Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When the ephemeral is preferred to the permanent.

Since school has ended, I have been in a somewhat reclusive mood. With the exception of going to band practice last night, I have not left the house (barely have left my room) in the last five days. So, what I've been doing is researching graduate schools on the internet, looking at their criteria for admissions, etc... Also, I've been reading the autobiography of Robert Graves, Good-Bye to all That. And waiting...waiting for my grades.

Well, I received them: straight A's. I predicted a B in my Literature class, but I was wrong. However, in retrospect, I'm sure it was my one visit to my instructor's office that did the trick. I wanted her to clarify her instructions for our weekly assignments, and afterward we started talking about Shakespeare, and I inquired about her graduate thesis on Medea. Not exactly an ass-kissing, but I know how to at least make a good impression. This little talk, I swear, made up for my lack of participation points in the class. If I were to be graded on those, I would've failed. It's true, I didn't say much of anything in the class. That's because this class was absolutely the most incoherent and unruly that I've personally been in. My Political Science class, from a year ago, comes a close second, but the instructor in that class moderated and made sure that he kept our attention (this included a lot of yelling and jumping around on his part; he was a rather spiky and contrarian Green-Party loyalist).

It was an interpretation-based literature class based solely on personal experience. This means that there was a willful disregard for historical context. At one point, our instructor advocated that we not read the author's introductions to the plays, as they would inform us of the historical/political/social context, and this would influence our reading of the play. A 'cold-reading'; she wanted pure and unadulterated opinions.

This is an impossible task, and furthermore it is not very interesting. Who wants to hear other students mumble about how unfairly they were treated, or how they've justified their grudges, therefore such-and-such play spoke to them, and was the greatest play ever -- and therefore you MUST agree with them? This was how the discussions inevitably ended up, with just about everyone starting their sentences off with  "Well, I think...," or worse yet, "I see your point, but what I think is..." (which usually means, "I haven't been listening to you, I've just been waiting for my turn to speak") and then it would erupt into a war of anecdotal evidence: "Well, you may think that this character is really awful because he treats his wife and kids like shit and he's totally self-absorbed, but I think that he's a hero, because I have a dad just like him..." This is not verbatim, it's just roughly what was being expressed. Everyone's weapon was their conviction, not their rationale. The discussions were pointless because they never culminated into a further understanding of the play (the whole point, I feel), only an understanding of how our classmates' brains work. Unless, of course, the point was to feel frustration.

The class was incoherent and unruly, because our teacher was a bad moderator. She couldn't facilitate discussions because she asked very general questions about the play, rather than precise ones, and then let the conversation degenerate into chaos. These discussions had limited boundaries, and everyone's opinion was considered a valid contribution. I have always thought that this was silly. Any idea is worth considering if it has some justification and thought put into it, but anyone can blurt out non-sequiturs. And the discussions were overrun with this sort of thing, as well as too much talking-over-others when they were trying to join in. And so, though I sometimes wanted to speak because I was angry, I wasn't sure what I would've said, maybe: "Can we finally talk about why this play was included in an academic Anthology, why it is significant or important, and what it adds to literature's LARGE body of work? Basically, why does it stand out and why should we bother reading it?

During our office-hour conversation, she asked me why I didn't speak up more in class. I told her that there were plenty of people willing and eager to add to the conversation without my help. To this, she said that I should participate in order to combat the "over-contributors" of the class; a real problem for teachers, she told me. However, the way that she emphasized the necessity of my participation, made it seem like the burden was actually on me, rather than on her, to help out the class. That is ridiculous. The instructor has the power as moderator to facilitate a good discussion, which means putting their foot down when they recognize an "over-contributor" (her words) and maybe even bringing them down a rung or two when needed. And yet, I can also see how this can be impossible when you have a class structured the way that she does. If you throw restraint out of the window, how can you expect the class to possess it?

Admittedly, I can be a bit shy and tend to second-guess my opinions before speaking them -- maybe to a fault. But then again, I didn't learn anything about literature and plays from all of the talking that went on during our class. And our instructor paid almost no attention to the history of the theater, of the playwrights, of the different periods and genres. The fucking class is centered around reading plays, why not include some of these details? -- don't worry, it won't spoil it; in fact, it will enhance my knowledge of the subject.

I guess that is what I get for taking a 100 level course in English, though I still have a rotten feeling that this sort of thing continues on the further up you go. The 'American System' of learning is all about peer-discussion groups and the facilitating of critical thinking. And this is especially focused in the low-level courses, where the greatest concentration of neanderthals and backwaters reside. I understand this. Teachers have to try to work on students to not be so god-damned reactionary, and to inform them that the world is a pretty big place. However, it's getting old. The unintentional lessons I learned were from sociological observations. In fact, I started to look at this class as if it were a sociological experiment. The critical thinking in this case, from what I observed, was that a student thought that being a contrarian was going to set him/herself apart from the crowd. This would usually start out with someone disagreeing with the consensus about who the protagonist was. They would claim that the character who was the clear protagonist was really the antogonist, or that the thundercloud was the antagonist, not the arch-nemesis who's beating the shit out of the protagonist. It seemed like everyone thought about being clever, because the interpretations got so bizarre and seemed to be an attempt to one-up the last comment. Unfortunately, at some point this would exhaust the discussion because it rendered it silly and pointless, and almost meaningless. The discussions actually seemed to degrade the plays. They became boring choose-your-own-adventures.

This reductionist approach to literature, to take generous liberties with a play's meaning and to disregard the author's intent, reminds me of a pretty wonderful passage from an essay that Gore Vidal wrote. In French Letters: Theories on the New Novel, he bemoans the lack of effort and technique in the arts, as well as concern over the possibility of a future where "...the ephemeral will be preferred to the permanent...," and "the random will take the place of the calculated." Though he is referring to writing as a discipline, I think this passage is applicable to the sort of 'critical thinking' minds that I've been explaining:

One interesting result of today's passion for the immediate and the casual has been the decline, in all the arts, of the idea of technical virtuosity as being in any way desirable. The culture (kitsch as well as camp) enjoys singers who sing no better than the average listener, actors who do not act yet are, in Andy Warhol's happy phrase, "super-stars," painters whose effects are too easily achieved, writers whose swift flow of words across the page is not submitted to the rigors of grammar or shaped by conscious thought. There is a general Zen-ish sense of why bother? If a natural fall of pebbles can "say" as much as any shaping of paint on canvas or cutting of stone, why go to the trouble of recording what is there for all to see? In any case, if the world should become, as predicted, a village united by an electronic buzzing, our ideas of what is art will seem as curious to those gregarious villagers as the works of what we used to call the Dark Ages appear to us. 

If there isn't even a discipline to this particular art/lit criticism, then what's the point? Has this approach to critical thinking actually made us better critical thinkers? 

I suppose that I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for a literature class, but this was a very extreme version of it. It was strange to see the Post-modernist impulse translating to behavior. Either that, or most of the students in my class were concurrently taking Science courses where they couldn't bullshit their way through them, and found the class to be a welcomed release. The bottom line for me is that I learn and become attentive when someone I respect (and whose brain I respect) lectures and informs, not when a classmate talks.

Well, I could say so much more about this, and if I had the energy I could have made this into an essay with greater uniformity and clarity. But now I'm exhausted thinking about it. Surely, I will always come back to this topic, because not only the approach, but the ethics of Post-modernism piss me off. Anger, it's a good thing.

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