Edgar Allan Poe, American Freelancer

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote to another three-namer, James Russell Lowell, swearing that “I am not ambitious” (his emphasis), “because I feel nothing of ambition. I really perceive the vanity about which most men merely prate—the vanity of human or temporary life” (1). This was bullshit. Like all writers who are honest with themselves, Poe wanted readers. Things never worked out so well, unfortunately.

He was a garret-dweller even when he wasn’t living in an actual garret. Poe knew more about renting pinched, grimy spaces than any college student. In large part this is because his short, unhappy life bounced from one poorly paid writing project to another: dashed-off book reviews, his improvisational brilliance saving many from mediocrity even as they vanished from public memory, like book reviews almost always do; brief essays and columns, some of which he published, in multiple venues, as his “Marginalia”; editorial gigs at journals that just kept going under; occasional interviews with loftier figures, such as Charles Dickens in Philadelphia in 1842 (2); unappreciated, shockingly original stories published in obscure magazines, and poems, most of them bad, that received even less attention. Mixed in were letters written from a financial position that was frequently desperate. Here, sick and broke in Baltimore at the age of twenty-four, he writes to his stepfather, John Allan, with whom he had fallen out:

It has now been more than two years since you have assisted me, and more than three since you have spoken to me. I feel little hope that you will pay any regard to this letter, but still I cannot refrain from making one more attempt to interest you in my behalf. If you will only consider in what a situation I am placed you will surely pity me–without friends, without any means, consequently[,] of obtaining employment, I am perishing–absolutely perishing for want of aid. And yet I am not idle–nor addicted to any vice–nor have I committed any offence against society which would render me deserving of so hard a fate. For God’s sake pity me, and save me from destruction.

Allan did not answer and died eleven months later. Poe had been cut from the will.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the United States began molting from a slave-holding backwater into a slave-holding market empire, the nation’s publishing sector expanded quickly. Despite earning very little, Poe’s career in this world of East Coast magazines was active, even frenzied. As both writer and editor, he was a prototype of the modern American freelancer, living gig to gig, collecting bylines, trying to build an audience, rarely making much money, drinking too much, getting holes in his socks–living on the edge of capitalist respectability, in several respects. In 2015, he’d be on Twitter (probably with a morbidly funny feed, given what his stories are often like). He’d have a good blog. He’d be sending pitches to Buzzfeed and n+1 alike. Poe might crop up, pissed and grim about something, on Gawker, or maybe in the Kinja comments.

This was the “thankless field of Letters” (4), where, despite his membership, he was never at home. The “Magazine Prison-House,” as the title of one short essay calls it, left almost no time for longer literary projects. “The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward,” he contends in the 1846 piece “Magazine Literature in America” (5). The reading public is short on attention and tantalized by the new avalanche of written media–a complaint which may sound familiar to 2015’s general readers–and so “Quarterly Reviews,” which are more scholarly and specialized, seem “out of keeping with the rush of the age” (his emphasis). In their place, Poe wants “daily journals” and monthlies. “We now demand,” he continues, “the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused–in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.” I kept thinking of Twitter, and checking Twitter.

Reasonably aware of his own assumptions, Poe also underlines the potential cognitive and culture damage caused by endless “light artillery:

On the other hand, the lightness of the artillery should not degenerate into popgunnery–by which term we may designate the character of the greater portion of the newspaper press–their sole legitimate object being the discussion of ephemeral matters in an ephemeral manner. Whatever talent may be brought to bear upon our daily journals . . . still the imperative necessity of catching, currente calamo [“with a running pen”], each topic as it flits before the eye of the public, must of course materially narrow the limits of their power.

Half a century earlier, in his famed preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth gripes about the same disease of inattention, impatience, and overstimulation, which he calls “a craving for extraordinary incident[.]”

Wordsworth, though, avoided the hodge-podge world of journalists, preferring to write lyrics, some of them quite good, in his cottage. Poe was neck-deep in it. Like many of his contemporaries–like many of us–he was both spooked and thrilled by the modern flood of content, and bled dry by its enabling economic model. The freelancing, permanent-rental economy is not entirely new.

