The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.


Learning with lions: public pedagogy in NYC

Recently, a friend of mine shared with me an amazing opportunity to join a reading group with Stanley Aronowitz, professor emeritus and world renowned public scholar in the fields of sociology, political science, and critical theory who taught at the Graduate Center for over 30 years. My advisor at UMass Boston had mentioned Aronowitz specifically by name as I was considering PhD programs, and he even went so far as to invite me to join them for dinner before I was accepted to the program. I believe I said three things at that dinner, two of which were, “no, thank you, I don’t need any more water at the moment.”

Fast-forward four years, and I found myself this afternoon sitting in a makeshift classroom with Aronowitz, a few of his colleagues, many admirers, and other curious and hopeful autodidacts from New York.

We listened to Aronowitz give a background to the course – an eight-week introduction to dialectics, through the writings of Lukács, Adorno, and LeFebvre – and then to each other as we explored our reasons for being there, our own work and intellectual journeys, and questions we hoped to answer in the coming weeks. What was truly wonderful was the fact that this course was nearly free: $100 suggested donation for sitting in a small room with one of the greatest living public thinkers today.

This learning with lions, as I playfully entitled this post, is something I espouse in my own work as a professor, which I adopted from the generous and committed work of my own advisor in my PhD program. I ran a public pedagogy reading group over the summer with several of my students from City College, where we discussed readings and videos and the events from the week. My advisor has just started something similar with me and several of her other students, which I think she hopes will become self-sustaining even when she can’t make it. Important to these kinds of groups is accessibility, and communal hope that learning in community is consequential, an event that has impact in all of our lives.

This is public pedagogy in body and spirit. What would be possible were we all to engage with this on a regular basis, learning and teaching and incarnating what “pedagogy” according to Lev Vygotsky truly meant? Vygotsky’s term was obuchenie, a concept that saw education as a co-constructed, dialectical (see, dialectics is everywhere!) process in which teachers and students experienced mutual transformation. This radically changes the top-down, unidirectional way we tend to enact education in public schooling today. It also challenges the ivory tower paradigm in which academia maintains the keys to the castle in terms of knowledge.

More is possible when the lions open their dens up for the rest of us to come in and warm ourselves by their fires!

Feminist Friday: fairy tales

A few months ago, I saw this poster on the New York subway, part of an art initiative which I generally embrace:

The poem “A Name” was written by Ada Limón, a Californian poet whose work is featured in feminist collections and conferences. This is the text:

A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them—
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer—
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.

When I saw this poem, I chewed on it in my mind for a few minutes…and found myself annoyed. The imagery is beautiful, antediluvian and resonant, to be sure, the natural landscape and the delicate articulation of action of a first woman in the new world, naming animals. But at the end of the poem, Eve longs to be named by the animals…Why? Why does she need to be named? Her name was Eve.

Would Adam have walked with the same uncertainty about himself and his identity? Highly doubtful. And were he to have asked for a name, he would not have whispered.

I find myself increasingly resistant to the creation and perpetuation of spaces in which women maintain a position of mystery, a membership in the natural world that exoticizes them. We cannot recognize ourselves; we are meant to be recognized by those (people or animals) around us in such romanticized thinking.

I much prefer the stories I’ve been reading lately in a book called “Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales from Around the World” by Ethel Johnston Phelps:

I got the book at a radical leftist bookstore called Bluestockings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a volunteer-run spot with free talks and great spontaneous conversation that pops up over new and revisited ideas in a world desperately in need of face-to-face dialogue. “Tatterhood” is wonderful, including old and new fairy tales from Japan, Scotland, South Africa, Scandinavia, and Native America. I’m a big fan of fairy tales in general, but one of my struggles is always the classical depiction of women as “awaiting their prince,” “passive,” “beautiful,” “feminine” (whatever this term really means), and other features which all of us have heard as a critique of these great old stories.

I will always love fairy tales, and I’m glad to add “Tatterhood” to the list. The female characters are adventurers, sometime-wives and family members, or sometimes lone, joyful explorers of the world. Theirs are full(er) characters, who are not simply upending the patriarchy but rather living on different terms. Consequently, they embody more of a science fiction voice in response to gender norms, but because of their age (some are from the 19th century or earlier), questions emerge as to why they were not made more popular.

My only complaint: the title. It should — and hopefully will, one day — just be “Tatterhood: Folktales from Around the World.” One day.

Public schools: the starting point for questions, for possibility, for the anti-dictate

I am a field mentor for student teachers getting their masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at New York University. I myself am not a public school teacher, and for this reason, I love coming to schools and working with student teachers and their mentoring cooperating teachers over the course of a semester of developing lesson plans, new strategies, and relationships with the students. These are precious, powerful times for new teachers. Student teachers are learning to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, kind yet clear, and knowledgeable as well as inquisitive. This experience tends to be particularly meaningful for teachers who come from very different backgrounds than their students, especially White teachers from homogenous suburban middle-class towns very different from the busy, multilingual, multiple-way-of-being neighborhoods of New York. By extension are beneficial to these new teachers the ways in which these complex, dynamic communities express themselves in schools, the ways they push their children to think about the world and their place and participation in it.

