More (on) Country

Every year when the Grammy Awards show is on, I find myself wondering who its audience is. No one ever seems happy with the nominees, let alone who wins, and most people are generally unmoved by the really contrived “live” (lip-synced) performances. This past year, Kendrick Lamar (who’s a talented MC, but not the next coming of Nas, as some have claimed) not only lost a statue to these guys, but also had to perform with these guys:

 

Watching “country singer” Taylor Swift awkwardly dance to this crap is pretty funny, but it also underscores something important: the Grammy spectacle isn’t about music at all. It’s TMZ, a reality show singing competition, a couple soap operas, and a weird Judge [Insert Name Here] show all rolled into one. It’s an advertising delivery mechanism meant to titillate Two-and-Half Men viewers, even as they express moral outrage at all the flesh, flash, and crudity on display. It’s maybe the most Hollywood thing on television in that it’s not even trashy enough to be interesting.

If you’re someone who reads this blog and inexplicably finds yourself watching the Grammys, we advise that you go take a leak or pass out during the ten minutes when they announce the country awards or have some generic, horrifically bedazzled Nashviller perform. Ryan’s ably documented the godawful state of contemporary country, with its pop chanteuses, bros of all varieties, and faux outlaws raging against nothing. I would say that we deserve a better class of country musician, but we really don’t. We deserve the crap we’re willing to pay for, and Carrie Underwood concerts alway sell out.

So thank god for YouTube, where you can not only listen to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, but also watch this performance from the 1991 Grammys:

Jiminy Crickets, where to start? You’ve got Gary Shandling, whose Larry Sanders managed to combine the poofy hair of Jerry Seinfeld with the appalling suits of Frasier and Niles Crane. Folks, there was a time when media execs wanted Gary Shandling to host the Grammys. Then there’s Garth Brooks’ shirt. I think we once had some outdoor furniture cushions in that pattern, but I gotta admit, it looks great with a cowboy hat. Then there’s the premise of the vignette that just follows the lyrics of the song:

Grammy Writer: “It’s like a high-society party scene out of Designing Women where Garth is looked down on by snooty types, and then *poof* we’re magically transported to a “dive bar” peopled by Juliard graduates that make him feel right at home!”

Hollywood Suit: “You’re destined for greatness, kid!”

Someone could do a humdinger of a terrible grad seminar paper on this video. Please cite me if you do. From the dinner-theater acting, to Kathy Mattea’s camera face, this marvelous turd is more interesting than anything the Grammys will ever produce again because it’s not even trying to be cool (see the above), a grail quest that has ruined just about everything in our culture. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the song, which didn’t win a Grammy (because Vince Gill won this category *7* times in the 90s), is a classic in genre that seems determined never to churn out another one.

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The One Where I Disagree (Slightly) with Rebecca Schuman

It’s a well-known true fact (see, students, see how bad that sounds?) that we here at TGR are fans of Rebecca Schuman. She’s a big reason why people are talking more about the labor problem in higher education, which for too long was a kind of open secret kept from graduate students until they felt like it was too late to bail out. For her advocacy on this front, we cannot thank her enough.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we never disagree with Dr. Schuman. I understand her arguments in favor of grade inflation, but I’m not persuaded by them. Inflating grades just contributes to our culture of credentialism where merely starting something is seen as practically finishing it. I may be fighting a futile battle, but I think being totally honest with students matters. Grades are one way of doing that. But again, I take Schuman’s point and understand why someone in a more contingent position than me (I exist in a middle space between adjuncts and tenure-track folks) might inflate grades “Because Screw It.”

Earlier this week Schuman wrote another piece that I think is a little wrong-headed. If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the White House’s new plan to rate colleges like we rate blenders. Schuman does a great job of describing and pointing out some flaws in the plan, but her general defense of it boils down to this: “Colleges are run by corrupt administrators. These corrupt administrators are mad about what President Obama and HIS team of corrupt administrators are doing. The plan is therefore worth supporting in spite of its flaws because it pisses off the people I dislike more.” It’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, which again, I get. But in the case of the specific metrics the White House is pushing, this new rating system has the chance to make an already twisted system even worse.

