Everything I Needed to Know About Adolescence I Learned from Arctic Monkeys

Adolescence – as I remember it, and certainly as it is reinforced and transmitted by our culture  – is about urgency. The highness of stakes. Fear of phoniness, of loss of face and the fragile esteem it brings. It is about the fear of being humiliated above all, and therefore transformation of that fear into anger toward those with the power to humiliate you. It is strong stuff.

By these lights, Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not might be the most adolescent album I have ever encountered. The album is bookended between two observations: that “anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment,” and that with those you truly love, “you just cannot get angry in the same way.” The first is made at the beginning of the evening, as the speaker is preparing for a night out – or a weekend out, really, that will close only in the dead-eyed light of an exhausted Sunday. And while the first dismisses all the mad searching that will come as futile before it’s begun, the second settles with acknowledging the quieter but more reliable satisfactions of at least having companions for the journey. We won’t find what we are looking for – but at least we’ll be on the mad, pointless hunt for it together.

What is the search for? That’s the album’s arc. The speaker searches for pleasure, yes, but more for the connection and completeness that pleasure should bring. Our lads are running from the fear that it won’t satisfy even as they are running toward it as hard as their legs will carry.

The music opens way for these explorations. There’s a willingness throughout to keep singing even after their (many) words fail, a fresh dipping into those glossalics (“na-na-na”) that the pop tradition has used to voice inarticulateness since Phil Spector. There is a willingness to let guitars sound like guitars, in Gang-of-Four slashes as well as slabs of Sonic Youth feedback. There is such humor in these songs! Listen to Matt Helders’ drums and imagine every cymbal crash as a “yeah!” and you’ll hear what I mean. No one since Keith Moon has shared as much clownish energy from behind the kit, been as involved in commenting on the song’s proceedings as much as keeping the time. Above all there is a lightness to these songs, a deftness with which they turn corners and cut out and pile on all together, amounting to a twitchy energy by turns neurotic as early Talking Heads and as playful as early Joe Jackson.

Those records (Fear of Music, Look Sharp!, Entertainment!) are this one’s aunts and uncles, but its grandfather is beyond a doubt Quadrophenia. That was the last time a band so fully took on youth’s anxiety to make itself through affiliation – the last time rock and roll so effectively captured the satisfactions and crushing defeats that follow when youth entrusts its self-image to the wrong things and the wrong people. There are differences, surely: for one, the parents and other adults whose sham values haunt the mod’s flight into his own culture are largely absent in the “chav” culture the AM’s describe. There’s no parent horrified at what their kids are doing and wondering “did anyone see you there?”

But there’s no observatory showdown either, no frontier justice other than border skirmishes. It’s just them and their insults and disses; they are each other’s judge and jury, not combatants. The effect, though, is one of intensifying fear rather than lessening it, raising the stakes rather than lowering them. Neurotic obsession with others grow and metastasize, complete slight or affirmation in issues as insignificant as whether your mates assent to jump a cab fare or whether someone confesses to pretending to forget your name a year ago.

But holy cow, can they talk about it. In this, Arctic Monkeys’ differ from Green Day, who dropped their own rock opera in 2004 about disaffection and seeking something more satisfying. It’s been noted that, for that album’s protagonist, inarticulateness is part of the point: raised on soda pop and Ritalin, those kids don’t have much to say. Tempting to say that the AM’s made the record Green Day thought they did. As was once observed devastatingly about Chuck Mangione, “they hear more than they play.”

Here, though, we have an album full of obsessively cataloged discontent, where the specificity of reference is part of what makes the rage so effective. It is targeted: at the good-looking girl who won’t give enough attention, at the better-looking guy who gets in your way, at the perceptiveness of the bouncer who realizes you and your friend switched shirts to try to get by him, at the band affecting to be from California when we all know they are from up the road. Urgency can heighten the senses, or dull them. Here, senses are keen-edged and on fire.

Until suddenly, it isn’t: until, in a flash, clarity becomes muddy again. What you think you got, you suddenly realize you didn’t get, as they note in “From the Ritz to the Rubble:”

Last night, what we talked about, it made so much sense

But now the haze is ascended, it don’t make no sense anymore.

For teachers, the record serves as an evocation the youth we spend our lives with, of how high the stakes always are when you have so little experience with which to reckon them. I am grateful to be reminded of what else is in the water when I teach, the turmoil that might have been brought in from the hall or the home, the lens through which whatever I am offering might be viewed. It’s a call to authenticity, above all – a bright line connecting Holden to Ben to Jimmy to Alex, right here and now. It reminds me, whatever else I do, not to be phony. Because if I am not, I have a chance to be a companion on the journey.

