Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Thence to a Lightness: the Madness of English 201

Friday, February 15th, 2013

I teach at a community college in Lower Manhattan. Whatever, it’s fine. Really. This isn’t going to be a post about grade inflation, or political correctness, or how the kids come out of high school not knowing anything. For the most part, the only disadvantage to teaching at a school full of inner-city kids when compared with the schools I’ve taught at full of suburban kids is that I can’t explain everything with Simpsons references. Admittedly, that took a lot of getting used to, but it’s my problem, not theirs.

Mostly, I teach English 201—the required intro lit class. The one where everyone has to write research papers about literature. I love teaching that class. My only complaint about it is the fact that it shouldn’t exist.

Seriously. Why should a bunch of people who want to be nurses or mechanics or EMTs have to write 15-page research papers on Shakespeare or Joyce? And I’m not stereotyping them when I say those are the jobs they want to have. I know because I asked them, and they told me. And then I busted them all for plagiarism, because my job revolves around forcing them to do something they are not capable of doing and then acting surprised when they can’t.

Hang on. I’m not saying Great Literature is useless, or elitist, or whatever. I agree that they should have to read these books, and I’m the first one to say that they’re all capable of understanding and liking them. No-one should graduate from college without being able to name at least one poem that they love, or being able to exit a party in embarrassment and then make themselves laugh by saying “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Reading literature really does enrich everyone’s life, no matter what the person in question wants to do for the rest of that life. Writing about literature, however, is not the same thing as reading it. Not everyone needs to know how to do that. In fact, almost no-one does. We don’t make people who want to be professors learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine, so why do we make people who want to be mechanics learn how to review a body of scholarship, pick out relevant quotations, and format them properly as citations and sources in support of an argumentative thesis?

Yes, I know that everyone has opinions, and that it is a duty of education to train people to make sure their opinions are well-supported and develop a sense of where those opinions fit in along a continuum of the opinions of experts on the subject. But there is already a class where we teach people to do that—it’s called English 101 (at most schools). We already make freshman take a class where they write research papers about sociopolitical issues (abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, etc.) and have to incorporate and format quotations from authorities in support of their opinion. That’s fine. But then—for some reason—there’s almost always another required course right after that one where we make them do the exact same thing all over again, but this time with literature.

And that, in my opinion, is pointless for everyone who doesn’t want to be an academic.

The reason we’ve never stopped to consider this is that, deep down, we think that everybody secretly wants to be an academic. But they don’t, and for perfectly good reasons. All things considered, we’re the crazy ones, not them. And we need to let go of the egotistical idea that what we are trying to do here is “rescue” people from having to have jobs where they get their hands dirty. Lots of people want to have those jobs, the same way we wanted to be English professors. We’ve been acting on the assumption that everyone really wants to have our job, and that anyone who doesn’t end up with it has been screwed over by society. But that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of people, working-class or otherwise, would rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick than our job. It’s like the old joke where the reason the Boy Scout took so long to help the little old lady across the street is because she didn’t want to go.

Let’s take a step back here, and examine how we got into this mess.

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.

The first idea is good, but by the time you get up to step four, what’s going on isn’t good anymore. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish Step 1 without ending up at the lunacy of Step 4.

When I say this is a tragedy, I mean that literally. That’s what a tragedy is: the beginning is normal, the end is horrible, and you got from the beginning to the end by a series of small steps that all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time.

I keeping telling my students that literature isn’t a secret code that they have to figure out—that the only point is to enjoy it, the same way you do with a movie or a song that you like. The problem with that is, the way I have to grade their papers makes a liar out of me, because a paper that says “I really enjoyed this story by Raymond Carver or Isabel Allende” inevitably gets a lower grade than one that says “I figured out all the hidden references in this story by James Joyce or all the philosophical stuff in this one by Jorge Luis Borges.” So while you may not have to regard the study of literature as an exercise in code-breaking to have a favorite book, the students who do gravitate towards seeing it that way usually end up getting the best grades. I know, because that’s what I did as a student, and now I’m an English professor. But not everyone is like me. If everyone were like me, the world would be an utterly insufferable place in which to live, no matter how many great books there were.