As Schuman rightly notes:

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

This is frankly my biggest fear with this rating system, but the problem goes beyond simply fetishizing graduation rates. The front end of this problem is privileging “accessibility.” People define this term differently, but the bottom line is that we do not have a college accessibility problem in this country. We have debt problems, funding problems, labor problems, administrative problems, and many other problems, but what we don’t have is too few colleges (as of 2011, there were over 4,500 colleges in the United States) or, thanks to the predatory loan system run by the federal government, a lack of funds to pay for tuition up front. If we continue to focus on expanding access and credentialing people, it will allow the federal and state governments to avoid doing what actually needs to be done: radically reform K-12 education so that most people don’t need to go to college.

President Obama’s plan makes sense in light of his “winning the future” rhetoric that equates college education for all with a booming American marketplace. But the strength or weakness of the American economy has very little to do with how many people have college degrees. We can give everyone a STEM degree today (which we might as well if we basically destroy college standards) and nothing will change. What would fundamentally change our economy is making a high school degree matter again by implementing the kinds of traditional educational methods (small classes, engaged and autonomous teachers, difficult curricula) of posh private schools at public schools, particularly those in poor areas. This would mean concessions by state governments, federal officials, and teachers’ unions, but given how much we spend on education compared to a place like, I don’t know, Finland, it’s clear we can and must do a lot better for our money. More testing, technology, Common Core, and rejiggering college rankings aren’t the answers. We know what works, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge lobbying group for old-school humanism these days. If we want to actually fix education in this country though, making a college degree easier to get is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Topical Verse: Memorial Day

I didn’t advertise the last bit of verse I put up because I didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on events in Isla Vista which, as we gather details about the killer and his plans, become all the more horrific. I invite you to go back and read the Bukowski poem though, as I think it has something important to tell us about how our culture teaches us to think about being alone, loneliness (which is different), and self-worth.

Today’s small bit of verse I will advertise though, as I think its message is one we should spend time thinking about on this particular Memorial Day. Published sixteen years before Eisenhower’s famous and totally prescient warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is often one of the shortest poems in anthologies of American verse, but it is surely one of the most accurate descriptions of how the state can instrumentalize people in order to maintain its power (both over the people themselves, and over other states).

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, 
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. 
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, 
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

That’s the whole poem. Its lines aren’t symmetrical, yet it has balance: the awakening from the dream is preceded by two lines about a person, and is followed by two lines about the hard fact that, in the eyes of the “State,” this person isn’t an individual, but rather canon fodder, a substance to be cleaned up, like the foam leftover from a used up fire extinguisher, when it has served its purpose. We get an entire life-cycle in five lines. The key is Jarrell’s implication that the State sees it as its prerogative to wake us, its weapons of war, from the “dream of life” so that we may fulfill our purpose: dying for the State. If you can read this poem and not think about the current VA scandal, you probably haven’t heard of the current VA scandal.

Like many people, my late grandfather served during World War II. He was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, and was sent to a prison camp. He stayed alive until the camp was liberated, but even then he had to make his way back across hostile territory largely on his own. He rarely talked about the war, but often had nightmares that I can’t even begin to imagine. In the last weeks of his life, when he was dying of cancer, the VA treated him with dignity and great care. As it should have. Jarrell’s poem isn’t a condemnation of those who fight in wars, nor is it even a blanket condemnation of war itself. Sometimes it is necessary. But if the state is going to send people off to die, sometimes in the name of folly and hubris, the least it can do is treat those who come home, battered inside and out, as something more than inconveniences. It should treat them all the way it treated my grandfather. If it can’t do that, then something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Isla Vista

I’m sure both Ryan and I will have more to say about the act of cowardly terrorism committed in Isla Vista last night. UCSB is where both of us got our PhDs, learned how to teach, got to work with many wonderful students, and established our (nascent) professional careers after finishing our dissertations. It’s also where I met many inspiring mentors and colleagues, Ryan foremost among them. And it’s why I’m engaged to a woman from a little town in the south of England. UCSB was my twenties. So instead of just spewing all the anger and sadness I have right now, I’ll sit on it for a little while, at least until I have something (if anything) more rational to say. Instead, I’d like to offer up a poem that’s been on my mind all day. Charles Bukowski’s “Oh Yes” is the last footnote in my dissertation about American bachelors, and it’s one all young people need to read, but probably don’t have the experience to understand. And I guess that’s the point, but damn…

“Oh Yes”

there are worse things than
being alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than
too late.

