Archives for category: teaching

The first I heard of Raising Arizona was on the radio, on the way home from a travel-league soccer game. There was a piece on it on NPR (so long ago that my now-Tea-Party-father would still listen to NPR) that featured HI’s nickel tour of the trailer.

Raising Arizona that theres the kitchen area

My favourite viewing of Raising Arizona was at the Music Box, where they thumbed their nose at the fire code to pack at least thirty more people into their small auditorium for a midnight screening. I remember that there were long stretches of the movie when you couldn’t hear the movie for all the laughter.

In an attempt to get a break from some extra-depressing shit, I popped in Raising Arizona and was shocked at a little visual flourish that I’d missed for the last 25 years. The recurrent Barry Goldwater portrait is too easy to miss.

Raising Arizona con with Goldwater picture

Raising Arizona doctor's office 2However, I’d never noticed that HI’s cellmate has a little portrait of JFK next to him in bed.

Raising Arizona con with JFK picture

This is a moment that I’m a little embarrassed about – how did I miss the red and blue in the flag given the shot’s colour palette? – but that I’ll be thrilled to include when I’m lecturing on the importance of looking to the edge of the frame, where the film fills in details of the fictional world if we’re careful enough to look.

When I taught in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering’s PAVE program I learned a few really useful things from Doc Barnett. One is a graph that I use on the first day of every class I teach. It shows how long a paper needs to be, with the X axis of length and the Y axis of quality. At a certain point you hit the optimum combination of length and quality:

I always enjoyed when Doc B told the assembled wannabe engineers (with their perfect SAT math scores), “Engineers don’t do math. Engineers don’t build things. Engineers solve problems.” When I do my engineering-writing tutorials, I bore my students to tears by continually asking, “What is the problem? Does this help you to solve it?”

This brings me to the current Government’s very very limited interest in higher education. Up in Auckland, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over Minister Steven Joyce taking a great deal of interest in how UAuckland, and other NZ tertiary institutions get run. Short version of Minister Joyce’s money-talking: tertiaries will get more money, but only for engineering and science. Even the people who stand to see that money can see it’s a plan with not a few problems.

Then there’s the university where I sometimes draw a pay cheque. Today’s email from the chancellor and vice-chancellor tells us that UC’s on board for the “more spots for engineers and scientists” (I cheer for that; it means more engineering-tutor work for me).

After considering the UC business case the Government has confirmed its agreement in principle, subject to a more detailed business case which will determine the level of support to be provided, to help the University address the financial impacts of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes by providing capital support to advance its science and engineering capabilities…..

When it comes to “a more detailed business case,” I’m sure that business case #3 will convince Minister Joyce. Perhaps the business cases aren’t having much of an impact because they’re not especially well-written. Should they wish to optimize their case-making, I can incentivize their hiring decisions by promising the sort of clear prose that convinces motherfuckers to open their wallets up. But I’m not surprised that’s it’s all STEM all the time, because 1947 happened a long time ago. Erich Fromm had this to say:

From grade school to grad school, the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more knowledge and education. We find today a tremendous enthusiasm for knowledge and education, but at the same time a skeptical or contemptuous attitude toward the allegedly impractical and useless thinking which is concerned “only” with the truth and which has no exchange value on the market. Man for Himself (1947)

My BA institution Illinois State University bowdlerized Chaucer into the school motto “Gladly we learn and teach”. Minister Joyce seems to be an Oscar Wilde fan, since what he wants is for tertiary education in New Zealand to teach “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Barring some multimillion dollar windfall for UC, I won’t be teaching in the College of Arts next year. They’ve already cut travel funding for permanent staff, but as contract staff I didn’t have access to that fund anyway. But there’s a teaching-adaptations conference in Tasmania in February. I hope to schedule some away-from-the-uni time to check out some of the most incredible (usually green) architecture around. It’s also the home of the great fictional Aussie Rules player Geoff Hayward. I might even spot a Tasmanian wolf and make some coin. So I sent out an abstract about how I teach She’s the Man,which is perhaps the worst movie I have taught more than once. Note: The CINE 101 students who argue for Vigil are wrong. On to the abstract.

“The worse it is the better: On teaching sub-par film adaptations”

One of the problems with teaching film adaptations of canonical works of literature is that such adaptations are often used to illustrate the literature rather than to study film in its own right. The canon may have expanded in our lifetime, but it still consists of a limited number of texts with a presumed shared greatness – and our students know this. My paper outlines an approach that asks students to locate the rules that underwrite the canon. Assigning “bad” adaptations is one way to help students query canon formation by demanding a definition and defense of the canon.