And our attempts at inclusiveness have just made matters worse. Somewhere ’round about the 90s, we decided that required intro courses should reward directions-following instead of (or at least, more so than) rewarding talent. So instead of handing out good grades based on brilliant theses or eloquent prose, we started handing out good grades based on thorough research and correct formatting. That may be a fairer shake for people who weren’t born with big fat literature centers in their brains, but the problem is, it’s also utter madness. Because at this point, what you’ve got on your hands is a required course where the majority of a student’s final grade is based on their adherence to a set of skills that absolutely no-one besides an academic would never need—and the double irony is, anyone who is actually going to become an academic probably placed out of the course to begin with.

So all this accomplished was to significantly augment the craziness of the first series of steps, because now it looks like this:

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.
5. If we grade the papers based on talent, it’s not fair.
6. So instead, we grade them based on adherence to a template that is useless to everyone but academics, which these students are never going to be.

I once taught at a college where, instead of a paper, the final for the required intro lit-based comp course was an exam—standardized across the sections, and required by the department—that obligated the students to memorize citation format. That’s right—memorize it. A sample question would look something like “Below is all the publication/copyright information for a piece of microfilm. How would you format an in-text citation to this piece of microfilm in MLA standards? How would you do it by APA standards?” No-one who isn’t an academic would ever need to know how to do this, and besides, anyone who is an academic could just look up how to do it in about ten seconds. There’s absolutely no need for anyone, including academics, to memorize it. But anyone who failed this exam failed the course, which they then had to take over and over again until they passed in order to graduate. Oh, and did I mention that this college was a hospitality trade school for people who want to be chefs and hotel managers?

How in the world did we get from “it is good for people to read books” to this?

Oh, well—we have no choice, right? Like hell we don’t. You know what I think we should do instead? Keep having a required intro lit course where we make people read books, but don’t make them write any papers. Base the entire grade on participation in class discussion. If some students want to write papers for extra credit, they can, but they don’t have to be research papers. That’s it. We read great short stories and poems, plus a play or a novel, and we all show up and talk about them, and no-one has to write a god damned thing. If you think that sounds too easy, and like a “joke” class, just remember why we’re in this business. We became English professors in the first place because we think it’s vitally important for everyone to read literature, right? Well, if that’s really what we believe, then why should we feel like a class where that’s all we make anybody do would be a joke?

Everyone would still be reading great works, they’d still have to prove they read them by talking in class, they’d get to read more of them because every day would be a discussion on a text with no days lost to technical lessons about how to write papers, and they could still be graded based on participation. The only difference would be that the students would actually have a chance of enjoying the texts, because they’d be reading them for pleasure instead of in terror over what grade they’re going to get on the writings they’d eventually have to do about them.

Oh, and we wouldn’t have to grade papers. Ever.

You Shouldn’t Let Other People Get Your Kicks for You

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.

………………………………—William Butler Yeats

There’s only two types of people in the world:
The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.

………………………………—Britney Spears


Like a lot of people, I still have my ticket stub from every concert I’ve ever been to, from Paul McCartney at Giants Stadium when I was twelve, to Bruuuuce doing Born to Run in its entirety at the Spectrum last October.  My November ’93 stub from Nirvana at the bygone New York Coliseum got so soggy in my pocket as I sweated through my jeans that it’s unreadable, but I know what it is.  The regular-piece-of-paper-with-a-big-bar-code-on-it ones from shows where you purchase tix online and print them yourself are not nearly as romantic, but I saved those too.  As fun as they are to take out and hold in my hand, though, the stubs are only physical representations of memories I’d never need any help to hang onto.

Music, of course, is not the art form I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to.  Poetry is.  Accordingly, I’ve been to way more poetry readings in my lifetime than concerts.  These are inevitably held in considerably more intimate venues, involve a tighter focus on the art itself, and are more often than not followed by extended personal interaction with the artists themselves.  I’m not sure how many poetry readings I’ve been to exactly.  Well over a hundred, usually sitting as close to the front as I can.

And—with a few notable exceptions—I remember nothing about any of them, because poetry readings are boring as fuck and I hate them.

This is not surprising, because everyone else feels the same way too.  It may be surprising that anyone is saying so, but as for the fact itself I can’t imagine anyone will deny that (once again, with a few notable exceptions, who deserve to be commended, and whom I would commend if this were about naming names, which it isn’t, at least not yet) poetry readings are simply not enjoyable to be at.  But this is neither a letdown for the audience, who after all do not expect to have a good time, nor a failing on the part of the reader, who after all is not trying to make them have one.

