Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Summer Reading: Theory and Criticism

Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction. Although it discusses a lot of fascinating books (and is great for compiling a reading list), Roberts’ account of the commonly accepted history of science fiction (essentially from Shelley and Poe forward) doesn’t add that much new and exciting, and The Cambridge Companion of Science Fiction is still a better book for that general overview. And Roberts’ understanding of gender and science fiction is somewhat weak in comparison to the Cambridge. What’s great about this book though is the convincing case it makes for exploding the belief that science fiction didn’t begin until the 19th century. The survey of science fiction among the ancient Greeks, the disappearance of it during the ascendence of Catholicism, and re-emergence in the 17th century was fascinating and informative. I also felt convinced by his detailed argument about how science fiction re-emerges in the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism, which is not exactly the same as the tension between belief in the heavens as metaphor and belief that outer space is a real material reality, althought the two tendencies are undoubtedly closely related.

T. J. Clark, Farewell To An Idea. There were a lot of things I loved about this book, especially its thoughtful detailing of painting as aesthetic practice that’s also always tied to cultural and political history. I found theoretically persuasive (partly because I’ve long believed it myself) Clark’s claim that painting always struggles both with a relationship to the world and a relationship to the fact of its own manipulable materials (that is, in both cases, the unavoidable problem of the representational status of any constructed art work). For Clark, there’s no such thing as a painting that’s solely about painting or that can unproblematically picture the rest of the world. The historical context he brought to bear on various painters was also fascinating and insightful. The best chapters were the earliest ones on Jacques-Louis David, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cezanne. The chapter on El Lizzitsky and Malevich and the development of Russian communism was also brilliant. Diminishing returns for me started in the chapter on Cubism and grew larger in the chapters first on Pollack then on Abstract Expressionism more generally. What in the earlier chapters had been fascinating re-visiting of the significance of these painters became increasingly tendentious, more determined by the biases of his (genuinely complex) Marxist theoretical perspective. Clark is ultimately not quite capable of developing a convincing case regarding the history of 20th attempts to move beyond conventional representation, tending to see them as isolated moments that end up being dead ends, rather than as part of a whole history of such paintings, one that far from being dead continues to be ongoing. The idea, by the way, that’s being said farewell to in the book’s title is the idea that (fine) art has an important role to play in politics and social change. According to Clark, modernism emerges in the tension between art, politics and culture but also often finds itself saying goodbye to actual stakes in social change while simultaneously reflecting a nostalgic belief that there was a historical moment when it lost this power. Modernism according to Clark is thus often about its own defeated attempt to become socially relevant, and by relevant I mean something that forms a significant partnership with actually political practice and actually foments social change. I did find fascinating the idea that Modernism always dreams of a (past) time when art mattered, but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by it. I also got a kick out of the fact that Clark tries to re-write the value of Abstract Expression by describing it in ways that, to me, make it out to be a kind of proto-flarf. Clark argues that what makes AE still fascinating is not its ideas about representation but its cheap, gaudy vulgarity that thumbs its nose at the tasteful. Convincing, I don’t know, but eye-opening, sure.

Michael Azzerad, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Much more than a fan account, although it’s that too, Azzerad’s book is best at being a cultural history of the 1980s American underground punk/post punk bands that are now called Indie Rock (but were not at the time), beginning with Black Flag and going up through the alt-lifestyle revolution heralded by Beat Happening. The historical moment where the book ends is just prior to the commercial explosion of Nirvana, the creation of the concept of alternative rock, and a new world in which anti-mainstream alternative bands really could make big bucks in a way that had been unthinkable for bands like The Minutemen: a world, that is, in which the idea of “mainstream” and “alternative” became intermingled. Azzerad’s work covers that earlier decade when everybody thought they knew the difference. I was particularly fascinated by the story of what happens when communities create themselves in the hope of being genuine alternatives to the political and cultural repression of mainstream America. Not all the bands discussed here who were part of the environment shared that idea of community; some just wanted to take drugs, get drunk, and play music that ripped apart notions of the acceptable, not to mention more than one eardrum. There’s a lot to be learned here about the possibilities and limitations of imagining such social alternatives and really trying to put them into practice. The book suggests that the pitfalls are many, while also seeing real value in the kinds of communities created by bands like Fugazi who, as in many other accounts, are described here as genuine counterculture heroes as well as sometimes perhaps overly straitlaced moral preachers. Azzerad describes an era I lived through intimately, during the time when I was first publishing my own writing, record reviews in on campus and beyond campus publications in Washington, DC. I realized again how formative for me many of these bands were on the subject of how (and how not to) write about history, culture, and politics. In fact I’m tempted to say that it’s the lessons of this era that make my consciousness (and that of many writers I know) about politics one that seems so at odds with those writers whose came of age in and just after the 60s.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When University Presidents Can't Think: Hamid Shirvani

The gentleman writing the editorial below, Hamid Shirvani (pictured above), is a president of a university in the California State University system where I teach.

