Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Narrative Collapse and the Stink of Mortality

For several weeks various threads have been blowing about in the breeze.  One relates to a conversation I had with one of my younger colleagues, a newly minted Ph.D., whose something of an expert on critical theory and computer gaming.  Another relates to the problematic last unit of my Humanities 102 course, which focuses upon big ideas and values in Western culture.  And another relates to a book I've been reading, Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Penguin, $26.95). 

Let's begin in medias res.  For years I've struggled to conceptualize the end of my Humanities 102 course.  Here's the problem: until you get to the 19th century it's dangerously easy to present Western culture as a dialectical zig-zag of corrections and reactions.  Artistically speaking, you might say that the West oscillated between Dionysian and Apollonian poles, with the Enlightenment eschewing Baroque excess and the Romantics rebelling against the sterile formality of Enlightenment aesthetics.  I say dangerously easy because--like any tidy story--it unavoidably effaces how messy the process actually was. 

But what are you going to do?  You can't teach a mess.  So I lay out the traditional Renaissance to Modernism plot line, but I also try to acknowledge the messiness.  One useful tool in this respect is Raymond Williams' model of presenting synchronic cultural expressions as manifestations of residual, dominant and emergent tendencies.  In other words, we can see in King Lear residual traces of medieval hierarchy, but also the dominant Elizabethan preoccupation with the legitimacy of hierarchy, and even an emergent 18th century humanism.  Luther himself is a poster child for this way of thinking.  Is he the man who invented modernity, a man of his own historical moment or a medieval monk? 

Short answer: yes.

But even with my nod to messiness, the plot begins to fall apart when you get into the 19th century.  A kind of Tofflerian acceleration seems to take place in Western culture.  Movements and ideas begin to spin off, split off and sputter out with dizzying speed.  Realism parallels both late Romanticism and Ingres' neo-classicism.  And they all overlap with Symbolism, Naturalism, Impressionism and a cascade of rapidly expiring post this-es and thats.   It's no wonder the Modernists wanted a clean break with the past.  Let's just start over.

But there is no starting over.  There's only acceleration. 

In his book, Rushkoff argues this acceleration eventually achieves a kind of "narrative collapse," by which he means the inability of any traditional linear narrative to incorporate the present into a chronological storyline.  He writes that we live in era that has replaced narrative with the improvisational nature of computer gaming, one in which "there is no temporal backdrop against which to measure our progress, no narrative through which to make sense of our actions, no future toward which we may strive, and seemingly no time to figure any of this out."

The term narrative collapse is as good a way as any to describe my difficulties with the end of Humanities 102.  It also seems the mot juste for my teaching life of late.  Four colleagues retire this week and with them go much of the shared narrative of my institution: the old war wounds and scars, the in-references and understandings, the awareness of what has been given and lost.  This is just the way it goes in one's life and one's career.  Eventually the kids show up to take away your car keys.  It happens to everybody and it's for the best.  I realize this, but I don't have to be happy about it.

I began my academic career using 3" x 5" note cards to jot down bibliographic sources.  This quaint methodology allowed me to write about novels and poems.  It was a world of card catalogs and Onion's glossary of Shakespeare.  H.D. was an imagist poet, not a screen resolution.  Text was still a noun.  Talking to my younger colleague about critical theory and on-line gaming a few weeks ago only brought home to me how pre-narrative collapse my whole approach to teaching and learning has suddenly become. The world has moved on and on and on...

I would not say that I have become that proverbial coot screaming at the kids to get off my lawn.  I feel rather like some sad, pathetic old grubber at the dumpster of Western Civilization, pawing through the refuse and wondering how to convince the bored and distracted to listen to a story.  But they're done with stories now.  They're uploading their own improvisational skateboard tricks to Vimeo and jumping to ever higher levels in their own non-linear, endlessly-looping RPGs. 

I only need this job to last a few more years, but at the rate things are going...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Should a Surgeon Read Shakespeare?

There's an exercise I use in the first-year seminar to introduce the aims of Liberal Arts education.  It's a subject we're required to address during the course.  Unfortunately, it's also a subject singularly devoid of interest to the average 18-year old.  So rather than preaching at them, I ask them to make a series of judgments in response to a hypothetical situation.  This exercise usually provokes one of the more interesting discussions of the semester.  We did it this morning and it proved no exception. 