I argue that we can teach “bad” adaptations “backwards”: the lecturer argues for the greatness of the “bad” film over, for example, Shakespeare, forcing students to articulate exactly what makes Shakespeare worthy of canonization. Such an approach locates the process of canon formation in the classroom and places the responsibility in student hands.

I use the 2006 Twelfth Night adaptation She’s the Man as my example. She’s the Man will never be accused of committing greatness to film. Teaching it seems like masochism at best, and sadism at worst. Yet, as my paper shows, teaching a “bad” adaptation makes the questions – and answers – about contemporary political and cultural life that adapting canonical works makes possible much more readily accessible. That is to say, if we reimagine She’s the Man’s many failures as virtues, and Twelfth Night’s many virtues as failures,we can not only articulate the boundaries and functions of the canon, but we can also address the problems and politics of canon formation in a way that affirms the role that literature plays in cultural life.

It’s not every movie about academics that gets what the life is like. Take, for example, the truly execrable The Mirror Has Two Faces. I’m probably more guilty of redirecting my dreams of being a stand-up comic in the George CarlinRichard Pryor vein into my teaching style than most lecturers working in New Zealand. But even I find Barbara Streisand’s Rose Morgan impossible to stomach when it comes to her thoughts about how to teach or how to make people care about your research. It’s such a smug, self-satisfied idea to place at the centre of the film that, especially when you have Jeff Bridges’ near-boundless charm and Lauren Bacall’s gloriously withering disdain for others waiting around for a better movie to emerge.

However, when I went to The Bourne Legacy a while back with my friend Steve, I was shocked to hear a couple of tossed-off lines of dialog that captured the academic mind-set. After Aaron and Marta have escaped from the make-it-look-like-a-suicide set piece, Aaron starts going a little bonkers about his blues and greens. At this point, Steve leaned over and said to me, in trailer voice, “the thrilling adventures of a junkie in search of his next fix!” But then Weisz’s Marta puts Aaron in his place (I paraphrase): “You don’t know what I gave up for this! I couldn’t publish. I couldn’t conference. I couldn’t even talk about my research.” It’s that special recipe of well-founded pride in intellectual prowess and pursuits with a healthy glop of pettiness that sums up The Academic.

Were I asked to lecture on Hesher, here’s how I’d occupy half an hour (maybe a bit more, including the clips). Two interesting things happen in Hesher. The first is an interesting engagement with the role of metaphor: TJ’s English teacher speaks of the role of dreams in literature as TJ daydreams out the widow. Throughout the film Hesher tells stories of his wild life that generate self-conscious responses – Nicole asks if his story about group sex is “some kind of perverted metaphor for me” and Grandma, upon hearing the tale of the snake that starved in a cage full of mice asks, “is TJ the mouse or the snake?”

The second is that, in spite of TJ being too young to drive, Hesher’s visibility to TJ’s dad, and a couple other things, quite a few moments in Hesher hint that Hesher isn’t quite real, but rather a figure TJ conjures up as a reaction to the traumas of his mother’s death and school bullying.

First of all, consider Hesher’s appearances in scenes associated with the bully. In the scene during which the English teacher asks, in post-dubbed dialog, what dreams represent to fictional characters, TJ looks out the window, and Hesher appears and then tosses a marker through that window at TJ. In a standard horror movie sequence of shots, Hesher throws the marker, then TJ leans over to pick it up, and as he rises again we’re back to the original shot set up. Where Hesher ought to occupy the background, he’s gone.

Later, when the bully forces TJ to eat a urinal cake, a door-opening sound causes the bully to look to his right, and Hesher is there. But the normally loquacious bully, after looking toward the door, where Hesher would be, says nothing. In the final, torrential downpour TJ-as-Captain-Willard scene, the bully regains the upper hand, only to be interrupted by a rock flying through the window (I can’t account for that – which is why it’s only a hint of Hesher being a figment). Hesher appears and slices the kid’s nose open. TJ screams at Hesher, but, as in the urinal cake eating scene, their two faces don’t share the frame.

Second, Hesher jumps up after Grandma dies and leaves “before I hurt somebody.” Hesher leaves, and TJ goes to his room to call Nicole with the news that he’s solved her rent problems (stealing, like it’s easy to imagine Hesher doing). Thus TJ goes to Nicole’s apartment, where she and Hesher are fucking. TJ flips out, saying he never wants to see Hesher again. He also calls Nicole a fat prostitute. I’d be willing to entertain the notion that such a reaction would be in line with TJ’s age, mental state, and general mommy issues.

