Friday, 25 October 2019

Treading carefully with words

Note: first paragraph uses the N-word in the context of classroom discussion.

Hello from the end of a long, draining, but also exhilarating week. I've been teaching a lot: The Great Gatsby (takeaway: rich people have something resembling feelings too), The Just-So Stories (fascinating, and more complex than I remembered them, and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. Even typing the word makes me uncomfortable, and we started the class with a discussion of when and by whom the word can be used. My classes are ethnically diverse and people have a wide range of views about race, so a lively discussion always ensues. The first question was a bit of a zinger: do people sing along when the word is used in a hiphop song? Answer: no, and that includes the black students who generally believed that they could use the word because they'd reclaimed ownership of it: there was a sense that it was OK to experience the word used in art but not to employ it oneself unless it's clearly marked off with quotation marks, such as in the book's title, and even then people were reluctant in case repetition took away the sting. In case you're interested, I relied on a couple of journal articles to guide the conversation: Randall Kennedy's 'Who Can Say "Nigger"? And Other Considerations and Emily Bernard's 'Teaching the N-Word' – Kennedy is against fetishising the word by making it taboo, while stressing the multiple signifieds it represents, while Bernard's piece is a more reflective piece about the lived experience. The word's history and power is terrifying, and an Emory University professor was recently fired for using the word within quotation marks in conversation with a student: he was quoting what some racists had said about his support of African-American causes.

Gil Scott Heron's title announces his novel's purpose: he uses the word to denote African-Americans who conform to white American cultural standards and therefore maintain an oppressive system in exchange for material comforts: the Factory is the black university which produces
 quasi white folks and semithinkers whose total response is trained rather than felt. Black students in the 1970s will not be satisfied with Bullshit Degrees or Nigger Educations. 

The book is on my module because we wanted something which raised the big questions about the relationship between art and activism, and the ideological positions that range from 'art is separate' to 'art is nothing unless it is activist'. In these days of the apparently apolitical student, it does no harm to remind them that universities and especially students' unions used to be something more than a marketing department with some deportment training attached. The novel extends the examination of historically black colleges found in Ellison's Invisible Man and less directly, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time from the previous generation, and explores the rise and fall of student militance in the late 1960s, ending on a very ambiguous note. We took in Scott-Heron's music too, always a pleasure. We discussed the Frankfurt School's approach to popular culture, the Black Arts Movement appropriation of revolutionary energy (hence the presence of the Bill Hicks routine), hegemony, didacticism and the role of art in political education, which is how I ended up playing them snatches of The Lark Ascending and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as examples of art responding in very different ways to trauma.

You can tell from the text's presence on the module where I stand on this: I would never use the word independently or gratuitously, but I'm prepared – though not comfortable – to introduce it when used by those who've reclaimed it. We always start with an informed discussion of the word's history and establish a serious, thoughtful atmosphere, making sure that nobody has to say it and that its use isn't lighthearted. This is the second time I've taught this novel, and both times the students have more than risen to the occasion. It's been uncomfortable of course, especially for the BAME students whose emotional labour is obviously greater than that of the white students, but I think that they appreciate the intention and the atmosphere established. Also: it's a powerful book that justifies its use of the word.

So the teaching has been exhausting but also thrilling because it feels like we've been wrestling with the big questions about literature, form and content all week. I also played a minor role in a session on public speaking for the first-years, and observed a new colleague's teaching practice, learning a lot along the way. The older I get, the more I approve of vampirism. I've also spent the week reading an interesting PhD for examination at another university. I can't say anything about it for professional reasons, but doing this kind of thing does really make me feel like a part of a wider unseen community that does matter. There hasn't been much time for reading beyond the curriculum though and I was too exhausted for the deep stuff - I read the fourth Green Knowe novel, Stranger at… which was troubling and compelling (up there with Susan Cooper), a minor Pratchett (Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook) and I'm most of the way through Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which is every bit as good as everyone says: a mixture of historical fiction and gothic melodrama which re-energises both those genres. I normally read her stuff the moment it comes out, so I don't know why I waited for so long with this one. Anyway, highly recommended.

