanski, 1974), and Il Conformista ( Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) as films looking back through pastiche, creating a genre that, he said, would soon include movies such  as  Star  Wars, Episode  IV- A  New  Hope  ( George  Lucas,  1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), all of them providing a re­experiencing of something that the viewer has never experienced firsthand and often only knows through the movies or—in the later two cases—through recreating the childhood experience of B movies and serials. Jameson, however, did not take the step that these films themselves do. That is, the filmmakers all knew they were making movies for contemporary audiences and framed their visions of the past to address contemporary issues. Most of the people who grew to love Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Art best were, after all, too young to have experienced the objects of homage (the pastiche aspect of the movies) firsthand, if they had seen them all. It didn't even matter if they hadn't, to either filmmakers or to their audiences. In fact, a certain part of the aesthetics of these seemingly nostalgic films was based on the exploitative and often over-the-top trailers for the older films and even on lobby cards, and not quite so much on the films themselves.
Jameson sees film not as an extension of language and its metaphors but as a retreat to Plato's shadows on the wall of the cave. To him,  this is a supplantation of reality, not a means of supplementing human framing of reality. But we've always negotiated the experiential world through language and not merely through direct experience; today, that language has simply grown to include film and all it implies. And film even does more: in an era of fragmentation of language into a variety of jargons and dialects, film (and electronic media in general) becomes the one universal, a standard like that one Jameson saw as having, in the past, allowed for successful parody.
Relationships Jameson also spoke of, such as Jacque Lacan's sign and signifier/signified, extend to a referent. The idea of a contained universe of sign and signifier alone makes little sense to them, for movies are part of their experiential world and an important part, for they become means for making sense of the world and for discussing it with others. The idea of a limited universe makes little sense, too, because the filmmaker's art is, for most, a primarily commercial art. The world of the work is constantly informed and shaped by the world of commercial demand and experience. In other words, context always has to be paramount to the filmmaker within the Hollywood commercial tradition. In discussion of Jacques Derrida's thoughts on genre,[22] Stephen Neale follows Derrida in observing "that all texts, all utterances, all instances of discourse are always encountered in some kind of context, and are therefore always confronted with expectations, with systems of comprehension."[23] That context, however, can (as postmodernist theorists asserted) become emptied of meaning, which is where discourse on postmodernism can still assist in understanding the place of film, and film violence in particular, within a contemporary framework. Slocum argues,[24] with limited justification, that even the most graphic violent image is drained of meaning and originality within a contemporary media context of repetition and replication. The question, then, becomes one of the impact and amplification of the image as it takes its place as a piece of language, simply a new word, one represented in a way distinct from the grapheme, not serving as a direct representation of reality but as a commonly understood touchstone.

[1] Dwight Macdonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture," 60.
[2] Dwight Macdonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture," 60.
[3] Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 99.
[4] Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 102
[5] Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," 102.
[6] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 32-33.
[7] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art.
[8] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art.
[9] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 196.
[10] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 199.
[11] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 204-205.
[12] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 204-205.
[13] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 205.
[14] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society," 112.
[15] Christine Gledhill, "Rethinking genre," 223.
[16] J. David Slocum, "The 'Film Violence' Trope," 25.
[17] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
[18] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society," 113.
[19] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society," 113.
[20] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society," 114.
[21] Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and the Consumer Society," 115.
[22] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, 221-252.
[23] Stephen Neale, Genre and Hollywood, 24.
[24] J. David Slocum, "The 'Film Violence' Trope," 27.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Choice Review of The Cult of Individualism

Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, publishes 'postcard reviews' for use by academic libraries. The point is to give a quick overview of the book, an idea of the appropriate audience, and a sense of whether the book can be useful to any particular library. I write reviews for Choice and love doing so, even with its limitations in size and purpose. The word limit, for example, prevents grandstanding by a reviewer and forces her or him to aim for a succinct description. Taking to heart the old saw, best expressed by Mark Twain as “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” reviewers are
expected to put time and care into these pieces, not just dash them off.

What I like best, however, is that Choice surprises me each time a book arrives. Each has related to my areas of experience and expertise, certainly, but none has been a book I would likely pick up on my own. I don't have to accept any assignment--if a book is just too awful, I can simply ask to be excused--but I have never had to do so. In each case, I have learned something; in one case, I ended up using the book as a source in a book of my own.

The latest issue of Choice contains its review of that book, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. It is by an emeritus professor of history at Brooklyn College named Robert Muccigrosso and, for me, it creates a model of what a Choice review should be, a model I hope my own reviews live up to.

Muccigrosso begins by referring to Rodney Dangerfield's "I can't get no respect" as an apt description of my subject, the Scots-Irish "Borderers." He writes:
Despised and derided both in the Old World and the New, these mostly poor and uneducated uprooted Protestants brought with them their anger, a serious distrust of authority, and an abiding sense of the strength of individual endeavor.
That's it, as it should be, in a nutshell. Muccigrosso ends with this:
This book provides a sensible plea to include the Borderer experience more fully into the national heritage for the benefit of all. 
If that ever happens--and happens in small part because of my book--I will be extremely happy.