The fact is, people do not attend poetry readings to be entertained (or whatever word you would use in its place, if you object to entertained) by the reading.  We go in order to drink after the reading—whether because we are poets ourselves and want to schmooze the reader (whose reading we happily pretend we could stand, or even paid any attention to), or just because we think it is cool to get drunk with a poet, independently of networking.  This is in fact why it is automatic that everyone retires to a bar when the reading is over—not because, as we like to pretend, that we are all such tortured bohemians we can’t go another minute without a neat whiskey, but simply because if it were not guaranteed that a poetry reading is immediately followed by drinking, no-one would ever go to a poetry reading.


Just consider the few times that you’ve gone to a reading and not managed to find out what bar or house party everyone was going to after.  What happens?  You are pissed off for the rest of the night.  Pissed off that you got tricked into going to a poetry reading just for the reading.  And you are supposedly someone who likes poetry.  Would anyone feel cheated by going to a concert and not automatically getting to drink with the band afterwards, or going to a movie and not subsequently getting to party with the actors?  No.  This is because people actually like concerts and movies, rather than merely pretending to like them for lack of a better idea.

This is not your fault, of course.  It is the poet’s fault, for not being the slightest bit entertaining or interesting.  And really, it is barely the poet’s fault either.  He or she has probably never seen another poet be entertaining or interesting, so where in the world would he or she get the idea that this was expected, or even permissible?  I can think of several famous (relatively speaking) poets whom I do not know whether I have seen read.  I probably have, but truthfully it’s all a blur.

Most poets today read, regardless of subject matter, as if they were declaiming a speech about AIDS in high-school forensics league—the same formalized wide-eyed faux-breathlessness in their faces, the same mannered woundedness in their voices (the major difference being the inexplicable addition of making full.  pauses in.  odd.  places as if you were.  doing a bad.  impression of an.  actress from the.  1930s).  And if your poem were in fact about AIDS—or 9/11 or the Holocaust—this might be appropriate.  But most poetry is not about those things (or indeed about an identifiable event at all).  And though through its ubiquity we have come to read this manner as simple de rigueur poetic politeness, it is absolutely not, or at least by no rights should be.

What we have allowed ourselves to forget is that it is actually obnoxious to read a poem that is not about human tragedy on an grand scale as if it were about human tragedy on a grand scale.  If your poem actually is about genocide, then you are absolutely entitled simply to stand stone still and declaim it in a ghost-robot voice with odd pauses, because the audience has no right to expect to be entertained by utterance on the subject and is ethically obliged to do nearly all the work of listening.  But if your poem is about being stopped at a traffic light and noticing how a styrofoam cup on the side of the road perfectly exemplifies a point from the semiotics lecture you gave that afternoon and you still read it that way, then you are a dick.  And if your poem is not even about a comprehensible damn thing at all and you read it that way, then someone should walk up to the podium and punch you.

Then there are the poets who, wanting to show that they are not pretentious like the ghost-robot readers, read their poems like… well, like nothing.  Just jam their hands in their pockets, look straight down, exhale like they can’t believe it either, and then zip through the words on the page as fast as they can.  And then look at you and raise their eyebrows like, I know right, what the heck are we all doing here?  Well, why don’t you tell us what we’re doing here, asshole—it’s your reading.

What I am suggesting, and what I cannot believe is something I even have to suggest, much less something that will get people pissed at me for suggesting, is that if you are giving a poetry reading, you are just as responsible for showing the audience a good time as if you were a stand-up comic or a rock musician.  You are not showing them a good time in the same way of course, because you are not telling jokes or playing songs.  You do not necessarily have to make them laugh or make them scream.  But you should be trying just as hard to make them something.  And if they fail to experience whatever that thing is because they found it hard to pay attention, it is your fault.

It’s not like this idea is so radical or so foreign to poetry.  It is only foreign to contemporary poetry written by people whose poetics were formed by academia.  Do you think if you had a time machine and could attend a reading by Frank O’Hara, you would have to try really hard to pay attention?  Or Anne Sexton?  Or Ginsberg, Yeats, Millay, Whitman, Rimbaud, Dickinson, Byron, Pope, Donne, or Chaucer?  Every great poet is a personality.  What the audience should experience at a poetry reading is what we all once dreamt of experiencing at one, before we went to graduate school and learned that such expectations are neither intellectual nor modern: to feel that we are witnessing the daemon of the work made flesh.

I know we are supposed to act surprised when someone comes up afterwards to say they enjoyed the reading.  But we should not actually be surprised.  (If we’re not surprised, it’s only because we have come to understand that I really enjoyed that is just a polite way of asking So, what bar is everyone going to now?).  If it elicits genuine shock to find that one or two people in attendance at a poetry reading were anything other than miserable, then just what the hell do we all think we are doing?

