Teaching with Political Correctness Victorious

In a writing sample from one of my students this terms, I read a convincing argument that young people are nice and pleasant today because they have no option not to be. Any hint that you don’t accept everyone and everything, that you aren’t a paragon of liberal tolerance marks you as a pariah. Punishment follows in the form of being marked unhirable. Although they did not use these terms at all, the student was arguing that the once controversial project of fighting hate speech had emerged from the nineties’ culture wars victorious and that political correctness was now orthodoxy.

So this got me thinking about my LGBT lit class. I taught it as if the primary goal was to communicate the importance of non-discrimination. But if what my student wrote is true then non-discrimination is an out-dated, potentially destructive message. If my students are already-always required to be accepting and non-discriminatory whether they wish to be or not, whether they are or not then me saying “Don’t discriminate” is just reinforcing (a felt) repression.

Most of my students have never been confronted with non-straight sexualities outside of movies, television and the internet. Queers live in these fanciful spaces, but in their own lives, everyone they know is straight. Fine, but the problem is that tolerance requires some knowledge of what you are accepting and respecting. Without any personal experience, your tolerance is just a wish or a rule.

So a better goal for my class might be to offer exposure and knowledge organized as a path toward empathy and compassion. My course then becomes about anti-exoticism, not anti-discrimination. I also wonder if I should maybe create well-bounded spaces for people to express non-acceptabel reactions or feelings. …It’s hard for me to imagine what this would look like, or to understand how I could manage these moments, but I do wonder…

Weil on Psychology in Literature

In a general way, the literature of the twentieth century is essentially psychological; and psychology consists in describing states of the soul by displaying them all on the same plane without any discrimination of value, as though good and evil were external to them, as though the effort toward the good could be absent at any moment from the thought of any man.

–Simone Weil

Republican Terrorists: In their own words

From The New York Times, a startling and frank description by a Republican of what he sees as the tactics his caucus have embraced:

The only time you shut down the government is when you shut it down and refuse to open it until you accomplish what you want. We’ll fold like hotcakes,” said Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. “You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot, and we will not for sure shoot this hostage.

So the tactic is a terror tactic, hostage-taking, and this Republican criticizes it because he’s not convinced his colleagues are as committed as they need to be for it to work. How far do they need to commit? They need to be willing to shoot the economy in the head. If they are going to blink rather than shoot, they shouldn’t have taken the economy hostage in the first place. And Republicans he fears just might be chicken.

This comment is too long and too developed to be misunderstood, and it is livid proof that Republicans are unfit to govern.

Carpentier, Destiny, Fear

…the greatest challenge a man can meet is that of forging his own destiny. Because here, amidst the multitudes that surrounded me and rushed madly and submissively, I saw many faces and few destinies. And this was because, behind these faces, every deep desire, every act of revolt, every impulse was hobbled by fear.

–Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

Teacher Proof

Teacher ProofI recently tried yet again to read The Globe and Mail. Before deciding that the web version of their paper was terrible, I stumbled over a review of a new book about the shortcomings of recent educational science. I recognized all of the concepts mentioned and the review was positive, so I grabbed a copy from Amazon and dove in.

The book is a publisher trolling: rush a book to print hoping to incite outrage among teachers who will scream bloody murder and thus generate free publicity. Sell tons of copies. It’s Gutenberg’s version of link bait. And the review played along. In fact, I wonder now whether the reviewer even did anything more than skim the book or worse, simply read the promotional material and sample reviews offered by the publisher and worked from there. The review was that poorly done and that complicit. (It says something about my opinion of the Globe that this confirms rather than challenges my opinion of the paper.)

The book doesn’t earn much attention to detail. It reads like Billy O’ set loose with a word processor. But here are a sample of my problems with it:

  1. The author displaces his argument to fields he can’t navigate. He is no philosopher. So to make his criticism of methodology in educational research about (to list only a few things) British v. Continental philosophy or Evidence v. Theory, is to move his subject beyond his depth. He doesn’t do the heavy lifting such an argument would require and lacks the tools to make it even if he wanted to try.
  2. Questions of depth aside, arguing that Aristotle is wrong as a philosopher misses the point of the argument at hand. The problems of educational research are not about context.
  3. Most of this feels like padding. It’s as if the book wants to avoid being a polemic for letting teachers do their job–because they know how to do it–and wants instead to appear to be something grander. It isn’t though.
I jumped at this book because I’ve seen how shoddy educational research can be and often is. I was eager (if I’m honest) to see it take a good beating because at work, it operates as if its letters are still warm from being cut into the stone by holy fire. I was primed to agree with him and enjoy a bit of fish-in-a-barrel pot-shotting. But even still, I’m not willing to read a pompous teachers’ lounge rant printed up and sold for 20$.
I got suckered.

Beauty Achieved, Dostoevsky

I proclaim that Shakespeare and Raphael are higher than the emancipation of the serfs…than nationality…than socialism…than the younger generation…than chemistry, higher than almost all mankind, for they are already the fruit, the real fruit of all mankind, and maybe the highest fruit there ever may be! A form of beauty already achieved, without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live…

–Stephan Trofimovich, Demons

La Vénus au vison (Venus in Furs)

Venus au visonThe Beav and I went to see an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs at the theatre in Place-des-Arts. We had never really liked anything we’d seen there, so expectations were low, but the tickets were free. And surprise surprise: it was great. Hélène Bourgeois is one of my favourite Quebec actors and was very good here. The production was simple but effective: a table, some folding chairs, a chaise longue, a fauteuil.

The story is a frame narrative. A writer about to leave the studio after a long day of auditions, despairs of ever finding an actor to play the female lead in his adaptation of Venus in Furs, when suddenly a woman arrives late and wants to read for the part. She begins to read and the action of the play plays out in the frame simultaneously. Power, seduction, control. These are the issues fought over in terms of modernity and sexual equality. The frame space and story space are marked out by changes in lighting–fluorescent for the frame, incandescent for the story–that are made explicitly by the actors using light boxes on stage. A small touch that I really liked.

The epub and kindle versions of Masoch’s book are at the Gutenberg Project. A video of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” is here.

House of Cards

This show received a lot of attention when it was released simply because it marked Netflix’s entry into production. When the show led the Emmy nominations, there was additional talk about how it signalled a shift toward online distribution away from cable. All of these stories are interesting but they also strike beside the main point: the show is very very good. The plotting is generally tight, the photography is often beautiful, and the acting is simply great.

Favourite aspects:

  • the relationship between Claire and Francis. This is a marriage as something more than love and sex. And the “more” makes it better. I came away thinking that we have traded in a strong imagining of the marriage feast for a thin Romantic (and romantic) gruel.
  • I love the cigarettes by the window. A perfectly pitched image.
  • Claire’s character is mysterious and powerful. Her confrontation with the dying bodyguard captures a large part of what I’m fascinated by. I side with her completely in that moment. He sends his wife out of the room and confesses his desire for Claire as if his desire were something special. She points out that it isn’t special, it’s cliché and an imposition, a claim to power that she’s dealt with over and over her entire life. She then points out how blind he is to the reality of her marriage: she wants and has something more than desire with Francis. And she does this while turning his desire against him. A pinnacle moment in the series.
  • the tracking time-lapse photography in the opening sequence is very beautiful and the music grew on me. I appreciated it by the end.

More generally, I realize I like political drama. One of the best things about the second season of Deadwood is that it’s so explicitly about the struggle to see and gain power. Movies like Ides of March and All the President’s Men are also great. House of Cards can stand neck and neck with them.