What do you think?

CORRECTION and AMENDMENT, August 26:

First, I attributed my quote to the wrong song; it has been corrected.

More egregiously, I associated the AMs with “chav culture” thoughtlessly and ignorantly. Further research suggests they are considered more an “indie” band, or even a “chindie” band, because their take on the “chavs” is more ironic than anything. Hard to understand these distinctions from across the ocean. Happily, I learned this week that I have a student this semester from Sheffield who went to school with some of the band, so I hope he’ll set me straight.

More importantly, I was ignorant of the perjorative socioeconomic implications of the word. I should not have been: If Dick Hebdige taught us anything, it’s that youth subcultures cannot be separated from the social conditions they grow in (Richie Cunningham couldn’t cruise the strip without a car, gas, and cash for cheeseburgers; Johnny Rotten couldn’t sneer “God Save the Queen” without the backdrop of the over-the-top Silver Jubilee celebration that made a mockery of the poverty of so many Britons). Of course the way that youth subcultures get stripped of their intimate connections with socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and other factors and sold back to us is a factor here too.

And the critique of my structuralist assertion that it is even possible not to be “phony” (i.e., NOT to slip between what you say and what you think you mean) will have to wait for another day. But I hope you get what I mean.

Perfidy

The Atlanta cheating scandal breaks our hearts, because – even though it looks like the fish rotted from the head – it causes us to question the integrity the most trusted person in our neighborhood: our child’s teacher.

The basic tensions accompanying pay-for-performance schemes are not that crazy or scandalous. People will be forced to act in their own interest if that interest is jeopardized by the terms of a contract, as Cuban lays out, even if that devil’s bargain means violating fiduciary trust that has been placed in them. If principals were told to boost scores by any means necessary or lose their jobs, they were in an impossible situation and handed it along to their teachers.

But the acknowledgment of self-interest in the hearts of teachers, who from our earliest years we feel exist only to serve us, is deeply discomfiting. We all remember how weird it was to see our teachers after hours doing grocery shopping or out at the movies; that they would have commitments beyond our own needs is almost unimaginable.  I wonder if that deep emotional need to believe our teachers are selfless only strengthens our tendency to blame the individuals caught up in such scandals rather than the social and cultural structures that put teachers in such positions. Here as in so many other places, it is more expedient to name and punish low-level bad actors, who are more vulnerable, than push for systemic analysis and redress.

More so because the ethical failings of teachers play out in our public conscience. In his libertarian take on moral hazard and the economic crisis, Kevin Dowd quotes Martin Wolf’s observation that “no other industry but finance has a comparable talent for privatising gains and socialising losses.” Is it not also true that no other institution but education has a talent for “socialising” both its gains AND its losses? Since all Americans who have been to school feel they know what their teachers’ values should be, they feel a personal violation when it is revealed that teachers have acted selfishly.

As we watched Waiting for Superman this summer, my students and I struggled with the pay-for-performance structure advanced by Michelle Rhee and the costs and benefits of its alternatives. These are not academic questions in a state that has been awarded $400 million in Race to the Top money, in part due to our commitment to linking student outcomes directly to teacher assessment (see p17 here for a quick look, or pp133-143 here for the relevant language in our state’s funded RttT proposal).

While I agree completely with Ravitch and Apple’s critiques of that film’s bold-faced propagandist crimes, I cannot deny its “dance of the lemons” stories of damaging teachers who are shuffled between classrooms because it is too hard to fire them and “rubber rooms” where unionized teachers loaf at full pay as their hearings drag on. I know some teachers abuse protections they were granted to incentivize them to stay with a low pay, low prestige job, and I can see the desire to find accountability in a system that historically has little (though it must be noted that impassioned calls for teacher accountability are rarely as passionate about accurately portraying of the data or exploring alternate systems of due process and security). That is a travesty, and must stop.

But isn’t the deeper question here – still – whether or not the care of our children is best managed by the same principles that maximize profit and efficiency in the business world? My colleague Michael Dale notes that in Hard Times, Dickens describes a world where the logics of pay-for-performance are played out to their logical end:

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across the counter. And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

The airtight common-sense of market-based social models (“neoliberalism,” for those jargonistas keeping score at home) continues to blind us to the a priori question of whether or not outcomes that can be measured are most worth measuring: whether competition thus scored does, in fact, encourage innovation and help us “win the future.” Those aspects of our work with students which cannot be reckoned as a “bargain across the counter” are systematically devalued by curriculum and assessment schemas that reduce the results of teaching to a number. I am increasingly troubled that Peter Drucker’s management dictum “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” seems to have become the unquestioned common sense of education.