Community Roots Middle School in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass), a shipping area-turned-artist-haven-turned-locus of gentrification off of the York Street stop on the F train, asks these questions in politically active, clear-voiced ways. The display on the bulletin board in the 7th-grade hallway I visited included the following signage:

Beautiful. Because it always starts with questions.

Image of Angela Davis (above) and political cartoon depicting labor protest.

A brilliant question, one that should be asked over and over again.

The question of resistance.

One of my favorite quotes by Alice Walker.

This is where questions, and questioning, start. Public education cannot be about competition at the global level, or about test scores, or about conformity in and preparation for economically and politically strident times. We are in a time when we believe this is so. Schooling is about starting to ask questions, to learn what is possible, to explore ways of being that are not dictated to us, which is the essence of democracy. Community Roots Middle School, at least in these images, expresses just this.

More love, less labor: adjuncts and the hierarchy of labor in higher education

Teaching is, for those of us who are lucky to have figured this out, a joyful and deeply rewarding profession. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, and have worked with adults from 18 to over 70. I have taught classes on English as a Second Language (ESL), professional communication skills, computer literacy, citizenship, bilingual education, second language acquisition, and other topics. Every class is like waking up to a new way of thinking and problem-solving, as my students and I find new ways to make connections between the material we are engaging with and our worlds. I tell friends and family members that it is seldom that I leave class feeling worse than I did when I got there. I regard it, perhaps a bit selfishly, as the best therapy I’ve ever had.

The problem with therapy, unfortunately, is that unless you have the right circumstances, it’s extremely costly. While I don’t pay, per se, to teach graduate students at two colleges in the City University of New York, as an adjunct, I am compensated little for the amount of work I do. True, some of it is in exchange for a generous teaching fellowship that I receive to do my PhD at the Grad Center. However, I also teach a class at another school in the CUNY system, where, when you break it down, I make what I first made as a new ESL teacher for the labor I put into class for class prep, meeting and communicating with students, and correcting and maintaining student grading and support. “Unthinkable!” my family would say if they knew. “But you have a masters degree and over 12 years of experience…and you’re getting your PhD!”

All true. This is the way of higher education nowadays, the slow and steady fight to save budgets through the ‘adjunctification‘ of colleges and universities across the country. As in other educational contexts, the rise of neoliberal thinking in higher ed – essentially the claim that market values like efficiency, accountability, and bottom-line thinking produce healthy businesses schools and satisfied customers students – justifies the trimming back of faculty and the use of contingent labor to pick up the slack. Read: adjuncts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to put all of this great experience on my CV. It’s nice to know that when I am interviewing for jobs as a professor in the next couple of years, I will be able to say I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students teaching a range of courses that would make me a smart hire for their department. This is seen as a sort of rite of passage, a paying of one’s dues when professionalizing as a professor-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, this situation can be improved once we move past the mystification that is attributed to Being a Professor in higher ed. Yes, it can be argued that all teaching is a labor of love, a point that I will be the first to make. I love this work, because it means I am doing something important, something that has, I hope, a significant impact on the world. Yet I also want to think of myself as more than a low-level laborer in the service of an erstwhile dream of what higher education should be.

We can poke all the fun we want at people pursuing what seems like a wild dream of being a thinker, writer, and educator for a living. However, all individuals have a right to be compensated for their work. And saying that the budget won’t permit such a change, while an expression of the numbers on a page, also justifies the status quo arrangements that divide the haves from the have-nots on faculties across the country. All of us who work in higher ed need to work together to make changes toward a more just arrangement for adjuncts in higher education. It’s time for more love, and less labor, for conditions that are just and compensation that reflects the reality of the work being done. Hierarchies can change and move into new arrangements, so long as there is agreement that justice is a goal that all must share.

Is a conversation action?: bell hooks and theory for healing and liberation

A politically conscious and active friend of mine teaches in an early college program in Queens, where teenagers learn from him about U.S. history and great literature. This weekend, we chatted a bit about his work, how wonderful and inspiring it can be, as well as how uncertain in terms of greater consequences. My friend is not cynical about education, but he did lament the fact that his conversations with his students might have little real-world impact. “It’s not the same thing as getting out there and marching,” he said. “Not the same thing as action.”

