Friday, September 28, 2012

Eugene Genovese 1930 - 2012

The great (albeit complex and controversial and problematic) historian of American slavery, Eugene Genovese, has died.

My favorite quote of Genovese's has nothing to do with history per se, but is an aside in his groundbreaking 1974 book Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  In my quote file, I pull my favorite two sentences --
The truth of religion comes from its symbolic rendering of man's moral experience; it proceeds intuitively and imaginatively. Its falsehood comes from its attempt to substitute itself for science and to pretend that its poetic statements are information about reality.
-- but to mark Genovese's passing, here's the full paragraph:
The philosophical problem of religion, its truth and falsehood, represents a domain only partially separate from that of politics. Since religion expresses the antagonisms between the life of the individual and that of society and between the life of civil society and that of political society, it cannot escape being profoundly political. The truth of religion comes from its symbolic rendering of man's moral experience; it proceeds intuitively and imaginatively. Its falsehood comes from its attempt to substitute itself for science and to pretend that its poetic statements are information about reality. In either case, religion makes statements about man in his world -- about his moral and social relationship -- even when it makes statements about his relationship to God. Even when a man's adherence to a religion is purely formal or ritualistic, essential elements of his politics are thereby exposed, for participation in rites normally means participation in social acts that precede, rather than follow, individual emotional response. He enters, usually as a child, into a pattern of socially directed behavior that conditions his subsequent emotional development and that, from the beginning, presupposes a community and a sense of common interest.  For good reason the whites of the Old South tried to shape the religious life of their slaves, and the slaves overtly, covertly and even intuitively fought to shape it themselves. (p. 162)

Eugene Genovese, RIP.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lines Which, I Fear, May Seem To My Students To Apply To the Text They Are Drawn From

...which they are supposed to have read for today's class: illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals.

-- Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Chapter 7
...except that in fact none of my students will note the irony, since for those who understand that passage it won't apply, and those who really do feel that frustration won't understand this passage either.

Ah students! Ah humanity!

Monday, September 24, 2012

You gotta FIGHT! For your RIGHT! To --

So far this semester, I have seen these comparisons made in student papers:
  • Coney Island is like college weekends -- a place to unwind & go crazy
  • Civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement is like college kids' drinking -- a protest against an unjust law
...and we're not quite yet a third of the way through the semester.

Someone's doing something wrong.  I don't know if it's me, or them, or Our Society, or all of the above.  (My default is to blame everybody.)  But someone's doing something wrong.

From a Commonplace Book

There is no use talking to the ignorant about lies, for they have no criteria.

- Ezra Pound, "The Constant Preaching to the Mob"
I found this one, I suspect, on Brian Leiter's blog, since he's quoted it a number of times (with slightly different wording -- "You can't talk to the ignorant about lies, since [or because] they have no criteria". But I went and dug up the original citation for this blog post, and the original context is interesting -- you can read the whole thing here, it's only a page and a half. It's Pound denouncing the idea that poetry is meant to entertain as "flatter[ing] the mob". But, of course, it's a good line (and an important truth) whatever one thinks of its provenance. A truth's not responsible for the person who first expressed it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Syllabus for American Studies 101: Myths and Paradoxes

Last week, I posted my syllabus for my new course, an introductory course in American Studies; next up, the syllabus for my other new course, a different introductory course in American Studies.

I'm formatting it differently. Again I'll start with the "About this Course" introduction I put on the syllabus. But then I'm posting the section on the graded work for the class, since it's more offbeat than was the assigned work for my other class, so I thought I'd highlight it by putting it on the actual blog. And lastly, since the class really makes no sense without the specific readings assigned for each unit, I'm listing those, too. (In the coursepack, each subsection of the syllabus is prefaced by a title page, with an image: I'm using those images as headers here, just to spruce up the post.)

As was true for the other class, while I'm basically pleased with how this course came out, it's still a first draft; it will most likely change when I offer it in the spring semester (based on how things went this time around, of course).

Now, without further ado...

About This Course

This course is about the myths and paradoxes of America. We will examine six ideas, each of which is a myth -- not (particularly) in the sense of being fictional, but in the sense of being an organizing idea (aspiration, self-description, ideological belief) which is applied to this country. Each is also, in itself, paradoxical, as well as being in a paradoxical relationship to the others. We will examine each myth/paradox through a variety of approaches, including literature, philosophy, history, sociology, songs, art and others, hoping to gain a richer understanding of each of these ideas than any single approach would give us.

Those six ideas, in the order we will consider them, are:
Note that these are hardly the only six that I could have chosen. There were lots of others myths that I considered, and which, had we but world enough and time, I would have us look at too. (Some examples include newness/youth, empire, community (republic/union), progress -- and many others.) But they are six of the most important ones.

We will be looking, as we examine these ideas, at a series of conflicts. First, each of these ideas is contested, which means that people argue over what it means (and what it should mean) and how it works. So each idea is an intellectual battleground between those with different beliefs and agendas. Second, each of these ideas, as ideals, are (in some ways) in conflict with the reality in America. Further, this conflict between the myth and the reality can lead to a variety of responses . (Reject the myth as false? Work to make it true? Deny that it could be false?) And third, each of these ideas is (according to some people) in conflict with others -- perhaps democracy and freedom are in conflict, or perhaps individuality and equality, or perhaps opportunity and identity.