I'm amazed, if sadly not surprised, by any number of things in the editorial: the writer’s disdain for graduate schools and academic scholarship generally. The idea that students and professors are not "working" for what we have, and the incredible paternalism of his metaphor: yes, it’s true, faculty and students are children who need mature administrators to tell them when they can and can't have "ice cream." His notion that "privilege enters the conversation" instead of acknowledging that he's the one calling it that. The idea that smaller classes are not necessarily better for students and that they exist just because faculty and students "prefer" them. The idea that faculty are not "productive"--does he or does he not have standards for promotion at his university, and don't faculty have to "produce" in order to meet them? I'm especially amazed by the idea that the "teacher-scholar model" may not lead to "thinkers and makers"--is his implication that people who do not have time to think, and who don't make anything, will be better able to teach others to think and make?

In short, it's an article so full of blatant logical errors, weak metaphors, and unexamined thinking that I doubt very much that it would qualify as "B" level work in most classes I teach that require argumentative writing.

I do think those of us in California need to face a series of hard facts though, and one is, that top level administrators in the CSU system have disdain for critical thinking and the necessity of supporting evidence. They simply believe what they wish to believe and invent supporting evidence. Of course, one excellent model for this behavior is the previous president of the U.S. And with leadership this poor, we wonder why our state, and our country, is having a financial crisis?

And by the way? Your tuition dollars and California taxes are paying him a nice fat salary.

Will a Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?
Chronicle of Higher Education of 10/18/09
By Hamid Shirvani

In the wake of our nation’s economic crisis, previous levels of government support for colleges and universities can no longer be maintained—regardless of how much we in higher education may wish otherwise. States are appropriating less money to higher education not because legislators and the people whom they represent value us less, but because they can afford less. Practical realities will drive what is possible for colleges and universities in the coming years.

The economy has suffered changes so deep and fundamental that institutions cannot just hunker down to weather the storm. The time has come for creative reconstruction. We must summon the courage and will to re-engineer education in ways founded on shared responsibility, demanding hard work and a willingness on the part of everyone involved to let go of “the way it’s always been.”

Much has been written in recent months comparing the problems of higher education with those of the auto industry, and many of the comparisons are apt. Resistance to change in academe has helped create inflexible, unsustainable organizations, just as automobile manufacturers wedded to gas-guzzling models have been unprepared for the demand for smaller, more eco-friendly cars.

Yet American auto manufacturers are no more alone in creating their disastrous present than colleges are in attempting to stare down the budget cuts and dwindling revenues they now face. In both instances, inflated consumer demand has created an expectation of elements once considered “extras”: MP3 players and GPS navigation systems in new cars, country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors, however narrow, at colleges. People feel entitled to things that were once considered luxuries. And that sense of entitlement—among students, parents, faculty members, and administrators—has driven expansion in higher education beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Coupled with such growing demands has come an expectation that, as the costs of education rise, government should absorb them. That is no longer possible or desirable. We are moving into an era in which all participants must help bear the costs, direct and indirect, of the privilege of higher education.

As soon as the word “privilege” enters the conversation, people bring up the subject of access, with the implication that if something is a privilege, only privileged people will enjoy it. But in America, access to higher education is unparalleled. No other country has so many fully accredited colleges or has provided such widespread access to student financial aid.

Instead, we should view the privilege of a higher education much as we did the privileges that we enjoyed as children. We knew we couldn’t get ice cream if we didn’t help wash the dishes—we worked for the privileges that we enjoyed, and we shared in the responsibility of earning them. Those special activities were available to us, but we did not enjoy them as a “right.” We were expected to contribute.

We can only hope that today’s harsh economic realities have finally broken the stranglehold of the sense of entitlement about higher education and brought people back down to earth. The reality is that higher education is expensive, and students and their families will be asked to pay an ever-larger share of the costs. Although annual increases in tuition have diminished recently, tuition is still rising faster than inflation.