Or is it? bell hooks, public scholar who writes and speaks about race, feminism, capitalism, and many other topics (I attended a panel which included her at The New School about Beyonce and “the booty” a couple of years ago), wrote in a 1991 essay entitled “Theory as Liberatory Practice” about the power of creative engagement, of theorizing in responding to our pain, a response takes place in the mind and heart and yes, in the community as well. Yet the proposition that thinking and talking, the generative imaginative tilling of soil, is “action” in and of itself is one that continues to meet resistance.

bell hooks. Image from the bell hooks institute.

hooks cites a meeting she has with Black female thinkers, in which she hears the frustration some women had with with dominant feminist theory, with “all this talk” which appears to oppose real responses, authentic, embodied ideas that address the lived struggles of the Black community. She responds that speaking can itself be subversive, when it disrupts elite claims on knowledge and the ability to produce it:

…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice…Just as some elite academics who construct theories of “blackness” in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.

hooks reminds us that academics, of all colors and backgrounds, have perpetually been regarded as singular creators of theory, an activity which is seen simultaneously as elite and without relevance to our worlds. Her words call for praxis – a reflective, dynamic, unfinished cycle of theory and practice – toward critical education evoked the work of Paulo Freire in the late 20th century as he advocated for the disruption of hegemonic, oppressive forces through emancipatory pedagogy. Importantly, hooks’s notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a feminist, collective one, inviting contestation and imagination for changing times.

In responding to my friend, I mentioned this, and added that I had a socioculturalist take on the process of education. “How do you know what you and your students talk about won’t have impact outside the classroom?” I asked. “What if one of them comes home, tells her dad about What We Talked About In Class Today, and then her dad speaks to someone at work tomorrow, and then this creates some influences, and then, and then…?” I trailed off but I hoped it made sense. We can’t always anticipate or control the outcomes of our teaching, nor should we. We can’t tell our students what to do with the learning that they experience with us, but what we can do is have faith that building theory and creating new knowledge together can have influence far beyond the 45 minutes we’re with them.

This is where social movements start: with an idea, with a theory, with a question. How can you really say where talking stops…and action begins?

Crisis → recovery → crisis → recovery, etc…and the alternative: Bakhtin’s/Tina Turner’s co-authored future

19 minutes ago, my phone lit up with a headline from the New York Times:

Top Stories: President Trump’s reckless threats could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” said Senator Bob Corker, an influential Republican

Headlines like this feel relatively common, a reminder that crisis upon crisis has become the status quo in 2017. We recover, barely, from bad news (not from the outcomes of Hurricane Maria, not even close), when new and horrible events replace the last news story. We’re having a terrible year, and this seems to be plaguing people’s health and mental capacity to maintain a sense of balance, a feeling of being able to find perspective in a world that seems bent on chasing all sanity down and devouring it.

I wonder if this is simply a bad year, or possibly also a series of events that may generate changes in our ability to imagine different possibilities. How does this cycle of crisis and recovery occupy our consciousness, our creativity? I’ve written about a Baudrillardian take on our world, in which we have come to exist in a hyperreal social existence in which we don’t participate but simply experience as consumers. We are becoming shellshocked by the devastation wreaked by tropical storms, mass shootings, cholera epidemics, an opioid crisis, violent suppression of secession movements – by the way, all of this has occurred since August 2017 – which we experience as both perceived as “what those poor people have to deal with,” and in some cases, what is happening in our own communities. We seem to be perpetually stuck to our phones, our screens, fearful of the latest takeover of our already limited attention spans with the latest chaotic and terrifying news. Is this our mindset now?

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist who is coming into fashion again in academic thought, might suggest that we are experiencing our worlds in a sort of crisis ⇒ recovery ⇒ crisis ⇒ recovery mindset, where we are in a perpetual state of reacting to the hardships of the world. I’m not suggesting that our reactions are in our heads, much less the crises we’ve been dealing with on environmental, political, military, and social levels. Rather, I am interrogating the mindset that such a cyclical obsession generates: a sense of being trapped, of losing sight of any version of the now, or the possible future, as something we can contribute to. Bakhtin suggested an alternative mindset to this, a way of perceiving ourselves as what he called unique and once-occurrent Beings, each of whom is authentic and valuable as an author of the world. To own this, to view ourselves as responsible for our worlds and for our moments in it, is politically conscious, active, and powerful.

Sounds pretty hokey, right? I definitely don’t know how to get to this alternative road, as I’m slipping around in the dusty rubble on the ground like everyone else, trying to find a sane existence in the ruins of what seemed like a long-gone reality. Yet to be nostalgic about “better times” is to deny the suffering of others in the past and present, as well as to remove ourselves from the position of participant, of stand-taker, in a time of rising injustice.

Tina Turner’s anthem from 1985 (yes, it’s also the theme song from Mad Max, Thunderdome) pops into my mind as I write this:

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they’ve left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 11.10.07 PM.png

Now, this was intended for a post apocalyptic action movie, but I believe there are elements of Turner’s triumphant call to action that are more timeless, resonating for all who feel hopeless in the face of crisis, of a future that seems lost. The only place Turner got it wrong (beyond the video with the bizarre outfit and the shirtless sax man) was the line where she called this “the last generation.” It’s not Fukuyama’s end of history, or the end of theory. Nevertheless, her lyrics put the key line forward: We don’t need any heroes. No one is coming for us. And trying to return home will doom us to repeat and recycle the same stories. Where we stand, right now, can also be the beginning, as long as we can imagine and remember that we are here, co-authoring our future together, with all of our voices.