Finally, of course, all of these ideals are tied up, in various complex ways, with others. People often use various ones of them synonymously -- perhaps democracy means equality, or freedom means democracy, or equality means opportunity, or individuality means exploring one's identity -- or is it rather refuting it? These complexities means that we will engage with all six ideas throughout the term, even as we try to focus our discussions primarily on the one at hand. (As we explore these issues with our mélange of readings, one thing to bear in mind is that almost all of these readings could be shifted to a different unit.) But the interrelations here are a feature, not a bug. These ideas are important in part because they relate in such complex ways.

In addition, of course, to their relation to the seventh, unspoken yet ubiquitous idea on our agenda: "America" itself.

Response Papers

There will be no final exam, in-class tests or longer writing assignments in this course.

Apart from attendance and class participation -- which will be counted seriously -- the grades in this class will be determined by near-daily one page response papers. Each response paper should be a page in length, and should primarily be a response to the reading due in that day's class (although comparisons and contrasts with other readings and ideas from the class will certainly be worthwhile). These responses will be graded √/√-/√+ (or, in rare cases, no credit).

The baseline expectation for the class is that you will do 35 one-page response papers. Note that there are 42 days of class in the semester, meaning that you are expected to do one nearly every day. The seven that you don't do are intended to deal with sickness, emergencies and other exigencies of life that may crop up. But it is your responsibility to hoard the passes until really needed; if you "spend" them early, and then get caught out in genuine emergencies or illness, your grade will still go down. You should, at the very least, save three or so for genuine emergencies; anyone who has to do a response paper the final week of the term is either unlucky or planning poorly -- probably the latter.

Response papers can be about any of the readings due on a particular day. If there are multiple readings due on that day, then you don't need to discuss them all -- one will do. All that is required is that you have a response to the reading. Obviously you will need to be particularly intelligent or thoughtful or creative to get a √+, but a √ will be given just for a plain, ordinary, response. (Evidence that you've seriously misunderstood the reading, or genuinely poor writing (i.e. not just a mistake or two), will merit a √-. Handing in only one sentence (rather than a page), or not discussing the reading at all, or other, similar things will result in getting no credit.)

Please note that no more than one response can be turned in per class, nor will late responses be accepted. If you have not turned in a response paper by class time, then that day will be one of your skipped responses.

Also note that on days you don't do a response paper, you are still required to do the reading, attend class and participate in the discussion.

If you turn in 35 response papers which receive a grade of √, you will get a B for the class (assuming normal participation and attendance). Grades of √+ will raise your grade, and grades of √- will lower it. Turning in fewer than 35 responses will lower your grade significantly. Extra credit will be given for turning in more than 35 responses (but bear in mind, again, that only one response paper per class will be accepted -- the only way to do more than 35 is to not use up all of your skips).

The reason that I am making this the only form of assignment is two-fold: first, I want to make sure that everyone does the reading (since it is the heart of the course); and second, I want everyone to think about the reading. This class is not about memorizing information or learning facts, but about thinking about these issues. Do that in your response papers and you'll do fine.

This class is a marathon, not a sprint. The work in it is not something that can be done in bursts; it requires steady application of effort. Make sure you get off to a good start, and then keep a steady pace throughout.

Class Assignments

Note: I haven't reproduced the specific days when each assignment is due. Some days we discuss more than one reading; some readings get more than one day.

Prologue: America

Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again"
"Extracts" (supplied by a Sub-Sub Librarian)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"

Unit One: Freedom

David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Introduction, pp. 1-13)
David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed (excerpts on Freedom Ways)
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (brief excerpt)
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (chapters 1-2, 5-7 & brief excerpt from chapter 10)
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (excerpt from opening)
William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (chapters 1-2 only)
Ronald Reagan, "A Time to Choose"
Langston Hughes, "Refugee in America" (aka "Words Like Freedom")
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "Four Freedoms"
Martin Luther King, "The Birth of a New Nation"
Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Free Bird" (lyrics)
Kate Chopin, "The Story of an Hour"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Yellow Wallpaper"
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (a few very brief excerpts)
Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"
David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (excerpts on the statue of liberty)
** Liberty and freedom as images (look at slideshow, which has been posted separately on blackboard; we'll view & discuss the images in class)

Unit Two: Democracy

James Madison, Federalist Papers, #10 and #51
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (excerpt)
John Dewey, "Creative Democracy"
Mark Twain, "The Curious Republic of Gondor"
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (excerpt)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments from Seneca Falls"
Leonard Cohen, "Democracy" (lyrics)
Martin Luther King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
Herman Melville, Billy Budd (entire book)

Unit Three: Individualism

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance"
Edgar Allan Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse"
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Forethought & Chapters 1, 6 & 11)
David Riesman, et. al., The Lonely Crowd (Chapter 1)
Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car" (lyrics)
Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Unit Four: Equality