Notes
1) Cited in Jerome McGann, Alien Angel: The Poet Edgar Allan Poe (Harvard, 2014), p. 53.
2) J. Gerald Kennedy, Introduction to The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (Penguin, 2006), xxi.
3) Ibid., p. 455.
4) Poe, “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House” (1845), cited in Ibid., p. 579.
5) Cited in Ibid, p. 599.

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Scott Takes

In one of my classes, we just finished a unit on journalistic criticism, which ended with students writing their own brief review of an assigned novel. (It was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Most didn’t hate it, and I’ve read some excellent papers.) One of the things I emphasized to them was that reviewers have a major sociocultural function, which is to stand attentively amid the incredible, endless stream of artistic productions (books, films, clothing, music, whatever), and venture to make judgments about what’s good and what isn’t–about what is worth one’s time and what is not. There is too much stuff out there. Critics help us make decisions.

When it comes to film, Grantland’s Wesley Morris is my favorite American critic, but the New York Times‘ house expert, A.O. Scott, runs a very close second. He often writes moving, meditative reviews of new movies, but I like Scott best when he gets out his hatchet and goes hunting for bad, lucrative art. His treatment of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore excreta Blended is a cruel classic. It opens this way:

Because life is short and I have other things to be upset about, I will not dwell on the offensive aspects of “Blended,” the new Adam Sandler comedy: its retrograde gender politics; its delight in the humiliation of children; its sentimental hypocrisy about male behavior; its quasi-zoological depiction of Africans as servile, dancing, drum-playing simpletons; its … I’m sorry. That’s just what I said I wouldn’t do.

Take caution, the review concludes, because the film “will make your children stupid.”

Hey, have you heard from those billboards? They turned the fan-fiction phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey into a film. Yesterday Scott got around to it.

*ties napkin around neck, readies knife and fork*

Scott’s work has what Lionel Trilling would call a liberal imagination: it prioritizes and praises films that have a sense of variety, fluidity, complexity, and indeterminacy, and excoriates those with a wooden, simplified, comfortable view of human life. Thus, what makes Fifty Shades such an awful (and it sounds awful) “tale of seduction, submission and commodity fetishism” is primarily its etiolated depiction of human sexuality, which it manages to reduce to kitsch and cliché despite foregrounding BDSM sex, which would seem to offer plenty of opportunities to explore the strangeness of desire.

Jamie Dornan, the actor who plays the handsome bondage-loving plutocrat in the story, “given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity.” He has, observes Scott in a fantastic slash, “the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.” Meanwhile, the female lead character, who is named Anastasia (yeah, I know), “makes no sense. Her behavior has no logic, no pattern, no coherent set of causes or boundaries.” It seems that her main function is to be surprised by wealth, then fucked unconventionally, mostly off-screen of course.

Or not so unconventionally. Scott doesn’t indulge in the cheap snobbery that pegs all popular romantic narratives as melodramatic “women’s stuff,” and indeed you get the sense from the review that he was hoping the movie would be good. After all, it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. The film “fall[s] back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires,” and “love . . . functions less as an emotional ideal than as a literary safe word.”

Trilling would approve. Not only is Scott willing to make judgments–no cheap aesthetic pantheism in his game–he makes them according to the only standard narrative art can really be held to: Does the text engage the frightening, glorious intricacy of human lives, or does it reduce them to pasteboard typology, received narrative, and worn-out, ersatz forms of knowledge? Well, which is it?

General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.

Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

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.

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.

 

Put Me In, Coach, or I’ll Hire Another Coach

In the cover story from last month’s Harper’s, Genevieve Smith tries to make sense of the recent American craze for “life coaches” and other personal-brand/-fulfillment/-identity consultants. Like most everything in Harper’s, it is crisply written. It is also fair. Smith acknowledges that it is easy to mock the idea of a Life Coach (hence coaches now tend to omit the “life”), and she is deeply skeptical of the industry’s premise, viewing it as creepy neoliberal monetization of the acts and values that constitute friendship (empathy, trust, candor, patience). She encounters people who rhapsodize about “producing transformation” and are not kidding.

But Smith admits that life-coaching underscores a reality worth remembering: “our problems are mostly the same,” though they materialize in different forms in different lives and communities.

