Thursday, 20 April 2017

There Are No Lessons Here: A Response To Deirdre Coyle's 'Men Recommend David Foster Wallace To Me'

If you ask people what books they have read, they will often list some familiar titles: ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘Lord of the Flies’. A good enough list, but they were often read at school. Some people will cheerfully admit that they haven’t read anything since. Some people won’t, but haven’t. I don’t judge people for that, I haven’t done a bunch of algebra since school. What concerns me here is that this creates a bogus impression of reading: the impression that didacticism is the purpose of fiction writing, that every book is in some way intended to teach us something.

On this view, Steinbeck wrote ‘Of Mice and Men’ to teach us not to be cruel to the disabled, Lee wrote ‘Mocking Bird’ to warn us against discrimination and Golding wrote ‘Lord of the Flies to teach us not to be bullies. The other implicit conclusion of this line of thought is that if somebody hands you a book they are trying to become your teacher.

Deirdre Coyle, a writer for ‘Electric Lit’ published a piece called ‘Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me’. As a person who: a) is a man, and b) has recommended David Foster Wallace to people, my friend sent it to me in the spirit of provocation. I worry that it suffers from this thinking.

The picture that emerged from Coyle’s writing about people like me was, unfortunately for my ego, merciless. The men she discusses are, in the worst examples, ghastly, stunted individuals. One appears to have sexually assaulted her with a quantity of cocaine. In general, broad strokes the picture emerges that these men are found in, “Small, liberal arts colleges” which are a, “spawning ground for Wallace fans”. The language used to describe the men, “spawn”, indicates a sense that all these men are fundamentally incomplete, not yet fully adult. They are characterised as students and not workers, boyfriends but not fathers. They “persevere after college”, true, but as what? Presumably still as spawn, never to become frogs, let alone princes.

This is not, however, the substance of her argument. The real point is that Coyle thinks that men recommend this writer to her in order to try to teach her something. But is this true? Much of the solitary book by Foster Wallace she discusses in depth, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, presents the titular monsters holding forth on sexual politics, rape, consent, seduction. In particular relation to this and to Wallace’s depictions in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” of sexual assault, she asks:

“But why have so many men been so insistent that I should read his work? What do they think Wallace has to teach me?”

The first part of this question is extremely good. The second half is, to my mind fatal to her argument. I am going to try and say why I think that is, and in the process hopefully answer the first part.

It is a complete straw man to suggest that Wallace wrote, and that all readers of Wallace who recommend him do so, in order to teach. Wallace’s work, especially “Infinite Jest” expresses an extreme scepticism about the value of many types of teaching, and academics often appear as villains and tormentors. Not only this, it’s wrong to think that everybody who offers a book does so in order to teach the recipient a lesson, let alone a lesson about sexual assault. The unspoken assumption of Coyle's argument is that art always tries to teach us something. Worse, it is taken for granted that recommending art to somebody is done in the spirit of teaching a lesson.

So why does she continually meet men who insist that she read him? One answer to the first half of the question, could be ‘In order to teach her something’. It’s possible. In that case it is fair to say that these men are acting like dickheads, unless they are actually teaching a course that she has submitted to learn on. It is, however, equally plausible that they feel something and want to share that feeling with somebody to whom they feel close. This sharing of a particular mood seems to me to be of the first order of critical functions, many leagues ahead of the pedagogical. It also, naturally, involves tact, which would have been a more persuasive line of enquiry.

There is no universally beloved work of art. I have friends with whom I would watch Von Trier films, and friends with whom I would not watch Von Trier films. Likewise Herzog. Likewise bands like The Body and Boredoms. It would end some friendships pretty quickly if I started booking tickets to the wrong things. This has to do with knowing what sort of moods you can meaningfully share with which people. It would end friendships with similar speed if I handed people the story from “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” where one of the aforementioned Hideous Men asks the unspeaking interviewer, “What if I did it to you? Right here? Raped you with a bottle?”, in part of a passage quoted at great length in the article, without context. This is not because I imagine they would misinterpret the writer’s intention as approving of the superficial sentiment - in an era of content warnings ‘Hideous Men’ in block capitals is about as clear as you can get without going into details - but rather because they wouldn’t enjoy it. It would be tactless of me. This would have to take precedence over the shared experience of both having read the same stuff. But I still hold that we share things in order to connect more deeply with those we care about, but we have to be sensitive to what they won’t enjoy. More succinctly, as a friend put it, “‘Read this, it will make you feel bad but I will feel less lonely’, isn’t a compelling argument”.

