Month: October 2017

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“Zines as creative resistance”: authoring the world, authoring ourselves

The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!


 

Trunk or Treat: silly, spontaneous community in a cemetery

Yesterday I was walking in my neighborhood along a path that includes a beautiful cemetery with winding paths and lovely bent old trees. A cheerful orange-and-black clad woman greeted me from her seat at a welcome table as I walked up to the gates. “What’s happening today?” I asked, as kids in Spiderman and gorilla costumes milled around beyond the entrance. She grinned widely and replied that this was Trunk or Treat, an event for Halloween that families participate in across the country.

Why am I posting about this, when I write about education, democracy, social justice, and other topics more directly related to my PhD and my work in community? Because my previous post, “Time Enough at Last: screens and the elusive book,” brought up the way our google-eyed preoccupation with screens in public spaces can replace basic human activities, like reading, making small talk, or just gazing around and taking things in. Because I guess I’m wondering about humanity at a moment when it is being questioned by political uncertainty, social anxiety, and the widespread and pervasive influence of technology on our lives and our ways of seeing ourselves and each other.

The Trunk or Treat I visited yesterday heartened me, reminding me that we have choices, we have community, we have beautiful and silly customs that bring us together. Sure, accuse me of nostalgia, of being a Luddite, but don’t overlook the fact that my restlessness (and hopefulness) stems from an itching for human contact in spontaneous, unmonitored, unfettered ways that feels like it’s becoming rare.

 

 

“Time Enough at Last”: screens and the elusive book

I’ve been watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” an old black-and-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964 and told weird, sometimes futuristic, often Kafkaesque tales that made the viewer twist uncomfortably or stare rapt in suspended horror at the screen. Unknown, mostly White male actors, limited and mundane sets (by today’s standards), oddly-rhythmed voices and dialogue make it a target for accusations of archaism and its fans of nostalgia, though I think going back to seeing work like this can reveal how little we really need in the way of effects and artifice to tell a good story, perhaps with a good point about humanity.

The episode I watched last night was entitled “Time Enough at Last” and told the story of a bank teller, Henry Bemis, an avid reader who was never able to find the time or the freedom to read. The plot is laid with the care and intention of Rod Serling’s trademark attention to detail, from a boss who threatens to fire Bemis if he can’t behave more like a professional and stop reading on his breaks, to a bullying wife who destroys Bemis’s book of modern poetry that Bemis tried to sneak out of the house. The plot takes a turn when a global disaster ensues: an H-bomb is dropped (while Bemis is in the bank vault, secretly reading on his lunch break), and Bemis emerges to be the last living person in the world. He wanders around, searching for others. He finds food, eats and sleeps. He laments, considers suicide…and then he discovers his salvation: the public library, broken apart like an Easter egg awaiting one such as he to plumb its trove of Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Keats, and thousands of others to be read year after year. As is typical, the episode ends with a surprise ending, and it leaves the viewer thinking.


As I finished the episode, I reflected on the fact that so few people seem to be reading nowadays, especially literature but even just good old fashioned paper books. I scan the subway platform and the train cars on my way around the city, and at any given time, you can find anywhere from a third to over a half of the people around you staring at their phone. Are they reading? What are they reading? I have no proof of this, but from the quick snippets of flashing lights from Candy Crush and other games, TV episodes, videos, Facebook or Instagram feeds that I spy over shoulders, I am not persuaded that people are reading to learn on the train.

Does it matter? Is it my job, as a highly educated, highly privileged PhD student, to police people in how they spend their time? But I guess that’s my point: do we secretly feel that we’ll have plenty of time to learn, and find out something new, when we’re finished watching that last episode of whatever on Netflix or reading our friend’s updates (or blogs like this, for example)? Do we think we will have the time to get back to reading something inspiring, enlivening, frightening, which allows for our imagination to roam and range around, or are the screens somehow, secretly winning?

Too bad Rod Serling isn’t here to make a Twilight Episode about this. I’m sure he’d have a surprise ending for all of us.

A Night at the Garden: White supremacy and collective forgetting

“A Night at the Garden” is a short film that depicts a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939. Billed as a “pro-American” rally, the images of the columns of white, uniformed men from the ethnic German group called the German American Bund striking drums, carrying swastika-adorned banners, and displaying rows of American flags in front of a cheering, saluting audience are terrifying, to say the least.

This might like an anachronism in terms, perhaps, of haircuts or police mounted on horseback, or a distant document that should inspire immediate disgust in the 21st-century viewer. Nevertheless, the shock it produces also indexes the collective forgetting by an America that sees itself as a cultural leader in a globalized world, always moving forward in postures of innovation and newness, in denial of much of the anti-Semitism and white supremacy that has underpinned our country’s history.