After all that, I need some diversion, so tomorrow I'm off to see friends and colleagues acting in an am-dram country house mystery. It's not – officially - The Play That Goes Wrong, but I have hopes. And there's a raffle.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Sounds simple…

I seem to have been thinking about race and empire a lot recently, thanks to the way my teaching and reading have worked out. Earlier in the week I taught Treasure Island alongside an esteemed colleague, and later today it's James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

Treasure Island is a curious beast - a tale of shenanigans and greed on the high seas, yet featuring not a single native: the Island is uninhabited. What you get instead is the story of white men's degradation: they're all British (or are they?: King George and Christianity are repeatedly invoked anyway) and their moral failings are bred at home – the story starts and finishes in England. The Squire talks too much, Dr Livesey is a bit judgmental, the Captain isn't decisive enough, Jim Hawkins is impulsive, Silver is an opportunist, Israel Hands is a murderer and O'Brien is 'a rank Irelander'. Blind Pew is simply an errand-boy for evil. The absence of any natives distinguishes TI from Robinson Crusoe and many of the other desert island stories, but I think it also critiques the Imperial narrative. These are not the brightest and best muscular Christians out to 'civilise' the globe: they're greedy adventurers out for ill-gotten gain, including our hero: one side is more willing to use violence than the other, but there's not a lot between them. As an advert for the British mission to the world, it's not great.

However, I do wonder whether there's a national hierarchy at play too. The Squire – representative of the decayed aristocracy so neatly skewered by Matthew Arnold as Barbarians – is Cornish. The doctor is (like McCoy of the Enterprise) probably Scottish, Silver and Israel Hands might be Jewish, O'Brien is, as Silver points out, foul because he is Irish, while Pew is surely an anglicisation of ap Huw> Puw and therefore Welsh. Treasure Island therefore can be read as an attack on the post-hoc myths of Empire, or a reinforcement of the need for English leadership of the nations of these islands: without Jim's pluck and good sense, the lesser types feckless, lazy, sneakiness will bring about ruin and decay.

Stay tuned for my similar lecture on Anne of Green Gables as Celtic Disciplinary Narrative, later in the same module. Seriously: fiery over-emotional red-head learns to behave under the tutelage of sombre Presbyterian folk, while softening their harder edges? She's Irish. Oh, and the French farm-worker is always referred to as a boy. Anglo-supremacism all the way. Before that though, I get to look at this all over again in next week's class on The Just-So Stories, Kipling's proto-Forsterian children's stories.

This afternoon's class is on The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's short letter and essay on the state of African-American conditions - it's angry, elegiac, passionate, uncompromising and clear-headed. Baldwin assesses the multiple routes to liberation: Christianity, Islam, integration into white cultural values, violent revolution and more, and concludes that militant resistance may be necessary as long it comes from a position of love: 'It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate'. I'm really hoping the students take to it.

Funnily enough, the SF novel I'm just coming to the end of is also partly about slavery, oppression and the spiritual damage wreaked on slaves, owners and their descendants: Paul McAuley's In The Mouth of the Whale has all the furniture of space opera - huge distances, generation ships, posthumans, simulated universes and AI, but comes down to an examination of the distorted societies and mentalities spawned by brutal oppression. Intriguingly, it's partly set in provincial south America, just like Macdonald's Brasyl: magical realism and some SF have a lot in common.

It's not all been grim musing on the evils we do each other: I've also been to a regional fencing committee meeting, done some actual fencing, and went to a concert last night called The Thrill of the New - the Schoenberg Five Pieces was as recent as 1909! Since the CBSO had its funding slashed its programmes have been extremely conservative, so I go along to anything that's even vaguely contemporary. I liked the Schoenberg, but the programme as a whole felt rather conservative: nothing electric or electronic, and nothing truly abstract or atonal. John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine is always a pleasure to hear, but it's not exactly a challenge. Widmann's Con Brio (not as good as his 180 beats per minute) and Kats-Chernin's Big Rhap were fun but resembled film scores, while Daniel Kidane's Woke paid tribute to Copland, Adams and Reich attractively but I couldn't detect much consonance between the subject matter and the music.

