Friday, October 12, 2007

notes toward a modernist pedagogy

I'm interested in what it means to teach modernism in the manner appropriate to the modern text. I do not think that doing this enacts the imitative fallacy - that is, why would someone need necessarily to teach modernism in a modernist way? What's the advantage? These would seem to be a legitimate doubt, but please read on and tell me if I'm wrong. Let me start here with the final lines of a famous poem by Gertrude Stein:

They cannot.
A note.
They cannot.
A float.
They cannot.
They dote.
They cannot.
They as denote.
Miracles play.
Play fairly.
Play fairly well.
A well.
As well.
As or as presently.
Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.
--Gertrude Stein, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”

History doesn’t teach that history teaches. Modernism is a topic but also a mode, on the other hand, in which the recitation of what history teaches is ironized. The conventional denotative pedagogy ([teacher points to text:] “This is what it means”) is not up to the challenge of permitting the performance of this self-reflexivity. In modernism’s materials is implicitly a meta-pedagogy. In the years since the emergence of digital media and ubiquitous connectivity – and as its effect on the delivery of materials to the classroom but also its storage outside it becomes profound – the irony of the lecture on modernism has become increasingly obvious and disabling.

At a conference sponsored by the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management on "The Virtual University" in early 1995, the urban sociologist and former university president Martin Meyerson said: “The best lectures have always been those that deal with ‘tentative materials’ that result from the professor's research. If they cease to be tentative, don't include them in the lecture; print them. The main teaching function has to be interactive.” The world wide web was new then, and when Meyerson said “print them,” it was quickly pointed out in the discussion following his remarks, he might now have meant, “digitize them and make them available on the web.”

But the pedagogical change these remarks augured was hardly in error. The sociologist’s slip about printing suggests that the advent of the web was not required to bring on this reform, but it certainly has catalyzed it. (So, too, new versions modernism arising since the mid-1990s bear with them methods and even some technical practices that pre-date digital connectivity, but the emergence of the latter can still be said to coincide with further developments. My point is that teaching has as yet changed only superficially in response to all this.) The great change, I would submit, is especially difficult for, let us say, historians, for whom disciplinarily the display of “tentative materials”—in the classroom or in scholarly articles and books--is generally greeted with concerns about professionalism – where, as Gerald Graff negatively contended in Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), arguments about the state of the field have already taken place and been more or less resolved by the time the professor walks onto the classroom stage to perform the current state of knowledge and even of method. Historiographers, focused on method, would rightly call this generalization into question, but my point is that the field of modern poetics is utterly different: the whole idea we want our students to grasp is that modernism itself promulgated tentative materials—that the texts we study are tentative in this very basic sense, that (to take Wallace Stevens’s classic modernist formulation) the poem is the act of the mind finding what will suffice for the moment. And, so, what of the mind of the teacher?

The pedagogy of fixed materials is a fundamental, potentially disabling irony. The call to move fixities – for example, informational materials about literary history, the chronological flow of aesthetic movements, etc. – to a shared retrieval space (the web is ideal) literally frees the teaching time and space for a tentativeness that is not just characteristic of the art itself but must also be of the manner in which it is presented. Meyerson’s sense of “research” here refers, in the context of modernism, to some sense of sharing with the orientation to process in the poetry itself. While the books and articles produced by the teacher as a disciplinary expert (and tenure-seeker) might well eschew the flux and openness of the texts under study there, I would insist that the practice of teaching cannot. The irony produced by such a refusal closes off the main avenue by which the student interacts with a kind of writing that seeks interactivity and is (often) about it.

Kenny Goldsmith, founder and curator of UbuWeb and creator of a course called "Uncreative Writing," responds:

[H]aving come to teaching in an age of non-fixed materials, I can't imagine the classroom situation as otherwise. So, I might be the wrong person to comment on this: for me, it's always been this way. And I've never taught in a room that's not wired -- at the Art Institute last semester, I insisted on a networked classroom with projector and screen or I told them that I would refuse to teach at all. Such is the environment today.

I teach horizontally, meaning that while I might begin with a fixed idea of what I'm going to teach that day, I let it drift rhizomatically way off topic, often pulling it back when it gets too far. I rely on non-fixed materials to teach this way; the whole world is at my fingertips. Should I go off on a tangent about John and Rauschenberg and their love relationship as expressed in Rauschenberg's bed, an image of that bed is always a click away. From there, we can head anywhere into the non-fixed universe, be it film, text or sound. And of course, that always takes us elsewhere. As Cage says, "We are getting nowhere fast."

The flip side of all this is that the web itself is a non-fixed space. Much of what is there on Weds afternoon is gone or unavailable on Thursday morning. So, I must, within reason, somehow fix that space for lecture purposes. I PDF like mad and archive; I always bring an external hard drive crammed with hundreds of gigabytes should the thing I'm looking for not be available. Also, much of the stuff I teach is so non-fixed that it never appeared in any sort of stable form, rather its nature is ephemeral. So, the teacher becomes an archivist (but haven't we always?).

The secret, though, is making the materials available in a sharable form that can be passed around. Xeroxes can only go so far. So in that way, the pedagogical materials need to be truly non-fixed, even at the risk of breaking arcane and outdated notions of copyright law. The students need things to take away with them, to listen to on their iPods, to share, to love... to possess.