VCU is back in session, and while I have the same students (I love this part of my job), I’m amazed…

VCU is back in session, and while I have the same students (I love this part of my job), I’m amazed that people who seem so familiar can be, with a new subject, totally surprising. Our winter reading is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel I have taught before, but always in an “Intro to Science Fiction” course. This year I’m teaching it as part of an ethics and critical thinking curriculum, which I’m finding demands a shift to a much more focused interrogation of some of the central questions of the novel—namely how we define ourselves as human. It seems like an easily dismissible question. There are not, for instance, androids among us who pass as human. There are, however, some dramatic ongoing changes in how we define humanity, and in debates about abortion and stem cell research it is by no means a settled issue socially or politically.

On Friday of last week I asked students to write about a passage in the book that highlights just how socially inept the characters are at distinguishing between humans and others. There are tests, of course, throughout the novel, but very few characters ever take the most definitive test of their humanity: a bone marrow sample. Instead, they are left to muddle through social interaction and to use vague categories as their guide.* The scene is Luba Luft’s arrest and retirement. Everyone in this passage has their own deeply invested sense of how we perform our humanity. Luba’s is method to value art, something Phil Resch is wholly unable to do.

Art, the novel seems to argue, demands empathy from its viewer. Art points us toward an ethical framework. It helps us see and give meaningful consideration to the world.

We’re testing this theory in class. For the last ten minutes of every Monday class I’m giving the students a work of art to look at, and I’m staying silent. I’ve asked the students in those ten minutes each week to take over, to regulate their own debate on something with which they are unfamiliar. I’ve asked them if their performance in this capacity can actually prove they’re human. 

Their responses are fascinating. Even though I’m bowing out of the conversation, they’re constantly looking to me for support. They’re asking one another questions, panicking when they fall into awkward silence, alternately encouraging and arguing with one another. It’s the start of something new and something that feels productive. 

Maman (1999), in Tokyo 2011.

Today I gave them Maman by Louise Bourgeois. The range of their responses was incredible. One class sat in almost complete silence for the full ten minutes, some students occasionally looking up as if to speak and then deciding against it. In other classes some expressed fear and alienation. One student said she wanted to climb it. Several admired the delicate stance of such an enormous object.

Only a couple of students commented that the spider reminded them of the spider in the novel, which Priss and Roy torture. One said quietly that Priss and Roy are right—the spider could certainly walk on four legs.

*imprecise or arbitrary categorizations are some of the most frequent hurdles I run into in the classroom and are some of the hardest habits to overcome.

——

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York: Del Rey, 1968.

Malchik, Atom. Roppongi Hills, Mori Tower – Maman (1999), sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Feb. 2011. Flickr. JPEG file. 

VCU’s Cobblestone

Today I began to put together materials for my spring course website. We’ll be looking at the history of our school and our city this spring, and I wanted historical images of VCU to post online. In looking through archives I found copies of our old yearbook, Cobblestone, from 1973. The images are amazing. It’s easy to see how remarkable a school VCU was in the 70’s, with vibrant art and social programs.

From the Department of Psychology:

from Art History:

The School of Education:

The School of Community Services:

Biology:

Communication Arts and Design:

members of the Nyeusi Theater Troupe:

Sculpture:

The images are accented with small passages from artists, writers, thinkers, and frequently from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, no doubt in an effort to speak to their project of documenting the present. The present, they realize, is quick to pass:

The impulse toward transience in art explains the whole development of that most transient of art works, the ‘happening.’ The happening, according to its proponents, is ideall performed once and once only. This happening is the Kleenex Tissue of art.

Looking through the yearbook, VCU gives me the sense that it was one long happening: a performance one would be lucky to catch. Today these images look unspeakably nostalgic, and Toffler’s analysis seems to apply not only to the celebrities of his era, but to the people pictured above, as small ambassadors of a university that has changed tremendously in the past 40 years.