That is a fair challenge to the point I am making about connection, but I think it misreads the intention. What I want to do is distinguish between making arguments and claims to truth as we do when we teach, and sharing a mood as we do when we enjoy art. A recommendation of a work of art is the offering of a pathway to a particular mood. The study of emotional states and the artifacts which induce them is aesthetics, and although there are political and pedagogical consequences from this, the shared experience of meaning is of prime importance.

Thinking that someone might enjoy a book is one reason to recommend it to them, but not a reason that book is right. It is not even clear that true and false or right and wrong usually obtains in the aesthetic domain. Coyle’s objections seem to rely a great deal on the assumption that the men who recommend Wallace to her believe he is right and true and good and are trying to teach her about these right, true, and good things. If this is the case, she can prosecute them for priggishness and didacticism. To reject a shared experience, on the other hand, because you either don’t like that person or you anticipate the experience will create a mood you don’t enjoy, is the stuff of everyday life. I don’t mean ‘everyday’ and therefore worthless; I mean ‘everyday’ and therefore of central importance.

There are, therefore, two possible reasons for rejecting the recommendation, and this second is the more important. It appears that she has focused on the first, the assumption that ‘men’ are trying to teach her something, and rightly identified it as something troubling. I agree. If we stop passing meaningful objects along to one another for any reason other than teaching, some important part of our humanity has been lost.

I don’t feel like it is overstating it to say that people can only bear existing because we can share our experiences even in very terrible times. In the worst times in history people sang songs, wrote books and performed plays. Friendship, in particular, involves shared experiences of great meaning to the participants that can seem incomprehensible to outsiders. Imagine, for example, the endlessly creative in-jokes of teenagers. Each friendship therefore involves and requires a gradual initiation into each individual’s sacred artefacts: we bring out our favourite albums, novels that changed us. We expose them to the light, blow the dust off them and say earnestly, ‘I resonate to this’.

It's true that if someone offered Coyle the experience of Wallace in order to ‘teach her about rape’ then that is fucked up. I do find it strange however, that with no evident provocation, she seems to imagine that people write and recommend in order to teach things to one another. Perhaps the evidence for this was cut for reasons of space, but as it stands it seems a little like assuming I would invite you to see “Fast and Furious 8” to teach you about cars. Coyle makes the point well that we need to examine our motives for this. Do we recommend artworks, even containing extreme material to one another in order to look smart, or tough, or superior? If we do, then shame on us.

There is another possibility, though. Our motives can be of more benign, even if they are confusingly mixed in with this first, corrupted sort.  We could be seeking to become, in a small way, less lonely in a world that can be breathtakingly callous and unthinkingly cruel. The strange mixture of this and 'lesson teaching' is something we all need to deal with.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

"Helping the Kids Know the Stuff" or The Perverse Pleasure of Contributing Nothing of Value

Welcome to the Institute of the Crushingly Blatant Truism -

"We help the kids know more stuff."

"We teach them the things."

"In my class they learn difficult things which I help them understand".

Oh good, oh wow, oh you mean absolutely obviously everything one would expect? What a relief. What a blessing. What a bleeding touch. With that sort of clarity your thoughts obviously flow like a crystal river. Verily.

Friendly phrases designed to stupefy and baffle: "you don't object to clever stuff do you?" Oh you mean stuff? Of course not, why didn't you say so? One wouldn't possibly want to disagree with that.

Hovering just in the wings of all discussions lurks the second man of the intellect, the understudy of wisdom, the friendly phrase, the homily, the truism. Well ram 'im. Just because solid, square shouldered statements like "100%, no excuses" look great on a massive banner hung in reception doesn't mean they mean a chocolate drop on a hot pavement.

I ask them to put a little meat on the carcass they waltz around with and they blink.

"We are giving them knowledge for life," they say,  and they blink.

Oh you hollow men, oh you less than nothings, prance off a cliff with your corpse bride of ossified horse sense. Asinine, obvious dispensers of comfort to the already crushed: notice is served.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Signs and Wonders

We are witnessing a political class in the process of meltdown and it is a sign and a wonder.

Literally all Burnham had to do was break the rules. The public demanded opposition to the welfare bill. The government did not care if it was opposed or not. In fact, they probably quite enjoy the punch up. So the grass roots of socialism in this country were not silenced by a thought police but - mirabile dictu - their own party. And Burnham would not refuse the orders of his high commander.

