A drafty excerpt from my application for tenure narratives, which is why you haven't heard from me. Well, that and I thought I'd give Carlos a chance to get really bored. This is for you, K, as you consider (way down the line) what your job letters entail. Got your photos, beautiful! And will write you back soon.
[to disappear soon]
Beyond Reading and Writing
Why teach literature—literary writing, literary reading—what good is it? I’m not here to dismantle nor uphold the value of the arts in liberal education, but to ask: why do I do it? What do I believe students gain from literary reading and writing that they might not gain elsewhere? When I look back on what I proposed six years ago to the hiring members of my department, I recall that I elided the question entirely, and especially then, out of a conviction that any ambivalence towards teaching literature and creative writing, however elaborately expressed, might only look … ambivalent. In my cover letter and pedagogical statement I said nothing unorthodox nor controversial (unless teaching creative writing and literary criticism is considered unorthodox, as at some institutions it sometimes still is); in fact, sidestepping “why” and reiterating instead what is available in most pedagogical statements, I said only “what” I believe is still true:
I am committed to two objectives in teaching: that students develop a life-long appreciation for reading and thinking, and that they learn to express themselves in writing with clarity and precision.On the surface these are sound and ambitious objectives, they tell you what I strive to accomplish, and they imply that reading and writing are noble pursuits in themselves. But in my mind this noble pursuit of higher literacy also participates, latently, in the same nostalgia as the American Dream and is prone to the same kind of violence. Reading and thinking, writing with clarity and precision, have been used to commit—if not justify—many of the greatest atrocities against humanity, and perhaps not least because such skills have belonged historically to a place of (educated) privilege and of power. I could speak here at length of the abounding discourse sustaining eugenics or slavery or colonization or genocide, but I think my point is clear. In some elemental and potentially horrific way, reading and writing contribute to that very category of imaginary life that willfully asserts itself into our living structural realities, organizing them, subverting them, revising them, institutionalizing them, and working to reify them. Language not only reflects culture: it enforces it. For good or for bad. So although American history alone is rife with examples of dehumanization that have been challenged and overturned, arguably, through education, it is not the teaching of reading and writing that deserves merit, not directly, but some other hold that image and language have on us.
On the other hand, I should also recall here that aesthetics are too often and too insidiously treated as “merely” aesthetic, as if art is a category on the margins of experience reserved for excess, a type of superfluous activity contained to basements, gallery space, and books. As if through a certain tenacious realism, aesthetics can be rendered invisible, and thus inert. Or as if time and space are available to us, really, without the window dressing, should we choose. But there is no stripping away of veils or garments to arrive at the clear bare underlying thing, after all, not in a living day. There are conversations to have, clothes to wear, meals to prepare, marriages to sustain, children to raise, trials to gauge, accounts to give, bodies to govern, presidents to elect, and students to educate, all of which demand of us a selective, discerning, laboring, innovative artfulness, every moment, so that it is no wonder we would rather not all of us be artists, given the stakes, and no wonder that the ideological artist in Western culture is allowed her or his eccentric excessive sufferings—within, of course, the secure repository we call “artist.”
But I think the agony of the ideological artist is both a scapegoat and a lens, a dualistic if hyperbolic articulation of the crisis we all experience between being and making. Further: that making so often is confused with the security of having. And one of the greatest challenges I encounter in teaching is that most young aspiring writers experience these tensions very deeply without wanting to recognize that, although the artist is compelled both towards asserting existence and achieving possession, art culminates in neither being nor having. It cannot safeguard existence and it cannot retain rights, not permanently. Art is making, and making is more opinion than fact, more process than conclusion. Which is why, much as I’m uneasy admitting it, art ultimately takes on an ethical and political project. That is, the slide between the sign and its fidelity to the signified is amplified for our students who were born into an age that cannot bear to speak too seriously of reality. Inasmuch as we can talk of “real” things and “real” people in a media era, you and I—as persons—are not manifestly distinct from the constant delusion and deluge of signs. And yet, though post-modernity is in love with the idea that on the other side of the signifier no thing truly stands still and no one truly speaks, art nonetheless has a tendency to point beyond itself towards meaning and towards people. And at heart, we tend to take that very seriously.
