A teacher’s work

As professors we often make the mistake of asking each other in the hallway whether we are getting time “for our own work,”  as if whatever it is that we are doing everyday in class and in our offices is not our own work but some alien thing forced upon us that belongs to others.  Our identities get wrapped in the books we’ve written or fantasized about, or the books we’d like to read, and we forget that our real work is the minds and hearts of the human beings in front of us every day.  I’ve been really blessed with some amazing students over the years, and it is especially gratifying to me this week to be seeing so many of them doing so well, and getting notice for their achievements.  A brief sample.

First Liz Laribee, who could not finish an assignment on time to save her life, (and I think there were several that she never finished) but is one of my favorite student ever.  Liz has gone on to become a community organizer, an impresario for the arts at the Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg,  and a fine artist with a growing reputation in her own right.  I’m happy to say that I and my family are the proud owners of three Laribee originals.  Liz and her work were just recognized in Harrisburg magazine. A brief taste of the interview:

Q. What kind of thing would you like to do but have no idea how to accomplish it? What would it be like, and what would people say about it?

I love Harrisburg. I talk about this city more than I talk about men, and that makes my mom really sad. Harrisburg

The only people for me are the mad ones--Liz Laribee, commissioned for Colin Powers.

has continued to feel like my home more than any other place in the world. But this a home in the process of redefining itself. Frankly, to live and work here is to understand the depths and limitations of this geography, these people, this government, and what entropy looks like on the ground. Our current situation is the kind that gets covered by NPR. In varied and

diverse ways, I have seen that act as breeding ground for a changed sociology. As a member of the artistic community here, I find myself surrounded by truly innovative, collaborative people who are committed to bettering this reality. More than anything I’d like to help give Harrisburg a process to funnel its energy into innovation and collaboration: an incubator for the culture being formed in its basement studios. This is the best town on the planet, and I would like to see us live up to our potential. I would love to find a way to help Harrisburg tell a story worthy of its citizens.

via Harrisburg Magazine : Recovering/Uncovering: the Art of Liz Laribee.

Congrats to Liz.

On Saturday, Kimi Cunningham Grant will be giving a reading at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore from her new book, Silver Like Dust: One Family’s Story of Japanese Internment (Open Road Media, 2012).    I just found out about this, so I haven’t had a chance to read Kimi’s book, but the publicity materials describe it as follows:

The poignant story of a Japanese American woman’s journey through one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

Sipping tea by the fire, preparing sushi for the family, or indulgently listening to her husband tell the same story for the hundredth time, Kimi Grant’s grandmother, Obaachan, was a missing link to Kimi’s Japanese heritage, something she had had a mixed relationship with all her life. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, all Kimi ever wanted to do was fit in, spurning traditional Japanese cuisine and her grandfather’s attempts to teach her the language.

But there was one part of Obaachan’s life that had fascinated and haunted Kimi ever since the age of eleven—her gentle yet proud Obaachan had once been a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what had really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?

Obaachan would meet her husband in the camps and watch her mother die there, too. From the turmoil, racism, and paranoia that sprang up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrifying train ride to Heart Mountain, to the false promise of V-J Day, Silver Like Dust captures a vital chapter of the Japanese American experience through the journey of one remarkable woman.

Her story is one of thousands, yet is a powerful testament to the enduring bonds of family and an unusual look at the American dream.

I was lucky enough to have Kimi as an advisee and am thrilled to read her book over the next few days.

And these are only two.  I think of Carmen McCain, writing so courageously and passionately in Nigeria.  Of Debbie DeGeorge who had another play produced this past year.  Both of whom I was lucky enough to work with on honors projects in their senior year.  Of Janel Atlas, who has done so much for mothers who have experienced the loss of still birth.  And Shawn Smucker, traveling across the country in a bus, his kids in tow.  And Sarah Ginolfi, on her way to ordination.  And Louie Marven.  And Paul Gee, and Jonathan Scovner, and Jonathan Felton. And John Francis, traveling the world with guitar in hand. And Morgan Lee–whose honors projects on the politics of memoir I was honored to listen in on today.  And Elena Casey, whose work I will hear on Monday.  And on and on.

And all the many, many, many others, too many to name, every one of them in their own way.

This is our real work.  When we forget that, we forget them, we forget ourselves.

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Uncreative Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith and Liz Laribee on Originality in the Digital Age

Professors have endless angst over the new possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of intellectual property theft in the digital age.  But according to Kenneth Goldsmith in the Chronicle Review, such anxiety misses the point that we long entered a new age of uncreative creativity, a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented since it points to our having gotten beyond simplisitic and romantic or modernist notions of the creative individual.  Of course, Goldsmith is promoting his new book, which I guess he would to take to be some kind of act of creation and for which I’m guessing he will gain his portion of individual profits—though if he wants to share the profits with all those from whom his ideas derive in an uncreative fashion, I’m sure they will oblige.

My snarky comment aside, I think there’s something to Goldsmith’s ideas, encapsulated in his title “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’”  As Goldsmith puts it.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.

Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau’s 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.

I really do think there is something to this notion that there is a mark of “creativity”—sanitized or put under erasure (to use that hoary old theoretical term) by the quotation marks—in the ways in which we appropriate and redeploy sources from other areas on the internet.  We create personae through citation, quotation, sharing, and commentary rather than through creative acts that spring fully formed from our minds and imagination.  What we choose to cite and how we choose to comment on it, who we share it with, what other citations we assemble together with it in a kind of linguistic collage.  On one level this is old stuff, as Goldsmith points out, stretching back to a particular strand of modernism and even beyond.  Indeed, to go with a different reference to Benjamin, the figure of the storyteller is one who is best understood under the sign of repetition and appropriation, retelling stories that take on new meanings through their performance within particular contexts, rather than creating novel stories that exist on the page in the effort to create their own context.

Good behavior is the proper posture of the weak. (or, Jamaica Kincaid)

I’m reminded in this of some of the work of my friend and former student Liz Laribee, whose art I find visually provocative and surprisingly moving on an emotional scale, made up out of assemblage of leftovers.  About her work, Liz says the following:

My work almost always involves the repurposing of something else, and it’s in this process that I am trying to find meaning. Here, I used discarded bits and overlooked scraps of this bookstore to continue telling stories. The authors I’ve chosen are layered in my life in ways I can’t even quite tell you about. The dime novel poems force a new meaning to make room for a cheekier, sleuthier past

I’m not exactly sure what Liz means by a cheekier, sleuthier past, but what I take from it is that detritus, the schlocky stuff our commercial culture seems to vomit out and then shovel in to a corner is not something to be lamented so much as it is to be viewed as an opportunity, an occasion for a new kind of creativity that takes the vacuous surfaces of that commercial culture and creates a surprising visual and emotional depth.

Goldsmith thinks we are still too absolutely captive to old forms of doing things and thinks writing and literature has descended into irrelevance as a result.  He advocated for the development of a writing machine that moves us beyond the cult of personality and intended effect and into a realm of fortuitous and occasional affect.  Students need to be forced, he thinks, not to be original in the old sense, but to be repetitive and find whatever newness there is through this act of what Liz calls “repurposing.”

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative,” she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

I think there is something to this, although I doubt traditional novels and stories will disappear or should, any more than the writing of novels did away with storytelling in the old sense in any absolute way.  But I do think we need to think through, and not only in creative writing classes, what we might mean in encouraging our students to come up with their own original ideas, their personal arguments.

How might this notion change what we are doing, recognizing that we are in a period in which creative work, either artistic or academic, is primarily an act of redeploying, distributing, and remaking, rather than being original in the old sense of that word?

Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.