-Charles Bukowski

Early Summer Reading

My grades have been in for a little over two weeks now. I’ve yet to get a complaint from a student about said grades, so I think it might be safe to call it: summer is here. Now, I realize that for everyone not working in education, summer is just a hotter version of the rest of the year. Maybe there are more weekend cookouts. Maybe more white wine is uncorked. Maybe there’s a pilgrimage to some family homestead. But, dammit, even if you don’t get a real summer (and the truth is that most people working in education don’t really have that much time off either, what with summer teaching, course prep, and assorted kinds of career development), there’s a chance that on a warm summer afternoon, you might find yourself with a little time to read. The following are some suggestions for how to fill that time, though we will have more throughout the summer.

  • Let’s just get this one out of the way first. If you’ve yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” you should carve out about an hour and do so. Coates is acknowledged, even by many of his conservative critics, as a great writer. His blog posts and articles about the Civil War, his trip to France, and being a black man in America are always worth reading. Like many writers, his blog posts can be messy, but they’re always lucid, and his longform, and I’d assume more stringently edited pieces, are good examples of what I wish more academics would produce. That is to say, I wish academics, many of whom allegedly study narrative and rhetoric, would spend less time theorizing, and more time time telling compelling stories about the world as it was, is, and could be. When it comes down to it, glossing Foucault doesn’t do what Coates does in the passage below. The tenure system’s perverse relationship with academic publishing is part of what will eventually be the undoing of many colleges and universities. The places that survive will do so because they understand that teaching and public scholarship, like Coates’ work and that of Yunte Huang (notice that he lists “writer” first), are more important than impenetrable “studies” that no one reads.

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

  • If you’re in the mood for something a little shorter, Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly just nails why people in Los Angeles should sneer at the culture in San Francisco (and not the other way around). Having grown up in the Bay Area, it’s pretty appalling to see what’s happened to the place. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a utopian mindset that makes me glad it was people like Axl Rose taking buses out to LA instead of people like Eric Schmidt. When people in San Francisco are done “disrupting” the world, they should consider the following, per Romero:

It’s the Bay that has become a parody of smug white privilege… The preachiness of a McMansion-dwelling Westsider telling you to conserve energy will never be as annoying as some Silicon Valley trust-funder telling you he’s going to change the world when you know all he really wants to do is change his wallet. One is trying. One is lying. 

  • The New York Review of Books is always on its game, but I especially love when it produces a little gem of an article about something I previously knew almost nothing about. It does this all the time, mostly because, like most people I really don’t know all that much. So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my familiarity with the life of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president and the grandfather of one of America’s weirdest intellectuals, was, uh, lacking. Thanks to Susan Dunn, I now know that JQ Adams had a frustrating marriage, hated slavery, was addicted to politics, knew both Washington and Lincoln, was mocked for lobbying for better education and scientific research, and was a total dick to his children. As Ryan and I like to say, “In America!”
  • Finally, this isn’t strictly a reading recommendation, but a film about a voracious reader and writer seems like an appropriate substitute (famous last words…) Plimpton!, the latest American Masters biopic is  about, wait for it, George Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review and “participatory journalist” who famously tried his hand at many different glamorous professions, mostly within the sporting world. He turned these experiences into big pieces for Sports Illustrated, and sometimes later into books. He also wrote light novels, showed up in movies, and had his own falconry video game for ColecoVision (yes, this was a real thing). But I think Plimpton was most important as a curator of an American literary culture that took itself seriously, but also knew how to have a good time. One that wasn’t so political, whiny, and boring. One that didn’t give two shits about MFA programs or “critical theory.” One that would have laughed at “trigger warnings” (thanks, UCSB) and “splaining.” Oh, I know, he was a rich kid who basically just didn’t screw up his life, but I really don’t care. The guy loved writers and writing in a way that most people (including many writers) don’t, so that earns him a lot of points in my book.