It was this, open rebellion, that he could not do - and it was this that Corbyn could. Indeed, the new heir apparent has done little else these last three decades. Rousseau wrote that the first rule is always to know when the rules do not apply. The meaning of leadership, in certain circumstances, is to do what nobody else will. Here, however, Burnham's allegiance to his party's systems may have cost him and his (well-funded) campaign final victory.

In this Burnham is very much in a tradition. He is that twenty first century phenomenon, the "Systems Guy". Systems Guy does what he should, not what he wants. Systems Guy knows that if he follows the rules the system will protect him. Systems Guy says procedure. Systems Guy says " there is a time and a place".

The problem is that the public are not buying it. Try telling a generation of young people who were promised that being polite leads to working hard leads to university degree leads to good job leads to home ownership about the System.

"Student Loans" they reply. "House Prices" they reply. "Underemployment" they say.

When you have spent four years doing contract work six months of the year and then other six months chasing those contracts with no rest until you are broken and exhausted and do not know how you are going to eat, all because you believed Systems Guys, watch how your tolerance for his errant nonsense plummets.

The public has learned the hard way to distrust Burnham's narrative, the narrative that says "patience, once you have the job/house/degree we can start to change things". We know what we want and we want it now. Hence we vote for people who speak to us where we stand, not good boys and girls queuing up for their go at the big job.

The truth is that the Labour Party created this situation. They created it mainly with years of disdain for the public. They called the public racist, ignorant plebs who did not know their own interests and as the pendulum swings they still claim we are on the other side of the parabola. Like some cracked Jay Gatsby, Blair shows up in his beautiful shirts trying to turn back the clock but the clock shows midnight. The hell with their poxy machine, I am not greasing it.

All you had to do, Burnham, was show us which side you were on.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Johnny Can't Read

"Teachers today frequently find that students who can't read a page of history are becoming experts in code"

Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media" pp.229

Everyone gets really hot about literacy rates. Ask people why and the same answer is thrown up again and again: Attention span! Yes yes, apparently it is all a question of working memory. (Engle 2002, Bosse and Valdois 2009 etc. etc.). It is an idea which has entered the public consciousness. Why don't we read? Smartphones! Google! This is also an idea which has been picked up during our present cognitive turn in education.

The question which this debate stands to leave aside is: what if attention spans are poor because the task is boring?

"Johnny can't read because reading, as customarily taught, is too superficial and consumerlike an activity...The problem is not that Johnny can't read but that, in an age of depth involvement, Johnny can't visualize distant goals"

- ibid. my emphasis

The Inattentive Reader - Henri Matisse
At this point it is traditional to haul out somebody who frequently reads five Victorian novels in an afternoon to make everybody feel bad. In this way the social norm is asserted and we can go back to skimming the abstracts of those papers we are sure somebody read. (Sure they did: ten of them in fact). 

We need to get rid of the idea of reading-as-engrossment. Reading is in fact an extremely precarious activity. When reading, we linger permanently on the edge of distraction. This is a fact reinforced by a painting called "The Inattentive Reader" by Henri Matisse which one of my teachers, in their wisdom, hung in the English Department common room at UCL's Foster Court.

In fact, the truth is that reading was always pretty superficial as an activity. In Pride and Prejudice, set at the heyday of the novel, Elizabeth Bennett sits on the edge of a conversation reading a novel with half an ear on the conversation. Eventually she drops the book and wanders over to join the party. Bingley's sister, when she tries to impress Darcy by declaring "How much sooner one tires of anything than a book!" is regarded with major side-eye as a fake-ass bitch. To Austen, reading is just a diversion: Mr Bennett uses it to escape from his wife, the girls to escape from tedium. A trip to a theme park of imagination it ain't. 

This is not an isolated event. Tolstoy's Levin in Anna Karenina is described as reading vaguely whilst his housekeeper gossips happily at him. It doesn't seem to bother either of them. My point is that reading is a gleefully, openly consumerist activity which when done well involves no real engrossment at all.

Sorry what was that about attention spans? I wasn't listening.
It is not that we are too superficial to read but rather not superficial enough. "Johnny", as McLuhan argues, is living in an age of "depth involvement". He is not distracted too easily but rather he demands too absolute an engrossment. The "Call of Duty" series demands a level of concentration that Austen would simply not have comprehended. To expect a book to be able to provide this is bonkers, and yet this is what those who are all-in on reading-as-engrossment peddle.