Isn’t a lesson of the teacher cheating scandals that some of the virtues necessarily “abolished” by pay-for-performance are altruism and hope in our perceptions of the children we teach? That P4P also undermines a crucial sense of vocation, autonomy, and self-respect among our teachers? These are profoundly significant values that we need our teachers to nurture in themselves and in their students. They are no less crucial just because they challenge measurement. Values like these are not strengthened by competition, quite the opposite: they only grow in conditions of safety, in conditions where adequate space and resources allow teachers and students to relax into relationships with each other and with curriculum. Competition and market pressures are good at weeding out weak links and identifying scalable profit generators. They are antithetical to the nurturing of conditions of trust and support. Education’s stuff is the latter, not the former.

The New York Times piece, tellingly, loops its account of teacher and principal perfidy back around to a hopeful vignette of an Atlanta parent making a decision to trust their school again this year with their daughter’s well-being.

“It was pretty shocking to have the national news right in front of us, but I’m pretty confident we can move forward and make things good from here,” Mr. Peterson said. “I may be wrong, but I believe that anybody in teaching is doing it for good reasons. It’s about helping people, not getting rich or famous. Progress is going to happen by parents and teachers working together. It’s up to us.”

It seems school remains a reliable, trustworthy, local institution in the eyes of its constituents, despite mounting evidence that institutional pressures are forcing it not to be. Would that our policy commitments could follow the same paths our hearts already find to the school. We would then be listening to the better angels of our nature, at least where our children our concerned, and be that much closer to finding effective ways to support great teachers while removing harmful ones.

What do you think?

Purpose and Commitment

I read William Pannapacker’s “Overeducated, Underemployed” with terrific interest, personal and professional. I am grateful to have what must be one of the last tenure-track positions in social foundations of education in the country, and am keenly aware of the job challenges of most PhDs in the humanities and, increasingly, the social sciences. I am also at an institution with a manifest commitment to undergraduate teaching, so I do not feel the pressure, perhaps endemic to “R1” culture, to give lip service to it while actually being more devoted to my research. I am fortunate indeed, and in the minority of PhDs of my vintage.

Pannapacker makes the point that PhD programs need to do a better job at educating students about other career trajectories that are outside of the academy, free of the parochial stigma and Freudian drama that so frequently accompanies advisor / advisee relationships. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Initiative on the Doctorate affirms as much:

The PhD is a route to many destinations, and those holding the doctorate follow diverse career paths. Some seek out a life in academe, while others choose business or industry, or work in government or non-profit settings. Yet all are scholars, for the work of scholarship is not a function of setting but of purpose and commitment (4).

“Not a function of setting but of purpose and commitment.” How might this breadth of understanding transfer to our teacher education programs? Are we doing a good job preparing teacher candidates to think about everything might do with their knowledge and commitment to teaching, outside or beyond public school classroom work?

The question seems counter to the belief that our sole obligation is to our public school students. Of course, they remain our primary stewardship, and the main reason we are here. But in a climate where public school teaching opportunities are shrinking with the fortunes of other sectors, we do our students a disservice if we do not support them in also thinking more broadly about their options and careers.

My own path has been a twisty one to this point, and I am grateful for every experience that brought me here (and for a doctoral advisor who understood that not all fruitful academics beeline for assistant professor gigs). I began as an independent school teacher, not because I do not support public schools (which educated me), but because I had not earned a teaching license in undergrad and still desperately wanted to teach.

I have since held several positions that few teacher candidates know exist: curriculum developer in a not-for-profit professional development program, educational consultant at a university-based medical school, fixed-term appointments seemingly unconnected to “teaching.” Each position seems essential in hindsight, a step on the path, not off it. And each did valuable work in some part of a larger and worthy education project that was not immediately connected to K-12 students.

I remember vividly my interview for the job at the School of Medicine, where after fifteen minutes of hitting it off with the physician interviewing me I felt the need to clarify: “you do understand, right, that I know nothing about medicine?” “Everyone here knows about medicine,” she replied. “We need someone who knows about education.”

This powerful truth needs to be shared with those preparing to be educators. Every line of work, everywhere, also teaches. Our students are learning a valuable, marketable skill set that is relevant to any industry where knowledge, skills, and attitudes need to be passed from one group to another (which would be all of them). A teacher’s expertise is essential. If we can understand it as such, opportunities open far beyond the traditional ones. This realization is not disloyal to the public school students who need our best people teaching them. It is supportive of our own students, who deserve lives of security and autonomy and should be prepared to build them whatever the economy throws their way.