 

What’s Old Is New

A few summers back, I taught a course on representations of the “American Dream” in novels after 1980. As is the case with most summer classes taught by grad students, the syllabus was a slapdash affair dreamed up while I was finishing my dissertation and stressing about what would happen when the school cut off my funding and health insurance in a few months. So yeah, I readily concede that my reading list (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad) wasn’t some comprehensive journey through Reaganomics, Clinton’s sexual neoliberalism, and the Bushes’, well, Bushness. It wasn’t meant to be. Mostly, I was just hoping to get some kids living exclusively in their swimsuits in Isla Vista for the summer to read a few books and to think about how we’ve all been set up in this country to have massive expectations that rarely match up with the lives we lead. I wanted them to think about how disappointment, denial, selling out, addiction, and making do are inherent in the American Dream, so that they might, to borrow a bit from Faulkner’s grandest drunk, Father Compson, “forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of [their] breath trying to conquer it.” If literature really is, as Kenneth Burke claims, “equipment for living,” I was trying to give them some matches to burn down the houses they’ll never be able to afford anyway.

But then many of them didn’t bother to read a damn word of any of the books. So much for productive arson. There were, of course, a few kids who kept up with the reading, and I remember a couple even coming to my office hours every now and then to talk about what whether Rechy is a racist and/or a sexist (no), if they are allowed to laugh at Survivor (of course), and what DeLillo was trying to say (figure it out for yourself). I was already long past the point where I took students not reading personally. I mean, how can postmodern American literature possibly compete with this?

In the second-to-last week of the class, I had to leave town for a couple days to attend a wedding in New York. I had planned to show a movie, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, during the periods I would miss, and since it’s a little long, I anticipated being back in time to watch the end with them. The wedding was great, and my trip to New York turned out to be a memorable one when Hurricane Irene decided to strafe Manhattan and turn the place into a weird party ghost town. It was some serious I Am Legend shit walking through the deserted canyons of the city the morning after the storm. Lingering gusts would pick up the occasional chair and throw it across the street, but that seemed like a reasonable price to pay for a New York minute most would never experience. One problem: my flight back to California was cancelled. This meant that I would miss the end of the film, and given how packed the rest of the summer session would be, I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to the students about how Slacker fit into the story our course syllabus was trying to tell.

Much to my surprise, my students forced the issue and demanded that we talk about the movie. Some hated it and wanted to vent. Others, though, were furious at these kids, and explained why it not only fit into the course, but was a really important movie. One girl who hadn’t said anything throughout the semester was particularly moved by the film, and said that it made her feel awful about all the time she’d wasted not trying to make art. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped the novels in the course would inspire someone to say, but I wasn’t expecting that a plotless 20-year-old film about stoners, nerds, and other assorted weirdos in Austin, TX would speak to them. I put it on the syllabus because it was a movie I loved, and because I needed to show a film.

I now realize that I should have seen this coming. Students (yes, even English majors) routinely tell me that they “don’t have time to read,” and we live in an increasingly visual culture. Hell, even the respected business reporter Felix Salmon recently declared himself “post-text.” He writes:

Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce. When it comes to digital storytelling, however, the possibilities — at least if you have the kind of resources that Fusion has — are much, much greater. I want to do immersive digital stuff, I want to make animations, I want to use video, I want to experiment with new ways of communicating in a new medium. I can do all of that at Fusion.

My summer class was a few years back, but this kind of thing was already shaping my students’ minds. Text is just so boring and, well, textual. Still, I was stunned that a film as loose as Slacker made some of them think about anything other than what they might need to remember to pass my reading quizzes, which one student called “the bain (sic) of my existence” in a course evaluation. I am particularly proud of that one.

*

About a year ago, I wrote that Steven Soderbergh may go down as the most important mainstream filmmaker of his generation. I stand by this statement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coens or Wes Anderson are in the conversation too. And after watching the trailer for Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, I kind of wish I’d mentioned Linklater in the same breath as Soderbergh. I can’t help thinking of one and not the other. Like Soderbergh, the diversity of Linklater’s projects sets him apart from other directors. While Anderson’s films have a stylistic consistency, there isn’t a “Richard Linklater look” (other than the fact that the guy himself is in his 50s, but looks about 35). He’s made rotoscoped movies, slick Hollywood comedies, a real-time dramatic adaptation, a gonzo travel show, and, for my money, one of the best and most consistent (from film to film) trilogies ever shot. And this list doesn’t include Dazed and Confused, the best movie about high school and salmon-colored pants ever made.