Reading-as-engrossment carries with it a set of cultural assumptions that are culturally assimilated at university and earlier: Reading is study. Reading is hard. Reading is concentrating. Reading is work.

Yet if students are interested in anything it is a kind of digital cataclysm, the onrushing clash of colour and sound provided by an IMAX, and XBOX and many other things with an "X" in them. It is this which has perfected "engrossment" and "depth involvement". It is hard work to play these games, and it requires concentration. These provide the impression, according to McLuhan, of emergence from the gaping maw of "superficiality" and "consumerism" in search for authenticity; this occurs even as we plunge deeper into the belly of the whale itself. Simply put, the students feel as if reading is not hard enough to be important, because that is what we have taught them.

It may be a tragic consequence of the quest for "realness" that just this depth involvement could prove to be consumerism perfected. 

Perhaps then what we need as teachers is to make a virtue of our weakness: superficiality and artifice, the very "fakeness" of reading, its precarious status as a diversion and a pastime may well be, as the advertisers like to say, its Unique Selling Point. 

It is not shameful to spend an hour on a single page. There is nothing wrong with "glancing" or "skimming" or "flicking-through". Why are we always supposed to be mining the smithy of our souls? Why does boredom have to reflect badly on us? What if poetry could be recaptured as Byronic "hours of idleness" rather than a sort of grimly determined ploughing for poetic features? What if we stopped talking about "getting into a book" and instead thought about literacy as something which returns us to, rather than keeps us from, the party?

(To be continued)

Monday, 18 May 2015

A Sonnet to Thor

My student is writing a sonnet about Thor. Mine was about Batman, but it was only meant as an example. However, he took to the idea. Specifically he took to the idea and defected to the dread banner of Marvel like a LITTLE JUDAS.

But I forgive him that.

There is a bit of an error with the scanning in the second quatrain but it is eminently fixable.

I lost my example sonnet "On Batman" because I was shutting down the computer too quickly. I don't care because it wasn't very good and now scholars can debate over it like Coleridge's never completed first draft of "Kubla Khan". I do not mourn it!

No really, though, the Thor sonnet is pretty great.

It makes me think as well that the idea of "trendy" versus "traditional" teaching is a crock of shit. I mean, here is a kid from inner London who has written a Shakespearian sonnet about a thousands-of-years old Norse God because he watched a film written by the bloke who did "Buffy".

I cannot, as they say, even.

Bleat as some will about cultural capital and heritage, Thor is an authentic honest to pagan-god mega story and Marvel's myth game is tight. And a sonnet is something real. What I like about poetic forms is they have the imperious certainty of Mathematics. You don't get something that's a "bit sonnety", it either is or it isn't. Petrarchan? Naw I did a Spenserian.

But as for the topic? Choose on old chap, plenty more creepily Wagnerian power players to pick from. Do Parsifal next! Or Hawkeye, sure, Hawkeye is good too. It makes no difference to me.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Continuing Adventure of the USS Entitlement

Status is Butthurt

"They're hailing us sir."

"On screen."



"Stop. Bombing. Our. Faces."

"They're deploying testimony of their suffering sir."

"Raise privilege shields, all powers to the railroad cannons, change course for a new subject"

"Plotting a course for the Tone sector now"

"The privilege shields are holding, capitain"

"Good, maintain opinions."

Based on an original idea by Zara @phdisabled

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Desire to Learn and Abuse

There is such a thing as a culture of abusive behaviour. The impact of this upon the world of ideas is of prime importance. If we tolerate it, or even participate in it, whose responsibility is it to deal with the outcomes? When this is introduced to the learning situation, are we taking moral risks by downplaying the outcomes.

Certain things need to take place before we learn. We need to express our ideas in some form and witness some sort of response to them. As R.S. Peters puts it:

“People learn by committing themselves and finding out where they are mistaken. Much can be done to anticipate criticisms by rehearsals in the imagination. But there is a sense in which no one quite knows what he thinks or feels until he has made a view his own by identifying himself with it and defending it in public. "
Ethics and Education, page 59 

What, then, presents us from doing this? 

Many things: absence, illness, a sprained wrist. However, these are failings of the objective kind, not failings of the subjective kind, such as failings of motivation.