What we think we’re doing, I imagine, is writing poetry, and then reading it as an afterthought, a matter of custom or ceremony.  We imagine readings as part of the business, but not of the craft, just as, say, the filming of a music video is not an aspect of music proper.  And yet, we acknowledge that a live performance very much is.  Perhaps not for Mozart or Beethoven, who composed in notation on paper what was then performed live by others, but even composers who are also performers (the norm for music during the lifetime of everyone reading this) still put thought and energy into the performance.  Though it may have been the custom in the culture of Homer or of the Beowulf author, no poet now writes with the intention that the work will be performed by professional readers trained in showmanship as a duty separate from composition.  If you do not perform your work, no-one else is going to.  But the fact that you “have to” do it yourself is no excuse to suck at it.

The fact that we do not consider reading to be a part of the job—or at least not an honorable part of the job, or one that obligates effort or training—is maybe best evinced by the fact that, to my knowledge, no MFA program mandates or even offers a course or seminar in how to give a good reading.  Although I’m certainly not suggesting that half of a poet’s training should be in showmanship, I think it both curious and telling that the giving of a good reading—or even the existence of a difference between a good reading and a bad—is never so much as mentioned at any point in the training.

Cal Bedient once said that a poem should always be pleasurable but that it should never be the first duty of a poem to entertain.  I not only agree, but consider the distinction to be one of the most valuable things I have ever heard anyone say about poetry.  But a poetry reading is not a poem.  To say that a reading should be genuinely engaging on the level of a musical performance, and that poets should work to make this so, is not to say that poetry should be composed with an eye towards wowing a crowd.

This, of course, is the error of Slam.  I have seen Slam poets who are unquestionably talented, but unfailingly the poems would be better poems had they not been composed with performance uppermost in mind.  The foreknowledge that a poem must take five minutes to recite while talking as fast as you can does not aid one in becoming a scrupulous self-editor.  On the other hand, I have never seen anyone fall asleep at a Slam either (pass out yes, but fall asleep no).

Just as Slammers are afraid to be accused of being too academic, poets who live and who compete for attention in academic circles (even if not actually employed as academics) are afraid to be accused of being too Slam.  The reason our readings are boring may not be because we do not know how to be interesting (most poets I know are not only avid rock fans, but can pontificate at length about rock history and aesthetic), but because we’re afraid to be accused of being a better reader than a writer: if you read your poetry in the most boring manner possible and people can still sort of stand it, that must mean it’s good.

This is not to say that a poetry reading should seek to emulate a rock concert.  Male poets need not read shirtless and in leather pants, nor female poets in coned bustiers (indeed, in the cases of most poets, this would be something very other than an inducement to attend).  But it is simply pathetic for us to persevere in our bizarre denial of the fact that, while giving a reading, a poet is a performer before an audience and should be held at least to some standards of what this supposedly entails.

The idea that our art is inherently more performable is supposed to be one of our advantages over people who write fiction.  If there is a joint reading where one reader does a few poems and another reads an entire short story, and people have less trouble not spacing out during the short story—and the short story is not about sex—then something is very wrong.

I do not see how it can be considered obnoxious for me to say this.  The alternative, after all, is to side with those poets who regard what they do as too special for the idea of putting thought into entertaining an audience even to occur to them, or to be taken seriously if it does.  Especially at a reading where people actually had to pay money to get in, this attitude is obnoxious far beyond anything I’ve ever said, and I say obnoxious things with no little regularity.

I admit it may justifiably seem somewhat obnoxious for me at such length to criticize poets for not giving entertaining readings, without offering one piece of advice on how to make their readings more entertaining, but I refrain from doing this for a few reasons.  One, all the ways I know of making my own readings so fabulously entertaining are mine, and you can’t have them.  And two, even if I felt like giving them to you, they would be useless to you, as you are not me.  Likewise, the most engaging readers I have seen did not necessarily engage in ways I could simply steal, as the most engaging poets are always engaging in ways specific to their work.  Not everyone’s reading avatar should be funny, or sexy, or angry, or baleful, or fragile.  But everyone should be something.  You need to look at what your stuff is doing and think of a way to create a personality around this that you can then act—yes, act—at readings.

And if you cannot imagine how your poetry could ever possibly be entertaining to an audience, no matter who is reading it or in what manner, then you might do well seriously to consider the possibility that you just suck at poetry, and ought not be writing it either.