But the issues are complex and, again, the notion of shared responsibility comes sharply into focus. While students and their families will have to pay more, administrators and faculty members must also work together to offer affordable, effectively delivered educational products and services. With budgets being cut and staff members being laid off or facing a reduced number of workdays, employees in higher education must become more productive.

Cutting costs is not enough. We need to break down expectations based on entitlement and focus on educational productivity and outcomes. Institutions should review redundancies, rethink staffing models, and streamline business practices. Productivity measures should be applied in all areas. In the same way that secondary schools are being challenged to consider longer school days and an extended academic year, we in higher education need to revisit basic assumptions about how we deliver higher education to students. We should not be tied to any one model or structure.

For example, we should re-evaluate the notion that large classes are inherently pedagogically unsound. What both students and faculty members tend to prefer—small classes—is not the only educationally effective approach. Although no one would advocate for large classes in every discipline or instance, we should review what we do in light of new financial contingencies, while keeping an eye on what students learn.

Similarly, at many institutions, it may make more sense for professors to teach more and do less governance and committee work. Faculty members must make education more productive, even if it means sacrificing work in other areas, which, while important, are not central to our primary educational mission.

Colleges and universities should focus more on degree completion, not just on how many students enroll. That does not mean “teaching to the test,” but rather paying more attention to student success and seeking more and better ways that faculty members can support and guide students inside and outside the classroom.

Indeed, in light of the growing demand for a better-prepared work force, we need to revisit undergraduate education as a whole. We should re-examine the teacher/scholar model, for instance. Is it appropriate for every institution? Does that model really produce what it is supposed to: thinkers and makers, learned and professionally skilled graduates?

In addition, we should re-evaluate the relationship and the balance between graduate and undergraduate education. It is too easy to overlook the ever-increasing specialization of graduate programs, in which professors happily replicate students in their own, often narrow, interests, focusing on limited knowledge. Particularly in the graduate arena, not every program is sacred.

We in higher education must determine what we do best and what is reasonable and possible. We should separate legitimate aspirations and a drive toward excellence from the costly and often fruitless pursuit of higher status—which may feed egos but is beyond the reasonable prospects of many institutions. Not every college can be on a top-20 list. Not every college or university can be a Research I institution. Not every regional institution should aspire to national status.

In an era when pragmatism must prevail, those of us in higher education must come to grips with the idea that we can opt out of college rankings and national recognition without doing damage to the fundamental value of the education that we offer to the students whom we serve.

Government, of course, needs to be a part of this process, and taxpayers must be reminded of their shared responsibility for public education. But the only way that we can persuade them to invest in higher education is to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency, openness, and accountability.

Every constituency involved in our educational enterprise bears responsibility for earning the privileges that access to higher education in this country offers. For students, that means the hard work of studying to be prepared for college. For faculty members, that means the hard work of teaching more to enjoy the benefits of the academic life. For administrators, that means the hard work of reconsidering our educational models and structures in order to enjoy the privileges of being engaged in our noble profession.

In an era of less government support and fewer family resources, colleges will emerge stronger and more nimble—ready to provide an accessible and excellent education to those who are prepared to take advantage of that privilege—only if we all embrace the notion of true transformation. Shared responsibility means that we must take a harder look at what education needs to accomplish for society as a whole and then rise above our own special interests for the greater good.

Hamid Shirvani is president of California State University-Stanislaus.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anne Boyer’s new review blog: Books of Poetry

While I’m still finishing up my final round of Summer Quick Takes (coming next week), I wanted to point those of you who don’t already know about it to Anne Boyer’s excellent new book review blog, Books of Poetry.

So far, Anne’s reviews have been tremendously insightful and lively, very much like her poetry. Not quite standard full-length reviews, but longer and more developed than my own recent Quick Takes, Anne’s reviews also raise important issues about what’s going on in contemporary poetry while providing helpful information about some of the most exciting recently published books.

Her emphasis on reviewing books of poetry by women writers makes the blog a particularly useful forum for writers, readers, students, and teachers. A class I’m currently teaching, Studies in Contemporary Literature, asks all the students to review one book of contemporary literature, and Anne’s blog is an excellent resource for finding books worthy of reading and receiving further reviews.

