The Times on “Teaching”

Reading the New York Times Magazine’s College Life issue this morning was nothing if not a reminder that representations of cultures are seldom analogous to the material realities of those who live in them.  I’ve written here before about popular representations of professors (and how those resemble approximately 2% of my colleagues), but the Times today expands its reach to include not just professors, but teaching and writing as well.

It begins with an article titled “Those Who Write, Teach.”  The title suggested to me, as it would to many in the profession (particularly those of us at teaching institutions), the long-standing conversation about the connections between scholarly work and teaching.  In essence, how does your research inform what you do in the classroom, and vice versa?  How might you address the very real difficulties of carving out time to stay current in your field while attending to your students’ learning processes?

Instead, “Those Who Write” is a first person piece by David Gessner, in which he describes the plight of the writer “in captivity”—i.e., trapped by an academic job that slowly sucks the wildness out of him and his writing.  To be fair to Gessner, there’s not a teacher alive who doesn’t fantasize about what she could be doing if she weren’t grading papers, fielding student questions, preparing for class.  But I can’t help getting my feathers ruffled by two things here: first, the ambivalence of the title worries me.  Is it referencing the old inspiring saw “those who CAN, teach,” and thus making writing (here strictly defined as creative writing) the equivalent of ability?  Or is it more insidious, calling to mind instead the insult “those who CAN’T, teach” and thereby insinuating that writing within the confines of the academy eventually leads to a lack of ability?

Second, Gessner’s image of the work of teaching troubles me.  Even as he critiques an earlier era of creative writing pedagogy (“learn by osmosis” from the “great man or woman”), he cites his love for teaching as one that’s grounded in sharing his work, in being a great entertainer, in being surrounded by people committed to writing.  On top of this, the job provides a stable daily structure, a “badge” of legitimacy, and the aggregate of all of this moves toward balancing the ways in which he must trade “reading great literature and communing with writers of the past” for “apprentice writing.”

There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.  I’m in deep cliched water here, I have no doubt, but it’s very simply true: there is great joy and daily reward from the surprise of what students see that you’ve missed; in experimenting with various approaches to connect what they already know with what you hope they’ll take away from any given text.

The innate reciprocity of teaching is also missing from the Times’ second article: Virginia Heffernan’s study of professors on YouTube.  I’ll spare you the close textual analysis here, but suffice to say that as she ranks and assesses the available videos, she constructs a very particular equation:  virtuoso teaching=charismatic lecture=box-office gold.  I have no interest in rehashing ye olde lecture vs. seminar debate.  A great lecture is all of the things that Heffernan so closely observes in the videos she cites.  Yet I can’t help but flinch at such a medieval definition of teaching.  A “sage on the stage” is still that, even if the stage has become an international and digital one.  There’s a special irony here too, of using one of the most popular forms of Web 2.0 technology—a designation that highlights the interactivity of the medium—to relay content without reciprocity.

The “college life” issue is one of many recent representations of college life (see Smart People, Elegy, the movie College for god’s sakes).  Any more, and a careful cultural critic might begin to suspect that we’re hell-bent on representing a single professor and his/her well-wraught pedagogical urn in order to distract ourselves from all of the other types of college experiences out there.

Cho, Round Two

I was delighted to see that Margaret Cho is returning to television with a new show on VH1.  It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of tv history to know about Cho’s first sitcom (and notably, the first Asian American sitcom), All-American Girl and the debacle it became (all of which she chronicles, with a characteristic synthesis of pathos and humor, in I’m the One that I Want).

The LA Times article above features this description of the new show:

“It’s kind of a cross between Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare,’ ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Little People, Big World,’” she said. In truth, the series follows Cho and her family as they improv their way through scripted situations. During the first episode, Cho tells her parents that a magazine has named her Korean of the Year, and the show follows the family’s trip to San Francisco, where she’ll accept it.

In some ways, the format sounds more like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to me.