More’s the point, not to empower our students seems to make us complicit in the creeping historical conviction that teaching must always be, in some part, a martyrdom. This deeply-held value seemed confirmed by this year’s national conversation on collective bargaining that successfully cast teachers who sought to protect their own interests as “greedy, chalk-dusted succubi”. What is wrong with us as a profession that we continue to believe others’ versions of what we do? Or as Peter Taubman asks, “how did we become complicit in the erosion of our own power?”(128).

It seems that part of our responsibility to the next generation of teachers is to help them realize the value of their skills, and to encourage them to find all the ways those skills can contribute beyond those that are immediately apparent. The jobs that open from that mindset stretch far beyond what they (or we) can see right now.

What do you think?

Stickers and Trapper Keepers

What to do with the laptops and the phones during class? I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with my summer students about what happens when we’ve got all our amazing little boxes running in class: when turning attention to something more enticing, or less resistant, than the problem at hand is a touchpad scoot away.

I have opted not to “lock down” the classroom, forbidding anyone to do anything besides talk with me and each other. I figure this is the world we live in, and they, like me, will need to figure out how their always-on access to everything will strengthen or weaken the experience they came to school for. Plus that never works: the first hacker-native generation knows well that a broad wall just offers that many more places to get over (see Princess Leia, star systems slipping through fingers etc, supra). Besides, I reason, my “problem” will be theirs next year when many of them have their own students. They need to be thinking about what they’ll do when it’s their policy to set. Thus is it always when teaching education: at the root, students and professor are always colleagues at different points in our career’s journey, nothing more.

I do maintain that what we do in class – the face-to-face stuff – should not be another content feed, to be minimized until something “interesting” happens there. And that if it is only that, then the class itself needs to be re-examined, because then we are not doing “what can only be done here,” as goes a great teaching rule-of-thumb I picked up somewhere. They also need to trust me a little to know which hard things are worth sticking out. That’s something I bring that they can’t know, and they need to take my word for it until the purpose of the hard stuff becomes clear.

I also stand by the fact that being online is useful for the work at hand. I have had students email me more resources about something I mentioned five minutes ago – stuff I can bring up ten minutes later. It is amazing to have everyone working on the same question: a hive mind sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, all applied in the same direction. (And I get those emails because yes, I am checking it during class too – just like they are, around the edges of our interactions, not because I am waiting for something important, but because I can. I am in this world too.)

The other part of this, though, is that their blazing screens give me a glimpse into their lives. Without even looking, a glance across the room at the start of class reveals a still life of an impossible lily on someone’s Flickr account; another has a dense page of text, writing for himself or editing for a friend? Someone else scrolls through a Spotify playlist. Someone is on ESPN, as predictable as gravity. And invariably, half the screens have the tiny blue squares and cuneiform of Facebook, our constant alternate reality that reminds how feverishly our out-of-class lives are buzzing, buzzing, waiting for us to get back to them, or to drop in just for a second to see what’s shifted since class started. How different than what I imagine my teachers saw looking across our desks and faces. Maybe a sticker on a Trapper Keeper or a scribbled Van Halen logo suggested other allegiances and preferences, but beyond that we were locked down, responding perfectly to school’s perfect demand that we show up with only our school-ness showing.

I know many professors feel disrespected and ignored when a student sneaks a peek at a screen in class. I also remember distinguished faculty at the med school being asked by first-year students if they would please podcast their lectures, “because then I can listen to them at home 10% faster.” Their outrage was a mix of umbrage and fear – umbrage at the disrespect for the wisdom and experience that had come to teach that day, and fear that somehow their crucial, life-saving knowledge was going to be successfully ignored by the next generation because it wasn’t being shared fast enough.

It seems to me that the big question (“what can only be done here”) still holds. What we faculty can only do in class is show how our experience is brought to bear on real problems in vital, compelling ways. We can help them know which hard things are worth the work. And of course, we can share the pleasure which a true acolyte of a discipline brings to a new challenge, in hopes that the next generation will want the same satisfaction of long association with familiar, rewarding work that we enjoy. We could do better at that. They, perhaps, could do better at listening when we do.

What do you think?

The Pale King, inevitably

This has been on the table since spring. No longer “hot,” but even more worth thinking about as summer gives kids moments of doing what they really want to do and school recedes into dreaded future.