We are unhappy at work, or if we’re happy at work, we’re working too much and missing exercise or our hobbies or time with our kids. Our parents are sick or dying, or not sick but their minds are going, or at least they’re driving us crazy. Or if not our parents, then our spouses, our friends, our children. We feel disconnected from the ones we love. We feel listless and uninspired. We never followed our passions. We know we’d be happier if we ate right, if we meditated, if we called our mothers, but we don’t. We never do.

Of course, anybody who reads literature, watches films, or listens to music could have told you that. And theoretically at least, the world’s major religions are responses to that shared suffering. Leave it to Americans to look for solace in a transaction that is mainly intended to transform a rudderless client into a more efficient, effective free-agent knowledge worker in a market where secure employment is getting scarce.

Coaches are sort of like teachers (experienced teachers could do this motivational shit in their sleep), and their clients are somewhat comparable to students, in the sense that they are studying something, even if the content is usually delivered as cloudy bromides about Improvement, Actualization, and Motivation, and given physical form in corny group exercises where participants act out their hidden powers or whatever. In one scene, actual grown-ups pretend to inhabit roles like Egyptian queens, surfer-dude Rebels, and fireworks (?). An MBA bro even does a cartwheel.

But the coaching-oriented strain of education entails—indeed centers upon—a monetary transaction. I pay you to coach me, and if I dislike how you coach, you are fired. And that’s fine! That is how capitalism works.

Things can quickly get parlous for the coaches. Many of them work for large consulting companies. In one chilling passage, a group becomes disillusioned with their leader’s techniques. This particular self-bolstering activity that I don’t really get—something Moby-Dickish about embracing the Inner Captain—irritates the clients, so they begin “organizing” their complaints against the instructor, first via e-mail, then personal confrontation. The coach fails to placate them by emphasizing that this is how his program works and that they should be patient. Next time the group meets, they have a new instructor. No more stuff about boats and captains. Like the previous coach, the replacement coach works for the Coaches Training Institute, the final word in whose name is presumably intended to make the firm sound like some kind of not-for-profit, quasi-humanitarian venture.

Again, what happened to the first coach is OK as long as we are talking about an enterprise where a good or service is being exchanged for money. If I dislike your restaurant’s burritos, I’m free to never buy them, or to bitch on Yelp about how the guacamole sucks.

Trouble is, the USA has spent the past few decades clumsily applying this consumer model to most of our colleges and universities. Students and their parents are encouraged to see education as a private good purchased to make a person more employable, and once a student stops conceiving of education as an opportunity to work diligently under the challenging guidance of well-trained experts in multiple disciplines and instead treats it like a commodity transaction, the purchase of a credential bearing a school’s name, fundamentally the same as buying a burrito or a Honda, then the entire project collapses. If getting a bachelor’s degree is like ordering at Chipotle, then it is difficult to convince the tuition-payer (or more likely, student-loan debtor) that handing over money is just the first step, that now the buyer gets to write a lot, read widely, study gobs of difficult math and science, and be evaluated according to rigorous standards developed by people with PhDs. That the degree itself is not the point—the liberal education for which it stands is. It may be exasperating for professors, and a misunderstanding of how institutional accounting works, but the “I pay your salary, so hand me that A” narrative is understandable. I need an A on my burrito.

Now that the majority of American professors have scant job security— like that suddenly unpopular life coach, adjuncts can easily be let go by their employers for the feeblest of reasons—it is difficult to contest this narrative. While this is not the case at every school in the country, it is true of the majority, particularly those that rely heavily on part-time labor. Too often, college teachers have little expectation that their bosses will back them during, say, a dispute over an “unfair” grade, so they inflate gradesreduce writing and reading requirements or soften exams, overlook plagiarism, and try to turn instruction into entertainment. This has been a disaster for higher ed. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate at depressing length in their magnificent Academically Adrift (2011), which someone needs to nail to the US Department of Education’s front door, too many schools are graduating too many students with etiolated critical-thinking skills and communication abilities, which, in a terrible irony, leaves those new graduates unprepared for the global economy to which, they were promised, a college diploma is the golden key.

Education is not a burrito and teachers are not hired coaches. But many Americans, most of whom would publicly declare their respect for education and teachers, no longer understand this, or never did. Our market society, to which universities were once a partial exception, is happy to oblige them. It will not be surprising when the University of Phoenix starts allowing students to collectively fire their teachers or at least purchase alternative ones. I can see this policy catching on elsewhere, too.