I liked the extract from Ades's Powder Her Face but couldn't see anything in Higdon's String Lake beyond pretty textures. The real missed opportunity was Steve Reich's Clapping Music. 

The audience got to clap the non-changing line while the musicians clapped the changing one. It was a great insight into the challenges of such a technical piece, but a crowd of 600 obviously can't keep up and the whole thing dissolved into mush. That would have been fine if the musicians had then performed the piece themselves – it's only 3 minutes long – but that didn't happen: we just moved on. What filled the time instead was a series of mini-lectures with Powerpoint slides on each piece.

As 'new' goes, this was disappointing: virtually all tonal pieces with nothing to scare the horses, scaffolded by a presentation (complete with lame gags) to make sure that the implied audience of nervous conservatives weren't put off by the occasional dissonance or odd time signature. It didn't imply much faith in the Great British Public's appetite for innovation, nor much confidence in contemporary music to have much to say to them. The playing was of course beautiful, because it's the CBSO, but it still strikes me as very odd that 'the new' can encompass a piece written 110 years ago. I find it hard to believe that Mozart and Beethoven's potential audiences were as nervous, or that they refused to listen to anything written within living memory. If this was pop, it would be the equivalent of crowds demanding that Ariana Grande only sing music hall numbers.

What would I put on? Well, I'm not sure my tastes are particularly interesting, up-to-date or adventurous, but I'd certainly include some Reich, but also some Meredith Monk, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Kate Whitley, Saariaho and Pauline Oliveros.

Don't have nightmares…

Friday, 11 October 2019

Peter Rabbit to the Frankfurt School

In haste today, as I'm teaching all afternoon (the Frankfurt School applied to Black Panther); got the Open Day talk (shout-out to the External Relations team for sending all staff last year's arrangements) to overhaul for tomorrow (BS Johnson v Jilly Cooper head to head) and an introduction to write for tomorrow's Birmingham Literature Festival gig - I'm chairing a discussion about new canons, connected to the BBC 100 Novels That Shaped Our World project – something that should produce at least a year's worth of arguments rich insights into the reading public's relationship to the novel after what's been a fairly complicated century or so's literary and cultural development.

I can't decide whether this week has been ridiculously busy or pretty ordinary: I've done a lot, but much of it was familiar and predictable (other than playing Where And When Have They Moved Today's Class Without Telling Anyone? a few times). Can it only be 4 days ago that I was ranting about Thoreau, Emerson, the Over-Soul and Whitman? Have I successfully promoted Team Potter (Beatrix) and persuaded the kids that Thomas is the servile jester for an oppressive, reactionary society that's coming back? If not, this is all you need:

I've been fencing, which was fun except that my friends active on the European circuit have had to adopt a new interpretation of what constitutes an attack which basically means I'm never allowed to score again. At least, that's my explanation. But at least my injured arm hasn't dropped off. I've also managed to read a couple of books. The first one was Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, which showcases the libertarian aspects of his left-libertarianism, and was clearly written in the aftermath of New Labour's authoritarian outrages. The plot is easy: a pregnant woman declines to take the miracle pill that tidies up her embryo's DNA while refusing to employ any of the theological get-out clauses. There's some really subtle exploration of Scottish islanders' Free Presbyterian values and the surveillance state stuff works well, but the Wellsian glimpses of a de-evolved future, while well done of themselves, detract from the moral force of the central ethical dilemma. I'm a fan of MacLeod's work, and the role SF has in pulling apart hegemonic claims, but this one just felt a tiny bit disjointed compared with his others. I also read Catherine O'Flynn's first children's novel, Lori and Max: short, snappy, very moving and a compelling narrative voice - Emil and the Detectives meets Tracy Beaker. It's published by a small Welsh independent press, Firefly Press - give them your money. Then I consumed bite-size chunks of the Daily Telegraph's collection of obituaries: Vol 4 - Rogues. To the Telegraph, anyone who voted Labour or disliked golf was a rogue, but it's like a potted guide to the mad, the bad and the unmannerly. Anton LaVey of the Church of Satan rubs shoulders with the Reverend Peter Gamble, whose paedophilia is excused in passing with the phrase "the physical element was limited"; the rest of the book consists of eccentrics, charlatans, dissipated aristocrats, con-men and foreigners (all rogues by fault of not being Englishmen). Hugely enjoyable. And now I'm half-way through The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman's latest in the Lyra Bellacqua series. He's pulled off the trick of moving his story-world from children's literature into adult fiction rather well, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the passing references to Lyra's body and sexuality - perhaps because an old man writing about a 20 year old's body feels a bit Philip Roth, perhaps because the character is somewhat fixed in my imagination as a teenager and therefore someone whose sexuality is none of our business. Serial fiction is tricky…