Time to weigh in on the new David Foster Wallace novel. Everyone else is. This will be especially tough, because I could spend the day on it, chewing successive interlocuters’ ears off like Bill Clinton used to on all-night Air Force One flights. But I’ll try to stay focused.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s last work, left unfinished upon his death in 2008 and lovingly edited to publishable form. It is “about boredom,” as boredom shows up in a team of mid-80’s IRS workers and their efforts to do the tedious business of tax collection. Many have noted the counterpoint to 1996’s Infinite Jest, which was ostensibly “about entertainment” – though both really come down to finding yourself on the lip of the existential void and trying to figure out what, if anything, you can do next.

One great insight of the book is that dullness is quite useful, tactically. It’s a way that things can be secreted more effectively than actually secretiveness. Couch something in impenetrably technical language and it will never be read, hidden in plain sight. This is one reason I read so many primary sources with my students: budget reports and task force summaries, North Carolina’s actual, funded Race to the Top application instead of others’ summaries of what we said we’d do. The language of power is frequently boring. We should not be afraid of it. If we are, we might miss things we really need to see.

Beyond such skullduggery, though: What is the role of boredom in education, and how can understanding it make us better educators?

Maybe we learn in three stages:

– FIRST, the “eager beginner” stage, where we are intrigued enough about the prospect of knowing how to do something that we commit ourselves to learning it;

– and THIRD, the “expert practitioner” stage, where we can do the thing autonomously and it enriches our life as we continue to get better at it, commune with others who do it, and generally enjoy doing it for the rest of our lives.

– It’s the SECOND stage that is tough: the “compulsories,” as I think of them. This is the learning of a thousand discrete, decontextualized facts, skills, and attitudes that you need to master automatically in order to get to “stage three.”

In juggling, it’s the throw-and-catch-to-yourself, and the timing of when to toss the second ball while the first drops, and then the flip of the club, and then…you get it. In music, it’s the scales, and the chromatics, and the thirds and fourths and arpeggios, major and minor, that you need to get under your fingers automatically before you are able to conjur music with them. Throwing pots has the wheel to master; ballet has five positions on up, etc.

These discrete tasks are – at least at first – essentially, stupifyingly boring. We usually encounter them in decontextualized ways and are told they need to be mastered, period, by any means necessary. While constructivist models are devoted to being sure that new material builds upon and is made relevant in the context of prior knowledge, there seems to be something irreducible about the real nuts-and-bolts. While we can explain what we need to do, it still boils down to individual toil in the woodshed. No one else can do it for you.

So being bored is part of learning: pedagogy is, at least in part, about helping kids get through the boring “stage two” so they can get a glimpse of the satisfactions of “stage three.”

But I do not think it is too much to also suggest that education at core presents a response to the existential dread. Because the boring work – if it is the RIGHT boring work – DOES lead to the capacity to do independent, fulfilling stuff in a field that is intrinsically satisfying and enriching. We are not training IRS workers, after all. We are preparing kids to find what makes them go and persevere through the necessarily dull “compulsories” of those fields, the better to do what fulfills them.

There are problems with this framework, I know. We must trust (hope?) that someone finds IRS work intrinsically fulfilling too (the pipe dream of the social efficiency curriculum). And the jobs no one else wants to do inevitably end up at the feet of those with the fewest other options, which we then rationalize as “meritocracy” at work (which is social efficiency’s unforgivable blind spot).

Still and all, it gives me some strategic ways to think about what I teach and how. I can start by helping my students see where they are in the process. I can demystify the moment when learning doesn’t feel fun any more for what it really is: a necessary part of the journey to expertise.

What do you think?

Nicholas Kristof has a posse

I am horrified by the Wisconsin legislature’s end-run on teachers’ collective bargaining rights last week, but thrilled by the national conversation on teacher quality and compensation that it’s triggered. Today we see heavyweight Nicholas Kristof weighing in with a great summary of the issue and the stakes, and I am right with him through most of it.

But things break down for me when he echoes pervasive, common-sense calls for greater accountability re: teacher quality –

The teachers’ unions have a point when they complain that existing measurement and evaluation systems are haphazard, but they can be improved — and it’s absurd to say that just because something is difficult to quantify, everybody should be paid the same. It’s difficult to measure or quantify who is a better journalist, or a better lawyer, or a better doctor, but no one thinks that their compensation should be lockstep.

Okay – but actually, doctor quality is quite readily quantified these days as number of patients seen and, sometimes number of tests run and procedures performed. Whether or not it SHOULD be is another question altogether, as the doctors themselves know. In my four years on faculty at a major academic medical center, I saw doctors’ compensation increasingly linked to “thruput,” with bonuses and possible pay docking held over their head to keep the numbers high. It’s a perfect example of “seeing like a state:” counting what can be counted, even if it doesn’t measure what’s most worth measuring. Quantifying doctor quality to link it to compensation, Mr. Kristof, is equally troubling, though no less pervasive.