Thomas Paine, excerpt from "Dissertation on First Principles of Government"
Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites (Chapter 2)
Plessy v. Ferguson (excerpt)
Brown v. Board of Education (excerpt)
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (chapters 10-11)
Bob Dylan, "Only a Pawn in Their Game" (lyrics)
Kurt Vonnegut, "Harrison Bergeron "
William F. Buckley, "Why the South Must Prevail"
Ayn Rand, "The Age of Envy" (excerpt)
Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery"
Octavia Butler, Fledgling (entire book)

Unit Five: Opportunity

Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success (Introduction)
Horatio Alger, "Henry Trafton's Independence"
Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (Chapters 15 & 20, plus some additional images)
Carl Sandberg, "Chicago"
Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (lyrics)
LBJ, "To Fulfill These Rights"
Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration (Chapter 6)
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (entire book)
Stephen Sondheim, Assassins (entire book)
Stephen Sondheim, Assassins (listen to music)

Unit Six: Identity

Philip Gleason, "Identifying Identity"
James Baldwin, "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American"
Barbara J. Fields, "Ideology and Race in American History"
Peggy McIntosh, " White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"
Randolph Bourne, "Trans-National America"
Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity (Chapter 5)
** Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills (1977 - 1980) (This series of black and white photographs by American artist Cindy Sherman is online at the web site of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The link is to the first one; please look at all the ones they have online (there are 70 of them). Note: the name of this series is "Untitled Film Stills"; the following work that Sherman did was another series, this one called "Untitled". We're going to focus on the former. Basically, when you see color, you can stop (unless you're interested, ¬of course).Dar Williams, "When I Was a Boy" (lyrics)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (entire book)

Coda: America

Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again"

Update: Broken link to Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills fixed, typos corrected.

Update 2: Changed the final unit to reflect a mid-course revision of Unit Six (I shuffled the order of the readings, and replaced Baldwin's essay "Encounter on the Seine" with his essay "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American".)  I've also decided to eliminate the coda (nice idea but we're short on time).

Credits for unit images (in order):

J. M. Flag, US Army recruiting poster, 1917
Samuel Jennings, Liberty Displaying the Arts & Sciences, 1792
Alfred R. Waud, The First Vote, 1867
Composite of three images from series: Nancy Burson, Mankind, 2003
Barry Deutsch, A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the U.S.A., 2008
Margaret Bourke-White, Kentucky Flood, 1937
Composite of eight images from series: Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills, 1977 - 1980

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

No, Click Here and Drag Instead

Gerry is right: sometimes XKCD is better than it usual brilliance.  Today was one of those days.

You have to click through to the main page to get the context.  Do a little clicking and dragging.

Then, when you're finding the interface frustrating, go here instead and use this version.  Much easier. (via facebook)

Post Scriptum: While I'm mentioning alternate XKCD format, anyone trying to read the strip on an iPhone or iPad (or, I presume (but don't know personally) on other smartphones/tablets), and who is frustrated that they can't get the mouseover text (always worth it, and often the best-part), should bookmark this page where you just click on the image for it.

Post Post Scriptum, Utterly Unrelated to the Post: It looks like blogger finally did as it's been threatening and removed the old, easy-and-pleasant-to-use interface and replaced it with the new, difficult-and-irritating-to-use-interface.  (Slower, too!)  I feel like The Dude when he stands there and says: "Well, they finally did it. They killed my fucking car."

Ah well.  At least they let me switch back after the first forced-trial and get a few more glorious months of usability out of it.  Now it's done.  Fucking Nazis.  (Are we going to split hairs here?  Am I wrong?)

Some Worries Date Back Longer Than You Think, Education Edition

...exemplifying the whole spirit of our big colleges -- their insatiable desire for more students and more funds, their readiness to resort to the same methods as those by which hustling business men promote their enterprises, their forgetfulness of the higher and finer aims of learning in the mere perfecting of mechanical means.... Most of our big colleges and universities have drifted into the adoption of methods that are too suggestive of the "drummer" and the advertising man.

-- The Nation, October 7, 1909, p. 321
This is from an unsigned editorial about Harvard president Charles Eliot's Harvard Classics (aka "the five foot shelf"), which had just come out. I can't confirm it, but Hugh Hawkins, in Between Harvard and America: the Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot (Oxford, 1973) claims (p. 376, n. 11) that this piece was written by Fabian Franklin (1853 - 1939), at the time the associate editor of the New York Evening Post.

From a Commonplace Book

God says do what you wish, but make the wrong choice and you will be tortured for eternity in hell. That's not free will. It's like a man telling his girlfriend, do what you wish, but if you choose to leave me, I will track you down and blow your brains out. When a man says this we call him a psychopath. When god says the same we call him "loving" and build churches in his honor.

-- William C. Easttom II

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

However Worried You Are About Climate Change You're Not Worried Enough

Dave Robberts points to a new paper showing that avoiding catastrophe will "require a level of immediate, global, coordinated action never before seen in human history." (Somewhat related follow-up post here.)