Apart from that, I think it works well - Pullman is still annoyed with anyone who'd make a convict of the soul and the imagination, and he seems pretty pissed off at Richard Dawkins and his Gradgrindian crew for their humourless rejection of metaphor and the numinous.

See you on the other side.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Beware of the Leopard

Another Friday rolls by and I feel both aged and exhilarated. Aged by the relentless series of organisational failures that have enraged students and thus their academic supporters, and exhilarated because you never feel more alive than when you're trying to guess where Timetabling have hidden your class today, whether it clashes with other compulsory classes and whether there will be enough tables and chairs (answers: in the cellar with no light and broken stairs, in a disused lavatory behind a door marked 'beware of the leopard'; yes it does, and no there aren't). How we've managed shrinking student numbers with inadequate rooms is a question for the Metaphysics department, if we still have one.

Well, we'll see who rusts first.

The actual teaching has been a delight: introductory lectures for American Literatures (room for 30 people, 39 students present); Children's Literature (room changed without notification), learning labs (campus, building, room and time changed within two hours of class starting, no notification) and later today (I assume), Populist Texts where we're taking a Cultural Studies approach to Black Panther because it's interesting and we're what the kids call 'woke', though I confess the grammatical horror makes me blanch. Which is ironic when we're talking about blackness.

The other delight of the week was the two-day marathon that is writing Academic Enhancement Plans: an 18 page document that involves navigating the world's worst database to cut and paste statistics into a Word document so that we can then add a short commentary and RAG rate them (i.e. use traffic light colours to denote bliss, indifference and horror), then send said statistics back to the people who already had them, and who show little actual interest in any of the prose-form things we say to them except when someone snitches to senior management about what I write here.*

Why we lack a system that can send the relevant person the relevant figures, already RAG rated so that we can do the important bit of saying how we'll fix the bad bits is clearly a question for my superiors but I will note that I missed two days of writing lectures and research (sorry, 'generating outputs') for which failure my colleagues and I will no doubt be roundly criticised by some other aspect of the Terror. Added to the general sense of pointlessness is the unavoidable fact that with recruitment at rock bottom, all the stats for my course are statistically insignificant.

That said, the major issue for my courses is BME attainment and turning from general awareness to cold hard facts is salutary: worse progression through the years and a lower chance of achieving a First or a 2.1. The reasons, of course, are complex and the classes are so small that individual situations make a huge difference to how they're doing, but the plain fact is that these students have been failed at school level, are more likely to be economically deprived, and we're failing to make up for this at university. My course is culturally open - analysis of texts and theoretical approaches reveals that we teach more books/poems/plays by and about people from ethnic minorities than pretty much anywhere else, and we've always highlighted postcolonial theory and related ideas even when we're looking at texts generated by the hegemony (I dream of offering a modules called The Brits Are At It Again which could cover pretty much every subject), but it's not the complete answer. I keep thinking about offering a discrete module on BME Literature and Theory (we have one called Women's Writing), which has some attractions in that it would highlight some amazing work, but I fear that unless it was compulsory, it would attract BME students while most others would avoid it. Also, the staff is all-white and while it's horrendous to think only BME students and staff could study or teach this material, white authority explaining black cultures is not a good look.