Authors whose books Anne has reviewed include Anne Waldman, Ann Lauterbach, Alice Notley, David Lau, Renee Gladman, Shanna Compton, Susana Gardner, Rebecca Wolf, Stacy Szymaszek, Gina Myers, K. Lorraine Graham, Sandra Simonds, and Cathy Eisenhower. That’s quite a list. Thanks, Anne.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part three)

Anne Tardos, I Am You. This book is another example of the fact that far from being exhausted, avant garde poetics continues to have many directions (and dare I say it, hybrids) to explore. This book is truly avant garde confessional in a way like no other, with the language theory and lyrical, emotional elements simultaneously working together and unraveling each other’s certainty. In the face of the honesty of this book, most other poems seem dishonest, like they’re trying to prove something that even they don’t believe in. At times this book’s honesty is so searing because Tardos knows so much about how the dishonest lurks within the honest, and vice versa.

I also greatly enjoyed the more familiar (to me at least) aesthetic extremism of Tardos’ The Dik-dik’s Solitude (New & Selected Works). Multiple languages, nonsense and sense, high tech and a concern for animals and the physical world. The poems and word games and visual art in this book never let any mode remain settled for too long.

Joe Ross, Strata. I’d read some of these poems in a chapbook from several years ago, and it was fun to encounter them again along with some others I hadn’t seen as a book from Dusie Press. Subtle lyric poems with surprising twists on the level of the line and in ideas. By turns political, philosophical, concerned with beauty and details of the daily, the poems reveal a searching, always restless intelligence and sensitivity.

Nicholas Manning, Novaless. I wish I’d had this much talent at this poet’s age, or at any age as a matter of fact. Seems like a bit of a Gustaf Sobin influence (or at least similarity) on the fragmented bits of line and angular changes of direction, although not in the spacing on the page, and reflective like Sobin too but not with a set of concerns that resemble his at all. Grand philosophical questions of time and space often balanced among more ordinary life conundrums, including the problems that result from emotional projections about others. These are poems deeply tuned also to the possibilities and limitations of the attempt of language to get at the world. If you haven’t heard of Nicholas Manning yet, I think you will soon enough.

Joseph Mosconi, Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band. This limited edition hardcover poetry/art book is a worthwhile addition to the history of concrete and visual poems. One poem to a page, with each poem only a few oversized words in variously odd juxtapositions. The minimalism recalls Aram Saroyan but the ideas in the poems do not. Some poems actually create a brief surrealist image, others link words together in ways that frustrate attempts to define a clear image. Some of the poems, through their absurdity, imply a range of just offstage political and social abuses. There’s a great deal of humor here but it’s in the service of serious issues.

A Helen Adam Reader, ed. Kristin Prevallet. I’ve long been a big fan of Helen Adam’s work, and I’m lucky enough to have copies of the now hard to find Selected Poems & Ballads and Ghosts and Grinning Shadows, but this book is a much bigger gathering of Adam’s work than has existed before. Prevallet’s well-researched and carefully detailed introduction tells the story of Adam’s writing and life with focus and precision. The book contains correspondence and commentary, prose and interviews and facsimiles of original editions with drawings, as well as a DVD of some Adam’s readings and visual art. The whole package is really quite wonderful. The main highlight of course is Adam’s poems themselves. Mystical, sexually charged, and often in Scottish dialect, the poems present a world where violence, sexuality and loss are forever intertwined in a landscape that’s mythological and gothic simultaneously. I advise people not to read more than two or three Adam’s poems at a time. Each one evokes a powerfully beautiful and unsettling mood that tends to blur and smear if one tries to read them more quickly. A Helen Adam Reader is now the single essential text of this remarkable writer, and cliche or not, no full understanding of 20th century American poetry is possible without it. Thank you, Kristin, for putting it all together.

Monday, October 5, 2009

This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like

The discussion forum “This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like” is now up at the Delirious Lapel website, a connected side project of the ongoing feminist forum website Delirious Hem.

Danielle Pafunda invited me to co-host this special satellite to the Delirious Hem project after an online discussion regarding my blog post on Post-Millenial Feminist Poetry back in May, and it has been a great experience. As I say in our brief co-introduction to the forum, I’ve never before been involved in a large scale public discussion among men about feminism, and I think the opportunity to do so has been very important. I really had no idea what any of these men was going to say.

The co-introduction written by Danielle and me also discusses briefly the reason that the forum came to have the name it does. Let’s hope though that people actually spend their time thinking about issues other than the basic descriptive terms.

A few new essays a day will go online between now and Friday October 9, at which point I hope the discussion will continue to extend.

I hope you’ll check it out and respond with your thoughts, either after the essays themselves, at the introduction or, if for some reason you prefer it, here on my blog, although I very much hope you’ll respond over there.

And if you comment about it or link to it on your own blog, will you let me and Danielle know?