If I could think of anything to do about this -- save pass this on -- I'd do it. Anyone have any ideas that might work? 'Cause I can't think of anything, myself.

Update: Oh, and this, too. (via)

My Tom Friedman Moment

I haven't said anything about the big story du jour that everyone's talking about because, well, I haven't had anything particular to say about it. Romney would do incredible damage to our country (Romney would be worse in every single way that Obama -- terrible in the areas where Obama's good, and far more terrible than Obama in the many areas where Obama's bad), so I certainly hope it hurts his election changes. (It certainly makes him seem like a very unpleasant person.) But I don't know if it will hurt his chances; I'm skeptical of these developing campaign moments to really affect things. (Although the fact that Romney held a last-minute press conference last night indicates that someone thinks it might hurt him.) Really, though, who knows?

Ah, but then I donned the Mustache of Understanding, went to the grocery store and suddenly I realized: a single random comment from a single, randomly encountered working class person is the best -- nay, only! -- way to take the pulse of the country. And by that measure Romney is doomed, Doomed, DOOMED!

Here's what happened. Buying some coffee and a few sundry other items, the cashier in my checkout line began talking to the person standing behind me (whom I presume he knew). "Did you hear what Romney said?" he asked. "He said that people who pay payroll taxes and don't pay income taxes are moochers." He went on to complain about how Romney didn't respect him and people like him who were trying to work their way up. I made some mild comment about how people who pay payroll taxes pay more than Romney does (true enough), and he turned to me and told me that a friend of his was going to vote for Romney, but now he won't. "He's a Republican too," the man said. "This was the last straw."

And then I paid for my groceries and left.

From this single, random incident -- a bit of random bitching, plus some hearsay about a person (supposedly) changing his vote seven weeks before he has to cast it (and thus with plenty of time to change his mind again) -- I conclude that Romney's support is collapsing all over the country, and that he'll loose in a landslide.. Oh, and that the world is flat, or made of straw, or something.

Can I have a NYT column now?

From a Commonplace Book

Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the tortured Hasid of the last century, once said that when the Evil One wants to destroy us, he tempts us not through our wicked desires but through our most virtuous inclinations; we do good deeds at the wrong time, with the wrong intensity, and in a setting in which they do devastating harm.

-- Arthur Hertzberg, "An Open Letter to Elie Wiesel"

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chicago Teachers Strike Links, Sunday Evening Edition

So the latest news, as of Sunday evening, is that the Chicago Teachers Union strike will continue into this upcoming week. I'd been collecting strike links since my last linkfest on the topic, holding off in the hopes that they would become moot. -- Well, no, not moot: the issues are bigger than the particular, and some of these links address the larger issues. But less pressing: links to be saved for another time. Since the strike is continuing, however, here is some more reading on the issue.

• In the last link roundup I was waiting for a longer report from Charles Pierce on the CTU strike. He's now written it.

Paul Street, Striking Neoliberalism in Chicago (via)

Eric Zorn on why teachers, justifiably, don't want to be judged on student test scores. (via the Facebook page of a striking teacher)

Fran Spielman suggests some lessons that Mayor Emanuel could learn from the strike. (via ibid)

Yet another testimony from a Chicago public school teacher

• Richard D.Kahlenberg asks the optimistic question Can the Chicago Teachers’ Strike Fix Democratic Education Reform? in.... The New Republic. Even the Conservative New Republic realizes that neoliberal education reform is a crock!

John Cook offers a simple, radical solution to the problem. I wouldn't actually agree with this proposal -- although I do think it would solve the problem. But maybe if we start talking about it it will put some fear into the right people.

Rich Miller points out that, at least at the start, parents are supporting the CTU. (Obviously this can change, and that's something to worry about. Still, worth knowing.)

This is the claim which the link backs up with data:
Chicago salaries for the first several years of experience are relatively average – or even slightly above. But, they do trail off at higher levels of experience and eventually fall behind. Remember though that comparable salaries would be generally insufficient for recruiting/retaining comparable teachers in a higher need setting.
The same blog has a pre-strike post on the problem with the proposed method of teacher evaluation that (in all honesty) I haven't had time to read yet, but which looks quite interesting.

Best of luck to the CTU as the enter week two of the struggle. Solidarity!

(Incidentally, in case anyone wants to read all my link-round-ups on the strike, I just made a new tag for my blog which will (among other things) allow you to do that.)

Poem of the Day: Rosh Hashanah Edition

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is the birthday of the cosmos; tonight, it will be 13,750,005,753 years old. (Jewish tradition, for its own obscure reasons, rounds this to 5,753. I suppose the 13,750,000,000 is meant to be understood, sort of like referring to '68 when you mean 1968?)

At any rate, in honor of that --
Who By Fire

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

-- Leonard Cohen
Listen to the song here.