“Twiggy, the Beatles, John Glenn, Billie Sol Estes, Bob Dylan, Jacky Ruby, Norman Mailer, Eichmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georgie Malenkov, Jacqueline Kennedy—thousands of ‘personalities’ parade across the stage magnified by contemporary history. Real people, magnified and projected by the mass media, they are stored as images in the minds of millions of people who have never met them, never spoken to them, never seen them ‘in person.’ They take on a reality almost as (and sometimes even more) intense than that of many people with whom we do have ‘in-person’ relationships.”

I have searched VCU’s system, and few of the people pictured above appear. Today I am a faculty member at their school, doing a similar job in a now dissimilar campus in a city they might not recognize. Their presence seems like a kind of celebrity; they’re mythic, as is their era.

——

The passages above come from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. I don’t know what edition the editors of Cobblestone had, but my own copy is about the right period:

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.

A happy coincidence: not long after I wrote here about teaching…

A happy coincidence: not long after I wrote here about teaching “State of the Planet,” and, consequently, spent hours researching the Arctic Curlew, another Tumblr-er has written about them on her own page, including the beautiful print you see above. Biomedical Ephemera appears to have gone Curlew-mad. You can see images of several varieties on her site.

biomedicalephemera:

“Eskimaux Curlew and Little Woodcock

Like the passenger pigeons (though certainly on a smaller scale), the Eskimo curlew was once considered one of the most numerous birds in the Americas, and the most abundant shorebird. In the 19th century, upwards of 2 million individuals were killed per year. 

“The last time the Eskimo curlew was confirmed in South America is 1939. A photograph of one was confirmed in Galveston, TX, in 1962, and a specimen was found in Barbados in 1963. Since then, all sightings have been unconfirmed and most have been unlikely. The species is currently listed as critically endangered, but presumed extinct.”

Arctic Zoology. Vol II, Class II: Birds. Published by Henry Hughs, 1785.

Finals week is jackrabbit country.

“People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now & then….No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of the road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.”

                     – H.S. Thompson

I don’t know jackrabbits, but I have spent enough time in universities  to know that this same phenomenon can be seen in our undergraduates. Food, sex, and academic games of chicken: these are their highs. I see it moments before a presentation, when what should be weeks of planning happens at lightening speed, sometimes in front of the class before the lights dim. I see it in the last 40 minutes before a paper deadline, when my email box fills with urgent questions about the specifics of an assignment, or dramatic retellings of technological traumas, both meaningful obstacles to assignment completion and glitches insignificant in the face of submission. 

I saw it last week: finals week. No amount of reason could have saved them the gut-wrenching horror of waiting till 48 hours after the deadline to submit an assignment. I know because I tried. They love the fear, the intensity, even in the face of impending failure, which they fear with the same hysterical incomprehension as a jackrabbit might fear death.

After years of trying to design assignments that cannot be put off, I now accept that I have no right to deny them this thrill. Instead, I give them the jackrabbit analogy, and some recall the sight of a rabbit, a squirrel, or a dead they have left spread along the highway and exhibit a reticent willingness to work ahead. Others do not. It is a livable compromise.

——

chiral_mirror. ”Run, Rabbit, Run!” 23 July 2009. Flickr.

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72. New York: Warner Books, 1973.

December, finals week. [or: it’s not procrastination if this is even remotely work-related]

I’m wrapping up the semester and happened to notice something. The first poem my students and I read this year was Raymond Carver’s “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year,” which begins:

“October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen 
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face. 
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string 
of spiny yellow perch, in the other 
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.”

We concluded with Robert Hass’s “The State of the Planet:”

“October on the planet at the century’s end.
Rain lashing the windshield. Through blurred glass
Gusts of Pacific storm rocking a huge, shank-needled
Himalayan cedar. Under it a Japanese plum
Throws off a vertical cascade of leaves the color”
Of skinned copper, if copper could be skinned.

The first word of Carver’s poem is a lie. The first word of Hass’s poem did not strike me much until, in the midst of final papers, I realized why it sounded so familiar. 

