Saturday, March 21, 2009

Exploding the Monolith: The Value of Teaching Appalachian Literature in Inner-City Environments

The following is a paper I will be presenting at the Appalachian Studies Association Annual Conference at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio on Friday, March 27.

There are, of course, similarities between the Appalachian college student and the Brooklyn one, but you won’t find them if you go looking for racial or ethnic parallels, religious ones, or even economic similarities. There may be a few superficial racial relationships, but these will prove about as significant as lumping together the Basque and the Belgian. Some of the Christian denominations may share names, but the individual churches struggle with problems distinct to their environments. And poverty in the city and in the country mean completely different things. The similarities, instead, lie in traditions of trouble and struggle, of loss, of the internal battle between desires to give up and push on, of fatalism that somehow still pushes one to fight against fate, of a ‘borderer’ toughness that Appalachia has retained and new immigrants must develop—at least until they assimilate or establish a strong enough enclave to maintain themselves by themselves—and, sadly enough, of failure. Oh, and one more: All of the groups have found themselves on the receiving end of stereotyping, insult, and discrimination.

I don’t know much about the ethos of teaching in Appalachia these days but, among educators in Brooklyn, there’s certainly one of liberal condescension towards my students—students outside of the elite, private schools, that is. There’s a distancing, reinforced by choices of the literature to be studied, for instance, literature that the teachers assume can “reach” the student through identity, primarily racial or ethnic identity, or through poverty, which is assumed to be a blanket bad, no different in Delhi than in Duluth. The choices are justified by the argument that they reflect a student-centered orientation. Else, why choose them? The fact is that these are not the works the teachers (for the most part) read themselves, or would choose for their own children. These are not works the teachers can generate much enthusiasm for within themselves. The works are “for” the needy, not for those who are clearly going to “make it.” So, I avoid them.

One of the things that has always been important to me is the enthusiasm I can show for the literature I teach. I’ve had great success, for example, with Nabokov’s Pale Fire in sophomore survey classes. Why? Because I love the book, and am always finding something new and sneaky in it. I haven’t found that it “works” only for sophisticated students from good schools and families with libraries. Quite the opposite; it can work for any group as long as I am able to bridge the student/teacher gap with my enthusiasm.

As we all know, it is hard to maintain the appropriate level of zeal for a particular work or works year after year. I haven’t taught Pale Fire since 2007, for example, and may not teach it again for another year or two; so I am always looking for new books and genres to explore, so that my discovery can be relatively immediate in relation to that of my students.

A couple of years ago, after posting a rant against Jane Smiley who had, in my view, besmirched my own Appalachian roots through use of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, portraying us as the cause of all of America’s troubles, I heard from one Rodger Cunningham, whose book Apples on the Flood I soon devoured.

I was hooked; I felt I had come home.

My growing interest led me to apply for an NEH summer seminar last year at Ferrum College organized by Peter Crow. Though I had to leave early due to the illness and death of my mother, I learned enough to give me the confidence to construct a syllabus for the course in the Appalachian novel that I taught last fall.

The students didn’t know what they were getting into. We have an umbrella sophomore grouping of literature courses with rather generic titles. Mine was Introduction to Literature I: Fiction. Most students end up in a section of that, or of the poetry or drama courses, more by chance than anything else. So, as I walked in with a stack of books by Lee Smith, Denise Giardina, John Ehle, Charles Frasier and James Still, the students had no clue that I wasn’t saddling them with, say, Edwidge Dandicat, V.S. Naipaul’s early work, and Jean Rhys—all of whom I could easily and willingly teach under the same umbrella had I a different geographic focus.