But then he notes research linking long-term earning potential to early-grades teacher quality, and the comparison really goes off the rails. Imagine for a moment attempting to draw a similar line in medicine – linking, for example, a patient’s cardiovascular health at 65 to the accuracy of an annual physical he received at 40 and using that to determine how good the doctor was who did the exam. Hear the cry: “Absurd! So many other factors came into play – I couldn’t control whether he came back for follow-up, let alone whether or not he quit smoking.” And yet we are comfortable making such long-range assessments of teachers absent meaningful control for social factors (let alone political will to fund measures to address them). In education, we yearn for a pin with a head big enough to fit all the angels that impact student success, the better to count them. But value-added models ain’t it.

Also, reputation accrues to successful physicians, and behind it comes greater compensation as they enter private practice, raise their fees, and generally surf the meritocratic wave that medicine is first among the professions in rewarding. In contrast, how is a teacher recognized for a career-long record of excellence in the almost wholly-unmeasurable register of positive impact on kids’s lives? Reputation, yes, and sometimes pay increase through promotion to one of the more prestigious administrative jobs, which usually takes them away from kids. And tenure, that troubling sop whose history I have not totally grokked yet. (Here’s a California perspective, and a New York one. Anyone else got a link to share?)

And yes, teachers who don’t want to go into administration pursue graduate study for a pay bump (one that can charitably be viewed as getting them to a comfortable standard-of-living, remember – forget supporting a family on it alone, at least in my state). I wonder if grad school for teachers isn’t also a gambit for the respect that might accrue to the letters, some token to mark achievement in a field that barely knows how to. For Arnie Duncan (and Bill Gates), linking advanced degrees to pay raises is on the block now too, as Kristof notes – though he elides the accompanying assertion that advanced study in the field itself (biology for a science teacher, say) SHOULD be unproblematically rewarded. This assertion, whoever makes it, seems woefully ignorant of well-established understanding that knowing a subject well is NOT the same as knowing how to teach it well, pace Lee Shulman and the reams of understanding he opened.

So I think I’m on Kristof’s team today, and certainly applaud his outrage at the recent swipes at the teaching profession. As long as we can bear in mind just how hard it is to measure a great teacher. And if we note just how comfortable we seem as a culture allowing other professions their complexity (and self-governance) while de-skilling and disrespecting teaching as a matter of public policy. Maybe one of the reasons why we’re so comfortable doing so is that we spend most of our formative years watching teacher work: familiarity breeds contempt, a point better made elsewhere. I am happy to see others decry that contempt today. What do you think?

Okay, computer.

 

 

 

 

The world does not need another fanboy post about Radiohead. I get it.

But my recent experience with 1997’s OK Computer has me thinking about some pretty trenchant education topics, so here I go. (Plus, many of my students were six years old – six! – when it dropped, so I wonder if some might find this heads-up as useful as I found Greil Marcus‘ stuff on Elvis’ “Sun Sessions,” Gang of Four, and The Band. Trying to raise all the boats here).

When OK Computer came out, much was made of its icy technicality. Many reviewers, up against deadline, called it “Punk Floyd” or something in that vein, reaching for the last record that drew heavily on “spacey sound” veranacular and spacious tempos to try to evoke what they were hearing. Fair enough, on first pass: there’s a lot of tech in this record for sure, a lot of crafted sounds that use obscure technologies, digital and analog.

But other aspects of the record are obscured by this characterization: namely, its raging humanness, under all of the bleeps and bloops. Revisiting it (as a drummer, granted), I can’t get over how much rattling and jangling goes on in the background. Claves, tambourines, jingle bells, cowbells: there is always an ancient, percussive technology clanging alongside the electric stuff, giving the tracks aural space and presence and reminding us that there are hands attached to these voices and instruments.

There’s also the fact that 80% of the record was recorded live – if Wikipedia is to be believed – partly in a converted shed, and partly in Jane Seymour’s famous mansion where so much sonic shenanigan has gone down. I have played on enough recordings to know how easy it is for a record to get made at the mixing table; how the way a lick gets played once in a take can be copied and pasted throughout the track, resulting in a carefully crafted exquisite corpse of a song that is, alas, still a corpse. This record wasn’t like that: it went for the energy of people playing together, finding the technical and mystical synergies that always come from sharing time and space, attentively, with people who also share your goals.