But what exactly do I mean by “ethical” in this regard? Am I imposing a moral standard on my students’ writing? Am I already censoring? Am I rectifying taboos? No. And thankfully, Knox students, in my experience, wouldn’t stand long for that. I mean “ethical” in the sense of one of its etymological roots, “ethos,” which for me refers to the frame of mind of a made thing, its attitude towards the world and other people. There is, of course, always an ethical imperative at work in our making, a frame of mind that characterizes our objectives—at times fearful or expectant or wistful or rosily optimistic—and I want students to be able to identify it in their own work, and in the work of others, in the interest of leading them to recognize that art is wonderful, yes, but that without its anthropological, sociological, and psychological dimensions, without its connection to people, art is also insufficient.
This isn’t easy. Recently, I watched a documentary called A Perfect Fake, which delves into questions about virtual realities, computer simulated life, the artist’s drive to make artifice seem so real it can stand in for reality—the fact that a human face (the “holy grail” of CGI apparently) is so complex and subtle it’s almost impossible to make computer generated images of facial expressions without our immediately recognizing that something is “off”—and which concludes with a look at the largest market in Japan for computer generated images, virtual pornography and finally sex dolls. It is not a particularly strong documentary (I don’t recommend adding it to your Netflix queue, even if such things interest you), but since I’m teaching Frankenstein again in a few weeks and am looking for contemporary perspectives on Promethean hubris, I found the questions it raised significant. I was also, however, utterly unprepared for the power of some of that imagery: virtual depictions of decapitated female bodies suspended in impossible positions, pure objects of dismembered male penetration. Something about their virtual reality—the fact that those bodies, as people, don’t really exist—seemed to me far more haunting than I could have ever expected. On a very deep level the unreality of those bodies manipulated towards the fantasy of ultimate power: they were hanging in space, wrenched open, and waiting for life—for existence—to be thrust into them. In fact, however, the artist behind that imagery was only playing on an ancient theme: that the test of sexual prowess is linked to the authoritative power of the artist over the object of desire; that the ideal is most ideal when it succeeds the real. This is nothing less than the mythic Pygmalion’s rejection of real women in favor of bringing to life an ivory statue of a woman he has made with his own hands. And, in many respects, it is nothing less than the kind of idealism most young writers at Knox bring to their writing on some level.
So, if I am to respond to “why”—why teach literature, what good is it?—I must disclose that by now I’m responding to an ethos that prevails among our writing students: the ideal is most ideal when it succeeds the real. I am not in the business of disillusioning young readers and writers. They believe deep down that if their work is exceptional they too will be exceptional. They believe, often desperately, that art can save them from their suffering, and for this they are willing to suffer. But by and large our students are not wrongheaded about what is expected of them. They are reacting to the celebratory charge of individualism and to the immense freedom set before the artist whose task is to create and recreate—at times even to the point of extinction—to the best of her or his ability. My concern is that to privilege art in this way not only becomes alienating but also unsustainable. And it generally produces writing that is self-absorbed, self-interested, and frankly tiresome. And, it is only then natural to become more product-oriented than process-oriented, and to find oneself exhausted at the end of the term when there is less product to show than one’s efforts should reveal.
I’d hazard to say that all of us must come to terms with our own work ethic, that it is not my place to set the terms of the value of work for my students, but that I can at least attempt to provide them with an alternative model and to put into practice a basic premise that informs my own writing: I am not for the poem; the poem is for me. To that end, over the years, my teaching has become increasingly more personalized. I have always met with students individually outside of the classroom, but I now also critique and grade most student writing—critical essays and poetry alike—in individual collaborative sessions with students in an effort to de-emphasize writing as an assignment objective and to highlight, instead, development, progression, and refinement. I allow students the opportunity to revise infinitely (within the term, of course), and I require that we work together in stages towards the building of a final essay or portfolio. I have also attempted to turn conventional writing workshop philosophy on its head. Where students usually perceive the workshop as an opportunity to receive feedback on specific poems, I stress that while specific feedback is useful, it is also far more limiting as a learning exercise than the work of reading and learning from one’s peers. This effort, I hope, also leads to a stronger writing community, one in which the critique does not immediately set students apart from one other, but fosters instead partnerships and unifying interactions. I think my courses are rigorous, in general requiring students to read and write just about as much as they possibly can, but I have found that most students complete my courses with great success, in part because I try to counter their anxiety with support and encouragement and because I attempt to remain flexible.
So, having refined my pedagogy over the years to address the needs of our students, I teach literature—literary writing, literary reading—because there is a greater good available in it. I know my own idealism is showing here, but I’m convinced that the hold language and image have on us is not artfulness, not just the power of sway, but those beyond it whom we sway and by whom we are swayed.