Shana Tova to all of those of my Noble Readers for whom the wish fits.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Syllabus for American Studies 100: The History of American Culture

As I've alluded to, but haven't yet spelled out, this year I'm teaching two introductory-level American studies courses (both this semester and again next semester). The classes are American Studies 100: The History of American Culture, and American Studies 101: Myths and Paradoxes. Apart from the course titles and descriptions, I was given a pretty free hand. Of course, both preparing and teaching a new class are a lot of work -- and doing two, particularly in an area you haven't taught before (this is my first time teaching American Studies as such, although most of my history classes have been cross-listed and some have even been offered as 'concurrent' AS courses with the same title/number in a different department) is pretty nuts. And coming up with two introductions to one subject -- even with the direction provided by the course titles -- was yet another level of craziness. (The courses, by the way, had to be independent -- neither was a prerequisite for the other -- but also non-overlapping, as some people would take both (and majors were required to take both.))

It was a busy summer.

But I'm basically pleased with how the courses came out, at least for the first go-around (updates will be made before the spring versions, based on the first run). So I thought I'd post the syllabi in case anyone's interested. First up: Amst100. What I'm going to do is to put here, on the blog, the title page, the general information about the course, and the list of items (you'll know what that means when you get to it). Then I'll link to the complete syllabus as a pdf document on Google Docs for anyone who wants to read the details of the assignments, etc. So, without further ado...

About This Course

It's ridiculous, of course: you can't sum up American culture in fifteen weeks. We might as well all go home.

...but, uh, since we shan't --

The approach of this class will be to work through examples: not precisely representative ones, since they don't represent the whole, but suggestive ones: ones that will introduce a lot of themes and issues that you will encounter again, should you go on to study American Culture further -- or just live in it. More specifically, we shall be talking about twenty-one things, where a "thing" can be a work of art, an event, a place, a genre, or any of a number of other more specific nouns. This is a history of American culture in twenty-one examples, the way we might have a history in five volumes, or in five minutes. Which is to say, it is limited by them, contained within them: they are meant to be, not complete, but informative.

Even apart from the limitations inherent in the example form, there have been a lot of other limitations involved in narrowing a culture down to fifteen class weeks. Two in particular are worth noting. First, our temporal focus shall be on the last hundred and fifty years -- mostly, indeed, the last hundred. American culture (depending on how you define it) goes back at least to the seventeenth century, if not before. But for the purposes of pedagogy, we will focus on the more immediate history of the culture we all live in.

Second, we shall take "culture" in a somewhat (but not extremely) narrow sense. The word is often used quite broadly, to include patterns of work, family, and such things. We will be talking about culture in a narrower sense: movies, television, paintings, food, memorials, sermons, sporting events, amusement parks, scandals, comics, cultural events, and so forth. But, of course, sometimes "culture" is used just to mean things like books, paintings and music. We will include those, but we'll go somewhat further than simply that.

The examples have been chosen with the hope of touching on many of the forms, modes, and issues which have been important in American culture, given those limitations. We will be touching on a lot of issues about which entire courses can be offered -- the history of American popular music, television, theater, film, painting, sports, comics, commercial culture, etc. (Indeed, you can take many of those classes here at Hobart and William Smith, should you be so inclined.) Thus we will be experiencing, of necessity, quick glances rather than long stares at these issues.

Nevertheless, we will cover a fairly broad ground. We'll be looking at two TV shows (and one TV event), one radio show (and one radio event) and one theatrical play. We'll be discussing one park, one historical monument and one amusement park. We'll talk about one painting and one comic strip. We'll do one unit on Jazz, and one on Folk and Rock music (specifically, their intersection). We'll talk about a preacher, a settlement house, a set of books, a type of movie theater, a type of food and a store catalog. We'll touch on sports twice, on public media events at least once and several controversies. We'll look at something from the Western genre, the Mystery/Noir genre, and the Fantasy/Science Fiction genre. Issues that will come up include race relations, commercialism, immigration, nativism, urbanism, suburbanism, cars and drugs.

It'll be a wild ride. We're going big, taking on too much, trying to do and have it all. After all, this is a course on American culture, ain't it?

The 21 Examples

1. Minstrel Shows
2. Central Park
3. A Sears & Roebuck Catalog
4. Hull House
5. Coney Island Amusement Park
6. The Five Foot Shelf (a.k.a. The Harvard Classics)
7. D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation
8. Billy Sunday Sermons
9. The Lone Ranger (radio and TV show)
10. Louis vs. Schmeling (New York City, June 22, 1938)
11. Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit" (words & music by Abel Meeropol)
12. Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)
13. Charles Schultz, Peanuts, 1961 - 1962
14. Drive-in Movie Theaters
15. Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965
16. The Moon Landing, 1969
17. Roman Polanski, Chinatown
18. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
19. Fast Food
20. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
21. Steroids in Baseball


If you want to read the complete syllabus, it is available as a pdf online here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking, That's against their interests."

Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I'll tell you what they don’t want: they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that! You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street...

The table has tilted folks. The game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care... It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

-- George Carlin
More links on the Chicago teachers strike. (Update: links added.)

Diane Ravitch, Two Visions for Chicago’s Schools. (This, and many the links in this post, are from Ravitch's blog, which I again recommend to people interested in the strike.)

The headline reads: "Director of Private School Where Rahm Sends His Kids Opposes Using Testing for Teacher Evaluations". Because Emanuel sends his kids to a good school, of course, where they know what good education is. Y'know, what Emanuel doesn't want for the kids who just go to public schools.