Maybe that’s the humanness I hear in the most powerful moments of the record. When the bottom drops out three minutes into Climbing Up The Walls, for example, our vertigo is due as much to the chord changes as to the sonic devastation of guitars and drums. That’s a simple, simple progression – my seven year-old son, with a working musical vocabulary of ten pop songs, has worked out as much on the piano – but it sucker-punches us for the same reason that Amazing Grace does. Ones, Fours, and Fives are the language we all speak emotionally in this culture, regardless of the technologies used to articulate them. This record gets that.

So , where’s the education in all this? I guess it’s in how the record helps me understand what Roland Tharp would call “intersubjectivity,” and its related concept “propinquity.” The first I take to mean the unique pedagogical power evoked by being joined with others in a shared pursuit. The second, the actual energy created by physical and temporal proximity: sharing time and space with people, right here, right now. Technology in education is often decried as a force that will separate us from our students and each other, or heralded as the silver bullet that well help us draw closer. In fact, I think “technologies” have always been a powerful part of learning; books are technologies too, after all, and chalkboards, as surely as tambourines and Humbuckers are.

What seems more important to me is attending to how we use those technologies. As long as we sit in a circle, joining our energies around common goals, it doesn’t much matter whether we are banging on rocks with sticks or reading off our iPads or hobnobbing in SecondLife. We need a purpose, and a text in common, and we need each other to help find our way through what happens next.

That’s all I got right now. I have discovered that blogging is seductive – it FEELS like actual work, when there is so much else to do! So going forward I am trying to limit my posts to 30 minutes. Seeking the liberating power of constraint, as my beloved poetry professor Tony Connor once called it.

What do you think?

A Tale of Three Divas

My head’s buzzing after last night’s Grammys. To wit:

1 – I do not dig The Arcade Fire. I respect them, I get them, and I am thrilled to see Merge Records get this big boost, but the band itself leaves me cold. The thing is, they seem so serious about NOT leaving me cold. Their every muscle onstage is deadly earnest, overwrought. No drum is hit without echoing Agincourt and every hope and dream ever hatched and crushed. All four-by-four driving rhythms and major chords, serious as Suzuki piano lessons. It’s frankly a bit exhausting; it’s one note to me, a note that was compelling when I first hear it in “Wake Up,” but now just seems like way too much. The strobe light assault didn’t help. It seemed to embody everything wrong about them.

It is not that I do not love the music of uplift, of getting sanctified. AF clearly explores territory opened by U2, the band that Sasha Frere-Jones notes traffics almost exclusively in “uplift.” But Bono’s diva act is always shot through (at least since Achtung Baby) with a wicked sense of humor, with the possibility that he is messing with us. That note of humor both lets us enjoy U2’s beautiful surfaces and respond emotionally when they bring the emotional punch they so frequently do. In other words: by NOT being earnest all the time, they are able to KILL with earnestness when they want to.

See? If all you are is earnest, you can never really make an impression on anybody. You need to be able to relax into your earnestness, to allow the humor in, to let the audience find what you bring rather than battering them with what you want them to get.

2 – While thinking on the diva-ness of Win Butler (the guy out front in Arcade Fire), I got to thinking about the diva who was honored at the outset last night: Aretha Franklin, not in attendance but lauded by a devastating five-gun tribute medley. What did Aretha have, I wondered, that Arcade Fire does not? Putting aside genre, passage of time, etc – why do I respond so to her songs, still, when AF leaves me cold?

So this morning I listened to “Respect” five times – really listened, for the first time in years if ever. And what was most amazing was how confident Aretha is in what she is doing. To listen to her lead is to understand why the rest of the performance comes together so magically: she is so assured that the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section can play with her, not at her. How else to account for the drummer’s stutter-swing on the hi-hat, the loose crush rolls and the funky little flam he slaps down on the way into “sock it to me”? He’s not “hammering it down,” and nor is the bass player whose thumping around all that funky junk – instead they are showing up to have fun with Aretha, not behind her. The magic, slippy-slidely feel of the track is borne of the looseness and ease that her confident lead affords. I am not saying the band in and of themselves were not legendary, but they didn’t sound like this with everyone (Wikipedia tells me they also backed the Osmonds’ first hit, which does not have the same ineffable quality to say the least IMHO). And I wonder at whether her confidence is somehow connected to her gospel roots – the fact that since she is consecrated to Sunday morning, she can relax like this on Saturday night. In any case, she can show up and do what she does, making space for others to explore alongside her rather than battering down the door toward her objective. Or something like that.