At City Tech—our shorthand for New York City College of Technology, one of the campuses of the City University of New York—the sheer diversity of the students makes the task of attempting conclusions about them and their cultures daunting. Of those responding to one survey, 46.6% said they were born outside of the United States (representing 134 countries), 60.6% said a language other than English is spoken in their home, and only a third listed a parent as having graduated from college. Almost half of the students have African ancestry, through generations in the United States, through the Caribbean, or through recent immigration. Very few have any conception of Appalachia. In my particular class, only one had even visited any of the core counties of the region. An African-American woman, her father was born in West Virginia and she occasionally returned with him for family reunions.

Back to that first day: As I quickly discovered, few of my students knew of “Appalachia” as anything more than a vaguely familiar word representing mountains somewhere. For a survey I conducted towards the end of the semester, I asked the students what the word had meant to them at the beginning of the course. Only one, the woman with a West Virginian father, said it had meant much more than “mountains.” Her attitude, clearly coming from her father, was much more akin to my own nostalgia and that of others who have left the mountains: “I always think of beautiful landscapes. There truly is a relaxing, laid back lifestyle to be had there.”

When I asked, “What does the word ‘Appalachia’ mean to you today?” most of the answers dealt with culture instead of landscape or geography: “an undiscovered culture that is perceived as a ‘dumb’ culture through today’s society”; “People struggling and being looked down on. A very hard life with a lot of secluded ideas and perceptions”; “Appalachia is a culture that needs to be acknowledged”; “it is not just the mountains with mountain people, it is a place just like any other that has real people with real feelings and issues.” The general tenor was one of a movement from alien landscape to familiar culture—or to culture understood to be analogous to the students’ own—for many of the comments, clearly, could have been made about the people in the New York neighborhoods where these students live.

One of the questions whose answers would, I knew, fascinate me was, “’Hillbilly,’ ‘cracker,’ ‘redneck’: what do these words bring to mind?” The answers showed that, over the course of the semester, the students had, among other things, begun to break up what they had perceived as the “white” monolith. Not all groups of white people, they were beginning to understand, are alike or successful or powerful: “It brings to mind a person that is not intelligent to ‘white’ standards only because it is ‘white’ brainwashing with shows like Dukes of Hazzard, etc.”; “It’s a racial insult against whites from the culture”; “Racism! Well some people who come from different countries, they tend to be called names representing their culture”; “It makes me angry because they are meant to be a put down”; “Racism, I hate those words!” Admittedly, a high percentage of the students still associated those words, without any sense of irony, with people they have contempt for—racists, bigots, and people who live in trailers. Overall, however, they showed more cognition of the impact of these words than have many of my colleagues, one of whom actually said to me (when I called her on her use of “hillbilly”), “I’ve nothing against your people. I’ve seen them when they come down from the mountains, pasty skin and bad teeth, and I feel sorry for them—I don’t dislike them.”

[Which reminds me of the groups my students liked best in the movie Matewan: the blacks, the immigrants, and the “real” (actually, stereotype) mountaineers who appear for only a moment. They understood completely the reply of one of them to a union-buster who tries to make fun of his rifle, asking if it came from the Spanish-American War. The mountaineer just smiled and replied, “The war between the states.”]

Living in a situation where the whites they encounter are generally people of some authority, many of my students imagined white culture as the homogeneous monolith of TV depiction—even those with troubles having houses and cars, good jobs and security. So, the last question on my survey was, “Has this course changed any of your attitudes towards Appalachian culture?” Responses included, “I see that people who are in the Appalachian culture had the same struggles as any other American who was not ‘privileged’ as some other Americans”; “I came here 3 years ago and I can say that first time I realized that there is a division between white cultures in the U.S.”; “This course has changed my entire attitude towards Appalachian culture because it has exposed me to the individuality that they possess”; “Yes a little bit. I now see that all are not the same just like all Spanish people are not the same.” Many others said that their attitudes hadn’t changed—simply because they hadn’t had “attitudes” before the start of the term.