• Corey Robin, Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions? Because They Hate Teachers.

• Erik Loomis, Why I Support Public School Teachers

• Oh, and those charter schools that the Owners (to use Carlin's word) like so much? They just teach kids to past tests, which doesn't actually educate them; it doesn't even help them with other tests they don't specifically teach for). As Dean Baker put it, "If Emanuel is advocating increased use of charter schools he is either unfamiliar with recent research in education or has some motive other than improving student performance."

Greg Palast profiles a teacher who was fired, and then rehired at a charter school... for $41,000 a year instead of $70,000. As Palast writes:
Education is no longer about information and learning skills. It's now about "triage." A few selected by standardized tests or privileged birth will be anointed and permitted into better and "gifted" schools....

So that's the program. An educational Katrina: squeeze the teachers until they strike, demolish their unions, and drown the students.

Chicago's classroom war is class war by another name.
A class war, it should be stressed, equally on the students and on teachers. On behalf of the Owners, who want Obedient Workers: the teachers now, the kids when they grow up.

Susan Miligan points out that the so-called "accountability" that the so-called reformers are pushing through is ludicrous, unfair and wouldn't be done to any other profession. (She doesn't add that it's just as bad for kids as for teachers.)

Jan Carr on how the point isn't just to make money for the 1%ers who write the tests (although it's that too), but making sure kids aren't taught critical thinking.

• Liza Featherstone (who I think I went to high school with, if she's who I think she is) on who's really hurting the kids.

Sarah Jaffe calls out "liberal" pundits opposing the teachers. (via) But my favorite bit in the piece is this last quote from Dean Baker:
The main determinants of childrens' performance continues to be the socioeconomic conditions of their parents. Those unwilling to take the steps necessary to address the latter (e.g. promote full employment) are the ones who do not care about our children.
Poverty and inequality hurt kids the most -- including their education. The fantasy of mainstream liberals is that a good education can substitute for a decent society, so we can have opportunity without actually promoting social justice. But it's just false. Good schools depend on good societies. And we decided against having one of those a couple decades ago.

Jersey Jazzman has a good sketch of what he calls the "narrative" of the teachers (which, as he says, also happens to be true) -- a counter-narrative to the "they're lazy and greedy and afraid of reform" bit that the mainstream media uses. (Link via; Jazzman's own follow-up here.) Here's the core of it:
In every country in the world, poverty impedes educational success. Our biggest education problem is that more of our kids are in poverty than any other developed nation. When America's public school teachers get kids who are well-fed and healthy and live in stable homes with parents who have good jobs, those kids do better in school than any other children in the world.

But a group of people who do not teach (or taught for a short while and not very well) have decided to blame teachers - teachers! - for all the problems in our country. They say that "choice" will save our schools, but the "choice" they offer is between underfunded, crumbling public schools and corporatized, autocratic charter schools that they admit they will never serve all children. These schools cherry-pick their students and then falsely claim they have the secret for success. Their inability to educate all students proves that public schools are not the problem - poverty is.

Why do these people sell this snake oil? Three reasons:

1) Many of them are looking to make money - a lot of money - off of education. They want to do to our schools what they did to our military, turning them into a bunch of Haliburton Highs.

2) They want to finally and completely break the unions. Once the teachers fall, it's all over for the middle class.

3) They need a scapegoat. Teachers didn't create these problems: the corporate titans of Wall Street did. These plutocrats are now paying a gang of carnival barkers a big bunch of money to blame teachers - teachers! - for the problems they themselves made.
Click through to read the rest for a version with supporting links, plus some additional commentary.

• So far as I can tell, Harold Meyerson's cri de coeur "If Labor Dies, What's Next?", with a publication date of September 13, was written before the strike -- it makes no reference to it -- but it's obviously quite relevant to the situation.

• Charles Pierce* has apparently been in Chicago today. I'm awaiting a longer piece from him; all we've got are these two brief 'uns so far. (And the latter is a bit cranky and unpolitic, I think.) But he gets the basic point well enough:
I am not flexible about this. If you want to look tough at the expense of public-school teachers, you are a snob or a coward, or perhaps both.... If I have to read one more smug, Ivy League writer from Slate talking, as the big strike goes on, about public-school teachers as though they were unruly hired help, I may hit someone with a fish.

* Note to self: Charles Peirce is the 19th century pragmatist philosopher; Charles Pierce is the contemporary political commentator. "Ei came before ie" is the obvious mnemonic here. Still, this pairing of worthwhile writers is not a dyslexic's best friend.


I have too much work to do, I can't keep doing this. But it does feel like the CTU is currently on the front lines of the class war against most of us. I'm not necessarily optimistic -- there are too many lies about them being told in the mass media. But I wish them the best, and hope they win. They have my admiration, my respect, my support, my solidarity.

Which side are you on?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Quote of the Yesterday

Fred Clarke posted this excerpt from E. B. White's essay "Here is New York" (1948) yesterday, to mark the date. It's a wonderful piece, which I've never read; in case you haven't either, Noble Reader, here it is:
The subtlest change in New York is something that people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm....