This seems to have deep importance for the work of teaching (huh? Stay with me). The contrast invites reflection on what is lost by overwhelming, laser-like focus on one outcome – how so many peripheral results of our actions as teachers (or artists) get lost when the only thing we care about is the outcome we have our eye on. Lacan says something like this when he theorizes jouissance as the pleasure of unpredictability and danger, vs plaisir as the pleasure of meeting predicted goals, attaining anticipated satisfactions. So does Dewey when he described “flexible purposing” in Art as Experience. More vivid, maybe,  is Princess Leia’s rejoinder to Governor Tarkin when he insists the Empire is about to crush the Rebellion: “the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” It’s a pretty big issue, and a tough argument to make in the world of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But strobe-light, battering-ram curriculum can only accomplish one thing, if that, and leaves out so much that an approach valuing obliqueness, space, possibility, can bring.

3 – My last diva must be Christina Aguilera, who made my night with her stunning read of Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” and more than redeemed her Super Bowl National Anthem flub. But consider: I am sure she’s sung “Ain’t No Way” a hundred times to herself, in the car and the shower, in thrall to its gorgeousness. So have I. Who has done as much with the National Anthem? How could she drop a word or a note last night? She was in that magical place where what she desperately wanted to do aligned perfectly with the task at hand: the pedagogical moment, if you will, I think Marshall MacLuhan had in mind when he noted that “anyone who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know a thing about either.” Or so I was reminded, witnessing her valentine to Ms. Franklin last night.

No more time to work this through today. What do you think?

c

Gunning Down the Dream

My students and I had such interesting talks yesterday about Nathan Heller’s meditation on the career of Natalie Portman, especially as it’s illuminated by Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne’s monster 1995 essay “Culture as Disabiity.” Why are we (or at least Heller) uncomfortable with Portman’s maintenance of so many identities, so many role positions? Is she really a striver, an organization kid – or as med schools would call it, a “gunner”? All ambition, without an ability to close any of her options by committing fully to one of them? And how is the culture disturbed by her generation’s holding off on those commitments until later, refusing to slot into an identifiable role so we all know what to do with her?

Of course, there are good reasons for Natalie ‘s – and my students’ – decision not to pull the trigger too quickly on a life’s path. The staggeringly few entry-level opportunities available, coupled with their own judgment of what their parents’ earlier commitments got them, add up to different sums than my generation got. It is easy to romanticize pushing back against your parents’ choices – to take James Dean’s side against his square father and go make out with Natalie Wood instead – but still, they have a point. Plus there’s all that talk about the new skills and dispositions our new information and collaboration-rich world requires, and how different they are from what is taught in school (here’s one that people keep talking about, and then this video that’s been forwarded to me more times than I count).

But these are both counterculture samizdat that contradict the official line on what education should be these days. The rhetoric of striving and achieving in measurable, predictable ways is at the core of Race to the Top as surely as it was No Child Left Behind, and even with all the chatter few are noting the disconnect between only counting what can be counted and cultivating dispositions of curiosity, cleverness, imagination, etc. Good old John Dewey even got into the mix this week. As many students noted, if education is in fact “a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” then best preparation for the future is about these harder to measure capacities: capacity to engage, to attend, to be interested, to follow one’s heart.

And an important part of acheiving those outcomes is supporting students as they find their way to what most matters to them. “I tend to run toward things I don’t understand,” Paul Haggis notes this week in his confessional of a lifetime with the Scientologists. It’s a heartbreaking story, and perhaps in hindsight he wishes he had not run so hard toward that goal. But respecting his core curiosity – the willingness to keep looking – is at the heart of what we do, even if it sometimes leads down strange paths.

I wonder, then, if we can’t recognize Portman’s diffuse ambition as a very desirable outcome of our educational work. When so many opportunities are more available than they have been historically, shouldn’t our students be more willing to explore more byways than we were, precisely because they can? Are they willing to give up “all their father’s golden factories, just to see who in the world they might be?” Nice work if you can get it, as a past generation dismissed their kids’ dilettantism. Maybe our students are the first generation who CAN get it, and we should stop scolding them for trying.

Heller gives Portman a grudging respect at the end, wishing that the role-cementing he predicts will come from an Oscar win weren’t inevitable. But McDermott and Varenne say he’s wrong: we all need her to settle on what she is, because the maintenance of the culture’s roles depends on it. Only wholescale role change will make things otherwise. And while the opportunities to make such changes are unequally distributed (that’s next week’s class), still: should we not support our students in making the most change they can?

What do you think?

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