Though my specific purpose in planning the course had been to teach what I like, what interests me, so that the students could benefit from my enthusiasm, I took away quite a bit more from the experience. First, I saw how parochial my students were becoming through the narrow universe of text choice based on the rather condescending assumption that they cannot find interest in anything outside of their own immediate experience. The lack of exposure to cultures outside of the city, outside of minority and immigrant experience, had allowed many of them to fall into a belief that white culture is some privileged, gated estate that they could never enter, a powerful and alien, undifferentiated monolith.

More important than that, however, was the pleasant surprise that my students were able to use exploration of Appalachian culture to achieve greater understanding of their own. On the last day of classes, one student, the child of immigrants, came up to me and told me, wonderingly and surprised, that reading about Appalachia had made her better able to understand the stories her parents told about her grandparents’ lives back in China.

There may have been a reason, thirty or forty years ago, to try to find readings that did reflect the cultures of the students. But there is reason, also, to show them that, quite often, cultural differences can hide basic similarities, that the markers we use to distinguish ourselves from others are often little more than masks. When we manage to take them off, we often find that looking at others is not so different from looking in a mirror.

From my experience, studying the literature of another culture, especially one that shares essential—not superficial—features with that of the students, allows students whose own backgrounds have been limited by circumstance to begin to contextualize theirs and their families’ experiences in ways that texts chosen because they somehow reflect something within the specific cultures of the students can never do. It also avoids the sorts of condescension we often see in choice of text for students whose backgrounds have been deemed “disadvantaged.” Perhaps, then, were I teaching in Appalachia, I would attempt a course featuring the Caribbean literature of Dandicat, Naipaul, and Rhys. After all, our job is to expand our students’ outlooks, not to cater to the worlds they are already in.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Daily Us

Perhaps Nicholas Kristof (whom I do admire) hasn't been keeping up with his John Dewey.

In today's New York Times, he writes:

When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

He worries about this because "we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices" and implies that the situation is new to the Web--conveniently forgetting that New York City, a century ago, had more than a dozen major newspapers (not to mention all of the smaller ones, the newsletters, the magazines, the flyers) and that readers were feeling exactly the same then, and acting exactly the same.

Before the explosion of news possibilities on the Internet, it is true, the choices among sources of news and opinion were dwindling, the remaining ones falling under a "collective wisdom" that excluded most opinions. The "gatekeepers" also served as shepherds, keeping media sheep in their pastures and charging the rest of us to view them there.

Yet it does remain true that most of us (and I include myself as much as Kristof does himself) stick primarily to sources we fee we can trust--that is, sources that share our prejudices.

The thing to do, however, is not to blame this on new-media possibilities. The problem doesn't arise there, but from a population that has not challenged itself to learn and to communicate (which means being more than the object of someone else's desire to communicate).

And that brings us back to Dewey, who writes

Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge--a common understanding -- like-mindedness as the sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another, like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions -- like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

There is actually a point to going to where the like-minded are, as long as the like-minded aren't walling others out or blocking the windows to the outside. There's a point to exploring and understanding one's own beliefs instead of pretending to be a tabula rasa waiting to be written on. The end result of Kristof's contention that we go read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal if we don't want to be served only by The Daily Me is confusion and cacaphony. It would mean that I should continually read David Horowitz, the anti-Darwinists, the writings from Focus on the Family, Red State, and any and everything else I have already determined are based on faulty logic and poor thinking.

Sure, there's a point to looking at the opposition, and in learning from it. And, sometimes, even in being convinced by it. But what Kristof is advocating is a return to the news-media of objectivity, something that never did exist (except in its proponents' minds) and never will.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Product as Process: Implications of New-Media Publication

What follows is the text of a short talk I will give as part of a roundtable on Saturday, March 21 at the New Jersey College English Association Annual Conference, Jubilee Hall, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ at 2:30. The session is called "New Media and the Literary Artifact."

Rather than an extension of our old texts of granite, solid and unwavering, what we have gained, through new media, is a 'book of sand.' As in the Jorge Luis Borges story, it is now impossible to find the first or last page, or to return to a page one has found before. Or, at least, to be sure it is exactly the page we saw before. Text has lost its solidity, textual scholarship its underpinning. You may think I'm stretching the analogy, but think again—by the time you do, the world will be different. And text will be different, too.