Finally, there’s Grandma’s funeral. At first, TJ cannot speak. But as soon as he can’t say anything, Hesher shows up and says a lot of things. The slomo casket roll through the streets is way overdone, granted, but it’s the capstone to the series of moments when something like magical realism emerges out of TJ’s grief, in the form of Hesher.

At my birthday, I set my Reading Project for the year. This year I’m tackling Walter Benjamin.

I’ve read David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America. To clarify: I’ve read each chapter, but that’s taken me more than three years, one chapter at a time, with quite long breaks in between. Something similar, a bit less heartbreaking, happens when I try to read Stuart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I’m a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God cat. The people with whom I grew up in Carpentersville are mostly still in C’Ville, still scraping paycheck to paycheck. Shipler’s stories, and O’Nan’s, might as well be my alternate biography – and they are the biographies of some of my friends, and their families, back in C’Ville.

Michael Berube speaks to some of that pain and institutional malpractice in his recap of an acronym festival in Washington DC. I’m one of the lucky ones in academia – I have a partner who takes home a damn fine wage and enjoys fairly decent job security. That, in turn, makes me a wedge against the people who don’t enjoy that pleasure. The administration knows that there’s a streak of kindness and generosity in your average adjunct-contract-precario a mile wide and just as deep — and they prey on that. Berube points out that it’s not the overproduction of PhDs that drives this:

according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the M.A. as their highest degree — 57.3 percent in four-year institutions, 76.2 percent in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.

These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs — at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts — for 10, 15 or 20 years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic 30-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are 30 years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher

I tell my students, usually in a discussion of Marx, “I would do this job for free. I won’t. But I would.” To me, that sums up the “calling” flavour of professional choice in academia. I’m now well north of 30, and for all the energy I bring to my teaching – I call it the Powell Pedagogy Doctrine – I ain’t getting any younger, and if I were in any way “career-focussed”, I might be getting antsy about my standing. Because I’m not, the University has a love-hate relationship with me. They love me, but only because I’m a reserve labourer. UC’s policy is that the department’s current postgrads get preferential consideration for tutor positions. That’s because as a PhD I am paid 20.9999/hr while, if my memory of the pay sheet serves, MAs are pais 18.9999 and BAs 17.9999. It saves a total of a couple hundred dollars a semester — about as much as the catering at one SMT meeting, I would guess.

When I started teaching at university level, at the University of New Hampshire, I cursed to get one version of cred from my students – many of whom I was younger than – only purposely to upset that cred by rattling off poststructuralism at a silly pace. That was my whole Brechtian pedagogical game: jab with fuck and shit and hit them with an uppercut full of glorious jargon at the right moment.

When I started teaching at Vanderbilt, I knew I’d have to reel the cussing in, and I tried very, very hard to do so. Teaching literary theory made it harder and easier. Vandy’s hyper-professional environment, while it certainly accomodated the younger Christian who refused to wear sleeves in Benson Hall in a year-long protest without batting an eye, also a great place to see that gags and cussing weren’t the only way to bring the students on board with Althusser. To be frank, my improved handle on the material sure helped in cleaning up my language.

In my three years at Canterbury, I now parcel out my f-bombs. For all that I find 1.5 per lecture to be a low number, I still get one or two “curses too much” comments per semester. However, I find that in CINE 102: World Cinema in the 21st Century, I can use cursing to my advantage, since I have yet to read an anti-cursing comment in three years (three hundred students, more or less). It’s quite simple really: If the film’s in Spanish, or French, or Italian, I can use my the one facet of my Romance language skills – the salty stuff – to show one of the easy-to-grasp ways in which subtitles don’t render dialog “verbatim” or “exactly.” Since one of the aims of CINE 102 is to expose students to a wider range of cinema than they’d normally seek out on their own – and judging from this year’s class reactions to Police, Adjective Romanian cinema will have a tough time finding a friendly crowd in Christchurch – it’s an easy entry into a culture to see how their cursing works. Even the difference between American and New Zealand cursing – or better yet sport trash-talking – is fairly plain and illuminating.

That said, this article is the sort of title I wish we’d see more of in academic publishing. Sometimes the apt word is fuck. That’s just how things is. I salute you, McKenzie Wark, you magnificent bastard.