The final image of the film:

As a testimony to the fact that such thinking is not so far away from the realm of possibility, one need only look at the rise of the right wing in Europe, most recently with the election of Austria’s newest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is likely to build a coalition government by allying itself with the former Nazi-affiliated Freedom Party in that country. And if that seems too far away, too foreign to our own experience of life here, there has been a rise not only of right-wing activism (as we’re all well aware of in the infamous and deadly Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) but also in less visible locations. Recently, Bard College, a small, private college in New York, hosted a conference entitled “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” One of their speakers: a representative of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant nationalist party from that country. It could be inferred that his invitation represented an ethic of free speech, of seeking a balanced approach to the conversation.

Yet when I asked a colleague in attendance whether anyone protested his being there, or even asked a question to challenge his ideas, the answer was “no.” Was this politeness, a commitment to hearing all sides…or a quiet addition to the rising normalcy of violent nationalism percolating in the world nowadays?

Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

Learning with lions: public pedagogy in NYC

Recently, a friend of mine shared with me an amazing opportunity to join a reading group with Stanley Aronowitz, professor emeritus and world renowned public scholar in the fields of sociology, political science, and critical theory who taught at the Graduate Center for over 30 years. My advisor at UMass Boston had mentioned Aronowitz specifically by name as I was considering PhD programs, and he even went so far as to invite me to join them for dinner before I was accepted to the program. I believe I said three things at that dinner, two of which were, “no, thank you, I don’t need any more water at the moment.”

Fast-forward four years, and I found myself this afternoon sitting in a makeshift classroom with Aronowitz, a few of his colleagues, many admirers, and other curious and hopeful autodidacts from New York.


We listened to Aronowitz give a background to the course – an eight-week introduction to dialectics, through the writings of Lukács, Adorno, and LeFebvre – and then to each other as we explored our reasons for being there, our own work and intellectual journeys, and questions we hoped to answer in the coming weeks. What was truly wonderful was the fact that this course was nearly free: $100 suggested donation for sitting in a small room with one of the greatest living public thinkers today.

This learning with lions, as I playfully entitled this post, is something I espouse in my own work as a professor, which I adopted from the generous and committed work of my own advisor in my PhD program. I ran a public pedagogy reading group over the summer with several of my students from City College, where we discussed readings and videos and the events from the week. My advisor has just started something similar with me and several of her other students, which I think she hopes will become self-sustaining even when she can’t make it. Important to these kinds of groups is accessibility, and communal hope that learning in community is consequential, an event that has impact in all of our lives.

This is public pedagogy in body and spirit. What would be possible were we all to engage with this on a regular basis, learning and teaching and incarnating what “pedagogy” according to Lev Vygotsky truly meant? Vygotsky’s term was obuchenie, a concept that saw education as a co-constructed, dialectical (see, dialectics is everywhere!) process in which teachers and students experienced mutual transformation. This radically changes the top-down, unidirectional way we tend to enact education in public schooling today. It also challenges the ivory tower paradigm in which academia maintains the keys to the castle in terms of knowledge.

More is possible when the lions open their dens up for the rest of us to come in and warm ourselves by their fires!

Feminist Friday: fairy tales

A few months ago, I saw this poster on the New York subway, part of an art initiative which I generally embrace:

The poem “A Name” was written by Ada Limón, a Californian poet whose work is featured in feminist collections and conferences. This is the text:

A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them—
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer—
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.

When I saw this poem, I chewed on it in my mind for a few minutes…and found myself annoyed. The imagery is beautiful, antediluvian and resonant, to be sure, the natural landscape and the delicate articulation of action of a first woman in the new world, naming animals. But at the end of the poem, Eve longs to be named by the animals…Why? Why does she need to be named? Her name was Eve.

Would Adam have walked with the same uncertainty about himself and his identity? Highly doubtful. And were he to have asked for a name, he would not have whispered.

I find myself increasingly resistant to the creation and perpetuation of spaces in which women maintain a position of mystery, a membership in the natural world that exoticizes them. We cannot recognize ourselves; we are meant to be recognized by those (people or animals) around us in such romanticized thinking.

I much prefer the stories I’ve been reading lately in a book called “Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales from Around the World” by Ethel Johnston Phelps:

I got the book at a radical leftist bookstore called Bluestockings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a volunteer-run spot with free talks and great spontaneous conversation that pops up over new and revisited ideas in a world desperately in need of face-to-face dialogue. “Tatterhood” is wonderful, including old and new fairy tales from Japan, Scotland, South Africa, Scandinavia, and Native America. I’m a big fan of fairy tales in general, but one of my struggles is always the classical depiction of women as “awaiting their prince,” “passive,” “beautiful,” “feminine” (whatever this term really means), and other features which all of us have heard as a critique of these great old stories.

I will always love fairy tales, and I’m glad to add “Tatterhood” to the list. The female characters are adventurers, sometime-wives and family members, or sometimes lone, joyful explorers of the world. Theirs are full(er) characters, who are not simply upending the patriarchy but rather living on different terms. Consequently, they embody more of a science fiction voice in response to gender norms, but because of their age (some are from the 19th century or earlier), questions emerge as to why they were not made more popular.