Not that text, even in pre-Internet days, was ever as stable as we like to imagine. The 'urtext' was always something of a chimera, at best. Today, not only is it illusory, but it may well have been shown to be irrelevant. Remember the 'intentional fallacy'? Maybe that will soon be married to a 'textual fallacy,' a belief that text itself has an unchanging aspect to its identity. If “author” once seemed to fade in significance, so may “text,” as we have long understood it, also fade and then reconfigure.

Be that as it may, even deciding on the primacy of a particular text has always been difficult. The science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick authored a short story, “The Unteleported Man,” that appeared in 1964. A longer version became as a book in 1966. In 1983, an “uncensored” version came out—after the death of the author. A fourth version, called Lies, Inc., was published the next year. Which to focus on? The question was relatively or comparatively simple, pre-Internet. Today, for new-media era texts, it can be a monster.

Not only is Dick’s book rather unstable, but it contains in it a most peculiar fictional book. Freya Holm, on being handed it, “at once she turned to the index and sought out her own name. Two citations in the first part of the book; three later on” (168). A couple of lines later, one of the people who had given her the book says, “'Better get the book back from her again... I still think she's reading too damn much” (169). That's from the later version of The Unteleported Man. In Lies, Inc., another character also consults the index—or, as we would do today, Googles himself: “After the entry Ferry, Theodoric, he found virtually unending citations” (182). After reading a bit, “'Listen,' he said severely…, 'my private life is my own business; there's no valid reason in the galaxy why my doings should be listed here.' I ought to bust this outfit, he decided. Whoever these people are who put together this miserable book. Eighteenth edition? Good lord” (183). The book is up-to-date and constantly changing. Like Borges' 'book of sand,' it may be a more accurate vision of what a text is today than just about anything else we have—even in new media. Not surprising, the book's title claims it as “True and Complete.” It is this ‘truth’ that we grapple with today. To succeed in our struggle, we are beginning to understand that we have to develop a vision of text different from that which grew, post-Gutenberg.

In 1971, as a young man at loose ends, I contracted to print a small book for a literary magazine. I had access to an old Chandler and Price clamshell press, sufficient type fonts, and a saddle-stitching device—and knew how to use them. All I needed was ink and paper, readily available.

The process wasn't simple. I had spent years learning and practicing typesetting—taking each single letter from a job case, transferring it to a composing stick, filling in the line, justifying it with variable spacing for the necessary consistent tightness, inserting a line spacer, and then starting on the next. When each page was completed, I ran proofs using a small flat-bed press specific to that purpose. Changes were made, lines re-justified, and a new proof produced. When the proof-reader was satisfied, I locked two completed pages into a chase specific to the press using variously sized wood blocks and tightening quoins. Once again, a proof was made—this time (generally) for the editor (even the author) and not just my composing room proof-reader, for this was the last chance for change before production of the product.

Next, the chase went onto the press. After adjustments made using pins to insure that the placement of the ink on the page would be correct, I took an initial impression to determine if the type was hitting the paper evenly and with the requisite pressure. Adjusting this was a tedious and time-consuming process. Not only did it involve the look of the final product, but its consistency. If pressure was uneven, the type wore at differing rates, changing the look of the page later in the run. Printers want to keep wear to a minimum anyhow, for the fonts need to be protected for re-use.

On a press such as the one I was using, the actual 'run' takes much less time than composing, especially for an experienced pressman. Decades after my last print job, I can still feel the motion of paper to platen to product and could probably still feed a Chandler & Price 10x15 press at a reasonably high speed without injury—a key component, by the way, for the press is unyielding and can easily destroy the fingers and hands of the careless or unwary.