My students and I make much of Carver’s lie the first week. We talk about Wittgenstein’s beetle, testing his theory by bringing to class images that, for each of us, would make a good illustration of the word beetle, and a few other words relating to Carver’s poem and essay and the personal essays that follow. The results are always amazing. We don’t see the same things, and in the end it seems wiser to try to communicate meaning rather than truth.

Hass wrote his poem on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory. Carver could not write his poem, could not write about his father, until long after he’d lost this photograph. What links there might be between the two are hard to say. This is perhaps our first question for the spring semester. In the meantime, I do not know what month the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was founded, but I do know it feels like ages since the first week of the semester. Perhaps for this reason it’s comforting to know that (all things being equal) it’s still October.  

The state of the semester and (by very ambitious extension) the planet.

Somehow, totally inexplicably, this is our last week of the semester. I would report this with total hysteria, except I’m very lucky to have students I will keep for the entire year. This makes the last week stressful for all sorts of housekeeping reasons, but at least there won’t be any goodbyes.

Tomorrow my students will submit their final paper, a study of some new technology that they feel will make a real impact on a large scale. I’ve seen a lot of great topics, from accessible water filtration to augmented reality contact lenses. We spent a lot of time working up to this topic. We’ve talked about individual and community perspectives on progress, and extensively about communities as ecosystems. We’ve read Nicholas Carr, Andy Clark, Jamais Cascio, Neil Postman. They are ready, I’m sure, to finish their paper, and their semester’s work.

It’s easy as the semester wanes to focus on wrapping up loose ends and to lose focus on content. To refocus our thoughts and (no spite intended) to prove to Carr that we can still read deeply I’ve given them Robert Hass’s “The State of the Planet” for tomorrow. The assignment comes from a presentation I saw at SAMLA by the aforementioned Paul Corrigan. He has kindly offered me the slideshow he has given to his own students illustrating many of the phenomena described by Hass in the poem.

So far this year our work with poetry has been limited to Raymond Carver and Saul Williams, both of which I hope to write about here at some point. Poetry is always a test of reading skills, for the novice and the committed reader. Tomorrow, though, I think poetry will be a test of our ability to share briefly some perspective. I’m not yet sure what that perspective will be. If Hass is right, each technological advance is  a testament both to that which is most remarkable and most precarious about our species. That we are each one of billions is perspective we could all no doubt use. Hass wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory. We will read his poem more than ten years and one billion people later. What, now, can any of us say with any certainty about the state of our own small hideaways, much less that of the planet?

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could” (section 4 lines 19-21).

Indeed. If we could, who could be bothered with a paper due tomorrow at 5pm? With preparation for class? With this blog post? Wonder, I suspect, is much more difficult to learn than most of the things we encounter in the classroom. This is not a criticism of education; it is simply and necessarily so. That said, I hope we can seize a little wonder tomorrow and reflect on how that which we’re inclined to treat as perfunctory (class for example) might be treated instead as a chance to borrow another perspective—to observe, take note, and to feel, frankly, a little bit shocked.

Hass’s poem is not available online, but Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is. Smile, and let the hollows of the serene sky glow with diffused radiance for thee.

——

Hass, Robert. Time and Materials. New York: Ecco/Harper Collins, 2007.

Every once in a while

it all comes together. As a teacher, I live for this.

I almost never see it, but today it’s here: the perfect storm. For weeks my students have been debating at length the all-too-fuzzy distinction between public and private space. We’ve looked at a variety of issues: homelessness, parks, graffiti, universities, you name it. As part of this debate, we’ve been looking at the internet as a kind of “space,” not literal or geographic, but still something we all inhabit together.

Then this happens, all on one day:

American Censorship Day and Occupy Richmond occupies the mayor’s yard.

I feel so…fulfilled. In class we’re looking at Boone’s yard and 4chan (though we will not, of course, literally look at 4chan, as I would lose my job immediately). Who has the right to what space, and how are they allowed to use it?