Cho’s return makes me contemplate the significant changes that television has undergone since All American Girl aired in ’94-’95.  In many ways, the sitcom seems like such a dead and deadening form, while the advent of reality television has pushed audiences and performers alike to explore new ways of including live footage into shows.  Meanwhile, the scrum of channels fighting for niche markets has apparently turned VH1 into the home for nostalgia, forgotten celebrities (hello, two Coreys!), and subcultural icons.  Having said that, I’m surprised that Cho isn’t airing on Bravo—can you imagine a Margaret Cho/Kathy Griffin lineup?  Perhaps an end of the season smackdown?  [Cho has already appeared on an episode of Life on the D List, where she joins Griffin and Cyndi Lauper for the Gay Pride Parade in Australia.  If Cho rates a float there, doesn’t she seem to belong to the Bravo family?]

Regardless, I have high but cautious hopes for the success of Cho’s new show.  In part, it’s personal: I have such a soft spot for her, and am so ready to see Asian Americans on television that aren’t pretending to be from another country (see Lost, Heroes, etc.).  Better yet, I think Cho may have a better chance outside the confines of the sitcom structure (which, I speculate, may have been more of the problem of the show than America’s unwillingness to see Asian Americans on television.  But perhaps I’m too optimistic).

So let’s hear it for the move beyond the sitcom, and look forward to the August 21st airing.  Keep your fingers crossed…

Fluff on Spoon

When you spend a good couple of hours in the morning searching for fan videos on YouTube, it’s almost unbelievable what you’ll happen upon.  Somehow, this morning, I ended up watching a video of the Keepon rhythmic robot dancing to a song by Spoon.

According to this article on the PBS site (courtesy of Wired Science), the video was a viral YouTube hit in 2007.  So sue me; I’m a year behind.  Regardless, see if you aren’t mesmerized by his little yellow groove.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously imitating his moves, either.

Fantastic, no?  I find that I think I’m done about 30 seconds in, but then I keep coming back to it.  Is it the blank stare?  the mellow, spongy rump-shakin’?  [There’s something in the Keepon’s motions and expression that bear a faint resemblance to audience members at a Phish show.]  Apparently, the little guy was designed to work with autistic kids.  But what about his little, unacknowledged friend, the Peepon?  Oh god do I love a good video response.  Take a look-see for yourself:

Equally as mesmerizing, but somehow also a bit nauseating, no?  All of that gelatinized sugar.  To quote one of the best comments about the video from RustiSwordz, “Its Jabba the Hutt’s funky cousin.”  Hi-Larious.

This is now the second post I’ve written about Peeps in the last two years, and I’m a bit disturbed by that.

Back to work now.  Get out and get your groove on.

The Melancholy of Travel

Going to and from home, which I do about once a year now, consistently incites a day or two of melancholy. In the most literal of literal translations of Freud (and in a rather incomplete understanding of his term), I’m struck by a sense of unheimlichkeit–I feel literally “un-homed.” For a few days, everything in Albany–the house, the town, the food, the weather–feels slightly off and a bit unreal.

There’s an irony here, as “home” for me is still the most unreal place on the planet. No one ever thought of Las Vegas as real; if anything, it’s the poster-city for artifice. I don’t know why Baudrillard chose to pick on Disneyland, when Vegas could have functioned as the epitome of simulacrum. Perhaps he avoided it because, unlike other simulacra, Vegas seems to inspire a consciousness about it’s own separation from reality? In other words, no one in the city can seriously believe that it’s real, right? A city of three million in the middle of the desert?

Before this post gets all together too emo, I’ll simply note that of all the things that struck me as characteristic of Vegas, language was at the top of the list during this trip. There is an entire world of words that occur all over the West, that I never hear or see on this end of the continent. Arroyo, for one. And canyon, and wash and gulch and bluff and spring—all kinds of topographical distinctions. Then there are all of the adjectives: verde (good for both food and valleys); arid; atomic; xeri- (good to modify “scape,” as in this movement). And then a handful of nouns, which speak to the fundamental paradox that is the city: paradise; neon; glitter; ranch; rodeo; palms. To quote a very old Mary’s Danish song: “These are all the shapes/Nevada could have been…”

There is one thing, however, that is consistent in Albany and Las Vegas–and it’s one thing that brings me back to earth. Both towns have a profusion of tanning salons. Go figure.