My only complaint: the title. It should — and hopefully will, one day — just be “Tatterhood: Folktales from Around the World.” One day.

Public schools: the starting point for questions, for possibility, for the anti-dictate

I am a field mentor for student teachers getting their masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at New York University. I myself am not a public school teacher, and for this reason, I love coming to schools and working with student teachers and their mentoring cooperating teachers over the course of a semester of developing lesson plans, new strategies, and relationships with the students. These are precious, powerful times for new teachers. Student teachers are learning to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, kind yet clear, and knowledgeable as well as inquisitive. This experience tends to be particularly meaningful for teachers who come from very different backgrounds than their students, especially White teachers from homogenous suburban middle-class towns very different from the busy, multilingual, multiple-way-of-being neighborhoods of New York. By extension are beneficial to these new teachers the ways in which these complex, dynamic communities express themselves in schools, the ways they push their children to think about the world and their place and participation in it.

Community Roots Middle School in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass), a shipping area-turned-artist-haven-turned-locus of gentrification off of the York Street stop on the F train, asks these questions in politically active, clear-voiced ways. The display on the bulletin board in the 7th-grade hallway I visited included the following signage:


Beautiful. Because it always starts with questions.


Image of Angela Davis (above) and political cartoon depicting labor protest.


A brilliant question, one that should be asked over and over again.


The question of resistance.


One of my favorite quotes by Alice Walker.

This is where questions, and questioning, start. Public education cannot be about competition at the global level, or about test scores, or about conformity in and preparation for economically and politically strident times. We are in a time when we believe this is so. Schooling is about starting to ask questions, to learn what is possible, to explore ways of being that are not dictated to us, which is the essence of democracy. Community Roots Middle School, at least in these images, expresses just this.

More love, less labor: adjuncts and the hierarchy of labor in higher education

Teaching is, for those of us who are lucky to have figured this out, a joyful and deeply rewarding profession. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, and have worked with adults from 18 to over 70. I have taught classes on English as a Second Language (ESL), professional communication skills, computer literacy, citizenship, bilingual education, second language acquisition, and other topics. Every class is like waking up to a new way of thinking and problem-solving, as my students and I find new ways to make connections between the material we are engaging with and our worlds. I tell friends and family members that it is seldom that I leave class feeling worse than I did when I got there. I regard it, perhaps a bit selfishly, as the best therapy I’ve ever had.

The problem with therapy, unfortunately, is that unless you have the right circumstances, it’s extremely costly. While I don’t pay, per se, to teach graduate students at two colleges in the City University of New York, as an adjunct, I am compensated little for the amount of work I do. True, some of it is in exchange for a generous teaching fellowship that I receive to do my PhD at the Grad Center. However, I also teach a class at another school in the CUNY system, where, when you break it down, I make what I first made as a new ESL teacher for the labor I put into class for class prep, meeting and communicating with students, and correcting and maintaining student grading and support. “Unthinkable!” my family would say if they knew. “But you have a masters degree and over 12 years of experience…and you’re getting your PhD!”

All true. This is the way of higher education nowadays, the slow and steady fight to save budgets through the ‘adjunctification‘ of colleges and universities across the country. As in other educational contexts, the rise of neoliberal thinking in higher ed – essentially the claim that market values like efficiency, accountability, and bottom-line thinking produce healthy businesses schools and satisfied customers students – justifies the trimming back of faculty and the use of contingent labor to pick up the slack. Read: adjuncts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to put all of this great experience on my CV. It’s nice to know that when I am interviewing for jobs as a professor in the next couple of years, I will be able to say I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students teaching a range of courses that would make me a smart hire for their department. This is seen as a sort of rite of passage, a paying of one’s dues when professionalizing as a professor-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, this situation can be improved once we move past the mystification that is attributed to Being a Professor in higher ed. Yes, it can be argued that all teaching is a labor of love, a point that I will be the first to make. I love this work, because it means I am doing something important, something that has, I hope, a significant impact on the world. Yet I also want to think of myself as more than a low-level laborer in the service of an erstwhile dream of what higher education should be.

We can poke all the fun we want at people pursuing what seems like a wild dream of being a thinker, writer, and educator for a living. However, all individuals have a right to be compensated for their work. And saying that the budget won’t permit such a change, while an expression of the numbers on a page, also justifies the status quo arrangements that divide the haves from the have-nots on faculties across the country. All of us who work in higher ed need to work together to make changes toward a more just arrangement for adjuncts in higher education. It’s time for more love, and less labor, for conditions that are just and compensation that reflects the reality of the work being done. Hierarchies can change and move into new arrangements, so long as there is agreement that justice is a goal that all must share.