Linklater’s latest film is perhaps his most experimental. Boyhood tells a simple story about a kid between the ages of six and eighteen, but it has taken twelve years to finish shooting. This isn’t due to some power struggle with a studio, as was the case with Kenneth Lonergan’s excellent movie, Margaret. No, this was by design, as the film uses the same child actor, Ellar Coltrane, throughout. Filmed for a few weeks each summer, Boyhood features Linklater’s frequent collaborator, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette as Coltrane’s divorced parents. Hawke’s role in the movie is particularly interesting, as it means he was involved in two long-term projects with Linklater, including two installments of the Before Trilogy (Before Sunset and Before Midnight) over the course of shooting Boyhood.

As the world becomes more “post-text,” Linklater may be the mainstream filmmaker best positioned to bring the virtues of the novel into film. Hollywood movies have been eschewing long takes in favor of MTV-style quick cuts (Soderbergh is the master of this) for decades now, but Linklater’s process, and his products like Waking Life and the Before Trilogy (which may get even more installments in the future) reveal a commitment to the idea that the fullness of time is integral to understanding relationships between people and ideas. Tweets and shorts are great, but the bildungsroman has been the most durable narrative form because we’re all fascinated by the idea that moments within the thousands of days we’ve lived have determined where we are, and that unknown moments will determine where we will go. The moments need context in order to resonate, and context is what Linklater depicts through dialogue, visual metaphor, and implied scope better than any director today. Watch the trailer for Boyhood to see what I mean.

We’re All Neoliberals Now

Yesterday, I came across a tweet proclaiming that this year’s freshman admits to UCSB have an average high school GPA of 4.15. Think about that for a second. On a 4.0-scale, the kids who have been let in to the fourth or fifth-best public university in the state of California don’t just have above-average grades, but above-perfect grades. Imagine the grades of the students admitted to Cal or UCLA!

“But, Dan,” you say, “how is it possible for students to be more than perfect?”

Well, it’s not. That gaudy GPA is just another example of why the current trends in higher education make a lot of sense given what has been going on for years at the K-12 level. The College Board is a nominally-not-for-profit organization that, among other things, administers “Advanced Placement” high school classes culminating in high-stakes standardized tests. Some high schools and many college admissions boards give students a GPA-bump for taking an AP course, thus making a 3.0 (B) student look like a 4.0 (A) student, or a 3.33 (B+) student look like a 4.33 (A++++++++++++++++++++++++) student. And did I mention that students pay $89 per AP exam? No? Well, they do.

In theory, AP classes are supposed to be college-level courses, but as most of my students have told me, very little of the writing that goes on in any of the humanities AP courses (English literature, US History, English Language, etc.) prepares them for the writing they do in college. Most of the essays assigned in these courses are timed, short, in-class affairs designed to help them beat the test at the end of the term. Individual teachers can assign other kinds of essays, but given that students are paying to take the AP exams, it makes sense that these courses often become semester-long test prep. Call it the Kaplanification of high school.

Now, I love UCSB students. I taught hundreds of them in my time there. But touting this inflated GPA does nothing but make the difference between what the College Board claims as college-level work and and actual college courses more difficult for students to accept. Many, and this is true of students at all schools where I’ve taught, feel lied to. They wonder why they paid for these classes that stressed them out but didn’t really prepare them for college. I can see the value in some of the higher AP math courses offered, but many AP classes are just content-dumps that can’t teach critical thinking and clear writing, two skills a student needs to be successful in and after college. And please understand: none of this is the fault of the teachers leading these classes. They’re doing the best they can to give kids a decent education in a system that is constantly being tweaked by administrators and private interests.

Meanwhile, as LAUSD continues on with its disastrous (and possibly illegal) “iPads for Everyone!” plan, Finland quietly builds a functional public education system by de-emphasizing drill and kill testing which, as this intrepid young American reminds us around the 2:40 mark, doesn’t actually lead to knowledge retention. Please note that nowhere in this Atlantic interview does Krista Kiuru,  the Finnish minister of education and science, mention classroom technology, partnering with private corporations, or using analytics to assess teacher and student performance. No, she uses crazy words like “equality,” “trust,” and “support.”