The gist is this: I ask the students to imagine they are in need of a potentially life-threatening brain operation. The procedure requires an expert surgeon who has been extremely well-trained in a high-risk procedure. Because the stakes are so high, they are allowed to select the surgeon they want.  The final two candidates are exactly equal in experience and expertise.

The difference only arises when meeting the surgeons in preparation for making the choice.  One of the candidates has a well-thumbed copy of the collected works of Shakespeare on the credenza behind her desk. When this is mentioned in passing, the surgeon glows warmly. She speaks of her love of literature, poetry, history and philosophy, all of which she finds in the works of Shakespeare. She mentions that she discovered her passion for literature as an undergraduate. “Shakespeare,” she exclaims, “is my dictionary of life, a window into the tragedy, fragility and beauty of the human experience.”

After this preamble, the students are asked to answer the following question:
Given that the two surgeons are exactly the same in terms of expertise and ability, does it make any difference to you that one loves Shakespeare?  Why?
After a few minutes of writing their responses, I ask them to move to different spaces in the room.  Those who prefer the Shakespeare-reading surgeon go to the right, those who don't move to the left.  Those who argue it makes no difference can stay in the middle.  After they split into groups, I ask them to discuss their responses and announce any consensus.

The majority of students opt for the middle group.  They argue it makes no difference.  A sizable number argue for the Shakespeare-reading surgeon.  Only a handful argue that they would prefer the non-Shakespeare reading candidate.  I've done this dozens of times in various classes and the ratios remain remarkably similar. 

The justifications for their choices also fall into regular patterns.  The students who choose the surgeon who reads Shakespeare maintain that there is some benefit that can be unpacked from reading the plays.  They can't say exactly what it might be, and they acknowledge there's little relationship between one's understanding of Coriolanus and the corpus collosum.  Even so, they're sure there must be something useful that comes from reading Shakespeare.

Those few arguing against the Shakespeare-reading surgeon usually say they want their doctor focused on surgery and nothing but surgery.  Why chance any day-dreaming when their skulls are opened?   The people in the middle, of course, just think the question is a non-starter.  It makes no difference who you choose.

I don't take a side in the debate beyond challenging the rationales of each group.  I just let them hash it out.  It takes anywhere from 10-15 minutes, but someone eventually will raise the idea that the question doesn't ask "Who do you want for the surgery?"  It just asks if a passion for Shakespeare makes any difference. After all, the hypothetical surgeon isn't just a surgeon. She's also a neighbor, a citizen, a parent, maybe someone's partner.  In any case, she's certainly entitled to her own passions and interests.  "Maybe reading Shakespeare doesn't make her a better surgeon," someone will say, "But--I dunno--maybe it matters in the larger sense of her whole life.  People ought to be something more than just their jobs."

Like I said, it takes a while, but students will eventually hit upon the idea that they may have framed the question too narrowly and that the lines we insist upon drawing between our personal and professional identities are somewhat artbitrary, and maybe even a little silly. 

* * *

Last summer I attended a conference in New Jersey.  By chance one of the presenters happened to be an actual brain surgeon.  She taught neurology at a prestigious medical school.  We ran into each other while checking email in the hotel's business center.  After some chit-chat, I mentioned my in-class exercise.  In response, she told me about something she does with her budding surgeons.

She said that she sets aside some time once a month in her rather demanding course on neurology to talk with her students about their lives, interests and passions.  On the first day of these discussions she asks them to write three things on separate index cards: an ability they are proud of, the name of someone they deeply love , and a lifetime goal or dream. After they complete this task, she walks through the room taking away one of their cards and saying, "This is now gone forever."  Then they talk about what it feels like to lose something so precious.

The point of this exercise, she told me, was to remind future surgeons that it's not simply a brain injury in that hospital room.  It's a human being who has very likely just lost something precious.  And if they walk into that room with only their expertise and skill, they will never be a fully-competent surgeon.  "You take your whole life into that room with you," she said, "because it sure as hell is a whole life you're dealing with."

That's not exactly a 30-second elevator speech for the liberal arts' commitment to educating the whole person, but it's not bad. 


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...