… Manhattan has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow. This, more than any other thing, is responsible for its physical majesty. It is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village — the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.
Clarke gives a bit more of White's essay than that, but not the whole thing. Now I have to go track it down. Bother.

The other thing Clarke posted was a link to John M. Ford's marvelous poem about September 11, "110 Stories". That I had read, but it was good to read again. If you haven't read it, yesterday was a good day to do it, but so is today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

They Say Up in Cook County, There Are No Neutrals There: You'll Either Be a Union Man, or a Thug for Emanuel

Update: links added, towards the end. Update 2: Kept adding throughout the day. Will probably stop when I go to bed -- I have my own classes to teach & can't keep this up. Still, it feels like the most important story in the nation right now.

More links on the Chicago strike:

Rick Perlstein, Stand against Rahm! (via):
So though this may change if the strike turns lengthy and disruptive, Chicago isn’t seeing its teachers as greedy. They’re seeing them as a vanguard in the struggle against what might happen to the rest of the middle class next if they don’t speak up.

Mark Naison, guest post at Diane Ravitch's blog: "The union, in this instance is far better advocate for the children of Chicago than the mayor."

• Same blog, this time Diane Ravitch herself: the evaluation method that Emanuel wants to put in place on the Chicago teachers "is junk science. Bunk science. Just another club with which to knock teachers, wielded by those who could never last five minutes in a classroom". (In general, Diane Ravitch's blog seems like a good place for pro-strike links & commentary.)

• Ok, one more Ravitchy link:
The real difference between the CTU and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not money.... The real differences are about the corporate reform agenda. The mayor wants merit pay, more charters, evaluation of teachers by test scores, and all the other components of the national corporate reform agenda. But little noticed by the national media is that none of these so-called reforms works or has any evidence to support it.
She then links to this Washington Post story, which has more links, for evidence. (Damn reality and its well-known liberal bias!)

David Dayen, The Chicago Teachers Union fight is a National Fight

5 Facts About the Terrible State of Chicago Schools (which the Union wants to fix) (via)

• Corey Robin gets into it with an overpaid bloviator tut-tutting about how much Chicago teachers make. (And who gets his facts wrong. But hey, reality's biased!)

• And always remember: we have it on the authority of law professor M. Todd Henderson that $400,000 a year doesn't go very far in Chicago. He certainly doesn't send his precious darlings to public schools. I trust he supports the strikers, right? Right?

Adam Kotsko, The Long Game (via). Excerpt:
Take, for instance, education reform. We all know that the entire enterprise is a joke from an educational standpoint — the “school choice” movement has consistently failed to deliver the promised results. This would be a decisive objection if the goal of education reform were to improve education as such, but we are long past the time when market structures used to have to justify themselves for extrinsic reasons. Here as everywhere, the point isn’t to impose market-based reforms because it will deliver better outcomes, but simply because education will then be a market. Unequal outcomes are a feature, not a bug — the “school choice” system is designed to reward the most talented while leaving the mediocre behind.
Sally Kohn, Standing up to Rahm (from Salon -- not to be confused with Salon's Stand Against Rahm (first link at the top of the post)), via a striking teacher on facebook. Excerpt:
Prior to going on strike for the first time in 25 years, the Chicago Teachers Union won “concessions” including that the school board would provide textbooks on the first day of school. Teachers have previously had to wait up to six weeks into the school year for instructional materials to arrive. And the union wants to limit class sizes, which are the largest in the entire state of Illinois. These aren’t the demands of greedy thugs. These are the demands of teachers who want to teach....

Notice that no one is pushing charter schools in wealthy communities because public schools there are thriving. In other words, the school district I grew up in is still a good school district — not because of unions or vouchers or high-stakes testing but because of taxes. But in poor neighborhoods and inner cities across the United States, students are struggling because their communities are struggling — conditions only made worse by the recent recession. The teachers and teachers’ unions who work in these districts to try to help are part of the solution. Poverty, homelessness and the dramatic funding cuts to social services that help needy families, as well as the cuts to public education, are the problem. And we can’t expect teachers to do more and more when conservative austerity measures are giving poor kids and their schools less and less. Teachers are advocates for their students. Teachers’ unions are advocates for teachers.
Sabrina Joy Stevens, The Real Stand for Children (via):
Pop History Quiz: Do you know how children ended up off the factory floor and in classrooms?

Unionized adults.
The Chicago Teachers Union is standing, as unions have long stood, for the rights of ordinary people -- including kids. Stevens explains more.

David Sirota, The Bait and Switch of School Reform (via the previous). He points out three self-interested motives of the so-called reformers who just happen to be wealthy wall streeters: first, pure profit (they're selling what reformers want us to buy, e.g. standardized testing services); second, a distraction from the fact that the real problem in education is poverty and inequality, and if we really wanted to fix the schools we'd have to fix that (which no one in power in this country has any interest in doing), and third, that it's yet another front in a long war on unions.

Micah Uetricht, Strike for America, includes some interesting information about the local political background (and on-the-ground reporting).

