Monday, October 3, 2011

Four Random Thoughts on Reading Gerald Graff's Professing Literature (and Sundry Other Works)

Ok, so this is a response to my reading for my "Future of English" class this week, but I believe it is actually broad enough that it should more or less make sense to people who aren't in the class.


When I taught creative writing last summer, we spent a day with Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. It's an enigmatic book, a difficult one, but intensely perceptive. Getting high schoolers to appreciate – nay, to comprehend – the project of the work I feared would be impossible. As we read sections together, my fears were realized: they had no idea what was going on.

So instead of forcing a conversation, I jumped into the later part of the activity sooner. I sent them out of the classroom (this was a private school, so I was allowed to do this) to find a place on campus that they found interesting, and then to compose something in the style of Calvino (or at least his translator). An example:

A City In Perpetual Motion

The city in perpetual motion is constantly rising upwards as its inhabitants' visions grip the stars with the dreams swirling in their minds. The city is made of glass allowing a communal flow of energy to circulate through its streets. Glass wall upon glass wall are lined and stacked to form endless buildings, those too, upon glass. The glossy skyscrapers are filled with rarities and talents and treasures, seemingly weightless and untainted. The glassy floor is covered in flourishing plots of herb and flower, each of their seeds pulled from the farthest edges of the universe. As the city in perpetual motion rises upward, it expands, its inhabitants determined to take their place above the stars.

Perhaps not as skillful as Calvino – certainly not as impressive as the vast, interwoven collection he produces, complete with self-reference and surprising invisible threads and the strange Marco Polo / Kublai Kahn back story – but good enough to give rise to a question. Did the students actually fail to understand Invisible Cities? What was I looking for? What ought I have done?


It strikes me that the history Graff describes is a history of Hegelian dialectic aborted. Time after time, apparent theoretical, pedagogical, and interpretive opposites have circled each other in the English Department, seeking synthesis, but unable to find it thanks to an unwillingness or inability for the the institution to engage the conflict.


I wonder what a similar history of the School of Education would look like? What conflicts have been subsumed into the now-incoherent structure of the institution? Certainly the tripartite division between the researchers who identify themselves with 1) the humanities, 2) the social sciences, 3) the hard sciences comes from some historical disagreement that Schools of Ed participated in, but continue to shield their students from (instead requiring methods courses in each of these research techniques separately, without asking them to consider the fundamental question: what is research?)


What does the ideal University look like, or is there such a thing? Perhaps a better question is: if one had the power to build not just a University or a College, but indeed the Educational system or, deeper still, the entire society itself from scratch, what would it look like? I suspect one would need to go to social values to make any meaningful, fundamental change. Why?

Is it maybe the case that, given our social values the system we have is the ideal, or at least a very good representation of those values?

No comments:

Post a Comment