Monday, March 14, 2005

In which the Meridian attempts to determine proper fodder for the Canon

It's a Friday; I and my colleagues who teach Humanities are discussing new texts and assessments for the Humanities survey classes. Every once in a while in our conversation, a vague Something surfaces and stays a bit longer at said surface before sinking again. Finally . . .
I: It seems that we just can't do much more than sorta talk about Cubism at the end of HUM II.
Esteemed Colleagues: Correct!
I: We can't even get to WW I, much less beyond.
Esteemed Colleagues: You betcha!
I: We really could use a HUM III course!
Esteemed Colleagues: Yeah!
I: It could start with Impressionism!
Esteemed Colleagues: Yeah!
I: And it could include film!
Esteemed Colleagues: Of course! Why wouldn't it?? (though someone murmurs, "You gotta be careful with Birth of a Nation.)
I: And music!
Esteemed Colleagues: They gotta hear Barber's Adagio for Strings!
I: I'll write it up! I don't have anything better to do . . . except watch basketball.
Esteemed Colleagues: You go right on ahead and write up something and we'll have a look at it! We're behind you all the way!!
I (thinking): Is that sotto voce snickering I hear?
. . .
I (several hours later, ruefully, during the Big XII quarterfinals): Suckuhhhh!

Some of the above is invention but, as the writers sometimes say, it is in its essence true. This task I've set for myself is pretty damned hard, for two reasons.
I should say for the record that I very much enjoy thinking about the shape and content of programs and individual courses; at my previous institution, unasked, I proposed 3 different outlines for the major/minor in English consisting of existing and new course offerings. But I should also say for the record that I am by nature a Big Picture kind of guy. I could do the sort of stuff I did at my past place of employ precisely because the courses I proposed were empty vessels that each instructor would be responsible for filling.
Here, though, writing the Course Outline is something a Details Person would adore: the writer doesn't just describe the course, s/he also gets to determine its actual contents (subject, of course, to his/her colleagues' approval). Not just Artistic Movements, but who IN those Artistic Movements gets name-checked. So, there's my first dilemma: Am I leaving anything/anybody out that should be in? It's rather like the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Committee's deciding from among "bubble teams." The second is a different manifestation of the sort of question that some of us literature types get asked every once in a while and is fun to think about but is really impossible to answer: "Who is writing/painting/making films/making music/etc. now that will be remembered 100 years from now?" The version of that question for this class is, "Who and what, in a survey class for the period from 1870 to the present, should/must students in America's heartland know something about?"
For me, at least, that question is fairly easy till I start thinking about post-WWII things. Then personal taste becomes harder to fight against; then I begin to realize just how beholden to critical opinion I am and how, relatively speaking, there's just less of that to go on that is truly helpful, since the critics, though they've seen/heard/thought about this stuff more than I have, they have the same trouble, really, that any of us have: How do you know in The Moment (and I would say that here, "The Moment" extends back at least a couple of generations as traditionally defined) that what you're seeing/hearing is worth talking about to a general audience?
And that leads me to a third concern, that of all canons, really: To choose is to some extent valorize that selection once you get past the obvious choices. It's unavoidable. Being that the class is a survey, we can fairly accurately claim that we're just looking at our culture's aesthetic history without passing judgment on its aesthetic value. Sorry, kids--we have no choice but to talk about Picasso if we're gonna be at all faithful to this course's goal. But someone like Matthew Barney? Or Julian Schnabel? What about Gerhard Richter? Even someone like Barnett Newman, who did most of his work in the 50's but still seems hard to place (indeed, if we even SHOULD place him) in relation to someone like Rothko. But/and these are Americans and Europeans. How does one talk about Modernist and Postmodernist art as it manifests itself in Latin America, Asia, and Africa?
Of all the academic problems I COULD have, this is actually a nice one to have. The real point of this post is that it reminds me that, back in grad school, I used to think how absurd it was that some of my colleagues would speak of the Canon as though it were . . . like, well . . . you know.


fearful_syzygy said...

That picture is doing some extremely odd things to your blog, Mr. B.

So what's the deal on this course you're plotting? I mean how many hours is it likely to be? That sort of thing.

Good luck with it anyway.

John B. said...

The weird stuff was duly noted and dealt with, sort of.
As for the number of hours, it's a 3-credit-hour course: very ordinary.

jennifer said...

Hey big picture guy! I found your post quite amusing. I haven't proposed any big curriculumn changes (woe to the undergrad that tries that!) but I have found myself doing similar things as to what you are and my humble (extremely humble) advice is to design your dream course and then narrow it down as if someone else were handing it to you to finalize.
As if you were the dean who'd okay it or the chair of your department for example. That way you've allowed yourself the fun and the tediousness of what you've volunteered yourself for. Also, I'd suggest putting on some thick armor for potential of someone shooting down your best laid plans just in case. I think it's fantastic what you're proposing and thinking about. Also perhaps you could check out other programs you admire (SUNY at Buffalo has an AMAZING literature program. The diversity of subjects they teach and syllabi they offer are fun just to browse through. So check out what other universities and faculty are doing but also and first and foremost go with your gut. You were obviously inspired to throw your idea out there now run with it. :)

I have one teacher who I both admire but also tends to depress the hell out of all of my future career ambitions as a teacher because every class he makes teaching sound as if there were no joy to be had, no future in it for anyone who might be radical.
Do you think this is true? Listening to him makes me dread even considering teaching as a profession and yet it is what I want to DO. You've seen my crazy efforts. I worry. Then I come over here and read what you're doing and musing about and it always makes me smile. Thanks for being fearless enough to suggest change and crazy enough to try. :)

John B. said...

You give out pretty good advice for an undergrad. Most of it I already know, of course, but I thank you for the kind words.
I think very highly of SUNY-Buffalo; the people whom I know (or whose work I know) from there consistently impress me with their imaginativeness. Maybe all that snow keeps them inside, thinking.
As for teaching: I'm firmly of the belief--because I've seen it happen in my classes--that teaching indeed carries with it the power to awaken students' intellects and curiosities, if not transform them. It doesn't happen with every student or in every semester, but it happens often enough that it'll remind you why you keep bothering to do it. Keep the faith.