29 June 2011

Imaginary Syllabi, Part III

Stan Apps's "English 0000 Syllabus" opens with a set of questions consonant with Miranda Mellis's "potential heuristics": "What is the range of possible experience and behaviors? What forms of social possibility are evoked by this range? To what extent is the range of the possible threatening and/or liberating and/or confining?"

He continues:

"Students will read a mix of science fiction, experimental poetry, science writing, literary criticism, and other genres. We will assume that each text we read is in itself a representation of the possible, that the sentences or words themselves enact the limits of the possible. Based on this assumption, we will enact a comparative study, asking questions like these:

Within different genres, what are the differing horizons of possibility within the sentence? Does science fiction enact a different horizon of possibility than philosophy does, for example? What is the horizon of possibility enacted in a poem by, say, Percy Shelley, and within what aspect of the poem is that horizon situated? Many might hold that the horizon of the possible in Shelley's work is enacted through imagery; can we find similar enactments in other texts in other genres?"

I'm interested in approaching material as a set of limits to thought. But I find myself longing for an imaginary pedagogy rather than an imaginary syllabus. Many of the contributions to Imaginary Syllabi present unusual material one might teach, or challenge how said material might be presented in a classroom setting. Few, however, address the problematic of how we approach pedagogy itself. For instance, while many contributions present interesting constellations of material, few question, say, the power structure in the classroom, or how potential students might process said information, or the very confines of the "classroom" itself. There are notable exceptions: in "Mystic Poetics" Elizabeth Robinson seeks to "hone attentiveness" by studying the "mystical imagination." The first class meeting in Robinson's course is held in silence, Quaker-style, while later in the course students are encouraged "to experiment with performative aspects of ritual and mystery: a bacchanal? a seance? an exorcism? a laying on of hands? a reincarnation? speaking in tongues?" Also, in the collaborative contribution "Mobile Mapping for Everyday Spaces," the authors investigate how "walking as a medium or generative model of investigation might illuminate the critical and aesthetic terrain between an embodied self and the ever articulating sense of place."

I'm most concerned, I suppose, with theories of pedagogy that purport to present a radical rethinking of praxis by falling back into master narrative (that is: maybe theory is the answer!). Take Adam Katz's "Meditation and Methodology," for example (and really just for example: I don't mean to harp on Katz in particular), which begins with the claim "It's a question of interest what it would mean to apply Derrida to (teaching) the writing of poetry" before making his way to Heidegger's Mindfulness. Katz's contribution is certainly ahistorical in its understanding of contemporary practice (and contemporary teaching, no less): he writes "...a very big problem for poetry practiced by undergraduates, graduates, and authorities, but especially by students, is its authors' lack of interest in theories about the true nature of the medium in which they take it to be their propriety to compose" and later "...but even the best poetry evinces no commitment to marrying a rigorous process of analysis to its pursuit of beauty..." Even a cursory reading of this very blog should suggest immediately that this reading is a bit out of touch with the concerns of contemporary poetry (even the more conservative poetry one might find in the academy), from, say, the 1970s to the present (as if Norma Cole or Leslie Scalapino or even Louis Zukofsky didn't exist? And aren't already institutional figures in some ways?). Even super conventional poets publishing in super conventional journals seem to understand that poetry MUST attend to the conditions of composition (to its own coming-into-being). So there's certainly little disagreement, I think, even at straight-laced institutions, that poets ought to have some "interest in theories about the true nature of the medium in which they take it to be their propriety to compose."

My real concern is how quickly we promote applying this or that theory to the teaching of writing. In this case, Katz promotes "encountering the aporetic co-presence of nostalgia and affirmation in writing, reading and experience" as a practice in order to, finally, publish the results: "...students could be assigned poetic texts that could be close-read in terms of their stake in observing the relationship between nostalgia and affirmation, and which would furnish tools the students could use to write their own poems in provisional fidelity to the hypothesis. The results of this experiment could then be published." I don't disagree that there's a problem with students reproducing a particular model of MFA-style poetry that's all parataxis and no bite (and I don't think Katz's exercise is half bad in terms of teaching students how to pay attention!), but this very same problem of factory-style writing is currently reproduced across the country in how poet "x" applies theory "y" to her practice (in the very same way critical writing about poetry is often yet another Marxist reading of "x" or another psychoanalytic reading of "y" without engaging with the particularities of the writing itself). This is not to mention, of course, the problematic of publishing everything we write as quickly as possible, because, I don't know, that's what poets do?

There's certainly no shortage of criticism directed at the MFA model (especially here in the Bay Area), and as someone who studied closely with one of Katz's "exceptions," the mighty Myung Mi Kim, I suppose my sense of the super common dissemination of Derridean or Heideggerian praxis as a model of composition in institutional settings might be a bit skewed. But I'd argue that a more productive question might be thinking about how we can teach students to write their poetry: the work that only they can write. I wonder if this "methodology" will simply contribute to more student writing devoid of the very thing that makes their practice actually unique?

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