Once this process is repeated for every two pages of the book (running each sheet through twice, for front and back, each representing four pages to the reader), the pages and cover are collated and run through the saddle stitcher for stapling and a paper cutter for trimming. Only then is an actual finished copy available—anything done before is nothing more than a mock-up, a vision of what the actual book is supposed to be.

It is important, today, to understand the complexity and finality of this process of the past if we are going to comprehend the attitude towards that printed text that grew in European culture from the time of Gutenberg to the dawn of our own era, a shift from orality to literacy of profound impact. Making changes, clearly, was difficult, the process lengthy and expensive. Through this, the text, the product, was raised to a height unknown before and unequaled since. Necessary care in production had led to veneration of product. As Walter Ong writes:

The orality-to-literacy shift throws clear light on the meaning of New Criticism as a prime example of text-bound thinking. Writing, it will be remembered, has been called 'autonomous discourse' by contrast with oral uterance, which is never autonomous but always embedded in non-verbal existence. The New Critics have assimilated the verbal art work to the visual object-world of texts rather than to the oral-aural event-world. They have insisted that the poem or other literary work be regarded as an object, a 'verbal icon'. (157)

Structuralism and deconstruction, following on the heels of New Criticism, have retained the centrality of 'text.'

Though veneration of text does remain to some extent, the care in production that led to it is gone—or no longer necessary. When a 'press run' can be of one, when change can be made at the click of a mouse, when composition contains flexibilities unimagined even a generation ago, there's no longer reason to view the product as 'the final word.'

The cultural change in our attitudes towards 'text' this portends is tremendous. The central place of 'text' as 'thing' in literary theory, for example, will surely change, with 'text' no longer elevated to a level equal to (or above) author and audience.

Journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis explains why:

When something is published on a blog and distributed over the Internet, it’s not finished. That’s just the beginning of the process. When I write something on my blog, oftentimes somebody will come after me and say, “No, you’ve got it wrong.” And maybe they’re right that I do have it wrong, so they copy edit me, which I well need….

So the blogosphere offers a much speedier cycle of correction than traditional media do. That happens because the audience is so much more involved in creating, fact-checking, and improving the content than they are with newspapers. (282)

Poets have always hated handing their work to the printer, feeling it is then calcified. Though changes were possible and new, revised editions frequent, the poem remained, an artifact available to anyone caring to find it, carrying with it the authority that printed product had attained. Today, as our reliance on static, paper product continues to decline, the poem becomes both more plastic and more within control of the poet (and not the producer of printed product). Lack of a 'paper trail' significantly changes the way a poem is presented and even studied.
More significantly, new media technologies both increase and narrow possibilities for consideration of audience. As Ong, again, writes:

Unlike members of a primary oral culture, who are turned outward because they have had little occasion to turn inward, we are turned outward because we have turned inward. In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided spontaneity is a good thing. (134)

Spontaneity, as my recounting of one of the more extensive processes of printing should indicate, is not something we find when the orientation is towards text-as-independent-object. In a new-media context, however, a text has the flexibility to be tailored to individual communication and/or to be presented differently to a broader or alternate audience. And change can be immediate.

The revolution we are experiencing today point towards an entirely new type of literary criticism, one that does not view the work of art as product, as a final and finished (for the purposes of the criticism) artifact but, in some way or another, as process. Some new framework, whether those of us born before 1990 like it or not, will be adopted. Our job, as scholars of literature and language, will be to develop the new paradigm, a foundation useful to us in a milieu where the text, the rock we used to stand on, is proving to be nothing more than sand.

Thank you.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Book of Sand.” Trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. The Book of Sand. New York: Dutton, 1975.

Dick, Philip. Lies, Inc. London: Granada, 1985.

-----. The Unteleported Man. New York: Berkley, 1983 (1966).

Jarvis, Jeff. Interview with David Kline and Dan Burstein. In Blog!: How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture, David Kline and Dan Burstein, ed. New York: CDS Books, 2005.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2002 (1982).