So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

This shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but we’re trending in the exact opposite direction in the US at both the K-12 and college levels. A few weeks back, I criticized Duke’s Cathy Davidson’s “Remake Higher Education from the Ground Up” MOOC, as well as The Chronicle for giving one of her students a platform to rag on Stanley Fish. Well, the MOOC is done, and Davidson has now written her own piece about the experience. She says that going into the class, she had “so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that [she] wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for [her], away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria.” Fair enough. It continues in a good direction when she says that “as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising costs at American universities today.” Well, thank you, Dr. Davidson, for acknowledging what many of us “hysterics” have been saying for some time. Might we be on the same page? I doubt it.

The following paragraph is the most important in the piece:

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

As far as I know, no one has argued that MOOCs caused our crisis in higher ed. That would be silly. However, this distinction between MOOCs as a manifestation of the problems of neoliberalism and the cause allows Davidson to gush for several paragraphs about how her MOOC could be the start of a “movement.” And she may be right, if by “movement” she means a movement toward more MOOCs and less funding for public education. By working within the logic of neoliberalism, Davidson’s MOOC does neoliberalism’s bidding. Her project isn’t radical, like the simultaneously conservative and socialist Finnish education system. It’s using the master’s tools to build up his house while telling yourself you’re tearing it down. Anya Kamenetz makes the same mistake when she assumes that the ideas in her “$10K BA” won’t be used as an excuse to kill public education once and for all by cutting funding to the bone. While I have to assume good will on the parts of both Davidson and Kamenetz, the fact that they seem more interested in exploring “stirring, rich” MOOC environments than fighting for smaller class sizes, increased teacher autonomy and compensation, fewer standardized tests, and student and parent accountability is disheartening. Neoliberalism is winning, folks. Most Americans are losing.

Linking in the Rain

I am well aware of the fact that much of the rest of the country is laughing at Los Angeles right now. “Oh, poor babies can’t deal with a wittle wain?” Laugh all you want. We accept your derision as the price we pay for living so well 350 days a year. But seriously, this rain IS NUTS. Last night, lightning struck just down the street from my house, and downtown got more rain yesterday afternoon than it had in the previous year. LA is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with this kind thing, which (as Ryan pointed out) John McPhee, Mike Davis, and Carey McWilliams have discussed in some of the classic works of Los Angeles naturalism (and LA naturalism is always at least 50% anthropology). So you could read those this weekend as you wait out the storm, or you could read some of the following;

  • Edward Mendelson, the editor of W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems, has written a terrific essay in the New York Review of Books about Auden’s private acts of charity. The following anecdote is my favorite: “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” Auden’s personal kindnesses were just that, personal. Mendelson argues that, “[b]y refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it…On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.” This is a provocative thesis, but it makes intuitive sense. Auden was a liberal, but one with a sense of humor. And with a sense of humor comes a sense of the tragic ways every man fails to do what he should. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t judge obviously bad actors (from Stalin down to a casually racist relative), just that in holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue we fail to scrutinize not only our own actions, but even our own potential to do evil. Auden sounds like he was, in most respects, a pretty decent dude. But one could probably make a similar case for the pre-presidential George W. Bush (not Dick Cheney, never Dick Cheney). And we all know how that turned out, right?
  • I guess this is a NYRB-themed post, because we’re sticking with that publication, but getting in the Way-Back Machine and heading to 1979. Just read this opening paragraph from Joan Didion’s “Letter from Manhattan,” an essay about Woody Allen (yes, yes, I know, I am not supposed to mention his name): “Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.” I’m always trying (and probably failing) to explain to my students why introductions matter. Perhaps I should just show them this and ask if it makes them want to keep reading. Anyone who says “no” gets an F.
  • To bring things back to Los Angeles for a few minutes, please read this excellent Nicholas Miriello essay from the Los Angeles Review of Books that engages with the following topics: Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Frasier, Spike Jonze’s Her, and Netflix binge-watching. It’s as if he has some sort of NSA file on me…
  • Finally, speaking of Her and the evil we are all capable of, I will once again shamelessly plug work I have recently had published in other outlets. It’s Oscars weekend, so we’ll frame this like an acceptance speech: “First, I’d like to thank Southern Spaces for publishing an essay I wrote on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I’d also like to thank Religion Dispatches for running a piece I wrote about Her. Finally, I’d like you all to support the Hawai’i Pacific Review, without which my poem, ‘Two by Two,’ would have remained but a dream.” (Cue the strings, his head is twice its normal size!)

Stay dry, kids.