We offer enormous amounts of academic support, but I'm damned if I'll put on classes specifically for BME students as if they were a problem, which is how the Office for Students metric obsession wants us to think. Some years ago when I was a governor someone proposed monitoring black students' usage of the library so that we could contact them to encourage them to do more. Imagine the headlines if that got out: 'University Stalks Black Students'.

No doubt there are sensible and progressive ways to close the gap, and universities should be at the forefront of correcting social injustices, but it's a tricky one. Luckily we do have experts on hand, and a lot of bell hooks' work in the library so we'll get there. At least, I sometimes tell myself, we haven't avoided the issue entirely by simply not admitting more than the occasional token BME student, as certain other institutions seem to do. In my deepest fantasies, I get a reply from the head of learning and teaching to whom I appealed for help with this, back in the halcyon hours of March 6th 2018.

In other news, I've managed to read a couple of books in between the form-filling and the fever dreams of form-filling. I read Margaret Atwood's The Testaments in two sittings. The cover design is rather lovely, but more significantly, the green Handmaid seems like a deliberate assertion of difference from the TV series' now iconic design, as though Atwood is determined that the reader understand from the start that they're separate cultural projects. I have to say that I didn't find the sequel as richly rewarding as The Handmaid's Tale though most of the writing is as stylish as ever. For a realist novel, the resolution felt rather wishful: without wishing to give away spoilers, I'm not sure that media exposure of a regime's evils is enough now we're in an era where our rulers label everything inconvenient 'fake news', while generating actual fake news seemingly with every breath. What did convince me, at least in my current despondent frame of mind, is Atwood's refusal to imagine a popular uprising for justice and equality. Little sign of that happening anywhere. What I liked most was the return of Professor Peixoto and the other historians at the conference. It's the oft-overlooked framework to the central narrative in the original text, and one which locates Gilead's origins in forms of male arrogance and superiority that pop up everywhere. The professor's exegesis of Offred's and Lydia's testimonies are colonial and confident: he makes little jokes and establishes a gap between what women write (personal, unstable, untrustworthy, limited) and what men write (history, fact, judgement). In the end though, I think The Testaments is a bit too comforting, a bit too keen to help us believe that justice will be done in the end. I don't believe in the inevitability of progress, in divine purpose, or in the Marxist march of history. Things happen for reasons but there's no linear movement towards the right answers.

I have also acquired a second-hand Kindle to play with. I'm deeply conflicted about this because other than loading it with PDFs, it means I'm tied to Amazon to some extent. However, my house is literally stuffed with thousands of books and I'm struggling to carry enough volumes when I go on holiday, so I decided to try an e-reader for books I know I'll only ever read once, and for travelling. The physical experience is OK, but I am detecting a weird change in the way I read. Everything on the screen seems less substantial in a way, and I find myself more aware of a pressure to read more quickly rather than carefully. I don't quite understand why yet, but it's definitely real. It feels more like consuming something than engaging with it as I do with paper books. Perhaps it's the thrill of the new, perhaps something else. For the record, I read Katherine Arden's interesting Russian folk story-influenced bildungsroman The Bear and the Nightingale (enjoyable and evocative but could have done with a little more editing), Catherine O'Flynn's Lori and Max (her first children's novel, and one which worked really, really well) and Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet which I mentioned previously.

It's not the only device that's been on my mind this week: I somehow lost my mobile phone at work which is obviously an enormously expensive and bureaucratically tedious mistake to make, but one which made me realise quite how dependent I am on it psychologically. Losing access to email away from the office, instant news from a variety of sources and the power to comment instantaneously was both stressful to an embarrassing degree, but also liberating to some extent. I may have mentioned that I don't have an internet connection at home, partly through lethargy but partly because I know myself well enough to predict that I'd never be able to switch off either from work or idle, aimless browsing. Having a smartphone meant I could access the good and the bad whenever I wanted, without the temptation of spending my life staring at a large screen promising all human life all the time, inviting me to point out everyone else's mistakes too. Or as Randall Munroe puts it:

And now I must away to write the two lectures for Monday that I should have written if I hadn't spent  two whole days wrestling with stats that your average Raspberry Pi could have provided before it was even switched on. Enjoy your weekend.

* Hi Snitchy!