Brian Leiter on his blog:
There is only one problem confronting urban public schools, and it has nothing to do with the schools or the teachers, contrary to all the blather by idle-rich busybodies and the intellectually feeble politicans who do their bidding. The primary problem with urban public schools is that they largely serve a population that lives under conditions of economic hardship, sometimes grotesque economic hardship, with all the attendant problems of poor nutrition, physical safety, availability of adult supervision after school, and suitable environments and incentives for school work. That, of course, is why suburban public schools in affluent communities--with unionized teachers who are no different than those in the urban schools--always do better on measures of academic performance and outcomes. If you don't have to worry whether there will be food for dinner, or whether you will be mugged, or if anyone will be available to take care of you, or whether you'll have a quiet place to work, it turns out to be easier to do well in school. It's got nothing to do with the teachers, and everything to do with the environment. (Here and there, fabulous teaching makes a difference, but you can't make policy around atypical cases.)
A profile of Karen Lewis, head of the CTU. (This link, and the next few, via Leiter.)

Freddie deBoer, Making a Job Worse Is a Brilliant Strategy for Attracting the Best Talent:
People believe that we are suffering from a lack of talent and drive in our teacher ranks. As you all know, I don’t agree, and I find the empirical evidence far, far more indicative of student-side demographic effects causing poor educational performance. But suppose the other side is correct. How the fuck are we going to fix a talent deficit when the self-same people work relentlessly to make teaching a less attractive profession? There’s a simple reality facing any talented, driven young graduate who is considering teaching as a profession: you know that our media and our politicians are always going to want to make your job worse....

The reality is that you can’t be pro-education and anti-educator. Not just in the sense that you shouldn’t be, ethically, although I certainly believe that. I mean the notion that you can say that you care about education while working relentlessly to attack our actual teachers is nonsensical. If you want to attack our teachers as “overpaid,” OK. Go ahead. But you don’t get to pretend that you give a shit about education. (italics in the original)
Also, in his earlier post also at Balloon Juice:
Do you think that teaching should be a high-status position that carries with it a decent wage and the chance for meaningful pay raises? Or do you want to continue the relentless assault on the profession? That is the essential question at stake here.
Stephanie Simon and James B. Kelleher give some context on education reform.

Jim Nichols has a whole 'nother round up of links, only a few of which duplicate the ones I've posted here. Maybe I'll add a few below.

• Kevin Lee, a Chicago teacher, on why he's striking (at Ravitch's blog):
As teachers, we notice signs when a student is homeless — and we buy clothes for the student. We see students who are pregnant from rape (typically a mother’s boyfriend). For many students, the school lunch is the only meal of the day. And we have a lot of students who aren’t officially homeless, but are bouncing between the couches of relatives and friends and during the school day are worrying about where they are going to sleep that night. I have had the student who is distraught one day in class because a friend was in the hospital from a shooting or killed.

I can’t even remember all the names of students in the school where I teach who have been murdered. The awful thing is that I don’t even consider the school that I work at one of the most impoverished in Chicago.
America: land of opportunity! We're number one!... at, er, figuring out ways to educate starving, homeless children so we can pretend they have a decent shot at the American Dream.

And Dave Steiber, another striking teacher, writes here. (Via Nichols)

Karynthia at Alas: On being a CPS parent & siding with the striking teachers

• Written before the strike, but relevant to it: Dana Goldstein, Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Excerpt:
[Regarding] the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty[,] There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.

The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them.

You'll either be a union man, or a thug for the Austerity State of the 1%.

Which side are you on?

Monday, September 10, 2012


I just wanted to shout-out my support (little as it means) to the Chicago Teacher's Union in their strike. And most especially to my old, dear friend PJ Karafiol, whose op-ed on the strike can be read here. (Reasonable, persuasive, judicious, and far more even tempered than I could probably manage in similar circumstances. Just like PJ.)

Oh, and in case anyone to the left of Ayn Rand, or Paul Ryan -- but I repeat myself -- has any doubts on this issue, Ryan is with Rahm Emanuel. Kind of all you need to know, really.

What's sad is that it's not instantly clear what side the other candidates will be on. Hell, Emanuel was Obama's first chief of staff. Maybe Obama thinks the teachers should just work for free.

I wonder how Obama's going to dodge this one. Side with Emanuel, and you side with Romney and Ryan against teachers. Side with the strikers... and, well, he might side with working people (and kids!) against austerity. Can't have that, can you?

So come on, Obama. Which side are you on?

But, mostly, screw national politics. Someone is standing up for something important. Solidarity!

More info on the stakes and issues can be found here and here.
Support the strikers here. Or just order them a pizza.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Quote of the Day

A marvelous little phrase from Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull House, said very much in passing, as a comparison with something else:
...that curious surprise we experience when we first come back into the streets after days given over to sorrow and death; we are bewildered that the world should be going on as usual and unable to determine which is real, the inner pang or the outward seeming. (Chapter 4)
Yeah, I've felt that.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

From a Commonplace Book

...If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist.

-- Quentin Crisp