However, I don't think many of us even know well what motivation is, let alone motivation to learn. Imagine you have an essay to write. How long does it take you to settle down to write it? Is the time spent motivating yourself part of the writing or not? At least one writer I know says that the work is all the time when he is not writing. I am not even convinced that "motivation" is the right word. Desire has to come into it somewhere, and desire can be blocked, frustrated, destructive. In other words it is an obscure, slightly terrifying thing. 

Then there are the obstacles that makes us want to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed. Amongst these obstacles, which is to say the objective causes rather than the covers themselves, is abuse and mistreatment.

This leads me to my topic: how I believe bullying connects to failures in student desire to learn and, therefore, student capacity to learn. As a Head of Year my job is to maintain a pastoral environment where students can keep themselves in a mental state fit for learning. It was therefore very distressing to hear that my efforts to get children to treat each other well were actually preventing them from entering into intellectual debate and conversation.

Yet this is precisely what think tank boss Claire Fox said at the London Festival of Education, in a debate about "grit" as an educational outcome:

"If you want to encourage grit in schools get rid of anti-bullying programmes. We are taking the grit out of kids and we could do with backing off."

Coincidentally, this happened the same month that J.K. Simmons won the best supporting actor Oscar for this performance in Whiplash.

Presumably Claire Fox thinks that Miles Teller's young drummer in this film shouldn't make a fuss over his verbal mistreatment at the hands of this particular teacher. IN fairness, Fox did not advocate slapping students in the face, but I wonder where she would draw the line? Following her talk one delegate questioned her and she seemed to draw the line between action and speech. This is massively problematic, ignoring as it does decades of research into the relation between speech and act by thinkers as diverse as Searle, Austin and Wittgenstein.

Looking back as Simmons incredibly performance I was like many people forced to ask, have we as a culture got the ideal of what school can be wrong? After all, if this doesn't make Teller's young drummer formidably gritty, what will?

To this I wish to contrast R.S. Peters' view of the "teaching situation" as initiation, if only to prove that it is possible to believe, as Peters did, in high standards, excellence and tradition without becoming the type of monster (and I believe he is a monster) Simmons portrays:

"Especially in the early stages of initiation, he must not be brutal in applying them to the halting or misdirected ventures of his pupils. For that would be to disregard how such a contribution looks to its author, to trample on another’s inchoate formulation of what he thinks and feels. ...To take a hatchet to a pupil’s contribution before he has much equipment to defend it, is not only likely to arrest or warp his growth in this form of thought; it is also to be insensitive to him as a person.

R.S. Peters - Ethics and Education page 59, my emphasis

The growth of our selves as it is facilitated by education depends very much on how we are treated as people. I know that Fox believes that we should make an "absolute" distinction between words and actions, but that hardly makes things simpler. The "taking a hatchet to" a student's offerings could after all be physical or verbal. The point is whether the intention is to destroy what that personality has created, their tentative contribution to thought.

This leads us back to the territory of motivation to learn. In "Whiplash", Simmons' character says that a "great" person "wouldn't get discouraged" by sustained mistreatment in an institution which tolerated bullying. Leaving aside whether this is true or not (and the ending of the film certainly leaves the question more open than it appears, to my mind), it does not apply to the job of the school teacher.

Children are not at school to become "greats". They have not had the chance to state that expectation and even if they had, they are not in a position to assume responsibility for that declaration. Rather, they are there to begin initiation in many forms of thinking, the vast majority of which they will not pursue through to canonical greatness. Indeed, if we were to make that the criteria of success, all but a few polymaths in history have been miserable failures. We require a richer view of success than Simmons' character espouses in Whiplash, and this is why is is so important to understand the aims of education before wading in as Fox did.

Thus, implying that very young people need to steel themselves against mistreatment is a position totally ignorant of where they are in their journey through life. They do not have the "equipment" to defend their contribution to the world of ideas. That is before we even begin to think of the psychological damage bullying does: I am merely trying to take Fox's contribution to a debate about education in its own terms.

There is nothing more certain to deny access to the world of concepts, then robbing children of the desire to gain that access. We are, as thinkers, in a paradoxical situation where access can only be granted through making a contribution to that world and then having it delivered back to us. It is therefore the case that encouraging a culture of brutal hatchet jobs will starve the future of contributors other than those drawn from a rarefied group of "hard nuts". 

The consequences of that for equality and diversity in our institutions could be ruinous.